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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 18 : Oporto (April–May 1809)
The Times (18 April 1809) reported that AW had sailed on the 15th accompanied by Charles Stewart, George Murray, Fitzroy Somerset, Fitzroy Stanhope and Lt Fitzclarence in the Surveillante, Captain Sir G. Collier. (See below for more on AW’s staff in the campaign).
Portuguese enthusiasm for AW:
William Warre, who was serving as one of Beresford’s ADCs, wrote home on 3 March, ‘The Portuguese are very anxious for Sir Arthur Wellesley. They think that he would do everything that is possible. Nothing can exceed the high idea they have of him, and they are right.’ (Warre Letters from the Peninsula) p 36.
AW’s reputation in the army:
Arthur Wellesley’s reputation in the army at this time is suggested by a letter from Lieutenant T.C. Fenton, 4 Dragoons, written on 6 April 1809 waiting to sail for Portugal: ‘and as Sir Arthur Wellesley who commands the Army is a very brave and excellent officer, I trust we shall return successful. George Dalbiac, who goes out as Brigade Major, says we shall march into Madrid in less than three months.’ (Fenton to his father, 6 April 1809 The Peninsula and Waterloo Letters of Captain Thomas Charles Fenton edited by Major C. W. de L. Fforde J.S.A.H.R. vol 155 winter 1975 p 210-31 quote on p 210).
See also George Bingham’s comment in a letter home: ‘The week has been past [sic] in rumours and expectations; Sir John Cradock has (much to the satisfaction of both army and people) resigned the command to Sir Arthur Wellesley who is not yet come up. We may now expect something decisive…’ (Bingham to his mother, Leira, 29 April  Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler. The Peninsula and St Helena Diaries and Letters of Sir George Ridout Bingham 1809-21 edited by Gareth Glover p 18).
The comments on Cradock by the unknown officer quoted in the text are rather unfair, for until the last weeks of his command, he had lacked the resources to pursue a more active defence of Portugal. Still, even when reinforced he had remained pessimistic and had never gained the confidence of the army or the Portuguese. He was extremely disappointed at being suspended and, declining the appointment to Gibraltar, went home to nurse his mortified feelings. In 1811 he accepted the post of Governor of Cape Colony where he remained until 1814 but this was a poor consolation. (For Cradock’s caution see, for example, Cradock to Hill 22 April 1809 in Sidney Life of Hill p 88-9; for the army’s lack of confidence in him Lt-Col George Ridout Bingham to his father, Fonte del Pipo, 9 April 1809 Glover Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 13).
AW and Villiers:
Villiers’s credentials were dated 27 Nov 1808; he arrived in Lisbon just before 20 Dec 1808. (Bindoff et al British Diplomatic Representatives p 90-91).
There is no reason to suppose that Wellesley had any say in the appointment of Villiers, and the timing is wrong; Villiers being appointed in November 1808 when Arthur Wellesley’s influence was low and there was little reason to believe he would have anything further to do with Portugal.
Cradock criticized Villiers as weak and inefficient, but Wellesley evidently liked him and was on easy confidential terms with him. There was even a family connection: Villiers and William Wellesley-Pole had married twin sisters. (Cradock’s criticism of Villiers: Cradock to Col J. W. Gordon, ‘Private and Confidential’, Lisbon, 20 Feb 1809 BL Add Ms 49,488 f 42; AW to Villiers, Dublin Castle, 9 Jan 1809 WSD vol 5 p 524-5 shows an easy confidence in Villiers; Complete Peerage ‘Clarendon’ for the wives being twins).
When Villiers first talked about going home in June Wellesley expressed his regret, adding ‘I am very certain that government will find nobody who can execute what is still to be done so well as yourself’. (AW to Villiers 11 June WD III p 287-88).
Beresford and Arthur Wellesley:
Beresford welcomed the prospect of Wellesley’s arrival and a more active campaign, writing privately on 23 April:
I hope we shall have shortly the pleasure of sending presents to England of at least Marshal and Duke De’l Empire with a garnish of a few Generals de plus. I fear however we must wait the arrival of Wellesley for this, but I am just getting on my horse to go over to Cradock to endeavor to persuade him to have the credit of this, though I doubt my success, and indeed he has so long postponed it that I doubt he will now have time, as the former is expected hourly, and I most sincerely wish he was come for our inactivity is I my opinion ruinous… (Typescript of Beresford to Lady Anne Beresford Thomas 23 April 1809 Beresford Papers, Biblioteca de Arte Gulbentian Foundation Lisbon BC 919).
When was AW appointed Marshal General of Portugal?
On 5 May 1809 AW wrote to Dom Miguel Pereira Forjaz acknowledging the receipt of his commission as Marshal General of the armies of Portugal to which he had been appointed by the Regency Council acting in the name of the Portuguese Prince Regent. (WD III p 212). On 6 July 1809 the Portuguese Regent issued a decree at Rio de Janeiro in which he confirmed this appointment (or possibly appointed AW to the same position with slightly greater powers): this decree is published in the Annual Register for 1809 State Papers p 770-1. The politics behind this decree, and the whole circumstances of AW’s appointment, are discussed in his letters to Mr Villiers, 1 Oct 1809 (WD III p 533-4) and to Charles Stuart of 1 Jan 1811 (WD IV p 492-4). In the Chronology of Wellington’s life at the front of WD vol 1 Gurwood dates the commission to 6 July, but this is misleading for AW was certainly holding the position and exercising its powers, from 5 May 1809. (My thanks to Ron McGuigan and Howie Muir for their assistance in untangling this problem).
Strength of the army under AW’s command:
The figure given by Fortescue is also supported by a Morning State of 5 May 1809 in Oman vol 2 p 640-42 which gives total all ranks 27,231. This figure does not include 1/40th at Seville nor the 23rd Light Dragoons or the 1st KGL Hussars. And yet Wellesley told Pole on 1st July ‘I have never yet had 20,000 men in Portugal’ (AW to William Wellesley-Pole 1 July 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 13-15). While it seems most probable that Arthur Wellesley minimized his strength (and that of Soult), it is possible that the official returns were somehow inflated. Yet the General Monthly Return in W0 17/2464 for 1st May agrees with that in WSD vol 13.
Wellesley’s army in the spring of 1809:
The quality of the regiments in Wellesley’s army varied considerably, but most lacked experience in active campaigning, and the supporting services (the staff, commissariat etc) had yet to learn their craft. Sir John Moore had taken the cream of the British army to Coruña and it would be months before regiments which had endured that ordeal would be ready for another sustained campaign. Of the 25 battalions of infantry in Portugal in April 1809 only six had served under Wellesley in 1808 (2/9th, 1/29th, 1/40th, 1/45th, 5/60th and 1/97th) and these had either been detached from Moore’s army or left behind because they had high numbers of men sick. There were also two battalions of detachments made up of men from various regiments who had been left behind by Moore, or men who had lost contact with his army and made their way back to Portugal. Some of these were good troops (there was a composite company from each of the 43rd, 52nd, and 95th) but they naturally lacked the cohesion of regular battalions. (See C. T. Atkinson ‘The Battalions of Detachments of Talavera’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 15 1936 p 32-38 and Bob Burnham ‘The British Battalions of Detachment in 1809’ Napoleon Series www.napoleon-series.org/military/organization). The remainder included some excellent units, including four battalions of the King’s German Legion which had served with Moore in Sweden, and two very strong battalions of Guards (1st Coldstream, 1st Scots Guards) each with well over 1,000 rank and file fit for duty (compared to between 500 and 700 from most of the line battalions).
