By Eric Niderost

It was December 1808, and the French Army was struggling though the 4,500-foot Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains in central Spain. Even the most seasoned veterans could not recall such hardships. Heavy snowstorms blinded them, and howling winds chilled them to the bone. The snow finally abated, only to be replaced by sleet and pelting rain that turned the tortuous mountain tracks into muddy quagmires. Soldiers marched knee-deep in mud, literally mired in misery, their exertions so great that they were drenched in sweat despite the bitter cold. They were driven on by the iron will of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French emperor was determined to destroy the 25,000-man British Army under General Sir John Moore. Fired by an implacable hatred of Great Britain, Napoleon refused to accept any delays in the pursuit of his elusive foe.

To set an example for his men, Napoleon led the way, followed by his ever-faithful chief of staff, Marshal Louis Berthier, staff officers, and a small escort of mounted chasseurs from the Imperial Guard. The winds were so fierce and the ice so slippery that it was almost impossible to stay mounted on a horse. The emperor himself stubbornly tried to ride for a time, only to tumble ingloriously from the saddle. From that point on, chastened but still indefatigable, he trudged along on foot. At one point, Napoleon encountered men of the 2nd Division, part of Marshal Claude Victor’s I Corps. Normally, Bonaparte was idolized by his men, showered with shouts of “Vive L’Empereur!” when he appeared in their midst. Now, however, the worn, frost-rimmed faces showed nothing but hatred and contempt. They roundly cursed Napoleon as the author of their miseries, raining down fearful oaths on his head. Not content with mere maledictions, some in the ranks called out to comrades to end their misery by shooting Napoleon on the spot.

The emperor heard the threats but ignored them—nothing was going to interfere with his ongoing vendetta against “perfidious Albion.” The Peninsular Campaign in Spain and Portugal was an outgrowth of his hatred of Great Britain, the only major power still standing in the way of his domination of Europe. Prevented from invading the British Isles by Admiral Horatio Nelson’s destruction of the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805, Napoleon resorted to economic warfare. A so-called Continental System was created that represented, in effect, a massive trade embargo of British goods. Napoleon hoped that Great Britain, “that nation of shopkeepers,” would soon be brought to heel if all European commerce was cut off. But Portugal, a longtime British ally, refused to join the system, triggering a series of events that led to the current campaign. Napoleon ordered an invasion of Portugal in 1807 that was initially successful thanks to Spanish acquiescence. But the emperor’s genius was compromised by a growing arrogance and sense of invincibility. He decided to meddle in Spanish affairs by forcing King Charles IV and his heir, Prince Ferdinand, to renounce the throne in favor of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph.

Dos De Mayo

The Spanish people rose in a great surge of patriotic fury. On May 2, 1808, the citizens of Madrid revolted against occupying French troops. The Dos de Mayo uprising was bloodily crushed with mass executions, but the revolt could not be contained and soon convulsed all of Spain. Local defense committees, or juntas, sprang up to organize the rebellion. A few weeks later an event occurred that destroyed the myth of French invincibility forever. On July 21, General Pierre Dupont was trapped by Spanish forces and forced to capitulate. Some 13,000 French troops became prisoners, pouring still more oil on the fires of Spanish rebellion. The French eventually abandoned Madrid and fell back behind the Ebro River.

The French Army, personally commanded by Napoleon, crosses the rugged Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains in December 1808.
The French Army, personally commanded by Napoleon, crosses the rugged Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains in December 1808.

The British government saw an opportunity in Napoleon’s mounting troubles in Spain. The Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Viscount Castlereagh, was a prime mover in a new policy that called for direct British intervention on the Continent. Up to this time, the formidable British Army had been frittered away on abortive attempts to seize enemy colonies, attempts that proved costly in money and lives. The army was a highly trained and professional force, but relatively small in numbers when compared to Napoleon’s Grande Armee. While it could not confront Napoleon’s might single-handedly, it could render valuable assistance to its new Iberian allies.

British troops landed in Portugal in August 1808, the first time that redcoats had been on the European mainland in over a decade. Sir Arthur Wellesley, a relatively little-known but experienced general, won a significant victory at Vimeiro on August 21 against French forces under General Andoche Junot. Unfortunately for the British, Wellesley was not the most senior officer in Portugal. General Sir Hew Dalrymple was the man in charge, an older, overly cautious commander more at home in the office than on the battlefield. “Dowager” Dalrymple’s caution was seconded by General Sir Harry Burrard, who had ignored Wellesley’s pleas to follow up the victory at Vimeiro with a dash to capture Lisbon. Instead, the British negotiated the Convention of Cintra, which allowed Junot to evacuate Portugal and return to France. Under the agreed-upon terms, some 26,000 French troops, their equipment, and even their looted spoils would be transported home via British ships.

