A reconstruction of a famous exploit in the history of the 95th Rifles
By Richard Moore
Many heroic actions by individual soldiers - most of their names are unknown - marked the long march of the British Army under Sir John Moore from Sahagun to Corunna during the terrible ‘Retreat to Corunna’ of 1808-1809. One of the most famous exploits on the line of march concerns a rifleman of the 95th Rifles, a rather vulgar but irrepressible soul known as Tom Plunket.
Rifleman Tom Plunket of the 1st Battalion of the 95th Rifles was a popular character; one of his comrades remembered him as ‘a smart well-made fellow, about the middle height, in the prime of manhood with a clear grey eye and handsome countenance, a general favourite of both officers and men besides being the best shot in the regiment’. Tom was noted for ‘being the life and soul of the party’ and a good companion, possessing a quick and wry wit. A Rifles officer in 1807 said about Tom that ‘Plunket … was a bold, active, athletic Irishman and a deadly shot - but the curse of his country was upon him.’ The ‘curse’ in question here was habitual drunkenness and saw Plunket’s promotions to corporal and sergeant lead each time to a flogging and a reduction back to the ranks.
Tom Plunket’s reputation as a ‘crack shot with a rifle’ originated from his exploit during the expedition to capture Buenos Ayres in July 1807. Although the expedition was a disaster for the British, during the fighting in the city Tom spotted an active Spanish officer and shot him in the thigh at long-range, receiving the plaudits of his company for doing so (though it seems Tom came in for a bit of censure as the officer in question was under a flag of truce at the time). It is also claimed that Plunket shot up to 20 Spanish soldiers from a position shared with another rifleman named Fisher - of whom no more is heard - from the roof of the Santo Domingo Convent in Buenos Ayres, and through that exploit became well known as one of the few men in the two battalions of the 95th who could shoot a rifle ‘with unerring accuracy at an extended distance of over 200 yards’. Plunket’s physical strength shouldn’t be under-rated: punished by being forced to carry an iron cannonball known in the Rifles as the ‘sixpounder’, it was noted that instead of suffering under the weight, Tom simply ‘tucked it under his arm’. Plunket’s wit and charm was fully demonstrated in March 1809 when as a corporal he was detached from Hythe Barracks to recruit from the militia then stationed in Dover: dancing a jig on the top of a beer barrel in a public house, the top of the barrel collapsed and Plunket dropped straight down into the beer to disappear - before the militiamen could burst into laughter at the mishap, Tom leapt out soaking wet and climbed into the chimney. Emerging covered in soot, he then exclaimed “Damn your pipe-clay; here I am ready for The Grand Parade!” The sombre uniform of the 95th had already gained them the nickname of ‘The Chimney-Sweeps’ and in referring to the bugbear of redcoats - pipeclay - Plunket’s quick wit scored an immediate hit and brought in several recruits.
The ‘Retreat to Corunna’ began on Christmas Day 1808 just beyond Sahagun and saw Plunket in the ranks of the 1/95th Rifles as part of the Reserve Division who became the rearguard for the march of the main body of the British Army after Astorga, where the French finally discovered them and the pursuit began. Travelling at speed, by 1st January 1809 in cold, wet weather the ‘main body’ of the hard-pressed retreat had reached Villafranca, one of the main depots for the British Army at the time; the rearguard being about half a day’s march behind the main body in a small village named Cacabelos.
The Constantino Bridge
A more accurate view of the approaches from Nogales over the Sierra de Bierzo to the Constantino bridge. The Manzanal Pass near Astorga, Nogales, Lugo and Betanzos were all spots chosen by Sir John Moore for a ‘stand’ as the French pursuit would not be able to by-pass such places in winter.
Upon reaching the mountains, the rain had now turned to snow and the road was marked by a succession of corpses of men and horses, with broken wagons and carts lying in the ditches. Many villages along the road were deserted, with smashed furniture and the smoking remains of looted houses evidence of collapsing morale. Some houses in some villages were discovered by the French to be housing British soldiers and ‘camp-followers’ who were all either sound asleep or more usually so drunk in trying to escape from the terrible weather conditions during a punishing march that stolen wine was seen to be running out of their mouths and noses as they lay semi-comatose.
In Villafranca on January 2nd, Sir John Moore had witnessed the disintegration of his army. An overnight riot involving hundreds of hungry or drunken British soldiers had ransacked all the storehouses and destroyed the town. In the morning, under a pall of thick smoke the town echoed to pistol-shots as emaciated horses were shot and the artillery wagons broken up with their ammunition thrown into the river; daylight revealed a fearsome sight of upturned barrels of rum and wine, bread trodden into the mud, broken baggage carts, new clothing and army blankets strewn about, churches broken into and used as barracks and the bodies of several murdered civilians seen in the streets. Starving and diseased Spanish soldiers from the division of La Romana who had struggled as far as Villafranca hoping for relief in the form of food, clothing and shoes simply gave up and died in droves to add to the misery. In the early light Sir John Moore watched a soldier executed by a firing squad in the Plaza Mayor of Villafranca - for the crime of striking Captain Pasley of the Light Dragoons as the man was arrested for robbery - before riding off to the east in disgust to see how General Sir Edward Paget and the rearguard were faring at Cacabelos.
Riding six miles to the east, Moore arrived at Cacabelos and after consulting with his senior officers made a prophetic speech to the soldiers of the rearguard concerning the need for order and discipline before returning to Villafranca; in reply to this speech, the soldiers that heard it that night plundered and ransacked Cacabelos looking for drink.
NOTE: The speech by Sir John Moore was described by one British officer as ‘formidable and pathetic’ and Paget himself snorted that any appeal to a British soldiers’ finer feelings was simply a waste of time and they could be governed only by the lash and the noose. Sir John Moore’s speech at Cacabelos included the rather prophetic sentence - using hindsight - that he was so ashamed of his soldiers that he “hoped the first cannonball fired by the enemy may take me in the head!” Just two weeks later - at the point of victory - he was mortally wounded by a roundshot from the French artillery.
J P Beadle’s famous painting, ‘The Rearguard’. It depicts General ‘Black Bob’ Craufurd and a party of riflemen of the 95th turning to face a French pursuit somewhere on the road between Astorga and Orense. Though the French pursuit of ‘Black Bob’ was not as actively pressed as in pursuit of Moore, Craufurd employed strict measures concerning the line of march and ‘straggling’. Though considered very severe at the time by the soldiers, these measures were later described by the same men as being necessary to ensure an efficient and speedy march without suffering a great loss of life. Note that in his other sketches Beadle depicts some of the riflemen wearing greatcoats - which most probably were - but in this painting only the officers are wearing greatcoats. The icy conditions depicted here would have been typical in Galicia over the duration of the ‘retreat’.
