Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Corunna & The Retreat - Peninsular War Tour 2019


This post marks the start of a series of posts I intend to write documenting a very personal tour of some of the key battle sites that characterised the Peninsular War.

Since retiring last year this has been a holiday long in the planning and contemplating with places planned to be visited that have only been imagined from maps studied and books read, but always conscious that there is nothing quite like standing on the ground seeing the contours described to really getting a sense of the drama described in the accounts of the veterans of those times.

I mention the veterans accounts because I would hope to encourage others interested in doing something similar to get out there and go and follow in their footsteps.

There has been a growing trend in the leisure and holiday market for military authors, historians and ex members of the military to offer their services for an appropriate fee to guide folks around the sites they have only read about or seen in films.

However, these guided tours are all very fine, but I would highly recommend doing your own thing, by reading, researching, gathering your accounts from the men who were there and finding these sites for yourself, which in the days of 'sat-nav.', Google Maps and navigation apps such as 'ViewRanger' make everything very dooable and allows the individual to check exactly where on the planet they are standing at any given time, thus enabling an accurate vista from the accounts available and that feeling of walking in the footsteps of history.

The sense of sheer pleasure and enjoyment in doing the finding yourself and standing on that specific spot is another fantastic aspect of the hobby of historical wargaming and should, in my opinion, be owned by each of us, very much experts in our own right.

So after landing at Santander last Saturday, after a day/night voyage from Portsmouth, Carolyn and I made our way to Gijon, Hotel Quinta Duro.

http://www.hotelquintaduro.com/

The stop over allowed us to lose our sea legs and prepare for the next leg of our journey to Corunna the next morning following the glorious Atlantic Highway, passing sandy bays and wonderful towns amid green rolling hills with a certain alpine feel to the whole area.

Most accounts of the Corunna retreat end up in Corunna, but as we were planning to start in the north of Spain and end up on the south coast I decided to follow the way we encountered the route over the three days travelling to and around Benavente from Corunna.

Map of the Corunna retreat route.

We started our visit to Corunna down by the harbour front, where can be found the remains of the old city wall facing out over the harbour depicted in period pictures of the British withdrawal, and the park that houses the tomb of Sir John Moore, killed in the hour of victory at the Battle of Corunna, 16th January 1809.

Corunna harbour seen from the top of the old city wall. At the time of the Battle of Corunna these guns would have been relocated to the landward side in preparation to cover the British withdrawal.

Statue to Spanish Brigadier General Diego del Barco, born in Corunna and with a distinguished service record through the Peninsular War, dying of wounds in 1814

http://royalgreenjackets.blogspot.com/2011/09/biografia-del-brigadier-diego-del-barco.html

Corunna harbour has changed quite a bit in the last two hundred years since the battle. These steps from a door in the city wall used to lead down to the waterfront  but are now well and truly on dry land.

The park where Sir John Moore's tomb is situated was a former gun battery atop the city wall which having fallen into disuse was turned over to a garden and became the final resting place for the fallen British General with glorious views out over the Atlantic towards 'Blighty', very fitting.



Sir John Moore had been directing his soldiers above the ridge overlooking Elvina, since the French attack started at about 2pm on the 16th January 1809 and had overseen the deployments to his right flank and into Elvina as each French attack was beaten off with heavy casualties, and it was as he was bringing up Warde's two battalions of Foot Guards and rallying the 42nd Highland Foot, that he was hit by an artillery round that;

'carried away his left shoulder and part of the collar bone, leaving the arm hanging by the flesh. The violence of the stroke threw him from his horse, on his back. Not a muscle of his face altered, nor did a sigh betray the least sensation of pain..... The blood flowed fast; but the attempt to stop it with my sash was useless, from the size of the wound. 

Sir John assented to being removed in a blanket to the rear. In raising him for that purpose, his sword, hanging on the wounded side, touched the arm, and became entangled between his legs. I perceived the inconvenience, and was in the act of unbuckling it from his waist, when he said, 'It is as well as it is. I had rather it should go out of the field with me.' "

Henry Hardinge, aide-de-camp.



Lieutenant General Sir John Moore, a very able commander and co-founder of the school of Light Infantry at Shorncliffe, died aged 47. He successfully drew off French forces into the north-west of Spain keeping the south free of French troops and allowing the Spanish armies the chance to recover, whilst making sure Britain's army would still be a force to reckon with in future campaigns.

Sir John's Sword, bloody sash, pocket watch and glass recovered after his death at Corunna
and pictured at the NAM earlier this year


The tomb of Sir John Moore - "I hope the people of England will be satisfied .. I hope my country will do me justice."

