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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Corunna

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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Corunna

Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Corunna - Conflict:

The Battle of Corunna was part of the Peninsular War, which was in turn part of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Battle of Corunna - Date:

Sir John Moore held off the French on January 16, 1809.

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Sir John Moore
  • 16,000 infantry
  • 9 guns

French

  • Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult
  • 12,000 infantry
  • 4,000 cavalry
  • 20 guns

Battle of Corunna - Background:

Following the recall of Sir Arthur Wellesley after the signing of the Convention of Cintra in 1808, command of British forces in Spain devolved to Sir John Moore. Commanding 23,000 men, Moore advanced to Salamanca with the goal of supporting the Spanish armies that were opposing Napoleon. Arriving in the city, he learned that the French had defeated the Spanish which jeopardized his position. Reluctant to abandon his allies, Moore pressed on to Valladolid to attack the corps of Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult. As he neared, reports were received that Napoleon was moving against him the bulk of the French army.

Battle of Corunna - British Retreat:

Outnumbered more than two-to-one, Moore began a lengthy withdrawal towards Corunna in the northwest corner of Spain. There the ships of the Royal Navy waited to evacuate his men. As the British retreated, Napoleon turned the pursuit over to Soult. Moving through the mountains in cold weather, the British retreat was one of great hardship that saw discipline break down. Soldiers looted Spanish villages and many became drunk and were left for the French. As Moore's men marched, General Henry Paget's cavalry and Colonel Robert Craufurd's infantry fought several rearguard actions with Soult's men.

Arriving at Corunna with 16,000 men on January 11, 1809, the exhausted British were shocked to find the harbor empty. After waiting four days, the transports finally arrived from Vigo. While Moore planned the evacuation of his men, Soult's corps approached the port. To block the French advance, Moore formed his men south of Corunna between the village of Elvina and the shoreline. Late on the 15th, 500 French light infantry drove the British from their advance positions on the hills of Palavea and Penasquedo, while other columns pushed the 51st Regiment of Foot back up the heights of Monte Mero.

Battle of Corunna - Soult Strikes:

On the following day, Soult launched a general assault on the British lines with an emphasis on Elvina. After pushing the British out of the village, the French were promptly counterattacked by the 42nd Highlanders (Black Watch) and the 50th Foot. The British were able to retake the village, however their position was precarious. A subsequent French attack forced the 50th to retreat, causing the 42nd to follow. Personally leading his men forward, Moore and the two regiments charged back into Elvina.

Fighting was hand-to-hand and the British drove the French out at the point of the bayonet. At the moment of victory, Moore was struck down when a cannon ball hit him in the chest. With night falling, the final French attack was beaten back by Paget's cavalry. During the night and morning, the British withdrew to their transports with the operation protected by the guns of the fleet and the small Spanish garrison in Corunna. With the evacuation complete, the British set sail for England.

Aftermath of the Battle of Corunna:

British casualties for the Battle of Corunna were 800-900 dead and wounded. Soult's corps suffered 1,400-1,500 dead and wounded. While the British won a tactical victory at Corunna, the French had succeeded in driving their opponents from Spain. The Corunna campaign exposed issues with the British system of supply in Spain as well as a general lack of communication between them and their allies. These were addressed when the British returned to Portugal in May 1809, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.

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