Escape of the French from Almeida, 10/11 May 1811
For Bevan any actual fighting was low level and desultory—he drew a fairly indecipherable map of the islands for Mary, which survives today. Luckily, he was not affected by the fever and returned, despairing of the leadership, on 16 September. However, a new dawn was awaiting him. A vacancy in command occurred in the 2nd Battalion of the 4th Foot and in 1810, Bevan was appointed commanding officer, having gained his lieutenancy-colonelcy by purchase. He had served alongside the 4th a number of times when in the 28th, and so would have known a number of the officers and been known by them. This was all to the good.
In February 1810, Bevan and his battalion set sail from Portsmouth, they thought for Portugal, but they did not know their destination at that stage. They arrived in Gibraltar after a very rough passage, including one ship running ashore in northern Spain and its occupants being captured by the French. To Bevan’s disappointment his battalion was ordered to occupy the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on Africa’s north coast, opposite Gibraltar. This was important to ensure that the French could not disrupt the passage of shipping through the Strait of Gibraltar. Nevertheless, for a commanding officer looking forward to commanding his battalion in action, this dull garrison task was very unwelcome. Life, for Bevan, became one long grind of administration; his quartermaster had been captured with the boat running ashore in the storm, his adjutant was ill with fever and his paymaster was in Gibraltar. He didn’t like the Spanish inhabitants whom he found idle and work-shy. Interestingly, he could happily speak French but no Spanish, unlike Harry Smith who, of course, found it very advantageous (particularly having married a Spanish girl). He didn’t like the social scene, having to entertain or the pretensions of the exiled Spanish nobility. The solitary life of command, financial concerns and the separation from his family played into his dark, self-pitying moods—what he called his ‘Blue Devils’.
In September 1810, he received the news he had been waiting for. The commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 4th Foot, Lieutenant Colonel Wynch, had been selected for promotion and Bevan was appointed in his place. He hoped, therefore, to return to England where the battalion was stationed. However, by November, the battalion had been posted to Lisbon. In December, Wynch moved on and Bevan left for Portugal, and the battalion, as soon as he could. The only disadvantage was that he did not have an intervening break in which to visit his family.
He arrived in Lisbon in January 1811 after a fifteen-day voyage from Gibraltar in a slow and dirty Portuguese ship, and then, to his intense frustration, was held in quarantine for another eleven days. To cap it all, the first thing he had to do ashore was arrange the funeral of Colonel Wynch, his predecessor, who had died from fever. Now in Portugal, he was also anxious to meet up with his brother-in-law (married to his wife’s sister, Eleanor) Jim Paterson, who was serving in his old regiment, the 28th. The 4th were presently in the 5th Division, which was being held in the Lisbon and Torres Vedras area. It is easy to understand Bevan’s distaste for this rear-area establishment—full of resupply materiel, leaderless reinforcements, sick and malingerers and those trying their best to avoid the dangers of being in action. He was also worried about a lack of money, no doubt because of the expense of equipping himself properly for his new status. To add to the gloom, the useless General Erskine took over command of the division from a sick predecessor. It is difficult today to understand, sometimes, how and why Wellington put up with low-grade generals such as Erskine and Brent Spencer. One can only assume that quality at that level was scarce, reinforced by some of them having political power and influence at home to maintain their positions. Allied to this there were very few who had experience of handling large bodies of troops in battle.
By early spring 1811, Masséna had had enough of sitting in front of the Lines of Torres Vedras and, with starvation and sickness daily reducing his force, decided to withdraw back into Spain. Wellington seized the chance to pursue him. Sadly, due to the absence on leave of the redoubtable ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd, Erskine was transferred to command the Light Division. Comments of those in the elite regiments of the 95th and 52nd were predictable. Needless to say, when he had the chance of trapping the French at Casa Nova in March, Erskine made a nonsense and the 52nd were badly cut off and suffered unnecessary casualties.
Bevan and the 4th were not involved in any action but plodded on in the morale-raising knowledge that they were chasing a fleeing enemy. He did, however, manage to write a number of letters home that were full of the things typical of soldiers down the ages: separation from family, physical discomfort, lack of good food and boots, iniquities of the commissariat, tiresome fatigues and low standards and behaviour of the enemy. His battalion was also suffering. It had landed in Portugal in October 1810 with the strength of about 1,000 men but the exertions of campaigning in the field had renewed the effects of Walcheren fever. It would shortly be reduced to only 600 men.