Wellesley knew the Convention of Cintra gave the enemy a kind of diplomatic victory over the British, but he was junior to the other generals and had no choice in the matter. Dalrymple, Burrard, and Wellesley all signed the convention document, the latter with great reluctance. When the terms became known, the signing created a political firestorm in England. French evacuation was one thing, but to transport enemy troops and their booty back home on British ships was adding insult to injury. All three generals were recalled to face a government enquiry.

A New Command

With the departure of Dalrymple, Burrard, and Wellesley, command of the British Army in Portugal—some 30,000 men—devolved upon a new general on the scene, General Sir John Moore. The 47-year-old Moore was known as an innovator in the development of light infantry. Moore took care of his men and believed a soldier could serve faithfully and well without the draconian punishments so common at the time. He was one of the few officers who did not believe in routinely flogging men to enforce obedience and discipline. His appointment greatly strengthened army morale.

Portugal was free of French control, but Napoleon was not done with the Iberian Peninsula. The emperor was enraged at what he considered the bungling of his lieutenants and decided to go there in person to straighten things out. To that end, thousands of battle-hardened French veterans in Germany and elsewhere began a long and arduous trek to Spain. The Spanish had sown the wind—now they were about to reap the whirlwind.

General Sir John Moore.
General Sir John Moore.

In September, Moore was ordered to take 20,000 men and advance into Spain “to cooperate with Spanish armies in the expulsion of the French from that Kingdom.” To assist in that effort, some 15,000 reinforcements under General David Baird were already at sea en route to Corunna in the northwestern corner of Spain. Once on Spanish soil, Baird was directed to rendezvous with Moore in the vicinity of Valladolid. The combined force would then make a concerted effort to render aid to Spanish allies. Moore obeyed the directives with alacrity, but soon bogged down in a logistical nightmare of epic proportions. The army lacked the necessary vehicles for the transportation of its light baggage, military stores, and other equipment and supplies.

Challenges of Logistics

Wagons, horses, and oxen were supposed to come from the Portuguese, but initially the British had no money to pay for such assistance. It took time to sort things out and plan for the coming campaign. It was hard to get adequate intelligence from the Spanish, who were more interested in squabbling among themselves than in fighting for a common cause. Spanish power was dangerously fragmented, making it almost impossible to plan a unified strategy. On paper there were several Spanish armies in the field, but the quality of the troops varied greatly. Some were good soldiers, others merely uniformed rabble. To make matters worse, the Spanish officer corps was riddled with incompetents and fossilized relics from another generation.

There were a few relatively bright spots in the gloom. General Joachim Blake (his ancestors were Irish) had the makings of a competent if not overly brilliant commander. General Pedro Surada, Marques de la Romana, was also a good soldier, efficient and courageous, but was probably at his best when supporting someone else. Independent command was another matter. The Supreme Junta nominally controlled the destiny of Spain, but local and regional juntas were for all practical purposes autonomous. Half a dozen Spanish armies were holding the Ebro River line, but only three were of any substantial size. Blake’s 43,000-man Army of Galicia held the right, General Francisco Castanos’s Army of the Center held place with 30,000 men, and the left was anchored by General Jose Palafox’s 43,000-man Army of Aragon. There was no central commander, however, to give the Spanish defenders unity and purpose.

Moore finally left Lisbon for Spain on October 27. Iberian roads were notoriously poor, and Moore’s expedition was dogged from the start by shortages of transport and supply. Bad planning and advice further hampered British operations. Moore’s staff insisted, with the concurrence of local guides, that the road to Coimbra was unsuitable for guns and heavy transport. Moore accepted the verdict and split his command. The red-coated infantry would march to Spain via the Coimbra road, while the guns, transport vehicles, and cavalry under General John Hope would take a more circuitous 380-mile route through Elvas, Badajos, Talavera, and Escurial. This meant that the artillery and cavalry had to travel 130 miles farther than their infantry comrades.

