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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 31 : Vitoria (Dec 1812–June 1813)
Shortly before Christmas 1812 Liverpool wrote to Wellington raising the possibility that Napoleon might decide to cut his losses and abandon Spain altogether in order to consolidate his hold on central Europe, while Alexander Gordon speculated that the Emperor might seek peace with all his opponents, including Britain (Liverpool to Wellington, 22 Dec 1812 WSD vol 7 p 502-3; Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, 9 Dec 1812, At Wellington’s Right Hand p 347-9). With hindsight we can see that Napoleon would probably have been wise to act along these lines: if he had released Ferdinand and withdrawn all his troops from Spain in early 1813, it is unlikely that either of the Peninsular powers would have felt much enthusiasm for continuing the war, especially if it coincided with a plausible peace overture to Britain. The British government might have rejected such an overture, but the Opposition would have welcomed it, and without Spain or Portugal as allies the government would have had to devise a new strategy from scratch. (The British government would have been uncomfortable with any peace which left Napoleon in control of the Low Countries and especially Antwerp, although it might have entered into negotiations in order to maintain a united front with its allies. See Muir Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon passim and especially chapters 14, 16 and 17). Still, it is not really surprising that Napoleon refused to consider making such a drastic sacrifice, for the problems facing him at the beginning of 1813 were shrouded in uncertainty. It was by no means clear that Russia would pursue the war beyond her frontier, or that Prussia would dare to take up arms, or that the Franco-Austrian alliance would prove worthless. Abandoning his brother’s claims to the Spanish throne would be an admission of weakness which would dishearten his friends and embolden his enemies, and Napoleon always preferred to negotiate from a position of strength. Despite the destruction of his Grande Armée and his urgent need for veteran soldiers, he only withdrew some 20,000 picked men from the Peninsula, leaving almost 200,000 men in Spain (Oman vol 6 p 244-46; Napier vol 5 p 430).
Strength of French Armies in Spain:
Oman gives no general statement of the strength of the French armies but Napier gives a useful breakdown. His figures exclude the sick, but it is not clear whether they are ‘all ranks’ or ranks and file. Rounding the totals to the nearest thousand, the figures for 15 March 1813 are (Napier History vol 5 p 430):
Army of the South 37,000 men
Army of the Centre 16,000 men
Army of Portugal 35,000 men
Army of the North 40,000 men
Army of Aragon 36,000 men
Army of Catalonia 27,000 men
Reserve de Bayonne 6,000 men
However it is not clear whether the troops recalled by Napoleon are included in these figures: if they are, the figures are probably for rank and file only, and the full strength would be significantly higher.
Huw Davies ‘Wellington’s Use of Deception Tactics in the Peninsular War’ Journal of Strategic Studies vol 29 August 2006 cites some estimates from allied sources of total French strength: at the beginning of the year 150,000 effectives (p 739) which seems too low even if it is just rank and file; and in March 36,257 effectives in the Army of Portugal and 14,000 in the Army of the Centre (p 742), which agree with Napier’s figures.
Wellington at Cadiz:
A British officer in Cadiz records that a miniature portrait, ‘the most striking likeness of Lord Wellington I have ever seen’, was painted by a British officer of the garrison, Captain Barton Pym, who had been a professional artist before he joined the army. (Leslie Military Journal p 258; Daphne Foskett A Dictionary of British Miniature Painters (London, Faber and Faber, 1972) vol 1 p 458). Unfortunately the miniature is untraced.
Wellington and the command of the Spanish armies:
In September 1812 the Cortes, filled with enthusiasm over the victory of Salamanca and the liberation of Cadiz, had voted to offer Wellington the command of the Spanish armies. It had taken two months for Wellington to accept (he had to refer the offer to London), and the original enthusiasm in Cadiz had been cooled by the disappointing end of the campaign. In fact both sides had substantial reservations: Wellington had long felt that the Spanish armies needed thorough reform and much more money before they could be made efficient, while many Spanish patriots deeply resented the idea that in a war against foreign domination they should yield command of their armies to a foreigner. This view was forcefully expressed by General Ballesteros who, on 23 October, denounced Wellington’s appointment and defied the government. He was arrested without difficulty and sent into exile at Ceuta, but his action attracted considerable sympathy and support. Paradoxically the retreat from Burgos had strengthened Wellington’s conviction of the need for extensive changes while reducing Spanish willingness to submit to his guidance (Esdaile Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Army p 50-55, 63-67, 82-84).
The original offer of the command of the armies had been limited to their operations, much as Wellington commanded the British army in the field, but had to accept the rules and regulations determined by the Horse Guards. However Wellington would not take responsibility for the Spanish armies without the power needed to make them more efficient, and the talks at Cadiz concentrated on defining the limits of his authority and the way in which he would work with the Spanish government which in turn was under pressure from the Cortes.
The good resolutions formed at Cadiz soon wore thin and by the end of March Wellington was complaining that the Spanish Minister for War was continuing to send orders direct to troops, rather than through Wellington, and that this was leading to confusion and inaction. He also disliked political developments in Cadiz, where the liberales were showing little restraint in their ascendancy, and he was horrified at their sharp rejection of the offer of a corps of Russian soldiers to assist in the war. (The scheme had no substance, but for a short time Wellington, possibly remembering the Russian troops in Naples in 1805, seems to have taken it seriously.) Wellington’s disputes with the Spanish government would only get more difficult as the year went on, and the threat of resignation, first brought forward at the end of March, would soon lose its shock value. Yet this should not obscure the fact that military co-operation between the allies was never more effective than in 1813 and that the great success of the Vitoria campaign rested on Spanish co-operation. (Wellington to Henry Wellesley, 31 March and 2 April 1813; Wellington to Vega, 3 April 1813, WD VI p 392-3, 394-6, 396-8; Esdaile Spanish Army p 108-35).
Charles Esdaile views Anglo-Spanish co-operation in a rather darker light, pointing out that right up to the opening of the campaign Wellington was hoping and planning to get much larger numbers of Spanish troops ready to join the main army that he was frustrated by the inability of O’Donnell’s corps to get to the front in time. While this is undoubtedly true, I do not believe that it was the dominant aspect of relations. In this case I think the glass is more than half full, and that it is worth looking beyond Wellington’s incessant grumbling. Most aspects of his plans for Spanish co-operation succeeded, by and large, while the northern insurrection exceeded anyone’s expectations. This should not be overshadowed by the delays in the march of the Army of Reserve, especially as it had no adverse consequences.
