In early October 1808, following the scandal in Britain over the Convention of Sintra and the recall of the generals Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley, Sir John Moore took command of the 30,000 man British force in Portugal. In addition, Sir David Baird in command of an expedition of reinforcements out of Falmouth consisting of 150 transports carrying between 12,000 and 13,000 men, convoyed by H.M.S. Louie, Amelia and Champion, entered Corunna Harbour on the 13 October. By November 1808 the British army, led by Moore, advanced into Spain with orders to assist the Spanish armies in their struggle against the invading forces of Napoleon.
After the surrender of a French army corps at Bailén and the loss of Portugal Napoleon was convinced of the peril he faced in Spain. Deeply disturbed by news of Sintra, the Emperor remarked,
I see that everybody has lost their head since the infamous capitulation of Bailén. I realise that I must go there myself to get the machine working again.
The French, all but masters of Spain in June, stood with their backs to the Pyrenees, clutching at Navarre and Catalonia. It was not known if even these two footholds could be maintained in the face of a Spanish attack. By October French strength in Spain, including garrisons, was about 75,000 soldiers. They were facing 86,000 Spanish troops with Spain's 35,000 British allies en route.
However, no attack was forthcoming. The Spanish social fabric, shaken by the shock of rebellion, gave way to its crippling social and political tensions; the patriots stood divided on every question and their nascent war effort suffered accordingly. With the fall of the monarchy, constitutional power devolved to local juntas. These institutions interfered with the army and the business of war, undermined the tentative central government taking shape in Madrid, and in some cases proved almost as dangerous to each other as to the French. The British army in Portugal, meanwhile, was itself immobilized by logistical problems and bogged down in administrative disputes, and did not budge.
Months of inaction had passed at the front, the revolution having "temporarily crippled Patriot Spain at the very moment when decisive action could have changed the whole course of the war". While the allies inched forward, a vast consolidation of bodies and bayonets from the far reaches of the French Empire brought 100,000 veterans of the Grande Armée into Spain, led in person by Napoleon and his Marshals. With his Armée d'Espagne of 278,670 men drawn up on the Ebro, facing a scant 80,000 raw, disorganized Spanish troops, the Emperor announced to the Spanish deputies:
I am here with the soldiers who conquered at Austerlitz, at Jena, at Eylau. Who can withstand them? Certainly not your wretched Spanish troops who do not know how to fight. I shall conquer Spain in two months and acquire the rights of a conqueror.
Starting in October 1808 Napoleon led the French on a brilliant offensive involving a massive double envelopment of the Spanish lines. The attack began in November and has been described as "an avalanche of fire and steel".
For a time the British army was dangerously dispersed, with Baird's newly arrived contingent at Astorga to the north, Moore at Salamanca and Hope 70 miles (110 km) to the east near Madrid with all Moore's cavalry and artillery. The main army, under Moore, had advanced to Salamanca and were joined by Hope's detachment on 3 December when Moore received news that the Spanish forces had suffered several defeats. He considered that to avoid disaster he must give up and retreat back to Portugal.
Moore, before retreating, received intelligence of Soult's 16,000 man corps' scattered and isolated position at Carrión and that the French were unaware of the British army's position. On 15 December he seized at this opportunity to advance on the French near Madrid hoping that he might defeat Soult and possibly divert Napoleon’s forces. A junction with Baird on 20 December, advancing from Corunna, raised Moore's strength to 23,500 infantry, 2,400 cavalry and 60 guns and he opened his attack with a successful raid by Lieutenant-General Paget's cavalry on the French picquets at Sahagún on 21 December. However, Moore failed to follow up against a surprised Soult, halting for two days and allowing Soult to concentrate his corps.
Once Moore made his presence known Napoleon responded with customary swiftness and decisiveness. The Spanish were defeated and no longer an organized threat. His army was generally concentrated while the enemy was dispersed. With the initiative firmly in his grasp, Napoleon seized the chance to destroy Britain's only field army. When Moore realized he was in serious danger of being trapped he called off his advance and went into headlong retreat. This epic dash and chase would cover more than 250 miles (400 km), during which the British cavalry and the infantry of the Light Brigade were used to cover the movements of Moore's army after their retreat began on 25 December. This saw them engage the French in small rearguard clashes, including defeating a French cavalry force and capturing General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes at Benavente before entering the mountains of Galicia, and another at Cacabelos where General Colbert-Chabanais was killed by a British rifleman.