In the meantime, Baird was having his own troubles. His transports arrived off Corunna on October 13, but Spanish authorities refused permission to land until October 26. It was hard on the redcoats, who were increasingly seasick and packed like sardines into transport holds. The landing contretemps was just the beginning of Baird’s problems. Spanish authorities gave him lavish promises of support each day, but provided nothing. Baird needed carts for transportation of supplies, but none was forthcoming. Finally the Spanish relented, but only if their putative allies would pay prices that bordered on extortion. The British had no choice—they paid.

General Lord Henry Paget, Marquis of Angelsey.
General Lord Henry Paget, Marquis of Angelsey.

Baird finally left Corunna to rendezvous with Moore, but it was clear from the outset that his progress would be painfully slow. Moore was also experiencing continued difficulties. Autumn rains began to fall, and thousands of marching feet pummeled and churned the wet dirt into a glutinous muck. Local guides were indifferent, untrustworthy, or just plain ignorant. Marching columns probed their way through Portugal and into Spain by means of sending their own scouting officers ahead on horseback.

Spanish Forces Flee

By November 11, Moore’s main column had crossed the border into Spain. They continued on to the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo, where the redcoats received a warm and tumultuous welcome. Cries of “Viva los Ingleses!” filled the air, and cannon salutes were fired from the ramparts. Moore and his 20,000 men reached Salamanca on November 13. The great university city was to be his new concentration point because Burgos, the original rendezvous, was in French hands. The next two weeks found Moore ensconced in Salamanca, waiting for Hope and Baird to join him. He had little choice, because he badly needed the cavalry, guns, and reinforcements his two subordinates would supply. There was also another concern—lack of reliable intelligence. The Supreme Junta urged the British forward, but the Spanish were vague when it came to discussing what was happening in the rest of the country. The British general knew that Napoleon was personally in Spain, but little else filtered through.

While Moore waited, the Spanish seemed to stumble from disaster to disaster. Blake, in some ways the best of a bad lot, was defeated at Espinosa on November 10-11, but he managed somehow to escape destruction. The Army of Galicia was scattered, though some 10,000 men managed to stay with the colors. Marshal Nicolas Soult’s II Corps took Burgos and pressed on, trying to catch Blake and the remnants of his army. Soult pounced on Blake at Reynosa, but managed only to defeat the Spaniard’s rear guard and his baggage train. Blake escaped, but he was finished as a fighting force. Spanish resistance was collapsing like a house of cards.

Madrid Falls

Moore was still at Salamanca, waiting for Baird and Hope to join him before resuming the offensive. When he finally received word of the Spanish rout at Tudela, he decided it was time for the British Army to extricate itself from an increasingly perilous situation. Moore made preparations to retreat, but then changed his mind when new intelligence reached him. The French were threatening Madrid, and the Spanish were ready to resist. Moore also got a letter from General La Romana, who assured him that he was marshaling the remnants of Blake’s defeated forces for another offensive.

Marshal Louis Berthier, left, reports on the British advance to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Chamartin.
Marshal Louis Berthier, left, reports on the British advance to Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Chamartin.

The belated arrival of Hope and the army’s artillery and cavalry on December 4 tipped the scales in favor of a renewed British effort. Moore was becoming more bellicose, but his enthusiasm was tempered by a hard-headed realism. “If the bubble bursts and Madrid falls, we shall have to run for it,” he warned. The bubble soon burst—Napoleon took Madrid on December 4, although Moore was not aware of the fact for several days. On December 11, 22,500 British infantry, 2,500 cavalry, and 66 guns departed Salamanca and headed northeast. Moore’s decision was bold, but based on false assumptions. He thought that Madrid was holding out and that Napoleon had no more than 80,000 troops at his disposal. In reality, the Grand Armee had some 250,000 troops operating on the peninsula.

Moore finally got the news that Madrid had fallen, but he was not deterred from his course. The British marched on, and Moore’s resolve was strengthened by a stroke of good fortune: a French courier who possessed some vital information was captured. The British general finally realized the danger he was in—Napoleon’s troop dispositions were revealed—but he also knew there were opportunities for an offensive. Soult’s II Corps was scattered and only 100 miles away. If Moore could rapidly march north toward Sahagun, he might catch the unsuspecting Soult in the flank and heavily defeat him. If he could destroy the II Corps, Moore could threaten the vital French lines of communication along the Madrid-Burgos-Bayonne highway. Madrid might have fallen, but Moore’s action might well disrupt French plans and upset Napoleon’s timetable for the conquest.

