Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

A narrative of the Peninsular War
by Sir Andrew Leith Hay, K.H., F.R.S. L. & E.

Hay's Peninsular War.
Appendix 1.

Battle of Salamanca.

Report of Marshal, the Duke of Ragusa, to the Minister at War.
Tudela, July 31.

"Monsieur, "

"The interruptions of the communications with France since the opening of the campaign, having prevented me from giving you the successive accounts of the events which have passed, I shall commence this report from the moment at which the English began operations; and I am going to have the honour to place before you, in detail, all the movements which have been executed, to the unhappy event that has just taken place, and which we were far from expecting."

"In the month of May I was informed the English army would open the campaign with very powerful means: I informed the King of it, in order that he might adopt such dispositions as he thought proper; and I likewise acquainted General Caffarelli with it, that he might take measures for sending me succours, when the moment should have arrived."

"The extreme difficulty in procuring subsistence, the impossibility of provisioning the troops, when assembled, prevented me from having more than eight or nine battalions in Salamanca; but all were in readiness to join me in a few days."

"On the 12th of June, the enemy's army passed the Agueda: on the 14th, in the morning, I was informed of it; and the orders for assembling were given to the troops. On the 16th, the English army arrived before Salamanca."

"In the night between the 16th and 17th, I evacuated that town, leaving, nevertheless, a garrison in the forts I had constructed; and which, by the extreme activity used in their construction, were in a state of defence. I marched six leagues from Salamanca; and there, having collected five divisions, I approached that town; I drove before me the English advanced posts, and obliged the enemy's army to shew what attitude it reckoned upon taking; it appeared determined to fight upon the fine rising ground, and strong position, of San Christoval.

The remainder of the army joined me; I manoeuvred round that position, but I acquired the certainty that it every where presented obstacles difficult to be conquered, and that it was better to force the enemy to come upon another field of battle, than enter into action with them upon ground which gave them too many advantages; besides, different reasons made me desire to prolong the operations, for I had just received a letter from General Caffarelli, which announced to me, that he had collected his troops, and was going to march to succour me, whilst my presence would have suspended the siege of the forts of Salamanca.

Things remained in this state for some days, and the armies in presence of each other; when the siege of the forts of Salamanca was vigorously recommenced."

"On account of the trifling distance which there was between the French army and the place, and by means of the signals agreed upon, I was every day informed of the situation of the place. Those of the 26th and 27th informed me the forts could still hold out five days; then I decided to execute the passage of the Tormes, and act upon the left bank.

The fort of Alba, which I had carefully preserved, gave me a passage over that river, a new line of operations, and an important point of support. I made dispositions for executing this passage, on the night between the 28th and 29th."

"During the night of the 27th, the fire redoubled; and the enemy fatigued with a resistance, which to them appeared exaggerated, fired red hot balls upon the fort.

Unfortunately, its magazines contained a large quantity of wood; it took fire, and in an instant the fort was a vast fire. It was impossible for the brave garrison who defended it, to support at the same time the enemy's attacks, and the fire which destroyed the defences, magazines, and provisions, and placed the soldiers themselves in the most dreadful situation. It was then obliged to surrender at discretion, after having had the honour of repulsing two assaults, and causing the enemy a loss of more than 1300 men, viz. double their own force. This event happened on the 28th, at noon."

"The enemy, having no further object in his operations beyond the Tormes, and, on the other hand, every thing indicating that it would be prudent to await the reinforcement announced in a formal manner by the Army of the North, I decided on re-approaching the army of the Douro, secure of passing that river, in case the enemy should march towards us; and there take up a good line of defence, until such time as the moment for acting on the offensive should appear."

"On the 28th, the army departed, and took a position on the Guarena; on the 29th, on the Trabanjos, where it sojourned. The enemy having followed the movements with the whole of his forces, the army took up a position on the Zapardiel; and on the 2nd it passed the Douro at Tordesillas, a place which I chose for the pivot of my motions.

The line of the Douro is excellent; I made in detail every disposition which might render sure a good defence of this river; and I had no cause to doubt my being able to defeat every enterprise of the enemy, in case they should attempt the passage."

