Tag Archives: British Army

UK National Archives Digitises WWI War Diaries

NB: this announcement has been well publicised in the UK, so some of the linked websites are getting a lot of traffic, hence may open slowly for a day or two.

The UK National Archives announced today that it has completed the first stage of the digitisation of the war diaries kept by British Army units during the First World War. Every British Army unit had to keep a daily war diary containing reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other pertinent material. The hard copies of these are held at the NA in series WO 95, but it is now possible to see many of them online, albeit for a fee of £3.36 per diary.

The first stage sees the release of the diaries for the whole war of the seven infantry and three cavalry divisions sent to France and Flanders in 1914. As well as the diaries for the division, its component brigades, infantry battalions, cavalry regiments and supporting artillery, engineer, supply and medical units kept their own diaries. Diaries for units subsequently assigned to one of these divisions are included, not just those that comprised the divisions in 1914.

These diaries are the building blocks of most books written about the British Army in the First World War, going back to the Official Histories. Even books not based on archival research will have used other books that were based on these diaries. Note that these diaries are official military documents kept by unit adjutants. Some media reports seem to assume that they are the private diaries of individual soldiers.

A project called Operation War Diary has also been launched. Volunteers will analyse the pages that have been digitised. According to its website,

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

  • to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries,

  • to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project

  • to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

Operation War Diary is a joint venture between the National Archive, the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse, a company that has developed systems that enable volunteers to help with scientific and historical research from home.

See the BBC website and the Great War Forum for more details.

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Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

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The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.

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The Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army pursued the retreating French towards the Franco-Spanish border. The French, however, still held the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington’s siege train was too small to carry out two sieges simultaneously, so he surrounded Pamplona. The siege of San Sebastian began on 7 July.

Peter Snow and Jac Weller both note that some commentators have argued that Wellington should have ignored San Sebastian and pushed on into France. Snow and Weller both point out that if Napoleon had been able to come to terms with the Prussians and Russians he could have sent reinforcements to the Pyrenees. Wellington thought that capturing San Sebastian and Pamplona would allow his army to defeat any French counter offensive, even if reinforced by troops then in Germany.[1]

Wellington left Sir Thomas Graham in command at San Sebastian. There was a breach in its walls practicable for an assault by 22 July. However, Graham delayed until 24 July, then postponed for another day, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences.

The attack on 25 July failed, provoking Wellington to immediately ride the 25 miles from his headquarters to find out what was happening. He resolved to keep closer control on events at San Sebastian. A later post in this series will describe the outcome of the siege.

On the same day the French counter-attacked. Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He had rallied and reorganised the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, reinforcing it with troops from Bayonne.

There were, according to Wellington, at least 70 passes across the Pyrenees that could be crossed by bodies of a few hundred troops.[2] However, there were only four roads that a large army could use to cross them, three of which were in the western theatre of operations. The main one, which crossed the River Bidassoa, at Irun,  was the furthest to the west. There were two roads from Pamplona to France. The Roman road, which crossed the Pyrenees at the pass of Roncesvalles, was the most easterly one. The other crossed at the pass of Maya.

As San Sebastian was in danger of falling, but Pamplona was not being attacked, Wellington expected Soult todemonstrate towards Maya and Roncesvalles, but to make his main attack along the Roman road.

Soult, however, concentrated his efforts against Maya and Roncesvalles. On 25 July 20,000 troops under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, better known by his title of Count D’Erlon, attacked the 6,000 men at Maya . 40,000 men under Soult himself assaulted Sir Lowry Cole’s 13,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops at Roncevalles.[3]

Soult attacked with three divisions along the Roman road and another three along a mule track to the west, each facing only one brigade, though Cole had two more in reserve. Soult’s main problem was that the pass was too narrow for him to fully exploit his advantage in numbers.

The attack along the Roman road was initially was halted by no more than 500 British and Spanish skirmishers, who were defending a frontage of only 300 yards and had plenty of cover.