Sir John was carried back to his quarters in Corunna on a makeshift litter borne by Highland soldiers of the 42nd 'Black Watch' Foot and, following a cursory check by Surgeon McGill 1st Foot 'Royal Scots', was laid in a darkened room, with his friend Colonel Paul Anderson holding his hand and straining to catch his words through unspeakable pain.

Colonel Anderson reported that;
"He seemed very anxious to speak to me, and at intervals, got out as follows: "Anderson, you know that I have always wished to die this way." He then asked, "Are the French beaten?" Which he repeated to anyone he knew as they came in. "I hope the people of England will be satisfied .... I hope my country will do me justice ... Anderson you will see my friends as soon as you can ... tell them ... everything. Say to my mother ...." Here his voice quite failed and he was excessively agitated: "Hope, Hope, I have much to say to him ... but I cannot get it out ... Are Colonels Graham and my aides-de-camp well?" He then asked Major Colborne if the French were beaten? And on being told they were on every point, he said, "It's a great satisfaction for me to know we have beaten the French ... I fear I shall be long in dying. It is great uneasiness ...  it is great pain." He thanked the surgeons for their trouble. Captains Percy and Stanhope, two of his aides-de-camp, then came into the room. He spoke kindly to them both and asked Percy if all his aides-de-camp were well? After some interval he said "Stanhope, remember me to your sister." He pressed my hand close to his body, and in a few minutes died without a struggle.

The explosion of the magazine at Corunna - Robert Ker Porter
After distributing ammunition and powder to British troops and the Galician Junta, the remaining munitions, 12,000 barrels of powder and 3,000000 musket cartridges, stored in two magazines were destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of the French.

The modern day view of the same scene seen above with a more built up shore line and fewer three masted ships.

Also to be found close to the harbour is the Corunna Military Museum in a building used as a hospital for wounded British soldiers during the battle before evacuation by the Royal Navy.


The museum houses an eclectic collection of militaria, with, given the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an exhibition of models and memorabilia focused on that particular campaign.

I however have decided to stay, more or less, on theme by looking at items that caught my eye in relation to the Peninsular War.



The museum had a very interesting display of period maps of Corunna showing the layout of the town as it must have been during the British evacuation.



Although Spain was an ally of Britain by 1808-09 and Prime Minister Manuel Godoy had been putting out peace feelers to Britain before war with France became a fact, it must be remembered that Spain together with France had been Britain's traditional enemies for the previous two centuries, a fact underlined in the museum with a fantastic model of the Spanish attack on British held Pensacola in 1781 during the American War of Independence.


The Spanish grenadier depicted below is in the uniform worn in the 1780's but could easily represent that of the Bourbon regime during the early part of the Peninsular War.




I love great modelling, and although not strictly Peninsular War themed I thought, like me, you would enjoy seeing this model, which unfortunately couldn't be any better because of the glass screen preventing me from getting a totally reflection free set of pictures, but I hope you get the idea of what a great model this is.









Back to the Peninsular War with, as the Duke would say, a manikin depicting the item that the outcome of British battles of the period relied on, the British redcoat complete with stovepipe shako, although that cross belt plate needs sorting out.


The museum makes up partially for its 'lightness' in its collection of artifacts with some very well themed models and this one below, depicting the struggle around the village of Elvina will, I hope, compensate for the fact that the modern day city of Corunna has all but covered the original battlefield leaving an enormous amount to the imagination for the modern day battlefield visitor.

Using nicely turned out 28mm figures, the battle is somewhat compressed due to the compromise in ground scale, but the key terrain features are modelled together with an indication of the different troop types in use around the battle, with French columns advancing across the valley floor and into Elvina, supported by massed guns and dragoons trying to turn the British flank

Those look like Swiss grenadiers, not exactly right but never mind

Bentinck's lines prepare to receive the French columns, with Elvina church in the background

I assume that is Sir John Moore encouraging the troops


French Dragoons attempt to turn the flank around Elvina but are met by Antruther's Reserve, with British riflemen to the fore. 

There is a large collection of twentieth century small arms from pistols to machineguns, but I managed to find the much smaller selection of weapons pertinent to 1809.

The Brown Bess Tower musket, centre with the superb 1796 Light cavalry sabre just below it

The British Tower pattern pistol, top, often carried in saddle holsters by British cavalry and General officers

Pieces of shot and flints recovered from Corunna bay, the flints probably lost overboard during the evacuation

A very fine British officers light infantry pattern sabre, supposedly recovered from Elvina

Various French and British items including a badge from the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers, part of Fraser's Division at Corunna, a French shako plate and tunic buttons

The museum had a nice collection of large scale figures depicting different nationality troop types and the two commanders at Corunna as seen below.



