THE PENINSULAR WAR: COIMBRA

Trant’s Raid was the Portuguese recapture of the city of Coimbra from the French on 7 October 1810 during the Peninsular War. The assault was undertaken by a Portuguese militia led by Colonel Nicholas Trant, an Irish officer in the British Army.

This view looks north-west towards the plain beyond Coimbra. The two parts of the city, seen here on each side of the River Mondego, are linked by the Ponte de Santa Clara. The city had been captured in 1810 by the French who made a base, leaving their sick and wounded there. In October 1810, Nicholas Trant (1769-1839), a Captain in the Royal Staff Corps, and Brigadier-General in the Portuguese army, to which he was assigned, recaptured Coimbra with his Portuguese troops, taking 5,000 prisoners in what has been described as ‘the most daring enterprise by any partisan force during the entire war’. Trant was made Governor of the city and remained there during the winter of 1810-1811. 

6 October 1810

As Masséna approached, Wellington withdrew behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, but British public opinion clamoured for him to make a stand. He decided to do so at a place of his own choosing, near the fortress town of Coimbra. Masséna’s army approached down the rain-sodden road, to Ordenanza, his supply train attacked by Portuguese guerrillas. One group of 2,000 under a notoriously daring Irish officer, Colonel Trant, nearly succeeded in cutting off the entire French artillery. Then the French army came up against a great nine-mile long ridge running from the banks of the Mondego to the central spine of Portuguese hills at Bussaco.

Here Wellington took up his position. He had 27,000 British troops and 25,000 Portuguese. In front of them, in the valley below, were 60,000 French soldiers. Wellington, clad in his simple frock coat, cocked hat and cloak without decorations, watched from above. ‘If Masséna attacks me here, I shall defeat him,’ he observed simply.

On the morning of 27 September the French drums beat for the attack. They were drawn up in two huge columns, each composed of several divisions: one in the south under Reynier was ordered to break through the British right along a track, and wheel about to envelop it; the other under Ney was to come straight along the main road and strike through the centre in overwhelming force. Behind it a further corps, and Ney’s and Junot’s own divisions, were held in reserve. Masséna seemed unaware there were two further British divisions under Hill to the right. The French had every confidence their overwhelming force of hardened veterans would prevail.

They attacked at dawn in a mist, the steepness of the climb to the ridge soon causing them to pause. One French division made it to the top at a point that was lightly defended, but British and Portuguese troops hurried down the road that ran along the ridge to reinforce it. After a fierce firefight that left 2,000 dead and wounded, the assailants were forced down the slope. A second French attempt to break through at the same spot was also repulsed. To the left the main French thrust reached the crest of the hill, only to be blocked by 1,800 men of the 43rd and 52nd Regiments, concealed behind the brow. ‘Now 52nd, avenge the death of Sir John Moore!’ yelled Crauford. After a few minutes the 6,000-strong French column was in full retreat down the steep bank.

Masséna decided to call the attack off with the loss of more than 4,000 men to some 1,200 on the Anglo-Portuguese side. He had found a trail over to the coastal plain which would bypass the British position, but Wellington had no intention of being outflanked. He ordered a retreat to the first Line of Torres Vedras seventy miles away, to the consternation of Portuguese civilians, who had to abandon their belongings and join in a chaotic refugee column. Trant and his Portuguese forces briefly recaptured Coimbra behind French lines and took 4,500 French wounded and the small garrison there prisoner.

The characteristic rains of October burst upon the two armies. Masséna, closing in for the kill, ordered a general surge forward. At last the British army reached the awesome fortified lines – earthworks interrupted by forts with the ground cleared in front of them, interspersed by cliffs blown by the British out of solid rock. On the coastal side there was a huge artificial marsh created by diverting streams. The British and the Portuguese armies were safe: most of these troops had no idea of the extent or even existence of these fortifications. ‘The devil cannot surely have built these mountains,’ was Masséna’s dismayed reaction as he came up against them. He staged one botched attack near Sobral, then realized his men would be massacred if he proceeded.

For five weeks his troops were camped miserably in front of the Lines as their supplies dwindled and Portuguese partisans attacked in the rear. The British soldiers tossed them biscuits out of sympathy. Finally the French erected straw dummies at night and pulled back to some thirty miles further north. There they camped and starved through that wretched winter. The British held off attacking, Wellington remarking with his usual detachment that there was no need to sacrifice his men: Masséna’s men would sooner or later have to retreat in full winter over the mountain passes to Spain.

Masséna was well entrenched in the hills around Santarém and there he waited for a diversionary attack to be mounted by Soult with his army from Seville. In October, as Soult’s forces approached, Major Harvey was despatched to take command of the Ordeneza, the Portuguese guerrilla Army of the South, to prevent the French crossing the Tagus. These Portuguese brigands traditionally would not obey British orders and he had no supporting British troops. Nevertheless he succeeded in patrolling the west bank of the river. When the French tried to seize sixty boats to carry their forces over the river at Chumusca, they were supported by six cannon, but intense fire from the Portuguese partisans under Harvey’s command drove them back and he succeeded in scuttling the boats.

On 30 December Soult set out with 20,000 men north-west into Estremadura, taking two weeks to reach Olivenza, where he captured or killed the 4,000 Spanish soldiers defending the garrison. At the end of January 1812 it was the turn of the massive castle of Badajoz, which lay on the road to Portugal: outside its walls a Spanish army was again trounced. Wellington could spare no men himself to relieve it.

However General Thomas Graham, commanding the British forces in Cadiz, decided to stage a diversionary attack by landing from the sea behind the lines besieging that city. In late February some 10,000 Spaniards and 5,000 British soldiers sailed from Cadiz to Algeciras to attack the French army from the rear. Their commander, however, was the notoriously highly strung General Manuel (Dona Manuela to his soldiers) La Peña.

