GALICIA IN THE PENINSULAR WAR
Extracts from "Memoirs of the War of the French in Spain" by M. de Rocca, a French officer in the Hussars.
1. The Spanish term for the war which began in 1808 is "The War of Independence".
2. The General Welesley/Wellesley referred to below is, of course, the Duke of Wellington
3. M. Rocca goes on to express further jaundiced views on Joseph Bonaparte after the end of these extracts. He clearly holds him responsible for French failure in Spain.
The Anglo-Spanish armies learnt the march of the Emperor Napoleon, at the moment they were preparing to attack Marshal Soult, at the village of Carion: they began to retire rapidly, on the 24th, upon Astorga and Benavente, by the roads of Mayorga, Valencia, and Mancilla. They would probably have been cut off from the passes of Galicia, if the French army had not been considerably impeded in its march by the snow recently fallen in the sierra of Guadarama, and by the torrents which had overflowed.
On the 30th December, the Emperor Napoleon arrived at Benavente ; he went no farther than Astorga, but returned on the 7th January, with his guards; and a few days afterwards he was in France, making preparations for marching against Austria.
Marshal Ney remained at Astorga, to guard the passes of Galicia, and to organize the country : Marshal Soult continued to pursue General Moore’s army towards Corunna. The country the English left behind them in their retreat was totally wasted, and, every night, Marshal Soult’s troops had to seek provisions at very great distances from the beaten road, which considerably retarded their march, and augmented their fatigues. The advanced guards of Marshal Soult’s army, nevertheless, first at Villa Franca, and afterwards at Lugo, reached the enemy’s reserve, but were not strong enough to attack it. It was in an engagement which took place before the first of these towns, that the French lost General Colbert, of the cavalry. On the l6th, the English were forced to give battle at Corunna, before they embarked ; the business was bloody and well contested. The French at first gained ground, but, towards the end of the day, the English recovered the strong position in which they had placed themselves, to cover the anchorage of their fleet, and they embarked during the night, between the 16th and 17th. General Moore was struck by a cannon ball at the moment when he was leading a corps, which had been broken, back to the charge.
The army of the Marquis de la Romana had dispersed itself among the mountains, to the westward of Astorga. The town of Corunna, surrounded by fortifications, was defended by its inhabitants, and only capitulated on the 20th. The English troops had suffered, in their retreat, all the evils to which armies hotly pursued are exposed, when the soldiers are exasperated beyond endurance by fatigue; and, without having ever fought a pitched battle, they had lost more than 10,000 men, their treasure, a great deal of baggage, and almost all their horses. It is not easy to imagine the causes which induced General Moore to risk his whole army, by an expedition against Marshal Soult,* the result of which could only be extremely doubtful, as the Marshal might have retired upon Burgos, and have been reinforced by General Junot’s corps. By going to wards Saldanas, General Moore gave the Emperor Napoleon, who was preparing to return to France, an opportunity of attacking him with the whole of his united forces. From Salamanca, General Moore might have thrown himself behind the bridge of Almarez, over the Tagus, into, an almost impregnable situation, where he could have reorganized the Spanish armies. It was there that he was most dreaded by the French. At all events, on leaving Salamanca, General Moore should have retired rather upon Lisbon than on Corunna, to shorten his own road, while he increased the difficulties of Marshals Lef6vre and Soult, by widening the communications they had to maintain, and thus forcing them to weaken themselves, by leaving behind them a greater number of detachments : the English general would thus have furnished the troops of General Komana, and the peasants of Galicia and Portugal, with numerous opportunities of carrying on a petty war against the French detachments. This last operation has been performed since, with the greatest success, by General Sir Arthur Welesley.
It is asserted, that General Moore was deceived by false reports, and that it was against his own judgment and wishes, that he was induced, on this occasion, to overstep the rules of military science. For the rest, it is always easy to judge of things when the event is known ; the difficulty in all enterprises is to foresee their probable result.
[Translators note: These causes are sufficiently known to the English reader; yet it is impossible for the translator, who has the honour to call Sir John Moore a countryman, to pass over this passage without a protest against any censure, or implied censure, conveyed in Mr. Rocca’s pages; and without entreating the reader to turn to the narrative of Sir John Moore’s campaign, where the griefs and vexations of that noble heart are recorded, and the bright page of his military career laid open for the admiration and example of his countrymen.]
