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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 22 : Busaco (July–September 1810)

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Overview of the state of the war in the spring of 1810 from Napoleon’s perspective:

When Napoleon surveyed the state of the war in the Peninsula in the spring of 1810 he was entitled to feel that he had some grounds for optimism.  The fall of Andalusia had dealt a crippling blow to the Spanish resistance, and only Galicia, Valencia and the remote south-east of Spain remained unoccupied. This had been achieved without the assistance of the huge number of reinforcements he had ordered across the Pyrenees after the defeat of Austria, most of whom were only just beginning to arrive. Their presence would surely consolidate the French hold on the provinces already over-run and provide the force needed to take Portugal and drive the British into the sea.

Deprived of hope and outside assistance, the Spanish insurgency would soon wither away and a new and enlightened era of Spanish history would begin under the benign rule of Joseph Bonaparte. Or so Napoleon must have hoped. The cost of the Spanish adventure was far higher than he had expected. The number of French soldiers who had been killed in action, died of disease or been captured already ran well into the tens of thousands – perhaps even more, for there are no comprehensive figures – and the drain on the manpower of the Empire was staggering. In the middle of 1810 Napoleon had some 360,000 men under arms in the Peninsula – almost double the size of his army at Wagram and four times as many men as he had at Austerlitz, and the great majority of these (to a much greater extent than in the army at Wagram) were French. Service in Spain was not popular in the army and it required the continuation of high levels of conscription which was causing increasing discontent at home.  The commitment of these forces to the Peninsula meant that they could not be used to support Napoleon’s hegemony over central Europe, and while this was not under threat in 1810, Napoleon knew that the continuation of the war in Spain gave his many undeclared enemies comfort and hope. And finally the maintenance of such a large army in Spain was ruinously expensive.

In late January 1810 Napoleon examined the state of his finances and was dismayed with what he found. He promptly instructed Berthier to

       Let the King of Spain know that my finances are getting into disorder; that I cannot meet the enormous cost of Spain; that it is becoming absolutely necessary that the funds required to keep up the artillery, the engineers, the administrators of every description, should be furnished by Spain, as well as half the pay of the army; that no one is bound to do what is impossible; that the King ought to feed the army; that all I can do is give two millions [francs ?][1] a month towards its pay; that, if all this cannot be done, there is but one course left, that is to administer the provinces for the benefit of France, seeing that the state of my finances will not allow me to continue to make great sacrifices. (Napoleon to Berthier, Paris, 28 Jan 1810 Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with his Brother Joseph vol 1 p 102; see also Napoleon to Clarke 18 Dec 1809 ibid p 89-91).

King Joseph’s weak and ineffective government was quite unable to meet these demands but Napoleon did not relent. Over the next few months he established a series of military governments over most of occupied Spain run by French commanders who answered directly to him while still nominally acting in Joseph’s name. Joseph was left with little more than a rump around Madrid and even within this shrunken realm was subject to much heavy-handed interference from his brother. His protests were ignored and his half-hearted attempts at abdication were brushed aside. (Oman vol 3 p 200-201; Connelly Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms p 250-3).

The imposition of direct foreign military rule fuelled the insurgency. Many of the French generals were notoriously corrupt and rapacious, but even those who were honest were forced to make demands which appeared extortionate to a Spanish population which had already been impoverished by the war and the complete disruption of the economy that had come with it. The arrival of French reinforcements increased these demands while their presence inevitably led to increased friction and resentment even if it temporarily suppressed open acts of hostility. Napoleon’s axiom, much used in these months, that ‘war must support war’ proved true in a sense he did not intend, for the war in Spain was feeding on itself and flourishing on the diet. (For example Berthier to Joseph 14 July 1810 Confidential Correspondence vol 2 p 130-1).

The continuing Spanish resistance, (whether guerrillas in occupied provinces or small armies on their fringes hardly mattered), provided the essential context for Wellington’s operations. If Napoleon had been able to send just one third of his men in Spain into Portugal in 1810 Wellington would probably have been forced to withdraw without even offering battle.  Soult had 73,000 men in Andalusia, Augerau 57,000 in Catalonia and Suchet 26,000 in Aragon yet none of them felt secure; all cried out for, and received, their share of the reinforcements.  (Figures from Oman vol 3 p 201-2).  The northern provinces through which the French lines of communication ran were particularly troublesome: a year later in July 1811 after a fresh reorganisation Napoleon allotted 100,000 men to the vast tract of country stretching from Navarre to Salamanca, and including Biscay, Burgos, Valladolid and the Asturias, and even this proved insufficient. (Oman vol 4 p 641).  In the spring of 1810 the western half of this region was the responsibility of the newly created Army of Portugal and Napoleon imagined that the country around Valladolid and Salamanca would provide the springboard for an advance on Lisbon. The Army of Portugal had a total strength of 130,000 men but after deducting garrisons to hold these rear areas, and the sick, it was left with a field force of about 86,000 men; formidable, but less than the 100,000 men Wellington had thought might be brought against him. (Oman vol 3 p 206).

Weakness of Napoleon’s intelligence gathering re Spain and Portugal:

Napoleon seriously underestimated the task facing Masséna and, as it proved, gave him insufficient resources to have more than an outside chance of success in the campaign. This was less due to arrogance than to faulty and inadequate intelligence.  Napoleon’s best source of information about British intentions in Portugal and the state of Wellington’s army was English newspapers which reached the continent quite readily, and in late 1809 and the first half of 1810 the British press took an exceedingly gloomy view of the war, and regarded the withdrawal of Wellington’s army as a forgone conclusion.  British journalists did not understand Beresford’s work reforming the Portuguese army, or the construction of the Line of Torres Vedras, because their informants (who were generally officers in the British forces serving in Portugal) were equally ill-informed; so that the pessimism which ran through the British army actually helped to mislead Napoleon.

The French do not seem to have made the most of the lack of censorship of the British press, and articles appeared frequently which gave details of reinforcements setting sail for Lisbon, and of the movement and distribution of forces in Portugal. Officers wrote freely speculating on the likely movement of their units in the event of an enemy advance and some even published books containing much valuable information on the military topography of Portugal and the organization and state of the Portuguese army. One paper published an account of the defence of Cadiz including the number, size and armament of the defensive batteries, while the Sun published letters from occupied Spain to Romana giving details of French troop movements, without even bothering to suppress the names of the Spaniards who had risked their lives by writing them. (Wellington to Graham 10 August 1810 WD IV p 219 re Cadiz and Wellington to Liverpool 18 August 1810 WD IV p 231-2 re the Sun).

Although some of this information soon became out of date much of it remained potentially useful, but the French do not seem to have made any systematic attempt to collect and collate it and then forward it to their commanders in the Peninsula.  In one letter Napoleon refers to ‘the best intelligence, derived from secret sources in London’, but the information amounts to nothing more than inaccurate figures for the overall strength of Wellington’s British troops and the number detached under Hill. (Napoleon to Berthier, 19 Sept 1810 Confidential Correspondence vol 2 p 144-45). A handful of capable officers employed in the Channel Ports to read all the British newspapers smugglers could bring in would have proved far more effective than such ‘secret sources’ if that was the best they could produce. Nor did Napoleon receive any better information from his commanders in Spain. Wellington’s withdrawal to the Portuguese frontier in 1809 had severed direct contact with the French army, although there were still occasional parleys to exchange information about captured officers, and no inkling of the extent of his preparations appears to have reached the French.  As late as the middle of April Soult, who had yet to relinquish his position as King Joseph’s Chief of Staff, urged Ney to proceed with operations against Ciudad Rodrigo, with the assurance that Wellington’s whole army was weaker than Ney’s 6th Corps. (Horward Napoleon & Iberia p 25).  Remarkably even the Portuguese émigré officers who joined Masséna’s staff  – some of whom retained extensive social, family and political connections in Lisbon – seem to have been no better informed. So that Masséna’s whole campaign was founded upon a false assessment of the strength and intentions of the allies and hampered in its execution by a lack of even basic information on the roads and geography of northern Portugal.  (Pelet The French Campaign in Portugal p 94 describes Alorna’s inability to give even basic information about Almeida; see also Marbot Memoirs vol 2 p 107-8 on the lack of topographical knowledge about Portugal by anyone, including the émigrés, at Masséna’s headquarters).

Napoleon’s instructions to Masséna:

Nevertheless Napoleon did not treat the conquest of Portugal lightly. Two previous French attempts (Junot in 1807-8 and Soult in 1809) had ended in humiliation, and he was determined that there would be no third failure. The army he gave Masséna appeared to be more than strong enough for the task; the field force would be three times the strength of Wellington’s British troops, and comfortably larger than the combined allied army, even if the Portuguese were included. These last, he assured Masséna, were ‘poor troops’, and indeed he had little reason to suppose that they had significantly improved since their unimpressive performance in 1807 and 1808.  (Napoleon to Masséna 18 April 1810, quoted in Horward, Napoleon & Iberia p 52).  Still, the campaign was not to be rushed and no risks would be incurred by cutting corners. Even before Masséna was appointed to the command Napoleon gave orders to protect the army’s northern flank by occupying the plains of Leon and capturing Astorga, the gateway to Galicia. This proved a protracted and uncomfortable operation, with determined Spanish resistance combined with dreadful weather and serious logistical difficulties, but on 22 April Astorga fell while Masséna was still in Paris.  (Oman vol 3 p 212-213, 220-226).

Napoleon’s orders for the main campaign were issued in late May and again they erred on the side of caution; “Send word to the Prince of Essling”. Napoleon told Berthier.

That according to the English accounts, the army of General Wellington consists of only 24,000 men, English and Germans, and that the Portuguese have only 25,000, but that I do not choose to enter Lisbon at present, because I should not be able to feed the town, the immense population of which obtain their provisions by sea; that the summer must be spent in taking Ciudad Rodrigo, and afterwards Almeida; that the campaign must be managed, not by unconnected expeditions, but methodically; that the English general, as he has less than 3,000 horse may wait for the attack in a country where cavalry is useless, but will never offer battle in a plain.

…He will besiege…first Ciudad Rodrigo, and afterwards, Almeida and will thus prepare himself to march systematically on Portugal, which ought not to be entered till September, when the heats are over, and, above all, after the harvest.  (Napoleon to Berthier 29 May 1810 Confidential Correspondence vol 2 p 123-5).

Evidently Napoleon believed that an autumn campaign would pose fewer logistical or climatic problems than an advance in summer, and he had no fear that Wellington would use the respite to strengthen his position.

French siege of Ciudad Rodrigo

Too many accounts imply that while Wellington’s sieges were fraught with trouble, French sieges were effortless and cost free. There is an interesting comparison to be explored here but the contrast should not be over-stated.

Pelet says ‘the obstacles of the countryside, the inclement weather, and the lack of every necessity forced us to collect food for the besieging corps from a great distance and thus constituted a more effective defense for the city than its walls, its ample garrison, or the large English army nearby’ (French Campaign in Portugal p 43).

The French engineers seriously underestimated the task: ‘The artillerymen announced that within three hours the fire of the enemy would be silenced, that in a few days the fortress would be captured and that with the establishment of the first battery a breach would be opened in both walls.’ (Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 53-54).

Heavy rains in May impeded the French: Masséna told Berthier on 5 June “the roads are completely impassable…It is true that as far as anyone can remember, we have not seen the rains as heavy and as continued as in this season”. (quoted by Horward in Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 60n).

‘Meanwhile, after four days of fire, the siege was not advancing. There was noticeable deliberation and hesitation in the operation. The trenches were making little progress. The approaches were sometimes poorly laid out. A few of them were enfiladed, especially on June 29. The fire of the enemy regained its superiority…’(Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 67-68; this led to the re-consideration of the line of attack referred to below).

Wellington and the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo:

Wellington did not expect Ciudad Rodrigo to make a protracted resistance.  Like most observers in both the allied and French armies he under-rated the fortress. He knew that while the Spanish garrison amounted to 5,500 men, they were almost all new levies and militia: only a single regular battalion had ever previously been under fire, and the artillery lacked trained gunners.  The civilian population of the town, some 8,000 people, would suffer in any attack and might well press for early capitulation, notwithstanding the heroic examples of Saragossa and Gerona.  (Details of garrison and population of town from Oman vol 3 p 239-41).  Much would clearly depend on the character and determination of the governor.  Wellington was not impressed by Herasti’s urgent requests for additional supplies and assistance against the partial blockade, nor by a dispute over the release of a captured French officer who was being exchanged for a British prisoner, where Herasti proved surly, unco-operative and suspicious. And this poor opinion would have been reinforced by General Cox who commanded the garrison of Almeida who thought Herasti was ineffective and timorous. (Wellington to Craufurd, 2 May 1810 and to Hill 15 June 1810 WD IV p 45, 119-120;  Horward Napoleon & Iberia p 44 on Cox’s opinion; Charles Stewart to Castlereagh 23 June 1810 D3030/P/12 confirms that a low opinion of Herasti prevailed at Wellington’s HQ.).