If the Guards were among the best units in Wellington’s army, the worst were probably some of the six second battalions sent out as reinforcements under Hill’s command in March. These battalions had not really been intended for overseas service, but to collect, train and channel recruits to the first battalions which were mostly serving in India, Nova Scotia or the Cape of Good Hope. They had been rapidly expanded by large drafts from the militia and at least one (the 2/30th) was, as its regimental historian admits, ‘not physically fit for the field’. (Lt-Col Neil Bannatyne History of The Thirtieth Regiment p 243). Wellesley left this battalion in garrison at Lisbon until it could be sent to Gibraltar in exchange for a stronger unit, but he had to use most of the remaining second battalions: some did very well, but others wilted, and their presence needs to be remembered when considering the widespread sickness which affected the army in the autumn.
Castlereagh did not send out these units from choice, but because he was scraping the barrel in an effort to satisfy the demands which beset him to reinforce the army in Portugal. His problem was simple: more than half the first battalions in the British army were serving outside Europe in colonial garrisons, particularly in the East and West Indies. (First battalions were preferred for this service as they could be kept up to strength by drafts from their second battalions at home). Almost half the remaining first battalions had marched with Moore and were still recovering. Six were with Wellesley in Portugal, and a few more were in Sicily and similar garrisons where they might soon see action. There would be no easy solution to this problem until Moore’s regiments were ready for further service. (Oman Wellington’s Army p 333-340 lists the station of every battalion in the British army in July 1809 and makes some very interesting comments).
Wellesley’s army was particularly weak in cavalry, and those he did have were still very inexperienced and had much to learn about keeping men and horses in good condition despite the hardships of campaigning. A brigade of heavy cavalry (3rd Dragoon Guards and 4th Dragoons) landed in Lisbon a few days after Wellesley, but they would take several weeks to become acclimatized and ready for active service. (Fortescue vol 7 p 146n). Otherwise there were only two regiments of light cavalry (14th and 16th Light Dragoons) and some detachments left over from the previous campaigns (from the 20th Light Dragoons and the 3rd KGL Hussars). Two more regiments (1st KGL Hussars and 23rd Light Dragoons) were expected before long. Some of these regiments were to give outstanding service in the years to come: the 14th and 16th Light Dragoons and 1st KGL Hussars saw out the war gaining credit in every campaign. But in the spring of 1809 they were still extremely raw: William Tomkinson of the 16th wrote a note in his diary for 9 May 1809, when the campaign had already begun, recalling the novelty of bivouacking in an open field for the first time when, ‘every officer was employed in bringing into use the various inventions recommended in England for such occasions, many of which were found useless; and, again, many essentials had been left behind, from a determination to face the campaign with the fewest number of comforts, whereby many requisites were omitted which were now found indispensible. But we were young soldiers, had listened to every suggestion, and can only learn by experience.’ (Tomkinson Diary p 3).
There were five batteries of artillery or thirty guns, six-pounders apart from one battery of three-pounders, and with a howitzer in each battery. (Fortescue vol 7 p 145. The term ‘batteries’ is an anachronism in this context; in the foot artillery they were ‘brigades’ in the horse artillery ‘troops’). This was not a large force for an army of 27,000 men: Napoleon would have expected three times as many guns, although all armies in the Peninsula were less generously equipped with artillery than those in central Europe. As in 1808 the British artillery suffered from the poor quality of the draught horses sent out by the Ordnance. (See AW to Castlereagh 29 April 1809 WD III p 197).
Sir John Murray:
It is possible Wellington’s praise of Murray quoted in the text was not sincere – it was coupled with the statement that there was no room for Murray in the army at the time – but Wellesley’s attempt to mollify Murray in the dispute over Beresford’s rank does not suggest any eagerness to see him go (AW to Murray 28 May 1809 WSD vol 6 p 269-70). Fortescue’s strictures (vol 7 p 161) are clearly over-influenced by hindsight and the knowledge of Murray’s loss of nerve at Tarragona in 1813. See also Wellington to Torrens 9 Feb 1811 WD IV p 588 which again praises Murray’s ability but doesn’t want him back because he made unnecessary trouble over Beresford’s rank.
There is an excellent entry on him in the ODNB. Wellington wrote of Murray after his failure ‘I have a very high opinion of [his] talents but he has always appeared to me to want what is better than abilities, viz sound sense.’ (Wellington to Torrens 8 Aug 1813 WD VI p 665-7. Identification confirmed from the Wellington Papers: e-mail of 18 Dec 2004 from Karen Robson.)
In August 1807 Murray had married a niece of Lord Mulgrave and in 1811 he inherited a baronetcy and fortune of £500,000 from his half brother Sir James Pulteney Murray, who had been Secretary at War in the Portland government.
John Randoll Mackenzie:
Major-General John Randoll Mackenzie was a few years older than Wellesley and again had seen extensive Indian service although he had missed the Maratha War in which his regiment (the 78th) had distinguished itself in Wellesley’s army. He had been intensely disappointed to be ordered to Portugal in later 1808 rather than being allowed to take part in the Coruña campaign in Baird’s force. He was an MP who had supported the Talents and quietly opposed the Portland Government (including in the votes over Copenhagen, and over the appointment of John Giffard in which Wellesley was directly involved as Chief Secretary of Ireland). He feared that these political differences might prejudice Wellesley against him, but in fact Wellesley seems to have formed a high opinion of his ability entrusting him with a semi-independent command and then a division, even though he was a junior major-general. (Thorne History of Parliament vol 4 p 494-6. Extracts from Mackenzie’s Diary (in the British Library) sent to me by John Brewster).
Richard Stewart and Henry Fane:
The other brigadiers included Richard Stewart and Henry Fane. Stewart (not related to Charles Stewart and Castlereagh) had served as Wellesley’s deputy in the Copenhagen Expedition and as Moore’s Adjutant-General in the Baltic in 1808. He would continue to command a brigade in the Peninsula until his death in Lisbon in October 1810. And Henry Fane, who had done so well in command of the light infantry in 1808, was given command of the newly arrived brigade of heavy dragoons and remained with the cavalry for the rest of the war, except for a lengthy absence due to ill-health including the whole of 1812. Although he proved one of Wellington’s best cavalry officers he had few opportunities to really distinguish himself and hindsight suggests that his considerable talents were not fully utilized; but he lacked the seniority to command a division. (See the good entry on Fane in ODNB; Tomkinson Diary p 235; Glover Wellington as Military Commander p 218).
Mackenzie’s force and his discontent with his role:
Mackenzie commanded his own brigade (3/27th, 2/31st, 1/45th) together with the 2/24th, Fane’s brigade of heavy dragoons and a battery of six-pounders amounting to some 4,500 men. This force would be supported by a substantial part of the Portuguese army amounting to perhaps 7,000 men.
Mackenzie commanded the British troops and had some authority over the Portuguese, but he was unhappy to miss the active campaign against Soult and grumbled in his diary,
This movement has disappointed and distressed me. I dare say it will be accompanied by all those expressions that can gild the Pill, but being the first act of Sir Arthur’s Command, I do not bode much of the fortunate kind from it. I dare say I shall be told of the importance of the Post entrusted to my Charge and that the selection is honourable to me. This is a sort of reasoning applied and most fallacious. I would be sorry to suppose that my political connections have occasioned any of the … [disappointments?] in the line of my profession. Time will shew. (Mackenzie Diary 29 April 1809 BL Add Ms 39,201 courtesy of John Brewster).
