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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 24 : The Pursuit of Masséna (February–April 1811)
Wellington received many reports of the impending French withdrawal including one from a Portuguese correspondent who had remained in Santarem throughout the winter. (D’Urban Journal 5 May 1811 p 189). He told Beresford on 4 March, ‘I think it likely that the enemy are about some move; but we have so frequently been disappointed that it is impossible to be certain. There is no alteration whatever in front’. (Wellington to Beresford 4 March 1811 WD IV p 650). In a postscript to the same letter he was able to announce that the first of the long-awaited reinforcements had finally reached the Tagus, while by the following morning he knew that the main convoy was safely in harbour. It would take the reinforcements a few days to reach the front, but as soon as they were ready Wellington intended to take the offensive. (Wellington to Beresford 4 March at 6am 5 March 1811 WD IV p 650, 651-2). In the meantime he ordered his leading divisions to bring their troops forward and told Beresford that if the French did withdraw he should send a brigade to Abrantes and re-establish the bridge over the Tagus there. At noon on 5 March the French were still occupying their positions facing the allies at Santarem, although some artillery was missing and it was said that their sick and baggage had been ordered to the rear. It was still possible that Masséna was preparing, not a retreat, but the passage of the river or a desperate attack on Wellington’s army. (Wellington to Beresford 6am and noon 5 March 1811 WD IV p 651-2, 652, Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 6 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 168 – they knew that the French were about to make a move but ‘we could not determine whether it was one of advance or retreat’).
State of the Allied army at outset of the Campaign:
Robert Long, never one to look through rose tinted glasses, wrote home his first impression on 9 March 1811: ‘The Army is in high health, spirits and courage, and full of confidence in its Leader. Every hope may naturally be indulged from these circumstances’ (McGuffie Peninsular Cavalry General p 62).
Nonetheless it took men and beasts a little while to settle back into the rhythm of the campaigning, as Francis Hall of the 14th Light Dragoons recalled:
The baggage formed an amusing appendix to our line of march. Horses, mules, donkeys, servants, women, children, dogs, goats and poultry were mixed in a chaotic jumble. Here, a restive mule planted his forefeet and halted in obstinate defiance both of oaths and blows; there, another had contrived to shift his load from his back to his belly, while a third, with the most provoking philosophy, had chosen this moment of confusion quietly to repose himself where his presence was least desirable. In spite, however, of impediments, we moved briskly on. (Francis Hall ‘Recollections in Portugal and Spain during 1811 and 1812’ J.R.U.S.I. vol 56 Oct 1912 p 1401).
Destruction committed by the French army in the Retreat:
Even Pelet acknowledges this, although he seeks to shield Masséna from any of the blame:
We found Pombal in a terrible state of devastation. A great number of the houses had been ruined or burned by our marauders. It was said that Tomar and Leiria were in ashes. We saw an immense column of smoke rising in the direction of the latter. These last misfortunes were the work of our stragglers, for we then began to experience this plague of the army … It was claimed the Prince had given orders to burn everything in retreat. In fact he himself always prescribed, recommended and observed every measure which could mitigate the horrors of war when it did not necessitate imperilling the rigorous needs of the service’ (Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 432-33).
Robert Long described Santarem in a letter home on 9 March 1811: ‘The greater part of the Town which I saw is in a complete state of Ruin, from the houses having been completely gutted by the Enemy in order to procure firewood, in addition to which, the day previous to their departure they burned down a large Nunnery there with some adjacent buildings’. (McGuffie Peninsular Cavalry General p 62). See also the account of Captain John Duffy of the 43rd in Uffindell’s National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 88-89.
Madden describes finding Santarem ‘in a very ruined, filthy state’ (‘Diary’ 6 March 1811 p 507). And George Simmons describes it well ‘How different this town now appeared; when I last was in it all was gaiety and happiness, and the shops abounding in every luxury, and a smile upon everyone’s face; but now the houses are torn and dilapidated, and the few miserable inhabitants moving skeletons; the streets strewn with every description of household furniture, half-burnt and destroyed, and many streets quite impassable with filth and rubbish, with an occasional man, mule or donkey rotting and corrupting and filling the air with pestilential vapours’ (British Rifleman p 137).
Wellington prepares to detach Beresford to Badajoz, but does not actually do so:
As he advanced, and when he was still unsure what route Masséna was taking, Wellington had to make an important strategic decision: should he detach Beresford with a strong force to relieve Badajoz at once, or should he keep his army together to be ready to attack Masséna if the French attempted a stand? The dilemma was sharpened by the fact that the newly-landed reinforcements would not reach the army for some days, while as Masséna fell back he might summon Claprede’s division of Drouet’s corps, which had been left in northern Portugal, to join him. This meant that if Wellington detached Beresford with a large force, (and he could not be expected to relieve Badajoz with much less than 20,000 men), the main allied army might be left significantly weaker than the French it was pursuing. On the other hand, the loss of Badajoz would be a serious blow to the allied cause and create an awkward problem which Wellington would have to face sooner rather than later. He had already assured the Junta of Estremadura that he would do everything possible to save it, and had sent word (by coded telegraph) to the Governor announcing Masséna’s retreat and promising that help would not be long delayed. (Wellington to the Junta of Estremadura 26 Feb 1811, to Liverpool 2 March and to Beresford 4pm 6 March 1811 WD IV p 636, 646, 655-6). Before dawn on 8 March Beresford crossed the Tagus and joined Wellington at headquarters in Torres Novas; at this meeting Wellington decided to give Beresford three full divisions of infantry (the Second, the Fourth and the Portuguese division commanded by John Hamilton) and the brigade of heavy cavalry previously led by Henry Fane and now taking its orders from Colonel George De Grey. Preparations for the detachment were begun immediately but Wellington delayed the actual march of the troops: heavy rain made the roads difficult and the latest reports received from Badajoz during 8th and 9 March were encouraging. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 8 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 169 Wellington to Beresford 2pm 8 March, 6am and 8pm March 1811 WD IV p 658-661. Wellington to Liverpool, 14 March 1811 WD IV p 661-70).
First hand accounts of the Campaign:
There are some excellent first hand accounts of the campaign, especially from the Light Division where Simmons, Kincaid and Costello are full of vivid detail an interesting sidelights. Alexander Gordon gives the headquarters view, and Tomkinson was with the advanced troops for most of the campaign. Letters from Picton and Colville are useful for the Third Division, with Grattan adding another perspective. Of secondary accounts, Oman and Fortescue are, of course, essential and Verner’s history of the 95th Rifles very good and full.
9th and 10 March, before Pombal:
On 9 March there was some skirmishing between British cavalry leading the allied advance and the French rearguard. By evening there were reports that a sizeable French force had halted around Pombal although Wellington was unsure whether they intended to offer battle there, or merely to gain time to secure their passage over the Mondego, some thirty miles further north. His own troops were strung out along several roads with only the Light Division and Pack’s brigade of Portuguese infantry near to the front. Faced with the possibility of having to drive Masséna from a strong position, Wellington decided that he could not spare the Fourth Division and the heavy cavalry brigade just yet and reclaimed them from Beresford, consoling himself with the reflection that Badajoz is ‘certainly not pressed’. (Wellington to Beresford 8pm 9 March 1811 WD IV p 661 see also accounts of the skirmishing in Tomkinson Diary 9 March 1810 p 78-80 and Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 9 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 169-70).