The French columns eventually forced the Allies back along the Roman road. They were able to retreat to a strong defensive position, but in doing so opened up the possibility of them being outflanked to the east.

The narrow mule track went through partially wooded terrain, with a frontage of only 60 yards, meaning that only one battalion could fight at a time.

However, a thick fog descended at 4 pm. Cole, fearing that his force would be outflanked, decided to retreat, disobeying Wellington’s clear orders to hold even if there was a risk to his eastern flank.

Sir Rowland Hill had put Sir William Stewart in command of the two brigades at Maya. They fought fiercely, but had been badly deployed and were eventually forced back. Weller says that ‘British troops have rarely fought so courageously, but have not often been worse commanded.’[4] The British suffered 1,500 casualties, but inflicted 2,000.

Hill arrived at Maya after the battle was over. He organised a successful retreat to a position that continued to block the road.

Wellington reached Hill’s position just before noon the next day, and was happy with Hill’s dispositions. No news was received from Cole until the evening. On hearing of the retreat from Roncevalles Wellington ordered Cole and Sir Thomas Picton to stand east of Zubiri. They had 19,000 men facing 40,000 French.

Early on 27 July Wellington learnt that Cole and Picton had continued to retreat. He described his generals as being:

‘really heroes when I am on the spot to direct them, but when I am obliged to quit them they are children.’[5]

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, then rode towards the Allied army. They found it and the advancing French at Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona. Wellington took command, and prepared to give battle the next day.


[1] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), pp. 205-6; J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 275.

[2] Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.

[3] Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 289.

[5] Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211

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The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813.

In 1812 Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, took Madrid, and then advanced to Burgos. He failed to capture Burgos, and was forced to retreat past Salamanca. Crucially, however, his army retained control of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south.

These two fortresses, known as the keys to Spain, controlled the two invasion routes from Portugal to Spain. In 1812 Wellington had needed to capture them in order to advance further into Spain. In 1813 his task was easier because he already held them.

Additionally, the French forces facing him were weaker because they had been stripped of troops to rebuild the French army in central Europe after the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. Wellington had received reinforcements, and had spent the winter and spring training his troops and improving his army’s supply and medical arrangements.

Napoleon thought that Wellington had only 50,000 men, but he had 80,000. He was therefore more concerned with the Spanish guerrillas than with Wellington. General Bertrand Clausel was sent north with the 40,000 troops of the Army of Portugal to deal with the guerrillas.[1]

Wellington was aware that the French had split their forces because George Scovell, his code breaker, had deciphered a captured despatch from the French army in the north to King Joseph Bonaparte.[2]

Wellington’s plan was to advance as far as he could towards the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Operations did not begin until 22 May, as the rains had been late, meaning that there was a shortage of suitable forage for the horses until then. He was confident of success, allegedly stating ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again’ as he crossed the frontier into Spain.[3]

Wellington initially split his army: part moved through Salamanca, with  the rest, commanded by Sir Thomas Graham moving north before heading east towards Valladolid.

The French, commanded by King Joseph and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were forced to retreat. The Allied army took Salamanca, Zamora, Valladolid and Burgos, advancing 200 miles without a fight. On 13 May the French blew up the defences of Burgos, which they had successfully defended in September and October 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Austro-Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen in May, before agreeing an armistice with them at Pläswitz on 4 June. Wellington later told a friend that his staff argued that:

‘we ought not to risk the army and what we had obtained, and that this armistice would enable Buonaparte [sic] to reinforce his army in Spain, and we therefore should look to a defensive system. I thought differently.’[4]

Buonaparte was a deliberate mis-spelling of Bonaparte often used in Britain to emphasis Napoleon’s Corsican origins.

On 21 June the French made a stand at Vitoria. The Allies were now too close to France for Joseph to continue to retreat.

