95th Rifles 1812 to the Pyrenees

Posted on Thursday 25th February 2016


Britain has traditionally lacked the military power to take on a continental enemy on its own ground, and as a result has preferred to apply an indirect strategy for much of her history.

The French Revolution unleashed a military energy, which in the form of the levée en masse, saw off most of the armies of the Ancient Regime. From the beginning of the Revolutionary Wars, Britain struggled to maintain successful armies on the mainland of Europe for any significant period. The list of failed attempts since 1793 was long crowned in the midst of the first decade of the 19th century by Hanover and Walcheren. Britain instead trusted to the might (and expense) of the Royal Navy and pouring English gold into coalition after coalition against Napoleon.

Lacking significant tangible success and being firmly in the shadow of the manpower burden of maintaining the world’s pre-eminent navy, Britain’s army was not a powerful tool of foreign policy.

However, Napoleon over-reached himself and deftly turned his erstwhile Spanish ally against him by usurping the throne in Madrid for his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Now an opportunity was created for Britain to intervene on the very periphery of Europe. In the Iberian Peninsular the small British Army could play a part, helping create Napoleon’s Spanish Ulcer and have a chance of maintaining an army in the field in support of Spain and Portugal.

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A soldier of the 95th Rifles. 'Far in Advance' by Christa Hook

Here, despite the divided and occasionally united effort of Napoleon’s jealous and avaricious marshals, the British Army won battles and survived by withdrawing to defensible positions. The most famous of these were, of course, the pre-prepared Lines of Torres Vedras occupied in the face of overwhelming pressure of Marshal Masséna over winter 1810/11.

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Arthur Wellesley Duke of Wellington

The following year much had changed. With extended campaigning under their belts, by 1812 the British Army’s battalions and brigades had learnt the art of war and how to defeat the French in battle. Increasingly useful Portuguese troops became a part of the Army’s divisions. Wellington was, however, plagued throughout the war by the imposition of indifferent senior offices by Horse Guards. The Royal Navy played its part in conducting littoral operations on the Peninsula’s long coastline but the main effort of tying down the French in garrisons throughout the vast country fell to the Spanish.

The Spanish Army, often over criticised by British historians, was indeed tying down French armies scattered across the Peninsula, while bands of guerrilleros made even the simplest act of war difficult for the French. The passing of messages, the movement of small bodies of troops and logistics all required large numbers of troops as escorts.

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Spanish troops

Wellington, building on the foundations of success in battle, was increasingly able to coordinate the activities of allied armies and induce a parsimonious Government at home to reinforce him with fresh troops. The Board of Ordinance system of supplying the army, however, took longer to refine and in those self-same conditions that exercised the French at one of Europe’s extremities, was never entirely reliable. None the less with French troops being sucked away to reinforce the Grande Armee for the invasion of Russia in early 1812, the situation was increasingly favourable for offensive operations out of Portugal and into Spain.

The early months of the year had seen the successful sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz and their bloody aftermath, as the British soldiers reaped the traditional fruits of victory; an enduring stain on the reputation of Wellington’s Peninsular Army. These two Spanish fortresses strongly held by the French were the ‘Keys to Spain’, the taking of which was a necessary precursor to the invasion of French occupied Spain.

The Campaign in Spain climaxed at the Battle of Salamanca but in the aftermath Wellington was drawn, arguably against his best military instincts, to advance into central Spain where he liberated Madrid and went on to besiege Burgos. Faced with a serious reverse, the hitherto uncooperative French Marshals joined to force the British, in what would be the last dreadful retreat, back to the mountainous borders of Portugal where they wintered.

The Spring of 1813 saw the wholesale reorganisation of the Army to conduct the campaign that the Duke had in mind. This was to be a blitzkrieg-like march across northern Spain to cut the Great Road in summer temperatures. For this, the traditional infantryman’s burden had to be lightened significantly. As spring warmed the veterans bones, great coats were handed in. The men would rely on blankets alone, which could be used in groups to make blanket tents, but tents were issued along with the mules to carry them. Also gone were the heavy iron camp kettles which proved to be such a sore burden to the infantry section; a light metal mess tin being issued for the first time.

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Wellington's 1813 campaign plan - columns and flanking forces to cut the Great Road back to France

No doubt to the horror of Whitehall, Wellington authorised the expenditure of an uncommonly large amount of ball and powder for marksmanship and volley firing, particularly for the newly arrived units. Training was not confined to musketry but drill and tactics were developed and soldiers were conditioned for the task that lay ahead of them by a series of long marches.

When the Army left Portugal on its lightening march east in May 1813, it was a very different force from that which landed in the Peninsula five years earlier. In the rugged terrain the British soldier knew his job inside out; he could take on the French and win in a campaign that would culminate on the very borders of France.

A full length documentary by Battlefield History TV, the third part in the Peninsular Collection, looks at the gruelling 1813 Campaign through the eyes of the 95th Rifles. The team follow the march across central Spain, to the battlefield of Vittoria, on to San Sebastian and up into the Pyrenees Mountains. This short film is a taster of what can be found in ‘95th Rifles 1812 to the Pyrenees’.

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Taking it Further


The Peninsular Collection - The Keys of Spain
(DVD)
ISBN: 5060247620206

Only £12.99 RRP £16.99

The Keys of Spain – Siege Warfare is the next DVD in The Peninsular Collection from BHTV and Pen and Sword Digital. Building on events described in the Salamanca DVD, the BHTV team explain the siege warfare tactics of the British and the French during the period and explore the build up and epic battles fought in Spain before the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812.

At the end of 1810, the defensive lines that Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, had built with great secrecy…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Taking it Further


Salamanca
(DVD)
ISBN: 5060247620183

Only £12.99 RRP £16.99

Since his return to the Iberian Peninsula in 1809, General Arthur Wellesley (later The Duke of Wellington) had with his small army been a constant thorn in the side of a series of Napoleon's Marshals in Spain, studiously avoiding battles that he could not win and falling back before superior forces to the Lines of Torres Vedras in 1810. By 1812 he had forged a successful Anglo Portuguese Army with a string of victories to their credit that included Talavera, Bussaco and Fuentes de Onoro.

Now Wellesley…
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Taking it Further


The Peninsular Collection: 95th Rifles - 1812 to the Pyrenees
(DVD)
ISBN: 5060247620404

by Battlefield History TV
Only £16.99

FOLLOWING THE GREAT VICTORY AT SALAMANCA in July 1812 the Anglo- Portuguese Army, with the 95th Rifles to the fore, marched to liberate Madrid. While Wellington advanced to Burgos the Light Division remained to enjoy the unusual civilization of the Spanish capital. However, this was short lived as the French Marshals had been forced to unite under King Joseph against the Allied armies and the siege of Burgos failed. Another desperate retreat to the Portuguese frontier in appalling autumn weather conditions followed in which the 95th suffered cruelly as supply…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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