HL Deb 26 April 1811 vol 19 cc0-768
The Earl of Liverpool

rose, and addressed their lordships upon the motion, of which he had on a former day given notice for a Vole of their lordships Thanks to lord viscount Wellington, and the brave army under his command, for their signal and meritorious services during the recent operations in Portugal. When he contemplated all the circumstances of the campaign, the wisdom of the original plan of operations, the cool and steady discretion with which it was prudently carried into execution in all its parts, and the final and happy result of the whole in the deliverance of Portugal, from the presence and oppression of the French army, he could not anticipate the possibility of a dissentient voice to the motion with which he meant to conclude. He would appeal to their lordships recollection as to the impressions of doubt, little short of despair, which pervaded many even of their lordships, when, with the vast accumulation of force which had been placed at his disposal, Massena first collected his formidable army on the frontiers of Portugal, and he would then ask them to contrast the despondence of that period with the well grounded confidence excited by the general result of the operations of the campaign, in order to form an adequate judgment of the transcendent merit of the illustrious general and of the eminent services of his gallant army. The ability which had been so conspicuously displayed by lord Wellington throughout every part of his career in the peninsular campaigns, had fully convinced the French government, that to succeed against such a commander required more than ordinary talents in the general opposed to him. Massena was therefore selected: Massena, the most fortunate of all the French generals, to repair the losses sustained by so many other French marshals, and an army was placed at his disposal, the largest that the means of France could collect; but as it was presumptuously anticipated fully competent to the complete reduction of the kingdom of Portugal by the speedy and effectual expulsion of the British army from that country. This French army was composed of a force so numerous, so arranged, and so appointed in every respect, as to render it a fit instrument under the command of Massena, for the purpose of undertaking and accomplishing the extensive and long meditated expedition against Portugal. That expedition was not hastily undertaken; it was known to be long under consideration, deliberately resolved on, in a high state of preparation, and it was placed under the command and direction of the ablest and most expert commander France could boast of. The great and cardinal object of lord Wellington under these circumstances was at all events the defence of Portugal; which he was persuaded he could main-lain against any force which it was probable that France would send; considering Lisbon and its vicinity as the great pivot on which his system must turn, fortified as the positions there would be by the skill of our engineers, added to the local defences which nature had already made so strong. The foundation of the necessary works had been begun in the winter before last, and had been proceeded in and completed, tranquilly and unostentatiously: these works formed the great basis of the plan of defence. The British general was perfectly aware from the beginning, of the great importance of not hastily risking the safety of the gallant army under his command; and of looking for the defence of the country, not to measures which might probably succeed, but to measures founded upon a safe and prudent policy: by which he judged wisely, as the event had shewn, that success would finally be obtained. He wished, therefore, as long as possible, to keep the enemy on the frontiers, and defer their invasion to a later season of the year. In this view of the subject of defence there were two objects before him; the first, not hastily to risk the army; the second, the conviction that the security of Portugal depended on the hearty co-operation of the people, and the speedy equipment and discipline of the Portuguese troops. Much of the credit, success, and fame of the campaign must rest on a prudent policy; since it was well known, that a newly raised force would be most likely to take their future character from what they might prove to be on the first occasion of their being brought into action. If they were then successful, they were likely to maintain their reputation. Had he placed the Portuguese troops at first in a situation of fighting, unattended with local or other advantages, and had he been disappointed in the result, much time might have been required before the first unfavourable results could have been corrected. Thus, it might appear, when it was considered how large a proportion of lord Wellington's force was composed of Portuguese, that the prudent and defensive system was that which it was wise to adopt.—If their lordships would look at the nature and magnitude of the effort of the enemy, they would see that it bore no resemblance to some of those hasty and rapid armaments which had been made by France when engaged in war with different powers: but that, to invade Portugal, France, not at war with any of the powers of Europe, save the nations of the Peninsula, had deliberately prepared the means of invasion during seven months. To render the army perfect, the enemy had appointed one of the most able and successful of all his generals; nay so solicitous was he in this respect, that the best officers were brought from others of his armies, to act in subordinate capacities in the army of Massena. In short, it was a great, an immense effect of mature and anxious and deliberate preparation, under the ablest officers of France.