On arrival opposite the French besieging army under General Victor, La Peña attempted to bypass this and link up with the forces inside Cadiz. This exposed him to being cut down by the French cavalry on his flank: Graham led a force of just 470 men up the hill against vastly superior French forces: some 200 were killed in the first French volley alone. But this onslaught gave time for reinforcements to be brought up, and the French were routed, losing 2,000 of their 7,000 men. Some 600 British soldiers were lost altogether, along with twenty-five officers, around a third of the total.

The Spanish army was thus saved; but, exhausted by La Peña’s forced marching, it did nothing. Wellington remarked:

They march the troops night and day without provisions or rest, abusing everybody who proposes a moment’s delay to afford either to the famished and fatigued soldiers. They reach the enemy in such a state as to be unable to make any exertion or to execute any plan, even if any plan had been formed; and, when the moment of action arrives, they are totally incapable of movement, and they stand by to see their allies destroyed, and afterwards abuse them because they do not continue, unsupported, exertions to which human nature is not equal.

The two forces were compelled to return to the safety of Cadiz more or less intact, but having accomplished little. However they had dealt a psychological blow. Soult to the north, learning of Graham’s diversionary attack, felt his rear to be threatened. Although he had captured Badajoz, he hastily returned southwards.

Masséna now was on his own again in Portugal. At long last his starving army began to retreat: it had been reduced by around 30,000 men to just 44,000. Behind them they left a wasteland strewn with the corpses of their own starved men, the Portuguese they had massacred and raped and a countryside stripped of all sustenance.

Wellington moved into close pursuit across this desolate countryside to prevent Masséna turning north to establish a new base in Portugal. He marched to the valley of the Ceira where he attacked Ney’s forces as they tried to cross the river, killing some 400. After chasing the French a hundred miles across valleys and mountains in torrential rains, Wellington called a halt to resupply. Masséna promptly attempted to turn south and march across the 4,000-foot-high central massif of Portugal to stage a new thrust against Lisbon from the Tagus valley. In the wake of the French myriad horrors occurred. As a British soldier wrote: ‘This retreat brought to my mind the Corunna race. We could not advance a hundred yards without seeing dead soldiers of the enemy . . . The retreat resembled more that of famished wolves than men. Murder and devastation marked their way; every house was a sepulchre, a cabin of horrors!’

It was as though a plague of locusts had ravished the land. Arthur Bryant vividly described the devastation:

The road was covered with dead soldiers and abandoned carriages; the houses filled with sick and dying in the last loathsome stages of disease. Many lay on the floor in full uniform, their arms still grasped in their hands as if asleep, or sat in chairs, stiff and upright, with shakos on and pinched features frozen in death. The route their comrades had taken was marked by straggling wretches with pallid, swollen faces which they turned with inexpressible pathos on their pursuers. The Rifles in the British van threw them their biscuits in pity as they passed. But their pity turned to anger as they saw what they had done. For everywhere were burning and ravaged houses, mutilated peasants with slit throats and gouged-out eyes, polluted churches and rifled graves. The whole countryside had been transformed into a waste fit only for wolves and vultures. The few surviving inhabitants looked like skeletons risen from the tomb. Gaunt and ghastly figures fed off the grass in the fields or scoured the woods for acorns and rotten olives. Violated women lay bleeding in charred and unroofed houses, the streets were strewn with putrid carcasses, children with bones sticking through their skin clung to the bodies of dead parents. Searching for a stream on the first night of the British advance, Rifleman Costello stumbled on a fountain into whose waters the brains of three peasants were oozing, while all that had possessed life in the village ‘lay quivering in the last agony of slaughter and awful vengeance’.

The atrocities had been a deliberate policy to crush the resistance of the local population. Wellington relayed the horrors to London, to force the British government to continue its support of the Peninsular War.

Masséna’s counterattack fizzled out. First Ney, then Reynier and Junot refused to obey the suicidal orders from the grim old general. On 5 April the exhausted, demoralized and defeated French army recrossed the Spanish border. The chase had lasted 300 miles. The French had been ignominiously ejected from Portugal. It had been the greatest setback for Napoleon’s invincible armies yet.

THE PENINSULAR WAR: THE LINES OF TORRES VEDRAS

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of forts and other military defences built in secrecy to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. Named after the nearby town of Torres Vedras, they were ordered by Arthur Wellesley, Viscount Wellington, constructed by Sir Richard Fletcher, 1st Baronet, and his Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810, and used to stop Marshal Masséna’s 1810 offensive.

Wellesley led his men back to the temperate valleys of Beira and Mondego in southern Portugal. After their gruelling marches the mood of relief and lightheadedness in this cheerful winter quarters is caught by the episode when Wellesley, visiting a convent, was astonished to see a nun perform a somersault – until from her petticoats there emerged the boots of a British officer, the practical joker being Captain Dan Mackinnon (who also dressed up on another occasion as the Duke of York, fooling his Spanish hosts, until he dunked his head into the punchbowl in front of him).

Wellesley had now been awarded a peerage as Viscount Wellington, after the town in Somerset. The new milord knew that his position in Portugal was virtually impregnable because Lisbon, from which British forces could be evacuated by sea in a crisis, was at the tip of a peninsula twenty miles wide with the Tagus encircling it to the south and east and the Atlantic to the west. If he built fortifications across the neck of the isthmus on the hills to the north – which rose to 2,000 feet in some places – he had a defensible enclave.

At the end of October he ordered his chief engineer, Colonel Fletcher, to start building these lines of defence – one at the bottom of the Peninsula to cover an embarkation, another across the Cabeca de Monchique, a mountain area which formed an outer perimeter six miles to the north. The extent of the work was astounding: forests were cut down, walls erected and towers strung out along the lines. Much of this work, called the Lines of Torres Vedras, survives to this day, more than fifty miles in extent – a miniature version of the Great Wall of China.