It is easy to understand his feelings, but they were unfair. Wellesley did not lightly entrust any subordinate with a semi-independent command, and he went to some trouble that Mackenzie would not be superseded by the arrival of a more senior officer from home. (AW to Villiers, Coimbra, 4 May 1809 WD III p 208-9. He also, naturally, prepared comprehensive and thorough instructions covering every likely contingency which may have helped Mackenzie realize the importance of the role he would be called upon to play if Victor took the field. (AW to Mackenzie 1 May 1809 WD III p 200-202. Unfortunately Mackenzie’s diary ends before the received these instructions so his private reaction to them is not recorded).
Mackenzie was not alone in regretting missing the Oporto campaign. Young Frances Simcoe, a lieutenant in the 3/27th, wrote home, ‘For my part I am very sorry for I would sooner be commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley than any other General that is in [the] army. We are now to fight with the Portuguese troops who I fear will not be much good’. (Simcoe to his mother, Abrantes, 6 May 1809 quoted in Fryer “Our Young Soldier” p 108). In the event the 3/27th was soon sent back to Lisbon.
Strength of Arthur Wellesley’s army at Coimbra:
Oman gives Arthur Wellesley either 17,000 men (vol 2 p 318) or 16,400 (vol 2 p 321) all ranks excluding artillery, fit for duty. Fortescue vol 7 p 154 gives 16,000 after Tilson’s brigade is detached to Beresford, implying almost 18,000 before. Oman vol 2 p 320n gives a detailed breakdown (excluding Tilson) which gives a total of only 15,325. Add 1800 for Tilson, 1,000 for artillery etc and 4,500 for Mackenzie this makes 22,625. There were only 2,358 sick in return of 1 May bringing total to just under 25,000. This is still three thousand short for the total Anglo-German army in Portugal: detachments, the garrison of Lisbon etc account for some, and some natural slippage between nominal and effective strength the remainder (Oman vol 2 p 640-42 prints Morning State of 5 May which clarifies the details a good deal).
Portuguese figures: Oman vol 2 p 318 says that there were 7,000 Portuguese at Coimbra and 11,400 available for the campaign (i.e. including Wilson, Silveira etc). Fortescue says roughly 2,400 added to Arthur Wellesley’s army. That may be accurate but Portuguese figures at this stage of the war were often inflated (see D’Urban Peninsular War Journal p 63). Vichness ‘Marshal of Portugal’ p 176-8 says that only about 8,500 Portuguese troops were available to take part in the campaign. This is probably as good a figure as we can get but it may not include militia and other irregulars in Silveira’s force.
AW’s poor opinion of the Portuguese infantry he reviewed at Coimbra:
AW told Beresford after the review: ‘your troops made but a bad figure this morning of the review. The battalions very weak, not more than 300 men; the body of men; particularly of the – regt., very bad; and the officers worse than anything I have seen.’ (AW to Beresford Coimbra 6 May 1809 WD III p 213-14).
Many British officers were scornful of the Portuguese at this stage in the war, although there was also a feeling that the men were potentially good soldiers and that the chief problems were inexperience and the poor quality of the officers. Wellesley himself had come to Portugal believing that her forces ‘are but in their infancy in respect to organisation, discipline and equipment’ and that no ‘reasonable expectation can be formed of [their] success against the veteran and disciplined troops of France’ (AW to Junta of Spanish Estremadura, Lisbon, 28 April 1809 WD III p 195-6); but he had become convinced that they could play a useful part in the campaign against Soult and gently chided Mackenzie when he expressed his reluctance to act in conjunction with them. (AW to Mackenzie 21 May 1809 WD III p 245 cf Mackenzie Diary 1 May 1809 BL Add Ms 39,201 courtesy John Brewster). In the event the Portuguese soldiers performed remarkably well in the campaign both in marching and fighting although they did not get full credit for this, because some of their most important achievements were performed out of sight of the British.
John Burgoyne’s assessment of Wellesley’s army in Coimbra:
John Burgoyne, an intelligent engineer officer destined to play an important part in the later campaigns of the war, agreed about the Portuguese, while not being overly impressed by the British troops. He wrote in his journal:
6th May ‘The army, except the 16th Dragoons, reviewed by Sir A. Wellesley’s; not so fine a one as I have been accustomed to see; except the Guards, and Germans, most of them very young soldiers. The Portuguese made a very bad figure indeed – cannot march, nor do they appear better than the youngest recruits; the men particularly small. The Portuguese cavalry were not out; but as they marched in yesterday, they appeared serviceable, and much better mounted than we expected. (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 40).
Wellesley’s military secretary was James Bathurst who had served as Quartermaster in the 1808 campaign. The strain of overwork told on his temper and he eventually broke down completely. (Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 60-61). Colin Campbell was officially an assistant-Adjutant general, but on 4 May Wellesley appointed him ‘Commandant of Head-Quarters’ responsible for ‘all matters concerning the quartering, marches, and police of headquarters’ including the movement of the baggage and paraphernalia. This sounds prosaic and dull but it was essential that it was performed efficiently and it gave Campbell a real if ill-defined authority over the ADCs and other staff, even though some of them were the sons of dukes or the brothers of earls.
The aides included Fitzroy Stanhope, Lord Harrington’s son, and Fitzroy Somerset returning for their third and second campaign at Wellesley’s side respectively. Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Fox Canning, the Foreign Secretary’s cousin, joined before the campaign began, although presumably not before he appeared erroneously in General Orders as ‘Captain George Canning.’ (Hunt Mehitabel Canning p 237-9; GO 27 April 1809 General Orders, 1809 p 1). Another new-comer was the twenty-six year old Captain Henry Bouverie. This was certainly not a political appointment for Bouverie’s father was a staunch Whig, although by 1808 he had fallen into insignificance, and Bouverie was a cousin of the radical Lord Folkestone who had taken a prominent part in the attacks on Lord Wellesley’s conduct in India. The most likely explanation for Bouverie’s presence on Wellesley’s staff in 1808 was that he had been recommended by Lord Rosslyn to whom he had previously been ADC, but this is uncertain especially as Rosslyn himself was to see service again only a few months later at Walcheren. Bouverie remained an ADC until his promotion to Captain and Lieutenant-Colonel in 1810, and later served as a staff officer winning particular praise from General Graham for his conduct at Vitoria. (Royal Military Calendar vol 4 p 244; Ward Wellington’s Headquarters p 171; Hall Biographical Dictionary p 68; Wellington to Bathurst 22 June1813 WD VI p 542; Thorne History of Parliament vol 3 p 233).
Henry Cadogan joined Wellesley at Coimbra and seems to have remained an ADC until his regiment (the 71st) arrived in Portugal in the autumn of 1810. And at the same time Wellesley took on Captain Ulysses Burgh, one of Cradock’s ADCs, whose father Thomas Burgh was an important government official in Ireland well known to Richmond and Wellesley. (See ODNB on Ulysses Burgh. He became 2nd Lord Downes, heir to a cousin. Arthur Wellesley and Richmond knew his father in Ireland: see AW to Richmond 29 July 1809 WD III p 380 ‘Tom Burgh’s son was hit…’). Edward Pakenham called Burgh ‘as good a fellow as ever lived’, while years later Maria Edgeworth wrote ‘He is with all the Burgh manner and vivacity and intelligence of eye – agreeable and a fine soldier.’, (Edward Pakenham to Lord Longford, Madrid, 24 Aug 1812 Pakenham Letters p 176; GO 5 May 1809 General Orders, 1809 p 14-15; and Maria Edgeworth Letters From England, 22 Jan 1831 p 476). Burgh, Fitzroy Somerset and Charles Canning remained on Wellesley’s personal staff throughout the war, and were among his most trusted aides.
