The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1809 Elvina/Corunna, Oporto, Talavera

Elviña and Corunna from the French positions

When the British survivors reached Corunna they stood and defeated Marshal Soult’s 24,000 troops in a major battle at Elviña, just outside Corunna, on 16th January. Moore was mortally wounded and buried in Corunna.

Map by E Mosqueira

Lt Gen Sir John Moore replaced Sir Hew Dalrymple after the Cintra Convention to command the British and Portuguese forces in Portugal in September 1808. He advanced into Spain in November to help the Spanish forces defeat the French. After reaching Salamanca he marched north to attack Marshal Soult’s isolated corps and on 21st December attacked with cavalry at Sahagun. However Moore was forced to withdraw in the face of Napoleon changing his line of advance into Spain to join up with Soult and French success in crushing the Spanish.

 

With the threat of a concentration of overwhelming French forces Moore decided to evacuate his troops by the Royal Navy at Coruña and consequently marched north. He knew before he got there that his transport ships had not yet reached the harbour, and that he would probably be compelled to fight a defensive action against the pursuing French army under Marshal Soult before being able to embark.

 

On the night of 11th January the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions commanded by Lt Gens Sir David Baird, Sir John Hope and McKenzie Fraser reached Coruña, while the Reserve Division under Lt Gen Henry Paget halted about 7m outside the town at El Burgo (O Burgo). They blew the bridge over the River Mero which denied it to the French until they crossed it on 13th January at Celas. This forced Paget to fall back towards Coruña. On the afternoon of the 14th January Moore's transports reached the harbour and the evacuation of the British sick, wounded, cavalry and artillery began.

The defensive position Moore chose at La Coruña was on the low ridge of Monte Mero. 2nd Division was on the left, 1st Division on the right and the Reserve Division was held behind the ridge. The position was not without its weaknesses: the lower, western end of the ridge above the village of Elviña was exposed to artillery fire from the higher ground to the south, and the whole position could be turned if Soult forced the approximate half mile gap between Elviña and the heights of San Cristobal to the west.

 

Soult, feeling confident, brought his 20,000 men into position to attack the 15,000-strong British army at midday on 16th January. If he had not attacked that afternoon it is possible that Moore would have been able to embark overnight.

 

The British lines behind Elviña came under artillery fire around 1330-1400 hours as the attack started. Infantry advanced in column against the right flank of the British line on Monte Mero while cavalry headed for the gap below the San Cristobal heights. Moore neutralized the cavalry threat by pushing the Paget’s Reserve Division forward into the gap. The outcome of the battle would depend on the fight for control of the slopes behind Elviña.

 

As Gen Mermet's brigades renewed their assault on Monte Mero, Moore brought forward two battalions of Guards to strengthen the line. Reynaud's Brigade, from Maj Gen Merle's Division, now joined the battle by advancing against Maj Gen Cavendish-Bentinck's left, but was itself taken in the flank by the 3/1st Foot Guards and 2/81st Foot of Col Coote Manningham's Brigade.

 

At one stage the French took Elviña but were driven out by the 42nd (Royal Highland) and the 50th (West Kent). They counter-attacked and recaptured the village. With ammunition running low the two regiments drove the French out with their bayonets. Just as victory was achieved Sir John Moore was felled by a round shot and fatally injured. Command of the army passed to Hope. The French attack along the line faded away and the Reserve Division drove back a late incursion around the open right flank. There had been little French effort east of Elviña to attack the positions higher up on the ridge and firing died down along the whole line as darkness fell.

 

Withdrawal from Monte Mero was completed that night and the whole evacuation by sea was achieved on the 18th. One of the last duties of the 9th (East Norfolk) was to bury Sir John Moore below the city ramparts. British losses in the battle were reported as 700 - 800 whilst French losses were estimated at 1,500. Moore’s overall losses during the withdrawal were over 3,000.

The memorial garden in Corunna's old city dedicated to Sir John Moore was initiated by Marshal Soult

Military Museum

Ferrol, from where the evacuation took place (and from where the Spanish Armada of 1588 sailed)

In the meantime Napoleon, having transferred command of the pursuit to Soult, had returned to Paris, never returning to the Peninsula. Soult was subsequently given orders to retake Portugal and, moving his corps south, he occupied Oporto on 29th March whilst British forces remained in Lisbon.

 

Wellesley, freed from criticism over the Convention of Sintra, returned to Portugal in April and assumed command of all British and Portuguese forces. He immediately implemented three innovations in army organization: the infantry were divided into autonomous divisions, each infantry brigade was provided with at least one company of riflemen and one battalion of Portuguese infantry was placed in each of the British brigades. Within two weeks Wellesley advanced north with 17,000 British and 11,000 Portuguese troops to Oporto to confront Soult.

Oporto

Oporto from the position near the bridge where Wellesley first viewed the city

Map by Lemos approximately 20 years after the battle -

Wellesley viewed the city across the river from high ground at Villa Nova

Soult had moved all the local boats that could be found to the north bank and, anticipating naval support for the British from downstream, positioned his troops along the north bank west of the city. Wellesley arrived in Villa Nova early on 12th May and observed the city from the Monastery de Serra do Pilar. He saw that the Bishop’s Seminary, half right across the river looked unoccupied and was out of sight of most of the 11,000 French troops in the city.