During the 10th the allied army became more concentrated, but Wellington still did not have enough troops near Pombal to launch an attack. Alexander Gordon, writing home that night expressed his, and Wellington’s, uncertainty as to French plans and intentions: ‘It is difficult to say what the cause of this concentration of the enemy’s force is, whether an account of the obstacles they have found in crossing the Mondego, or from a wish to meet us. I am rather induced to believe the former, and the more so as their present position is by no means a formidable one. At all events if they remain Lord Wellington will attack them tomorrow, and I trust we shall give them a sound drubbing’. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 10pm 10 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 170). In fact it seems that the French had been alarmed by exaggerated reports of the allied pursuit, and that Masséna had halted his march in order to resist a full-scale attack he expected on the 10th. He was also troubled by the possibility that the British might land a substantial force from the sea in his rear: the same fear that had concerned Soult at Oporto in 1809. Unaccountably Masséna had yet to secure his passage over the Mondego. It is strange that he did not detach a force (a brigade would have been sufficient) to seize Coimbra and reconnoitre the line of the river when he first decided to retreat. But no step was taken until the 10th, when Montbrun’s cavalry were ordered north, and even this order was promptly suspended for twenty-four hours in case the cavalry were needed to repulse Wellington’s attack. At the same time relations among senior French commanders deteriorated further: Montbrun strongly objected to being placed under Ney’s orders, Drouet announced his intention of withdrawing Conroux’s division from the army and defied Masséna’s reiterated orders, and Ney followed suit withdrawing the bulk of his force from its position in front of Pombal to a new position behind the town. (Fortescue vol 8 p 71-2, Horward ‘French Invasion of Portugal’ p 543-44, 553-556).
Masséna’s failure to seize Coimbra sooner:
It is possible that he tried to do so – Horward says that Masséna ordered Drouet to detach a regiment to Cabacos and that Drouet refused, although Cabacos was not Coimbra but rather a more easterly line of retreat (Horward ‘French Invasion of Portugal’ p 543). In any case if Masséna really intended to make a serious effort to hold the line of the Mondego he should have occupied Coimbra with a brigade several weeks in advance, established supply depots and reconnoitred the crossings of the Mondego.
Logistical Problems in the Campaign:
Despite all Wellington’s precautions problems inevitably arose with the continuing shortage of supplies. On 20 March a stiff warning was issued to regiments which seized supplies coming up from the rear but which were intended for more advanced units, while two days later Major-General Dunlop commanding the Fifth Division had his attention drawn to a fresh example of plundering by his men. (GAO 20 March 1811 General Orders, 1811 p 64 WD IV p 681n; The AG to Major-General Dunlop 22 March 1811 WD IV p 690-1). This was a flagrant example of recent orders being disobeyed, but in other cases there was room for genuine uncertainty. The soldiers had a traditional, and acknowledged, right to any property seized from the enemy, even if that property had originally been looted. (GO 20 March 1811 General Orders, 1811 p 63-64 also in WD IV p 681). Sometimes this was simple: food in an abandoned French haversack or cooking pot was eaten with added relish, while money or other valuables found on the enemy dead or wounded was quietly appropriated. But it was not always clear if cattle or sheep had been seized by the French and then abandoned, or were still in the hands of their original owners. The French went out of their way to desecrate churches, defiling altars, and using vestments as horse clothes. British officers, coming upon a scene of disorder and chaos, did not see anything particularly wrong in salvaging what they could for their own use, and many thus acquired colourful waistcoats and dressing gowns that had previously had a rather more exalted function. (T. H. Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 137-8).
This was natural enough, for even the officers had few comforts and generally slept in the open in all weathers, but there is no doubt that the passage of the allied army added to the misery already inflicted on the unfortunate inhabitants by the French. (See Kincaid Adventures p 21-25 for a description of life on campaign at this time).
John Douglas gives a ranker’s view of the problem:
Drenched to the skin we reached a village and halted the following day for the purpose of letting the Commissariat come up. The fact is the men were completely exhausted and required rest and rations; and to look for anything in the shape of meat from these miserable creatures was entirely out of the question. The Commissary at length found us out, and the word passed with acclamation, “Turn out for bread, beef, rum and rice,” and a man of each company for forage. I believe the most of us thought our own fatigues were at an end. It would not be an easy matter to procure (at least in so small a compass as that village) such a number of good appetites. Many a pipe was lit on the occasion in hopes of a hearty meal, but all our grand expectations ended with 4oz of biscuit, 2oz of rice, ½lb of beef and ½ a glass of rum!! And what was that to poor starved wretches such as we were? Biscuit in weighing was subject to waste, and all through the Peninsular War our rations had to undergo a show of equity on the steel yard, which those who used them could turn to their own advantage; so that our bread and rice could be held with ease in one hand. (Douglas’s Tale of the Peninsula and Waterloo p 29).
Edward Costello describes how he and his mess mates captured, killed were cooking a goat, supposedly belonging to the French, ‘when who should ride near, but Lord Wellington and staff; for a while I felt as if the noose were already round my neck, until the Colonel coming up, re-established my serenity, and congratulated us on our lucky chance; for this kindness we shared our booty with him that same night’ (Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns p 58). Despite this fright Costello describes stealing a loaf of bread from an old woman a couple of days later and thinks rather well of himself that he and his comrade then shared the loaf with the woman and her daughter (ibid p 61-62).
Effect of Logistical Problems on the Portuguese Army:
Pack was near despair at the effect of the shortages on his brigade:
I can only complain of the wretched establishment of the Portuguese commissariat, which has been a constant source of annoyance and ground of complaint … If proper steps are taken by putting the management of the British subsidy into B[eresford]’s hands, an army may be formed that must put this country out of all danger, but with a separate and bad commissariat, and worse medical establishment, together with an inefficient and penniless government, no officer can serve with pleasure or advantage, and I for one have often heartily wished myself out of this service, and shall quit it as soon as I can. (Pack letter 21 March 1811 Memoir of Sir Denis Pack p 51 courtesy of Howie Muir).
Pack did not act on his threat, he remained in the Portuguese service for another two years, but it is not hard to understand his frustration at watching his brigade, which he had brought to a high standard of efficiency, and which had performed excellently in the first stage of the campaign, being ruined by lack of support. Wellington wrote a lot about this, but it is also clear that all Portuguese units – including those (the majority) serving in allied divisions and fed by British commissariats – suffered a good deal. Their reduction in strength, like that in British regiments, was probably due as much to the demands of hard marching and vigorous campaigning as to the shortage of supplies.
On 25 March Wellington told Beresford that Pack’s brigade was down to 1700 men, and that the 21st Regt had little more than 500 while adding that, according to Pakenham, the 3rd and 15th had only 300 (WD IV p 695).
On 27 March he wrote, again to Beresford, ‘The Portuguese troops are falling off terribly; the effectives with me are only 11,586 infantry and 549 cavalry! The infantry have nearly 5,800 sick’ (WD IV p704-5).
On 30 March he told Charles Stuart, that Pack ‘has had one day’s rice, and one day’s Indian corn or bread … since I saw him 12 days ago!! It is really a joke to talk at carrying on the war with these people’. It was in this letter that he also explained that Spanish muleteers would not supply Portuguese units. (WD IV p 712-13.
On 31 March he gave more details while explaining that Pack’s men had received 9 days food over the last 24 days, mostly from British sources (WD IV p 715).
Later, in early April, he gave figures on the effect of this on the Portuguese army as a whole (Wellington to Charles Sturt 8 April 1811 WD IV p 727-30).
Portuguese refugees return home:
Once the allied army had passed the Portuguese could turn their attention to the task of reconstruction. ‘Many noble Portuguese families’, one British officer noted,
Followed in our rear to reoccupy their houses, which they had abandoned when the enemy first advanced towards Lisbon. Their looks of despair when they viewed the altered condition of the Palace or Quinta, which they had left in full beauty, rich in furniture and comforts of every kind, and now changed into a mass of ruin and desolation was truly lamentable, and tears ran down their cheeks as they took us from room to room, telling us what each had been, and pointing to what it was. (T. H. Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 139).
But at least war did not return to central Portugal unlike some regions which were crossed and recrossed by the armies for years in succession.
