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The Napoleonic Wars 1792-1815

Wellington's Years of Endurance.

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Wellington's Years of Endurance.

Postby Josh&Historyland » December 28th, 2016, 5:29 pm

For Sarah, who isn't on Facebook :)

The Duke of Wellington said that he knew as much by way of fighting after leaving India as he ever did in his entire life. This was just as well because he only had 8 years of fighting left. But those coming 8 years were to test and try him like none before. Indeed the intensity of the fighting and the stakes riding thereon, through Portugal, Spain and France are hard to match in British military history before the First World War.
Many see the duke of Wellington leap fully formed onto Portuguese soil in 1808, as if he was already the genius who thrashed the French in 1812 and 13. But although he was right in saying he knew all he needed to know. The knowledge of the art of war is not the same as knowing one's enemy. The elements were there, but up until 1808 he had faced the French before, and it is uncertain as to wether his competence in those actions had as much to do with his second in command as his own natural good sense. The majority of his experience as an army commander had been gained against the well trained armies of Mysore and the Marathas, not counting Doondiah Waugh's irregular forces he defeated after the fall of what was then called Seringapatam. I'm no grumbler, I'm an avowed Wellington admirer. But war is much a harder prospect to see to the end than many compendiums of successful battles suggest. To tout Wellington as a mechanical machine of carefully constructed victory is to deny the struggle and labour he put into achieving what he did.
As Charles Esdaile pointed out, at some point so called "Histories" of the peninsular war became just so many catalogues of Wellington's victories that there seemed to be very little to talk about. Nevertheless in all those retellings, the struggles Wellington faced are often ignored in favour of a celebration of his fully formed genius. Yet for the first four or five years, Wellington had to find his feet against the French, train his army, gain the trust of his allies and keep the enemy at arms length while he did so. This little series will hardly be able to discuss in depth what I've just written, indeed it will probably end up as a battle list, but it will I hope give something of a flavour of what I'm talking about.

First Steps.
Just before setting out, Sir Arthur Wellesley, as the Duke then was known, had dinner with his friend Me. Croker. He had just been appointed commander in chief in Portugal and they were discussing the post over after dinner drinks. As he sipped Sir Arthur, the hero of Assaye, a name that carried little weight outside of India, pondered on his foe. He mused that:
"I have not seen them since the campaign in Flanders, where they were capital soldiers, and a dozen years of victory under Buonaparte must have made them better still. They have besides a new system of strategy which outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed all the armies of Europe... They may overwhelm me but I don't think they will outmanoeuvre me. First, because I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly, because if what I hear of the system of manoeuvre is true, I think it is a false one as against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half-beaten before the battle was begun. I at least will not be frightened beforehand."
The first four years of the Peninsular War were infuriating ones for all concerned. Not just the officers, who thought that their General was too cautious or doomed to failure, or the politicians who had no faith in his abilities and saw another disaster looming, but for Wellesley who found himself in command of an army in dire need of energising, conditioning and organising. He found this out the hard way, as he pitted his army against the French.
Landing at Mondego Bay in southern Portugal in 1808, Wellesley's infantry, artillery and cavalry were brought ashore through pounding surf to a land their Protestant eyes found, dirty, poor and unashamedly papist. It was also terribly hot, which they found out as they marched towards Lisbon along bad dusty roads, camping in the open to the unfamiliar night sounds of the Portuguese countryside. One of the first things Sir Arthur did was to issue a general order making two ranks a standard depth for Infantry in line. Wellesley had always been a proponent of this depth, yet it had been a common practice for commanders wishing to enhance their firepower since the American War, but it was also was a facet that belonged the troops of the East India Company, of which Wellesley had much experience commanding.
The French were in Lisbon under command of General Junot, when he heard the British had landed he immediately sent out summons for his troops to mobilise. In the words of Rifleman Harris the two sides came up for a "rub" at a small town called Rolica. Surrounded by undulating hills, dry watercourses and rocky scrubland the place was held by a modest French force under a General Delaborde. The General quickly understood that he had no hope of defeating the British and took measures to make a fighting retreat to buy time.
Wellesley had no particular idea how the French would react but decided to attack. It was what he would have done in India, and here he had an opportunity to destroy and isolated pocket of enemy troops at little costto himself. The plan was for a double envelopment. Three brigades would advance in the centre to fix the enemy in place, the other two would march under cover of the hills to outflank them and cut their retreat. Twice the British centre rolled forwards, and twice Delaborde engaged and then skilfully drew his men back towards the town just as the flanking columns got in position. The last Attack almost became a fiasco as the British centre division arrived at the bottom of a ridge that was split by dry watercourses. The 29th Foot came barreling through one to be driven back in confusion. But the swift French counterattack came to nothing, Delaborde was too worried about his rear to get bogged down in a fight he could not win and pulled away with his force intact and in good order.
