The Battle of La Corunna

Battle: Battle of La Coruna or Corunna

War: Peninsular War

Date: 16th January 1809

Place: La Coruna in Galicia, North Western Spain

26th Foot at the Battle of Corunna
26th Foot at Coruna

Combatants: British against the French

Generals: Major General Sir John Moore against the Emperor Napoleon

Size of the armies: Sir John Moore’s army, with Sir David Baird’s corps from Corunna numbered 35,000 men. The Emperor Napoleon’s army numbered 153,000. From Astorgas Napoleon left the pursuit of Moore’s army Soult whose corps numbered around 35,000 men.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: Uniforms, arms, equipment and training:
The British infantry wore red waist jackets, white trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets.
The Light Dragoons wore light blue. The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and tall black ostrich feather caps.
The British Hussar regiments wore the traditional Hungarian Hussar uniform of shabrach, dolman and fur busby.
The King’s German Legion, which comprised both cavalry and infantry regiments wore black, as did other German units in the British service.
The French army wore a wide variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers wearing heavy burnished metal breastplate and crested helmet, Dragoons largely in green, Hussars in the conventional uniform worn by this arm across Europe and Chasseurs à Cheval also dressed as hussars.

The French artillery dressed in uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery in hussar uniform.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the musket. It could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for only a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet which fitted the muzzle of his musket.

The four British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, by its nature of limited use against troops in the field, unless closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented, but was effective only over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, as yet in their infancy were of particular use against buildings. The British had the secret development in this field of ‘shrapnel’.

Winner: The French although the British Army was evacuated after a fighting withdrawal from Central Spain.

British Regiments:
7th Hussars, later the Queen’s Own Hussars and now the Queen’s Royal Hussars
10th Hussars, later the Royal Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
15th Light Dragoons, later the 15th Hussars, then the 15th/19th King’s Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons
18th Hussars, later 13th/18th Royal Hussars and now the Light Dragoons
3rd Light Dragoons, King’s German Legion
1st and 3rd Battalions, the 1st Foot Guards, now the Grenadier Guards*
1st Foot, the Royal Scots*
2nd Foot, the Queen’s Regiment, now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment*
3rd Foot, the Buffs or East Kent Regiment, now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment
4th Foot, the King’s own Royal Regiment now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment*
5th Foot, the Northumberland Fusiliers, now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers*
6th Foot, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers*
9th Foot, the Norfolk Regiment, now the Royal Anglian Regiment*
14th Foot, the West Yorkshire Regiment, now the Prince of Wales’s own Regiment of Yorkshire*
20th Foot, the Lancashire Fusiliers, now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers*
21st Foot, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, now the Royal Highland Fusiliers
23rd Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers*
26th Foot, the Cameronians or Scottish Rifles (disbanded) *
28th Foot, the Gloucestershire Regiment, now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment*
32nd Foot, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, now the Light Infantry*
36th Foot, the Worcestershire Regiment, now the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment*
38th Foot, the South Staffordshire Regiment, now the Staffordshire Regiment *
42nd Highlanders, the Black Watch (the Royal Highland Regiment) *
43rd Foot, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, now the Royal Green Jackets*
50th Foot, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment*
51st Foot, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, now the Light Infantry*
52nd Foot, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, now the Royal Green Jackets*
59th Foot, the East Lancashire Regiment, now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment*
62nd Foot, the Wiltshire Regiment, now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment
71st Highlanders, the Highland Light Infantry, now the Royal Highland Fusiliers*
76th Foot, the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment*
79th Highlanders, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, later the Queen’s Own Highlanders and now the Highlanders*
81st Foot, the Loyal Regiment, now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment*
92nd Highlanders, the Gordon Highlanders, now the Highlanders*
95th Foot, the Rifle Brigade, now the Royal Green Jackets*
1st Bn King’s German Legion,
2nd Bn King’s German Legion.

Brigadier General Craufurd retreating to Corunna
Brigadier General Craufurd with 95th Rifles, 43rd & 52nd Light infantry during the retreat to Corunna

 Royal Artillery:
Bean’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.
Drummond’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.
Wilmot’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.
Carthew’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.
Dowman’s and Evelin’s troops of horse artillery, 12 pieces.

Corunna is a battle honour for the regiments marked *.

British order of battle:
First Division: Lieutenant General Sir David Baird: 81st Foot, 26th Foot, 1st Foot, 50th Foot, 42nd Highlanders, 4th Foot, 1st and 3rd Battalion of the 1st Guards. Bean’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.

Second Division: Lieutenant General Sir John Hope: 76th Foot, 59th Foot, 51st Foot, 92nd Highlanders, 71st Highlanders, 36th Foot, 32nd Foot, 14th Foot, 5th Foot, 2nd Foot. Drummond’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.

Third Division: Lieutenant General McKenzie Fraser: 79th Highlanders, 38th Foot, 3rd Foot, 43rd Foot, 23rd Foot, 9th Foot, 6th Foot. Wilmot’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.


Battle of Corunna 16th January 1809

First Flank Brigade: Colonel R. Craufurd: 2nd/95th Foot, 2nd/52nd Foot, 1st/43rd Foot.