Wellington concerned that his orders are not obeyed:
Although Wellington was generally pleased with the performance of the army in the advance from Santarem, he had a few concerns in addition to plundering and the shortage of supplies. He noted that his subordinates did not always obey orders promptly, and sometimes assumed excessive latitude in their interpretation. Individual initiative was all very well in its place, but moving a large complicated army over difficult country required officers to obey orders and not diverge from their path onto an apparently easier route which was actually needed for other units. It is significant that Wellington found it necessary, on 18 March, to remind the army that ‘Exact obedience to orders issued is the foundation of military discipline’, and to add that ‘It may be depended on that the relative inconvenience of each mode of execution are weighed by the Commander of the Forces, and that what is ordered for each part of the army is to make the whole combine in one general operation and movement’. (GO 18 March 1811 General Orders, 1811 p 60-61, WD IV p 678n). That such a reminder was necessary sheds interesting light on the oft-repeated criticism that Wellington stifled his subordinates by demanding their blind obedience. It is certainly true that he had limited faith in the capacity of many, though not all, of his subordinates for independent action; but it was not unreasonable to expect if General X was ordered to move a certain place by a specified road at a particular time he would do so, rather than decide for himself what suited his own convenience.
Wellington concerned army not marching well:
Wellington was also concerned that the army was not marching particularly rapidly or well. After a particularly poor performance on 19 March he observed to Spencer that, ‘We certainly want a little practice in marching in large bodies, as at present no calculation can be made of the arrival of any troops at their station, much less of their baggage’. He had already issued a General Order stipulating that on most route marches the troops should form only three abreast ‘which is as large a number as the greater proportion of the roads in Portugal will admit’. This would result in the elongation of columns, with a single battalion of average size amounting to two hundred ranks, plus intervals, so that a brigade might require a good mile of road, and a division three or four miles when allowance is made for accompanying baggage. This meant that when the leading troops were checked by the enemy it took considerable time for those in the rear to arrive at the scene and to deploy, allowing the French rearguard the opportunity to delay the allied advance several times in the course of a day without committing itself to serious fighting. On the other hand, the French used the same roads themselves, and their march was often delayed by bottlenecks such as bridges. Yet while the underlying problem was due to the narrowness of the roads and the roughness of the terrain, Wellington clearly felt that his army was not operating as smoothly as he wished. ‘In future’, he told Spencer, ‘I propose to order the period of departure and arrival of each division of the army, by which means I shall know exactly how all stands, and by degrees the troops will become more accustomed to march in large bodies on the same road.’ The allied army had seen little active campaigning in the previous last 18 months, so it is not surprising that the pursuit of Masséna revealed some problems; what mattered was that most of these difficulties were rapidly overcome and that the army became steadily more professional and efficient without losing any of its fighting spirit or élan. (Wellington to Spencer 11/2pm 20 March 1811 WD IV p 683).
Marching three abreast:
The problem was not that the roads were this narrow along their entire length but narrow places were so common and would cause such delays and confusion as units had to squeeze through them, that it was better to keep the column of route this narrow from the outset. As late as 18 March 1814 at the very end of the war Wellington reiterated the order. (GO 18 March 1811 WSD vol 8 p 661 Thanks to Howie Muir and Ron McGuigan for drawing my attention to these points).
Difficulties of the March:
Francis Hall describes these vividly:
Our share of service during this advance was unimportant. The broken face of the country scarcely permitted the use of any other arm than light infantry. Our business was to plod on from daybreak to dark, and sometimes long after, in most unenviable perplexity. In the lower and more cultivated districts the roads were rendered deep and miry by the incessant passage of horses, artillery, bullock cars, and carriages of various descriptions, numbers of which were abandoned as the retreat grew more hurried, and choked up the way with their broken wheels and fragments; in addition to which, every slough and muddy ravine or ford was thickened with putrefying carcasses of horses, mules and asses, which had dropped or been slaughtered when unable to proceed. To escape these impediments we were perpetually obliged to break our line of march, by filing through the enclosures of loose stones, and so pick our way through vineyards and cornfields, with very little of either speed or convenience. In this manner a few miles cost many hours, even when there was no enemy to impede us. (‘Peninsular Recollections, 1811-12’ by Francis Hall J.R.U.S.I. Oct 1912 p 1404-5).
Wellington anticipates unjustified criticism over the fall of Badajoz:
Wellington was anxious to show Liverpool that he was not responsible for the loss of the fortress, and in particular that his delay in sending Beresford to its relief was irrelevant to its fate. A simple comparison of the dates establishes this beyond much doubt: even if Beresford had begun his march towards Badajoz on 8 March, as originally intended, his approach would have come several days too late. Badajoz could only have been saved if Imaz had resisted more stoutly or if the British reinforcements had reached Lisbon sooner. The noticeably defensive tone of Wellington’s letter reflects both his disappointment in the fall of the fortress, and his habitual expectation that he would be blamed, however unfairly, for whatever went wrong. (Wellington to Liverpool 14 March 1811 WD IV p 661-70).
Hardship on the final stage of the pursuit:
Tomkinson describes the hardship suffered by the troops – and officers – in the final stage of the pursuit: ‘The officers, in the evening, got three pounds of biscuit each and the men a pound and a half of rice. Wanting bread is the greatest of all privations (water excepted), and therefore the biscuit was a great treat. We got some Indian corn out of the villages for our horses, and some wine. This, with the halt, quite set us up again. We could not eat meat by itself after the first day; all I had was a little tea. The men had nothing, but did not complain.’ (Tomkinson Diary 21 March 1811 p 88).
Sabugal, 3 April 1811:
Wellington now concentrated his army to drive the French from the Coa, although he thought that they would probably withdraw before he was ready to attack. The attack was planned for 2 April but delayed until the following morning. Wellington’s plan was admirable: Erskine with the Light Division and two brigades of cavalry was to turn the French flank by fording the Coa several miles above the town, and then sweep round, so as to threaten and, if possible, intercept their line of retreat. Picton, with the Third Division, was to ford the river rather closer to the town, a little after Erskine’s movement began. He would attack the French and, with luck, force them to abandon the town which would open the way for the Fifth Division to cross, by the bridge if it had not been destroyed, or by the fords. The rest of the enemy, led by Campbell’s Sixth Division was ready to support the attack. If all went well Reynier would retreat precipitately or be badly mauled before he could receive any assistance from Loison or Junot. (Extracts from the instructions communicated by the Q.M.G. 1 and 2 April 1811 WD IV p 718n, 719n).
The morning of 3 April was foggy and some confusion arose in the allied army whether the operation was to go ahead or be postponed again. The detailed orders for the attack which Murray, the Quartermaster General, had issued on the previous day stipulated that neither Erskine nor Picton should begin their movement without orders from headquarters, yet something went wrong for Erskine moved while Picton delayed. (Oman’s criticism of ‘the rash and presumptuous Erskine’ (vol 4 p 191) is hardly borne out by Wellington’s comment only 3 weeks later that we was ‘very blind … but very cautious’ Wellington to Beresford 24 April 188 WD IV p 771-2). Worse was to follow. One brigade of the Light Division (Beckwith’s 1/43rd, 4 companies 1/95th) remained in camp, and when it finally marched it took the wrong road and forded the river much too close to the town. Opinion in the Division blamed Erskine for this mistake, and he may have been responsible for some failure of staff work or the intemperate words supposedly used by his unnamed ADC to Beckwith when he found him still in camp. Yet Erskine, with the cavalry and the leading brigade of the Light Division forded the Coa in the right place and fulfilled their part in Wellington’s plan; while Beckwith, whose task was simply to follow the brigade in front, went astray and led his brigade into a hornet’s nest. Beckwith was an admirable and highly popular officer; Erskine had earnt the sobriquet ‘Ass-skin’ and was widely blamed for his conduct at Col Novo; yet even good officers make mistakes and it is all too easy, having branded a man as incompetent, to assume that is responsible for everything that goes wrong. (Oman vol 4 p 191-2, Fortescue vol 8 p 102-3. Oman gives the traditional version of events, Fortescue points to some of the difficulties with it. Verner History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade vol 2 p 252 says little, while Urban (Rifles p 105) is the first authority to admit that Beckwith may have been, at least in part, at fault).