As mentioned, the battlefield of Corunna is very largely built over by the modern day city, but Elvina Church, at the centre of the struggle for the village, below the British held ridge is a popular site to visit, and well worth it as I was quite surprised how close it was to the French held ridge as shown in my pictures below, together with memorials to the general officers officers killed in the battle.

The Battle of Corunna, 16th January 1809


Alongside Sir John Moore, several other notable casualties occurred during or close to the time of the battle as noted on the plaque above.

Brigadier General Robert Anstuther led the first brigade as part of Major General Sir Edward Paget's 4th Reserve Division, commanding the 20th 'East Devonshire' Foot, 1/52nd 'Oxfordshire Light Infantry' Foot and the 1/95th 'Rifles' Foot.

He was a huge loss to the army, dying at the relatively young age of 40, it is recorded from fatigue and exhaustion brought on by his tireless command of the reserve throughout the retreat, fighting several key engagements along the route, notably at Cacabelos, 3rd January and Constantine on the the 5th January 1809.

General Moore paid tribute to his fellow Scot by declaring that it was principally due to the conduct of the Reserve, and to Paget and Anstruther in particular, that the army achieved a safe arrival at Corunna.

Robert Anstruther was buried at Corunna, and Sir John expressed his wish, when dying himself, to be buried alongside his friend.

Lieutenant Colonel John Mackenzie, 5th Foot, killed at Corunna
Marshall Soult's army finally arrived before the British line in front of Corunna, deploying on the heights of Palavea and Penasquedo late on the 15th January to be greeted with bullets from the British pickets.

It was at this time that Colonel Mackenzie was killed leading an abortive bayonet charge against the French gun line as the the skirmishing and the day came to an end.

Illustration of General de Brigade Joseph-Yves Manigault Gaulois in full dress uniform -  Dionisio Alverez Cueto

Geeneral Gaulois, led the 1st Brigade of Mermet's Division, consisting of the four battalions of the 47me Ligne that spearheaded the attack on Elvina.

Killed leading his men from the front, it is believed General Gaulois was also buried on the battlefield.


Elvina church is a great landmark that allows modern visitors to grasp some idea of the local terrain beneath the clutter of surrounding buildings that weren't there in 1809.

This glorious old building still bears its own scars carried on its masonry from the battle.

The 42nd Highland Foot take Elvina

The 42nd Highland Foot together with the 50th Foot were in the thick of the fighting in and around Elvina.

A private of the 42nd recalled:
"All the word of command that was given was, 'Forty-Second, Charge!' In one moment every man was up with a cheer, and the sound of his musket, and every shot did execution. They were so close upon us that we gave them the bayonet the instant we fired ... We followed them down to the valley, and stopped not for general or commanding officer; but still on, in the rage and wrath of the Highlanders .... As we pursued them down the hill there was a poor Frenchman sorely wounded, and on his knees, his hands uplifted, and pleading for quarter. My next man, a robust Highlander, in his rage, exclaimed, 'You Buonaparte man! She'll run her through!' With a sudden jerk of my musket I threw his on his shoulder, and the poor fellow's life was saved."


The pictures below are taken from the steps of the church and shows how close the French held ridge is to the village, upon which the French deployed their massed guns.



After looking at Elvina church we set off for our next stop over, which was the Parador hotel at Vilalba, close to Lugo with its 15th century octagonal tower and attached Galician style Palace annex.


The tower was once part of the medieval castle and now houses a fine restaurant in which we dined that evening.



The next day, following a good breakfast we headed for the Roman town of Lugo which as well as playing a key role in the retreat of Sir John Moore's army also boasts a complete 3rd century Roman wall atop which we decided to take the morning walking a complete circuit of the town.


Lugo's extraordinary all encompassing multi-towered Roman Wall



The British army arrived at Lugo between the 6th and 7th of January 1809, with Sir John horrified to find the disordered and ramshackle state of his leading divisions from the losses they had sustained during the retreat.

However on the plus side Moore was pleased to discover food stores in the city sufficient to sustain his army for another two days and a reinforcement of 1,800 men, in the form of Leith's Brigade (51st, 76th and 59th Foot), left behind by Sir David Baird as he advanced to Astorga to join up with the rest of Moore's army.

This former Roman encampment was built on a spur of rocky hills resting on the River Minho and the secure flanks offered by its position encouraged Moore to stand and offer battle to Soult's pursuing French army.

In the end Soult, after probing the position, decided not to press an attack, preferring to wait for follow up troops in the form of Ney's VI Corps, to arrive to make the contest much more in his favour.