The retreat of the British, closely followed by their French pursuers, took them through mountainous terrain in dreadful conditions of cold and snow and was marked by exhausting marches, privation, and suffering. Moore was joined at Astorga by General Romana leading the remnants of Blake's Spanish forces and Romana proposed they make a stand. However, with Napoleon closing in, Moore declined and continued his retreat north while Romana went west towards Portugal. On the march between Astorga and Betanzos the British army lost 3,000 men with 500 more left in hospitals at Astorga and Villafranca.
Napoleon had attempted to speedily catch the British and force them to fight. He led the French army 200 miles (320 km) over 10 days by forced marches and in spite of winter blizzard conditions reached Astorga on 1 January with 80,000 men. Napoleon manoeuvred to cut Moore off from a retreat to Portugal. Moore had already planned that he would have to be ready to make a run for the coast. On 28 November Moore had ordered his Corunna contingent under Baird to embark from Vigo while the main British army was to fall back on Portugal but by 28 December he had decided to embark the whole army at Vigo. Abandoning Astorga on 30 December, he would manage to keep ahead of the pursuing French and avoid a major battle. Moore ordered Crawford and two brigades as well as the troop transport ships to the port of Vigo. Napoleon would write to his brother Joseph on 31 December:
My vanguard is near Astorga; the English are running away as fast as they can ... they are abhorred by everybody; they have carried off everything, and then maltreated and beaten the inhabitants. There could not have been a better sedative for Spain than to send an English army.
When it was clear that he could not bring Moore to battle, Napoleon left the pursuit of the British to Soult's corps with Marshal Ney in support and took the bulk of the army, some 45,000 men, back to Madrid. Napoleon decided to leave Spain to attend to other pressing matters; the Austrians were about to declare war on France, and would soon invade Italy and Bavaria.
Several times the discipline of the British broke down, on 28 December British troops pillaged and looted Benavente, at Bembibre on 2 January, hundreds of British soldiers got so inebriated on wine, and not for the first or last time, that they had to be abandoned and were captured or cut to pieces by the pursuing French dragoons. Similar incidents took place including one in which French pursuit was so close there was not time enough for Paget, commander of the British rear guard, to complete the hanging of three British soldiers, as an example, for the pillaging a Spanish town. The French cavalry General Colbert, was killed while in close pursuit across the bridge at the village of Cacabelos by a long-range rifle shot fired by Thomas Plunket of the 95th Rifles after driving off the British 15th Hussars. Losses were about the same for the two units.
Moore made a stand before the old Roman town of Lugo on 6 January and offered battle but, initially, Soult's forces were too strung out. Over two days Soult concentrated his troops and tried to get Ney to send a division from Villa Franca del Bierzo but Ney sent few troops. By the 8th Soult was prepared for battle, but Moore, imagining Ney was outflanking him, slipped away that night, shooting 500 foundered horses and destroying artillery caissons and food stores. Now realizing he could not get to Vigo and fearing his army would disintegrate on the way, he ordered the transports to Betanzos Bay between Corunna and Ferrol and he headed for Corunna.
Rain storms and confusion caused the British main body to partially lose order and break up with thousands straggling. Some 500 British were captured by the pursuing French dragoons, with hundreds more stragglers captured by Franceschi's cavalry on the 10th and several hundred more on the 11th. The loss of troops between Lugo and Betanzos was greater than all of that of the preceding retreat. Eventually, on 11 January, the British main body reached the port of Corunna in northwest Spain, where they had hoped to find the fleet to take them back to England. They found Betanzos Bay empty and only 26 transports and two warships at Corunna. The rest of the 245 ships had been delayed by contrary winds only arriving at Vigo on the 8th and would not depart for Corunna until the 13th.