Wellington’s visit to Lisbon, January 1813:
Wellington arrived at Badajoz on the 13January and Lisbon on the 16th where again he was greeted with crowds and popular acclamations, and stayed for four days. The primary purpose of his visit was the investiture of Charles Stuart with the order of the Bath. There were still difficulties in relations with the Portuguese government, most notably over logistical support for their troops, but Wellington had succeeded in delegating the task of dealing with these issues to Stuart and Beresford who were able to give it their full attention. These problems would be sharpened later in the year as the scene of operations moved far from Portugal and war-weariness grew, but in spring of 1813 the alliance was in good shape.
That spring the Prince Regent of Portugal bestowed the title of Duque da Vitória on Wellington.
Wellington and the British Government, early 1813:
Wellington’s relations with the British government were unusually good in the first half of 1813. The ministers consulted him on the implications of the war in Germany, the possibility of popular risings in southern France or the Low Countries, and the demands of the war with the United States. Wellington cheerfully accepted Bathurst’s reluctant decision to send a few reinforcements to Canada, only hoping that it would not tempt Sir George Prevost to take the offensive. (Wellington to Bathurst, 10 Feb 1813, WD VI p 296-7). The army was well-supplied with specie removing an issue which had caused so much friction in the past, while the government expressed its appreciation of Wellington’s services by making him a Knight of the Garter in February. This was the Marquess of Buckingham’s blue ribbon and Wellington seems to have been genuinely saddened by the death of his old patron and assured his son the new marquess of his continuing friendship. The old tie to the Buckingham-Grenville connection had become attenuated over the years but it had never completely broken, even though it was now largely a matter of sentiment. (Wellington to the Marquess of Buckingham, 25 April 1812, WD VI p 448; Liverpool to Wellington, 17 Feb 1813, WSD vol 7 p 555-56).
Wellington intervenes in British Politics:
Early in 1813 Wellington made a rare intervention in British politics. Canning and Lord Wellesley had mounted an assault on the government in Parliament, accusing it of failing to support Wellington’s operations with sufficient reinforcements, and so bearing the responsibility for the retreat from Burgos. Letters from the army and even from Wellington’s own staff lent credence to their claims, and many MPs would naturally suppose that such an attack, led by his brother, had at least Wellington’s tacit support (For example Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, 9 Dec 1812, At Wellington’s Right Hand p 347-9). In these circumstances, silence was not neutral, and so Wellington wrote to Lord Bathurst, in a letter plainly intended to be circulated, that ‘If I were in England, I should certainly do the government the justice they deserve; and I hope, that let who will be the assailants, the government will feel no scruple in making every use of my letters to you and Lord Liverpool in their own defence.’ (Wellington to Bathurst, 26 Jan 1813, WD VI p 247). On the following day he wrote to the Prince Regent thanking him for the support he had received, (Wellington to the Prince Regent, 27 Jan 1813, Letters of King George IV vol 1 p 215-16) and a few weeks later he replied to a letter from Sir H. Montgomery, one of Lord Wellesley’s supporters and an old friend from India, with a formal declaration of independence:
As I have long ceased to think of home politics, it cannot be said that I am of a party different from that to which any other person belongs. I serve the country to the best of my ability abroad, leaving the government at home to be contended for by the different parties as they may think proper.
I am not an adequate judge whether the existing government have or have not done everything in their power for the Peninsula. This I know, that they have done a great deal; and a great deal has been effected; and I read of their being blamed for events with which, as an honest man, I must say they had, or could have, nothing to do. (Wellington to Sir H. Montgomery M.P., 14 Feb 1813, WP 1/365, printed in WD VI p 303 with Montgomery’s name suppressed. For Montgomery’s career see Thorne History of Parliament vol 4 p 621-3).
However the attack on the government fizzled out long before Wellington’s letters reached England, largely because it was over-shadowed by the news of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia and the encouraging prospects it opened to view. See also Canning to Wellesley 19 November 1812 The Wellesley Papers vol 2 p 125-8; Liverpool to Peel 1 November 1812 Parker’s Peel vol 1 p 125-8; and Liverpool to Wellington 22 December 1812 Yonge Life of Liverpool vol 1 p 448-50.
The Colonelcy of the Royal Horse Guards:
Wellington was also given the colonelcy of the Blues, the Royal Horse Guards, in January, but it is not clear that the ministers had any say in this honour. The appointment was announced by the Duke of York (to Wellington, 13 January 1813 WSD vol 7 p 521) who said that the Prince Regent had decided to waive the normal rule that no colonel of an infantry regiment could be moved to a cavalry regiment.
Torrens wrote to Wellington on the same day congratulating him and adding that it brought an income of £3,000 (WO3/604 p 60-62).
Wellington replied thanking the Duke (31 January 1813 WD VI p 268).
None of these conveys any hint of involvement by the ministers.
Wellington told Torrens ‘I believe there never was so fortunate or favoured a man’ (31 January 1813 WD VI p 268-9).
Quarrel with Horse Guards over recall of weak second battalions:
Wellington quarrelled with the Duke of York who wanted to order home some depleted units of veteran troops so that they could recruit back to full strength. It was an old dispute, with good arguments on both sides. Wellington strongly resisted: he valued an experienced battalion of 300 men at least as highly as 800 fresh faced new chums, and he got the best of the resulting compromise, although he was forced to send home four weak cavalry regiments and some infantry. The issue rumbled on for months causing a good deal of irritation on both sides. (The issue generated voluminous correspondence, but see in particular Wellington to the Duke of York 6 Dec 1812 WD VI p 199-201; Duke of York to Wellington 13 and 20 Jan 1813 WSD vol 7 p 524-5, 528-9; Bathurst to Wellington 3 Feb 1813 WP 1/366; Torrens to Bunbury 28 Aug 1813 WO3/605 p 218; Bathurst to Wellington, 10 Sept 1813 WSD vol 8 p 247; Wellington to Bathurst, 15 Dec 1813 WD VII p 204).
Senior officers come and go:
While Wellington was content to spend the winter and spring quietly at Freneda, many of his senior officers were again absent. To be fair some were still recovering from wounds suffered at Salamanca (Beresford, Cotton and Leith), or earlier in the year (Picton), or from serious illness (Graham). But others were home on leave attending to their own affairs rather than their duties: Charles Stewart had been absent since April but had not yet resigned and was still hoping to be given command of a division of cavalry. Henry Clinton went home in January and did not return until after Vitoria which allowed Wellington to give Edward Pakenham the temporary command of the Sixth Division, although this in turn left the Adjutant General’s department leaderless. Fortunately George Murray returned to the Quartermaster-General’s department on 17 March, and Graham and Picton had both returned to the army by the middle of May. However Stapleton Cotton stayed too long in England and missed the campaign, leaving Wellington’s cavalry without an effective head or any organization higher than that of brigades. (Wellington had abolished the separation into two divisions as there would be no role for a semi-detached force in Estremadura.) He also complained strongly of the incompetence of some of his brigadiers, while still full of ill-humour over the retreat from Burgos.
