Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

Sir John Moore at Coruna

"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."


Meanwhile Napoleon was rejoicing in this new addition to his great empire. With the gold of Mexico, he would build a new fleet to rival England on the seas.

"England is mine," he had told himself already, "there is nothing to fear."

But in reality there was much to fear. England had taken up the cause of the Peninsula against him, and Sir Arthur Wellesley was already landing on the coast of Portugal with British troops. With these, he drove the French out of Portugal, and leaving Sir John Moore in his place, he returned to England.

Napoleon now saw that he would have to conquer Spain for himself, and accordingly he left Paris at the head of a large army in the autumn of 1808. In a week he had reached Bayonne, and soon the many passes of the Pyrenees were filled with the ceaseless flow of armed men marching under the banner of the Imperial French eagle.

"When I shall show myself beyond the Pyrenees, the English, in terror, will plunge into the ocean to avoid shame, defeat, and death," said the great warrior, with confidence.

In four divisions, the great French army burst into Spain, carrying all before them, and on December 4th Napoleon entered Madrid in triumph.

"I will drive the English from the Peninsula," he said grandly, as he made his plans for marching on Lisbon and the south of Spain with a tried army of 300,000 men.

"If Spain is not submissive, I shall give my brother another throne and put the crown of Spain on my own head," he announced at Madrid.

But the daring resolve of a British soldier, was now to save Spain from the ever-tightening grip of Napoleon.

Sir John Moore was already marching from Lisbon towards Madrid, when he heard of Napoleon's advance in person. To go on now seemed madness; to retreat without striking a blow, was to betray Spain and dishonour England. Calmly he decided to try and cut off Napoleon's communications, keeping a road for his own retreat to Coruna always open, whence he could embark for England.

This changed the plans of Napoleon. He set out in all haste to meet the English. It was three days before Christmas, when Napoleon and his French troops found themselves at the foot of the Guadamar hills, which lay to the north of Madrid, between him and the English army. Deep snow choked the passes, a storm of wild sleet and snow was raging over the mountains. The night was very dark. The advance-guard pronounced the way to be impossible. "But neither the deep snow nor the wild hills, nor the yet wilder tempest, could stay Napoleon's vehement purpose." Placing himself at the head of the army, he advanced on foot, leading the soldiers through the darkness, amid storms of blinding hail and drifting snow.

The army emerged, after two days' struggle, to find themselves just twelve hours too late to meet Moore and his army. He was already on the way to Coruna. Marshal Soult, one of Napoleon's most famous generals, was in hot pursuit. At the same time Moore was yet some 200 miles from the coast. Soult was pressing him hard: Napoleon was coming up like a tempest behind him.

Christmas passed. The new year of 1809 broke to find Moore and the English still retreating, but Napoleon had given up the pursuit to Soult.

"The English are running away as fast as they can: they fly in terror," he wrote from the town of Astorga, feeling Spain was already his.

Meanwhile Moore was hurrying on. The road lay through wild ranges of hills, for the most part covered with snow. Storms raged around them, the rivers and little streams were swollen, there was no shelter from the deadly blasts of winter. Now and then they turned at bay, hoping that the French, who were on their very heels, would attack. Often through the long dark nights they struggled on, their feet bleeding, their clothes torn,—hungry, thirsty, out of spirits.

At last they straggled into Coruna. They had lost 4000 men from cold and sickness, but not a flag or a gun. Three days' wait and the ships were ready to take them home. Orders for embarking had been given, when the French army, under Soult, was seen moving on the hills, above the town. As Sir John Moore saw what it meant, his face lit up. He might yet retrieve the tragedy of his enforced retreat, yet bring glory to the English arms.

Soon the battle began, and was raging furiously, when Moore was struck by a cannon ball, which threw him from his horse and shattered his shoulder to pieces. Raising himself from the ground on his right elbow, not a moan escaped him, as he eagerly watched the struggle. It was not until he saw that the English were gaining ground, that he suffered himself to be borne away. One of his officers, Hardinge, began to unbuckle his sword, but Moore stopped him.

"It is well as it is," he murmured. "I had rather it should go out of the field with me."

Every now and then he made the soldiers stop, halt, and turn round, so that he might see for himself how the fight was going. Those around him expressed the hope, that he might yet recover.

"No, Hardinge," he said, looking at his terrible wounds; "I feel that to be impossible."

One among the little group burst into tears.

"My friend," said Moore, turning to him with a smile, "this is nothing."

The surgeons who examined him at once saw there was no hope.

"You know I have always wished to die this way," whispered the dying man. "I hope the people of England will be satisfied. I hope my country will do me justice," he added.

And as night fell and the thunder of battle grew fainter and more faint, the hero of Coruna passed away at the hour of victory. Let the well-known lines by Wolfe finish the story.

"Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

As his corpse to the ramparts 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.

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 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!

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."