Posts Tagged ‘Peninsular War’

In an earlier article (see here) I wrote about Levi Grisdale and how he had captured Napoleon’s favourite General,  Lefebvre, at the Battle of Benavente (or Benevente) in Spain on 29 December 1808 during the Peninsular Wars, and how he had gone on to other great things. But I wrote as well: ‘Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story.’ This is true but it turns out that Levi was interviewed about what happened by ‘An Officer of the Staff’ who had been in Spain with Levi in the army of General Moore. This was published in early 1809 (i.e. immediately after the British army had returned to England from Corunna) in a book wonderfully titled ‘Operations of the British Army in Spain: Involving Broad Hints to the Commissariat, and Board of Transports : with Anecdotes Illustrative of the Spanish Character‘. One of these stories was Levi’s. The internal evidence suggests that Levi was interviewed  back in England just weeks after the events, when ‘Private Grisdale’ had been promoted to Corporal (he would end up a Sergeant Major). It is the nearest thing we will get to Levi’s own words and version of  what happened at Benavente and how he had captured General Lefebvre:

CAPTURE OF GENERAL LEFEBVRE, By — — Grisdale, a Private in the 10th Dragoons.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

About one hundred and fifty of the 10th dragoons, and the dragoons of the 7th,[1] were suddenly opposed to about twelve hundred of the enemy’s cavalry, chiefly composed of Imperial Guards, well mounted, and commanded by Lefebvre. The town of Benevente was at a short distance in the rear. As the British had the sagacity, in this instance, to destroy the bridge, the enemy were forced to wade through the river, which they did, with great alacrity, for the purpose of compelling the British detachment to surrender. They advanced in one- solid and compact line against the British force, to salute them with a general volley from their carbines. The British, who were led on by Major Quintain of the 10th, resolutely awaited their approach, and received their fire, which; happily, did but- little execution. The volley was no sooner given, than an order was issued for the British to charge, which they did with that order and impetuosity which insured success. They cut their way completely through the enemy’s line, and then shewed a broad front to him in the opposite direction. The French, in the interim, having faced about, closed their ranks, and put themselves again in good order for the contest. A second charge was then made by the British, which was more successful than the former, for the French, were thrown into confusion, and the carnage which followed was terrible. It was at this time that Grisdale beheld the French Commander, accompanied by two trumpeters, hurrying from the field of action, and followed by two privates of the 7th, in hot pursuit. The French Commander’s horse outstripped those of the trumpeters, as did Grisdale’s those of the 7th; so that, as the General lost the companions of his flight, Grisdale had the good fortune to pursue him single-handed.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

The General fled along the serpentine margin of the river, and thereby lost much ground, of which Grisdale took advantage, and by cutting across from angle to angle, he at length, after a rapid chase of two miles, succeeded in getting in his front. The General now, from necessity, checked his horse; but betraying symptoms of resistance, Grisdale instantly levelled, and discharged his carbine, the ball of which slightly wounded his adversary on the cheek. Thus unsuccessful in his aim, Grisdale was preparing to defend himself with his sword, (his pistols having been previously discharged) when, to his surprise, he beheld Lefebvre throw his sword away, as a token of surrender. This gave Grisdale time to re-load his carbine, which having done, he advanced to the General, took the pistols from his holsters, the sash from about his waist, and having dismounted, snatched up the cast away sword; then re-seating himself in the saddle, he turned the rein of the General’s bridle over the horse’s head, and so conducted him to the British army: the main body of which, at that time, was coming up. Grisdale had too much honest pride to demand the General’s watch and money, but a private of the 7th, who was less scrupulous and exalted in his ideas, did the General that favor before he reached the British lines. Grisdale gave the sash, sword, and pistols, to his Colonel, (Leigh) to have them transmitted to his beloved Commander, the Prince of Wales.

