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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 19 : Talavera (June–August 1809)
Wellesley and the Austrian War
There are surprisingly few references to the Austrian War in Wellesley’s correspondence. On 31 May he wrote to Admiral Berkeley from Coimbra, evidently commenting on accounts of Eckmühl (22 April) ‘I hope that the defeat of the Austrians has not been so decisive as the French accounts would make it.’ (WD III p 263-5). On 11 June he had received accounts up to 26 May including news of the French occupation of Vienna (AW to Sherbrooke 11 June 1809 WSD vol 6 p 281). And on 22 June, at Abrantes, he comments on English newspapers of 7 June which contained accounts of Aspern-Essling (fought on 21-22 May). (AW to Frere 22 June 1809 WSD vol 6 p 293-4). None of these letters mention any implications of the news for operations in the Peninsula.
Wellesley under-estimates Mortier’s strength when planning his advance into Spain:
AW asked Cuesta to detach 10,000 Spanish troops towards Avila to cover the flank of the allied army from Mortier (Oman vol 2 p 475-6); that he thought a force of this size sufficient for the task suggests that he under-estimated the strength of Mortier’s corps which had 18,000 effectives on 1 February (Oman vol 2 p 626) and was probably still close to this figure (subsequent losses being partly made up by the recovery of sick men after the end of the siege or Saragossa).
Opinion on prospects in mid 1809:
Beresford was confident: ‘I left the army on the Tagus in consequence of Marshal Victor having thought fit to retire towards Madrid where I do not think even he will stop. Ney and Soult joined in Galicia have again edged down towards Portugal, but I was convinced they had had enough of the North of the country to prevent their again attempting it that way, and it now appears they are edging off towards Castile by Benavente and Zamora and I think the whole will retire at least behind the Ebro. How much farther will depend upon the turn things take in Germany where our last accounts appear pretty good.’ (Typescript of Beresford to Lady Anne Beresford Lisbon 25 June 1809, Beresford Papers in Biblioteca de Arte, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon BC 919).
Indiscipline in the army:
Wellesley was anxious that misconduct of the soldiers would undermine the goodwill of the Portuguese population and lead to widespread resentment and perhaps even violence. Three soldiers of the 53rd, part of a detachment escorting commissariat carts were involved in a fight with the inhabitants of a village between Aveiro and Coimbra: two were killed, and the third seriously wounded. Wellesley acknowledged that the peasants had probably been provoked, but called for a strict inquiry into the incident and the punishment of those responsible. At the same time he asked the Portuguese government to encourage its magistrates to bring forward any complaints against the British army, so that soldiers who misbehaved could be caught and punished. (AW to Villiers 13 June 1809 WD III p 294-5; GO 13 June 1809 in General Orders, 1809 p 61-4). And he moved to increase the number of provosts, writing home to suggest changes that would simplify the system of regimental courts martial. He would have liked to be able to offer more in the way of rewards, particularly to young officers who were assiduous in attending to their duty, but his power of patronage was very limited: at most he could recommend a few individuals to the Horse Guards. (AW to Castlereagh 17 June 1809 WD III p 302-4).
He explained the purpose of the General Order instructing officers to visit their men four times a day when not on the march as: ‘to see that these soldiers conduct themselves regularly in their quarters, to ascertain whether there are any complaints by the landlords, and of whom, and that the men are in their quarters, instead of marauding in search of plunder.’ Stringent orders were issued against straggling and the unauthorized seizure of carts and bullocks.
It was not just Wellesley who was inclined to blame the indiscipline of the men on the inattention of junior officers. Charles Stewart who, as Adjutant-General was responsible for discipline, told Castlereagh on 3 June: ‘The truth is that officers will not attend to their men as they ought in quarters and on march. All are ready enough for the fight.’ (3 June 1809 D 3030/P/221).
John Cooper of the Fusiliers gives an example of the sort of incident which had become too common during the march south to Abrantes:
At this period the English troops made sad work in Portugal by plundering the inhabitants. No sooner was the day’s march ended, then the men turned out to steal pigs, poultry, wine, etc. One evening, after halting, a wine store was broken open, and much was carried off. The owner finding this out, ran and brought an officer of the 53rd, who caught one of our company, named Brown, in the act of handing out the wine in camp kettles. Seizing Brown by the collar, the officer shouted, “Come out you rascal, and give me your name.” Brown came out, gave his name [as] Brennon, then knocking the officer down, he made his escape, and was not found out. (Cooper Rough Notes p 12-13).
Striking an officer is among the most serious crimes a soldier can commit, and if Brown had been caught he would have been severely punished, but his escape only encouraged more trouble.
Far from seeking to conceal the problem in his letters home, Wellesley let his pen run away with him, telling Castlereagh privately
The army behave terribly ill. They are a rabble who cannot bear success any more than Sir J. Moore’s army could bear failure. I am endeavouring to tame them; but if I should not succeed, I must make an official complaint of them, and send one or two corps home in disgrace. They plunder in all directions. (AW to Castlereagh ‘Private’ 31 May 1809 WD III p 266).
He wrote in similar terms to Villiers on the same day, and raised the issue again in a long official letter to Castlereagh a couple of weeks later, although this was more temperate in its language and concentrated on possible solutions to the problem. (AW to Villiers 31 May 1809 and to Castlereagh 17 June 1809 WD III p 262-3, 302-2. Castlereagh’s replies 17 July and 12 August 1809 Castlereagh Correspondence vol 7 p 96-99, 102-3 show that there were serious doubts about the extent of the legal authority for maintaining discipline in the army but delegating authority to the provosts).
AW’s decision to leave the Portuguese army behind:
Although it had done good work in the Oporto campaign, AW decided to leave the Portuguese army behind, explaining to Castlereagh that it ‘is not yet in a state of discipline, or organized as it ought to be for service.’ Given that Beresford had only assumed the command three months before, this was hardly surprising and reflected no discredit on him or on the Portuguese. Wellesley urged Beresford to put the Portuguese into camps along the north-eastern frontier, near Almeida, ‘for the double purpose of watching the enemy’s movements, and disciplining his officers and troops. If he can get them together for two or three months they will be a fine army, and probably very useful.’ This was rather optimistic, it took more than a few months to give troops discipline and confidence, but Wellesley’s assessment of the potential of the Portuguese, and of their need for more training was certainly correct. (AW to Castlereagh 30 June 1809 and to Beresford 27 June 1809 WD III p 334-5 and 327-8).
Creation of divisions at Abrantes:
This was not unprecedented in the British army, which had used divisions in Denmark in 1807 and even in Egypt in 1801. The divisions developed cohesion and efficiency through long service, but that was because the Peninsular War continued for a number of years rather than Wellesley’s organizational skill.
John Murray resigns:
John Murray resigned over the issue of Beresford’s promotion to British lieutenant-general when he accepted command of the Portuguese army. Wellesley was disappointed and annoyed at Murray’s action – he had gone out of his way to ensure that they would be no risk that Beresford would be placed in command of British officers who had previously been senior to him; and he had hinted to Murray that he looked to have the senior positions in the army filled by officers already in Portugal rather than fresh appointments from home. (AW to Murray 28 May 1809 WSD vol 6 p 269-70).
AW recommends Cotton and Hill be given local rank of lieutenant general at Abrantes:
Before the army left Abrantes Wellesley wrote home recommending that Cotton and Hill be given local rank of lieutenant-general which would restore them to the proper position relative to Beresford, and would have done the same for Murray, and given him command of a division, if he had stayed. (AW to Castlereagh, 26 June 1809 WD III p 327). AW first took the trouble to ask Cotton if he would prefer to forego promotion as there was a risk that the Horse Guards might deem him then to be too senior to command a brigade and recall him. Cotton seems to have misunderstood and been almost offended, so Wellesley recommended both men. Wellesley’s letters show more tact and care in handling subordinates than might be expected: AW to Cotton 23, 24 and 26 June 1809 WD III p 321-22, WSD vol 6 p 294-5 and 298.
Murray was not alone in resenting Beresford’s promotion. Major-General Tilson had even less right to complain for he had always been junior to Beresford, but he resigned rather than continue to co-operate with the Portuguese army, as he had done during the Oporto campaign. Then, when he found that the Portuguese would not be employed in the forthcoming campaign, he withdrew his resignation. In the interim Wellesley had given Tilson’s brigade to Colonel Donkin and the command of the Fourth Division to Alexander Campbell, who was junior to Tilson. These decisions stood and Tilson was given Hill’s brigade in the Second Division.
The Army at Abrantes:
The army benefitted from the halt at Abrantes and the troops seem to have been quite comfortable, although Cooper complains in his memoir that their huts, made largely of pine branches and holding eighteen or twenty men, were far from waterproof. (Cooper Rough Notes p 15-16). This may have been due to inexperience, but for some reason British troops never learnt to bivouac as comfortably as the French, whose captured campsites throughout the war were viewed with a mixture of envy and admiration (see below for reaction to the French campsite on the Alberche just before the battle of Talavera).
The Strength of the Army at Abrantes:
Oman (vol 2 p 452-3) puts AW’s army at 22,000 men but this seems to count only rank and file: adding one-eighth would bring it almost exactly to 25,000 men. In WSD vol 13 p 344 is an ‘Order of Battle’ of the army at Talavera which gives a total strength of 22,497 ‘Effective Rank and File’; however comparison shows that this actually gives, not effective rank and file, but total rank and file (i.e. it includes the sick and those detached and ‘on command’). The return printed by Londonderry is for 15 July 1809 and it lists 1,020 officers, 1,090 sergeants present, 423 drummers present and 19,909 rank and file present: a total of 22,442 all ranks not counting regiments not present at Talavera. However this return does not include the artillery or engineers: including this (from Oman) brings the total to 23,538. And this is the total on 15 July at Plasencia: the figure at the outset of the campaign at Abrantes would have been higher: between 24 and 25,000 seems reasonable. (Lest this seem an exaggeration it is worth noting that when Soult’s forces entered Plasencia on 1 August they captured 334 British soldiers in hospital too weak to move (Oman vol 2 p 576). Others – probably at least as many or more – had evacuated the town. So 1,500 sick and detached between Abrantes and Talavera seems modest even allowing for the rejoining of some men who had been sick when the army left Abrantes). Londonderry’s figure for the total strength of the British army in the Peninsula on 15 July 1809 is 39,212 all ranks, (including artillery), of whom (12%) were listed as sick and 1601 ‘on command’ (4%). The newly arrived regiments still had a relatively low proportion of sick. This means that Wellesley’s field army at Plasencia amounted to only 60% of the British forces in the Peninsula. Londonderry gives a return of artillery but it does not indicate which parts were with the field army.
AW and the strength of the army:
AW’s letters to Castlereagh of 27 and 30 June stress the difference between the nominal and effective strength of the army and show that he was sensitive to the danger of raising excessive expectations at home. If the public believed that Wellesley led an army of 30 or 35,000 men it would expect him to achieve more success that was likely with his actual force. This revealed a tension between Castlereagh and AW – or at least something which Wellesley perceived as a tension. Castlereagh wished to show his effectiveness as war minister reflected in the strength of the British army in the Peninsula, while Wellesley wished to show that the numerical odds were heavily against him (AW to Castlereagh 27 and 30 June 1809 WD III p 329-30, 334-5).