Next morning, a furious Sir Edward Paget - commanding the Reserve - ordered severe punishment in an attempt to prevent the rearguard dissolving into the anarchy witnessed in Villafranca. Most of the soldiers of the Reserve were ordered, just before dawn in freezing weather, into a ‘hollow square’ formation on a hill just north of the village out of sight of the main road - troopers of the 15th Hussars and a strong force of two companies of riflemen from the 95th were sent along the road to relieve the frozen pickets and vedettes that had spent the night in the open keeping a watch for any French approaching from Ponferrada, a small town about five miles away. Paget then proceeded with the courts-martial and the floggings. As the punishments were carried out, troopers of the 15th Hussars arrived several times to report that French cavalry patrols were now in sight along the road from Ponferrada. Paget received each report with a nod and a simple “Very Well … ” After several hours had passed, all that remained was to hang two soldiers convicted of robbery. As Paget watched the ropes being thrown over tree branches, the first popping sounds of musketry came from over the hill to the east. General ‘Black Jack’ Slade - one of the cavalry brigadiers - then appeared to report that his forward vedettes were coming under some pressure and retiring. Paget already had a low opinion of Slade and replied to the effect “I am sorry for it. But - this information is of a nature that would induce me to expect a report from a private dragoon rather than you. You had better go back to your fighting picquets, Sir - and animate your men to a full discharge of their duty.” Slade rode off ; the hangmen were watching Paget waiting for the signal to begin the execution. Paget was seen by one officer to be visibly ‘suffering under a great excitement’; Paget finally looked up and bellowed out “My God! Is it not lamentable to think that instead of preparing the troops confided to my command to receive the enemies of my country I am preparing to hang two robbers? But - even though that angle of the square be attacked, I shall execute these two villains in the other!” A strange silence ensued for two minutes, broken only by an increasing number of rifle and carbine shots from the east. Paget looked down from his horse at the assembled troops and spoke again: “If I spare the lives of these two men, will you promise to reform?” The silence continued until prompted by their officers by nods and nudges, the soldiers began to murmur Yes! until it was shouted across the square. Paget then ordered the troops to dismiss - but as they marched back towards the village, the first French cavalry troopers appeared over the crest of the hill half a mile to the east.
Cacabelos (Map One)
The map drawn by Captain Gordon of the 15th Hussars of troop deployments at the start of the action at Cacabelos. The French cavalry (right) are appearing on the ‘eastern heights’ having approached from Bembibre and Ponferrada: after the ‘floggings’ most of the Reserve infantry are leaving to march through Cacabelos (left): four squadrons of the 15th Hussars are beginning to withdraw to the west leaving a vedette of Hussars and a company of the 95th to ‘watch the French’.
The French were led by a man on a white horse; a remarkably young, good-looking and well-dressed General of Brigade named Auguste-Marie-Francois Colbert who had taken over the pursuit after his equally young, good-looking and well-dressed predecessor had been taken prisoner by the British and Kings German Legion cavalry a few days before when General Lefevbre- Desnouettes had attempted to lead his men across the Esla river at Benevente but in the attack against the British rearguard cavalry, the French cavalry had come off worse. The French cavalry in total under La Houssaye were at an estimated strength of twenty squadrons, but the column stretched back many miles and the immediate pursuit was headed by Colbert with his own light cavalry brigade of the VI Corps, comprising the 15eme Chasseurs a Cheval and the 3eme Hussards, somewhere between 450 and 500 troopers. Having caught up with the infantry of the British rearguard, Colbert decided to attack at once in an attempt to cut at least some of them off from the bridge over the river. As the vedettes of the 15th Hussars and the riflemen retired towards Cacabelos, Colbert arranged the squadrons of his nearest troopers for an advance. Some of the riflemen of the 95th sent to support the vedettes of the 15th Hussars watching the road to Ponferrada were seen to be ‘running back with difficulty’ - cold, exhausted and hungry men who in the circumstances did well to be able to run at all. Paget ordered most of the rearguard through Cacabelos and across the bridge onto the west bank of the river. The light company of the 28th Foot was drawn up on the eastern bank to cover the passage over the bridge of the six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery. As the guns rumbled across the bridge towards the western hill followed by the light company of the 28th, an indication of panic ensued as the first British troopers and the fastest riflemen began to appear in Cacabelos with the French hot on their heels; the approaches to the bridge on the east bank were quickly blocked by a crowd of men and horses struggling to cross the bridge before the French arrived, amongst whom Sir John Moore and his staff became entangled. Last in line in this confusion, the troopers of the 15th Hussars vedettes rode in onto the rear of two companies of the 95th trying to cross the bridge and as the 15th Hussars were forced to turn and fight they were overwhelmed - the French then began to round up the wounded and around fifty exhausted riflemen of the ‘picquet’ that were too slow coming down the hill and been overtaken before reaching the bridge. Because of this general disorder, Colbert noticed that his troopers were becoming disorganised and dispersed - in coming under fire from the houses near the bridge and with the bridge itself still obstructed by greenjackets and hussars he ordered a recall. With the last of the British rearguard ; the light company of the 28th Foot, some of the 15th Hussars and five companies of the 95th Rifles - two of these in a state of disorder - there was a good chance Colbert could capture or destroy some part of the Reserve by crossing the river even without infantry or artillery support if he could reform his cavalry brigade quickly. Leaving a small dismounted vedette of several Chasseurs on the western outskirts of Cacabelos to observe the enemy and the approaches to the bridge, Colbert rallied the rest of his troopers a short distance away to the north of the village.
Cacabelos (Map Two)
A detail from the above sketch: Paget’s infantry about to move off through Cacabelos after the ‘floggings’. Unfortunately not shown here, the six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery may have been close to the two companies of the 95th at the road junction but ‘limbered up’ and crossed the bridge. The 95th remained in position to cover the move over the bridge but were later caught up in the ‘panic’ at the bridge mentioned by Gordon and Colbourne.
Sir John Moore had arrived from Villafranca during the first French advance and at close-hand witnessed the confusion at the bridge as both he and his Military Secretary were involved in it had to flee as the French were almost upon them, both men narrowly avoiding capture. In the midst of the general tide of confusion, General Slade appeared once again and asked Moore if he could make a report given to him by Colonel Grant, one of the officers in Slade’s command, who had asked Slade to do so: a still-seething Moore rather sarcastically asked General Slade how long he had been serving as Colonel Grant’s messenger?
The 52nd Foot joined the 28th Foot on the western hill, standing in line and waiting for their turn to move off. The three companies of the 95th Rifles which had been quickly ‘herded’ into any houses near the bridge and into the gardens and vineyards on both banks now received orders to move back as the six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery clattered down the road and up the western hill to take up a position and prepare to cover the bridge. The Light Company of the 28th had followed the artillery over the bridge and in doing so escaped the ensuing general confusion - the western hill being so steep, the Light Company of the 28th were drawn up directly below the guns on a lower slope, able to fire their muskets in the direction of the bridge and supported a short distance away to the left by the rest of their battalion blocking the road to Pieros and Villafranca and the 52nd Foot placed to their right. As the French cavalry withdrew to reform with Colbert on his white horse clearly seen actively encouraging his troopers, the three companies of the 95th in position on the east bank - having been joined by the two companies caught up in the turmoil at the bridge ordered their pickets out of the gardens on both sides of the bridge and fell back to take up new positions on the lower slopes of the western hill overlooking the road to Pieros.
Having reformed his brigade, Colbert prepared for a second attempt. As the first of his squadrons advanced, the Royal Horse Artillery on the western hill prepared to open fire ‘in enfilade’ by sending roundshot bouncing across the frozen fields towards them. Colbert was observed by one British officer to be going for the bridge but in Colbert’s hurry, the officer described the second attempt by the French cavalry as ‘most ill-advised, ill-judged and seemingly without any final object in view’ as any advance by the French cavalry would come under British artillery fire and increasingly close-range musketry from both flanks and front in attempting to cross a very narrow bridge and in doing so were unsupported by any infantry and artillery to take advantage of any territorial gains. But - as will be seen later - the second attempt of the French cavalry may have been compromised by the loss of their commander and not undertaken as Colbert had perhaps planned.
General Baron Auguste de Colbert de Chabanais based on a sketch drawn in 1805. Only 32 years old at the time of his death, he had a lengthy military service record and was already considered by the French as a ‘legendary’ cavalry commander.