By April, Masséna had taken up a defensive position on the line of the Côa River and Wellington was determined to force a crossing at Sabugal. Bridges then, as now, were important factors in any operation and particularly so when the rivers in Portugal and Spain were often unfordable and many ran through steep ravines. With thick fog descending, two of the sensible divisional commanders decided to delay; not so Erskine, who ordered his men forward across the river without any idea of where the French were or in what strength. Near disaster was averted only by the bravery and courage of the British soldiers who found themselves facing overwhelming enemy numbers with the river at their back. Masséna, however, continued his retreat into Spain and, leaving General Antoine Brennier to garrison the town of Almeida, withdrew to Salamanca to plan further offensives. Bevan, who had only actually seen action in Egypt and to a lesser extent on the retreat to Corunna, must have been wondering when he was going to have a chance to command his battalion under fire.
The Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, which took place in early May, was one of Wellington’s ‘worse scrapes’ and, he confessed that had Napoleon been there, he would have been beaten. Nevertheless, it was a success by a narrow margin, with many casualties on both sides. Masséna, whose aim had been to relieve the besieged Almeida, failed and he was subsequently removed from command. No doubt to his fury, Bevan was not involved in the battle, Erskine’s 5th Division barely featuring. Was Erskine not to be trusted after his two previous debacles?
The French garrison at Almeida was now isolated and impossible to replenish, so Masséna determined that it should break out. Governor Brennier’s instructions were to evacuate the fort by night and head for the French lines in a north-easterly direction, crossing the bridge over the Agueda River at Barba del Puerco. The road and the bridge itself were built by the Romans in the 1st century BC. It was designed for foot and mule traffic rather than wheeled vehicles. It is about 165 feet long, 15 feet wide and 66 feet high. The road on the western side drops down some 755 feet from the level of the plateau above down the ravine to the river. At the final approach down by the bridge the drop is almost vertical. The original road surface is largely still in place. The bridge (now named Puerto Seguro), even today, remains a masterpiece of construction.
The responsibility for blockading Almeida fell to Major General Campbell’s 6th Division. The 5th Division, in support under Erskine, was given clear deployment instructions on 9 May. This included the directive to place a battalion 2 or 3 miles beyond Fort Conception and deploy picquets over various rivulets. The battalion was Bevan’s 4th Foot, positioned some 6–8 miles to the east of Almeida and approximately 8–10 miles from the Barba del Puerco bridge. The trap was set for the escaping French. Or was it?
Wellington ordered a Distribution of the Army (Operation Order) on 10 May, in writing, via the quartermaster general, in which a battalion from Erskine’s division was to deploy, specifically, to the Barba del Puerco bridge to guard it. This would be perfectly understandable, given the importance of the bridge. Indeed, it would be inconceivable that it should remain unguarded. It is unlikely he would specify which battalion (although he says he ordered the 4th when discussing the matter with Stanhope in 1836. At the same time he admits that no one can agree as to the exact time the Battle of Waterloo began, so his memory is not 100 per cent). The battalion would be a matter for Erskine or one of his subordinate brigade commanders to nominate. Again, there are differences as to the time the 10 May order reached Erskine, but the generally accepted view is that it was around four o’clock in the afternoon; indeed, Wellington says exactly that in his dispatch to Lord Liverpool on 15 May 1811.
Most commentators believe that Erskine certainly failed to react immediately and the order to the 4th to proceed to the bridge was not issued until midnight or thereabouts. Again, although even eyewitness accounts in history are not always totally reliable, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that the order was issued immediately. Edward Pakenham, who was present and a pretty reliable witness, says Erskine put the order in his pocket and forgot about it. Given Erskine’s myopia, fondness for drink and general inadequacy of which there is much evidence, it is not difficult to believe.
Assuming that Bevan did receive his orders at midnight, why did he not react immediately? He was a competent professional soldier who would have easily grasped the importance of getting to the bridge as quickly as possible. A good battalion, even at rest, can start moving within the hour. He could have been at the bridge by 3 or 4 a.m. There has been much speculation since. It ranges from Bevan thinking that he should keep his men in their present position (to oppose enemy he thought were in his area and merely send a patrol to the Barba del Puerco bridge), to waiting for dawn in order to find his way in the light, or waiting for guides to show him the way. Another conjecture is that he was advised by his subordinate officers not to start until daybreak. Bevan was hardly the man to pay attention to that if he thought otherwise. Whatever the explanation, none of it really holds water to excuse Bevan’s delay. He knew the importance of the mission and there was no reason not to get going at once. It has been argued that there was no intelligence that the French were actually on the move that night and therefore it might have been sensible for Bevan to wait for dawn. However, in terms of getting a guard to the bridge as soon as possible for the eventuality of a French breakout at any time, this is difficult to sustain.