Wellesley had won the field, a forgone conclusion. Yet had failed to isolate and destroy or capture a small enemy pocket. It had done him some yeoman service at the least. The action had shown him that the French were capable of fast complex manoeuvres under great pressure, that they could switch postures with great speed, they could also out-march and outmanoeuvre his own Infantry who, though steady, seemed to be rash and foolhardy if not properly controlled. With these aspects in mind Wellesley pressed on to a spot North of Lisbon called Vimiero. Now reinforced, he made camp near some favourable rising ground which he could use to offer Battle should Junot advance to meet him. Wellesley now could count on over 18,000 men and 19 guns, including 2,000 Portuguese under Trant.
Despite being outnumbered, Junot trusted the Napoleonic mantra of Attack. An enemy of superior numbers, devoid of the strategic initiative, can only meet those thrusts which he can see and is therefore able to be manipulated into a vulnerable stance. On the morning of 21 August, dust clouds resolved themselves into solid masses of French infantry and cavalry, 14,000 men and 23-24 guns. British troops were marching out from their camps and into positions along and behind the crest of the hills either side of Vimiero. A garrison was thrown into the town and a covering force put before it. As the sun climbed both sides were able to observe one another, colour's flying brightly over each battalion, guns gleaming in the sunshine and aides riding with messages between brigades. Wellesley and his staff were above Vimeiro but restlessly roamed the front, checking dispositions. Junot's first attack rolled out from their positions. Bands of French skirmishers came jogging forwards ahead of their stolid battalion columns that marched resolutely forwards and were set on course for the initial struggle against the British right centre. As this happened Junot had also sent a flanking force out to envelope the British left flank. Meanwhile the crackle of skirmishing had begun, the French were unable to pierce the British cordon and so duelled their opposite numbers until their supporting columns compelled the light Bobs to turn tail. Then came the shrapnel. Royal Artillery detachments switched from solid shot to spherical case. Soon the Colonel Shrapnel's godless invention was gutting the French columns with shotgun blast sprays of musket balls from above, causing havoc, mutilation and death. At the crest the shaken but undaunted French were met by long solid lines of redcoats who had marched up from the cover of the dead ground, and having dressed ranks, waited in eerie silence as the enemy came up, then at a series of sharp cries they made ready. Fixed bayonets serrated the skyline, the line took one half step back and the second rank stepped to their left with mechanical exactitude. Still the French came on shouting and chanting, their officers waving their swords and calling encouragement with their hats held high, all the while the drums beat the pas de charge. Light companies were now streaming back between the intervals and reforming to the rear, at 50 yards the high, clear patrician voices of the British company officers were heard to call out in a ripple from the centre "present". The drums rapped out a beat and the muskets were levelled at enemy, NCO's barked to aim low and keep calm. When they came the British volleys galled the French into a stunned halt. Those who tried to push forwards soon joined the carpet of their fallen comrades in the tangle of dead and wounded as the second volley crashed out. Desperately the French tried to deploy into line, but by that time three volleys had shattered their morale and a high, sharp, barking cheer, repeated thrice came from the blind of smoke. The British charged bayonets and rushed forwards yelling. The French were tumbled thus back down the slope at all points leaving a ghastly tidemark of bodies behind them.
Repulsed from the ridge Junot threw his composite grenadier battalions at the town. 1,200 soldiers with their red plumes and long linen greatcoats marched in fine style into an inferno of artillery and musketry. A raging struggle now boiled around the terracotta roofs of the church, surrounded by clouds of musket smoke and brick dust so that it seemed to become an island floating on a sea of discoloured white, from which after a prolonged tumult, issued the retreating grenadiers.
General Fane now sent back for the cavalry, commanded by Colonel Taylor of the 20th Light Dragoons, and Wellesley asked the colonel to hurry the French on. Taylor saluted with his sword and rode down behind the village where his regiment stood. 240 Sabres supported by a mixture of 260 Portuguese regular, legion and police cavalry who took post on either flank. Taylor led his men round the side of the village, encouraged by Wellesley and his politely clapping staff and formed line as the British guns fired overhead.