George Fitzclarence was only fifteen in 1809, the illegitimate son of the future William IV and Mrs Jordan, the celebrated actress. He had already served as ADC to General Slade in the Coruña campaign, and would see most of the Peninsular War, being twice wounded. (Complete Peerage vol 9 p 429-30 under Fitzclarence; Aspirall (ed) Mrs Jordan and Her Family; Francis Jackson to George Jackson 13 March 1809 Diaries and Letters of George Jackson vol 2 p 420).
AW’s instructions and advice to Beresford:
‘But remember’, Wellesley told Beresford, ‘that you are a Commander in Chief of an army, and must not be beaten; therefore do not undertake anything with your troops, if you have not some strong hopes of success.’ If Beresford was defeated it might seriously undermine his prestige and authority and make the task of reforming the Portuguese army much more difficult; while a successful campaign, even if Beresford played only a subordinate part would help to convince Portuguese doubters of the value of the British alliance. (AW to Beresford, 11 May 1809, WD III p 225).
AW’s second meeting with Argenton:
On the night before the advance began Wellesley had a second meeting with Argenton which revealed that the conspirators were not yet ready to act and also that Soult appeared unaware of the approach of the allied army. On his return to the French army Argenton attempted to win over General Lefebvre to the conspiracy but without success, and on the following day Argenton was arrested questioned by Soult. He could not resist the temptation to boast and as well as exaggerating the size of the conspiracy, he claimed that Wellesley with 30,000 men was about to fall on the French outposts. Soult thus received warning of the impending attack a little sooner than he would otherwise have done, but at a time when he was unsettled by the discovery of the conspiracy. The aftermath was curiously muted: Argenton was imprisoned but escaped, possibly with the connivance of his guards, on the retreat a few days later. There was no broader witch-hunt: two colonels whom he had named were briefly arrested but soon reinstated and continued their careers without any appreciable disadvantage. Evidently Soult preferred to dismiss the affair as insignificant rather than institute enquiries which would inevitably draw attention to the discontent with his leadership. (Oman vol 2 p 321-3).
French atrocities observed on the advance to Oporto:
One British officer (John Carss of the 2/53rd) wrote:
The whole of the day’s march afterwards the road was covered with the dead and wounded of the French and Portuguese, who were murdering each other. When the Portuguese found that the French had given way they made every exertion to destroy them, and when they killed them, they either burned them or hung them on the trees naked. The French did the same with the Portuguese and burned almost every house on their retreat. Some villages they destroyed, and men, women and children. No person would believe the cruelty of the French except they saw it. (S. H. F. Johnston (ed) ‘The 2/53rd in Peninsular War: Contemporary Letters from an Officer of the Regiment’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 26 no 105 spring 1948 p 3 letter of 29 May 1808. See also Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, 28 May 1809 in Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 37-40; AW to Castlereagh 18 May WD III p 239-41 and Londonderry and Gleig Story of the Peninsular War p 158).
It is worth emphasising that while all armies commit some crimes and make life uncomfortable for the local population, French behaviour in Portugal and in parts of Spain went far beyond this, provoked in part, of course, by the insurrection against them.
Portuguese perform well in the Combat of Grijo, 11 May 1809:
The Portuguese battalion also encountered some resistance and Wellesley was delighted to see that it behaved well under fire. Only that morning he had singled it out for criticism in General Orders for straggling, and now he was able to tell Villiers ‘Colonel Doyle’s battalion of the 16th Portuguese regt. … behaved remarkably well. Recollect that in talking upon this subject, you do not forget to mention the name of the Colonel of the regiment, who was in the field I know, for I had given him a piece of my mind in the morning.’ (AW to Villiers, 6pm 11 May 1809 WD III p 226; GO 11 May 1809 WD III p 225n). This would not just make amends to a gallant officer for a public rebuke, it would also add to the prestige of the new Portuguese army and encourage the champions of the British alliance in Lisbon.
AW at Grijo:
Several sources give glimpse of Arthur Wellesley giving orders during the combat of Grijo. Fitzclarence says that the French pushed a column of infantry through the village, ‘which being reported to Sir Arthur, he replied in the most quiet manner, “Order the battalion of detachments to charge them with the bayonet if they come any further.”’ ‘Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ U.S.J. no 5 May 1829 p 530.
And Leslie Military Journal p 110: ‘The skirmishing still continuing with great obstinacy, and the enemy not seeming inclined to give way, Sir Arthur Wellesley said, “If they don’t move soon, I must let the old 29th loose upon them.”’ But the French gave way.
Both these sources add some further good colour: Fitzclarence on the thrill the novices on the staff felt at seeing action and hearing such orders; Leslie on the comforts of the French camp where the troops spent the night.
When was Murray ordered to Avintes?
Fortescue vol 7 p 159 says that Murray was detached only when Arthur Wellesley gave the order to the Buffs to cross the river. In a footnote he points out that ‘Wellesley’s despatch would lead one to suppose that Murray’s detachment had been sent away much earlier,’ but he gives no grounds for this ignoring Wellesley’s version of events. George Murray in his extended critique of Napier (published anonymously in Quarterly Review vol 52 no 114 Dec 1836 p 532-534) states that John Murray was ordered to direct to Avintes on the morning on the morning of the 12th. Against this there is Beamish’s account (History of the King’s German Legion vol 1 p 195) which is evidently the basis of Fortescue’s narrative and which claims to be based on the Journal of Captain Schnath. Given this contradiction in the evidence it seems sensible to accept Wellesley’s own account that John Murray had been detached before the army reached Oporto.
The barber and the barges:
In his hostile review of Napier’s History George Murray throws doubt on the story of the barber: ‘We know nothing of the barber, and have nothing to say about him, except that we very strongly suspect that, like Don Quixote’s friend of the same calling, he has no existence except a military romance.’ (Quarterly Review vol 57 no 114 Dec 1836 p 534). As Quartermaster General Murray’s word carries great weight, but the barber’s first appearance in print was not in Napier but in Londonderry’s Narrative of the Peninsular War and Fitzclarence’s ‘Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ (USJ vol 1 no 6 June 1829). Given that Waters was an officer of the Adjutant-General’s department of which Londonderry was the head (and Fitzclarence was his ADC) their account cannot be disregarded. Fitzclarence’s version is worth quoting at length.
A hair dresser who escaped from Oporto in the night, had bought in, soon after day-break, the intelligence what the enemy had destroyed the bridge of boats over the Douro at one o’clock; and, in addition, the still more disagreeable information, that all the boats were secured on the other side of the Douro. On the fugitive barber being taken to Sir Arthur by Col. Waters of the Adjutant General’s Department, that officer was instructed to proceed immediately to the banks of the river, and directed to procure boats coute qui coute’.
In the meantime Col. Waters (who has since become so distinguished for his intelligence and activity) had passed up the left bank of the river, searching for means to cross it, and about two miles above the city, found a small boat lying in the mud. The peasantry demurred at going to the other side to procure some larger boats seen on the opposite bank; but the Colonel, (from speaking Portuguese like a native,) learned that the Prior of Amarante was not distant from the spot, and hoped by his influence to attain his object. This patriotic priest, on learning the desire of the British, joined with Col. Waters in inducing the peasants, after some persuasion, to accompany the Colonel across, who brought back four boats.’ (Fitzclarence’s ‘Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ (U.S.J. vol 1 no 6 June 1829 p 660-1)
This contains many differences of detail from Londonderry’s story, which rather adds to its credibility, showing that Fitzclarence did not simply copy from his former chief. Nonetheless it is strange and surprising that an exploit like this did not become the talk of the army; it does not appear in any letters or diaries written at the time and Murray says he did not know of it. It is also surprising that Wellesley did not mention Waters by name in his despatch when so many other officers were thanked individually. (Certainly no ‘aristocratic’ prejudice: Arthur Wellesley would be generous in his praise for Waters on a few months later: AW to Torrens 26 Oct 1809 WD III p 565). Even so there are not sufficient grounds to doubt the substance of the story especially as no alternative is on offer.