General Brennier was an experienced and resourceful officer. He was in no doubt how difficult it was to extract some 1,400 of his troops from the town and make it safely to the French Army now in the Ciudad Rodrigo area. He also needed to destroy as much as he could in Almeida that could be of use to the allies, including, in particular, his guns, which he could not take with him. At 11.30 p.m., Brennier’s men silently left the town in two columns. They made their first contact with elements of the British cordon just as their demolitions in Almeida started to go off, confusing and disorientating their opponents. Brennier had planned indirect routes and deliberately did not use local guides in order to preserve utmost secrecy. Nevertheless, his rear, with his baggage, and flanks were harassed by the British. Despite that, the two columns reached the west bank of the Agueda at dawn in good order and to their intense joy and surprise found the bridge unguarded. The French had sent troops from General Jean Reynier’s II Corps to set up a bridgehead the other side of Barba del Puerco to protect Brennier’s crossing.
It is difficult, even by the standards of the time, to understand how Brennier could have evaded the allied cordon and picquets. The British knew he had to evacuate Almeida and knew the only course open to him was to rejoin the main army by travelling eastwards and cross by a number of bridges over the Agueda with Barba del Puerco the most likely. Campbell had the whole of his 6th Division, augmented by a Portuguese independent infantry brigade and a cavalry brigade, to prevent this. Indifference and apathy seemed to reign.
There were, however, exceptions to this and some resolute and determined well-led troops did manage to attack parts of the French columns, but they were uncoordinated and lacked the strength and information to prevent the columns reaching the bridge. As Brennier’s men arrived at the bridge and started to cross, the 36th Regiment of Foot, joined now by Bevan’s 4th, caught up with them. But it was too late. There then followed a frenzied, confused action with British and French tumbling down into the ravine and courageous assaults across the bridge being met with devastating covering fire from the French bridgehead the other side of the river. For Brennier, it was a success against considerable odds. Out of his 1,400 men, he lost 360 killed and wounded and another 200 taken prisoner.
As a postscript, many years later Wellington was discussing with Earl Stanhope the benefit or otherwise of sacking a town that failed to give in to its besiegers. ‘I had some intimation of General Brennier’s purpose’ he said, ‘to blow up the place and retire, and I sent him word that if he did, he and every man we could catch should have no quarter. It is contrary to the laws of nations; and troops so conducting themselves are not entitled to consider themselves prisoners of war.’
‘It was, then, very brave of General Brennier to venture?’ queried Stanhope.
‘Why, if it had come to the point, I dare say I should not have done it. But Brennier had another motive. I had seen him before: I had taken him prisoner at Vimiera [sic]. Before he was exchanged he came to me in London, told me he was in difficulty, and I lent him £500. I dare say he thought if I had taken him prisoner I should have made him pay me. I have never seen him since. I heard no more of the money.’
So, now the explanations and excuses. Wellington was understandably infuriated. Both Campbell’s and Erskine’s reports embroidered the truth. Campbell’s dispatch asserting that he had destroyed or captured the greater part of the garrison was blatantly untrue and Erskine’s excuse that the 4th had lost their way to Barba del Puerco was equally false. Wellington himself exaggerated the real facts by reporting that had the 4th reached the bridge earlier, Brennier would have surrendered. Given the strength of the French bridgehead on the eastern side of the river, this is highly unlikely.
Harry Smith of the 95th Regiment was pretty clear: ‘Now occurred the dreadful disaster of the escape of the French garrison of Almeida. I shall never forget the mortification of our soldiers or the admiration of our officers of the brilliancy of such an attempt, the odds being a hundred to one against success. My long friend Ironmonger [sic], then of the Queen’s . . . was grievously to blame.’ Iremonger was commanding officer of the 2nd Regiment of Foot, who had been particularly inactive when it was reported to him the French had contacted his picquets on their way out of Almeida.
A further point that historians have, to a certain extent, overlooked is, if Bevan had reached the bridge before Brennier, what next? Bevan did not know the ground, whereas Brennier might well have done given the importance of this critical path to his escape. Bevan would have arrived in the dark with the French bridgehead force already in place on the eastern side of the river. His battalion of, say, 400 would be facing Brennier’s 1,000 plus, with a strong enemy force at his back. The bridge itself, at the bottom of a very steep ravine, was a difficult position to defend. What were his options? To put a suicidal block of men on the bridge itself? Defend the bridge from the height of the western plateau, with his back to the ravine? Or to ambush the French as they approached from the west? Even by today’s standards, not an enviable task for a commanding officer. However, this is not to excuse Bevan’s failure to march at midnight; had he done so, whatever the outcome of the battle on the bridge, Brennier would hardly have succeeded as well as he did.
