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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 25 : Fuentes de Oñoro (April–June 1811)
Wellington felt able to leave the main army for a couple of weeks as there seemed little prospect that the battered wreck of the French Army of Portugal would be able to take the field and attempt to relieve Almeida before the garrison was starved into submission sometime towards the middle of May. Nonetheless he was uneasy of entrusting the command to Sir Brent Spencer and not only prepared a careful memorandum of instructions covering every plausible contingency, but also wrote twice with advice on how a courier with news could reach him with the least delay. (Memorandum for Lt-Gen Sir Brent Spencer, Villar Fomoso, 14 April 1811; Wellington to Spencer, Wellington to Spencer, Pedrogão, Castello Branco and Elvas, 16th, 2pm 17th, 20 April 1811 WD IV p 747-8, 752-3, 754, 759).
Edward Pakenham wrote to Lord Longford on 15 April:
My Lord Wellington left this Yesterday, and to my mortification left me with the part of the Army till the joining of General Stewart, who still remains at Lisbon. The change of leaders is very different indeed; Sir Brent Spencer has charge of this Corps, and is as good a fellow as possible to meet at a County Club, but as to succeeding Wellington it is quite Damn – to him. (Pakenham Letters p 87).
Beresford’s reputation suffers:
Wellington was frustrated and puzzled at the lack of progress in Estremadura. At first he hoped that Badajoz might be taken before the French had time to properly repair the breach from their own siege, but by early April he realized that some form of siege would be necessary and wanted a report on whether the guns and ammunition could come from Elvas, or whether they would need to be ordered up from the main siege train at Lisbon: an operation that would take some weeks. (Wellington to Beresford 6pm 30 March 6 April 1811 WD IV p 711, 724-5). All initiative and forethought appeared to depend on Wellington, while Beresford seemed sluggish and uncertain even in the execution of his orders. On the day before Wellington set out to ride south, his ADC Alexander Gordon wrote home with the prevailing view at headquarters ‘our presence is most necessary, and loudly called for in Estremadura, and thank God Lord Wellington has determined to go thither… It seems that Beresford had [has] done little or nothing there, and I fear has turned out as a General very different from what I expected’. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 14 April 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 191-2. See also Mills For King and Country p 29).
The army generally seems to have blamed Beresford for squandering a golden opportunity at Campo Mayor (see Moore Smith Life of Colborne p 152-3; Fitzclarence in Peninsular Sketches vol 1 p 180-85; Boutflower Journal p 82). Boutflower wrote in his journal: 29 March ‘Complaints are deep and general on the occasion against the Marshal, and it is very probably the Affair will yet cause much stir’ (p 83). And, on 6 April, ‘We are in hope as that Lord Wellington will almost immediately be with us… The whole army here long for the presence of the Commander of the Forces, so unbounded is their confidence in him; and indeed he does appear to leave far behind him all his Competitors for Military Fame’ (p 83-84). And again on the 10th: ‘there is a fatality attending the Operations of this army which forms a striking Contrast with the energy and foresight displayed in every movement by the troops under Lord Wellington’ (p 85).
See also Hercules Pakenham (who was with the main army) to Lord Longford, 16 April 1811: ‘It is really most painful to think how totally the entire of Our Army, and this Country, depends on Lord Wellington’. He goes on to blame Beresford for Campo Mayor and subsequent dilatoriness (Pakenham Letters p 88). While Edward Pakenham wrote ‘Beresford is a clever man but no General; his Anxiety is too great, and he cannot allow an Operation to go through by its first impulse without interference, which generally on such occasions mars everything’ (Edward Pakenham to Longford 15 April 188 Pakenham Letters p 87).
Wellington’s plans and strategic outlook, April 1811:
Napier (vol 3 p 155 Bk 12 Ch 5) alleges that: ‘A mistaken notion of Masséna’s sufferings during the retreat induced Wellington to undertake two operations at the same time, which was above his strength; and this error might have been his ruin, for Bessières, who only brought fifteen hundred men and six guns to the battle of Fuentes Onoro, could have brought ten thousand men and sixteen guns’.
The first part of this seems quite reasonable, but the last comment clearly goes too far: if Bessières had brought such a large addition Wellington would probably not have fought, and far from Wellington being ‘ruined’ all that would have been lost would have been the blockade of Almeida (as Wellington makes clear: Wellington to Liverpool 1 May 1811 WD IV p 781-2). But the broader point is better founded: Wellington did expect that the Army of Portugal would be out of action for longer than it was – not unreasonably – and by trying to do two things at once he failed with both. The detachment of Beresford was natural, even inevitable, in March; but by April it had rather lost its rationale. There was no reason why the entire allied army (less a small corps of observation) should not have been concentrated in the north where it would have been strong enough to maintain the simultaneous blockade of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo. Feeding it might have caused some difficulties, but surely none that were insuperable. Latour-Maubourg was unlikely to threaten Elvas or invade Portugal, but if he did so Wellington could come down upon him in overwhelming force. Alternatively the bulk, or even the whole, allied army could have moved south to undertake the siege of Badajoz in April rather than the end of May. There was little to tempt Masséna to return to northern Portugal and while he might have marched south to Soult’s assistance, as Marmont did, it would not have been in character. Of course, this is all deeply imbued with hindsight and Wellington’s choices were natural enough at the time, but one is left with the impression that he was a little over-confident and did not treat the immediate problems he faced as seriously as they deserved.
Benjamin D’Urban gives an interesting variation on this line of thought. He was annoyed when Wellington arrived at Elvas and called Beresford’s army back to undertake the siege of Badajoz. He would have preferred to leave Badajoz behind them and to hold all Estremadura, draw upon its resources and ‘forced Soult to declare himself, for he could not have waited, and must either have assembled everything, and advanced to drive us back, – or gone to Cordoba or Cadiz. If he advanced we were excellently posted and the result could not have been doubtful for a moment’ (24 April 1811 Journal p 205). A few days later D’Urban went even further: ‘If this Army advances now upon Andalusia – co-operated with by Blake from the Niedla [sic] and Genl. Graham from Cadiz – Victor is cut off and Andalusia recovered. Badajoz will fall of course afterwards – but it is lost time, precious time lost – to wait about it now’ (28 April 1811 ibid p 206).
The thought of Beresford, who was so overwhelmed by responsibility of giving battle at Albuera, leading an independent invasion of Andalusia, shows one implausibility in this scheme; while it seems likely that such an attack would simply have forced Soult to concentrate all his forces except those at Cadiz, and that this would have made him far stronger than Beresford’s army. (Wellington himself makes this point: Wellington to Beresford 14 May 1811 WD IV p 12.)
Alexander Gordon recants criticism of Beresford’s slowness:
Alexander Gordon told his brother that his earlier criticism had been unfair: ‘since we have been here and seen things in their true light, it does appear that Beresford has done as well as he could do, and has not lost much time’. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, Elvas, 23 April 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 193-4). But Wellington still wrote, on 21 April to Charles Stuart, ‘I am afraid that we have lost some valuable time here; and I am come here principally to put matters in the right road; and to come to an understanding with Castaños, and, if possible, with Blake, respecting our future operations’ (WD IV p 702-3). And Wellington felt that Beresford had gone too far south and had neglected his main object, the capture of Badajoz, while the ordinary officers and men of the army had little confidence in his leadership. (Wellington to Sir B Spencer and to Beresford both 20 April 1811 WD IV p 759, 760; Boutflower Journal 6 April 1811 p 84, and Burgoyne’s journal for 10 April 1811 in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 127-8).
The Plan of Attack at Badajoz:
It is possible that Jones’s story that shortage of time compelled the engineers to prefer the more difficult but decisive line of attack is a post facto justification of a more straight forward error. Oman was evidentially unconvinced by it (see his very sharp criticism vol 4 p 282-3) but there is no obvious reason for discarding Jones’s evidence.
It is worth pointing out that Wellington’s preference was for an attack on the southern face (Memorandum for Beresford, Fletcher and Dickson 23 April 1811 WD IV p 765-66, and Jones Journals of Sieges vol 1 p13). On the other hand he also stipulated that all three of the outlying forts (San Cristoval, Picurina and Pardaleras) be taken before the main work was attacked. As Oman points out, (vol 4 p 282) this would have been a mistake, requiring a dispersal of effort and limited resources. But was it implemented? According to Jones, (Journal of Sieges vol 1 p 15) Fletcher was quite clear that the attacks on Picurina and Pardaleras were feints designed to distract the defence until the breach at San Cristoval became practicable (see also Jones p 26-27 repeating that work here was undertaken as a feint).
On 17 May, after the siege had been abandoned, Captain John Squire wrote ‘I am satisfied that our plan of attack was excellent’ and that the failure had been due to problems in its execution (Add Ms 63,106 f 31-33). As Squire commanded the unsuccessful attack on San Cristoval he had every reason to blame the plan.
The best secondary account of the first siege of Badajoz is in Mark Thompson’s thesis ‘The Rise of the Scientific Soldier as seen through the Performance of the Corps of Royal Engineers during the Early Nineteenth Century’ p 125-44, which coolly explains much that had previously been obscure or confused.
