42nd Highlanders the Black Watch at the Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809 in the Peninsular War: picture by Harry Payne
The positions of the armies at Corunna. The British are in red and the French in blue.
Despite their predicament, the British had two factors in their favour. The first was that the range of hills blocking the main road south-east of Corunna could be defended. Moore did not have enough men to secure the Palavea or Peñasquedo Heights but Monte Mero did offer a good defensive position between the mouth of the Rio del Burgo river and Elviña village. The second was that the town’s depots were full of arms and ammunition. Many soldiers exchanged their worn muskets and replaced missing items of equipment before filling their pouches with ammunition. Once everyone had replenished their stocks, the quartermaster’s staff had to destroy what was left. Even if there was room for the spare stores on the transport ships, there would be no time to load everything and tonnes of equipment and clothing was destroyed or burnt to prevent it falling into French hands. Over four thousand barrels of gunpowder still left in the magazine were destroyed on the 13th to prevent them fakllling into French hands; the huge explosion smashed thousands of windows across the town.
While Moore waited for the French to make a move, Soult was advancing cautiously towards the port, giving the tired British soldiers time to recover from their ordeal. Their spirits soared when the fleet was spotted on the horizon on 14 January and the news spread like wildfire; at last the end was in sight. Twelve ships of the line anchored out to sea as over a hundred transports waited their turn to draw up alongside the harbour wall. The sick and the wounded were carried on board first and although they were followed by the artillery and cavalry, many horses had to be destroyed owing to the lack of space.
On 15 January the Duke of Dalmatia probed the rearguard at El Burgo, forcing it to withdraw, but he decided against attacking General Hope’s 2nd Division position at Piedralonga. Although he had some 15,000 men, about the same as Moore, the duke called off the attack, having decided to wait for the arrival of Marshal Soult. This would increase the attacking force to 24,000 men in three divisions, supported by 36 guns including a battery of heavy 12-pounders. In contrast, Moore had only 9 guns ashore. It was going to be an uneven battle if Soult decided to conduct a prolonged artillery duel.
Moore deployed his men on Monte Mero with the 2nd Division on his left flank, overlooking the Rio del Burgo estuary. General Hope placed Hill’s and Leith’s brigades on the forward slopes while their light companies occupied the houses and enclosures in the valley below; Catlin Craufurd’s brigade was in reserve to the rear. The 1st Division held the centre of Moore’s line and Manningham’s brigade held the western slopes of Monte Mero, while Bentinck’s brigade held the slopes overlooking Elviña where the light companies were deployed; Warde’s Guards brigade was in reserve. General Sir David Baird’s position was overlooked by the Heights of Peñasquedo and his men would be exposed to heavy French artillery fire.
Embarkation had continued throughout the night and by the morning of 16 January all the British cavalry and all but nine of the guns were on board the transports. As the sun rose, Moore rode to Monte Mero to inspect his lines and assess Soult’s plans to attack. The French marshal had spotted that Moore’s right flank was his weak point and planned to attack Elviña in force but it was taking some time to get his men into position. As there had been no serious developments, Moore decided to continue loading the ships and he returned to Corunna to order General Fraser and General Paget to move their divisions (both of them only of brigade strength) down to the harbour. While Paget’s reserve division moved back to Oza covering the road into Corunna, Fraser’s 3rd Division deployed on Santa Margarita Hill, covering the south-western approaches to the port.
As the hours passed, the two armies faced each other across the Palavea valley while hundreds of men boarded the transports. The peace was finally shattered just before midday when the French guns began bombarding Elviña as their infantry prepared to advance. News of the imminent attack reached Moore when a report arrived from General Hope, and as Moore cantered back towards Monte Mero, the rising crescendo of gunfire from the Peñasquedo Heights confirmed the news.
Soult had placed a 12-pounder battery opposite the 1st Division’s positions and it bombarded the troops around the village of Elviña for two hours while Delaborde’s and Merle’s tirailleurs forced the British skirmishers back across the Palavea stream and towards the main line. Soult’s plan was to pin down the British troops holding Monte Mero on Moore’s centre and left. Delaborde’s and Merle’s two divisions would feint attacks across the Palavea valley to prevent Moore moving reserves across to where the real threat lay, his right flank. Mermet’s division, some 7,500 strong, would then carry out the main attack, capturing the village of Elviña and the western slopes of Monte Mero, while Lahoussaye’s cavalry division, some 1,300 dragoons, advanced on Mermet’s left and Franceschi’s light cavalry covered the open flank. While Mermet’s troops rolled up the British right flank, the dragoons would swing around the British rear and cut off their line of retreat into Corunna. The final attack would clear the whole of Monte Mero, destroying Moore’s army once and for all.
