The Battle of Corunna

’Twas in the year of 1808, and in the autumn of the year,
Napoleon resolved to crush Spain and Portugal without fear;
So with a mighty army three hundred thousand strong
Through the passes of the Pyrenees into Spain he passed along.

But Sir John Moore concentrated his troops in the north,
And into the west corner of Spain he boldly marched forth;
To cut off Napoleon’s communications with France
He considered it to be advisable and his only chance.

And when Napoleon heard of Moore’s coming, his march he did begin,
Declaring that he was the only General that could oppose him;
And in the month of December, when the hills were clad with snow,
Napoleon’s army marched over the Guadiana Hills with their hearts full of woe.

And with fifty thousand cavalry, infantry, and artillery,
Napoleon marched on, facing obstacles most dismal to see;
And performed one of the most rapid marches recorded in history,
Leaving the command of his army to Generals Soult and Ney.

And on the 5th of January Soult made his attack,
But in a very short time the French were driven back;
With the Guards and the 50th Regiment and the 42d conjoint,
They were driven from the village of Elnina at the bayonet’s point.

Oh! It was a most gorgeous and inspiring sight
To see Sir John Moore in the thickest of the fight,
And crying aloud to the 42d with all his might,
“Forward, my lads, and charge them with your bayonets left and right.”

Then the 42d charged them with might and main,
And the French were repulsed again and again;
And although they poured into the British ranks a withering fire,
The British at the charge of the bayonet soon made them retire.

Oh! That battlefield was a fearful sight to behold,
’Twas enough to make one’s blood run cold
To hear the crack, crack of the musketry and the cannon’s roar,
Whilst the dead and the dying lay weltering in their gore.

But O Heaven! It was a heartrending sight,
When Sir John Moore was shot dead in the thickest of the fight;
And as the soldiers bore him from the field they looked woebegone,
And the hero’s last words were “Let me see how the battle goes on.”

Then he breathed his last with a gurgling sound,
And for the loss of the great hero the soldier’s sorrow was profound,
Because he was always kind and served them well,
And as they thought of him tears down their cheeks trickling fell.

Oh! it was a weird and pathetic sight
As they buried him in the Citadel of Corunna at the dead of night,
While his staff and the men shed many tears
For the noble hero who had commanded them for many years.

Success to the British Army wherever they go,
For seldom they have failed to conquer the foe;
Long may the highlanders be able to make the foe reel,
By giving them an inch or two of cold steel.

ADMIRALTY OFFICE Jan. 24

Copy of a letter from the Hon. Michael De Courcy, rear-Admiral of the White, to the Hon. William Wellesley Pole, dated on board His Majesty’s ship the Tonnant at Corunna, the 17th and 18th inst.

January 17, 1809

SIR,
Having it in design to detach the Cossack to England as soon as her boats shall cease to he essential to the embarkation of troops I seize a moment to acquaint you, for the information of the Lords Comissioners of the Admiralty, that the ships of war, as per margin*, and transports, under the orders of Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood and Commissioner Bowen, arrived at this anchorage from Vigo on the 14th and 15th instant. The Alfred and Hindostan, with some transports, were left at Vigo to receive a brigade of 3500 men, that had taken that route, under the Generals Allen and Craufurd.

In the vicinity of Corunna, the enemy have pressed upon the British in great force. The embarkation of the sick, the cavalry, and the stores, went on. The night of the 16th was appointed for the general embarkation of the infantry; and mean time, the enemy prepared for attack. At three, P. M. an action commenced; the enemy, which had been posted on a lofty hill, endeavouring, to force the British, on another hill of inferior height; and nearer the town.

The enemy, were driven back with great slaughter; but very sorry am I to add, that the British, though triumphant, have suffered severe losses. I am unable to communicate further particulars, than that Sir John Moore received a mortal wound, of which he died at night; that Sir David Baird lost an arm; that several Officers and many men have been killed and wounded; and  that the ships of war have received all such of the latter as they could accommodate, the remainder being sent to transports.

The weather is now tempestuous, and the difficulties of embarkation are great. All except the rear-guard are embarked, consisting, perhaps, at this moment, of 2,600 men. The enemy, having brought cannon to a hill overhanging the beach, have forced a majority of the transports to cut or slip. Embarkation being no longer practicable at the town, the boats have been ordered to Sandy Beach near the Light-House; and it is hoped that the greater part, if not all, will still be embarked, the ships of war having dropped out to facilitate embarkation.

January 18

The embarkation of the troops having occupied the greater part of last night, it his not been in my power to detach the Cossack before this day; and it is with satisfaction I am able to add, that in consequence of the good order maintained by the troops, and the unwearied exertions of Commissioner Bowen, the_Captains, and other Officers of the Navy, the Agents, as well as the boats crews, many of whom were for two days without food and without repose, the army have been embarked to the last man, and the ships are now in the offing, preparatory to steering for England. The great body of the transports having lost their anchors ran to sea without the troops they were ordered to receive, in consequence of which there are some thousands on board the ships of war. Several transports, through mismanagement, ran on shore. The seamen appeared to have abandoned them, two being brought out by the boats’ crews of the men of war, two were burnt, and five were bilged.

