Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

1809.] PERSPICUOUS MEMORANDUM OF WELLINGTON.

279

any plan of attack into two portions, and impeded the assailants very considerably in moving troops from the right to the left of their line, while the British army could move within the Lines from Torres Vedras to the Monte Agraça, and thence by Arruda to Alhandra to the succour of divisions either of the right or left by a very short flank march. Moreover, the only advance from the north of Monte Junto must cross the lower Serra de Baraguodo, which could not be passed without much delay and an exposure of force that would very much injure the operation.

A most complete system of signals, under the guidance of experienced naval officers, was ordered to be established on points uniting extensive views with the greatest security, by means of which orders might be transmitted and intelligence communicated to head-quarters with the utmost celerity from the most distant points' of the lines.

A memorandum from Wellington to Colonel Fletcher, dated the 20th of October, and detailing the strategical principle on which he desired the co-operation of the skill of the engineers in his projected camp, is a document which for perspicuity and forethought at once places the British Commander-in-Chief in the front rank of military leaders. As in some degree contemporary with the occupation of the Isle of Lob-Awe by Napoleon, it may supply a subject of comparison between the works of these two mighty commanders. The objects of both may be stated as nearly the same, to form a placed'armée and base for future operations; but with the one it was only an expedient adopted on the spur of the moment to obtain a pied-à-terre, from which to strike a blow against his adversary, after the reverse of Elchingen ; while with the other it was a wellconsidered resolve, adopted long before the arrival of any necessity, on the sound defensive principle of enabling a weaker body to restrain a stronger, — probably the most important problem of the art of war. The Lines of Lisbon may, perhaps, with greater accuracy, be compared with the ne plus ultra lines of Marshal Villars, erected at Bouchain, in 1711; although Massena did not evince the abilities of Marlborough, by drawing his adversary beyond their protection, and overthrowing him in the open field. The lines of Torres Vedras are also a perpetual monument to the honour of the skill of British engineers. Art and labour were here most judiciously exerted to improve every natural advantage, to strengthen and cover the weaker points, to diminish the length of accessible front, so as to make it more commensurate with the strength of the defending force, to facilitate the communications of troops within, and to cramp, confine, interrupt, and embarrass the movements of assailants without; in short, they were well devised to afford such power of concentration that at no single point should a division engage, but under the favourable circumstances of a strong front, secure flanks, facility of intercourse, and an open and unassailable rear. The redoubts were, generally speaking, but ramparts affording cover sufficient for guns where the fire of artillery was demanded for some specific object, and in which militia and 280

MILITARY GENIUS OF ROBERT FLETCHER.

[A.D.

ill-organised peasantry, or ordinanza, might fight with confidence. These, though totally unfit to act in the open field, had innate courage and patriotic desire sufficient to resist the enemies of their country, behind earthworks, and to aid in the practice of artillery against a distant enemy. The artificial defences of the lines altogether presented the most favourable example of the first application of the science of the engineer in furtherance of, though invariably subservient to, the field tactics of an army; for there was no continuity of epaulement in the entire extent of the lines requiring a single efficient brigade to be kept out of its ordinary column of march, and the army remained a compact manæuvring body, totally independent of the fortifications. The name of Robert Fletcher, as connected with the Lines of Lisbon, deserves an immortality in military annals for the ability and diligence with which the British engineers, under his guidance, rendered a naturally strong position absolutely impregnable; so that one of the greatest generals of the day deemed an attack on it utterly hopeless, and never even seriously attempted it.

Lord Wellington was too wary in his nature to trust to one obstacle in war. He had an eye not only on the resources of his own army to defend, but on the means of devising impediments and obstacles to restrain the advance of his enemy. He would not, therefore, confide in the simple enthusiasm of the Portuguese people, nor on the free promises of the local authorities, in which he had been so frequently deceived. He therefore insisted with the Regency, that his own authority, as Marshal-General of Portugal, should be independent and absolute, above all local government, in the emergency which the construction of the Lines contemplated. He required, moreover, that they should permit him to enforce the ancient military laws of the realm, by which all men were to be called upon to be enrolled to bear arms in defence of their King and country; and he also demanded that the native inhabitants should be compelled to destroy their corn mills, remove their boats, break down their bridges, lay waste their fields, abandon their dwellings, and remove their property, on whatever line of country the invaders should advance. Under these stipulations upwards of 30,000 regular soldiers, armed, clothed, and paid by Great Britain, joined the allied army under the General's standard. About 26,000 militia had, in addition, muskets and bayonets supplied to them, that they might be enabled to take the field, while a cloud of ordenanzas filled the mountains and villages. The general principle here laid down for resistance against the enemy was, that all the best troops that could be assembled should oppose his advance without risking a general action, while the irregular troops should close round his flanks and rear; and that the country through which he passed should be wasted as though the locusts of the prophet Joel bad passed over it, and had left a “ desolate wilderness.”

