Ethics and Warfare in the 1811 Peninsular War: a Story of Military Honour
By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy
The ancient Greek critic, philosopher, scientist and physician Ἀριστοτέλης (384 BC- March 7, 322 BC) of Stagira, wote in his work Nichomachean Ethics an amazing reflection for the classical civilization; the statement, which has survived through the passing of time, has a literary magnitude which has its own peculiarity: “We make war that we may live in peace” – Aristotle.
Things never change, do they? Brave men who have given their lives in a cause they believed in.
We are reminded of XXth Century combatants, who have been sacrificed on the altar of some higher officer’s ego and reputation.
British Army Field-Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC (November 17, 1887 - March 24, 1976) was so very stubborn; U.S. Army General George Smith Patton Jr. (November 11, 1885 - December 21, 1945) ran circles around him.
However, both had their strengths and weaknesses.
It matters not what year, era, epoch that battles are fought, lost, and won. They all have a common thread: bravery, memorials, and histories written to preserve the memory of great deeds.
One never knows when one will stumble across a significant historic site.
Almost forgotten by the passing of time, the British cemetery at Elvas remembers the valor and honor that soldiers exhibit in times of great conflict.
In my Portuguese trilogy related to strategic emergencies in the Iberian peninsular front (early XIXth Century), I have written an essay about little known events on the Portuguese-Spanish theater; battles and heroism whose cognizance outside the immediate area is almost neglected, and featuring the valiantness in action of British, French, and Portuguese military personalities.
Even after two centuries, lessons from the military experience of the past are beneficial to preserving the values of peace and civilization, and people are still learning from them. Lieutenant Colonel Bevan (1811) did what many honorable professional did during that period: their honor and integrity to the cause of liberty was more important than their lives.
Those days of chivalry seem
to be long past, until we heard of incidents coming out of
The essayist, poet and novelist Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana (Madrid, December 16, 1863 - Rome, September 26, 1952) said it best: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
To ensure that British soldiers who gave their lives for Portuguese and Spanish political sovereignty - in the Napoleonic Wars (1808-1814) - are remembered by post-modern generations to come, it is important to recall their sacrifices. It is only through the research and tireless efforts of historians to preserve, that notable figures and events are not forgotten.
Remembering that the blood shed for a nation’s
protection and honor is one of the highest sacrifices. In
this final study of my Portuguese trilogy I will focus on a new
topic of research. This
new text, which continues the examination about the forgotten British
graves in the
Almeida: profile of a fortressed site
The town of
In the XVIth Century, the castle presented double
waistline battlements with a trapezoidal form; furthermore, the
construction was surrounded by a moat, and protected by four round-shaped
towers standing in the angles at the external wall of the fortressed
circuit. A mighty quadrangular donjon – which
was built in the interior –
permitted a panoramic view of the neighbouring area, including
views of the eleven bishoprics of
The Bridge at Barba del Puerco
After the British troops on the Spanish-Lusitanian border had narrowly gained victory over the French at the battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (3 – 5 May 1811), Marshal André Massena gave strict orders to the senior commander in the fortress of Almeida; he had evacuate the position, and to break out, thus rejoining the major deployment of the French corps.
The French units escape was therefore carefully planned in order to carry out a strategic withdrawal, and passing the stone bridge over the River Agueda. This area was named in the Spanish idiom Barba del Puerco. Sir Arthur Wellesley) had possibly forseen with strategic insight this final move of the French, and was ready to react to the sortie de guerre (9).
At about midnight (10 May 1811), the garrison of Almeida (about 1400 men) succeeded in slipping through the siege lines and eluding the allied units vigilance; for the deployment of the 2nd Regiment of Foot and the Portuguese pickets proved ineffectual in containing the enemy’s strong push.