I cannot conclude this hasty statement without expressing my great obligation to Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel  Hood, whose eye was every where, and whose exertions were unremitted.

I have the honour to be be, &c.
M. DE COURCY

Hazy weather rendering the Cossack obscure, I. detach the Gleaner with this dispatch.

* Ville de Paris, Victory, Barfleur, Zealous, Elizabeth, Norge, Plantagenet, Resolution, Audacious, Endymion, Mediator.

The Times, 25th January 1809

Notes

Generations of British schoolchildren learnt by heart the Reverend Charles Wolfe’s poem “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna”, which begins with the words:

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.

It is hardly surprising that the same subject inspired McGonagall to pick up his pen.

General Sir John Moore marched into Spain in October 1808 at the head of 20,000 men to help thwart Napoleon’s intention to place his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Before long, however, he found himself faced by the Emperor himself with 300,000 troops at his command. He had no choice but to fall back in the face of such superior numbers.

The retreat that followed was one of the most harrowing in British military history. Thousands of stragglers were lost in the bitter cold and high mountain passes as much of the army collapsed into a disorganised rabble. Fighting a series of brilliant rearguard actions, Moore managed to keep ahead of his pursuers and reach the port of La Coruña. Here he would turn and fight the French to win time to embark on the waiting transports.

By now, Napoleon had returned to the comforts of Paris and had entrusted the pursuit to an army commanded by Marshal Soult. Soult’s army was not much more numerous than Moore’s, but it was much superior in cavalry and artillery as most of Moore’s had either already embarked or been lost in the retreat. On 16th January 1809, Moore chose a strong defensive position in rough country to the south of the town, Soult would attempt to drive him into the sea.

The key to the British position was the village of Elvina. If this place could be taken, the British could be cut off from La Coruña and totally destroyed. Consequently it was here that the bitterest fighting took place, with a prominent part being played by the 4th Regiment, the 50th Regiment, and the 42nd Highlanders. The French attacks were beaten back with great loss, but at the moment of triumph Moore was hit by a cannonball and suffered a terrible wound to his left side. He was carried to the rear by his grieving highlanders, where he died a few hours later constantly asking for news of the battle. He needn’t have worried, for the British had held their line for the loss of about 900 lives, the French had lost nearer 2000.

That night, Moore was quietly buried, in the manner so lyrically described by Wolfe, and the army was able to board the transports unhampered by their pursuers. Soult would later erect a fine monument in memory of his fallen adversary. Corunna had been a victory that would, in 1940, be echoed by Dunkirk: the bedraggled army had escaped destruction and survived to fight another day.

Three months later the British army would return and begin its long, victorious campaign under the command of Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington. Wellington’s fame and success have caused Moore’s achievements to be rather forgotten, but as the Peer himself remarked years later “You know, FitzRoy, we’d not have won, I think, without him.”

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Comments (6) »

  1. Robert Astle
    In the year 2013, on the 12th day of December at 4:24 am

    Can you plase give me the names of the Staff Officers and who was there when Sir John was layed to rest?

    Thank you for your time and effort.

  2. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2013, on the 12th day of December at 6:24 pm

    Fortunately for you, Robert, when I’m not recording the life and work of crazy Scottish poets, my other main historical interest is in the Napoleonic wars – so I can answer your question from my library:

    According to Christopher Hibbert’s book on Corunna, the funeral was attended by Colonel Paul Anderson, Major John Colborne, Captain(?) James Stanhope and Captain Hon. Henry Percy. Hibbert’s book is a very detailed and readable account – I’ve added it to the “Books” section above.

  3. Richard Hall
    In the year 2016, on the 15th day of January at 9:51 am

    Thank you for the article.

    I was wondering if you had a reference for the quote at the end by the Duke of Wellington on Sir John Moore: “You know, FitzRoy, we’d not have won, I think, without him.”?

  4. Stephen Midgley
    In the year 2016, on the 5th day of August at 9:57 am

    It’s good to read another example of our poet’s uncanny ability to depict a military disaster as another plucky success for the ever-victorious British. And surely that final couplet should qualify for an occasional appearance in ‘Quote of the day’?

  5. Chris Hunt
    In the year 2016, on the 5th day of August at 12:39 pm

    It’s perhaps interesting to note, Stephen, that whilst the British army regards Corunna as a victory, “La Corogne” is included in the list of French victories engraved on the Arc de Triomphe too. I think they have a point. As Churchill said of Dunkirk: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

    And that couplet wasn’t in the Quote of the Day list – but it is now!

  6. Joe MacDonald
    In the year 2016, on the 7th day of November at 3:46 am

    According to family lore an ancestor died at the battle of Corunna – Lieutenant Colonel Donald McDonald probably from Moidart area of Scotland. Is there any way to verify this? Appreciate any help.

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