The sound of approaching hooves and bugle calls told the retreating French that cavalry was approaching them. A rushed attempt by some dragoons to block the British and Portuguese riders was bowled aside This sent them into a blind panic, but their officers strove heroically to form rallying squares, but it was too late, the dragoons increased to the charge and broke them. At this moment two things influenced the course of the charge. First General Junot was nearly captured. Having seen the repulse of the grenadiers he had ordered froward his cavalry division to cover the retreat and ridden forwards to rally infantry. In so doing the broken ground, smoke and dust hid the enemy cavalry from view but suddenly his escort and staff was assailed by British dragoons. At this same point the British and Portuguese took their first casualties. Some French infantry having played dead to avoid their flashing Sabres now fired into their backs. This deeply disconcerted the raw recruits of the Portuguese militia, who (wisely as it turned out halted and began to withdraw). Taylor did not know it but Wellesley had hoped that he would halt at about this point, his job done. But he pressed forward right up to Junot's HQ position, bounded by a stone wall, without the allied cavalry. Meanwhile Junot's aide de camp, Colonel Grandseigne had galloped to hurry up the cavalry division, which had now come up in the nick of time. It's first two dragoon regiments probably made alternate charges and demoralised British dragoons began to retreat, leaving Colonel Taylor dead behind them.
Junot's grand flanking attack now struck, sadly for him much too late. The two French brigades had taken too long to get in position and Wellesley had pulled two brigades, (with at least two more supporting) from his right flank to meet them, which of course had dangerously weakened his right during the early attacks. The sides met at the small farm of Ventosa, though the French surprised a few battalions, the rest were steady and concentrated British and Portuguese volleys soon resulted in a repeat of the morning's contest. Casualties in this battle were very one sided, with just over 700 sustained by the allies and over 2,000 by the French.
Propitiously for the French Wellesley was now superseded on the field by his superior, Sir Harry Burrard, who at once forbade any pursuit despite Wellesley's exultant exclamations. The disgusted sir Arthur rode away sniping to his staff that they aught to enjoy shooting red partridges. Perhaps out of pique he therefore dumbly consented to sign the absurd convention of Cintra by which the French were escorted away with their loot and arms by the Royal Navy.
The first battles of the Peninsular war are instructive in that they show an audacious Wellington, still willing to risk fast counterattack and offensive operations, but one still unsure on his feet against the French when they chose to be clever, while also showing the beginnings of his classic reverse slope strategy. Most notably the effect of being superseded and being acquitted by a court martial would ram home that Sir Arthur would need to play a more careful game when he returned in 1809, especially after the disaster of the Corunna Campaign. In the coming Talavera campaign, nothing would be certain and the stakes much higher.

Talavera and 1809-10
There was no doubt, after the stigma of the Cintra enquiry faded, that Sir Arthur Wellesley's 1808 campaign in Portugal had been a brilliantly straightforward piece of soldiering. He had landed, marched, beat the enemy and had not he been superseded the new year of 1809 would have seen the French thrown back into Spain. Despite this, the disaster of the Corunna campaign had led the opposition to call for the end of the intervention in Iberia. As it happened, however Lord Castlereigh was able to convince the cabinet that so long as there was still troops in Portugal, and opposition to France was still strong in Spain, the British had an obligation to see the thing through. Only a new commander was required.
The sight of Moore's shattered, vagabond army was being secretly disembarked during the winter of 1809, so as not to upset the local people, was a dire warning to all. Indeed the ghost of Sir John Moore seemed to linger over the decision makers in Whitehall, but none could tell if he was asking for vengeance or warning them not to press into Spain. General Craddock, who was at that time in charge in Portugal was pessimistic after Moore's debacle, but Wellesley was the opposite, and was certain he could invade Spain successfully. On the 6th of April 1809 Lt General Sir Arthur Wellesley was reappointed as commander in chief of he British and Portuguese forces. He arrived in Lisbon on the 22nd of April and found the situation in the country precarious. Marshal Soult, fresh (if that word can be used for such a punishing campaign) from hounding Moore into the sea, had swept down from the north and was now at Porto. Wellesley would become acutely aware in the years to come how isolated he was from reinforcements, and that he commanded Britain's last true field army, but at that moment he was still the audacious General of Assaye, and that meant, he attacked.