Before the siege began Wellington assured Herasti that he would lose no reasonable opportunity of coming to his relief, and he repeated this in several subsequent messages.   (Wellington to Herasti: 7 May, 6 June, 19 June 1810, WD IV p. 55, 105, 125. See also Wellington to Liverpool 27 Oct 1810 ibid p 365-7 where Wellington strongly defended himself against accusations of having betrayed Herasti or broken his word to help him).   In part, this was probably a conscious effort to stiffen Herasti’s determination, but only in part. Wellington concentrated his army and maintained the forward position occupied by his outposts so that if the French miscalculated and gave him even a fleeting opportunity he could strike rapidly and in force.  The chance of such an opportunity occurring was never very great, Ney and Masséna were far too capable for that, while the threat posed by the allied army was too obvious to be disregarded. Wellington would not risk the whole defence of Portugal on a wild gamble, the odds had to be clearly in his favour before he would stir, and there is no doubt that he was right to be cautious given the inexperience of the Portuguese half of the army.  (See Wellington to Henry Wellesley and to Liverpool, both 20 June 1810 WD IV p 130-1, 132-3).  Nonetheless as Ciudad Rodrigo protracted its defence far beyond his expectations, and the garrison and the governor proved courageous and determined, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the dictates of cold logic. Early in July he discussed the problem with Romana who was visiting his headquarters, but Romana could offer no solution other than the faint hope that the guerrilla war that was spreading across Castile might force Masséna to weaken the besieging force before the fortress fell, or that when the end finally came an attempt might be made to rescue the garrison.  (Wellington to Craufurd 5 and 8 July 1810 and to Charles Stewart 6 July 1810 WD IV p 151, 157, 154-55).

Uneasiness in the army at failure to attempt to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo:

D’Urban wrote in his journal, ‘The National Honor requires us to do something for ‘twill be bearing on an absolute insult to have the town taken under our noses without an attempt to save it. We had better have remained out of sight altogether.’ (17 June 1810 Journal p 113).  Other officers agreed Captain Burgoyne of the Engineers wrote in June, when the siege had only just begun:

Why it is thus deserted to its fate, after solemn promises being given to relieve it, appears extraordinary; it will be a great acquisition to the enemy in their future operations against this country, and is the only rivet now wanted to the chains which the French have round Old Castile. If we are not able to attempt some effort in favour of this devoted place now, I fear we cannot expect much success in our operations, when all the arrangements and contributions of the enemy are made. (Burgoyne “Present State of the War in this Country” 14 June 1810 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 83).

As the siege continued the gallant defence of the garrison produced first surprise and then admiration, but the reasons for Wellington’s inactivity were widely understood. Charles Cocks wrote home: ‘it is a bitter pill to us to sit with crossed arms and view this rich prey fall into the hands of the enemy, but our corps is much too small to attempt anything of itself and though the army is within two days march Lord Wellington does not seem inclined to attempt anything and I believe circumstances justify him in this cruel inaction.’ (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 60).   And Alexander Gordon was even more explicit: ‘Lord Wellington, altho’ he wishes it much, and altho’ it would be one of the finest things possible to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo so well defended, will not, as it would bring on a general action in the plain with our force divided and without a strong position – just in fact what the enemy want.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 4 July 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 90-93).   Even Charles Stewart agreed telling Castlereagh: ‘one is lost in admiration and wonder at the heroism of the besieged. They manfully hold out, but alas! We must expect to hear every hour of its surrender. They have, however, immortalized themselves by their gallant conduct…it is most painful to witness the heroism at Ciudad Rodrigo and be unable to assist them. You will, however, I think, agree as the impolicy of [setting?] everything upon a throw [of the dice], which an offensive movement would be doing.’ (Fragment of a letter from Charles Stewart to Castlereagh n.d. [circa 4 July 1810] PRONI D3030/P/13. See also Edward Pakenham to his mother 10 July 1810 Pakenham Letters p 57 and Picton to Flanagan 4 July 1810 ‘Some unpublished letters of Sir Thomas Picton’ p 148-9 for similar views).

Wellington’s sources of Intelligence:

Wellington had a great advantage in calculating the chances of intervening to save Ciudad Rodrigo: accurate and detailed information on the strength, composition and deployment of the French army. His intelligence came from many sources: British officers stationed with and beyond Craufurd’s outposts who carefully observed French movements and identified the units in each location; deserters from the French army, including a young officer who brought a detailed account of Masséna’s arrival in Salamanca (Horward Napoleon & Iberia p 71); reports passed on by Charles Stuart in Lisbon from agents he employed in Bayonne who counted the number of French troops entering Spain; (Huw Davies ‘Integration of Strategic and Operational Intelligence during the Peninsular War’ Intelligence and National Security vol 21 no 2 April 2006 p 202-223; see also D’Urban Journal p 112); and messages sent by well-disposed Spaniards across Castile, including correspondents in Salamanca and other occupied towns, the leaders of guerrilla bands, such as the famous Don Julian Sanchez, and from the garrison of Ciudad Rodrigo itself. More important than any of these however were the letters and documents captured by the guerrillas and forwarded to Wellington by General Mahy, the Spanish commander in Galicia.  By the beginning of July these included full, detailed returns for both the VI and VIII Corps, and copies of Napoleon’s orders to Masséna.  (Wellington to Craufurd, 1 July 1810 WD IV p 144-5; D’Urban Journal p 113, 122-123; Oman vol 3 p 246).  A few weeks later an even greater prize arrived: an official but highly secret publication giving the strength and location of every battalion and squadron in the entire French army, not just in Spain, but across Europe and even beyond, corrected down to 1 June 1810.  Having studied this closely, Wellington was able to inform Liverpool that Napoleon’s resources appeared to be fully committed and that he did not have any hidden reserves from which he could send large additional reinforcements to his armies in Spain. He urged the British government to endeavour to obtain copies of this publication regularly, (he believed a new edition appeared each month), although this was hardly as simple as he suggested. (Wellington to Liverpool 18 July 1810 WD IV p 175; see also Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen, 18 and 24 July 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 95-100).   It also had great immediate use as he explained to Craufurd: ‘together with the returns which I have of the French corps in our front, it gives me a knowledge of the names of all the principal officers, &c employed with these corps; and any paper which may fall into your hands, such as a requisition upon a village, signed by an officer or Commissary, would be of use to me, as it would serve to show in some degree their disposition, and would aid other information.’ (Wellington to Craufurd 24 July 1810 WD IV p 182-3).

Spanish disillusionment with Wellington after the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo:

General Herasti reacted with great and understandable bitterness to Wellington’s ‘betrayal’, and many Spaniards agreed with him. According to Ney, the population ‘complained of the perfidy of the English, who, after promising to aid them, prolonged their defence, and finally abandoned them.’ (Quoted in Horward Napoleon & Iberia p 183).  The French sought to encourage the mood by easing their harsh treatment of civilians in the villages around Ciudad Rodrigo, and maintaining firm discipline on their troops who were allowed into the ruined town, although inevitably there was some pillaging and other misconduct.   This policy had some effect as Wellington soon noticed:

The fall of Ciudad Rodrigo was felt as a great misfortune by the people of Castile in general; and they are not satisfied with the British nation, as an effort was not made to raise the siege of that place. This dissatisfaction, combined with the effect…[of]  the improved conduct of the French officers towards them, has probably been the cause of their discontinuing all correspondence with us, of their ceasing to give us any intelligence, and even refusing to forward the communication of those employed to acquire it.  (Wellington to Liverpool 25 July 1810 WD IV p 185-6 see also Wellington to Henry Wellesley 19 July 1810 ibid p 176-8).

 The coolness had little effect on Wellington’s operations; the Spaniards had already provided him with the most useful intelligence about the French army, and the campaign soon moved into Portugal where the support of the population was whole-hearted. Spanish resentment slowly faded and friction with the French occupying forces increased. Guerrilla activity may have decreased after the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo, but it revived as the months passed and was encouraged by news from Portugal which showed that Masséna was far from achieving the easy success which has seemed almost inevitable. (See Thiebault Memoirs vol 2 p 290-326 for an interesting if unreliable account of these months from the perspective of a senior French officer based at Salamanca).

Barquilla and reactions in the Army:

On the day after the French entered Ciudad Rodrigo, 11 July 1810, Brigadier Robert Craufurd suffered a mishap.  Feeling that the French had been taking liberties too close to his outposts he set out before dawn with a strong combined force intending to ambush and capture an enemy foraging party of several hundred men near the village of Barquilla. At first all went well; the French were where he expected to find them, and were taken completely by surprise. Craufurd, full of excitement, pressed forward with his cavalry, throwing them straight into a charge against the French without giving them time to catch their breath or to prepare the attack. The few dozen French dragoons who were present turned and fled; some escaped, although 31 were captured after a long pursuit. The 300 or so French infantry (part of the third battalion 22e Ligne from Junot’s VIII Corps), formed a hasty square in the middle of a cornfield and held their nerve when attacked by the British cavalry, repulsed several ill-coordinated charges and inflicted 32 casualties including Colonel Talbot of the 16th Light Dragoons, who was killed.   In the resulting confusion Captain Gouache led his men to safety in some nearby woods and escaped without loss before Craufurd’s infantry or artillery could arrive. (Craufurd to Wellington, 12 July 1810 WD IV p 164-5n; Cocks’ Journal 11 July 1810, Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 64-5; Cocks to Cotton 12 & 17 July 1810, Combermere Memoirs vol 1 p 142-4, 148-51; Fortescue vol 7, p. 472-5, Horward, Napoleon & Iberia p 186-191).

Although the affair was a trivial skirmish of no strategic significance, it had considerable psychological impact on both armies. Masséna rightly lauded the coolness of his infantry; Gouache was promoted and one of his sergeants awarded the legion d’honneur.  After the hard work, short commons and drudgery of the siege the French troops were pleased to have a romantic exploit to celebrate.  On the other hand, Craufurd’s many enemies in the Light Division felt vindicated, for he had clearly mismanaged the affair, while rumours circulated that he had simply lost his head as soon as the action began. (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 64-5).  Accusations were also made that the 16th Light Dragoons had lacked determination in their charge, and these soon reached the ears of Sir Stapleton Cotton who deeply resented them, the more so as he had previously commanded the regiment and still prided himself on its good reputation. Cotton traced some of these reports back to Charles Stewart, the Adjutant-General, whose indiscretion was well-known, and who hankered to return to an active command in the cavalry. Cotton presented the evidence to Wellington who called Stewart in and made his displeasure plain, warning that any further accusations would result in a formal enquiry into the conduct of the 16th Light Dragoons, giving the regiment a chance to vindicate its conduct and expose the malice of its detractors. (Wellington to Craufurd 23 July 1810 in Craufurd General Craufurd and His Light Division p 117-120 printed in WD IV p 179-80 with Stewart’s name suppressed.  Charles Stewart to Castlereagh 16 & 25 July 1810 D/3030/P/16. See also Cotton to Cole 15 July 1810 both in Combermere Memoirs vol 1 p 145-7, 147-8).

Wellington himself was quite philosophical about the skirmish, assuring Craufurd that he had never known an action in which similar mistakes had not been made, and that he was convinced that there had been no serious misconduct by anyone. But the aftermath aroused his ire:

All this would not much signify, if our staff and other officers would mind their business, instead of writing news and keeping coffee houses. But as soon as an incident happens, every man who can write, and who has a friend who can read, sits down to write his account of what he does not know, and his comments on what he does not understand; and these are diligently circulated and exaggerated by the idle and malicious, of whom there are plenty in all armies. The consequence is, that officers and whole regiments lose their reputation; a spirit of party, which is the bane of all armies, is engendered and fermented; a want of confidence ensues; and there is no character however meritorious, and no action however glorious, which can have justice done to it. I have hitherto been so fortunate as to keep down this spirit in this army, and I am determined to persevere. (Wellington to Craufurd 23 July 1810 WD IV p. 179-80 also in Craufurd, General Craufurd and His Light Division p 117-120).


Unspoken but surely present in Wellington’s mind was the knowledge that any controversy in the army, and any suggestion of misconduct, would be taken up and exaggerated by the press and opposition in England, who would start from the assumption that any mistake or failure implied serious culpability on the part of at least some of those involved.

Wellington’s implied censure of Craufurd for the action at the Coa:

There was no General Order, and the only basis for this story seems to be the following from Wellington to Liverpool 25 July 1810 (WD IV p 184-5): ‘I am informed that throughout this trying day the Commanding officers of the 43rd, 52nd, and 95th rgts, Lieut Col Beckwith, Lieut Col Barclay and Lieut Col Hull, and all the officers and soldiers of these excellent regiments, distinguished themselves.’ Which is certainly warm praise, and Craufurd is not mentioned, but it is rather surprising that this should have been read as implied censure.   Still Captain Tomkinson wrote in his diary, 22 [sic] July 1810 (Diary p 34) ‘Lord W was much displeased with Craufurd for the last affair, though I consider him the best outpost officer in the army.’  Which suggests that Wellington’s attitude was well understood, if not placed on any formal record.

Alexander Craufurd declares: ‘Actual censure Craufurd never could have borne; he would have given up his command at once,’ (General Craufurd and His Light Division p 155). Of course, that is speculation and it underlines what a difficult subordinate Craufurd was, but it may well be true.