While the Lines were being constructed, Wellington had to fight calls from England for the withdrawal of his army. He was accused of causing his men needless suffering after Talavera, which was partly true. With the fall of the Duke of Portland’s government, the new secretary for war was Lord Liverpool, a pleasant, deeply unimaginative mediocrity but a staunch admirer of Wellington. The latter defended himself with uncharacteristic modesty and urged a continuing presence in the Peninsula: ‘During the continuance of this contest, which must necessarily be defensive on our part, in which there may be no brilliant events, and in which, after all, I may fail, I shall be most confoundedly abused, and in the end I may lose the little character I have gained; but I should not act fairly by the government if I did not tell them my real opinion which is, that they will betray the honour and interests of the country if they do not continue their efforts in the Peninsula, which, in my opinion, are by no means hopeless.’

Liverpool was persuaded: ‘We must make our opinion between a steady and continued exertion upon a moderate scale and a great and extraordinary effort for a limited time which neither our military nor financial means will enable us to maintain permanently. If it could be hoped that the latter would bring the contest to a speedy and successful conclusion, it would certainly be the wisest course; but unfortunately the experience of the last fifteen years is not encouraging in this respect.’

Not since Addington had so mediocre a man as Spencer Perceval led Britain against France. Brougham sums up his personality:

Of views upon all things the most narrow, upon religious and even political questions the most bigoted and intolerant, his range of mental vision was confined in proportion to his ignorance on all general subjects. Within that sphere he saw with extreme acuteness – as the mole is supposed to be more sharp-sighted than the eagle for half a quarter of an inch before it; but as beyond the limits of his little horizon he saw no better than the mole, so like her, he firmly believed, and always acted on the belief, that beyond what he could descry nothing whatever existed; and he mistrusted, dreaded, and even hated all who had an ampler visual range than himself. But here, unhappily, all likeness ceases between the puny animal and the powerful statesman. Beside the manifest sincerity of his convictions, attested, perhaps, by his violence and rancour, he possessed many qualities, both of the head and the heart, which strongly recommended him to the confidence of the English people. He never scared them with refinements, nor alarmed their fears by any sympathy with improvements out of the old and beaten track; and he shared largely in all their favourite national prejudices.

Perceval’s absurd attempts to secure a monopoly of neutral trade for Britain led to the needless War of 1812 with America. In the absence of both Canning and Castlereagh, the most powerful players in his government were the Wellesley brothers – the marquess promoted from ambassador to Lisbon to Foreign Secretary – with Liverpool another mediocrity whom they dominated. Perceval was a narrow-minded conservative, whose response to the threat posed by Napoleon was of straightforward obduracy, as it was to any manifestation of popular discontent prompted by Britain’s economic difficulties under the Continental System and the rapid social and economic transformation the country was undergoing.

The sole benefit of such leadership was that it gave the domineering Wellington a free hand in Portugal. In addition to establishing the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington proved a genius in irregular warfare. He sought to integrate his Portuguese troops under General Beresford. In this Major Harvey, the assistant quartermaster-general with the Portuguese army, was the key. He was sent to organize a force of Portuguese guerrillas in Beira province. These became highly effective guerrillas, usually under the command of priests. On one occasion Harvey’s irregulars captured a heavy convoy near Penamacor, fighting off the 150 French irregulars accompanying it just four miles away from a full French division: no fewer than fifty-three cartloads of ammunition and tobacco were taken.

Another leader of irregulars was the ferociously disciplinarian Brigadier Robin Crauford, ‘Black Bob’, who flogged any man who broke ranks crossing a stream and who could get his men under arms from sleeping quarters at night in just seven minutes. Crauford’s guerrillas guarded the Portuguese frontier, bringing reports of suspect French troop concentrations. ‘The whole web of communication quivered at the slightest touch,’ wrote one observer admiringly. Both Harvey and Crauford reported back enemy movements in the valley of the Mondego from the vantage points of the Serra d’Estrella.

Wellington and his small army remained in their hill fastnesses in central Portugal, as Washington’s armies had done in the interior of America, while the imperial armies of their opponents blundered about the plains and plateaux, under constant and relentless harassment from the local population. Every day on average more than a hundred French soldiers were killed. While bungling and ill-equipped Spanish armies were always at the mercy of the French on the field of battle, in guerrilla fighting it was the other way around.

One fearsome guerrilla boasted that he had killed 600 Frenchmen himself. El Empecinado – Inky Face – roamed Castile with his guerrilla band, seizing and holding the sizeable town of Guadalajara for a day. Camilo, a guerrilla chief whose wife and daughter had been raped, formed a small army which killed thousands. Don Julian Sanchez sent the severed heads of French commanders to Wellington as trophies and massacred 160 prisoners in a single sitting, promising to slice Soult into strips. One of his commanders boiled a French general alive and sawed another in half.

The fortress of Gerona held out under its governor, Mariano Alvarez de Castro. He told his men when they ran out of food to eat the cowards, and instructed his officers that their only place of retreat should be the cemetery. Half of Gerona’s townspeople and 6,000 of its 9,000 defenders were killed before it surrendered.

Napoleon, relaxing with his pretty young bride after Wagram, had long promised to go to Spain to take personal charge of the campaign but perhaps sensing that the war there was unwinnable against resistance on this scale, he had already despatched his two best generals, André Masséna and Michel Ney. These two supported the forces under the incompetent King Joseph (known as Pepe Botellas by the Spaniards for his alleged fondness for the bottle), and other marshals: Soult in Andalucia, Suchet in Aragón (who alone controlled his fiefdom through enlightened policies designed to win over the local population) and Augereau in Catalonia. These men reported directly to the Emperor in order to prevent Masséna acquiring too much power, but the result was that they competed with one another, rarely combining their armies. They each ran their own areas of Spain as personal fiefdoms.