Grisdale has recently been raised to the rank of corporal, as the first step only of more considerable promotion. He is an exceedingly well made, well looking man: his countenance is ruddy and expressive, and strongly indicates that he possesses that intrepid spirit which should, at all times, distinguish the Briton and the soldier. He is a native of Gracestock (sic), in Cumberland; his age is twenty-four. He has a mother living, to whom he is most affectionately attached; and where filial piety exists, we seldom look for human courage in vain.

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Notwithstanding this coup d’ éclat, it seemed destined that our retreat should be attended with every possible disadvantage that Nature could throw in our way. The weather was so inclement, that the oldest Galician living, does not remember so severe a season. Wind, rain, and even hail, pelted around us; and to add to our distresses, the greater part of the officers had lost their cloaks, great coats, and linen, as the muleteers to whose care they were confided, bad all scampered to the mountains on the approach of the French cavalry, and left 200 of their mules to be quietly plundered by the enemy! Now, whether this mishap arise from the suggestion of fear or hatred, or knavery, is yet undetermined. Some of our dragoons endeavoured to drive those independent animals forward, but even the stroke of the sabre had no effect, when their masters had forsaken them. Unhappily, they were not linguists, like Balaam’s appendage, and could not, or would not, comprehend the British word of command. Between Benevente and Astorga, and Villa Franca, and Lugo, the retreating army were literally compelled to cut a passage through the snow!

 

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

[1] Of the King’s German Legion.

On a July day in 1807 Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was sitting on a raft in the middle of the River Nevan, near Tilsit in Russia, making a treaty with Tsar Alexander 1. It was a meeting that in a roundabout way would have a profound effect on the life of one Cumbrian called William Grisdale.

Napoleon was at the height of his power. The French army had recently defeated the Austrians at Austerlitz and the Russians at Friedland, while Prussia had been occupied. Napoleon was now master of much of continental Europe. Just one irritant remained: the British, who three years before at the Battle of Trafalgar had smashed the French fleet, and that of France’s ally (at the time) Spain. The Royal Navy still ruled the seas, though the French seemed pretty unstoppable on land.

The Continental Blockade

The Continental Blockade

The agreement Napoleon made with the Tsar, plus the one he made two days later with the Prussians, became known as the Treaties of Tilsit. The treaties were ‘the most significant deal in Napoleonic history and reinforced French domination in Europe.’ Prussia was stripped of half her territory, while among other things the Russians agreed to join Napoleon’s ‘continental blockade’ (known in French as the Blocus continental), aimed at Britain. The point of the blockade was to deprive Britain of her trading links and thus to weaken her before France’s planned invasion. Napoleon wanted to force every European country to join France in bringing the pesky British to their knees.

Napoleon meeting Tsar Alexander on a raft, July 1807

Napoleon meeting Tsar Alexander on a raft, July 1807

The problem was both that the French Navy was no match for the Royal Navy after Trafalgar and that certain countries, such as Denmark, remained neutral and continued to insist on their right to trade wherever and with whomsoever they wished. Denmark had the second largest merchant marine in Europe and a very respectable Navy as well.

So while Napoleon was chatting with Tsar Alexander on his raft, the two hatched a plot against Britain. But a disgruntled Russian general, Prince Vassili Troubetzkoi, leaked the plot between the two nations to the British. It was said that ‘the Franco-Russian alliance signed at Tilsit had included a secret agreement to force Denmark and Sweden into Napoleon’s continental blockade of British trade.’

The essence of the plot was also revealed in a letter French informant Count D’Antraigues wrote on 21 July 1807 to British Foreign Secretary Lord Canning:

Napoleon … has proposed a maritime league of this country [i.e. Russia] against England and the unification of the Russian squadrons with those of Sweden and Denmark, being certain, he says, of the forces of Spain and Portugal in order to attack England at close quarters (corps à corps).

The British were already fearful that the Danish fleet might fall into French hands but this information confirmed their suspicions of Napoleon’s intentions. If the French moved into Denmark, or forced the country to join them as allies against the British, not only would the French continental blockade be tightened, but, worse, the powerful Danish fleet could fill the gap left in France’s naval forces after Trafalgar. British control of the seas could be threatened, opening the way for a French invasion.

