Send Me Safely Back Again is a novel, but the story is firmly rooted in the real events of 1809. The 106th Regiment of Foot is an invention – the actual regiment with that number having a brief life in the 1790s. However, I have tried to make the behaviour of its officers and men reflect the real lives of the redcoats in this era.
The 3rd Battalion of Detachments is another invention. In reality, the 1st and 2nd Battalions of Detachments were formed at Lisbon in February 1809 and served throughout the year. Like the fictional 3rd Battalion, they were composed of men left behind by their corps before or during Sir John Moore’s advance into Spain – the campaign described in Beat the Drums Slowly. Many of the soldiers were veterans, and Wellesley was satisfied with their conduct in battle. The story of men on the Medellín Hill calling out for someone to lead them comes from an eyewitness account, but in spite of initial confusion the men held their ground. On the march, these men tended to be prodigious looters, largely because they were no longer within the close family of their own regiment, and were often led by officers and NCOs who were strangers to them.
As in previous books, many of the episodes in the story are taken from real incidents in these campaigns. Readers may struggle to believe that a man could be hit on the backpack by a cannon shot and then flung several yards without being seriously hurt. Yet a memoir by a soldier in the 61st Foot describes this happening to a sergeant in his company at Talavera. Major General Hill did ride into a group of French light infantrymen on the Medellín Hill at Talavera. One of his staff was shot and killed, his own horse wounded, but remained strong enough to carry him away. Only the inclusion of Wickham is an invention. At the Battle of Medellín I have given Williams and Dobson credit for the bravery of others. Cuesta was knocked from his horse and trampled by his own cavalry as they fled. He was then rescued by a small group including his own nephew and Colonel D’Urban.
D’Urban, along with all of the generals and virtually all the other senior officers in the British, Spanish and French armies, is real. Lower down there are more inventions. Baynes, Velarde, Epsinosa and La Doña Margarita are all fictional. Sir Robert Wilson is too colourful a character to have invented. His father was the portrait artist Benjamin Wilson, who was made Sergeant Painter by King George III when Hogarth died in 1764. The royal connection helped Robert’s career, and he was indeed knighted by the Austrian Emperor. I have tried to give a flavour of Wilson’s restless, erratic talent. He was a highly productive author and unrelenting self-publicist. He certainly provided a charismatic leader for the Loyal Lusitanian Legion. Reluctant to accept any authority, he moved swiftly from Portugal across the Spanish border, gathering up Spanish troops as well as a force of redcoats cut off during the retreat to Corunna, who were indeed mounted on horses and mules.
Wilson’s operations were certainly a great nuisance to the French, much larger in scale than any guerrilla activity in that region at such an early stage in the war. He achieved a lot with very scant resources, but sadly his actual achievements never quite equalled his own spectacular claims. Wellesley did his best to rein in Wilson to follow orders, but was soon moved to describe him as ‘. . . a very slippery fellow . . . and he has not the talent of being able to speak the truth upon any subject’. After Talavera Wilson and the Legion engaged Marshal Ney unnecessarily at the Pass of Banos and were soundly defeated. In the months and years to come Wilson rewrote the battle and turned it into a great victory. He soon left the Peninsula, never to return, but would be attached to the Russian Army in 1812 and the subsequent campaigns in central Europe, and managed to get himself involved in intrigues against the Tsar. After the war he became a fervent advocate of Bonaparte.
A more flamboyant figure even than Wilson, and certainly a better soldier, was Lasalle, who led the charge at Medellín and epitomised the beau sabreur of Napoleon’s army. Gaudily dressed, brave to a fault, charismatic and charming, in 1806 Lasalle had bluffed a Prussian fortress into surrendering to his lightly equipped regiments of hussars – dubbed ‘the infernal brigade’. His party piece of aiming in a mirror and firing over his shoulder at wine glasses is well attested, as is his claim that ‘an hussar who isn’t dead by thirty is a jean-foutre’ – an expression impossible to translate and variously rendered as blackguard, scoundrel or a more modern expletive. In Napoleon’s Italian campaigns there are stories of Lasalle sneaking through enemy lines to visit his mistress. On another occasion in central Europe his hussars unexpectedly fled from the enemy. As punishment Lasalle is supposed to have drawn them up in full view of Russian artillery and kept them there for hours, sitting on his horse at their head and calmly smoking his pipe as shot and shell struck home. Like many of the tales surrounding him, no doubt this one grew in the telling. Lasalle was prone to spells of melancholy, but his spectacular boldness masked considerable skill in understanding ground and an instinctive judgement of when to charge. A few months after he appears in Send Me Safely Back Again, Lasalle was shot dead leading the pursuit of the Austrians at Wagram. He was thirty-four.
