It was cool as Sir John Moore mounted his horse before dawn on 16 January 1809. Although midwinter, the climate at Corunna was much milder than the fierce blizzards his army had endured during its retreat to this tiny port on the northern coast of Spain. The day would begin misty, but by mid-morning a bright blue sky would dominate: ideal for battle.
Moore had left his comfortable billet in town to trot the couple of miles south to the first of the British positions. He would inspect the line. Not that he expected a fight that day, but he would be ready if the French attacked.
The British army Moore commanded had been sitting at Corunna for five days. The availability of fresh supplies had gone some way towards restoring morale and physical wellbeing, but this remained a denuded and demoralised force. They expected to embark for England that same day and most of them could not wait. Moore’s Spanish expedition had been a failure.
The idea had been to operate in support of Spanish forces in ejecting Napoleon from Spain. The British, under Arthur Wellesley, had beaten the French at Vimeiro in Portugal the previous summer. Controversy surrounding the subsequent treaty meant that Moore rather than Wellesley secured command of their next Iberian offensive. For, in that autumn, renewed Spanish opposition to French occupation had presented a chance for a small British army to help tip the balance. Moore was ordered into Spain to cooperate with the Spanish.
His campaign appeared blighted from the start. The British had badly miscalculated. Not only were the various Spanish forces ill-coordinated and ill-trained, but the roads and supply infrastructure proved inadequate, especially as autumn turned to winter.
Moreover, the French commitment to the campaign was much greater than the British had anticipated. Napoleon himself secured Madrid, and across the peninsula the French had at least 500,000 troops. A full 80,000 of these were led by the Emperor in pursuit of Moore’s tiny army.
Although they bested the French in several rearguard actions, in mid-December Moore decided to pull back to the coast. From there, the Royal Navy could ferry the troops home.
As it retreated, Moore’s force began to disintegrate. Looting and ill-discipline became endemic, with drunken British soldiers shuffling along barefoot in the snow. Of 29,000 originally under command, 17,000 now waited at Corunna (perhaps 1,000 of whom were already on-board ship and would take no part in the battle), with 3,000 light infantry at Vigo in Portugal. The rest were captured, deserted, or dead.
Until now, Sir John Moore had been a highly regarded figure within the British establishment. Scottish by birth, he had served from the age of 15 in theatres as diverse as America, Ireland, and the West Indies.
Intelligent, competent, and compassionate, by 1803 Moore was a major-general, preparing British land forces for a possible French invasion of the south coast. It was here that he was to make his most-famous contribution to military history.
For at Shorncliffe Barracks in Kent, Moore devised and introduced an improved light-infantry system for the British Army. Thus it is as a manager and tactical theorist that Moore is now remembered, rather than as a battlefield commander. Yet, as Corunna was to demonstrate, Moore was equally adept in combat.
The man who would attempt to crush the British at Corunna was Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult. Just turned 40, Soult was by now one of Napoleon’s most-trusted marshals, the veteran of numerous actions, including French victories at Austerlitz and Jena. As much a politician as a soldier, Soult was undoubtedly capable and ambitious. Yet his tactical reputation was nowhere near that of Moore’s.
In 1808-1809 Soult had command of the French II Corps, and he had been in the vanguard of Napoleon’s efforts to hunt down Moore’s army. In this he came close to disaster, when Moore learnt that he was operating independently and moved to crush his corps.
Before he could do so, Napoleon had led a second force from the south, in an effort to trap the British between the two. Moore headed for Corunna and Napoleon for Paris, leaving Soult to finish the job. Soult had harried the British all the way through the mountains to the coast.
Armies and dispositions
In fact, the two armies were of similar size. Both numbered about 16,000 troops, but they differed in their composition. The British force was almost entirely infantry, supported by only nine cannon in the field and one cavalry squadron.
In a grisly episode which was to upset the most-hardened of his veterans, Moore had ordered the butchery of most of his army’s horses. He did not have the naval transport to get them home and, in any case, had concluded that the rocky terrain around the town would preclude their use. By the time of the battle, he had also loaded most of the artillery on-board ship.
Soult’s force was more balanced, with three cavalry divisions totalling some 3,000, more than 20 artillery pieces, and about 13,000 infantry. Sources differ on this, and there may have been more French infantry and artillery present.
