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Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

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Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Josh&Historyland » August 18th, 2017, 5:23 pm

A convo on the Napoleon Series has prompted me to seek out the manner in which Gen. Sherbrooke received his repulse.
Having proffered Napier, Oman & Fortescue to reasonably assert that the British infantry that crossed the Portiña were in a state of disorder after their charge and encountering fresh French reserves were then broken, I was challenged because none of the above were eyewitnesses. My correspondent had produced the account of a French officer who wrote that the British were in a column & I had replied that it would not have been normal for the British to be in a column at this moment, and cited the above works, which were not deemed authoritative enough.

I wonder if anyone could shed some hopefully contemporary light on the matter of the repulse and the state of the British when they received their check.

Josh.
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Re: Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Andrew » August 18th, 2017, 6:49 pm

Josh,

I am on holiday in Porto at the moment, so do not have my library to hand! However, I know of only two first hand French accounts of Talavera; one was Girod d'Ain and the other was Vigo de Roussillon (these spellings might not be quite right). I am pretty sure that Vigo was involved in Sherbrooke's repulse, but will not be able to check until I get back next week unless someone else can help you.

I have no recollection of the British being in column (though that might be my memory!), but I believe the French reserve were behind a wall. Will check when I get back.

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Re: Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Andrew » August 21st, 2017, 5:19 pm

Josh,

Of course Oman, Napier and Fortescue cannot be considered as authoritative as they were neither eye-witnesses nor, regrettably, give detailed references/sources for all their key information. They must therefore be used in conjunction with eye-witness accounts to verify or confirm what they say. However, eye-witness accounts cannot be trusted absolutely, as there are any number of reasons why one of them does not tell the full truth. One must also take into consideration what tends to be rather pompously called ‘inherent military probability’, but is actually quite important; for this one needs a decent knowledge of battlefield tactics of the day and the ground where the fighting took place.

Let’s take the example you give. I presume that your correspondent was referring to Vigo-Roussillon’s account of Talavera; he was a battalion commander in the 8th Line (Solignac’s brigade of Lapisse’s 2nd Division of Victor’s 1st Corps), and as such, a perfect eye-witness of the event of which you speak. His regiment were in the second line of the main attack on the centre of the British line and witnessed the defeat of the first line. He writes,

The 8th Regiment, supported by the 54th, although isolated, continued to advance towards the enemy positions. It crossed the ‘ravine’ [I must presume he means the shallow Portina as the ground is absolutely flat where the attack took place; I have walked it] with the best possible order and reformed on the other side under the artillery fire of the English. A column of infantry [this supports your correspondent’s case] headed towards my battalion. We had the advantage of being deployed [here he claims his battalion was in line and yet all accounts say the French advanced in column. However, perhaps he had deployed his battalion, despite ‘inherent military probability’ suggesting you would best cross a stream in column]; I watched for the moment when this column took this formation in its turn [which now suggests the British column now deployed into line]. The ground sloping to our side, I could see it from its front rank to its rear [rank], all its heads were ranged as if in a kind of amphitheatre because it was coming down [we can only guess what he really means by this but I do not think it changes what we are looking for. Personally, I struggle with this because the ground is absolutely flat where this attack took place, unless this battalion was coming down from the Cerro de Medellin which seems odd]. I let it approach as far as it wanted. My soldiers had their muskets ready, I had absolutely laid down that no one was to fire until I gave the order and I had informed them that I would order a battalion fire. When this column [this seems to contradict what he says above] was about sixty paces away...’

Apart from the conflicting references to line and column and the description of the ground as on a slope, we see that he gives no indication that the battalion he was facing was in any way disordered or charging. He also describes crossing what must have been the Portina, but all accounts seem to suggest that the French first line ran back across that stream and that the two Guards battalions at least pursued them across. All this suggests he is actually describing a separate event. All British accounts accept that the charging British units were disordered after a volley and charge, but Cameron kept his brigade in check and order and stopped it just beyond the stream. This brigade included the 2/83rd who Vigo-Roussilon claims to be the unit he confronted! Of course, he was hardly likely to know who they were at the time and all this just goes to confirm that even eye-witness accounts can be confusing and possibly inaccurate.

Apart from ‘inherent military probability’ being that the British line fired in line and therefore charged forwards in the same formation, Leigh Hay of the 29th, another eyewitness, in justifying the disorder wrote, ‘Who has ever seen an unbroken line preserved in following up a successful bayonet charge?’ So there they are back in line. Other British eye-witness accounts clearly describe a volley followed by an immediate charge (therefore in line); although the Guards charged first and then fired their volleys at the fleeing Frenchmen. The Guards were undoubtedly disordered at the end of their charge; all accounts seem to agree.

I think that space and time demands an end to this post, but I am happy to pursue the thread if you have any further questions or points you want to make.

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Re: Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Josh&Historyland » August 22nd, 2017, 4:25 pm

Andrew,

You are correct in everything regarding my conversation on the NS. I hope you had an excellent time abroad.

In your reply you have hit upon all my main thoughts regarding the account of Roussillon juxtaposed with the three English histories, and indeed a "memoir" of the Duke of Wellington from 1814, which I agree should be used alongside first hand testimony, and my correspondent naturally agreed with this too, though I maintained that he was hasty to assume them worthless as opposed to that of V-R.

Mostly I can't really make any firm resolution on such conflicting testimony, though I don't doubt V-R's Battalion engaged and broke an enemy unit, as most of Sherbrooke's division was bundled back up the ridge. However as you note there are discrepancies in the course of doing so that don't make sense, regarding IMP.

Perhaps we are seeing a slightly disjointed account of the French counterattack? And the troops engaged and defeated are a portion of Cameron's brigade, although it seems to me one of the less authoritative British histories suggest that the brigade was unable to maintain itself when Campbell's retreated and intimates again at that phantom disorder, nevertheless it seems plausible indeed logical that Cameron, in wishing to withdraw in good order would form column to manoeuvre back to the ridge, especially since I think there was a threat of cavalry, but does it conform with IMP that Cameron or the CO of the 83rd would remain in column to clear his rear? Not to my mind unless it was some desperate scrape to rush the enemy. It may be reading or projecting too much to think that V-R caught this unit in the act of an evolution and forced it to react in an unfavourable formation but it's a possibility, before I stray too much into conjecture however.

When did Rousillon write his account by the way?

Josh.
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Re: Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Andrew » August 22nd, 2017, 9:27 pm

Josh,

the key is to assess all the evidence and the best we can then do is to interpret as best we can. It is unlikely that all will interpret it in the same way.

Incidentally, the main French attack that hit Sherbrooke's division, was across absolutely flat ground, as was the ground H. Campbells's (the Guards) and Cameron's brigades of his division were deployed on. The two KGL brigades were on gently sloping ground.

I do not believe it is known when Vigo-Roussillon actually wrote his memoirs, but it seems they were based on a journal. Some sections of the journal were first published in the Revue des Deux Mondes in 1890, but the whole memoir was not published in full until 1981.

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Re: Talavera, Sherbrooke's Repulse.

Postby Josh&Historyland » August 23rd, 2017, 11:07 am

Yes, that should always be the case, Andrew. It indeed may well not be anything to do with Sherbrooke's division & therefore the only way to identify the incident would be to survey everything. As usual thank you for your help & advice!
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