Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

The Victory of Talavera

"Greatest, yet with least pretence,

Great in council and great in war,

Foremost captain of his time,

Rich in saving common-sense,

And, as the greatest only are,

In his simplicity sublime."

—Tennyson (Wellington).

W HILE Sir John Moore lay dying on the field of Coruna, Napoleon was galloping off with all speed to Austria. But he left orders with his generals, that they were to finish driving the English from the Peninsula and subdue the country. He made not the slightest doubt, that all would soon be accomplished, and that his brother Joseph would rule undisturbed over his new Spanish kingdom. But as Sir Arthur Wellesley once more stepped upon the scene, the eyes of Europe became riveted upon the conflict, that now threatened to overthrow that power.

It was but three months after Coruna, that the greatest soldier England could now produce landed at Lisbon. Three French armies, under tried generals, confronted him in Portugal and Spain. It was against Soult at Oporto, that Wellesley determined to strike his first blow. So he marched northwards till he came to the river Douro, which rolled rapidly between him and the enemy at Oporto. The march had been quick, and Soult was strangely unprepared for what now happened. Mounting a hill opposite the town, Wellesley hastily surveyed the situation. There was no bridge over the Douro, no boats visible on the banks. But the river must be crossed. Presently it was discovered, that a barber from Oporto was crossing over in a tiny boat. This was instantly seized, and, springing in, an English officer rowed back across the stream to the farther bank, where he found four old barges stranded in the mud, which he towed across.

"Let the men embark," said Wellesley hastily.

As the English dragged their guns up the hill on the opposite side, Soult discovered what had happened. He had been completely surprised, and nothing was left him, but to retreat with all the speed possible. At four o'clock in the afternoon, it is said that Wellesley ate the dinner prepared for Marshal Soult in Oporto.

With Soult in full flight, and Oporto, the second town in Portugal, in English hands, Wellesley determined to push on towards Madrid. The Spanish army under old Cuesta now joined him; but Cuesta proved a sore trial to the English commander. On June 27 the English and Spanish armies entered Spain, and Wellesley's troubles began. He had crossed the boundary with the full assurance that food should be found for his troops. But Spanish promises proved to be worthless, and the English were nearly starved. Horses died by hundreds, and the British soldiers were led on, complaining bitterly of their treatment. At last they reached Talavera, a picturesque old town on the Tagus, some seventy-five miles to the south of Madrid. Cuesta now proved hopeless. While Wellesley was discussing matters of the highest importance with him, the old man would fall asleep. On July 22, Wellesley found that a single French army was within striking distance, and Cuesta at last agreed to attack him next day, before other French troops joined him. Wellesley was arranging the plan of battle for the morrow, when the old Spanish general rose and went off to bed. The British were under arms at three next morning, but Cuesta did not get up till seven. Then he arrived at the British camp in a coach with six horses, to say that, as it was Sunday, he must decline to fight. Later in the day, he was induced to examine the ground for the coming battle; but he soon alighted from his coach-and-six, sat down under the shade of a neighbouring tree, and went off to sleep.

"If Cuesta had fought, when I wanted him, it would have been as great a battle as Waterloo, and would have cleared the French out of Spain," said Sir Arthur Wellesley pitifully, when speaking of Talavera.

Cuesta's obstinacy cost him dear. Three French armies now joined forces—making some 50,000 in all—and held the road to Madrid. Among the French leaders was Joseph Bonaparte, fighting for his kingdom.

At two o'clock on the afternoon of July 27 the battle of Talavera began. Perhaps the chief feature in it was the flight of the Spaniards. "They fired one far-off and terrific volley into space, and then, before its sound had died away, no less than 10,000 of them, or nearly a third of Cuesta's entire force, betook themselves to flight. The infantry flung away their muskets, the gunners cut their traces and galloped off on their horses: baggage-carts and ammunition waggons swelled the torrent of fugitives." And behind them all Cuesta, in his carriage drawn by nine mules, followed hard. All that day the battle lasted. Towards midnight the firing died away, but only to be renewed on the morrow. Right through the day the battle raged, until, when night again fell, Wellesley stood victorious on the battlefield of Talavera, though 6000 of his men lay dead or dying around him. The loss of those brave lives was not in vain.

"The battle of Talavera," says one, "restored to the successors of Marlborough the glory which for a whole age seemed to have passed from them."

The defeat of his army made Napoleon change his mind about the bravery of British troops and the ability of British commanders.

"It seems this is a man indeed, this Wellesley," said Napoleon when the news reached him at Vienna.

In this the whole world agreed with him. England showered honours on her hero. He was made a peer, with the titles of Baron Douro of Wellesley and Viscount Wellington of Talavera.

Henceforth the "ugly boy Arthur" is known to history as the Duke of Wellington. This is he—

"Who never sold the Truth to serve the hour,

Nor palter'd with Eternal God for power;

Whose life was work, whose language rife

With rugged maxims hewn from life;

Who never spoke against a foe."

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