Wellington’s return to the north and Masséna’s advance:
Wellington had never intended to spend more than a few days in Estremadura, and the loss of the bridge over the Guadiana had brought everything there to a standstill. Before he left Elvas he had received reports that the French were building up forces at Ciudad Rodrigo and talking of an attempt to relieve Almeida, but the Agueda was not fordable and he did not take the stories very seriously or hurry his departure because of them. A couple of days later, however, at Castello Branco the news from Sir Brent Spencer was more definite and Wellington pushed on with all speed arriving at headquarters on the evening of 28 April. (Compare Wellington to Beresford, Castello Branco, 27 April 1811 WD IV p 777-8 with Wellington to Liverpool, Portalegre, 25 April 1811 WD IV p 773-777). He was in plenty of time, but fresh reports left no doubt that the French had concentrated their army and were determined to revictual, or at least bring off the garrison of Almeida. As Wellington was determined to thwart them, a battle seemed almost inevitable.
Why did Wellington fight at Fuentes?
Fortescue (vol 8 p 174) points to the weakness of the allied position at Fuentes and says:
It may in fact be asserted that, in the abstract, Wellington’s decision to accept battle was indefensible, nor do I suppose that he would have taken it had he not been moved by other than military considerations – by the belief, namely, that unless he could give the British public a successful general action at once in order to hearten them to their task, they would insist on the recall of the British army in the Peninsula.
That is unconvincing. It bears no relation to the political situation in Britain in the spring of 1811, where the Opposition had just recanted its hostility to Wellington’s campaigns; nor to Wellington’s experience that he was more likely to be criticized for ‘fighting useless battles’ than for not producing victories. Fortescue is not really interested in British politics, but uses them as convenient explanation of anything he finds otherwise inexplicable; but if Wellington had fought at Fuentes, knowing that his position was, strictly speaking untenable, simply in the hope of pleasing the public at home, he would have been culpably foolish. He fought for the obvious and best reason: to cover the blockade of Almeida, and because he judged (correctly) that he would win, and that victory was worth the cost. Looking for other motives simply because the best available position does not meet some theoretical measure of what was necessary, is simply fanciful.
British artillery not allowed to fire on Masséna:
Cocks says in his journal: ‘Masséna reconnoitred our left. General Hay was too polite and he would not all Bull to fire on him when within range of case shot’ (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 103). That seems simple, but what was Bull’s battery doing on the left when on the following day it (including Norman Ramsay’s two guns) would be on the right? And where was Cocks? Elsewhere he implies he was with the cavalry skirmishing on the right.
The cavalry fighting on the right flank:
Several staff officers took part in the later stages of the cavalry fight. Charles Stewart led a charge and is credited with having personally captured Colonel Lamotte of the 13e Chasseurs à Cheval. (Napier vol 3 p 151 (Bk 12 ch 5). Charles Cocks to Thomas Somers Cocks, 15 May 1811, Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 108 lends some contemporary support to this claim). George Fitzclarence saved a French chasseur from summary execution after coming off his horse in the swampy ground. (Maxwell Peninsular Sketches vol 1 p 191). And Captain George Scovell noted in his diary, ‘I had here an opportunity of mixing in an Charge, and am quite convinced our Cavalry want conduct not courage. Had they not been supported by some Squadrons of the 16th and Royals some disagreeable consequence would have arisen. Our Reserve of Cavalry ought always to be at a distance sufficient to prevent their sharing the confusion into which those who charge fall.’ (Scovell’s diary, WO 37/7 p 39: the writing is not completely clear; in particular the word “sharing” is taken largely from context). He also agreed with Hall’s criticism of the British cavalry sword: ‘Our Sabres are not sharp enough, and there can be no doubt of the thrust being superior to the cut. I saw several men receive 5 or 6 cuts fall on the Arms & shoulders without any impression.’ (Scovell’s diary, WO 37/7 p 39. Fitzclarence also confirms this, for he preferred the sword he took from an ordinary French chasseur to his own weapon: Maxwell Peninsular Sketches vol 1 p 191).
Norman Ramsay’s guns escape:
The most famous exploit to occur in this fighting was the ‘artillery charge’ of Norman Ramsay. Two six-pounders from Bull’s battery of horse artillery were surrounded by French cavalry but, led by Ramsay, the gunners drew their swords and cut their way through, without the loss of a man. Contemporary accounts, even by artillery officers who were present, make light of this, sometimes even suggesting that the artillery were rescued by the British cavalry, and it would probably have faded into obscurity if it had not inspired one of the finest passages of Napier’s highly coloured, romantic style:
The French … cut off Ramsay’s battery of horse artillery, and came sweeping in upon the reserves of cavalry and upon the seventh division. Their leading squadrons, approaching in an disorderly manner, were partially checked by fire, but a great commotion was observed in their main body; men and horses were seen to close with confusion and tumult towards one point, where a thick dust and loud cries, and the sparkling of blades, and flashing of pistols, indicated some extraordinary occurrence. Suddenly the multitude became violently agitated, an English shout pealed loud and clear, the mass was rent asunder, and Norman Ramsay burst forth sword in hand at the head of his battery, his horses, breathing fire, stretched like greyhounds along the plain, the guns bounded behind them like things of no weight, and the mounted gunners followed close, with heads bent low and pointed weapons, in desperate career. (Napier vol 3 p 151 Bk 12 ch 5).
Although Napier had been badly wounded at Casal Novo only six weeks previously, he was present at Fuentes de Oñoro, having insisted on rejoining the army before his wound had properly healed, (Bruce Life of William Napier vol 1 p 60). For the much less dramatic accounts by artillery officers who were present at the battle see Brig-Gen E. Howorth (the CRA) to Maj-Gen J. Macleod, 19 June 1811, in Leslie ‘Services of the Royal Artillery’ p 199; Hew Dalrymple Ross to Capt George Ross, 9 May 1811, ibid p 202-4; and the ‘Diary of Lieutenant Ingilby’ for 5 May 1811 p 247 who states merely: ‘Two guns of Major Ramsay’s Horse Artillery were taken, but the cavalry charged, and they were recovered.’
Failure of the French to exploit their advantage:
Some accounts suggest that Bessiéres ensured that his regiments gave only half-hearted co-operation, while several British officers claim that the French horsemen were palpably drunk, and that their movements were chaotic and disorganised as a result. (For example, journal of Col. Elley in Combermere Memoirs and Correspondence vol 1 p 195-8; letter from Capt Hew Dalrymple Ross in Memoir of Hew Dalrymple Ross p 15-17; and Fitzclarence in Maxwell Peninsular Sketches vol 1 p 190). The horses of the Army of Portugal cannot have been in good condition, while the morale and fighting spirit of their riders would have been little better. Yet none of this fully explains the failure to take advantage of the opportunity.
Masséna’s failure to raid Wellington’s rear:
Napier makes the point with his customary eloquence: ‘It may with more justice be objected to Masséna, that he did not launch some of his numerous horsemen by the Sequiras or Sabugal bridges, against Guarda and Celorico, to destroy the magazines, cut the communication, and capture the mules and other means of transport belonging to the allied army. The vice of the English general’s position would then have been clearly exposed; for though the second German hussars were on the march from Lisbon, they had not passed Coimbra, and could not have protected the depots.’ (History vol 3 p 155 Bk 12 Ch 5).
Fresh bridges built over the Coa after the battle:
After the battle the officers of the Royal Staff Corps completed work on two temporary bridges over the Coa, downstream (i.e. north) of Almeida. These bridges were hardly adequate for the passage of the whole army, but they reduced the reliance on the existing bridge at Castello Bom. Garwood ‘The Royal staff Corps, 1800-1837’ Royal Engineers Journal vol 57 1943 p 88-89 gives a fascinating account of how these bridges were constructed.
French casualties at Fuentes de Oñoro:
Napier (History vol 3 p 153 Bk 12 ch 5) writes: ‘Fifteen hundred men and officers, of which three hundred were prisoners, constituted the loss of the allies. That of the enemy was estimated at five thousand, upon the erroneous supposition that four hundred dead were lying about Fuentes Onoro. All armies make rash estimates on such occasions. Having had charge to bury the carcasses immediately about the village, I found only one hundred and thirty bodies, one-third being British.’
However, there had been a truce at the end of each day’s fighting, during which the French retrieved their wounded and – our sources say – their dead.
But, of course, contemporary estimates for enemy losses were almost always exaggerated, and Oman’s c2,800 is as close as we are likely to get to the truth.
Glimpses of Wellington
There seems to be only one glimpse of Wellington actually during the battle: a story of Thomas Brotherton:
At another period of the battle General Stewart ordered me to go to the assistance of Don Julian Sanchez, whose guerrillas were getting roughly handled by some French cavalry. Of course I immediately obeyed, though it seemed to me an injudicious order, for on this memorable day our great inferiority in cavalry rendered it advisable to keep the little we had constantly together, and detaching any of it to a distance a dangerous step. However, as I said before, I instantly obeyed, and started out at a brisk trot; for, in action, the least hesitation or slowness in executing an order is inexcusable in an inferior officer. I had not proceeded one hundred yards when Lord Wellington, who had just arrived on this part of the field, rode up to me and asked where I was going. I told him the orders I had received from General Stewart. He made no further observation than “Go back!” (Perrett A Hawk at War p 41).