Wellington wrote with detachment in July:

This is not the way in which they have conquered Europe. There is something discordant in all the French arrangements for Spain. Joseph divides his Kingdom into préfetures, while Napoleon parcels it out into governments; Joseph makes a great military expedition into the south of Spain and undertakes the siege of Cadiz while Napoleon places all the troops and half the kingdom under the command of Masséna and calls it the Army of Portugal . . . I suspect that the impatience of Napoleon’s temper will not bear the delay of the completion of the conquest of Spain.

But Masséna with his 30,000 vanguard was already approaching the frontier town of Ciudad Rodrigo. Although the fortress was almost indefensible, its heroic Spanish commander General Herrasti held out for nearly two months with 5,000 men, until more than 1,200 had been killed. Some 30,000 shells and roundshot had to be fired before the French managed to take the garrison. Wellington refused to come to the rescue, for once out in the open plain he was easy prey for French cavalry. Masséna’s army now moved on to the more impressive fortress of Almeida. However, here a shell blew up the main ammunition dump, leaving the garrison almost out of ammunition, and it surrendered unexpectedly quickly.

THE PENINSULAR WAR: TALAVERA

27–28 July 1809

Wellesley’s chief problem was a shortage of supplies, for he insisted that his men should not plunder the countryside so as not to antagonize the local population. He continued his march and on 16 July moved forward from Plasencia, reaching Talavera six days later. It was the height of a Spanish summer, and the heat on the baking plains was intense, the dust kicked up by the marching army choking. Even so, there was snow on the sierra to the north, which extended nearly as far as the river at Talavera. The French were surprised by the British advance but quickly retreated east towards Madrid.

Cuesta, that ‘desperate-looking lump of pride, ignorance and treachery’ as one British soldier called him, or a ‘perverse stupid old blockhead’ as an officer described him, ordered his army forward in pursuit, with Wellesley wisely refusing to follow. As Arthur Bryant picturesquely described it: ‘All that day the astonished British watched it pour past – a bewildering kaleidoscope of turbulent half-armed brigands emerging from clouds of dust, regular regiments in blue and scarlet marching in perfect order, of cavalry staff officers, priests, musicians, women, carts, guns and artillery wagons, and herds of sheep, pigs and cattle. It looked like the last army of the Middle Ages pouring out to do battle with the French Revolution.’

The Spaniards soon ran up against a force of 46,000 Frenchmen, a combination of Victor’s army and Joseph’s reinforcements from Madrid. Of Venegas there was nothing to be seen. He had stopped at Aranjuez to the south. Cuesta was forced immediately to retreat to the British position behind him.

There Wellesley, with his extraordinary eye for a good defence, had drawn up the British between the mountains and the river. He allowed the Spaniards to occupy the most protected front beside Talavera itself, while the British were in the exposed gap and the steep foothills of the mountains, the Cerro de Medellin, overlooking the valley.

There were only 20,000 British and German troops and just thirty light cannon against the 40,000 French troops and their eighty cannon. Wellesley himself narrowly evaded capture as he tried to escort the Spanish into their defensive positions. On the same evening of 27 July Victor ordered his men to attack and they succeeded in taking the top of the Cerro de Medellin before Hill led a counter-attack and drove them back down.

The following morning the battle began in earnest. The French opened up with their guns. Wellesley ordered his men back over the brow of the hill and told them to lie down. The French infantry marched up the hill but as they reached the top the British rose in good formation and fired volleys before Wellesley ordered them down the slope, routing the French with their superior forces.

There was a lull in the fighting before a general advance was ordered. On the British right, near Talavera, General Campbell repelled the French so successfully that he had to restrain his men from advancing too fast and breaking the already overstretched British line. To the north a British pursuit was counter-attacked by the French, who killed half of them as well as their commander, opening up a huge gap in the British line which 15,000 French infantry moved quickly to occupy. The British reserves were hurried up.

Wellesley also ordered infantry down from the Cerro de Medellin to plug the hole. But there was a further danger: the French had scrambled up the rocky ravine to the north of the Cerro de Medellin to outflank the British where they were weakest. Cavalry were ordered forward to stop them, but many plunged to their deaths into a hidden gully, although enough survived to halt the advancing French.

At this stage the French commanders decided to cut their losses and withdraw on learning that Venegas was at last advancing from the south to threaten the capital. A particular horror of the battle now ensued when the long grass on the slopes of the Cerro de Medellin caught fire, leading to the burning alive of hundreds of wounded lying there. Yet it had been a victory of sorts, with 7,000 French dead and captured, compared to some 5,000 British, Spanish and Germans, who had also taken the battlefield. Wellesley had shown that he was not just a capable and lucky commander, as at Vimeiro and Oporto, but a first-rate one, who made careful preparations and maintained absolute coolness in the heat of the fighting. Talavera was also a triumph for Sir John Moore’s reforms – although modified by Wellesley’s much stricter enforcement of old-fashioned discipline.

Victor withdrew towards Madrid with just 18,000 men to defend the capital from the attack believed to be imminent under Venegas from the south. The British and the Spanish armies also prepared to march on Madrid from the east. However on 1 August Wellesley learnt that Soult had been reinforced from the north by Ney and Masséna to 50,000 men. Spain’s northern commander, the Duque del Parque, had been forced to stand aside to escape annihilation and the French were marching on Plasencia having driven off the 3,000-strong Spanish force guarding the crucial Pass of Banos.

Wellesley learnt of the French concentration of forces in the nick of time and escaped to the south-west across the only available bridge across the Tagus. General Cuesta followed reluctantly and his rearguard was badly mauled by the French who captured most of the Spanish guns. Meanwhile Venegas’s army was also badly beaten at Almonacid de Toledo. Wellesley’s force huddled in the barren hills south of the Tagus, quarrelling with Cuesta’s troops and in danger of starving as the Spaniards took what little was available from the peasantry. After a few weeks Wellington, disgusted with the Spaniards whom he blamed for failing to fight effectively at Talavera, decided to bolt back into the fertile land of southern Portugal. He had overreached himself and been forced back to his heartland.

