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At the Point of the Bayonet: The Peninsular War Battles of Arroyomolinos and Almaraz 1811-1812

At the Point of the Bayonet: The Peninsular War Battles of Arroyomolinos and Almaraz 1811-1812

At the Point of the Bayonet: The Peninsular War Battles of Arroyomolinos and Almaraz 1811-1812

Robert Griffith

Helion & Company (2021), paperback

Pages: 204

Images: 58 b/w photos & illustrations, 8pp colour plates, 9 b/w maps

Robert Griffith is of course well known as the author of the deservedly highly praised book Riflemen: The History of the 5th Battalion, 60th (Royal American) Regiment 1797-1818. In this book he turns his attention to two engagements of the period that have languished unfairly in obscurity. The publishers should be congratulated for taking the risk on seeing this book through to publication.

These two engagements are not important because of the numbers involved. In the action leading to Arroyomolinos the Allies numbered 13,000 men, the French 5,000. For Almaraz the Allies numbered 4,000, the French 1,000. But they are important for their outcomes and for us seeing Lieutenant General Rowland Hill in action independent of Wellington. Both engagements made Hill’s reputation as a capable military commander who could act independently, in addition to his existing reputation as the capable subordinate known as ‘Daddy Hill’ for his caring treatment of his men.

The battles took place approximately sixty miles from each other in Extremadura. The author gives equal space to both and follows the same format: a review of the opposing armies and their commanders, Hill’s advance and assault and the aftermath. We learn that news of the victory at Arroyomolinos was most welcome in Britain – it lifted spirits after the news of Albuera; that of Almaraz likewise following the assassination of the British Prime Minister Spencer Percival in 1812.

Arroyomolinos in October 1811 earned Hill’s second division the nickname ‘the Surprisers’ and himself a knighthood. After marching over 100 miles in six days over rough terrain and in bad weather he used two British infantry brigades, Portuguese, and Spanish units to surprise Girard’s French Division. Many of the French were literally caught napping in their quarters in the village of Arroyomolinos when the 71st and 92nd Highlanders stormed in making liberal use of the bayonet. Those French who did escape were engaged by other elements of Hill’s division who had made flanking movements. Bizarrely, the 34th Foot found themselves opposed to the French 34e Line infantry regiment and took many prisoners as well as the French drum major’s staff and drums. The Spanish cavalry and infantry did well, and Girard was forced to take the remnants over the hills in order to escape. Allied casualties were small: perhaps less than 200 killed and wounded. The French lost perhaps as many as 600 killed and wounded. 1400 were captured including a French general, French ordnance and a war chest.

May 1812 saw Hill achieve another surprise attack, this time against a key pontoon bridge over the Tagus near Almaraz which could be used by the French to move troops under Soult’s command in Southern Spain to reinforce Marmont and vice versa. The bridge was defended on both sides of the river by forts and redoubts. Hill originally intended deploying howitzers against the forts but could not use the road he needed to move his artillery. So, the fort on the southern bank had to be assailed first. Once taken, the fort’s guns were trained on the fort on the northern bank which was then evacuated. Both forts, French stores and the vital pontoon bridge were blown up.

The author covers both engagements in great detail, drawing on many first-hand accounts. He also has followed the stories through – for example explaining how the 34th Foot, whilst fighting in the Arroyomolinos battle, although not taking the prominent part, were the only regiment allowed the battle honour. There is a lovely touch where he explains that the 34th took the captured French drums with them on campaign and had to whitewash them when they served in the Crimea in case our French allies were tempted to re-acquire them! The maps are excellent, allowing the approaches to the engagements, and the engagements themselves, to be followed easily. Most importantly, the author has visited the sites of the engagements and uses his own photographs to reinforce the points he wishes to make. This book should be on all Peninsular War bookshelves.

John Morewood

June 2021