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Wellington's Worst Scrape

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 14 November 2013

Napoleonic Wars specialist Carole Divall examines the failed Siege of Burgos - described by Wellington as his 'worst scrape' - and the appalling conditions suffered by his demoralised army during the ensuing retreat to Portugal.

Transcript

Carole Divall:

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

One hundred and ninety-nine years ago - had I been here last year, it would have been 200 years ago - to this day, an Anglo-Portuguese and a French army were in battle positions on ground they had fought over already in July, i.e. at Salamanca.

1812 had been, I think we might call it, a glory year for Wellington, for much of the year certainly. Just to run through very quickly: Ciudad Rodrigo taken in January; Badajoz taken in April; and then, as one French officer put it, on 21 July at Salamanca he had defeated 40,000 men in 40 minutes.

Now, we all know that isn't quite accurate, but that has some effect of the Battle of Waterloo [sic - Salamanca] on French thinking.

After the Battle of Salamanca, of course, he had to decide on his next move. He could pursue the Army of Portugal, under General Clausel after the wounding of Marshal Marmont, north beyond the Ebro. That would be quite a useful achievement because of course it would separate the southern forces of Marshal Soult from the northern forces of Clausel and indeed Caffarelli as well.

Alternatively he could move south and deal with Soult in Andalucia. Or, as he chose to do, he could march on Madrid.

Just for a moment about the wider situation - because the thing to remember is that it was in Wellington's interest to keep the French apart, because if he allowed them to get together he was going to be seriously outnumbered.

So we have the Army of the South, that is, of course, Marshal Soult, 63,000-strong. Up in the north we have General Clausel with the Army of Portugal - the Army of Portugal, 52,000-strong. Further north General Caffarelli, the Army of the North holding the border area and also, of course, Galicia. Then on the eastern seaboard we have the recently-created Marshal Suchet and finally King Joseph with the Army of the Centre.

Suchet had 66,000 – his was actually the largest of the French armies. Joseph - with his real commander, Jourdan - had 20,000. These are actually notional strengths, of course. No army is ever able to put all its men in the field.

But the French actually had 190,000 men in Spain under arms, whereas the Anglo-Portuguese Army was 75,000. So you can see why it was so important for Wellington to keep those armies apart.

Having decided on Madrid, it's a political statement and it was one of Napoleon's aims wasn't it whenever he invaded a country to take its capital. It sends a message. And, although Madrid was not the French capital, it was where the French, of course, had established their power.

As Wellington entered Madrid, or approached Madrid, Joseph fled to join Suchet in Valencia. Now, interestingly, and I'm sure you all know this, the French marshals did not get on particularly well. They all guarded their own little bits of territory and in actual fact there was quite a fierce dispute between Soult and Joseph as to what Joseph should do.

Soult, who was very, very reluctant to give up his semi-kingdom of Andalucia, wanted Joseph to come down and join him there. Joseph, however, wanted Soult to abandon Andalucia and come and reinforce the French position further north, and there was a little bit of a stalemate actually for quite a time. Soult prevaricated, he played for time, and he was certainly nowhere around to prevent Wellington enjoying what was a tumultuous entry into Madrid.

Obviously in the time available I can't describe it, but if you read any of the accounts of people who were there, then it was like nothing they'd ever experienced before. Somebody, one of the officers, actually described it as an ecstasy of the brain, which probably conveys something about it.

Of course, once Wellington had taken Madrid there was still the problem of what to do next, and in actual fact the decision was perhaps taken out of his hands by the actions of General Clausel.

Clausel restored this battered Army of Portugal remarkably quickly. One of his most enterprising generals, General Foy, was sent down to relieve various French garrisons in the Douro region: Toro, Zamora - he was too late for Astorga.

And Wellington had taken the precaution of leaving the 6th Division in this area at Arevalo. Unfortunately General Clinton, who was in command, proved very passive and Wellington had to accept that Clausel was now his biggest threat. So he changed his plans, or he abandoned any idea of dealing with Soult, and decided to deal with Clausel.

His strategy was quite simple. Off the northern coast of Spain was Admiral Home Popham, a very enterprising sailor, and he, with guerrilla support, was going to keep Caffarelli occupied.