British warships arrive at Copenhagen

British warships arrive at Copenhagen

Something had to be done. The British government requested Denmark to hand over its fleet to the British, which the British said they would return after Napoleon had been defeated. The Danes refused. (Actually Portugal faced with the same request did hand over its Navy and got it back later!) So despite a lot of internal opposition (the Danes were after all ‘brothers’ of the English), an army of 27,000 men under Lard Cathcart and Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) was assembled and sent to the island of Zealand ‘ready to besiege Copenhagen’, while a ‘fleet of warships under Admiral James Gambier, amply equipped with bomb vessels, sailed menacingly up The Sound between Copenhagen and Sweden.’

The Danes were asked again to hand over their fleet. Again they refused. The British army moved to the Danish peninsula and quickly defeated the Danish militia south of Copenhagen at the Battle of Køge on 29 August. The main Danish Army was in the south, in Schleswig-Holstein, ready to repulse any French invasion.

The Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1807 2

The Bombardment of Copenhagen, 1807

After a few more ‘skirmishes’ and more discussions, the British decided they’d have to take the Danish Navy by force. On 2 September a massive land and sea-based bombardment of Copenhagen began which lasted three nights. For the first time the British employed the newly developed ‘Congreve Rockets’, described by one British soldier as ‘fiery serpents in the sky’. The rockets and other shells poured down on the city, starting fire storms and killing over 2,000 Danish civilians and destroying 30% of the buildings.

Rather than send British troops into a dangerous and time-consuming siege, the British command decided to shell the city into submission. Wellesley’s batteries of land-based artillery and Gambier’s floating batteries opened fire on 2 September, 1807. 5,000 rounds were fired into the city on the first night of the shelling, crashing indiscriminately into militia barracks, city defences and civilian homes.

The British unleashed their new weapon, the Congreve Rocket. This had been copied from the Mysorean Rocket artillery used against them by the armies of Tipoo Sultan in the Mysore Wars, and consisted of a strong iron tube with a conical nose, packed with gunpowder. These new weapons of mass destruction hammered Copenhagen, starting fires that the defending militias were hard-pressed to keep under control.

2,000 rounds hammered Copenhagen on the night of 3 September, with 7,000 more dropping into the city on 4 September. The noise, smoke and destruction caused by the shelling, combined with the raging fires, tore the heart out of the Danish defence, and the shocked and awed Peymann (the Danish commander) was forced to sue for peace. On 7 September, disobeying orders to burn the ships in Copenhagen harbour, Peymann handed the city and the fleet to the British. 5,000 Danish soldiers, civilians and militiamen lay dead — the butcher’s bill for King George only ran to 42.

Danish Ships leave under the English Flag

Danish Ships leave under the English Flag

The Danes surrendered their fleet; a large number of which were towed or sailed back to England, although only four were ever used by the Royal Navy.

From the British point of view the danger of the Danish fleet falling into French hands had been averted. The Danes saw it differently, and after the bombardment of their capital they joined the French side. In most histories of the Napoleonic Wars the Battle or Bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 is usually just a footnote. None of the heroics of Trafalgar or Waterloo here – it was a regrettable though necessary action.

Over the whole campaign there were several hundred British casualties, dead and wounded; a tally General Arthur Wellesley described as ‘trifling’. Trifling it might have been in the greater scheme of things, but it was not trifling for the British soldiers and sailors killed and injured, or for the thousands of dead Danish civilians, soldiers and their families.

One of the British injured was William Grisdale, a ‘soldier’ in the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards, later to be called the Scots Guards. William was born in Crosthwaite in Cumberland in 1780 or early 1781. He started to work as a tailor but in 1798, aged 17, he joined the army: the 3rd Foot Guards as mentioned. There is no birth or baptismal record for William in Crosthwaite. He could very well have been illegitimate and perhaps related to the weaver Joseph Grisdale (whose wife was Ann Tickell), who lived in Portinscale in the Parish of Crosthwaite.