The French had also suffered severe fatigue and deprivation during their pursuit having to travel over ground already crossed by the British. The British rear guard had held off the pursuing French, allowing the rest of the British army to continue to withdraw, however the French cavalry had continually pressed them and prevented effective reconnaissance by the British cavalry. Soult's infantry had also had trouble keeping up and was badly strung out and most were well behind the cavalry which included the divisions of Armand Lebrun de La Houssaye, Jean Thomas Guillaume Lorge and Jean Baptiste Marie Franceschi-Delonne. Soult's three infantry divisions, commanded by Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle, Julien Augustin Joseph Mermet and Henri François Delaborde, and his artillery would arrive at Corunna piecemeal over the next few days.
The British army arrived in Corunna on 11 January and there were found only the ships of the line, a small number of transport and hospital ships to which the many wounded were embarked. There was also a large quantity of badly needed military stores: 5,000 new muskets were issued to the troops, a vast amount of cartridges for re-equipping, numerous Spanish artillery pieces and plenty of food, shoes and other supplies.
The French army began to arrive the next day, building up strength as they arrived from the march. Soult’s artillery arrived on 14 January. The long-awaited transport ships also arrived on the 14th and that evening the British evacuated their sick, some horses and most of the remaining field guns, cavalrymen and gunners. There was no intention by the British of garrisoning and holding on to Corunna as a future base with its extensive stores and certain support from the sea. The British then destroyed a portion of the enormous amount of military stores originally intended for the Spanish: nearly 12,000 barrels of powder, 300,000 cartridges in two magazines outside the town and 50 fortress guns and 20 mortars.
The British embarked nearly all their cannon and artillerists and, as the terrain was unsuitable for cavalry, all their cavalry troopers and a few healthy horses, but killed some 2,000 of the cavalry's horses. Moore now actually had the advantage in numbers in infantry, 15,000 to 12,000 and, with the rough ground much broken up by sunken roads and walls, Soult's cavalry would be of little use. The British were rearmed, well rested and well fed, in marked contrast to the oncoming French.
Moore had deployed his army to cover the evacuation by placing the main part of it on a ridge astride the road to Corunna, a mile and a half south of the harbour. A stronger position lay to the south but the British commander considered that he lacked the numbers to defend it properly and had to be content with placing outposts there to slow the approach of the French. The left flank was covered by the river Mero and the left and centre of the ridge was quite defensible. The western and lower end of this ridge was more vulnerable and could be swept by guns on the rocky heights of the loftier range opposite, and the ground further west consisted of more open terrain extending as far as Corunna which might provide the means of turning the whole position. Moore held two divisions back in reserve a little north and westwards in order to guard the right flank and to prevent a turning movement.
On 15 January French troops pushed back the British outposts on the higher range and gradually took up position there. A counterattack by British 5th Foot was repulsed with heavy loss. Soult sited his 11 heavy guns upon the rocky outcrop from where they would be able to fire upon the British right. The task was very difficult and it was night before the guns had been dragged into position. Delaborde's division was posted on the right and Merle's in the centre with Mermet on the left. The light field guns of the French were distributed across the front of their position, however the broken ground, sunken roads and walls limited them to long range support. The French cavalry was deployed to the east of the line. For the British, Baird's division formed on the right and Hope's the left, each deploying a brigade en potence with Paget as the reserve at the village Airis.
As day broke on 16 January the French were in position on the heights, and all through the morning both armies observed each across the valley between them. Moore planned to continue with the embarkation later that day if Soult did not attack. By afternoon Moore considered an attack unlikely and ordered the first divisions to make their way to the port; the rest of the army would follow at dusk, but shortly afterwards, at 2:00 pm, he learned that the French were attacking.
Soult's plan was to move against the strongly placed British infantry of the left and centre in order to contain it while the infantry division of Mermet attacked the more vulnerable British right above the village of Elvina. The cavalry was deployed further west near the more open country leading to Corunna. If the attacks succeeded they could seize the western end of the British lines and push on to cut off the bulk of the army from Corunna.