Venting his feelings by abusing Craufurd might have given Wellington some immediate satisfaction, but it would either cost him that officer’s services or make him a bitter enemy and encourage the creation of factions of those who condemned and those who sympathised with Craufurd.  Besides, Wellington still clearly valued Craufurd despite Barquilla and the Coa, although he could not discount the evidence they provided that ‘Black Bob’ was not at his best under fire, at least without a superior officer present to give him directions.

Wellington pre-empts criticism at home over Ciudad Rodrigo and the Coa:

Nonetheless the Coa was a much more serious affair than Barquilla, and so was more likely to make a stir in England. Wellington did his best to prevent this by announcing the news in a prosaic despatch, but he also thought it advisable to write more freely to William Wellesley-Pole, so that his brother would know what line to take if a controversy could not be avoided. This formed part of a long letter in which Wellington justified his conduct of the whole campaign to date, including his refusal to march to the relief of Ciudad Rodrigo and which showed an almost painful sensitivity to likely criticism.

I see that the French papers have lately begun to abuse me, and the English papers will soon follow their example, and the Opposition will follow theirs, because I did not strike a blow against the French before their force was collected for the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo

…[he explains why he did not do so]

There is another topic on which I think I shall be abused, and that is the promise which I am supposed to have made to relieve the place. It happens that although it was most important that this place should hold out, and that I knew it would not hold out a day unless they had hopes of assistance from me, I uniformly and repeatedly, in writing, verbally and by message, told the governor (of which I have evidence) that whether I could attempt to relieve him or not must depend upon the force with which he should be attacked, and upon other circumstances.

Although I shall be hanged for them, you may be very certain not only that I have had nothing to do with, but had positively forbidden, the foolish affairs in which Craufurd involved his outposts. Of the first indeed, in which Talbot was killed, I knew nothing before it happened. In respect to the last, that of the 24th, I had positively desired him not to engage in any affair with the other side of the Coa; and as soon as La Concepcion was blown up on the 21st, I had expressed my wish that he should withdraw his infantry to the left of the river; and I repeated my injunction that he should not engage in an affair on the right of the river in answer to a letter in which he told me that he thought the cavalry could not remain there without the infantry.  After all this he remained above two hours on his ground after the enemy appeared in his front before they attacked him, during which time he might have retired across the Coa twice over, where he would have been in a situation in which he could not have been attacked.

You will say, if this is the case, why not accuse Craufurd? I answer, because, if I am to be hanged for it, I cannot accuse a man who I believe has meant well, and whose error is one of judgment, and not of intention; and indeed I must add that although my errors, and those of others also, are visited heavily upon me, that is not the way in which any, much less a British army can be commanded.’ (Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole 31 July 1810 WSD vol 6 p 561-4).

 In other circumstances, this marked defensiveness might suggest a guilty conscience, but in this case it reflects rather Wellington’s awareness that he had many enemies who would not hesitate to attack him in his absence, and the knowledge that if his brothers established his defence on untenable grounds, as they had after Cintra, they would do him more harm than good.

Reactions to the Coa in the Army:

Alexander Gordon told Aberdeen, ‘Craufurd remained much too long before a vast superiority of the Enemy; we have been lost in killed and wounded 30 officers and 400 men to no purpose whatever.’ (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 25 July 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 99)

George Murray wrote to Alex Hope: ‘The Question naturally asked is, why was this loss incurred? And why did not the Corps cross the river, on it being ascertained that the Enemy were advancing with such a strong force…’ (25 July 1810 Hope of Luffness Papers Scottish Record Office GD 364/1/1179)

And Charles Stewart told Castlereagh: ‘There is no doubt that all the responsibility of what took place on the 24th lies with Craufurd. He had Lord Wellington’s orders repeated twice to him not to engage, and to return across the Coa. However, he thought the enemy would respect the fortress of Almeida and not push him rapidly when they advanced, that he would have time to make a regular and orderly retreat, and that it was more becoming to do it in the presence of the enemy than to go off before their arrival.’ (Charles Stewart to Castlereagh, 29 July D3030/P/18).

D’Urban Journal 25 July; ‘General Craufurd’s loss yesterday was greater than would be pleasant to hear of, especially as the Action was incurred without necessity.’ (p 127).

Reactions at Home and Craufurd’s letter to the Times justifying his conduct:

In the event neither the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo nor the action at the Coa seem to have caused much of a stir in England, although Craufurd’s reputation was significantly damaged in influential military circles. Colonel Torrens, at the Horse Guards, wrote of ‘ignorance and incapacity’ in the command of the advanced troops and added, ‘I had a very favourable opinion of Craufurd’s talents.  But he appears to me to allow the violence of his passions and the impetuosity of his disposition to overthrow the exercise of his judgement’ (quoted in Urban Rifles p 65).   Craufurd himself was highly conscious of the likely damage and begged his brother to let him know how the action was regarded at home. The answer, that it had not aroused much interest, but that there had been some suggestion that command of the Light Division might be given to William Stewart, can have given him little comfort, although he showed scant gratitude to Wellington for shielding him from criticism and keeping him in the command. (Craufurd General Craufurd and His Light Division p 150).  When the English press published Masséna’s vainglorious and mendacious account of the action a few months later, Craufurd replied with a long letter of vindication to the Times in which he (possibly inadvertently) allowed it to appear that he had been placed in his perilous position by Wellington’s orders.  (The letter, published in the Times, 21 Nov 1810 is printed in Craufurd General Craufurd and His Light Division p 139-146.  Fortescue vol 7 p 486 points to the way that an ill-informed reader may assume that Wellington was to blame for Craufurd’s predicament).   This was not the first occasion Craufurd’s name had appeared in the press that year. On 7 May 1810 the Times published a story quoting Craufurd’s praise of the 95th Rifles for their success in a sharp outpost affair at Barba del Puerto – whether the paper’s attention was drawn to the story by the General himself, or by one of the officers of the Rifles, or by their family and friends in England is unclear, but it shows an interesting alertness to the value of good publicity.

Portuguese at the Coa:

We may never know exactly what happened, but first reports were most alarming. D’Urban’s Journal for 25 July reads:  ‘Elder’s Chasseurs behaved perfectly well…The 1st…[text obliterated]’  William Warre’s letter to his father is more forthcoming:

       The 3rd Caçadores under Col Elder behaved very well, and suffered some loss. I am sorry I cannot add as much for the 1st, who did not behave so, and ran off at the very beginning, though their Colonel d’Arilez, a very fine young man, behaved very well, as also some of the officers. So much for want of discipline and confidence. I had before expressed my fears about them. I am just about setting off to enquire into the business, and I hope a most severe example may be made to prevent the recurrence of such horrid disgraceful business. (Warre to his father 25 July 1810 Warre Letters from the Peninsula p 94-95)

But that was before he made his enquiry, and the fact that no punishment seems to have been inflicted may mean that Warre found that the reports were exaggerated and there was little real blame – which is what Wellington reported. Wellington’s letter to Beresford (29 July 1810 WD IV p. 192-3) is valuable – it does not excuse the 1st Cacadores of all blame; but it makes a point of praising their colonel.

Reports of the panic reached London and Torrens commented:  ‘The only thing that I don’t like in the news with regard to our ultimate prospects is that a Portuguese regiment after the first shot being fired ran off and dispersed all over the country.’ (Torrens to William Wellesley-Pole 11 August 1810 PRO WO 3/597 p. 199-200 quoted in Horward  Napoleon and Iberia p 363 n11).  And Colonel J. W. Gordon told Lord Grey on 18 August:  ‘In the last affair under Craufurd, two Portuguese Battalions were present, the one, under Lt-Col Elder, an English officer, behaved steadily enough, but the other, on the first shot, took to its heels, and dispersed.’ (Earl Grey Papers, Durham University Library GRE/B19/53).

Effect of the Coa on Wellington’s Plans

Alexander Gordon’s letters show that just before the Coa Wellington had become tempted to fight on the frontier but that he abandoned the idea after the action. Gordon to Aberdeen 24 July: ‘…if Lord Wellington has an opportunity it is now his intention to fight them here; two or three days will decide whether we shall have a battle or not, …if the enemy besiege Almeida we shall have seen an opportunity of fighting, if on the contrary Reynier marches upon Castello Branco we must retire…’ (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 98).  And on the next day: ‘Since writing our advanced guard has had a severe engagement with the Enemy…I now think Lord Wellington will avoid a battle and retire when attacked, the more so as one of the Portuguese Regiments in the Affair with Craufurd ran away…’ (ibid p 99).  This was confirmed on 1 August ‘We have now given up the idea of fighting here, but when attacked mean to fall gradually back to our position near Lisbon.’ (ibid p 102).

The Siege of Almeida

In January Benjamin D’Urban had written in his journal of Almeida and its garrison: ‘The numbers tolerably competent, the Description of Troops of the very worst, and, if besieged, it will require all the steadiness, ability and gallant soldiership of Cox to do his duty to his own satisfaction…’ (Journal p  82).

In his Treatise on the Defence of Portugal Captain Eliot wrote:  ‘When I visited Almeida in the year 1809, there were not, in the whole place, a dozen gun carriages fit for service, nor was there any wood in store for the construction of others. The embrasures were falling to decay, and the palisades of the covert-way mostly broken or carried away for firewood.’ (p 64)

And on 20 August Wellington told Henry Wellesley:

If we cannot relieve Almeida, it will, I hope, make a stout defence: the Governor is an obstinate fellow, and talks of a siege of 90 days. From the folly of the French being a month before the place before they were prepared to attack it, the garrison, which was not a very good one, has become accustomed to the sight of them and have confidence in themselves, and are in good spirits. The garrison are supplied for at least as long as the talk of holding out, and every day that they hold out is an advantage to the cause. (WD IV p  237-8)

 Charles Stewart wrote on 4 September:

            The fall of Almeida did not surprise me. What could be expected from a bad place and a bad garrison? Two regiments of Portuguese mil[itia] and one of the line are not the stuff to make a powerful resistance. Beresford and Lord Wellington however, attribute the fall to the accident of the magazine blowing up. This might have accelerated it no doubt, but recurring to the contemptible conduct of the garrison after that event, I am not one of those who can give them credit even for a becoming degree of spirit “had the above accident not occurred”.’ (PRONI D3030/P/22)

 This is an example of the sort of comment which helps explain why Wellington was moody and did not confide in Stewart!  Stewart commented on the aftermath:

 when the capitulation was agreed on, the regiment of the line and all its officers, with the exception of the British major, entered the French service and are now actually enrolled against is. The excuse is that they mean to desert, but officers who can play such a part can have neither honour, spirit or shame, and the subservient miserable mind that can lend itself to such practices excites a horror and disgust in the breast of Englishmen… (ibid.)

Burghersh claims that Wellington had visited Almeida in February 1810 and ordered that the main magazine be moved to one of the casements, but that nothing was done, although this sounds a little too good to be true. (Memoir of the Early Campaigns of the Duke of Wellington p 153).

Portuguese show encouraging signs in a couple of subsidiary actions:

The whole affair added to the doubts over how the Portuguese army would perform in battle, although there were also some encouraging signs. Fane’s dragoons behaved well in two small actions with Reynier’s cavalry on the 3rd and 22 August, and Silvieria forced an entire French (or rather, Swiss) battalion to surrender at Puebla de Sanabria on the 10th. (Wellington to Liverpool 8 August 1810 WD IV p. 215-16; Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 8 & 15 August 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 103-4, 105-7).

Wellington’s mood in late August/early September 1810:

Given Charles Stewart’s marked pessimism and indiscretion, Wellington’s reluctance to confide in him is not surprising.   Still there is no doubt that Wellington was feeling the strain. On 19 August he told Liverpool:

 Nothing can be more irksome to me than the operations which have been carried on for the last year; and it is very obvious that a continuance of the same cautious system will lose the little reputation which I had acquired, and the good opinion of the people of this country.  Nothing therefore could be more desirable to me personally that that either the contest should be given up at once, or that it should be continued with a force so sufficient as to render all opposition hopeless. In either case the obloquy heaped upon me by the ignorant of our own country, as well as of this, and by those of us whom I am obliged to force to exertion, and who, after all, will be but imperfectly protected in their persons or property, would fall upon the government. But seeing, as I do, more than a chance of final success if we can maintain our position in this country, although probably none in a departure from our cautious defensive system, I should not do my duty by the government if I did not inform them of the real situation of affairs, and urge them, with importunity even, to greater exertion.’ (WD IV p. 234-5)

Edward Pakenham reported on 21 August that ‘Lord Wellington is in good spirits and health also,’ (Pakenham Letters p 60), but he says much the same in almost all his letters, and was evidently being discreet.  Still Wellington’s letter to Henry Wellesley of 20 August was confident and positive: the French were not strong enough, and he was pleased with Portuguese reaction to proclamation (WD IV p 237-8).  Wellington complained to Beresford of the ‘croaking which prevails in the army, and particularly about headquarters,’ only a few days after Stewart’s letter, (Wellington to Beresford 8 Sept 1810 WD IV p 266).   He was clearly hurt by the lack of confidence in his judgment, writing that,

the temper of some of the officers of the British army gives me more concern than the folly of the Portuguese government. I have always been accustomed to have the confidence and support of the officers of the armies which I have commanded; but, for the first time, whether owing to the opposition in England, or whether the magnitude of the concern is too much for their nerves, or whether I am mistaken and they are right, I cannot tell; but there is a system of croaking in the army which is highly injurious to the public service, and which I must devise some means of putting an end to, or it will put an end to us. Officers have a right to form their own opinions upon events and transactions; but officers of a high rank or situation ought to keep their opinions to themselves if they do not approve of the system of operations of their commander, they ought to withdraw from the army.’ (Wellington to Charles Stuart 11 Sept 1810 WD IV p 273-5).

