By michaelfewer, Jan 9 2017 12:36PM
In the last week of September 1808, Sir John Moore was given command of the British Army in Iberia, a force of 40,000 men. One of the finest soldiers of his time, he was responsible for introducing proper training and discipline into the army and he had served with distinction in America, Corsica, the West Indies, Ireland, Holland and Egypt. The French had suffered a number of disastrous set-backs in Spain since their expulsion from Portugal, and the British Government saw an opportunity to cash in on Spanish successes by assisting them to drive the French back into France. Removed from the situation in Spain, they didn’t understand that there was no unified Spanish army. There was supposed to be, and it had been agreed as a condition of receiving arms and financial aid from Britain the various factions would unite under a Supreme Junta, which would unite the different Spanish forces. As soon as Britain’s generosity had been divided up, the army split again into its various factions, some even threatening others with war. Believing that they were dealing with a united Spain that was in the process of defeating the French, the British government decided they should get involved, and early in October they ordered Moore to take 20,000 of his men north to assist the Spanish encircling the French leaving 10,000 troops to defend Portugal.
Moore was sceptical about the situation. He was unsure about the reliability of the Spanish, and a march of 300 miles across mountains that were in places 4,000 feet high, in winter, without maps , without knowledge of the condition of roads and without the funds to obtain sufficient draught animals or carts was a challenging task. He knew that a French army that had followed the same route, less than a year before, and it had rendered them almost useless. He also had no doubt that Napoleon would attack the Spanish with great force, before the winter set in, and it was probable that the British would arrive in northern Spain too late.
In spite of his doubts about the mission he had been given, within a week Moore set with his army out for the Spanish border. One wonders why such an experienced officer would be prepared, without seeking any further intelligence as to exactly what was happening in the north, to set off without delay, particularly as he knew it might already be too late. Unsure of the condition of the roads over the mountains, he divided his force, sending his artillery, escorted by his cavalry, the long way around via Madrid. The army moved very fast, finding the roads better than they expected, and in spite of long periods of torrential rain, they crossed the border into Spain in the second week in November. Another British force, under General Baird, landed at Coruna and was marching south to join him.
Meanwhile, however, Napoleon had moved with the alacrity that Moore had predicted. French troops poured over the Pyrenees, and, by November 1, the French army in northern Spain had increased from 60,000 men to 120,000. Within a week, the disparate groupings that combined to make up the Spanish military, lacking unified command, were routed.
Moore only learned of this situation when his army arrived in Salamanca on November 15th. A large French force was already in Valladollid, sixty miles to the north east, and not a single active Spanish force remained in the field. It was a major dilemma for Moore. He had undertaken a costly and wearing march that had taken a month towards what was turning out to be a possible disaster: the Spanish force he was to reinforce had disappeared. It seemed like, if he was to have any chance to save his small army almost certain defeat against a superior French force, he would have to turn around and march back to Lisbon the way he had come. He sent orders to General Sir David Baird, who commanded a force to the west, to make for Coruna for disembarkation.
Moore’s acceptance of the instructions of a remote British government, which he knew were ill-informed, his advance towards the north to support the Spanish, and the subsequent decisions and counter-decisions he made, led to a disastrous and costly retreat to Coruna. Before beginning the march back to Lisbon news came that Napoleon was ignoring the British force, and advancing on Madrid with the bulk of his army, presumably because he believed there was no further threat from the Spanish in the north or from Moore. Further news arrived that the population of Madrid, although facing certain death, was resisting Napoleon.
Moore decided to do the unexpected: instead of withdrawing to Lisbon, he would advance instead, believing he could disrupt French communications and their main supply line, and thereby delay Napoleon’s advance south, because the French would be forced to turn around and deal with the threat he posed. If the French came at him in great force, as he assumed they would, he would arrange for the Royal Navy to evacuate his army from Vigo or Coruna. He reversed the orders that he had sent to Baird to retreat, and after taking almost three weeks to rest and regroup at Salamanca, on December 11 the British army continued their advance north. Not far from Salamanca they had their first encounter with the French since leaving Portugal, when a party of dragoons had a skirmish with French cavalry.
From Aliajos they marched to Torro on the Duoro, where they met up with Baird’s advance guard. They rested at Torro for a day, and on December 16 they marched towards Castle Nuovo, with the outnumbered French retreating before them. They now entered hilly terrain, a dreary landscape without trees or shrubs, and the weather turned bitterly cold. It began to snow before they reached Valdares.
Robert Ker Porter (1777 – 1842), a Scottish Author and artist who was travelling with Sir John Moore, had enjoyed attending balls and parties and ‘clean and excellent beds’ during the advance from Lisbon and had had the leisure time to explore the architecture in the towns they passed through, but at Valdares he ‘bade adieu to the cleanliness and regularity we hitherto had been able to obtain. A sudden hard frost played havoc with the draft mules and the artillery horses: there had not been time to turn their shoes and they slipped and fell about the streets.’ Accommodation was so scarce, the officers had to billet with the men, an unheard-of hardship.
