Peninsular Turning Point: Sir John Moore's Death

The death of Sir John Moore inspired many paintings.
"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,
The sods with our bayonets turning;
By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light
And the lantern dimly burning.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,
Nor in sheet nor in shroud we wound him,
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,
And we bitterly thought of the morrow.

We thought, as we hollowed his narrow bed
And smoothed down his lonely pillow,
That the foe and the stranger would tread o’er his head,
And we far away on the billow!

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
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;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But left him alone with his glory."

- Charles Wolfe, The burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna (1817)


It is very likely that Sir John Moore's death at the Battle of Corunna on January 16, 1809 changed not only the history of the Peninsular war but possibly the Napoleonic wars, with the return of Arthur Wellesley to command of the Army of Portugal.

Sir John Moore did not believe in the efficacy of fighting a war against the French in Portugal. Having succeeded Wellington and Sir Harry Burrard in command of the Army of Portugal, he entered Spain instead to help stabilize the kingdom after years of unrest and to assist the Spanish army against the French invaders. His arrival and the continued Spanish revolt against French rule and influence drew the attention of Napoleon and his army, who arrived in Spain saying:

"I am here with the soldiers who conquered at Austerlitz, at Jena, at Eylau. Who can withstand them? Certainly not your wretched Spanish troops who do not know how to fight. I shall conquer Spain in two months and acquire the rights of a conqueror."

The battle of Corunna, Jan 16 1809.
Napoleon swiftly defeated the ineffective Spanish army and sent Sir John Moore and his army into retreat towards Corunna some 250 miles away.  I've speculated in a previous blog post about what would have happened if Napoleon's attention and his army had remained firmly fixed upon the Peninsula, Moore sadly found out what that might mean as his men struggled to stay ahead of Napoleon while retreating across the mountains in Galicia during the winter.

At Corunna, Moore would turn to face his pursuers, leading the defense while British ships of the line evacuated elements of his army including Moore's artillery.

Ironically, Moore would be mortally wounded by the French artillery and carried from the field conscious of his wounds. He would die a few hours later.

The defeat of his army would follow his death with their retreating in shame before the victorious French army under Marshal Jean Soult.

Moore would be buried underneath the walls of Corruna. When the victorious French troops entered the city, Marshal Soult would order a monument to be built over Moore's grave.

The Times would write this of the battle: 

"The fact must not be disguised ... that we have suffered a shameful disaster".

Moore's death though would cause a change of overall command, which led to Wellington's return to the Peninsula.  

Wellington, unlike Moore, believed that a strong British Army in Portugal by virtue of its presence, stretched the French force in Spain, preventing that country from falling under complete French control. In a letter to the Earl of Liverpool dated April 2, 1810 he had this to say:

"I have as much respect as any man can have for the judgement and opinion of Sir John Moore...but the man positively knew nothing of Portugal....My opinion is that, as long as we shall remain in a state of activity in Portugal, the contest must continue in Spain; that the French are most desirous that we should withdraw from the country, but know that they must employ a very large force indeed in the operations which will render it necessary for us to go away; and I doubt they can bring that force to bear upon Portugal without abandoning other objects, and exposing their whole fabric in Spain to great risk."

Wellington's reappointment and his subsequent "state of activity" would lead Napoleon to switch commanders in Portugal and Spain multiple times, new French armies would have to be raised and indeed Napoleon and his generals would be unable to control the whole of Spain, leading to what historian David Gates described as "The Spanish Ulcer."