Early in September he wrote another long letter to William Wellesley-Pole, although this time more in the spirit of self-pity than of justification; although no doubt Pole would have used the material to defend his brother if the campaign had gone badly. Wellington began by criticising the government’s neglect of Ireland – Pole’s responsibility, concluding, ‘I think matters [there] are in a much more dangerous state than they are even here.’ Having thus shown sympathy for his brother’s problems he went on to explain the fall of Almeida and comment on the caution of the French advance, before warming to his theme.

 We have been now nearly in the same position since last January; and considering that almost with a touch they [the French] have overturned other powerful empires, our maintenance of the weakest country in Europe for so long is not discreditable, and I hope yet to save it.

I have, however, terrible disadvantages to contend with. The army was, and indeed is still, the worst British army that was ever sent from England.  The General Officers are generally very bad, & indeed some of them a disgrace to the Service. Then, between ourselves, the spirit of party and of the times prevails in some degree here as well as elsewhere. There is a despondency amongst some; a want of confidence in their own exertions; an extravagant notion of the power and resources of the French, and a distaste for the war in the Peninsula, which sentiments have been created and are kept up by correspondence with England, even with Ministers and those connected with them….

All this is uncomfortable. With the exception of Beresford, I have really no assistance; I am left to myself, to my own exertions, to my own execution, the mode of execution, and even the superintendence of that mode; but still I don’t despair. I am positively in no scrape; and if the country can be saved, we shall save it.’ (Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole 5 Sept 1810 Wellington A no 34 Raglan Papers, Gwent Record Office, printed with significant passages suppressed in WSD vol 6 p 587-9)

 The final note was not defiance but genuine confidence, for Wellington knew that unless his plans went badly awry, Masséna’s army was not strong enough to defeat him. Yet in a way even this added tension; he wanted the French to attack and bring the contest to a decision before they realized their weakness or something else spoilt his chances.  In theory, each passing week benefited the allies, giving them time to add to defences of lines of Torres Vedras, for reinforcements to reach Wellington’s army, and for the harvest to be brought in and carried to the rear. Wellington appreciated these advantages better than anyone, but by early September such cool calculations had lost their appeal and he was heartily sick of the waiting game. (As well as the letter to Pole quoted above see Wellington to Liverpool 19 Aug 1810 WD IV p 234-5).

Reasons for the delay in the French advance:

The French army experienced great difficulties of every sort:  ‘Pack mules, food wagons, and all kinds of equipment were lacking, and the country offered no transportation, nor were the funds in our treasury sufficient to accelerate the various preparations.’ (Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 145).

Stripping the countryside around Viseu:

Crops had been harvested in northern Portugal in August, Wellington giving volunteers leave from the army to help bring them in, and strenuous efforts had been made to carry the harvest far to the rear or hide it away in the hills where it would be hard for the commissaries of a hostile army that was simply passing by, to find it. (General Order 11 July 1810 WD IV p 159; Boutflower Journal 19 Aug 1810 p 54).

Wellington’s proclamation and the stripping of the countryside:

Wellington’s policy was clear, unambiguous and deliberate. In his Proclamation he went on to make clear that he required strict obedience to the orders issued in the name of the Portuguese Prince Regent.

The duty…which I owe to H.R.H. the Prince Regent and to the Portuguese nation, will oblige me to use the power and authority in my hands to force the weak and indolent to make an exertion to save themselves from the danger which awaits them, and to save their country; and I hereby declare, that all magistrates or persons in authority who remain in the towns or villages, after receiving orders from any of the military officers to retire from them; and all persons, of whatever description, who hold any communication with the enemy, and aid or assist them in any manner, will be considered traitors to the state and shall be tried and punished accordingly. (Proclamation to the People of Portugal, 4 August 1810, WD IV p 208; see also Wellington to Cotton 6 ½ pm 11 Aug 1810 ibid p 223 for an example of enforcing this policy).

Masséna’s complaints show that this policy was successfully enforced and very effective.

As well as the Portuguese precedents, and the possible example of Tipu’s tactics, it is worth noting that the British government had intended something very similar if Napoleon had ever mounted an invasion of England, and Wellington would have been aware of this, if only from his time in command at Hastings.

French misconduct fuels resistance

Masséna wrote to Ney on 7 August:  ‘we have seldom seen French armies where we can cite as many disorders as we have had in Portugal. Rape, pillage, and murder seem to be the order of the day there. Recently, in a village on the Portuguese frontier, some unknown soldiers raped three girls after murdering their father…Unfortunately, I am able to cite fifty more examples as revolting.’ (quoted by Horward in Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 99n).

D’Urban wrote in his journal for 1 August: ‘The atrocities of the Enemy’s advance upon the frontier line have exasperated the peasantry. The Towns therefore, are deserted at his approach and everything retires into the Strongholds, each man getting a Gun or some weapon for defence and revenge.’ (Journal p 130).  And on the following day: ‘Sent by the Marshal’s orders two Officers (Major Harvey and Capt Chapuset) to encourage the Magistrates and Inhabitants who are taking Arms, at Villa Mayor and upon both banks of the Coa between Almeida and Alfayates. The atrocious cruelties everyday committed by the French very much tend to create the spirit of revenge in the People. ‘Tis strange and certainly impolitic that they should have given in to this. A Peasantry may be quieted by the influence of terror where they have no Army to rally to; where they have, as now, ‘twill be quite otherwise,’ (Journal p 130).  On 6-7 August ‘Harvey and Chapuset returned from the Coa. Very active; the People most willing to rise, and as a first fruit Jose Ribeira, Curate of Villa Mayor, killed yesterday an Officer and five and twenty French Dragoons.’ (Journal p 131).

Still it needs to be noted that Tomkinson (Diary p 35, 24 July 1810) and Cocks (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 71, 1 August) record instances of Portuguese peasants attacking isolated British soldiers. According to Tomkinson Wellington threatened to burn their village, but did nothing. And Wellington told Cotton that the peasantry complained of the misconduct of the KGL Hussars and actually asked permission to kill them – yet Wellington did not seem to be concerned. (Wellington to Cotton 6 August 1810 WD IV p 209-10).

Wellington’s letter protesting at French treatment of Ordenanza:

Pelet’s comments are interesting:

‘Lord Wellington wrote to complain that the forward posts had shot a few ordenanzaor armed peasant insurgents, in compliance with the terrible law of war. He supported his complaint rather poorly by the example of Colonel Pavetti, who arrived at the British lines after he had received six grave wounds and seen his friend and two gendarmes massacred. He seemed to have written the letter himself in very correct French and he signed his name without any title. In answer we deplored the cruel extremities which exemplified the brutality of war despite the humanizing influence of civilization; such cruel ravages were almost never seen among the civilized nations,’ (French Campaign in Portugal p 155).

Why Wellington fought at Busaco:

Wellington’s reasons for fighting at Busaco are sometimes over-explained. It is suggested that he gave battle in order to initiate his Portuguese troops and give them confidence before the potentially demoralizing retreat to Torres Vedras; or in order to satisfy his critics in the Portuguese government who were alarmed that he had already abandoned so much of the country without a struggle.  Less plausibly it has been argued that he fought to answer his critics in England and to strengthen the support of the government for his campaign, or even to encourage the pessimists in his own army. These suggestions miss the point. Busaco was an immensely strong position which could be held with only minimal risk by Wellington’s army against any attack which Masséna would make.   Only an extremely timid general would have abandoned it without a fight and Wellington was far from timid.  Ulterior advantages existed which added weight to his decision to fight but they were secondary. Quite simply he fought because he could win a battle at Busaco.

Wellington had some hopes that a victory at Busaco might decide the campaign and save Coimbra and all of central Portugal from the ravages of war.  But this was only ever a remote chance, for if the French were only checked, not completely broken, they would rally and find another way forward.  Still, such a march would take some days and it was possible, although never probable, that shortage of supplies would force the French right back to Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo.  By then it would be early October and the rains would be imminent making any renewed invasion much more difficult.  But that would be a remarkable windfall, and Wellington was always ready to revert to his original plan of falling back to the Lines of Torres Vedras and fighting the decisive battle there.

In Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon (p 131+n) I argued that Wellington fought at Busaco in the hope of halting Masséna’s invasion of Portugal.  I based this on his letter to Charles Stuart 27 Sept 1810: ‘We have been engaged with the enemy for the last 3 days, and I think we shall be attacked again tomorrow, as I understand they must carry our position, on which, however, they have as yet made no impression, or starve.’ (WD IV p 300-301).  Also his letter of 30th to Liverpool from Coimbra where he says that he collected the army [and gave battle]  ‘if possible, to prevent the enemy from gaining possession of this town.’ And, after describing the battle: ‘Although from the unfortunate circumstance of the delay of Col Trant’s arrival at Sardão, I am apprehensive that I shall not succeed in effecting the  object  which I had in view of passing the Mondego and in occupying the Sierra de Busaco, I do not repent of my having done so.’ (Wellington to Liverpool 30 Sept 1810 WD IV p 304-8 quotes on pp 304, 307) This is supported by his letter of 4 October to William Wellesley-Pole: ‘I should have been inexcusable if, knowing what I did, I had not endeavoured to stop the enemy there; and I should have stopped him entirely if it had not been for the blunders of [Baccelar]’ (WSD  vol 6 p. 606-7)

This makes a powerful argument and I have no new evidence to cite to contradict it; however, Wellington wrote home anticipating criticism from ‘the croakers about useless battles’, so there was a good reason to put the most positive and impressive reason he could for fighting, even when this involved an admission of partial failure.

Wellington knew that the position could be turned – Alexander Gordon doubted that Masséna would be so foolish as to attack it frontally (Gordon At Wellington’s Right Hand p 114-5) – and that he had found no solution to this problem.  He may have hoped that Masséna would not find the road, but it was a slender chance.  So, I now think he fought because Masséna gave him a free hit and he could resist the temptation to give him a bloody nose, not because he thought he had much chance of landing a killer punch.  There was almost no risk in fighting and many significant secondary advantages in doing so.

Trant and the Boialavo Road:

Oman (vol 3 p 394) and Chambers (Bussaco p 4-5) are both certain that Trant’s force was quite inadequate to halt Masséna’s whole army, and this is supported by the fact that two days after ordering Trant to occupy the position Wellington told Cotton ‘I do not yet give up hopes of discovering a remedy for this misfortune (Wellington to Cotton 21 Sept 1810 WD IV p 294) clearly implying that Trant’s move was not a sufficient remedy. Fortescue (vol 7 p 534) suggests that there was some defile or pass that Trant could hold or destroy, but this is hardly plausible: if it had been that easy Wellington could have detached a brigade of regular Portuguese infantry from his own army, even if they might ultimately be forced to retreat on Oporto.

Trant himself wrote to Londonderry in 1828 (Londonderry Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 2 p 302-11) and scoffed at the idea that his militia could possibly have halted Masséna’s advance.  He describes his interview with Wellington at Busaco on the 28th which gave him the impression that Wellington thought that the position near Boialvo where the road crosses the mountains, was more defensible than it really was, but that Wellington did not order him to occupy it, even though there was still time (just). Trant says he marched hard – Baccelar acted in good faith, misunderstanding the order – Trant defends him (ibid p 309).

Charles Stewart told Edward Cooke on 9 November: ‘Much has been said about Trant’s not being at Sardão, when ordered. This I humbly conceived would have signified nothing, for how could Trant have withstood 3 Corps of the French Army?’ And besides there were other roads leading from Mortagua to the Oporto road (PRONI D3030/AA/18).

This was a crucial point: the Mortagua-Boialvo-Sardão road was only the most convenient of several around Wellington’s northern flank. If it had been rendered impassable the much better road from Viseu to Aveiro would have been open, and it could not be blocked. The French would have had a tedious and demoralizing counter-march to Viseu, and would probably have been short of supplies when they arrived, but the more open northern country near the Vouga had probably not been thoroughly stripped as it was a long way from the expected line of French advance. As the following months were to prove, Masséna was not a man to give up and go home when his army encountered difficulties.  Still it is possible that the delay may have allowed the rains to come and so enabled Wellington to try to hold the line of the Mondego, but this is getting deep into hypothetical territory.

The Busaco Position:

Tomkinson (26 Sept 1810 Diary p 42) wrote in his diary: ‘From the nature of our position, I cannot think the enemy will make any serious attack. The descent in places is so steep and great that a person alone cannot, without holding and choosing his ground, get down. I cannot think that they will be so impudent as to make it a general affair.’

