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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 29: Madrid and Burgos (July–November 1812)

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Wellington halts pursuit of Clausel at Valladolid and turns against Joseph:

Wellington abandoned the pursuit of Clausel at Valladolid and turned south where King Joseph with the Army of the Centre had retired to the foot of the Guardarramas on hearing of the battle, but had then not crossed the mountains but instead moved to Segovia.  The most plausible explanation for this unexpected and odd move was that Joseph was still hoping to unite with Clausel on the upper Duero and Wellington resolved to scotch this plan by driving the King and his army south across the mountains.  This was easily accomplished: Joseph had only stayed north of them because of some over-optimistic letters from Clausel’s army, and retired as soon as he found that the allies were turning their attention towards them.  Wellington halted his army at Cuellar (roughly half way between Valladolid and Segovia) for a few days in early August while he considered his next step.  He was much encouraged by the news, received on 30 July, that the expedition from Sicily would go ahead after all, although he was rather irritated the Bentinck and his generals were reported to have little confidence that the campaign would accomplish anything – a view which he took some pains to combat. (Wellington to Lord William Bentinck 30 July 1812 WD VI p 1-2 cf Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, Cuellar, 2 Aug 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 304-6).

The arguments for and against the occupation of Madrid:

The arguments for and against the occupation of Madrid have been discussed at length as Wellington’s decision has attracted considerable criticism from authorities including Oman and Fortescue.  However their comments appear to be overly influenced by hindsight and make some dangerous assumptions, for example that Burgos would fall without serious resistance and that Soult would not come north for several months.  Oman vol 5 p 496-500, Fortescue vol 8 p 552-4, 557, 587-591 both were, of course, writing without seeing Alexander Gordon’s letters which reveal Wellington’s uncertainty and some of the considerations which influenced him Alexander Gordon’s letters from 31 July – 8 August At Wellington’s Right Hand p 304-12.

Patriotic fervour in Madrid, but not able to be turned to practical use:

A number of Afrancesados (French sympathizers) were arrested and at least one executed, but the new regime proved less able to mobilize the resources of the city and surrounding countryside to assist the allies.  Wellington and his officers grumbled a good deal about this, but it is not really surprising (e.g. Wellington to Sir Henry Wellesley 18 August 1812 WD VI p 37-4).  Thousands of young men willing and able to fight against the French had left the city over the years and made their way to the patriot armies or joined the guerrillas: there was no vast reservoir of men, or of money, ready to spring forward at the allied arrival; and even if ordinary civilian inhabitants had wished to become soldiers there would have been no time to train them before operations resumed.  Instead they contented themselves with making the allies welcome and enjoying a summer holiday.

The Goya Sketch and Portraits:

A note by Goya’s son states that the chalk sketch was drawn on the day after the Battle of Salamanca; but this would imply that Goya had left Madrid and joined Wellington’s headquarters (or at least stayed in Salamanca or Alba de Tormes) prior to the battle, which seems rather unlikely.  (Allan Braham ‘Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington in the National Gallery’ Burlington Magazine vol 108 no 755 Feb 1966 p 80-81).

Wellington certainly sat for Goya when he was in Madrid, and the equestrian portrait was rapidly completed and exhibited at the Academy of San Fernando on 2 September 1812.  It is inconceivable that such a large work (almost 8 feet by 10 feet, or more than 2 by 3 metres) should have been begun and finished in such a short time, and X-rays confirm the suspicion that Goya adapted an existing work – probably a portrait of Joseph Bonaparte – by over-painting Wellington’s face and uniform.  This would also explain why the work is generally regarded as disappointing and the ‘articulation of [Wellington’s] body is extraordinarily unconvincing for a painter with Goya’s grasp of structure’.  (Allan Braham ‘Goya’s Equestrian Portrait of the Duke of Wellington’ Burlington Magazine vol 108 no 765 Dec. 1966 p 618-21 (quote on p 618).