This delay, as the two forces arrived to face off, had another benefit for Moore's army in that it also allowed many stragglers to walk in to the city and rejoin the colours, before the British commander, realising that the French would not attack pulled away under the cover of darkness to make a night march for Corunna.



On leaving Lugo we entered the Galician mountains, coming off the newer dual carriageway and seeking out the old road that runs parallel with it, to seek out the key choke points that saw the Reserve Division in action with Marshal Soult's pursuing vanguard of cavalry.

The Corunna retreat is all about bridges, with one side looking to destroy them and impose more delay to the pursuit whilst the other side seeks to stop such work, all intermixed with the detritus of a retreat in winter conditions, consisting of stragglers, abandoned wagons, dead animals and the innocent women and children forced to walk in the wake of the retreaters as their transport vehicles were abandoned one by one.


The bridge at Constantin (Constantino) was one such choke point at which on the 5th of January General Paget's reserve were able to administer a check on the pursuers as Charles Stewart's, one of Lord Paget's cavalry brigadiers, account describes:

"The enemy came on with apparent boldness. His cavalry and tirailleurs attempted to pass the bridge: but they were met, not only by fire of the riflemen, but by a heavy and well-directed cannonade from the high grounds. They were driven back; but in a few moments they renewed their efforts, and with a similar want of success; and again after a short pause, the attempt was made a third time. Darkness put an end to the skirmish and they withdrew."

The bend in the road marks the point of the Constantin bridge now heavily overgrown with vegetation along its sides

The slope down to the Constantin bridge down which the French cavalry and light infantry attacked the rearguard on the Constatin bridge.

Further along the route we came to a series of bridges near the village of Nogales at which the Reserve attempted to lay a trap for the pursuing French dragoons as they prodded Sir Edward Paget's rearguard up the road over, what Ensign Robert Blakeney of the 28th 'North Gloucestershire' Foot described as, a 'romantic' bridge.

The bridge at Nogales defied all the best efforts of Moore's engineers to destroy it and so Paget drew up his infantry on a reverse slope at one end of the bridge, placing a couple of guns seemingly abandoned on the road to try and draw forward the French cavalry, but it seems, sensing the ambush the French pursuit stopped and cavalry probes went forward convincing Paget to limber up his guns and pull off.


The bridge at Nogales  - Adam Neale

The same bridge depicted above seen from the modern road

The tortuous route that the retreat took is well illustrated in these pictures depicting the modern road that spans the many deep gorges that had to be negotiated in 1809 through terrible winter conditions of freezing snow and ice.


The French retreat through the snows of Russia in 1812 is an account of horror and tragedy rarely equalled in the annals of human misery, but the accounts of those who suffered in the Galician mountains in the winter of 1809 must be a close example, with many accounts of the piteous state the retreaters were reduced to, seemingly captured in the contemporary image below, and in this account by Rifleman Benjamin Harris:

"I passed a man and woman lying in the snow, clasped in each other's arms. I knew them both because they belonged to the Rifles. It was Joseph Sitdown and his wife. Poor Sitdown had not been in good health prior to the retreat so he and his wife had been allowed to get on in front as best they could. But now they had given in and the last we ever saw of them was ... lying perishing in each other's arms."

The retreat - Robert Ker Porter


The next significant stop point, of course centred around a key bridge, features a very famous incident from the retreat when the reserve under Sir Edward Paget, once again turned to hold the pursuit at bay; that resulted in the action at Cacabelos, as a certain French General Colbert, contemptuous of the British rearguard, having seen no other specimens of British soldiers other than drunken stragglers along the retreat route, led forward a column of French cavalry, four abreast in a determined attempt to take the bridge by furious assault if necessary.

Map drawn by Captain Gordon, 15th Hussars of the troop deployments at the start of the action at Cacebelos.
The French cavalry have arrived on the ridge to the right and four squadrons of the 15th Hussars are about to withdraw leaving a vedette and a picket from the 95th Rifles to watch them. Further back in front of Cacebelos are Paget's infantry (20th, 28th 52nd Foot and 95th Rifles)  about to pull back through the town to the opposite back of the River Cua. Gordon has not shown the six RHA guns, that probably deployed on the right near the 95th before limbering up to cross the river.

Prior to the arrival of the French vanguard, General Paget had his soldiers parade in the town square as he prepared to execute two of their comrades, charged with robbery, and after offering to spare the mens lives on a promise from all ranks to ensure good behaviour  from then on, he dismissed the battalions who marched out to face the enemy, and thence to deploy back behind the River Cua

Cacabelos has grown in the last two hundred years, but the bridge and River Cua still hold their course from which one can imagine a certain Rifleman Thomas Plunkett running forward from the British line deployed along the river bank to fall on to his back and brace his Baker Rifle with a foot through the sling whilst taking careful aim.