Castlereagh recognized that the reinforcements were not of the best quality and authorized AW to send the three least serviceable battalions to Gibraltar and in their place withdraw the 48th, 57th and 61st Regiments. (Castlereagh to AW 11 June 1809 Castlereagh Correspondence vol 7 p 82-84). AW actually sent other inferior units to Gibraltar and the 48th and 61st joined his army in time for Talavera; the 57th a little later.
Cavalry at Abrantes:
While the infantry at Abrantes were fairly healthy, Wellesley was concerned at the ‘wastage’ suffered by the cavalry horses, caused by the change of climate and fodder, combined with the lack of experience of their riders. The brigade of heavy dragoons had yet to do a day’s duty but would be forced to leave nearly one hundred horses behind, sick or unfit for active service, when it marched into Spain. The Light Dragoons had endured harsh conditions in the Oporto campaign and were forced to accept 110 horses, originally from the Irish Commissariat to keep up their numbers. Captain Neville of the 14th Light Dragoons was not amused: ‘we received today a Remount of 61 (I may almost say Cart) Horses from the Irish Commissariat Corps!! What makes this more ridiculous is that they are chiefly Horses that have been cast in England as being unserviceable for the Heavy Dragoons.’ (Neville, diary 1 July 1809 printed in a ‘Note’ in J.S.A.H.R. vol 27 no 112 Winter 1949 p 182; AW to Castlereagh, Abrantes, 27 June 1809 WD III p 329-330; AW to Castlereagh 22 June 1809 WSD vol 6 p 294 urges the need for more remounts and adds, ‘When horses, as well as men, are new in war, I believe they are generally the sacrifice of their mutual inexperience.’ See also Gleig The Light Dragoon p 35-36 for the shock suffered by the horses in changing their comfortable life at home for the hardships of active service).
Charles Stewart told Castlereagh on 27 June: ‘The cavalry are falling off without any work, at least the heavy brigade here have none. P[ayne] is fidgety and wants his b[arrac]k regulations in the field, and interferes increasingly and unnecessarily in the interior detail of reg[imen]ts which he ought to leave to officers comm[andin]g reg[imen]ts. This vexes and annoys them…’ But Stewart was in a bad mood and probably rather jealous of Payne. (Stewart to Castlereagh 27 June 1809 D 30 30/P/224).
Mood of the Army at Abrantes:
Feelings in the army about the coming campaign were rather mixed: the success against Soult had created a sense of satisfaction and a good deal of confidence in Wellesley so that some officers looked to a rapid advance to Madrid and beyond. But others were more apprehensive: John Carss of the 2/53rd wrote on 29 May that ‘it is supposed we shall march into Spain, where I am afraid we will be well drubbed’. (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 4; for an example of optimism see Clement Hill to ? Abrantes 26 June 1809 Sidney Life of Hill p 102). Samuel Briscall was a young clergyman who, having served through the Coruña campaign returned to the Peninsula with the Light Brigade. He would later win Wellesley’s respect, be appointed his domestic chaplain (in 1814) and then curate at Stratfield Saye, but his first impression, formed in Lisbon at the end of June, was not very encouraging.
Some say the French are retiring, others that they are advancing. The fact is that no one here knows anything of the matter except, perhaps, General Craufurd. Everyone know Sir Arthur is an ambitious man and will no doubt attempt a march to Madrid, but there seems in many officers a sort of distrust or fear at his aiming at more than he can accomplish. (Quoted in M. Glover ‘“An Excellent Young Man”: the Rev Samuel Briscall, 1788-1831’ History Today vol 18 no 8 1968 p 578-584: quote on p 580).
AW at Abrantes and the shortage of specie:
The army had been very short of money ever since Wellesley had arrived in Lisbon. At Oporto he had shamed the wealthy merchant families into lending £10,000 but even this had led to complaints and ill-feeling. (AW to Villiers Coimbra 1 June 1809 WD III p 268-9). Part of the problem was that most of the money (about £100,000) in the military chest was in Spanish coin which was not readily acceptable in Portugal: Wellesley had sent this round to Cadiz to be changed, but the ship carrying it had been delayed by Sir John Cradock and the money did not reach Lisbon until the middle of June. (AW to William Wellesley-Pole 1 July 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 13-15). But there was a general shortage of specie which affected all British operations in 1809, and made it very difficult to raise money locally on bills of exchange, payable in London. At the end of May Wellesley told Huskisson, who, as Secretary to the Treasury, was responsible for such issues, that £300,000 ‘would not now pay our debts in this country.’ (AW to Huskisson, Coimbra, 30 May 1809 WD III p 261-2). Less than a fortnight later he informed Castlereagh that the army needed £200,000 per month, and he repeated this unrealistic demand on 22 June. (AW to Castlereagh 11 and 22 June 1809 WD III p 289; p 318). The government simply did not have such sums available, as Wellesley ought to have known, although Huskisson antagonized him by not sending him a full explanation or, apparently, writing at all on the subject. (So Wellesley claimed: AW to Castlereagh, Abrantes 22 June 1809 WD III p 318). At the end of June he wrote to Huskisson, ‘It will be better for government, in every view of the subject, to relinquish their operations in Portugal and Spain, if the country cannot afford to carry them on.’ (AW to Huskisson 28 June 1809 WD III p 331-2).
On 17 August Castlereagh told Chatham ‘We do not possess the power of Sending you from hence a Single Foreign Coin of any Sort … I need not suggest what the Impression in England would be, if Guineas were going out to pay our Army abroad.’ Bathurst risked this ‘Impression’ in 1812, but that was at a time when the war in the Peninsula was much better established and less controversial, than in 1809).
Wellesley and the British government:
Wellesley’s complaints are made more unaccountable by the readiness with which the government answered his demands for supplies other than specie. On 31 May he asked for 30,000 pairs of shoes, 1.5 million pounds of biscuit (about 670 tons), 3 million pounds of hay, and 3 million pounds of oats. Castlereagh acknowledged this letter on 13 June and promised that all these supplies would be sent promptly – and that he had decided to send 50,000 not 30,000 pairs of shoes (AW to Castlereagh 31 May 1809 WD III p 265 reply 13 June 1809 Castlereagh Correspondence vol 7 p 84-85).
And then there were the 5,000 reinforcements Castlereagh ordered out in late May – they were not as good as they might have been, but they were over and above the army Wellesley had asked for and been promised less than two months before.
Wellesley’s language to government:
In 1834 Wellington referred to this in conversation with Stanhope:
‘Is it true, Sir, as Napier seems to state, that you several times threatened an intention of giving up the command?’
‘“Oh no, I never did any such thing. I dare say I may have said as often as fifty times: D___ it, if you don’t do this or that you may as well give up the war at once; but I never stated my [sic: any?] idea of renouncing it. So far from it, that once, when there was a report of the Whigs coming in, and of their intending to send out Lord Hastings to judge whether the war ought to be carried on or not, I had determined not to be governed by anything Lord Hastings might say, but to go my own course as long as I was at all supported from England.”’ (Stanhope Notes of Conversations p 58-59).
AW’s distrust of the British government:
The shortage of specie left a legacy of ill-feeling, not on the side of the ministers, who tolerated Wellesley’s grumbling with remarkable patience and good humour, but with Wellesley, whose confidence in the support of the government was shaken. This combined with disappointment over the reaction to Oporto and the legacy of the outcry over Cintra to produce an attitude of defiance mixed with cynicism. Villiers wrote a warm letter of encouragement: ‘I think that justice has not been done in England either to you or to the service in which you have lately been engaged, and I know how much some people try to under-rate and cry down everything, if their attempts are only not resisted and are tolerated in silence.’ (Villiers to AW Lisbon 19 June 1809 WSD vol 6 p 292-3). To which Wellesley replied
I am obliged to you for the trouble you have taken respecting the opinions in England regarding our operations. In the present state of the public mind in England, I believe that it will be very difficult to satisfy people with anything; and the government are so weak, that they are afraid to take the lead and to guide the public opinion upon any subject. I shall do the best I can with the force given to me, and if the people of England are not satisfied, they must send somebody else who will do better. (AW to Villiers Abrantes 21 June 1809 WSD vol 6 p 292).
While to his brother William he wrote more simply, ‘Pray let us hear how things are going on in England. They appear to me to be as bad as possible.’ (AW to William Wellesley-Pole 1 July 1809 ‘Letters to Pole’ p 13-15).
Plans of campaign at Abrantes:
When Wellesley first came south from Oporto Victor had his headquarters at Merida on the Guadiana River some forty miles east of Badajoz, and Cuesta’s army was some forty miles to the south at Llerena, between the French and Seville. This seemed to offer the possibility of Wellesley getting into the French rear by advancing along the north bank of the Tagus, which runs roughly parallel to the Guadiana here some fifty miles to the north, both rivers running east to west (the Guadiana only turns south at Badajoz). However Cuesta was reluctant to approve a plan which would see the two armies operating independently, evidently fearing that they might each be defeated in turn. This was not unreasonable: his troops were only just recovering discipline and confidence after their defeat at Medellin less than three months before. Wellesley fumed, but agreed to march south through Badajoz and unite with the Spanish army before approaching the French, although he feared that operating in the poor country between the two rivers would give rise to serious logistical problems. (AW to Lt-Col Bourke 9 and 13 June 1809 WD III p 281-3, 292-3; AW to Cuesta 13 June WD III p 294; AW to Frere 13 June WD III p 294; AW to Castlereagh 17 June 1809 WD III p 300-301). However the leading British troops had scarcely arrived at Abrantes before Victor began to withdraw from Merida retiring to a series of positions along the Tagus. The main reason for this movement was, quite simply, lack of food. Victor complained that his men ‘are on half rations of bread: they can get little meat – often none at all. The results of starvation are making themselves felt in the most deplorable way. The men are going to hospital at the rate of several hundreds a day.’ (Victor to Jourdan 24 May 1809 quoted in Oman vol 2 p 443-444). This probably is a little exaggerated – Wellesley was not the only general to paint his difficulties in vivid colours – but there is no doubt that for all their experience, lack of scruples and severity the French suffered considerable shortages of supplies in this campaign. But it is also true that news of Wellesley’s defeat of Soult encouraged King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan, his military advisor, to authorize Victor’s withdrawal. (Oman vol 2 p 144-5). Cuesta followed Victor cautiously, fearing a trap, and did not attempt to force the passage of the Tagus, but it was clear that the allied armies would now be able to operate together north of that river. (Oman vol 2 p 458-60).
An alternative plan of campaign:
There was an alternative plan of campaign, favoured by Charles Stewart and discussed by Oman but – apparently – not seriously considered by Wellesley: this was to advance in conjunction with Beresford and the Portuguese army on Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca, into the rear of the French armies in Galicia and Madrid. Oman (vol 2 p 435-6) concludes that it would have been ‘too hazardous’, and Wellesley’s army was almost certainly too weak by itself (or with only the support of the Portuguese) to make this work. (Charles Stewart to Castlereagh 18 June D 3030/P/223).