The Spaniards were furious with what they saw as British desertion. They staged a quixotic attack which was crushed at Ocaña in November by 50,000 against their 34,000. The Spaniards fought bravely but lost 18,000 men and were routed. The Spanish governing junta were driven south by a French attack in January and fled to the safety of Cadiz where it was overthrown by its fellow countrymen. But the French were stopped outside the city as Spanish troops under Sir Thomas Graham held the isthmus to the great port. Some 70,000 French troops now found themselves tied down in the south besieging Cadiz.

THE PENINSULAR WAR: OPORTO

12 May 1809

Sir Arthur Wellesley was a distinctly odd man; fastidious, snooty and intelligent all at once. He was also deeply ambitious and powered by intolerance towards others. He could hardly have been more different temperamentally in his buttoned-up style, to the mercurial, emotional Nelson or to the excitable, angry Napoleon. Undemonstrative, except in private to his officers and girlfriends, he was clipped and economical with words, but cultivated soundbites with the care of a modern politician. They resonate to this day.

There were three features of genius to his personality: a brilliant eye for a battlefield and the disposition of forces to give him maximum advantage, particularly in defence, which was on a par with Napoleon’s skill in strong offensive deployments; strategic caution allied to an ability to strike lethally at the enemy’s weakest point at exactly the right time that surpassed even Napoleon; and an awesome dedication to the minutiae of military life – supplies, feeding his soldiers, preparing the ground and reconnaissance. Finally there was his remarkable ability to co-operate with the insurgent forces on the Peninsula, both Spanish and Portuguese. In addition, his cool and detached demeanour under fire was awe-inspiring, and inspirational to his men. Like the best generals, he seemed to think better and more calmly the hotter the action around him.

In spite of his semi-privileged background Wellesley was one of Britain’s first truly professional soldiers. The military commander he most resembled was not Napoleon, with his instinct for aggression in all circumstances, but the American George Washington. His skill in being patient in the face of intense provocation was of the same order. Like Washington he would retire to secure winter quarters, bide his time, and then suddenly strike a decisive blow. Like Washington he could provision and march his men for weeks at a time to preserve his forces. Like Washington he had an eye for the jugular, after years of inertia – suddenly spotting the enemy’s weaknesses and inflicting a decisive defeat.

Wellington was also unflappable and almost inhumanly courageous, a born leader of men in battle. It is from him that the tradition of the cold, aloof British military commander descends. While Britain’s foremost naval commanders were often primadonnas, no one could ever accuse Wellesley of being hysterical. But his contempt for the lower classes, his sharp tongue towards his less gifted subordinates, his insensitivity even towards his own veterans, and his addiction to discipline make him a deeply unattractive personality, as did his private behaviour. While the childishly infatuated Nelson was unintentionally cruel to his wife, Wellington was coldly, calculatingly so. Yet as a military professional, he had the forensic mind of a Sherlock Holmes – a fictional character whose personality might have been modelled on him.

On 27 April 1809 he landed at Lisbon with 23,000 men – including 3,000 Hanoverians. Some 6,000 men had already arrived under Sir Rowland Hill, an amiable, outgoing personality who was beloved of his men. These liaised with General William Beresford who had been placed in command of a considerable force of 16,000 Portuguese troops, with Captain Robert Harvey as his chief aide. Wellesley did not waste time: the plight of his army was precarious. In the north Marshal Soult had occupied Oporto, Portugal’s second city, with 23,000 men, while Marshal Victor, to the east was approaching the frontier with Spain with 25,000 men; between these two was a small army under General Lapisse. There were a staggering 250,000 French troops altogether in the Iberian Peninsula.

The British had just one advantage. The incredible brutality of the French, combined with their unpopularity as invaders, meant that the Spanish and Portuguese were united in their hatred of them. But they were almost equally suspicious of the British, whose motives they suspected and whom they regarded as mere allies of convenience. This led in turn to considerable British distrust, mingled with contempt, for their Iberian allies.

The Peninsular War was to become a three-way conflict in which the bitter and continuing resistance of the Spanish and Portuguese against the invaders, usually involving small-scale attacks, was supplemented by a disciplined regular British force. The British would not have prevailed without the local resistance, which was widespread and which tied down enormous number of French troops. Equally the partisans would eventually have been crushed without the British, who posed the greater military threat. The British regarded the Spanish and Portuguese with distaste and the latter responded with deep suspicion and sometimes non-co-operation. The Spanish armies in particular were poorly commanded and ill-disciplined. Spaniards often showed a small-minded parochialism that led them to fight in their own immediate neighbourhoods, not co-ordinate with the wider national effort, but their fighters could also be incredibly daring and brave – and cruel.

Wellesley moved with the speed he had learnt in India. The country in Portugal was somewhat different – a rugged one of hills, woods and ravines, all of which grew more impassable the further north he travelled. That did not delay him: he was no Chatham. He assembled nearly 18,000 men at Coimbra on the way to Oporto, reasoning that if he immediately defeated Soult, he would prevent a junction of French armies that would otherwise be larger than his own. It was his fortieth birthday.

Beresford led some 6,000 Portuguese militia on the army’s right flank to try to check the enemy’s expansion eastwards into Spain. Some 12,000 troops were left to guard Lisbon and central Portugal. Wellesley marched northwards, routing a small French force of around 4,500 men above Grija, reaching the town of Vila Nova along the upper bends of that wide and beautiful river, the Douro. He was now overlooking Oporto, an ancient and picturesque city crammed down the opposite slope, the trading entrepot of the area with its access along the river to the sea. It was also the great wine-producing centre of the region, traditionally supplying the British with enormous quantities, particularly now that trade with the rest of the continent had been blocked off. To make the shipping of this wine on the long journey back to Britain possible, the wine was fortified with brandy, which created that unique beverage, port, named after Oporto itself.

