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DURHAM'S IN THE PENINSULA
The 68th put its training to good use during the Walcheren campaign of 1809, when a British army successfully captured Flushing, in Holland, only to succumb in large numbers to a species of malaria. After a spell of recovery, the 68th embarked in June 1811 for the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1811 the situation in Spain and Portugal was still uncertain enough for anything to happen. Napoleon, having defeated Russia, Prussia, Austria and the other European states, had turned his attention to Spain. In 1808 a French army crossed the Pyrenees on the pretext of "protecting" Spain from a British-inspired invasion by Portugal, but by July the Spanish king had been turned off his throne, to be replaced by Napoleon's own brother Joseph. Despite a popular uprising by the Spanish, accompanied by much savagery, a French army managed to occupy Portugal, only to be turned out of the country again after being heavily defeated by the future Duke of Wellington at the battles of Rolica and Vimiero. Encouraged by this success, an army under Sir John Moore invaded Spain, but, deserted by the Spanish and greatly outnumbered by French forces under Napoleon himself, the British were forced to make a terrible retreat over the mountains of North-West Spain, finally embarking at Corunna after beating off their pursuers in a battle that cost the life of their Commander.
In the following year however, fresh British forces were landed in Portugal, again under the command of Wellington, and for the next two years the opposing armies ranged back and forth, each side trying to secure the passes through the mountains that separate Spain and Portugal. By the time that the 68th had landed at Lisbon and marched to join the army, the bloody battles of Talavera, Fuentes d'Onor and Albuera had already been fought, and its first action consisted only of a little light skirmishing.
The commencement of 1812 saw the 68th covering the sieges of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajos, fortress towns guarding the approaches to Portugal. Although they took no part in the glory, horror and heavy casualties of the storming of these towns, as Pte John Green points out, "all were entitled to the honour, for, if called upon, they would have entered the breaches and stormed the city with as much resolution and valour as those who had been employed."
In order to retain the co-operation of the ordinary people in the Peninsula, the British army, unlike the French, was strictly forbidden to take food or any other item without payment. However the notorious inefficiency of the supply corps meant that foragers were not always deterred even by threats of flogging or hanging, since an inspection report on the 68th at this time remarks "several serious excesses have been committed by the men since they have been in the country."
The capture of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajos provided bases from which the British army advanced to the city of Salamanca, but the French commander, Marshal Marmont, was not to be lured into a full-scale battle yet. However, on the 20th of June he pushed forward a small force to occupy the village of Moriscos, in front of the British positions, which gave the virtually untried 68th an opportunity to show that their prowess in battle was equal to their efficiency in looting. The French were soon pushed out by the 68th's rapid attack, but they commenced a vigorous counter-attack. The 68th's commanding officer, Colonel Johnson, ordered one company to the end of each of the side-streets to protect the flanks, while he charged up the main street with the remainder of the Regiment, driving the French column back in confusion. At this point the Divisional commander, seeing the continual pressure on the companies defending the side-streets, ordered the Regiment back before they were surrounded; they skillfully withdrew, taking their wounded and leaving skirmishers to cover the retreat. The fierceness of the hand-to-hand fighting is shown by the fate of Captain Mackay, who received no less than twenty-two bayonet wounds, as well as several blows from a musket-butt. He nevertheless survived to serve in the Regiment until 1821!
After a month of complicated maneuverings around Salamanca, during which the Regiment were several times engaged in skirmishes and minor actions, Marmont at last gave Wellington the opening for which he was seeking. The French marshal, deceived by Wellington's practice of concealing most of his troops behind rising ground, allowed his army to become strung out in supposed pursuit. Attempts by tirailleurs to "feel out" the exact whereabouts of the British force were frustrated by an impenetrable screen of light infantrymen from the 68th and the 2nd Portuguese Cacadores. A man of the 51st Regiment, from the same Brigade, watched the 68th in action, remarking "from the great number of wounded brought to the rear in wagons it was clear they had dropped in for a hot breakfast."