At the Horse Guards Torrens, whose patience with Wellington was wearing a little thin, took him at his word and arranged for the generals to be recalled. Strangely, Wellington shrank from this unless the officers concerned could be promised alternative employment at home, and was also reluctant to make sweeping changes to the cavalry in Cotton’s absence. The result was another compromise. From the infantry Chowne (formerly Tilson), Löw and Bernewitz were recalled; and the cavalry was relieved of Erskine, Slade and, after Vitoria, Long. The only replacements sent out were the commanders of the Household Cavalry and Hussar brigades, which were both special cases, and two old friends whom Torrens knew Wellington would welcome: Henry Fane who had served in the early campaigns in the Peninsula and whom Wellington had particularly asked for; and Thomas Brisbane who had served with Wellington in Ireland in 1790s. Wellington greeted Brisbane warmly offering him the choice of vacant brigades in the Third or Seventh Divisions: he chose the Third, having served under Picton previously, and went on to play an important part in its operations. (Brisbane Reminiscences p 22; Fortescue and the ODNB both incorrectly state the Brisbane had served in the Peninsula since 1811: in fact he was AAG of the Kent District; Wellington to Torrens 2 & 6 Dec 1812 WP 1/355 printed in WSD vol 7 p 485-6, 494-5 with extensive suppressions. Torrens to Charles Stewart ‘Private’ 29 Dec 1812 WO 3/604 p 17-18; Torrens to Wellington, 30 Dec 1812 and 14 Jan 1813 WO 3/604 p 18-23, 62-66).
Wellington, Sir John Murray and the Expedition to Tarragona:
The accounts of both Oman and Fortescue are both redolent of hindsight, and neither can find a good word to say of Murray. It is therefore worth pointing out that Wellington had told Torrens on 7 September 1812 that ‘Sir J. Murray is a very able officer, and I should be very glad to have him, but you will see that we now have no room for him.’ (WD VI p 55-56). And ‘I think it will be very desirable that Sir J. Murray should be sent to Alicante, to command the troops on the Eastern coast of the Peninsula, in case Lord W. Bentinck should not arrive to assume the command of them himself.’ (Wellington to Bathurst 3 November 1812 WD VI p 148).
Wellington’s plan for the attack on Tarragona was well-conceived, and in all probability would have succeeded with competent leadership. However it is legitimate to ask whether he had fallen into Napoleon’s error of imposing a plan on a subordinate who had little confidence in it. It may also have been more elaborate than was necessary – though that depends on whether logistical difficulties really made a frontal advance impossible. And there was a contradiction in landing an army to besiege Tarragona while at the same time stressing the importance of avoiding a defeat. One other disadvantage: it drew Suchet and his detachable force up from southern Valencia to the Catalan border, actually closer to Wellington’s line of operations.
As for Murray’s failure itself, there seems little to add: his loss of nerve was very similar, and almost as disastrous, as that in India nine years before.
Changes in Portugal:
Sir Thomas Graham, returning to the army in May, noted changes in their hosts as well: ‘Portugal however this year looks quite different, houses rebuilding, cultivation everywhere, and old fences repaired and new ones made, even to our annoyance, confining the road to its old bad narrow track. The fellows have now the impudence to think we should not ride over their fields of Indian corn, wheat etc, but rather stick in the mire.’ (Graham to R. Graham, 12 May 1813, HMC Graham of Fintry p 166).
Wellington’s Plan of Campaign:
On 11 May 1813 Wellington wrote to Bathurst:
I propose on this side to commence our operations by turning the enemy’s position on the Duero, by passing the left of our army over that river within the Portuguese frontier. I should cross the right in the same manner, only that I have been obliged to throw the right very forward during the winter in order to cover and connect our cantonments; and I could not well draw them back for this movement without exposing a good deal of country and incurring a counter movement on the part of the enemy. I therefore purpose to strengthen our right and to move with it myself across the Tormes, and establish a bridge on the Duero below Zamora. The two wings of the army will thus be connected, and the enemy’s position on the Duero will be turned. The Spanish army of Galicia will be on the Elsa on the left of our army at the same time that our army will be on that river.
Having turned the enemy’s position on the Duero, and established our communication across it, our next operation must depend on circumstances. I do not know whether I am now stronger than the enemy, even including the army of Galicia; but of this I am very certain, that I shall not be stronger throughout the campaign, or more efficient, than I now am; and the enemy will not be weaker. I cannot have a better opportunity for trying the fate of a battle, which if the enemy should be unsuccessful, must oblige him to withdraw entirely (WD VI p 479-80).
Fine condition of the Army in the spring of 1813:
Many sources remark on this. George Bingham wrote on 22 May that, ‘Every exertion has been made to complete the army and we are equipped in a very superior style, not a single article wanting, and every department brushed up, particularly the artillery.’ (Glover Wellington’s Lieutenant and Napoleon’s Gaoler p 186). John Aitchison of the Guards agreed: ‘every branch of the Army is in most perfect state of equipment and the men look more healthy and much better than I have ever seen them before.’ (Aitchison to his father, 4 June 1813 Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 239). And Gomm noted ‘The army is fully equipped, and its losses repaired, and I think it is fully equal to its purpose.’ (Gomm to his sister 1 May 1813 Gomm Letters and Journals p 298).
Preparations for the Advance through Tras os Montes:
Gomm was one of the officers sent to reconnoitre routes and gives a few details of his work (Gomm Letters and Journals p 296, 299). He does not hide the difficulties of the road but thought that the artillery officers needed pushing to overcome them and were rather inclined to give up (ibid p 299, 300).
Bingham records that working parties had been employed to improving the roads and building hospitals on the near side of the Douro before the march began (Glover Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 183).
Burgoyne (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 255) mentions exploring officers and a variety or other preparations for the campaign.
George Murray’s return to Army:
‘General Murray, Tryon’s friend, our Quarter Master General came from Plymouth to Freixeda in eight days, a very quick passage; everybody is delighted to see him again at the head of that department and ‘Caleb Quoton [sic Quotem]’ as Colonel Gordon is called removed.’ (Bingham to his mother 21 March 1813 Glover Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 179). ‘It is yet uncertain whether we cross the Douro or not, or rather the arrangements is not known, for since Murray his returned to the Quarter Master General’s office things go on in their old train; there is no such confusion as when Colonel Gordon was at the head of affairs’ (Bingham to Lieutenant Colonel John Mansel 16 March 1813 ibid p 184).