Pelet (French Campaign in Portugal p 174) says, ‘The range was much higher than the mountains adjoining it and dominated them by a considerable degree. The slopes were very steep, and it took about three-quarters of an hour to climb to the crest, which appeared extremely sharp from the other side.’ And later, ‘The acute elevation…helped the English because our troops were exhausted by the climb and because of our difficulty in attacking several points simultaneously on a wide front.’ (ibid p 178)

Murray’s instructions to Hill, 25 Sept 1810 (WD IV p 299) included: ‘When upon the serra, the troops are to be kept a little behind the ridge, so that they may not be seen by the enemy until it becomes necessary to move them up on the ridge to repel an attack.’ Presumably similar orders were given to the rest of the army.

In 1811 Wellington told Scovell that the Busaco position was the strongest he ever saw (Scovell Diary Nov 1811, WO 37/7 p 78-9).

Fortescue adds this note: ‘having climbed the hill of Busaco myself, over rock and heather, as did the French troops. I am not a slow mover, and I was not carrying a heavy musket, ammunition, and pack, but I should have been sorry to undertake to accomplish the ascent in much less than forty-five minutes.’ (vol 7 p 529n).

French Reconnaisance

The French generals reconnoitred the allied position with some care on 26 September, but they could see little, for Wellington kept the bulk of his troops well out of sight, and it seems likely that they were unaware of any substantial bodies of troops south of Picton’s position, although his presence, and the strong allied force around the Convent, were detected.

Many accounts say something like this:  ‘During the evening Masséna rode along the advance posts of the 6th Corps with Ney, reconnoitring Wellington’s positions…The failing light impaired Masséna’s poor vision, and he was unable to reconnoitre the flanks of the enemy army.  No doubt, the reconnaissance was inadequate…’ (Horward Busaco p 69)  Yet Pelet (French Campaign in Portugal p 176) clearly suggests that Masséna made a thorough personal reconnaissance, and even if he did not, Ney and Reynier surely did so: they had the whole day with nothing else to do (see Oman vol 3 p 365 on this). Horward (Busaco p 65-69) quotes from their letters in which they comment on allied movements, but misinterpret them.

The fact is that the strength and difficulty of the position were not hard to grasp, while the allied army was too well concealed for much to be discovered by reconnaissance.

Marbot Memoirs vol 2 p 110 explicitly denies that Masséna made any reconnaissance but he is not the most reliable of sources.

Was Wellington vulnerable on the 25th or 26th September?

This idea has been dealt with by Oman (vol 3 p 357-8) who shows that the allied army, while not yet fully in position, was far more concentrated than the French. It would not be necessary to refer to it except that Horward has revived it, although without any new evidence or material (Busaco p 66-67 and in Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 172n).  To be more precise: Horward accepts Oman’s arguments re the 25th but simply shifts the ‘missed opportunity’ to early on the 26th.  However this is no more convincing, especially given that the battle was won with less than half the allied army playing any part in it.

Brother Silvestre’s account of the arrival of Wellington’s headquarters in the Convent:

Wellington’s headquarters were established in the Carmelite Convent of Busaco a week before the battle. One of the friars, Brother Silvestre, left a record of what happened. On the afternoon of 20 September one of Wellington’s aides-de-camp knocked at the gate and demanded to see the Convent at once, declaring that the general and all his staff would occupy it on the following day.  He was shown over the spartan accommodation and selected the best of the unoccupied rooms for his chief, ordered that it be whitewashed and scrubbed and that rooms be cleared for the junior officers.  He then rode off leaving the friars in a flurry of alarm and consternation. The Prior gave orders for the administration of the Holy Sacrament both to reassure the brothers and in order to consume the whole supply of consecrated wafer so that no irreverence might befall it.  At eight o’clock on the following morning an officer of the Quarter-Master General’s department arrived with a list of the fifty officers who were to be housed in the Convent.  Wellington arrived soon after and rejected the room that had been prepared for him in favour of one which was less well lit but had two doors. The officers of the staff took possession of all the cells except that of Brother Antonio which no one wanted because it was full of rubbish, (lumber, rags and pieces of old iron), but the abbot was left undisturbed. The poor friars slept in the church, the sacristy, the library, pantry and wherever else they could find room. Wellington requested that the bells not be rung during the night, so the friars celebrated matins at eight o’clock in the evening. He rose early, about five am and by seven had left to inspect his troops or reconnoitre, returning about four o’clock and dining an hour later. He assured the Prior that there was no immediate need to evacuate the convent, but the Prior prudently sent the oldest monks with a cart laden with valuables to Coimbra.

Brother Silvestre’s account first appeared in England as ‘Busaco in 1810. Extracts from the Diary of a Carmelite Friar’, translated by W. Vivian, in the Gentlemen’s Magazine vol 275 no 1953 1893 p 281-93: details in this paragraph mostly from p 281-3. (This was reprinted in Littell’s Living Age vol 199 Nov 1893).  Subsequently another translation by Mary Leigh de Havilland was published as a pamphlet by The Blackheath Press entitled Wellington at Busaco. This, or another translation is reproduced in Chambers Busaco p 142-177. There are many minor differences between the translations, particularly on matters of clerical terminology (e.g. monks or friars, abbot or prior but also the time when Wellington’s ADC first arrived and similar details.  Horward Busaco p 74 says it was a Carthusian Convent; a Portuguese guidebook says it was the Barefooted Carmelites.

Masséna’s decision to attack:

Masséna held a council of war on the evening of 24 September to listen to the opinions of his subordinates and to announce his intentions.  General Fririon, the chief of staff and Eblé, the artillery commander suggested turning the position but Masséna responded, ‘You are of the Army of the Rhine, you like to manoeuvre; this is the first time that Wellington appears disposed to offer battle. I will profit by the occasion.’ He had already decided on a frontal attack and boasted, ‘tomorrow we will finish the conquest of Portugal, and in a few days I will drown the leopard.’ (Oman vol 3 p 368-9; Chambers Bussaco p 184; Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 175-6, Horward Busaco p 70-72).

Masséna’s decision to attack was quite reasonable based on the premise that the Portuguese troops were of negligible military value in open battle. Wellington had just under 27,000 British troops present, probably rather more than Masséna realized, but still less than half the strength of the French army, even if the cavalry, useless on this terrain, are not counted.  And it was plausible for Masséna to believe that Wellington had been tempted by the strength of the position into offering battle and that the opportunity should be seized to inflict a crushing defeat before the British could play their usual trick of escaping onto their ships. Certainly Napoleon would have criticized him on these grounds if he had not fought. (See Pelet French Campaign in Portugal p 175-77 for a defence of Masséna’s decision).

Picton’s deployment at the pass:

Picton guarded the pass where the road from San Antonio de Contaro crossed the ridge: he had one, or more probably two, batteries of Portuguese artillery already in position, supported by the British 74th Regiment and Champalimaud’s Portuguese brigade (three battalions: two of the 9th Line and one of the 21st Line). In front was a thick line of skirmishers, apparently including the three companies of the 5/60th, even though they nominally belonged to Lightburne’s brigade. The British 1/45th and the two battalions of the 8th Portuguese Line (from Leith’s division) were in reserve, while Spry’s Portuguese brigade (3rd and 15th Line and Thomar Militia), also from the Fifth Division covered his right flank to the south of the pass.  Picton was concerned that Wellington, by summoning Lightburne’s brigade to the central plateau, had left a wide gap in the line between the plateau and the pass, and ordered one of his three remaining British regiments, the 1/88th, to move north on the evening of the 26th. Rather than halting in the middle of the gap, however, the 88th appear to have gone almost as far as the plateau, to the head of a combe up which the French might advance, which meant that there was almost a mile between their right and the left of the troops at the pass. Picton cannot have been pleased to have lost Lightburne’s brigade on the eve of the battle, for it left him with less than 2,000 British infantry and more than 5,000 Portuguese (including those from Leith) in whom he had little faith.  (Picton to Col Pleydel 3 Nov 1810 in Robinson’s Memoir of Picton vol 1 p 316-23 esp 318.  Picton’s lack of faith in the Portuguese appears in his letters quoted in  Ch 21 and below).

Before daybreak the British at the pass clearly heard the rattling of gun-carriages as Reynier brought 14 guns into position to bombard them and support Heudelet’s attack. Major-General Mackinnon, who had been visiting the 88th, rode up with news that he had also heard movements suggesting that the French were preparing to attack in that direction as well. Picton ordered Major Gwynne to take four companies of the 45th to reinforce the 88th.

It is not possible to establish the exact location of units with certainty.  Burgoyne (in Wrottesley’s Life of Burgoyne p 111-12) gives a good account but does not say where the 8th Portuguese were.

Sources differ whether there were one or two batteries defending the pass initially (Leith brought up another later on).   Oman vol 3 p 364 says one battery and this is supported by the contemporary map published in Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution vol 13 p 380, but Chambers cites Beresford’s dispatch to the Portuguese government to say that Arentschildt had two batteries, one of 6 pounders and one of 9 pounders (Chambers Bussaco p 134, and Burgoyne supports this statement). This is probably decisive although Mackinnon does complain of the fire of the 14 French guns against ‘six of ours’ (Mackinnon Journal p. 76)

French accounts lay great emphasis on the allied artillery fire.

At the beginning of July D’Urban praised Arentschildt’s battery of Portuguese artillery as ‘excellent…probably as good as can be found, even in the British army,’ (Journal p 124).

Duncan’s criticism of Wellington’s handling of the guns (History of the Royal Artillery vol 2 p 276-77) was clearly inspired by the gunnery doctrine of his own day and is well answered by Fortescue (vol 7 p 530-2).

Chambers (Bussaco p 199) commenting on Sturgeon’s account says that one of the two batteries of Portuguese 3 pounders hitherto commanded by Arentschildt was deployed near Pack and the First Division. While on p 219 he quotes a late (1848) source from the 74th which says that Arenschildt had two guns!

Picton’s light companies:

It seems odd, but apparently the three companies of the 5/60th were near the pass while the light companies of 74th, 88th [and 45th?] were further north. At least Picton rallied them north of the pass when riding to meet Merle’s attack.

Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th commanded the combined light infantry of the Third Division and was in the thick of the fight and was wounded. He was mortified to find that his part in the battle had been overlooked in Wellington’s dispatch, and Picton wrote him a handsome letter of apology, although it was really Wellington who was at fault. (Chambers Bussaco p 201-203 prints them). Williams was wounded again at Fuentes and Wellington went out of his way to lavish praise upon him (see also Hall Biographical Index p 599).

Picton in action:

Robinson has an irresistible story that Picton in his haste to ride on the morning of the battle had clapped his hat on top of his nightcap, revealing it later when he cheered his men on (Memoir vol 1 p 323-5). So absurd it just might be true.

Merle’s attack:

Apparently Merle initially advanced on a diagonal slope up the ridge heading north almost as much as to the west so that his division headed towards the southern end of the plateau. His advance was covered by the usual clouds of skirmishers who clashed with the light companies of Lightburne’s brigade to the north, and those of the 88th and the 45th further south. Major Henry King of the 3rd Foot on the right of Lightburne’s brigade was watching the French advance: ‘At this moment Lord Wellington, attended by his staff and other officers, rode up, and asked where there was a good position for a gun. I pointed at a small rocky eminence in advance, and on the right of my battalion. A gun was promptly brought up and opened on the enemy.’ (Letter from Sir Henry King dated 17 Dec 1836 printed as part of an article ‘The Battle of Busaco and the Third Division’, U.S.J. March 1837 p, 367-9).  Other accounts state that not one, but two guns were brought up:  9-pounders of Captain Thompson’s company, commanded by Captain Lane, and that they had a great effect on the French.  Some of the voltigeurs pressed forward – one was killed only eight paces from the guns – but the main body of the French veered sharply south away from the plateau. Probably the French realized that their advance was drifting too far north away from the unoccupied territory Captain Charlet had discovered and they altered direction accordingly, the artillery fire prompting rather than forcing them to tack.  Lightburne’s brigade was not further engaged in the battle: his two battalions lost thirteen casualties between them, most of them probably from his light companies. Wellington’s staff also suffered: Colin Campbell was wounded near one of Lane’s guns; and Fitzroy Somerset was wounded soon after, and Charles Napier, who was present purely as an observer while waiting for his exchange for a French officer to be confirmed was also hit. (Campbell and Somerset are both named among the wounded in the return provided in Londonderry’s Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 2 App XVII – Campbell listed as ‘slightly’ – Sweetman Raglan p 30 confirms Somerset’s wound but gives no details – while for Charles Napier see his life by his brother William vol 1 p 141-3 and Wellington’s admirable letter to Lady Sarah Lennox 30 Sept 1810 WD IV p 303-4).