Joseph had about 60,000 troops after being joined by part of the Army of Portugal. He hoped to be reinforced by Clausel and another three divisions. Wellington had about 75,000 men, having detached the British 6th Division to cover the road to Santander and sent most of the Spanish 6th Army towards Bilbao. Wellington had received intelligence that Clausel could not arrive before 22 June.

Vitoria was in a valley that measured about six miles from north to south and 10 miles east to west. It was protected to the south by hills that were mostly impassable to formed troops and by the River Zadorra to the north. The French thought that Wellington would therefore have to attack from the west, and believed that he would not be able to outflank them.

There were, however, many fords and bridges across the Zadorra. Wellington sent a large force under Graham north to swing round the French right flank. Joseph and Jourdan knew from the reports of cavalry patrols that there were fewer enemy troops to the west than they had expected.

As they apparently thought, wrongly, that the roads through the hills north of Vitoria were unsuitable for large number of men, they assumed that Wellington was heading for Bilbao.  One of the  French division resumed its retreat towards France, escorting the baggage, thus reducing the French army to 57,000 men.

Wellington’s plan involved four different attacks. Graham, with the 25,000 men of  the 1st and 5th British Divisions, Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades, Longa’s Spanish Division was to cut off the enemy retreat. In the west, the first attack would come in the south from the 20,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill: the British 2nd, Silveira’s Portuguese and Morillo’s Spanish Divisions.

Wellington personally commanded the rest of the army. The British 3rd and 7th Divisions would attack from the north-west and the 4th and Light Divisions from the west, where the French expected the main attack. Each force had a proportion of cavalry and artillery, but the largest contingent of cavalry, four of 10 brigades, was in the force attacking from the west.[5]

Hill attacked first, and his troops were in combat before 8:30 am. Graham’s troops were skirmishing by 9 am, but his orders were to delay a full attack until he was in contact with the other Allied columns: he was starting eight miles away from them.

Hill’s attack went well, but Wellington did not want to launch the attack from the west until the 3rd and 7th Divisions were in combat. Lord Dalhousie’s 7th Division was slow getting into position, and Wellington sent an ADC to find him. The ADC instead encountered Sir Thomas Picton, commanding the 3rd Division. The ADC had orders for Dalhousie to attack a bridge, but no orders for Picton, who declared that his division would attack the bridge.

Wellington, seeing the 3rd Division moving into action, ordered the Light Division forward. A Spanish peasant volunteered to guide one of its brigades across the Zadorra by the unguarded Tres Puentes bridge. He was later killed.

By lunchtime the French were being attacked from three sides. They put up fierce resistance, but had been deployed against a frontal assault, and were forced back. They could have been completely destroyed, but Graham, much older than the other British generals, was slow to move.

He followed the letter of his orders and moved east to cut the Madrid to Bayonne road. Charles Esdaile argues that, had he ‘shown a modicum of initiative’, he could have attacked south towards Vitoria and cut the French line of retreat.[6]

Jac Weller gives the total of dead, wounded and missing as being 8,000 French and 5,000 Allied.[7] However, the French lost all but one of their 152 guns, over 500 artillery caissons. almost all their supplies and Joseph’s state papers and treasury.[8]

The French baggage train offered huge opportunities for loot, which the Allied troops were unable to resist. The citizens of Vitoria also suffered. Wellington deplored such activities, but even he benefitted: the Spanish government allowed him to retain a collection of Old Masters that Joseph had been taking back to France. They can still be seen on the walls of Apsley House, Wellington’s London house, which is now open to the public.

Jourdan’s Marshal’s baton was amongst the trophies. Wellington sent it to the Prince Regent, who in return promoted Wellington to Field Marshal, which meant that he received a British baton.

Graham’s lack of initiative and the army’s loss of discipline once presented with an opportunity to loot meant that most of the French soldiers escaped. However, the capture of the French supplies and artillery meant the destruction of Joseph’s army as an effective fighting force. The Allied army could now advance to the Pyrenees and threaten France.

