The Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I

By John Marsden

It was whilst researching the story of the Marqués de la Romana´s Denmark expedition that I came across the interesting but little–known story of army surgeon, Henry Milburne, who, due to a particular set of circumstances, came to be in the Spanish city of Astorga in December 1808 when the British, Spanish, and French armies descended upon it.

Once La Romana’s force had been returned to Spain in the autumn of 1808, it was thrust into the battles then raging in the north–east of the country as Napoleon’s grand counter offensive gathered speed. Marching towards the oncoming French divisions was the British expeditionary force led by Sir John Moore, hoping to be able to block the enemy advance alongside their Spanish allies. Unfortunately, such a prospect began to fade from their vision before they had an opportunity to come to grips with their adversary, as they learned that the Spanish armies in their front had simply melted away as the various French army corps overran them. Reluctant to throw in the towel at such an early stage of his Spanish adventure, Moore decided to launch a strike at the lengthening lines of French communications, but, once warned by La Romana of Napoleon’s plan to entrap him, the British commander in chief was forced to join the general withdrawal of the Spanish armies.

As he retreated across northern Spain, Moore realised that he was going to require unfettered access to the royal highway leading to Corunna, so he asked La Romana to keep his army away from it, expecting him to remain to the north of his British allies as they each retreated towards Galicia. Pressed closely by the French, the Spaniards failed to comply with Moore’s somewhat haughty request as the worsening winter conditions forced them to make for the little walled city of Astorga, which lay directly in the path of Moore’s army. It was there during the last few days of 1808 that the two armies met. By chance, Henry Milburne, who had earlier relinquished his commission as an army surgeon, was at Astorga as the British and Spanish approached, and we may now examine the story of this somewhat enigmatic character which, like the story of La Romana’s Denmark expedition itself, is little known; both examples highlighting the possibility of the existence of other hidden tales lying forgotten or as yet undiscovered amongst the archives of the Peninsular War. 

It would seem that Henry Milburne began his medical career as a humble assistant surgeon, whilst serving with the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot, and there is an entry recording his commission in Colonel William Johnstone’s List of commissioned officers who served in the medical services of the British army: ‘2407 Henry Milburne, A. S. (Assistant Surgeon) 52F [52nd regt. of foot] 4th Aug. 1804 [date of commission]’. The 52nd raised a second battalion in that year, which might explain their need for a new assistant surgeon at the time. Intriguingly, there is also an entry for Milburne in Drew’s Roll, a list of army officers who served with the British army medical corps during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it reads: ‘2407 Henry Milburne. A.S. 52F 4 Aug. 1804. Res[igned] before 14 Mar. 1805. H. M. [Hospital Mate] previous to being commissioned’. Despite his apparent resignation, it would seem that at some time between 1804 and 1808, Milburne may have transferred to the York Rangers, as Johnstone’s List contains a further entry for him as follows: ‘3869 Henry Milburne. A.S. Royal York Rangers. 28th July 1808. Superseded 1808’, indicating that he was commissioned in the York Rangers on 28 July 1808. (Note, the entry number, 3869, seems to be a mis-type for the intended 2869).

Whatever the early details may show, it was during his army service that Milburne developed an interest in the diseases typically contracted by soldiers in the course of their service, as well as the gunshot wounds they suffered when confronting an enemy on the battlefield. Perhaps it was his interest in the former subject that caused him to seek service with a regiment designated to serve in the tropics, such as the York Rangers. However, there is the faint possibility that there were two people with the name of Henry Milburne serving as an army medic in the early 19th century, one with the 52nd, the other with the York Rangers. If indeed they refer to the same person, then the record suggests there was a gap of over three years in his time as an army medic, between leaving the 52nd and joining the York Rangers, unless, that is, he spent some or most of that time with the York Rangers as a hospital mate, as suggested in Drew’s roll.

Britain’s first expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula disembarked in Portugal during August 1808, and it would seem that, whilst at home in England or in Africa with the York Rangers, Milburne became a supporter of the Spanish cause, and felt that the possibility of gaining some field experience in the Iberian Peninsula might allow him the opportunity for acquiring some first-hand knowledge of the subjects mentioned above.

The 1/52nd and the 2/52nd were two of the units making up Wellington’s force in 1808, so if Milburne was an assistant surgeon with the regiment he should have gone to Portugal with it; obviously he did not, as our story will show. This fact may confirm that he had left the 52nd by then – to join the York Rangers perhaps? Whatever the case, eager for adventure, he applied for a position with the Peninsular Army. His application was refused but, determined to serve in Spain and Portugal, he decided to appeal to the Spanish authorities via the offices of Don JoséMaría Queipo de Llano, Conde de Toreno, who, in his position as a Deputy in the semi-autonomous parliament of Asturias, had made his way to London in the wake of the Spanish uprising against the French, hoping to obtain help for his beleaguered country from the British Government. Queipo de Llano was either unable or unwilling to help the aspiring medic, so Milburne turned to the British ambassador to Spain, (either John Hookham Frere or Charles Stuart, both of whom held the post that year) asking him to make an approach to other members of the Asturian delegation in London on his behalf. The ambassador took up Milburne’s case and communicated with Don Juan Ruiz de Apodaca and Don Adrian Jacome. As a result, Milburne’s request was made known to Don Juan de Arejula, then Surgeon to the Army of Andalucia, who seems to have acceded to it, as Milburne was eventually to be provided with passage to Spain aboard one of the Royal Navy’s ships.

Before leaving for Spain in his status as a private citizen, Milburne was provided with some letters of introduction, absolute necessities having given up his army commission. Such documents may have helped him to meet with Sir William Gordon Duff, MP for Worcester and partner in the counting house of his uncle, James Duff, consul at Cadiz. Duff had recently donated the sum of £1,000 in aid of the ‘Spanish Patriots’ and happened to be searching for a surgeon willing to serve with a regiment being raised in Cadiz by his business partner, the Malaga-born ‘Colonel’ Juan Murphy, who, said Duff, had ‘raised, clothed, armed and equipped a legion of 2,000 men at his own private expense’, which went by the name of the Regimiento de Infanteria Voluntarios de España.

On 28 November 1808, Milburne sailed for Spain aboard the sloop HMS Primrose, disembarking at Corunna on 10 December whence he set off for Madrid after obtaining a passport to travel from Galicia, and having the luck to fall in along the way with an officer belonging to the 15th Light Dragoons, Captain Thackwell. On arriving at Astorga on 27 December he heard that Murphy and his entire regiment had been captured by the French at El Escorial, thus depriving him of an important contact and indicating to him that it would be unsafe to continue towards Madrid whilst Sir John Moore’s army was beating a precipitate retreat towards Astorga, with the French in close pursuit.

It did not take the surgeon long to become aware of the large number of Spanish troops then present in Astorga. These were men belonging to Spain’s Army of the Left, which had recently suffered some heavy defeats at the hands of the French, and had fallen back along the roads of northern Spain in appalling weather with the soon to be dismissed General Blake at their head. Many of them were suffering from a form of typhus, and a large number of soldiers bore festering wounds inflicted during the recent fighting in the region of Biscay. This, combined with a lack of rations and their state of near nakedness – many of them unshod – meant that a significant number were in urgent need of medical attention. Milburne felt his chance had come and immediately made an offer of his medical services to the Spanish Army, which was accepted without hesitation.

Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part II here.

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