Allied artillery supporting the Buffs when they crossed the Douro:
Oman’s account is based on the manuscript diary of Captain Lane, Royal Artillery. Dickson’s diary for 12 May (Dickson Manuscripts vol 1 p 21) gives a slightly different story: ‘The first two guns that got up the hill to our convent were Portuguese 6 Pounders having been the nearest in the streets leading to the Convent; these were then brought forward and opened by Col. Framingham who directed them himself with such effect, that it checked and drove back the column for a time and assisted the troops in their formation; Captain Lane’s Brigade immediately afterwards got up to the same place. A brisk attack was now made by the enemy in great force on General Hill’s Brigade which defended itself nobly’. By contrast Cocks’s journal (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 28) states that the British artillery fire was ineffectual; however other details in Cocks’s account are inaccurate e.g. he says that Hill forded the river at a separate point from where the Buffs crossed, which suggests he was not able to observe this part of the action first-hand.
The 29th and the Guards advance from the quays through the city:
As the leading British troops – the 29th and the Guards – marched through the city they were met with jubilation by the populace which had suffered severely in the early days of the French occupation little more than a month before. According to one Guards’ officer, ‘The windows, balconies, and tops of houses were crowded with men, women, and children, who by huzzaing, waving their hats, handkerchiefs, etc, testified their joy and anxiety for our success.’ (Captain Bowles to Lord Fitzharris Oporto 25 May 1809 Malmesbury Series of Letters vol 2 p 98-100; see also Stothert Narrative p 40-41, Aitchison Ensign in the Peninsular War p 44 and Cooper Rough Notes p 8). While Charles Leslie of the 29th recalled that, ‘On gaining the upper part of the town we observed some of the enemy through an opening … our leading company, Grenadiers, began to fire upon them. They made little resistance, and made off in haste and confusion, abandoning a brigade of artillery and some ammunition waggons, and many were killed and wounded by our fire. We left sentries to protect the wounded, as the Portuguese mob was threatening to kill them.’(Leslie Military Journal p 112-3). Portuguese revenge against French prisoners proved a serious problem, and on the following day Wellesley was forced to issue a proclamation to the inhabitants making clear it would not be tolerated. (Proclamation, Oporto, 13 May 1809 WD III p 231).
Murray’s cavalry: one or two squadrons?
There is some confusion whether Murray had one or two squadrons; confusion for which Arthur Wellesley is responsible. In the General Order issued on the evening after the battle, he said two squadrons (GO 12 May 1809 WD III p 227n) but corrected this to one in his dispatch to Castlereagh (AW to Castlereagh 12 May 1809 WD III p 226-9). Hawker says one squadron (Journal p 56) Oman vol 2 p 340 says one. Fortescue vol 7 says two on p 159 and one on p 162.
What if Wellesley had sent all his cavalry to Avintes?
The Memoir of Combermere (vol 2 p 119-20) says that the charge of Murray’s squadron of the 14th Light Dragoons shows what might have been done if Arthur Wellesley had sent all his cavalry to Avintes. It is an interesting point and applies not just to the cavalry – if Murray had had all his German infantry he would have been much better placed to fall on the French flank. But we simply do not know enough about the crossing (probably by refloated ferry, not a ford) at Avintes to know its capacity i.e. if more troops could have crossed in time there.
AW’s General Order of 12 May congratulating the army:
Wellesley, who is sometimes accused of being ungenerous to his army, was lavish in his praise. Before the end of the day he had issued a general order congratulating
the troops upon the success which has attended their operations for the last four days, upon which they have traversed about 80 miles of difficult country, in which they have carried some formidable positions, have beat the enemy repeatedly, and have ended by forcing the passage of the Douro, and defending the position they had so boldly taken up, with numbers far inferior to those with which they were attacked. (GO 12 May 1809 WD III p 227n).
He went on to praise the contributions of individual units, including the 16th Portuguese Line regiment and companies of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th Rifles serving in the 1st battalions of detachments in Richard Stewart’s brigade; the 14th, 16th and 20th Light Dragoons; the 1st and 2nd KGL battalions; and, of course, the Buffs, the 2/48th and 2/66th. He thanked all the senior officers who played any prominent part in the campaign and many staff officers, including Colin Campbell who had assisted Hill in the defence of the seminary. Charles Stewart received credit of the cavalry charges on both the 11th and 12th, and this led Charles Cocks to write home in disgust, ‘depend on it from me, whatever Sir A. Wellesley may choose to say, [Stewart’s] only merit either day was being Lord Castlereagh’s brother. On both accounts when he came within sight of the enemy he said, “There’s your enemy, charge them,” and went back.’ (General Order 12 May 1809 in WD III p 227n where the 66th is misprinted as the 16th; Cocks to Thomas Somers Cocks, Coimbra, 11 June 1809 Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 30-31. See also Moore-Smith Life of Colborne p 126-7, but cf Fitzclarence ‘Account of British Campaign of 1809’ U.S.J. vol 1 no 5 May 1829 p 530 who says that Stewart put himself at the head of the cavalry on the 11th and charged with them, and Fitzclarence was on Stewart’s staff).
Wellesley snubbing Hervey:
Colborne was not present at the action but nonetheless felt strongly that his friend Felton Hervey had been denied the credit that was due to him (and which would assist his career), because Wellesley was ‘not above writing in his despatches to please the aristocracy.’ This sort of resentment was common in the Peninsular army but it needs to be treated with some caution. Was Colborne’s sympathy for his friend Hervey any different from the favouritism he alleged Wellesley showed towards Stewart? After all Colborne was in no position to judge which officer really deserved the credit but assumed that it should be given to Hervey because he was a friend and because it would help his career. Secondly the specific allegation that Wellesley favoured Stewart ‘to please the aristocracy’ is clearly aiming at the wrong target. If Wellesley favoured Stewart it was surely because his brother was Secretary of State of War and Wellesley’s old friend and patron; not because his father was a peer. Wellesley was at ease in a world where patronage and influence were powerful forces: he had benefited from them and he reciprocated the benefit. Those who had less influence naturally resented their exclusion (while seldom acknowledging that they remained highly privileged compared to those below them: Colborne ended his days a Field Marshal and a Lord). But to pretend that the driving force was empty social snobbery – ‘pleasing the aristocracy’ – rather than the workings of the networks of power and patronage is to miss the point.
Wellesley’s pursuit of Soult
Loison’s defeat at Mezãofrio and his abandoning of the bridge at Amarante meant that Soult could not hope to continue his retreat to the east, and had no choice but to abandon all his heavy baggage and wheeled vehicles and turn off the main road and strike north through the mountains till he could find the road that headed north-east of Oporto towards Galicia.