The infantry of both armies were well-trained veterans. The British had been retreating in poor order, but the French were exhausted by their pursuit and had not had the benefit of resupply. Ironically, given his background, most of Moore’s light troops were absent at Vigo.
He had a tricky balancing act to perform, in that he needed to present a plausible defensive line to the French – who might well attack – while at the same time commencing the embarkation process. His decisions concerning the cavalry and the guns, which were difficult to embark, can be seen in this context as calculated risks. His plan, if Soult were to attack, was well conceived.
Moore established a defensive line on a rocky ridge extending to the south-east. Its left was well protected by the River Mero, but the right looked vulnerable. The French could either march round this and straight into Corunna, or instead roll up the British flank. But the port was covered by the guns of the Royal Navy. More importantly, Moore had left nearly half his troops behind his centre-right, perfectly poised to pounce on such a move.
Soult had approached from the south- east on the 13 January, crossing the river and establishing a position opposite the British on the 14 January. It was only on that day, the Saturday, that Royal Navy transports had arrived to lift off Moore’s army. Timing was going to be tight – and now he had the French in front of him.
Corunna: Orders of Battle
British Expeditionary Force
c.16,000 troops (nearly all infantry; excluding cavalry and artillery units already aboard ship)
(LG = Lieutenant-General; MG = Major-General; BG = Brigadier-General; LC = Lieutenant-Colonel.)
Commander: LG Sir John Moore
1st Division (LG Baird): 3 brigades (9 battalions) under MGs Wade, Bentinck, and Manningham
2nd Division (LG Hope): 3 brigades (9 battalions) under MGs Leith and Hill and BG Crauford
3rd Division (LG Fraser): 2 brigades (7 battalions) under MG Carr and BG Fane
4th (Reserve) Division (MG Edward Paget*): gades (5 battalions) under BG Disney and LC Beckwith
Artillery: two batteries (9 guns)
Cavalry: 1st squadron, 15th Light Dragoons
*Not to be confused with LG Lord Paget, Moore’s cavalry commander
French II Army Corps (reinforced)
at least 16,000 troops, including 13,000+ infantry
(GD = General of Division; GB = General of Brigade)
Commander: Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult
1st Infantry Division (GD Merle): 3 brigades (4 regiments) under GBs Reynaud, Sarrut, and Thomières
2nd Infantry Division (GD Mermet): 3 brigades (5 regiments) under GBs Gaulois, Jardon, and Lefebvre
3rd Infantry Division (GD Delaborde): 2 brigades (4 regiments) under GBs Foy and Arnaud
1st Cavalry Division (GD Lahoussaye): 4 heavy (dragoon) regiments
2nd Cavalry Division (GD Lorge): 4 dragoon regiments
3rd Cavalry Division (GD Franceschi): 3 light regiments and 1 heavy
Artillery: 20-48 cannon, in 3-6 batteries (sources vary)
Day of battle
On Monday, as Moore completed his inspection, he dared to hope that he might slip away. Soult had sat there all day on Sunday, and on Monday morning the front remained quiet. Indeed, it was the British who broke the peace, with an opportunistic attack on a French battery south of Piedralonga not long after dawn. This was easily rebuffed by hidden French infantry. But the meticulous Soult had, in fact, been preparing a coordinated attack of his own.
Not long after noon, massed French artillery on the Penasquedo Heights opened up on the British right. Down in the port, anxious staff officers stopped Edward Paget’s Division as it was making ready to embark. It might be needed after all.
Soult’s plan was the obvious one, given Moore’s dispositions. He would fix the British left at Piedralonga and attack their right through Elvina. Meanwhile, his cavalry would move further to the west and straight towards Corunna itself. The significant French artillery advantage should facilitate a breakthrough at Elvina and allow Soult’s troops to isolate and destroy Moore’s force.
Elvina would therefore become the focus of the battle. Soult’s left-most infantry division, 15 battalions under Mermet, would be the strike force. Directly in front of them were the brigades of Bentinck and Manningham, with three battalions (‘regiments’ in British parlance) apiece.
The village of Elvina lay on the slopes of the rocky valley that separated the two forces. Meanwhile, the French cavalry picked their way forward towards San Cristóbal, and Delaborde’s infantry probed the British left at Piedralonga.
