Battle of Cacabelos
At the gates of Galicia
In the winter of 1808, General Moore’s expeditionary force retreated to the evacuation ports of Galicia. Napoleon and Marshal Soult were leading an army set out to wage a crucial battle against the British. On 3 January 1809, both the armies came face to face in Cacabelos, a village located in the region of El Bierzo.
Upon entering the village of Cacabelos, General Moore’s first move was to gather the troops and tell them off. “The enemy has already taken Bembibre and acquired a curious loot: hundreds of drunken and cowardly Englishmen,” said Moore with utter disapproval. General Paget, Moore’s subordinate, promptly sentenced the looters to death by hanging right then and there. However, Paget also granted a pardon in exchange for the word of honour of some prisoners who swore that they would mend their ways.
The biblical image of the conversion of some miscreants into honourable men upon literally feeling a hemp rope around their necks was interrupted by a mounted soldier who announced the arrival of the French army led by the 31-year-old general Auguste François-Marie de Colbert-Chabanais.
Moore ordered the troops to retreat to the bridge of Cacabelos: a small group of skirmishers remained in the village to confront Colbert, and the main body of the army crossed the bridge to take shelter along the shore.
The assault began at three in the afternoon. Moore’s troops resisted the attack of the French vanguard after the fierce fighting around the bridge, the Church of Las Angustias and the mill. The artillery support from the batteries placed in the village of Pieros and upon the Castro Ventosa hill proved critical. The French took the bridge, but they had to pull back and regroup. Meanwhile, General Colbert was killed by sharpshooter Thomas Plunket with a gunshot to the head.
The second attack began at five in the afternoon. The French troops waded across the river from a riverside beach downstream and broke up the British army defending that riverbank. Moore reinforced them with soldiers from the bridge while the French general Merle attempted to take it back. Once again, the British artillery had thwarted the attack on the bridge and the French troops on the beach had to cross the river to get back.
When the night interrupted the fighting, Moore resorted to the stratagem that would end up saving the situation in Elviña two weeks later: the soldiers started watch-fires to pretend that they were spending the night there as they began to silently withdraw from their lines.
The battle of Cacabelos concluded with two hundred dead on each side and a strategic victory for Moore, who had prevented the destruction of his army and continued the march towards Galicia.
Battle of Lugo
On 7 January 1809, four days after the battle of Cacabelos, the French army caught up with General Moore’s expeditionary force in Lugo. Moore had been in retreat for a month when he discovered that he was being pursued by the main body of the Grande Armée (French imperial army) headed for Spain.
The general began a desperate race from Sahagún towards the evacuation ports in Galicia. Against the clock, his army of 25,000 men set off to cross the mountains of León and the Galician Massif in the harsh winter conditions. The British abandoned their equipment, ammunition and even the caskets containing the wages of the regiments—any object that could slow them down in their escape. By the time they made it to Lugo, Moore had already lost around 5,000 soldiers to illnesses, desertion and skirmishes with Soult’s army.
Demoralisation and plundering engulfed the villages that Moore’s army passed through. Once apprised of a good defensive position in Conturiz, near Lugo, he decided to wait for the French vanguard and fight to restore his army’s morale and discipline.
Moore dispersed over 19,000 men between the Miño River and the town of Castroverde. Since the river protects it from the right and the mountains shield it from the left, and it was only possible to attack it from the front through the rough terrain. The Scotsman knew that Soult was prepared with 25,000 soldiers divided into six groups, but they marched in a long column formation and, hence, all the units could not be used at once.
On the evening of 5 January, Marshal Soult arrived with 12,000 troops from Corgo. Since it had already begun to get dark, he could barely distinguish the British order of battle and had no idea what he was up against. Since he had a strong defensive position in O Corgo, he decided to wait for the convoy of his artillery and General Heudelet’s division to arrive.
The battle began on 7 January with a warning attack by General Reynaud’s troops towards Miño, which was being defended by Baird. The next assault came from the French army on the right side when General Franceschi-Delonne’s cavalry clashed with the British cavalry of Lord Henry Paget, the hero of the Battle of Sahagún.
The third attack was led by General Merle against the town of Vilanova, in the centre, and was confronted by General Hope’s tenacious defence. When the fighting ended, both armies resumed their starting positions; the French casualties amounted to some 300 killed and wounded, while the British over 50.
The following day, Moore ordered his army to sacrifice five hundred horses and destroy about a hundred carts of ammunition. His soldiers also took the opportunity to pillage some houses in Lugo. As the Marquis of La Romana explains: “The British army in Galicia made more enemies of the British nation than of France itself.”
Finally, on 9 December, the British forces broke camp and proceeded with their retreat.
Battle of Elviña, A Coruña
11 January 1809. A disbanded English army entered A Coruña to discover that there were no evacuation ships at the port. The Royal Navy remained anchored in Vigo, unable to reach the Atlantic coast due to a storm in Finisterre. General John Moore had to resist Marshal Soult’s army for four days until the fleet arrived.
Sir John Moore was commanding a force that had lost one in five men in its retreat from Sahagún to the Cantabrian Sea in harsh winter conditions. As for the Spanish armed forces, the garrison of A Coruña had left in the summer to join the regular army while only a few hundred artillerymen and the militia defended the stronghold.
Moore needed to protect his rearguard during the embarkation and divided his regiments of veterans into three defensive lines in front of the isthmus giving access to the city: Santa Margarita Hill, right at the entrance, the village of Oza and Mero Hill, about three kilometres away.