Delay in the opening of the campaign:
Wellington had hoped to begin the campaign on 1 May but was delayed by a dry season which retarded the new grass for the horses without which the army could not venture into Tras os Montes, and by the slowness of the pontoon train which was to play a vital role in establishing secure communications over several major rivers. There was nothing he could do about the rain, but the slowness of the pontoons was a source of real irritation as it had been ordered forward as early as January. Finally Wellington intervened and ordered that the bullocks drawing the pontoons be replaced with horses from a nearby battery of horse artillery, causing more than a little anguish to its commander Captain Cairnes (Cairnes to Cuppage, 12 May 1813, Dickson Manuscripts p 882 which also prints other letters relating to the incident). As the pontoon train was the responsibility of the engineers the affair added another small grievance to relations between Wellington and his ordnance troops.
Wellington at Salamanca:
On entering the great square we observed the principal inhabitants, full-dressed, flocking towards the handsome stone cathedral, where we alighted. Following the crowd through the grand entrance, we found a great multitude awaiting the arrival of Marquis of Wellington, who soon entered escorted by a numerous retinue of Spanish generals and other staff officers. They were in a variety of uniforms, magnificently embroidered. I was much struck with the simplicity of the Marquis of Wellington’s attire. He wore a light green pelisse coat – single-breasted, without a sash – and a white neck-handkerchief. His sword was buckled round his waist underneath the coat, the hilt merely protruding, and he had a cocked hat under his arm. He stood with his face towards the altar during the prayer offered up for the success of our arms in the approaching struggle… (Cooke A True Soldier Gentleman p 181).
Swabey’s reaction to Wellington’s joining his wing of the army:
Lieutenant William Swabey, who was no blind admirer of his superiors, noted in his diary ‘Lord Wellington and his staff … suddenly appeared amongst us, the influence of his presence seemed immediately to give life to every individual, and nothing was talked of but crossing the Esla.’ (Swabey Diary p 191).
Wellington at Zamora:
The people entertained Lord Wellington and the staff with a concert, lemonade, and ices, &c. The former did not admire the time lost in singing psalms to him, as he said. I met him in the evening, in his Spanish uniform, riding down to the bridge to give directions … I could not attend a little dance given by Lord Wellington in the evening …’ (Larpent Private Journal 3 June 1813 p 131 also mentions the enthusiastic reception given by the populace when the allies arrived, and the state of the bridge.)
The Destruction of Burgos:
At the beginning of the campaign there was an expectation that it would require another siege of Burgos, and on 5 May Frazer reports the construction of scaling ladders, training of sappers and miners etc (Frazer Letters p 95-96). By 11 June Frazer expects that they will not attack Burgos but leave a Spanish corps to blockade it (ibid p 141) and on the following day he is more sure of this and he declares that Burgos has no importance (ibid p 142).
Burgoyne, on 9 June, looked forward to the challenge of the siege and scoffed at the ‘foolish dread that has got about our army respecting the difficulty of the enterprise.’ He declared that merely blockading it ‘would be a great disgrace to us’. (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 259-60).
Alexander Gordon has an interesting view of the strategic significance of its fall, which shows how heavy was the shadow of 1812: ‘This is a most important thing for us, as what[ever] will happen, it gives us an excellent line of defence in case it should be necessary to establish our Winter Quarters so far back.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 3 June 1813 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 382-3).
On 14 June Burgoyne noted that an intercepted letter said that Burgos was left totally unprovided with the necessities for defense, which he thought was “very disgraceful” to the French. (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 261).
Crossing the headwaters of the Ebro:
The scene made a deep impression on Thomas Henry Browne who wrote,
Head Quarters were established at Quintara, a small and most romantically situated village on the Ebro, near which there is a narrow bridge. The army crossed by this bridge, the descent of which, & subsequent ascent of the high ground on the other side of the river, is of the most striking and singular character. It almost resembles a winding staircase, overhung with immense rocks – The clattering of the horses hoofs, & rolling of the Artillery over the surface of this rock – the long irregular line of glittering Bayonets – the different uniform of British, Portuguese & Spaniards, with here & there an Officer on horseback mingled with the ranks – the singularly storm-like appearance of the Sky, as the sun was setting, when this passage of the army took place, rendered the scene more beautifully impressive than anything I can remember. … Lord Wellington himself appeared full of the interest which the sight created, & it was remarked by those near him, that he was in the highest spirits possible. (Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 209-10).
Supplies on the Advance to Vitoria:
Tomkinson, 9 June 1813: ‘From the time of our crossing the Esla up to this period, we have been marching through one continued cornfield. The villages are but thinly scattered over the country, so that it appears a difficulty to find hands to cultivate the crops. The land is of the richest quality, and produces the finest crops with the least labour possible. It is generally wheat, with a fair proportion of barley, and now and then a crop of vetches or clover. The horses fed on green barley nearly the whole march, and got fat.’ (Tomkinson Diary p 239).
And, on 12 June, ‘The whole army halts this day. All commissaries are ordered to have four days’ bread in hand by 7am on the 13th. From the rapid advance of the army no supplies can come from the rear. The country gives bread and corn, as hitherto these have not failed, and this in a country that has been plundered and destroyed by the enemy for the last five years.’ (ibid p 239-40).
On 6 June Bingham wrote ‘As yet there has been no want of anything; the supplies exact and regular so that this had hitherto been a tour of pleasure and not like our former campaigns.’ (Wellington’s Lieutenant Napoleon’s Gaoler p 190). And on 12 June he declared that ‘the army was never in better health not even in quarters, and I don’t believe the whole army have left two hundred men behind since we quitted the frontiers of Portugal.’ (ibid p 192).
William Webber agreed writing on 14 June: ‘It is a pleasure to be in an army so well regulated as this, in which the wants of the soldiers are so much considered and while every department, particularly the Commissariat, is established on such an excellent system.’ (Webber With the Guns in the Peninsula p 167).
Head (Memoirs of an Assistant-Commissary) p 283-88 gives a good account of how this result was achieved – making plain the complexity of the task.
Before the campaign began Wellington had told Hill that the Portuguese troops ‘must be supplied by Portuguese means, or they must not take the field, or they must starve, as I neither can nor will allow the British departments to undertake to feed them.’ (Wellington to Hill 1 May 1813 WD VI p 456). Nonetheless Hill raised the issue again on 20 June because his Portuguese troops ‘are at present in so destitute a state … [and] for some days have been on very reduced rations.’ (Hill to Wellington 20 June 1813 Sidney Life of Hill p 239). Wellington replied at once letting him assist the Portuguese as much as he liked provided that it was made clear that this was exceptional not establishing a new way of doing things. (Wellington to Hill 1pm 20 June 1812 Sidney Life of Hill p 239).
The army does seem to have run short of supplies in the last few days before the battle, and it is presumably to this period that some rankers refer in their memoirs: see Douglas Douglas’s Tale of the Peninsula and Waterloo p 71 and Costello Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns p 120. Charles Crowe (An Eloquent Soldier. The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-1814 edited by Gareth Glover p 90) says that his troops went short for three days up to 13 June.