Moore’s army combined with Baird’s main force at Majorga, and after a brief rest they pushed on to Sahagun; ahead of them, their cavalry caught up with the retreating French, in the subsequent skirmish the French suffered significant casualties, and 200 prisoners were taken. In Sahagun Robert Ker Porter came across the bodies of ten or twelve Frenchmen, ‘stripped of their uniforms by the peasantry, lying cold and almost covered with snow. I was surprised to find a female among the group, how she became thus situated it is not easy to guess, unless we may suppose that she was some love-impelled damsel; or, that being enamoured like many an Amazon of war for its own sake, she became an appendage of the camp: and here, by some accidental shot, was deprived at once of life and her military ardour.’
It seems possible that he was not aware of the important part that women played in all large armies of the time. Womenfolk that accompanied armies, however, derogatorily referred to as ‘camp followers’, were usually ignored in male accounts of campaigns and battles, but were often unsung heroes. They filled many important roles, official and unofficial, in most armies. In the British Army, lots were drawn to select a limited number of wives that could travel abroad, on campaign, with their husbands. They performed a wide number of essential tasks for the army, and many, such as Jenny Jones, a 26 year old Welsh woman who stayed at her husband’s side during the Battle of Waterloo, were much admired for their bravery. They often undertook cooking and laundry work for a fee, and even assisted during battles, distributing ammunition or looking after the wounded. During a long campaign such as the Peninsular Wars, soldiers took Portuguese and Spanish common-law wives, who followed the army wherever it went, often giving birth to children along the way. In the French Army the cantiniere, women who sold food and liquor to the soldiers, had an official role, and in the wake of all armies, there followed a band of prostitutes. and beer-sellers there were the wives of the officers and men who travelled with their husbands on campaign, and often their children. As long as an army was in the ascendancy all was well, but the presence of women and children in the midst of a retreat such as Moore’s army was undertaking lent a particularly awful dimension to the situation.
While at Sahagun the British learned that the French army under Marshal Soult was only 30 km away, and Moore decided to attack them without delay. While the British had no chance of any further reinforcements, the French army was increasing in numbers day by day, and therefore they had to be dealt before it was too late: Moore believed that a swift and successful British victory might encourage the Spanish to take the field again before the country was flooded with French. Orders were issued to advance towards the French, leaving the women and baggage behind. This the soldiers did, and the whole army marched through the night with great enthusiasm, in spite of the snow on the ground and the general weariness, looking forward to finally bringing battle again to the French, whom, under Wellesley, they had last defeated at Vimeiro months before.
In the midst of the advance, however, Moore changed his mind. He received word of a strong French force approaching from the south, and that Soult’s army might be larger than he had at first thought. He believed that against such numbers, he couldn’t hope to be successful, and the likely result would be the complete destruction of the British Army. His man were surprised when they were suddenly ordered to retreat with rapidity, and to learn that instead of being up against a weak French force, they were now in danger of being caught between the two strong French armies.
The retreat halted for the night at Benevante where the troops were billeted in the elaborately decorated and furnished apartments of the Dukes of Benevente. On the following day, the December 29, the vanguard of the French armies caught up with them, but were halted at the River Esia when Moore’s sappers blew up the only bridge for miles. When the French attempted to cross the river by a ford, the British rear-guard routed them, before catching up with the main force moved on past Bembibre, west of which they entered more serious mountainous terrain. The French advance cavalry began to catch up with the British, and rear-guard was now being constantly harassed. There was now only one road westward, which slowed the progress of Moore’s exhausted army, which turned into a miserable, stretched-out, chaotic multitude. Whatever limited food the countryside had to offer had, earlier in the year, been swept up by the French to sustain their large armies. Now the Spanish peasantry faced an army of hungry, exhausted soldiers: discipline was breaking down, and looting and pillaging were rife. Word of the locust-like stripping by the British of all and anything eatable as they moved westwards spread before them: as soon as the peasantry learned of their approach they fled with everything they could carry. The lack of fodder for the already starving, shoeless mules and horses had a devastating effect on the retreat: in the midst of sleet and snow the animals began to fall exhausted in their hundreds. They and the waggons they had been pulling, and their contents of gear, ammunition, and clothing had to be thrown to the roadside to keep the road clear. Many soldiers, hungry, exhausted and drenched, dropped their arms and ammunition as they went. The route of the retreat was littered with discarded baggage, crippled and dead cattle, mules and horses, and an increasing number of men who had expired from exhaustion and cold.