The evacuation fleet of 100 ships arrived on 14 January, and the embarkation began on the following day. The vanguard of the imperial army appeared on this day, but Soult did not deploy his troops until the noon of 16 January. After a further delay, the French batteries opened fire at around two in the afternoon.
The village of Elviña hindered the attack of the French from their left flank, who wanted to occupy it as much as the British wanted to retain it. The fiercest hand-to-hand combat took place in the streets and houses of Elviña, which would change hands several times over the next three hours.
Around 2.30 pm, Moore was struck by a cannonball that fractured the ribs above his heart, and tore off part of his shoulder and left clavicle. His officers and a group of Highlanders removed him from the front line on a makeshift stretcher.
French attacks followed one after the other along the British line, and counterattacks filled the gaps. While the French dragoons arrived at Santa Margarita Hill and clashed with the Highlanders, the British army managed to seize some French cannons in Peñarredonda, which they abandoned during their retreat.
When the sun began to set, around 5.30 pm, the troops returned to their starting positions. After that point, only sporadic shots were fired. When the fighting was interrupted by nightfall, the British resorted to the same stratagem as in Lugo. Their pickets maintained watchfires throughout the night while the majority of the soldiers quietly withdrew from the lines to board the ships.
A mortally wounded Moore could not make it back to his quarters in Pescadería and was taken to the residence of a local merchant where he drew his last breath after expressing his final wishes and learning of the success of the evacuation.
As per the British General Hope, his army had suffered a loss of some 700 men—killed, wounded or captured—while the enemy had lost about 2,000 soldiers. However, the French army recorded around 1,200 casualties on their side.
19 January marked the capitulation of A Coruña, and around 18,000 soldiers had managed to escape from an army of nearly 25,000. Sir John Moore’s death in combat turned the criticism of his disastrous campaign into eulogies in England, and the Battle of Elviña went down in history as one of the most important battles of the Peninsular War.
Battle of Ferrol
In late January 1809, after the Battle of Elviña and the capitulation of A Coruña, Marshal Soult ordered General Mermet to take control of Ferrol.
The assault on Ferrol by sea proved too complex, so the imperial army advanced from land. The lack of information created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the besieged city, as they came to believe that it was the last Spanish stronghold that needed to be conquered by the French army.
The citizens and the 300 soldiers who were guarding the forts were in favour of resisting, just as they did with the troops of the Second Coalition of 1800 during the Battle of Brion. On the other hand, the civil and military authorities were in favour of capitulation. Joaquín Hidalgo, who governed Ferrol, and Francisco Melgarejo, who was the squad commander, were both well aware that the six days’ worth of provisions, the obsolescence of the fortifications and their poor condition did not invite optimism.
The citizens imposed their criteria for four days and resisted the French army until the forts of Palma and San Martín fell. A ship of the line, two frigates and a flotilla of gunboats defended Ferrol from the estuary. Their shots agitated the French but only managed to slow them down. The moral impact of the loss of the forts was exacerbated when the French sappers began to dig trenches.
On 23 January 1809, Marshal Soult sent a parliamentarian to Ferrol. The following day, he summarised the situation in a letter to Marshal Ney:
“I have demanded the governor surrender the stronghold, to which he has responded by requesting twenty-four hours to deliberate with the commander of the Spanish squadron, the administrative council, and the citizens, who seem to be exercising their tumultuous authority in Ferrol.”
As the first delegation received no further reaction, Soult decided to send another emissary after twenty-four hours. On that occasion, the Spanish authorities had to accept the conditions of the parliamentarians. Ferrol’s capitulation set forth the anticipated conditions with the yielding of the ammunition and supplies as well as the warships from the port. However, the document included a clause that was quite unusual in a military capitulation; it stipulated that the deposed authorities should recognise the legitimacy of King Joseph Bonaparte.
About 5,000 French soldiers led by Marshal Soult entered Ferrol on the morning of 27 January 1809. In the name of the new King, brother of the Emperor, General Mermet appointed Lieutenant General Pedro Obregón—a pro-French naval officer who had been imprisoned in the city since May—as the governor of Ferrol. Pedro Obregón was later promoted to Commander of King Joseph’s navy but had to leave Spain after the defeat of the invaders and eventually died in exile.
Combat in Betanzos
During their retreat, Moore’s British soldiers plundered and looted different towns on their way to A Coruña. At daybreak on 9 January 1809, the army withdrew from Lugo and marched against the clock to gain a day’s advantage over its French pursuers.
According to British historical records, the two-day march between Lugo and Betanzos caused lesser British casualties than the rest of their retreat from Astorga. The journey was marked by loss of lives due to exhaustion, desertions and stragglers who were captured by Soult’s vanguard.
General Moore wanted to restore discipline among his troops and, knowing that the municipality of Betanzos was replete with wineries, went straight past it with the main body of his army. Moore allowed a small contingent of the Royal Guard to rest in Betanzos and ordered the soldiers to remain quartered at all times. They were to only step out on the streets if accompanied by a superior officer.
The French army entered Betanzos on 11 January 1809 and began to pillage and retaliate against the population. Once the bridges had been secured for Soult’s troops to pass, the pursuit continued until A Coruña and culminated in the Battle of Elviña, also called the Battle of Corunna.
For months, due to the ongoing battle, Betanzos became a passage for the French army and a place for carrying out executions of civilians and potential guerrillas.