Soult had little warning of Wellesley’s arrival. He promptly destroyed the single bridge across the Douro and ensured that all river craft were on his side. If an attack came, he thought it would be from the west, using fishing boats brought up by the British from the sea. Wellesley instead turned his attention eastwards, upstream along the river, where he found several unguarded boats, mostly for carrying wine. Wellesley is usually considered a defensive general, but he was capable of offensive boldness when necessary.

He sent across a small force to seize a large enemy-held seminary on the opposite bank. General Paget, leading the raid, was badly wounded; but Hill, along with an infantry brigade, held the seminary against repeated attack. By that time Portuguese boats were ferrying the British across in increasing numbers. The French, fearful of being attacked by the vengeful Portuguese in the steep, narrow streets of the riverside town, ordered a retreat to the east. The British captured nearly 1,300 prisoners and some sixty guns. Some 500 Frenchmen were killed, for a loss of just twenty-three Britons.

To the east Beresford had repulsed another French force and occupied the town of Amarante on the old road from northern Portugal into Spain, thus cutting off Soult’s retreat. Blocked off to the east, the French army swung north into the hilly and wooded country towards Galicia abandoning their guns and provisions in a desperate attempt to get away. They had several thousand troops in their way, many of them Portuguese insurgents who responded to the routine raping of their womenfolk by castrating French soldiers and stuffing their genitals into their mouths or nailing them alive to trees and doorways.

Soult’s retreating army had circled toward the Tagus valley. The twenty-four-year-old Captain Harvey had linguistic skills which made him a natural scout and spy, travelling undercover, stirring up the Portuguese resistance and liaising with anti-French clerics and Portuguese irregulars. On reconnaissance, he saw Soult’s movement and reported it to the Duque del Parque, the Spanish general with whom he was liaising, enabling his army to draw up into defensive lines at Tamames in the north and there block a junction between Soult’s and Victor’s forces.

The British were unable to follow. Wellesley remarked: ‘If an army throws away all its cannon, equipment and baggage and everything which can strengthen it and enable it to act together as a body, and abandons all those who are entitled to its protection but add to its weight and impede its progress, it must be able to march by roads through which it cannot be followed by any army that has not made the same sacrifices.’

The British instead proceeded to march from Abrantes into Spain to take the battle to the enemy. Their intention was to liaise with the 30,000-strong Spanish army of General Don Gregorio de la Cuesta, a sixty-nine-year-old Spanish caudillo – top general – bedecked with medals, who trundled about in a huge coach drawn by mules. De la Cuesta, who treated Wellesley as a subordinate and the British as junior partners, proposed encircling Marshal Victor’s 23,000-strong army across the border. As Wellesley descended from Portugal with his 21,000 men, leaving Beresford and 4,000 to defend Portugal, they found that Victor had withdrawn towards Talavera to the south-east.

Wellesley followed Victor to Plasencia, the local capital, early in July, where he was now just a hundred miles from Madrid. While Soult’s forces held back for the moment, it was planned that the Spanish army should cross the Tagus to the northern bank and march eastwards to join up with the British at Talavera. To the south another 23,000-strong Spanish army under General Venegas was to engage the French forces in Madrid and stop them reinforcing Victor.

The Dacian Incursion of 10 BC

Whether it was his annoyance at not being able to close the doors to the temple of Janus or more likely in retribution for the Dacian crossing of the Danube in 10 BC, Augustus mounted a military campaign against the Dacians, apparently sending at least two generals into action. The Dacians, although nowhere near the threat that they had been when unified under Burebista, had demonstrated a continued willingness to become involved in areas that Rome deemed under her area of influence. Although it seems clear that this was not intended to be a war of conquest, the fact that it is mentioned in his memoirs demonstrates the importance of these campaigns and the spin that he hoped to apply to these events.

Unfortunately, very little is known about these campaigns and no clear record of what took place is extant. What little is known is that Marcus Vinicius was sent to deal with the Dacians and the Bastarnae after the Dacian crossing of the Danube in 10 BC. What is recorded in the sources is that Vinicius managed to defeat an army of Dacians and Bastarnae and then forced the Celtic people living on the Great Hungarian Plain to ally with Rome. This suggests that Vinicius’s focus was on the plains and lowland areas, whereas according to Florus another general, Cn. Cornelius Lentulus, who was also active against the Dacians in this period, seems to have concentrated on the highland Dacians. Lentulus’s forces apparently sailed up the Tisza and Maros rivers before entering the mountains to reach the Dacians. Although there is some debate as to when exactly Lentulus’s campaigns north of the Danube occurred, it is a reasonable assumption that they were an element in the retaliatory actions against the Dacians for the crossing and attack of 10 BC.

Another argument for the date of Lentulus’s campaigns is that if Tiberius did in fact defeat the Scordisci in 14 BC immediately after his Alpine campaigns, then it may also have been that year which saw Lentulus cross the Danube and attack the Dacians, although this is conjecture and far from certain. Perhaps the most significant issue with a date of 14 BC is that it precedes the Pannonian conflict, which begs the question what was Lentulus’s role that led him to attack the Dacians. If he was stationed in Macedonia or Thrace that would make perfect sense as a defensive action against raiding Dacian forces, but it seems unlikely that Rome would push across the Danube while they had rebellious Pannonians at their back. Therefore, it seems more likely that Lentulus’s campaign against the Dacians followed the defeat of the Pannonians or occurred immediately after their crossing of the Danube in 10 BC.

Based on the lack of detail about the campaign and its lack of long-term effect, it is likely that it was not particularly bloody and, as with Vinicius’s campaigns, was not intended as a campaign of conquest. Augustus decided to attack the Dacians because of the trouble they had caused and their potential for continuing trouble along the Danubian frontier in a region far from comfortably under Roman control or domination at this early stage. The intent therefore seems to have been to punish the Dacians for crossing the Danube in 10 BC and demonstrate to them, their allies and other hostile `barbarian’ peoples that such incursions would not be tolerated by Rome. It is likely that a second purpose of these campaigns was to push the Dacians and others further away from the Danube itself, creating a more secure frontier along the river by partially clearing the northern bank of potentially hostile peoples.