In the great view, however, which the British general took of the general objects of the campaign, and of the more immediate interests to which he was peculiarly bound to attend, he never lost sight of the propriety or policy of offensive warfare, should the opportunity occur with a rational chance of success. He never (as the enemy had chosen to assert) promised to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo. On that subject he communicated with the marquis de la Romana, who was perfectly convinced that lord Wellington's system was right. Lord Wellington had only said that if the Spaniards could make a great exertion, so as to draw off a considerable part of the French force, he would undertake offensive measures; but he added, that he should look to the campaign as a whole, and embark in no measure to which he was not adequate, or which would risk his army. By the mode of defence adopted, Ciudad Rodrigo did not surrender till the 31st of July; Almeida not till the 27th of August, and then prematurely and unexpectedly in consequence of an unfortunate accident, which was well known to all their lordships. Thus then it appeared that in consequence of the presence and position of the British army, the reduction of these two fortresses had been retarded from the middle of May, when the French army was assembled before Ciudad Rodrigo, to the 27th of August, when the accidental destruction of the magazine obliged the governor of Almeida to capitulate. So far therefore their lordships must perceive grounds of satisfaction, from the wisdom with which the operations, were concerted and carried on. Thus they saw armies, such as those which bad overturned kingdoms in a month, balanced and stopped; war returning to its old course, and the enemy obliged to respect us, and to carry on his hostilities upon old principles. Lord Wellington, when they advanced into Portugal, made no stand against them but when there was the strongest prospect of success; when circumstances were of the most advantageous kind, and in which he could safely try and estimate the value of the Portuguese. The French took the north road of the Mondego. They must all recollect the attack they made with two divisions upon our advantageous position, where first lord Wellington had the opportunity of putting our allies to the test. He (lord Liverpool) had it from various officers who were eye-witnesses, that they could see no difference between the exertions of the Portuguese and those of the British soldiers. Thus, by the commander's judicious mode of conducting the campaign confidence was inspired into them; they acquired a just opinion of their own powers; and his lordship was enabled to see on what grounds his future measures might rest. He persevered however in his original plan of retiring to the neighbourhood of Lisbon; protracting his retreat, to give the inhabitants time to remove their effects, and with the ultimate view of delaying the invaders. He withdrew to the position, where he had before said that he felt he could contend for the defence of Portugal. Was not this position such as he described it to be?—capable of resisting an army of near 70,000 men, full of threats and menaces, and of sanguine expectations of success?—A few weeks served to shew that lord Wellington was right; and whatever difference there was in other points, as to result, yet the enemy's opinion here confirmed the British general's, as was clearly shewn by his not venturing on an attack. This plan of our general was an original one, and entirely his own. It was formed upon no former plan for the defence of that country; it was the result of his own excellent judgment, and was now sanctioned by the tribute paid to its merit by the conduct of the enemy himself.