As soon as Beckwith’s brigade forded the river they encountered French picquets who sounded the alarm and a see-sawing battle developed as Reynier struggled to organize an effective counter-attack in the midst of confusion caused by the fog and several squalls of heavy rain. The British infantry fought remarkably well against superior numbers and repeatedly drove their opponents back only to find their flanks threatened, forcing them to retire to the cover provided by some stone walls. A single French Howitzer became the symbolic prize over which both sides contended for a time after its crew had driven off by the heavy and accurate fire of the Light Infantry. Beckwith’s leadership was superb and produced graphic tributes from many of those who were present, which show how he kept his men calm and steady by preserving his own sang froid despite receiving a superficial wound to the forehead.n (See especially Kincaid Adventures p 238, Costello Peninsular and Waterloo Campaign p 62, Simmons British Rifleman p 177). By contrast many harsh words have been written condemning Erskine’s failure to ‘march to the sound of guns’ and support Beckwith sooner; but again this seems unfair. If the action had gone according to plan Erskine should have heard the sound of fighting near the town (i.e. Picton’s attack) and should have ignored it as he moved into position to threaten Reynier’s retreat. However the loyalty of the Light Division triumphed over military hierarchies, and Colonel Drummond of the 52nd either ignored or deliberately misunderstood Erskine’s orders, and turned aside from his march arriving in time to protect Beckwith’s vulnerable flank from a dangerous attack, and thereby ensured that the credit for the final capture of the Howitzer would be hotly contested by officers of the 43rd and 52nd. Soon afterwards the Third Division finally arrived and covered Beckwith’s other flank and Reynier gave orders for his men to retreat. (Fortescue vol 8 p 103-11; Oman vol 4 p 189-97; Verner History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade vol 2 p 252-8. Fortescue observes that with the possible exception of Turcoing this was the most difficult to understand battle or combat he tried to unravel).
The action provides remarkable evidence for the fighting quality of the Light Division and in particular the self-confidence and tenacity of the men of Beckwith’s brigade. The casualty figures show an extraordinary disparity in the losses: the British lost only 170 casualties including 80 from the 43rd. The French suffered 61 officers and 689 men killed or wounded plus a further 186 unwounded prisoners: a total of 936 casualties, or more than five times the allied loss. Normally such a wide margin would arouse scepticism, but these figures withstand scrutiny: they may not be exactly accurate (there is always scope for some doubt at the margins of figures for both strength and casualties), but the imbalance of losses they document was based in fact. The explanation for the discrepancy appears to be that Beckwith’s men made full use of the good cover that was available, and that their fire was far more effective than that of the French or, as an officer of the 52nd later claimed, of that of other British line regiments:
A volley of the 52nd was a tremendous visitation. The companies under my brother’s immediate orders did great execution … Such was not the practise of the army, as I may safely say that not one shot in a hundred told. Sir John Moore’s system of raising the musket from the “Rest”, instead of letting it fall from the “Present”, I believe to be the cause of this surprising difference. The double sight might have some effect but I do not think it was much used. (Dobbs Recollections of an old 52nd Man p 19).
Wellington paid unusually lavish tribute to the troops in his official dispatch describing the combat:
Although the operations of this day were, by unavoidable accidents, not performed in the manner in which I intended they should be, I consider the action that was fought by the Light Division, by Col. Beckwith’s brigade principally, with the whole of the 2nd Corps, to be one of the most glorious that British troops were ever engaged in … It was impossible for any officer to conduct himself with more ability and gallantry than Col. Beckwith. (Wellington to Liverpool 9 April 1811 WD IV p 733-5. He also ensured that the Light Divison slept under cover in the town of Sabugal out of the heavy rain: Costello Peninsular and Waterloo Campaign p 63, Simmons British Rifleman p 162).
Privately he commented to Beresford, ‘But really, these attacks in columns against our lines are very contemptible’. (Wellington to Beresford 4 April 1811 WD IV p 722-4).
Responsibility of Erskine and Beckwith for mistakes at Sabugal:
The story of the staff officer addressing Beckwith ‘in a hasty, petulant manner … why he had not marched to the ford’ is given by Lieutenant Hopkins’s account printed in Levinge Historical Records of the 43rd p 146 and referred to, less graphically, by Kincaid (Adventures p 236). But it does not appear to be mentioned in any earlier source (Hopkins wrote his account after Napier’s history was published). Simmons does not mention it, and it sounds rather like a post-facto justification. Napier does mention the story, but fairly lightly (History vol 3 BK XII ch 4).
Other accounts do not make it clear whether Beckwith’s brigade remained in camp or initially followed Drummond’s brigade but lost their way in the fog, and the whole story is riddled with confusion and implausibility.
It is not the only problem: why was Picton’s division so slow to move? What did Wellington mean when he said he could see everything? Clearly the well-laid plan misfired at almost every turn, but why, when the army should have been operating efficiently?
Wellington is careful to make no criticism of anyone in his dispatch to Liverpool while acknowledging that ‘the operations … were not performed in the manner in which I intended’ (WD IV p 734) and Alexander Gordon says only that the Light Division attacked too soon (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 184-5).
Oman vol 4 p 194 says that Erskine ordered Drummond not to go to the assistance of Beckwith but that Drummond disregarded the order.
Wellington concerned that things go wrong whenever he does not personally supervise them:
Although he made no public criticism, or even hint of recrimination, over the disruption of his plan for the action, Wellington was perturbed by the frequency with which even simple orders were not accurately followed unless he could explain them in person. In the same letter to Beresford he wrote:
In short, these combinations do not answer, unless one is upon the spot to direct every trifling movement. I was upon a hill on the left of the Coa, immediately above the town, till the 3rd and 5th divisions crossed, whence I could see every movement on both sides, and could communicate with ease with everybody but that was not near enough. (Wellington to Beresford 4 April 1810 WD IV p 722-4).
Sabugal – the Caçadores:
There is some uncertainty over the allied force at Sabugal, specifically over whether the Caçadores of Beckwith’s brigade were present or not. Fortescue vol 8 p 103n cites Napier and Fergusson on their absence, pace Wellington’s dispatch, and adds ‘not one single account of the seven that have come down to us from officers of the 43rd and 95th says one word about the Cacadores’.
However in George Simmons’ letter of 18 May 1811, describing the action, he says ‘By this time the 43rd Light Infantry and Cacadores had joined us’. Not much but it is a contemporary and, with Wellington’s dispatch, at least keeps the question open. Oddly enough Verner, who edited Simmons, repeats Fortescue’s mistake (History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade vol 2 p 252n), while Urban (Rifles p 105 and n) follows Wellington in saying they were present.
Wellington and the Light Division:
This campaign marked the beginning of a particularly close relationship between Wellington and the Light Division. Their prominence throughout the campaign, and the lavish praise he gave them and well as the many little anecdotes that show that he was in close proximity to them, all point in this direction.
French stop pillaging as soon they cross the frontier into Spain:
There was an abrupt alteration in the behaviour of the French as soon as they crossed the frontier. The French troops then received strict orders to treat the local Spanish population well and obeyed them, so that William Tomkinson was astonished at the change:
They had not in the least injured these villages, and the people told us that the soldiers came rich out of Portugal, and having been for a length of time on a scanty allowance of bread, were glad to pay almost any price for it. They said the French had used them well, and many families from the borders of Portugal had come into these villages for protection. They have learnt such a lesson by forcing a population to leave their houses, that they will, for the future, be glad to induce them to remain in their villages. (Tomkinson Diary 4 April 1811 p 95).