So General Hill with the 2nd Division was to hold the line of the Tagus and prevent Soult from actually being able to advance north. And to help him was General Ballesteros who was something of a gadfly as far as the French were concerned - very good at hit-and-run activities.

Now, the map actually goes a little further than we've got so far and you can see that the movement of Soult north, which did eventually happen - he had to give into Joseph's demands. And you can also see Hill moving towards the Tagus, to hold the line of the Tagus. Wellington first advancing on Madrid, which sent Joseph off to Valencia, and then moving up to Burgos but, as we shall see, eventually having to move south.

Wellington chose, rather surprisingly, to leave the 3rd, 4th and Light Divisions in Madrid. Now, whether that means, and this is quite a contentious point, that he at that point was not thinking in terms of taking Burgos is quite difficult to say, but certainly they were his most experienced divisions and there they stayed.

He took with him the 1st, 5th and 7th Divisions along with Anson's cavalry, who then joined the 6th Division at Arevalo, more about that in a minute. General Maitland and Admiral Popham, of course, were to continue their activities as actively as they could just to keep a large part of the French occupied.

To return to those divisions that Wellington chose to take with him, the 5th Division had some, I suppose, kudos in that they were the division that escaladed the San Vicente bastion at Badajoz and were actually the first people to get into the town.

The 6th Division had failed to take the fort at Salamanca and the 1st and 7th Division had no siege experience whatsoever, in fact very little battle experience altogether.

Well, Wellington left Madrid on 1 September and advanced very slowly. Clausel had no intention of fighting and had the time to keep withdrawing, taking up another strong position, withdrawing, and so on. And the reason why Wellington advanced so slowly was that he was waiting for this man, General Castaños, with the Army of Galicia.

Now, Castaños, to give him credit, was about the only Spanish general who willingly and happily worked with Wellington. But he was not a man to hurry himself and so instead of hurrying the French north of the Ebro, the army, complaining all the way I have to say, particularly the officers, had this slow progress up towards Burgos.

The night before Wellington actually reached Burgos, which was 18 September, it seemed there would be a battle, but Clausel very cleverly managed to withdraw his forces - he didn't want to fight a battle, his army was not ready for that yet.

Why Burgos is an interesting question. Remember that Wellington had no siege train with him - that was partly at Ciudad Rodrigo, partly left behind at Madrid. The first mention I have managed to find of an intention of taking Burgos comes quite late on this leisurely advance in a dispatch to Castaños.

But, of course, if he was going to move further and, of course, he did seem to be showing an intention of withdrawing further and further north, then he couldn't go beyond Burgos and leave the fortress in his rear. And also, if he took Burgos and held it, it was a real obstacle to connections between the French in the south and supplies coming down along the royal road. It seems, though, almost to have been a… well Burgos is here, I'll have a go at taking it.

Burgos was not a major fortress; it was not a Badajoz. Napoleon had actually given orders when he was in Spain that the defences should be strengthened, but in fact these had never happened. It was outside the town, which made it perhaps an easier objective.

However, Colonel Robe wrote to Dickinson that it was going to be a hard nut to crack. He could see there would be problems - probably he was thinking being an artillery man that there weren't the adequate guns for the siege.

I'm going to run through the siege very quickly because, obviously with time being limited, and try and focus on what went wrong and why this was actually Wellington's worst scrape.

He decided that the two divisions - or two units, if you like - that would actually undertake the siege were the 1st Division and Pack's Portuguese. Now, Pack's Portuguese had been very much involved in the taking of Ciudad Rodrigo so they at least had some experience. The 6th Division and the Galician Army were to take the suburbs and they would also be used for work like digging trenches, etc, etc. The 5th and the 7th Division, Bradford's Portuguese and some part of the Galicians were to create a covering force to keep the French who had moved far north up to Briviesca to keep them well away from Burgos.

As you can see from that, up here we have the hornwork of San Miguel - an outwork incomplete, but a reasonably tough target. Then we actually have three defensive lines within the fortress itself - as you can see they are labelled - and two churches. We have the church of La Blanca and then outside the church of San Roman. All of those are going to be part of the discussion of the siege.