British liaison officers at Cuesta’s HQ: Colonels Bourke and Roche:
Wellesley sent two British officers to Cuesta’s headquarters to facilitate co-operation and gather information. One was his ADC and brother-in-law Henry Cadogan, but the more senior was Lieutenant Colonel Richard Bourke, a thirty-two year old Irish Whig whose passionately held political views were in sharp contrast to Wellesley’s own. Nonetheless Wellesley seems to have singled him out as an officer of great potential, and his letters to Bourke were unusually confidential and encouraging. Unfortunately Bourke’s wife, who was living in England, fell dangerously ill and he went home to be with her. Wellesley was disappointed and perhaps even a little annoyed, but still made a point of telling Bourke ‘how much I am satisfied with all the communications I have received from you, and with the manner you have performed the service on which I sent you.’ (AW to Bourke 18 June 1809 WD III p 305-6; see also AW to Bourke, 21 June 1809 ibid p 310-11). Bourke’s wife recovered but he did not return to the Peninsula until 1812, and was left with a sense of missed opportunity: Wellesley’s patronage would have taken him far, and he believed that if he had remained he might have replaced James Bathurst as Wellesley’s military secretary. (Hazel King Richard Bourke p 45-46).
Bourke’s replacement as principal liaison officer was Colonel Philip Roche who had been one of the first British officers sent to Spain in this role in 1808, and who returned to the Peninsula with a strong letter of recommendation from Castlereagh. However after appointing Roche, Wellesley was dismayed to learn that he was unacceptable to many senior Spanish figures due to his behavior in the previous year. (AW to Castlereagh 15 July 1809 WSD vol 6 p 314). George Jackson, a British diplomat in Seville, described him as ‘a sad foolish fellow’ and a poseur, while he later gained the reputation of being ‘a great croaker.’ (Diary of George Jackson. 17 March 1809 Diaries and Letters of Sir George Jackson vol 2 p 399-400; Sir H. Wellesley to Wellington 30 Aug 1811 WSD vol 7 p 213-14). He was highly critical of the state of Cuesta’s army and while the remarks may have been justified, his attitude would not have lessened Spanish irritation at his presence. (Fortescue vol 7 p 203-4n for comments). Altogether his appointment was a mistake and Wellesley, who would not remove him without ostensible cause, was forced to keep him on the sidelines in his talks with Cuesta.
In fairness to Colonel Roche, Wellington’s later remark, in a letter to Lord Wellesley dated 17 September 1809, also needs to be mentioned: ‘before I joined General Cuesta’s army, he wrote to me an account of its state, to which I was not inclined and did not pay any attention at that time, but which I afterwards found to be a true account in every respect.’ (WD III p 507).
AW’s meeting with Cuesta :
The visit did not get off to a good start: it was a long ride from Plasencia to the Spanish headquarters, south of the Tagus at Almaraz and there were delays en route so that Wellesley arrived after dark having kept the Spanish army, drawn up to greet him, and its commander, waiting for several hours. Serious talks waited until the following day, 11 July, when the two generals had a four hour conference. (Londonderry Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 1 p 381-7).
AW’s impression of the Spanish army was relatively favourable: he told Castlereagh that the ‘troops are ill clothed, but well armed, and the officers appear to take pains with their discipline. Some of the corps at infantry were certainly good and the horses of the cavalry were in good condition.’ (AW to Castlereagh 15 July 1809 WD III p 358-9).
Whittingham, a British officer serving with the Spanish armies, was impressed by AW, and told his brother-in-law on 5 July 1809 ‘If any military man can save this country I think it will be Sir Arthur! His great abilities are aided by the most conciliatory manners. He is just the man to please the Spaniards; and, in my humble opinion, if he has the Means, he will constantly prove victorious over the French.’ (Memoir of Sir Samuel Ford Whittingham p 94).
AW and Cuesta do not anticipate any danger from Soult, Mortier and Ney:
As late as 14 July Wellesley’s intelligence was that Ney remained in Galicia embroiled in operations against the insurrection. Soult had withdrawn to Zamora, but intercepted letters from him to King Joseph showed that his troops were still in a dreadful state, quite incapable of embarking on a serious campaign, although he might make an incursion into northern Portugal to plunder Braganza. Mortier’s movements were less certain and it was possible that he might intervene in the campaign, although as he was thought to have only about 10,000 men this would not be too serious. Wellesley suggested that Cuesta detach a force towards Avila (almost due north of Talavera) to keep Mortier in check, but Cuesta was naturally reluctant to weaken his army at the outset of the campaign. He may also have suspected Wellesley’s motives, and indeed Frere had pressed for the Avila force, at least in part, to provide a semi-independent command for the Anglophile Duke of Alburquerque. On the other hand Cuesta did agree to detach a small force to the Puerto de Baños north of Plasencia, to guard against the possibility that Soult might send a raiding party south where it would get in the British rear and cause havoc to their lines of communication. Wellesley could have asked Beresford to advance into Spain and hold the northern entrance to the position, but he was reluctant to risk the Portuguese army coming into action without British support; which in the event proved fortunate. (AW to Frere 13 July 1809 (2 letters) WD III p 353-4 and AW to Beresford 9 and 14 July ibid p 349-50, 356. See also John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Plasencia, 14 July 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 41-2, ‘we know for certain that [Soult’s] army is for the present, and will be for a considerable time, completely hors de combat’. Fremantle had dined with AW the previous day, so this clearly represents the view at headquarters).
Cuesta’s detachment to guard the Puerto de Baños:
It is sometimes suggested that the whole campaign failed because Cuesta failed to honour his promise to detach a force to occupy the Puerto de Baños, and Wellesley encouraged such an interpretation by his letter to William Wellesley-Pole of 1 August 1809 (‘Letters to Pole’ p 17-18). However this is nonsense. There were four battalions of Spanish troops guarding the position, and they were brushed aside with contemptuous ease by the leading elements of Soult’s force. Is it credible that eight or ten battalions could have held the position indefinitely against 50,000 French veterans? It is no Thermopylae and even if it were, the Spaniards were not Spartans. If poor troops could hold it, Wellesley had the whole Portuguese army at his disposal, and D’Urban’s journal shows that the Portuguese were ready and its commanders eager to be used to hold a position covering the northern end of the pass (D’Urban Peninsular War Journal p 65). It was surely fortunate that it was not employed in this way, or it would almost certainly have been attacked and defeated by Soult. The Baños position threatened Wellesley’s rear, not Cuesta’s; and the Spanish general was understandably reluctant to weaken his force on the eve of battle with the French. He was quite right to reject Wellesley’s proposal to detach 10,000 men towards Avila; and while he probably should have detached a rather longer force towards Baños, it is difficult to believe that any likely detachment would have made any difference. Having examined the terrain Ian Robertson writes, ‘My view is that it would not be easy to stop Soult’s forces descending from the north, although had they been marching in the opposite direction, it would have been very difficult to climb up to the position, which could have been easily defended from above. Anyhow, there was an alternative route via the very similar Puerta de Tornavacas, further to the east.’ (e-mail of 28 September 2004).
Supply problems: inexperience of British commissaries:
The supply problems facing the army, which were to grow much worse after it left Plasencia, were partly the result of the inexperience, and in some cases the incompetence, of the British commissaries. This had led to some difficulties in the Oporto campaign and it was felt much more after Plasencia, where the British commissaries were competing with their Spanish counterparts to collect the scarce supplies which had escaped confiscation by the French. While the army was still at Plasencia Wellesley had to caution Sherbrooke, whose not-temper and strong language were well known,
I am not astonished that you and the General officers should feel indignant at the neglect and incapacity of some of the officers of the Commissariat, by which we have suffered and are still suffering so much; but what I have to observe, and wish to impress upon you, is that they are gentlemen, appointed to their office by the king’s authority, although not holding his commission; and that it would be infinitely better, and more proper, if all neglects and faults of theirs were reported to me, by whom they can be dismissed, rather than that they should be abused by the General officers of the army. Indeed, it cannot be expected that they will bear the kind of abuse they have received, however well deserved we may deem it to be; and they will either resign their situations, and put the army to still greater inconvenience, or complain to higher authorities, and thereby draw those who abuse them into discussions, which will take up hereafter much of their time and attention. (AW to Sherbrooke 15 July 1809 WD III p 357-8; this letter is also printed in Patchett Martin Memoir of Sherbrooke p 565-66 where it is dated 18 July).
This may have been the occasion on which Sherbrooke was said to have threatened to hang a commissary, although this does not appear in the documentary record. It was not just Sherbrooke who was annoyed; according to Commissary Schaumann, ‘old General Payne raved and annoyed us as usual; for he deplored the fact that we commissaries could not perform the impossible feat of carrying home 100 sheafs [of corn] on our backs and stuffing the beloved dragoon horses with it.’ (Schaumann On the Road with Wellington p 167-8; see also Fortescue vol 7 p 217-18n).
Various sources also tell this story of threatening to hang a commissary about Picton and Craufurd as well as Sherbrooke. George Head ridicules Robinson’s version where Picton is the General, and throws cold water on the whole idea (Head Memoir of an Assistant Commissary General p 288-91). But Tomkinson, who is normally level-headed, records it with Craufurd the central figure (Diary 4 July 1810 p 30). Clearly it was a favourite campfire tale, but Craufurd was experimenting with new regulations for his commissariat at the time, so it may have some kernel of truth.
Spanish promises to supply Wellesley’s army:
Many British accounts of the campaign, including even that in Charles Esdaile’s The Peninsular War: A New History (p 202) state that ‘Wellesley had only agreed to the offensive on condition that the Spaniards provided him with adequate supplies and transport.’ This seems to be based on Wellesley’s later complaints, for there is no record of where or when these promises were given. Was it when AW was still at Abrantes or later at Plasencia – the former makes more sense and such promises may have come via Frere or through Bourke at Cuesta’s headquarters? Probably some sort of general assurance was given, but there is no sign that much emphasis was placed on it and it is perfectly clear that AW had his eye on a campaign in Spain from the moment he landed in Lisbon. Suggestions that he was ‘lured’ into it by false Spanish promises are unfounded.
The Advance to Oropesa:
The weather was very hot, which did not help fraying tempers. After a long march on 19 July headquarters halted at Casa de Centinela ‘a single house, which offered such miserable accommodation that Sir Arthur, as well as the rest of the staff, preferred sleeping in wigwams, made with the bows [sic] of trees.’ (Fitzclarence ‘An Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ p 668-9). On the following day the army left the forest behind and crossed a wide plain ‘the dry sand of which strongly reflected the intense heat of the day, without affording the shelter of a single tree.’ (Hawker Journal p 87). It halted at Oropesa, which an outlying French detachment had abandoned only hours earlier after plundering the town and taking all the bread and wine it could find. (Stothert Narrative p 75). The Spanish army joined the British here on 21 July and on the following day Cuesta inspected the British army whose soldiers returned his gaze with considerable curiosity. ‘The Spanish leader,’ wrote one British officer ‘appeared an infirm old man, so much so that he is obliged to be lifted into his saddle; and he cannot remain long at a time on horseback, an ancient family coach drawn by six mules, is in constant attendance.’ (Stothert Narrative p 76). Opinions of the Spanish army were more mixed, with Captain Bowles thinking it ‘impossible to imagine a finer body of men or in better condition,’ while Charles Leslie felt it ‘presented the most motley and grotesque appearance.’ (Bowles to Fitzharris 30 July 1809 Malmesbury Series of Letters vol 2 p 119; Leslie Military Journal p 135).