King Joseph Bonaparte was reluctantly made King of Spain by his brother. A man of literary and liberal inclinations, he did his best to win popularity. Some Spanish welcomed him, and many of the higher posts in his regime were filled by Spanish aristocrats. In the end his efforts to consolidate his rule were thwarted by Napoleon’s belief that his wider empire was simply a resource to be exploited for the benefit of France and his own ambitions, and also because the military situation was never brought fully under his control. As long as Spanish armies continued to resist, supported by the guerrillas and the regular forces of Britain and Portugal, then King Joseph could not feel secure. Many civilians who wished only for a peaceful life to go about their business and raise their families might well have come to accept Joseph’s rule if his victory seemed certain.
Yet somehow, in spite of repeated French successes such as Medellín, the Spanish and their allies kept fighting. Spanish armies were routed time and again, only to reform in a matter of months and once again take the field. In the Peninsula the French proved unable to join their battlefield successes together. One reason was the difficulty of communication between corps operating considerable distances apart in country where couriers were often intercepted and killed unless given a strong escort. This encouraged the already pronounced tendency for each marshal or general to act independently – something already inherent in a military system designed to emphasise the Emperor and prevent the emergence of a rival. None of the marshals or generals respected Joseph as a commander, since his military experience was limited. They were equally reluctant to subordinate themselves to any of the other marshals for any length of time. The situation was made worse by Napoleon’s frequent interference, issuing a stream of orders from far away. The overall plan for the 1809 campaign was drawn up by the Emperor as he was fighting the Austrians on the Danube. It was based on long-out-of-date information, and then took weeks to reach Joseph and his generals in Spain.
The French faced many difficulties which hindered their operations. Even so, and in spite of the renewal of war with Austria, large numbers of French soldiers remained in the Peninsula. Most of these men were veterans by now – even if they began their military service as reluctant conscripts. They were led by experienced officers at all levels, and commanded by generals and marshals all of whom had earned their rank through past achievements.
The same was not true of the Spanish. Badly neglected in the period before the war, the Spanish Army suffered a long succession of defeats and only one major success, at Bailén in 1808. Spanish losses were heavy, and included many of the professional soldiers from the old regular army. In spite of the disasters, the armies kept reforming, and new conscripts answered the demand of the authorities to present themselves for military service. Everything was short – equipment, uniforms, food and most of all money. There was also never enough time for training. In some ways the situation resembles the early years of the Second World War, when Allied armies with inferior tactics and equipment met their highly motivated and more skilful opponents. Often their generals were blamed for systemic failings beyond their control.
Don Gregorio de la Cuesta was scarcely one of history’s great captains, but we should feel some sympathy for the difficulties he faced. There was simply neither time nor resources to make his army a match for the French. Yet it was vital to keep fighting, and that he did. It really was a miracle that he was able to take the field and join an Allied offensive so soon after the slaughter at Medellín. His reluctance to attack Victor on 23rd July surely led to his missing a great opportunity to overwhelm a single French corps, while his subsequent burst of aggression risked leading his own army to another disaster. Yet against that we should set his willingness to co-operate with the British in the first place, and the readiness with which Spanish troops were sent to support the British centre and to occupy the ground north of the Medellín Hill at Talavera.
