The Peninsular war part 5: The convention of Cintra and its aftermath

This is the fifth instalment of my series looking at the Peninsular war through the eyes of the British soldiers.

For the previous article covering the battle of Vimeiro please follow this link.

As soon as the battle was over the whole British army was desperate to pursue the beaten French before they could reform and reorganise. But Sir Harry still refused. Early on the 22nd his brief stint as Commander ended as Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived to take over. He had even less experience of leading armies in the field and lacked the energy needed to launch a successful campaign.

As the three Lieutenant Generals debated fiercely what their course of action should be there was a suddenly a flurry of activity and some excitement in the camp as a group of French horsemen approached under a flag of truce.

General Kellermann had come to talk terms. Burrard and Dalrymple may not have realised how bad the position of the French was, but General Junot did. If the fighting continued there was a real chance that his battered army would end up stuck in Lisbon, blockaded by sea and besieged by land surrounded by a rebellious population on the verge of insurrection. He wanted a truce.

Thus, an armistice was signed, later to be known as the convention of Cintra. The French, whose bargaining skills had been well drilled during the revolutionary era, negotiated excellent terms for themselves. They were to be evacuated from Portugal on board British ships with all of their arms, artillery and baggage, including private property. Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley all signed the document which made the Portuguese Junta livid. They weren’t consulted and were particularly upset that the French would be able to disappear with all of their plunder.

Militarily the convention made sense for the British. It meant that they would be able to liberate all of Portugal without having the inconvenience of assaulting the French strongholds at Elvas, Fort la Lippe, Almeida and Peniche. Although Wellesley signed the convention and could see the benefits he was still seething at the behaviour of his superiors and made his distaste clear in a letter to the Duke of Richmond on the 27th of August,

“The french got a terrible beating on the 21st. . .They would have been entirely destroyed, if Sir H. Burrard had not prevented me from pursuing them. Indeed, since the arrival of the great Generals, we appear to have been palsied, and everything has gone wrong. . .I am not very well pleased, between ourselves, with the way in which things in this country are likely to go on, and I shall not be sorry to go home.[1]”

Most of the soldiers, like Captain Leach of the 95th, were equally angry at the convention and sided with Wellesley,

“The wisdom and propriety of the government in sending out Sir H. Burrard to supersede Sir A Wellesley and immediately afterwards ordering Sir Hew Dalrymple to supersede Sir H Burrard is a question I shall leave others to decide. My own opinion on the business has long since been formed. The old and homely adage, that ‘too many cooks spoil the broth,’ I conceive to have been verified on this occasion. Much having been said as to the propriety and consistency of Sir A. Wellesley having ever consented, as far as he was concerned, to the convention of Cintra, the simple question appears to be this, – Had Sir A Wellesley retained the command of the army after the battle, and followed up, as he unquestioningly would, with a certain number of brigades, the French army, without allowing it time to rally and reform, whilst with the remainder of his force, he had pushed on with all haste by another route, and thereby gained possession of the passes leading to Lisbon before Junot’s army could reach them, would the convention of Cintra have taken place?”[2]

As Wellesley fired off letters to anybody who would listen the army marched into Lisbon. Captain Patterson was touched by the excitement of the Portuguese people as his troops marched into town,

“The sentiments they entertained towards us were heartfelt gratitude. Those feelings were expressed with vehemence and fervour, not merely by a class or a faction, but by all ranks and ages among the people, who saluted us with loud and deafening huzzas, and with cries of ‘viva los ingleses’. . .As we marched beneath their crowded windows, a shower of garlands, flowers, olive branches and other harmless missiles fell profusely upon us.[3]”

But not everybody was so keen to see the English arrive. Until they could be evacuated the French troops were still in town and there were dangerous moments as the two sets of soldiers came into contact. Ben Harris, while accompanying two Officers of the 95th for a trip into Lisbon, decided to quench his thirst in a basement bar full of Frenchmen,

“At first they appeared inclined to be civil to me, although my appearance amongst them caused rather a sensation, I observed, and three or four rose from their seats, and with all the swagger of Frenchmen strutted up and offered to drink with me. I was young then, and full of the natural animosity against the enemy so prevalent with John Bull. I hated the French with a deadly hatred, and refused to drink with them, showing by my discourteous manner, the feeling I entertained; so they turned off with a ‘Sacre’ and ‘Bah!’ and reseating themselves, commenced talking at an amazing rate all at once, and no man listening to his fellow. Although I could not comprehend a word of the language they uttered , I could pretty well make out that I myself was the subject of the noise around me. My discourteous manner had offended them, and they seemed to be working themselves into a violent rage. One fellow in particular, wearing an immense pair of mustachios, and his coat loosely thrown over his shoulders, his arm being wounded and in a sling, rose up and attempted to harangue the company. He pointed to the pouch at my waist and then to his own wounded arm, and I began to suspect that I should probably get more than I had bargained for on entering the house, unless I speedily managed to remove myself out of it, when, luckily, Lieutenant Cox and Captain Leach entered the room in search of me. They saw at a glance the state of affairs, and instantly ordered me to quit the room, themselves covering the retreat. ‘Better take care, Harris,’ said the captain, ‘If you get amongst such a party as that again. You do not understand their language; I do: they meant mischief.’”

