Wellington: A Personal History

By Christopher Hibbert | Go to book overview

20 From Vitoria to the Frontier 1812-13

'No officer dared to interfere.'

WELLINGTON left for the Spanish frontier in May 1813, turning in his saddle as he rode across it and waving his hat -- in one of those theatrical gestures to which he was occasionally and unexpectedly prone -- as he called out, 'Farewell, Portugal I shall never see you again.'1

As the French withdrew across the Douro, his men marched into Spain, greeted excitedly in village after village where church bells pealed, flowers were scattered on the soldiers' heads from windows and balconies, girls beat tambourines, young men stamped their heels as they kept pace with the soldiers down the streets, performing fandangos and boleros as accompaniments to the rhythmical tramp of the marching feet.

The tiring march went on through Zamora and Léon towards the fast-flowing river Esla, a tributary of the Douro. This was a formidable obstacle, and several men were swept away in the torrent as they tried to cross the ford of Almendra before a pontoon bridge was erected for the rest of the British force. But soon after the last man was across the entire British army -- which Wellington had divided so that the French might be left in doubt as to which of the two columns was the main thrust -- was reunited near Tordesillas and ready to march together for Burgos, supplied now through the port of Santander on Spain's northern coast.

The enemy, having evacuated Valladolid and Palencia, were prepared to make a stand here; but Wellington saved himself a siege by manoeuvring them out of the town and obliging them to blow up the castle which was destroyed in a thunderous explosion that blew out the windows of the white Gothic Cathedral, founded in the thirteenth century by Ferdinand III of Castile.

Over the Ebro the British troops tramped and into the small Basque province of Alava, through fertile valleys, beneath mountains clothed

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