Reserve: Major General E. Paget: 21st Foot, 28th Foot, 1st/95th Foot, 62nd Foot, 20th Foot. Carthew’s brigade of artillery 6 pieces.

Second Flank Brigade: Brigadier General C. Alten: 1st Bn King’s German Legion, 2nd Bn King’s German Legion.

Cavalry: Lieutenant General Lord Paget: 3rd LD KGL, 15th Light Dragoons, 10th, 18th, 7th Hussars. Dowman’s and Evelin’s troops of horse artillery, 12 pieces.

Artillery parc and reserve: Colonel Harding: 5 brigades and 30 pieces.


The 42nd Highlanders storm the French position at the Battle of Corunna

Sir John Moore
Sir John Moore, the British
commander in chief at Corunna

Account:
At the end of October 1808 the Emperor Napoleon, at the head of a large French army assembled in the northern Spanish city of Vitoria, prepared to place his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain by force.
Several Spanish armies gathered to resist him and the British corps in Portugal was ordered to advance to Burgos and assist the Spanish. With the departure to England of Generals Burrard and Dalrymple and Sir Arthur Wellesley to face the enquiry into the Convention of Cintra which had enabled Junot and his army to escape from Portugal after the Battle of Vimeiro, command of the British army fell on Sir John Moore. Moore commanded 23,000 troops in Lisbon and expected 10,000 reinforcements to arrive at Corunna under Sir David Baird.

As Moore proudly declared, “No British general had commanded so many soldiers since the time of Marlborough”.

Moore sent his infantry by the northern route through Coimbra, Celerico and Badajoz to Salamanca in Spain. Late anxieties about the state of that road caused him to divert his artillery and cavalry by the southern Ciudad Rodrigo road.


The Battle of Corunna

Arriving at Salamanca, Moore learnt that Napoleon had defeated the Spanish armies and was already in Burgos, Moore’s intended destination. Soon afterwards the French entered Madrid. The British army, outnumbered by some two to one, was now heavily threatened. Nevertheless Moore felt reluctant to abandon the Spanish and advanced on Soult’s corps in Valladolid.

But Moore had lingered within striking distance of the large French forces for too long. Napoleon was coming after him and it was imperative that the British army retreat with all speed to Corunna in the North West Galician corner of Spain for evacuation by the fleet.

It was late in the year and the retreat was one of great hardship. From Astorgas Napoleon left Marshal Soult to conduct the pursuit. The British rearguard comprising General Paget’s reserve brigade, Colonel Craufurd’s brigade and the Cavalry seized every opportunity to hold off the French. A skilful holding action was conducted by the cavalry at Benevente and by the whole army at Lugo.

Other than for the rearguard the discipline of many of the British regiments of foot disintegrated and the troops ravaged the countryside and villages through which they passed. A notorious incident took place at Bembibre where 200 British soldiers became so drunk in a cellar that they had to be left for the French (the figure is officially recorded in a return).

The army marched into the port of Corunna on the night of 11th January 1809, many of the troops in a state of exhaustion. The French were some distance behind but the fleet was not in harbour. The transports did not reach Corunna from Vigo until 15th January 1809.

Moore formed his army south of Corunna between the village of Elvina and the sea. Soult’s corps carried out a frontal attack on the British line with the emphasis on the British right flank at Elvina. The French took Elvina but were driven out by the 42nd Highlanders and the 50th Foot. They counter-attacked and recaptured the village. Short of ammunition, the two regiments returned to the assault led by Moore and the French were driven out again at the point of the bayonet. At the moment of victory Sir John Moore was struck by a round shot and fatally injured. Lying stricken, Sir John enquired as to the state of the battle and was reassured that the French had been beaten back. The French attack along the British line faded away, Paget’s reserve division driving back a late incursion around the open right flank.

The next day the army was embarked on the transports. One of the last duties of the 9th Foot was to bury Sir John Moore on the city ramparts.

ThispictureforsaleThispictureforsaleThispictureforsale
Highlander captured by French Hussars
A highlander captured by French Hussars during the retreat to Corunna
(Click here or on image to buy a Restrike Etching)

Casualties:
The British casualties were 4,000 from the retreat of which 800 were casualties from the Battle of Corunna. The French casualties at the battle were 1,500.

Follow-up:

The British army arrived in England in a terrible state. But by May 1809 it was back in Portugal under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. It finally left over the Pyrenees into France in 1814.

Regimental anecdotes and traditions:

  • In contrast to the accounts of drunkenness and indiscipline during the retreat there are stories of gallantry and hardihood. Sergeant William Newman of the 43rd Light Infantry gathered a party of soldiers who were trudging across a field and fought off an attack by French cavalry. He was commissioned for this feat.
  • Charles Wolfe wrote this poem entitled: “The burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna”.

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O'er the grave where our hero we buried.

We buried him darkly at dead of night, 5
The sods with our bayonets turning,
By the struggling moonbeam's misty light
And the lanthorn dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him; 10
But he lay like a warrior taking his rest
With his martial cloak around him.

Few and short were the prayers we said,
And we spoke not a word of sorrow;
But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead, 15
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed
And smooth'd down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head,
And we far away on the billow! 20

Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone,
And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him—
But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on
In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

But half of our heavy task was done 25
When the clock struck the hour for retiring;
And we heard the distant and random gun
That the foe was sullenly firing.

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory; 30
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.