French movements from the Ebro to Vitoria:
The French did not immediately understand that their flank had been turned and even when they did, they misjudged the relative position of the armies and attempted a northward thrust towards Bilbao in the hope of blocking the allied advance and making contact with Foy, who was believed to be in the area with several divisions of the Army of Portugal. This precipitated some fighting on 18 June, including the combat of San Millan, in which the French advance was thrown back in disorder with the loss of about 300 prisoners. On the whole the French were fortunate not to have suffered more, for they had put themselves in a vulnerable position. That night the French generals debated what they should do. General Reille, the commander of the Army of Portugal, argued that the line of the great highway to France was compromised by Wellington’s advance, and that they should abandon it and retreat down the Ebro and join Clausel who was believed to be around Logroño with the Army of the North. This was also the line of communication to Suchet and the French forces in Aragon and Valencia. It would be very difficult for Wellington to continue advancing north-east if this left the main French army undisturbed behind his flank and soon able to advance in his rear. The disadvantage with Reille’s plan was that it would mean abandoning the main line of communication with France, and any prospect of re-uniting with Foy and the French troops in the Biscay provinces. And it would expose the vast convoys of baggage, loot and civilians that had preceded the army in its retreat up the highway. It was possible that this might be the only way to save the convoys – that a modest guard might be enough to protect them from the guerrillas, and that Wellington’s entire attention might follow the main French army – but that was not a gamble that any of the French generals were eager to take. Besides Napoleon had stressed the importance of keeping the highway open, and in the end Joseph was more frightened of his brother than of Wellington. He sent word to Clausel and Foy ordering them to join him at Vitoria as quickly as possible, and gave the order to continue the retreat up the highway. (Oman vol 6 p 377-78. There had been a similar debate when Burgos was abandoned: ibid p 358).
The Medieval Battle:
There are various, rather conflicting, references to this. In a letter written on the morning after the battle Frazer writes ‘General Alava, with whom I was in conversation, told me the scene of action was one in which a battle had been fought in the time of our Black Prince, by the English and Spanish, against the French who were beaten.’ (Frazer Letters p 160). And Alexander Gordon on 23 June wrote home ‘a very curious circumstance, in the time of Pedro the Cruel a battle was fought and won by the English before under the Black Prince for the same cause, for the rightful King of Spain on the very same ground, & nearly at the same time of year.’ (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 385). In talking the battle over with Croker in 1834 Wellington said: ‘Those wooded hills on the right were the ground of the Black Prince’s victory…’ (Croker Papers vol 2 p 232).
But although Alava was a native of the place he was wrong. The editor of Frazer’s letters (p 160n) points out, quoting Napier (vol 5 p 137 bk 20 ch 8), that the Black Prince’s army fought many miles away, but that a part of his army, 200 men led by Sir Thomas Felton, was defeated and killed on the Vitoria battlefield – and this is tacitly confirmed by Fortescue (vol 9 p 163).
Picton at Vitoria:
It is impossible to confirm Robinson’s story about Picton at Vitoria. Head’s comment about him growing ‘outrageous’ is supportive but not conclusive, and may well have been influenced by Robinson. Wellington underplays the role of the Third Division in his dispatch – but that is not necessarily significant. Colville indicates that Dalhousie was on the spot, at least when Colville’s brigade (the last in the Third Division) crossed the Mendoza bridge; but even this doesn’t mean much.
The source that should tell us is Alexander Gordon, for Dalhousie’s report identifies the officer bringing the orders a ‘Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon’ but, as usual, he says nothing of his personal role in the battle.
Dalhousie’s report is sufficiently ambiguous to encourage the idea that he had not yet arrived at the front when Picton began his attack, although it also implies that the attack was in accordance with Wellington’s orders (WSD vol 8 p 4).
Picton and the 88th at Vitoria:
During the attack on the French centre Picton renewed his old quarrel with the 88th or Connaught Rangers. Captain Oates of the regiment explained what happened:
With regard to the abuse of Sir Thos Picton to the regt (if it can be called by that name) it was this – as we were advancing to attack a village in the possession of the Enemy we were halted by Sir Thos Brisbane when he saw we were so much exposed and unsupported on our left, at this moment Sir Thos Picton came up and said why don’t you go on, I think to the best of my recollection, that the reply was from Sir Thos Brisbane you see how exposed we are on the left, Sir Thos Picton repeated go on upon which the whole Brigade with Sir Thos Brisbane at its head instantly moved forward, and before it was possible to see who were first or last Sir Thos Picton said in the same breath, there 74th, shew the 88th the way – this was the whole of what passed by way of abuse – were rapidly advanced drove the Enemy out of the village and formed line on the other side, gave them a volley, charged, and drove the Enemy till they got into [a] complete route [sic]. (Quoted in Uffindell (ed) National Army Museum Book p 213).
Remarkably Picton pursued the matter after the battle making serious allegations against the 88th and its commanding officer. Wellington replied that he had been nearby and had seen nothing wrong, but that if Picton was sure of his facts there would have to be a court martial. This seems to have been the end of the matter, although resentment lingered. (Wellington to Picton, Private, 16 July 1813, WP 1/373 printed with deletions in WD VI p 598-99. For the attack by the 88th see Robertson’s letter cited above, Brisbane Reminiscences p 22-23, and Costello p 125).
It is worth noting that Captain Oates had a personal grievance against Picton, in addition to that felt by the whole regiment: Oates had led the attack on the Mendoza bridge and felt that he deserved recognition and promotion which Picton denied him – Jordain and Fraser Connaught Rangers vol 1 p 111n.
Picton on the role of his division in the battle and the performance of his Portuguese:
After the battle Picton declared to a friend that ‘the 3rd Division had the principal share in the brilliant achievement’, and he was mortified that it was not given more credit in Wellington’s dispatch (Picton ‘Unpublished Letters’ p 17-18, 18-19). Such claims were not unusual after any battle, but Picton’s had more justice than most, for the Third Division, supported by the leading brigade of the Seventh Division and the Light Division were indeed the allied spearhead that broke through the French centre and shattered their attempt to reform on their second line. It was not just the British troops who fought well: Picton literally underlined the point in a letter home three days after the battle, ‘The Portuguese attached to the Division fully equaled the English during the whole day, and showed and Example of Steadiness and gallantry that equals them to any Troops in the World.’ (Picton to Flanagan, 24 June 1813, Picton ‘Unpublished Letters’ p 17-18). And Captain Daniel Robertson of the 88th agreed, telling his father, ‘I rejoice to say that both the Spanish and Portuguese Troops who were engaged fought like Lyons, nay some of the Portuguese Battalions showed both discipline and gallantry equal to any of the British even, I speak not from reports but from what I saw with my own eyes for two Portuguese regiments fought alongside us the whole day.’ (‘Buenos Aires and Vitoria’ by James Irvine Robertson J.S.A.H.R. vol 80 winter 2002 p 353).
