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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 5—East Coast, Bejar, Ebro, Vitoria, San Sebastian: 1812-1813

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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 5—East Coast, Bejar, Ebro, Vitoria, San Sebastian: 1812-1813
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Author(s): J. W. Fortescue
Date Published: 2016/10
Page Count: 200
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-576-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-575-3

Volume 5 of the 6 volume history of the Peninsular War


Fortescue is rightly renowned for his multi-volume magnum opus, ‘The History of the British Army’, which, since it was written in the early decades of the twentieth century, feature the struggles with Napoleonic France, as a substantial part of the whole. These campaigns took place across the world but, for the British, most notably in Spain, Portugal and the South of France following the French invasion of Iberia. The numerous disconnected sections, within Fortescue’s larger work, concerning the Peninsular War, have been extracted for the first time and carefully edited to create this six volume history. There can be no doubt that in Fortescue the British Army found one of its finest historians. His scholarship is superb, but is balanced by outstanding and fearless academic analysis. What makes this history incomparable and essential is that Fortescue was a contemporary of the other great British military historian of the modern age, Charles Oman, who wrote his own history of the Peninsular War. Fortescue conferred and collaborated with Oman to produce this work and within these pages the reader will discover both confirmations and qualified corrections to some of Oman’s assertions on points of detail. Fortescue was extraordinarily thorough in his use of primary source material (which is annotated) and he additionally walked the ground of the campaign himself. The magnitude of the joint scholarship which brought this history into being cannot be overstated. This analysis of the Peninsular War differs significantly from Fortescue’s other writings on the British Army, in that in embraces the activities of the French and the Spanish in some depth, thus creating a total view. This is a serious, academic, and thoroughly readable, history and no library of the subject can be truly said to be complete without it. The text has been complemented in this Leonaur edition by battlefield maps not present in the original publication.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.