By early afternoon Wellington was ready to attack and the light troops were withdrawn. He then launched the British and Portuguese troops downhill on the surprised French, who were defeated piecemeal. Green described the attack of the 7th Division, which included the 68th, thus;
"We continued to advance some time without firing a shot; at length the firing of both armies commenced in such a way as I had never heard before; it was like the long roll of a hundred drums without an interval. Both armies fought with courage and determination.... at last the enemy gave way in all directions, and we completely beat them out of the field with dread carnage".
While the main army pursued the beaten enemy towards the Douro River, the 68th formed part of a force sent to take the Spanish capital, Madrid, and were the first British Regiment to enter the city, amid shouts of "Viva los Ingleses!" and the waving of numerous ladies' handkerchiefs from upper windows. After a sharp fight to capture a fort called the Retiro, the 68th settled back to enjoy the fruits of victory, which included essentials like new shirts, socks and shoes, as well as an unusual additionto their rations - the goldfish from the fountains in the Retiro gardens! These idyllic conditions were not to last. The concentration of new French armies forced the Allies once more into a winter retreat , which started on 21st October. As usual, supplies failed to reach the troops, as they plodded along roads turned into swamps by heavy rain, and Green records that his food for three days consisted of three spoonfuls of boiled wheat, reducing him to foraging for wild berries. To add to his woes, he was nearly captured by the French after being lamed by sand in his boots. However, the French were suffering just as much and gave up the pursuit, both sides retiring into winter quarters in roughly the same areas that they had occupied before the campaign of 1812.
The winter was not wasted, and it was a much stronger Allied army that took the field in the spring of 1813, with more men, guns and supplies than ever before. The Allied army began a rapid march through Northern Portugal and into North-West Spain, time and again outflanking the French and forcing them to retreat towards the Pyrenees. Owing to the speed of the advance the supply system once again broke down, and Green tells how even the officers stole bread from under the noses of the sentries. One improvement had taken place: for the first time the troops were issued with tents instead of having to find their own shelter or sleep out under the stars.
At last on 21st June 1813 the French were brought to bay outside the important cross-roads town of Vittoria. Their position seemed at first glance a strong one, on a range of hills behind a river. But they had failed to destroy any of the eleven bridges over the river, and were too strung out to prevent Wellington from striking wherever he chose. The first attack thrust the French Left off the hills, and was to be followed by the advance of the 7th Division across the river in the centre. However, only the 68th's brigade was in position in time, and they accompanied the 3rd Division which was led on by the hot-tempered, hard-swearing Sir Thomas Picton, a former officer of the 68th. The Regiment was especially steady and determined that day: they pushed ahead towards a small wood where they received a warm reception from a whole enemy division, one volley killing many men and wounding Colonel Johnson in two places. Despite these losses, the 68th continued to advance steadily, with the confidence of troops who have never lost a battle. The French line finally collapsed, and the Allies "shouting and huzza-ing, gave them no time to form, but drove them before us like cattle to destruction."
The French retreat was hampered by the bottleneck through the town of Vittoria, and enormous quantities of baggage, including the personal property of Joseph Bonaparte, "King" of Spain, fell into the hands of the British. Ensign S. W. L. Stretton of the 68th picked up some items of French uniform, and these and the musket ball that wounded him - a less welcome souvenir - are on display at the D.L.I. Museum together with his portrait.
The French army streamed in a disorganised rout back through the Pyrenean passes into France itself, leaving large numbers of dead and prisoners, and all its artillery. However, it also left strong garrisons in the fortress towns of St. Sebastian and Pamplona, commanding the two main roads over the mountains. Although the 68th were in advanced positions, they provided volunteers for the siege of St. Sebastian; therefore several of the medals on show in the Museum have clasps for that action.
