At the Point of the Bayonet

By Robert Griffith

Rowland Hill was perhaps Wellington’s most trusted subordinate. He was nicknamed ‘Daddy Hill’ by his troops because he so evidently cared for their well-being, which perhaps says as much for other generals of his era as it does about him. Historian Charles Oman, near the end of his A History of the Peninsular War, wrote ‘I have never seen a hard word of ‘Daddy Hill’ in any of the hundred Peninsular diaries that I have read’” However, there was much more to him than just compassion and kindness. The battles of Arroyomolinos and Almaraz, in 1811 and 1812 respectively, illustrate that he did not let his concern for his men stop him driving them hard, when needed, or risking their lives when the situation demanded it.

Hill had been a brigade commander during the 1808 campaign to drive the French out of Portugal, had marched with Moore into Spain that winter, and then returned to the Peninsula in the spring of 1809 and played prominent roles in the battles of Oporto and Talavera. When the army was reorganised Hill was given command of the 2nd Division and in December 1809 he was Wellington’s first choice for an independent command covering the southern approaches to Portugal.

Hill became ill in the winter of 1810 to 1811 and returned to Britain to recover. In his absence Beresford took over his command and fought the bloody Battle of Albuera. Hill returned soon afterwards to find his division shattered. He resumed his role covering the southern flank and became engaged in a tedious round of advances and retreats across the Spanish province of Extremadura. In October a French division moved forward to raise contributions from the town of Cáceres, driving Spanish troops back to the Portuguese border. Hill decided to manoeuvre forward to force the French to retreat. It was a dance that he and his French opponents had performed before and he did not seriously expect that the experienced French commander, Général de Division Jean-Baptiste Girard, would allow himself to be brought to battle.

Most Britons now think of Spain as a sunny holiday destination but the winters in the hills and mountains of the interior can be cold and wet. Hill’s British, Portuguese and Spanish force marched through torrential rain and squalls towards Cáceres. The roads were so dreadful that some of the artillery had to turn back. The troops slept in the open and had soon outpaced the commissary carts carrying their rations. After five days they were tired, wet and hungry. Girard had heard of their approach and so, as expected, had begun his withdrawal. However, Hill learnt that he had halted at the village of Arroyomolinos. Despite the fatigue of his troops Hill decided that he would make one last push to try and catch the French, and on the night of the 27th of October the allied army halted just a couple of miles from them. During the night Hill quietly pushed his men forward into position for an attack. The weather was still dire, with the commander of the 92nd Foot, the Gordon Highlanders, referring to the morning of the 28th as ‘one of the most dreadful mornings for wind and rain I ever remembered’ – which is saying something coming from a Scot.

Girard had failed to post adequate pickets, and Hill’s men managed almost complete surprise with many of the enemy’s first inkling of their presence the pipers of the 92nd playing Hey Johnnie Cope are ye waukin’ yet. The highlanders charged into the village while other troops encircled it on the flanks. Girard’s only escape route was across the hills behind the town, and a long pursuit ended with him only saving around 500 men of the two brigades who had been in the village when Hill attacked, one brigade having already marched off before the action.

The 92nd Foot, the Gordon Highlanders, charge into Arroyomolinos on the morning of 28 October 1811 as the Duc d’Arenberg and other officers of 27e Chasseurs à Cheval emerge from their quarters. (Original artwork by Christa Hook (www.christahook.co.uk) © Helion & Co.)

Hill received a knighthood and much praise for the victory. It came at the end of a difficult year for Wellington’s army where, despite winning battles, they had not been able to break the stalemate in the Peninsula. Arroyomolinos earned the 2nd Division the nickname of ‘the surprisers’ and many of the memoirs and journals from the division relate how pleased the officers and men that Hill led were at the praise heaped upon their well-loved commander. Lieutenant Moyle Sherer of the 34th Foot wrote:

One thing in our success at Arroyo de Molinos gratified our division highly; it was a triumph for our General, a triumph all his own. He gained great credit for this well conducted enterprise, and he gained what, to one of his mild, kind, and humane character, was still more valuable, a solid and a bloodless victory; for it is certainly the truest maxim in war, ‘that conquest is twice achieved, where the achiever brings home full numbers.

During the winter of 1811 into 1812 Hill and his men resumed their game of cat and mouse with the French. Wellington captured the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo early in the new year and then came south to tackle Badajoz. With both fortresses that guarded the approaches to Portugal secure he could at last contemplate moving deeper into Spain. However, it was vital that the French forces, that still vastly outnumbered his own troops, were prevented from uniting against him. So, he determined to destroy the main crossing across the river Tagus near Almaraz which would prevent the French armies in the north and south from coming to each other’s aid. He chose Hill for the job.

Hill gathered a mixed British and Portuguese force and marched deep into French territory. The pontoon bridge near Almaraz was protected by several small but formidable fortifications, including one on a vital mountain pass that covered the only route down to the river for artillery. An initial night attack on that fort failed after the French were alerted by an accidental shot. Hill had also been trying to get down to the bridge via a small goat track but the terrain was so difficult that the troops were nowhere near the bridge by morning.

Hill paused and regrouped. He considered another attack on the fort at the pass but that could take time he did not have. The garrison at the crossing would have sent for reinforcements which were only a day’s march away. Instead, he ordered a diversionary attack at the pass while he again led a British brigade, and a Portuguese regiment, plus two companies of the 5/60th Rifles, through the mountains down to the bridge. The paths were so narrow and winding that the scaling ladders had to be cut in half. By daylight Hill’s men were near the bridge, but still spread out.

They formed up behind a low ridge and charged towards the main position overlooking the crossing, Fort Napoleon. The main assault was by two columns of the 50th Foot, and one of the 71st Highland Light Infantry. The rest of the 71st and the 92nd looped around to attack the bridge itself. The strongest part of the fort was assaulted by No.4 Company of the 50th led by Captain Robert Candler, 34 years old, from Colchester in Essex. Candler was first up the ladders and waived his sword, urging his men to push forward. He was quickly hit by several shots and fell dead inside the fort. The 50th and then 71st managed to overpower the French on the walls and the enemy’s resistance crumbled. The French cut the bridge and those on the far side fled, leaving their comrades to drown or be captured trying to swim across the river.

The original plan had called for artillery support and more than two brigades, but Hill had taken the risk to attempt the task with far less and won, although the casualties amongst the 50th especially were severe. The bridge and the forts were destroyed, and Hill retired before the French could react. Hill and his men again gained much credit from their victory. Wellington was convinced it was a key strategic point in the 1812 campaign:

I think we are now in a great situation. The blow which I made Hill strike a few days ago upon the enemy’s establishment at Almaraz has given me the choice of lines of operation for the remainder of the campaign, and do what we will we shall be safe. If I have luck we may do great things; at all events, the campaign is ours, I believe.

Both Arroyomolinos and Almaraz were small victories in the wider sweep of the long Peninsular War but they illustrate that Hill was far more than just ‘Daddy Hill’ and a safe pair of hands. He was also a general of considerable skill and daring.

You can now order At the Point of the Bayonet: The Peninsular War Battles of Arroyomolinos and Almaraz 1811-1812 here.

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