Tom Plunket was with his company on the western bank of the river, in a ‘bad temper’ from the events so far including seeing the French cavalry cut down or take prisoner a good number of his greenjacket comrades. Seeing the steady French advance preparing to again move into a ‘charge’ - with Colbert conspicuously out in front once again - Plunket is said to have suddenly run forward, laid down on his back in the mud and snow and taken careful aim with his rifle at Colbert; he fired and Colbert fell backwards off his horse, dead. By the time Colbert’s aide rode up and dismounted to look at Colbert’s body, Plunket had reloaded his rifle and taking careful aim, calmly shot him dead too. A dozen furious French cavalrymen then charged towards Plunket in revenge but the rifleman ran back to his company to the cheers of his comrades.
The French cavalry came under fire before reaching the bridge from roundshot from the Royal Horse Artillery and as they reached and crossed the bridge bullets from the 28th, 52nd and 95th tore into them from both flanks and in front. The fastest - or the angriest - of the French troopers galloped over the bridge and some of them survived the cross-fire and the ensuing volley to reach the light company of the 28th where for a few minutes, sabre clashed with bayonet - but it is unlikely that a handful of French light horsemen arriving piecemeal upon blown horses did much to upset the ranks of the waiting redcoats. As the rest of the battalion of the 28th advanced, the now almost surrounded French were forced to retreat back across the bridge coming under the same heavy fire again. A young British officer of the 28th Foot watched wide-eyed with horror as a dead Frenchman with a boot caught in a stirrup was dragged through the mud to the river by his terrified horse, his bald head bouncing bloodily up and down on the frozen ruts of the roadway: many years later, when the same officer was an older and wiser man and had seen many other horrors of war and been able to forget most of them, he still could not rid himself of this single terrible remembrance …
Moore and Paget on the western hill above the road to Villafranca watched the survivors of the second French cavalry charge retire back across the bridge and probably realised that these troopers were capable of doing no more that day - but in the middle distance they could both clearly see a long line of French infantry and more cavalry marching over the crest of the eastern hill beyond Cacabelos approaching along the road from Ponferrada. Just over an hour later an attack by these troops came in at two places: La Houssaye sent in fresh cavalry and infantry skirmishers to cross the river by a ford a short distance downstream from the bridge and another attack by the infantry of General Merle’s division were aimed at the bridge a la baionette. Some of the 95th Rifles at the bridge were sent south along the riverbank to deal with the ford, closely supported by the 52nd. As the French infantry swung around Cacabelos and approached the bridge and the apparent gap left by the 95th and 52nd as they moved south, they were fired on by the six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery which forced the French columns to withdraw back around the village before reaching the bridge. The attack at the ford also fell back after a short exchange of musketry, with the French who managed to get across the river here using the ford hotly pursued on their return journey by invigorated and energetic soldiers of the 95th and 52nd. The French then seemed to lose heart - as the units reformed on the eastern bank they probably heard of Colbert’s death and the failure of the two French cavalry charges; it was pretty dark by that time but more likely they realised they had bitten off more than they could chew in the face of an unexpected and determined British resistance in a good position. All firing slowly died away with the daylight at just after 4.00pm: Paget ordered the Reserve to form up a few hours after dark and at about 10.00pm that night when the pickets were called in, marched through Pieros going west towards Villafranca with no sign of a French pursuit. Both sides during the day had lost around 200 men killed or wounded, with fifty or so prisoners taken by the French. But: French morale had plummeted and British morale in the Reserve had rocketed - to be duly lowered by a degree or two when they reached Villafranca where no attempt at all had been made to tidy the place up and as the Reserve passed through the town they saw by the light of bonfires a scene of utter desolation with British soldiers still lying drunk in the streets.
Craufurd and the 2/95th
“You think because you are Riflemen you may do whatever you think proper; but I’ll teach you the difference before I have done with you!” Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd verbally disciplines a group of the 2/95th Rifles somewhere around Benevente in the winter of 1808-9. The Rifles had some internal problems from 1806 -1811 as witnessed in the early days at Obidos, Rolica and Vimiero in adopting the intended regimental skirmish system. Encouraging ‘individual and independent action’ but mainly as close-range was instinctively sought in action by their skirmishers rather than making use of the facility of long-range ‘aimed fire’ through equipping the corps with the Baker rifle. Craufurd’s youth, ability and mentality suited that of the 95th Rifles with their esprit de corps and high morale factor but as summed up by Craufurd here, there were several ‘clashes’ between them during mid-1808 to early 1812 at which point Craufurd was killed. This is one of a series of sketches made in 1910 by the artist J P Beadle who along with other British artists visited areas of ‘The Retreat to Corunna’.
Colbert was a skilled soldier with a fine record whose personal bravery had been previously noted several times. Though not yet in sight, he knew the French infantry were close behind him along with more cavalry; but he also knew of Bonaparte’s feelings about ‘perfidious Albion’ and his expressed desire that ‘more English mothers should feel the horrors of war’ … but he didn’t know that despite having these fervent anti-British feelings, Bonaparte was already on his way back to France to deal with reports of Austrian ‘sabre-rattling’. French accounts hint that Colbert had asked for infantry support but decided to go ahead with the second charge before any arrived - the ragged skeletons he had personally seen as prisoners may have made him think that support was unnecessary. It was a good opportunity to cut off the part of the British Reserve that had not crossed the bridge - and Colbert was not the sort of commander to let an opportunity to do serious damage to the enemy pass. When Colbert was cold in his grave, a few days later after a similar instance near Betanzos a French officer remarked that ‘he would sooner face a hundred fresh Germans than ten starving Englishmen …’
Bonaparte would often ask for an opinion of his Generals, and pay particular attention to his question “Is he lucky?” For the French to lose one famous cavalry General by the action of a common soldier is unfortunate: but to lose two famous cavalry Generals in the space of a few days and both by the action of a common soldier might be judged as being foolhardy.
I’d like to offer the reader a little more ‘food for thought’ after reviewing the overall background and the ‘traditional’ circumstances of the exploit. The way I was first told, many years ago now, about how “Plunket’s Shot” was performed sounded so fantastic as to be unbelievable. Since 1992, some rather ‘exaggerated’ claims have been made regarding the battlefield accuracy of the Baker rifle used by the 95th Rifles during the Peninsula War - most of these claims are notably made by ‘non-shooters’ with “Plunket’s Shot” in one extreme instance cited as taking place at a range of 800 yards, twice the distance regarded by muzzle-loading rifle-shooters as being remotely possible: Colbert would have been a tiny dot in the distance at that range and totally obscured by the fore-end of the rifle in attaining the degree of required elevation and the ‘windage’ at that point by a ‘spent ball’ would probably be in excess of thirty feet.
The designer of the Baker rifle - Ezekiel Baker - later penned a book named Baker’s Remarks on the Rifle which went through eleven printings and set out not only a list of improvements made to the initial design but also practical tests and pages of advice to rifle-shooters. As is already well-known, Baker’s rifle was adopted in 1800 by The Board of Ordnance for use by the British Army as it fulfilled the necessary criteria of accuracy and ammunition and was also ‘soldier-proof’ enough to survive ‘campaign’ use. It attracted criticism from a tiny minority that the rifle-barrel wasn’t accurate enough and minor arguments ensued for the next fifteen years about the scale of reloading time, accuracy and range a soldier should be trained to achieve, but the Government having made their decision firmly adhered to it. The quarter-turn rifling over 30 inches (a complete turn in 120 inches) was deemed by Baker sufficient to attain ‘battlefield accuracy’ at ranges up to 300 yards yet the rifle would be easy to load using the ‘patched ball’ system then widespread through Europe and America.