Vitoria and the preceding campaign showed that Wellington was not just a cautious general, happiest on the defensive. He moved his army quickly across Spain and devised an imaginative plan that ended in the enemy being routed.


[1] Unless otherwise stated, figures for troop numbers are from C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 442-54.

[2] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 189.

[3] Quoted in Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 443; and Snow, Wellington, p. 188. Esdaile is ‘wary’ of the story, but notes that there is ‘little doubt’ that Wellington was optimistic

[4] Quoted in Snow, Wellington, pp. 188-89.

[5] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 256-57.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 448.

[7] Weller, Peninsula, p. 269.

[8] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 450.

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A Military Transformed? A New Book from Helion and Company

Martin Gibson:

One of the chapters in this soon to be published book was written by myself. The blog entry above was written by Ross Mahoney, one of the editors, along with Michael LoCicero and Stuart Mitchell

Originally posted on Birmingham "On War":

In November 2013, a book will be published. It is my first book. Well to be honest I am one of the co-editors with two friends, Stuart Mitchell and Michael LoCicero though I do contribute a chapter on the transformation of land based air support for amphibious operation between 1942 and 1944. The book examines the process of transformation that occurred within the British military from 1792 to 1945. It is based on papers given at a symposium we co-organised in 2011 at the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham. As well as the editors, several of the contributors are PhD students or members of the Centre for War Studies so this has been an exciting project for all involved. We are publishing with Helion and Company, which has been a great experience. Helion is a publisher with some interesting plans to make a difference in publishing military history…

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The US Invasion of Canada, 1812

The first US move into Canada in 1812 ended on 16 August, when Brigadier General William Hull surrendered Detroit to Major General Isaac Brock. The Americans subsequently defeated an attempt by Britain’s Native American allies to capture Fort Wayne.

Jeremy Black notes that conquering Canada was the USA’s principal strategic aim, but that it is uncertain whether President James Madison wanted to keep it or just to use it as a bargaining chip in negotiations over the USA’s grievances with Britain’s conduct of its naval blockade of France and its allies; impressment of US sailors into the Royal Navy and British interference with US seaborne trade.[1]

Canada had a population of 4-500,000, compared with 7.25 million in the USA. The frontier was long and the British garrison was small; less than 10,000 troops and only two warships on Lake Erie and three on Lake Ontario. The war with France was far more important to Britain than the defence of Canada. [2]

The state of communications and relations between their commanders made it hard for the Americans to co-ordinate operations. Logistical and political problems prevented them to concentrating their state militias into a single force.

The Americans suffered from the difficulties encountered by any army that grows rapidly. There was also a lack of clarity in the relationship between officers of the regular army and those of the state militias. They had supply problems and some militia units refused to fight outside the USA.

Britain had conquered Canada in 1759-60 by an attack on Montreal through the Lake Champlain corridor. However, this required major logistical planning and resources and came after several years of failure.

Despite the long frontier, the potential invasion routes were limited and a well positioned defending force could stop a larger attacker. Water communications were significant, especially the Great Lakes, but were more useful for east-west than north-south movement, except for the Hudson/Mohawk route.

Black criticises Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, for moving Brock and troops to defend the Niagara front rather than exploiting the victory at Detroit.[3]

In October the Americans crossed the Niagara River. William Eustis, the US Secretary of War, said that:

[T]he march to Detroit by the way of Cleveland is near 300 miles – that to Niagra not much more than 200, the former through a wilderness, the latter principally thrtough a settled country…provision to and at Niagara more plentiful and less expensive by 50 per cent.[4]

There were also fewer Native Americans, who were generally pro-British, in the west.