The French army in the north of the Peninsula had not met with success equal to that which we had gained, by the superiority of our discipline, in the plains of Estremadura and La Mancha. The troops under the orders of Marshals Soult and Ney had had to fight in a mountainous country, where the inhabitants had it constantly in their power, by their local knowledge, their activity, and their numbers, to baffle the calculations of military science, and the consummate experience of two of the most renowned of our chiefs.
After the retreat of General Moore and the capitulation of Corunna and Ferrol in the month of January, Marshal Soult marched towards Portugal by San Jago [Santiago], Vigo and Tuy; but his army not being able to cross the Minho near its mouth, exposed to the fire of the fortresses on the opposite bank which belonged to the Portuguese, he re-ascended the river to Orense, where he crossed the Minho on the 6th March; on the 7th he completely defeated, on the heights of Orsuma near Monte Key, the army of the Marquis of Romana, and drove its remains
into the high mountains near Pinbla de Senabria.
On the 13th, Marshal Soult invested Chaves, a frontier town of Portugal, and took it by capitulation; on the 19th he entered Braga, after having forced the defile of Carvalho d’Este, one of the most formidable positions of Portugal. At length, on the 29th March, Oporto, defended by an intrenched camp and by 270 pieces of cannon, was carried by assault by the body of Marshal Soult’s army, and the vanguard of this body passed the Douro and proceeded to the Vouga, forty-five leagues from Lisbon. Scarcely had the French made their victorious entrance into Oporto, than the garrisons which they had left behind them to keep possession of the country and their communication open, were taken on all parts.
The Portuguese troops in the fortress of Caminha, placed at the mouth of the Minho, had crossed the river since the 10th March, and had now joined a consider able number of Spanish marines, and of inhabitants from the coast of Galicia who had taken arms under the orders of their priests ; they had fortified the bridge of San Payo, against the French, who could have come by San Jago [Santiago], and had also made themselves masters, by capitulation, of the town of Vigo. Chaves was also re-taken on the 21st March by the Portuguese general Francisco Silveira, who had first retreated to Villa-Pouca on the approach of the French ; this general, after the taking of Chaves, advanced to Amarante on the Tamega to hold this strong position, from whence he might harass the rear-guard and the French detachments in the environs of Oporto.
On the 30th March, Romana descended from the mountains of Puebla de Sanabria, with some thousands of his men, the wreck of his beaten army, and proceeding to Ponteferrada took a small number of French prisoners. He found there some ammunition and provisions, and re-took a single damaged 12-pounder; repaired it, crossed the route of Castile ; possessed himself, by the aid of his single cannon of Villa Franca, and made the garrison prisoners ; it held 800 men. On the news of this slight success, his army soon swelled, as the ball of snow enlarges itself in descending the mountains, and at length becomes an avalanche. Romana forced Marshal Ney to abandon Brezzo, to concentrate himself on Lugo; Romana then threw himself in the Asturias, which he stirred up to arms as he had done Galicia.
The two French bodies of Galicia and Portugal, cut off from all means of communication, were then entirely insulated; and, separated from the other armies, they could no longer assist each other, nor co-operate for the common end of the general operations of the war, and thus they exhausted themselves from that moment, in a series of partial actions without any result.
Marshal Ney in vain tried to force Galicia to submission by the terror of his arms ; violent measures, far from keeping down the inhabitants, only sharpened their hatred of the French, and, what always happens in a country where there is patriotism, violent measures led to reprisals still more violent. Squadrons, entire battalions, were annihilated by the peasants in the course of a night. Seven hundred French prisoners were drowned at once in the Minho by order of Doti Pedro de Barrios, Governor of Galicia for the Junta; and the fury of the inhabitants, far from diminishing, was every day increased by the growing weakness of the French army
The inhabitants of Portugal had risen in mass like those of Galicia, and the Portuguese opposed the French with 12,000 soldiers of the line, and 70,000 of their militia. Marshal Soult could not with only 22,000 men keep the country in his rear and advance to Lisbon. He remained, however, more than 40 days in Oporto, trying in vain to make the inhabitants submit, and to re-establish his intercepted communications ; he had not received for several months either orders or reinforcements.