The half length portrait of Wellington is a much more significant work, although much smaller than the equestrian work, and disconcertingly unlike other portraits of Wellington painted in these years.   Wellington’s eyes appear unusually round and dull; his face is fleshy, almost puffy; and his strong nose is not prominent.   Altogether he appears a weaker, duller man, with some similarities to Goya’s portraits of the Spanish Bourbons.  Several extensive alterations were made to the portrait before it was finished, and Goya added a number of decorations Wellington received after August 1812, suggesting that it was completed several years later, probably during Wellington’s visit to Madrid in 1814.  (Braham ‘Goya’s Portrait’ p 78-83; Wellington Iconography p 12-14).

In 1961 the half-length portrait was sold to an American collector, Charles Wrightsman, for £140,000.  The British government stopped its export and matched the price paid, £100,000 coming from the Wolfson Foundation and the balance from the Treasury.    The painting was entrusted to the National Gallery, where it was put on display on 2 August 1961.  On 21 August it was stolen, and remained missing for four years before it was returned.   A retired bus driver, Kempton Bunton, was then charged with its theft and confessed to the crime, although some doubt remained as to his exact role, and a jury refused to convict him of the theft of the picture, while convicting him of the theft of the frame (which was not returned).   At the time it was reported that Bunton was indignant at the expenditure of so much public money on a work of art when he was struggling to pay his television licence fee from his pension.  The affair attracted considerable popular interest and publicity at the time.  (Sandy Nairne ‘How Goya’s Duke of Wellington was Stolen’ The Guardian 5 August 2011).

Soult’s movements:

King Joseph ordered Soult to evacuate Andalusia on 29 July, only a week after the battle of Salamanca.  But this, along with the first certain news of the battle did not reach Soult until 12 August.   Although he protested at the order, and suggested that Joseph take refuge with him at Seville and abandon central Spain until help could come from France, Soult did not waste any time in calling in his outlying garrisons and preparing to abandon his viceroyalty. The siege of Cadiz was lifted and Soult’s army marched from Seville on 26 August to Cordova where he waited some days to be joined by Drouet’s corps from Estremadura).   In this case Oman’s criticism of Soult appears overstated, concentrating too much on his words, not enough on what he actually did. (Oman vol 5 p 537-43).

Clausel restores discipline in the Army of Portugal:

After its defeat at Salamanca and retreat over the Duero the Army of Portugal had been in a woeful state.  Clausel wrote to the Minister of War on 6 August,

      I must punish some of the men, who are breaking out in the most frightful outrages, and so frighten the others by an example by an example of severity; above all I must put an end to a desire, which they display too manifestly, to recross the Ebro, and get back nearer to the French frontier.  It is usual to see an army disheartened after a check: but it would be hard to find one whose discouragement is greater than that of these troops … Disorders and revolting excesses have marked every step of our retreat. (Quoted in Oman vol 6 p 7).

It says a great deal for the tough professionalism of the French army, its officers and its generals, that it took a mere fortnight of rest and reorganization before it was ready to take the field again, albeit only as a shadow it had been before 22 July.  Clausel had been ruthless and he had reduced the numbers of battalions in the army from 74 to 57 bringing those which remained up to strength.  He had also been helped by collecting some 4,000 men from depots and garrisons in his retreat, so the gross numbers of his army were greater than might have been expected, although when he decided to advance he felt he had only 25,000 men fit to take the field and was particularly weak in cavalry. (Oman vol 6 p 7-9).