Wellesley did not learn of Soult’s desperate plight until late on the afternoon of the 13th when the Portuguese secretary to the French governor of Oporto returned to the city full of news and eager for a pardon. Wellesley at once ordered John Murray to send a patrol ‘either of cavalry or mounted riflemen, if you can get horses or mules’ to discover if it was true that the French had turned north off the road (AW to John Murray Oporto 13 May WD III p 232). But it was not until well into the 14th before he could be sure that the story was true and not a ruse to send him in the wrong direction. (See the number of letters AW wrote from Oporto on the 14th and his comment to Villiers ‘I may as well make use of the time I am waiting here for the last reports from General Murray…’ WD III p 234). The army then set off north toward Braga and marched more than twenty miles before stopping at Villa Nova de Famalicão.
Meanwhile Soult had another decision to make: should he push on to Chaves and Bragança at the risk of encountering Beresford’s army, or should he turn further north on a back road to Montalegre and then over the mountains again into Galicia? A week earlier and the question would have been absurd: the French despised the Portuguese troops and the prospect of slaughtering any who dared stand in their way would have been almost welcome; but Soult’s men were now in no mood to fight and he knew it. So where the roads parted, just east of Salamonde, he veered north following the Cavado on a road which did little credit to the Romans who were said to have built it. Although this may have seemed prudent, Soult was taking an enormous risk, for the road to Montalegre crossed two narrow bridges: Ponte Novo and the Saltador and if either of these were held against him, the French retreat would have reached a dead end. (This account of the geography is simplified and even slightly inaccurate: see S. G. P. Ward ‘Milgapey, May, 1809 A Peninsular War Puzzle in Geography’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 30 no 124 Winter 1952 p 148-155 for an authoritative account). In fact the gamble paid off. Silveira’s men did not reach either bridge before the French, and the local militia who tried to hold them were brushed aside. The road to Spain was open and the army would escape.
The British marched from Braga on the morning of 16 May. Riding well ahead of the column advanced parties of dragoons discovered the French rearguard at Salamonde early in the afternoon, but it took several more hours for the leading brigades of British infantry to arrive after a long march. The French occupied a strong position and Wellesley treated it with respect, sending the light companies to turn its flank before attacking frontally with the Guards. Thoroughly demoralized by misfortune the French rearguard broke and fled with barely a show of resistance. As Captain Fantin des Odoards wrote,
When towards evening an English party attacked our rearguard, a few shots were enough to throw it into unbelievable disorders. Frenchmen are hopeless in retreat, and there we saw the proof of that axiom of war … The confusion resulting from this panic was explosive. (Fantin de Odoards in Urban The Man who Broke Napoleon’s Codes p 42).
The fleeing troops followed the route which the rest of the French army had taken earlier in the day, onto the side road to Montalegre and then across the Ponte Nova. The press of frightened hurrying men across the bridge, whose temporary repairs may have been giving way, was terrible. Fantin des Odoards remembered that, ‘so many crowded on that numerous men were thrown off and drowned in the torrent or were trampled under the horses’ feet. If the English had had taken advantage of this rout, I don’t know what would have become of us, the fear was so contagious, even among the bravest soldiers’. (Fantin de Odoards in Urban The Man who Broke Napoleon’s Codes p 42). But the leading British infantry failed to notice the side road in the gathering dark and pressed along the main road to Chaves. Even without the pressure of pursuit there was chaos on Ponte Nova and dozens of men and animals fell into the river. So great was the panic that the French made no attempt to destroy the bridge behind them or to hold it even though this would have guaranteed them against further pursuit. (See Ward ‘Milgapey’ p 148-55 for a more detailed and accurate account including excellent quotes from Scovell’s diary; Oman vol 2 p 357-9; Captain Bowles to Lord Fitzharris, Oporto, 25 May 1809, Malmesbury Series of Letters vol 2 p 106-7 confirmed by AW to William Wellesley-Pole 22 May 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 12-13).
On the 17th the French pressed forward to Montalegre which they found desolate and abandoned. From there they marched over the mountains across the border into Spain finally reaching the provincial town of Orense on 19 May. Wellesley virtually gave up the chase at Ponte Nova. He left most of his troops around Ruivaes, although he pushed on to Montalegre on the 18th with some cavalry, the Guards and two other brigades of infantry (Murray’s Germans, and Alan Cameron’s brigade). He also asked Silveira to continue harassing the French even after they had crossed the frontier. But his thoughts were already turning south where there reports of French activity near Alcantara. He did not think that Victor would dare invade Portugal, but he could not totally discount the possibility. Besides, his campaign in the north was over, for he had never intended to follow Soult into Spain, and he was concerned that bad weather, long marches and short provisions might lead to sickness in the army. On 20 May the army began retracing its steps to Oporto. (AW to Villiers 17 and 19 May 1809 and to Castlereagh 18 May 1809 WD III p 238-41).
Wellesley and the Portuguese commandant of Braga:
Wellesley spent the night of the 15th in Braga. Most of his army was in the town or a little beyond on the road to Chaves. During the evening the Portuguese commandant of Braga tried to speak to Wellesley apparently wanting to tell him that the French might take the side road to Montalegre, but Wellesley would not see him. The Portuguese commandant, or George Scovell, who told the story in a letter home, believed that Wellesley’s snub was due to aristocratic hauteur, but this is hard to believe. Throughout his life Wellesley was a glutton for information and far from fastidious where he found it. The idea that he regarded a Portuguese officer as beyond the pale makes no sense at all. It is far more likely that he had some other reason for rebuffing the commandant (perhaps Wellesley suspected that he had collaborated with the French; or he had already told him to see George Murray, the Quartermaster General; or his translator was not present; or the man was a fool; or Wellesley was busy or wanted his dinner – the possibilities are endless), and that Scovell, who had a painful chip on his shoulder about his own social origins, misinterpreted what he saw. (Urban The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes p 40-41, 46). Nor did the episode have much significance for the outcome of the campaign: it was impossible for Wellesley and his army to get ahead of Soult, while Silveira and Beresford, who might possibly have done so, were well aware of the Montalegre road but naturally gave priority to the main route through Chaves. (Vichness ‘Marshal of Portugal’ p 192; see also Ward ‘Milgapey’ p 154-155. There is a graphic account of the marches endured by Tilson’s brigade in Beresford’s force in a letter from Hugh Gough to his father 23 June 1809 in Rait’s Life of Gough vol 1 p 31-36. See also letter of 5 June 1809 from Lt Wright Knox to his brother William At Barrosa with the 87th p 10-13).
See also Rice Jones An Engineer Officer under Wellington in the Peninsula ed by H. V. Shore p 25 for a description of Wellesley deep in consultation with his Portuguese host at Salamonde over the lie of the land in the neighbourhood and ignoring his dinner until this was settled. The story was told to the son of the host, apparently to Shore. Shore’s story does not, of course, contradict Scovell’s claim or invalidate it, and it is based on much less reliable evidence; but it does counter the idea that the incident at Braga represents a more general truth about Wellesley’s behaviour on campaign.
Opinion of the campaign in the army:
John Aitchison told his father
The more you consider the campaign the more you will admire the genius who could plan it and the manner in which it was executed. In the short space of ten days one of the greatest generals in Europe has been driven from the post he occupied six weeks, naturally strong and pursued for 200 miles through a country hitherto supposed impassable for an army and which might have everywhere been defended by a handful of men. It has immortalized the hero of Vimeiro and it has proved that even in rapidity of movement no soldiers can equal the British. (Aitchison to his father Oporto 25 May 1809 Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 43).