The commissariat may not have been the only part of the army whose inexperience led to inefficiency – see George Bingham’s complaints of poorly chosen campsites, and being expected to move for the convenience of headquarters and the Quartermaster General’s department (Bingham to his mother, 26 July 1809. in Glover (ed) Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 41-42).
There is also the curious story of the sergeant who worked in the Adjutant-General’s office being lured away and attacked by French spies at Plasencia (Charles Leslie Military Journal p 124-5 also The Times 8 August 1809).
The aborted dawn attack on Victor’s position on the Alberche, 23 July 1809:
On the evening of 22 July, as Wellesley reconnoitred the French position behind the Alberche, he came under fire, with one cannonball hitting a tree branch just above his head. (Fitzclarence ‘An Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ p 673; Hawker Journal p 90). It was clear that the French were in force and they showed no sign of continuing their retreat. The terrain favoured a defensive action: the Alberche was not impassable but it could only be forded in some places, the approaches to it were steep and awkward and the ground beyond (on the French side) rose to a range of low heights some 800 yards east of the river. Both flanks were secure, although the position was rather too extended for Victor’s army of only 22,000 men. (This description from Oman vol 2 p 489: modern maps do not indicate that the position was strong; but see Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 52 which supports Oman’s account). However the allies out-numbered the French more than two-to-one and Wellesley was eager to attack. It was too late to do so on the 22nd, and the troops had already a long, fatiguing march, but Wellesley strongly urged Cuesta to agree to an attack at first light on the following morning. Their talks continued several hours until, around midnight, Wellesley believed that Cuesta had agreed to his plan. This left little time for preparations, for only three hours later Wellesley was leading forward Sherbrooke’s and Mackenzie’s divisions and waiting for the French sentries to give the alarm. The Spaniards did not move. Either there had been a genuine misunderstanding, or Cuesta had changed his mind; whatever the cause, a furious Wellesley had no choice but to abort his attack. (Oman p 489-90; Londonderry Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 1 p 393-6; Whittingham Memoir p 95). The incident caused great disgust in the British army and led to a flood of implausible explanations, including that Cuesta had refused to fight because it was a Sunday, and the inevitable accusations of cowardice and treachery. (Stothert Narrative p 78-9; Hawker Journal p 90-91; Fitzclarence ‘An Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ p 1; Leslie p 137-8; Malmesbury vol 2 p 121-2; Anderson Recollections of a Peninsular Veteran p 32-33; Shaumann On the Road with Wellington p 170. None of these goes as far as Napier, however: ‘Victor was well assured the allies would not attack, he had corrupted some of the Spanish staff, and the result of the discussions between Sir Arthur and Cuesta at which only one officer on each side was present, became known to the enemy twenty-four hours afterwards; Cuesta himself was suspected of treachery but apparently without reason.’ vol 2 p 157).
In fact the wisdom of a dawn attack seems highly doubtful. There was no hope of taking the French by surprise, while the ground on the allied side of the river was covered in undergrowth and olive trees: marching through this in the dark, while trying to be silent, was a recipe for confusion and disorder. It would have been far simpler and better to allow the soldiers an uninterrupted night’s sleep and to attack mid-morning when all the troops had been bought into position in daylight. That was still possible on the morning of the 23rd, although it may have been afternoon before everything was ready, but Cuesta refused to agree when Wellesley proposed this; a refusal for which it is very difficult to discover any reasonable justification, especially as he then agreed to a dawn attack on the 24th. (Oman vol 2 p 490).
In 1833 Wellington told Stanhope:
The story of Cuesta’s refusing to fight because it was Sunday is not true; he made other foolish excuses, but that was not one of them …
He did not want courage nor sense either, but was an obstinate old man, and had no military genius – none of them have… (Stanhope Notes of Conversations 26 Oct 1833 p 46-47).
And John Fremantle wrote home on 30 July, ‘I forgot to mention that the reason of our returning [i.e. returning to camp, not attacking Victor] on the 23rd was on account of Cuesta’s begging Sir Arthur to defer the attack till the next morning as he had not quite finished his arrangements for the attack.’ (John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Talavera, 30 July 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 42-5).
Was Wellesley disappointed at Victor’s retreat, avoiding battle on the Alberche?
AW to Pole on 25 July:
I acknowledge that I was not sorry to find yesterday morning when day broke that the Enemy were gone. I think we should have succeeded; but the position was strong & our loss would have been great. The conduct of the Spanish troops in the little affairs of the 22nd was not very encouraging; they were miserably commanded; & it is very evident to me that Cuesta is too old, & has not talents to conduct in due order the great & confused affairs of a Battle. (‘Letters to Pole’ p 16-17).
Hindsight suggests that this was mistaken, and that the chance of defeating Victor’s army in isolation was the best chance the allies had in the campaign. The numbers were very favourable but Wellesley may have been anxious how his troops, as well as the Spaniards, would perform in a battle requiring them to advance and maneuver.
Contemporary opinion in the army is rather less clear: Leslie Military Journal p 138-9 is good on the disappointment of the soldiers – their ‘mortified silence’ at discovery that the French had retreated and that there would be no battle. See also Stothert Narrative p 78-9; Malmesbury Series of Letters vol 2 p 121 and Cocks (in Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 34-36); but Rice Jones (An Engineer Officer under Wellington p 34) and Aitchison (An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 52-53) both thought the French position formidable and seem more relieved than disappointed at not being asked to carry it.
British troops envy the French camp:
When the British occupied the French camp on the Alberche, they were struck by the evident comfort in which the experienced French soldiers lived on campaign. Assistant-Surgeon William Brookes of the 87th Foot wrote in his journal,
Crossed the River, the enemy retired, we entered their deserted encampment which was one of the most complete things I ever saw. Their huts which were built of corn were extremely compact and calculated to keep out the heaviest shower of rain, each had a window, a door, and inside a table with two chairs. There was one erected for the Commander in Chief, very large with several apartments in it: lying about the camp were plenty of chocolate pots, frying pans, grid-irons, and one or two goats… (Journal of Assistant-Surgeon William Brookes, 24 July 1809, NAM MS 2006-03-47 – a typescript copy, not the original manuscript).
AW’s disillusionment with Cuesta and the Spanish army:
AW was quite disillusioned with Cuesta and the Spanish army: see his letter to William Wellesley-Pole of 25 July quoted, yet he still expected to capture Madrid, and appeared to regard the halt on the Alberche as only temporary, telling Castlereagh, ‘I have great hopes, however, that before long I shall be supplied from Andalusia and La Mancha with the means I require, and I shall then resume the active operations which I have been compelled to relinquish.’ (AW to Castlereagh 24 July 1809 WD III p 368-9). And on the following day he wrote to the Duke of Richmond, ‘I think however, that, with or without a battle, we shall be at Madrid soon.’ (AW to Richmod 25 July 1809 WD III p 370).
Mood of confidence in the British army:
John Carss of the 2/53rd, now wrote home ‘we are all in high spirits and have no doubt of driving them out of Spain.’ George Bingham was more worried by lack of food than by the French: ‘We understand four days bread is expected up from Plasencia, in which case, on its arrival, we shall push on to Madrid, which is only four days march from this.’ Even so senior and prudent an officer as Rowland Hill felt able to write to his sister, ‘If we can get the French out of Spain (which I do not think unlikely) without an action, I shall be satisfied’ – and well he might be, given the number of French troops still in the Peninsula! John Aitchison, of the Guards, was superficially more pessimistic. On 10 July he had told his father ‘The enemy, if he fights at all, has every inducement to resist with desperation, but Spanish patriotism supported by British courage will overcome every obstacle.’ By 25 July his opinion of ‘Spanish patriotism’ had been revised: ‘We are all so virulent against the Spaniards that I shall leave them to your own reflections.’ And ‘Our prospect is now unhappy in that the enemy will either come upon us with superiority of force or, if it suits him better, he will retire (avoiding a general action) behind the Ebro – how we are to follow him, God knows, we are destitute of means of transport and already short of bread.’ But there was a strong current of confidence running through his letter, as through the others, in the superiority of the British army; a prevailing opinion that the French had retreated and would not be seen again at least until Madrid was near at hand; and a conviction that if they could be brought to battle, it would end in a decisive victory. (Carss, letter of 25 July 1809 in Johnston (ed) ‘The 2/53rd in Peninsular War’ p 5; Bingham to his mother, 26 July 1809 Glover (ed) Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 44; Hill to his sister 25 July 1809 in Sidney Life of Hill p 105-6; Aitchison to his father 10 and 25 July 1809 An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 50 and 53; see also Hawker Journal p 93 for the prevailing opinion).
AW goes on bended knee to Cuesta:
There is a story, scarcely believable but pleasing in its imagery, that on the evening of the 26 July AW went on bended knee to persuade Cuesta to withdraw from his exposed position on the eastern bank of the Alberche to Talavera on the following day. (Fortescue vol 7 p 222; Oman vol 2 p 502). At most it seems likely that this is taking a metaphor literally, while it is more likely that the whole incident is little more than camp gossip, and that Cuesta needed little persuasion to continue the withdrawal he had begun on the previous day.
Cuesta withdraws to Talavera:
According to Leith Hay ‘The Spanish army, notwithstanding this confusion, had not the appearance of being pressed by the enemy in its retreat’ (Leith Hay Narrative vol 1 p 145-6).
AW and Mackenzie surprised at Casa de Salinas:
Charles Stewart described what happened:
About noon General Mackenzie’s division was suddenly attacked… by two strong columns of the enemy. They came on so suddenly and with such impetuosity, as to throw the 87th and 88th regiments into some confusion; and when Sir Arthur Wellesley reached the ground, they had succeeded to a certain extent, in penetrating between the two brigades of which Mackenzie’s division was composed. The consequence was that, for some little time, we were unable to discover the position which one of these brigades had taken up, and it required great exertion, on the part of every officer present, to restore order. At last, however, the 31st and 45th, supported by the 60th regiment, were got in hand, and they covered the falling back of the other regiments in fine style from the wood into the plain. Here the cavalry were in readiness to support them; and from that moment a regular and well-conducted retreat began. (Londonderry Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 2 p 404-5).
Gleig Life of Wellington p 86-87 gives a dramatic version of the story based on anecdote told in later years by Wellington, which confirms the danger of being captured, though the blame is shifted onto Spanish infantry. Whether the other details of the story are accurate or have been touched up for dramatic effect is unclear, but no account written at the time suggests such a narrow escape. See also Whittingham Memoir p 96-97 quoting Whittingham’s recollections which give a quite different account of the affair, in which Wellesley was not present at the first surprise, but galloped up and took command extricating the troops from the wood. Whittingham also says that the retreat was covered by Spanish cavalry which behaved well; however the contradictions between his account and that of others present raises doubts as to his accuracy.