Francis Hall confirms this:
The change which took place in the behaviour of the French soldiery, immediately on their entering Spain, removed every doubt as to whether their previous cruelties were to be considered as part of a concerted system of devastation, or as the licentious acts of a disorganized army no longer controllable by its officers. They now not only refrained from plunder, but paid liberally for whatever they required. This distinction cannot be accounted for on the ground of national animosity. They had been injured neither by Spaniard nor Portuguese. They had made war on both on the same provocation, that of resistance to the will of the Emperor. The national opposition had been greatest in Spain, yet the weight of revenge fell heaviest on Portugal. It is evident that policy, not sentiment, marked the difference in their treatment of the two nations. (‘Peninsular Recollections, 1811-12’ by Francis Hall J.R.U.S.I. Oct. 1912 p 1404-5; see also ‘Nightingall Letters’ 14 April 1811 p 145).
Effect of the Campaign on the Army:
The campaign had been short – less than a month from Santarem to Sabugal – but the long marches and frequent supply problems had taken their toll. Lt. Col Charles Bevan, commanding the 1/4th, wrote home at the end of March, ‘The poor 4th have left behind on this march 100 men … Out of eight hundred men we have only five hundred and twenty now at Parco’. (Archie Hunter Wellington’s Scapegoat p 123).
When the Royal Dragoons had begun its advance it ‘could not have been in more perfect order. The horses were all black, and [Captain] Windsor had recently arrived with eighty remounts, and as the Regiment was crossing the bridge in Santarem Lord Wellington and all his staff passed, and were particularly struck by the excellent condition of the horses, their coats all black and shining.’ (Clark-Kennedy Attack the Colour! p 33 quoting the Regimental Journal).
‘In little over a month’, writes the Journal, ‘that beautiful regiment might be said to have ceased to exist. One-half of the horses were lame and sore-backed, their coats long and brown, and their skin parchment-like, threatening every moment to break, while their eyes were deeply sunken in their heads’. This deterioration the Journal attributes, partly to long marches, deplorable roads and cold bivouacs, but mainly to the “above mentioned” and, if the Journal is to be believed, “disastrous” Mr. House’ (ibid p 35).
Performance of the Portuguese in the campaign:
The Portuguese had suffered even more and Wellington complained that by early April few of the Portuguese regiments with his army had even half their regulation strength of rank and file with the colours and fit for service. (Wellington to Charles Stuart 8 April 1811 WD IV p 727-30). This was the more regrettable as their performance in action in the campaign had been excellent. Alexander Gordon told his brother, ‘I cannot finish this without observing how very well the Portuguese troops have behaved in every affair with the enemy; we can now trust them as our own’ And Picton, who had been so sceptical of their value the previous year, now conceded that ‘The men are well disposed, good subjects, and I have found them, on all occasions, show an excellent spirit, and no want of courage in the face of the enemy’. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 27 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 181; Picton to Mr Marryat 18 April 1811 Robinson Memoir of Picton vol 2 p 13-14).
Writing home on 26 March 1811 George Simmons said: ‘The Portuguese deserve every praise; they fight like lions’. (British Rifleman p 155).
The decline in the strength of the Portuguese army was not entirely due to the exertions of the campaign. Even in quarters in January and February the Portuguese has suffered considerable shortages of food, and in early March Wellington complained that many Portuguese regiments were seriously under-strength: Wellington to Charles Stuart, 5 March 1811 WD p 652-3)
Comments in the army on Wellington’s campaign:
Despite the success of the campaign there were still some in the allied army who were more inclined to criticize than to praise Wellington. George Scovell wrote home to J. G. Le Marchant: ‘If you ask me whether we might not have done more than we have, I have no hesitation in answering certainly yes, and on several occasions, but it appears to have been throughout the business the plan of Ld W not to risk a man and he clearly has succeeded’. (11 April 1811 quoted in Urban Rifles p 102). Similarly Lieutenant Rice Jones told his father that while the various affairs with the French had all been ‘successful and brilliant … it is a question whether we have made the most of the opportunity so often afforded us of completing their rout and disorder’. (Rice Jones to his Father 14 April 1811 Jones Engineer Officer under Wellington p 96-97).
Others were more generous: Lowry Cole wrote home, ‘I hope John Bull will be satisfied with Lord Wellington, who is certainly deserving of anything that can be said of him’. (Cole to Lady Grantham n.d. [c late March 1811] Memoir of Lowry Cole p 68-9). Edward Pakenham wrote on 16 March ‘I have said nothing of Wellington who has raised himself if possible in the Opinion and Confidence of the Army, and afforded to all Soldiers within the last few days an opportunity of instruction not easily explained and less to be forgotten’. (Edward Pakenham to Lord Longford 16 March 1811 Pakenham Letters p 78). While Ensign George Perceval of the Coldstream Guards forthrightly declared ‘Lord Wellington deserves Kingdoms for his Military judgement in this advance. The French is estimated to have lost upwards of Three Thousand and that without a General engagement’. (Quoted in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Army p 93). And Lieutenant George Simmons of the 95th told his parents: ‘The French said that they would drive us into the sea, but Lord Wellington, the finest General in the British service, has, from his penetration, starved and driven them back out of Portugal’. (Simmons British Rifleman p 156 – letter of 26 March 1811).
Miles Nigthingall appeared almost annoyed with Masséna for discrediting his oft-repeated predictions of disaster:
The late events have turned out so very differently from what I expected that you will not pay much attention to my opinion in future. However, I still maintain that Masséna had no occasion to retreat and that he has ruined all his master’s plans by his rash and precipitate conduct … His army was certainly ill off for supplies, but they were not starving and the only corps that suffered much was Reynier’s at Santarem … As it is his army is ruined by retreat; the horses and mules &c are in so bad a state and so many have died, that his cavalry must be almost entirely remounted … I do not imagine he can attempt another invasion of this country for many months to come. He may be a great general, but he has not shown any talent during the campaign in Portugal. How fortunate for Lord Wellington! But he is always lucky. (Nightingall to Lt. Gen Alexander Ross 22 March 1811 ‘Nigthingall Letters’ p 139)
While Picton wrote home that ‘More might have been done if he had hazarded more, but the hypocritical cant of carrying on War without any expenditure of human blood has paralysed all enterprise, and, I may safely say, saved Masséna and his Army from disgrace and annihilation’ (Picton to Flanagan 22nd June 1811 ‘Some Unpublished Letters of Sir Thomas Picton’ Part 2 p 1-3).
Inflated calculations of French losses:
Alexander Gordon wrote home that ‘Since Masséna entered this country he has certainly lost not less than 40,000 men, which I take in this way: at the Battle of Busaco, 10,000; by sickness while in the position of Santarem, 10,000; in this retreat by killed, wounded, prisoners and desertion, 10,000; and then I reckon that he has with him 10,000 of his sick that will never be fit for anything’. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 25 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 179). This was clearly over-stating the case (the 10,000 ‘lost’ at Busaco is not only a great over-estimate, but counts all the wounded men as lost to the army permanently). However Wellington put the French losses even higher, at 45,000 men, although his estimate included sick and wounded (Wellington to Liverpool 9 April 1811 WD IV p 735-6).
Napoleon’s reaction to the campaign:
When Masséna’s aide-de-camp, Jean Jacques Pelet, reached Paris at the beginning of April to offer his master’s excuses, friends warned him that Napoleon was furious, and it was only with some difficulty that Pelet gained an audience. Napoleon did not conceal his feelings:
“You have lost everything that you can lose in war; you have lost the honor of arms. It would have been better if you had lost the army! Damn it! Sixty thousand Frenchmen retreat before thirty thousand English! Is my army to be as [ineffective as] my navy? Poor nation! Poor nation!” With tears in his eyes he added, “You have compromised the honour of the finest infantry in the world”. (Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 498).