But not everyone was satisfied: Charles Cocks (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 29-30), George Scovell (Urban The Man who Broke Napoleon’s Codes p 46-9) and John Burgoyne (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 42-22) were all critical of the result of the campaign and thought that more might have been done to prevent Soult’s escape. Even Wellesley was a little disappointed not to have achieved more. According to Burghersh ‘The movement of the Portuguese about Chaves had disappointed the expectations of Sir Arthur Wellesley, or his triumph would have been more complete. He had entertained the hope of surrounding the French army; but by the non-execution of a part of his plan the individuals who composed it escaped; but there never was a more disgraceful escape; or a retreat (if it deserve that name and not a flight) more humiliating to the officer who conducted it’ (Burghersh Memoir of the Early Campaigns p 66-67). And John Fremantle confirms that: ‘Wellesley was monstrous angry at Soult’s escape, as you will easily imagine, and indeed we were all very much disappointed, expecting to have had their whole army … at all events it [the campaign] is a great triumph to us, chasing these fellows, who are the very same that were at the heels of our army through Spain.’ (John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Oporto, 28 May 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 37-40) Fremantle’s final point deserves to be remembered: if the campaign did not achieve everything Wellesley had hoped, it was nonetheless a great triumph.
Beresford commented on the campaign:
‘You know how sanguine I was of the expectation of quick success, and have only been mistaken in any of the French having escaped for which I need not be much criticized, as it is really wonderful how they escaped, tho’ in so miserable a condition having abandoned everything, and trusting simply to their getting off by their lightness’.
And later in the same letter: ‘It is impossible to describe to you the beauty of some of the country I have passed over … But the Roads, those it is impossible to picture, they were too horrible, and … were really the cause of Soult’s escaping.’ (Typescript of Beresford to Lady Anne Beresford, Coimbra 26 May 1809 Beresford Papers, Biblioteca de Arte, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon BC 919).
The French performance in the Campaign:
Soult and his men emerge with great credit from the adversity they faced after the fall of Oporto, but this cannot conceal the extraordinary lack of confidence and fighting spirit which preceded it. Soult had 21 or 22,000 men in his army in Portugal in early May: more than equal to the British and German troops Wellesley brought north after detaching Mackenzie and Fane to guard the eastern frontier. If he had concentrated his army south of Oporto, leaving only a small garrison to hold the city, he could have defied the British to attack him on ground of his own choosing with very nearly equal numbers except the Portuguese who the French affected to disdain. Victory in such a battle would have been decisive, allowing Soult to pursue Wellesley to Lisbon and his ships just as he had pursued Moore to Coruña. Defeat, with the Douro a few miles to the rear, would certainly have been unpleasant, but the British cavalry was too weak to exploit more than a local advantage, and result would probably have been no worse than what actually happened. Soult was evidently hampered by lack of good intelligence: apparently he did not even know that the allied army was advancing against him until just before the campaign began, and then received exaggerated reports of strength of the British army; but his whole outlook appears negative and defeatist, looking rather to a line of retreat than an opportunity to advance. Perhaps he correctly judged the mood of his army: tired and exasperated by long marches and irritating operations against insurgents, then demoralized by rumours that Soult was aiming to make himself King of Lusitania, it may have been in no state to fight a decisive action; but if this is true it is hardly creditable to Soult’s leadership. Operations in the early part of the campaign give a little support to this idea: Franceschi seems to have handled his men with skill on 10th and 11 May, although the panic of the 31e Léger when charged by the British cavalry on the 11th was a poor sign. The neglect of the Douro above Oporto on the 12th is quite inexplicable but it was Soult, Delaborde and Foy, not their men, who appear culpable. The failure of the subsequent attacks on the Seminary is much less surprising, and it is clear from the casualty figures that the 70e Ligne at least showed no lack of resolution. Nor does the panic as the French army retreated Oporto, or when the rearguard fled from Salamonde on the 16th, mean much: the surprise and hurry in one case and the forced marches of the previous days in the other fully account for the temporary transformation of retreating troops into fleeing fugitives, and in both cases they rallied once the danger had passed. On the whole therefore the blame for failure seems to rest rather with the senior officers of the army than with the men, and especially with Soult himself who had lost the will to victory without which no general can succeed.
Inflated Expectations in some quarters in England:
For example the Gentleman’s Magazine declared,
It is with pride and satisfaction we announce another victory gained by the British Army in Portugal, under the gallant Sir Arthur Wellesley. The immediate fruits of victory will be seen in the Extraordinary Gazette, which we shall give in our next. We have lost some officers, and many men, and Gen. Paget has lost an arm. But this victory is rendered more important from what we hope must be its consequences – that Soult and his army will shortly, but reluctantly, visit England. (Gentleman’s Magazine May 1809 p 470; see also The Times 24-26 May 1809).
See also Duke of Clarence to George Fitzclarence 26 May 1809 (in Mrs Jordan and Her Family edited by Aspinall) p 86. ‘I congratulate you on your victory and hope shortly to hear of Soult’s arrival here and that Sir Arthur Wellesley has driven or taken with the assistance of the Spaniards and Portuguese the whole French out of Spain’.
And Lord Londonderry to Charles Stewart n.d.  PRONI D 3030/Q2/2/p 67-69: ‘I entertain the most Sanguine Hopes; with our help, the efforts of Portugal, and Spain, may prove successful, in rescuing the whole of the Peninsula from French Tyranny & Oppression. This, I think, may fairly be reckoned upon…’
Castlereagh did his best to damp down such expectations, and most people had learned the lesson of the previous year. (Castlereagh to Charles Stewart ‘Private’ 26 May  PRONI D 3030/Q2/2 p 67 ‘we hope for yet further Success but I have kept down expectations as much as possible!’).
Lack of confidence and enthusiasm at the Horse Guards:
To be fair to the Opposition, their views were not without support from informed military opinion. Moira might possibly be suspected of resenting Wellesley’s success, but Lieutenant-General Robert Brownrigg, the Quartermaster General of the Army and one of the powers at the Horse Guards, was a serious and widely respected professional soldier and one of the patrons of the ‘scientific school’. But in April Brownrigg had written ‘I cannot but regret that there was any intention of risking a British Army in Defence of … [Lisbon], as the most fatal consequences may ensue from such an attempt, without advancing the cause of Spain and Portugal one step.’ He believed that Cradock’s army should have been withdrawn as soon as Soult had captured Oporto, because ‘I can see nothing but disaster in attempting to continue’ with the defence of Portugal (Brownrigg to Donkin ‘Private’ Horse Guards 11 April 1809 WO 133/13 p 114-115). If Brownrigg was astonished at Wellesley’s success in not only defending Lisbon but driving Soult out of Portugal he concealed it well, for on 16 June he wrote to George Murray, praising the gallantry of the troops at Oporto, but adding ‘we here venture to criticize that Operation thinking that Soult’s Defeat would have been more easy [sic] and effectually insured, had the March of Your principal Corps been on Lamego, where had you pass’d the River, you would have got more immediately on His line of Communication with Spain.’ (Brownrigg to Murray Private 16 June 1809 WO 133/13 p 116-7).
It is impossible to be certain what would have happened if Wellesley had followed Brownrigg’s plan, but the likely result was that the French would have held the bridge at Amarante and the line of the Tamega against him while they concentrated their army, and either retreated at leisure through Braga or defied him to attack them. He would have lost any chance of naval co-operation and left his lines of communication extended and rather vulnerable to the French forces south of the Douro for little obvious advantage.
The King’s reaction to Oporto:
The attitude at the Horse Guards may have had an influence on the King who had only reluctantly given his approval for Wellesley’s appointment to command the army in Portugal and who thanked Castlereagh for the news of Oporto without much enthusiasm: ‘the operations of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army in Portugal … appear generally satisfactory, and highly to the credit of those engaged in them. His Majesty sincerely regrets the severe wound which Lieut-General Paget has received, but hopes that the accounts which have been received of his doing well will be fully confirmed.’ (The King to Castlereagh 25 May 1809 Later Correspondence of George III vol 5 p 284; the King as well as the Whigs was influenced by Moore: the King to Castlereagh 3 October 1809 ibid p 387-88.).