Mermet’s infantry advanced quickly and soon pushed the British picquets back, carrying the town of Elvina and attacking the heights beyond. The first French column divided into two with Gaulois' and Jardon's brigades attacking Baird front and flank, and the third French brigade pushing up the valley on the British right in an attempt to turn their flank with Lahoussaye's dragoons moving with difficulty over the broken ground and walls trying to cover the left of the French advance.
The fiercest fighting took place in and around Elvina as the possession of this village would change hands several times, and the British suffered particularly from the fire of the heavy artillery on the heights opposite. As the French attack broke through Elvina and came up the hill behind it, Moore sent in the 50th Foot and the 42nd (Black Watch) to stop the French infantry while the 4th Foot held the left flank of the British line. The ground around the village was broken up by numerous stone walls and hollow roads. Moore remained in this area to direct the battle, ordering the 4th Foot to fire down upon the flank of the second French column that was attempting the turning movement and calling up the reserve under Paget to meet it. The British advance carried beyond the village but some confusion among the British allowed Mermet's reserves to drive into and through Elvina again chasing the 50th and 42nd back up the slope. Moore called up his divisional reserve, some 800 men from two battalions of the Guards, and together with the 42nd they halted the French advance.
The British commander had just rallied the 42nd that had fallen back from Elvina and had ordered the Guards to advance on the village when he was struck by a cannonball. He fell mortally wounded, struck "on the left shoulder, carrying it away with part of the collar-bone, and leaving the arm hanging only by the flesh and muscles above the armpit". He remained conscious, and composed, throughout the several hours of his dying. The second advance again drove the French back through Elvina. Mermet now threw in his last reserves with one of Merle's brigade attacking the east side of the village. This was countered by an advance by Manningham's brigade and a long fire-fight broke out between two British: the 3/1st and the 2/81st and two French regiments: the 2nd Légere and 36th Ligne of Reynaud's brigade. The 81st was forced out of the fight and relieved by the 2/59th and the fighting petered out here late in the day with the French finally retiring.
For a time the British were without a leader until General John Hope took command as Baird was also seriously wounded. This hampered attempts at a counterattack in the crucial sector of Elvina, but the fighting continued unabated.
Further west the French cavalry pushed forward as part of the flank attack and made a few charges but they were impeded by the rough terrain. Lahoussaye dismounted some his Dragoons which fought as skirmishers but they were eventually driven back by the advance of the 95th Rifles, 28th Foot and 91st Foot of the British reserves. Franceschi's cavalry moved to flank the extreme right of the British attempting to cut them off at the gates of Corunna but were countered again by the terrain and Fraser's division drawn up on the Santa Margarita ridge which covered the neck of the peninsula and the gates. As Lahoussaye retired, Franceschi conformed with his movement.
Night brought an end to the fighting by which time the French attacks had been repulsed and they returned to their original positions; both sides holding much the same ground as before the fight.
Command of the British army had passed to General Hope who decided to continue the embarkation rather than to attempt to hold their ground or attack Soult. At around 9:00 pm the British began to silently withdraw from their lines, leaving behind strong picquets who maintained watch-fires throughout the night.
At daybreak on 17 January the picquets were withdrawn behind the rearguard and went aboard ship; by morning most of the army had embarked. When Soult perceived that the British had left the ridge, he posted six guns on the heights above the southern end of the bay and by midday the French were able to fire upon the outlying ships. This caused panic amongst some of the transports, four of which ran aground and were then burned to prevent their capture. Fire from the warships then silenced the battery.
On 18 January, the British rearguard embarked as the Spanish garrison under General Alcedo "faithfully" held the citadel until the fleet was well out to sea before surrendering. The city of Corunna was taken by the French, two Spanish regiments surrendering along with 500 horses and considerable military stores captured including numerous cannon, 20,000 muskets, hundreds of thousands of cartridges and tons of gunpowder. A week later Soult's forces captured Ferrol, an even greater arsenal and a major Spanish naval base across the bay, taking eight ships of the line, three with 112 guns, two with 80, one 74, two 64s, three frigates and numerous corvettes, as well as a large arsenal with over 1,000 cannon, 20,000 new muskets from England and military stores of all kinds.
