The military career of one of the outstanding British generals of the Peninsular War
For most students of military history the name of Robert Craufurd will be forever synonymous with the famous Light Division of Wellington’s Peninsula Army which he commanded. Within an army that gathered laurels to itself wherever it fought, the Light Division was considered to be among its elite, for it contained first rate light infantry regiments including the evocative green jacketed riflemen of the 95th. Craufurd, or ‘Black Bob’ as he was known to his men in view of a combination of his dark complexion, heavy facial growth, mood swings and short temper, also fostered extreme views on military discipline. His strength (and occasionally his imprudent failing) was that he was perpetually aggressive and prepared to take the fight to the enemy. Nevertheless, despite these peculiarities, this complex general was valued by Wellington and when he appeared on the field of Fuentes de Onoro, after an absence, his men readily cheered him. He was a highly experienced officer who had seen action in India against Tipu Sultan, had been military attaché to the Austrian and Russian armies, and had served in the disastrous expeditions to the Helder and Buenos Aires before joining the conflict on the Iberian Peninsula which brought his renown. Craufurd, who had been promoted to Major-General in 1811, was mortally wounded during the assault on Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812 as he stood upon the glacis directing the stormers of his Light Division. He died four days later, aged 47 years. This well-known biography of Robert Craufurd is supported in this edition by another concise biography by Cole. The texts are complemented by illustrations and maps which were not included when these texts were originally published.
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With all his fiery rashness, Robert Craufurd cared far too much for his men to permit him to sacrifice their lives unnecessarily.
But this unfortunate affair embittered his mind to the very end of his career, and much increased his constitutional tendency to melancholy brooding. And, no doubt, he had reasonable grounds for grief and anger when he reflected how very differently this South American expedition would have ended if he and Sir Samuel Auchmuty had been left alone, as at first intended, without the heavy burden of Whitelocke’s superintending incapacity.
It is difficult indeed to believe that even the most carping of critics could ever have seriously questioned the undaunted courage of one whom William Napier habitually designated “the fiery Robert Craufurd.” Still, much military criticism emanates from men entirely ignorant both of the art of war and of the generals conducting it. And so, it is likely enough that the disgrace of this wretched affair may, in the popular judgment, have somewhat stained the rapidly rising reputation of this intrepid leader. Even Charles Napier, when blaming some operations of Craufurd during the Peninsular War, apparently indulged in a meaningless sneer against his general for this business, though it is difficult to understand how Craufurd could have acted more advantageously when serving under Whitelocke.
But I suppose the world is pretty well agreed in thinking that many of Charles Napier’s earlier judgments (for instance, his censures of Wellington) were hasty, violent, and unjust. In his later life the grand old hero of Meanee found out by bitterest personal experience how easy it is to misrepresent even the best actions, and how seldom actual justice is done to any born leader of men.
But however, this may be, Busaco and Ciudad Rodrigo were Craufurd’s best reply to all unjust critics. The officer who stood alone, with his aide-de-camp only, on the crest of the glacis at Ciudad Rodrigo, in advance of his division, and in advance even of the “forlorn hope,” and there sacrificed his life from his ardent zeal to see that Lord Wellington’s orders were thoroughly carried out, certainly had small need of a certificate as to bravery even from Charles Napier.
General Craufurd, and apparently many other officers engaged in the expedition to Buenos Ayres, were under the impression that Whitelocke was a traitor as well as a timid and vacillating fool; but I have failed to find in the account of the court-martial any solid evidence in support of this impression.
Besides embittering the mind of my grandfather, his services under Whitelocke had, I think, an injurious effect on him in another way. I believe that the fact that he then and there saw plainly manifested and “writ large” the deplorable results of timidity, helped to increase unduly his own natural tendency to brilliant audacity, which Wellington occasionally had to check. Very possibly Robert Craufurd would never have fought unadvisedly beside the Coa River, if he had not in earlier years been thoroughly sickened with the disgraceful outcome of yielding vacillation. To go to school under Whitelocke was a bad training for General Craufurd, and he really needed an Arthur Wellesley to efface from his vivid intellect the erroneous ideas left in it by this earlier education. Wellington wisely directed and utilised that extraordinary quickness of perception and amazing rapidity of movement which General Gower could only thwart and General Whitelocke only paralyze.