Reflections on war and warfare: week 11 (12 – 18 May 2014)

As of March 2014, we are posting weekly extracts of writings on war and warfare drawn from our manuscript and printed collections. Ranging from items on the Maratha wars to the Second World War, the extracts will reflect opinions both from the battle front and from those at home.

12 May 1809 Second Battle of Porto / Battle of the Douro
The Second Battle of Porto took place on 12 May 1809 resulting in a decisive Anglo-Portuguese victory and ending the second French invasion of Portugal. In the below passage Wellesley details the destruction left behind in the wake of Marshal Soult’s retreat.

“The enemy commenced this retreat as I have informed your Lordship by destroying a great proportion of his guns and ammunition. He afterwards destroyed the remainder of both, and a great proportion of his baggage, and kept nothing excepting what the soldiers or a few mules could carry. He has left behind him his sick and wounded; and the road from Penafiel to Monte Alegre is strewed with the carcases of horses and mule; and of French soldiers who were put to death by the peasantry before our advanced guard could save them.

This last circumstance is the natural effect of the species of warfare which the enemy have carried on in this country. Their soldiers have plundered and murdered the peasantry at their pleasure; and I have seen many persons hanging in the trees by the sides of the road; executed for no reason that I could learn excepting that they have not been friendly to the French invasion and usurpation of the government of their country; and the route of their column on their retreat could be traced by the smoke of the villages to which they set fire.”

WP1/263/4 Letter from Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley, Monte Algere, to Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, detailing the operations of the army from the 13th to the 18th May and giving an account of the affair with the enemy’s rear guard on the 16th near Salamonde, 18 May 1809


13 May 1915 Submarine attack leads to internment and repatriation of Germans

During the second year of the First World War, submarine warfare became a major threat to Britain. On 7 May 1915, the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20 during its voyage from New York to Liverpool. This resulted in the ocean liner sinking in eighteen minutes, and 1,198 out of the 1,959 civilian passengers being killed. In response to this tragic event, Asquith announced to the House of Commons that all German males of military age were to be subjected to internment, and females to be repatriated. This led to 32440 internees (including Austrians) being gained by November 1915.

“Owing to Lusitania crime Asquith today announced that all Germans of military age will be inferred/interned and all over that age repatriated. So old Soldier, Uncle August and Mr Marx will be sent to Germany!”

MS 168 AJ 217/11 Journal of Samuel Rich, 13 May 1915


14 May 1854 Criticism of the British army in Crimea
After forty years of peace, the British Army was ill prepared to engage with a numerically superior army in a hostile territory three thousand miles from home. The greatest danger would come not from the enemy but from the army’s own lack of structure and organisation. Criticisms of the army appeared in the press even before Lord Raglan landed with an army of 28,000 men at Varna on 29 May 1854.

“I see in The Times many abusive articles about our army at Gallipoli and other places, most of them untrue, but in one point they are right which is that the French have more organisation than ourselves.”

MS 63 A904/4/22 Letter from Edward Wellesley to his wife, Annot, 14 May 1854 


18 May 1940 A respite from air raids
A number of key events occurred from 12-16 of May 1940. The allies had what was regarded as their first significant air raid against a civilian population, with the RAF attacking Mönchengladbach, Germany. Across the Channel, Rotterdam capitulated following a heavy German bombing campaign which devastated the city. The Netherlands government fled and the British RAF suffered its greatest defeat to date whilst attacking German troop positions in France. The Nazi campaign in the Netherlands ended with the Dutch army’s surrender.

London enjoyed a brief respite from air raids whilst Germany’s focus was directed towards France and the Netherlands affording the civilian population the opportunity to enjoy the relative peace whilst it lasted, as Samuel Rich notes in his diary.

“Another day’s respite from terror: bright, sunny, scented, though it was not possible to forget war, – it was possible to extract a modified pleasure from the day”

MS 168 AJ 217/36 Journal of Samuel Rich, 18 May 1940

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