Notwithstanding the danger of his situation, he did not make a retrograde movement, fearful that by this he might injure the operations of the other bodies of our armies, of whose positions he remained completely ignorant. At length, he resolved on the 2d May that the division of General Loison should take the bridge of Amaranta on the Tamega, preparing to retire from Portugal on the route of Braganza.
During these transactions, the outposts of the French on the Vouga were attacked by the English, and they re-crossed the Douro on the following day. The English army, which had returned to Portugal after the retreat of General Moore, was reduced to 15,000 men ; it had not at first ventured to disembark its heavy baggage, holding itself ready to re-embark on the first approach of the French. The 4th and the 22d April it had received considerable reinforcements, and, more than 23,000 strong, it approached Oporto.
The French quitted this city the 12th May, and their rear had an affair with the advance-guard of the English. The army of Marshal Soult was pursued and encircled by three hostile armies ; that of General Sir A. Wellesley, who never lost sight of the French rear-guard ; the Anglo-Portuguese army of General Beresford, who marched by Lamego and Amaranta, on Chaves, advancing by several marches on the right of Marshal Soult; and the Portuguese of General Francisco Silveira, in advance of the two first, that he might cut the French off from the passes of Ruivaes between Salamonde and Montalegre.
Marshal Soult, finding the route of Chaves occupied by Marshal Beresford, rapidly concentrated his army on Braga, and directed his march to Orense by the difficult roads of the mountains : he lost, in traversing these insurgent tracts, a third of his corps d’armee, and was obliged to abandon all his heavy baggage and artillery.
The English did not advance beyond Montalegre and Chaves; they returned quickly on the Tagus, towards the environs of Lisbon. Marshal Soult arrived on the 22d May at Lugo in Galicia, relieved the garrison of this town, who were besieged by the Spaniards, and opened a communication with Marshal Ney, who had returned from an expedition against Oviedo in the Asturias. A few days after he recommenced hostilities with the army of the Marquis of Romana, whom he pursued without effect, by Monforte, Ponteferrada, Bollo, and Viana. He then proceeded, by Puebla de Sanabria, to Zamora, leaving Galicia, with a design to follow the movement which the English, it seemed to him, were making towards the Tagus in Estremadura, against the army of Marshal Victor.
After the departure of Marshal Soult, Marshal Ney was soon forced to retire into the kingdom of Leon. His army had made no durable establishment in Galicia and in the Asturias, having been constantly hindered by the inhabitants of villages, and by numerous troops of armed peasants, which it was impossible to reduce, for the number was every day increasing.
In these mountainous provinces of the north of the Peninsula, the French, although always conquerors where the Spaniards and Portuguese showed themselves in battle, were not however the less assailed by clouds of armed mountaineers, who, never coming near to fight in close ranks, or body to body, retreated from position to position, from rock to rock, on heights, without ceasing to fire, even in flying.
It sometimes required entire battalions to carry an order of a battalion to another distant one. The soldiers wounded, sick, or fatigued, who remained behind the French columns, were immediately murdered. Every victory produced only a new conflict. Victories had become useless, by the persevering and invincible character of the Spaniards; and the French armies were consuming themselves, for want of repose, in continual fatigues, nightly watchings, and anxieties.
Such were the events which had passed in the north of Spain, and which had hindered our armies of Estremadura and La Mancha from profiting by their signal victories of Medellin and Ciudad-Real. The operations of the army of Arragon had likewise been suspended by the necessity in which the French were, to recall to this province the body of troops under Marshal Mortier, and to place him at Valladolid, to carry succours to Marshal Ney, and re-establish the communications in Galicia.
Since the departure of the Emperor Napoleon, and the commencement of the Austrian campaign, the French army in Spain had received no reinforcements, to make up for its daily losses ; instead of concentrating itself, it had continued, under King Joseph’s orders, to be dispersed every day more and more over the Peninsula. Weak on every point, because we were too widely scattered, we exhausted ourselves by our very victories, and in Galicia, Portugal, and the Asturias, we had lost, among the insurgent peasants, that reputation of invincibility, more powerful still than the real force which had conquered so many nations.