On 31 May he wrote to Charles Stewart
The Intelligence of the Enemy having Enter’d the Asturias and Romana’s being obliged to escape by Sea, whilst another French Corps of 12,000 men has shown itself on the Tagus at Alcantara makes us naturally very Anxious to hear from you – Should Soult escape with the greater part of his Corps, if Romana is disposed of in their rear – they will be enabled to form a heavy Corps in the North whilst they may turn Victor’s Force against you on the Tagus. (Castlereagh to Charles Stewart 31 May  PRONI D 3030/Q2/2 p 70).
And he wrote to the King referring to ‘the critical situation in which the British army may be placed in Portugal, if it should be threatened by a force of equal strength with itself on each of its flanks.’ This reflected a serious misunderstanding of the state of the war in the Peninsula, and suggests a lack of confidence almost comparable with the Opposition’s gloom. (Castlereagh to George III 25 May 1809 Later Correspondence of George III vol 5 p 284).
AW annoyed by Castlereagh’s reaction:
Although Wellesley was always pleased to be promised reinforcements he was quite annoyed at the lack of recognition of his success and Castlereagh’s forebodings. On 1 July he wrote to his brother William,
I have received your letter on the 10th June, from which I imagine that you apprehended that I had got myself into some scrape. I don’t think that Govt. have treated me very well, in having allowed the reports to be circulated to which they appear to me to have given currency; and I conclude that some of these reports have occasioned to apprehensions which you entertained when you wrote to me on the 10th. …
Lord Castlereagh says that although all was not done which was expected, a great deal was done &c &c. (AW to William Wellesley-Pole Castello Branco 1 July 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 13-15).
He then went on to recount the difficulties he faced in the campaign rather understating the strength of his army, but understating that of the French more, before concluding, ‘Under all these circumstances the defeat of Soult in such a manner ought to have been more than Lord Castlereagh, as it is certainly more than I expected or even held out. (AW to William Wellesley-Pole Castello Branco 1 July 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 13-15).
Wellesley’s affects indifference to opinion at home about his operations:
Wellesley’s letter to Ferguson makes his affectation of indifference in a letter to Villiers ring hollow: ‘I am very indifferent what the opinion is of our operations. I shall do the best I can with the force given me; and if the people of England are not satisfied, they must send somebody else who will do better.’ (AW to Villiers 21 June 1809 suppressed passage quoted in Fortescue vol 7 p 445n-6n). No doubt he wished for such other-worldly detachment, but it was never in his nature to achieve it.
Whitbread’s remarks came in the course of his speech on the Vote of Credit on 31 May 1809 and included the following:
He could not refrain from remarking that of all misrepresentations, that was the basest which unreasonably elevated the public mind, by holding forth the expectation of happy results, which never could be realized. A gallant officer, to whom whether absent or present, he should pay the sincerest tribute of respect, (Sir A. Wellesley) had gone out to Portugal, and in the late accounts received from him had certainly made some exaggerations; but these were nothing when compared to the exaggerations contained in the letter of a noble lord to the Lord Mayor, on the subject of that communication. In fact, it had been stated that by that noble lord, that Marshal Soult was a vanquished in three successive battles. In his opinion, our army was only engaged with the rear-guard of the enemy, and not with its main body under Soult.’ (Parliamentary Debates vol 14 col 816).
Whitbread’s claims reflected comment in the press – see, for example The Times 30 May and 3 June 1809; but Whitbread was unwise to place much credence on such reports. Charles Stewart wrote to Castlereagh on 18 June 1809: ‘Why is Whitbread permitted to run down what has been done in so short a time.’ PRONI D 3030/P/223.
AW’s letter to Ferguson in response to Whitbread’s speech:
Wellesley reacted to reports of Whitbread’s speech by writing to General Ferguson who was well-placed the act as an intermediary:
My dear Ferguson,
I am in general callous to the observations of party and to the remarks of writers in the newspapers, but I acknowledge that I have been a little disturbed by a statement which appears was made in the House of Commons by Mr Whitbread – viz: that I had exaggerated the success of the Army under my command, or, in other words, that I had lied.
I complain that Mr Whitbread before he made this statement in the House did not read my letter with attention; if he had, he would have seen … [Wellesley discussed the details of the campaign at some length] After that I do not think it quite fair that I should, in my absence, be accused of exaggeration, or, in other words, lying … As you are well acquainted with Mr Whitbread, I shall be obliged to you if you will mention those circumstances to him. I have thought it better to set him right in this way then to get any friend of mine in the House of Commons to have a wrangle with him on the subject. (AW to Ferguson 22 June 1809 Creevey Papers p 102-3).
This extraordinary letter was tantamount to demanding an apology or the alternative of a duel, for ‘lying’ was not an accusation which one gentleman could accept from another without dishonor. Such a vehement reaction was remarkable – Whitbread’s criticism, while sharp, was directed mainly at the ministers, and Wellesley’s equation of ‘exaggeration’ with ‘lying’ was an unjustified escalation. Yet Wellesley was no duelist: his own common sense, the folly of Colonel Aston’s death in India ten years before, and the amount of blood he had seen shed on the battlefield, all made him wary of ‘affairs of honour’, and he had avoided giving or taking offence in all the quarrels, turmoil and upsets of his career. Much worse things had been said of him in Parliament before, especially by Paull and Folkestone, which he had treated with cool disdain. Perhaps he resented being attacked when he was not present to defend himself; or perhaps he simply gave way to the irritation of the moment – for he was deeply frustrated and annoyed by other problems at the time.
Whatever the reason, the letter was sent and Ferguson, forwarded it to Whitbread under a covering note which shows his embarrassment at the awkward position in which he had been placed, and his hope that the affair could be resolved peacefully:
[I] think it best to send you the original without making any comment on it. He is a very fine manly fellow, and I am sure (whatever were the misrepresentations of the Ministers) you shd. not mean to say anything personally disrespectful to him. I know that in many points you like him, and I shd. be very sorry that anything shd. occur which shd. remove the mutual good opinion you have of each other. It is one of those things in which no advice can be given, and it must be left entirely to yourself, but I trust you will pardon me if I express a hope that you will either write a few lines to him or to me, such as I can send to him, which will do away any unpleasant impression that the newspaper report may have occasioned. (Ferguson to Whitbread 21 July 1809 Creevey Papers p 101-2).
Fortunately Whitbread chose to accept, not resent this advice, and wrote a handsome letter to Wellesley which, while not an apology, removed any cause of resentment.
I am very much concern’d to find by a letter I have received from Genl. Ferguson, inclosing one from you to him, that a report in some of the newspapers of what I am supposed to have said in the House of Commons relative to the operations of the army under your command at Oporto has been the cause of any uneasiness to you. You know full well that the newspapers very commonly misrepresent what falls from Members of Parliament, and that it is impossible to answer for what is put in by the reporters. In this case I really don’t know what I have been made to say, but I can venture to assure you that nothing disrespectful towards yourself ever fell from my mouth, because all the feelings of my mind are of a nature so entirely the reverse… (Whitbread to AW 30 July 1809 Creevey Papers p 103-4).
Wellesley replied with a flowery letter of thanks and mutual respect and the issue closed, to, one imagines, the relief of all concerned. (AW to Whitbread 4 September 1809 Creevey Papers p 104-5).
© Rory Muir