Friday, January 16, 2009

To die this way

The British soldier and general, Sir John Moore, died 200 years ago today, hit by a cannonball at the important Battle of La Coruña, Spain, during the Peninsular War. After being hit, he reputedly told a colleague that he had always wanted ‘to die this way’. His battlefield funeral is celebrated in a famous poem by Charles Wolfe which ends ‘We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.’ In fact, glory would have to wait, for back home Moore’s strategy in Spain was heavily criticised. However, a century later, Moore’s diaries were found and published, and these helped to re-establish his reputation as a great soldier.

Moore was born in Glasgow in 1761, the son of a doctor. While still a boy, he was taken on a grand tour of Europe, which included two years of schooling in Geneva, before joining the British Army in 1776. He fought in the American War of Independence, returning to Britain in 1783 and becoming a Member of Parliament the following year. In 1787 he was appointed a Major, and subsequently led campaigns in Corsica, the West Indies, Ireland, the Netherlands and Egypt. Back in Britain, in 1803, he established an innovative training regime that produced the country’s first permanent light infantry regiments. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, he earned a reputation as one of the greatest trainers of infantrymen in military history.

In 1808, Moore was put in charge of the British forces in the Iberian peninsula with orders to remove the French from Spain. However, when Napoleon’s forces cut off the British escape route to Portugal, Moore decided to head for the Spanish ports of La Coruña and Vigo, from where he calculated his troops could sail to safety. He, himself, however, was killed there at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, exactly two hundred years ago today. Initially, Moore’s strategy was heavily criticised in Britain, but later it was established that he had, in fact, extricated his men from Napoleon’s trap, forced the French to divert badly needed troops from Portugal, and thus delayed France’s conquest of Spain for a year.

According to Wikipedia, Moore’s last words were: ‘I hope the people of England will be satisfied! I hope my country will do me justice!’ He was buried secretly at midnight wrapped in a military cloak in the ramparts of the town. Later, though, a monument was built over his grave. The funeral is remembered in Wolfe’s poem, The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna. Here are the first two and the last two verses.

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 lanthorn dimly burning.

. . .

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 we left him alone with his glory.

Nearly a century after his death, a copy of Moore’s diary was found in the papers of Sir William Napier, in the handwriting of Moore’s niece, Lady Napier. Sir John Frederick Maurice, a soldier and military writer, edited the papers which were then published in two volumes, by Edward Arnold, in 1904 - The Diary of Sir John Moore. However, the volumes contain much more than the diary, since Maurice provides his own, at times extensive, analysis and commentary. The New York Times has an archived review, dating from March 1904, which itself draws on a review in The Daily News. It is worth quoting a paragraph.

‘There has been great contention over Moore, owing to the bitterness of partisan feeling in England. . .  To attack him. . .was supposed to be the duty of every good Tory, and, as usual, historian after historian has repeated the blunders and calumnies of those who have gone before. This diary, which brings to light much that was not known before will clear away many misconceptions and do justice to the memory of a brilliant soldier, who, but for his untimely death at the age of forty-eight, might have had a career equal to that of Wellington himself.’

Both volumes of the diary are available online at Internet Archive (not in a very user-friendly format and apparently stuck with a mis-spelled title and URL!). Here is how Maurice writes about Moore’s death:

‘It was in that moment of triumph that Moore was struck down. It is a picture for a great artist. Horse and rider as Charles Napier has described them. The rider watching eagerly the advance of his zealous battalions, whose arms, renewed throughout from the stores of Corunna, were driving the French before them much as men armed with modern weapons drive before them troops with old-fashioned muskets . . . Triumph everywhere! visible to the keen eyes that knew war so well as to take in at a glance how not only was the French army tactically in his hand, but that their weapons, rusty with the long march through the mountain snows, their ammunition failing, his troops amply supplied, the enemy would soon be an unarmed crowd!

Moore - his whole mind centred on the coming vindication of his long patience, on the triumphal accomplishment of an impossible task, hampered by those who could not understand him - sees before him the prize for which he has waited so long. A cannonball carries away his left shoulder and part of the collar-bone, leaving the arm hanging by the flesh. The violence of the stroke threw him off his horse on his back. Not a muscle of his face altered, nor did a sigh betray the least sensation of pain. . . He was carried in a blanket to the rear, refusing to allow Hardinge to remove his sword, which was obviously inconveniencing him . . . He made the soldiers turn him around frequently to view the battle. He said to his old friend Anderson - ‘Anderson, you know that I have always wished to die this way.’

As for Moore’s diary, there are none in Maurice’s volumes for the months preceding his death. However, here is an interesting extract from the summer of 1808, just prior to Moore’s departure to take command in the Iberian Peninsular. (Sir Arthur Wellesley is, of course, the Duke of Wellington, who rose to prominence later in the Peninsular War.)

‘I understand that several of the Cabinet have taken a personal dislike to me, though I seldom have seen them, and they can know nothing of me. They wish to hold up Sir Arthur Wellesley, and had intended to give him the command of the whole force in Spain and Portugal. He is the youngest of the lieutenant-generals made the other day, and the King and Duke of York objected to him. This provoked them, and, added to their general dislike, had led them to endeavour to mortify me by placing me in a station similar to Sir Arthur. Though they were forced to approve what I had done in Sweden, yet it was against the grain, for I took no trouble to conceal the ignorance which had sent us there, when they should have known from the character of the King and the weakness of his force that it was impossible for anything to be done. Upon leaving Lord Castlereagh I set out for Portsmouth, and arrived on Wednesday evening, the 20th, having stopped at my brother Frank’s, and afterwards with my mother. I found the fleet just come in from the Downs. I was occupied in getting everything ready to proceed, when, on the 23rd, a King’s messenger brought me a letter from Lord Castlereagh, evidently with a view to irritate me, in the hope that I would answer it intemperately, and give them an excuse to recall me from this service, for, as senior to Sir Arthur, though there are many others his seniors, they think I shall be particularly in his way. I, however, have disappointed them; for I sent them a very calm answer, in which I give them a wipe which they will feel but cannot resent. I sent at the same time copies of both letters to Colonel Gordon for the Duke of York, together with a narrative of everything that has passed since my return to England. I am in hopes now to be allowed quietly to go on the service, on which I am ordered, without further molestation.’

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