As Napoleon implicitly recognised the failure of Masséna’s campaign in Portugal marked a decisive watershed in the war in the Peninsula. Henceforth psychologically and, increasingly, strategically the French would be on the backfoot when facing the allied army, intent on parrying Wellington’s blows not taking the initiative themselves. Yet it was disingenuous of Napoleon to blame Masséna for the defeat, for the fundamental mistake was made by the Emperor when he under-estimated the scale of the task. Nor did he show much sign of having learnt his lesson when he talked of ‘thirty thousand English’ still refusing to acknowledge the vital role played by the Portuguese in their own salvation.
The British government reconsiders its policy towards the Peninsula:
The spring of 1811 saw the British government reconsider the scale and nature of its commitment to the war in the Peninsula. This process began in late January before Perceval’s ministry was confirmed in office by the Prince Regent and while Masséna was still firmly established at Santarem, and was not completed until May when the military position had been completely transformed. The news of the French retreat obviously influenced the ministers, just as it had a dramatic effect on public opinion, but it was not the only one element in the equation.
At the beginning of the year the government’s policy was for a limited commitment to the defence of Portugal. When Wellington’s army had been reinforced in the autumn of 1810 and again in January 1811 it had been explicitly stated that these troops were sent for the ‘present exigency’ only, and that when the crisis was over there would need to be a reduction in the scale of Britain’s effort. (Liverpool to Wellington 10 Sept 1810 WSD vol 6 p 591-4 see also same to same 17 Jan 1811 WO 6/29 p 19-23).
This cautious policy was shaken by a proposal from Henry Wellesley, Britain’s envoy at Cadiz, that Britain undertake to reform the Spanish army on the same lines that had proved so successful with the Portuguese. Like many other British observers Henry Wellesley was frustrated by the inefficiency of the Spanish government and the poor performance of the Spanish army which he believed had far more potential than had ever been developed. He proposed the introduction of a large number of British officers at all levels of the army and the appointment of Wellington as the Commander-in-Chief. To sweeten the pill for the Spaniards, and to finance the reforms, he wanted Britain to provide a loan of £8 to £10 million. If this was done he believed that the Cortes would accept the proposal and ‘that in a year there would not be a Frenchman in the Peninsula’. (Henry Wellesley to Ld Wellesley, ‘Private’, 12 Jan 1811 Add Ms 37,292 f 250-1 printed without the date in WSD vol 7 p 52).
This ambitious scheme was very similar to the plan Lord Wellesley had put before the cabinet some eight months before and which his colleagues had rejected as hopelessly extravagant. Yet Liverpool’s reaction was now favourable, and he even went as far as preparing a draft instruction to Wellington on the subject for the cabinet to consider. However new figures on the rapidly growing cost of the war brought him back to earth with a jolt as he explained privately to Lord Wellesley:
Our Expense in Spain and Portugal has been nearly threefold this last year, what it was in 1809, and it is encreasing [sic] every month. I fear it will be quite impossible to continue our Exertions upon the present Scale for many months longer and certainly quite impracticable to increase it. (Liverpool to Lord Wellesley, ‘Private’, ‘Saturday’ n.d. [February 1811] BL Add Ms 37,310 f 43-44).
Financial prudence had again triumphed over grand visions and illusory promises, sparing all concerned much frustration, for there is little reason to believe that British efforts to reform the Spanish army would have proved welcome, or would have been effective.
Unfortunately Liverpool went further. While still seized by the problems of funding the war he wrote a long letter to Wellington on 20 February preaching the need for economy. According to Liverpool’s figures the cost of the war in Portugal had risen from less than £3 million in 1809 to more than £9 million in 1810 and – because most of the increase had come late in 1810 – looked set to rise even further in 1811. The ‘unanimous opinion of every member of the government and of every person acquainted with the finances and resources of the country [is] that it is absolutely impossible to continue our exertion upon the present scale in the Peninsula for any considerable length of time’. This left the government with the unpalatable choice of either reducing ‘the scale of our exertion [in Portugal] or … withdrawing our army altogether’. There was, of course, no possibility of large increases in aid to Spain, and consequently there would be no advantage in Wellington being made Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish armies, as he would be unable to reform them. However he might accept the command of those forces in provinces adjoining Spain, but only if this entailed no additional expense and no commitment to operations in the interior of Spain. (Liverpool to Wellington 20 Feb 1811 WSD vol 7 p 69-70 copies in WO 6/50 p 180-6 marked ‘Private’ and BL Add Ms 38,325 f 90-95).
This tactless and ungracious letter naturally strengthened all Wellington’s existing suspicion of Liverpool. It was the more unfair as he had never been keen on his brother’s proposal, privately telling Lord Wellesley that ‘The Spaniards would not, I believe allow of that active interference by us in their affairs which might affect an amelioration of their circumstances’. His preference was that he be allowed to directly subsidize the Spanish armies that operated near him, thus ensuring their co-operation and by-passing the Spanish government. (Wellington to Lord Wellesley 26 January 1811 WD IV p 553-6). But he showed little enthusiasm for assuming the formal command of the Spanish armies as he made clear to Liverpool in a letter written at the beginning of February. (Wellington to Liverpool 2 Feb 1811 WD IV p 575).
It took just over a month for Liverpool’s letter of 20 February to reach Wellington who by then was at the little village of Sta Marinha at the foot of the Serra da Estrella some twenty miles west of Celorico and Guarda. He replied in a long, carefully argued, detailed letter, disputing Liverpool’s figures for the growing cost of the war by pointing out that in neither 1808 nor 1809 had Britain played an active role for the entire year, so that the expenses in 1810 were bound to be higher. Moreover many of the costs attributed to maintaining the army in Portugal would have to be borne wherever the army was stationed. He conceded that the large fleet of transport ships kept at Lisbon over the autumn and winter was very expensive and was delighted to be able to say that with Masséna now in full retreat most of these ships could be withdrawn. He also disavowed any responsibility for the large increase in the British garrison in Cadiz, which had proved expensive, and which he made plain he regarded as a waste of troops better employed in Portugal. He concluded by recommending that government maintain as large an army as possible under his command while reducing establishments and expenses everywhere else. Relaxing the carefully controlled tone of the rest of the letter he ended by suggesting that the withdrawal of the British army from Portugal ‘would rapidly be followed by a French invasion of Britain: ‘Then, indeed, would commence an expensive contest; then would His Majesty’s subjects discover what are the miseries of war, of which, by the blessing of God, they have hitherto had no knowledge; and the cultivation, the beauty, and the prosperity of the country and the virtue and happiness of its inhabitants would be destroyed, whatever might be the result of the military operations. God forbid that I should be a witness, much less an actor in the scene.’ (Wellington to Liverpool 23 March 1811 WD IV p 691-3). It was an uncharacteristic rhetorical flourish, but he had been travelling through unusually distressing scenes of devastation for the previous fortnight, and there would have been few officers or men in the army who had not reflected that there was no natural law protecting their homes and their families from such suffering. (See for example Colborne to his sister Alethea, 9 Nov 1810 Moore Smith Life of Colborne p 146-7).
Wellington’s irritation with Liverpool was increased by the receipt of an account his operations drawn up in the War Department, presumably by Colonel Bunbury, which seemed to go out of its way to minimize his achievements, for example by giving low estimates for the strength of the French army and high figures (including sick and detached men) for Wellington’s force. (Wellington to Liverpool 25 March 1811 WD IV p 700-1). He gave vent to his feelings, and rehearsed his arguments, in a letter to William Wellesley-Pole on 31 March. Much of the substance of this letter was similar to his reply to Liverpool although he expressed himself more freely. He also shifted his ground over the command of the Spanish armies describing it to Pole as ‘certainly the arrangement most likely to enable us to carry on the war successfully in the Peninsula’ in order to add ‘you see on what terms and with what spirit he has answered it’. After going through all the arguments over the cost of the war, and again invoking the threat of a French invasion of England, Wellington told his brother: ‘From this Discussion I leave you to judge whether you or I am right respecting [Liverpool’s] view of the War in the Peninsula. Depend upon it that he does not like the Concern; and he does not support it con Amore’. (Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole 31 March 1811 Raglan Mss Wellington A no 40 printed, with the last sentence quoted here suppressed, in WSD vol 7 p 93-95).