After an hour of fierce bombardment, French light troops infiltrated the village of Elvina. Moore, who was behind the British line at precisely this point, ordered Bentinck’s 42nd Black Watch Highlanders forward.
As planned, he had also ordered both Paget and Fraser’s reserve divisions to advance. The 4th Regiment, on Bentinck’s extreme right, refused its flank, in an effort to mitigate the envelopment of the British line.
In a furious close-range musketry duel, the Highlanders – who were standing behind a stone wall – stopped the French attack in its tracks. But they were exposed, ahead of the British line, and low on ammunition. They needed support.
The last of Bentinck’s regiments was the 50th Foot, and they now stepped forward on the initiative of their colonel, Charles Napier. Napier’s men pushed the French back into the village, where the two sides slugged it out among the narrow lanes and houses.
By mid-afternoon, Napier’s regiment was denuded and exhausted, scattered elements pulling back. Bentinck’s entire brigade had been spent.
Realising that the French were about to attack again, Moore called forward the crack Guards’ Brigade, until now serving as a second line, directly behind Bentinck. It was about 3.30 in the afternoon. As they did so, he moved ahead himself, to steady the Highlanders, still stranded at their wall.
This direct personal intervention had the desired effect, and Moore rode back to the main line, intending to supervise the deployment of the Guards. It was now that he was hit in the left shoulder, falling from his horse. Moore, whose chest cavity had been opened up by an artillery round, was clearly dying. He was carried back to his lodging, with Lieutenant-General John Hope assuming command.
The Shorncliffe system
What exactly was Sir John Moore’s contribution to the development of light infantry? In fact, the British had been using light-infantry tactics for some time, depending on local circumstances and on shifting opinion within the Army.
During the American Revolution, for example, all British regiments included a light company and these were usually brigaded together. By the time Moore came to prominence, the British also had a few rifle-equipped battalions, representing a slightly different approach to the challenge of skirmishing. And, of course, these developments were a response to opponents who had successfully employed light infantry against the British – notably the Americans and the French.
What was lacking was an agreed and coherent light-infantry system across the whole of the British Army. It was Moore who recognised this, advocated its adoption, and put it into practice at his Shorncliffe base.
Specifically, Moore offered his own 52nd regiment as ‘guinea pigs’ to train as a fully ‘light’ regiment. In doing so, he developed new drills and tactics, emphasising initiative. The troops were well treated, and officers were expected to be fully conversant with their weapons and tactics.
Moore did not win all the arguments – not all light units used the rifle or adopted green ‘camouflaged’ uniforms. Nor did he work alone – he had been inspired by figures such as Sir Ralph Abercrombie and much of the tactical development was undertaken by Lieutenant-Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie, both fellow Scots. But his period at Shorncliffe was transformative – more so because he had excellent political connections.
Nonetheless, by the time of Moore’s death, the concepts he introduced had not reached full maturity. During the Corunna campaign, he had established two ‘flank brigades’, though these missed the battle itself. It therefore fell to Wellington, an equally gifted tactician, to pick up the baton and introduce the famous Light Division on his return to the Peninsula. This proved fundamental to Britain’s success against the swarms of skirmishers routinely employed by the French.
Moore’s ‘Shorncliffe System’ had made this possible. Britain had been late to fully recognise the importance of the light-infantry concept and Moore’s reforms triggered a catching-up process. Coupled with Wellington’s own tactical innovations, they would play a big part in enabling the British Army to better the French on many occasions.
As Moore left the battlefield, the French infantry made another massed assault, debouching from the village and up the slope towards the Highlanders. Three more British infantry battalions were sent forward. With light failing, the French attack again stalled and disintegrated. In this critical sector, the British had thrown in almost every unit they had. It had been enough – just.
Meanwhile, the French cavalry advance towards Corunna had come to nothing. The light division on the extreme left, five regiments under Franceschi, were blocked by Fraser’s two brigades of infantry, which had by now deployed on the Santa Margareta heights, a mile south of the town.
To its right was a heavier dragoon division under Lahoussaye, supported by some of Mermet’s infantry. They ran into Paget’s division as they attempted to move between Elvina and San Cristóbal.
