The Road to Corunna – November 1808
In September, 1808, the 10th Hussars, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Leigh, marched from their base at Brighton for the docks at Portsmouth, where they embarked on board ship, bound for Spain. They were delayed in Stokes Bay until finally sailing on 31st October, arriving at Corunna in northern Spain on 10th November.
The regiment was part of the Hussar Brigade (with the 7th and 15th Hussars) under the command of Brigadier General Slade, late of the 10th Hussars. This brigade, along with other troops, was part of a force 10,000 strong intent on joining 23,000 British troops in Portugal, with the aim of assisting Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s plans to place his brother, Joseph, on the throne of Spain. The British armies were under the command of General Sir John Moore.
Unfortunately the campaign was doomed from the start; the French easily defeated the Spanish armies and occupied Madrid, and also captured the city of Burgos, Moore’s destination. The British were heavily outnumbered and the weather was poor, so it was decided the only option was to retire on Corunna and evacuation – Dunkirk 130 years early!
The Hussar Brigade fought well in the withdrawal, despite its commander: Slade was an ineffective commander. He was slow in decision-making and his choice of routes often added miles to a journey. In the action at Mayorga, when his brigade was ordered to charge French cavalry, he spent so long fiddling with his stirrups that Colonel Leigh took over the command, with the 10th taking over 40 prisoners.
At the Battle of Benevente (29th December) the 10th Hussars charged 600 French cavalry of the Imperial Guard, completely routing them – the French lost 70 prisoners and 130 killed. Amongst the prisoners was General Lefevre-Desnouettes, captured by Private Levi Grisdall. The General was commander in chief of the French cavalry, and his loss probably caused enough confusion amongst the French leadership to delay their offensive and allow the British time to get to Corunna. Grisdall was promoted to Sergeant for his actions.
After the Battle of Benevente, Moore wrote: “Our cavalry are very superior to any the French have and the right spirit has been infused into them by their … leaders …” This spirit was essential – the French commander, Marshal Soult, now had 70,000 men, including 10,000 cavalry. The British were exhausted; at the beginning of January an officer, Captain Darby, and seventeen other ranks died of exhaustion.
The weather was appalling, with snow and ice interspersed with rain, and the road impassable. Only the cavalry rearguards and their comrades in the Rifles were able to keep the French at bay.
On the 11th January the army reached Corunna; the expected ships had not arrived so Moore set up a strong defensive position until the 14th when transport arrived. Between the 14th and 16th the dismounted cavalry (i.e. those without horses), the sick and the best horses were embarked, although only 30 horses per regiment were permitted.
On the same day the French attacked and the British infantry, 14,500 strong, stood to arms. The battle lasted all day and Moore was killed, but the French were fought off and on the 18th the rest of the army embarked. The winds were kind and the ships managed to get away quickly.
The death of Sir John Moore achieved almost mythical status, and his command of his army in ill-fated circumstances, is still remembered with admiration. His death and burial at Corunna were commemorated in a poem by Charles Wolfe (in 1817)
Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory; We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.
Tragically, every horse had to be destroyed: they could not be embarked and many were already suffering from the strenuous retreat across terrible mountainous roads, and they could not be left for the enemy to take. The 10th Hussars had left England with over 600 horses; they returned with 30.
Sailing from Corunna on the 18th January, the transports arrived in England in the first week of February. The 10th Hussars returned to Spain in 1813 to accompany Wellington’s victorious armies into France and final victory at Waterloo.
The Battle Honour “Corunna” was awarded to infantry regiments which took part in the campaign, but not to cavalry regiments. The 15th King’s Hussars received the Honour “Sahagun” for the action at that place; although the 10th Hussars also took part in the action, they were not awarded the distinction.
HorsePower Museum has many items of interest connected to the ill-fated Corunna campaign, including the breastplate (cuirass) of a French cavalryman, captured at Benevente.