Clausel’s advance:

Clausel began his advance in the middle of August thinking that he might relieve the pressure on Joseph by a diversion in Wellington’s rear, not knowing that Madrid had already fallen.  His other objective was to rescue the French garrisons in Toro, Zamora and Astorga which all belonged to the Army of Portugal.  Mounting such an advance was a bold, even rash, move, for his troops were in no state to give battle and he could not depend on early intelligence of allied movements.  Still, he encountered no serious resistance: Santocildes evacuated Valladolid upon the French approach, and Clausel was even able to send a few patrols across the Duero.  Clinton concentrated his force and retired from Cuellar to Arevalo while alerting Wellington to the French advance, but Clausel had no intention of venturing beyond the Duero in force.  Instead he remained at Valladolid from 14 August to 7 September, while detaching Foy with two divisions (8,000 men) to bring off the garrisons.  Foy reached Toro on 17 August, collected the 800 French troops there and blew up the defenses (the Spanish blockading force had wisely withdrawn when he approached).  Next he marched on Astorga, only to learn that it had finally fallen to the Army of Galicia on the 18th.  He reached Zamora on 26 August and Silveira only just succeeded in escaping the pursuit of the French cavalry.  According to his later account Foy was contemplating a march south on Salamanca – which he would have found full of stores and hospitals and virtually undefended – when he received orders from Clausel to rejoin the main army without loss of time. (Oman vol 6 p 12 citing Fullom’s Life of Sir Howard Douglas however this may have been a later thought).

Wellington marches north against Clausel:

Wellington was relieved rather than displeased at the escape of the garrisons of Toro and Zamora – he needed undisputed control of the Duero before the autumn rains arrived but had no wish to waste his own troops in operations against these second rate forts, and little faith that the Spanish could take them without assistance.  Nor does he seem to have felt any anxiety for his lines of communication, while even Beresford, recuperating from his wound at Salamanca, imagined nothing more serious than a probe by a few French cavalry towards the city which, he felt, could be repulsed by the convalescents and detachments that were to hand. (Wellington to Bathurst 18 August 1812 WD VI p 33-34; Beresford to Wellington 17 August 1812 WSD vol 7 p 396-8).  Still, Wellington could not leave Clausel at Valladolid unmolested while waiting for Soult to appear from the south, and he resolved to drive the Army of Portugal back to Burgos or beyond and secure his northern flank before returning to Madrid.  He left Madrid on 1 September having already sent off the First, Fifth and Seventh Divisions, together with Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese infantry and the cavalry of Bock and Ponsonby.  He left behind some of his best troops: the Light, Third and Fourth Divisions, under the command of Charles Alten, evidently wishing to rest these hard working units so that they would be fresh for the battle with Soult.  Commendable as this was at one level it may have been a mistake for it meant that even with Clinton’s force he did not have enough men in hand to press Clausel hard, let alone to send a column on a wide flanking movement across the upper Duero (through Aranda de Duero) which might have threatened to cut between Clausel and Burgos. (See Napier vol 4 p 335-6 (Ch 3 Bk 19) and Fortescue vol 8 p 565).

Wellington’s failure to order up a siege train:

If Wellington had given orders in the middle of August, part of the siege train from Almeida would have been well advanced on the road to Valladolid by the time he left Madrid, or he could have used the guns captured in the Retiro.  It is simply not plausible, as Wellington later claimed, that sufficient oxen could not be found to bring forward ten or a dozen heavy guns in case they were needed. (Wellington to Liverpool 23 November 1812 WD VI p 172-5.)  After the surrender of the Retiro, some ammunition and stores were actually sent back to Salamanca (Dickson Manuscripts vol 4 p 735-6) while 300 rounds of 18 pounder shot were brought up from Ciudad Rodrigo to Burgos although not ordered forward until after the siege had begun (ibid p 762).  There is no evidence in Wellington’s correspondence or the Dickson Manuscripts that an effort was made to procure draft oxen when the army was at Madrid, or that Wellington requested any of his artillery officers to attempt to mobilize any of the captured guns.