Colville crosses the Mendoza Bridge:
For some reason almost all accounts of the battle state that Colville’s brigade forded the river upstream of the bridge; but his own official report to Picton, written the day after the battle, is quite explicit that his brigade crossed the bridge after the other two brigades in the Third Division and was then ordered by Dalhousie to support the light companies. (Colville Portrait of a General p 121).
The Artillery duel in the centre:
William Swabey recorded some details with pride in his diary:
we got onto the high road and found the French centre resting there still unforced. Webber Smith’s, two of Ross’s, and Sympher’s guns all firing on it, though the ground was such that we were all commanded by their artillery, we also fell to, and the shots rattled amongst us in thousands but did no harm, and in about a quarter of an hour the 4th and light divisions forced the centre. The troop immediately limbered up and, taking the lead of all the artillery, away we pushed through the village. At this moment, as Harding[e] has since told me, Lord Wellington turned to Dickson and asked “what artillery it was?” and when informed, he said, “That is something like Horse Artillery.” (Swabey Diary p 201; cf Dickson’s account in Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 916-17. The Hardinge referred to was Lt Richard Hardinge, the Adjutant of the Royal Horse Artillery and brother of the more famous Henry Hardinge who was wounded at Vitoria.).
As this suggests, the French infantry made little serious resistance in this position and were soon streaming to the rear in full retreat. They had been demoralized by the long retreat before the battle began and by the evident confusion and lack of purpose of their commanders. More seriously, they were unnerved by the sound of gunfire in their rear and the fear that their retreat had been cut off.
Graham’s Role in the Battle:
Tomkinson was on the left, in Graham’s force, and had no criticism to make: ‘The left column was not in the main attack, but was, in my opinion, the cause of the very hasty retreat of the enemy, the loss of their baggage and artillery, and made the battle a decisive one.’ (Tomkinson Diary p 247). And, ‘Had Sir T. Graham attached sooner, the enemy might have reinforced their troops before him to that extent as to render his success doubtful. I think he conducted the thing well, and so did Wellington, I fancy, when it was over.’ (ibid p 248).
Aitchison had been very critical of Graham earlier in the campaign (Aitchison Ensign in the Peninsular War p 241) but thought the attack of the allied left (where he was) was decisive (p 246). Gomm was also on the left and gives a useful account of the attack of the Fifth Division concluding, ‘judges say that we have added to our reputation, and we are given to understand that Lord Wellington thinks we performed a very important service at that moment.’ (Gomm Letters and Journals p 304-5).
None of this is decisive but such officers would not have hesitated to express disappointment or retail criticism if they heard it.
Wellington in the Battle:
Arthur Kennedy of the Hussars wrote:
All the infantry movements were like clock-work, nothing could be more beautiful. I had an opportunity of being near Lord W. at the middle of the day, we were halted near a hill from [where] he directed the operations, he was dressed in a grey frock [coat] and gave his orders with so much coolness watching all the movements with the sangfroid of an indifferent spectator. (Hunt Charging Napoleon p 105).
Role of the Cavalry at Vitoria:
The failure of the allied cavalry to make an impact at Vitoria has provoked much criticism both at the time and since, with explanations including Cotton’s absence, the idea that Wellington had crushed his subordinates so that they dared not show any independent initiative (Oman vol 6 p 440) or even that Wellington did not welcome any success not arranged by him (Tomkinson Diary p 253).
However these appear to be largely solutions to a non-existent problem. According to the figures given in Oman’s appendices (which have several significant arithmetical errors) the French army at Vitoria included almost 11,000 cavalry (10,923) compared to 8,300 for the cavalry of Wellington’s army (excluding Julian Sanchez). What role did the powerful French cavalry play in the battle? Did it charge Picton’s disordered division when excited by success? No. Did it cover the withdrawal of the army? No. At most it may have added weight to Reille’s force and so deterred Graham from attacking harder. And even this is extremely doubtful.
So if the French cavalry played no significant role, and the allied cavalry played no significant role, it might be worth taking seriously the comments that appear in many sources that the ground was so cut up and broken that cavalry could not act effectively. See: Hunt Charging Against Napoleon p 105; Bingham Wellington’s Lieutenant Napoleon’s Gaoler p 196; and Long Peninsular Cavalry General p 275 which is explicit and very quotable on the point for both French and British cavalry.
By far the greater failure was that of the French cavalry which neither saved the day, nor covered the withdrawal, and which scarcely figures in first hand British accounts of the battle.
Analysis and Criticism of the Battle:
Tomkinson criticized the lack of vigorous pursuit and added: ‘Lord Wellington may not like to entrust officers with detachments to act according to circumstances, and I am not quite clear if he approves of much success, excepting under his own immediate eye.’ (Diary p 253). Which is interesting, though not convincing.
His overall verdict is more persuasive:
Nothing can speak more for the judgment displayed in pushing on our advance, and the excellent arrangement in making the columns move to those points where they were required to attack. Had the left column moved with the remainder of the army, to the point on the main road before the enemy’s position, and then been detached to its appointed place, two days, or one at least, would have been lost, and the divisions of the enemy [Clausel and Foy] in question might have joined. Most generals would, I think, have reconnoitreed the enemy’s position, having their whole force collected, and then have detached to the left. I look upon it as the best thing we have done connected with the whole advance.’ (ibid p 256)
Scale of Plunder:
Costello’s estimate of £1,000 may be somewhat exaggerated; but two officers of the 18th Hussars are said to have each got almost £2,000, mostly in jewels (Hunt Charging Napoleon p 110, 118). Mr Dallas, commissary to the 14th Light Dragoons, is said to have got £600 (Tomkinson Diary p 253). Oman (vol 6 p 443-444) quotes the account of a Mr D__ who may be Dallas and who, in the midst of plundering, recollected that he was an officer, the only one present, and ‘in rather an awkward position’, and let the others have the rest of his share ‘there was at first a look of surprise, and then a burst of laughter.’
The 18th Hussars were made to disgorge their loot for the common good of the regiment and one man produced 740 quarter doubloons. (Hunt Charging Against Napoleon p 110 – Tomkinson Diary p 283 says a doubloon = £4 – so a quarter-doubloon was probably worth about £1).
Even Mr Larpent, the Deputy Judge Advocate General ‘took a case of maps, part of Lopez’s provincial set, and a horse-cloth, which I bought of a Portuguese soldier as a memorial, but would not meddle with the rest.’ (Private Journal p 160). These were, surely, legitimate spoils, but it shows that the issue of plundering was not entirely clear cut.