William fought at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801

William fought at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801

William was in the regiment’s first battalion and served and fought with them for over nine years in the Netherlands, Spain and Egypt. He survived many battles and avoided the plague in Egypt, but in 1807 his regiment was part of the force sent to Copenhagen. There he was badly injured. How and where isn’t known. Possibly it was at the Battle of Køge or maybe in one of the other ‘trifling’ skirmishes with the Danes. But what we do know is that William became a paralytic. In modern English slang paralytic means being in a state of extreme inebriation; being in fact legless. But, then and now, in medical terms paralytic simply means paralysed.

When the British force returned to England, paralytic William was with them, and was probably sent to an army hospital. Early in 1808 his regiment, like many others, was preparing for what has become known in Britain as the Peninsular War (it’s called the War of Independence in Spain).  This was a long and brutal, though ultimately successful, attempt to remove Napoleon’s brother Joseph from the Spanish throne and the French themselves from the Iberian Peninsula. William Grisdale was obviously in no fit state to accompany them.

On 23 April 1808, William was discharged from the army, aged 27, after 9 years and 203 days service in the 3rd Foot Guards. He was at the time a part of the ‘Hon. Lt. Colonel Fermor’s Company’ – Fermor being Thomas William Fermor, later 4th Earl of Pomfret. He had ‘served honestly and faithfully’ and he was recommended as ‘a proper Object of His Majesty’s Royal Bounty of Chelsea Hospital’. The regiment’s medical officer wrote that William was ‘paralytic and totally unfit for further service’.

Crosthwaite, Cumberland

Crosthwaite, Cumberland

What became of William, the paralysed Scots Guardsman? Perhaps he did get a small Chelsea pension. But it seems unlikely that he would have enjoyed a long retirement recounting his exploits, as did his relative Levi Grisdale, who was at the very moment of William’s discharge, preparing to go to Spain to accomplish his famous exploits there. All we know is that William returned to Crosthwaite and died there in 1828, aged about 47.

Such are the ‘trifling’ casualties of war.

‘The rain will destroy us if it lasts much longer.’ – Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Saint Jean de Luz, 31 October, 1813

It’s raining today in Itxassou in the Basque region of southwest France. As I look of the window I can see that the River Nive is running high. Two hundred years ago in November 1813 it was also raining and early snow covered the nearby hills. The British and allied army commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – the Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington – had just arrived in this part of the world and the troops of his most trusted general, Sir Rowland Hill, were ‘cantoned’ in Itxassou and in the neighbouring villages of Cambo, Espelette, Larressore and Souraide. They were waiting for the weather to improve so they could cross the Nive, on the other bank of which the French army under Marshal Soult had taken up defensive positions all the way from Bayonne on the coast to Saint Jean Pierre de Port. The crossing took place on 9 December, 1813.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte

Briefly the background to all this is that in 1813  we are seeing the last stages of the long and bloody Peninsular War, which the Spanish rather quaintly call the War of Independence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his older brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and the French were in charge of the country. The British had to rescue them. It was a huge, tortuous and brutal effort that took over five years. The decisive victory took place on 21 June 1813 just south of Vitoria – Gastiez (now the capital of Basque Spain) where Wellington’s British, German and Spanish army routed the French.  Joseph Bonaparte and his still huge army started a long and drawn-out fighting retreat over the Pyrenees and back into France. There were many skirmishes and battles and thousands on both sides continued to die.

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

In France the Battle of the Nivelle was fought on 10 November 1813 near the village of Sare on the flanks of the La Rhune.

 Soon after midnight, on the morning of 10 November, the columns of the allies under Wellington wound down the passes of the mountains in silence, lighted by the moon. At earliest dawn the attack was made on the lines of the enemy, and by sunset, in a succession of brilliant charges, the allies had broken the line. Soult had been out-manœuvred and outfought on his own long-prepared ground, and beaten at every point. The French, numbering seventy thousand men, had been placed in carefully selected positions. Strongly entrenched, they knew the roads, and were fighting to protect their native land from invasion; yet they suffered themselves to be dislodged from every point assailed with a lack of spirit that surprised the allies.

