A Night of Terror: January, 1809
17th January, 1809. And from French-held Northern Spain, an army was on its way home.
Amid scenes reminiscent of a much later conflict – the evacuation of their expeditionary force at Dunkirk – the British, having marched through Spain in hope, boarded a fleet of ships in Corunna harbour under the very noses of their French antagonists.
An enemy twice as strong had been kept at bay over hundreds of miles of Iberia’s most inhospitable mountain country before a desperate rearguard action, which cost the lives of commander-of-the-forces Sir John Moore and hundreds of his men, gave the remaining troops enough time to embark before they were overwhelmed, and they set off in convoy across the Bay of Biscay toward the English Channel.
Relief at escaping Spain must have been immense, though most soldiers’ morale remained at a low ebb. Not realising how badly they were outnumbered at the very end, many could not understand why they had been forced to flee a campaign where, even when suffering both hunger and bitter cold, they had beaten the enemy in every engagement fought.
But whatever their thoughts, they could not escape the fact that the army was a shadow of its former self. Their transport ships, blown on increasingly strong south-westerly winds which scattered the fleet, were packed to the gunwales; holds and decks overflowing, with untended sick and wounded lying alongside their healthy but underfed comrades.
In such squalid confines it was inevitable that typhus and dysentery would run amok, so much so that when the early transports made landfall on the south coast of England, at first locals could not believe the shivering, unshaven scarecrows ferried to shore were really British soldiers.
But that was in the future.
Most of the army’s cavalry horses were shot prior to departure simply because there was not enough hold space in the returning convoy to embark them as well as the men.
Already stretched by the importance of patrolling the Channel, North Sea, Mediterranean and Americas amongst others, the navy was so desperate for ships that inexperienced or incompetent masters were among those whose vessels were leased for the expedition. Alexander Gordon (15th Hussars) reported that one vessel carrying his regiment was almost wrecked when the master mistook the glow of the Needles lighthouse for a star, until he was persuaded of his error by a landlubber, the regimental paymaster.
In fact by the 20th of January the weather had eased slightly, only for the gales to return with a vengeance the following day. Crammed into the Dispatch transport were around seventy men of the 7th Hussars, including three of their officers, together with 34 horses. In the early hours of 22nd January (between 2am and 4am, depending on the source) and running for Falmouth, she struck a chain of shoals to the south of that port known as ‘The Manacles’ – old Cornish Maen Eglos, or Church Stones.
It’s difficult to imagine the full horror of what happened next. The grinding, tearing sound of timber on rocks as the vessel came to a sudden and unexpected stop would have reverberated right through the ship. Men asleep in their hammocks were thrown out. Scrambling about inside what was in effect a pitch-black slowly-disintegrating wooden box, disoriented and terrified, who knows what went through their minds as the sea slowly smashed the transport to pieces?
Once the ship foundered, the horses on board were lost. They would have been lowered into the hold using block and tackle, a laborious process which meant that even had the ship struck the coast rather than being out at sea there was no way to get the animals out.
So the wreck would have been filled with screaming men and animals until, eventually, the raging sea quieted them all. Of the hundred-odd souls aboard The Dispatch, only six survived; five hussar privates and one of the regimental farriers. Officers Major Cavendish, Captain Duckenfield, and Lieutenant Waldegrave all perished.
Two hours later, and further north, a second vessel – the Royal Navy sloop Primrose, on its way to Spain with despatches, struck The Manacles with the loss of 126 lives. The sole survivor was a boy who had lashed himself to the stump of a mast, from where he was rescued by intrepid locals, by now alerted to the disasters, who launched small boats in the hope of saving at least some lives.
Washed ashore at Coverack and further along the rocky coast, casualties were buried in mass graves in the churchyard at nearby St Keverne. Men of the 7th were originally commemorated by a plaque on the church wall which read:
When Britain sends at liberty’s command
Her ready youth to free a stranger land,
She bears her slain in triumph to the shore,
And the proud parent shows the wounds before.
But when her sons, each form of danger past,
Strain their glad eyes to view her bills at last;
If then the tempest rolls the foaming flood,
And her own ocean ‘whelms her bravest blood,
When there a Bukenfield(sic), a Cavendish here,
And youthful Waldegrave press a wat’ry bier;
Their mourning comrades feel a moisten’d cheek,
And bid the marble their dumb sorrow speak.
Tyranti the barrier of thy rage, the deep
Aids thy fierce boast, and English mothers weep.
At some point this was removed and the gravesite seems to have been forgotten until a later mass burial uncovered the bodies, whereupon a descendent of the 7th Hussars previous field commander Sir Hussey Vivian provided a permanent memorial for the grave mound.
Interestingly, dead horses washed up on were also interred, but further along the coast. It seems these were covered rather than buried (probably due to the presence of granite rocks not far below the surface) and this mound is still visible.
So the British were back on home soil, but it would not be long before another army returned to Iberia, this time without loss of life on the voyage. The parallel expedition to Walcheren in the Netherlands, however, killed more than 4000 men. Not lost at sea, this time, but struck down by disease.
Mother nature always has the upper hand.
Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras Terence Grocott (2002)
Journal of a Cavalry Officer in the Corunna Campaign Captain Alexander Gordon (facsimile reprint of original held by the RMA, Sandhurst)
Cannon Diggens’ Archive (http://www.st-keverne.com/History/diggens/d7.php)
The British army’s embarkation at Corunna and subsequent loss of the Dispatch transport feature in my new novel, Leopardkill, due for release on 1st September, 2013.
This article was previously posted on English Historical Fiction Authors blog