Meanwhile the French had a new commander, Marshal Soult, who set about reinforcing and supplying his army for a new offensive to relieve St. Sebastian and Pamplona. To this end, he concentrated his command at several points, and attacked the isolated corps opposing him, hoping to pierce the cordon strung out along the mountain crests. To all these various actions fought between 25th July and 31st August 1813, the name is usually given of the "Battle of the Pyrenees". The 68 th formed supports during the first phase of the battle, and their role consisted mainly of seemingly endless marches and counter-marches over rough mountain tracks. They were given their revenge on 30th July, when the 7th Division attacked a French force which was attempting to regroup after being repulsed from another position. Green and his comrades had the satisfaction of seeing French cavalry retreating at the gallop, closely followed by their infantry.
The Allies could now pass over to the offensive, and the French were everywhere forced to relinquish what they had gained. They had lost 12,500 men - twice the Allied casualties. When one last effort was made to relieve St. Sebastian the 7th Division was once more marched into battle on 31st August. The 68th came up to support a Portuguese regiment, but after driving the French back were themselves forced to retire by twice their numbers, but not without continuing to fire volleys and make sudden charges, which delayed the enemy until a rainstorm blew up. This caused a river behind the French to rise, so that they had to retreat before they were cut off. The 68th were left masters of the field, although with many dead and wounded. One of the latter was John Green :
.... a ball struck me, entering my left side, a little below my heart. At first I felt nothing; in about ten seconds, however, I fell to the ground, turned sick and faint, and expected to expire, having an intolerable pain in my left side. I thought it was all over with me, being confident that I had received a mortal wound.
Green was wrong, although he experienced great suffering whilst being carried back over the mountains on a mule with his wound treated only in the most primitive fashion. He attributed his survival to the constant use of a Bible that he had picked up as loot after the Battle of Vittoria.
The war was over for John Green, but not for the 68th. While he was making his painful way to the Spanish coast, the Allied army had gone over to the offensive, attacking the enemy on 10th November and pushing them back across the River Nivelle. The 68th's part in this battle was the capture of three strong redoubts (forts) which it did with comparative ease, but not without casualties that reduced the Regiment to only 197 rank and file fit for duty.
The French were allowed little time to recover. The campaign of 1814 opened in February, consisting of a series of attacks across defended rivers, with the capture of Bayonne and Toulouse as the ultimate goal. The first serious action of 1814 for the 68th was on 23rd February at Oeyregave, a small village on the River Adour. The task of the Regiment was to capture the bridge over the River at this point, so that British forces could cross and reach behind Bayonne. The experienced Regiment carried out its task quickly and competently, but not before one of its officers, Captain J. U. M. Leith, was killed at the head of his men, and another officer mortally wounded. Some years ago the family of Captain Leith gave to the D.L.I, the jacket and sword worn by him up to his death and these can now be seen, together with his portrait, in the Regimental Museum.
The Allies swiftly crossed the Adour at several points and Marshal Soult's battered army abandoned Bayonne and once more retreated, this time to Orthes, where on 27th February 1814 the 68th fought their last fight of the Napoleonic Wars. The French soldiers, half-trained, ragged and starving, could still fight fiercely in defence of their homeland, and Wellington's first attack, by the 4th Division, was stopped. Part of the 7th Division was sent to retrieve the situation, and the 68th with their old fighting companions of the 82nd Regiment and the Chasseurs Britanniques, charged the hilly position, defeating a whole division of the French to make an important contribution to a battle in which the enemy lost another 4,000 men before withdrawing in disorder.
The 68th took no part in the final battle of the campaign, at Toulouse, but we can be sure that they were not missing from the noisy celebrations that followed the announcement on 12th April of Napoleon's abdication and the signing of a truce.
The 68th remained in France until the beginning of July, when they embarked for Ireland. Their depleted numbers meant that they could take no part in the campaign in Flanders the following year, which led to Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo, and in fact the 68th (Durham) Light Infantry were not to see active service again for another forty years, when in 1854 they embarked for the Crimea .
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