Harry Smith, in his autobiography (campaign of 1811) annoted the following passage:
A French author exposed with consumed analytical experience that
Notwithstanding the tactical
impasse, the French troops were pursued by Pack’s and
British attacks onto the bridge were to meet the same fate. Neither Lieutenant Colonel Cockrane’s determination – partially supported by a force of the 36th Regiment of Foot – nor the 4th Foot rushing proudly onward were successful; quite the contrary, British columns were met by a whitering enemy fire. Compelled to recoil, severe losses were suffered in the intensive fire fight.An excellent narrative of the escape of the French garrison from Almeida can be read in the work of Robert Southey.
Unaccustomed to defeat, and on hearing the conflicting evidence arriving to his headquarters, Lord Wellington became angry. Irritated by the failure to block the French escape he was unable to contain his temper after having been informed about the bloody attempts to cross the bridge.
This is the reason why, in a dispatch ultimately sent to General Campbell (May 15th, 1811), Sir Arthur Wellesley threatened severest dispositions and court-martial to any officer guilty of misconduct. In one dispatch sent instead to the Earl of Liverpool, then Secretary of State, Wellesley unfairly considered that the 4th Regiment had been ordered to occupy Barba del Puerco; and that this troop, having missed the road, did not arrive on location to cut off the enemy withdrawal.
His Lordship equally ignored his responsabilities and the inadequacies of his chain of command recalling that “. . . the enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison which they saved principally due to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba del Puerco by the 4th Regiment”.
A second despatch went still further; it related that orders were received by General Erskine (about 4 p.m.), and that he had promptly sent them.
Annoying considerations were reversed on the lateness in movement of the 4th Foot.
This vision implied that the
enemy troops would have been immobile awaiting for
After the stroke at Almeida, Bevan’s behaviour is more significant.
The tactical flexibility of the 4th Foot still teaches about prompt reactions at night time (operative mobility) and against unexpected operations of the enemy.
Good soldiers never die
Under the circumstances, Lieutenant Colonel Bevan felt that his honour had been stained.
Perceiving that his regimental
force and his military leadership had been subjected to blameworthy
comments – spiteful remarks had appeared in the official
– he did not hesitate pursuing an ultimate step to have the
truth of the event preserved.
The request was not granted (an investigation would have shown Erskine’s incompetence, thus questioning the credibility of the army, and failed to inspire confidence in the command structure), and Bevan was deprived of this right.
Bevan could not tolerate this
stain on honor shot himself. It was 8 July 1811, a most sad
day for the British army. The
funeral service – which was attended by all the officers
of the division -- was held on 11th July in the country town
To soften the episode, his family was told that he had died of fever. Only in 1843, Bevan’s eldest son (Charles) received a more accurate account by his uncle (Admiral James Richard Dacres). Further information was provided in a letter recalling that the 4th Regiment of Foot had received their orders too late ; consequently, neither Bevan nor his Regiment were at fault with duty and bravery.
Instrumental at truth: a critical assessment in the chain of command
The Bevan incident was certainly a much painful affair.
It is known that one time Lord Stanhope asked indelicately
to Lord Wellington a straight question: “How came the French
garrison (under Brennier) at Almeida to escape?” The
Duke’s reply was severe in tone: “That was the fault
of our Colonel Bevan, who afterwards shot himself when he had found
out what he had done.” Almost paradoxally,
it seemed to have happened that Sir William Erskine kept an important
order in his pocket, and forgot to send it to the commanding officer
of the 4th Foot. The army’s
theoretic proposition was that Bevan had been the scapegoat of
A new piece of information is presented in a letter dated Villar Formoso, 15th May, 1811.
The context of the French escape from Almeida is affirmed in its shear reality.
Memories of time
Time has rapidly passed, and so have elapsed nearly a couple of centuries. At Elvas, the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bevan is not estinguished. Thanks to the solicitous caring and nobility of many hearts, the devotion and valiantness of a stern military professional are preserved to his country. In the British cemetery – bastion of São João da Carujeiro – the following words are inscribed on a white marble plate:
Nothing seems more appropriate to the truth than this remarkable memento.
All around is silence, and in the garden of peace the memory of the gallant soldier still lives.
On May 10th, orders had reached
Erskine’s headquarters by about 4 p.m.