To turn to the French for the moment, the commander was a certain General Dubreton. Now Dubreton was quite an enterprising fellow. He had actually managed to get the garrison out of Santander when it came under attack from Popham and Spanish guerrillas, the complete garrison without losing a man. He was now left in the fortress with a garrison of 2,000 men, including a lot of sharpshooters who were going to give the Allies quite a lot of trouble.

He had nine heavy guns, 11 field pieces and six mortars or howitzers. In comparison with that, taking the artillery first, Wellington had three 18-pounders, five 24-pounders, but that wasn't a siege train. Even more seriously he had five engineers only with ten volunteers. These were officers, of course, who volunteered for the duty but were not trained in any specific way. And also, he had only eight rank-and-file artificers plus 81 volunteers, so he didn't really have the resources, I think it has to be said, for a successful siege.

And there was another issue, the weather. We are talking about September. September in Spain is normally pleasant, sunny and dry. The rain started during the advance up to Burgos and it virtually didn't stop until the end of November and siege work was hated by troops anyway.

Siege work in these sort of conditions with all the mud, of course, that rain causes were beyond anything awful, I think it's fair to say - certainly as far as the men were concerned. Interestingly, one thing Wellington was depending on was that it would rain in the south. He actually told Hill in several despatches that Hill's job would be made easier because the rivers would fill and therefore Soult would find it much harder to move north from Andalucia. Well, of course, ironically, it didn't rain in the south; it only rained in the north.

Because I'm running through the siege very fast I thought perhaps it was a good idea just to pick out the main events that happened.

On 18 September the hornwork was attacked by escalade. Escalading had been tried before - it was successful in the castle at Badajoz, it was successful at San Vicente bastion at Badajoz - so it must have seemed like a good idea. Unfortunately, this main attack failed - I'll come back to why in a minute.

However, Major Cox, one of the most enterprising of Wellington's officers, was successful with what was meant to be a secondary attack. But as soon as San Miguel had been taken the complaints, the criticisms started and the biggest criticisms were: firstly Wellington had not used enough troops; and secondly he had used them in detachments, which meant of course you had men in mixed units without their familiar officers and that really was thought to be bad practice. I'll come back to why I think Wellington did that.

On 22 September the guns went into number one battery at the hornwork and work began on number two battery and there was another escalade on the outer line, which failed. Again detachments were used, again there were recriminations.

There is no doubt that this whole event at Burgos was conducted in bad humour. I think that's the only way to put it. Nobody, I think, was enjoying themselves and everybody was ready to criticise everybody else. The artillery, the engineers, Wellington, they all came in for criticism.

Wellington then decided that he would mine the outer wall. He had no miners except those that were coincidentally in the ranks and had been miners.He had no appropriate tools, but possibly it was the right decision - it would have been a better decision with the miners and tools, I suppose.

On 29 September the first mine was fired, but unfortunately it went off in the wrong place. I'll come back to that. What the miners had thought was the foundations of the outer line proved to be the foundations of an old wall that had long since disappeared. Nevertheless, as the mine exploded the detachments went in and the only ones that actually got through, because it was quite a small breach and as I say not in the right place, were a sergeant and four men.

Interestingly, when they arrived, the French fled. Presumably they thought these were the forerunners of a large force. Of course, when they realised there were only five men there they came back - as far as I can make out - gave the five men a thorough beating and then drove them out.

By 1 October battery number three was ready, but it was never unmasked because of the heavy and accurate French artillery fire. On 2 October battery number four, which was in process, was destroyed. And then on 4 October a second mine was fired and this time a lodgement was secured.

Indeed, Ensign Mills of the Coldstream, who was a witness, said, 'The explosion of the mine and the storming were so instantaneous that they [the French] had no time to do anything before the men were in, and then it was too late.'

Now, one of the points I am going to make is that Dubreton was a particularly bold governor. So the Allies had formed a lodgement in the early hours of the 4th. On the night of the 4th Dubreton re-took this breach, destroyed the gabions, stole the entrenching tools - which, of course, were always in short supply in the British Army - and although this was retaken by the 2nd Queen's Regiment, there were more recriminations. Why hadn't more men been sent to hold the position?

