Friday, 2 January 2009

"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note..." - 200 years since the Retreat from Corunna and the death of General Sir John Moore

Sir John Moore was one of Britain's finest soldiers.

His greatest trial came in the winter of 1808-09, 200 years ago precisely, when, during the Peninsula War against Bonaparte, he commanded the British Army retreating to Corunna and thence to the coast for disembarkation.

This was a feat of arms and manoeuvre that, according to Wellington, was essential to the later victories in the Peninsula.

This was the Dunkirk of its day and every bit as vital to the preservation of the Army as was that much more well-known withdrawal.

Moore was an officer who transformed the whole approach to the selection, training and leadership of British soldiers, departing markedly from the old, rigid, formalised system that had been the norm for continental warfare. His emphasis was upon flexibility, concealment and camouflage, self-reliance and initiative. His example is now universally followed.

He was born in Glasgow, the son of a doctor. He attended Glasgow High School, but at the age of eleven joined his father and the Duke of Hamilton on a grand tour of France, Italy and Germany. This included a two-year stay in Geneva, where Moore's education continued.

He joined the British Army in 1776 as an ensign in the 51st Foot then based in Minorca.

He first saw action in 1778 during the American Revolutionary War as a lieutenant in the 82nd under the 8th Duke of Hamilton. In 1783 he returned to Britain and in 1784 he was elected to Parliament as the Member for Lanark, Selkirk, Peebles and Linlithgow, a seat he held until 1790.

In 1787 he was promoted Major and joined the 60th briefly before returning to the 51st.

In 1803 he returned to England to command a brigade at Shorncliffe camp near Folkestone, where he established the innovative training regime that produced Britain's first permanent light infantry regiments, including the famous Rifle Brigade, the first to wear green jackets, instead of red, and to be armed with rifles instead of the old smooth bore muskets.

A rifleman of the 95th Regiment
in the new green uniform, with green shako bearing the famous light infantry cap badge,
and using the new Baker rifle. Moore encouraged and developed such units.

These elite rifle Regiments marched at 140 paces a minute so that they could always be "last in, first out" of every engagement, their proud and famous boast.

Sir Arthur Bryant wrote:

"Moore's contribution to the British Army was not only that matchless Light Infantry who have ever since enshrined his training, but also the belief that the perfect soldier can only be made by evoking all that is finest in man - physical, mental and spiritual".

Sir John Moore earned his reputation as an exceptionally humane leader and trainer of men.

Sir John Moore by his horse

Moore took command of the British forces in the Iberian peninsula following the recall of Burrard, Dalrymple, and Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington), who faced an inquiry over the Convention of Cintra. When Napoleon arrived in Spain with 200,000 men, Moore drew the French northwards while retreating to his embarkation ports of La Coruña (Corunna) and Vigo.

The retreat was carried out in terrible conditions amidst slushy snow and ice and matters were made worse by the total breakdown of the Commissariat which in turn led to widespread indiscipline amongst the men. The roads quickly turned into quagmires beneath the tramping of thousands of feet and the troops suffered dreadful hardships in the bitterly cold winter weather.

Hundreds of men - as well as the women and children that had accompanied the army - gave up the will to live and, unable or unwilling to go on, simply lay down to die in the bleak Galician mountains or were captured by the pursuing French. There was little help forthcoming from the local Spanish people who were naturally reluctant to help a so-called "friendly" army that had left behind in its wake a trail of burning, pillaged hamlets, the sprawling, bloody bodies of the occupants bearing testament to the lawlessness of some units of the army.

The retreat continued with all but the most disciplined units of the army suffering a total breakdown of order - only the Guards and the Light Brigade rearguard under Sir Robert Craufurd were able to maintain full discipline and cohesion.

Craufurd - called "Black Bob" by his men - maintained an iron discipline, flogging men who disobeyed but also ordering his officers to share in the hardships of the men. Seeing an officer being carried on the shoulders of a man across a river, he leapt from his horse ordering the soldier to put the officer down and, when he had done so, told the now-soaked officer to go back and re-cross the river like his men.

J P Beadle. The Rearguard.
Sir Robert Craufurd - "Black Bob" - is shown mounted in the foreground inspecting his riflemen of the Light Brigade as they turn again to face the enemy and protect the retreating British Army's rear - "first in, last out" once more, this time on the retreat to Corunna.

The retreat finally came to a climax between January 11 and 16 when Moore's tired and tattered army dragged itself into Corunna, units arriving one by one in various states of dilapidation. The tall masts of the ships waiting in the harbour at Corunna were a welcome sight for Moore's men as they limped into the town.

Soon enough Marshal Soult’s pursuing French forces arrived. Soult had roughly the same number of men but had forty guns to Moore's nine. On the morning of January 16 the French attacked the British position along the entire length of its front, the heaviest attack being launched against the right flank where the French assault was accompanied by heavy and destructive artillery fire. The battle swayed one way then the other, particularly in the centre.

It was at the height of the battle that Moore was struck and terribly wounded by a round shot that flung him from his horse, nearly severing his left arm from his body.

The French troops were as exhausted as the British and as night fell the battle ground to a halt leaving the British troops time to hurry down to the waiting ships that were boarded without any interference from the French.

Both sides had suffered around 900 casualties during the battle which had ended in a British victory and Moore died knowing he had done his duty. As his men climbed into the ships a sad and sombre ceremony was being carried out on the ramparts of the town as Sir John Moore's body was lowered into the ground.

The army was saved, however, in spite of its poor condition and reduced numbers. It was not until later in the year 1809 that British troops were back in the Peninsula under the command of the recently exonerated General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington).

Marshal Soult, the French commander, magnanimously recognising the greatness of his dead enemy, once the French had taken Corunna, made sure that a fitting monument was built over Moore’s hasty grave. The monument was rebuilt and made more permanent in 1811.

The tomb of Sir John Moore in Corunna today

Sir John Moore's death was also famously commemorated by Charles Wolfe's great poem that so movingly captures the haste and sorrow that accompanied the burial of the great commander.

A contemporaneous representation of the burial of Sir John Moore

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna

By Charles Wolfe

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

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him—
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

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



Ttony said...

Thank you for retelling this story. There is a poem in the Galician language which says:

¡Descansa en paz, descansa en paz, ouh, Moore!
E vós que o amás, do voso honor celosos,
fillos de Albión, permanecei tranquilos.
Terra fidalga é nosa terra -tanto
cal linda Dios a quixo dar-, ben sabe
honra facer a quen merece honra,
i honrado así, cal mereceu, foi Moore.


Rest in Peace, rest in Peace, oh Moore!

And you, sons of Albion, who love him and are jealous of your honour, be calm.

Our land is a noble land - noble as it is beautiful as God willed - and knows how to honour one who deserves honour,

and thus honoured Moore, as he deserved.

Tribunus said...

Superb! Thanks, Ttony. Marvellous. Truly marvellous. Hurrah for free and Catholic Galicia!

Eduardo Freire Canosa said...

Congratulations, Ttony, for your very good translation.

I compared yours with mine and they match up surprisingly well. Of course no two translations of any lengthy text are ever identical!

I took the trouble--or rather the pleasure--of translating Rosalia's elegy in full and you and the blog's readers are welcome to vet the outcome on:

("Na tomba do xeneral inglés Sir John Moore" is poem #11).