Donkin’s own account of this episode in his letter on 29 July is disappointing. He gives few details, does not acknowledge the surprise and minimizes the combat as a minor incident. Donkin to Brownrigg ‘Private’ 29 July 1809 Hope of Luffness GD364/1/1193. However William Brookes of the 87th is much more frank:
We halted on … [the western bank of the Alberche] in the wood in which we had before hutted, and it was now about 4 o’clock in the evening and we had no expectation … [we should] be disturbed that night, and expect every moment to be dismissed to our old huts. We were sat down enjoying ourselves with what little repast our haversacks afforded us, when, without giving us the least notice we found the light companies of our Regt. and the Rifle Corps [i.e. 5/60th] pushing amongst us and a most tremendous fire opened upon us by the enemy who were at their heels. The momentary confusion that took place may be more easily imagined than described, our Regt. had not loaded …. we carried the retreat of the other Regts. out of the wood, in which time we suffered great slaughter; by the time we quitted the wood we lost a great proportion of our Regt. Sent into the town seven officers wounded and two were wounded and taken prisoners. (Journal of Assistant-Surgeon William Brookes, 27 July 1809, NAM MS 2006-03-47 – a typescript copy, not the original manuscript).
Unlike Donkin’s brigade, the 2/31st did not take part in any other fighting on the 27th. It lost 119 casualties that day, including 24 dead, from 733 rank and file. It seems unlikely that 2/87th (which lost 198 casualties in total that day) lost many less; but there really is not enough evidence to try to work out how many casualties occurred at Casa de Salinas, and how many later in the day.
Confusion in the British army as it takes up its position:
Wellesley later admitted that he had intended to deploy Sherbrooke’s division in reverse order: that is, with the Guards on the left and the German Legion on the right, but the confusion at Salinas followed by the dangerous withdrawal, prevented him from giving the order in time, so the division formed in the regular manner. (‘Memorandum upon the battle of Talavera’ by [AW] n.d. WD III p 375-77). Worse still the staff officer who was appointed to show the brigades of the German Legion where to form, misunderstood his instructions and led them an hour’s march to the rear where they were preparing to bivouac for the night before the mistake was corrected and they were hurried back into the line. (Beamish History of the King’s German Legion vol 1 p 207. This mistake probably explains why Donkin’s division was detached from Mackenzie – sent to try to fill an alarming gap in the line). Even more puzzling is that Hill’s brigades were apparently still camped near the town and uncertain of the position they should occupy. (Hill’s 1827 Memorandum on the battle in Sidney Life of Hill p 111; see also Leslie Military Journal p 140 on Hill’s uncertainty that morning; and sources on the fighting on the evening of the 27th given below). All of this suggests some surprising inefficiency in the machinery – especially the staff work – of the British army, which may be attributed partly to inexperience, and partly to Wellesley’s distraction, first with giving advice to Cuesta, and then to supervising the withdrawal of Sherbrooke and Mackenzie. Given that the army had been stationary for several days and that Wellesley had apparently selected the position it was to occupy before the 27th, there was clearly some uncharacteristic negligence in not taking more effective steps to ensure that the army was better prepared. (As well as the evidence cited above see Louis C. Jackson ‘One of Wellington’s Staff Officers, Lieutenant-General William Staveley’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 14 1935 p 157 Staveley records that he spent the entire night of the 27th with a sergeant and twelve dragoons, searching in the rear for the army’s reserve artillery which had got lost. The search was unsuccessful).
AW considers attacking on the afternoon of 27 July:
Burghersh claims (Memoir of the Early Campaigns of the Duke of Wellington p 82) that, ‘Sir AW was tempted (while part only of the French army had passed the Alberche), to attack it with the whole of the allies; but upon considering the lateness of the hour, he continued his movement to the position he had fixed upon’. This suggestion does not seem to be repeated in any other source, and is not very plausible.
The most detailed account is from Whittingham’s recollections printed in his Memoir p 98, but it is not clear whether this is really reliable:
At about ten at night the French threw out parties of light infantry to open a light running fire down the line; probably to ascertain its direction. But our young Spanish soldiers, taking the alarm, commenced a fire so heavy and well kept up that Sir Arthur, who just at that moment came up, said – “Whittingham, if they will but fire as well tomorrow, the day is our own; but as there seems to be nobody to fire at just now, I wish you would try to stop it.” “I have been trying in some time in vain,” I replied: and whilst I was speaking three battalions became so frightened at their own noise, that they fairly took to their heels, and fled from the field of battle. “Only look, Whittingham,” said the General, “at the ugly hole those fellows have left. I wish you would go to the second line, and try to fill it up.”’
According to Charles Esdaile two of the regiments that broke did well on the following day (private information, e-mail of 14 September 2004). Napier History vol 2 p 168-9 gives a grossly exaggerated account of the panic, claiming that 10,000 men fled including all the Spanish artillery and General O’Donoju, and that although some rallied, Cuesta’s army was still 6,000 weaker on the 28th.
Timing of the evening attack:
Oman vol 2 p 515 suggests a clear break between the arrival of the French army opposite the allies and the attack on the Cerro de Medellin – which he calls a ‘night attack’ and puts at 9pm. But most firsthand accounts suggest rather that the French scarcely paused in their advance: for example Burghersh Memoir of the Early Campaigns p 82-3; and Fremantle who says that it was ‘between 6 and 7 in the evening’ John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Talavera, 30 July 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 42-45. However compare this to Hill’s letter of 30 July in Sidney Life of Hill p 108-9). Still, it is hard to see how the French can have attacked the British near Casa de Salinas around midday, and yet only just have reached the allied line eight or nine hours later when there were only three miles in between.
Second night attack:
Some first hand accounts suggest that the French renewed their attack on the Cerro de Medellin around midnight and this is supported by Wellesley’s dispatch ‘This attack was repeated in the night, but failed.’ (WD III p 373). It is possible that there were two separate attacks, but it seems much more likely that there was only one and that references to a second attack actually relate to some of the alarms of the night.
Strength of the British army at Talavera:
The Morning State of 25 July 1809 in WSD vol 6 p 481, which is the basis of the figures Oman uses (vol 2 p 645-6) gives the total strength of the British army as 20,641 rank and file. Adding 1/8th for officers and NCOs gives a total of 23,121 all ranks. Deduct 800 casualties suffered on 27 July and a few more for men falling sick, gives a total of just over 22,000.
The precision given by sources such as the Morning State and casualty returns is highly misleading: none of the figures given, by any source, for any battle in this period, is anything more than an approximation, and the actual fighting strength of all armies was generally considerably lower than is given in official sources.
Staveley’s recollection of AW and the French cannonade:
As daylight spread across the field the French artillery opened a heavy fire on the British troops on the Cerro de Medellin and further south in the open plain. Lieutenant William Staveley of the Royal Staff Corps, who was in Wellesley’s entourage, records that
The Chief … observed shot and shell falling thick amongst the 87th regiment, immediately in our front, when, turning sharp round, he said, “Look at those d___d fools!” and ordered me to go and tell them to form in the rear of the 88th. I ran on foot and called for the commanding officer, when a captain came forward and said the commanding officer, Major Gough, had just been wounded. In the meantime, I sang out as loud as I could, to move as required, which they lost no time in doing. However, from the noise I heard, I thought a number of men must have been hit besides the Major.’ (Jackson ‘One of Wellington’s Staff Officers’ p 158).
George Murray’s account of Ruffin’s attack:
a very strong Column of Infantry passed at the head of the ravine, and directed its March against the Summit of the height occupied by Genl. Hill’s Division. It did not ascend the hill directly in front, but kept along the slope for a considerable way towards its Right, and then turning to the Left came up immediately in the direction of the point of our Left wing. A heavy fire was brought to bear upon it by throwing forward a part of our troops parallel to its Left flank, and another part of Genl. Hill’s Division being placed in a sort of second Line to those upon the summit, occupying a second summit as it were a little further back and a little lower than the first, these also poured in their fire upon the part of the Column during its advance along the slope of the Hill, and afterwards upon its Right flank, when it turned to gain the top. The progress of this formidable column was not checked until it got within a few yards of the summit of the hill, when our Men succeeded in driving it back in the utmost confusion. (George Murray to Alexander Hope ‘Private’ Talavera 31 July 1809 Hope of Luffness Papers GD 364/1/1193).
This suggests that the French column (probably composed of the whole of the 24e Ligne) swung round the northern slopes of the Cerro de Medellin, turning the left flank of Richard Stewart’s brigade (the 29th were still holding the summit they had taken the night before) and then turned south, uphill, between Stewart’s rear and the front of Tilson’s brigade which was evidently in support in a second line a little further west. Caught between the two British brigades the column was finally defeated although not until it had almost reached the summit.
The British success in repulsing Ruffin’s attack:
Many of the British casualties would have been inflicted by the French artillery but most came in close fighting with the French infantry, for it seems clear that the French were seldom broken without a firefight followed by a charge. The French certainly advanced in columns – although their number, strength and direction of the columns is less clear – and were met by the British in line; and this gave the British a considerable advantage in the firefight. However given the steep rough terrain the French probably had little alternative, although they might have made more use of skirmishes to prepare the way. Nor is it clear that the British use of line was the key to their success; it was one of several ingredients, but no more important than their training, or their discipline, and probably less crucial the self-confidence which meant that, far from being intimidated by the French advance, the British infantry were eager to come to blows. The origins of this fighting spirit are hard to disentangle, but it had been a noticeable characteristic of the army for many years, undiminished by the miseries of previous campaigns because they had included few significant defeats in battle.
Wellesley’s meeting with Cuesta:
Wellesley had stayed on the Cerro de Medellin throughout the morning attack. Andrew Leith Hay describes him standing near the colours of the 29th ‘directing and animating the troops’ and giving the order to charge when the French wavered. (Leith Hay Narrative vol 1 p 152). About 10 o’clock, when it was clear that no further action was imminent, he rode south to the unfinished battery at Pajar de Vegara to see Cuesta. Wellesley was concerned that, having failed in two assaults on the vital hill, the French might try to turn the left flank of the allied position by pushing troops along the open ground north of the Cerro de Medellin before making another attack. He had already decided to move two of his three brigades of cavalry (those of Anson and Fane) to counter this threat, but they would need some infantry to support them by occupying the rocky slopes of the Sierra de Segurilla which rose beyond the open plain, not much more than half a mile north of the Cerro de Medellin. Although we have no description of the meeting between the allied generals the outcome is clear: Cuesta sent Bassecourt’s whole division of infantry, some 5,000 men, (Oman vol 2 p 532) across the rear of the British army to occupy the Sierra de Seguilla. He also supplied a battery of 12 pounders – heavier artillery than any in the British army. The exact distribution of these guns is unclear, but some were placed in the Pajar de Vegara and others sent to the Cerro de Medellin where their performance was much admired. (Leith Hay Narrative vol 1 p 155). Later in the day, but possibly in response to a promise made at this time, Alburquerque’s division of cavalry, (six regiments of cavalry and a battery of horse artillery), also moved north so that it could support Anson and Fane. This assistance was extremely generous. Neither Cuesta nor Wellesley knew whether the French would renew their attack and, if they did, where the blow would fall. It was not impossible that, having twice been repulsed by the British, the French would turn their attack onto the Spanish army, in which case Cuesta would need every man he could find. But faced by the immediate danger posed by the French, the allied generals set aside their grievances and worked together. (Anonymous ‘Memorandum on battle of Talavera’ in WSD vol 13 p 340-43; Oman vol 2 p 531-2; Fortescue vol 7 p 242-3. It is very difficult to establish when these moves were made. Fitzclarence ‘An Account of the British Campaign of 1809’ p 11 says ‘the cannonade was renewed, and our inferiority of metal was so evident, that a brigade of Spanish 12 pounders, was borrowed from Cuesta. The fellows attached to these guns showed good spirit, and posting their guns on the side of the hill was found most effective.’).