Under cover of night Soult withdrew and concentrated his forces in front of Bayonne. Wellington took up a position within two miles of the enemy, his left resting on the sea and his right on Cambo. As the weather was stormy and wet, all operations ceased. The roads were execrable, the crossroads a quagmire. It was not possible at that time of the year to move artillery over the sodden ground, and even communication between the wings was difficult.

The losing French army retreated again to the north side of the River Nive, which they believed they could defend and prevent the British from crossing.

After the Battle of the Nivelle, Wellington had wanted to immediately attempt a crossing of the Nive but the appalling weather made it impossible. The ‘roads’ had turned into muddy bogs and the river was so high that the available fords were impassable. As the rains continued to pore down, on the 16th November Wellington sent orders to ‘canton’ the army.

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

General Sir Rowland Hill’s division was ordered to canton Itxassou, Larressore, Cambo, Espelette and Souraide. Sir Rowland was Wellington’s most steady, reliable and trusted general. He was so loved for his care that his troops nick-named him ‘Daddy Hill’. And one of Hill’s soldiers was the famous Levi Grisdale. Grisdale had captured French General Lefebvre at the  Battle of Benavente in Spain in December 1808, had fought at the Battle of Vitoria in June and would go on to personally lead the Prussians of Marshal Blucher onto the field of Waterloo in 1815. But for now Levi was with his elite cavalry regiment, the 10th King’s Own Hussars, waiting to cross the Nive. Levi was more likely to have been billeted in Larressore than in Itxassou, but it’s nice to think that one of my family also looked through the rain on the River Nive two hundred years ago!

The 10th Hussars were at this moment commanded by Colonel Richard Hussey Vivian. Vivian had found himself some very salubrious quarters in the Chateau of Saint Martin in Larressore, from where he wrote to his wife on December 2:

Here I am, my dearest Eliza, in the midst of my brigade —in the midst of the enemy! Out of the very window of the room from whence I now write this I can almost converse with the French sentries! Nothing but a narrow river (the Nive) separates us; and it is fordable in many places; but they are very quiet, harmless neighbours. We have agreed not to fire at each other; and they are too much afraid of an attack from us to make it at all probable that they will molest us in our quarters. If they chose it would not be a very difficult matter to walk into my bedroom any night. There is, however, a brigade of infantry in the village, under General Pringle, and they would hold them. We could do nothing, for it is nothing but hill and dale!

You can have no conception of anything more magnificently beautiful than the situation of my chateau, which is on the point of a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain river, and looking up a most delightful valley, through which runs the river, the hills rising from the valley on either side crowned with timber; villages in abundance, bordering on the river.  But it is to the eye only that it is now delightful. The ravages of war have depopulated these otherwise charming residences ; few, if any, of the inhabitants remain, and what few do remain are almost starving from having been eaten out of house and home by the soldiery, with whom their houses are literally crammed.

General Hill’s division, of which I command the cavalry, is posted in the villages of Cambo, Espelette, Souraide, and Larressore — altogether about 12,000 men within a space of three miles of each other. On our left, at Ustarits (sic), is the 6th Division, Sir H. Clinton, about a mile off. I am just going there to dine and sleep at General Pack’s.

They talk of an advance soon, but I do not think it possible; for the roads are in such a dreadful state from the constant rain we have had that it is perfectly impossible for troops to move.

The next day he wrote to his mother:

I am now here in the midst of my brigade, on the banks of the Nive, and the enemy is quietly opposite me; so near that I can certainly make them hear out of the room where I now write; bat they are in a great fright that we should advance, and we are really very good friends, and they do not molest me, or prevent me sleeping in perfect safety and comfort. I have a capital chateau, delightfully situated… I only wish it were in England. I could sell about £10,000 worth of timber without doing any harm…  They talk of an advance very soon. I hope so, for we are terribly off for forage, and we shall get that in front.

