The Battle of Corunna near Elvina, Spain, occurred on this day, January 14, 1809. I will not be going into the tactical specifics of this battle because I am not a military historian, and such things mostly go over my head. However, I will dwell on the background and aftermath of the battle, specifically what it meant on the larger scale of the Napoleonic Wars.
First of all, there was not just one long war against Napoleon. Only the United Kingdom fought the French powers consistently from 1803 onward. During this time, the UK formed coalitions with other European powers to repel the French. As various states fell to the invading French army, the alliances fell apart and, after a respite, a new coalition would be convened with the nations now in the path of Napoleon.
The Iberian Peninsula did not share in these coalitions. What is called the Peninsular War began in 1807, when the French and Spanish armies invaded Portugal. Then, in 1808, Napoleon turned on Spain and installed his brother, Joseph, on the throne. After this point, a Spanish faction turned to the UK to assist in ousting the French. However, not all of Spain welcomed the presence of UK soldiers. Many juntas had emerged grappling for power, and some saw the British as yet another invading army. Others outright supported Joseph. The complicated civil war waged in the background as British commanders attempted to lead without clear support from the Spaniards or Portuguese, making battles against the French hard-won.
During this time, Arthur Wellesley, later known as the Duke of Wellington, gained fame. Already an experienced soldier, having joined as an ensign in 1787 and experienced battle in the Netherlands and India, Wellesley defeated France twice in August 1808 soon after arriving in Spain.
However, in the weeks before the Battle of Corunna, Wellesley was in London facing an official inquiry regarding the Convention of Sintra. This was an accord between the British and French after the Battle of Vimeo in which Wellesley had allowed the retreating French to pass unharassed to their strongholds along with heavy armaments and supplies. The investigation concluded that Wellesley was merely following orders, and the primary architect of the accord, General Hew Dalrymple, was taken from active posting.
With Wellesley in London for this inquiry, Sir John Moore took over command. And instead of the expected Spanish troops, Napoleon led a force of 100,000 veterans of his Grande Armee, the soldiers who had conquered the rest of the Continent. The British units were separated and had heard of defeats from the Portuguese.
At first, Moore was determined to retreat. However, upon learning that the Spanish force, led by the French General Jean-de-Dieu Soult, was similar in size to his own 16,000 men (his cavalry and artillery were dispersed elsewhere), Moore ordered an attack. Meeting up with another British unit, Moore’s forces grew to 23,000, giving him higher odds of victory.
The attack started off well on December 21, but then Moore stalled, allowing his foe to concentrate his troops. In the process, Moore drew the attention of Napoleon himself. He ordered 80,000 French troops across 200 miles within ten days and in blizzard conditions to try to catch Moore.
Moore outran Napoleon to the coast, and the French Emperor gave up the chase, returning 45,000 troops to Madrid before personally leaving Spain to attend to matters in France.
Despite Napoleon’s best efforts, Moore did not see battle again until January 16, when his forces were gathered near the coast to evacuate on ships. It was here, at the Port of Corunna, that General Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s original force of 16,000 met Moore. Fighting was fierce, and, in the end, neither side gained much ground. However, the British were able to hold their line until darkness when the battle ended and allowed them to board their ships and retreat at daybreak.
Although Moore died in battle, the result of a cannonball, it is recorded that he continued to give orders during his final hours. While escaping the port, the British had to burn several ships so they could not be captured. They also had to abandon sick men and units who had not kept up due to a lack of discipline during the retreat. Due to the winter conditions and the hasty evacuation, the numbers of sick increased to 5,000 by the time they reached Plymouth.
At the time, British leadership considered the battle a loss. The Times called it a “shameful disaster.” Even worse, as British troops were useless in stopping Napoleon’s advance in Spain, Anglo-Spanish relations suffered. Some historians have had a gentler analysis, however, noting the sense in Moore’s retreat.
History tells us that, eventually, the British and Allied forces would prevail on the Peninsula. Wellesley arrived in April of 1809, achieving intermittent success mingled with times of retreat. Once Russia decimated French troops, and the Allies grew to include Prussia and the Austrian Empire in 1812, Napoleon pulled out of Spain. Joseph Bonaparte’s control collapsed in the decisive Anglo-Allied victory at Vitoria. Wellesley was hailed a hero and went on to triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815.
What history cannot tell us, though, is how Wellesley would have handled the disorganization Moore had faced. Would it have been Wellesley who paid with his life instead of Moore? What then would have become of the British forces and the history of Europe?
Regardless of speculations about the alternate paths history might have taken, we can be assured that for the ordinary soldiers and the loved ones who missed them, the effects of battle were never forgotten. Inspired by researching the Peninsular War led me to include the Battle of Corunna as background for Colonel Fitzwilliam in one of my stories. Can you guess which book?
Pulling him from his thoughts, his travelling companion spoke. “Darcy, will you stop that infernal tapping?”
Darcy smiled at his cousin, Richard. “You certainly are grumpy this morning!”
“Have I not a right to be so when I know our destination?”
“You have faced worst foes on the battlefield, I am sure.”
“Spoken like a politician! You would have me go back and fight over the same piece of land again and again! Or would you order me to infiltrate and begin a coup from within?”
“The idea does have merit,” Darcy replied, thinking that if only their cousin Anne were encouraged to take a stand for herself, Rosings would be more bearable.
“That did not work well for me at Corunna,” Richard patted his knee. He had first been wounded in ‘09 and again mere weeks ago in the Battle of Ciudad Rodrigo. He was sent home to heal after a bayonet wound but otherwise was considered capable of following the flag still.
“I apologise. I did not mean to bring up painful memories. Is there talk of sending you back?”
“The Regiment is ever at the ready. Are you? Lady Catherine will be more desperate than ever for you to marry Anne.”
“She is not the only one I must worry about,” Darcy drawled. “Lady Darcy is also intent on my finding a wife.”
“Yes, if the papers are to be believed, you have danced every set at every one of the ton’s crushes for the last fortnight!” Richard leant forward and cast a worried gaze over his cousin. “Are you ill? Inheriting the barony has addled your mind?”
“I am as well as ever,” Darcy said in as even a tone as he could manage. The truth was, he did feel as though he might become a bit unhinged due to the stress.
“And what is with all your dancing with bluestockings? It gives you an aura of unattainability which drives the debutantes and their mamas wild with jealousy.”
Darcy quirked a brow. “And you ask out of concern… or envy?”
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