The senior US regular officer on the Niagara front, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, refused to cooperate with Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a militia officer who was put in command. He had 1,650 regulars and 4,300 militia facing 1,600 regulars and militia and 600 Iroquois.[5]

The Americans crossed the river on October 13, landing at Queenston despite strong currents and British fire. The British attacked and Brock was killed. The Americans held their positions, but were hampered by the reluctance of some militia units to invade Canada and Smyth’s refusal to obey Rensselaer’s orders. Shrapnel fire from British cannon silenced the US guns and sank US boats.

The Iroquois won time for Major General Roger Sheaffe, Brock’s replacement to bring up reinforcements. The Americans had either retreated back over the river or surrendered by the evening. The British took 925 prisoners and claimed to have killed or wounded 500 Americans.[6] According to Andrew Lambert, this victory was very important in creating a Canadian national identity.[7]

Smyth replaced Van Rensselaer after the latter resigned on 16 October. He planned to capture Fort Erie, a vital position according to Black.[8] On 28 November the Americans raided Frenchman’s Creek in preparation for a larger crossing of the Niagara. It was partially successful, but Smyth cancelled the major assault on 1 December because he did not think that he had enough troops to succeed.

Brigadier General Peter Porter accused Smyth of cowardice. The pair fought a duel on 12 December, but neither was injured.

In the Lake Champlain area a US attack on Montreal from New England was abandoned because of logistical and command problems. Major General Henry Dearborn, the US commander, offered his resignation, but Madison rejected it.

Despite these failures Madison was narrowly re-elected as President in November 1812. However, his opponent, DeWitt Clinton, won all the coastal states from New Hampshire to Maryland. Clinton did not oppose the war, but those who did backed him because he was not Madison.

Madison accepted Eustis’s resignation. Secretary of State James Monroe became acting Secretary of War at the end of 1812, with John Armstrong taking up the post on 5 February.

US resources had proved to be inadequate to carry out their planned land operations against Canada. Russell Weigley contends that the US Army failed to recognise the need to concentrate on the enemy’s most important and vulnerable point; the bottleneck on the St Lawrence River at Montreal, which controlled access to the interior of Canada.[9] However, American morale remained high because of their unexpected success at sea.


[1] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 46.

[2] Ibid., pp. 47-48.

[3] Ibid., pp. 66-67.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 67.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 68.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle location 1272 of 12307

[8] Black, War of 1812, p. 69.

[9] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 48.

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The Siege of Burgos and Wellington’s Retreat, 1812.

This post leads on from previous ones on the Battles of Salamanca and Garcia Hernandez.

Wellington was faced with a dilemma after his army liberated Madrid. Politically he could not fall back to Salamanca, but he faced the risk of being counter-attacked by a larger French forces from more than one direction.

The French had withdrawn their garrisons to Burgos and Valencia. According to Charles Esdaile they could field at least 100,000 men against the 60,000 of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, which might be increased to 70,000 by the addition of Spanish regulars. The guerrillas were good at harassing the enemy, but they could not resist a French counter-offensive.[1]

In late August General Bertrand Clausel advanced on Valladolid, north of Madrid, intending to relieve the isolated French garrisons of Astorga, Toro and Zamora. Wellington, seeing a chance to defeat part of the French army before it concentrated against him, moved north with 21,000 men.

Wellington had taken what Esdaile describes as ‘a serious risk’[2] by moving with such a small force, but it was politically impossible for him to take more troops from Madrid. He hoped to receive support from General Fransisco Castaños’s Spanish 6th Army, which had just taken Astorgas.

In the event, the Spanish, who were short of supplies and artillery, moved slowly, and Clausel was able to retreat, taking the garrisons of Toro and Zamora with him.

Esdaile argues that Wellington should then have gone back to Madrid. He faced two French armies, and have could looked for an opportunity to win a major victory by concentrating against one of them.[3] Instead, he decided to advance on Burgos.

Click here for a link to map of Burgos in 1812.

