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PostPosted: Fri Jan 02, 2009 9:31 pm 
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http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article ... story.html

The first Dunkirk: 200 years ago, the entire British Army was almost obliterated in a horrific retreat. One man's courage saved the day - so why has his name been erased from history?

By Annabel Venning

Starving, bitterly cold and exhausted, the British soldiers trudged on through the snow. Their uniforms hanging in tatters, they hobbled barefoot along a road strewn with the dead and dying.
Officers, themselves in rags, urged on their men, sometimes at bayonet point. For if anyone fell behind or lay down to rest he would soon join the corpses at the roadside, killed by the cold or the enemy who pursued them relentlessly.

That enemy had already overrun most of Europe. Country after country had fallen to its armies, commanded by a dictator determined to conquer the continent. Now Napoleon stood ready to claim his ultimate prize - the utter destruction of the British Army.

Death march: During the retreat, men stumbled over their comrades as they walked
Vastly outnumbered and weakened after weeks of trudging through the cold, the British expeditionary force that had been sent to challenge the French Emperor was facing almost certain death.

Their only hope was to reach the coast and escape by ship. But that was a journey of 250 miles, through some of the most gruelling terrain on the continent.

Enfeebled as they were, it would be an almost suicidal voyage. Yet it was the only plan
they had. And so began an ordeal as horrific as it was inspiring - an epic race from annihilation every bit as remarkable as that at Dunkirk, more than a century later.

But outside military circles, the Corunna retreat - as it came to be called - is little known.

That seems a great injustice. What took place in those desperate weeks, almost exactly 200 years ago, was an extraordinary feat of endurance and one that should be recognised as among the finest - and the darkest - hours of the British Army.

The British troops who marched into Spain at the beginning of November 1808 were in high spirits. They had beaten the French three months earlier at the Battle of Vimiero in Portugal. Now they were to be allowed another crack at them.

Napoleon had sent his army into Spain some months earlier, putting his brother Joseph on the throne in place of the Spanish royal family. But he had reckoned without the Spanish people, who rose up violently against their French occupiers.

The British government pledged to help the Spanish drive the French from their land.

To that end, Lieutenant General Sir John Moore was given command of a force of 20,000 to head for Spain, with 12,000 more to follow. It was, as the Foreign Secretary

Lord Canning remarked: 'Not merely a considerable part of the dispensable force of this country. It is, in fact, the British Army.' This haunted Moore.

General John Moore: Why have his name and brave deeds been forgotten?
He had other reasons to be anxious. Moore was a successful career soldier, handsome and intellectual with a reputation for bravery and humanity.
But he was also a blunt speaker who had alienated the very politicians whose support he needed.

His instructions from Lord Castlereagh, the War Secretary, were vague, telling him merely to 'co-operate' with the Spanish.
The Treasury had not given him enough money to buy essential supplies, while a lack of transport carts meant that much heavy baggage had to be left behind when they landed in Portugal.

The Commissariat, the civilian department in charge of procuring and distributing rations for the troops, was, he complained, hopelessly inexperienced: 'They talked of going into Spain as if going into Hyde Park.'
Equally worrying, many of his soldiers had become drunken and unfit during the weeks of inaction.

Moore's maps and intelligence were just as unreliable: he was fed conflicting information about the whereabouts, strength and intentions of his Spanish allies and the French.
The farther he went into Spain, the less evidence he saw of the Spanish resistance fighters he had been promised would help him tackle the French.

'If the British Army were in an enemy's country, it could not be more completely left to itself,' he wrote.

After much deliberation, he pressed on, heading north to attack a French army under Marshal Soult, the 'Duke of Damnation'. He hoped to distract the French, relieving pressure on Spanish rebels in the south while striking a blow for British honour.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was pouring more soldiers into Spain, taking personal command of his armies to challenge Moore, whom he decreed was 'the only general now worthy to contend with me'.

His plan was to overwhelm the British through sheer force of numbers and wipe out the Army for good. 'If only these 20,000 were 100,000!' Napoleon exclaimed. 'If only more English mothers could feel the horrors of war!'