On the 12 of May Wellesley, having made a determined advance against the the line of the river Douro with 46,000 men, crossing the river at Porto, ferrying his army in dribs and drabs by a daring coup de main, using some local boats. He took Soult by surprise and bundled him into a hasty and embarrassing retreat into Spain. Wellesley at this point was all fire, fuming at having missed an opportunity to destroy Soult in the mountains. Having liberated Portugal a second time in two years, he was keen to press into Spain and have done with the war. In hindsight we can observe that 1809 was the only real hope for a quick victory, yet with that 20/20 sight we can also see that the complications of a lightning strike into Spain, without supreme command of his Spanish allies, was going to strain Wellesley to the limit to achieve this. Thus far Sir Arthur did indeed seem to have got the measure of the French, what would prove more difficult to surmount was his own troops. In the first part, he had many 2nd battalions in the British contingent, the best had gone to ruin with Moore. He had good senior officers, but none except Hill showed any talent for independent affairs. As yet his cavalry were excellent, the sad end of Taylor's charge at Vimiero had not given him enough evidence to mistrust them, yet. Confident nevertheless despite misgivings about a Spanish invasion, in July Wellesley rode over the frontier to have a conference with Spanish General Cuesta. The meeting was not worthy of an encore. Both generals were suspicious of the other. Cuesta, fearing being placed into a subordinate position to the younger British General was adamant in maintaining the independence of the Spanish army. Likewise Wellesley was not about to be ordered around by some old Don, who commanded an army unworthy of the name. Puffed and preening after the Spanish victory at Balien in 1808, despite the crushing defeats suffered since then, the Spanish army was still attempting to rebuild on the job. Sir Arthur and his officers could tell that the Spanish junior officers might one day make good soldiers, but for that moment the vain pride of their new allies was blinding them to the woeful state of their troops. Supported at points by aides due to a concussion suffered during the Battle of Medellin, Cuesta was not responsive to Wellesley's suggestions. Nevertheless some sort of accord was agreed on the 11th of July. The French troops in Spain were strung out and were vulnerable to well coordinated strikes by the allied forces. An appealing plan was concocted in which a force of 35,000 French troops under Victor and King Joseph would be encircled and destroyed by over 82,000 Allies. The Talavera campaign began with the attempt to unite the allied forces. Cuesta drove Marshal Victor towards Wellelsey who was marching East from Abrantes. The French would hopefully swerve right into the arms of General Venegas army of La Mancha attempting to engage Sebastiani's corps at Toledo. But the French could march like the wind and fight like the devil. Victor was rapidly consolidating three corps at Talavera de la Reina. He withdrew ahead of Cuesta and Wellesley who joined forces at Almarez on the Tagus on the 20th of July. Five days later Victor United with Marshal Jourdan and General Sebastiani, and King Joseph's army reserve from Madrid at Talavera. Disagreements between Wellesley and Cuesta during the vital days between the 20th and 25th of July, when the French were unaware of the British Invasion had cost the allies the chance to defeat the French in detail. Cuesta first of all refusing to attack as the French passed through Talavera, then changing his mind and going forward without the British and getting worsted for it, causing deep resentment in both camps and encouraging the French to switch over to the offensive and Attack the allies at Talavera. The initiative had been lost, on the 27th Wellesley was pulling his troops back to a better defensive position west of the Albreche river. Skirmishing and low level manoeuvring had been smouldering all day, when at noon when the advancing French, hidden by the dense cork and olive groves appeared in force. Causing a rather more hurried withdrawal than planned, including a wild sprint down a narrow stairway and a hair raising ride for sir Arthur as his command post was overrun by French skirmishers. Reserves dissuaded the tired French from pressing further than Casa del Salinas. A scorching day turned into a still, warm evening, full of the fragrance of the plantations. Wellesley had arranged his army in a line roughly corresponding to a meandering brook called the Portina, which wound down from the blue Sierra and onto the ochre plains, curving around the foot of the Cerro de Medellin and accompanying heights before terminating in the Tagus near the town of Talavera. At dusk the low, glimmering, horizontal light, receding from the groves shone on thousands of Spanish, Portuguese and British troops as they marched into their allocated positions.
All was quiet and still when from out of the shadows of the olive grove in front of General Portago's Division rode a troop or so of French dragoons. Seeing the Spanish, the dragoons opened a scattered fire with pistol and carbine then melted back into the grove. No sooner had they gone than the scene was lit up by a tremendous fusillade fired by the inexperienced Spanish infantry. Wellesley observed the volley favourably from nearby, noting that if they were to fire as well the next day than victory was certain. There was nothing unusual about showing a front to the enemy. The British brigades had done exactly the same that morning with no hope of hitting anything. However for some inexplicable reason, now panicked by the tremendous sound of their own volley 2,000 Spanish infantry bolted to the rear, stopped only by the lure of the British baggage train and the naked Sabres of their own dragoons.
Having persuaded a shamed and embarrassed Cuesta not to execute a hundred men and officers once the battle was over (40 were nevertheless shot three days later), Wellesley retired, leaving his line in a quiet state of confusion, not expecting any further trouble and not knowing there were dangerous weaknesses in his deployment. Victor however saw what Wellesley did not. Namely that the British centre was held by at most 6 battalions, and most temptingly the Cerro de Medellin was devoid of troops. With light fading fast Victor decided to risk a night Attack to seize the vital position. 9 battalions of Ruffin's brigade were duly prepared to march.