William Wellesley-Pole was dismayed by this letter and Wellington’s reaction to it, but he did not give up his attempts to persuade Wellington that the ministers really supported him:
I cannot believe that I was not right in what I told you in my former letter respecting the feelings of confidence towards you entertained by all the Ministers – But the fact is – and Lord Liverpool’s letter is a strong proof of it, the Cabinet, as it is now composed, is not equal to the Crisis of the Country, and it is not in their nature to look at the state of the War in the manner in which it must be looked at to give a fair chance of success either to the Country or the General conducting it – I have always thought that there was great fallacy in the mode in which Ministers calculate the expenses of your Army, and I conceive from the sketch you have given me in your letter that you must have convinced Lord Liverpool of the error in such a … [?] as may have an effect upon the Cabinet …
It should be observed however that the letter was written before the account of your pursuit of Masséna had arrived – the account of your success has certainly made a very considerable difference in the public feeling about the success of your Army in Portugal and Spain, and I think it very probable that the Cabinet now would endeavour to do what they would not have listened to before. (Pole to Wellington, 20 April 1811, Raglan Papers, Wellington B, no 113)
Pole also urged Wellington to specify the number of troops he needed, and the reinforcements he wanted to keep the army up to strength – a suggestion not so very different in substance from Liverpool’s, even though the underlying tone and outlook were a sharp contrast.
Fortunately by the time this letter was written the ministers had already recoiled from their enthusiasm for economy, and Wellington’s distrust would gradually be allayed. On 26 January 1811 Wellington had urged the government to significantly increase the subsidy to Portugal, to cover the real cost of maintaining 30,000 men in the field. Privately he told Charles Stuart that he had little hope that any increase would be granted, and he urged the Portuguese government to look rather to the reform of their own finances, and in particular to increase effective taxation on merchants and other prosperous members of the community, to sustain the war effort. (Wellington to Lord Wellesley 26 Jan 1811 WD IV p 553-6; to Charles Stuart 28 Jan and 31 March 1811 WD IV p 559-60 p 715).
However the British government recognised that although it gave Portugal a subsidy of £980,000 in 1810, its actual value, after the loss on the exchange and the cost of British officers serving in the Portuguese army was deducted, was barely £700,000. (Bunbury to Liverpool, 8 March 1811 BL Add Ms 38,246 f 53-54). Lord Wellesley evidently threw his full weight behind Wellington’s request and gained the agreement of the prime minister and cabinet to increase the subsidy to £2 million. According to contemporary rumour Perceval yielded reluctantly, ‘as if it was so much of his blood’, but the money was granted, with only the condition that Charles Stuart and Wellington be given powers to ensure that it was not wasted. (Rumour quoted in Walpole Life of Perceval vol 2 p 204n; Liverpool to Wellington 6 March 1811 W06/50 p 188-91).
Mood in London in March, before news of Masséna’s retreat arrives:
It is significant that the government decided to increase the Portuguese subsidy in early March on the very day that Wellington’s soldiers marched into Santarem, and well before any news of the French retreat had reached London. Alexander Gordon’s brother, Lord Aberdeen, reported on the mood in London at the time in a letter written a week later: ‘The people of this country are now impatient for a battle, formerly they blamed Lord Wellington for fighting with too much rashness, they now are inclined to do the same thing for his inactivity; this is just like them’. (Aberdeen to Alexander Gordon 13 March 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 175-6). This implied confidence, but the Opposition and many other observers had few hopes and expected a continued stalemate at best. Even Charles Stewart, home on leave in London, was reported as telling Benjamin West, who was painting his portrait, ‘you may expect to hear of a great action, like that of Talavera, or that our army is quitting Portugal, or words to that effect, such he described to be the disadvantage of Lord Wellington’s situation, nearly cooped up in Lisbon, and the war in the Peninsula as carried on at an expense to make people at home impatient … That in Masséna’s army every Man had a pound of Bread & a pound of meat every day. This contradicted the continued report of the French army being in a state of starvation’. (Farington Diary 15 March 1811 vol 6 p 249).
Reaction to the news of Masséna’s Retreat:
William Wellesley-Pole wrote to Wellington on 8 April: ‘Your astonishing success in driving Masséna out of Portugal … [has] given universal satisfaction, even, as far I have been able to learn, to all the opposition, except for the great Genl. Tarlton [sic], who I understand says – It may yet turn out that this may prove a great manoeuvre of Masséna’s. (Pole to Wellington, 8 April 1811, Raglan Papers, Wellington B, no 112).
Aberdeen wrote with a similar account on the following day: ‘People give the greatest credit to Lord Wellington. I dined yesterday with [Lord] Holland, and both he and many of the opposition were present, joined in the greatest praises. At the same time the public expectation is raised much too high. Not content with seeing the country abandoned, they wish for something more brilliant – in short they want blood.’ (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 188).
A fortnight later, Pole wrote at greater length:
The success you have had against Masséna has produced such an effect in England, that there is no extent of expence to which the People one and all of every party are not willing to go towards carrying on the War provided you conduct it. This I am satisfied is a true view of the Public feeling at this moment – and I am of opinion that this sentiment is so strong, that it would not be possible for ministers to contract the Efforts on the Peninsula, and particularly under you, without having a very strong popular Cry against them. (Pole to Wellington, 20 April 1811, Raglan Papers, Wellington B, no 113).
Sir T. Munro, an old acquaintance from India, who had now returned to England, agreed, assuring Wellington on 26 April that, ‘Success has now made this war so popular in England that the people would gladly pay additional taxes to support it’ (WSD vol 7 p 113-114). James Drummond, sending a budget of news from London to Colonel Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of New South Wales, declared that, ‘Lord Wellington has retrieved his Character in my estimation and shewn himself I think the greatest General of the present day, or at least their equal’. And Major General John Abercromby wrote home from Colombo, ‘We have vague reports of the complete failure of an attack made by Masséna on Lord Wellington, and they come from so many quarters that I am inclined to believe their authenticity. Wellesley is certainly a great officer, and it must now be admitted that his fame rests upon the most solid foundation. To beat an army of scampering Mahratta horse did not exactly entitle him to the confidence of the public. But the late events now unquestionably do’. (J. Drummond to Lachlan Macquarie, Charing Cross, 16 April 1811 Mitchell Library Macquarie Papers CY A797 p 170-5; Maj-Gen John Abercromby to Maj-Gen Alexander Hope, Colombo, 12 March 1811 quoted in the Ward Papers 300/3/11. Abercromby was the nephew of Sir Ralph Abercromby. The reports to which he refers clearly dated to the previous autumn and were inaccurate, but it is reasonable to suppose that he would have felt Masséna’s retreat led to the same conclusion).
Impact of the news from Portugal on British Politics:
An observer who was sympathetic to the Whigs, described the effect of the arrival of Wellington’s dispatches on the political mood:
I must tell you that people, as usual judging of things by the event, begin now to give Lord Wellington great credit for the campaign; those who were before abusing his delay are now applauding his foresight and wisdom … I hear little or nothing now of a change of Ministers and I think the present people are now much stronger in public opinion than they ever were, and that their dismissal will now be far from popular. This is my reluctant opinion. Every prediction on the part of the Opposition with respect to the issue of the Campaign – that we should lose our whole army, be obliged to embark in six weeks, etc etc – said much too heedlessly, and too frequently, has been successively refuted by the event, and given people a poor opinion of their sagacity, while the others triumph over them and with some reason. (J. H. Doyle to Sir Charles Hastings 9 April 1811 HMC Hastings vol 3 p 288-9).