However, Soult’s plan was taking time to unfold and as Moore noted the tirailleurs struggling to drive the British skirmishers back across the Palavea valley, he commented to his aides, ‘Now, if there is no bungling, I hope we shall get away in a few hours.’ He was sadly mistaken. Shortly afterwards Soult made his intentions known as Mermet’s division advanced down the steep slopes of Peñasquedo Heights towards the right of the British line.
Three columns of French infantry marched towards the 1st Division as their guns fired overhead. While the 31st Regiment was heading directly for Elviña, it was clear that the 47th Regiment was aiming to turn General Baird’s position. The advance was fraught with difficulties owing to the difficult terrain, and the French artillery was forced to stay at the summit of Peñasquedo Heights while the infantry struggled to maintain formation across the rough ground. One soldier of the 42nd later reported that ‘The French Army did not advance very rapidly, on account of the badness of the ground.’
Bentinck’s brigade was holding the Elviña area and the 31st Regiment quickly drove the 1/50th’s light company out of the small village as it advanced up the slopes of Monte Mero. The few remaining British guns fired canister into the columns, while the French guns fired back at long range; one of the first casualties was General Baird, who was severely wounded, forcing Lord William Bentinck to take command of the 1st Division. (Baird was eventually loaded on to a ship where surgeons amputated his arm.)
The combination of the rough terrain and skirmishing fire disorganised the ranks of the 31st Regiment but they continued to advance through Elviña towards the 1/50th and the 1/42nd who were waiting in two-deep lines beyond the village. Moore was close by when the two battalions opened fire at close range, bringing the French columns to a shuddering halt. As they reeled back from the effects of the British volleys, the general ordered the 1/42nd to charge, and as they drove the 31st Regiment back through the village, the 1/50th followed with Moore’s shouts of ‘Well done 50th! Well done my Majors’ ringing in their ears. (The majors were the commanding officer, Major Charles Napier, who was wounded and taken prisoner, and Major Stanhope.) The counter-attack had the desired effect and after brisk hand-to-hand fighting, the French were forced to retire from Elviña and regroup.
While the 31st Regiment made the frontal attack against Bentinck’s brigade, the 47th Regiment had been advancing to the west of Elviña, before turning to attack the British flank. Moore had already spotted the French manoeuvre and had taken steps to counter it, ordering General Paget’s division forward from Oza. While Anstruther ordered the riflemen of the 95th and the 52nd to advance in extended order to confront Lahoussaye’s dragoons, the 28th would follow in support. Disney’s brigade extended the British flank when the 20th and the 91st occupied the San Cristobal Heights. Moore had also ordered General Fraser to abandon his plans to embark on the waiting transport ships and his division headed out of Corunna and occupied Santa Margarita Heights.
Meanwhile, as the 47th Regiment moved slowly around Bentinck’s flank it found that the 1/4th Regiment had deployed half its companies at right angles to its main line in order to face the attack. As the 47th Regiment turned to face the British line, their officers found that the ranks became disordered and men began drifting to the rear. According to Sir Robert Ker Porter, ‘the numbers of the enemy augmented their own consternation; they fell back on each other, making a confusion as successful as our arms’. Bentinck’s brigade had won the battle even before the first volley had been fired and the 47th Regiment was soon falling back in disorder alongside the 31st Regiment.
Soult’s first attack had ended in disaster. While Mermet’s division regrouped on the lower slopes of the Peñasquedo Heights, Anstruther’s men were engaged in a furious firefight with Lahoussaye’s dragoons. The dragoons were unable to get their horses across the Monelos stream and many had dismounted and taken cover among the stone walls, rocks and gorse bushes scattered along the valley floor. It was an unequal contest. The British infantry were used to fighting in extended order and their rifles had greater accuracy and a longer range than the troopers’ carbines. Lahoussaye’s men would be forced to fall back slowly over the hours that followed.