Head’s Memoirs of an Assistant Commissary General p 260-1 has an attractive glimpse of Wellington, but it probably relates to 6 May when there was an expectation that the French would renew the battle:
The Duke of Wellington in person and on the alert, was on the field a great part of the morning. For a long time he lay supported by his elbow on the ground surrounded by all his staff. When I approached the spot where the party reclined in a group, the duke would now and then, raising his head, laugh and chat livelily with the rest, and again resuming his occupation, gravely read the Gazeta da Lisboa.
Brennier did not lead the garrison directly towards Barba de Puerco to the north east, but marched first east and then almost due north. He blessed with a good deal of luck, but deserved it, for his skill, boldness and enterprise. The French movement did not go undetected. The first alarm was sounded by the blockading picquets who tried to resist the column but were overwhelmed. Denis Pack, although superseded by Alexander Campbell in command of the blockade, was quickly on the scene and took command of the picquets’ reserve, some eighty men, with which he pursued the French, firing constantly to guide other allied troops. Campbell led the 36th Foot from Malpartida, where they blocked the direct road to Barba de Puerco, in the pursuit, but there was much confusion, many men lost touch with their units in the darkness, and some units, notably the 2nd Foot, never moved at all. The strangest story is that of the 8th Portuguese who were stationed well to the south of Almeida. On hearing the explosions from the fortress, Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas of the 8th roused his men and on his own initiative led them at pace to the bridge of Barba de Puerco, some twelve miles away as the owl flies. He arrived a good hour or more before the leading French or their pursuers and, finding everything quiet and deserted, assumed that the French had taken another route and turned aside to look for them, cheating himself of a remarkable triumph. (Wellington to Liverpool, 15 May 1811, WD V p 20-22. As Fortescue points out, the story has parallels with Nelson’s arrival in Abourkir Bay before the French fleet in 1798. It is not easy to switch in an instant from a great hurry to waiting patiently. Fortescue vol 8 p 179).
It was first light before the French columns began to approach the bridge at Barba de Puerco which lies at the bottom of a long and difficult descent. By now Pack’s band of followers had shrunk to a mere handful, but the 36th was rapidly approaching from one direction and the 4th Foot from the Fifth Division from another. The 36th threw off their packs and ran forward, and there was a wild scramble as some of the weary French panicked and, trying to descend directly down the steep hillside, lost their footing. The leading British infantry cut into the rear of the column and inflicted heavy losses as they pursued it, even crossing the bridge in their excitement; but this was going too far, for Reynier’s troops had come forward to receive Brennier’s men, and the British infantry suffered some casualties before they fell back. Altogether, Brennier had lost about 360 of his 1,300 men: roughly 200 prisoners and 160 casualties, but it was nonetheless a remarkable achievement and gave some much needed cheer to the demoralized French army. The allies lost about 50 casualties, some from the picquets who were over-run in the first onslaught, a few in the mistakes on the night, but most in the over-exuberant final stage of the pursuit. (The reports from Campbell and Pack which detail their movements (both dated 12 May 1811) are printed in WD V p 20-22. Casualty figures from Oman vol 4 p 354. Wellington greatly exaggerated French losses in his account of the affair, referring to ‘the small part of the garrison they have saved’, Wellington to Liverpool, 15 May 1811, WD V p 18-20).
Wellington reprimands Cochrane:
Wellington’s first public response to the escape was rather surprising, for rather than blame anyone for allowing the garrison to get away, he concentrated his ire exclusively on Lieutenant-Colonel Basil Cochrane, the commander of the 36th, for letting his men get out of hand and so suffer unnecessary casualties in pursuing the French across the bridge:
The frequent instances which have occurred lately of severe loss, and, in some instances, of important failure, by officers leading the troops beyond the point to which they are ordered and beyond all bounds, such as the loss of the prisoners taken in front of the village of Fuentes, on the 3d and 5th inst.; the loss incurred by the 13th light dragoons, near and at Badajoz on the 25th March; the severe loss incurred by the troops in the siege of Badajoz on the right of the Guadiana on the 10th inst.; and the loss incurred by the Hon. Lieut. Col. Cochrane on the 11th inst., have induced me to determine to bring before a General Court Martial, for disobedience of orders, any officer who shall, in future, be guilty of this conduct.
I entertain no doubt of the readiness of the officers and soldiers of the army to advance upon the enemy; but it is my duty, and that of every General and other officer in command, to regulate this spirit, and not to expose the soldiers to contend with unequal numbers in situations disadvantageous to them; and, above all, not to allow them to follow up trifling advantages to situations in which they cannot be supported, from which their retreat is not secure, and in which they incur the risk of being prisoners to the enemy they had before beaten. The desire to be forward in engaging the enemy is not uncommon in the British army; but that quality which I wish to see the officers possess, who are at the head of the troops, is a cool, discriminating judgment in action, which will enable them to decide with promptitude how far they can and ought to go with propriety; and to convey their orders, and act with such vigor and decision, that the soldiers will look up to them with confidence in the moment of action, and obey them with alacrity. The officers of the army may depend upon it that the enemy to whom they are opposed are not less prudent than they are powerful. Notwithstanding what has been printed in gazettes and newspapers, we have never seen small bodies, unsupported, successfully opposed to large; nor has the experience of any officer realised the stories, which all have read, of whole armies being driven by a handful of light infantry or dragoons. (Wellington to Maj-Gen Alex. Campbell, Villar Formoso, 15 May 1811, WD V p 14-17 (Cochrane’s name suppressed in printed version, but is in the original in WP 1/332)).
This letter was circulated throughout the army as a warning to other officers not to let their enthusiasm get the better of their discretion.
In his annoyance, Wellington was clearly being unfair. In the last stages of the pursuit, Cochrane’s men had been ordered by General Campbell to throw off their packs and run after the French. It was hardly surprising that they then got out of control and did not halt at the bridge; nor was the damage done at all commensurate with the severity of Wellington’s rebuke. However, as Wellington made clear, this was only the latest of several recent incidents of its kind, beginning with the cavalry action at Campo Mayor and including the counter-attacks that went beyond the village of Fuentes de Oñoro on both 3rd and 5 May, while Wellington had just heard that the British troops at Badajoz had suffered severely when, having repulsed a French sortie, they pursued it too close to the walls of the fortress. In the circumstances, a general warning to the army on the subject was quite appropriate, but Wellington was both wrong and unwise to let his pen run away with him and make Lieutenant-Colonel Cochrane the prime example of such misconduct. A few moments’ reflection would surely have shown him the injustice of his remarks, while a few more might have warned him that he was running the risk of provoking just that sort of political controversy he was most anxious to avoid, for Basil Cochrane was the brother of Captain Lord Cochrane, the dashing naval hero and radical MP for Westminster. If Lord Cochrane had taken up his brother’s cause, it was a story which could easily catch the imagination of Cobbett and the press, dividing the public into partisan camps and over-shadowing the news of Masséna’s retreat and the victory at Fuentes. Given Wellington’s great care and success in keeping ‘the spirit of party out of the army’ (The phrase comes from Wellington to Liverpool, 2 Jan 1810, WD III p 671), it was a surprising false step, and he was extremely fortunate that it did not do more damage. Lord Cochrane was too busy with his own quarrels with the Admiralty to make his brother’s ill-treatment a cause celebre, and in any case he had lost touch with the popular mood of the moment, advocating cuts to government expenditure and criticizing the war in the Peninsula as too expensive and serving only to prop up despotic regimes, at a time when the public was relishing news of Wellington’s victories. (Thorne History of Parliament vol 3 p 464).
But even without his brother’s support, Lieutenant-Colonel Cochrane did not take his reprimand quietly. A story spread through the army that his commander, Major-General Campbell, had initially praised his ardour, and only reprimanded him when Wellington did so. There may be some grain of truth in this – perhaps Campbell was incautious in his remarks made at the time – but Campbell’s first written report to Wellington, dated 12 May, the day after the escape, was highly critical of Cochrane’s impetuosity. The dispute simmered for weeks with Cochrane’s sense of grievance growing as Campbell’s patience wore thin. Finally Cochrane went too far, writing to Campbell in language which was clearly unacceptable to a superior officer. He was given the chance to withdraw his letter and apologize but refused, and was tried and convicted by General Court Martial on 24 August 1811. He was sentenced to a severe reprimand which, on Wellington’s orders, was delivered not in private, but before the entire Sixth Division. (General Order, 1 Sept 1811, General Orders 1811 p 173-6. Before the Court Martial, Wellington had written a long, and quite sympathetic private letter to Cochrane urging him to withdraw the offensive letter to Campbell, but without success. It is not difficult to imagine the mixture of hurt and irritation felt by all parties to the dispute. Wellington to _______, 18 Aug 1811, WD V p 223-5).