Right, so let's continue the siege then. By 7 October, as you can see from that, the first and second batteries were finally inflicting damage. On 8 October there was another French attack on that lodgement - 200 allied losses including Major Cox.

As I'm sure you know, Wellington was only noted to weep on a very few occasions. One had been when he saw the dead in the breaches at Badajoz. Another was the funeral of Major Cox. He actually wrote to Major Cox's father, 'I consider his loss as one of the greatest importance to this army and to His Majesty's service.' Certainly, when one looks at all the actions of the siege, Cox probably showed more initiative than anybody else.

On 9 October attempts were made to fire the church of La Blanca with hot shot. Unfortunately, it failed and the villain of the piece this time was the weather because as soon as they got the fires going to heat the shot, the rain put the fires out. So there was a constant delay allowing the French time to put the fires that did take hold in the church out, before the next lot of hot shot came. So that was another attempt to take the place that failed.

On 15 October the French outgunned number two battery and damaged number one battery. However, by this time there was another mine in place. This time under this church here, the church of San Roman. And also, before being put completely out of action, the guns had made a practicable breach.

So on 18 October the mine was fired at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. This was synchronised with the attack on the third breach. The Spanish and the Portuguese successfully took the church of San Roman.The guards and the KGL [King's German Legion] failed at the breach.

They fought very, very hard but, as Mills pointed out, 'The failure was caused by our want of men. Had we had double the number we could have maintained ourselves, but they dropped off so fast and, none coming to supply their places, we failed from sheer weakness.' It really was like battering your head against a brick wall, I think.

This, in fact, was the end of the siege. Very little success - taking the hornwork, but not much else to crow about I suppose, really. And the reason the siege ended was that the Army of Portugal, now under General Souham who had replaced General Clausel, had been threatening the covering force for some time. And on the 18th Souham actually attacked the outposts of that covering force.

Furthermore, he had been reinforced with Caffarelli's Army of the North. So the Army of Portugal, with that detachment from the Army of the North, was now 50,000-strong and that's 50,000 men under arms. Wellington had 35,000. So it was time, of course, I think, to pack up and move.

Before we actually try and decide why things went so horribly wrong, it's worth pointing out what Lieutenant Colonel John Jones, an engineer, who was actually wounded at Burgos, had to say: 'A siege is one of the most arduous undertakings on which troops can be employed, an undertaking in which fatigue, hardship and personal risk are the greatest, one in which the prize can only be gained by complete victory and where failure is usually attended with severe loss or dire disaster.' That probably sums up Burgos fairly effectively.

So what went wrong? Well, I suppose, to start with we have to concede that Wellington had inadequate resources. No siege train, not enough engineers and by the end of the siege he was down to just two fit engineers, so there weren't enough engineers to go round, as it were, to guide the men when they were actually going into action.

Wellington had already complained about the lack of trained artificers. After Burgos he complained even more loudly and by the time of San Sebastian in 1813 he had actually got a reasonable supply. But no artificers to speak of, no miners, not enough tools, not the way to approach a siege.

And then there was the attitude of the troops. Now, the officers certainly grumbled, but then a lot of Wellington's officers habitually grumbled, so perhaps one shouldn't take it too seriously. But the men were undoubtedly demoralised.

The weather, as I said, was atrocious. They hadn't been paid since the beginning of the year. The food supplies were rather hit and miss - the commissariat were not doing their job particularly well, but I will hold fire on that one until a little bit later.

They were in uniforms falling to pieces, infested with lice.They were having to work in mud and nothing was going right. So you have a demoralised army.

Wellington was quite surprised by this. Several of his despatches, which he sends to Hill and other people, make the point he can't understand what's happened to his army. I think when you've been taking places, alright with heavy losses, but successfully and when you've had a great victory like Salamanca it doesn't take much to shift the mood, and things certainly did shift.

Then there was the use of detachments. This was criticised right from the beginning and it's interesting that it's not until halfway through the siege that Wellington abandons it. He was using limited numbers for the assaults and that, combined with the lack of commitment, was a fairly disastrous combination.

It's interesting to wonder why and, I don't know, one can only speculate, but I think if one remembers how Wellington reacted to Badajoz then there is some understanding as to why he was cautious with his men. He didn't want to see another scene like the scenes that he saw at Badajoz.