At Pontferrada Moore made another decision that some historians have found inexplicable. He divided his army, sending the faster-moving light brigades towards Vigo, to secure the left flank of the army and to lessen the food shortage problem. It left, however, the main force considerably more vulnerable to the continuing attacks of the French cavalry. On the way to Lugo, which the main force reached on January 4, another order was given that underlined the desperation of their situation and their need to get away from the French. What remained of the army’s treasury, some one hundred thousand Spanish dollars, was dumped by rolling the casks in which it was kept into a deep ravine in the snow. It was considered that there was not enough time even to distribute it.
Robert Ker Porter described a woman, carrying a new-born baby, following her soldier husband, she was ‘pale and faint, she now dragged her enfeebled limbs along, clasping the little sufferer to her breast.’ He did not think she would survive even a day’s march. Later he remarked on the pitiable ‘trains of women burdened with poor helpless infants, either tied to their backs or stuffed into the panniers of asses, trudging along, exposed to cold and wet, and all the terrible accidents attending their unassisted situation.’ He wished that more determined efforts were made by the Army to avoid ‘these accumulations of the feebler sex following the army.’ In the hills he came across one of the Portuguese bullock drivers who had been with the army from the first day ‘when his last groan pierced my ears. Near him lay a woman, half enveloped in a blanket, the wife of a soldier; she was cold in death. A little infant, yet living, was hanging at the breast of its inanimate mother, vainly endeavouring to find warmth and nourishment which fate had for ever withdrawn.’ In the ‘iron-icy sleet that tore along the sloping ravines,’ he saw another woman, ‘she was dead; and two little babes, to which she had just given birth, lay struggling in the snow…’
It is not clear why a well-fed and equipped French army of superior numbers did not simply encircle the retreating British and destroy them, particularly as the British left the way open by failing to destroy all the bridges they crossed. Instead, the British rear guard fought frequent skirmishes, many of them involving the defeat of French forces and the taking of prisoners, although the question has to be asked how the British planned to feed prisoners as well as their own with the little food remaining.
This sad, starving, sick army arrived at the town of Coruna on January 11, 1809. Ker Porter described them as ‘ragged shoeless scarecrows stomping on frostbitten, bleeding feet through the streets…in perfect formation…with drums beating and the drum-major twirling his staff.’ The inhabitants of the town, in spite of the horrors the army brought them, and the destruction by the revenging French that was surely to follow, gave what assistance they could. Moore established a defensive line north of Coruna, and vigorous resistance, together with the destruction of a bridge over the Mero river, held the French main force back. Three days later, to the delight of both the army and the citizens of Coruna, a huge fleet of Royal Navy transports sailed into the harbour from Vigo, where they had picked up the Baird’s light brigades, and disembarkation of the army began.
The final battle did not take place until the January 16, by which time most of the army were Blighty-bound. It was a viciously fought series of engagements, and by evening, the British, brilliantly directed by Moore, forced the French to fall back. During the heat of battle, however, Moore, who had been in the thick of it all day, was mortally injured by a French cannon ball. He was carried from the field mortally injured, and a few hours later, with the knowledge that most of his army had escaped successfully, he died. He was wrapped in his cloak and buried on the city ramparts. General Sir John Hope took his place, and managed to withdraw the rear guard under cover of darkness and complete the evacuation. When the French eventually took Coruna, Marshal Seult had a monument raised over Moore’s grave. A more elaborate monument was later erected in Moore’s memory, and can be found today in a leafy shade surrounded by a chevaux des frise of iron spikes.
British losses in the final battle came to about 800 men, while the French lost about 1,500. Many of those ‘unofficial’ wives who survived the dreadful march were not allowed to board the transport ships, and were left behind, destitute, many with children. Of the accumulated 35,000 British soldiers that had entered Spain since Wellesley’s landing in August at Mondego Bay, only 27,000 escaped back to England. Opinions seem to be divided on the sometimes indecisive manner with which Sir John Moore carried out his command, but having led the army into an impossible situation, he did manage to lead most of it out of trouble, giving up his own life in the process. Many of the survivors returned to Portugal in April 1809 as part as a new expeditionary army under Wellesley. Moore’s great march was a disaster for Britain, but, as at Dunkirk, most of the army escaped to fight another day, and they did have the effect of drawing off French army forces from their march into Spain, and ultimately prevented Napoleon from conquering Iberia, and creating a bridgehead in North Africa.
A strong folk memory of the Battle of Coruna survives in the city today, and re-enactments are carried out, with over a hundred costumed participants, in January of every year. A tradition of Coruna’s citizens calling their dogs ‘Soult’ after the French general, has only begun to die out in recent decades. The British government purchased the little area where Sir John Moore’s tomb stands in the Garden of San Carlos, and the locals call it Gibralter Corunes.