1806-9. Sicily—Copenhagen—Sweden-- The War in the Peninsula —Corunna.
Based on extracts from- A short history of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 1741-1922 for the young soldiers of the Regiment. By R.B. Crosse
Three minor expeditions now took place. In September, 1806, the 1st Battalion 52nd sailed from Plymouth, arrived in Sicily in December, and was quartered for the winter at Melazzo, where a regimental school was established. Nothing of importance occurred, however, and the troops returned to England in January, 1808, the Battalion being stationed at Canterbury.
In August, 1807, the 1st Battalion 43rd and the 2nd Battalion 52nd sailed from Deal for Copenhagen, and with the 92nd and 95th (Rifle) Regiments formed a reserve brigade under Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley. This brigade drove the Danish troops out of position at Kioge on August 26th, and was present at the surrender of Copenhagen on September 7th. The expedition then returned to England, the 43rd to Yarmouth, and the 52nd to Deal.
In April, 1808, the 1st Battalion 52nd, as part of a force under Sir John Moore, embarked at Ramsgate for Sweden, but returned to England without having landed, in July, and almost immediately sailed for Portugal.
On July 16th, 1808, the 2nd Battalions 43rd and 52nd sailed from Deal for the Peninsula with reinforcements for the expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley, and both regiments landed near Peniche on August 19th. Early on the 21st the French attacked the British line, which was in position near Vimiera covering the disembarkation, but, largely due to the counter-attacks by the 43rd and 52nd, they were repulsed with considerable loss.
A few days later the 1st Battalion 52nd landed, but the Convention of Cintra, whereby the French agreed to evacuate Portugal, brought the campaign to an end.
Preparations were now begun for the advance into Spain, and the army, reorganized under Sir John Moore, moved during October and November to concentrate at Salamanca, in order to cut the French line of communication, which was lengthening as Napoleon marched upon Madrid. By this bold stroke of Moore, Sir William Napier wrote:—" The fate of the Peninsula was decided." Had Napoleon not been forced to turn against Moore, Lisbon would have fallen, Portugal could not have been organized for resistance, and the British base could not have been established in Spain.
On December 20th Sir David Baird's reinforcement, including the 1st Battalion 43rd and the 1st Battalion 95th under Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd, having landed at Corunna, joined the Army, now about twenty-five thousand strong, and the whole force advanced.
Owing, however, to the unreliability of the Spanish troops who were to co-operate with the British Army, and the reverses they had met with, Sir John Moore found himself in danger of being cut off from his base. He therefore decided to fall back on Corunna, with a view to moving the army southwards by sea, so as to strike at the French in an unexpected direction.
The distance from Sahagun, the point at which the retreat began, to Corunna, was in a direct line about one hundred and sixty miles, and the actual length of the march about two hundred and twenty miles. The latter very much resembles that covered by the 52nd in the Mons retreat of 1914; this, however, being performed in excessive heat, while Sir John Moore's army suffered from all the hardships of extreme cold, short rations and worn-out clothing and boots. In 1808 the British retreat began on December 24th, and Corunna was reached on January 12th, 1809, whereas in 1914 it began on August 24th and ended on September 5th.
At Astorga, on December 30th, 1808, a light brigade under Craufurd, consisting of the 1st Battalion 43rd and the 2nd Battalions of the 52nd and 95th, turning left-handed, took the road via Orense to Vigo, and after some rearguard fighting embarked there on January 13th, 1809, and landed in England on 27th, after a very stormy voyage.
Reverting to the main body on the Corunna road, the 2nd Battalion 43rd was in Fraser's Division, and the 1st Battalions 52nd and 95th were in Paget's Division, which earned undying fame for rearguard work throughout the retreat. Near Betanzos Sergeant Newman of the 43rd, marching a party of stragglers and sick, was overtaken by the French cavalry, whom he kept at bay till help arrived, earning by his bravery a commission, a gratuity of £50, and a medal for distinguished conduct.
The British ships did not reach Corunna till January 14th, when the embarkation of the sick and baggage began, and on the 16th, when the whole force was about to go on board, the French attack opened. The 43rd, on the extreme right, and the 52nd were heavily engaged, the latter taking part in the counter-attack which made victory secure, and which Sir John Moore, though mortally wounded a moment before it was launched, was able to see. His death, a loss to the British Army resembling that of Lord Kitchener in 1916, came a few hours later, and as the last of his men were embarking there was laid to rest on the ramparts of Corunna, wrapped only in his greatcoat, the Colonel of the 52nd and the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in Spain, a man of whom its present-day historian has written:—" No man, not Cromwell, nor Marlborough, nor Wellington, has set so strong a mark for good upon the British Army as John Moore."