Detail of a Baker rifle, manufactured in 1806 ‘for the Ninety-Fifth Regiment’. This is the likely form of rifle that Plunket would have been issued with: a carbine-bore (.615 inch calibre) loaded with 2.1/2 drams of blackpowder and a ‘patched’ bullet into rifling which passed a quarter-turn in the barrel length of thirty inches. Rifle-design changed with the application of ‘improvements’ made throughout the Peninsula War period but overall ballistic performance remained the same - it should be noted that one rifleman and his officer were deemed to be such good shots in England that in 1806 using such a rifle they could display this mutual confidence by holding up man-sized targets for each other in displays of shooting at ‘long-range’ - some rather extravagant claims have been made recently by non-shooters concerning the accuracy of the Baker rifle during The Peninsula War but in general ‘campaign’ terms it would have been reasonably accurate when using a rifle-rest of some form putting a bullet somewhere on a man-sized target at ranges up to 120 yards as reflected in a period test where a rifleman fired twenty bullets ‘offhand’ (i.e. standing, without using a rest) at a range of 100 yards which all grouped on target within an eighteen-inch circle. Only an optimistic rifleman under ‘campaign conditions’ shooting in the same fashion would expect to aim at and hit a stationary, single man-sized target at a range of 200 yards with such a rifle, as the bullet would have lost an increasing degree of both velocity and accuracy over that range. It is reasonable to say from such tests that under ‘campaign conditions’ using such a rifle at a single obliquely moving man-sized target above a range of 120 yards, an average rifleman ‘on campaign’ probably wouldn’t expect to hit it. ‘Aimed fire at long-range’ at a larger target - a artillery-team or a body of cavalry - was delivered by groups of the 95th Rifles several times during actions in the Peninsula War and observed to have the desired effect in that bullets struck somewhere within the intended target.
Whatever Ezekiel Baker thought about the optimum calibre for a military rifle in 1799, he was obliged by The Board of Ordnance to use one of the two existing ‘military’ calibres then in use (0.71 inch for muskets or 0.61 inch for carbines / pistols). ‘Musket-bore’ rifles were reported by Rifles officers as being too heavy and cumbersome and by 1803 the ‘carbine-bore’ rifle had been generally selected as the best all-rounder of Baker’s two rifle designs. By 1806 problems concerning the casting of bullets and the measured powder charge had been largely ironed out and the Baker rifle was becoming known (only in military circles) as a potential deadly weapon in the hands of even an ‘average soldier’ who was ‘especially trained’ to deliver ‘accurate aimed fire’ on a battlefield. Some opposition was experienced from British officers with a heritage of the American Revolution, who saw the possibility of French officers being shot off their horses at long-range by ‘common British soldiers’ indicating that the French would introduce their own rifles and permit their own ‘common soldiers’ to repay the compliment. The French did experiment with infantry rifles for two years but in 1803 tests concerning long-range accuracy (120 metres) were discontinued in favour of the volume of fire by using smoothbores. To Bonaparte the fact meant nothing that at 100 yards ten shots fired from a smoothbore musket in ten minutes all missed a single man-shaped target yet seven shots fired from a rifle at the same range in ten minutes all hit the target somewhere on the body (a test repeated by the author in 1989 using period arms and ammunition gained the same result). The French skirmish-cloud and artillery bombardment at a defined point preceding the infantry attack column a la baionette was a ‘psychological weapon’ which was not considered to require aimed fire from small-arms. Wellington’s grasp of tactics in deploying a strong corps of rifle-armed skirmishers - in 1810 numbering almost a fifth of his army - to greatly reduce or even eliminate the effect of enemy skirmishers reflects mentions in French memoirs of the Peninsula War that although they regularly ‘broke through’ the enemy’s first line, their infantry columns came to grief on the second line - a misunderstanding of what was actually happening in them trying to handle Wellington’s ‘reverse slope’ tactics. The French voltigeurs and skirmishers in the face of a powerful British skirmish line required the support of the infantry columns to go forward - the exact opposite of what they intended to happen. Any attempt to support the infantry columns with horse-artillery would see the artillery horses shot down by riflemen and the gun-teams crippled before they could reach their positions.
An excerpt from Ezekiel Baker’s book reads: “I would recommend a young rifleman when he can fire well at two hundred yards to practice in windy and all sorts of rough weather. I have found it much more difficult to fire during the time of snow falling than in rain, the air being considerably thicker and the flakes of snow which continually fly about distracting the attention and dazzle the eye. A rifleman indeed should practice in all weathers, by which means he will ascertain what allowance should be made from the object to be fired at either to right or left as the wind materially influences the ball at long ranges. I have found two hundred yards the greatest range I could fire at to any certainty. At three hundred yards I have fired very well at times when the wind has been calm. At four or five hundred yards I have frequently fired and I have had sometimes struck the object; though, having aimed at nearly as possible at the same point I have found it to vary very much from the object intended; whereas at two hundred yards I could have made sure of my point or thereabouts. From my practice, I am convinced the wind has great power on the ball after it has passed to a certain distance. I have found it very uncertain to fire over water and if I took the same elevation of the object as on land I have found the ball drop short. Firing over swamps and bogs has a similar effect to firing over water. If a rifleman is in possession of a good rifle he should never use any other until he is a complete master of the piece; after which like the Master of any other art or science he may use any one for the instruction of others. I consider a person to have a perfect command of the rifle when he can take an accurate view of the bull’s eye in the target and strike it, no matter at what distance and take a distinct aim from any situation whether from a right or a left point, whether by elevation or depression and insure his striking it.” Baker also recommends the regular pacing out of distances to enable a rifleman to judge the range over which he is shooting to within 25 yards.
However - the reader must note having read these remarks that despite having the best intentions in the world, Ezekiel Baker wasn’t a ‘common soldier’ or a common soldier shooting on a battlefield having suffered the usual conditions that a common soldier would endure in getting there, with the other usual condition that the enemy will be returning your fire in the form of iron round-shot or lead bullets.
Ezekiel Baker’s Target
A rifle-test of 1806 performed by the designer of the Baker rifle himself in ‘ideal conditions’ using a ‘Eunuch’, a man-sized figure (six feet high) placed in the centre of a target. Over a range of 200 yards, twenty-four shots were fired by Baker, twenty-two of the shots making hits on the figure. Baker apparently made his own adjustment for elevation and note that shots 1 and 2 have just missed the head of the figure and are outside the target with shot 3 by a strange coincidence striking the ‘Eunuch’ above the left eye. The next 21 shots were all body-hits. The reader should note however that Baker was using a rifle-rest and wasn’t firing here under anything like ‘battlefield conditions’ - variations of heat, cold, hunger, thirst, anger, fear or undertaking required movement - which would all affect any rifleman’s ability to deliver accurate aimed-fire in combat. Note that previous tests at 300 yards done some years earlier involved securing the rifle-barrel firmly fixed in a mortar-bed for firing - at the time eighteen subsequent shots fired with the rifle-barrel fitted into a stock were conducted at 100 yards, resulting in fifteen bullets striking the target. Another similar test, at the same time as the above test again by Ezekiel Baker, saw thirty-two of thirty-four shots fired at 100 yards strike the figure seen here; again note here that shots 1 and 2 were high, in the same position as the above. All these tests are included in Baker’s book Remarks on the Rifle.
