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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Battles


The Battle of La Coruña: Decisive in a Vital Campaign

Cyril Falls, Former Professor of the History of War, Oxford University

Translated by Caroline Miley for the Napoleon Series

Editor's Note: This paper first appeared in the Spanish language website GUERRA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA ESPAÑOLA 1808-1814. The editors have kindly given the Napoleon Series to publish it in English.

The British people think of the campaign of La Coruña and the final battle as glorious deeds. And they have the right to, since history has demonstrated that the effects were favourable and actually vital. At the time the immediate reaction was shame and wrath. The Government tottered. Contemporaries, in the main, considered the events of La Coruña as a disaster worse than Dunkirk is thought of in our days. In fact, La Coruña provided inestimable advantages; Dunkirk, almost none.

The viewpoint was complicated. By the end of 1807 Napoléon had decided to close the Portuguese ports to British commerce. He could send his troops through Spain, still his ally, although he was suspicious of their intentions. One of his Generals, Junot, pushed directly towards Lisbon and forced the Portuguese Government to take refuge in the British fleet.

The Glorious Second of May

Great Britain acted quickly. Forces under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, disembarked to the North of Lisbon and on the 21st of August 1808 defeated Junot at Vimeiro. Meanwhile, Napoléon had brought more troops to Spain. He had kidnapped the Spanish royal family and had determined to make Spain a French satellite. On the 2nd of May 1808, the glorious Second of May, an uprising against the French garrison was drowned in blood, but it served as sign of the Spanish resistance against Napoléon.

Great Britain acted once again. The Government decided that the victorious army in Portugal, considerably reinforced from the metropolis, should leave to help the Spanish. Wellesley returned to England. On the 6th of October Sir John Moore assumed command.

Napoléon also acted. Spurred on to the most intense fury of his life because of the ominous French disaster at Bailén in July, in which an entire army surrendered to the victorious Spaniards, he had begun to filter forces through the Pyrenees, and arrived himself in Spain on the heels of the last troops on the 5th of November. His plan was not only to recover Madrid, where his brother Joseph, the puppet king, had fled from, but to overcome all opposition and put Spain so completely under French control that he would not have to be concerned about it in the future. He was going to use about 250,000 men to achieve this, including the forces that were already in Spain.

Facing numerically very superior forces

This number was greater than double what Spain could put in the field. In addition the Spanish army, in spite of its passionate courage, was extremely short of food, arms, horses and transports, as well as shelter for a winter campaign and sometimes even footwear. The country had virtually reached this state due to the actions of the well-known favourite Manuel Godoy.

It seemed that Moore could do little to even the balance. His forces, even after he had united his men with a division that had disembarked at La Coruña, would not exceed 30,000 men. He did not, however, realize the extent of the difference, not having precise information about the French forces. He was obliged to advance in a north-easterly direction by Salamanca and Valladolid, to gather the force disembarking at La Coruña commanded by Baird, and to unite with the Spanish.

Moore decided to advance in order to draw away the French pressure on Madrid, and gave counter-orders to Baird about his own retreat. He even remained on the offensive when he found out that Madrid had fallen. By interfering with Napoleon’s communications he could at least help the Spanish to reorganize. Later, an intercepted message showed him that there was a possibility of striking a surprise blow at Soult in León. He went north, was united with Baird and marched to fall on Sahagún, where his cavalry fought with Soult’s, defeating it. This was the most impressive achievement of the British cavalry in the whole Peninsular War.

Threatening Napoleon’s communications was as dangerous as trying to snatch the prey from a lion. The day after the battle Moore discovered that the French troops were moving north. When the Emperor received the news of Moore’s whereabouts for the first time, he reacted with terrible energy. He mobilised 80,000 men at maximum speed and in terrible weather. This time Moore had to back down. Luckily, Napoleon did not continue the pursuit personally; he thought that the 25,000 men under Soult’s orders would be enough, so he called up the remainder and returned to France.

Moore’s retreat was a nightmare. He obliged his troops to advance very quickly, since they were perfectly prepared to deal with the French whenever Soult dared to harass them. Their state of fatigue led, as generally happens, to marauding and drunkenness. The only thing that kept the army together was the prospect of battle, and on one occasion a group of deserters, directed by a sergeant, put the cavalry from a French guard outpost to flight. 5,000 men were lost on the retreat, a great number of whom died of cold and exhaustion. Nevertheless, when the forward units arrived at La Coruña on the 11th January 1809, after meeting a column of transports with food coming from the city, the army recovered to a great extent.

