Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Bridge at Rábade - 9th/10th January 1809

This looks at the 'real' history behind yesterdays post "Blow the bridge".

From the 6th to the 8th January 1809 General Moore halted his retreat on Corunna at Lugo and offered battle to Soult, whilst the British regiments recovered something of their discipline and collected many of the stragglers. The French Marshal hesitated to attack, and, on the night of the 8th/9th, Moore, who had no more than one day's supplies remaining in Lugo, resumed the retreat. The army reached Betanzos on the 9th, and on the night of the 11th the main body entered Corunna.
As the army prepared to slip away from under Soult's nose at Lugo Captain Gordon of the 15th Hussars records:
Orders were accordingly given to withdraw the guns as soon as evening closed in sufficiently to mask the movement, and the troops began their march about nine o'clock.

Watchfires were left burning on the ground we had occupied , which were kept up during the night by the picquets, who remained to observe the enemy's motions.

The different columns retired with the utmost regularity, and in such perfect silence that the French did not discover our evasion until after daylight. The night was extremely dark, which favored this manoeuvre.

Out route to the town lay over broken ground and though intricate lanes; the country was also intersected by dry stone walls, enclosing fields and vineyards, which made it difficult to keep the squadrons together, as no man could see his own horse's head, much less his file leader.

Out regiment was destined to form the rearguard as usual, and halted under the walls of Lugo, near the Corunna Gate, at eleven o'clock, to allow time for the infantry, who had not yet come up, to join the line of march.

During this interval the left squadron was ordered to the town-house to take charge of 35,000 dollars, which must otherwise have been left as a prize for the enemy. Sealed bags, each containing 500 dollars, were distributed to the troopers, and in this manner GBP8,000 was saved to the nation; but our poor horses were much oppressed by the addition of nearly two stone to the weight carried.

Some of the columns lost their way, owning to the darkness of the night and the mistakes of the guides, so that it was nearly two o'clock before they got clear of the town.

Some 8 miles north-west of Lugo the main road to Corunna crosses the Rio Miño at the village of Rábade. The bridge is a typically solid stone Spanish structure dating from medieval times.

We followed soon afterwards, and on crossing the Miño found the Engineers employed in mining the bridge. It was natural to suppose that, after so many failures, they had acquired sufficient experience to enable them to accomplish their object, and in this instance success was particularly desirable, as the river was not fordable.  The steam is broad and rapid, the bank rotten, and the neighborhood does not furnish material for making even a temporary repair. The destruction of this bridge was therefore expected to throw considerable impediments in the way of the enemy's advance; but our hopes were again disappointed. The powder exploded, the bridge remained uninjured, and the French crossed the river within a few hours. It is an extraordinary circumstance that our Engineers, who bear such a high character, should have failed so frequently in one of the most simple operations of the science.

However from the French perspective, Le Noble states:
The French entered Lugo on the 9th, where they took 18 pieces of cannon and 100 caisson destined for the army of Romana. Marshal Soult assigned Franceschi's division to the avantgarde and sent him off in pursuit of the English. However the General found that the enemy had blown up a pillar on the bridge at Rabade where the main road crosses the Miño, two leagues from Lugo. Colonel Garbe having under his command the engineers and sappers of the regiment was able to restore the bridge sufficiently during the night (9th/10th) for infantry and cavalry to pass and by the following night it was strong enough to allow the artillery to cross.

Once across the Miño, Franceschi's cavalry pushed on rapidly trying to prevent futher attempts to blow other bridges on the Corunna road:

Our avantgarde arrived in time to stop the destruction of the bridge over the Ladra, and we executed a charge in which five hundred English prisoners were taken.

The cavalry continued to pursue the enemy, the same day, they forced a passage of the bridge over the Mendeo and pushed up Montefalquiero. On this occasion, General Franceschi twice charged the enemy's cavalry, and captured a thousand men, five guns, two of them French, from the time of Louis XIV, many boxes of ammunition and baggage, and among which was the carriage of the general commanding the rearguard.

Blakeney of the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Regiment also noted the losses on the 9th and 10th and the dismal performance of the Royal Engineers:
During the disastrous march from Lugo to Betanzos more men had fallen away from the ranks than during the whole previous part of the campaign. The destruction of several bridges was attempted, but failure was the invariable result.

However not all the skirmishing seems to have involved the rearguard that day, as Blakeney continues:
Directing our attention towards the stragglers as soon as day dawned, we discovered them formed in tolerably good order, resisting the French cavalry and retiring up the road to where we were in position. General Paget saw the whole affair, and perceiving that they were capable of defending themselves, deemed it unnecessary to send them any support ; but he declared in presence of the men, who from a natural impulse wished to move down against the cavalry, that his reason for withholding support was that he would not sacrifice the life of one good soldier who had stuck to his colours to save the whole horde of those drunken marauders who by their disgraceful conduct placed themselves at the mercy of their enemies.

The stragglers by this time became formidable ; and the enemy's cavalry having lost some men, and seeing the reserve strongly posted, declined to follow farther this newly formed levy en masse, who, true to their system, straggled up the hill to our bivouac.

Battle of the Panniers
Blakeney recalls how the action that day between the stragglers and the French came to be known as the Battle of the Panniers amongst the men.

A soldier of the 28th Regiment, really a good man, who had the mule of Doctor Dacres, to whom he was batman, having fallen in the rear because the animal which carried the surgeon's panniers was unable to keep up with the regiment, stopped at the houses mentioned ; and, getting up before daybreak to follow the regiment he was the first to discover the enemy as they advanced rather cautiously, no doubt taking the stragglers for our proper rearguard. The doctor's man shouted to the stragglers to get up and defend themselves against the French cavalry ; bat before they could unite into anything like a compact body, some were sabred or taken. He then gallantly took command of all those who, roused to a sense of danger, contrived a formation, until, to use his own words, he was superseded by a senior officer, a sergeant, who then assumed supreme command ; upon which General Panniers, with his mule, retired up the hill to where the reserve were posted. I understand that the sergeant got a commission for his good conduct among the stragglers ; but the poor batman was neglected a not unusual instance of "Sic vos non vobis" in the British army.

FYI This last action was covered in a previous post as well, the Battle of the Stragglers a scenario for Capitan.

Futher Reading:
A Journal Of A Cavalry Officer In The Corunna Campiagn 1808-1809 - Captain Gordon
Memoires sur Les Operations Militaires Des Francais en galice, en portugal er dan la valee du tage en 1809 - Le Noble
A Boy in the Peninsular War - The services, adventures or Robert Blakeney

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