Though Baker’s book was not listed as required reading material in the officers’ mess of the 95th Rifles, the principles Baker explains here were well-known in the regiment and included in some of their paperwork and regular ‘target-practice’ was applied by officers to riflemen both at home and ‘on campaign’. Many Rifles officers apparently corresponded from 1800 to 1806 - and beyond - with Baker about the performance of his rifle ‘in the field’ and their reports and several of their observations were later incorporated by Ezekiel Baker into the Baker rifle through small but important design-changes or improvements. Baker did experiment with ‘tighter rifling’ to improve accuracy over longer ranges, but as this made the rifle both slower and more difficult to load, he stuck to the military expedient of having ease of loading and reasonable accuracy over ‘battlefield distances’ when opposed by a smoothbore-armed enemy in terms of ‘facility’ and the rifle design being ‘soldier-proof’.
The author uniformed as a Rifleman of the 95th of the period demonstrates one form of taking an awkward ‘downhill’ shot kneeling using the rifle-sling. Lying ‘prone’ is the steadiest position to aim in not using some form of ‘rifle-rest’ - but it does transmit most of the recoil of the rifle into the shooter’s body and of course would involve getting wet and muddy in bad weather. The Baker rifle can be reloaded lying prone - but is awkward and takes longer than the best and easiest way - as with most muzzleloading longarms - of reloading by standing up.
In late July 1808, 1st battalion 95th Rifles left Dover for the Peninsula. Tom Plunket already had the reputation of being a ‘good shot’ after an instance which involved the shooting by him of a Spanish officer at long-range during the somewhat disastrous Buenos Ayres expedition of 1807 and is mentioned as contributing to raising the morale of the corps during the long sea-voyage home by regularly dancing The Hornpipe and the ‘double-shuffle’ (taken to be a ‘Irish jig’) to the applause of all present. Tom was held up by his company commander as an ‘exemplary soldier’ which Sidney Beckwith later confirmed but both had a later occasion to rectify this view. No doubt this appellation when applied to Tom had the desired effect on younger or newly-joined riflemen by making him a ‘model’ to imitate but a few years later in the Peninsula War due to Tom’s ‘curse’ of habitual drunkenness returning to haunt him, this may have had a slightly detrimental effect when during a drunken misunderstanding as Sergeant Tom Plunket threatened to shoot his own officer, Captain Stewart, resulting in a flogging for Plunket and a reduction back to the ranks.
Ponferrada - which translates into English as ‘Ironbridge’ - got the name not from modern Spanish railway history as was recently suggested but from the iron struts fitted to the medieval bridge below their castle by The Knights’ Templar here to strengthen it. The ‘old road’ used by the troops in the main body on ‘The Retreat to Corunna’ didn’t at the time pass directly through Ponferrada so that village didn’t suffer the ‘usual privations’ at the hands of British soldiers, though Craufurd’s detached command did march through Ponferrada at about this time heading for Orense and on to Vigo. The French however did use Ponferrada for an overnight rest on January 2nd 1809 and according to the town’s history as outlined to me by a local historian there the French didn’t ‘tear it apart’ as both they and the British were subsequently accused of doing to other local villages. Changes to the town since 1850 now give a choice of roads; which I have termed in the past as ‘the old road’, the new ‘old road’, the ‘new road’ and the new ‘new road’ (the motorway to Corunna, now open). On my first visit, the roads between Ponferrada and Cacabelos seemed to be indifferently signposted but the one thing you can usually rely on to find your way by motor-vehicle is the ‘scallop-shell’ motif on posts along the Camino de Santiago, the ‘Pilgrims Way’ or ‘The Way of St James’. The ‘new old road’ is sometimes referred to as ‘the French road’ by some locals and this is the one you see most of the pilgrims trekking along during ‘holy year’.
NOTE Every four years in ‘Holy Year’ the statue of the patron saint of Spain in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which is said to house relics of St James himself is opened for pilgrims to journey there. The scallop-shell design represents the several roads which can be taken which converge on Santiago (the ‘English road’ is said to be the easiest as it consists of a relatively short passage made on foot from ‘The Groyne’ - Corunna or Ferrol - having landed there by sea). The ensuing celebrations, fireworks and high mass in the cathedral see the ‘censor’ swung by muscular priests over a distance of 60 yards along the nave of the cathedral at the end of a 100-foot long chain to be viewed by a very large and emotionally-charged crowd (a performance which in England would probably be forbidden by HSE). I have two ‘scallop-shells’ as souvenirs - though my personal pilgrimage had a different theme to theirs - but even if you aren’t Catholic, if you ever get the chance don’t miss seeing it!
Parts of the ‘old road’ still exist and they are used by mainly youthful pilgrims who want to get off the tarmac away from traffic - many of these stretches go along the ‘old road’ road used by Sir John Moore’s troops in 1808-9. The best remaining stretches to explore of the ‘old road’ used by Sir John Moore lies between Astorga and Betanzos - but having said that the ‘old road’ is sometimes a little inaccessible, quite circuitous, treacherous underfoot, steep in many spots, often no more than a track and sometimes unexpectedly disappears without a trace. The best areas along the ‘old road’ are the recognised parts used by pilgrims, some lengths of which beyond Ponferrada are kept in fairly good repair as a result, including a few flagstones over the worse sections or a general limestone infill but any steeply uphill or downhill parts can often be no more than a three-foot wide track made up of loose stones which also accommodates a stream in wet weather.
NOTE The ‘old road’ used in 1808-9 by the British can be followed pretty easily using Spanish ‘military maps’ which are available from several sources. Parts of the ‘old road’ are pretty inaccessible and bits of it are considered by some landowners to be ‘private property’. A good stretch of the ‘old road’ used in 1809 lies to the north-east of Ponferrada.
The Old Road
A view of one of the most notorious stretches of the ‘old road’ used by Sir John Moore’s soldiers between Nogales and Lugo beyond the Constantino bridge. This section of the old road through the Pass can still be walked but has been resurfaced as the ‘new old road’. The sketch was made by Sir Robert Ker Porter and shows the daily conditions during which the retreat was made.
I found the circumstances of “Plunket’s Shot” surrounded by tradition and rifle-lore as explained earlier. A famous Rifles officer - Harry Smith - did take part in the retreat but doesn’t mention the exploit in his memoirs: another - Kincaid - wasn’t there but mentions the exploit in his Random Shots from a Rifleman as having occurred after Colbert passed the bridge: Napier in his famous History mentions Colbert’s death at Cacabelos but doesn’t mention Plunket’s involvement. The chosen reference for The Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1914 came from a rifleman who wasn’t actually there at the time but thirty years later described the exploit second-hand after hearing about it from someone who was present; in his memoirs, this rifleman suggested that French General Colbert had become such a nuisance in efficiently leading and directing the French cavalry in pursuit of the British rearguard that British General Sir Edward Paget pointed Colbert out to the British soldiers and hinted that a financial reward would be made by him to anyone who could shoot Colbert - a verbal offer overheard by Tom Plunket that he decided to take up being in a particularly ‘bad temper’. Sir Edward Paget is said to have tossed Tom some coins from his private purse after he heard about Tom’s exploit but it is highly doubtful that Paget would have encouraged a personal action such as Plunket’s in such a fashion or even made such an offer. Paget is also said to have afterwards commended Tom to the commanding officer of the 95th Rifles - Sidney Beckwith - which started a rumour amongst the French - which probably originated from casual statements made by British prisoners taken by the French at Cacabelos - that British officers ‘paid their men in coin to shoot French officers’. In The History of the Rifle Brigade, it is stated that it is unlikely that Paget would ever have offered money to a private soldier to ‘slay a brave and chivalrous enemy guilty only of doing his duty’ but Paget may have ‘flung his purse or some of the contents’ to Plunket ‘in admiration of two unerring shots taken in the heat of battle’.