His view upstream, east, with the Bishop's Seminary just visible over the bridge on the left

The view downstream from where Soult expected the attack

In the meantime a recce group found a boat hidden by the bank. They crossed the river and returned with three or four unguarded wine barges. Wellesley immediately used them to ferry the 3rd Foot (The Buffs) across to occupy the seminary and prepare it for defence. The complete battalion was in position and had 18 guns in support on the Sierra Heights on the south bank before the French spotted them. The Buffs were reinforced with men from the 48th Foot (Northamptonshire) and the 66th Foot (Berkshire) until 600 men were in position.

The Monastery to Wellesley's right, now a military barracks, which he rode through to observe the Seminary

Wine barges similar to those of 1809

The seminary, now an orphanage and school

Soult launched a brigade attack on the Seminary and as the people of Oporto saw the French troops leaving the west side of the city they used every available boat to ferry the British 1st Division across the river. As this division advanced and broke up the French attack on the Seminary Soult realised Oporto could not be held and ordered a withdrawal.

 

The British lost 125 men whilst the French suffered 300 killed and wounded and 1,800 captured. Wellesley regarded the operation as one of his best and included 'Douro' in his title when he became the Duke of Wellington. Soult's corps was forced out of Portugal with heavy losses of men, guns and equipment. The second French invasion was over.

The embarkation point for The Buffs, still in use!

Memorial plaque on the Seminary

The south bank Allied artillery position

Talavera

In June Wellesley was authorised and funded to advance into Spain with 22,000 men to attack the French at Madrid. The British major general commanding the Portuguese forces, Marshal William Beresford, was left to guard Portugal whilst Wellesley advanced to meet General Don Gregorio Cuesta, commanding the Spanish Army of Estramadura, at Oropesa on 20th July. The intention was to form a strong Allied force of 79,000 men to face two French corps totalling 46,000 under King Joseph Bonaparte.

The castle at Oropesa -

now a comfortable parador!

Talavera was a particularly bloody battle. Both sides experienced serious command difficulties involving personalities and disagreements which impacted adversely on strategy, tactics and logistics. Wellesley was nearly captured during the initial deployments, the troops were on half rations and the weather was hot, very hot.

Looking west over the French approaches to the ridge north of Talavera

Unfortunately the battlefield now has a motorway running through it and a reservoir on the northern approach to the right of the above view. It also more wooded now than it was in July 1809 when extensive grass fires after the battle caused great suffering for the wounded. The small Portina Brook, which runs north-south on the west of the ridge is now canalised south of the motorway. During lulls in the battle both sides shared its water in a fraternisation which became a feature of this war. The 'Hospital Tree', where many of the wounded from both sides gathered after the battle still exists and a piece of cork from its harvesting was mounted and presented to the Guild of Battlefield Guides in 2003.

This map is orientated with North to the left. The motorway follows the line of the road running east from Oropesa

The British and Portuguese were to defend the positions on the ridge whilst Cuesta's Spanish troops were deployed to guard the southern approaches. The French mounted three attacks on the ridge, the first coming at 2100 hours in the centre before the British 2nd Division under Lieutenant General Rowland Hill had fully deployed on the position.

 

General Francois Ruffin led his French 1st Division across the Portina, which was no obstacle, to face just two battalions of the King's German Legion holding the forward slopes. They fought fiercely and after a strong counter-attack the French withdrew suffering over 300 casualties but taking 100 prisoners and leaving nearly 300 British casualties.

 

The second attack came at 0500 hours with Ruffin leading 4,500 men with 54 guns in support. They advanced in three columns but as the skirmishers moved back and as the French crested the hill the waiting British line stood up and 2,000 men deployed in line two deep opened fire. Wellesley was there encouraging them. Their fire checked the advance and a bayonet charge drove the French back to the Portina. The fire fight took about three minutes, the French columns scattered and left 1,300 casualties on the field. This action finished at 0700 hours and an informal truce followed which enabled the wounded to be recovered and the opposing troops to meet at the brook.

 

In the meantime Joseph held a meeting with his Chief of Staff, Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdain, and his commanders. At 1400 hours the third French attack with two corps was launched across the complete British position whilst a strong cavalry force screened Cuesta's 30,000 men. 34,000 French troops attacked 20,000 British troops. The attacks failed after some notable actions until the battle petered out at nightfall. Victor sought a fourth attack but Joseph refused him so he withdrew east of the River Alberche having lost 7,268 men and 17 guns. British casualties were 5,363 with 800 dead, leaving Wellesley with 15,000 men.

 

The Light Brigade under Brigadier General Robert Craufurd arrived on 29th July having marched 42 miles in 26 hours. They immediately manned the outposts and cleared the dead from the battlefield to burn them in great pyres. In the heat the stench was quite powerful and the battlefield was horrific.

The spur from where Wellesley and Hill commanded, together with the Hospital Tree is on private land

A fine memorial stands near the motorway exit with the names of the Allied and French regiments engraved on the three legs of the tripod

After this popular victory Wellesley was raised to the peerage to become Viscount Wellington of Talavera, by which he is named from here on.

 

Wellington now withdrew to Oropesa but in August he learnt that Marshal Soult was advancing south from Salamanca with 50,000 men. This posed a threat to the lines of communication with Portugal and Wellington was forced to fall back to Badajoz, guarding the route to Lisbon but staying on Spanish soil for diplomatic reasons. Later in the year the Allies suffered reverses elsewhere in Spain but in the meantime Wellington concentrated on building defences astride the roads into Portugal and initiated construction work on the Lines of Torres Vedras, a deep defensive system protecting Lisbon.