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.

Wellington’s Favourite Engineer?

Since we announced our latest book, several people, have questioned the choice of title. Can we truly say that John Fox Burgoyne was Wellington’s favourite? If so, why him and not other deserving Royal Engineer officers such as Richard Fletcher? Author Mark Thompson explains why he believes Burgoyne to have had pride of place in Wellington’s esteem.

Of course, no-one will ever know for certain. Wellington did not say it, but a look at Burgoyne’s service with the Duke will make such a claim reasonable and explain why I have said this about him and not the senior engineer for most of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Fletcher. Apart from one brief absence, Richard Fletcher was the Commanding Royal Engineer under Wellington from 1809 until his death in September 1813. From reading the correspondence over the period, I would describe Fletcher’s relationship with Wellington as professional rather than warm. Over the duration of the war, Wellington came to respect Fletcher’s advice even when he did not follow it. Fletcher was probably one of the few officers who could ‘speak truth unto power’ to their leader and stay in his role.  As the war continued the relationship appeared to become strained, particularly after the difficulties in the sieges of 1811 and 1812. One scurrilous account suggested that Wellington left Fletcher at Badajoz to make the repairs in 1812 because he blamed him for the high casualties (I do not believe it).  Similarly, Fletcher did not appear to have a friendly relationship with his engineer subordinates. He was a great organiser rather than a great leader.

Burgoyne, on the other hand, was generally well liked and had built close and friendly relationships with most of his fellow engineers who served with him in the Peninsula. Burgoyne had also met several Peninsular generals including John Moore and Thomas Graham and was well respected by them. When Burgoyne first came into contact with Wellington he would have come with positive reviews.  In 1809 Burgoyne was ordered by Wellington to carry out comprehensive surveys of the Douro river and the northern border which.  Later in the year he was the only engineer who was with the army for several months when all others were ordered to Lisbon to start work on the Lines of Torres Vedras. This remained the case until mid-1810 when Fletcher re-joined headquarters. Burgoyne would have seen Wellington regularly through this period and was heavily involved in the preparations for the French invasion, surveying potential routes, mining bridges, preparing fort conception and identifying defensive positions all of which would have required close liaison with his commander.

The incident during the action at El Bodon in 1811 where Burgoyne was ordered to stay with a threatened Portuguese regiment (described in detail in the book) showed Wellington’s confidence in Burgoyne, and willingness to use him in non-engineering roles.

Burgoyne then took senior roles at the sieges of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo but avoided the flak that the chief engineer received. When Fletcher remained at Badajoz in 1812, Burgoyne commanded the engineers with the army even though there was another senior engineer in the Peninsula. He carried out another detailed survey of the Douro which would have been in preparation for the advance in 1813 although he would not have known that at the time. The challenges of the Salamanca forts and the failed siege at Burgos did not appear to impact Wellington’s view of Burgoyne.

On the death of Fletcher at San Sebastian in 1813, Burgoyne took over temporary command again. There were two senior engineer officers in the Peninsula at the time and Wellington did not order either up to the army (one was only 40 miles away).  It was almost certain that Wellington was involved in the decision to appoint Burgoyne to the American expedition of 1814.

Burgoyne’s relationship with Wellington did not finish with the end of the war. Wellington was Master General of the Ordnance from 1819-1827 and is likely to have had direct contact with Burgoyne who was commanding engineer for the Medway District, based at Chatham. Burgoyne was selected to be chief engineer of the expedition to Portugal in 1826 and Wellington would have approved this appointment. In 1831 Burgoyne was appointed to the Board of Public Works in Ireland and his work in that country will not have escaped the attention of the Duke.  Burgoyne’s later civil duties across the nation meant he would have been in contact with ministers during the period that Wellington was in the government. One wonders if Wellington had a hand in some of these appointments.

The claim that Burgoyne was (possibly) Wellingtons Favourite Engineer is based on his regular use of this officer when others could have been used. Wellington clearly had great confidence in him and was happy to use him in the absence of senior engineer officers and sometimes over other army officers. No other senior engineer officer served as long under Wellington during the Peninsular War and survived. This relationship built in war would endure for another thirty years in peace.

Wellington at Bay: A Game and a Book

By Garry Wills

My passion is to bring the smaller or lesser known actions to life using quality archived based research and I was planning this game at Salute 2020 in support of the publication by Helion of my new book, Wellington at Bay. The book describes the Battle of Villamuriel on 25 October 1812. This battle, while small, was the largest engagement of Wellington’s retreat from Burgos. This battle involved twice as many men as the better-known Battle of Villadrigo/Venta del Pozo two days before. The action is also notable because it featured a rematch between Maucune’s 5e Division of the Armée de Portugal and the 5th Division of the Anglo-Portuguese army, just three months after the latter broke the former at Salamanca. The battle involved approximately 11,500 men.

The book is the first full length account of the action and improves significantly on previous accounts in the campaign histories by Oman, Napier, and Divall. The aim has been to pull together archival sources from all four nations involved – British, French, Spanish and Portuguese – to build a coherent and balanced account of interest equally to historians and wargamers. All other accounts of this action are either brief or partial or both. The brief accounts are necessarily so because they form part of a larger campaign study. For example, Napier’s and Oman’s accounts are only three pages long. These accounts are necessarily incomplete and include the odd mistake, for example Oman incorrectly identified the Spanish infantry at Villamuriel as from Losada’s division. The partial accounts include the memoirs, diaries and letters of 27 participants which form a great part of this work. The challenge of this research was to weave together these accounts into a credible and balanced narrative. Thus, Béchaud is often referred to but is rarely given in full and this account provides translations of his key passages. The work is a detailed study of one day’s action in the 1812 campaign, with a view to extracting an improved understanding of how the armies fought in 1812.

The game uses 325 15mm figures. The French, British and Portuguese are Old Glory figures from Timecast, the Spanish are Essex and the Brunswickers are from Campaign Game Miniatures, all painted by me. The terrain is the excellent Hexon system from Kallistra and features the Great War trench sections repurposed as the dry Canal de Castilla, which the British and Portuguese infantry used to shelter from the French artillery fire. The buildings are a mixture of Hovels and JR Miniatures, while the road and river sections together with the areas of rough ground are also from Timecast. The trees are from K&M except for the willows which are from Noch, as are the vines. The bridge over the canal is scratch built from three MDF bases and some matchsticks. The game can be played in one of three scenarios which I have designed for Black Powder and General de Brigade; the initial morning attempt on the bridge by the French, which ended when the bridge was destroyed by the allies; the French assault on the fords at Calabazanos and Villamuriel in the early afternoon; and finally Wellington’s counterattack which pushed the French back across the river. The demonstration will be played using Black Powder with one or two rules selected and modified from the Clash of Eagles supplement, together with my own house rules for dealing with skirmishers.

The game and history have several points of interest, not least of which is the very large proportion of his infantry that Général de Division Maucune chose to deploy as skirmishers.

The book is now available from Helion and you will be able to see the game at Salute 2021.

A version of this article first appeared in Wargames Illustrated Bite Size #2

Buy ‘Wellington at Bay. The Battle of Villamuriel, 25 October 1812’ here.

Initial deployment 9.00 a.m.
The French 5e Division arrives.
The British 5th Division guards the bridge.
Spry’s Portuguese Brigade defends the ford at Calabazanos.
Skirmishers engage at Calabazanos.
Linan’s Spanish brigade looks on.
The bridge is destroyed as the French approach.
French cavalry arrive to surprise the 8th Cacadores.
Wellington’s counterattack begins.
The Battlefield today. Wellingtons counterattack was launched from these heights.