Monday, January 19, 2009

Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain....................

I have been reading a bit on the Napoleonic wars lately, particularly the battles that were fought in Spain. I discovered that a anniversary of sorts had just occurred that I would like to share with you.

On January 16th 1809, General Sir John Moore died of wounds that he received at the battle of Corunna. Most people have never heard of Sir John, nor what he accomplished in his lifetime, but without him, the history of Europe may have been quite a bit different than what we are use to today.

To begin with, Sir John was one of those rare leaders of men that only happen once in a great while. He inspired love and affection from the men under his command because of his concern for their welfare. He also shared in the hardships of his soldiers. His men trusted him. Moore turned this ability to lead men and have them trust him into a valuable tool to use in the education of his soldiers and was considered the father of the British light infantry because of his training programs and organizational plans. In a time of brutal discipline in the British Army, Sir John was widely know as a humane commander.

Sir John's moment came in November of 1808 when he took command of British forces in Spain. The British had been sent to support the Spanish and Portuguese armies in their fight against the French. The sudden collapse of the Spanish armies, left the British forces in a dangerous position. Sir John organized a fighting retreat to the north of Spain in the dead of winter, with next to no supplies, which almost destroyed his army. However his leadership skills were such that he was able to call upon the last reserves of his soldiers and accomplish the march and also the fortification of the town of Corruna from which the British Army could be evacuated by sea. The French Army attacked Corruna and were repulsed. In this battle, Sir John was struck by a French cannon ball and was "struck in his left breast and shoulder by a cannon shot, which broke his ribs, his arm, lacerated his shoulder and the whole of his left side and lungs" In the several hours it took him to die, Sir John was clear headed and composed. He told a friend of his "You know I always wished to die this way" His last words were "I hope the people of England will be satisfied! I hope my country will do me justice!" Moore died knowing that he had won the battle and that his army would survive to fight again.

This battle could be considered the Dunkirk of the war in Spain. With the withdrawal of the force that was commanded by Sir John, seasoned troops would be available for Wellington to command when he came back to Spain. This was very much like the British evacuation of Dunkirk in WW II. The seeds of the French defeat in Spain were watered with the blood of Sir John and the soldiers who died and suffered under his command.

Sir John was buried by his soldiers that loved him so well, in the ramparts of the city. He was wrapped in his cloak that had kept him warm in the terrible retreat to Corruna. He was buried at night so as not to alert the French that he had been killed. After the British evacuated Corruna and the French took possession of the town, the commander of the French forces Marshal Soult had a monument placed over Moore's grave as a mark of respect for a brave, fallen foe.

A poem was written later to commemorate Sir John's death.

The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night,
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him;
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him--
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

Charles Wolfe

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