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Dunkirk: A 19th-Century Prequel

(The following is a post by Juan Manuel Pérez, Reference Specialist, Hispanic Division. Patricia Penon, Technician, Hispanic Division, also contributed to this post.)

A 19th century map of the province of A Coruña. Library of Galicia. World Digital Library.

As the enemy overran the European continent at lightning speed, the British government organized an expeditionary force to stop them. However, in the face of a rapidly advancing enemy, British forces retreated to the sea. Trapped on the beaches, the only recourse for the British was an evacuation to England. Dunkirk, May 1940? No, A Coruña, January 1809, in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia.

In the winter of 1807 a large French army of about 110,000 crossed the Pyrenees and occupied strategic points in northern Spain. The Spanish people rose in revolt in Madrid on May 2, 1808. Great Britain sent an expeditionary force under Sir John Moore (1761-1809), but in October Napoleon decided to go to Spain himself at the head of an even larger army of about 300,000. In early October, Moore took control of a 20,000 strong British expeditionary force in Portugal. A second force of about 15,000 under Sir David Baird landed in A Coruña to join him. Moore arrived in Salamanca, Spain on November 13. However, with the British forces dangerously dispersed, with Baird in Astorga, Moore in Salamanca, and Sir John Hope just arriving near Madrid not long ago, and the Spanish army no longer a serious threat, Napoleon moved swiftly to destroy the British in Spain and cut off Moore’s line of retreat to Portugal. Facing an enemy in superior numbers, Moore decided to withdraw.

By December 25 he was retreating to A Coruña, with the French in hot pursuit. It was an epic march of over 250 miles through mountainous terrain in the harshest winter conditions with heavy snow, below freezing temperatures. The army was low in morale and discipline, and the soldiers often harassed the locals they had supposedly come to help and pillaged their villages. The weather and lack of discipline caused as many casualties as the pursuing French. Thousands were marching half lost, hungry, and frost-bitten. It was a Dantesque landscape of dead bodies, dead animals, abandoned carts and equipment. Stragglers and deserters were easy pickings for French dragoons. On the march between Astorga and Betanzos—about 15 miles from A Coruña–Moore lost 3,000 men and 500 were wounded. Had it not been for Sir Henry Paget’s highly disciplined rearguard of hussars, who protected the retreat, it could have been even worse.

Napoleon pursued Moore with an 85,000 strong force, but Moore always managed to stay a step ahead. On January 1, 1809, Napolean headed to Madrid with the bulk of his army and left Marshal Nicolas Jean de Die Soult to continue the pursuit. Moore finally arrived at A Coruña on January 11. His troops, many sick with dysentery, hungry, filthy, muddy, barefoot, with rags as uniforms, marched well-formed into town, drums beating, as the people crossed themselves at the wretched sight. Moore took up quarters at 13 Cantón Grande, from where he saw, to his dismay, that there were not enough ships to evacuate his army to England.

Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch). Uniforms 1730’s to 1830. From “History of the 42nd Royal Highlanders–“The Black watch” now the first battalion “The Black watch” (Royal Highlanders) … 1729-1893.” Edinburgh and London, W. & A. K. Johnston, 1893.

The French began arriving on the 12th. Their artillery arrived on the 14th. The British transports, about 245 ships, also arrived on the 14th. Moore evacuated most of their cannons and artillery men, and all of the cavalry. To prevent equipment from falling into enemy hands, Moore blew up 4,000 barrels of gunpowder early in the morning of the 13th in Peñasquedo. The blast was so strong that the earth shook and high waves rolled the ships in the harbor. Moore also destroyed two magazines outside of town with 300,000 cartridges, and destroyed 50 fortress guns and 20 mortars. The explosions shattered every window and threw tiles from the roofs in A Coruña, about three miles away, sending the population into a panic.

People rushed into the streets, knelt down, and prayed. Because the French were slow to arrive, Moore was able to rest his soldiers, feed them, clothe them, and arm them, and begin evacuating. In A Coruña they found much-needed supplies: 5,000 new muskets, thousands of cartridges, Spanish artillery pieces, and clothing, shoes, and food. The city’s population supported Moore by helping to prepare the defenses and even participating in the fighting, protecting the army’s back during embarkation. Women and young girls carried gunpowder and ammunition to the soldiers in baskets atop their heads. An officer wrote that the people’s actions “deserve our gratitude and universal admiration.”

Map showing details of the Battle of A Coruña. Library of Galicia. World Digital Library.