Some of Cuesta’s unpredictable and erratic behaviour was due to the Byzantine politics of the Spanish patriot cause. With government effectively decapitated by the French invasion, it proved difficult to rebuild it and create an authority capable of prosecuting the war effort. Regional juntas clashed repeatedly with the Central Junta, and at all levels factionalism was intense. Different parties and ideologies competed to shape the new Spain that would emerge from victory, and all too often ignored the fact that victory had yet to be won. There was serious talk of a general becoming dictator. Men like Cuesta believed with some justice that many of their fellow generals and subordinates were real or potential rivals. He clearly also saw Wellesley in the same light. To a degree he was right, for Wellesley did write to the British representative at the Central Junta expressing a hope that Cuesta would be replaced.
There is a tendency to see Wellesley as always the ‘Iron Duke’, from the very start the skilled diplomat and consummate general at the head of a superb army. With hindsight, Talavera becomes one of an almost inevitable sequence of successes, which in time would drive the French back across the Pyrenees. Wellington – as he became – won all the battles he fought, culminating in Waterloo, where the French ‘came on in the same old style’ and were defeated by the thin red lines of British infantry.
As is usually the case, reality was a good deal more complicated and there was little inevitable about his victory. In so many ways Talavera does not fit with the other battles of the first years of the war. It is important to remember that it was fought just a few days’ march from Madrid, and that the Spanish capital was the objective of the campaign. Wellesley was on the offensive, much deeper into Spain that he would dare to venture again until 1812. All the more striking is the fact that he attempted this operation less than six months after Sir John Moore had found himself stranded deep in Spain following the defeat of the Spanish armies, and been forced to retreat through the mountains and evacuate his men by sea.
There is a boldness about Wellesley’s lightning attack on Soult at Oporto and the subsequent advance into Spain reminiscent of his years in India and his eagerness to close with the French in Portugal in 1808. There are also signs of inexperience. In 1809 Wellesley’s army was almost twice the size of the force he had commanded at Vimeiro, and bigger than anything he had led in India. Neither the commander-in-chief nor his generals and their staffs had any experience of directing so large a force – unlike the French, by whose standards this was no more than a modestly sized corps d’armée. The divisions were new, formed in the course of the campaign, and not yet accustomed to working together.
Most of the battalions considered most ready for active service had marched with Moore, and few had yet recovered sufficiently from the rigours of that campaign to return to the Peninsula. Wellesley’s army consisted largely of units left behind or recently arrived, and in many cases not yet accustomed to the local climate and conditions. More than half were second battalions, whose main role was supposed to be to feed recruits to the First Battalion of the regiment. Their soldiers tended to be less experienced and younger than the men of the first battalions. Large numbers had recently transferred from the militia, and many were indeed still carrying their old packs or wearing their militia uniforms when they fought at Talavera.
Signs of inexperience are not hard to find. On 27th July the troops at Casa de Salinas failed to post a proper piquet line and, as described in the story, several battalions broke when the French suddenly appeared. That night the KGL brigades were sent to the wrong place following a staff error, and when the mistake was discovered faced an aggravating extra march when they were already tired. Although this may explain why they repeated the same mistake and did not post piquets, it still does not excuse such sloppiness. The Medellín Hill was the key feature at Talavera, and yet its occupation was haphazard and incomplete. Major General Hill is usually blamed for this since his Second Division was supposed to hold the top of the feature. By his own admission he dined in town and only then went to check that his men were in place, arriving in time to run into the French attack. Hill would become Wellington’s most trusted subordinate in the Peninsula and had already served in 1808 and in Moore’s campaign. Almost captured or killed as he rode to find out what was going on, Hill quickly got control of the situation.
Hill probably should have been on the Medellín supervising the deployment, and never repeated the mistake. Yet in the end Wellesley was the commanding general, and it was ultimately his responsibility to ensure that his instructions were carried out. As far as we can tell he remained with the Spanish throughout the evening, supervising the reorganisation after the panicked flight of the soldiers frightened by the noise of their own volley. It is entirely understandable that he wanted to be certain that his right flank was securely held, but even if he could not go in person it was a mistake that almost had serious consequences. The French attack came close to seizing the Medellín, and might well have succeeded if two out of the three regiments taking part had not got lost. The inattention of the generals also reveals a lack of experience among their staffs. All would learn from the near-disaster, and incidents like this no doubt reinforced Wellesley’s tendency to do as much as he could personally.