In his letter of 15 May 1811 to his wife, Bevan only fleetingly referred to the Barba del Puerco episode: ‘On the 11 we had a skirmish with the garrison of Almeida on their retreat but were unfortunately a little too late to do more than what you will see by the Papers took place—these events is a matter of great annoyance to us all.’ Bevan lost the first casualties since he took over command; two killed and one officer and ten other ranks wounded. Being totally unaware of how Wellington was reporting this ‘annoyance’, Bevan continued with his battalion southwards, still in the 5th Division, to besiege Badajoz. This was abandoned for the time being and the 4th fell back on the town of Portalegre at the end of June.
It was then Bevan discovered, from newspapers now reaching them, how Wellington had portrayed the debacle in his dispatch of 15 May, in which he roundly blamed the whole affair on the 4th for losing its way and being too late to prevent Brennier’s escape over the bridge. The report was compounded by a further letter in which Wellington asserted the 4th was much closer to the bridge than it actually was. Bevan was understandably devastated. Not only was his personal honour at stake but so was the reputation of his regiment. His reaction was to request a hearing of his side of the story. It is not clear whether this was a formal inquiry or court martial and there is no documentation to support it either way. However, it must be assumed that Bevan was determined, if not to have himself and his battalion completely exonerated, then to demonstrate that the blame was not entirely theirs and there were others involved.
Wellington was not interested. Many things had gone wrong in the course of the campaign; this was merely one of them. Someone was to blame and it was easiest to fasten it onto Bevan and the 4th without wasting time to discover who else was responsible. In talks with Earl Stanhope many years later, he is very dismissive and comments sourly that, ‘It was this blowing up of Almeida [by Brennier] and my waiting to see if it would be prepared, that made me too late for Albuera.’ Wellington had a war to run, had moved on and was not concerned with involving himself in what he would have regarded as a relatively minor setback at the time. Present-day commentators label him as insensitive and uncaring but that is a misjudgement. He was a man subject to emotion like many of his contemporaries but he was also a man apart. He was a hard man with a mission. He was the commander-in-chief and had to see things, if not globally, then certainly in the context of the Iberian Peninsula and beating the French generals; wasting time on a lieutenant colonel was not a priority.
In the depths of despair and depression, believing he had failed his men, his family and himself, Bevan shot himself on 8 July at Portalegre.
The army was profoundly shocked. A commanding officer committing suicide is deeply disturbing, not only for the staff and commanders who have to deal with the aftermath but also the soldiers themselves who are so reliant on the robustness of their leaders. A cover-up was therefore put in place. This cover-up was not to protect the army—its people would have known full well the reality—but to shield Bevan’s wife, who was told that he had died of fever. We know that the residual effect of Walcheren fever was still being felt and, like his predecessor, Bevan could easily have fallen victim. However, given that in his last letter to her of 4 July he makes no mention of any illness, this must have surprised her. James Dacres, Mary Bevan’s brother serving in the Royal Navy, and Jim Paterson of the 28th, married to Mary’s sister Eleanor, played significant parts in the plot.
In a letter of 15 October 1811, Dacres, in response to Mary’s queries, wrote:
Bevan had the advice of the Surgeon of the Regiment previous to the violence of the attacks commencing, but no danger was then feared, the violence of the fever rendered him delirious, and when that abated, he was too insensible to speak to anyone or to take any particular notice, his fever seized him very violently on the evening of the 5th, after he reached Portalegre, accompanied by violent retchings, the Medical people pronounced his disorder to proceed from bile, producing an inflammation on his stomach. He became delirious during the night which lasted with some intermission till the middle of the 7th, after which he continued without any appearance of pain in a kind of stupor till the morning of the 8th, on which his Spirit left the Mortal Mansion; from the time of his illness became so very decided he was never in a state to allow any religious duties being performed, or of entering into any conversation.
Dacres had earlier written to her, on 11 July, telling her of all the funeral arrangements and headstone, etc. Was this too a fabrication by his regiment? Did the funeral and firing party actually take place at all? Was there a headstone really put in place?