However, we mustn't forget Dubreton. There is no doubt that Dubreton conducted a masterly defence.

The French situation was absolutely dire. By the end of the siege they were on quarter rations. A lot of the men were out in the open and it was raining on them just as it was raining on the allied army. Losses were quite high, but so was commitment and it seems to me that the trump card that Dubreton played was keeping the men busy.

There was no time for them to sit around and mope about their condition, whereas of course the allied soldiers had quite a lot of time to do that. He found things for them to do and I think all praise to Dubreton - he really did show just want a French general was capable of.

Well, Wellington had no choice now. He had to retreat, And if he had to retreat he couldn't leave Hill stranded on the Tagus. And indeed, Hill was actually facing a crisis in the south.

Soult and Joseph had joined forces in Valencia - remember that is where Joseph had fled - and this was a threat to Hill's position and, of course, ultimately, if they joined up with the Army of Portugal, a very serious threat to the whole allied army.

To make matters worse, General Ballesteros, who had a good record against Soult, he was very good at striking - whenever Soult moved to point A, Ballesteros would strike at point B, which would bring Soult back, of course, and then Ballesteros would just melt into the mist ready for the next attack.

Now, in September Wellington had been made commander in chief of the Spanish Army. Ballesteros - well, I was going to say he threw his toys out of his cot - he really believed he should have been given that position. And admittedly Wellington did once write that he thought Ballesteros was the best of the Spanish generals. He did go on and say that that's not actually saying very much - he did have a very low opinion of them.

Ballesteros's defection actually upset Wellington's plans because Ballesteros's purpose in the Granada area was to slow down Soult's advance. I think Wellington knew that Soult would have to leave and I suppose it could be said that fate was also against Wellington.

The fortress of Chinchilla actually blocks the road from Andalucia up to the Tagus. It was held by a very determined Spanish general. It's on a very high summit - it's very difficult to see how the French would ever have been able to take it.

Unfortunately, on 9 October there was the most violent storm which actually struck the fortress, including the governor and indeed quite a lot of the defenders. In fact, quite a lot of them were killed.

It was thought that the governor was killed, but he wasn't. But he was hit - his sword presumably took the force of it - and you can imagine he was left in a pretty bad state. And, of course, with Chinchilla out of the way, Soult could just march happily up to the Tagus.

So, Wellington instructed Hill to hold the Tagus for as long as possible, bringing the Madrid divisions forward, and then, if he had no choice, he would have to abandon Madrid and join Wellington, and so we get a double retreat.

Sorry, I should have shown that one earlier. That is the French position inside Burgos.

This is actually Wellington's line of retreat from Burgos, as you can see back to Salamanca. It was not a comfortable retreat because it was still raining, the food was still in short supply. You'll see from the images that I'm going to show you that bridges were very important.

Wellington actually withdrew his forces on 22 October. He had originally hoped to turn the siege into a blockade, but, I suppose, the determination of Souham convinced him that he wasn't strong enough to face the Army of Portugal in battle and it was better to retire.

He withdrew during the night of the 22nd from Burgos, and actually gained a day's march on the Army of Portugal. However, the following day there was a running cavalry fight from Celada del Camino to Villodrigo - it was a cavalry fight, it has to be said, where the French got the better of it. But finally the Light Battalions of the King's German Legion in the 7th Division formed square, held the French cavalry and the French finally withdrew.

On 23 October the allied army for the most part, all except the 5th Division and the Galicians, was at Torquemada. Torquemada is in a wine-growing area - you're probably getting the picture already. The wine vats were full and during the night our enterprising British and, I imagine, Portuguese soldiers broke into the wine vats and the result was mass drunkenness.

There are some amazing scenes and it sounds like something out of Hieronymus Bosch, actually, some of the descriptions of the scenes at Torquemada. Alexander Dixon of the Portuguese Artillery actually wrote, 'such a scene of drunkenness as would have disgraced a Billingsgate rabble'. Well, I don't know what a Billingsgate rabble is like, but it sounds pretty bad.

So on the 24th this drunken crew had to be marched further on - the French were quite close by. I have to say, by the way, that the Allies didn't drink all the wine and when the French moved in they finished off what the Allies had started, which may have significance.