"The 3rd, being the day after that on which we passed the Douro, he made several assemblages of his forces, and some slight attempts to effect this passage at Pollos, a point which for him would have been very advantageous.

The troops which I had disposed, and a few cannon shot, were sufficient to make him immediately give up his enterprise."

"In continual expectation of receiving succours from the Army of the North, which had been promised in so solemn and reiterated a manner, I endeavoured to add by my own industry to the means of the army. My cavalry was much inferior to that of the enemy.

The English had nearly 5000 horse, English and German, without counting the Spaniards, formed into regular troops; I had no more than 2000.

With this disproportion, in what manner could one manoeuvre his enemy ? How avail oneself of any advantage that might be obtained ?

I had but one means of augmenting my cavalry, and that was by taking the useless horses for the service of the army, or such as belonged to individuals who had no right to have them, or from such as had a greater number than they are allowed.

I did not hesitate making use of this means, the imminent interest of the army, and the success of the operations, being at stake; I therefore ordered the seizure of such horses as were under this predicament; and I likewise seized a great number which were with a convoy, coming from Andalusia; all upon estimation of their value, and making payment for them.

This measure executed with security, gave, in the space of eight days, 1000 more horsemen; and my cavalry reunited, amounted to more than 3000 combatants.

Meanwhile, I no less hoped to receive succours from the Army of the North, which continued its promises, the performance of which appeared to have commenced, but of which we have not seen, hitherto, any effect."

"The eighth division of the Army of Portugal occupied the Asturias; these troops were completely isolated from the army, by the evacuations of the provinces of Leon and Benevente: they were without succours, and without any communication with the Army of the North; because on the one side the Trincadores, who should have come from Bayonne, could not be sent to Gijon: and on the other side, the General-in-Chief of the Army of the North, although he had formally promised to do so, had dispensed with throwing a bridge over the Deba, and there establishing posts.

This division had been able to bring only very little ammunition, for want of means of carriage; and this was in part consumed: nor did they know how to replace it. Its position might every moment become more critical, and the enemy seriously occupied himself with it; inasmuch as if it were still thus isolated, it would remain entirely unconnected with the important events which were taking place in the plains of Castille.

General Bonnèt, calculating on this state of matters, and considering, according to the knowledge he has of the country, that it is much easier to enter than depart out of it, according as the enemy might oppose the entrance or departure, he decided on evacuating this province, and on taking a position at Reynosa.

There, having learned that the Army of Portugal was in presence of the English army, and that they were on the point of engaging, he did not hesitate in putting himself in motion, and rejoining it."

"Strongly impresssed with the importance of this succour, and with the augmentation which my cavalry was about to receive; not having learned any thing positive further concerning the Army of the North; and being besides informed of the march of the Army of Gallicia, which, in the course of a few days, would necessarily force me to send a detachment to repulse them, I thought it my duty to act without delay.

I had to fear that my situation, which was become much meliorated, might change by losing time; whilst that of the enemy would, by the nature of things, become better every moment."

"I, therefore, resolved on recrossing the Douro: but this operation is difficult and delicate; it cannot be undertaken without much art and circumspection, in presence of an army in condition for battle. I employed the days of the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 16th of July, in making a number of marches and countermarches, which deceived the enemy.

I feigned an intention to turn by Toro, and turned by Tordesillas, making an extremely rapid march. This movement succeeded so well, that the whole army could pass the river, move to a distance from it, and form itself, without meeting with a single enemy."

"On the 17th, the army took a position at Nava del Rey. The enemy, who was in full march for Toro, could only bring two divisions with celerity to Tordesilla de la Orden; the others were recalled from different parts to reunite themselves."

"On the 18th, in the morning, we found these two divisions at Tordesilla de la Orden. As they did not expect to find the whole army joined, they thought they might, without peril, gain some time. Nevertheless, when they saw our masses coming forward they endeavoured to effect their retreat to a ridge which commanded the village to which we were marching."

"We had already reached them. If I had had a cavalry superior, or equal, to that of the enemy, these two divisions would have been destroyed. We did not, however, pursue them the less with all possible vigour; and, during three hours' march, they were overpowered by the fire of our artillery, which I caused to take them in the rear and flank, and which they could, with difficulty, answer; and, protected by their numerous cavalry, they divided themselves to reascend the Guarena, in order to pass it with greater facility."