Did Cuesta send Bassecourt’s whole division to aid the British or only a couple of battalions?
Wellesley in his dispatch says ‘a division of Spanish infantry, under Lieutenant General Bassecourt’ (WD III p 373) and this is endorsed by Oman (vol 2 p 532) and Charles Esdaile (e-mail 16 September 2004 citing a letter from Alburquerque). This really leaves no room for doubt, although George Murray in his letter to Alexander Hope of 31 July (Hope of Luffness Papers, GD 364/1/1193) refers just two battalions. In the Memoir annexed to the Wyld Atlas the author – probably George Murray – says it was a Spanish division (p 19).
Yet it is very odd to think that 5,000 Spanish infantry – equal to one quarter of the British army – were sent to the far left where they were not engaged. If they were present, why were they not used, rather than Anson’s cavalry, to check Ruffin’s afternoon advance? There is a piece missing from this jigsaw puzzle.
Wellesley has a nap after meeting Cuesta at Pajar de Vegara:
According to Burghersh, Wellesley followed his meeting with Cuesta with a nap: ‘Sir Arthur Wellesley communicated with General Cuesta near a house in the centre of the line, and afterwards slept, till some fresh movements in the enemy’s camp were reported to him.’ (Memoir of the Early Campaigns of the Duke of Wellington p 85). This receives some third hand support from Mrs Charles Bagot’s Links with the Past (London, Edward Arnold, 1902) p 116: ‘Lord Fitzroy Somerset told Lady Mornington that the Duke of Wellington slept during the battle of Talavera, after making every arrangement, worn out by fatigue.’
There is a strange story told by Napier (History vol 2 p 173-4) and confirmed by Donkin (USJ 1830 pt 2 p 97) that Alburquerque sent Wellesley a message that Cuesta was betraying him; and that Wellesley received the news with remarkable sang froid. If true, it is rather odd that Donkin does not even hint at it in his letter to Brownrigg written on the following day (Donkin to Brownrigg, Talavera, 29 July 1809, GD 364/1/1193). On the whole this seems probably to have been nothing more than a misunderstanding – probably made in later recollection not at the time – by Donkin; although it is possible that it arose from Alburquerque’s relations with Cuesta. In any case, it was not true and it had no influence on the conduct of the battle.
Leval’s attack on Campbell’s brigade:
First hand British accounts such as Cooper’s generally describe the French attacking in column and this has led Oman and Fortescue to state unequivocally that Laval’s decision advanced in a single line of nine battalion columns. (Oman vol 2 p 533; Fortescue vol 7 p 246). However Franz Rigel, an officer in the 4th Baden Infantry, wrote that the Dutch and Baden infantry in the centre were deployed into line, while the Hessian and Frankfort battalions on the left and the Nassau Regiment on the right advanced in square. Ten guns were deployed in the intervals between battalions, and a combined battalion of voltigeurs skirmished in front. As they approached the British position, the Nassauers also deployed into the line. (Quoted in Gill ‘Vermin, Scorpions…’ in Fletcher Aspects of the Peninsular War p 85-86). There are some problems with this account: advancing in square was awkward, slow and difficult, seldom attempted except when the enemy’s cavalry was very threatening, while squares would have suffered greatly from the allied artillery at Pajar de Vegara. And the broken ground through which they had to advance did not suit troops in line; and indeed there are suggestions that the advance became disordered, or even a single confused mass of men. Even if this is going too far, and that there was more order apparent to observers, it is unlikely that the final formation was very exact or neat. (Oman vol 2 p 533 ‘But their order had been so much broken up by the walls and thickets that the 4,500 bayonets appeared to the British like one confused mass of skirmishers.’).
The crisis of the battle: Sebastiani and Lapisse’s attack on Sherbrooke’s division:
The attack on Sherbrooke’s division was much more fierce and determined than that on Campbell’s, and here the whole battle came perilously close to being lost. Sebastiani and Lapisse appear to have employed only half their battalions in the initial assault, (this still amounted to more than 7,000 men), while holding the other half back as a reserve. The best contemporary descriptions of the first part of the fighting came from two officers of the 3rd Guards, although the pattern was broadly similar along the line. Captain William Stothert wrote that
Exactly at 3 o’clock several heavy columns advanced upon this point, and deployed with the utmost precision into line as they entered the plain, which lay betwixt the heights occupied by the hostile armies. This was the grand attack, and on the first indication of the enemy’s intention, General Sherbrooke gave directions that his division should prepare for the charge. At this awful moment all was silent, except a few guns of the enemy, answered by the British artillery on the hill. The French came on over the rough and broken ground in the valley, in the most imposing manner and with great resolution, and were met by the British with their usual undaunted firmness. As if with one accord the division advanced against the enemy, whose ranks were speedily broken, and thrown into confusion by a well directed volley. The impetuosity of the soldiers were not to be repressed; and the brigade on the immediate left of the guards being halted, that flank from its advanced situation in the eagerness of pursuit, became exposed to the enemy, who had already given way, and deserted his guns on the hill in front, until observing this part of the line unsupported, the French rallied, and returned with increased numbers to their attack upon the centre.
Brigadier-General Harry Campbell now gave orders for the guards to retire to their original positions in line… (Stothert Narrative p 90-91)..
And John Aitchison told his father,
In the centre where at last the enemy made his grand push, we charged when he was within 100 yards, and our fire was reserved until they were flying. The eagerness of our men in advancing without support, beyond the distance intended, had nearly proved fatal, for we had no sooner passed the ravine in our front that the enemy perceived the troops on our left halted, took us in our left flank by his retiring columns and the columns which we posted in our front in a wood behind the bank of a vineyard. Thus gaining confidence, nearly turned our right, they stood till the grenadiers were nearly within musket length, but they then retired in great confusion. At this point of the action our numbers were diminishing very fast, and it being impossible to maintain this advance position we were ordered to be withdrawn. Accordingly we faced about, retired to the ravine, slower and in better order than we advanced. Here we made a stand and did considerable execution, but the enemy having come on with all those troops that had been flying, supported by strong columns which concealed in the wood, it was deemed necessary to order another retirement, and we once again faced about – the enemy by this time having advanced within a few yards, the havoc was great, and we were thrown into momentary confusion – but the same ardent spirit which had urged our men to advance beyond the point originally intended still operated – they rallied with astonishing rapidity and their exertions keeping pace with the exigencies, success crowned their efforts in the complete rout of the enemy. (John Aitchison to his father, Belem, 14 September 1809 Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 58).
Reading these accounts the first point which attracts attention is Stothert’s assertion that the French infantry deployed into line. Most other British accounts refer to the French attacking in column, but a near contemporary report prepared for the Horse Guards refers in passing to the French attacks at Talavera ‘which were chiefly in line.’ And three days after the battle George Murray wrote a very long account of the battle in which he said, ‘Along the whole front of General Sherbrooke’s Division the Enemy advanced in two complete Lines of Infantry, with a formidable Line of Cavalry in Rear of the Second.’ This is not quite as unequivocal as it sounds, for Murray may have meant that the French advanced in a ‘Line of Columns’ – a number of columns advancing level with each other – but it certainly adds weight to Stothert’s statement. (The ‘near contemporary report’ is anonymous and principally concerns Albuera. It is in the ‘Narrative of the campaign sin the Peninsula compiled by Colonel Lindenthal’ and I am grateful to S. G. P. Ward for sending me an extract of this in a letter of 11 March 1998. George Murray to Alexander Hope, ‘Private,’ Talavera 31 July 1809 Hope of Luffness Papers GD 364/1/1193).
The next surprising point is that Aitchison explicitly says that the Guards did not open fire until after they had charged and broken the advancing French. This was unusual: the customary British tactic was to fire at least one volley and then charge while the enemy were still shaken by the blow. In another letter Aitchison says ‘On their approaching within 200 yards we were ordered to advance without firing a shot and afterwards to charge this we did as became British officers’ (Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 56). Stothert’s account is more ambiguous, suggesting, but not quite saying, that the British volley preceded the charge; but Aitchison is so explict that he probably deserves to be believed.
It is less clear whether the same pattern was followed by the other brigades in Sherbrooke’s division. An officer of the 61st in Alan Cameron’s brigade wrote, ‘Our division received orders to charge the enemy with the bayonet the moment their caps could be seen as they ascended the ravine which was about 100 yards in our front’, which rather suggests a charge without firing, but taking advantage of the confusion as the French scrambled out of the gully formed by the Portiña brook. (Charlton’s journal quoted in Maclean Indomitable Colonel p 206). However Beamish in the History of the King’s German Legion is unequivocal:
Reserving their fire until the French had crossed the ravine, these regiments [Langwerth’s brigade] received the enemy with a volley, and then rushing forward with the bayonet, drove their assailants in disorder to the other side; from hence the fire of a second line opening upon them, and being also exposed to a murderous discharge of grape, the legion brigade was ordered to retire, and it fell back with little disorder, leaving general von Langwerth among the slain. (Beamish History of the King’s German Legion vol 1 p 215).
With a volley or not, the confident British charge was successful, and the leading French infantry broke and fled with the British mixed up among them in pursuit. Cameron’s brigade may have halted at the Portiña brook and begun to regain its order; although there is some disagreement in the sources on this point. Langwerth’s Germans probably did not push far beyond the stream, for they would soon have been taken in the flank by the French batteries on the Cerro de Cascajal which were supported by Villatte’s infantry. But the Guards certainly got out of hand, pursuing too far and becoming thoroughly disordered and hence vulnerable to the French second line. Aitchison’s talk of withdrawal in good order understandably minimizes the trouble, but there is no doubt that the Guards were, if not broken, at least incapable of serious resistance and in need of time to regain their order and composure. (The difference is that there seems to have been little panic amongst the Guards: the men were willing, even eager, to resume their ranks if given a chance to do so).
Role of Mackenzie’s brigade:
There are few first-hand accounts from Mackenzie’s brigade although it was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the day. By the time Joseph Anderson of the 2/24th wrote his Recollections more than fifty years after the battle, events had lost their sharp detail leaving on a generalized impression:
The French columns came on boldly and tried again and again to walk over us and break our lines, but we defied them, and at every assault they were driven back with fearful slaughter; then they advanced with fresh troops, cheering and shouting “Vive l’Empereur!” The others, disheartened by our determined resistance, faced about with the altered cry “Sauve qui peut.” The slaughter on both sides was fearful butchering work… (Anderson Recollections of a Peninsular Veteran p 35).