Lentulus’s and Vinicius’s campaigns against the Dacians, Bastarnae and Sarmatians are the ones referred to by Augustus in the Res Gestae where he informs his readers that under his auspices Roman armies crossed the Danube and compelled the Dacian people to submit to the will of Rome, a clear exaggeration of actual events. Clearly the actions of Augustus’s generals against the Dacians did not prevent future aggression, with a renewal of attacks towards the end of Augustus’s reign in AD 6, demonstrating that Augustus’s comments in the Res Gestae were at best an optimistic assessment of the effect Vinicius’s and Lentulus’s campaigns had had. At this point the Dacians had not yet re-instituted any form of the unification they had achieved under the leadership of Burebista and would again under Decebalus. Strabo indicates that at this time Dacia was split between four or five different tribes controlled by their own kings, making them much less of an overall threat. Like other tribal peoples that Rome had faced, it would have been difficult to put an end to the Dacian threat at this point because this would involve defeating all of the tribes simultaneously in order not to allow one defeated tribe to rebuild its strength while Roman forces were engaged against another, a situation seen in Germany.

Staghound

Chevrolet’s fortune with the T17E1 was much brighter. The first pilot vehicle also was delivered to Aberdeen Proving Ground in March 1942. After inspection, it was sent along with the second pilot to the General Motors Proving Ground for tests. Although many mechanical failures occurred, they appeared to be easily corrected. The changes involved the gear box, differential, universal joints, and splines. A wooden mock-up of the production model was completed on 16 June 1942 and the final stowage was approved. The production vehicle carried a crew of five, two men in the hull and three in the turret, with a gross weight of 32,000 pounds. The hull itself was a main structural element so no frame was required. The springs, steering gear, and transfer case were attached directly to the hull.

The turret was similar to that designed for the light tank T7, but the thickness was reduced to 1 1/4 inches at the front, sides, and rear and 3/4 inches at the top. The hull armor ranged from 7/8 inches at the front to 3/8 inches at the rear. The frontal armor of the hull and turret was angled at 45 degrees from the vertical. Turret armament consisted of a 37mm gun M6 and a .30 caliber machine gun in a coaxial mount. A .30 caliber machine gun was on the turret roof and another such weapon was mounted in the right front hull. The cruising range was extended by jettisonable fuel tanks installed on each side of the vehicle. Two 97 horsepower, six cylinder, GMC engines were mounted in the rear hull. The engines could be operated simultaneously or individually. A Hydramatic transmission for each engine transmitted its power to a single, two speed, transfer case. From there, drive shafts powered the front and rear axles. Named the Staghound I, the T17E1 was authorized for production to fill British requirements. A total of 2,844 T17E1s were built from October 1942 through December 1943. The T17E1 was never standardized, although standardization as the armored car M6 was proposed at one time and some of the name plates bear that designation in anticipation of standardization.

Although the Staghound was widely used by the British forces, it was not a popular vehicle. Designed for the desert, it was considered to be too large and heavy for operations in Italy and France. The following comments were taken from the history of the 11th Hussars entitled “The Eleventh at War” by Brigadier Dudley Clarke.

“The Staghound was an American product intended to replace the Daimlers at the squadron and regimental headquarters. It was a huge vehicle, 8 feet broad and 13 tons in weight carrying a crew of five with a 37mm gun and a .3 Browning machine gun. The 11th Hussars found it unwieldy and it never earned their affection.”

Staghound T17E1 armored car specification

Creator: United States of America

User: Britain, Canada

Denomination: T17E1 Armored Car

Number built: 4,094

Length: 5,49 m

Width: 2,69 m

Height: 2,36 m

Weight: 14,000 kg

Maximum speed: 89 km/h

Operational range: 724 km

Secondary armament: one 37 mm M6 gun

Main armament: three 7,62 mm machine guns

Engine: two rear-facing 6-cylinder GMC 270, 97 hp each (72 kW)

Crew: 5

Armor: from 13 mm to 51 mm

Posted in AFV

Guy Armoured Car

With the first mild-steel prototypes appearing in 1938, the Guy armoured car was the first all-welded armoured fighting vehicle to be produced for the British Army, a feat which was recognised by the Royal Commission on Awards to inventors after the war, when Guy Motors was awarded a sum of £5,000.

The basis of the vehicle was the chassis of the Guy Quad Ant field artillery tractor, which had been redesigned by the Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF) at Woolwich to place the engine at the rear, and which had been fitted with reinforced suspension to accommodate the increased weight. Whilst the early prototypes were of riveted construction, the company proposed to the War Office that a welded hull would provide a higher standard of protection and special jigs and manipulators were constructed to facilitate the process. initially described as `tank, wheeled, Mk I’, with its 15mm-thick armour and turret-mounted machine gun, the production versions of the vehicle offered the same levels of protection, and the same type of armament, as the British light tank Mk VI.

The first armoured examples appeared in 1939. in its Mk I configuration, of which 50 examples were constructed, the vehicle carried a turret-mounted 0.5in Vickers machine gun, together with a co-axial Vickers 0.303in; the Mk IA, which accounted for the remainder of production mounted 15mm and 7.92mm Besa machine guns. some examples may have also been fitted with a Boys anti-tank rifle as the main armament.

The power output of the Meadows 4ELA four-cylinder engine was 53bhp from a capacity of 3,686cc, and, in combination with a four-speed gearbox, was capable of propelling the 5.2-ton vehicle at a maximum speed on the road of 40mph (65km/h). Rigid axles were used front and rear, suspended on semi-elliptical multi-leaf springs.