Wellington’s advance against Clausel:

Wellington advanced across the Duero on 6 September with some 28,000 men.  The French made no attempt to defend the line of the river but offered battle late in the day on the outskirts of Valladolid before retreating during the night.  The allies did not press them: apparently Wellington did not wish to commit himself to a campaign against Clausel until Castaños brought up the Galician Army and also until he was sure that Soult was not moving on Toledo after all.  Nonetheless he was feeling optimistic telling George Murray: ‘Matters go on well, and I hope before Christmas, if affairs turn out as they ought, and Boney requires all reinforcements in the North, to have all the gentlemen safe on the other side of the Ebro.’  (Wellington to George Murray 7 September 1812 WD VI p 55; see also Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 7 September 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 317-19).  His greatest frustration was the slowness of the Spanish army, which did not finally join until 16 September.  When it did so Alexander Gordon commented in some dismay that it ‘only amounts to 11,000 effective men, and I do not think they are better than the rest of the Spanish Forces we have seen’, and Wellington was no better pleased. (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 21 September 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 320-3; Wellington to Sir Henry Wellesley 12 September 1812 WD VI p 70).

Wellington resumed his advance on 10 September and gently pushed Clausel back beyond Burgos, which the allies reached on 18 September.  The slowness and lack of vigour of this advance has greatly puzzled commentators in the campaign who point out that the quickest and most effective way Wellington could secure his northern flank was by crippling the Army of Portugal either by defeating it in battle or by forcing it into a hurried and sustained retreat which would undo Clausel’s success in reviving it. Yet Wellington evidently saw no need to attack Clausel, indeed Alexander Gordon told his brother, ‘we have not pushed them as it is not our object at present to fight them, unless obliged to it, but by manoeuvres if possible to force them behind the Ebro.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 21 September 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 320-323).  How Wellington expected to keep them behind the Ebro when he returned to Madrid with the bulk of his army is a unclear.  (See Oman vol 6 p 14-20; Fortescue vol 8 p 564-5).

The failure to bring Clausel to battle on 6 September:

Alexander Gordon (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 317) and other sources hint that something went wrong here, and that Wellington wished to attack but was prevented by delays or mistakes.  John Aitchison An Ensign in the Peninsular War p 197 gives a fuller explanation than other sources, saying that the delay was due to the guns of the Fifth Division missing their way and taking so long to get up that the opportunity being missed and blames Major-General Pringle, in temporary command of the Fifth Division for not sending explicit orders to the artillery.

Burgos would soon have fallen if allies had had a proper siege train:

After the siege Dickson wrote,

   Thus ended the siege of Burgos in which the Artillery were put to more shifts and difficulties from want of means, than it is possible to explain in a limited detail, and the failure is alone to be attributed to this cause, for had the Park only consisted of six 24 P[ounde]rs. and two 8 inch howitzers, with about 700 rounds each piece, the whole of the lines, castle and all, might have been breached from No 2 [battery] in three or four days with the support of the field pieces of the army and the place might have been carried from first to last by one vigorous coup.’ (Dickson Manuscripts vol 4 p 768-9).

This is plausible, still the engineers had been similarly confident in the first two unsuccessful sieges of Badajoz.

Additional details of the siege of Burgos:

The Castle was invested on 19 September and that night the outlying hornwork was stormed.  The troops, from Pack’s brigade and the First Division, lost heavily (over four hundred casualties) largely through inexperience, and the principal attacks were repelled, with success only being achieved when Charles Cocks converted a diversion into a serious assault upon the rear of the hornwork. (Tomkinson Diary p 206-7 for Cocks’s role; see also Wellington to Bathurst 21 September 1812 WD VI p 86 and Alexander Gordon to Lord Aberdeen 21 September 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 320-3 both expressing discontent with the conduct of the main attack cf J. T. Jones Autobiography quoted in Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 1 p 320 which makes strong criticism of Wellington’s orders).

The guns in the Castle at once opened a furious fire on the position which drove the besiegers under cover but work soon began on building a battery in front of the captured ground.  In an orthodox siege the allies would duly have brought their guns into this battery, overcome the French artillery and then proceeded to batter the walls.  But Wellington’s artillery was far inferior to that of the French and Burgoyne put his faith in other expedients with the breaching battery a last resort (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 234).  On the night of 22 September an attempt was made to escalate the outer walls on the western side.  It achieved considerable surprise but failed.