The Bridge over the Cua at Cacebelos
Ensign Robert Blakeney of the 28th Foot described the deployment to the opposite bank:

"Shortly after we gained our position the French cavalry advanced at a quick trot down the hill. Our guns instantly wheeled upon the road, and played upon their column until they became screened from their fire by a dip in the road as they approached the bridge. Here they were warmly received by the 52nd Regiment, now freed from our own dragoons, and the 95th; and upon this they made a furious charge at full speed over the bridge and up the road towards our position. 

During this onset they were severely galled by the 95th, who by this time had lined the hedges on either side of the road within a few yards of their flanks, and by the Light Company immediately in their front, whom it was evidently their intention to break through, as they rode close to our bayonets.  But their ranks being very much thinned by the destructive flanking fire of the Rifles and the standing ranks of the Light Company, their charge was vain, and they wheeled about and underwent the same ordeal in retiring, so that but few survived to tell the tragic tale.

The road was absolutely choked with their dead. One alone among the slain was regretted, their gallant leader, General Colbert; his martial appearance, noble figure, manly gesture, and above all his daring bravery called for the admiration of us all."


Rifleman Tom Plunkett makes his famous shot at Cacabelos

The precise time and location of Colbert's death is controversial from the differing accounts, but a constant account emerges as to who it was that brought him down.

Rifleman William Surtees asserted that the dashing French hothead was shot:

"... by a noted pickle of the name of Tom Plunkett, who, fearless of all danger to himself, got sufficiently nigh to make sure of his mark, and shot him, which, with the fire of the others, caused great havoc in the enemy's ranks, and set them flying to the rear much faster than they advanced."


General Baron Auguste de Colbert de Chabanais

Likewise, fellow marksman, Rifleman Edward Costello recounts:

"Plunket, an Irishman was a smart, well-made fellow, about middle height and in the prime of manhood; with a clear grey eye and handsome countenance. He was a general favourite with both officers and men, besides being the best shot in the regiment."

Tom Plunkett had established his reputation as a crack shot over two-hundred yards during his service in the campaign to Buenos Ayres, where he was responsible for shooting over twenty Spanish soldiers from the roof of the Santo Domingo Convent, together with a Spanish officer, he shot at long range, hitting him in the thigh, and receiving plaudits from the battalion but later censure from higher command, as the Spanish officer was under a flag of truce at the time.

The River Cua and Cacebelos on the opposite bank, less the snow on a sunny June afternoon.

From Cacebelos we got on to the main road south and headed for Benavente, our next hotel for the night, but also the scene of another bitter fight for control of a bridge, and the embarrassment of yet another French general officer, this time, it is reported under the eyes of the Emperor himself, observing the combat from higher ground overlooking the River Elsa that flows close to the town and its ancient bridge.

The old bridge still crosses the River Elsa at Benavente but relieved of its work load by two newer bridges built close by.

By the 29th of December 1808, the cat was well and truly out of the bag as far as Sir John Moore's appreciation of the situation he and his army now faced, learning, six days previously from Spanish General La Romana, that the Emperor Napoleon was moving north in support of Marshals Ney and Soult to cut Moore off from any attempt to withdraw to the coast, bringing with him 80,000 troops.

In those six days Moore and Napoleon were engaged in a race to be the first to reach the all important river crossing at Benavente, the gateway to the Galician mountains which would negate the French superiority in cavalry they enjoyed on the open plains of Leon.

Moore won the race, and by the 28th December three of his divisions were marching for Astorga, leaving Paget's Reserve and the cavalry guarding the west bank of the Elsa whilst work proceeded to blow the all important bridge.

Ensign Blakeney recorded the difficulties encountered destroying the bridge:

"The bridge being constructed of such solid material, the greatest exertions were required to penetrate the masonry; and from the hurried manner and sudden necessity of the march from Sahagun, there had been no time to send an engineer forward to prepare for the undertaking. These circumstances much retarded the work, and an incessant fall of heavy rain and sleet rendered the whole operation excessively laborious and fatiguing."

At 10 pm on the evening of the 28th December the French started to launch attacks on General Craufurds outposts holding the villages on the opposite bank, which were followed up by others the next morning, all driven back by the light infantry and riflemen.

Sabres on the Elsa - Mark Churms
With the damaged old bridge crossing the River Elsa depicted in the background, British hussars pursue the Chasseurs of the Guard back the way they came.