The tired men of Löw's brigade, KGL, were so unprepared for the wave of French infantry that broke over them that they opened fire on their own outposts as they ran in to give the alarm. Unfortunately only one French regiment (3 battalions strong) had reached the summit. The other two were lost or stalled to their rear. Wellesley was still with the Spanish and hearing the gunfire started to ride over to find out the source. Also riding to the spot was General Hill, thinking it another false alarm, irritation clouding the good natured face of Daddy Hill turned to shock as as a shot cracked out and struck his horse. The next second a hand had grabbed his bridle and a voice shouting in French was taken up from all quarters. Hill spurred hard and broke away, then galloped down the hill where he met the advancing 29th Foot, who he sent forwards at the double and went on to fling the 48th and Picquets of the day into the fight.
The action was confused and frightening. Tongues of flame flashed in spitting lines carving fiery lanes in the darkness, the sides and summit of the hill, lit every few minutes with brief illuminated fringes and the crackle of musketry until the 29th planted their colours over the Medellin and the French withdrew.
To say that Wellesley was caught on the hop is understanding the matter. He had trusted that his brigadiers would make their dispositions properly, and seemingly not inspected them himself, he had payed too much attention to his allies he had left his own back door open. At the end of the day Sir Arthur had deemed the idea of a night attack so unlikely, (something he had been wary of since a small affair in India called Sultanpettah) that he got careless. Victor's rash move could well have given dividends had Ruffin's brigade reached the hill intact. The quick thinking of General Hill and the vicissitudes of nocturnal warfare had saved the day, but it left Wellesley with a weakening grasp on his position that could not be properly addressed until morning, when the second day of the Battle of Talavera would begin.


The second day of the Battle of Talavera was a resounding success for Sir Arthur Wellesley and his Spanish ally General Cuesta. Even so the day did not run smoothly and saw the British commander having to make allowances for the spirited nature of the normally stolid infantry. During the decisive attack General Sherbrooke's brigade gave way to enthusiasm and in a display not out of keeping with the cavalry pursued the enemy too far. The scenario is usually given as evidence of Sir Arthur's second sight and indeed, his powers of anticipation saved the day as he sent reinforcements rushing to plug the gap even before the French counterattack.
Nevertheless it was an unwanted and costly occurrence. Wellesley was still far from happy with the reliability of his army to perform as he wished it to. The French reached the crest once more only to be driven back by the 48th Foot, and then routed by the Spanish Cavalry. The reverse triggered a movement of the French right flank, which began to encroach on the open plain in front of the allied left. In a curiously nearsighted move Wellesley ordered his cavalry to advance and halt the attack. It's highly possible that he only meant to show sufficient force to check the French. But This resulted in the British cavalry getting carried away and going straight at the enemy, riding straight into a hidden watercourse, to bowl into the waiting French infantry squares and supporting cavalry. The losses of the 23rd Light Dragoons would exceed the losses of the entire light brigade at Balaclava.
The next day was searing hot, and the air was polluted with the smell of wildfire, mixed with the tang of spent gunpowder and burning flesh as the flames consumed the dead. The horrifying screams rising above the crackle of the grass fires was sobering evidence that not all the wounded had been collected yet. The scene that greeted General Crauford's hard marching light brigade therefore was one of a charnel house. And the battle though a disappointing reverse for the French had not sufficiently broken them, and now Wellesley and Cuesta were faced with a stark choice as the enemy threatened to isolate them in Spain. Although both had hoped to advance on Madrid, the appearance of Mortier and Soult's corps' to the northwest changed everything and Wellesley was at the limit of his audacity.
The lack of food provided by the Spanish and with no decisive engagement, Wellesley now retreated southwards towards the Portuguese border at Elvas. The Spanish watched resentfully as yet another British army, that had beaten the French, left them in the lurch. Sir Arthur abandoned many of his injured to the care of the Spanish, who apparently showed them neglect, and it was only their capture by the French that saved those still alive.
Although Napoleon would rightly fume that the Battle of Talavera had been lost, and that his generals in Spain were misleading him with childish fantasies. The invasion of Spain had proved if anything damaging to the allied cause, another wedge of resentment had been jammed in-between Britain and Spain. Although performing well, individual British units were showing marked signs of unprofessionalism as opposed to the French, whose commanders and Battalions, for all the high up bickering, at least seemed to know their business, and had it not been for Sir Arthur's quick thinking, and good luck they might have gained the victory at Talavera.
