The Peninsular War part 2: Sintra to Corunna

Lynne Booker


Sir John Moore - the unsung hero? My previous article on the Peninsular War (Get Real April 22, 2008) showed that British and Portuguese troops had been victorious at Roliça and Vimeiro in August 1808, and in Spain, Joseph (Napoleon´s brother) had been forced to leave Madrid after only 11 days on the throne.


The British nation went wild with joy - a joy that was short-lived once the terms of the Convention of Sintra were made known. On September 3, 1808 a half-hysterical Portuguese minister lodged a complaint with the British government against the terms of the Convention (which no Portuguese had been invited to sign!) And Wordsworth wrote, ´Britannia sickens, Sintra, at thy name!´


The greatest command held by any British general since Marlborough Sir Hew "Dowager" Dalrymple, Sir Henry "Betty" Burrard and Sir Arthur Wellesley were recalled to London to face a Court of Inquiry into their actions and the Convention. Thus the experienced Sir John Moore was unexpectedly catapulted into the command of British forces in Portugal. Moore was the heartthrob of Lady Hester Stanhope, but was so deeply unpopular with the government that he was amazed at this reversal in his fortunes. His instructions were to aid the Spanish in any way he thought prudent. The Spanish were victorious; they had got rid of the French everywhere save Navarre and Barcelona even though they were under threat again from a vengeful Napoleon. He was preparing to rid the Iberian Peninsular of ´ the hideous leopard ´(Britain) .... "Let us carry our victorious eagles to the Pillars of Hercules .... No Frenchman can enjoy a moment´s repose so long as the sea is not free" he ranted. 


`An officer whose whole soul is in the service´ ...

... said the outgoing Sir Henry Burrard of Sir John. And, in the army camp at Queluz in October 1808, the men knew instinctively that the unaccountable inertia of the past 6 weeks was over. The new general appeared everywhere. Moore intended to leave 10 000 troops for the defence of Portugal and to march with the remaining 20 000 to northern Spain. He would be joined by Sir David Baird with a further 17 000 who were to disembark at Corunna. In supporting Spanish armies in their attempt to encircle the French, Moore´s main problem was to unite his forces before Napoleon attacked. His only chance of doing so was to march across the Portuguese highlands to Salamanca and join forces with Baird at Vallodollid or Burgos - the very route, which less than a year before, had so challenged Junot´s Army of Portugal. A march of more than 300 miles over mountains rising in places to 4.000 feet without maps, without adequate transport or draught animals and as winter was closing in. Following incorrect Portuguese advice, Moore sent his entire artillery train and cavalry with 4.000 troops under General Hope on a circuitous route via Elvas and Talavera. Baird, on disembarking in Corunna on 26 October, found that the Spanish authorities were unable to offer even the crudest logistical support; having scrounged enough transport he made a start towards Valladolid but rapidly deteriorating weather conditions reduced his army´s progress to a crawl.


A failure of intelligence

The Spanish Supreme Junta underestimated the number of French troops in Spain and they conceived a fantastic plan of using their three completely uncoordinated armies against a French force of what they believed to be 50 000 troops (the real figure was 120 000). General Blake´s Army of Galicia blundered into Ney´s lines on 31 October and was routed by Napoleon at Espinosa and the Army of Estremedura was utterly shattered at Gamonal north of Burgos. By 10 November, the French had taken and sacked Burgos and by 13 November they had occupied Valladollid - the intended rendezvous for Moore and Baird.


The fog of war descends over the Castilian plain

With no intelligence of what either the French or the Spanish were doing, Moore was in a dilemma. Until his forces had assembled, he had no option but to remain in Salamanca and on 28 November he sent an urgent message to Baird to hurry to their rendezvous. Moore heard later that evening of another Spanish defeat - this time at Tudela - and his army remained the only undefeated force in Northern Spain. Although robbed of their own royal family, and with a Frenchman imposed on them as king of Spain, Spaniards were not in the least disposed to take advice from British generals on Spanish soil, and they seemed unmoved by Moore´s appeals for help. With Napoleon expected in Madrid within the week, Moore´s situation seemed hopeless and he reluctantly ordered a withdrawal to Portugal. On 3 December, however, Hope arrived in Salamanca with his cavalry and guns and two days later Moore heard of strong Spanish resistance in Madrid. Moore saw an opportunity of doing what he had been sent to do. He knew that he could not relieve Madrid but he could strike eastwards and attempt to cut Napoleon´s lines of communication with France. And, if Madrid could hold out through the winter, Napoleon´s advance into Portugal would be held up until spring; the juntas of Seville, Valencia and Cadiz would have time to form new armies and the British and Portuguese at Lisbon could consolidate their alliance.