Harry Ross-Lewin found himself in a hotel crammed with French soldiers. On the advice of the owner he removed his uniform and was secreted up to his room,

“My first care was to place every article of furniture there against the door; and then I stretched myself on my humble couch, but had no sooner done so than I was assailed by such myriads of bugs that I did not for a moment venture to dispute the post with them. In a few minutes moreI heard some persons attempting to force the door, and as I had a considerable sum of money on me, and as the attempts to effect an entrance were renewed repeatedly, though without success, I passed the remainder of the night standing opposite the door with my sword drawn.[4]”

A few days later the French began boarding ships for home, chased the whole way by Portuguese anger. Ross-Lewin witnessed the chaos by the docks,

“There was an unusual commotion among the people and I found that it was occasioned by the sight of large packing cases, and the officers baggage that the French soldiers were conveying to their boats. The (Portuguese) mob carried stilettos in their sleeves and proceeded to stab every straggler they met. The British officers took all the single Frenchmen that they saw under their protection and thus saved the lives of several.[5]”

Back home in Britain there had been euphoria at news of the British victory, bells had been rung, cannons fired and the newspapers plastered with triumphant front pages. But as soon as the details of the Convention of Cintra came to light, brought to London by an apoplectic Portuguese minister, the reaction quickly changed.

The press, public and the politicians were greatly angered. They couldn’t understand how, having been victorious on the battlefield, the commanders had let the French off the hook and allowed them to leave Portugal on board British ships.

It became a political hot potato, the Generals quickly becoming the most unpopular men in Britain. A disgruntled Wellesley requested to be relieved of his post and returned to Britain. Shortly afterwards Dalrymple and Burrard were recalled, all three men now set to face a board of enquiry.

In November, at the Royal college in Chelsea seven Generals, under the Presidency of General David Dundas, listened to the evidence. After three weeks of deliberation they came to their decision. . . that there were no grounds for a court-martial[6] and concluded that,

“It is our unanimous declaration that unquestionable zeal and firmness appear throughout to have been exhibited by Lieutenant General Sir Hew Dalrymple, Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Arthur Wellesley, as well as that the ardour and gallantry of the rest of the officers and soldiers, on every occasion during this expedition, have done honour to the troops.[7]”

Despite this official let-off Dalrymple was publicly rebuked by the King and found himself singled out as the scape goat, relegated to obscurity and disgrace.[8] For Wellesley though it was a minor bump on the road to becoming Britain’s most successful General. In January 1809 he was thanked by Parliament and posted back to the Peninsular to lead a fresh campaign.

Although it had ended in controversy, Wellesley’s first Peninsula campaign had been successful. The British had achieved their goal, in Portugal at least, of “throwing off the yoke of France.” A powerful French army had been well beaten in battle, something that hadn’t happened in years. The rest of Europe observed developments with interest, was Napoleon’s army finally beginning to crack?

Admittedly the British had had more men than their opponents, both at Rolica and Vimeiro, but under Wellesley they had shown that they were no longer an army to be scorned. Their tactical tool box had proved to be well stocked, especially during the defensive fighting at Vimeiro. Wellesley and his subordinates had learnt the importance of keeping their men behind the crest of hills safe from enemy fire until needed, they had demonstrated the value of their own skirmishers and the importance of the two rank line that was to save the day for the British again and again throughout the rest of the war.

With the three commanding officers now sent home and facing an enquiry Sir John Moore finally received command of the expedition, something that many thought he should have had from the outset.

It was to Spain that the army now turned its attention. Eighteen thousand fresh troops, under General Sir David Baird were sent to join up with Moore, and hopes of a glorious campaign were raised by the success of the Spanish at the battle of Baylen and the siege of Zaragoza.

But Napoleon had been watching, he cursed his General’s for their ineptitude and set off for Spain at the head of a vast army, determined to crush the Spanish resistance and finally annihilate the British army.

The scene is now set, a plucky force of redcoats advancing to face an all conquering dictator and his vast army. The campaign that followed is one of the great epics of military history and lead to Britain’s first Dunkirk. . .

If you have enjoyed this article the you may want to see more of my Peninsular war writing. Please follow this link.


[1] Supplementary despatches, correspondence and memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, K.G. Volume VI. Edited by his Son the Duke of Wellington, K.G. 1860. P.127.
[2] Rough sketches of the life of an old soldier. J Leach. P.55.
[3] Adventures of Captain John Patterson. Captain John Patterson. P 51.
[4] With the Thirty-Second in the Peninsular and other campaigns. By Harry Ross-Lewin. P. 119.
[5] With the Thirty-Second in the Peninsular and other campaigns. By Harry Ross-Lewin. P. 120.
[6] A History of the British Army – Vol VI – (1807-1809) by Hon Sir John William Fortescue. Kindle edition, location 3800
[7] The annual register, or, A view of the History, Politics and Literature for the year 1808. Quoted byTom Holmberg on http://www.napoleon-series.org/research/government/diplomatic/c_inquiry.html
[8] A History of the British Army – Vol VI – (1807-1809) by Hon Sir John William Fortescue. Kindle edition, location 3846.

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