The main force of Merle’s division was now advancing southwest up the slope on a line that would take it well to the south, not just of Lightburne’s brigade, but also of the 88th. The French skirmishers however pushed well ahead to cover its flank and some were even reaching the top of the ridge driving the light company of the 88th back before them.  Colonel Wallace ordered a file of men from each company forward to assist his light troops, and they succeeded in keeping the voltigeurs at a distance from the main body of the regiment. Wallace was anxious about the open ground to his right but Wellington had disappeared and he had no senior officer to consult or to give him orders.  He sent Captain Dunne of the grenadier company of the 88th to reconnoitre. Dunne returned a few minutes later, breathless. A rough rocky outcrop to the south was already fast filling with French skirmishers and a heavy French column was climbing the open hillside and would soon be in a position to attack Major Gwynne’s four companies of the 45th, the only allied troops in sight. Wallace asked if half the 88th would be enough to repulse the French attack but Dunne replied that, ‘You will want every man.’ Wallace then addressed the regiment, ‘Now Connaught Rangers, mind what you are going to do: pay attention to what I have so often told you, and when I bring you face to face with those French rascals, drive them down the hill – don’t give the false touch, but push home to the muzzle! I have nothing more to say, and if I had it would be of no use, for in a minit or two there’ll be such an infernal noise about your ears that you won’t be able to hear yourselves.’ He wheeled the battalion into column of companies, led by the grenadiers, and marched south along the ridge top – evidently rather to the back of the rough open ground of the summit which was perhaps 100 yards wide at this point.  As they approached the rocky outcrop held by the French skirmishers they came under heavy fire. Wallace ordered the grenadiers and 1st battalion company to attack the rocks directly, while the 5th battalion company was detached from the regimental column as it passed to the west of the rocks. These three companies had a fierce struggle with the voltigeurs and more than half the sixty men in the Grenadier company are said to have fallen and there was hand-to-hand fighting in places, but eventually the French were driven from their position.  (Grattan Adventures in the Connaught Rangers p 31-36).

At the pass Picton heard the firing to his north. Heudelet’s attack had been checked though not yet broken, but Picton judged that it posed little danger, so he left the defence of the pass to Mackinnon and rode north with his staff ordering the remaining half of the 1/45th under Colonel Meade, Major Birmingham’s battalion of the 8th Portuguese line, and the Thomar militia to follow. The firing grew steadily louder as he rode, but he was halfway to the plateau before he caught sight of the French, for the ridge is broken into self-contained compartments by gullies and spurs and even mounted officers were often unaware of what was happening a few hundred yards to their left or right. Picton found the light companies of the 74th and 88th retiring to disorder and the French light infantry advancing to a stony knoll while below them a large force of French infantry struggled up the hill. This was evidently the southern wing of Merle’s division, while Wallace and the 88th were facing the northern wing some distance further north. Picton rallied the light companies and Major Smith of the 1/45th led them forward in a charge that cleared the nearby rocks, although Smith was killed in the attack. At the same time ‘poor little [Lieutenant] Ouseley, quite a boy, in the 45th Regiment, being sent out to cover the formation of the pickets, with two soldiers, got between the two French columns and was killed.’ (Burgoyne journal in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 112-13).  Birmingham’s battalion of the 8th Portuguese Line now arrived and Picton ‘personally led and directed their attack on the flank of the enemy’s column; and we completely succeeded in driving them in great confusion and disorder down the hill and across the ravine.’ (Picton to Wellington 10 Nov 1810 WSD vol 6 p 633-5).

Meanwhile Wallace with the remaining six companies of the 88th had passed behind Gwynne’s four companies of the 1/45th who had already opened fire on the approaching French and formed on their right. According to William Grattan of the 88th, his regiment came under fire from the 8th Portuguese and Wallace sent Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick to inform them of their mistake, only to see Fitzpatrick fall with two wounds, one inflicted by the Portuguese, the other by the French, before he could accomplish his mission. At the same time, the Thomar militia, which had been advancing behind Birmingham’s battalion, suddenly took to their heels. Wallace recognized that no time was to be lost: every moment more French were reaching the hilltop while those already there were catching their breath from the climb and beginning to find their place in the ranks. He threw himself from his horse and placing himself at the head of the 45th and 88th, with Gwynne on one side and Captain Seton of the 88th on the other, led the British infantry charging forward.

Different interpretations of Merle’s attack:

Historians reconstruct Merle’s formation differently, arguing over whether Picton encountered the whole 4e Leger, part of it, some loose skirmishers, or some other part of the division. There does not seem to be any compelling evidence to favour one reconstruction over another, and so I have left the distribution of Merle’s regiments and battalions deliberately vague. When working on my book on Tactics I investigated the formation of Loison’s division and found it an intractable problem.

It is a pity that there is not a more reliable source for the role of the 88th than Grattan, who is wonderfully entertaining and colourful, but not particularly reliable.  It is also unfortunate that there do not seem to be any first-hand French accounts of this part of the action.  However the broad outline of Grattan’s account is confirmed by Wellington’s dispatch.

Wellington and the guns:

‘Two guns (9 pounders) which were placed by Lord Wellington himself, and which flanked this attacking column, were of infinite use, crossing their fire with that of Major Arentschilde’s [sic] Guns attached to Genl Picton’s Division, and making great havoc.’ (D’Urban Journal p 149).  It is surprising that these guns could have crossed their fire with Arentschildt’s, but perhaps Arentschildt had only some of his guns at the pass itself and others a little to the north and able to fire north. That would explain Foy’s emphasis on artillery fire which is otherwise rather odd.

Captain Lane quoted in Duncan (History of the Royal Artillery vol 2 p 277): ‘My men did their duty…The French Voltigeurs (37th Regiment) came close to the guns, and one was killed only eight paces off. An immense column showing themselves in the ravine, we, with three cheers, gave them a few rounds of case and roundshot together, at about seventy paces distance, which drove them back.’

Explanation of Merle’s defeat:

The casualty figures do not really explain how approximately 2,000 allied infantry, a third of whom had never been in action before, managed to completely defeat 6,500 French veterans. The answer must lie in the strength of the allied position, the skill with which it was used by allied officers, and the fighting spirit of their men which was undiminished even when the French had already gained the summit.  It was unusual for individual battalions to be broken into several sub-units as they were here, but the company commanders responded admirably, never letting the French settle or standing passively on the defensive. Wellington’s direct role in this was limited, but the confidence he inspired in all ranks of the army was crucial to its success.

Foy’s Attack:

Foy evidently began his advance from near the village of San Antonio de Contaro but instead of following the road up to the pass he swung further north aiming for a stretch of open hillside. This was still well to the south of Merle’s line of attack, and intervening irregularities in the ground appear to have concealed his advance from Picton, the Connaught Rangers and the other troops who had repulsed Merle.  (This is the generally accepted explanation for the refusal of any of the sources from the central part of the battlefield – Wellington as well as Picton – to describe Foy’s attack as a separate episode.  It is not particularly convincing but other interpretations create even greater difficulties).  According to Foy’s own account his brigade came under heavy fire as it advanced, and he doubted that they would ever reach the summit.  But the men pressed on, although thoroughly disordered and very much out of breath. (Girod de l’Ain Vie Militaire du General Foy p 103).

Foy’s own account (as translated by Oman vol 3 p 377):

My heroic column, much diminished during the ascent, reached the summit of the plateau, which was covered with hostile troops. Those on our left made a flank movement and smashed us up by their battalion volleys; meanwhile those on our front, covered by some rocks, were murdering us with impunity. The head of my column fell back to its right, despite my efforts, I could not get them to deploy, disorder set in, and the 17th and 70th raced downhill in headlong flight. The enemy pursued us halfway to the foot of the heights, till he pulled up on coming under effective fire from our artillery.

Leith’s march:

On the way Leith received a pencil note from Wellington which showed that he had correctly anticipated his chief’s actions and that Hill would soon be following in support. Riding ahead to reach the pass he found that two of Arentchildt’s guns had been dismounted by French fire and that others were running short of ammunition, and sent word for his battery to replace them. Taking command he ordered the remaining battalion of the 8th Portuguese line under Lt Col Douglas, and the two battalions of  the 9th Portuguese line from the Third Division, to head north at once, to check Foy’s advance, while Spry’s brigade from the Fifth Division took their place in support of the 74th.  Leith then put himself at the head of his British brigade, the 1/9th, 2/38th and 3/1st which were marching north in a long, narrow column, along the lateral communication track which ran along the back of the allied position. (Leith’s report enclosed in Leith to Wellington, 10 Nov 1810, WSD vol 6 p 635-9; Gomm to Major Henry Gomm 1 Nov 1810 Gomm Letters & Journals p 189-91; Andrew Leith Hay to his father 27 Sept 1810 Scottish Record Office GD 225/1041 24-27).

Leith and Foy:

Leith’s role in Foy’s defeat was the subject of much controversy in the nineteenth century, although Chambers, Fortescue (and Oman partially) established a new consensus which has been accepted by Horward and other modern writers on the battle.  Many of the details are unclear and likely to remain so, particularly as so many of the first-hand accounts were written years later and in a spirit of controversy. Two points were disputed with particular heat: Picton’s assertion that Leith’s role was subsidiary, almost insignificant versus Leith’s claim that it was vital and decisive; and the claim that the Portuguese 8th and 9th regiments had not been broken. Chambers and Fortescue found a way of accepting the substance of both Picton’s and Leith’s accounts of their own actions without forcing a choice between them, while discarding their interpretations of the wider context. (Leith certainly did indulge in some exaggeration). And while it seems clear that the Portuguese were broken, British accounts do not describe the heavy fighting which may have preceded this (Foy’s account suggests this, though the very light losses of the 9th Portuguese cast doubt upon it).

Chambers (Bussaco p 234-41) prints four or five accounts by officers of the Fifth Division written in response to the controversy over Napier’s view of the battle. With a bit of pushing and shoving they can be made to agree with the account of the battle given here, though they clearly carry less weight than the accounts written by Leith and Gomm close to the time.

Ney’s Attack: Loison and the Light Division

Napier describes the wait while the French approached:

Ross’s guns were worked with incredible quickness, yet their range was palpably contracted every round, the enemy’s shot came slinging up in a sharper key, the English skirmishers, breathless and begrimed with powder, rushed over the edge of the ascent, the artillery drew back, and the victorious cries of the French were heard within a few yards of the summit. (History vol 3 p 26)

Tomkinson was off at a distance and describes the attack on the Light Division:

The troops came up the hill in the best order possible, suffering a great deal from our light infantry. On their gaining the top, the Light Division stood up, and the 43rd and 52nd moved forward to the charge. The enemy did not stand one moment, and were pushed down in the greatest confusion. The general of brigade, Simon, who led the attack, was taken with 150 men. Their columns suffered much from our artillery during their advance and retreat. (Diary 27 Sept 1810 p 43)

Lieutenant Charles Booth of the 43rd described what happened next in a letter written only a few weeks later:

In the part of the line occupied by the Light Division and about 200 yards immediately to its front two columns of the enemy – supposed about 5,000 each – were met by the two left hand companies of the 43rd, and the right two of the 52nd. The front of their columns alone –chiefly composed of officers – stood the charge; the rest took to their heels, throwing away their arms, pouches &c. Our men did not stand to take prisoners; what were taken were those left in our rear in the hurry of pressing forward in the charge. The flanks of the 43rd and 52nd in their charge met only the enemy’s skirmishers who had by superior numbers driven in the 95th Rifles but a few seconds before the charge of the division. These poor fellows were all glad enough to give themselves up as prisoners, our men not being allowed to fire a shot at them. The advanced part of the charging line – the four companies first mentioned – after throwing themselves into the midst of the enemy’s retreating columns, killing, wounding and in short falling to the ground lots of them, were with great difficulty halted, and then commenced from the flanks of the whole division the most destructive flashing fire that I believe was ever witnessed. Not a tenth part of their whole force would have escaped had not the four companies, by precipitating themselves too far in front of the general line, exposed themselves to the fire of their comrades, and thus prevented more than 300 firelocks on each flank of the division from being brought into action. The flanks, and in fact every other part of the division (except the four centre companies), had to pass over in the charge some very steep rugged ground, where, not meeting anything except the enemy’s skirmishers, they pushed on head-over-heels, until the descent became almost perpendicular. At this time they were halted, and had a find view of what was going on in the centre.’ (Letter of Lt Charles Booth, 9 Nov 1810 in Levinge Historical Records of the 43rd Light Infantry p 136-7).

            This and other first-hand accounts make clear that the French were broken by the sudden daunting appearance of the British line, and by the confidence expressed by the loud cheer given by Craufurd’s men, followed by their immediate, unhesitating charge. The fire of the British infantry completed the French discomfiture, but only after the combat had already been decided. Nor is this surprising: Loison’s men had done well to reach the summit at all, and no infantry in Europe could have withstood the psychological shock of Craufurd’s charge.

The ravine between Ney’s two divisions:

Fortescue (vol 7 p 522-3) calls it ‘the deepest and most impracticable ravine on the hillside…the ravine itself was an obstacle which effectually isolated the infantry on its north from that on its south side, so that Ney’s onset resolved itself practically into two distinct assaults.’ Oman  vol 3 p 363 agrees and adds a note on p 386: ‘The ravine which lay between Pack and Craufurd, and between Marchand and Loison, is a feature which no map can properly express, and which no one who has not gone carefully over the hillside can picture to himself. It produces an absolute want of continuity between the two fights which went on to its right and left.’