Little Victories for the British

Napoleon had known since at least November 21 that there was a British army in Spain, but he concentrated his efforts on defeating the Spanish armies, taking Madrid and restoring his brother Joseph to his shaky throne. By early December, the emperor was busy trying to modernize and reform Spain’s antiquated government, issuing a flurry of orders that abolished such institutions as the Spanish Inquisition. Napoleon assumed that the British were in full retreat to Portugal, and he gave them little thought. On December 20, Moore and Baird linked up at Mayorga; the British expeditionary force was finally united. Chances seemed good for a surprise victory since Soult was still unaware of the British advance.

It was bitterly cold and snow blanketed the ground, but British cavalry commander General Lord Henry Paget and his men mounted up at around 2 am on the morning of December 21 and headed for Sahagun, where some of Soult’s cavalry was known to be posted. The British horsemen managed to overwhelm the French cavalry pickets outside of town, but one or two Gallic troopers escaped to give warning.

Seeing this, Paget ordered his subordinate General John Slade to take the 10th Hussars and attack the town directly. While French attention was distracted, Paget planned to sweep around Sahagun and trap them. But Slade was slow in obeying his orders, allowing the French to exit the town unmolested. The pompous general had delayed the attack while he regaled his men with a long-winded and wholly unnecessary speech.

Pursued by the French II and XI Corps, British General Moore had no choice but to begin a three-week-long retreat to Corunna, on the extreme northwest coast of Spain.
Pursued by the French II and XI Corps, British General Moore had no choice but to begin a three-week-long retreat to Corunna, on the extreme northwest coast of Spain.

Dawn broke and the French cavalry—the 8th Dragoons and 1st Provisional Chasseurs—sighted Paget and the 15th Hussars just to the south. Thinking them to be Spanish cavalry, the French horsemen were utterly contemptuous of the new threat. Paget decided to charge at once, a decision his men greeted with a sense of relief. The cold was so intense that the troopers were wearing their pelisses, rather than having them slung over their left shoulders, and many were wearing cloaks on top of that.

Paget and the 15th Hussars went forward at the gallop, quickly covering the 400 yards between themselves and the enemy. The half-frozen British troopers had trouble holding their reins and sabers with cold-numbed fingers, but the charge was successful. The French lines were broken and the survivors scattered. When the action ended, some 157 Frenchmen had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. British losses stood at 14. It was a significant little victory, but the French were now alerted that the British were in the area. Moore brought the rest of the army up to Sahagun that same day, and allowed his men two days of much-needed rest. As it turned out, the halt was a nearly fatal delay.

Moore’s Chaotic Retreat

On December 23, Moore learned that Napoleon, now fully aware of the British presence, was marching against him with all the force he could muster. There was no other alternative but to retreat to avoid being trapped and annihilated. The main body of redcoats would retreat to Corunna, some 200 miles away, over frigid mountain roads that bore little resemblance to conventional thoroughfares. The rank and file received the news with mixed emotions. They had not yet engaged in a battle of any major consequence, and the few minor clashes with the enemy had been victories. Many of the troops resented what seemed to them a cowardly withdrawal. Baird’s men were the most disgruntled—they had landed at Corunna, and now they would have to retrace their steps.

The march was chaotic from the very beginning. Heavily loaded commissary and baggage wagons lumbered along, pulled up tortuous mountain tracks by oxen and mules already near exhaustion. The animals soon started to falter and die. Some perished naturally, while others were spared a lingering death by a merciful bullet. The men were not in much better shape. Rifleman Benjamin Harris of the 95th Rifles later recalled that in the beginning of the retreat they marched for four days and nights without a moment’s rest. Such an ordeal was bound to have an effect on even the toughest old soldier, and many of the newer recruits began to stagger and fall. Sometimes they rose again, sometimes they did not, but usually no one came to their aid.

The agonizing trek continued with scarcely a pause. Moore’s army had seen little fighting, but had marched hundreds of miles even before the retreat was ordered. Uniforms and equipment, already showing wear and tear, began to disintegrate under the ever-worsening conditions. Felt shakos were so weather-beaten that they assumed strange, lopsided shapes, and once-immaculate red or green tunics became torn and filthy.

General Moore receives his fatal wound at Corunna, January 16, 1809.
General Moore receives his fatal wound at Corunna, January 16, 1809.

When the British did manage to sleep in a Spanish peasant hovel, they arose the next morning to find their uniforms swarming with vermin. Above all, the men’s shoes wore out, forcing many of them to trudge barefoot through viscous muck or frost-tinged trails. Harris was soon barefoot, and the constant marching pushed his sturdy constitution to its limits. “My feet were sore and bleeding,” he later remembered, “and the sinews of my legs ached as if they would burst.” Heavy rain, snow, and sleet alternated, soaking every soldier to the skin. What food the redcoats had in their haversacks was quickly consumed, and a gnawing hunger added to their growing miseries.