The theory that a superior officer (a General) must be believed before a subordinate (a Lieutenant-Colonel) gained a most detrimental ascendacy on the role of honour and gentlemanship in the early XIX century.
General Sir W. Erskine of Torry, 2nd Bt., was born on 30 March 1770. He was the son of General Sir William Erskine of Torry, 1st Bt., and Lady Frances Moray. Before being appointed together with Sir Arthur Wellesley to the Iberian operative theater, Sir William Erskine had already been confined to a lunatic asylum twice. His appointment to the position of one of his senior commanders was consequentially objected to by Wellington, but the Military Secretary replied in tone: “No doubt he is a little mad at times, but in his lucid intervals he is an uncommonly clever fellow; and I trust that he will have no fit during the campaign, though I must say he looked a little mad as he embarked”.
Another major grievance regarded Erskine’s eyesight. The visual perception of his eyeball was not good; and before battle action, he needed someone’s assistance to point out to him which direction the enemy was located. At the clashing of Sabugal (1811), the British General’s services had given rise to much dissatisfaction, as he had ordered his troops in the wrong direction; at the time of the escape of the French presidial garrison from Almeida, he was instead enjoying a dinner party.
On this causal motivation, he forgot to send the
new dispositions to his troops until it was too late. After a nervous breakdown (taking a fever), he eventually threw himself
out of his bedroom window in a fit of delirium at
Captain Eckersley (Royal Dragoons), his aide-de-camp, thoughtfully arranged his funeral; the ceremony was attended by the brigade of Major-General Slade. It is known that a Latin inscribed tablet was erected to perpetuate his memory.
Chronological table (1811)
11 January: French troops engage the Portuguese army near Montalegre (battle of Vila de Ponte).
19 January: the French forces engage the Portuguese army under the command of General Campbell at the battle of Rio Maior.
4 March: the French start withdrawing from
5 March: the French army is defeated near
8 March: Campo Maior is besieged by Marshal Mortier’s troops; on March 21st, the town surrenders to the victors.
11 March: battle of Pombal. Led by Duke of Wellington the Anglo-Lusitanian army engaged Marshal Ney’s forces.
12 March: combat of Redinha.
13 March: Marshal Soult rejoins his army contingents at
14 March: battle of Casal Novo; the French under Ney are engaged by Sir Arthur Wellesley.
15 March: the French troops occupy the towns of Albuquerque and Valencia de Alcantara.
16 March: battle of Foz de Arouce; the Anglo-Portuguese army under Duke of Wellington defeats the French army, which is compelled to retreat.
22 March: orders are imparted by Marshall Massena to concentrate the army around Guarda and Belmonte.
23 March: Marshal Massena orders are opposed by Marshal Ney; his troops
are ordered out of
25 March: Campo Maior is taken by General Beresford.
3 April: battle of Sabugal; the French troops under
Marshal Messena are defeated by
10-19 April: siege of Figueras.
3 May: battle of Figueras.
11th May: the French garrison troops defending the fortress of Almeida escape at nightime.
13 May: the aristocratic title of Conde de Trancoso is granted to General Beresford.
16 May: battle of Albuera; conjoined Portuguese-Spanish-English troops led by General Beresford succeeed defeating the French army under Marshal Soult.
19 May: Anglo-Lusitanian troops encircle the stronghold
Bibliography and further reading:
1. English works:
Aldington, Richard. The Duke: Being an Account
of the Life & Achievements of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke
Cannon, Richard. Historical Records of the Fourth, or King’s Own Regiment of Foot. Longman, Orme, 1839.
Cole, John William. Memoirs of British Generals
Distinguished during the Peninsular War.
Cowper, Julia Margaret. The King’ s Own. The Story of a Royal Regiment. Printed for the Regiment at the University Press, 1957.
Daniel, John Edgecombe. Journal of an Officer
in the Commissariat Department of the Army: Comprising a Narrative
of the Campaigns under His Grace the Duke Of
Duncan, Francis. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. J. Murray, 1879.