Cochrane left the Peninsula on sick leave in late 1811 and did not return (information from Ron McGuigan).
Lt Col Bevan and the 4th’s role in Brennier’s escape:
In his account of the affair to Lord Liverpool Wellington wrote that ‘The 4th regt., which was ordered to occupy Barba de Puerco, unfortunately missed the road, and did not arrive there until after the enemy had reached the place.’ (Wellington to Liverpool, 15 May 1811, WD V p 18-20. Parts of this letter, including the passage referring to the 4th regt were published in The Times of 29 May 1811). This was putting the best interpretation on the 4th’s late arrival, for the view at headquarters, as expressed by Alexander Gordon, was rather more critical: ‘The battalion which had been ordered from Aldea Obispo to Barba del Puerco, by some neglect, and inconceivable delay of sending the order and carrying it into execution, did not arrive at its destination till seven in the morning of the 11th.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, Villar Formoso, 15 May 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 203-6). Neither Wellington nor Gordon said whether the delay was attributable to Erskine, the commander of the division, Dunlop, the commander of the brigade, or Bevan, the commander of the battalion.
In the army, the story circulated that when the order arrived Erskine had been at dinner and pocketed it unread, only forwarding it hours later when it was too late. (Tomkinson Diary p 101-3; Simmons British Rifleman p 174: both entries in these ‘diaries’ were clearly written later, probably after the war, when the original slim pocket books were copied out and expanded into the form we have received them). However Charles Cocks says, in a letter written at the time, that ‘An English general delayed executing the order he received to occupy the bridge at Barba del Puerco and the garrison of Almeida slipped out’, which certainly points to Erskine. See also Hercules Pakenham to Lord Longford, 20 June 1811, Pakenham Letters p 104 who also blames Erskine but who tells a totally different story from Tomkinson and Simmons. Yet if Erskine was really so much at fault it is strange that Wellington did not blame him for the affair even in his most private letters home to William Wellesley-Pole. He was not normally slow to expatiate on the faults of subordinates.
Even if Erskine was to blame, it does not fully explain why the 4th took so long to reach Barba de Puerco when both the French and Douglas’s Portuguese had so much further to march. Bevan’s own account of the events of the night is far from clear: he does not say when he received his orders, but he does admit that he knew that the French column had passed near him and that he decided not to pursue it in case this permitted other French troops to use the bridge he was guarding. This was a simple error of judgement: the bridge he was guarding was over the Dos Casas stream, which was fordable at many places, while the bridge at Barba de Puerco was the only way the French had of crossing the Agueda. Bevan’s account is quoted in Hunter Wellington’s Scapegoat p 153; see also p 143-44 and Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida’ p 29-30. (Brennier’s name can be spelt with one or two n’s; Ward uses one; I use two). Neither Hunter nor Ward can clearly identify the bridge which Bevan says he was guarding, but it is certain that it was not over the Agueda. Bevan may not have understood this – maps were scarce at time – but he took it upon himself to exercise discretion in not obeying an order, despite the limited information available to him. The responsibility was willfully incurred, and far from being an innocent victim or scapegoat, he was fortunate that the finger of blame was not pointed more directly at him in the immediate aftermath of the garrison’s escape.
Ward writes that there was ‘one battalion in “the deep field” at Barba de Puerco’ (p 29) which gives an idea of its role. He spells this out more clearly later on:
I confess, however, that the movements of the 4th do not seem to me the principal feature in the escape of the garrison. It cannot have been intended that the 4th, amounting, say, to 400 men, should meet head on, and intercept unaided, 1,400 desperate Frenchman. The army fought at worse odds, it is true, but this was a preconceived movement in which Wellington did not commonly hazard his troops to that extent. The 4th should, more properly, be regarded as a large outlying picquet posted to give the alarm and make as much a nuisance of itself as possible until the rest came up. It was part, but only part, of the arrangements taken to prevent an escape. (Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida, 1811’ p 33).
It certainly seems clear that too much emphasis has been placed on the 4th; however there is little room to doubt that if the 4th had been in place at Barba de Puerco they would have delayed Brennier for long enough for other allied troops to come up. Still, the arrangements for the blockade were plainly inadequate in other respects.
Ward also doubts Bevan’s account of his movements:
His explanation cannot be altogether believed. If the French garrison broke through the picquet line between midnight and one o’clock, it could not have reached “the river” (whether “the river” be the Tourões or the Dos Casas) until two or three at the earliest. By which time, if Bevan had obeyed his orders strictly, he should have reached Barba de Puerco. Poor man! No one can have suffered more from a momentary weakness shown at an hour when the body’s resistance is at its lowest ebb. He deserves every sympathy. (Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida, 1811’ p 33).
It is worth noting that Bevan did not say that he believed that his orders were not meant to be obeyed until morning, but rather, tacitly admitted that they should have been acted on at once, hence his explanation for not doing so.
Wellington did not single Bevan out for particular criticism:
This is arguable, for Wellington did lay the blame for the escape on the 4th, though without naming Bevan or imputing much fault to him. He told Liverpool: ‘The enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison they have saved principally to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba de Puerco by the 4th regt.’ (Wellington to Liverpool, 15 May 1811, WD V p 18-20). And, ‘Thus your Lordship will see that, if the 4th regt. had received the orders, issued at 1, before it was dark at 8 o’clock at night; or if they had not missed their road, the garrison must have laid down their arms; and the same would have occurred if Lieut Col Douglas had remained at Barba de Puerco; and possibly the same would have occurred had the pursuit been judiciously managed.’ (Wellington to Liverpool, 15 May 1811, WD V p 20-22.) Still, this hardly compares with the public criticism directed at Cochrane, or even the criticism of Long implicit in Wellington’s comments on Campo Mayor.
Wellington and the Escape of the Garrison of Almeida:
The attention given to Bevan and the role of the 4th, and to Wellington’s rebuke of Cochrane, has distracted from the question of where the blame for the escape of the French should lie. No doubt some of it does come to rest on the late arrival of the 4th (whoever was responsible), but as S. G. P. Ward says (Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida, 1811’ p 33) this was only part of the story, and there were clearly problems with the blockading force proper. Ward suggests that Campbell was at fault as the officer commanding, and there was some support for this view in comments from officers in the army. Miles Nightingall wrote home ‘Lord W. was very angry. His favourite, Genl. A. Campbell had charge of the blockade’ (Nightingall ‘The Nightingall Letters’ ed by Michael Glover, J.S.A.H.R. vol 51 1973 p 151) and Hercules Pakenham blames Campbell for having unjustly slurred Bevan by accusing him of having lost his way (Hercules Pakenham to Lord Longford, 11 July 1811, Pakenham Letters p 110). Yet Campbell had only just resumed command of the blockade, and, as Ward points out at the beginning of his article (Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida, 1811’ p 23), it was Wellington (and Murray) who decided the location of all troops, not their divisional commanders. (Londonderry casts some doubt on this, saying that Campbell had begged to be allowed to make all the arrangements himself, without interference, but I these seems too convenient to be entirely plausible: Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 2 p 136).
Put simply, Brennier’s escape proved that the cordon around Almeida was neither strong enough nor tight enough, and some of the responsibility for this rests with Wellington who determined its strength (certainly) and possibly also its disposition.
Sarcasm arouses resentment:
In his Lees Knowles lectures, delivered in 1939, General Wavell wrote: ‘Explosions of temper do not necessarily ruin a general’s reputation of influence with his troops; it is almost expected of them (“the privileged irascibility of senior officers,” someone has written), and it is not always resented, sometimes even admired, except by those immediately concerned. But sarcasm is always resented and seldom forgiven. In the Peninsula the bitter sarcastic tongue of Craufurd, the brilliant but erratic leader of the Light Division, was much more wounding and feared than the more violent outbursts of Picton, a rough, hot-tempered man.’ (Generals and Generalship (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1941) p 43-44.
Downman’s comments and suspicion aroused by Wellington’s ‘ambition’:
Another stream feeding the latent hostility to Wellington was jealousy and suspicion aroused by his family and political connections. Downman says Wellington has no feelings because ambition is his passion, and two years earlier Samuel Briscall had feared that Wellington’s ‘ambition’ would get the army into trouble (see above commentary to chapter 19). These references to ambition might simply refer to the confidence with which he undertook military operations, but it is much more likely that they were feed by dislike of the Wellesley family as a whole. One did not need to be a radical in 1811 to view the Wellesleys as a little too prominent, too pushy or too ambitious, or to suspect that in India and subsequently they had deliberately adopted policies that brought them into prominence.
Wellington rewards merit:
Wellington did not fail to reward conspicuous acts of gallantry, or praise and reward his soldiers when they did well. Boutflower wrote in his journal, 25 May 1811 ‘By a distinguished act of gallantry a Corporal of Artillery prevented a Gun from falling into the Hands of the Enemy; Lord Wellington with a liberality worthy his great mind has given him an hundred Dollars, and directed him to be promoted on the first vacancy’ (Boutflower Journal p 95). Henry Cadogan to Pack, Talavera Real, 9 June 1811 (Pack and Reynell Papers, University of Southhampton, Ms 296/1) says that Wellington similarly rewarded two soldiers who got into Fort San Cristobal and out again in the (first?) attempt to storm it in the second siege. And Jones Journal of Sieges vol 1 p 71n mentions two Portuguese gunners rewarded for removing a lighted shell from a powder magazine. But Wellington did not make a great show of it in the way Napoleon did in his famous reviews.