The British rear guard, mainly cavalry, managed to keep order and discipline, perhaps because the French were at their heels. At Benevente, near the flooded Esla River, there was a clash with some of Napoleon’s elite mounted chasseurs of the Imperial Guard. On December 29, the emperor ordered General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes to advance to the river as rapidly as possible and destroy the British rear guard on the south bank of the Esla. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the British had already crossed, and Engineer Captain J.F. Burgoyne had the unusual experience of preparing the bridge over the Esla for demolition while the French emperor and his staff watched from a distance. The bridge was blown sky-high within minutes.

Napoleon’s Imperial Guard Meets Disaster

Lefebvre-Desnouettes was a personal favorite of Napoleon, and his men were the emperor’s “favored children,” troopers who formed his personal escort. The mounted chasseurs of the Imperial Guard were widely considered the finest horsemen in Europe. Lefebvre-Desnouettes had three or four squadrons of troopers, mainly chasseurs and a few mamelukes, the latter in Middle Eastern garb. The French, who numbered about 600, found a ford and crossed with little difficulty, driving away the British pickets.

A counterattack by the 18th Light Dragoons was easily repulsed. The dragoons fell back, only to reform and attack again with mounted elements of the King’s German Legion. The bloody fight seesawed back and forth, but the British and their German allies were forced to withdraw when they were about to be encircled. The 18th Dragoons and German horsemen fell back to Benevente, hotly pursued by triumphant chasseurs. The French cavaliers were known for their panache and élan, but something else spurred them on—Napoleon was watching from afar.

With their blood up, the chasseurs became less cautious, running right into Paget’s 10th Hussars, who were lying in wait. Paget was there himself, making sure that he and his men remained hidden until the trap was sprung. Paget then led his men forward, crashing into the surprised Frenchmen at the gallop. The chasseurs fought with desperate courage, but the British had the advantage of surprise. Steel clashed with steel, and the British swords were so sharp that French heads and limbs were severed at a single stroke.

The chasseurs broke, starting a two-mile running fight back to the river. French troopers plunged into the water, hoping to gain the safety of the south bank; many drowned in the attempt. Lefebvre-Desnouettes was wounded by a pistol shot and taken prisoner. Some 75 chasseurs joined him in captivity, while another 55 lay dead or wounded on the field. British casualties numbered around 50. This was a blow to the emperor’s vaunted Imperial Guard. Rifleman Harris marched next to Lefebvre-Desnouettes for a time, noting his “dejected look as he rode along in the midst of the greenjackets.”

Disorder in the British Ranks

It is fortunate that the cavalry skirmish occurred early in the retreat. Later, as conditions grew grimmer, cavalry horses died or were shot in droves. There were no replacement shoes or even nails to be had. Mounts quickly became lame, and only a merciful bullet ended their torment. One soldier recalled: “The heavy rains have swollen and burst many of the carcasses and the infected air hovers so rancorously about our heads, it is almost impossible to pass in any direction without feeling violent contractions of the stomach.”

Moore had originally intended to make a stand at Astorgas, and he told Spanish General La Romana of his decision. La Romana approved, since mountain passes in the general vicinity were easily defendable. In fact, La Romana’s men joined the British at Astorga, since they were unable to retreat to Asturias as originally planned owing to heavy snows. The would-be allies clashed immediately, as British and Spanish soldiers fought for the best billets. Hordes of redcoats prowled the streets in search of liquor, looting shops and houses with inebriated abandon.

Moore had to reconsider his options. The British Army was disintegrating and discipline washing away in a sea of wine and rum. Exhausted, starving, and half-drunk, many regiments were in no condition to fight. There was nothing to do but push on for Corunna, a decision that a furious La Romana considered abandonment. As if adding insult to injury, ammunition and other stores were blown up at Astorga, supplies that were originally intended for the Spanish. From the British point of view, the supply wagons were slow and cumbersome, and the draft animals were dying off like flies. Rather put the wagons to the torch than have them fall into the hands of the enemy.

The Light Division and King’s German Legion split off from the main body and marched to the seaport city of Vigo. This was done to guard the main body’s southern flank and also to lessen the pressure on an already overburdened commissary situation. They successfully escaped French attention and embarked for England on January 17.

