Remembrance Day and the Battle of Barroso
On 11 November the Anglosphere will remember all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who died defending our countries and freedoms. These include the men who fought against Napoleon in the 19th century. Napoleon's infamy and the courage displayed by Brits in one of the most desperate battles fought against him are described below.
During his long and bloody career, Napoleon attacked and plundered Italy, treacherously turned his guns on the Knights of Malta, who had defended Europe from Muslim pirates, conquered Egypt, met with defeat at the hands of the Royal Navy, deserted his troops, returned to France, managed to engineer a propaganda victory and a coup d'etat, and had himself crowned Emperor of France in 1804. He went on to conquer most of Europe, describing the death and destruction he left in his wake as his beneficent plan to create "the common fatherland" with "Paris as the capital of the world". In 1805 he assembled a French and Spanish fleet and made plans to invade Britain.
Horatio Nelson and the Royal Navy destroyed his fleets outside Cadiz at the Battle of Trafalgar. Turning from the sea, Napoleon defeated the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, and in 1806 established a continental blockade to isolate Britain and destroy Britain's economy. When Portugal refused to join the blockade, French and Spanish armies invaded Portugal.
In 1808 Napoleon turned on his Spanish ally, and invaded Spain. The people of Asturias and Madrid began spontaneous, popular uprisings. Napoleon had their citizens massacred. The British Army arrived to help the Portuguese and Spanish. Napoleon led 300,000 men into Spain in "an avalanche of fire and steel".
It was only in 1811 that the tide began to turn in the Peninsular War. Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley led British, Portuguese and Spanish troops to victory. At the Battle of the Pyrenees, fighting far from his supply lines against equal numbers of French, Wellesley's brilliant strategy won the day.
Meanwhile, Napoleon, enslaved by his megalomania, had invaded Russia with half a million men. The Russians resisted heroically. Napoleon retreated. Back in France he raised a new army. It will be several years before the Allies, led by Wellesley, now the Duke of Wellington, utterly defeated him and ended his bloody conquest of Europe.
From the safe distance of years, Napoleon may appear less malign. Some argue that freedom was never at stake, only the spoils of competing empires. Some ask - wouldn't it have been better to give in, and save all those men?
Among the battles on which the future of Europe and Britain hinged was the Battle of Barroso in 1811. The British had been temporarily deserted by their Spanish allies, who were labouring under feckless leadership.
Outnumbered, the British were trapped between the French and the sea. As the battle began Sir Thomas Graham sent Major Browne to seize the hill of Cerro del Puerco from the French before they swept down it, and outflanked and destroyed the British army. Graham also promised to bring reinforcements.
There were six French battalions and a battery of artillery on the hill. Browne's Gibraltar Flankers numbered only 536 men. They did not say 'It cannot be done'. They went and did it.
As Browne led his men, he rather quaintly sang the Navy song 'Heart of Oak' -
Tis to glory we steer, to add something more to this wonderful year; to honour we call you, not press you like slaves, for who are so free as the sons of the waves?
His men joined in. As they sang they climbed the hill in the face of withering cannon and musket fire.
One of the most interesting things about British patriots is their ability to be simultaneously ironic and deeply in love with their country and freedom. These soldiers surely knew that some men were pressed into the Navy, yet they loved their country and the real liberties they enjoyed. Indeed Voltaire envied the British their freedom.
That the Gibraltar Flankers thought of freedom as they climbed Cerro del Puerco is doubtful. What is certain is that freedom from Napoleon's tyranny and the lives of their fellow soldiers depended on their willingness to climb.
Officers and men marched uphill into explosions churning with fire and smoke, into cannon and musket fire with the screams of wounded men in their ears. Two hundred men and soldiers died or were wounded in minutes, but three hundred Gibraltar Flankers, their ranks broken, kept going, up into the fire.
Behind them, Sir Thomas had brought up Dilkes's brigade, which included the second battalion of the First Foot Guards, three companies of the second battalion of the 3rd Foot Guards, two companies of riflemen, and half of the 67th Foot. It was all he had. Outnumbered 2 to 1 by the French who poured canisters and musket fire at them, they began to climb the 200-foot hill to join the Flankers. Sir Thomas climbed with them. . .They took the hill. The French fled.
“Hideous,” cried a friend of mine when she heard how the men from Hampshire and Scotland and the Gibraltar Flankers had overcome the French and driven them off the hill with skill and courage. “Hideous! Stupid! What were they doing there?” And then, thinking for a long minute, she said, “I know I take freedom for granted. I wish someone explained why it is worth dying for.”
Maybe we only really know why when it's gone.
When he returned to Britain, Sir Thomas entered Parliament, which had survived because Napoleon had been defeated. He voted in the House of Lords in support of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reforms (Oxford DNB).
We are indebted to Bernard Cornwell and his book Sharpe's Fury for details of the battle.