Wellesley, or Wellington as he now was styled, made it safely back to Portugal, but knew the French would be on him the next year. Any invasion of the most western Peninsular Kingdom would have to begin with the reduction of the frontier fortresses and unfortunately for Wellington they fell like dominoes. By August Almeida was the last still in allied hands, and the French were very active. The need for Wellington to start cracking down on his officers became apparent when General Crauford ignored instructions and moved the majority of his force to the enemy side of the river Coa. Allowing Marshal Ney to surprise and almost destroy his division, bundling it back across the narrow bridge where the French were held. Harry Smith of the Rifles wrote "...but for Colonel Beckwith our whole force would have been sacrificed... During the Peninsular War there never was a more severe contest."
That embarrassment however was not as great a disaster as the fall of Almeida, which came in August, allowing the French to stream across the frontier lead by the charismatic and brilliant Marshal Andre Massena.
Wellington was furious at the situation, but had begun to prepare for reverses in increasingly inventive ways. He knew every bump and molehill between Almeida and Lisbon, he also knew of a few that had not been there the last time the French had been in Portugal. In late September at a boars back ridge called Busaco Wellington turned on Massena. Unlike Vimeiro, and Talavera, Busaco was a battle that saw the British commander exert complete control over the course of the action, and his senior officers perform superbly. French attacks recklessly pressed up the near vertical inclines to be met by waspish skirmisher fire, devastating artillery salvos and at the top, grim lines of British and Portuguese regulars who lashed them with concentrated volleys until they broke.
Gratten of the 88th remembered the carnage: “All was now confusion and uproar, smoke, fire and bullets, officers and soldiers, French drummers and French drums knocked down in every direction; British, French and Portuguese mixed together…” Leach of the 95th confirmed it: “Men, muskets, knapsacks and bayonets rolled down the side of the mountain in... a confused mass...”
It was the classic Wellington defence in depth, unitising superior British firepower and minimising their clumsy and often hot headed manoeuvring. The Battle was won, and not only did it show Wellington's talent for choosing, ground, deployment and anticipation, the newly reorganised Portuguese army came of age amongst the smoke and volleys.
Massena was not beaten so easily however, and regained the initiative with the same simplicity that had sacrificed so many lives during the battle. French troops turned the Busaco position in the mountains to the west, and Wellington was forced to withdraw, burning everything behind him.
This is a controversial moment. Because it is hard to say if Wellington ever meant to use the victory to go over to the offensive so late in the season, and against such overwhelming odds. Despite inflicting 4,500 casualties the French army would still have mustered around 60,000 men. Thus Wellington can be interpreted to have stopped to give Massena a bloody nose, to raise the morale of his men, and give the papers in Britain something to write about before going into winter quarters. It can only be imagined how badly Wellington would have been battered at home, if he had not deigned to fight even a single action between the fall of Almeida and the retreat to Lisbon. The Battle was necessary because he was about to surrender almost all of Portugal to the French.
On the 11th of October the French cavalry arrived at Sobral de Monte Agraco. What they saw was dispiriting. Across the scorched landscape of desolate farms and blackened fields, rose a formidable spectacle of modern earthworks that seemed to be growing out of the natural landscape. Under construction by thousands of Portuguese labourers since late 1809, supervised by officers of the Royal Engineers under Colonel Fletcher, the Lines of Torres Vedras were made up by three giant tiers of forts, redoubts and earthworks each stretching from the sea to the Tagus where the Royal Navy could supply them. Supported by divisions in easy reach, they were, bristling with cannon and so strongly placed that they could be held by minimal garrisons. Never had Wellington's foresight been so dramatically demonstrated. Nor his ruthless ability to make his enemy suffer so clearly evinced.
Massena was incredulous when he was told, not believing the fortifications could have been prepared in the space of a year. Angrily he demanded to know why he had not been informed about the lines, which we might suppose he presumed must have been there since early 1809, he was lamely told that they were not there before, and that Wellington had made them. "The Devil!" Snapped Massena "Wellington did not make the mountains!"


1811-12
It was easy to track the progress of Marshal Massena's route back to Spain. One needed only to follow the trail of discarded equipment and bodies left by the road, and pay heed to the sequential pillars of smoke rising into the distance. Truly Portugal had suffered greatly during the war. Looted by Junot, burnt black by Wellington and now further ravaged by Massena as he left his winter encampment before the Lines of Torres Vedras. During that time Wellington had not only been under siege by the French but by politicians at home. Though it is sometimes hard to see whom was besieging whom in Portugal, the opposition in London, eager to end the Peninsular adventure and come to terms with Napoleon, pounced on Wellington's lack of progress. In the short term according to what was on paper, indeed it looked bad. All of Portugal except for the area immediately around Lisbon had been lost. True the papers reported a victory at Busaco, yet nothing had come of it except a retreat. Wellington was in constant contact with Whitehall and the Horse Guards urging them to support him and keep the army in the field. Matters were not made any better by the discontent of some of his own officers. Although they had much less to complain of than Massena's men, some in the British contingent were deeply critical of Wellington's strategy during 1810 and wrote stinging letters home which the hostile press were only too happy to print. Wellington branded these men Grumblers and fumed that such loose talk was not only dangerous but most of the writers had no clue as to what they were talking about. Although they were warned, little was ever done to prevent officers including even the most important details in their messages home, some of which was intended for the press, and which would end up being read by French officials from the police right the way up to Napoleon himself. Wellington remarked irritably that as soon as anything went wrong, everyone who could write instantly sent a letter to anyone who could read without the slightest care of the damage bad press did to the war effort.