On 25 October General Foy - as I've said, one of the perhaps most enterprising of the French generals - took Palencia. It was this bridge, a Roman bridge - you may well know it if you've been to Palencia - was supposed to have been blown up and fortunately the charge failed.

The French were able to get across and the Royals on the far side had no choice but to move fast back to where the rest of the 5th Division... Remember, they were sober - we can't blame the Royals for being drunk because they hadn't been at Torquemada, they had been elsewhere where there was no wine.

So the Royals had to join the 5th Division who were at Villamuriel. And remember, these are the only sober troops. You've got the 5th Division and the Galicians, and you've got both Foy and Maucune ready to attack their position.This time the bridge was successfully blown up and what followed was a fire fight on either side of the River Carrion.

The French eventually found a way across. Napier has a lovely story, actually, that a French cavalry officer rode his horse into the river and claimed that he wanted to desert and couldn't get across, the river was too deep, where was the ford. And the soldiers obligingly told him.

Now, I think... there's no other evidence for this. Napier wasn't there and all the accounts that do exist make no reference to that at all. I think the French managed to work out where the fords were because they found the point where the Allies were most heavily posted - Portuguese Caçadores in one position and the 9th in another - and eventually they got across.

Initially, the French were very successful. They were actually able to push the 5th Division - the Galicians were some way back - back towards the canal. If you've ever been to Villamuriel, it's an interesting place because you've got the River Carillion and running parallel with it you've got the canal which fortunately was empty at this point and you've got the village in between. The 5th Division then took up positions in the canal.

The Spanish were brought forward and a very strong effort drove Maucune back across the river. And the 5th Division were able to hold the position long enough for the rest of the army, presumably recovering now from their drunkenness, to actually effect their retreat.

I've mentioned quite a lot about General Foy. I have to say, he's my favourite French general - a very good writer and very entertaining and, as we shall see, very open minded as well. Foy was leading the pursuit of the Allies and he came to Tordesillas, which you will see is another bridge.

This bridge, again, had been successfully blown up. On the allied side there was a strong detachment of Brunswick Jaegers and not very far away was the whole of the 7th Division.

How do you get across a river when the bridge has been blown up? Well, you listen to an officer who says, 'If we all strip naked we can swim across the river. All we will need is a little raft to put our muskets on, and when we get to the other side we will take the muskets and we will deal with the black-coated Brunswickers who are supposed to be keeping watch.'

They clearly weren't. And I imagine the sight of naked men rising out of a river might have been enough to unsettle anybody. Anyway, the result was that the Brunswickers fled, the 7th Division had to make a hasty retreat and Tordesillas was firmly in French hands.

Interestingly though, that's as far as Souham went. He was waiting to see what Soult was doing.

On 7 November Wellington was back at Salamanca waiting for Hill. And just to very quickly run through Hill's experiences:

By 28 October he had to abandon that line on the Tagus. On the 30th yet another of these bridge actions - this is Puente Larga where a very small detachment, men that had come up from Cadiz, managed to hold Soult, again long enough for Hill's forces to get safely back to Madrid.

On 31 October they left Madrid causing great sadness, marched over the Guadarrama mountains with the French very close behind. They had no food at all, their commissariat had broken down completely. However, Soult didn't push the pursuit. He kept within distance, but at no point did he threaten to overwhelm Hill's forces and by 10 November Hill's forces were at Alba de Tormes.

You're not going to be surprised, but another bridge. Again, this bridge was held by a brigade of the 2nd Division and Hamilton's Portuguese. It was held for two days and Soult realised he actually couldn't get across. He gave up, he went somewhere else.

And that brings me, of course, to 14 November - you have both armies in battle order at Salamanca and there is no doubt that both sides, as far as the men and officers were concerned, wanted a battle. But Soult was strangely reluctant to fight.

Again, if we're looking for reasons, remember that Soult's most recent experience of fighting an allied army had been at Albuera, the bloodiest battle of the Peninsular War. The battle that Soult claimed he had won, but unfortunately his opponents hadn't recognised the fact.

There may well be good reason why he decided that if he could get the allied army out of Spain, which is what he had been instructed to do by Napoleon, then he would have achieved what he set out to achieve.