Paget had some light infantry – the rifle-equipped 95th. These troops moved forward and took a heavy toll on the cavalry, who fought dismounted in the rugged terrain. This mixed force was also enfiladed by fire from Bentinck’s refused 4th regiment.
Moore’s two reserve divisions had therefore been well placed, their commitment perfectly timed. Finally, on the French right, skirmishing in the village of Piedralonga continued throughout the afternoon, to no great advantage to either side.
With dusk, the battle was over. General Hope pondered a counter-attack, but he did not have the means and, in any case, his priority had to be getting the army back to England. Soult’s attempt to destroy it had been foiled by Moore’s tactical cunning and personal leadership.
Moore himself died that evening and was buried at Corunna. The British got away the following day, covered by the guns of the Navy and by a determined show of strength from the townspeople, who armed themselves and manned the city walls. A chastened Soult was content to let them go.
That Antietam feeling…
Many readers will recall the famous ‘cigars’ episode from the 1862 Maryland campaign during the American Civil War. This was the discovery by Union troops of a copy of General Robert E Lee’s ‘Special Order 191’, wrapped around three cigars. The order reached Union commander George McClellan, giving him vital intelligence on the dispersal of the Confederate army. Hence the chance to concentrate and defeat Lee in detail.
Something very similar happened in Spain. On 14 December 1808, Moore received a copy of captured French orders. These made it clear that Marshal Soult’s II Corps would be operating alone and unsupported against the British.
Until then, Moore had been intending to draw Napoleon’s main force from Madrid but to retreat away from it, perhaps opening an opportunity for his Spanish allies to strike. But Soult’s single corps was a different proposition. At this stage in the campaign, Moore had the means to destroy it. Instead of moving on Valladolid, he turned north, and within a week was approaching Soult’s force.
That same day, Napoleon learnt that the British were not, after all, in retreat. He led 80,000 troops to the aid of Soult and Moore had no choice but to pull back towards the coast.
Napoleon’s advance meant Moore could not capitalise on the capture of the French orders. And while McClellan cornered Lee at Antietam, he proved unable to inflict the decisive defeat that the situation suggested.
Both Moore and McClellan had been delighted to learn that the enemy had divided his force in front of them. A lucky intelligence break is one thing, turning it into victory quite another.
Moore’s judgement about the value of cavalry at Corunna had been vindicated, for the battle was an infantryman’s fight. In this, the audacious counter-attack was important, but better equipment (brand- new muskets) and perhaps greater numbers also aided the British.
At least a third of Soult’s troops were completely uninvolved in the battle. His handling of the action had been uninspired, and he had certainly attacked far too late on that brief winter day. Moore’s plan had worked, thanks to his inspiring leadership, his presence at the critical point, and his sense of timing.
Although later eulogised in Charles Wolfe’s famous poem, and commemorated at the time with a memorial commissioned by Soult himself, Moore’s stellar reputation suffered after the failed campaign. It would take Wellington (Wellesley) to demonstrate the value of his light-infantry system and later historians to appreciate his generalship at Corunna. On the very day that the main army left Corunna, Moore’s two light brigades, unscathed, sailed from Vigo. The next British army to fight on the Continent would feature a full Light Division. •
Andrew Mulholland is a retired civil servant. He has degrees in Politics and War Studies, and writes on military history and the simulation of war. He is a regular contributor to MHM.
John Day (2008) The Life of Sir John Moore: not a drum was heard (Barnsley: Leo Cooper). Charles J Esdaile (2003) The Peninsular War: a new history (London: Penguin Books). D Gates (1986) The Spanish Ulcer: a history of the Peninsular War (London: Guild Publishing). Benjamin Harris (2006) The Complete Rifleman Harris (Driffield: Leonaur Books). Philip Haythornthwaite (2001) Corunna 1809: Sir John Moore’s fighting retreat (Oxford: Osprey Publishing). Nick Lipscombe (2014) The Peninsular War Atlas (revised; Oxford: Osprey Publishing). Colonel H Rogers (1979) Wellington’s Army (London: Ian Allen). Jac Weller (2012) Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (Barnsley: Frontline Books).
Images: WIPL/Wikimedia Commons/Alamy.