As enlightening as it is for students today to see the difficulties Wellington faced, not least the cracks in his armour, such insight was not wanted at the time.
Privation had underlined the French winter, while Wellington's men enjoyed reasonable comfort, supplied by the Navy through Lisbon, the French starved and froze before the mountainous allied fortifications. In the spring, Massena had no choice but to try and escape before Wellington pinned him to his ground. Yet Wellington was in no hurry, and had no inclination to engage the still superior enemy. He therefore waited to see if the French were truly retreating and not just trying to smoke him out, ordering the prowling Portuguese irregulars to let the French pass. When he was sure, Wellington pressed Massena hard, and the Portuguese pushed forward, harrying the French left flank along the Mondego.
During the retreat Marshal Ney's Corps repeatedly clashed with the British Light Division as the French retraced their steps. Numerous small engagements typified the campaign and culminated at Sabugal. In a way looking at the broad sweep of the war, we can see that Wellington had by and large finally found his feet against the French. Indeed his entire reputation as a defensive general is founded on his battlefield tactics. As a strategist he usually remained offensive, only two years of the Peninsular War were properly defensive, the rest, including Vimeiro and Talavera were conducted with the aim of advancing to meet the enemy and driving him from his possessions.
Massena's mistake after Busaco, for which he really cannot be blamed for not seeing, cost Napoleon his grip on Portugal, a country Sir John Moore had thought indefensible due to its long borders, and from now on, reverses such as would be seen most dramatically at Burgos in 1812, would no longer be sufficient cause for Wellington to hunker down for two years.
Massena, had now and then nicknamed the Fox, for he was a cunning opponent. Having lost every ounce of ground gained from early 1810, he did escape Portugal with his army intact. Failures however were not popular with Napoleon, but he was aware that he still could retain Badajoz and Almeida if he was energetic. Wellington now brought his army to the frontier, and besieged both fortresses, giving Beresford the task of reducing Badajoz, while he oversaw the main field army, giving the responsibility for the blockade of Almeida to 5th and 6th Divisions, keeping it just within reach of his personal control.
It was almost a certainty that Massena would try to relieve the fortresses. He and Soult reorganised and resupplied, then marched once more on Portugal, hoping to take the two corridors of the eastern Spanish/Portuguese border that could best support the passage of an army. And in doing so validating Wellingtonian strategy of defending the common invasion routes. In the north was Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo and to the south was Elvas and Badajoz.
Two major battles occurred from this move. Massena with 45,500 men and 38 guns discovered Wellington's 37,850 strong force in position at Feuntes de Oñoro, covering Almeida. On the 3rd of May Massena first engaged the allied centre but was repelled from the town. From this reverse he decided the key to the enemy position was here, somehow he missed the fact that Wellington's army was up in the air, with Houston's 7th Division partially isolated on his right flank. However Massena's plan was to demonstrate in strength on Wellington's right, and then break his centre. Perhaps the British commander's reputation for concealment was at work for him. However at the same time, in an ironic twist Wellington had correctly assumed that the French would try to break his centre, and so was not paying attention to what he felt to be a diversion on his right. (Interestingly at Waterloo Wellington would be obsessed with protecting his right flank) Far from being in control of the battle, when the first attack struck, Wellington's focus was on the wrong position, while Massena was to be so ridged in his own plan that a gigantic chance was lost.
On the morning of the 4th of May, Spanish Irregular cavalry and forward vedettes from the British and KGL cavalry brigades covering the ground between Nave de Aver and Pozo Bello observed the enemy advance. 3,500 Cavalry under Montbrun came riding across a wide front and charged all before them, supported by 3 Infantry divisions totalling some 17,000 men. The French cavalry swept all before them, the Spanish Guerrillas withdrew to Freinada, and the British and German Legion cavalry fought gallantly but feeling weakness, Montbrun's troopers pressed them back. Their efforts helped stave off disaster for the British and Portuguese infantry of the 7th Division, however a portion of the 85th foot and 8th Cazadores were ridden down, sharing their fate a little later was 3 Companies of the Foot Guards on the left-right, (1st Division) who had been foolishly extended into a skirmish line at the advance of the French infantry.