D’Urban records on 30 May 1811: “The Marshal’s strong recommendations of Officers under the Rank of Lt. Colonel, who distinguished themselves on the 16th for Promotion, favourably received by Lord Wellington, who promises to support and forward them.’ (Peninsular War Journal p 219).
Wellington and Major Ridewood:
Ridewood died of wounds received at Vitoria, when he was lieutenant-colonel commanding the 45th, and Wellington wrote to Torrens asking that the Commander-in-Chief accept Ridewood’s deathbed resignation, and so permit his family to receive the value of his commission. He acknowledged that this was unusual, especially when, as in this case, the commission had not been purchased, but expressed his “very favourable opinion” of Ridewood’s “services and merits as an officer”, and that fact that his family were left with “but scanty means of support”. (Wellington to Torrens, 11 Aug 1813, WD VI p 674).
Wellington on Napoleon:
In early April 1810 Wellington wrote to Craufurd:
The Austrian marriage is a terrible event, and must prevent any great movement on the Continent for the present. Still, I do not despair of seeing at some time or other a check to the Buonaparte system. Recent transactions in Holland show that it is all hollow within, and that it is so inconsistent with the wishes, the interests, and the existence of civilised society, that he cannot trust even his brothers to carry it into execution. (Wellington to Craufurd, 4 April 1810, WD IV p 1-2).
While this, and the passages quoted in the text, leave no doubt of Wellington’s attitude to Napoleon, the surprising thing is how rare such comments were. Perhaps Wellington thought the subject threadbare, or irrelevant, and certainly such denunciations would soon grow tedious.
Example of Wellington praising officers, even when an operation failed: the second siege of Badajoz
Wellington went out of his way to be generous in his thanks to the officers of the artillery and engineers:
I have every reason to be satisfied with the conduct of all the officers and troops employed at the siege of Badajoz, whose labors and exertions deserved a very different result. Major Gen. Picton directed the operations on the left of the Guadiana, and Major Gen. Houstoun [sic] on the right; and I am much indebted to those officers, as well as to Major Gen. Hamilton, and the other General and Staff officers, and the officers and troops under their command respectively. Lieut. Col. Fletcher, of the Royal engineers, was the directing engineer, and immediately superintended the operations on the left of the Guadiana, and Capt. Squire those on the right of that river; and these officers, and the corps of Royal engineers, have, by their conduct on this occasion, augmented their claims to my approbation. Lieut. Col. Framingham commanded the artillery, having under his orders Major Dickson, attached to the Portuguese service, who, during the absence of Lieut. Col. Framingham with the troops which were employed to cover the operations, conducted all the details of this important department. I had every reason to be satisfied with these officers, and most particularly with Major Dickson, from whose activity, zeal and intelligence, the British service has derived great advantage in the different operations against Badajoz. Capt. Cleves, of the Hanoverian artillery conducted that department on the right of the Guadiana with great success. (Wellington to Liverpool, 13 June 1811, WD V p 88-94)
Yet inevitably somebody was hurt at being left out, in this case, Charles Colville, who had shared the work of supervising the trenches with Hamilton, and Wellington had to soothe his feelings.
Wellington had also offended the commander of the artillery, Brig-Gen Howorth, over his failure to mention the artillery in the Fuentes dispatch – though Howorth’s unhappiness may have been accentuated by a sharp rebuke from Wellington for providing inaccurate information on some work which needed to be done near Lisbon. (Brig-Gen E. Howorth to Maj-Gen J. Macleod, DAG RA 19 June 1811, in Leslie ‘Services of the Royal Artillery in the Peninsula’ p 199; Wellington to Howorth, 14 May 1811, WD V p 10).
Henry Hardinge had already caught Wellington’s eye – several times in April 1811 Wellington had asked that he, or some other officer on Beresford’s staff (but he always named Hardinge) be sent to assist Wellington in supervising the Portuguese units in the northern army. (Wellington to Beresford 13, 14, 25 and 30 April 1811 WD IV p 744, 749, 772, 779-80). Evidently Beresford found him too useful to part with him. Wellington clearly had a good eye for talent.
Beresford orders a Retreat during the battle of Albuera:
There is little doubt that Beresford ordered Alten and Dickson to withdraw; the question is, whether this was part of the retreat of the whole army, or to shift them to the right and replace them with Spanish troops, or to use them to replace Cole’s division guarding the lines of retreat. Whatever the purpose the order was certainly ill-judged and might have led to disaster, but still, the intention does affect its seriousness.
Fortescue’s account (vol 8 p 203) is hard to believe: ‘Finally, after long and anxious waiting for troops that came not, Beresford perceived to his consternation that Cole’s division was marching forward without his orders from its appointed station; and thereupon, dreading that Latour-Maubourg would at once attack and overwhelm Lumley, he rushed away to the rear to make arrangements for retreat’. But if it happened like that, why didn’t he simply ‘rush’ over and halt Cole in his tracks? Thompson suggests that Beresford had left the right and gone to the centre, which certainly seems more plausible.
The other comment is to note the ineffectiveness of the French cavalry – Beresford’s anxiety does not seem altogether unjustified, but when it came to the point they did very little.
Beresford’s dismay at the battle:
Writing to Wellington on the day after the battle Beresford made plain his reluctance to fight and continued,
We have by beating him escaped total destruction which must [otherwise] have been the consequence and I am very, very far from feeling happy after our Triumph. I expected he would make another attack this day which however he has not done, and I most sincerely hope he will not. The Great Gallantry of our brave British saved the day, which was at one time in a most perilous situation but our loss has been enormous, and leaves me little of the British to fight another Battle with. (Beresford to Wellington 17 May 1811 WP 1/330).
It is a sign of Beresford’s state of mind that he failed to realize that the French army was incapable of renewing the action and only retained its position until the morning of 18 May so that convoys could be organized to take the wounded back to Seville.
Wellington at Elvas:
Wellington arrived at Elvas on 19 May and remained there until the 30th, apart from visiting the army at Albuera on the 21st for the day. Why? Why didn’t he take direct command of the army? It was most unusual for him not to have his headquarters amongst the troops, and if ever troops needed the reassurance of his presence it was the survivors of Albuera. It might have been to avoid the appearance of superseding Beresford, though this seems a little unlikely. More plausibly he may not have wanted to be an extra days’ ride away from the army in the north, having little confidence in Spencer’s ability to deal with an unexpected crisis. But it niggles. He didn’t even take close command of the second siege of Badajoz.
Revision of Beresford’s dispatch:
Wellington feared that his ‘whining report’ on the battle would drive ‘the people in England mad’ and instructed his staff, together with Colonel Arbuthnot, Beresford’s ADC who was carrying the dispatch home, to ‘write me down a victory.’ (Quotes from Wellington to Pole 2 July 1811 WSD vol 7 p 175-77 (‘whining report’) and Stanhope Notes of Conversations p 90 (31 Oct 1836). On the whole affair Woolgar ‘Writing the Dispatch’ Wellington Studies II p 12-16. The rewritten dispatch is printed in WD V p 36-39n).
Not everyone was satisfied with the result. Edward Pakenham had been left at Villa Formosa when Wellington rode south and presumably did not know that Beresford’s dispatch had been re-written, for he told his brother:
After all I told you of the Fusiliers’ Conduct you must have been surprised to peruse the dispatch of Beresford. In truth there never was an official detail which more completely failed to put the Authorities, to whom so ever it might be addressed, in possession of both the circumstances and fact of the Affair.
I dreadfully fear that Wellington may be implicated in the public mind, for bearing a Man through whom he must know has in many points deceived those to whom his report is intended to convey truth. We cannot prevent individuals writing, and when it comes to the point of a Brigade being destroyed, and the Regts. Comprising it losing their Colours, in self exculpation people will Correspond’ (Pakenham Letters, p 100).
Beresford’s dispatches had already attracted criticism for mixing comment and speculation which belonged in a private letter with public news that needed to be reported officially. On 23 May Wellington wrote to Liverpool:
I have received your letter of the 8th – I feel strongly what you say about Beresford’s dispatches, but it is very difficult to apply a remedy to this evil, in fact he writes his official dispatches as he would private letters, or as he would talk without much consideration, or reflecting that they are likely to go before the public, who will try every word. (WP1/344 passage deleted from version printed in WD V p 42-43).
Wellington tries to ensure Albuera treated as a victory:
While Beresford’s dispatch was being re-written, Wellington added a hasty postscript to a letter to Charles Stuart in Lisbon,
I think it very desirable that, if possible, no flying details of the battle of Albuera should go home till Sir W. Beresford’s report shall be sent. I conclude that the account that there had been a battle went by the mail yesterday, which is of no importance; but where there are many killed and wounded the first reports are not favourable; and it is not doing justice to the Marshall to allow them to circulate without his. (Wellington to Charles Stuart Elvas 20 May 1811 WD V p 28-29).
