This is the first in a series of articles examining the Peninsular war through the eyes of the soldiers themselves. In this piece we join Sir Arthur Wellesley and his men as they land in Portugal to take on the victorious French. I will be following a number of these men across Portugal and Spain and into France. I hope you enjoy the journey.

The August sun beat hard on the shoulders of the redcoats as they struggled ashore from rowing boats, onto the wide sandy beach of Mondego bay in Portugal. It was the 1st August 1808 and the British army was coming to the Iberian Peninsula, ready to throw the French out of Portugal and Spain.

Many of the men had been cooped up on board ship for weeks and were glad to finally be landing, ready to have a crack at the all conquering French army. But first they had to contend with the huge breakers and the groundswell of the Atlantic ocean.

John Patterson was a recently commissioned officer in the 50th Regiment of Foot (the West Kent regiment),

“As soon as the Portuguese boats, crowded with our soldiers, reached the foaming and rapid surge, a desperate pull was made by all the rowers when, dashing over its surface, we were launched upon the sand in a most unceremonious manner,being pitched, or rather tumbled out, more like a cargo of fish than a boatload of gentleman warriors.[1]”

Dazed horses and soldiers were pulled from the surf by burly sailors, Officers shouted orders, struggling to be heard above the crash and thunder of waves and men hurriedly dressed and dried themselves.

Mondego bay had been chosen after Sir Arthur Wellesley had gone ahead of his force to recce the situation. In Coruña he’d found the local Spanish junta unwilling to allow his troops to land on their soil, and the Portuguese beaches closer to Lisbon too well defended by French troops to risk a landing. Mondego bay was also protected by the Fort at Figueira, secured by the local Portuguese resistance and then handed over to four hundred British marines.

Jonathan Leach, a Captain in the elite 95th Rifles, was confronted as he landed, not by the enemy, but by a group his training had not prepared him for,

“We were beset with a host of padres, friars and monks, of all ages, each carrying a huge umbrella of the most gaudy colour imaginable; intended no doubt to protect their complexions, which vied with those of chimney sweeps. These gentry welcomed us with vivas, and protested that, with our assistance, every Frenchman in Portugal should be speedily annihilated. Our visitors were not confined to the male sex; for some olive beauties with sparkling eyes and jet black hair, were induced to take a peep at us; and, before we parted, some of the more favoured of us were presented with flowers and fruit from the hands of these damsels.[2]”

The hot, white sand sucked at the soldiers ankles exhausting them as they left the beach and marched to their bivouacs amongst the rocks. The men, already wearied and weakened from their time aboard ship, found themselves short of drinking water and carrying a heavy load. Four men of the 71st Regiment of foot died from thirst before they even reached camp.[3] Rifleman Benjamin Harris, a former shepherd and shoe maker from Dorset recalls the heavy load he had to carry ashore,

“The weight I myself toiled under was tremendous, and I often wonder at the strength I possessed at this period, which enabled me to endure it; for indeed, I am convinced that many of our infantry sank and died under the weight of their knapsacks alone. For my part, being a shoemaker, I marched under a weight sufficient to impede the free motions of a donkey; for besides my well filled kit, there was the great coat rolled on its top, my blanket and camp kettle, my haversack stuffed full of leather for repairing the men’s shoes. . .I also carried my canteen filled with water, my hatchet and rifle and eighty rounds of ball cartridge in my pouch.[4]”

Altogether it took eight days for Wellesley’s fifteen thousand men to disembark. Once ashore they were organised into six brigades.

As well as the infantry the force also included 380 cavalrymen of the 20th Light Dragoons and a handful of nine and six pounder artillery pieces. Unfortunately lack of space on the troopships meant very few horses had arrived and both the cavalry and artillery were virtually impotent.

Also in the vicinity were five or six thousand Portuguese troops commanded by General Freire. Despite being enemies of the French and on home soil, the Portuguese demanded Wellesley supply them with food from his own limited supplies. He refused and a sullen Freire withheld most of his force. Eventually he agreed to loan the British fourteen hundred infantry and two hundred and sixty cavalry[6] Wellesley was livid, telling Secretary of State for War Lord Castlereagh that the Portuguese were scared of the French and incapable of feeding themselves.[7]

To be continued…

Click here for part 2 of my Peninsular war series. In the next article we look at the first British combat casualties of the campaign during the skirmish at Obidos.

[1] Adventures of Captain John Patterson. Captain John Patterson. P 30-31
[2] Rough sketches of the life of an old soldier. J Leach. P42.
[3] Journal of a Soldier of the 71st Regiment From 1806-1815. By Anon. “Thomas”. Kindle edition, location 373.
[4] Recollections of Rifleman Harris. 1848. By Benjamin Randell Harris. P.26-27.
[5] A History of the British Army – Vol VI – (1807-1809) by Hon Sir John William Fortescue. Kindle edition, location 6626.
[6] The dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington K.G. Vol. IV. Compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Gurwood. P.78.
[7] The dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington K.G. Vol. IV. Compiled by Lieutenant Colonel Gurwood. P.80.

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