By mid-December, the British had reached the village of Sahagun, where they planned to rest before the battle that awaited them. The men had been marching 11 hours a day, through thick snow, carrying 60lb each on their backs. Already, many had dropped dead from fatigue.

With them marched 1,200 soldiers' wives and children, who had accompanied the Army into Spain, ignoring Moore's order to stay behind.

But morale remained high. On the night of December 23, the Army began heading out of Sahagun to tackle Marshal Soult's forces.

'We longed for blood,' a young Rifleman, Benjamin Harris, said later.

But a few hours into their march, messengers were seen galloping furiously down the column. Moments later, officers gave the order to halt and turn around. The men, furious at being denied a battle, marched in a surly silence back to Sahagun.

The soldiers were not told the reason for the sudden change of plan: Moore had just learned that on top of the threat from Soult's army, Napoleon was heading towards him with 40,000 men. Isolated and outnumbered, he felt he had no choice but to run for the safety of the coast, 250 miles away.

War secretary Lord Castlereagh, whose instructions were too vague for accurate interpretation
So early on Christmas Eve, the Army, and its women and children, began their long retreat. Some men had frostbite, others had been four days or more without food. It was, recalled an officer, 'the most miserable Christmas Day I ever passed'.

On they pressed, the roads growing ever more potholed, the soldiers soaked to the skin. There were no rations as the Commissariat lagged far behind, so they resorted to taking food by force.

Word soon spread, and far from helping the British, the locals in every town took to burying their possessions in the ground to prevent them being seized.

As for other essential army equipment, it was burnt because it could not be transported over the steep mountain roads that came next.

Shoes, stockings, blankets, salted meat and biscuits, all of which would be needed in the following days, were thrown on bonfires to deny them to the pursuing French. Yet remarkably, the men still hungered for battle.

Indeed, as the Army left the town of Benavente, the hussars fought a bloody but victorious battle against a small contingent of 600 French Imperial Guard.

Given such success, the soldiers could not understand why they were not allowed to face the French in a proper battle. Moore refused to explain the reason for his retreat - that they had not one, but two armies on their tail.

The mood in the ranks grew mutinous. General 'Black Bob' Craufurd, the stern commander of the 1st Light Brigade, kept his men in check by flogging those who disobeyed orders, but in many units discipline fell apart.

Those too exhausted to go on simply lay down in the snow to await death. At each town they came to, finding no food and hostile inhabitants, starving soldiers would go on the rampage. At one rare halt beside a field, Rifleman Harris and his comrades scrabbled in the frozen earth for turnips.

Soon after, Harris saw a soldier's wife, reduced to a 'moving corpse', dragging along a little boy of seven or eight who was screaming with exhaustion. 'The mother could no longer raise the child in her arm. At last the little fellow had not even the strength to cry.
But, with mouth wide open, they stumbled onwards, until both sank, to rise no more.'

Another sergeant remembered seeing women who, 'in the unconquerable energy of maternal love, would toil on with one or two children on their back; till on looking round, they perceived that the hapless objects of their attachment were frozen to death'.

But still, on they marched. On New Year's Day the rearguard finally reached the town of Bembibre. The divisions that had passed through earlier had left a trail of destruction and a thousand men, women and children lying in the streets, many of them too enfeebled or drunk to move, abandoned as the column marched on.

Shortly afterwards, a regiment of French dragoons galloped through the stragglers, slashing swords at the drunken forms on the ground.

Fleeing in terror, a few horribly butchered survivors, their ears lopped off, flesh 'hanging off in collops', managed to catch up with their comrades on the road ahead.

Moore had them paraded as a warning against straggling.

By now Napoleon had returned to Paris, leaving the pursuit to Soult's army alone. Every time Soult's troops came up against the British, they were beaten back. Even the
British stragglers fought bravely when faced with the French enemy, who nicknamed them les squelettes feroces (the fierce skeletons).

Emboldened by such skirmishes, Moore finally decided to make a stand and face his pursuers in formal battle at the town of Lugo. The morale of his bloodthirsty troops soared.