Wellington’s attempt to mange the news was not totally successful: unofficial details of the battle appeared in the British press a week before Beresford’s dispatch was published in an Extraordinary Gazette, but his determination that the battle be presented as a victory prevailed, and helped set the mood for the public reaction.
Wellington wrote to Admiral Berkeley on 20 May setting the tone;
You will have heard of the Marshal’s action on the 16th: the fighting was desperate, and the loss of the British has been very severe; but, adverting to the nature of the contest, and the manner in which they held their ground against all the efforts the whole French army could make against them, notwithstanding all the losses which they had sustained, I think this action one of the most glorious and honorable to the character of the troops of any that has been fought during the war. (Wellington to Admiral Berkeley 20 May 1811 WD V p 26-27).
And on 22nd Wellington wrote again asking Berkeley to send to Lt. Col Arbuthnot home in a warship ‘as it is desirable he should arrive as soon as possible!’ (WD V p 29).
Wellington consoles Beresford:
A few days later Beresford told Charles Stewart,
I was then not very well and in spite of the good fortune I had had, was much out of spirits from the conviction of having acting unwisely in risking so immensely as would have been the consequence of misfortune. However Lord Wellington’s usual kindness and assurances have a little tranquilized me on that hand, and I have only now to regret our great loss, which also at that time weighed on my mind. (Beresford to Stewart 25 May 1811 PRONI D3030/P/238/2).
Despite Wellington’s comfort, Beresford could not regain his composure. On 1 June he told Pack ‘I do not find myself well at all and am writing with pain’, while just over a week later Henry Cadogan wrote that ‘The Marshal looks dreadfully worn and nervous beyond belief’. (Beresford to Pack, Elvas, 1 June 1811 Henry Cadogan to Pack 9 June  both in Pack and Reynell Papers, University of Southhampton Ms 296/1). Eventually he was forced to retire to Lisbon where he spent several months in partial seclusion, before being able to slowly resume his duties. Wellington kept him at his side in 1812, but even then Beresford appeared nervous and inclined to counsel caution.
Wellington’s comments on Beresford at Albuera:
Wellington’s concern for Beresford is the more notable as he was privately critical of the conduct of the battle: ‘The battle of Albuera was a strange concern. They were never determined to fight it; they did not occupy the ground as they ought; [and] they were ready to run away at every moment from the time it commenced till the French retired’. And camp rumour reported that he had observed after riding over the battlefield that Beresford had made one small error: ‘that his right was where his left should have been’. (Mills to his mother 27 June 1811 Mills For King and Country p 46. Wellington to Pole 2 July 1811 WSD vol 7 p 175-77 cf Fortescue vol 8 p 189-90 quoting Charles Stewart). He expected that ‘as usual I shall be abused for the loss sustained by our Troops, which is certainly very great’. (Wellington to Pole 22 May 1811 Raglan Papers Wellington A no 42). But in his public letter he praised ‘the ability, the firmness and the gallantry manifested by Marshal Sir W. Beresford throughout the transactions’, while he privately attributed the severity of the losses to the inability of the Spanish troops to manoeuvre while praising the courage and fortitude with which they stood their ground. (Wellington to Liverpool 22 May 1811; to Henry Wellesley 22 May 1811 and to Liverpool 23 May 1811 WD V p 33-39, 30-31 and 42-43). There was a good deal of truth in this argument and it helped to distract attention from Beresford’s conduct of the battle. At the same time Wellington went out of his way to praise Castaños’s ‘great delicacy and propriety’ in yielding the command to Beresford. (Wellington to Liverpool 22 May 1811 WD V p 33-39).
The comment that ‘his right was where his left should have been’ should not be taken too literally: he didn’t approve of the way Beresford occupied the ground, but would not have shifted the whole army several miles south.
The Second Siege of Badajoz:
There are excellent first hand account of the siege in Cocks (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 111-118) and Colville (Colville Portrait of a General p 58-62). The Letters of Private Wheeler p 58-66 gives a graphic ranker’s view of siege work and the first failed attempt to storm. And there are good details in Donaldson’s Eventful Life of a Soldier p 133-7.
Cocks wrote in his journal for 4 June 1811 (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 114): ‘Lord Wellington had directed that no shot should be sent against the town but the order was often evaded and at one time today Badajoz was on fire in two places for a short time’. Which sheds interesting light on Richard Glover’s comment ‘Wellington himself never considered bombarding Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, or anywhere else. He had been at Copenhagen, and knew that the people who would suffer the most would be his Spanish allies, not his French enemies; from this reason he even prevented his gunners from making proper use of the high-arcked fire of mortars lest it wander from purely military targets (a mistake undoubtedly, but one which his critics seem to have missed’ Peninsular Preparation p 101. Cocks both confirms the prohibition and shows that it was often evaded.
Cocks (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 115, 4 June 1811) ‘Lord Wellington said today to Major Dickson, “If we succeed with the means we have it will be a wonder”.
Colville is more personal and graphic, commenting on the heat (Portrait of a General p 58) and giving vivid descriptions of duty in the trenches (p 58-59, 60-62) where he alternated in command with John Hamilton, 24 hours on, then 24 off. He also gives good descriptions of both the attempts to storm San Cristobal. He commented on the
want of knowledge of the proper points of attack of Badajoz which had for six months been the Head Quarters of Lord Wellington. I respect him too much not to regret his disappointment sincerely as well as that of the Chief Engineer, Col. Fletcher, an old acquaintance and very worthy man and good officer, much consulted by his Lordship. The fault has been our treating the place with too little respect, a thing the more extraordinary after the marked expression of his Lordship’s displeasure at its surrender by the Spaniards after 40 days’ open trenches during which the French lost 1500 men (p 62-63).
Some details in these accounts do not suggest great efficiency on the part of the engineers, for example Cocks noted on 3 June ‘The breaching battery was considered by the Engineers to be 600 yards from the work but it is not less than 750 and, I think, too far to be effectual’ (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 112). Against this there is Colville’s comment after the siege had failed, ‘The batteries and approaches certainly did the Engineers great credit, as is proved by the small amount of our casualties’ (Portrait of a General p 63).
Colville also says that Fletcher said that he had intended the batteries to fire at a point more to the left, where the old walls had modern repairs but the Wellington thought they should carry on where they had begun (see Wellington to Fletcher ¼ before 8pm 4 June 1811 WD V p 69-70). But where was Fletcher when the guns opened fire?
Charles Boutflower commented at its conclusion:
It seems certain that the Siege of Badajoz has been converted into a Blockade: the Engineers found too late that they had erected their breaching Batteries against the most impregnable part of the place; they were literally battering a Rock. Much Blood has been most unsuccessfully spilt… No blame is imputed to Lord Wellington; there is no doubt he was deceived by the too sanguine representations of the Engineers’ (13 June 1811 Journal p 99).
D’Urban wrote in his Peninsular War Journal, 10 June 1811:
In the morning a Sergeant of Sappers deserted from the Place. He affirms that we shall never breach where we are attempting it, that is a solid Rock behind, and that to make all sure, the Enemy has cut a ditch behind of 10 yards wide, throwing the Earth inwards en Banquette to give an Infantry upon the Crest of the Breach; be this as it may, the Battery has had very little additional effect, and our Guns become rapidly unserviceable; the fact is the Engineers have begun on the wrong side. (p 222).
Soldiers disliked siegework:
‘It is possible that we are to form a Corps of observation; at all events we are fortunate in getting to this Side of the River, as the principal Operations will be carried on on the other. I call it fortunate, because there is so much fatigue and so little glory attending a besieging Army, that it is rarely one meets a Military Man anxious to be engaged in such a service’ (Charles Boutflower Journal 4 May 1811 p 89).
‘I know not how it is, death in the trenches never carries with it that stamp of glory, which seals the memory of those, who perish in a well-fought field’ (Sherer Recollections of the Peninsula p 152).
Reasons for the British failure at Badajoz:
Several explanations have been advanced for the failure of the sieges of Badajoz. The heavy guns which had been borrowed from Elvas to undertake the battering were mostly antiques and proved extremely unreliable with prolonged use, which helps to explain the diminishing effectiveness of the battering fire. This was a self-inflicted problem, for there was a good modern siege train at Lisbon when the first siege began. (Oman vol 4 p 274-5 follows Napier in criticizing the British government for not providing Wellington with a siege train; but Fortescue vol 8 p 226n points out that this is an error, as is made clear by Wellington to Admiral Berkeley 20 March 1811, to Beresford 6 April 1811 and to Liverpool 18 April 1811 WD IV p 685, 724-5, 759 and Dickson’s letter of 27 Aug 1811 Dickson Manuscripts vol 3 p 447-9).