By midnight according to Blakeney:

"... the preparations at the bridge being completed the troops retired. Fortunately it was dark, rainy and tempestuous; and so the Light Brigade passed unobserved over the bridge to the friendly side in profound silence, except for the roaring of the waters and the tempest, and without the slightest opposition. Immediately on our gaining the right bank the mine was sprung with full effect, blowing up two arches, together with the buttress by which they had been supported."


General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes (1773-1822) commander of the
Imperial Guard Cavalry and taken prisoner at Benevente after an abortive attempt
to force a passage of the Elsa on the 29th December 1808

The next day, the 29th December, the Reserve Division and the Light Brigade followed the other divisions up the road to Astorga, leaving Lord Henry Paget and his cavalry guarding the broken bridge.

The Emperor also arrived at the bridge, furious with the hold up to the pursuit, and by 9 am the Chasseurs of the Imperial Guard began to cross the Elsa, reported to have numbered 600 men and easily driving back Major Burgwedel and his 200 3rd KGL Hussars.

As the KGL Hussers were jostled back into the suburbs of Benavente, Lord Paget arrived on the scene with the remainder of the 3rd KGL Hussars and, quickly summoning the 10th and 18th Hussars, gathered a force numbering some 650 men in all, whilst manoeuvring onto the flank of the French as they pursued the KGL detachment into the town.

The scene of dramatic events, as General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, caught up in the retreat of his cavalry is captured whilst unable to persuade his horse to reenter the river

The British and German cavalry completely turned the tables, smashing into the flank of the French Guard and breaking them with the shock and surprise of the attack which developed into a three mile chase back to the River Elsa.

The carnage caused by the wielding of the light cavalry sabres was summed up by August Schaumann of the the Commissariat when he recorded that:

"The sword work during the cavalry melee is said to have been terrible, and our Germans are believed to have been mad with rage. Most of the enemy's wounded had their arms cut off, and in many cases their upper limbs hung from their shoulders merely by a shred of their uniforms. 

Lieutenant, now Major, Heise, told me about many of the heavier blows that had brought men down. He saw one Frenchman lying on the ground who had the whole of his head cut off horizontally above the eyes at one blow, and many others with heads split in two. He also noticed one man who rode by with outstretched arms who had received a diagonal blow across his face which had cut his mouth , right open so that the jaw , as far back as the tongue, hung down over his chest, and you could see his gullet.

One of our hussars had had his head cut off, and many of our fellows pursued the enemy right into the middle of the stream and brought back prisoners."

Even Baron Larrey, chief surgeon to the Imperial Guard, later claimed to have treated over seventy men with sabre cuts to the head alone.


The old bridge is thankfully now in retirement and repaired since Sir John Moore's infantry managed to blow it up

Lord Paget's report claimed the French suffered 30 killed, 25 wounded and 70 men made prisoner including General Lefebvre Desnouettes, whose luggage was sent across from the French side of the river soon after the action.

British casualties are estimated at about 60, with 46 from the German Hussars including three men killed. The numbers quoted are by no means certain as other accounts vary considerably, but all conclude that the Imperial Guard Cavalry were well and truly drubbed.

The defeat of his elite guard cavalry and the capturing of his favourite general caused much embarrassment for Napoleon, but it seems not all those in French ranks were so distressed by the defeat, as recorded by General Jean Sarrazin:

".... every regiment, without exception, was delighted to hear that the English had lowered the pride of those chasseurs;  for there was not a man who did not fancy himself a hero, after the success which this corps had obtained against the Russian Imperial Guard at the Battle of Austerlitz."


The Emperor still continues to observe the Elsa

However it should also be remembered that Lord Paget's and his cavalry's success was no 'flash in the pan' as Marshal Soult's vanguard met a similar fate on the 21st December as Sir John Moore, still thinking he was on the offence and that he had a chance to defeat Marshal Soult's Corps before other French forces could intervene; had brought his army together at Mayorga, about twenty miles to the east of Benavente, with Paget's cavalry reconnoitering another twenty miles further east towards Sahagun, looking for the enemy.

Thus it was with camera in hand, leaving Carolyn to enjoy the delights of wandering around Benavente, that I headed out east across the straight Roman roads that thread their way across wide open fields of wheat towards the old walled village of Sahagun in search of the scene of a remarkable cavalry action, that added yet further laurels to the 15th Hussars.

The 15th Hussars at the charge at the action at Sahagun

It was on the evening of the 21st December 1808, that Lord Paget's hussar brigades neared the village of Sahagun, finding it occupied by 500 to 800 French cavalrymen of the 8me Dragoons and 1er Provisional Chasseurs, under the command of General Cesar-Alexandre Debelle.

One really vivid account of what followed is covered in Gareth Glover's book "From Corunna to Waterloo", a book I reviewed back in 2016.