When lord Wellington thus found himself in the execution of his own masterly plan, placed in his position at Torres Vedras, two distinct courses of conduct presented themselves to his consideration—whether, taking advantage of circumstances he should seize the earliest favourable opportunity to attack the enemy; or, availing himself of the impregnable strength of his position, he should leave to the slow but sure progress of scarcity, want and privations, to produce ultimately all the disastrous effects to the enemy that could result from their immediate signal defeat. And here it would not be doing justice to lord Wellington if he did not say, that if any unseasonable delay had occurred, it would not have been imputable to that general. He coolly and carefully examined the question of attacking the French, and wrote fully and fairly to him (lord Liverpool) his ideas on the subject. He had stated explicitly that he was perfectly satisfied that he could beat the French army; but that he must inevitably himself suffer a very considerable loss, since the features of the country, which made his own ground so strong, rendered the position of the enemy little inferior in strength; besides, the roads were broken up, and many other inconveniences existed. On the other hand, he thought as confidently that the same beneficial results could be procured by delay. He wrote therefore distinctly that he did not mean to move his army, to risk a battle in a place less advantageous than that which he had already proposed. The enemy's army, too, he further stated, could be relieved only by some calamity befalling that of the allies; and he did not judge it expedient to put the fate of the campaign on the issue of a battle, upon ground chosen by the foe. He (lord Liverpool) wrote to him in reply, directing him to pursue his own judgment; knowing, from experience, and from personal acquaintance, the value and correctness of that judgment, and that it would point out to him the true line of duty and the sound principle of action. The general wrote again to him, that as there was no other army in the peninsula fit to act against such an enemy as he had before him, the great sacrifice and loss that would be the consequence even of a successful attack, must be considered; but he had no doubt that final success would be attained by other measures, which appeared to him the only safe and wise ones to be adopted under all the circumstances of the case. Such was the general's previous opinion: and through the whole of the operations up to the retreat on the 5th of March there never was a moment at which he was not confident of the result by a small sacrifice and wise delay. When, therefore, be compared the just anticipation of the result of his well concerted measures with the full and faithful accomplishment of all his most confident expectations, he trusted that it would not be too much to assume their lordships' cordial assent to this general conclusion, that there never had been a plan of campaign, a series of operations more uniformly successful, or conducted with more manifest and decided skill and spirit. What, but a well-considered previous system, could have enabled him, on the enemy's retreat, to march after him 30 days together without intermission? If there were no other proof of his previous opinion respecting ultimate success, it was demonstrable from his readiness for the pursuit of Massena!—(Hear!)—The rear-guard of the enemy was conducted with great talents by a French marshal, but was closely followed by us, till, at length, with trifling loss, our army had arrived on the spot where it stood last year, in high spirits and in high condition. It would be a waste of time to enlarge upon the importance of the service thus rendered to the common cause, and the credit due for it to the general. We had now an army inured to war, which had seen it in all its shapes; not only in battles and victories, but in the patient endurance of retreats, and the steadiness and experience acquired by remaining for months in particular positions. This campaign had also shewn us that we had a general equal to the best examples of modern warfare. It had formerly been said by the French, of a celebrated general of ours, when speaking of his great successes against them, that he lived in days when the greatest French generals were either dead or not employed. They could not say this of lord Wellington. It had been his fortune to be opposed to almost all the first generals of France: generals whose career of successes had made their names proverbial. He had first met and beaten Junot—he had beaten Soult—he had beaten Victor-he bad beaten Jourdan—and now he had beaten Massena, whose name had risen the highest for familiarity with victory!

A noble earl (Grey) had said, on a former motion of Thanks (Barrosa), that it was the satisfaction and pride of the country to know, that in every situation in which British valour was placed, if the odds against us were not numerically too great to give a chance of victory, our success was certain, on sea or on shore. We now had not only a proof of our preeminent bravery, but likewise of our superior military skill and science. We knew our military prowess as a nation long before we understood our maritime value. In the days of the duke of Marlborough, oar military fame shone forth with distinguished lustre. In more recent periods, circumstances indeed had induced us to attend more to maritime affairs; and while almost all the continent of Europe was sinking in ruin, our successes at sea had surpassed all the naval glories that bad ever been attained. When, however, the peninsula rose in arms against its oppressors, and seemed to many to furnish a most favourable opportunity of resisting the general enemy, we had given our vigorous and willing assistance, and had again met the struggle in extended military warfare. The event had clearly shewn us the value of our military character. He recollected an observation made by a gentleman now no more, of whom he could never speak without respect, from his admiration of his talents and his virtues, on the occasion of the victory in Egypt: "I have no fear," said he, "for the British troops, when opposed fairly to the enemy All they want," he added (alluding to a practice to which he was a little partial)" is a clear stage, and no favour!"

It had been formerly objected to the probability of our defending Portugal with success, that we should he met by the accumulated means of France. We had so been met, at a time, too, when she was not at war with other powers. Their lordships knew the magnitude of the effort she had made, and had seen the triumph of British valour, science, skill and perseverance. The result must shew what may be done when a people are determined to resist their invaders. The lose of the peninsula he should deeply regret, as he must regret the failure of the efforts of any people desirous of preserving their independence. The result, he trusted, would shew, as far at least as Portugal was concerned, what a nation, animated by a right spirit, could effect, although for years past unaccustomed to war, and deprived of all advantage of military experience. If ever this country should be doomed to be the theatre of war, we might, learn from the privations, sufferings and sacrifices of the Portuguese nation, what we owed to ourselves. We suffered, indeed, from the inevitable evils of a state of hostilities, but we were yet free from all the worst evils of war. If the measures which had been so successfully adopted in Portugal had been the result of a wise calculation, and had been connected with a pure spirit of philanthropy, so were they also the cheapest and easiest mode of defending our own country, and of securing to us those blessings we yet peculiarly enjoy. He should not farther trespass on their lordships' attention, but conclude with moving," That the Thanks of their lordships be given to lieut. gen. lord viscount Wellington, for the ability, fortitude and perseverance, which he had displayed in the important services he had performed, in the defence of Portugal against the enemy."