Wellington had by this time awakened to his danger and in a flash decide to refuse his right flank, while the French infantry came up in strength he sent gallopers to recall General Houston, and ordered the Light Division to cover them. Montbrun's cavalry pressed the retreating divisions hard, but in a superb display of steadiness under pressure the Light Division alternated in and out of square formation and allowed the 7th to escape.
Wellington was peeling back his entire right flank, and reforming it using Fuentes De Oñoro as a pivot. If all went well the line would now follow the course of an L. The French infantry were unable to make an impression and Montbrun was unable to get the Cavalry reserve released without further orders, Massena's chance to turn Wellington's right flank petered out. Nevertheless the French still attempted to take Fuentes de Oñoro, and a brutal house to house fight continued for the rest of the day, until Massena called off the attack, both sides having lost around 300 killed and 1,000 wounded.
In the south General Beresford had blockaded Badajoz and decided to offer battle to Marshal Soult as he approached to relieve the fortress. What followed on the 16th of May would prove strangely similar, and yet more deliberate that Fuentes. Except that in this case Soult correctly discerned that Beresford's line, which occupied a deceptively strong position at Albuera, was overextended and open to an envelopment on its right. In the exact opposite of Massena's plan, Soult would demonstrate against the town of Albuera and assault the allied right.
The French attack that developed was perfectly choreographed. Seeming at first to threaten the centre, but then merging into a massive flank attack with seamless precision. Under cover of a massed battery, two divisions swept around and drove into the terribly outnumbered Spanish brigade commanded by General Zayas. Which despite the derision of their British allies, stood firm atop a steep ridge and blunted the French attack. Meanwhile Beresford frantically reorganised his line.
As Allied reserves were rushed to bolster the right flank, French cavalry began to mass in support of the infantry attack under a darkening sky. Yet the Spanish were standing immovable on their hill, and when General Colborne's brigade arrived to outflank the French things looked dicey for Soult. Disaster then struck, as a sudden rain storm allowed the French cavalry to outflank the British and in a devastating example of the helplessness of unformed infantry, they charged and overran the redcoats breaking them utterly, putting Colborne's brigade out of the fight. Luckily for Beresford the French used the respite reorganise and Zayas' worn out brigade was reluctantly persuaded to withdraw. Houghton's British brigade now plugged the gap, taking shocking casualties. During the ordeal the wounded Colonel Inglis of the 57th Foot could be heard as he called out to his men "Die hard, 57th! Die hard!" The arrival of the Fusilier Brigade tipped the scales, and in the teeth of terrific enemy fire, the enemy were pressed back, garnering immortal fame as "that astonishing infantry". Marshal Soult was given to comment that the enemy were completely beaten, but didn't realise it and so would not run.
Casualties in the slogging match at Albuera were in excess of between 5-7,000 men Killed, Wounded and Missing on each side, the heaviest losses of the Peninsular War for a general action. Despite holding the field in both battles, and General Graham winning another scrap at Barrosa, the year ended with an unpleasant savour. The garrison of Almeida, under Brennier escaped, causing Wellington's ire. Beresford was so depressed that the commander in chief had to have him rewrite his official account and then edit it so as not to dispirit the government, and the siege of Badajoz was lifted soon after.
Yet Wellington, though perhaps disappointed with the immediate results, had the wider picture in mind, he had successfully defended and now controlled Portugal and was now poised to strike at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. Although Wellington is remembered as a semi mechanical commander, he was never so in control that he could not be caught out, and reverses would still dog him in the years to come, especially at Burgos in 1812, but his years of endurance were over, for he had finally found his feet against the French. His future campaigns would all be offensive, and his major battles also would once more take on a more audacious nature. With the help of his allies, he would sweep the French from Spain in two years hard fighting.

This series of posts first appeared on Britannia Magazine Facebook Page in 2016 in 4 parts titled Finding One's Feet: Wellington's Years of Endurance.
By Josh.

Sources.
Vimiero: Rene Chartrande.
Wellington: Elizabeth Longford.
Wellington: Richard Holmes.
The Peninsular War: Graves.
The Peninsular War: Esdaile.
Recollections of Rifleman Harris.
Talavera 1809 Rene Chartrande.
Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith.
Fuentes de Oñoro: Chartrande.
Bloody Albuera: Fletcher.
Through Spain With Wellington: De Mesurier.
Adventures In Historyland, Keeping History Real. http://adventuresinhistoryland.wordpress.com/
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Re: Wellington's Years of Endurance.

Postby FBC-Elvas, Portugal » December 29th, 2016, 12:47 pm

Thank you Josh. That was very kind of you.
Happy 2017.

Sarah
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