"Arrived upon the heights of the valley of Guarena, we saw that a portion of the English army was formed upon the left bank of that river. In that place the heights of that valley are very rugged, and the valley of a middling breadth.

Whether it was necessary for the troops to approach the water, on account of the excessive heat, or whether it was for some other cause of which I am ignorant, the English General had placed the greater part of them on the bottom of the valley, within half cannonshot of the heights of which we were masters; I, therefore, upon arriving, immediately ordered a battery of forty pieces of artillery to be planted, which in a moment forced the enemy to retire, after having left a great number of killed and wounded upon the spot.

The army marched in two columns; and I had given the command of the right column, distant from that of the left three-quarters of a league, to General Clausel. Arriving upon this ground.

General Clausel, having few troops before him, thought he was able to seize upon the two rising grounds upon the left bank of the Guarena, and preserve them; but this attack was made with few troops, his troops had not halted, and scarcely formed; the enemy perceived it, marched upon the troops which he had thus thrown in advance, and forced them to retreat. In this battle, which was of short duration, we experienced some loss.

The division of dragoons, which supported the infantry, vigorously charged all the English cavalry; but General Carrier, a little too far advanced from the 13th regiment, fell into the enemy's power."

"The army remained in its position all the night of the 19th; remained in it all the day of the 20th. The extreme heat and fatigue experienced on the 18th, rendered this repose necessary, to assemble the stragglers."

"At four in the evening the army resumed its arms, and defiled by the left to proceed up the Guarena, and take a position in front of Olmo. My intention was, at the same time, to threaten the enemy, and continue to proceed up the Guarena, in order to pass it with facility; or, if the enemy marched in force upon the Upper Guarena, to return by a rapid movement upon the position they should have abandoned. The enemy followed my movements."

"On the 20th, before day, the army was in motion to ascend the Guarena; the advanced guard rapidly passed that river, at that part where it is but a stream, and occupied the commencement of an immense piece of ground, which continued, without any undulation, to near Salamanca. The enemy endeavoured to occupy the same ground, but could not succeed: then he attempted to follow a parallel rising ground, connected with the position they had just quitted, and which every where offered them a position, provided I should have marched towards them.

The two armies thus marched parallel with all possible celerity, always keeping their masses connected, in order to be every moment prepared for battle. The enemy, thinking to be beforehand with us at the village of Cantalpino, directed a column upon that village, in the hope of being before us upon the rising ground which commands it, and towards which we marched; but their expectations were deceived.

The light cavalry which I sent thither, and the 8th division, which was at the head of the column, marched so rapidly that the enemy was obliged to abandon it: besides, the road from the other plain approaching too close to ours, and that which we had, having the advantage of commanding it with some pieces of cannon, judiciously placed, greatly annoyed the enemy; for a great part of the army was obliged to defile under this cannon, and the remainder was obliged to repass the mountains to avoid them. At last I put the dragoons in the enemy's track.

The enormous number of stragglers which were left behind, would have given us an opportunity of making 3000 prisoners, had there been a greater proportion between our cavalry and theirs; but the latter, disposed so as to arrest our pursuit, to press the march of the infantry by blows from the flat sides of their sabres, and to convey those who could no longer march, prevented us.

Nevertheless, there fell into our hands between 300 and 400 men, and some baggage. In the evening, the army encamped upon the heights of Aldea Rubio, having its posts upon the Tormes. The enemy reached the position of San Christoval."

"On the 21st, having been informed that the enemy did not occupy Alba de Tormes, I threw a garrison into it. The same day I passed the river in two columns, taking my direction by the skirts of the woods, and established my camp between Alba de Tormes and Salamanca.

My object in taking this direction was to continue the movement by m left,See the Box with Green text below. in order to drive the enemy from the neighbourhood of Salamanca, and fight them with greater advantage. I depended upon taking a good defensive position, in which the enemy could undertake nothing against me: and, in short, come near enough to them to take advantage of the first faults they might make, and vigorously attack them."