Had his suicide been official, Mary would not have received a pension. However, she did so, which shows that the cover-up was also sanctioned at a high level, probably by the Military Secretary at the time, Colonel Torrens. Quite remarkably, no more was heard of this affair for twenty-two years.
On 11 July 1843, Charles Bevan, Bevan’s son, now in his thirties, wrote to his uncle, James Dacres:
You are always kindly interested in my brothers and me, that I think no apology necessary in applying to you for information on a subject which has occasioned us, of late, much pain and anxiety.
It has very lately come to my knowledge that my father put an end to his own life, and that this shocking event was mainly attributable to some real or imaginary disgrace brought upon himself and his Corps at the time of the evacuation of Almeida by the French, under General Brennier.
Without troubling you for any detailed account of this affair (which I can get from other sources) I wish you would tell me plainly whether my father was, in the opinion of competent judges, really culpable or not, and whether the circumstances of this melancholy business are such as will bear further enquiries by his sons.
His uncle replied by return, and it is worth reading his letter in its entirety:
What you heard about your dear Father, is too correct, but not the slightest blame was thrown upon his character by military men, or any person who knew the circumstances. The escape of the garrison of Almeida being expected Wellington sent orders to Sir W. Erskine to place the 4th Regiment in a particular position to intercept them. He was asleep, and as they say, drunk, and the dispatch was not opened, or orders sent to the 4th until daylight, when it was too late for them to reach the position in time; but no blame was laid to them, and nothing was thought about it till the Gazette came out from England, in which Lord Wellington said ‘owing to the neglect of the 4th Foot, the Garrison made their escape!’
Your father directly applied for a Court Martial or enquiry; which the Duke declined, saying it was ‘somebody’s fault’. Your father was much hurt, and after repeated refusals of his application to the Duke for justice, and having no particular friend near him, he committed the melancholy act, leaving a note for Paterson who was away, saying he considered his military character tarnished.
The event caused great excitement in the Army, and so much was said by some of the higher officers that a Colonel Cockrane was sent home; some time afterwards Sir W. Erskine when at Lisbon threw himself out of a window in a fit of insanity brought on by drink, and was killed.
Every officer there considered your father a very ill-used man; but he had the most romantic ideas of military honour. In 1809 when Sir Hew Dalrymple came home from Lisbon, he always used to say to me that Sir Hew, if he had a true military feeling, would have shot himself. It is, I believe, still unknown to your Mother. I wished to have broken it to you and your brothers when you went to Oxford, thinking you might have heard it there, but your Grandmother would not allow it, and I was in hopes you would not have heard it. I send you my mother’s letter, which, when you have read, burn. That was one of the reasons your Grandmother and Aunts always objected to any of you going into the Army.
Not the slightest slur was ever thrown on your father’s character, but in the excitement of an active and bloody campaign the thing was dropt without any notice, by the Horse Guards, the Duke then beginning to be all-powerful. I was in America at the time.
Does Bevan therefore fit the criteria of the scapegoat? First of all, was he in any way to blame for his predicament? He was certainly not to blame for receiving his orders much later that he should have done. However, there is no substantial reason for his delay thereafter. He must be, therefore, partially at fault. Who benefited by blaming him? Wellington? It was more of a quick convenience to blame Bevan and then move on. It certainly had no impact on his career or standing, and he was not even mildly censured from England. Indeed, his brother William wrote, ‘I think you are now above any Intrigue that can be formed or initiated against you.’ Was he, though, a bad selector of subordinates? Erskine, Dalrymple and Brent Spencer should have been sacked long ago. Or was he saddled with them by the Horse Guards? Erskine? Certainly, in his befuddled state, he was to blame. He was clearly inadequate and sought to cover his error by insinuating that Bevan had lost his way, conveniently forgetting he had issued orders late. Campbell and his division? A number of his commanders were lethargic or badly positioned. Campbell undoubtedly should have produced a better plan for stopping Brennier. The latter’s escape out of Almeida with 1,400 says it all. Campbell was never given independent command again.
Had there been a proper inquiry, it could have been argued that Bevan was not blameless, but he was unquestionably not wholly responsible for the escape of the French from Almeida and their crossing of the bridge at Barba del Puerco. His memorial, re-constructed by his descendants, now lies in the little British cemetery in the town of Elvas.
A man who has no memorial, and is now forgotten, lived fifty years before Bevan. Dupleix was Robert Clive’s French equivalent in India. Had he been supported properly by his government, it might have been a French, rather than a British, Raj. Was he a scapegoat for the French East India Company’s inadequacy or did he bring much of his misfortune on himself by his grandiose ideas?