‘Whilst the British were in position on the banks of the Nive, in November, 1813, the French used to meet the English officers at a narrow part of the river, and chat over the campaign. One of the latter, in order to convince them of the reverses of Napoleon in Germany (the Battle of Leipzig), rolled a stone up in the Star newspaper, and endeavoured to throw it across the stream. The stone, unfortunately, went through it, which made it fall into the water. The French officer thereupon remarked, in pretty fair English, “Your good news is very soon damped.”’

General Rowland 'Daddy' Hill

General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill

This pleasant, though wet, interlude was not to last. On the 8th December issued his orders for ‘forcing the passage of the Nive’ the next day. The task was entrusted to Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill. He ‘was instructed to cross the river by fords near Cambo at daybreak of the 9th, re-establish the bridge, and assemble on the right bank the Second Division, the Portuguese Division attached to it, Vivian’s and Victor Alten’s brigades of cavalry, and Ross’s troop of horse-artillery. With these he was to advance along the road from St. Jean Pied de Port to Bayonne, and take up a position in the vicinity of Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre’.

Other divisions were to cross the river at Ustaritz and Arrauntz. Spanish General Morillo was ordered to cross the river at Itxassou in order to protect Hill’s rear from any attack by General Paris, who lay at Louhossoa, some four miles up the river from Cambo.

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

I leave the description of what followed to J. W. Fortescue, in his monumental  A History of the British Army:

Meanwhile Wellington’s orders were punctually followed. Beresford successfully laid his pontoon-bridges to an island in the river during the night; and on the morning of the 9th a beacon kindled on the height above Cambo gave the signal for attack.

The Sixth Division at once advanced upon Ustarits, drove the French sentries from the right bank of the river, and enabled the engineers not only to complete the pontoon -bridge but to repair another wooden bridge which had been partly destroyed by the French. They then crossed the water, Gruardet’s brigade of Darmagnac’s division falling back before them upon Villefranque, with little fear of being caught, for the marshy meadows were so heavy that the British could make but slow progress on their way to the road.

Hill simultaneously threw his corps across the river in three columns, one of them above Cambo, the others at Larressore and at Halsou, which was accomplished with only the loss of a few men drowned, though the water was so high that the men slung their cartridge-boxes round their necks to keep them dry. Foy’s division, which guarded this part of the stream, thereupon withdrew slowly, contesting every foot of ground. Fririon’s brigade retired upon Petit Mouguerre and Vieux Mouguerre, where Abbe’s division had been brought forward to support them ; while Berlier’s brigade, being cut off from the road by the advance of Clinton, was forced to retreat due east to the moorlands of Hasparren, and did not rejoin Foy until the afternoon. Paris also was compelled to retire before Morillo eastward upon Hilette (Helette) towards the shelter of Pierre Soult’s cavalry.

Nevertheless Hill’s advance had been so much retarded by the saturated soil that it was one o’clock before the head of his columns reached the heights of Loursinthoa on the road to Bayonne, where he took up a position with the Sixth Division on his left, the Third remaining to cover the bridge at Ustarits. Here he halted for two hours to let the tail of his columns come up; and during this interval d’Erlon deployed the whole of his troops between Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre, where Soult had already since noon taken up his own station. None the less the Marshal did not venture to assail Hill, and at last at three o’clock the Portuguese of Clinton’s division came down to attack Villefranque, and after one repulse succeeded in driving from it one of Darmagnac’s brigades.

A thick fog coming on before dark brought the combat to an end.

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The British and allied army had crossed the Nive, Levi Grisdale among them. But things were not over yet. Marshal Soult counter attacked on the 13th December near Saint Pierre d’Irube, near Bayonne, but Sir Rowland Hill defeated the French without Wellington’s help at the so-called Battle of the Nive. Wellington and his army trundled on across southern France, eventually to take the French surrender at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. But he, and Levi Grisdale, had to come back the next year, when Napoleon had escaped from exile, raised a new army and met the British and Prussians at Waterloo!

9 December 1813: Just another wet day in the Pays Basque.