D’Urban, Benjamin (Major-General, Sir). The Peninsular Journal, 1808-1817. Greenhill Books, 1988.
Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War 1807-1814.
A Concise Military History.
Gomm, William Maynard, Sir. Letters and Journals
of Field Marshal Sir William Maynard Gomm from 1799 to
Hamilton, Thomas. Annals of the Peninsular
Campaigns: from MDCCCVIII to MDCCCXIV. William Blackwood,
Edinburgh: And T. Codell, Strand,
Jones, John T., (Colonel). Journal of Sieges
Carried on by the Army under the Duke of
Napier, William Francis Patrick,
Sir. History of the War in the Peninsula, and in the South of
Philippart, John (c.o.). The Royal Military
Calendar, or Army Service and Commission Book: Containing the
Services and Promotions of the [...].
Smith, Harry George Wakelyn,
Sir. The Autobiography of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Smith,
Baronet of Aliwal on the Sutlej, G.C.B. Edited with the addition
of some supplementary chapters by G. C. Moore Smith.
Southey, Robert (ESQ. LL.D.). History of the Peninsular War.
Supplementary Despatches, and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke
2. French works:
Gignet, P. Histoire Militaire de la France. Paris. Librairie De L. Hachette et Cie., 1849.
Lagarde, Pierre Denis, de (Nicole Gotteri). La Mission de Lagarde, Policier de l’ Empereur, pendant la Guerre d’ Espagne (1808-1809). Publisud, 1991.
Lapène, Édouard. Conquête de l’ Andalousie, Campagne de 1810 Et 1811 dans le Midi de l’ Espagne. A Paris, Chez Anselin et Pochard (successeurs de Magimel), libraires, rue Dauphine, n° 9; [...]. 1823.
Sarramon, Jean. Campagne de Fuentes de Onoro. Paris, 1962.
Extrait du Carnet de la Sabretache, n° 425, année 1962.
The author would like to express his thanks to Mrs. M. Whitehead.
 The building, and its fortified work, are attributed to King Diniz. However, documentary eveidence corroborates that the castled structure already existed since the reign of King Alfonso Henrique.
The treaty was signed
by Dinis, King of Portugal, and Fernando IV, King of
 In the XVIIIth and XIXth Centuries, the fortress of Almeida went through
several changes which resulted in the
hexagonal square, with six bulwarks, and six curtains, armed with
artillery pieces. The walled perimeter of the fortress was built
with squared stone; four gates allowed easy access into town,
and communications with the exterior were provided through wooden
drawbridges. The square is surrounded by moats, and the battlements
totally encircle the Villa. The fort represents the
military architecture of
 Antoine Deville (1596-1657) was a prominent military engeneer born
in France (town of
 General Brenier de Montmorand. Antoine-François Brenier de Montmorand was born at Saint Marcelin (
 Sir Benjamin D’Urban provides in his work the following description: “The passage of the Agueda at Barba de Porco is quite impracticable for anything but Infantry; horses may be led down the Zig-Zag, and the bridge when arrived at is a good one. St. Felices will make a very good left for the intended position; to be occupied with light Troops, holding too the passage of the bridge”. The Peninsular Journal, 1808-1817, p. 64.
 Written orders were directed
to General Sir William Erskine. He had to extend the 5th Division
units northward, thus covering the line up to
 Smith, Harry George Wakelyn, Sir. The Autobiography
of Lieutenant General Sir Harry Smith, Baronet of Aliwal on
 Lapène, Édouard, Conquête De L’andalousie, [...], pp. 215-216.
 Charles Bevan was born
in 1778. He was commissioned into the 28th Regiment of Foot and
experienced extensive campaigning in
 History of the Peninsular War, pp. 228-231. This author reports that “. . . the whole way to the Agueda, 490 of his men –General Brenier – were brought in prisoners, and the number of killed and wounded could not have been inconsiderable”; p. 230.
 Supplementary Despatches, and Memoranda of
Field Marshal Arthur Duke of
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2007
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