Spain Pays Tribute to British Role in Defeating Napoleon

Roundup: Talking About History

Isambard Wilkinson, writing in the Daily Telegraph (London) (Jan. 17, 2004)

AFTER two centuries of bitterness over Britain's role in ousting Napoleon's forces from the Iberian Peninsula, Spain yesterday honoured the soldiers' efforts by commemorating one of the most famous retreats in the British Army's history.

Cannon fire and muskets rang out across the bay of Corunna as Spanish, French and British officials yesterday marked the 195th anniversary of the"Retreat to Corunna" led by Sir John Moore during the Peninsular War.

Spanish officials put aside residual enmity over the action, which led to British soldiers drinking, raping and pillaging their way across the Spanish countryside.

"This commemoration contributes to the unity of the European nations," said Francisco Vazquez, the mayor of Corunna.

"We must bury past conflicts and celebrate a lasting peace."

The head of the expeditionary force, Sir John managed to march 15,000 of his men across Spain for two weeks with little rest and no rations and then embark them while under heavy fire in January 1809.

He is credited with saving the British Army, which was able to return to the peninsula under the command of the Duke of Wellington, who drove the French from Spain in what the Spanish call the War of Independence.

A bust of Sir John Moore was unveiled by the British ambassador to Madrid, Stephen Wright, and flowers were laid to commemorate the thousands of soldiers and sailors who died during the retreat.

During the last phase of the retreat Sir John was fatally wounded by a cannonball but he continued to rally his troops in a counter-attack. He died that evening and was buried in the ramparts of the city, where there is now a walled garden.

Sir John lost 2,000 men and one fifth of his army was missing. The streets of Corunna ran red with blood as orders were given to slaughter hundreds of cavalry horses in case they fell into French hands.

"Its wonderful that the Spanish people appreciate the efforts of Sir John Moore and that they can put aside the rather poor popular image of the British soldier there," said Ian Fletcher, a noted historian on the Peninsular War.

The remnants of the expeditionary force arrived back in Portsmouth, bedraggled and haggard, to the horror of townspeople.

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