Moore positioned units to cover the evacuation on a ridge, about 1½ miles south of the harbor, and at outposts along the way. The left flank was covered by the Mero River. On the 15th, the French began attacking the British outposts on the higher range. The 5th Regiment of Foot counterattacked, but it was unsuccessful. The French placed artillery pieces on the heights overlooking the British positions. By the following day, January 16, they were ready to attack. At 2pm the attack began. Soult’s plan was simple. Attack Moore’s left and center, while another division would attack the more lightly defended British position in the area of the village of Elviña, just outside the city–British positioned their riflemen in defensive positions within the numerous stoned-walled corrals –while the cavalry was to be deployed west in the open area leading to A Coruña. The idea was to cut off the British as they were retreating for embarkation.  The heaviest fight took place at Elviña, the village changing hands several times during the battle. The British suffered heavy casualties from the constant artillery bombardment by the French from the heights opposite the village. As the French broke through Elviña, Moore ordered the 50th Regiment of Foot and the 42nd to stop the French, while the 4th covered the right flank. At one point he had to call up the reserves because the French had broken the lines and were chasing the 50th and the 42nd up the slope near the village. When he was reorganizing the 42nd, Moore was struck by a cannon ball and fell mortally wounded, his collar-bone partly blown away, and his left arm hanging by the flesh above the armpit and by the threads of his uniform. “He uttered no cry, and not a muscle on his face altered.” Six Highlanders carried him to his headquarters in town. He remained conscious and before he died he learned the French had been defeated. Moments before expiring he uttered: “I hope the people of England will be satisfied. I hope my country will do me justice.” He was hastily buried in the early morning hours of the 17th, just as the French opened fire on the harbor.

Field around Elviña as it looks today (Personal collection).

In 1816, the Rev. Charles Wolfe wrote what became one of the most popular poems in the 19th  century: “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna,” which read in part:

As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried
III
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.
VIII
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!

Sir John Moore’s grave at the San Carlos Garden, A Coruña (Personal collection).

The French cavalry attempted to drive through the flanks, but the conditions of the terrain, and the tenacious defense by the 95th Rifles, 28th Foot, and the 91st Foot, halted their advance. The fighting stopped at night, both sides went back to their original positions, having neither lost nor gained any ground. The British lost 800 men and the French 1,400. The staunch British defense prevented the annihilation of the British expeditionary force and allowed for the embarkation of the troops. By 9pm the British began the withdraw quietly so as not to arouse the French, leaving pickets behind burning watch-fires all night. By the early hours of January 17th the pickets withdrew behind the rearguard and began embarking. By morning’s end, the bulk of the army had embarked. When Soult realized that the British had withdrawn, he placed six cannon on the ridge overlooking the southern side of the bay and ordered a bombardment directed at the ships. In the confusion, four ships ran aground. The following day, the British rearguard embarked, as the women waved their handkerchiefs from the rocks, and the local Spanish garrison protected the ships’ withdrawal from the bay. Of the approximately 35,000 British troops that went to Spain, 8,000 did not return. The battle of A Coruña was a tactical victory for the British. But for the French, it was a huge strategic victory: they had expelled the British from the Iberian Peninsula and were now in absolute control. Moore’s grave can be seen today at the San Carlos Gardens. A monolith marks the site of the battle, which is now part of the campus of the University of A Coruña.

For more information on the Napoleonic war in Spain, search the Library’s Online Catalog using the following subject headings:

-Peninsular War, 1807-1814
-Spain History Napoleonic Conquest, 1808-1813

Further readings:

David Gates, “The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War.” Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001.

Letters from Portugal and Spain, Written During the March of the British Troops Under Sir John Moore. By An Officer” [Sir Robert Ker Porter]. London: Longman, Rees, and Orme, 1809.

Charles Oman, “A History of the Peninsular War”. Volume I: 1807-1809. London: Greenhill Books; Mechanicsburg, PA, Stackpole Books, 1995-1999.

4 Comments

  1. Dee McCann
    March 19, 2019 at 2:41 pm

    Well written exciting story . Terrible battle .

  2. David Bana
    March 22, 2019 at 7:28 am

    Wow! What a vivid account of the battle. It is lessons like these that remind us that war is truly horrific. These lessons are important for all of us. Keep them coming!

  3. Elizabeth Thomas
    March 31, 2019 at 2:56 pm

    An intense depiction of the battle, rich with details. It was interesting to read about the civilian aid during the battle.

  4. Georgette Dorn
    May 10, 2019 at 3:06 pm

    A well-researched contribution to European history and an interesting way to tie in to momentous twentieth century events.

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