There is a rather more detailed account in the regimental history of the 24th Regiment, which probably drew on unpublished papers preserved by the regiment. According to this source the 24th had been brought up to support the left flank of Campbell’s division ‘and opened an independent fire on a French column, which was in the act of deploying into line. This column was so cut up that it soon retired.’ After some time a staff officer brought orders for the 24th to support the Guards by returning to its former ground. ‘The battalion was faced to the left, and moved off in as quick a run as the men were capable of.’ When the Coldstream Guards charged the French the 24th moved to occupy their position, and when the Guards came streaming back the 24th
wheeled back by companies, to allow the retreating Coldstreamers to pass through and then formed line and opened a steady fire, which soon checked the advance of the French line that was following up the Coldstreamers. The fire of round shot, grape, and musketry had in the short space of half-an-hour annihilated the battalion, and when the Coldstreamers returned to their former ground, the 24th had only one rank to show front, and even in that there were long gaps. (Paton et al Historical Records of the 24th p 105-106).
The 24th was a strong regiment, almost 900 officers and men on the morning of the battle, and it lost 44 men killed, 10 officers and 268 men wounded and 21 men missing or 343 casualties in all; to which must be added many men who left the ranks to assist wounded comrades to the rear, or from fear, or brief illness, but who resumed the place before the end of the day. (Oman vol 2 p 646, 651). The other regiments in the brigade suffered rather less heavily even allowing for the fact that they were slightly weaker to start with. The 2/31st had lost heavily in the fighting at Casa de Salinas on the previous day and was probably little more than 700 strong (all ranks) on the 28th: it lost 131 casualties. While the 1/45th probably had 800 men (all ranks) from which it lost 158 casualties. So that the 24th lost more than one third of its strength and the other two regiments about one fifth, not including their losses on the previous day.
Mackenzie’s brigade may have been assisted by some Spanish infantry, and by a charge of Spanish cavalry into the exposed southern flank of Sebastiani’s advancing division, although the evidence for both these suggestions is fragmentary and open to other interpretations. (Cocks to his father, 30 July 1809, Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 36 for role of Spanish infantry in covering the retreat of the Guards; Oman vol 2 p 541n cites General Desprez for the report of Spanish cavalry charging Sebastiani’s flank. Oman suggests that this was a mistake for the British light cavalry, but Cotton’s brigade was further north and the excellent first hand accounts we have from it do not mention any charge.) Mackenzie himself was killed in the fighting. Charles Cocks commented that he was ‘the man who did more than anyone towards our victory’, and he was eulogized in the Gentleman’s Magazine as ‘a zealous, steady, cool soldier, a mild and most friendly man … The 78th adored him, and will long lament him.’ (Cocks to his father, 30 July 1809, Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 37; Gentleman’s Magazine August 1809 p 780 quoted in Hall Biographical Dictionary p 373). Unfortunately his death meant that no official report of the part played by his brigade in the crisis of the battle reached Wellesley, who failed to give any credit to the brigade in his dispatch home. This caused much mortification to the officers of the 24th, 31st and 45th when the London papers reached the army, and Wellesley, admitting the justice of the complaint, tried to rectify it, only for the correction to be lost at sea. Napier followed the original dispatch in his account of the battle, and for almost a century the vital part played by Mackenzie’s brigade went largely unrecognized. (Paton et al Historical Records of the 24th p 106; Oman vol 2 p 541).
The Role of the 1/48th:
Wellesley gave some of the praise due to Mackenzie’s men to the 1/48th, which he had ordered down from the hill and which ‘advanced upon the enemy, and covered the formation of Lieutenant General Sherbrooke’s division.’ (AW to Castlereagh, 29July 1809, WD III p 374). This was how events were seen from the Cerro de Medellin: Lord Burghersh, writing home to his father on 30 July, said ‘Wellesley, when he saw the advance of the Guards, dreaded the result, and ordered the 48th Regiment from the left to support them in case of necessity. The steadiness of this regiment saved the day. The Guards passed through it, and it supported the whole attack that was pouring down, and stopped the French advance. Under cover of this regiment the Guards and the other regiments formed, and in a quarter of an hour returned into action with a huzza, which, repeated through the whole line, terminated the action.’ (Burghersh Correspondence p 25-26). But no matter how gallant, the 1/48th was only a single battalion: almost 900 strong at the start of the day it would have lost some casualties – probably quite a few – in the morning fighting on the Cerro de Medellin. Its total losses for 28 July were 168 casualties – comparable with the other regiments in its brigade, so it seems unlikely that it was engaged in a fierce contest with Lapisse’s whole division. And this leaves unanswered the question who or what halted Lapisse’s advance, inflicting almost as heavy casualties on his division as Sebastiani’s men suffered in their fight with the Guards and Mackenzie’s brigade?
There is no obvious answer to this question. Cameron’s brigade and Langwerth’s Germans both suffered very heavily but Charles Cocks makes clear that the King’s German Legion infantry were, for a time, completely broken after their initial success:
For the Germans, they behaved in several instances extremely ill. At one period of the 28th the whole of their infantry fairly ran away. Poor Langwerth seized the colours and, planting them, called the men to form. He was killed in attempting to rally them. Colonel Derenham was equally unsuccessful. He got 40 or 50 round the colours but the instant he went to collect others these set up. Had not the 16th [Light Dragoons] been moved up opportunely there would have been a gap left in the line. The Germans formed in our rear. (Cocks letter of 11 Sept 1809 in Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 39-40).
The extraordinarily heavy casualties suffered by Langwerth’s brigade (almost 50 per cent) provide ample explanation and excuse for their disorder, but it is still not clear who halted Lapisse’s advance. Cotton’s light cavalry evidently covered the flight of the Germans, but it did not charge the French infantry, and its very light casualties (29 officers and men killed, wounded and missing from a strength of over 1,000) show that it was not seriously engaged. (The claim in L. B. Oatts The Emperor’s Chambermaids. The Story of the 14th/20th King’s Hussars (London, Ward Lock, 1973) p 105 that Cotton’s brigade charged, cut its way through Lapisse’s division, and routed it, is based on no evidence and seems most implausible).
Possibly Cameron’s brigade was able to blunt Lapisse’s second advance, or perhaps Lapisse was overly cautious, anxious about being taken in the flank by the British infantry and guns on the Cerro de Medellin and by the sight of Cotton’s cavalry in front: he may have halted his advance until Sebastiani had broken Mackenzie and during this halt his regiments may have lost heavily to the allied guns. There is some support for this idea in Eliot’s Treatise on the Defence of Portugal published in the following year: ‘At the same time, 18 pieces of cannon, which Colonel Robe, of the Royal Artillery, had formed in oblique direction, were brought to bear on the flank of the enemy’s column, and occasioned great destruction by the fire of spherical case shot, or Colonel Shrapnell’s shells, both as they advanced and when they had retreated beyond the reach of musketry.’ (p 239) Eliot was present at the battle, but one would expect, and like, more evidence to support this claim. In the end the question must be left open, but Lapisse’s advance was halted and his men did lose heavily and the bravery of the 1/48th is not an adequate explanation.
Did Wellesley order 1/48th down from Cerro de Meddelin?:
The evidence seems fairly clear that he did. He explicitly says so in his official dispatch (WD III p 374) and this is supported by a letter from Burghersh to his father dated 30 July (Burghersh Correspondence p 25-26), and by Gurney’s History of the Northamptonshire Regiment (the 48th) p 140. The only contrary evidence is the anonymous memorandum in WSD vol 13 p 341 which says ‘Major Middlemore, of his own accord, led on the 1st battalion of the 48th Regiment to the change’ – and this may simply mean that while Wellesley sent the 48th onto the plain, Middlemore gave the order to attack.
Certainly Wellesley went out of his way to ensure that Middlemore was promoted after the battle, singing his praises in three letters home and making sure that he was not passed over in favour of a more senior, but less deserving, officer in the regiment. Andrew Leith Hay in his Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 1 p 157 says that Wellesley first ordered the 29th down, then, because it was much reduced, halted it and substituted the 1/48th.
The Charge of the 23rd Light Dragoons:
Frederick Ponsonby’s account:
I shall not tell you much of our battle, you have read quite enough of it. We had the pleasing amusement of charging five solid squares with a ditch in their front. After losing 180 [men] and 222 horses we found it not so agreeable, and that Frenchmen don’t always run away when they see British cavalry, so off we set, and my horse never went so fast in my life. (Frederick Ponsonby to Lady Duncannon, 3 Sept 1809, Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle p 188-9).
The account of an anonymous officer published in The Times:
The enemy advanced with unparalleled steadiness. At this moment an order arrived for Anson’s brigade to advance, and charge the solid columns of the enemy. The order was promptly obeyed. The brigade moved forward in sight of both armies, in the finest order. General Payne, Anson, and their Staff, were at their head. Loud shouts from both armies rent the air!
When the charge was sounded, none but those who were present can conceive the interest of this scene. Tremendous vollies [sic] of cannon and musketry were poured among our ranks. A deep unseen ditch crossed our front into which numbers of men and horses, who had not been fed for two days, fell. Nothing could daunt the transcendent valour of our brave 23d. They passed all obstacles! Rode nobly up – made a most desperate charge at the solid square and double close column of infantry, and were almost annihilated. The heavy brigade advanced to the support of their brave comrades, and assisted in bringing off the remnant of this gallant regiment, who, upon mustering them, appeared only to amount to 119 men and horses. (The Times 23 August 1809).
The text to Unger’s sketch map of the Battlefield (reproduced in Hughes Firepower p 140-1) confirms the existence and importance of the gully: ‘which attack however did not succeed, a Ditch, the steadiness of the Enemy’s columns, & the fire of their Artillery prevented the succeeding of this charge’. And so does Eliot’s Treatise on the Defence of Portugal p 208-9, (published in 1810) which includes this account of the charge: ‘a charge made by the 23d dragoons, and 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion, had the effect of checking a column and the gullies with which it was intersected, the cavalry were unable to preserve that solidity requisite in a charge; their loss in consequence was considerable…’ Burghersh also mentions the gully in his brief account of the charge published in 1820 (i.e. before Napier): [Burghersh] Memoir of the Early Campaign of the Duke of Wellington p 89. Napier (History vol 2 p 176) with his gift for vivid description made the creek bed famous, and many later accounts wildly exaggerated its significance (including Leith Hay Narrative vol 1 p 159-61 – Leith Hay is detailed and plausible, but clearly not accurate on this point. Oman and Fortescue follow this: Oman vol 2 p 547-8 and Fortescue vol 7 p 251-2 See also letter from an infantry officer to editor of USJ 1831 pt 2 p 545-6). This led to a reaction. Oman, visiting the battlefield in 1903 was surprised to find only a four foot drop, not a ravine, and attributed it to farming (vol 2 p 557). More recently some writers have gone to the other extreme with Colonel Sañudo criticizing Oman for having ‘followed too many of Napier’s errors, such as the non-existent ditch at Talavera into which the 23rd Light Dragoons supposedly crashed’ (in Griffith (ed) History of the Peninsular War vol 9 Modern Studies p 159n). But the ditch certainly did exist, even if its significance has been exaggerated.
AW hit by a spent bullet, but not hurt:
Wellesley himself was ‘struck in the shoulder by a spent ball from the enemy’s tirailleurs towards the close of the action’, but not hurt. (Castlereagh to the King, 14 Aug 1809, Later Correspondence of George III vol 5 p 322-323; AW to Richmond, 29 July 1809 WD III p 380; AW to William Wellesley-Pole, 1 Aug 1809, ‘Letters to Pole’ p 17-18; Leith Hay Narrative vol 1 p 163; Anonymous memorandum in WSD vol 13 p 340 says AW was hit during the morning attack, but this is contradicted by Wellesley’s letter to Richmond).