The Opposition’s view:
The Opposition had not been assisted by the professionals whose advice they sought. At the beginning of March Lord Grey was beginning to wonder if his doubts were really well founded: ‘I think the Moniteur speaks in a tone of diminished confidence with respect to Portugal. Is it possible Lord Wellington should continue to talk at Masséna’s distress for provisions without there being some foundation for it?’ (Grey to Col. J. W. Gordon, Howick, 2 March 1811 Add Ms 49,477 f 114-5) To which Gordon replied: ‘The defence of Portugal is at last reduced to the defence of Lisbon, which may be considered as a great fortress upon the outworks of which depend its safety, and which are garrisoned an Army of 90,000 men, supplied from the sea.’ (Gordon to Grey 7 March  Grey Papers Durham Uni Library no 66)
Evolution of Government Policy:
Accompanying Wellington’s dispatches announcing Masséna’s retreat was a letter to Liverpool dated 21 March announcing that he was sending home the bulk of the transport ships and adding, ‘I have not yet fixed upon any regiments to be set back to England in consequence of the enemy’s retreat; and I beg to know from your Lordship, whether you still desire that the force here should be reduced, and to what extent’. (Wellington to Liverpool 21 March 1811 WD IV p 689). In other words, did the government intend to stick to the policy of reducing the army now that the immediate threat to Lisbon had been overcome? As the letter arrived in the first flush of excitement at the news from Portugal, at a time when the opposition’s embarrassment was at its height and the ministers’ hold on office was much strengthened, Liverpool might have been excused a warm and impulsive answer. But he was not a warm and impulsive man, and there remained real constraints on the government: the Treasury was short of money, especially bullion, and the House Guards were short of men. He therefore replied by asking Wellington to outline his plans for the coming campaign. Running through the letter was an unmistakable reluctance to embark on another campaign in Spain, and an inclination to treat the defence of Portugal as an object separate from the wider war in the Peninsula. Liverpool even floated the idea that the army in Portugal might be reduced to 30,000 men while a reserve force of ten or fifteen thousand men might be kept in Britain or Ireland ready to sail for Lisbon at the first sign of a renewed French attack. Presumably the motive for this bizarre idea was also economy, but it showed remarkably little understanding of the practical demands of sustained campaigning: a brigade or a division was more than a mere assembly of men, and if it was taken apart, transported across the sea, put into storage, it would need more than a drop of oil before it could be brought back and reassembled with any hope of regaining its old efficiency. Similar objections can be made to Liverpool’s proposal for coastal expeditions and amphibious operations as an alternative to a campaign in Spain. Many of these ideas probably reflected more the views of Henry Bunbury than of Liverpool himself who may simply have intended to canvas all options while in the end being guided by Wellington’s advice. He made a point of assuring Wellington that ‘We are determined not to be diverted from the Peninsula to other objects. If we can strike a Blow, we will strike it there’. (Liverpool to Wellington 18 April 1811 WSD vol 7 p 102, 104-5). Nonetheless coming in the wake of Liverpool’s letter of 20 February, Wellington must have felt that his doubts about Liverpool’s support had been proven beyond doubt.
On the specific question of the troops Liverpool told Wellington to send home eight weak second battalions from his army (2/24th, 2/31st, 2/38th, 2/42nd, 2/53rd, 2/58th, 2/66th and 7th Line Battalion of the King’s German Legion) which the Horse Guards were anxious to recover so that they could be used as feeder units for their first battalions, some of which were in India. This triumph of administrative convenience over the needs of war was softened by the promise that three strong battalions from Ireland might soon be ready to be sent out to Portugal, if it was decided to keep Wellington’s army at its current strength. Liverpool also gave Wellington discretion over when to send the eight battalions home, effectively transforming an instruction into a mere request. (Liverpool to Wellington 11 April 1811 WO 6/50 p 203-6). Some further consolation was offered in the form of the 11th Light Dragoons which were being ordered out to Portugal at once. (Liverpool to Wellington 11 April 181 WSD vol 7 p 102). Despite this, and a fulsome letter of official praise which completed the bundle, it was a remarkably cool response from a minister in government basking in the glow of Wellington’s successes.
These letters reached Wellington on 6 May when he had just fought the battle of Fuentes de Oñoro and he replied with an outline of his immediate plans and a strong argument for the importance of Portugal as the centrepiece of British involvement in the war in the Peninsula:
I earnestly recommend to you not to undertake any of the maritime operations on the coast of Spain upon which you have desired to have my opinion. Unless you should send a very large force, you would scarcely be able to effect a landing, and maintain the situation of which you might obtain possession. Then that large force would be unable to move, or to effect any object at all adequate to the expense or to the expectation which would be formed from its strength, owing to the want of those equipments and supplies in which an army landed from its ships must be deficient …
Depend upon it that Portugal should be the foundation of all your operations in the Peninsula, of whatever nature they may be; upon which point I have never altered my opinion. If they are to be offensive, and Spain is to be the theatre of them, your commanders must be in a situation to be entirely independent of all Spanish authorities; by which means alone they will be enabled to draw some resources from the country, and some assistance from the Spanish armies. (Wellington to Liverpool 7 May 1811 WD IV p 787-90).
In the same letter he made clear that if the army was weakened in any way, even by the withdrawal of the eight second battalions before their replacements had arrived, ‘all operations of an offensive nature must cease’. (Wellington to Liverpool 7 May 1811 WD IV p 787-90: even with replacements Wellington was most reluctant to part with these weak but seasoned units, and proposed retaining them in battalions reduced to six companies each while the surplus officers and NCOs were sent home to gather and train recruits).
By the time this letter reached England at the end of May the ministers had had time to appreciate the implications of Masséna’s retreat and Wellington’s subsequent operations. Liverpool’s speculative mood had passed and the cabinet proceeded to renew unequivocally its commitment to Wellington’s plans. Any idea of a reduction in the army in Portugal was abandoned and instead no fewer than 7,000 reinforcements including 1,300 cavalry were promised, while Wellington was reminded that he already possessed the authority to withdraw troops from the garrison of Cadiz and was encouraged to do so if he needed more men. The schemes for amphibious operations were discarded, although several would reappear in a more modest form later in the war. Other problems, such as the shortage of specie, remained, but the fever for economy had burnt itself out, and the ministers were clearly ready to embark on a steady expansion of their efforts in Portugal. The change in policy was formally established in new instructions which were issued to Wellington now that his operations seemed likely to take him beyond the Spanish frontier. A surviving draft of these instructions cautiously hedges the permission it grants to operate in Spain with a reminder of the logistical problems that had arisen in 1808 and requires that ‘a reasonable system of co-operation with the Spanish armies … be previously arranged’. But these caveats have been crossed out in a copy of the draft in the Liverpool Papers, and in the private letter which accompanied the instructions Liverpool told Wellington, ‘You will see that a complete latitude has been given to your discretion by the Instructions sent out upon the present Occasion – You will feel yourself therefore fully at liberty to act in the manner which may appear to you to be most advantageous for the general Cause’. (Liverpool to Wellington ‘Private’ 30 May 1811 BL Add Ms 38,325 f 115-9 – another copy in Add Ms 59,772 f 19-23; the draft instructions with the cautionary passages crossed out are in BL Loan Ms 72 vol 21 f 63-64, a version of this with the qualifications printed in WSD vol 7 p 144-5 and is dated 29 May 1811. The shorter instructions without the qualifications is in WO 6/50 p 223-4: it is dated 30 May 1811).
© Rory Muir