Meanwhile, officers began to lose control of their men, and even the draconian punishments of the period were no deterrent. A rifleman named Howans grumbled within earshot of General Robert Craufurd, damning the eyes of the officer. Craufurd sentenced the miscreant to 300 lashes, which he took without even being tied up. Howans survived the ordeal and was ready to march again within minutes. He let his Irish wife carry his green jacket, knapsack, and pouch, the only concession he would make to his lacerated and heavily bleeding back.

Spanish civilians fled the British, who now resembled a barbarian horde more than a modern army. Those villagers who did stay were often robbed, mistreated, and at times even murdered. Little food could be found in the villages, although wine and other spirits seemed to be in abundance. An officer in the commissariat was of the opinion that copious amounts of rum and raw salted fish on empty stomachs killed some solders outright. At Villafranca, mobs of drunken soldiers sacked the town, then refused to obey orders to return to their colors. Many hid in the wine cellars or lay sprawled about in a wine-induced stupor. Some 1,000 of these soldiers were caught by French cavalry and ruthlessly sabered.

Moore, a humane man at heart, was sickened by his army’s transformation into an unruly mob. He gave a heartfelt speech to his ragged redcoats, appealing to their sense of duty, honor, and country. To reinforce his words, a looter was hanged in front of the assembled troops. It was no use—the marauding continued, and perhaps even accelerated.

The Battle of Corunna

The British Army finally reached Corunna on January 11, 1809. The sudden appearance of thousands of ragged, emaciated scarecrows in dirty red tunics shocked the local populace. Some even made the sign of the cross when the soldiers passed, as if beseeching God to protect them from the horrible sight. The men were ragged, dirty, and barefoot, and many had not shaved in several weeks. Even the officers had beards, looking like figures from the Old Testament.

In all, Moore had lost around 5,000 men during the retreat, and another 3,500 had taken ship at Vigo. His surviving men, grateful to be alive, were fed and re-equipped by Corunna’s bulging stores. In the meantime, Napoleon was unhappily aware that the British birds had flown. There was little glory in a fruitless chase, and the emperor never liked to be associated with failure on any level. He abandoned the pursuit and left Moore to his underlings. Early in January, Napoleon received word that Austria was mobilizing against him. It was time to go. Leaving a reduced force under Soult, Napoleon departed for Paris.

Although the British Army had arrived at Corunna on the 11th, the Royal Navy evacuation fleet did not show up until three days later. The forest of masts was a welcome sight, with 100 transports and 12 warships crowding into the harbor. Moore lost no time in transferring his men to the ships, but Soult caught up with the British. It was plain that the French marshal was not going to let them leave unmolested.

Moore decided to defend the Monte Mero, a low ridge two miles south of Corunna. The left of the ridge was anchored by the Rio del Burgo, but on the right the ridge ended and overlooked a valley. To protect this exposed flank, he placed a third of his remaining army. Most of his 16,000 men were infantry with some guns in support. The cavalry and what was left of the horses were already aboard transports.

The ensuing Battle of Corunna, fought on January 16, was a seesaw affair that was a British tactical victory, though the French could claim a strategic (if temporary) triumph since ultimately their foes sailed home. The exposed right flank saw the heaviest fighting, and Moore personally rode over to assess the situation and encourage the men. The 50th Foot was forced back, but the 42nd Highlanders, the famed Black Watch, drove back the French with bayonets. Moore watched the fighting, crying out, “Remember Egypt!” by way of encouragement. A cannonball struck Moore in the left shoulder, tearing it away with part of the collarbone. Great gouts of blood pumped from the wound, in spite of efforts to stanch the flow.

Moore died a short time later. His last hours were ones of great physical suffering, but he was consoled by the fact that the French had been defeated and his army was safe. The British had lost approximately 800 dead and wounded, while French casualties numbered 1,500. French artillery harassed the enemy troops as they embarked, but British support fire from nearby frigates drove them back.

The Spanish garrison fought bravely, refusing to surrender until their British allies were safely away. Soult was left with a hollow strategic victory. He honored his fallen foe by erecting a monument to Moore. On the surface, Napoleon’s triumph seemed complete. But the British still had a foothold in Portugal, and they would return. Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, learned from the tragic retreat to Corunna. By carefully marshaling his forces and not depending on his wobbly Spanish allies, the Iron Duke would win many victories in the process and ultimately would expel the French from the Iberian Peninsula.

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