Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

The Silence of God: the British Cemetery at Elvas

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy


Located in the district of Portoalegre in Alentejo, the municipality of Elvas, (Portugal) has been through the centuries an Episcopal Eee (1570) and a strategically built frontier fortress.  This city lies on a crescent hill to the northwest of the flowing waters of the Guadiana River.[1]   Among its main architectural features are seven bastions, and the two forts of Santa Lúzia (1641) (the 17th Century fortifications were built to the north of the old town)[2]  and Nossa Senhora da Graça (1763). 

During the Peninsular War, French invading troops under Jean-Andoche Junot captured the stronghold (11 March 1808), but were forced to evacuate it after the ratification of the “Convention of Cintra” (August). 

The English Cemetery in the fortress-town of Elvas deserves highest spiritual sensibility, and tracts of flowering prayers.  This is the call to brave men-women hearts, who have estinguished the burning flames of the inner self, the ego, to make purity a living, and contemplation the magnitude of celestial beauty; a time for deep spiritual reflections, and for ispiring resources of eternal life. Although the place is not well known, it needs to receive special conservative efforts and constant cultural sensibility to make it better appreciated among the passionate cultivators of the Napoleonic age.

The distinguishing features which made this site so peculiar are really important: it is quite rarus and unicum to have a cemetery  dedicated to the silent heroes who have fallen in combat in   Peninsular War. The cemetery is located in the bastion of São João da Carujeiro, on the eastern wall of the fortress.  This site is possibly the oldest British military cemetery in Europe.[3]

The Cemitério dos Ingleses, as it is called in the local idiom, was placed in a semi-bastion, and this defensive element was constructed around a Christian chapel.[4] For nearly two centuries, this “garden of peace” laid virtually forgotten on the ramparts, and was guarded by the army.

War Memorials

Walking silently inside, devotional pity focuses a number of gravestones recording the dead buried inside the walls.  Following the bloody battle at Albuera (May 16th, 18110,[5] William Carr Beresford (October 2, 1768-January 8, 1854; then Army commander) and Major General William Stewart (divisional commander) urged General Leite, Governor at Elvas, to give Major General Daniel Hoghton – 8th foot – a worthy burial. He had died at early an age, and was in his 41st year of life, having been born on 27 August 1770. The request was granted and an inscribed stone was placed over the grave.  Words of honour read as follows:

Underneath is deposited the body of Mayor General Hoghton of His Britannic Majesty’ s Service who fell in the Battle of Albuhera on the 16 of May 1811 at the head of his Brigade.

A magnificent marble memorial was also installed in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

This tribute was reserved to acclaimed national heroes.[6]  Very probably his courage remained unquestioned; memories recalled how the gallant general-officer donned his scarlet coat before riding out in front of his brigade.  His combat force performed prodigies of stubborn courage (Houghton’s brigade advanced with 1,500 bayonets, and lost 1,050), which the French Maréchal Nicolas-Jean de Dieu Soult[7] did not hesitate exclaiming their bravery.  Almost at the first exchange of fire, Hoghton was killed by a dozen musket balls. A military analyst would be prone considering that it was his resolute leadership and training that had produced this result.

The grave of Lieutenant Colonel James Ward Oliver denotes a more surprising stone.

A distinguished professional, he had experienced active service in many stations; he was undoubtedly a fine commanding officer.  Modern estimates state that his 12 centimeter thick stone   would have needed twenty hands to carry it. This is evidence of how highly thought of by his comrades.

Major James Ward Oliver – 4th foot – had been wounded at Badajoz (May 1811), and died at Elvas on June 17th. He was attached to the 1st Battalion, 14th Portuguese Line.  An inscription reads the following memento:

Sacred to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel James W. Oliver who was mortally wounded at Badajos and died in this city the 17th June 1811.

The Breath of Modernity or History Remembered

In the year 2000, there were installed new memorial plaques to record the death of soldiers from the British regiments which occurred at the Batalha de Albuera and at the storming of Badajoz (6th April 1812).

Celia Denney, a lady of appealing kindness and great cultural sensibility, was so tactful presenting further historical specifications:  The three graves dating from the Peninsular War (Battle of La Albuera, 16 May 1811, and the three sieges of Badajoz, ending in 1812) represent about 11,000 fallen.  Every year, it is hold one or two ceremonies in the cemetery, attended by civil and military representatives of the countries involved; one of them always take place in the month of May, close to the anniversary of the battle of Albuera, which falls on the 16th.

A marvellous ceremony being planned for 2007; the commemoration will be held on Friday 18th May, whereas in La Albuera village (province of Badajoz, Spain) the official Ceremony is always held on the anniversary itself (16 May 2007; a Wednesday).  In the cemetery, some devout ladies will offer compassionate words to the Almighty; it is a vibrant intercession of prayer and Christian pity:

"Réquiem Aetérnam dona eis, Dómine, et lux perpétua lúceat eis.
Requiéscant in pace.

At Elvas, all speaks in the Divine silence.