1809.) REORGANISATION OF THE BRITISH COMMISSARIAT. 281

41. WELLINGTON REORGANISES THE BRITISH COMMISSARIAT.

The deceitfulness of Spanish promises, and the proofs afforded during the Talavera campaign that Spanish reverses bad neither alarmed nor diminished the preposterous presumption of their general officers, nor taught them ordinary truth and prudence in co-operating with their allies, determined the British Commander-in-Chief never again to expose his army to so much jeopardy and so nearly to starvation in the field, by trusting to any other Commissariat than his own. Alison makes these remarks upon the campaign : “For a month that followed the battle of Talavera the distress of the troops from a deficiency of supplies had become insupportable. The Junta of Truxillo had failed in their contract to supply 240,000 rations to the British army, and Cuesta had refused to lend mules, of which he had some hundreds with his army idle. The troops only received ten days' bread and a little meat during the month that followed the 22nd of July, and the horses of the cavalry and artillery no more than three deliveries of forage, while the officers sustained themselves by purchasing, at a shameful cost, the provisions which had accumulated in the hands of the Spanish soldiery.

The General-in-Chief therefore, no sooner cantoned his army on the Guadiana than he applied all the resources of his vigorous mind to a reorganisation of the very imperfect system which had prevailed up to this period for the supply of an army in actual warfare in the field; and, although no record of the changes he now introduced has survived the annihilation of all British military memoranda under the injudicious economies of the long peace, either in print or in the archives of Government, yet the tradition hangs on the minds of the few survivors of the Peninsula contest, that at the end of the war the system which was now matured by Wellington was “understood to have been rendered so nearly perfect, that on the restoration of the Bourbons, Baron Dupin was sent over from France to inquire into the arrangements of the Duke of Wellington's Commissariat, which had proved to be so productive of military efficiency.

From the evidence extant in print of the examinations of some of the old campaigners, I deduce this summary of Lord Wellington's plan. The vast commercial navy of Great Britain was resorted to for the purpose of bringing, on the requisition of the Commissaryin-Chief, the products of the entire world to the mouths of the Tagus and the Douro and Oporto, and later in the war to the ports of Bilbao and Passages, in the Bay of Biscay; by which means corn and flour from the Baltic and the United States, cattle from Barbary and South America, hay and salt meat from the United Kingdom, stockfish from Newfoundland, tea and coffee from the West Indies, rum, brandy, and even arrack from distant Colonies of the East and West, were all received by Deputy-Commissaries-General, who immediately expedited them by means of boat conveyance up the rivers, to the great interior entrepôts at Abrantes, Lamego and

282 REORGANISATION OF THE BRITISH COMMISSARIAT.

[A.D.

other large towns. Here another Commissariat staff received the goods in charge, and, by means of the native bullock-cars of the country and vehicles of various kinds, they were enabled to send for. ward, by the most practicable communications they could discover, to the great magazines formed at Celorico, Castello Branca, Estremoz, &c. From these depôts advantage was taken of the peculiarities of ordinary Spanish traffic to employ what may be termed pack-mules. A Capitaz Mayor or Capitaz (as he was called) had three or four, or in some instances long strings of mules, his own property, which moved backwards and forwards in continual streams, bringing up supplies to every brigade, and even to some regiments, and carrying back to the depôts, where hospitals were also established, the sick and inefficient from the very extremities of the army. The hardy and sure-footed animals employed carried heavy loads over mountains and through passes inaccessible by any other means of communication, and by this resource the Assistants and DeputyAssistant-Commissaries attached to the army in the field had the power of keeping up a continuous and regular supply for the troops immediately under their supervision in every remote locality. I do not believe that the British army, in all their marches and countermarches was ever left, for any unreasonable period, in arrear of regular rations; nor was the enemy often able to interrupt this arrangement; for the animals, being the private property of the muleteer, whose remuneration depended on the safe delivery of the load, they were sure to be well looked after and preserved from capture by every means in his power.