Total production amounted to just 101 vehicles before Guy handed the design over to the Rootes Group although the company continued to produce the hulls for what became the Humber Mk I armoured car.

A handful of Guy armoured cars went to France in 1939, but from 1940 the type was used only for training and domestic defence work including the escorting of VIPs.

In 1940, the lower part of the hull was also used to construct a wheeled armoured carrier, but there was no series production. With the turret removed and the hull modified, the Guy was also used as an experimental mount for the 25-pounder (87.6mm) field gun, but, again, there was no series production.

Designed              1938

Manufacturer      Guy Motors

Produced              1939-1940

No. built                101 (50mk.1 & 51mk.1a)

Specifications (Mark I)

Weight 5.2 long tons (5.3 t)

Length   13 ft 6 in (4.12 m)

Width    6 ft 9 in (2.06 m)

Height   7 ft 6 in (2.29 m)

Crew      3

Armour up to 15 mm (0.59 in)

Main Armament .5 inch Vickers machine gun

Secondary Armament .303 inch Vickers machine gun

Engine   Meadows 4ELA 4-cyl petrol engine 55 hp (41 kW)

Power/weight     10.6 hp/tonne

Transmission       4 forward, 1 reverse gear

Suspension          4 x 4 wheel

Operational range 210 mi (340 km)[1]

Speed    40 mph (64 km/h)

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Battle of Wołomin

Tiger I of SS-Division “Totenkopf”, stands ready in a forest assembly area to move up to the front to neutralize a Soviet armoured incursion near Warsaw.

After the Soviet reconnaissance units reached Warsaw in late July, on 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising started. Starting from an area south of Mińsk Mazowiecki, Major General Nikolai Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps (part of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army) thrust northwest through Okuniew and Wołomin to Radzymin, reaching an area only three miles (five kilometers) from the strategic bridge over the Narew River at Zegrze.

In response to Soviet General’s Vedeneev’s thrust, the Germans started a tactical counter-attack near Radzymin on 31 July. The offensive, carried out by 4 understrength Panzer divisions, was to secure the eastern approaches to Warsaw and Vistula crossings, and aimed to destroy the three tank corps of the Second Tank Army in detail. Under the leadership of German Field Marshal Model, the 4th, 19th, Hermann Göring, and 5th SS Panzer Divisions were concentrated from different areas with their arrival in the area of Wołomin occurring between 31 July and 1 August 1944. Although the 3rd Tank Corps gamely defended the initial assaults of the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer Divisions, the arrival of the 4th Panzer and 5th SS Panzer Divisions spelled doom for the isolated and outnumbered unit.

Already on 1 August, the leading elements of the 19th and 5th SS Panzer Divisions, closing from the west and east respectively, met at Okuniew, cutting the 3rd Tank Corps off from the other units of the Second Tank Army. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, the 3rd Tank Corps was pocketed and destroyed on 3 August 1944. Attempts to reach the doomed tank corps by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps failed, with the 8th Guards Tank Corps taking serious losses in the attempt. Although Model had planned to attack the 8th Guards Tank Corps next, the withdrawal of the 19th and Hermann Göring Panzer Divisions to shore up the German defenses around the Magnuszew bridgehead forced the remaining German forces around Okuniew to go on the defensive.

On 1 August, the freedom fighters of the Polish Home Army rose in rebellion. All over the city guerrilla fighters attacked German-held buildings and started to fortify “liberated” zones in the city and along the western bank of the Vistula, which cut Warsaw in two. In a matter of days most of the city centre had been cleared of German units. Isolated German positions were quickly seized by the Polish forces, using a mixture of captured and improvised weapons. The fighting was brutal, with little quarter being shown by either side, and soon one of the biggest street battles in military history was about to reach its tragic end. The Polish leaders depended on the swift arrival of Soviet tanks on the western side of the Vistula. However, the Home Army had failed to read the flow of the battle on the eastern bank of the Vistula between the Germans and the Soviet Second Tank Army.

As Soviet tanks cautiously entered Praga during the morning of 31 July, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, the prospects for an early liberation of Poland’s capital seemed high. Unknown to the Russians, they were about to encounter a whirlwind. The Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Goring Divisions were attacking, as well as two army panzer divisions. The German panzers moved southwards into the flanks of the Russian tank columns. All day the battle raged, with German Panthers knocking out scores of Russian T-34s. German troops worked their way around the flanks of the Soviet III Tank Corps. The latter’s troops, tired after almost six weeks of constant fighting, could put up little resistance. The corps only just managed to escape the German pincers, and by the end of the day the Soviets had been evicted from Praga. The attack was decisive and sealed the fate of the Warsaw Rising, even before it had begun. With the Germans now entrenched In Praga in strength, there was now no hope that the Russians would be easily able to link up with the Polish Home Army.

The Soviets now tried a wide encircling move to the north of Warsaw. By 4 August IV SS Panzer Corps, now with the Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions under its command, had already been ordered by Model to set up a blocking position north of the city, and was ready and waiting when the Soviet storm burst on 14 August. For a week the Waffen-SS formation held off 15 Russian infantry divisions and two tank corps. Human-wave attacks were repulsed on a daily basis, with thousands of Russian troops being killed in front of the German lines. The Soviets now poured in extra infantry divisions and hundreds more tanks. Heavy attacks, supported by hundreds of Stormovik fighter-bombers, added to the pounding, and by 26 August the Totenkopf had to fall back towards Praga under the deluge of firepower. A Waffen-SS counterattack on 11 September drove the Soviets back, and again defeated a link-up with the Polish Home Army.

The Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions were the linchpins of the German operation to crush the Warsaw rising, even though they did not actually take part in the fighting against the Polish Home Army. By preventing a link-up with the Red Army, they consigned the population of the city to two months of siege. Hitler was infuriated that the Poles, whom he classed “sub-humans”, had dared to challenge German rule

One of The Biggest Tank Battles You Have Probably Never Heard About