As a result of the battle the British suffered around 900 men dead or wounded and had killed all their nearly 2,000 cavalry horses and as many as 4,000 more horses of the artillery and train. The French lost around 1,000 men killed, wounded or captured. The most notable casualty was Lieutenant-General Moore, who survived long enough to learn of his success. Sir David Baird, Moore's second in command, was seriously wounded earlier in the battle and had to retire from the field. In addition two of Mermet's three brigadiers were also casualties: Gaulois was shot dead and Lefebvre badly hurt. These men were all involved in the fighting on the British right.
On the morning of the battle 4,035 British were listed sick, a few hundred of these were too sick to embark and were left behind.(Oman 1902, p. 582) Two more transports were lost with about 300 troops mostly from the King's German Legion. By the time the army returned to England four days later some 6,000 were ill, with the sick returns listed at Portsmouth and Plymouth alone as 5,000.
Within ten days the French had captured two fortresses containing an immense amount of military matériel which, with more resolution, could have been defended against the French for many months. Ney and his corps reinforced with two cavalry regiments took on the task of occupying Galicia. Soult was able to refit his corps, which had been on the march and fighting since 9 November, with the captured stores so that, with half a million cartridges and 3,000 artillery rounds carried on mules (the roads not being suitable for wheeled transport), and with his stragglers now closed up on the main body, he was able to begin his march on Portugal on 1 February with a strength of 19,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 58 guns.
The British army had been sent into Spain to aid in expelling the French, but they had been forced into a humiliating retreat in terrible winter conditions that wrought havoc with health and morale and resulted in the army degenerating into a rabble. In his authoritative account of the battle, the English historian Christopher Hibbert states: "It was all very well to talk of the courage and endurance of the troops but of what use were these virtues alone when pitted against the genius of Napoleon? 35,000 men had crossed the Spanish frontier against him; 8000 had not returned. We were unworthy of our great past". The British of the day similarly viewed Corunna as a defeat: according to The Times, "The fact must not be disguised ... that we have suffered a shameful disaster".
The historian Charles Oman contends that Marshal Soult's attack at Corunna provided Moore and his men with the opportunity to redeem their honour and reputation through their defensive victory, by which means the army was saved though at the cost of the British general's life. Moore was buried wrapped in a military cloak in the ramparts of the town. The funeral is commemorated in a well-known poem by Charles Wolfe (1791–1823), "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna".
Charles Esdaile, in The Peninsular War: A New History, writes: "In military terms, Moore's decision to retreat was therefore probably sensible enough but in other respects it was a disaster ... Having failed to appear in time ... then allowed Madrid to fall without a shot, the British now seemed to be abandoning Spain altogether." Also, "Even worse than the physical losses suffered by the allies was the immense damage done to Anglo-Spanish relations. ... de la Romana ... openly accusing Moore of betrayal and bad faith." Finally, "... the occupation (by the French) of the most heavily populated region in the whole of Spain".
Chandler states, the British army had been "... compelled to conduct a precipitate retreat and evacuate by sea." Also, "Madrid and the Northern half of Spain were under occupation by French troops". Fremont-Barnes, in The Napoleonic Wars: The Peninsular War 1807–1814, writes that the then British Foreign Secretary Canning: " ... privately condemned Moore's failed campaign in increasingly stronger terms," while in public he " ... in the great British tradition of characterizing defeat as victory, insisted that although Moore's army had been pushed out of Spain his triumph at the battle of Corunna had left 'fresh laurels blooming upon our brows'".
A more charitable view is offered by W. H. Fitchett in How England Saved Europe: "... it is also a dramatic justification of Moore's strategy that he had drawn a hostile force so formidable into a hilly corner of Spain, thus staying its southward rush". Napier similarly speculates: "The second sweep that [Napoleon] was preparing to make when Sir John Moore's march called off his attention from the south would undoubtedly have put him in possession of the remaining great cities of the Peninsula".
Nevertheless, back in England the reaction to news of the Battle of Corunna and the safe evacuation of the army was a storm of criticism over Moore's handling of the campaign, while back in Corunna his adversary Marshal Soult took care of Moore's grave and ordered a monument to be raised in his memory.