After the failure of the escalade on 22 September the allies continued to devote most of their attention to the north-western and western face of the castle, with saps being pushed towards the wall and tunneling begun to place a mine under the wall.  This was hard work for inexperienced and inexpert troops and it was made more difficult by the poor quality of the tools available (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne p 230). The battery on the hornwork opened fire on 25 September with the howitzers but proved so ineffective that it was soon halted to conserve ammunition.  The mine was fired at midnight on the 29th and J. W. Gordon described in a letter to Lord Grey,

Last night we sprung a mine under the lower wall of the extreme outwork, but as yet we have not reaped any advantage from it.  The Marquis attended by his principal Staff Officers went at 12 last night to see the effect of this explosion, and to be at hand to direct the assault if practicable.  We took our Station within less than 400 yards of the Castle, and for a time sat, or rather lay tolerably snug under cover of an old Fleche which we had captured in an early part at the siege.  The instant the Explosion took place, the cry of Aux Armes resounded all round the Enemy’s works, and uncertain where our attack would commence, they poured forth from all parts of their works a continued stream of fire, of round, grape, musketry and shells, which passed over us in every direction.  Not a man of us could move for above an hour and a half, and tho covered in great part form a direct range, we were wholly exposed to the shells, some of which burst, I am quite sure within 20 yards of where we lay. (J. W. Gordon to Lord Grey Villatoro 30 September 1812 Earl Grey Papers, Durham University Library, GRE/B19/127).

            As this suggests, the mine was not particularly effective – it damaged but did not bring down the wall and an attempt to storm in the confusion was quickly driven back.  Work on a second mine was promptly begun and a breaching battery was established very close to the walls on the western side, but provoked such a torrent of fire from the French that it had to be abandoned after two of the three 18 pounders had been damaged. This was a serious blow and the placement of the battery had clearly been over-ambitious.  A line of communication had been opened with Popham and on 26 September Wellington wrote asking him for ammunition (Wellington to Popham 26 September 1812 WD VI p 90). Popham showed great energy and ability in overcoming formidable obstacles and forty barrels, each containing 90 pounds of gunpowder reached Burgos on 15 October.  If Wellington had asked for a few heavy guns at the same time the siege might yet have ended with success.  But it was not until 2 October that he admitted the need and the two 24 pounders dispatched by Popham on the 9th had to turn back on the 18th fifty miles short of Burgos.  (Oman vol 6 p 39-40; Popham Damned Cunning Fellow p 206-8).

Work in the trenches was always unpopular and at Burgos there was not even the incentive of plunder to encourage the men, while it was obvious to all that the siege was not going well.  Burgoyne complained that progress was pitifully slow ‘owing to the neglect and misconduct of the working parties’ and that ‘it was seldom the men could be induced to take out their own gabions and set to work, and I myself placed at different times hundreds of gabions with my own hands and then entreated the men to go and fill them to no purpose.’  The men were ‘not ashamed of flinching in the most disgraceful manner from work under fire … they wanted confidence; sometimes they would tell you, you were taking them to be butchered.’ (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 232-33).  Burgoyne specifically exempted the Guards from this criticism, praising their ‘regularity, docility, discipline, and spirit’ (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 231), but Alexander Gordon whose commission was in the Scots Guards, told his brother Charles, ‘the fact of it is, entre nous, the troops have not behaved so well as they ought in the attacks, and our friends in the Guards are not altogether very stout.’ (Alexander Gordon to Charles Gordon 3 October [1812] At Wellington’s Right Hand p 325-6).

At dawn on 4 October the allied battery, which had been re-established further back from the Castle on the western side opened fire on the section of wall that had been weakened by the failed mine, and made rapid progress.  By 4 o’clock that afternoon there was a practicable breach.  At five o’clock the second mine was fired bringing down 100 feet of rampart further south and both breaches were immediately stormed and occupied with few casualties by the 2/24th.  It was the most successful episode of the siege so far, but it was only the outer wall which had been gained and it would require a new operation to tackle the inner defences.