Attack on Coleman’s brigade:

One French battalion, possibly the 2/32e Leger from Ferey’s brigade of Loison’s division, escaped the general wreck. It was well to the left of the main column advancing near the rough gully which separated Loison from Marchand.  As it advanced it came under heavy artillery fire from Cleeve’s battery of the King’s German Legion and perhaps also from the skirmishers of Pack’s Portuguese brigade. The rough ground would have slowed its progress, but in time it evidently found itself behind Craufurd’s right flank.  Here it was met by Coleman’s Portuguese brigade. One battalion of the 19th Portuguese Line under Major William Maclean ‘gave a volley and charged, when the lines became mixed; the result was soon decided, the enemy being driven with considerable loss in killed and wounded to the bottom of the ravine.’ (Maclean quoted in Chambers Bussaco p 122).

Chambers gives the best account of this.  He quotes Beresford’s report: ‘One of Ney’s columns having succeeded in ascending the steep, formed and advanced upon the plain.  When about half-way up the 19th Portuguese Regiment charged them with the bayonet, and drove them headlong down the steep: a heavy (French) battery opened on them (the 19th Portuguese) from the opposite side of the ravine; the regiment immediately, under the fire, reformed, faced to the right about, and as if manoeuvring on a parade, regained its original position, amid the acclamations of all the left of the British army who were spectators of their conduct.’ (Chambers Bussaco p 122).

Sturgeon says, ‘Coleman’s Portuguese Brigade had also moved forward, in column, towards that part of the position on the right of the Light Division, where the Portuguese 3-pounders were; and it afterwards formed in line, in front of the eastern park-wall of the Convent, where the abbatis in front of the gate, as well as the wall on each side of it, was lined with musketry.  After this, sharp-shooters were warmly engaged on both sides, particularly on our left of the village of Sul to our right of the village of Cerquedo.  About nine o’clock the enemy pushed forward his sharp-shooters, in very considerable numbers, to a rocky eminence, in front of the right regiment of Coleman’s Brigade; but that regiment repulsed them, and the whole of the brigade made a forward movement till recalled by Lord Wellington.’ (ibid p 196).

Marchand’s attack:

A little further south, on the other side of the ravine, Marchand’s division pressed up the slope towards the Convent enclosure. Masséna watched them set out, telling the leading troops. “My friends, this mountain is key to Lisbon; it is necessary to seize it with the bayonet.” (Guingret quoted in Horward Busaco p 123).  Starting on the road near Moura, the French infantry advanced directly up the hill rather than following the road as it swung north. One veteran recalled:

The troops of this division advanced toward the enemy following the road three files deep. Despite the shrapnel shells that wiped out entire companies; and the rocks, the heather, the cluster of woods that flanked us fifteen feet to the left, and the swarming enemy skirmishers, the first brigade of this division threw itself to the left of the road, as much to avoid the effect of the very destructive artillery as to drive away the crowd of skirmishers that arrayed us. (Guingret in Horward Busaco p 123).

Marchand was advancing towards Pack’s brigade of Portuguese infantry (1st and 16th Line, 4th Caçadores) and one British officer recorded that ‘the 1st Portuguese regiment of the line distinguished itself by advancing down the hill in line, and driving a strong body of the enemy from the road, and the 4th Regiment of the Caçadores behaved also with great spirit, and were handled with great skill.’ (Burgoyne journal in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 113).  However no other British accounts describe a serious attack at this point, and Wellington, who had no interest in minimizing the role of the Portuguese, simply praises the ‘steadiness and gallantry’ of Pack’s troops in a way which suggests that their role was limited and not very important. And yet Marchand’s attack was defeated, and his division suffered heavily.

The desultory skirmishing late in the battle:

Augustus Schaumann described looking down from the hill top: ‘Below there was a deep ravine, and that side of it which lay behind us was studded with the brown Portuguese Caçadores (sharpshooters), the other, on the opposite side, with enemy skirmishers, who, concealed behind rocks and withered bushes, were shooting at each other. In this, the Portuguese displayed extraordinary bravery and skill – nay, they were even comical; for when they got a successful shot, they laughed uproariously, as if skirmishing were a source of great amusement to them.’ (Schaumann On The Road With Wellington p 249-50 cf D’Urban Journal p 149).

Pelet writes:

       Thus the day passed, skirmishing and losing men uselessly. I cannot express how much aversion I have always had for skirmishing. It is difficult to imagine how much it costs in casualties, or, as one might say, drop by drop. Two new attacks against the position, just like the first, would not have been more deadly. I could not resist saying a few words. The skirmishing ended on our side and the enemy started it again. As a matter of fact, it was extremely difficult to stop bickering except by withdrawing our troops, and this was not without inconvenience for either advantageous terrain or the morale of the army. However, I do not think skirmishing can be allowed for its own sake in any case, unless it is to prepare attacks, cover movements or momentarily detain the enemy at one point while they are being attacked or out-manoeuvred at another. General Reynier had wisely withdrawn his troops and taken up positions. There was hardly any more fighting in this direction. (French Campaign in Portugal p 182-3)

This is clearly greatly exaggerated. It is hard to see why French skirmishers should have lost vastly more than the allies, (especially the inexperienced caçadores) and yet the total casualties of

4th Cacadores (Pack’s brigade)          66 casualties

2nd Cacadores (Coleman’s brigade)     43 casualties

6th Cacadores (Campbell’s brigade)    23 casualties

 Total 132

The Light Battalions of the KGL lost 15 casualties, so it seems unlikely that casualties in the skirmishing can explain Marchand’s 1,173 casualties.

D’Urban ‘There was some reason to expect that about the middle of the day when the enemy had cooked and dined, he would attack again, but this did not take place. A good deal of skirmishing and sharp fighting en tirailleur took place with the enemy in the Fir Groves to the Right of Moura, and the 4th Caçadores, and Light Companies of the 1st and 16th Regts behaved well.’ (Journal p 149).

Wellington in the battle:

Alexander Gordon told his brother, ‘Nothing has been finer than the conduct, skill and activity of Lord Wellington.’ An officer of the Guards declared  that ‘The Commander of the forces was everywhere in person, giving directions and superintending the different points of attack.’ And Benjamin D’Urban wrote in his journal that ‘Lord Wellington’s arrangements, presence of mind, and coolness in the field are admirable.’  (Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen Busaco 27 Sept 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 115-6; Stothert Narrative p 192; D’Urban Journal p150).

W. H. Maxwell Life of Wellington vol 2 p 182 prints several short notes in pencil Wellington wrote to subordinates on the day and the day after the battle. They are much less interesting than might be expected, for example:


                                                                        ‘On the top of the Sierra, 10 min. before 7 pm

‘My dear General [Cole],

I see the columns behind the wood in front of your right, but not standing to their arms.  I cannot see anything to your left of them.

I think that if you see nothing upon your left, you had better collect at least one regiment of Colonel Harvey’s brigade to support your centre and right.’

French losses:

The figures for French losses come from Horward Battle of Bussaco p 172-3 who makes a number of trifling corrections to Oman’s figures (vol 3 p 552-3).  Oman notes (p 553n) that these figures are not quite complete: for example, Martinien lists five officer casualties in Junot’s VIII corps, which probably lost a few rank and file as well, and he thinks these would bring total French losses up to ‘quite 4600 killed, wounded and missing.’

The absence of any recorded figures for captured from VI Corps suggests the need for some modest upward revisions in total French casualties: perhaps to 5,000 or a few more, although there remains a significant margin of error.

Many British officers wrote home in similar terms to Alexander Gordon: ‘their loss on the 27th…we now find by all accounts to have been from 8 to 10,000 men. We have counted 2,000 dead bodies on the field’ (At Wellington’s Right Hand p 166) (see also Tomkinson Diary p 44). Charles Stewart was more modest in his estimate: ‘I rate the enemy’s loss at between 5 and 6 thousand hors de combat. The Marshals (Wellington and Beresford) take it much higher. There was certainly great imperceptible slaughter by the tirailleurs of both armies in the deep gorges and ravines.’ (Charles Stewart to Castlereagh 30 Sept 1810 PRONI D3030/P/23)

D’Urban wrote after the battle: ‘The Enemy’s killed and wounded probably amount to 8,000 men,’ but after going over the battlefield on the following two days, he wrote, ‘The Enemy’s loss everywhere had been greater than we had imagined. He left many wounded behind who all agreed in calling his loss 10,000 men killed and wounded.’ (Journal p 149-51) Wellington’s estimate may have been far too high, but he was not alone in making the mistake.

Allied Losses:

The remarkable coincidence of British and Portuguese losses being exactly equal may be a little too good to be true. The figures given come from Oman (vol 3 p 550-1) and are accepted by Horward (Busaco p 174-5). But the return printed in Londonderry’s Narrative (vol 2 Appendix XVI) lists 636 British, and 622 Portuguese or 1258 in all.  The total given in the summary table attached to Wellington’s dispatch is 1269 (WD IV p 308) although this includes casualties incurred on 25th-26th September. Londonderry, who lists these in a separate appendix (XV) gives them as 19 so that Wellington’s total for 27 September is 1250 exactly. Fortescue does not accept Oman’s figure (vol 7 p 526) giving 631 British and (implicitly) 620 Portuguese.

Chambers (Bussaco p 242-6) discusses the casualties at some length, disputing Oman’s figures in detail and raising the vexed issue of whether British officers serving in the Portuguese army count as British or Portuguese. He also gives the names of all officer casualties, British and Portuguese. His conclusion is that there were 647 British and 620 Portuguese, including casualties on 25th and 26th September and counting all British officers in Portuguese army (8 of whom were casualties) as British (which I think is unjustifiable as foreign units in British army count as British).

But the difference is more apparent than real:

Chambers states total British losses as                                                        647

deduct 8 British officer casualties serving in Portuguese army              639

deduct 12 British casualties suffered on 25 and 26 Sept                           627

Chambers gives total Portuguese losses as                                                 620

add 8 British officer casualties serving in Portuguese army                  628

deduct 3 Portuguese losses on 25 and 26 September                                625

(Figures for the losses on 25 and 26 September from Londonderrry).

So perhaps Oman was out by one. Or perhaps not. Casualty figures on this scale always include some inexactness and margin for error. It seems perfectly reasonable to accept 626 each as being as close to the truth as we are likely to come.

NB Wellington and his contemporaries do not appear to have remarked upon the coincidence i.e. it was not artificially manipulated or created for the purposes of propaganda.

Picton offends Light and Fifth Divisions by claiming the credit for the victory:

After the battle General Picton wrote to his friends at home accounts of the battle which, he gave them to understand, he and his division had won almost single-handed.  One of these friends over-zealously sent a copy of his letter to the Courier in which it appeared anonymously, although the identity of the writer was obvious to all. They made a stir in the army and placed Picton, as he himself said, in an ‘Awkward Situation’.  (Havard Wellington’s Welsh General p 138)  It naturally did not endear him to the Light Division whose officers were convinced, as usual, they had played the really decisive part in the drama, but the greatest offence was taken by Leith and the Fifth Division.  Wellington had given little enough credit to the Fifth Division in his dispatch, and now Picton publicly suggested that they had done no more than round up the dregs, ragtag and bobtail that the Third had left behind. Leith and Picton both submitted detailed reports to Wellington on the role played by their men in the battle, Leith plainly suggested that he had arrived in the nick of time to save Picton from disaster.  Wellington prudently refused to adjudicate and seems to have succeeded in stifling the controversy, which was revived many years later first by Napier’s account of the battle in his History of the War in the Peninsula, and then by Robinson’s Memoir of Picton. Old soldiers could amuse themselves harmlessly by writing letters to the United Service Journal and similar organs, but in 1810 Wellington’s concern was to keep his army united and to prevent feuds arising which might hinder its operations against the French. By and large he succeeded partly by keeping his private views of his subordinates to himself.

The Picton-Leith Controversy

Robinson in his life of Picton (vol 1 p 337n–9n) says that it was a copy of Picton’s letter to the Duke of Queensberry which appeared in the press – Queensberry showed it to many of his friends and one of them sent it round to the various newspapers.  But he does not print the letters nor give the precise references to which papers it appeared in. Robinson is very shy of it, stressing Picton’s dismay at its publication and also mentioning the outrage in the Light Division.  Picton’s other letters on the battle (to Colonel Pleydell in Robinson Memoir vol 1 p 315-23 and in letters to Flanagan 26 Oct & 3 Nov ‘Unpublished Letters’ p 151-55) are written a month after the battle and are extremely vain-glorious and egotistical.  It is probably true that Picton did not wish them to appear in the papers and was dismayed by the reaction it provoked, but he would have been keen to have it circulate widely among influential people in England. Officers like Craufurd and Picton were ambitious and they did not view their reputation with passive indifference – and indeed why should they?

Gomm (Letters and Journals p 187-88) letter of 1 November comments on the English press coverage of the campaign and battle: ‘the 9th regiment are out of humour with the dispatches. They will have it that they did not assist in driving the enemy from the heights, nor had the 38th and Royals an opportunity of doing as they did…This is the way the Ninth tell their story, and I promise you it is a true one.’