In the present research paper it is worth recalling that, to the standing honour and valiantness in battle, on the heights of Columbeira there is a cross which marks the location where it is buried Lieutenant-Colonel Lake. Sacrificing his life for martial duty is carved with sober linearity:

“Sacred To The Memory Of The Hon Lieut Col G A F Lake Of The 29 Reg Who Fell At The Head Of His Corps In Driving The Enemy From The Heights Of Columbeira On The 17 Aug 1808 This Monument Is Erected By His Brother Officers As A Testimony Of High Regard And Esteem”.


The author would like to express his best thanks to Mrs. Celia Denney, Secretary, Associação dos amigos do cemitério dos Ingleses em Elvas. Her cultural sensibility was of great help with the present research paper. Major Nick Hallidie provided a most valuable support; his collaboration was much beneficial.


[1] About 230 km. east of Lisbon; the town is only 15 km. from the Spanish fortress of Badajoz.  Origins of the town are traced back to the Latin cultural establishment (Alpesa, or Helvas), that is to the Roman civilization, who is believed to have developed the location.  Elvas saw many wars during its tumultuous history.  Alphonse VII of Castille wrested the city from the occupying Moorish forces (1166), but the city was re-captured. The Portuguese finally succeded capturing it anew (it was the year 1229); but through the centuries, reiterated attacks by Spanish storm parties heavy conditioned its own surviving. In 1659 (14 January), at the decisive battle of Linhas de Elvas, there happened the collapsing of the Spanish troops which had besieged the Portuguese army in the town.  Portuguese were under authoritative commanders: António Luís de Meneses, and Sancho Manoel de Vilhena; the Spanish were leaded by Luis de Haro.

A member of an Italian noble family, Giovanni II Vannicelli , had been appointed lieutenent-general of the cavalry in the army of King Alfonso, and he was ascribed to the aristocracy with the title of hidalgo and Baron of Altamura.  Worth mentioning that in the pinacoteca of Amelia, Italy, there is a much delightful compositive scene (painting) alluding to his military effort at the battle of Elvas, and there are equally recalled the distinguishing phases of the action.  The inscription in Spanish language, and the tidy sobriety of the figure, possibly do ascribe this work to a painter of Iberian culture.

However, it must be taken into account the following circumstance: in the XIXth century, during the siege operations to a neighbouring Spanish town (Badajoz), the Duke of Wellington used Elvas to establish his military headquarters.

[2] The fortified structure was planned on the principles (military geometries) of France’s foremost military architect, Sébastien Le Prestre (May 15, 1633-March 30, 1707), Seigneur de Vauban, and later Marquis de Vauban.  A series of line defences (strong walls) completely surrounded the old town, and were to strategically enhance protection from most angles susceptible of enemy pushings (straight attacks). The castle within the old town has indeed remote origins; it is recorded that the building was rebuilt in the year 1226.

[3] A respectful attitude is much requested.  Anyhow, the a forecited topic would require in deep researching.

[4] The traditional site of the Hermitage was dedicated to Saint John by the Knights Hospitallers. This chapel has not been used, and its state of conservation was much nearing to irreparable loss. Because it had no connective historical identity with the British Cemetery, its physical presence (the corpus) led the Association to apply the Archbishop of Évora to release it into their caring.  The Archbishop sensibly agreed, and the Portuguese Army produced an effort for its recuperation (year 2000).  The Câmara Municipal (i.e. the Town Council) granted prompt help and assistance. Anyhow, carrying out the restoration is a primary responsability, and the Association has the task of raising the necessary funds.

[5] La Albuera is a Spanish village located 12 miles southeast of Badajoz. The combined forces (British, Spanish, and Portuguese troops) were under the command of Lord William Beresford, Marshal of the Portuguese Army. Allied strength: British-Portuguese: 13,500; cavalry: 2,000 horses; Spanish: 12,000; artillery pieces: 32. The victory was reported over French Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult.  French strength: infantry: 23,000; cavalry: 4,000; guns: 40. Allied casualties: Portuguese: 389; Spanish: 2,000 dead and wounded; English: 3,616, plus 600 taken prisoner; French: 5,936 dead and wounded.

[6] In the cathedral are substantially preserved over 200 memorials. Among the tombs of eminent British figures are included: Brock, Isaac, Sir (Major General) (St. Peter, Guernsey, 6 October 1769-Queenston Heights, Canada, October 13, 1812); Donne, John (1572-March 31, 1631); Lutyes, Edwin Sir, (29 March 1869-1 January 1944); Kitchner (Lord) (24 June 1850-5 June 1916); Moore, Henry (30 July 1898-31 August 1986); Nelson (Admiral); Spencer-Churchill, Winston Leonard, Sir; Welligton (the Duke of).

[7] Soult was born in the village of Saint-Amans-Labastide (Tarn) on 29 March 1769. He had left Séville (10 May 1811) for delivering the town of Badajoz from the besieging enemy troops. Was beaten at the crush of Albuhera (16 May), and retired to Llerena.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2006

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