James Stanhope arrived with Sir Edward Paget (c. 11 October) when the siege was already under way and wrote in his journal:  ‘I visited the trenches, they are the very devil, for if one is not drowned or choked in mud in the first bayau, one is nearly sure of being shot in the first line if above 5 feet high.  I never saw anything like it, if you held up a cap you had two or three balls through it at once.  At the same time we hardly heard any firing from the French but a pop pop every now and then whilst we were always keeping up a useless fire.  Our three poor 18 pounders which were used against the forts at Salamanca & which have been christened Nelson, Thunder & Lightning, are all useless but one and when they said our batteries were to open, 30 guns of the enemy opened to three and smashed guns and artillerymen together.  Still, everybody here at headquarters says we are to take it by mining, but among the troops there is much dejection …. the misery of the hut encampment, the dreadful deluges of rain, the trenches up to the middle and the want of success, & great loss of the attacks had sadly rebuté [cast down] the troops.’  (Stanhope Eyewitness p 91).

Wellington resolved to continue the siege because he could not bring himself to admit defeat and abandon it, and because there was no immediate need to do so, while the strategic significance of Burgos grew even greater.  There was still no summons for him to return to Madrid to confront Soult who had moved with great circumspection through Granada and Murcia and who only reached the borders of Valencia and made contact with King Joseph and Suchet at the beginning of October.  At the same time it was becoming obvious that the Army of Portugal was gaining strength as it was reinforced by troops scraped together by the authorities in France and some of the men lightly wounded at Salamanca returned to the ranks.  Souham assumed command on 3 October and though the French were not pressing the allied outposts they could not be expected to remain so passive when Wellington returned to Madrid.  But if Burgos was captured Wellington might be able to rest his northern flank upon it and the River Arlanzon through the rains of autumn and the winter.  Alexander Gordon told his brother: ‘Burgos is a most important point for us to have; as it commands the great road to Madrid by Aranda, as well as that to Valladolid, and gives us with the Arlanzon the best position in this part of the Country, and the only one by occupying which we should be enabled to secure during the Winter these Northern provinces, unless we fell back and took up the line of the Duero.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 5 October 1812 p 326-7).  Whether the capture of Burgos would really have held Souham and Caffarelli in check may be doubted, but no better solution to the problem was in sight.

However the allies were unable to follow their success of 4 October with any rapid progress as sapping inched forward in the rain and the lame 18 pounders attempted the batter a breach in the inner wall.   Stanhope (Eyewitness p 92) gives a good, detailed account of the unsuccessful assault on 17 October and subsequent operations.

Wellington’s explanation for the Failure:

On 23 November Wellington gave Liverpool an explanation for the failure which, while plainly untenable, has influenced a number of secondary accounts:

      The fault of which I was guilty in the expedition to Burgos was, not that I undertook the operation with inadequate means, but that I took there the most inexperienced instead of the best troops.  I left at Madrid the 3d, 4th, and Light divisions, who had been with myself always before; and I bought with me that were good the 1st division, and they were inexperienced.  In fact the troops ought to have carried the exterior line by escalade on the first trial on the 22d Sept.; and if they had, we had means sufficient to take the place.’ (WD VI p 174).

This is an understandable but most unappealing attempt to shift the blame.  Even if it was true that the troops could have succeeded on the 22nd (which is at best doubtful), they should not have been expected to do so.   It was unworthy of Wellington to take this line, although the fact that it was written at Ciudad Rodrigo in the full first bitterness of the retreat from Burgos, and at a time when, according to McGrigor, he was in a foul mood, goes some way to explaining it.