Misprint - should, of course, be 'my left'

"On the 22nd, in the morning, I went upon the heights of Calbaraca de Abajo, to reconnoitre the enemy. I found a division which had just arrived there; others were in march for the same place. Some firing took place for the purpose of occupying the posts, of observation, of which we respectively remained masters.

Every thing announced that it was the enemy's intention to occupy the position of Tejares, which was a league in the rear of that in which he then was, distant a league and a half from Salamanca: they, however, assembled considerable forces upon this point; and, as their movement upon Tejares might be difficult if all the French army was in sight, I thought it right to have it ready to act as circumstances required."

"There were between us and the English some isolated points, called the Arapiles. I ordered General Bonnèt to occupy that which belonged to the position we ought to take; his troops did so with promptitude and dexterity.

The enemy ordered theirs to be occupied; but it was commanded by ours at 250 toisesSee the Box with Green text below. distance. I had destined this point, in the event of there being a general movement by the left, and a battle taking place, to be the pivot and point of support of the right to all the army.

For what it's worth, 1 Toise was exactly 6 pieds (feet) (about 1.949 metres) in France until 1812 and then it was exactly 2 metres in France between 1812 and 1 January 1840 (mesures usuelles, or 'usual measurements'). So there was, already, a possibility of misunderstanding which "toise" was intended. Napoleon actually preferred the old pre-metric system of measurements as they seemed more capable of accurately defining distances and areas without misunderstanding.

The first division had orders to occupy and defend the ridge of Calbaraca, which is protected by a large and deep ravine. The 3rd division was in the second line, destined to support it, and the 2nd, 4th, 5th, and 6th, were at the head of the wood en masse, behind the position of Arapiles, and could march equally on all sides; whilst the 7th division occupied the left head of the wood, which formed a point extremely uneven, and of very difficult access, and which I had lined with twenty pieces of artillery.

The light cavalry was charged to clear the left, and place itself in advance of the 7th division. The dragoons remained in the second line to the right of the army. Such were the dispositions made towards the middle of the day."

"The enemy had his troops parallel to me, extending his right by leaning towards the mountain of Tejares, which always appeared to be his point of retreat."

"There was, in front of the ridge occupied by the artillery, another vast ridge, easy of defence, and which had a more immediate effect on the enemy's movements. The possession of this ridge gave me the means, in case I should have manoeuvred towards the evening, of carrying myself on the enemy's communications on Tamames. This post, which was otherwise well occupied, was inexpugnable; and in itself completed the position which 1 had taken.

It was, besides, indispensably necessary to occupy it, seeing that the enemy had reinforced his centre, from whence he might push forward en masse on this ridge, and commence his attack by taking this important point."

"In consequence, I gave orders to the 5th division to take position on the right extremity of this ridge, the fire from which exactly crossed that from Arapiles; to the 7th division, to place itself in a second line to support this; to the 2nd, to hold itself in reserve to the latter; and to the 6th, to occupy the ridge at the head of the wood, where a large number of pieces of artillery were yet remaining.

I gave like orders to General Bonnèt, to cause the 122nd to occupy a point situated between the great ridge and the point of Arapiles, which defended the entrance of the village of Arapiles; and, finally, I gave orders to General Boyer, Commandant of the Dragoons, to leave a regiment to clear the right of General Foy, and to push the three other regiments to the front of the wood, on the flank of the second division, in such manner as to be able, in case the enemy should attack the ridge, to attack them by the right of this ridge, while the light cavalry should charge his left."

"The most part of these movements were performed with irregularity. The 5th division, after having taken the post assigned to it, extended itself on its left, without any cause or reason. The 7th division, which had orders to support it, marched to its position; and, in short, the 2nd division was still in the rear.

I felt all the consequences that might result from all these irregularities, and I resolved in remedying them myself on the spot, which was a very easy matter, the enemy not as yet having made any movement at all. At the same time, I received the report of the enemy having caused fresh troops to pass from his left to the right; I ordered the 3rd and 4th divisions to march by the skirts of the wood, in order that I might dispose them as I found needful.

It was half-past four o'clock, and I went to the ridge, which was to be the object of a serious dispute; but at this moment a shell struck me, broke my right arm, and made two large wounds on my right side: I thus became incapable of taking any part in the command."