Evidently Wellington had been misled by his artillery and engineer officers – in this case the normally reliable Alexander Dickson – but it was unlike him to rely on the judgement of others on such an important point. Possibly he did not think there was sufficient time to order the guns up from Lisbon for either siege, while back in April there had seemed no need to do so: it would take some weeks to bring them overland from Setubal. The decision to attack the fortress from the north has been much criticized, and certainly it proved difficult, but the experience of the 1812 siege does not suggest that an attack from the south would have succeeded with the equipment available in 1811, while the choice of the northern line had the advantage of keeping casualties relatively low. (See Oman vol 4 p 282-3, Fortescue vol 8 p 148, 226 who both condemn the attack). On the other hand the British had the great advantage of familiarity with Badajoz – headquarters had been there for the last three months of 1809 – but they do not seem to have put it to much account or they would not have been so surprised by the failure of the Castle wall to crumble in the way they expected.
Underlying these criticisms are two broader points: the British army had little experience of formal sieges, and while its officers were well trained they lacked the support of rank and file men skilled in such work – the men who dug the trenches and attempted to storm the breaches belonged to ordinary marching regiments and mostly hated siege work. (Fortescue vol 8 p 148-9; Glover Peninsular Preparation p 103-7, Sherer Recollections of the Peninsula p 152, Boutflower Journal p 89). And both Wellington and his engineers greatly underestimated the task facing them. A few months before, Soult had taken six weeks of open trenches to take Badajoz from a Spanish garrison; so there was more than a touch of arrogance in the assumption that the British could do it in six or even in twelve days. Inexperience contributed to this over-confidence: many British officers were scornful of the defences of Badajoz when they first saw them in 1809, (e,g, Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 19 Sept 1809 p 57-58; Moyle Sherer Recollections of the Peninsula p 52) but the French had already learnt, at great cost, that a determined garrison could make even third rate defences formidable.
Stalemate on the Caya:
Wellington had taken up a strong position running north-east from Elvas, through Campo Mayor to the little town of Ouguelo on the Gebora River. The front was too long to be occupied fully, but there were good lateral communications, the River Caya afforded some protection, and most of the allied troops could be kept out of sight of the French. Altogether Wellington had some 54,000 men, compared to about 60,000 in the combined army of Marmont and Soult. Neither side was particularly eager to fight, for neither had much to gain. Even if the French defeated Wellington’s army they were in no position to mount an invasion of Portugal, or even to undertake the siege of Elvas. Conversely Wellington had already given up the siege of Badajoz and had told Liverpool that it ‘would not be fair towards the soldiers to make them endure the labors of another siege at this advanced season’. (Wellington to Liverpool 6 June 1811 WD V p 77). Yet neither felt quite secure: Wellington was anxious about Elvas whose stockpiles of food and whose artillery had both been depleted by the operations against Badajoz, while the French marshals would leave their job half done if they did not accumulate provisions for many months in Badajoz, and they had evidently not brought much with them.
Wellington anxious about French intentions:
According to Benjamin D’Urban’s journal for 11 June 1811
The Siege therefore may be said to have been raised last night, but the close blockade will of course continue till the last moment. Lord Wellington, very justly perhaps, conceives that if the whole Army of Marmont moves down to form a junction with Soult, there is something more in the wind than the driving us out of Estramadura. How far he is equally correct as to what that something may be, remains to be proved; His Lordship thinks that a serious and rapid attempt will be made upon Portugal, indeed an attempt to get possession of the works of Almada before he can occupy them; or that the Enemy will form the Siege of Elvas. He probably is right for his conception of things is almost always just, to a degree of intuition, but in the present instance, – a supply to Badajoz in the first place, and then the whole French Force proceeding into Andalusia to press the siege of Cadiz, and secure their interests, now tottering in the Province, appears most likely. (D’Uurban Peninsular War Journal p 223)
Which just goes to show that things seem obvious in retrospect are far from it at the time. Wellington to Beresford 10 June 1811: ‘I am certain that there is something more in the wind that the desire to force us out of Estremadura, and it is either this plan or the siege of Elvas’ (WD V p 80). He was also particularly irritated with the inefficiency of Portuguese government at this time e.g. Wellington to Charles Stuart 17 June 1811 WD V p 101-2.
Press Reaction to the Campaign: The Times:
The first news of the battle of Fuentes de Oñoro reached London in time for the late editions of the papers of Tuesday 21 May. These were unofficial reports from Oporto derived indirectly from letters from Trant to his superiors, and they contained many inaccuracies. Fighting was said to have taken place on 4th, 5th and 6 May resulting in 4,000 French casualties and 700 prisoners; allied losses were put at 1,200 and Wellington was said to be pursuing the French towards Salamanca. (The Times 21 May 1811). The following day saw a fuller version of the same story with more – mostly inaccurate – details. The language of The Times left no doubt of its attitude, ‘Lord Wellington has not only turned the rude intruder out of the abode in which he sought to establish himself, but has really afterwards chastised him for his presumption in front of the premises’ (The Times 22 May 1811). Official confirmation that there had even been a battle did not arrive until Saturday 25 May and then it was no more than an incomplete message from the Plymouth Telegraph stating that the French had lost 7,000 casualties on 5 May compared to 1900 allies (The Times 27 May 1811). An Extraordinary Gazette containing Wellington’s dispatch of 8 May was published on the Sunday, and reprinted in full in Monday’s Times. That day’s leader reflects the short shelf-life of news even in 1811: ‘we have so fully expressed our exultation before, that we have hardly one congratulation to offer on the subject’ (The Times 27 May 1811).
Fortunately for the insatiable appetite of the press, the first accounts of Albuera reached London on that same Monday and appeared in Tuesday’s papers. Again it was no more than an incomplete telegraphic message, interrupted by fog, but Beresford had fought a successful battle on the 16th and foiled Soult’s attempt to relieve Badajoz. The following day, Wednesday 29 May, was a holiday for all public offices to celebrate the anniversary of the restoration of King Charles II. The papers contained official news of both Albuera and the capture of Almeida, although the former was based not on Beresford’s dispatch, which had yet to arrive, but on letters from Charles Stuart in Lisbon. The Times judged the battle to have been ‘at once splendid and sanguinary’ and attributed the escape of the garrison of Almeida in part to Brennier’s skill and more to good fortune. Neither affair attracted even a hint of blame or recrimination. (The Times 29 May 1811). Five days passed before Beresford’s dispatch arrived and was published, severely trying the patience of the journalists who filled their columns with fanciful stories, for example that most of the allied losses of Albuera were suffered when the garrison of Badajoz sallied forth and attacked Beresford in the rear. (The Times 31 May 1811). The fourth of June was Whit Tuesday, George III’s birthday, and another holiday for the hard working clerks in the public offices. The Times was in patriotic mood, and had no doubt of the value of Beresford’s victory:
The long expected official account of the glorious, but sanguinary, battle of Albuera, was published in an extraordinary gazette yesterday afternoon. It was an action, of which the fame can hardly ever perish but with the destruction of everything else that is mortal. In it, an army composed of three different nations, and of inferior numbers, baffled, by dint of downright valour, the most dextrous manoeuvres of the most experienced troops – themselves not deficient in courage – and directed by one of the most sagacious of modern generals …
For the melancholy returns of loss, in killed, wounded and missing, we must request our readers to transfer their attention to the Gazette. “Melancholy returns” did we say? It is a proud and soothing melancholy thought; and we verily believe that there are not many men in England who would not be eager to share in the fate of another such day. (The Times 4 June 1811).
Press reaction to the Campaign: The Examiner:
So much for The Times, but sceptical readers could always turn to more radical papers for their news. On 19 May The Examiner reported that a battle was expected and that, ‘Lord Wellington is in every way prepared, and a glorious result may be expected, if his Lordship is as skilful in battle as he is before it’ (Examiner, no 177 19 May 1811 p 313). A week later the Examiner raised an eyebrow over the extreme discrepancy in French and allied casualties at Fuentes as reported in the Gazette, but was unstinting in its praise of Wellington who ‘will at no remote period rank with the proudest names in our military history’ (The Examiner, no 178 26 May 1811 p 327-8). On 2 June the paper had some details of Albuera, and seemed a little uncertain how to react:
Another defeat of the enemy, if that can be called defeat which left the two armies in possession of their previous ground, utterly spent out with fighting, took place on the 16th instant [sic] at Albuera, a town just below Badajoz, on the road to Seville. Perhaps there has not been so desperate an engagement, in proportion to its scale, since the commencement of the war… The engagement seems to have resembled the hand to hand sabrings between Turks and Russians, rather than a battle of tactics. (The Examiner, no 179 2 June 1811 p 347-8).
Coleridge’s panegyrics in The Courier:
Where the Examiner could not quite suppress its doubts, the pro-government papers felt nothing but exultation. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was writing extensively in the Courier at this time, and many of its articles on the war and on other public news, have been attributed to his pen. They were not particularly elevated, mixing the jubilation at victories real and imagined, and ridicule of the inaccuracy of reports published in the Moniteur, and partisan attacks on political opponents who dared question any claim, however far-fetched, of success. The first reports of Fuentes in the Courier on 22 May recorded that ‘4,000 Frenchmen were found dead upon the field of battle’ while allied losses had shrunk to ‘about 1,000 men is killed and wounded’. (Coleridge The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge vol 3 Essays on His Times in The Morning Post and The Courier edited by David V. Endman (Routledge – Kegan Paul 1978). In 3 vols (all forming vol 3 of the overall series). Citations are to vol 1, 2 or 3 of the 3 vols of Essays in His Times so could be cited as 3:1, 3:2, 3:3. 22 May 1811 3:2 p 154-5).