By mid-afternoon Mermet’s division had regrouped and made a second attempt to take Elviña from General Baird’s division. The 50th and the 42nd were driven from the village by this renewed offensive but Moore rallied them with the words ‘Remember Egypt, think on Scotland.’ For once his words of encouragement did not work, and Warde had to send two battalions of foot guards to halt Mermet’s men in the village. While the fighting raged around Elviña, General Merle sent his remaining regiment forward to support the attack. Baird countered by sending forward the 3/1st and the 2/81st of Manningham’s brigade, supported by the 2/59th of Leith’s brigade, to strike the French column in the flank. After prolonged fighting, the French finally fell back from the slopes, leaving Elviña in British hands once more.
Moore had directed the fighting from the slopes for most of the afternoon but as the battle was finally swinging in his favour, disaster struck when a cannon-ball hit him in the left shoulder. As aides carried the mortally wounded general to safety in a blanket, he asked to take one final look back over the battlefield with the words, ‘I always wanted to die this way’. He was taken to his headquarters, a house close to the harbour, where he died soon afterwards. The general was buried late that night on the southern ramparts of Corunna.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Sir John Hope was finding it difficult to assert himself as the focus of the battle turned away from Elviña and towards his left flank where General Henri-François Delaborde’s division was about to make the final French assault against the summit of Monte Mero. Until now Marshal Soult had avoided attacking the 2nd Division’s positions astride the main road into Corunna, but General Hope had been forced to send several of his battalions west to support the battle for Elviña, thus weakening the hill-top position. French skirmishers had also spent the day forcing their British counterparts from the valley and Soult now decided that the time was ripe to sweep the British from Monte Mero. As Delaborde’s division began to descend the steep slopes of the Heights of Palavea in the late afternoon, the tiralleurs surged forward to clear Piedralonga.
As three columns of infantry crossed the Palavea stream and advanced up the slopes towards Hope’s division, Hill moved two of his battalions, the 14th and 92nd, to take up a position astride the Corunna road to reinforce the only battalion remaining under Leith’s command. Several volleys and rounds of canister from the two guns covering the road brought the leading French regiment to a halt and it was soon falling back to regroup. Although the three British battalions were outnumbered, Craufurd’s reserve brigade was waiting in support only a few hundred yards away, out of reach of the French guns. Soult called off further attacks, and as Delaborde’s troops withdrew across the Palavea stream, darkness began to fall across the battlefield.
As the exhausted men marched back down to the harbour a simple burial ceremony took place on the ramparts overlooking Corunna, as Sir John Moore’s body was laid to rest. The embarkation continued throughout the night and the following day, while the French guns fired long-range shots at the ships; only a few were damaged. The last regiment to embark was the 23rd and legend has it that Captain Gomm of the 1/9th Regiment was the last man to step off the quayside.
After the horrendous march and the final battle in front of Corunna, the exhausted men could finally say goodbye to Spain, leaving behind not only their commander but more than 800 men dead on the slopes of Monte Mero. On 18 January Moore’s battered army sailed for home while Corunna’s garrison fought on until the fleet was safely out to sea. General Alcedo, the garrison commander, then surrendered his men.
Although the British soldiers were safe at last, severe weather battered the fleet all the way across the Bay of Biscay on the two-week voyage. When the ships finally began to land on the 31st, there was a public outcry at the state of the dishevelled men scrambling on to the quayside. Concerns were raised across England as the country was embroiled in political turmoil.
Sir John Moore had been instructed to safeguard the only army that Britain had, and he had done so; but the cost had been high. Over 6,000 men had been left behind, either dead or as prisoners of war, many of them suffering from terrible injuries. Although there had been time to save the majority of the army’s guns, most of the baggage train had been left behind, often unceremoniously dumped alongside the road to Corunna for the French to plunder.
The departure of the army also further deepened the distrust between Britain and Spain. Moore’s troops had done little to endear themselves to the Spanish population as they left a trail of destruction across the Galician mountains, but now they had gone, the people felt abandoned and complaints of betrayal were soon heard across the country. It would take a series of military victories and delicate political negotiations before the Spanish and the British would trust each other again.