This system was probably a very costly one, and at its commence. ment much time and efficiency were sacrificed to the endeavour to introduce economy, and more especially to establish order in the accounts *; but, although this was difficult, yet it obtained the ordeal of supervision and correction from the master mind. All custody of coin was removed from the Commissariat and transferred to the military chest, and the officers of the former branch were instructed only to pay by cheques, treasure being sụpplied to the chest by bankers, under a perfectly independent control. The officers of the Commissariat were thus restricted to mere supply and issue, and it was found that these duties occupied every moment of their time when the troops were in movement, and prevented much peculation.

The old system thus superseded dated as far back as the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and is said to have originated with her cele. brated General, the Earl of Essex. The officer at the head of military supply was at that period styled “ The Proviant Master," and conceived to be “as necessary and useful, if not more so, in the field than either a general or a treasurer.” The armies, however, do not appear to have been well supplied in those days, when luxurious abundance at one moment was followed by long periods of dearth and famine, and when frequent mutinies of 1809.7 REORGANISATION OF THE BRITISH COMMISSARIAT. 283

* To afford some idea of the magnitude of this expense, I have heard that at one time the floating unsettled account current of the Commissary-in-Chief with the British Treasury amounted to 57 millions sterling!

the soldiery, for want of pay and provisions, were the common consequences, whole armies being dissipated or driven to horrid exactions, from the want of a regular supply of food. In the great civil war Commissaries for the supply of victuals came into story; but the “ fantasied men of warre” were bad husbands of the resources of war in those days, and very much enriched themselves by their depredations, altogether neglecting their own soldiers. Macaulay has “damned to fame” the chief Commissary of the armies and fleets of King William, when “a crowd of negligent or ravenous functionaries plundered, starved, and poisoned the unfortunate soldier.” It is not to the credit of our greatest British General, the Duke of Marlborough, that even when in the field he “reserved a handsome percentage upon the expense of the subsistence of the armies under his command.” Subsequently, in the 18th century, officers in command of regiments, and even sometimes only of companies, were allowed a fixed sum of money to supply “ their men, and were permitted to apply all savings which they could effect (called off-reckonings) for their own benefit.” At this period, also, commissaries were allowed to be at the same time contractors as well as disbursers, and enormous fortunes were thus made from the food of the fighting men. The Commissariat at this period only acted as a sort of wholesale merchant to commanding officers, who would often, on account of its cheapness, require an article of subsistence to be supplied that was injurious to the soldier's health. Thus, in 1758, Lord Ligonier reports “ that more men were lost by the obligation to live upon rye-bread than from the sword of the enemy.”

Similar practices prevailed, and to a greater extent, in the French armies of Louis XIV. and XV. Royal favourites received from these Sovereigns such appointments as Paymaster for private debts to the King; and officers in command of armies, emboldened by impunity and debased by example, entered into collusions with contractors to cheat the State; and one of them, who deserved to be hung, would probably have been executed but that Madame de Pompadour interposed, saying, “ Qu'on ne pend point un homme qui peut donner cent mille écus.”

Although many attempts were made to correct such abuses in Germany, Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, in excusing himself to the British Government for the shortcomings of his campaign in 1761, asserts that “his hands were tied by the defects of the Commissariat, which was not sufficient to fulfil its functions of collecting subsistence and bringing it up for distribution among the army.” But the reforms introduced into the British service at this period were all again hastily abolished at the conclusion of the war, and, on the outbreak of the American contest, there existed no known machinery for the supply of an army in the field. So little, indeed, have statesmen been impressed with the supreme importance of the “proviant” to an army, that when Moore and Wellesley's armies were first despatched to the Peninsula, it will be seen, from the instructions extant in print, that

[ocr errors]
« ZurückWeiter »