Later in the war, instances of enemy officers - along with artillery horses and drummers - being ‘pointed out’ to rifleman by their officers did occur but in none of the instances quoted is any mention made of a ‘financial reward’ for successfully shooting them. Most of the mentions in this instance suggest the prime concern by officers that riflemen would close the range on an enemy far too quickly, thereby taking unnecessary casualties and negating the proven ‘long-range’ accuracy of the Baker rifle (first noted in mid-1808 but this was still happening in late 1811). The old Rifles proverb “Shoot a Frenchman for Yourself!” originates from their pursuit of Massena in 1810 and the dubious claim on a fallen enemy by the rifleman who shot him having access to the dead body first in order to plunder it of any food, drink, shoes or valuables. ‘Shooting at the Horse’ - a term given by the Rifles to target practice undertaken in barracks - could see a good shot being rewarded with ‘sixpence’ from their officer. A minority of Rifles officers began to acquire rifles themselves towards the end of the war, with a Baker rifle in the possession of the author and two other surviving museum examples seen as ‘sporting’ by not having the sword-bar affixed to the muzzle and having the adornment of chequering on the wrist and fore-end of the stock.
Observations that the forward pickets at Cacabelos in the form of riflemen ‘running back with some difficulty’ after spotting the French cavalry approach from Ponferrada were probably the basis for statements that they were all drunk - but the soldiers of the 95th Rifles had performed relatively well on a cruel march so far, made at some speed and some duration over an ice-bound terrain along bad roads, with several overnight ‘bivouacs’ being nothing more than rolling up in a blanket at the side of the road to get what sleep was possible - often none at all. I don’t mind admitting that in such circumstances I would probably only be able to ‘run with difficulty’ too and there are many instances quoted from this march that if there was any form of alcohol around, soldiers immediately consumed it. Though alcohol was probably consumed by the soldiers as an anaesthetic, the effects on their empty stomachs is well recorded too by many soldiers who took part in this ‘retreat’. Though the soldiers of the Reserve (rearguard) no doubt availed themselves of any alcohol and they were under terrific pressure most of the time, their overall behaviour in this respect was compared to the other divisions preceding them on the march and said to be ‘satisfactory’ and for their service Sir John Moore granted them first place on the transport ships when the embarkation at Corunna began.
The confusion at the bridge in Cacabelos during the early part of the ensuing action might have put many more than just Tom Plunket in a ‘bad temper’. Sir John Colbourne - serving on Moore’s staff as Military Secretary at the time - left an account of this part of the action: he states that he found Sir John Moore ‘in a great fuss’ after Colbert’s first cavalry charge as Moore never ‘thought the enemy were so near’: both Colbourne and Moore had been very close to being captured at the bridge. Moore had just arrived from the distressing scenes in nearby Villafranca to the west where he had made an appeal to his troops because of the damage and deprivations they had committed on the line of march and the ensuing disarray to their formations. Moore was criticised later by Sir Arthur Wellesley through not co-ordinating his planned halts for his troops with more efficiency in view of the close proximity of the pursuing French - but the staff required by Moore to do this were suffering under the same overall conditions as the soldiers and were probably just as hungry, exhausted and harassed as they were. The overall speed of the retreat if one examines it was conducted at a far greater rate than any planned military march using good roads in fine weather in England, and having to endure far worse conditions for communication and administration. The rearguard couldn’t leave Cacabelos before the soldiers of Hope and Fraser had left Villafranca; apparently in the overall state of confusion, no plans had been made to blow up the bridge at Cacabelos to deny it to the French - but demolition would have had to wait until all the rearguard had crossed it. Using hindsight, it seems that there was time for the engineers to attempt to mine the bridge for demolition had any engineers been present and had been given orders to do so as things were quiet there from 11.00am on the morning of January 2nd to some hours after dawn on January 3rd. The engineers had previously blown out three arches of the bridge at Castrogonzalo near Benevente despite having to do so in pouring rain but later failed in two attempts to do so at Constantino and Betanzos, much to the annoyance of General Paget who was then conducting that part of the retreat. Even if the bridge at Cacabelos had been blown by the British, the effect on the French pursuit would have been - as was later stated in a French account - to have served little purpose as a ‘good ford’ for cavalry over the same river was reported to exist a little way downstream from the bridge with another ford suitable for infantry a short distance upstream.
NOTE “What, Sir ! Another abortion? And Pray how do you account for this?” is what Paget is recorded as angrily shouting at an engineer officer after the second failure of an attempt to blow a bridge as recalled by Rifleman Harris who was there at the time. The later attempt at bridge-demolition at Burgo near Corunna by the same engineers resulted in a terrific explosion and was completely successful but they probably used fresh engineers - and fresh gunpowder - brought up from Corunna harbour at Burgo. It might be noted that at Benevente, the French cavalry had previously attempted to cross a river to get at the British rearguard resulting in a repulse where they lost the general leading them (taken prisoner in that instance). The ‘fords’ I couldn’t find on my first visit to Cacabelos but the river Cua here has changed somewhat since January 1809 especially with the weir and the new ‘quay’ adjacent to the bridge. On another visit I found a possible site for an old pre-bridge ford at the end of a short stretch of ‘old road’ about 150 yards downstream but looking upstream proved impossible. A ‘civic official’ I consulted at the time of my first visit had no knowledge of any ford across the river at Cacabelos - but of course that doesn’t mean their weren’t any in 1809. The river at Cacabelos is named the Cua in most accounts but is sometimes referred to as the Guia by the Spanish and French.
As explained earlier on, the range over which Plunket fired his shot is left vague and isn’t defined anywhere in memoirs from the period. The villages of both Cacabelos and Pieros these days have changed since 1809 that an initial exploration and examination offered a possible range of between 50 and 100 yards up to a very unlikely 600 yards by taking into account the variously different descriptions of what actually happened. Various other factors can be considered: the spot where the French cavalry could have reformed after their first push, the range of the guns of the British Horse Artillery, the space covered and time required by a cavalry trooper enabling Plunket to run ‘a hundred yards’ to safety, the time taken to reload a Baker rifle, the bend in the angle of the road, the elevation of the bridge above the road surface and the difficulty of aiming a rifle in freezing conditions by a man who would have been both breathless and pretty tired.
In the ‘traditional’ account, Plunket lies on his back in the mud and snow ‘in the road’ near the bridge and using the ‘orthodox’ position as seen as the French cavalry approach, then shoots Colbert ‘at a range of 400 yards’ then reloads and shoots Colbert’s aide de camp with Plunket then racing back to his company after his second shot to avoid the French retaliation. The ‘400 yards’ in question I couldn’t find as being mentioned in any period memoir written by anyone who had been at Cacabelos so where it originated is a mystery; two ‘modern’ accounts place the shot that killed Colbert being fired at a range of between 400 and 800 yards though neither of these cite a source for this.
The main road today through Cacabelos to the bridge does not follow the same route as the main road in 1809; and expansion and new building since then out from the old Plaza Mayor wholly obscures the view of the bridge that the French and the British would have had in 1809. The ‘old road’ to Villafranca curled away to the north-west at the hill after Cacabelos (the main road today goes south-east) but spots such as the Plaza Mayor, the ‘eastern’ ridge, the bridge, the church, the old mill and the remains of the gardens and vineyards mentioned in accounts can all be found with two possible positions for the British Horse Artillery (both are within range of the Plaza Mayor). Captain Gordon of the 15th Hussars made a sketch of the village of Cacabelos in his book, showing troop dispositions there at the time of the start of the action.