On the 29th Wellington passed the Douro at Miranda in a basket slung on a rope from bank to bank; and on the 30th, the day originally fixed for the laying of the pontoon-bridge over the Douro, he reached Carvajales. The left wing, in spite of the difficulties of the march through Tras os Montes, had arrived punctually on the appointed days at Tabara, Losilla and Carvajales; but at the Esla it was checked. All boats had been removed. The river itself—as broad as the Thames at Windsor—was rapid, the banks were steep, the fords were both hard to find and dangerous when found, and every passage was watched by French picquets of cavalry and infantry.
On the 30th a Portuguese officer discovered a very difficult ford at Palomilla, which was unknown to the enemy; and Wellington set the whole of the troops in motion to pass it that night. A covering party of the Hussar brigade, the Fifty-First and some of the Brunswick Light Infantry, was first sent across by the ford of Almendra, the foot-soldiers clinging to the stirrups of the hussars. But during the night the river had risen; the officer of the Eighteenth Hussars, who acted as guide, became puzzled; several men and some horses were swept away and drowned, and only with the greatest difficulty did the bulk of the detachment arrive on the eastern bank, with all ammunition spoiled. Happily the French had withdrawn the mass of their posts during the night, and the hussars, pushing forward, surprised and captured an officer and thirty-three men of the 16th Dragoons.
Digeon at first reported a loss of 20 men only out of a party of 100, adding that the British had two officers and several men killed. Arch, de la Guerre. Digeon to Gazan, 31st May 1813. A subsequent report gives the loss that I have stated, but in each case the casualties are said to have been suffered in a charge, and it is added in the second letter that the British dared not impede the retreat; of the remainder of the party. British narratives, however, agree that the picquet was surprised, and one of them gives the detail that the officer was shaving when captured. Napoleon’s generals had certainly caught from him the instinct of lying. The best account of the passage of the Esla is in Malet’s Memoirs of the 18th Hussars, with which compare Wrottesley’s Life of Burgoyne, i.; and Greene’s Vicissitudes of a Soldier’s Life.
At the ford of Palomilla after many attempts the crossing was abandoned, and the infantry was marched back and hidden away. At noon, however, Bock’s and D’Urban’s brigades passed the ford with some loss, and later in the day the pontoons were laid, which enabled the rest of the cavalry and three divisions of infantry to cross before nightfall.
On the 1st of June, while the rear of the army was still making its way over the Esla, the cavalry advancing to Zamora found it evacuated and the bridge destroyed, Digeon having withdrawn his division of dragoons to Morales de Toro. On the 2nd the Hussar brigade and a troop of horse-artillery moved up to Toro, which again was found empty, with the bridge destroyed; but the inhabitants signalled that the enemy was close at hand. Digeon had in fact stationed his second brigade before the village of Morales, and his first brigade a short distance in rear of it on the road to Pedrosa del Rey, the two being separated by the River Bajez, over which there was a bridge some two or three miles to north.
According to Digeon’s account he sent out at dawn a reconnoitring party of one hundred men of the 16th and 21st dragoons, which entered Toro at five o’clock, found no enemy, and began to return at its leisure. It should seem, however, that these French dragoons were disturbed by the approach of the British while actually in Toro, for their breakfast was found cooking by some men of the Eighteenth. Be that as it may, the Tenth Hussars advanced at once northward upon the retreating body, while the Eighteenth made a circuit eastward to turn the enemy’s left flank.
Digeon, perceiving the advance of the British from a distance, ordered his second brigade to mount, and set it in motion to retire over the bridge; but to his amazement the reconnoitring party, serenely unconscious of its danger, continued to move placidly at a walk. He galloped out towards it to order it to trot, but arrived too late; for the Tenth were already within striking distance; and the colonel of the 16th, wheeling about the only squadron that was with him, most gallantly charged to save his comrades.
He seems to have broken a squadron of the Tenth, which met him alone, but was of course overpowered by the rest. Digeon, who had sent for the two remaining squadrons of the 16th, made a desperate attempt to stay the pursuing hussars; but the sudden appearance of the Eighteenth on his left flank threw the dragoons into panic, and they broke and fled over the plain towards the bridge, with both British regiments in eager chase. When, however, the bridge was passed, the guns of a battery with the other French brigade at Pedrosa del Rey warned Grant that he had gone far enough; and he very wisely rallied the hussars—though not before an officer and one or two men had been cut off—and retired. Darricau in fact had joined the cavalry with both infantry and guns, and the shattered remains of the 16th were at last able to take refuge behind them. They had lost about one hundred and fifty men and a rather greater number of horses; and the full list of French prisoners taken, wounded and unwounded, slightly exceeded two hundred. The loss of the British was not above three officers and eighteen men killed, wounded and taken.
Altogether this was a brilliant little affair which, when read in conjunction with other incidents of these few days, does not increase our respect for the officers of the French cavalry. On this same evening Julian Sanchez surprised a post of two officers and thirty troopers at Castro Nuño. Another such post had been surprised on the Esla, as we have seen, on the 31st of May; the officer in command of Digeon’s reconnoitring detachment walked away over the plain of Morales so heedlessly that he allowed himself to be overtaken by a brigade; and finally Digeon himself took so little care of his flanks that the attack of the Eighteenth came as an absolute surprise to him. He actually reported that the British hussars must have crossed the Douro by some unknown ford, whereas they had never been on the south of the river at all.
There are accounts of this action in Grant’s very meagre report (printed in Wellington Desp. ed. 1852); in Liddell’s Hist. of the Tenth Hussars, (where by a gross blunder the French reserves are said to have been at Morales instead of Pedrosa); in Malet’s Memoirs of the 18th Hussars; and in Arch, de la Guerre; Digeon’s two reports to Gazan of 2nd June 1813.
The Douro being fordable, the junction of the two wings of the Allies was secured; and Wellington halted on the 3rd to allow the rear of his columns to close up and the Army of Galicia to come forward from Benavente. He utilised the time in throwing the right wing across the water; the Second and Light Divisions passing by the bridge of Toro, which had been roughly repaired, and the mounted troops and baggage by a deep ford a little farther upstream. Thus the enemy’s line up the river was turned, though too late, owing to the delay in crossing the Esla, to take advantage of the dispersion of his force.
On the 30th of May Jourdan, being still in the dark as to the strength of the Allied troops on the Esla, was awaiting further reports from Reille’s cavalry on the subject; and, since as yet there was no news of Leval, the marshal was in the greatest anxiety over the possible results of an irruption of the Allies to north of the Douro. In the circumstances he submitted to Joseph the expediency of recalling the troops which had been detached to the north; but the king doubted whether he could do more than order Clausel to send them back, if it were agreeable to the emperor’s views; and, in point of fact, when writing to Clausel on this day he contented himself with a very vague sketch of the general situation and with instructions to that general to collect his army.
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