Operations on 20 October:

James Stanhope describes the operations of the covering force, joined by Wellington in the face of Souham’s advance:  ‘On the 20th the 1st Division moved from their ground to the position.  The guard of the trenches was taken by Pack and the Portuguese.  The 1st Division was bivouacked in a fine wood on the dry slope of the hill above Hurones & was quite in spirits, getting out of the mud of the siege.  In the afternoon the French made their appearance on the road to Monasterio and at 3 o’clock 2 divisions of infantry & some cavalry advanced rapidly, driving in our pickets and soon began a sharp firing at the Spaniards in the valley, the whole line of whom began firing volleys at ½ a mile from the top of their hill.  In the skirmish at the bottom of the hill, the Spaniards behaved well against some conscripts and took a few prisoners.  By the movement of the enemy they presented their flank to us & Lord Wellington galloped up to General Paget saying “By God, I never saw so impudent [a] thing in my life, do move down and attack them.”

‘The 1st Division immediately descended the hill in three lines, supported in echelon by the 5th Division & artillery on the left & some cavalry on our right flank.  Though the ground was not favourable, it was a beautiful advance & our people seemed to have recovered their spirits.  The enemy would not stand, Gardiner pounded them with his guns but the dark prevented pursuit.’  (Stanhope Eyewitness p 92-4)

Stanhope goes on to explain how this small move greatly facilitated the retreat the next day.

The identity of the insubordinate generals:

All accounts agree that William Stewart was one.  Telling the story years later Fitzroy Somerset named the other two as Clinton and Dalhousie (Greville Memoirs vol 4 p 141-2 18 November 1838): this is accepted by Fortescue (vol 8 p 620) but Oman objects that Wellington describes the two as ‘new comers’ and suggests Oswald rather than Clinton; however it seems rather unlikely that Fitzroy Somerset would be mistaken, and Clinton was a relative newcomer having been with the army only since February.  Nor do either of the sources Oman cites (Napier (vol 4 p 386), and Greville, as above) give Wellington’s phrase which I have been unable to trace to its source.  Greville’s version is that ‘Fitzroy asked the Duke what he had said to them, and he replied, “Oh, by G__, it was too serious to say anything.”’ (vol 4 p 142 as above)

Wellington during the Retreat:

Writing home on 22 November William Gomm praised Wellington’s conduct of the retreat:

 I am perfectly well, but I have seldom been more harassed than during this period, although my share has been small in comparison with that of many others.  Lord Wellington’s has been the greatest, although he did not sleep out at nights.  I have seen something of him during these proceedings, and more to admire in him than ever.  His temper, naturally hasty, seemed to grow more calm as that of the weather rose, but it was a calmness that indicated elevation rather than depression of spirit.  He is eminently gifted with all sorts of great qualities.  His retreat has been masterly; he has withdrawn the army upwards, I believe, of 200 miles, the greater part of the time before a superior force, which has never once found him in a situation to attempt anything serious, except upon the Carrion, where they failed; and he has reached the point upon which, from the beginning, he directed himself, with his army unbroken, except by the elements and their own indiscipline.  (Gomm Letters and Journals  p 290-1).

Another officer on the staff, Thomas Henry Browne, agreed:

 In all the cold & rain of the last three days of the Burgos retreat, Ld. Wellington was on horse-back with the troops from sun-rise to sun-set, sharing all their privations & encouraging them by his presence to proceed cheerfully on their march.  It had the happiest possible effect both on Officers & men, & some were heard to exclaim, “Never mind this ugly weather, we shall soon be back again, & that’s the fellow as will shew us how to lick the French.”  (Browne Napoleonic War Journal p 199).

Browne’s tribute surely goes too far – there was not much cheerfulness on the last stages of the retreat, and Wellington did not ‘share all the privations’ of his troops – but it is nonetheless a useful corrective to some other accounts which tend to compete with each other in stressing the hardships of the retreat.  .

Losses in the Retreat:

Oman vol 6 p 747-8 prints a most interesting table suggesting that the army had 4,752 rank and file missing on 29 November (almost exactly half British and half Portuguese).  NCOs, drummers and officers bring it up to almost 5,000.  Then there were 198 officers and men killed and 753 wounded in action on the retreat – though I suspect that many of the wounded would become missing so that adding the two totals added together would give an inflated figure with the same man being counted twice.  Still this suggests that the retreat cost the army between 5,500 and 6,000 men.