Cacabelos (Map Three)
A modern map of Cacabelos with the course of the ‘old road’ laid on top of it. A copy of this map was hastily scribbled by the author in an attempt to give basic details to a ‘tour guide’ from Corunna as on the author’s first visit neither the guide nor anyone in Cacabelos apparently knew much of the battle. It is possible that the squadrons that made up the first French cavalry advance approached on both sides of the old main road shown here. To the east, the French approach route from Ponferrada is clearly defined. The scale of this modern map is 1: 6000 which converts to 1 inch = 500 feet.
After Colbert’s death, his troopers are said to have ridden over his body to continue with their ‘charge’. In one account, Colbert’s horse stood by his body during this and was later seen to still be there ‘at the end of the fighting’. In another account it is a Trumpet-Major of one of the French cavalry units in pursuit who is killed by Plunket’s second shot, but the ‘traditional’ account (which is rarely printed in full) has Colbert’s aide-de-camp - Lieutenant de la Tour Maubourg - falling victim to Plunket’s second shot as he stopped to aid the fallen Colbert with the second shot occurring after the French cavalry had passed over the bridge. The French account in Musee des Invalides describes Colbert as ‘the legendary General of Brigade Baron Auguste de Colbert de Chabanais’ and states that he fell during the second advance of the French cavalry after passing through or around the village and after seeing his aide shot on the eastern riverbank and by advancing ‘as far as the line of skirmishers’ fell from a shot from the ‘solid British entrenchments’: the ball being fired ‘by a rifleman of the 95th’ which struck him above the left eyebrow and passed through his head killing him instantly and throwing his body back off his horse. If this French account is taken as fact, the shot which killed Colbert was fired at relatively close range - probably between 50 and 80 yards - to retain the power and velocity required to pass straight through Colbert’s head and throw his body backwards - and of course, Colbert must have crossed the bridge to reach as far as ‘the line of skirmishers’ which were all at that point at least 250 yards beyond the western bank of the river. At that point, both Colbert and his aide would have been fast-moving targets.
In the complete version of Harry Payne’s sketch of Tom Plunket shooting Colbert (shown later) another rifleman is shown in the immediate background climbing over a wall behind Plunket and might possibly have been inspired by the French account of ‘entrenchments’. The confusion and delay in Villafranca caused the overnight delay in Cacabelos but it is unlikely that the Reserve had either the time or the energy on January 2nd to dig any earthworks.
Captain Gordon doesn’t show any ‘entrenchments’ and no other British account of Cacabelos mention any and only the relatively modern (1914) illustration sketched of the exploit seems to show any. It is possible that the riverside gardens which were occupied by British skirmishers on both sides of the bridge were dense enough to be mistakenly taken by the French as some form of defensive arrangement and the ‘stone walls’ amongst the vineyards on the western hill itself could be taken as much the same thing. It has been suggested that the ‘entrenchments’ were offered up by the French as the reason why their cavalry that passed over the bridge in the second charge couldn’t penetrate far beyond it; but the space there was limited and the French troopers that did pass over the narrow bridge to get that far would have been under small-arms fire from all sides and the six guns of the Horse Artillery. It is possible that the account of Colbert’s aide being shot at would be certainly considered at the time by a ‘common’ French or British soldier armed with a smooth-bore musket to be long-range so the account of the shooting of Colbert himself could have become a little ‘mixed-up’ with the telling. That it happened - from the many accounts, including Paget and Beckwith’s involvement - I believe is not in doubt; but the form of the exploit may have ‘changed’; taking into account here Colbourne’s mention of the general confusion and by what went on to happen in the following days. French accounts of the action at Cacabelos differ but one modern version currently on the internet gives the motivation behind Plunket’s shot as ‘the British had put a price on Colbert’s head’.
NOTE An instance during the Crimean war where Russian infantry in column formation were fired upon by The Rifle Brigade at 600 yards led to the Russian officers believing that the casualties inflicted on their troops over the time of fifteen minutes were caused by an unseen artillery piece firing canister or grapeshot at close-range. The death in 1864 of Union General Sedgewick during the American Civil War raised a similar enquiry: Sedgewick saw his troops under fire from the enemy and exclaimed “Don’t worry, boys! They couldn’t hit an Elephant at this range!” but fell dead from a bullet seconds later. From a later examination, it appears that Sedgewick was marked down at long-range by a Confederate sharpshooter equipped with an accurate English rifle which may have been fitted with an early telescopic sight.
Pvt. John Warwick (1872)
A photograph taken in 1872 of Private John Warwick of the Berkshire Volunteers adopting a version of the ‘orthodox’ or ‘supine’ position for improved accuracy in long-range rifle-shooting; Warwick was said to be the finest rifle-shot in England at the time, and is seen here loading a cartridge into a breech-loading Martini-Henry rifle.
The final entry in Sir John Moore’s diary made in his headquarters on the Canton Grande in Corunna reads “I cannot imagine after what has happened there can be any intention of sending a British force again into Spain.” The contribution of “Plunket’s Shot” on January 3rd 1809 to the British morale on the continuing retreat after Cacabelos probably had a terrific effect; at a very dark and dismal point during the retreat for the Reserve (and many others followed, such as ‘The Battle of the Skeletons’ near Betanzos a few days later) and such an exploit by a single soldier in it would have been a brilliant glimmer of light in the overall gloom and is claimed to have ‘renewed’ the fighting spirit of the hard-pressed rearguard which not only disaffected the ‘enthusiasm’ of the immediate French pursuit in pressing forward but carried the Reserve through the next sixty miles of the terrible snowbound Sierra de Bierzo mountains and then across the long stretch to Burgo to reach Corunna itself. The battle at Corunna on January 16th saw the death of Sir John Moore - but as the Spanish proverb says “Revenge is a dish best eaten Cold” - the British Army did return a few months later and a little later still, Tom Plunket also returned with the 1/95th Rifles.
NOTE Sir John Moore was struck in the shoulder by a French roundshot whilst directing the final stage of the battle from Monte Mero above the village of Elvina (due to the new dual-carriageway the nearest position to the actual spot today is in the garden of a small house). The body of Sir John Moore was buried at night in a shallow grave - a terribly emotional scene for all the participants which when described by one of them gave rise in 1817 to one of the most evocative poems in British military history which in 1999 was recited by the author over his tomb - erected by the enemy, Marshal Soult - in the San Carlos Redoubt at Corunna during a commemorative event there.