The motion being made, and the question put,

Earl Grey

rose, and said, that the motion of the noble lord had his most entire and full assent; and though the noble lord, in the course of his speech, had omitted nothing that could illustrate the nature and extent of the services that had been performed, yet he could not sit silent on the occasion, impressed as he was with feelings of gratitude and admiration towards that great commander who was the subject of this vote, and deriving a just national pride from the consideration, that the honour of the country had been so greatly exalted by the conduct of that distinguished general and his brave army. There were also additional motives of imperative force and of a nature personal to himself, which induced him to feel anxious to follow the noble earl and to second the present motion. In proportion to the pain which he felt in withholding his assent to the vote of thanks on a former occasion, was the pleasure which he now experienced in contributing his mite of approbation for services, as to the merits and effects of which there could be no doubt, and which indeed could hardly be too highly appreciated. The noble lord had with his usual ability done ample justice to the merit of lord Wellington, and to the bravery of the troops which he commanded. He had listened to the speech of that noble lord with the sincerest pleasure; and his thanks were particularly due to him for the candour which he had displayed, on this, as on every similar occasion, in avoiding the introduction of any invidious topics, and omitting all allusion to any of those former differences of opinion, which might have tended to interrupt the unanimity that ought to prevail on such an occasion. There was one point, however, on which on that occasion he (lord Grey) felt it impossible to be silent; and that was, the apparent contrast, or contradiction, as some might call it, between the sentiments which he had now delivered, and the opinions which he had expressed on former occasions, when the nature and policy of the campaign in Portugal were the subject of discussion. He was ready to acknowledge, that on the invasion of Portugal by the French armies, and in the course of their progress, he did anticipate a very different issue to the campaign from that which had since happily taken place. Whether the grounds upon which he had formed that opinion were just or defensible—whether the reasons and considerations which induced him to come to such a conclusion were well or ill founded, had more or less the appearance of probability to support them—whether in the eye of prudence or upon any principle of policy they might or might not be susceptible of justification, he did not mean then to inquire. It was enough to say that they were at the time his conscientious opinions. He had in the present instance a much more agreeable task to perform in expressing the great and signal satisfaction he felt, that the event had not corresponded with the fears which he felt, nor confirmed the anticipations which pressed upon his mind.

To their lordships, and to the public, this explanation might be of no importance; to himself however, and to his own character, he felt such an explanation not only due, but of consequence; and he trusted their lordships would do him the justice to believe, that the opinions which he, had formerly delivered, though now happily contradicted by the event, were at least the sincere and honest dictates of his mind, taken up from no illiberal or invidious feeling. He had now no hesitation to qualify and retract them; and this very circumstance, perhaps, gave a value to his vote on the present occasion, which would render it probably not less grateful to him who was its object, and which would not otherwise have belonged to it, had he been one of those who anticipated success from the greatness of the means that were employed to attain it. Those who looked forward to success at all periods of the campaign were bound to acknowledge the valour and consummate skill of the commander of the allied forces; but that acknowledgment was still more amply due from those who, like himself, did conceive the difficulties in which lord Wellington was placed, to be such, as to threaten him and his army with the greatest danger, and greatly to diminish the hopes of a successful issue. This was the only use he wished to make of those recollections and allusions, which only served to exalt in his mind the character of this consummate commander, and to heighten his gratitude for that transcendent skill and valour which had surmounted such formidable difficulties.