"All the evils, all the plagues which can afflict the human race come from London" (Napoleon in a letter to Josephine).

Napoleon powered his way into Madrid on 4 December, 1808. Moore heard this news a week later and gambled that an attack on French lines of communication would seriously disrupt French plans. Continuing his march towards Soult´s forces near Burgos, Moore at last made his rendezvous with Baird´s army and on 21 December they attacked Soult at Sahagun. Napoleon had by this time guessed what Moore was planning; he recalled his forward divisions from the road to Lisbon, and set out to attack Moore´s eastern flank and to cut off the British army from Portugal. Napoleon instructed Ney to leave the siege of Saragossa and join forces with Soult - everything was to take second place to the destruction of the arch-enemy. As he marched to attack Soult on 24 December, Moore heard of Napoleon´s pursuit and leaving his cavalry to screen his withdrawal, immediately turned north-west and went into a headlong retreat to Corunna. ´By doing so he averted what could have been the greatest military disaster in British history´. (Arthur Bryant). 


´The Race for Benavente ´and Corunna

They had to move quickly. The troops were fatigued and demoralised, the weather was atrocious; the British had outrun their supplies and the natives were not helpful. There were 200 miles of appalling road over the mountains to the sea and safety. Behind them was the man who, but for being French, might have invented the word ´blitzkrieg ´. General La Romana, coming to the aid of his British allies, lost half his force in an engagement at Mansilla on 30 December and his Spanish forces joined the retreating mêlée in Astorga. When he realised that Moore had been too quick for him, Napoleon handed over the pursuit to Maréchal Soult and returned to France to pursue a different quarry - the task of engendering a dynasty. After 18 gruelling days, Moore´s exhausted army reached Corunna on 11 January where, in a Spanish version of Dunkirk, he planned to embark for England. He earmarkd some 15.000 infantry and 12 guns to face the pursuing French and to cover the embarkation. Soult commenced his attack on 16 January and by the end of that day it had slithered to a halt. There were 800 British who never reached the safety of the ships and the attacking French lost 1400 dead; Sir John Moore himself had been killed within minutes of the end of the fighting and was buried on the ramparts of Corunna, where Maréchal Soult erected a memorial over his grave. General Hope took over command of the expeditionary force and successfully concluded the evacuation of Corunna. Some 26.000 men were safely returned to England. 


"The British Army in Ruins"

Despite the victory at Corunna and the fact that Moore had heroically disrupted Napoleon´s plans for the conquest of the Peninsula, the great British public regarded the outcome as a catastrophe. Nearly 8 000 men had been lost and the whole of the British Army (according to Canning) had been put at risk and now lay in ruins. Eventually, the implications of Moore´s strategy were appreciated, and it was his signal achievement that Wellesley could return to Lisbon in April 1809 with another chance to attack Napoleon´s furthest flank. Wellington remarked years later to Lord Raglan that the regiments trained by Moore were the backbone of the army, and that Moore´s conduct of the campaign had been both skillful and imaginative. “You know, FitzRoy, we´d not have won, I think, without him.”




Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot

O´er the grave where our hero we buried.


We buried him darkly at dead of night,

The sods with our bayonets turning,

By the struggling moonbeams´misty light

And the lantern dimly burning.


No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

Not in sheet nor in shroud we wound him;

But he lay like a warrior taking his rest,

With his martial cloak around him.


Few and short were the prayers we said,

And we spoke not a word of sorrow;

But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,

And we bitterly thought of the morrow.


We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed,

And smooth´d down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would tread o´er his head

And we far away on the billow!


Lightly they´ll talk of the spirit that´s gone,

And o´er his cold ashes upbraid him -

But little he´ll reck, if they let him sleep on

In the grave where a Briton has laid him.


But half of our heavy task was done,

When the clock struck the hour for retiring;

And we heard the distant and random gun

That the foe was sullenly firing. 


Slowly and sadly we laid him down,

From the field of his fame fresh and gory;

We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,

But we left him alone with his glory!


Charles Wolfe (1791 - 1823)