Tomorrow is the bicentenary of the Battle of Salamanca, in which British, Portuguese and Spanish troops under the Earl (later Duke) of Wellington defeated Napoleon’s Marshal Auguste Marmont in the rolling hills of Castilla y Leon, western Spain.
To mark the anniversary of the first major offensive victory of the Peninsular War, one of the British Army’s “large regiments”, The Rifles, will be granted the unique honour of the Freedom of the City of Salamanca.
By the beginning of June 1812 Wellington’s advance towards Madrid, threatening the puppet-government of “King” Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s elder brother, had been thwarted by Marmont’s “Army of Portugal”. The two armies were roughly equal in strength, about 50,000, so neither commander could risk battle without first drawing his opponent into an unfavourable position. For several weeks Wellington and Marmont had shadowed one another, and on the morning of July 22 there were several skirmishes between the advance and flank guards as they marched eastwards in parallel to the south of Salamanca.
Marmont then thought he saw an opportunity to outflank Wellington by extending his leading divisions westwards, but Wellington had adroitly concealed the movement of the 3rd Division, under the temporary command of his brother-in-law MajorGeneral Edward Pakenham, and as the French line became overextended, he seized the moment to attack. Led by Brigadier-General Benjamin d’Urban’s Portuguese Cavalry Brigade, the 3rd Division drove into General Jean Thomières’ 7th Division, completely routing them, Thomières himself being killed. Wellington began feeding his other divisions into the fight in what was known as “oblique order”, and Marmont had to break off the battle and retreat eastwards. It was said, with a little poetic licence, that Wellington had defeated an army of 40,000 men in 40 minutes. Three weeks later, the allies entered Madrid.
The battle established Wellington as an offensive general. General Maximilien Foy, whose 1st Division covered Marmont’s withdrawal, wrote in his diary: “This battle is the most cleverly fought, the largest in scale, the most important in results, of any that the English have won in recent times. It brings up Lord Wellington’s reputation almost to the level of that of Marlborough. Up to this day we knew his prudence, his eye for choosing good positions, and the skill with which he used them. But at Salamanca he has shown himself a great and able master of manoeuvring. He kept his dispositions hidden nearly the whole day: he allowed us to develop our movement before he pronounced his own: he played a close game; he made use of the oblique order in the style of Frederick the Great.”
Two “Imperial Eagles” were captured at Salamanca. That of the 22nd Line Regiment was taken by Ensign John Pratt of the Light Company of the 2nd Battalion 30th Foot and is today on display in the Museum of the (former) Queen’s Lancashire Regiment (now the Duke of Lancaster’s) in Preston. The second eagle was that of the French 62nd Line Regiment, captured by Lieutenant Pearce of the 44th Foot (East Essex), and is today carried on parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment.
The British Army cherishes its “operational heritage” in different ways. The Parachute Regiment has a shorter history than any infantry regiment, but there is none that is prouder of its history — or derives more strength from it — than they. Say “Arnhem” to a company of Paras in a tight corner, and it is worth another hundred men. For The Rifles, “Salamanca” is something of a foundational battle honour. It was shared by all the antecedent regiments of The Rifles, and this led to their choosing July 22 as The Rifles’ Regimental Day on their formation five years ago.
The regiment “formed” in February 2007. The words of command “Riflemen, Form!” have since the early days of Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore’s experimental light infantry brigade at Shorncliffe in Kent been distinctive. Today’s Rifles are an amalgamation of four regiments, two of them former “heavy” infantry regiments — the Devon and Dorsets and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment. The other two regiments were The Light Infantry itself, a multi-battalion regiment incorporating former famous county names such as the Durham Light Infantry, and The Royal Green Jackets, which too comprised older names such as the Rifle Brigade. The Rifles now consist of five regular and two territorial battalions. It is said that The Rifles’ cap badge — a silver bugle horn — is worn by nearly a quarter of all Army cadets.
Tomorrow’s ceremonies at Salamanca will begin at 8pm with the unveiling of a plaque to The Rifles at the entrance to the city, after which the Mayor of Salamanca, and General Sir Nick Parker, Commander Land Forces and Colonel Commandant of The Rifles, will lay a wreath beneath the medallion in the Plaza depicting the Duke of Wellington, which was erected to commemorate the allied victory. The ceremonies will close with the playing of the call No More Parades by two buglers from the regiment.