At about 2 o'clock on the 15th Wellington realised that Soult was manoeuvring to cut off his retreat to Portugal, which is as good a way as any to make somebody retreat, and so he gave the order to withdraw.

Interestingly it had been a very grey drizzly day. At the moment that the order was given to withdraw, the drizzle turned to torrential rain and that torrential rain was to last for the next three days.

There we can see the line of retreat back to Ciudad Rodrigo - that is where Wellington was aiming for.

If you read the accounts of people who were on the Corunna retreat and the Burgos retreat, interestingly nobody says that Corunna was worse, and several people say that Burgos was worse. It's interesting to consider why.

Well, they had no food at all. The Quartermaster General, Sir James Willoughby Gordon, had sent the food on a different route - the one he thought that Wellington was going to take, and he hadn't bothered to check. He had been fairly inefficient anyway and this was, I suppose, the final straw.

The men were eating acorns. One of the French cavalry, because the French cavalry were sent in pursuit, actually made the comment that Spanish acorns fortunately tasted rather better than French acorns, because they hadn't got any food either.

The men stole pigs - some men were hanged for stealing pigs. They managed to find cabbages, they managed to find potatoes, but there was a problem: it was so wet you couldn't light the fires. There was no bread. There were a few half-starved oxen, but what's the point of meat if you can't cook it. It's not a good idea to eat it raw.

Mud to the knees.Men, women and children just falling by the wayside, horses collapsing, and all the time a very determined pursuit by the French cavalry.

This is the scene of the last action - no bridge you will notice - and this is San Muñoz. Again the French were held, held by the 7th Division, which enabled everybody else to get safely back to Ciudad Rodrigo, a place they knew well, of course.

So, very quickly, conclusions.

Soult had done what he was told to do and he had driven the Allies into Portugal. He hadn't driven them into the sea, but that was asking a big much. But of course he hadn't defeated them.

Interestingly he said this, 'Wherever you find the British Army in retreat, let them alone and they will go to the devil in their own way. But if you go near them they will get into their places and give you such a drubbing as you have never had before.' It probably explains why he decided that pursuit was better than battle.

As for Wellington, well, we can't deny, can we, Burgos was a mistake. He admitted it himself - his worst scrape. He did congratulate himself on getting everybody safely out. A heavy cost in manpower, although not as heavy - I've been through all the casualty returns, so I can say this with confidence - not as heavy as people like Napier thought it was.

Many of the wounded, of course, recovered. Many of the missing returned. In fact, I found in the musters of the 4th Foot people who had even got to England. They were presumably prisoners that got away and they got to England, then they came back to the Peninsula to join the regiment.

What Wellington couldn't do anything about was the weather, the lack of food, the old uniforms - lice-ridden, of course, means typhus, fever - and the sickness. If you look at what McGrigor had to say - James McGrigor, of course, his surgeon-general - he just feels these were things that could not have been gainsaid.

Perhaps I'll give the last word to General Foy:

'The campaign is over. Lord Wellington retires undefeated with the glory of the laurels of the Arapiles [Salamanca, of course] subsequently having returned to the Spanish the country to the south of the Tagus after we had to destroy our magazines, our materiel, our fortifications - in a word everything which was a product of our conquest and could ensure its continuation.'

Foy had no doubt that the losers in Wellington's worst scrape were not Wellington and his Anglo-Portuguese Army, but the French. And of course he was right. The French never regained the initiative and 1813 was a very different story.

Thank you.

4 comments

suzanne brunt
28 November 2013, 2.25pm

Carole's talk was excellent,

Carole's talk was excellent, full of details and very well researched. I look forward to another talk soon. The staff looked after Carole very well, thank you all.

Jason Clarke
29 November 2013, 12.13am

I drove (and walked) across a

I drove (and walked) across a lot of the areas in question a few years ago and Carole brought it life perfectly. If only she was available for impromptu Peninsula War road trips!

Mrs. H. Coales
14 January 2014, 6.49pm

very informative

very informative

Lee Latham
14 January 2014, 10.45pm

This is my first visit to

This is my first visit to this website and i must say how impressive it is. This particular article is concise and very informative.

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