In it Major Edwin Griffith of the 15th Hussars, numbering some 400 men in total, describes the combat that followed in some detail as the two cavalry formations manoeuvred parallel to each other, until the two French cavalry regiments then turned to face the unidentified opposition, in line, with the chasseurs in the front line and the dragoons behind.

Griffith reported that:
"Trusting to their superiority of numbers, and to their advantageous position in a vineyard, with deep ditches, blinded with snow in their front, they foolishly stood their ground, hoping as they afterwards told us that the vine boughs or ditches would have thrown down all our horses, and that they should make easy work of us; they also gave us a volley from their carbines as we were coming up which killed and wounded a few of our horses......."

Captain Gordon of the 15th Hussars who produced the excellent map of the action seen below, recorded the following account:

"The shock was terrible. Horses and men were overthrown, and a shriek of terror, intermixed with oaths, groans and prayers for mercy, issued from the whole extent of their front."

Captain Gordon, 15th Hussars map of the action at Sahagun with my photo of the field below

The chasseurs were driven back upon the dragoons, broken and in utter confusion, causing both formations to collapse into a disordered rout.

The field of battle at Sahagun with the two lines of cavalry meeting from left and right, looking towards Sahagun on the horizon. The French cavalry were pursued to this point in the photo, taken close by the Chapel of Nuesta Senora de la Puente.

The pursuit continued for over a mile until the French crossed over the River Valderaduey and made good their escape into the dark winter gloom.


The restored bridge over the rather dry River Valderaduey, over which Debelle's cavalry made its escape with the chapel behind

French losses may have been around 300 including 157 prisoners and with both regiments losing their colonels as prisoners.

The Chapel of Nuesta Senora de la Puente was used as a field hospital after the action

The 15th Hussars are reported as losing, twenty-five casualties including four who died later of wounds and their commanding officer Colonel Colquhoun Grant with a slight sabre wound to the head.


Did I mention that during my expeditions in and around Benavente, that we stayed in a hotel in the town.

Well that hotel happened to be the Castle, or should I say what remains of the Castle of Benavente, occupied and destroyed by British troops on the 28th December 1808 and now restored to a glorious Parador Hotel for people like me who just relish the history whilst staying in such a remarkable building.

The Castle at Benavente before its modifications, courtesy of the British Army - Robert Ker Porter

The tower seen above, with the newer additions of accommodation rooms on either side, is the only surviving part of the original castle as seen in the illustration above.

The tower is immediately recognisable in the Ker Porter drawing

The view of the tower and the nearby park from our room's balcony

The stairs leading up from reception to the medieval tower, now serving as a function room

Below are pictures of the now beautifully renovated medieval tower with its amazing Mudejar coffered ceiling, showing some of the splendour that was lost with the destruction of the rest of the building.



Of course I couldn't end this post without referring to an account of someone who remembers the castle and its former occupants during Sir John Moore's retreat and so I turned to Commissariat August Schumann who, taking time off on the 28th December prior to joining the divisions on the march to Astorga, took time to satisfy his curiosity by looking at the former home of the Duchess of Ossuna who on the approach of the French had fled to Seville.


There were two regiments of infantry, together with three batteries of artillery, quartered in the apartments of this magnificent ancient building, where, in the old days, none but proud knights, barons and bannerets aired their armour, and quaffed golden goblets to the accompaniment of songs and string music; and the soldiers were  carrying on their noisy life, vouchsafing the relics and artistic treasures that surrounded them neither attention nor admiration.

What the English soldier cannot see any purpose in does not interest him. Everywhere bayonets and nails were stuck into the crevices of precious columns, or into the beautifully decorated walls, and knapsacks and cartridge boxes were hung upon them.

In the large fire places, decorated  with marble. there burned huge fires, kept alive with broken pieces of antique furniture, either gilt or artistically carved; and the same thing was going on in the courtyard, where walls were all black with smoke. On these fires stood a number of camp kettles.

The soldiers' wives were washing their things and hanging them just where they chose. A good deal was wantonly destroyed, and every corner was scoured for hidden treasure."



Finally one of my lasting memories of our visit to Spain and Portugal this year has been the delight in seeing the many White Storks flying with legs and necks outstretched or perched atop tall towers and pylons with a clutch of fast growing chicks clustered in the pile of twigs they create for a nest.

These birds are in the main silent, but when going through their routine of greeting a partner arriving at the nest, are seen to bow with stretched out folded wings and producing a fast clicking noise with the rapid beating of their bills, which reminds me of the noise created in the old fifties film of 'Day of the Triffids' anytime one of the voracious plants became aware of human prey.