Reactions to the battle in the army:
Colonel Elley wrote that ‘I have before experienced an equally hot fire, but never one of such duration’ (Elley to his sister, Badajoz, 11 September 1809 in Combermere Memoirs and Correspondence vol 1 p 123-5). Colonel Donkin was ‘astonished at the result. We had no more than 17,000 Men & the Enemy attacked us with full 40,000.’ (Donkin to Brownrigg ‘Private’ Talavera, 29 July 1809, Hope of Luffness GD 364/1/1193). And Rowland Hill told his sister ‘There never was a more severe action fought than that of the 28th, or more honour gained by an army than was obtained on both days. I must, however, observe, that it was a dear bought victory … Another such victory would be a serious one for us …’ (Hill to his sister, 1 Aug 1809, Sidney Life of Hill p 110-111). John Fremantle: ‘I never was more surprised or glad of anything in my life as when I found they were going off [i.e. that the French were retreating]’ (John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Talavera, 30 July 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Voice p 42-5).
Shortage of food:
Lieutenant-Colonel Bingham of the 2/53 ‘fainted from heat and exhaustion at the close of the action’ and John Carss of the same regiment recorded that ‘We were kept under arms all that night, when every man of us was like to drop down through fatigue and hunger.’ (Bingham to his mother, 29 July 1809, Glover (ed) Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 106; Carss in Johnston (ed) ‘The 2/53rd in Peninsular War’ p 6). Colonel Donkin ended his letter home, ‘Pray excuse a letter written under Fatigue and Exhaustion – Our privations have been very great, and our exertions excessive. I have scarcely eaten, slept or sat down for three days – Our Commissariat is very bad, and our Army in the Greatest Want. Our Troops are now eating in the first time in 56 hours.’ (Donkin to Brownrigg ‘Private’ Talavera 29 July 1809 Hope of Luffness GD 364/1/1193). And Stapleton Cotton, having survived the battle unscathed had the mortification of discovering that all his baggage and personal comforts had been lost, plundered, it was said, by the Spaniards. (Combermere Memoirs vol 1 p 122 – he covered his immediate wants by buying General Mackenzie’s canteen and other equipment).
Wellesley’s reaction to first reports of French movements in his rear:
As early as the evening of 29 July there were hints of an unexpected threat to Wellesley’s communications with Portugal which might disrupt his plans, and these hints grew louder and more serious over the next few days. Wellesley was slow to appreciate the danger because he was also receiving detailed information which showed that the French did not have nearly enough men around Salamanca to pose any serious threat. If Soult had only 18 or 20,000 men he would only be able to bring 12 to 15,000 south, for he needed to leave some to protect his rear from Beresford and Romana before plunging into the mountain passes. But it would be extremely dangerous for him to attack Wellesley’s communications with only 15,000 men – Soult’s whole force would be risked and little would be gained. Nonetheless Wellesley asked Beresford and Romana to be vigilant and prepare to act against the French rear if Soult did move south, and he suggested to Cuesta that he strengthen the troops guarding the passes by detaching a division from his army; and Cuesta, after initially refusing, agreed to do so. But it was far too late, even if these measures had been adequate. (Oman vol 2 p 562-5).
Criticism of Cuesta’s move from Talavera:
Burghersh’s criticism is more interesting than most, although still over-influenced by hindsight:
If Cuesta was actuated by a desire of bringing his army to the assistance of Sir AW, who was about to attack a force which he had reason to believe was superior to him, he ought to have waited a few hours, till he had communicated with him, and in the meantime, he should have given assistance to the removal of the British wounded. If he thought that the return of a message from Oropesa (a distance of only five leagues), would have exposed him by too much delay, he ought at least to have left a corps to check the enemy in his front, and to have protected the retreat of the hospitals.’ (Memoir of the Early Campaigns of Wellington p 99-100).
But in fact, Cuesta did leave a rear-guard at Talavera.
Hopes raised in Britain by Aspern-Essling:
The news of Napoleon’s failure to cross the Danube at Aspern-Essling reached London in early June and revived hopes which had flagged in the face of his rapid advance and easy capture of Vienna. Castlereagh’s under-secretary Edward Cooke now took for granted that the British would capture Madrid and wrote to Charles Stewart, “We expect to hear of you from the Escurial, and I desire you will send me some Nudes of the Titian and Guido Pencil – they say they are all locked up as offensive to Modesty.” A week later he was confident that final victory over Napoleon was in sight: ‘I think you will have no more fighting in Spain – We trust to have 10,000 merry fellows [i.e. the Walcheren Expedition] in the Sea this day fortnight in the order to come in for a share of the Pye – we never think now of Spain or Portugal.’ (Cooke to Stewart 20 and 27 June 1809 PRONI D 3030/AA p 8-9).
Reaction in Britain to the unfolding of the campaign:
The failure to attack Victor on 23 July on the Alberche produced some disappointment and annoyance. For example the young Lord Palmerston, who was a junior minister in the government, found it ‘amazingly provoking that [Wellesley] should have lost an opportunity of annihilating Victor … However Spanish affairs are now a very Secondary consideration; It has been clearly proved that the Spaniards have neither the energy nor the means to defend themselves; & they will therefore follow the fortune & fate of Austria’. (Palmerston to Miss Temple, 10 August 1809, Palmerston Papers, University of Southampton BR 24/1). Wellesley’s supporters and allies in the press responded by blaming the failure to attack on the 23rd to Cuesta, with some claiming that the reason was that the 23rd was a Sunday. This produced an extraordinary response from The Times which showed that Wellesley’s reputation was still being poisoned by the after-effects of the controversy over Cintra:
Those who recollect the insidious manner in which our own Commander, Sir Hew Dalrymple, was slandered by the dependents of the Wellesleys in England, during the Portuguese campaign will not be surprised that the General of our Allies has experienced similar treatment, during the Spanish one. In fact, whatever appears to the sycophants of this family to fall short of public expectation (no matter whether rational or extravagant), must immediately be removed from the shoulders of their patron, and laid to the charge of his fellow officers. Sir Hew Dalrymple seized the pen, thrust it into the hands of Sir Arthur, and made him sign the armistice of Alhambra [sic], the tears meanwhile running down his cheeks; and here has General Cuesta, with equal barbarity, left him to fight Victor alone, and marched off to hear mass. Now we do not mean to say that the latter report is false, because the former was so; but we do beg leave to note it as suspicious, because it springs from the same polluted source … (The Times 12 August 1809).
And so on for another full column. This naturally provoked a controversy and The Times had just declared, ‘we cannot but shudder at the probable result of the advance of our troops into the heart of Spain’, (The Times 14 August 1809) when news of Talavera reached London.
In this context it is no wonder that Canning’s first reaction was relief: ‘I never received so welcome news. The plot to run down Arthur Wellesley was thickening – But God be praised, this defeats it entirely – and he may and shall now be all that he ought to be.’ (Canning to Bagot, 14 August 1809 Bagot George Canning and His Friends vol 1 p 318).
The General Order eulogizing the victory:
The government’s measures to mark the news (firing the Tower Guns, the Extraordinary Gazette, even the peerage for Wellesley) all followed well-established precedents – as much for naval as military victories – but the government also proposed that a General Order be issued to the entire army eulogizing the victory. This was unusual and seems to have ruffled some feathers in the Horse Guards, but the King approved the suggestion, and the order was issued on 18 August 1809:
The Commander in Chief has received the King’s Commands to signify in the most marked and special Manner, the Sense His Majesty entertains of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley’s personal Services on this memorable Occasion, not less displayed in the Result of the Battle itself, than in the consummate Ability, Valour, and Military Resource, with which the many Difficulties of this arduous, protracted Contest were met and provided for by his Experience and Judgment. (General Order 18 August 1809: copy of printed order in Hope of Luffness GD 364/1/1193 – also printed in Gentleman’s Magazine May-September 1809 p 868-9. See Ms memorandum on copy of General Order in Hope of Luffness Papers GD 364/1/1193 which makes clear that the order was not proposed by the Horse Guards. See also Castlereagh to the King 17 August 1809 Later Correspondence of George III vol 5 p 324 and Col J. W. Gordon [to Lord Grey] 27 January 1810 Grey Papers, Durham University Library no 41. Gordon claims that the General Order was regarded as ‘most unusual’ by both the CinC and the King, and implies that neither they, nor senior officers at the Horse Guards were entirely happy with it, but he may have tailored his comments a little to suit Grey’s tastes.).
The order went on to praise Sherbrooke and the army as a whole, as well as mentioning the success of Oporto.
The background is explained by Wellington to Lord Wellesley 10 September 1809 (WSD vol 6 p 360): ‘It appears to me that Pole could not do otherwise than he has done. It would have been impossible to give me your title, and equally so to force the King to give me the title of Talavera against the opinion of those who thought it could not be done without the consent of the Spanish government.’ This suggests that Wellington would have liked to have a title that echoed his victory. Presumably the problem was due to the fact that Spain was an ally – for there was no such difficulty with St. Vincent’s title. Kitty too disliked ‘Wellington’: ‘I regret his former style and title – that of Wellington I do not like, for it recalls nothing. However, it is done and I suppose it could not be avoided.’ (diary quoted in Wilson A Soldier’s Marriage p 124).
Disappointment at the end of the campaign, among government supporters at home:
Frederick Robinson (who had succeeded Charles Stewart as second under-secretary in the War Department), endeavoured to be positive, but could not conceal his feelings:
The Intelligence from Spain is undoubtedly not of an agreeable complexion … it is certain that [Wellesley] has retired across the Tagus … His policy was to play a Cautious game after the severe loss his Army has suffered … [but the French] will hardly I think push him very hard to the Southward, as by doing so they would leave their rear & communications open … It is however a case of great difficulty and great anxiety, and Soult’s movement is a proof of the enterprising Character does not belong to our Allies either in the Cabinet or the field. (Frederick Robinson to Charles Yorke, ‘Private & Confidential’, 26 August 1809 BL Add Ms 45,036 f 139-141).
A few weeks later Palmerston wrote that ‘Ld Wellington seems to have made good his retreat in a very able manner’, but he could find little cheer as he surveyed the wider scene:
Nothing can now be expected from [Wellington’s] exertions. The termination of the war in Austria, & the inconceivable apathy & folly of the Spaniards have extinguished every hope in that quarter. It really is not to be bourne that while we are straining every to supply them with money & means to raise armies of their own, & shedding our best blood in their defense, in the center of their kingdom they should literally starve our troops although their own were provided with provisions of every sort in abundance. The Spanish spirit & enthusiasm seems to have been mere pet en air, it made a great noise at first, but broke immediately & has left very unpleasant consequences behind it … We shall now soon be again in a state of siege but I think that the battle of Talavera has pretty well relieved us from any fears about invasion if any still remained. (Palmerston to Laurence Sulivan, Brockert Hall, 15 September 1809 Palmerston Letters to the Sulivans p 109 – 112).
© Rory Muir