Wellington and King Joseph’s Pictures:
Wellington’s account, in his letter to Henry Wellesley was convenient, but plausible:
From the cursory view which I took of them, the latter did not appear to me to be anything remarkable. There are certainly not among them any of the fine pictures which I saw in Madrid, by Raphael and others; and I thought more of the prints and drawings, all of the Italian school, which induced me to believe that the whole collection was robbed in Italy rather than in Spain. I sent them to England; and, having desired that they should be put to rights, and those cleaned which required it, I have found that there are among them much finer pictures than I conceived they were; and as, if the King’s palaces have been robbed of pictures, it is not improbable that some of his may be among them, and I am desirous of restoring them to His Majesty, I shall be much obliged to you if you will mention the subject to Don J. Luyando, and tell him that I request that a person may be sent to London to see them, and to fix upon those belonging to His Majesty.’ (Wellington to Henry Wellesley 16 March 1814 WD VII p 375).
A list of the ‘principal’ pictures was compiled by Mr Seguier after they arrived in London, and is printed in C. M. Kaufmann Catalogue of Paintings in the Wellington Museum (p 157-60). As it runs to 165 items, and is followed by a note that there were a further fifty or sixty more worth keeping ‘some of which are good Pictures by Modern Masters’ the collection was plainly extensive. It includes works by Titian, Correggio, Velasquez, Caravaggio, Murillo, Claude Lorraine, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Breughel and Durer. On the other hand, the more obviously valuable pictures had probably gone in the earlier convoy. (Oman vol 6 p 386 says that many of the more famous pictures – by Velasquez, Titian etc were in the convoy sent off at dawn on 21 June citing Toreno vol 3 p 233-6).
Wellington raised the issue with the Spaniards again in 1816 and it was this approach which led to a royal command to keep them: Wellington to Count Fernan Nuñez 29 September 1816 WSD vol 11 p 500-501; and reply 29 November 1816 WSD vol 14 p 655-6.
Joseph kept most of the pictures that had gone in the earlier convoy, and which reached France in safety, until he sold them in England between 1832 and 1841. Stroud The Man who had been King (p 129) lists five Raphaels, a Titian, a Guido, a Murillo and five others – it seems unlikely that there would not have been more.
Wellington’s intention to return the pictures as soon as Spain was settled was well known, and drew high praise from Whitbread in March 1814 who contrasted it with the plundering of Napoleon. (This is a speech to the Artists Benevolent Fund on 31 March 1814 and recorded – second hand – in Farington’s Diary for 1 April 1814 – vol 13 p 448 of new edition).
Jenkins ‘The “Spanish Gift” at Apsley House’ English Heritage Historical Review vol 2 2007 p 112-27 adds some excellent additional information.
The celebrations in England:
Celebrations were not limited to London. On 30 July 1813 the West Briton newspaper described the commemoration of the victory in Falmouth:
The town of Falmouth was brilliantly illuminated on Monday last, in honor of the late splendid victory of Vittoria [sic]. As the inhabitants were desirous of manifesting their exultation on this glorious event, in a suitable manner, they were forced to allow some time for preparation, in order to prevent accidents in a town where the streets are rather confined and afford different individuals an opportunity of displaying their tastes in transparencies &c.
At the house of Mrs Fletcher there was no transparency, but in one of her shop windows was erected a tent, at the entrance of which was a centinal [sic], and inside appeared a number of French flags, eagles, &c. round a table covered with ornamental velvet, and on which lay a book. A well executed figure of Lord Wellington in the uniform of a British field-marshal, over which was thrown a Spanish robe, appeared as stopping to give some orders before he entered the tent, while Fame approached to crown him with laurel. (quoted in R. M. Barton (ed) Life in Cornwall in the Early Nineteenth Century (Truro, Barton, 1970) p 44-45).
And, four weeks later, the same journal recorded more modest celebrations in ‘the villages of Newlyn and Madron’ which ‘were illuminated. Three tar-barrels were set on fire on the top of Madron tower, which had a very singular appearance, and was discernable for several miles round.’ (The West Briton 27 Aug 1813 quoted in ibid p 46).
Reactions the news of Vitoria on the Continent:
Beethoven wrote a symphony to mark the occasion, the Wellington’s Victory, or, the Battle of Vitoria (Wellingtons Sieg oder Die Schlacht bei Vittoria) Op. 91 which was first performed in Vienna on 8 December 1813. And the Emperor Alexander ordered a Te Deum to be sung to celebrate the victory (the first occasion ever for a triumph not won by Russian arms). However it is not true that it was responsible for Austria joining the allies or the failure of the armistice to produce a negotiated peace. See Muir Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon p 286.
The Norman Ramsay Affair:
There are good firsthand accounts of the affair, from the artillery perspective, in Frazer’s Letters p 185-9 and Swabey Diary p 210-213 with supporting material. It was in this context that Swabey said that Wellington’s language was worse than that used at Billingsgate (Swabey p 210-11).
Frederick Ponsonby’s letter of 13 July, which led to Wellington releasing Ramsay, is in WP 1/372; Graham’s intervention is mentioned by Duncan History of the Royal Artillery vol 2 p 360. Torrens had written on 5 July that ‘The Artillery appear very anxious respecting the promotion of Captain Ramsay who I believe has distinguished himself.’ (also WP 1/372). Wellington replied on 18 July in a long letter giving his account of the affair, which is printed with Ramsay’s name and other identifying details suppressed in WD VI p 604-5 (the manuscript is in WP 1/373). In the letters Wellington complains that, ‘If discipline means habits of obedience to orders, as well as military instruction, we have but little of it in the army. Nobody ever thinks of obeying an order; and all the regulations of the Horse Guards, as well as of the War Office, and all the orders of the army applicable to this particular service, are so much waste paper.’
He also admits that he had intended to make an example of Ramsay but had since relented and released him (WD VI p 604-5) (Note it is the neglect and disobedience of officers of which Wellington complains).
One of the curiosities of the affair is that, according to Swabey, ‘Lord Wellington has been heard so often to speak in terms of the highest applause both of Ramsay and the troop’ (Swabey Diary p 210); while one of Ramsay’s subordinates declares that ‘Ramsay … was a very lazy man, and only the gallant and brilliant soldier when under fire.’ (ibid p 210).
Napier does not mention the affair, although it was his description of Fuentes that raised Ramsay from obscurity, nor does it appear in the early lives of Wellington by Maxwell, Scott and Jackson, or Stocqueler. There is a partisan account in Duncan (History of the Royal Artillery vol 2 p 357-60) which includes an extraordinary eulogy of Ramsay’s ability and character, and both Fortescue (vol 9 p 199-200) and Oman (vol 6 p 456-8) dwell on it, the latter in particular raising it to tragic proportions and implying that due to Wellington’s harshness Ramsay died of a broken heart, ‘still only a battery-commander, at Waterloo.’ This is unconvincing. As Ron McGuigan points out Ramsay’s rank in the artillery would be unaffected by any brevet promotion (which only covered army rank, not regimental rank) and he was relatively junior in the artillery. Besides Wellington did ensure that he received his brevet a few months later (22 November 1813).