White Storks atop a village church pictured on my drive to Sahagun this summer

They are truly stunning and grace any old building with their presence.


Next up, our journey takes us to the beautiful city of Salamanca and the site of perhaps the Duke of Wellington's most complete victory in battle, and then we head to Cuidad Rodrigo to look at one of the keys to Spain.

17 comments:

  1. Nice first post about your tour. We were on holiday in Portugal a few weeks ago and I kept thinking about how difficult most of the terrain would be to fight over. Certainly very diffcult for cavalry and formed troops, but good for light troops. Looking forward to the next post.

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    1. Hi Steve,
      Thank you and yes Portugal is very difficult terrain in the main for an army to get about in and its easy to see why the routes into the country were quite limited with most of them having to follow the main rivers along the bottom of valleys.

      Just left our hotel at Busacco and am now based near Elvas in preparation for checking out Badajoz and the above mentioned in the next couple of days.

      It is very very hot!

      JJ

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  2. Really enjoyed reading this. Thank you very much.
    Grahame

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    1. Hi Grahame,
      Excellent and thank you very much for your comment.
      JJ

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  3. That was an excellent read and much appreciated. Thank you for the time and effort

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  4. Fabulous and envious Johnathon, a cracking blogpost sir!
    I do like to walk the battlefields, as ex-army and professional surveyor I can get a feel for a battlefield when I walk it, particularly with first hand accounts and battlefield reports, I have Penisula battlefield sites on the one day list.

    Cheers
    Matt
    French Wargame Holidays
    L'Hotel de Hercé
    Mayenne, pays de Loire
    France
    "Walk the battlefield in the morning, Wargame it in the afternoon"©

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    1. Hi Matt,
      Thank you for your kind comments here and on the various forums.

      Having just walked Talavera yesterday and having gamed it on a table for three years doing the Talavera 208 games here on the blog, it was such fun and so revealing seeing the terrain up close.

      Again with Andrew Fields book in hand the accounts within really brought the scene alive.

      Thanks again
      JJ

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  5. A great post, JJ. Thanks for taking us along. I loved Lugo's Roman wall - its amazing that it still stands intact!
    I especially enjoyed seeing the sites still relatively unaltered since the events of 1808-09. And you are right, these things are always best discovered on our own.

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    1. Thank you Bill.
      Glad you enjoyed part one. I came away with other stuff I photographed about Roman Lugo, but that will have to keep for another post.

      Touring the Peninsular has been a revelation and I can't get over how unaltered so many of the sites we have visited remain over two hundred years later. I'm really looking forward to completing a series of these posts to hopefully encourage others to go see them for themselves.

      Cheers
      JJ

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  6. Have a great trip old chum!
    Please keep us posted, fascinating stuff.
    Best wishes,
    Jeremy

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    1. Hi Jeremy,
      Thanks mate, plenty to come, just need more time to sit down and type!

      JJ

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    2. great stuff - thanks for posting

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  7. That was great!!!! Thanks for sharing!

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  8. Thanks for your comments chaps, glad you enjoyed the read.

    Next up, Salamanca.

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  9. Hi Carajon

    I always enjoy reading your battlefield walking tours. But I particularly enjoyed this one as Corunna is one of the few Peninsula Napoleonic battlefields I have not visited. No excuse as I am now retired and living permanently on the Costa Blanca!

    Your blogs are a great combination of narrative, historical illustrations and current photographs. Makes it so easy to follow your progress.

    I was interested that you mentioned satnav. I did similar visits in the 1980s and 1990s, and also researched from available histories. But finding locations with just a general map was very difficult

    I am looking forward to your post about Salamanca. I have been there many times, and it is a very easy battlefield to explore.

    Keep up the good work

    best regards

    Paul and Jan

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  10. Hi Paul and Jan,
    Thank you for your comments and I am so glad you enjoyed the read.

    I write these posts as a sort of journal as well as a way for me to take in and absorb what exactly I have seen in terms of the reading done prior to the visit, hopefully leaving me with a better understanding of what happened there given all the caveats of the ever present uncertainty in how battles are reported.

    I have always felt that I am not alone in this striving to better understand these battles and so if I can help others by the way I structure my thinking about them and am able to convey a picture in words, illustrations and photos, then the blog is helping to tick a lot of boxes for me and others.

    I completely understand the frustration of trying to find locations with a map, particularly in a country where you are not up to speed with the language to be able to engage successfully with the locals.

    Modern navigation technology has revolutionised this part of the historical wargaming hobby and makes the prospect of exploring these sites so much more achievable, and to be able to know exactly where you are on the terrain you are looking at.

    Thanks again
    JJ

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