After the faithful and able detail, which their lordships had just heard of the nature, the character, the operations and events of the campaign, it was not his intention to detain the House by a repetition of the well merited eulogium to which they had all listened with so much satisfaction. He should only say, that upon the whole it appeared manifest, that by the most exemplary and patient perseverance under unfavourable circumstances, and at the moment of action by the skilful combination of force and the most determined courage, a great success had been achieved, and as much honour done to the British army as any victory could have accomplished. The success itself was greatly enhanced by the small amount of bloodshed with which it was attained. Had the French army been defeated in a great battle with the loss of 20 or 25,000 men, which might perhaps be nearly the amount of their losses in the retreat, such a victory could not have been obtained without a heavy expenditure of British blood. In the midst of our rejoicings on such an event, there must have been many mournings; but the enemy had now sustained a loss equal to that which a great victory would have inflicted, and that at a small expence on the part of the allied army. It was to him, as it must be to all their lordships, therefore a source to the highest satisfaction, that so much had been achieved, and yet that British blood, so valuable at all times, had been spared. (Hear).

There was one topic however to which he could not advert without great pain, and that was, the miseries that had been inflicted on the unfortunate inhabitants of Portugal by their merciless invaders. Calamity was inseparable from war; and, above all, from a defensive war, where the enemy had penetrated into the heart of the country. The dwellings, and the means of the people, would be made subservient to the purposes of the invader: but to our general, no blame was ascribable for adopting measures, which, though painful in themselves, were very necessary for the ultimate expulsion of the enemy. The miseries which the French had inflicted in their retreat, were, from all concurrent accounts, sufficient to harrow up the feelings of every humane spirit; and he trusted, that as to lord Wellington the Portuguese were indebted for the expulsion of their enemies, so to his provident cares they would also be indebted for much alleviation of their misfortunes. From the language held by ministers, he trusted that Portugal was perfectly secure, at least for the present; that no apprehension was to be entertained for Sir W. Beresford and his army; and that the speedy fall of Badajoz might be firmly anticipated. In this light the expulsion of the French army was to be regarded as a circumstance of the proudest nature, and most worthy of the cordial thanks of the House—the greatest reward which they had to bestow.

Great and important, however, as the deliverance of Portugal was, even that might prove only a temporary advantage; but the moral influence of such a distinguished advantage upon the minds of the enemy's forces must be very considerable, while on those of our own troops its effects must be incalculably beneficial.—From the proud and well-earned confidence, that we possess commanders able to cope with and to defeat the" spoiled children" of victory, we derived a security against any efforts that may be more immediately directed against ourselves. But at the same time that he made this observation he must caution the House against thinking that there was no ground for future apprehension. He knew not what diversion might arise of the enemy's force from troubles in Holland, or from war in the North of Europe; with prospects of diversion in those quarters, he was not acquainted: but when he considered what effect this marked repulse must have on the revengeful passions of our enemy, and how much his reputation was at stake in repairing his losses, we ought to be prepared for seeing still greater efforts made by him; and if we continued to be left as principals in the war of the Peninsula, he much doubted, still, the chances of our being ultimately successful.—There must be very different exertions made from what we had witnessed on the part of the Spaniards, to enable us to entertain a rational hope that the independence of the Peninsula would or could be finally established. The present was a propitious interval for exciting Spain to combined and vigorous efforts, and should be improved by ministers for that purpose, particularly when the gallantry and good conduct of the Portuguese troops had pointed out the very mode in which this interval may be turned to the best advantage. It was a duty incumbent on ministers and on parliament to take care, lest through timidity, imbecility, or corruption in any quarter, all our sacrifices should be rendered useless, and should only tend to sap the foundations of our own power in the time of our utmost need. Upon the whole, for the services of lord Wellington he felt that the utmost gratitude was due; and he would not detain their lordships farther than by expressing his cordial acquiescence in the vote of thanks, which he regarded as the highest honour the House could confer, and which should always be reserved for occasions of splendid merit like the present.

Lord Suffolk

said a few words on the question.

The motion was then agreed to nem. dis. Lord Liverpool then moved a vote of thanks to Sir W. Beresford, and the other generals and officers in both armies, with a Resolution, That the House do highly approve of the bravery and good conduct of the noncommissioned officers and privates, belonging to the same. Both motions were agreed to nem. dis.