But Soult, awaiting reinforcements, would not give battle. Desperately short of food, Moore could not wait. So, to his men's disgust, he pushed on through the mountains, determined to reach the coast before his troops fell apart entirely.

One of the many paintings that depict the Napoleonic wars in 1815, by Denis Dighton

Corunna was now only 60 miles away, but this would be the worst stretch of the retreat.

One night, the Army became separated in a hailstorm on a mountainside; hundreds perished. Another night, many were lost on a 36-hour forced march. The roads became streaked with blood from barefoot soldiers and shoeless horses. Men stumbled over the corpses of their comrades. It had become a march of death.

Rifleman Harris passed a soldier's wife and her husband, collapsed from exhaustion, lying in each other's arms in the snow.

'I knew them, but it was impossible to help,' he later recalled.

Augustus Schaumann, a supplies commissar, saw a woman fall up to her waist in a bog. Rather than help her out, the men behind marched over her head as she sank.

Other women took shelter in a barn, but were found by an enemy patrol and raped.

Yet amid such horrors, there were moments of humanity. One officer, unable to continue, was about to shoot himself when he saw the body of a soldier's wife and beside it a tiny baby, still alive. He covered her body and took the baby on to Corunna.

Other soldiers came across a young woman lying dead, her six-month-old baby trying desperately to feed at her frozen breast. 'Tears filled every eye, but no one had the power to aid,' one of them later recorded.

A staff officer duly gathered the baby up in his cloak, saying: 'Unfortunate infant, you will be in my future care.' On January 11, what remained of the Army finally hobbled into Corunna, shoeless, ragged, suffering dysentery and hunger, but buoyed by thoughts of home. Five thousand lives had been lost on the retreat.

Alas, the evacuation fleet was stuck at sea and it was four days before the embarkation could begin. The cavalry were due to board first, but most of the horses were too weak to travel. They were shot, pushed over cliffs or had their throats slit.

Then, just as the infantry were about to embark, Soult's army appeared on the horizon. Moore was delighted: here was his chance to salvage some glory from the horrors of the march.

When the fighting began, he galloped from one position to the next, directing the battle, issuing orders and encouragement.

As he was urging on one regiment, he was hit by a cannon shot that carried away his left shoulder, leaving his arm hanging by the flesh. He did not utter a sound, but was carried from the field bleeding profusely.

By nightfall both sides had fought each other to a standstill, though French losses were twice those of the British. It was not a victory, but it had bought the British enough time to secure their evacuation. As Moore lay dying, he was told his army was saved.

The second Dunkirk: Men wait to be rescued from the beaches, similarly to the British retreat led by General John Moore

Hours later, the evacuation at last began. As the men clambered aboard the ships, Moore's body was buried, wrapped in his military cloak, beneath the city's ramparts. It was left to Marshal Soult himself, who entered the town two days later, to order a plinth to be erected over the spot where Moore had fallen.

Back in England, when the filthy, emaciated troops landed on the beaches after two weeks at sea, their wounds crawling with maggots, suffering typhus and dysentery, an outcry was raised.

Once those who had fallen in that final battle were counted, 7,000 men had been lost, not to mention women and children. What had gone wrong? Politicians who had sent Moore's army to war so ill-equipped heaped opprobrium on the General, distancing themselves from the disaster.

Yet despite the appalling losses, Moore had, to a degree, succeeded in his mission.

He had distracted and exhausted the French, enabling the Spanish rebellion to gather strength. And the remnants of the British Army were preserved to fight another day.

A few months later the Army returned, this time under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and, after five more years of fighting, chased the French from Spain and defeated Napoleon for good.

Wellington acknowledged the debt he owed Moore, saying: 'We'd not have won, I think, without him.' Napoleon himself admitted: 'It was only Moore's action which stopped me taking Spain and Portugal.' Yet today, few outside his native Glasgow have even heard of him. Honouring his memory is left instead to the townspeople of Corunna who this year, as every year, will commemorate his courage and his sacrifice in a special ceremony.

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