"The precious time which I should have employed in rectifying the placing of the troops on the left, was fruitlessly passed; the absence of the Commander gives birth to anarchy, and from thence proceeds disorder; meanwhile the time was running away without the enemy undertaking any thing.

At length, at five o'clock, the enemy, judging that the situation was favourable, attacked this ill-formed left wing with impetuosity. The divisions engaged repulsed the enemy, and were themselves repulsed in their turn; but they acted without concert and without method. The division which I had called to sustain that point, found themselves in the situation of taking part in the combat without having foreseen it."

"Every General made extraordinary efforts to supply, by his own particular dispositions, such as were on the whole requisite; but if he could attain it in part, yet he could not attain it completely.

The artillery covered itself with glory, performed prodigies of valour, and in the midst of our losses caused the enemy to suffer enormously. He directed his attack against Arapiles, which was defended by the brave 120th regiment, and was there repulsed, leaving more than 300 dead on the spot. At length, the army retired, evacuated the ridges, and retired to the skirts of the wood, where the enemy made fresh efforts.

The division Foy, which by the nature of the business was charged with the covering the retrograde movements, was attacked with vigour, and constantly repulsed the enemy.

This division merits the greatest eulogy, as does likewise its General. From this moment, the retreat was effected towards Alba de Tormes, without being disturbed by the enemy. Our loss amounted to about 6000 men, Hors de combat, "

"We have lost nine pieces of cannon, which, being dismounted, could not be carried off; all the rest of the baggage, all the park of artillery, all the materiel belonging to the army, having been brought away."

"It is difficult, M. le Duc, to express to you the different sentiments which agitated me at the fatal moment, when the wound which I received caused my being separated from the army. I would with delight have exchanged this wound for the certainty of receiving a mortal stroke at the close of the day, to have preserved the faculty of command; so well did I know the importance of the events which had just taken place, and how necessary the presence of the Commander-in-chief was at the moment when the shock of the two armies appeared to be preparing, to give the whole direction to the troops, and to appoint their movements.

Thus, one unfortunate moment has destroyed the result of six weeks of wise combinations, of methodical movements, the issue of which had hitherto appeared certain, and which every thing seemed to presage to us that we should reap the fruit of."

"On the 23rd, the army made its retreat from Alba de Tormes, on Peneranda, taking its direction towards the Douro: the whole of the enemy's cavalry harassed our rear-guard, composed of the cavalry of the 1st divisior.

This cavalry fell back, and left the division too much engaged; but it formed itself in squares to resist the enemy. One of them was broken, the others resisted, and especially that of the 69th, which killed 200 of the enemy's horse by the bayonet; after this time they made no attempt on us."

"General Clausel has the command of the army, and has taken such measures as circumstances require.

I am going to have myself transported to Burgos, where I hope, by repose and care taken, to recover of the severe wounds that I have received, and which afflict me more from the dire influence which they have had on the success of the army, than from the sufferings which they have caused me to endure."

"I cannot do sufficient justice to the bravery with which the generals and colonels have fought, and to the good disposition which animated them in that difficult circumstance.

I ought particularly to mention General Bonnèt, whose reputation has been so long established I should likewise name General Taupin, who commanded the 6th division. General Clausel, though wounded, did not quit the field, but to the end gave an example of great personal bravery. The generals of artillery particularly distinguished themselves.

On this day, unfortunate as it has been, there are multitudes of traits worthy of being noticed, and which honour the French name. I will collect them, and solicit from his Majesty rewards for the brave men who have deserved them.

I ought not to defer mentioningthe conduct of the brave Sub-Lieutenant Guillemot, of the 118th regiment, who sprung into the enemy's ranks to obtain a flag, which he seized, after having cut off the arm of the person who carried it: he has brought this flag into our ranks, notwithstanding the severe bayonet wound he has received."

"We have to regret the loss of the General of Division Ferey, dead of his wounds; of General Thomieres, killed upon the field of battle; and of General Desgraviers. Generals Bonnèt and Clausel, and the General of Brigade Menne, are wounded."

"I beg your Excellency to receive the assurance of my high consideration."

Signed (with the left hand), "The Marshal Duke of Ragusa."

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