However the General Returns of British Rank and File in WO17/2470 do not reflect anything like so great a loss:

25 October         34,065 rank and file present and fit  +  19,329 sick  =  53,394

25 November      33,121 rank and file present and fit  +  20,908 sick  =  54,029

25 December       35,760 rank and file present and fit  +  18,909 sick  =  54,669

Presumably this reflects the arrival of reinforcements from home (and also Skerret’s detachment from Cadiz).   These figures only cover British, not Portuguese units.

A return of casualties suffered by the army under Wellington’s command from 15 December 1811 to 14 December 1812 states that:


10,207 men died

1,720 men discharged

1,092 men deserted

4,195 men transferred

 Given that less than 1,000 men were killed at Salamanca one sees that death in battle was only a small part of the army’s losses.  (WP 1/359 these figures presumably refer just to British rank and file, or possibly include NCOs but not officers).

According to Cantlie (History of the Army Medical Department vol 1 p 353) in the three months ending 24 December 1812 38,888 men were admitted to hospital (either regimental or general – clearly much double counting as that is almost as many as the total British rank and file) of whom 2,231 died.  Which suggests that a remarkably large number of men died without going to hospital.

The Circular Letter resented as unfair as it tarred all by the same brush:

Yet Wellington would have aroused much greater resentment had he singled some out for blame while excusing others, for there would always be extenuating circumstances that would provide some excuse for even the most obviously guilty. And in fact he did take individual action against some of those he regarded as the worst culprits, for example placing the commanding officer of the 82nd under arrest: Wellington to Bathurst 19 November 1812 WP I/351 see also General Orders 16 November 1812 WD VI p 163 and Wellington to Dalhousie 4 December 1812 WP I/355 printed with names deleted in WD VI p 194-5.

Reactions to the Circular Letter:

D’Urban’s reaction is unexpected and interesting: ‘Received circular letter (of Lord Wellington.  It is a most necessary injunction, for the discipline of the Army is relaxing to a degree unknown before.)’ (D’Urban Journal 3 December 1812 p 303).

An alternative verdict by Wellington on the Campaign as a whole:

In a letter to Edward Cooke of 25 November 1812 Wellington puts a remarkable spin on the campaign as a whole:  ‘In short, I played a game which might succeed (the only one which could succeed), and pushed it to the last; and the parts having failed, as I admit was to be expected, I have at last made a handsome retreat to the Agueda, with some labour and inconvenience, but without material loss.  I believe I have done right.’ (WSD vol 7 p 478).

Reaction to the Retreat from Burgos in England:

The Opposition was in no position to exploit the disappointing end to the campaign, but Lord Wellesley and Canning attempted to do so, attacking the government for not supporting Wellington sufficiently.  However their attack ran out of steam, and was largely overtaken by the unfolding news of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia.   Wellington threw his support behind the ministers, denying that the retreat could be blamed on the government, but by the time his letters reached London the political storm (such as it was) had subsided.  (For more on Wellington’s intervention, see below, the commentary to chapter 31).

There is a good summary of the re-orientation of whig criticism (from being directed at Wellington, to attacking the government for not supporting him adequately) in Roberts The Whig Party p 158-9, although he slightly over-simplifies the picture to make it clearer.   Certainly many in the Opposition remained pessimistic in their view of the war, and Dorothy George in English Political Caricature vol 2 p 138 quotes The Examiner for 17 January 1813 in which Leigh Hunt argued that Britain was no better off than twelve months before, and looked to the speedy evacuation (by the British) of the Peninsula!   All this was overtaken by the arrival of the news of Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, and the gradual acceptance of the scale of his defeat and its implications.

The caricaturists ignored the retreat: they shifted from caricatures relating to the election to those responding to Napoleon’s defeat in Russia with only a few allusions to Spain (usually linking her with other allied powers in a coalition against Napoleon).   Wellington next appears in a plate on the battle of Vitoria.  See George BM Catalogue vol 9.

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© Rory Muir

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