"We have suffered a shameful disaster." - The Battle of Corunna

16 January 1809, the first British intervention in the Peninsular War and John Moore’s subsequent Corunna Campaign ended with the Battle of Corunna and the death of the illustrious general in A Coruña, Galicia, on the coast of north-western Spain.

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.


Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.” 

(Charles Wolfe, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna")

The British retreat to Corunna, by an unknown artist

The Convention of Cintra was an inexplicable national disgrace. With one stroke of the pen on August 30, 1808, the two chinless wonders Burrard and Dalrymple nullified Sir Arthur Wellesley’s victory at Vimeiro won a week before as well as that of His Majesty’s Spanish allies at Bailén in southern Spain. The Convention allowed the beaten French not only to leave Portugal with all military honours, but keeping their loot plundered in Portugal and offering them a free passage to Rochefort on ships of the Royal Navy on top of it. When the news reached Britain, the two morons were immediately recalled along with Wellesley, who really had nothing to do with the Cintra folly. Napoleon joined the ranks of those who found the whole thing to be beyond everyone’s belief, shook his head and quickmarched his Armée d'Espagne, made up of more than 250,000 of his veterans, to the Peninsula theatre in person to put the world to rights again. In the meanwhile, Sir John Moore, father of the British Army’s light infantry, had assumed command of HM expeditionary force of 30,000 in Lisbon and moved east towards Madrid to support the Spanish, 80,000 disorganised, badly led and worse supplied troops who were just caught in the “avalanche of steel and fire” of Napoleon’s brilliant campaign. Madrid surrendered on 4 December, the Spanish armies in the field were soundly beaten and Moore, now at Salamanca, was about to be put in the sack next, surrounded by three French army corps as he soon was to realise. He chose the only reasonable option left to him – running back to the coast up north along the passes of the snow-covered mountains of Léon and Galicia with the French in hot pursuit, virtually the only “hot” thing for the next 300 miles. Spain was facing its harshest winters since decades, the weather was abysmal and one of the darkest chapters in the History of the British Army began. While Moore’s Lights skirmished with the advancing French to cover the retreat of the infantry, discipline deteriorated with every force-marched step. Moore’s soldiery wreaked havoc in almost all the Spanish villages in search for food and other supplies and, most prominently, drink. In a village in Léon called Bembibre, locals had locked 200 battered redcoats in a cellar to be collected by French dragoons, a similar fate was suffered by those stranded in Vilafranca, hiding in a wine cellar when Moore’s fleeing army passed by and always Marshal Soult’s pursuing advance guard was close enough to cut up these stragglers, to a point that the British cavalry leader Lieutenant General Henry Paget, later Lord Uxbridge, had to abandon a proper hanging of his own deserters and plunderers because the French just arrived on the scene. Moore’s mob that once was an army arrived in the Galician harbour town La Coruña, journey’s end, on 11 January and the Navy wasn’t there.

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769 - 1830): "Sir John Moore" (before 1830)

To Moore’s luck, the good people of Corunna obviously hadn’t heard about the events during the retreat. To them, the French still were the invaders and usurpers and they would rather not shout “Viva los Francesces!” and ring the church bells when the French came and rounded up British stragglers. Quite the reverse. The dismal state the British troops were in moved them to tears, they fed them as good as they could and vigorously helped to prepare the defences against Soult’s men who were coming after them. And then the Navy sailed in the bay, Nelson’s “Victory”, Howe’s “Barfleur”, another first rate, the “Ville de Paris”, and eight more battleships of the line, frigates and sloops and the transports. Not enough, though, to ship the mounts of Paget’s cavalry. More than 2,000 horses were driven over cliffs and shot and right in the middle of the butchery, Soult arrived and charged. His men were in no better state than the British, intense fighting erupted never the less, concentrated southeast of Corunna around the village of Elvina, the place changed hands several times and in the thick of it, Moore was mortally wounded by a French cannonball. The British held regardless, the embarkation continued and when night fell, Moore lay dying but his exhausted men had pushed back the French and won a victory, more or less. The British general was buried the next day on a spot in the ramparts of the town where Coruña’s university campus is today and the last of the expeditionary army, Craufurd’s and Alten’s brigades who had covered the embarkation to the last moments, were on board on 18 January while Soult had to learn to his dismay that it was not a very bright idea to bring artillery into the range of the hundreds of naval guns in the bay. He was forced to watch the British go.

William Heath (1795 - 1840): "Death of Sir John Moore" (1809)

The remnants of Moore’s army arrived in Plymouth and Portsmouth a week later. “Who the devil’s ghost are you?”, a subaltern was made welcome by his new colonel and a captain of Beresford’s 9th Foot wrote that they had to burn their last scraps of clothing and equipment, “so ragged and verminous that they were not fit to march through a clean, Christian country”. Hearing about the tremendous loss of material and especially the horses, complaints went loud but a spectator summed up the public opinion by and large, as an officer of the 3rd Light Dragoons of the King’s German Legion recorded: “Damn all the horses, Yorkshire has enough horses to mount them again – thank God that the lives of brave men are saved”, and no immediate blame for the disaster was put on fallen General Moore who might or might not have fought more decisive rearguard actions or at least might have tried to hold fortified and well supplied Corunna until reinforcements could be sent. Soult had erected a monument over Moore’s grave and plundered those stores afterwards, re-equipped his own battered troops with them, along with capturing a considerable Spanish squadron of battleships at anchor in Ferrol. Three months later, Wellesley, not yet Lord Wellington, acquitted of all charges laid against him in the inquiry following the Convention of Cintra, returned to Portugal with a new expeditionary force, made up to a large part of regiments who had fought with Moore in the Corunna campaign. Old Nosey had to roll up his sleeves and drive the French from Spain, methodically, brutally, mercilessly and often brilliantly. The Peninsular War had begun in earnest and it would take four years until British troops would march across the Pyrenees into France.

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