The city was being pillaged by guerrillas, but a well supplied French garrison of veterans occupied a strong position in Burgos Castle. Esdaile compares General Jean-Louis Dubreton, its commander, to General Armand Phillipon, who had successfully defended Badajoz in 1811 and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to surrender the city in April 1812.[4]

Burgos had nine heavy guns, 11 field guns and six howitzers. The garrison of 2,000 men had no permanent shelter. Frederick Myatt argues that the fortress could resist guerrillas or an army without siege guns but not an army well equipped with a siege train and engineers. [5]

However, Wellington had only three 18 pounder guns, five 24 pounder howitzers, five engineer officers, eight Royal Military Artificers, 10 assistant engineers and 81 tradesmen. His army was short of tools, although it found some French ones in the town.

Burgos was invested by the British 1st and 6th Divisions and two Portuguese brigades on 19 September. The 5th and 7th Divisions were positioned to the north-east to guard against a French attempt to lift the siege.

Wellington’s shortage of artillery meant that he had to concentrate on digging and mining, with his guns being used mainly to support assaults. An outer works, the Hornwork, was captured on the first evening of the siege, but at the cost of heavy casualties; 421 Allied compared with 198 French dead, wounded and captured according to Jac Weller.[6] Seven French field guns were taken as well as 60 prisoners.[7]

An attack on the castle’s outer wall on 22 September failed, and Wellington then concentrated on mining. The miners had to operate under fire from the castle, with little support from their own guns, and it often rained.

By 29 September the miners believed that they had reached the scarp wall and a mine was detonated that evening. The subsequent attack failed after troops became lost and failed to find the breach. In the morning it was revealed that it was not a good one, and that the French were working at shoring up their defences. The mine had been detonated too far forward, as the foundations that the miners had met were ancient ones rather than the those of the wall.

The failure damaged Allied morale; Myatt points out that the French had:

‘the reasonable hope that relief would arrive. The British…[were] feeling (perhaps rightly) that they were attempting a hopeless task with quite inadequate support’[8]

The British worked on a second mine. They also set up a battery 60 yards from the outer wall, which was ready by 1 October. The French moved their guns to deal with this new threat and destroyed the battery the same day. The damaged guns were withdrawn and a new position prepared that night. The French artillery destroyed it before the guns could be moved into it.

It was intended to detonate the second mine on 3 October, but problems with the rocky ground meant that it was not ready until the next day. British guns made a breach 60 feet wide in the wall, which was extended to 100 feet when the mine detonated. The British attack succeeded in taking the breach with relatively light casualties.

Preparations now began for an assault on the second wall, but these were hampered by French sorties and poor weather. The attack was planned for 17 October, but Wellington delayed it for a day as he thought that the breach made in the second wall was inadequate. A third mine was detonated  underneath the church of San Roman.

The French beat off the attack on 18 October. Wellington had, according to Jac Weller, 24,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops and 10,000 Spaniards around Burgos. He was now faced with 53,000 French soldiers commanded by General Joseph Souham, who had replaced Clausel. Another French army was advancing on Madrid from Valencia.

Wellington therefore called off the siege and withdrew on the night of 21 October. The French suffered 623 dead, wounded and captured during the siege, but inflicted 2,059 casualties on the besiegers.[9]

Wellington’s rearguard fought an action against French cavalry at Venta del Pozo on 23 October. He initially hoped to make a stand along the River Carrión forty miles to the north-east of Valladolid and to join up with General Sir Rowland Hill’s corps from Madrid.

A series of engagements took place between 25 and 29 October, known collectively as the Battle of Tordesillas. The French captured the bridge over the Carrión at Palencia on 25 October and the bridge over the Duero at Tordesillas on 29 October. Wellington was therefore forced to retreat and ordered Hill to do the same

Hill had been preparing to fight a battle against the advancing French, commanded by Marshal Nicholas Soult. Instead, his rearguard fought an action against the French at Aranjuez on 30 October and he abandoned Madrid the next day. Wellington and Hill combined near Salamanca on 8 November and took up a strong defensive position. The French arrived six days later.