On the 14th Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s transports, which had been detained by unfavourable winds, entered port. Moore sent his wounded and sick on board, but had to destroy provisions, blow up a huge quantity of powder left by the Galician Junta and sacrifice almost all the remaining horses. He also knew that he would have to fight a crucial battle before being able to embark, as Soult was treading on his heels. His contingent had been reduced since he had sent 3,500 men to Vigo to embark there, which they did without much difficulty. Two chains of hills formed the obvious defence of the port, but Moore lacked sufficient forces to defend the outer range. The inner range to the north, or Mount Mero, had the disadvantage of ending in open country, rising right up to the doors of the city, and could give the opportunity for a complete change of situation. He would also be dominated, although from a distance, by artillery on the southern hill, which had to be abandoned to the enemy. Realizing what Soult would do to take advantage of the low terrain, Moore placed a reserve behind this flank.

The interval which he enjoyed because the French had also been lost was enough for him to transform his forces. Rusty muskets were exchanged for new ones from the stores at La Coruña. The men rested and were fed. When Soult advanced to attack on the 16th January, somebody next to Moore noticed "the youthful joy on his features". As Moore had hoped, Soult thought only of containing his left wing and centre and surrounding his right so as to separate him from the transports.

At first the intense fight was mostly in the town of Elviña, which the French entered. Moore went there and ordered the 42nd Regiment to counter-attack, addressing its men: "My brave Scots: remember Egypt". They responded bravely, but the French returned with boldness and attempted to recover the town. Moore directed both battalions of the First Regiment of Foot Guards (today the Grenadier Guards) to another counter-attack, when a cannon ball reached him and tore off his collarbone, leaving his arm almost totally detached. So much so, that those around him realised immediately that the wound was mortal. Baird also had been seriously wounded and so Hope was charged with the command. Moore, wounded, was carried to La Coruña swathed in a blanket. His last intelligible words were: "I hope that my country will do me justice". This was not the case at first, but it did happen eventually.

The counter-attack that Moore had initiated had its result. Elviña was recovered and the deadly British fusillade retained it. Even more importantly, the enveloping movement of the French left wing was totally defeated by the reserve that Moore had posted behind the British right wing with exactly this object. Its advance was so successful that its commander, Edward Paget, thought that he could have captured the French artillery on the outer hill, if Hope had not ordered him to stay in his position. The French right wing did little more than demonstrate its presence, but there was one intense fight by the town of Piedralonga that ended up with each side clinging to a section of it.

Soult waited for reinforcements before resuming the attack, but they arrived much too late. It is a measure of the misfortune that he experienced that the boarding was carried out without any difficulty.

It might be objected that: "Yes; but it was an evacuation and therefore a defeat". But that would be to forget Portugal, where Moore had left a small force.

This small force was the seed that blossomed into the splendid army that Wellington would soon lead to glory and triumph and that, aside from its own achievements, would contribute so extensively to the reorganization of the armies of Spain and Portugal. But for Moore’s campaign, all Portugal could have been invaded by the French and it is doubtful that it could have recovered to serve as a base. An additional benefit was that southern Spain was kept free of the French. In spite of the retreat to La Coruña, the campaign was a powerful factor in wearing down Napoleon’s France and in his defeat.

We have had the opportunity of seeing this work by Professor Falls, produced on the 26th July 1959, and in it the author makes a very correct analysis of the long march through the geography of the Peninsula, although we have to disagree with some aspects of it, as with other works about General Moore and his Army corps. We have made a study and investigation, using our military experience, of the armies in the Iberian Peninsula during the six years of that era.

  1. Suppose that the military maps which Moore had did not clearly explain the mountain geography so that he could find routes for impressive army he commanded to fall back along. When he reached Villafranca, a slight inspection of the environs of the Pass of Piedrafita would have provided him immediately with precise information about the most suitable places to lay a good trap. Then, even with a small number of men, he could take the whole French army, which was always in pursuit with a long column of soldiers, by surprise, ruining any strategy. Bercian mountain geography provided a most imposing system fortified with bastions, which would not be found further ahead. There would have been no necessity at all to arrive at La Coruña exhausted, and in addition he would have defeated the French, taking all the men Soult sent prisoner!
  2. The money, food, baggage, light arms, cannon and ammunition that the British were dropping over the precipices of the imposing strength of Piedrafita would have been saved, and on the other hand they would have taken the equivalent material from their enemies.
  3. The route of the road that leaves Villafranca.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2004