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.