Reflections on war and warfare: week 22 (28 July – 3 August 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.

27-8 July 1809 Battle of Talavera
After defeating the corps of Marshal Nicolas Soult in Portugal at the Battle of Porto, on 12 May 1808, British forces under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley advanced into Spain in early July. There they joined with Spanish forces under General Gregoria de la Cuesta. On 27 July, as the Anglo-Spanish forces marched eastwards towards Madrid, they encountered a large French army just outside the town of Talavera de la Reina, southwest of Madrid. The attacking French forces were under the command of Marshal Claude Victor, Major General Horace Sebastiani and the King of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte. While the battle resulted in heavy losses on both sides, the Anglo-Spanish lines held as they repulsed several enemy attacks and forced the French to withdraw from the field. However, with Soult threatening to cut the road to Portugal, Wellesley was forced to fall back towards the Portuguese border. Despite being a strategic victory for the French, the battle was seen as the first of Wellesley’s great victories in Spain and resulted in him being created Viscount Wellington of Talavera for his success on the battlefield.

“The enemy having collected all the troops he had in this part of Spain attacked us here on the 27th, and the battle lasted till yesterday evening when we beat him in all parts of our line, and he retreated in the evening and night leaving in our hands 13 or 15 pieces of cannon, ammunition waggons, prisoners, etc. The battle was a most desperate one. Our loss has been very great, that of the enemy larger. The attack was made principally upon the British who were on the left; and we had about two to one against us. Fearful odds! But we maintained all our positions and gave the enemy a terrible beating.”

MS 61 WP1/270/19 Copy of a letter from Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley, Talavera, to John Charles Villiers, 29 July 1809


1 August 1914 The beginning of World War One

On 27 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were killed by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. After securing the support of Germany, Austria-Hungary presented Serbia with an ultimatum on 23 July 1914. The prime demand was for all anti-Austrian propaganda within Serbia to be suppressed, and that Austria-Hungary be allowed to conduct its own investigation into the archduke’s killing. Despite Serbia accepting all of Austria’s demands apart from one, the Austrian government went ahead with military preparation measures, declaring war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. Russia, Serbia’s supporter, began its own steps towards military mobilisation against Austria. This led to Germany declaring war on Russia on 1 August, France and Germany declaring war on each other on 3 August, and Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August.

“A miserable day; the war cloud looms bigger – all Europe is in arms…I have never begun a holiday with less anticipation and enjoying it. I am filled with vague foreboding and misfortune.”

MS 168 AJ 217/10 Journal of Samuel Rich, 1 August 1914


1 August 1809
The Walcheren campaign
The British force, of nearly 40,000 men began to land in Walcheren on 30 July. The army was commanded by the second Earl of Chatham, the elder brother of the Prime Minister, William Pitt, and the navy by Sir Richard Strathan. The aim of the expedition was to destroy the French fleet, thought to be in Flushing, and to provide a diversion for the Austrians in their war against France. By the time the force had landed, however, the Austrians had been defeated and were negotiating a peace treaty with Napoleon. Although the British captured Flushing in August, the French had moved their fleet to Antwerp, thus denying the British any chance of destroying it. The troops were finally withdrawn in December, having suffered over 4,000 deaths from fever.

“We have no news yet from the expedition but are in hourly expectation of getting it. They would probably have landed on Sunday and in that case we should hear today. It is said that Buonaparte is arrived to oppose Lord Chatham. I own that will all deference for the latter and Sir Eyre Coote, his second in command, I had rather see them pitted against anybody than Buonaparte.”

MS 62 BR24/10/1 Letter from Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston, Admiralty to his sister Frances [Fanny], 1 August 1809

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