Albuera was ‘a most glorious victory’, indeed, ‘a more glorious victory was never gained even by British arms’ (Coleridge op cit 3 June 1811, 3:2 p 179-80). On the following day Beresford’s dispatch is praised as ‘very clear and distinct’, in the opening sentence of a long panegyric to the victory: ‘Soult retired to tell the same tale as Masséna, and to assure his Master that the troops of France must yield the palm and place of honour to those of Great Britain. Let us dilate more upon these points – they will best prove to us the value of the victory and the greatness of the glory it has atchieved [sic] for us’ (Coleridge op cit 4 June 1811, 3:2 p 180).
The praise of Wellington and his triumphs in the Courier was so gross that Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to a friend on 16 June ‘I am sorry to say (I would not say it but to you) that poor Coleridge’s late writings in the Courier have in general evidenced the same sad weakness of moral constitution to which you alluded in your last letter… They are as much the work of a party-spirit, as if he were writing for a place – servile adulations of the Wellesleys.’ (Dorothy Wordsworth to Catherine Clarkson, 16 June 1811, quoted in Wordsworth’s Reading 1800-1815 by Duncan Wu (Cambridge University Press, 1995) p 216).
Private letters from Aberdeen and Wellesley-Pole stress level of public support:
Private letters from England were just as positive as the press coverage, allaying Wellington’s fear of criticism and controversy. Lord Aberdeen told Alexander Gordon on 4 June,
I must now congratulate you on the splendid battles of Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera. With respect to Almeida, the French perhaps may make a good story about it, and indeed it seems to have been a masterly thing, but you need not be afraid of Lord Wellington’s enemies in this country – not a syllable has been said against him, nor will there be anything of the kind. With respect to Fuentes de Oñoro – I speak as an ignorant person, but in my opinion it is the greatest thing he has ever done. With an inferior force, successfully to resist the attack of the enemy and at the same time to preserve the blockade of Almeida, would certainly have formed a brilliant exploit in the life of Marlborough himself. Albuera seems to have been a most gallant and glorious action, but surely there must have been some bad management in falling so completely in to the power of those Polish troops. You do not mention the Spaniards, I hope the accounts we have of their good conduct are true. (Aberdeen to Alexander Gordon 4 June 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 211-13).
And a fortnight later William Wellesley-Pole told the same tale:
The whole of your proceedings in the neighbourhood of Almeida, and the escape of the Garrison are perfectly well understood here, and I do not think you have ever gained more credit by any achievement than by the Battle of Fuentes d’Oñoro.
Beresford’s Action is considered here as a proof of the astonishing Bravery of the British Troops which appears to have saved him and his Army – there are so many letters in London from the Army detailing particulars that everybody knows the whole Story, even to the General’s loss of Head and ordering the Retreat etc etc… the truth is Beresford has entirely lost all hope of being considered by us lookers on as a General and I think it most fortunate that you did not leave him longer to himself…
… I need not tell you how highly you now stand here with all Ranks, and all parties – You must already know it both from the Public Prints, and from Private correspondence. I think you are now above any Intrigue that can be fermented … against you. (Pole to Wellington 16 June 1811 Raglan Wellington B no 114).
Pole’s confidence was justified.
Reappointment of the Duke of York:
Pole told Wellington on 16 June that ‘the Duke of York is most favourable to you, and most desirous to increase your army’ (Raglan Papers, Wellington B no 114). But Wellington’s praise of York’s reappointment was written before he could have received this.
According to Dorothy George, ‘Cobbett, who had uncompromisingly supported Wardle, made no reference to the reinstatement till 17 Aug, when he calls it “in my opinion, of very little consequence to the nation”. (BM Cat vol 9 p 21).
The Vote of Thanks for Albuera:
The news of the Vote of Thanks for Albuera attracted rather more comment in the army, little of it favourable. One outspoken young officer of the Guards wrote home that,
We are all here much surprised at the Vote of Thanks to Genl. Beresford – Good John Bull, how easily art thou duped. Genl. Beresford is the most noted bungler that ever played at the game of soldiers, and at Albuera he out-bungled himself… I have learned one thing since I have been in this country, and that is to know how easily England is duped; how completely ignorant she is of the truth of what is going on here, and how perfectly content she is, so long as there is a long list of killed and wounded. (Mills to his mother, 27 June 1811 For King and Country p 46 see also Boutflower Journal p 102).
No Vote of Thanks for Fuentes:
Liverpool was a little anxious that Wellington might be annoyed that similar thanks had not been moved for Fuentes even though he had only recently been thanked for the defence of Portugal (Liverpool to Wellington Private 11 June 1811 Add Ms 38,325 f 125-7). Wellington replied, ‘Your Lordship may rest assured that I am perfectly satisfied that you acted right in not proposing a vote in Parliament on the battle of Fuentes. The business would have been different if we had caught the garrison of Almeida; but, as it happened, the government were quite right’ (Wellington to Liverpool 25 June 1811 WD V p 115-116). There is a hint of chagrin here which is much clearer in a letter written to Pole a week later: ‘Lord Liverpool was quite right not to move thanks for the battle at Fuentes, though it was the most difficult one I was ever concerned in, and against the greatest odds. We had very nearly three to one against us engaged, above four to one of cavalry; and moreover our cavalry had not a gallop in them, while some of that of the enemy was fresh and in excellent order’ (Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole, 2 July 1811 WSD vol 7 p 175-77). It seems unlikely that Wellington was much displeased when Lord Aberdeen used the occasion of the vote thanking Beresford to publicly express his view that Fuentes was Wellington’s finest achievement, ‘and that the battle of Albuera was made the subject of thanks, not because the thing was more complete, but because it was more bloody’. (Aberdeen’s own summary of his speech in Aberdeen to Alexander Gordon 8 June 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 215-18).
It may be significant that Lord Moira, speaking after Aberdeen in the debate, warned against depreciating the honour by granting it too often, while supporting it for Albuera. (Parliamentary Debates vol 20 col 514).
Wellington’s gloomy view of British politics:
Wellington continued to take an unduly gloomy view of British politics, casting doubt in his private letters to Pole, both on the ministers’ commitment to support his operations and on their prospects of survival:
I think the most recent success here has had the usual effect of success; it has made this cause more popular with our government, and I think rather more determined to support it. But I am convinced that if the King should not recover, matters cannot last as they are, and the nominal and real confidence of the Prince must centre in the same persons. I think the ministers ought to bear a great deal; but if it shall be quite clear that the King will not recover, I think they ought not to bear what I hear is going on at present. (Wellington to Pole 15 May 1811 WSD vol 7 p 123-4 Raglan No 41).
And on 28 May he told Charles Arbuthnot,
I don’t know what to say to Lord Sidmouth’s party being added to the Government. It has always appeared to me that it was desirable that the Government should be strengthened by the addition of one or more of the floating parties in the House of Commons. I am not certain that the party of Lord Sidmouth although numerically the strongest, is not the least desirable to have, as it is the most unpopular in the country, and not liked by many who now compose the Government. However, if the Government is to last, something of the kind must be done to strengthen it; and it is better to begin with Lord Sidmouth than to do nothing.
My opinion is, however, that if the King should not recover entirely very soon, the Government can’t last; indeed, they must resign their situations if they should continue to enjoy only the nominal confidence of the Regent, and if the MacMahon Cabinet should continue to exist’. (Wellington to Charles Arbuthnot Elvas 28 May Correspondence Charles Arbuthnot p 6-7).
This gloom was probably based primarily on William Wellesley-Pole’s letter of 20 April supplemented by newspapers and ordinary political gossip. Pole had written:
Things here continue in what I think a most uncomfortable, discreditable, and unpleasant state. – The Regent evidently without confidence in Ministers, and Ministers carrying on Government in full expectation of being removed whenever the Regent conceives his power to be permanent. The House of Commons in a state of Apathy not taking an active part against Ministers, but not giving them a support to enable them to feel Strength as a Party. No possibility of change in any great Office, consequently strengthening the Administration quite out of the question, and the impossibility of any change so great, that all measures that go to a change of system objected to…’ (William Wellesley-Pole to Wellington 20 April 1811 Raglan Papers Wellington B no 113).
However by the middle of June Pole was more confident:
Perceval says he is quite sure that H.R.H. has no thoughts whatever of changing his Ministers, and even if the King were to die, or to be declared incapable of ever resuming his authority, he is of opinion that the Regent would not wish to do more than make some partial changes. Yet the manner in which H.R.H. acts towards administration makes the Government quite ludicrous… (Pole to Wellington 16 June 1811 Raglan Papers Wellington B no 114).
© Rory Muir