Busaco and the Portuguese Army:

Fortescue (vol 7 p 527) writes: ‘Among the Portuguese, in the two battalions of the 8th there fell about one man in eight; and in the single battalion of the 4th, about one man in six. With his usual good sense, Wellington gave the Portuguese their baptism of fire on very advantageous ground, and they acquitted themselves upon the whole with great credit. From that day their value was quadrupled, for they had gained confidence in themselves and their leaders, and lost faith in the invincibility of the French.’

The performance of the 8th line was particularly pleasing, for it had never been regarded as one of the better regiments in the Portuguese army. As recently as the beginning of 1810 Wellington had told Beresford that as it had ‘neither arms, accoutrements, clothing, discipline nor numbers…[it] will be of no use…during this campaign.’ Brought up to strength with the inclusion of large numbers of raw young recruits – most no more than boys –it would have been one of the most fragile of Portuguese regiments. (Wellington to Beresford 23 Jan 1810 WD III p 692-3 and Halliday Observations on the Present State of the Portuguese Army p 22-23).

Not just the Portuguese troops who gained valuable experience at Busaco:

The Portuguese were not the only troops to gain valuable experience at Busaco: the 74th had not seen serious action for some years, while the 1/9th was full of young recruits.  Even the Light Division, veterans of months of outpost duty and the Coa, had not been in a full-scale battle, although many of its officers had served at Vimeiro and Coruña.  The victory spread good humour through the army, easing doubts and tensions. The officers and men of the Light Division were proud of the role they had played in repulsing Ney’s attack, and even those who hated him could admire Craufurd’s bravery in calmly waiting for the right moment to launch them against Loison.  Busaco went a long way towards dispelling the distrust created by Barquilla and the Coa.

Wellington prepares to blame Baccelar for the need to retreat, if the campaign provokes controversy:

On 4 October Wellington wrote to William Wellesley-Pole, explaining his movements and adding,

 I should have stopped [the French] entirely if it had not been for the blunders of the Portuguese General in the north, who was prevented by a small French patrol from sending Trant by the road by which he was ordered to march. If he had come by that road, the French could not have turned our position, and they must have attacked us again; they could not have carried it, and they must have retired.  The question is whether, having it in my power to take such as position, it was right to incur the risk of a general engagement in it? That which has since happened shows that, if not turned, I could have maintained it without loss of importance, and that, if turned, I could retire from it without inconvenience; and under these circumstances there could be no doubt. To this add then that the battle has had the best effects in inspiring confidence in the Portuguese troops both among our croaking officers and the people of the country. It has likewise removed an impression which began to be very general, that we intended to fight no more, but to retire to our ships; and it has given the Portuguese troops a taste for an amusement to which they were not before accustomed, and which they would not have acquired if I had not put them in a very strong position.  (Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole 4 Oct 1810 WSD vol 6 p 606-7).

This was hardly fair to Baccellar, but Wellington had learnt the hard way that fairness and accuracy were the first casualties of a public controversy.   And it is possible that he genuinely believed that Baccellar’s actions had this effect.

Reactions to the Campaign in Britain:

The press kept the subject alive even when there was no news to print, but the atmosphere was very different from the Spanish fever of 1808, with hopes generally low. Col J. W. Gordon told Lord Grey on 21 July 1810:  ‘It appears to me that some months ago, it was evident to Common Sense, that we could not defend Portugal; that evidence in my Judgment became stronger and stronger every day; but I now see that men will not believe it, until conviction is impressed upon them with the loss of half our army.’  (Earl Grey Papers, Durham Uni Lib GRE/B19/50)  And a fortnight later he was equally gloomy:  ‘I am of opinion that we shall be expelled from Portugal with very enormous loss.’ (JWG to Earl Grey 3 Aug 1810 loc cit no 51).

Yet as early as August some military observers who had previously regarded the cause as hopeless began to reconsider. Sir John Hope told his brother, ‘I almost begin to think that Masséna is not in force sufficient to undertake the attack of Portugal, and that we shall see the War protracted there some time longer.’ (Sir John Hope to Alexander Hope 5 August 1810 Scottish Record Office Hope of Luffness Papers GD 364/1/1200).  A couple of weeks later the Duke of York agreed: ‘I see no reason from the last accounts from Portugal to expect a battle soon…I cannot imagine that Masséna will be mad enough with his present force to attack [us] in front and it will still take him some time and a larger force than he at present has at his disposal before he can endeavour with any prospect of success to turn one or both of Lord Wellington’s flanks.’ (Duke of York to Col J. W. Gordon 24 August 1810 BL Add Ms 49,473, f 32-33 – this letter was very hard to read and the transcription might be slightly inaccurate).

Canning’s friend, Lord Granville Leveson Gower, expressed the feelings of many when he wrote to Lady Bessborough on 13 August, ‘I feel very anxious about Portugal, and am not a little annoyed at the violent Westerly winds having retarded our reinforcements…I could not be more eager for the success of Lord Wellington.’ (Granville Leveson Gower to Lady Bessborough 13 August 1810 Granville Leveson Gower: Private Correspondence vol 2 p 357-8). The Times was reduced to reprinting French criticism of Wellington for not using British troops to garrison Almeida, and the letters of a correspondent in Lisbon who, having speculated on the probable course of operation, was forced to admit that ‘Lord Wellington is so secret in all his movements, that it is quite impossible to know what are his inclinations’ (The Times 11 and 23 August 1810).  Dispatches arriving at the end of the month were well received with Charles Arbuthnot telling Lord William Bentinck, ‘All the accounts from Ld Wellington are good. The enemy desert in numbers…The Portuguese are improving daily; and daily the British officers esteem them more and more.’ George Rose, another member of the government was equally pleased: ‘I rejoice at the accounts from Portugal. If I had not entire confidence in Lord Wellington, I should have been nervous lately.’ Granville Leveson Gower was even more enthusiastic, admiring ‘the Fabian Warfare of Lord Wellington,’ and declaring that the successful defence of Portugal would bring ‘more glory than all his previous glorious achievements,’ although this was based on the idea that Masséna could bring 120,000 men into the field. (Arbuthnot to Bentinck 30 Aug 1810 Portland (Bentinck) Papers, University of Nottingham Pw Jc7; Rose to Bathurst 29 August 1810 HMC Bathurst p. 148; Granville Leveson Gower to Lady Bessborough 29 August 1810 Granville Leveson Gower Private Correspondence vol 2 p 362).

Early in September the Ministers were encouraged by reports through the émigré General Dumouriez that Masséna had demanded large reinforcements from Napoleon, and had been refused. They were puzzled by the slowness of the French advance on Almeida, but cheered by Wellington’s growing confidence. Liverpool sent an assessment of the state of the war to General Craig, the commander-in-chief in British North America.

It is evident that [Napoleon] has not the Military Means of making as large an effort in Spain and Portugal as his Interest and Reputation require. As long as the Contest can be maintained in that quarter upon its present scale, we need be under little apprehension for more distant Objects – …the Events of the Campaign have exceeded our most sanguine Expectations ad certainly afford no very unreasonable Expectation that the Contest in the Peninsula may finally prove successful. (Liverpool to Craig (private) 11 Sept 1810 BL Add Ms 38,233 f 79-85).

The ministers and their friends soon recovered from the fall of Almeida and by early October were sounding increasingly confident.  Palmerston told his sister that ‘a battle is daily expected, and from Ld Wellington’s force and the tone in which he writes one may venture to be sanguine as to the result’. (Palmerston to Miss Temple 6 Oct 1810 Palmerston Papers BR 24/1).   And Richard Ryder told Lord Harrowby that if Wellington ‘should be able and willing to put off the battle till the 1st of October we calculate that he would have 36,000 British, as all his reinforcements or nearly all will have arrived…with such an Army in such a country he may defy all the strength at this season that the French can bring against him.’ (Richard Ryder to Harrowby 29 Sept 1810 Harrowby Papers vol V f 23-27).

Reaction to Wellington’s proclamation and French criticism:

In September the Times printed Wellington’s Proclamation of 4 August warning that Portuguese civilians who assisted the French would be punished as traitors. The paper felt that this was an extreme step, but probably justified because the safety of the British army was at stake.  (The Times 13 Sept 1810).  A fortnight later it reprinted a long French attack on the whole conduct of the British operations since the outbreak of the war in the Peninsula. This included criticism of Wellington’s failure to attempt to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, and a denunciation of the scorched earth policy; ‘Lord Wellington sounded a retreat, with a barbarity unknown among civilized nations, he ordered the mills, the farms, the houses to be destroyed, the fields to be burnt up, and that a vast desart [sic] should separate the English from the French army. This conduct is atrocious, and without example in modern annals. The  Turks and the Tartars alone act thus.’ (The Times 28 Sept 1810).   The paper did not endorse the attack and later printed a lengthy rebuttal which pointed to the many precedents for such a policy and to Napoleon’s long record of pillaging, destruction and reprisal.  (The Times 3 Oct 1810).  Nor does the issue seem to have aroused much interest even among liberals – perhaps the bait was a little too blatant.

Praise for performance of the Portuguese:

The performance of the Portuguese drew special praise. Lord Malmesbury believed that ‘it is a great Event in as much as it proves the Portuguese will fight, and that the French cannot beat us. General Charles Craufurd agreed and wrote to his brother Robert in Portugal, ‘As the Portuguese troops conduct themselves so well…I think one may be justified in being sanguine as to the result of the campaign.’ Even the artist Joseph Farington appreciated the importance of this, while the government marked it by conferring the Order of the Bath on Beresford.  (Malmesbury to Palmerston 15 Oct 1810 Palmerston Papers GC/MA 148; Charles to Robert Craufurd 19 Oct 1810 in Craufurd General Craufurd and his Light Division p 161-163; Farington Diary vol 6 p 152; Liverpool to Wellington 17 Oct 1810 WSD vol 6 p 618).

Wellington’s over-statement of French dead:

Strangely the greatest problem for Wellington in the reaction to the news was not from the criticism of the Opposition (which was generally kept private) but from the excessive enthusiasm of his friends.  In his dispatch describing the battle he had written, ‘The enemy left 2,000 killed upon the field of battle, and I understand from the prisoners and deserters that the loss in wounded is immense.’ (Wellington to Liverpool 30 Sept 1810 WD IV p 304-8).   This was a gross over-estimate, for in fact, only 515 French soldiers had been killed. (Horward Busaco p 173).  The mistake was probably genuine, based on an over-enthusiastic claims of subordinates and the roughness of the terrain which made it hard to form an accurate impression of the number of dead; although Wellington would have been the first general to have allowed himself a little latitude in making such a statement.   But other accounts went further and estimated that the French had lost a further 8,000 men wounded, double the true figure.  Palmerston told his sister ‘The loss of the French was immense; ours trifling. The French left 2,000 dead on the field of battle and the private accounts state their wounded to be 8,000. Some make their whole loss amount to 16 or 17,000.’ (Palmerston to Miss Temple 14 Oct 1810 Palmerston Papers BR 24/1; see also Calvert An Irish Beauty Under the Regency p 168-69 (15 Oct 1810) where again the figure of 8,000 wounded is mentioned. These echo private letters from the army in which the same figure is given e.g. Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 30 Sept 1810 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 116 and Tomkinson Diary p 44. Such estimates were undoubtedly sincere, and it is puzzling as to why they were so inaccurate).

Within days the press had taken up the story and piled further extrapolations on top of it without any concern for the shakiness of the original foundations. On 18 October the Times calculated that Masséna’s army must amount to no more than 60,000 men, while Wellington should have 81,000 British and Portuguese:  ‘But now observe what towering hopes open to us, which the country may indulge, we may say, with the most perfect confidence.’ And ‘Masséna appears to us, upon the present face of things, to have been infinitely too ardent, and to have involved himself in inextricable ruin…we do not see how it is possible for him to escape.’ (The Times 18 Oct 1810).

Wellington learnt his lesson: never again did he put a figure on enemy losses in battle, and his dislike of the press was confirmed. He told Croker:

The licentiousness of the press, and the presumption of the editors at the newspapers…have gone near to stultify the people of England; and it makes one sick to hear the statements of supposed facts and comments upon supposed transactions here, which have had the effect only of keeping the minds of the people of England in a state…of expectation which must be disappointed. (Wellington to Croker  20 Dec 1810 Croker Papers vol 1 p 40-43; see also Wellington to Henry Wellesley 11 Nov 1810 WD IV p 412-414).

Contempt did not breed indifference. Recognizing, even exaggerating, the power of the press, Wellington knew that he could not afford to ignore its role in shaping public opinion and in raising or lowering his reputation. But it was bitter to think that all his efforts would be seen through such a flawed prism.


[1] Two million francs approximately equalled £80,000 which seems little – M Glover Legacy of Glory p 168 in paraphrasing this letter says francs; if so, this probably means specie, not including aid in kind or salaries paid in Paris. Connelly Napoleon’s Satellite Kingdoms p 251 says the war was costing Napoleon 13.5 million francs a month: about  £500,000 which sounds more plausible.

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© Rory Muir