Where had all the French gone?
We are told that in the spring of 1813, after deducting troops recalled to France, Napoleon had roughly 200,000 men in Spain viz:
100,000 in the Armies of Portugal, the Centre and the South
40,000 in the Armies of the North
60,000 in Aragon, Catalonia and Valencia under Suchet’s command.
So 140,00 were in the armies facing Wellington.
Yet at Vitoria Joseph and Jourdan had only about 57,000 men, and in the subsequent operations Foy and the Biscay garrisons are estimated at 16,000 men (Fortescue vol 9 p 204) and Clausel approximately 13,000 (Oman vol 6 p 468). A total of 86,000. Add garrisons of Pamplona and San Sebastian, and the total is still not much over 90,000, leaving a discrepancy of almost 50,000 men. Some of these would have been sick, and small detachments would account for some more, but there still seems to be a discrepancy.
According to Oman (vol 6 p 592) when Soult took command in mid July he had a gross strength of 117,789 of which just under 85,000 were available for active operations (cf Fortescue vol 9 p 530 which gives a return of just under 70,000 for Soult’s army, excluding artillery). These figures tend to support the ones for the spring – a reduction from 140,000 to 118,000 does not seem unreasonable for losses at Vitoria and (possibly) the second wave of troop withdrawals, but it doesn’t really explain the original discrepancy.
Bayonne after Vitoria:
Larpent wrote on 7 October 1813 after he had been there as a prisoner: ‘The people all told us that had we been quite prepared to advance into France at first, Bayonne was open, and without guns, dismantled; that we might have walked in and gone on to Bordeaux, I believe much of this, but not entirely, and our men were nearly as much harassed as the French.’ (Private Journal p 266). On the ‘missed opportunity’ see Oman vol 6 p 485 cf vol 7 p 232-33.
The pursuit after Vitoria:
Burgoyne wrote in his journal for 24 June 1813. ‘Very heavy rains, and roads exceedingly muddy, the progress of the troops is slow and very fatiguing.’ (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 264).
Larpent wrote from Pamplona about the same time ‘The roads were poached up knee deep with clay … the army is terribly fagged.’ On the 29th he added, ‘Our army, by this pursuit, already is terribly harassed and out of sorts.’ (Private Journal p 166-7). He went on to say that the French marched much better than the British partly because their soldiers were more prudent, and to praise the Portuguese who endured far more that the British and were ‘cheerful, orderly and steady’ while the British were ‘fagged, half tipsy, weak, disorderly and unsoldierly.’ (ibid p 168).
As a corrective to this one-sided view see Cooke A True Soldier Gentleman p 207-8: ‘In two days we reached Pamplona by a more direct road, but the men began to flag owing to irregular and poor feeding. Since quitting our camp between Toro and Salamanca, we had been marching for 32 days with only two regular halts. Those plagued and suffering from sore feet were under the painful necessity (unless totally unable to proceed), of going until they got well again. I have often seen the blood soaking through the gaiters and our heels of the soldiers’ hard shoes, which were whitened with the dust.’
Graham’s column had a particularly difficult march when it was sent north over the mountain range (see Fortescue vol 9 p 200 quoting James Stanhope’s journal) but thereafter its task was easier.
Men falling out after the Battle:
Bingham, commanding the 2nd Provision Battalion in Fourth Division wrote that:
Both before and since the action we have been marching from ten to twelve hours per day, with but one halt before today for sixteen days, with the worst weather I ever remember so late in the year on the peninsula. We are considerably reduced by mere fatigue, and I have nearly two hundred men less with me in the battalion, than I had on the day of the action; many of whom I am afraid are wandering about the country committing the most wanton depredations; for these last eight days we have had only one pound and a half of bread and had it not been for some wagon loads of flour we took from the enemy we should have been starving.’ (Bingham to Mr Gundry 29 June 1813 Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 198).
Wellington’s letter of 29 June 1813:
Larpent noted on 29 June that ‘Lord Wellington himself seemed knocked up yesterday; he ate little or nothing, looked anxious, and slept nearly all the time of sitting after dinner. I think he was not quite well, and anxious, no doubt.’ (Private Journal p 169).
Scum of the Earth:
In the Authorized Version of the Bible the phrase is ‘we are made as the filth of the world’ although in other editions this is sometimes translated as ‘we have become as the scum of the world’.
It is significant that the 1813 use of the phrase clearly referred to the men of the army, while when Wellington used it in later years it was about recruits.
Both Oman and Fortescue attribute Wellington’s fury to the plundering of the French baggage after Vitoria, and the letter of 29 June supports the connection; but it is possible that Wellington would have accepted this as inevitable if it had not been for the subsequent straggling and disorder. They both also tie it in with Wellington’s supposed harshness towards Norman Ramsay, of which they make much, and Oman goes on to subject Wellington to a severe attack (vol 6 p 453-4) and claims that his only panacea was ‘mere shooting, and much more flogging’ supporting this, not by any orders Wellington gave at the time, but by evidence he gave decades later to the Enquiry into Military Punishments. Coming from Oman this has done immense harm to Wellington’s reputation suggesting that he was not only a rigid conservative but a martinet as well. This is clearly unfounded, and it seems likely that Oman’s judgment was influenced by the mood of the time: this volume was written either during, or immediately after the First World War (it was published in 1922) – a time when Wellington’s view of British soldiers might well seem unpleasant and offensive.
William Napier, that proud soldier and political radical, told his wife in October 1813: ‘Well I know that there is no cruelty hell can devise that this army is not capable of and anxious to inflict upon the wretched people [French civilians] below us.’ (Bruce Life of Napier vol 1 p 154-55).
The importance of officers doing more than lead their men in battle:
Wellington’s stress on the importance of the officers was a constant theme, for example, on 13 June 1813, he told Bathurst: ‘We keep up our strength, and the army are very healthy, and in better order than I have ever known them. God knows how long this will last. It depends entirely upon the officers.’ (WD VI p 527). While on 9 October Larpent noted: ‘Plunder has begun, and disorder in the French villages, and Lord Wellington is exceedingly angry. He says, that if officers will not obey orders, and take care that those under them do so also, they must go home, for he will not command them here; many of our officers seem to think that they have nothing to do but fight.’ (Larpent Private Journal p 275).
Wellington argues for support for soldiers’ families:
Wellington urged better provision be made for the families of militia men who volunteered, and commented on the existing arrangements in Wellington to Bathurst 24 September 1813 WD VII p 21-22.
© Rory Muir