Soult moved to the west to threaten Wellington’s communications with Ciudad Rodrigo. Marshal Auguste Marmont had tried a similar manoeuvre in June and had been defeated after being caught on the march. Soult avoided this by staying further away from Wellington.

This left Wellington with the options of attacking a force that outnumbered him 95,000 to 70,000 or retreating. He chose to retire to Ciudad Rodrigo; it started to rain heavily just after the withdrawal began.

Esdaile says that ‘the French pursuit was none too vigorous.’[10] However, the Allies still lost 6,000 killed, wounded and missing. They included Sir Edward Paget, Wellington’s newly arrived second-in-command, who was captured on 17 November. Discipline and morale broke down as the troops retreated in bad weather, echoing the retreat to Coruña in 1809.

Wellington had lost much of the ground that he had won earlier in the year. However, the Allies still held the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, known as the keys to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold these, so Wellington had a better starting point for his 1813 offensive than he had possessed in 1812.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 409.

[2] Ibid., p. 410.

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), p. 134.

[6] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 236.

[7] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 136-37.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 237-38.

[10] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 418.

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Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.

In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.

The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.

The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.

General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained.[1] He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.

Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.

Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’[2]

Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.

The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.

The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.

Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.[3]

Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.

Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.

On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.

Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.

Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon,  and also had  the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.

Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’[4]

Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.

Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.

Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.

On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.

Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.

According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere.[5] Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [p. 79]

The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.

At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.

Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.

At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.

Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.

Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.

The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.

Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:

Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’[8]

The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.

Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’[9]

Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.

The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful.[10] Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.


[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.

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Allied Liberation of Madrid, 12 August 1812.

As described in this post, on 22 July 1812 Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army defeated the French at the battle of Salamanca. On 6 August Wellington moved towards Madrid with about 60,000 men.The French and their Spanish allies had 210,000 troops in Spain, but many of these were spread around the country in garrisons. Others were in Andalusia in the south under the command of Marshal Nicolas Soult

King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean Jourdan had only 22,000 men with which to oppose Wellington. On 10 August Joseph and his royal household left Madrid for Valencia, accompanied by 15,000 civilians in a convoy of 2,000 wagons. Only a small garrison was left behind.

The poor communications between Andalusia and Madrid meant Soult did not learn of the French defeat at Salamanca until 12 August. He was forced to withdraw. He ended his siege of Cadiz on 25 August and evacuated Seville two days later, apart from a small rearguard that was quickly defeated by an Anglo-Spanish force. Soult joined with other French forces from Extremadura at Cordoba and withdrew to Granada. On 16 September he retreated to Valencia.

Wellington’s army entered Madrid on 12 August 1812 to the cheers of the population. The French had lost half the territory that they had gained in Spain since 1808 in eight months.

The Spanish could theoretically put 100,000 troops in the field, and more could be raised from the liberated territories. The British hoped for a general Spanish mobilisation against the French, but this did not happen. Charles Esdaile says that the British attributed this to ‘Spanish laziness and incompetence’[1] but argues that this view ignored the true situation in Spain and the ineffectiveness of the government.

The 1811 harvest was disastrous, and the countryside had been pillaged by a series of armies. The crowds that cheered Wellington’s armies wanted bread rather than a chance to fight the French.

Police controls imposed by the French were little relaxed. Feudalism was theoretically abolished, but landowners simply replaced feudal levies with rents. Some guerillas preferred banditry to pursuing the French or joining the regular army. There was consequently anarchy in much of the country.

The country was also in a dire financial state. The French invasion and troubles in the Spanish American colonies reduced revenue from 407.7 million reales in 1810 to 210.6 million in 1811 and 138 million in 1812. Esdaile argues that Spain was bankrupt unless it could stabilise the situation in its American colonies. Only British subsidies allowed it to continue the war.[2]

Despite the liberation of the capital of Spain and half the country, the Peninsular War was a long way from being over.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 403.

[2] Ibid., pp. 406-7.

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