Wellesley complained repeatedly about the indiscipline of his soldiers. Like Moore, he found them brave as lions in battle, but all too ready to plunder and misbehave on other occasions. At Talavera, eight battalions surged forward in reckless pursuit of the first wave of attacking French columns and were promptly chased back by their supports. A new line was formed only just in time to halt the French, until enough of the retreating troops rallied behind them. It was a tight thing. A good deal of the credit must go to Wellesley, who sent men down from the Medellín to plug the gaping hole in his line. As important was General MacKenzie, who moved his own brigade of his Third Division to shore up the right of the line. MacKenzie was killed in the fighting, and this probably explains why a weary Wellesley made little mention of his actions in his dispatch after the battle. The fictional 3rd Battalion of Detachments takes the place of the real 2/24th Foot from MacKenzie’s brigade throughout the Battle of Talavera. MacKenzie seems to have moved them first, positioning them behind the Guards in case they were driven back, before he began to bring up other troops. The 24th held the vital end of the line, suffering heavily as a result, so that by the end of the battle they were formed in just a single rank instead of the usual two.
The French ought to have won at Talavera. The Allies’ plan had always been to keep the French armies apart so that each could be overwhelmed separately. They did not want to fight the combined strength of Victor, Sebastiani and King Joseph’s reserve, and yet that is precisely what happened at Talavera. The Spanish Army was well emplaced on the right, but Wellesley’s position was not a strong one. Unlike in his famous defensive battles, there was no ridge offering a reverse slope position, apart from along a small section of the Medellín Hill. Instead his battalions formed in an open plain, within view of the especially powerful French artillery. For hours these were able to pound the position. Ordering the battalions to lie down gave some protection, but scarcely made them safe. Although the British suffered some five thousand casualties against more than seven thousand suffered by the French, the British lost a significantly larger number of dead. This was doubtless a reflection of the number of men hit by cannon fire rather than the less lethal musket balls.
Most of the British losses were suffered by the infantry, and many of the battalions lost well over a third of their strength, and some even greater losses. Anson’s brigade of light cavalry launched an exceptionally aggressive charge in the valley to the north of the Medellín Hill and lost large numbers of men and horses. It was tempting to include this dramatic episode in the story, but really it did not fit and it would have been difficult to involve any of the characters in something happening at the far end of the battlefield. We will probably see more of the cavalry’s war in future stories.
The divided command which hampered the French throughout the Peninsular War probably made their attacks at Talavera less co-ordinated than should have been the case. A stronger, earlier effort to advance into the valley north of the Medellín Hill combined with a frontal attack might well have proved very hard to resist. In the end, after one of the bloodiest encounters of the war, the French were repulsed and withdrew.
Strategically the French could claim a measure of success. King Joseph protected his capital. Had Wellesley continued his advance to face Soult, unaware that Ney and Mortier were with him, then it is hard to see how he could have avoided defeat. Such a defeat, following so close on the evacuation of Moore’s army, might well have led to Britain abandoning the Peninsula. The Emperor Napoleon had already rightly concluded that the British Army was the single greatest factor in keeping the war going.
Fortunately, Wellesley was warned of the danger he was facing and withdrew in time. The French could not remain concentrated for very long, and soon dispersed. Although Joseph’s capital was safe, the manoeuvres of the year meant that the French armies were not completing the conquest of Spain and consolidating the gains already made. In the longer term this helped Spanish armies to reform once again, and guerrilla bands to grow stronger.
In later years Wellington was very well informed about French dispositions and intentions. This was not true in 1809, with the result that the armies blundered around blindly, with little idea of the location of either enemy or allies. Both sides missed opportunities and had lucky escapes. Considerable effort was being devoted to creating a system for gathering and processing intelligence and topographic information, and Colonel Murray was heavily involved in this. Yet these were early days, and it took a long time for the system to function well. Like the rest of the army, these men were learning how to wage war against a tough and determined enemy well used to fighting on a grand scale. Apart from the personal trials and triumphs, this is at the heart of the story, as Hanley begins to find his niche in the army.
He and the others may be on their way home, but Wellington remained unbeaten at the end of 1809, and that meant that Britain’s involvement in the Peninsula would continue. There are more stories to be told.