What happened to Tom Plunket after Cacabelos? It seems that Plunket was illiterate so even had he wished to, he could not have committed anything personally to paper but I could find no record of Tom Plunket himself making any verbal reference to what happened at Cacabelos - but surely he must have been asked to do so many times and possibly ‘dined out’ on the story for years. Neither Moore, Colbourne, Paget or Beckwith may have actually witnessed Plunket’s two shots - perhaps in doing so they may just have seen a ‘rifleman’ - Plunket’s entire company must have done so and many men of the nearby 52nd and 28th. The first ‘official’ recorded mention of Tom Plunket - outside company or regimental day-books - in a publication was in The United Services Journal and Naval and Military Magazine in 1839. Tom Plunket had many other adventures, many of which are recalled by Edward Costello in his book Adventures of a Soldier, one of many ‘rifles memoirs’ which followed after the war but was not published until 1852. It is stated in the book that Plunket did shoot Colbert by lying on his back to take aim and it is hinted later in the book by Costello that ‘shooting French officers’ in a similar fashion may have become Plunket’s ‘speciality’ and occurred yet again on more than one occasion during the battle of Corunna on January 16th 1809. Edward Costello didn’t take part in ‘The Retreat to Corunna’ but served from May 1809 in the 1/95th Rifles with Plunket during the Peninsula War, during which they briefly served in the same company and appear to have been good friends so had the opportunity to get an account of the exploit from Plunket himself. Plunket apparently managed to get through the rest of the Peninsula War without a scratch but was wounded at Waterloo when a bullet badly scarred his forehead; though they passed within a few yards of each other at Waterloo, it is not recorded if Sir Edward Paget - then The Earl of Uxbridge, commanding the Anglo-Dutch Cavalry - saw or remembered Tom Plunket. After Waterloo, Plunket was ‘invalided out’ with an army pension but ‘expressing his disgust at the size of it in such a manner to the Lords’ Commissioners who were then inclined to strike him off the list altogether’. Without employment or money, Tom then married an Irish girl named Elizabeth MacDermottroe who did have an army pension as her face had been horribly disfigured by the explosion of an ammunition wagon during the battle of Quatre Bras in June 1815 during The Waterloo Campaign - described as having ‘a countenance of a blue, shapeless, noseless mass’ she was evidently very badly scarred. They went off together to Ireland in late 1815 but in desperate circumstances, Tom was forced to re-enlist as a redcoat but described at the time as ‘a very bad character and nearly worn out in the service’. His old commanding officer Sidney Beckwith recognised and remembered him, intervened and secured him a pension of a shilling a day and in 1817 Plunket subsequently accepted the Government’s offer of money and a grant of land in Nova Scotia to old soldiers who wished to settle there. Plunket evidently made an awful settler and once again fell victim to bouts of heavy drinking so returned to England, finally reduced to peddling matches, ribbons and pins on a street-corner. Tom Plunket - who would then be in his early fifties - died suddenly some years later; with a groan he staggered a few steps before dropping dead in a Colchester street, during what sounds like a massive heart attack. The mention in 1839 about his adventures - especially “Plunket’s Shot” - caused several retired military men then living in Colchester to report his death in 1840 to the newspapers and their wives raised enough money from these retired officers to pay for Tom’s funeral and a ‘handsome’ headstone, with £20 left over for his wife. Tom Plunket’s wife unexpectedly visited Costello in 1840 (who was then serving as a Warder at the Tower of London) before she emigrated to America to inform him of Tom’s death, which seems to have come as something of a shock to Costello. Notwithstanding her facial disfigurement, Elizabeth re-married in America and evidently gave birth to several children (there is some evidence to indicate their descendants are still living there today).
I did inquire at the church in Cacabelos about the possible location of General Colbert’s grave but despite obvious language difficulties could find no reference to there being such a spot at Cacabelos apart from a rather vague reference given some years later that the dead of both nations on the east bank after January 3rd 1809 were buried in a mass grave some days after the fighting there and this is certainly an aspect that a local Spanish historian might better pursue. Despite my efforts, a copy of the newspaper accounts of Tom’s death or his funeral have proved impossible to locate; it remains to say that at the time of writing that I did attempt to seek a civic record of Tom’s funeral in trying to locate his grave - but these records also seem to have been ‘lost’.
My thoughts in taking everything into consideration and having walked the ground several times - is that the key to the range and possibility of the first shot was the spot where Colbert may have brought his cavalry squadron or troop to a halt to ‘dress ranks’ after moving off through ‘the outskirts of Cacabelos’ before making their second charge; the shot from Plunket being made when Colbert was facing his front for the bullet to strike Colbert as it did. Costello in his book notes that Colbert on his white horse had been aimed at and shot at ‘frequently’ by men of the 95th Rifles but all these shots missed and Colbert ‘invariably escaped’ and seemed to them to ‘bear a charmed life’ - but Costello doesn’t state the circumstances or from where all these preceding shots had been fired. An officer named William Surtees of the 95th Rifles wrote that Plunket deliberately moved forward to ‘put himself well nigh’ in range of Colbert by intending to shoot him. Plunket in seeing the cavalry halted to ‘dress ranks’ could have moved forward the ‘one hundred yards’ described by Costello towards the bridge in order to get into effective range, but even a short sprint would have made him breathless and detracted from a careful aim - a good reason why he would adopt the ‘orthodox’ position to aim. Cavalry tactics of the period being what they were - in terms of the military formation they would have been in and the space that 400 French cavalry troopers would have to occupy - and adding the likelihood that the six guns of the Royal Horse Artillery in their position would open fire with roundshot at a range of 500 yards, the first rifle-shot was probably made over a range of less than 200 yards in putting the French cavalry in the best possible position for a planned charge and for Plunket’s bullet to retain enough velocity to pass straight through Colbert’s head. The first shot - even with past experience of shooting at ‘extended distances’ - taken under the circumstances of the retreat at such a range at a stationary man-sized target was still a very remarkable achievement which would have required a good deal of experience and skill to judge the elevation - a ‘military’ Baker rifle wasn’t sighted above 150 yards - so the reader might feel he is justified in calling the first shot ‘lucky’. But having reloaded, to then place a second shot from the same spot using the same rifle with exactly the same degree of success was tremendous - more than just ‘luck’ is indicated by this.
From the Rifle Brigade Chronicle of 1914, Harold Payne’s illustration of Tom Plunket shooting General Colbert at Cacabelos on January 3rd 1809. ‘Extrapolating the range’ as shown here is rather pointless as the sketch is an ‘artists impression’ not based on fact - but just out of interest it turned out to be 100 yards. The ‘entrenchments’ (see earlier) are shown in the original sketch as being immediately behind Plunket but the bridge isn’t shown. Plunket is shown here using the ‘orthodox’ rifle position as this is stated in one memoir as being how Plunket aimed and fired his shots.
It does seem reasonable that Plunket could have covered the ‘one hundred yards’ back to where he came from after making the second shot in order to reach safety before the ‘dozen or so’ furiously vengeful French cavalrymen then intent on cutting him to pieces as also described by Costello in his book would be able to cover not less than the 150 yards required to reach him. It isn’t stated at what point during the action at Cacabelos that Paget or Beckwith spoke to Plunket and - of course - anything Plunket may have said in reply to Paget or Beckwith in the respect of shooting Colbert.
Most accounts put the time of “Plunket’s Shot” between 3.30pm and 4.00pm - ‘by the light of closing day’ as it was early January; so there could not have been good light at all for ‘long-range’ shooting at that time of day. To add to the failing light on that winters’ day, remember that Costello is writing about what happened in a battle at which he wasn’t present and also writing about it thirty years after the event. Costello has Plunket running back ‘just in time’ to the safety of ‘the rearmost sections’ to escape a dozen French troopers who set out to do for him after the shots. For Plunket to run to ‘the rearmost sections’ as opposed to saying ‘Plunket ran to the rear’ in military vernacular indicates that Plunket’s company were then facing west - not east.
Most of the British and French accounts of the action at Cacabelos indicate that Colbert was shot on the western side of the bridge after he had passed over it and this would explain why the French cavalry behind him then ‘rode over his dead body’. The French account is the only one that specifically states a battlefield location for Colbert’s death - that Colbert was shot having reached ‘the line of skirmishers’ - but at that point, if Costello’s account is taken, the range of the shots would have to fall somewhere between 50 and 100 yards if Tom Plunket had run forward ‘a hundred yards’ to lie down and make his shots. Nobody says exactly where Plunket was before he ran forward or where he was in making his shots - save the French account saying that the shot that killed Colbert came from the ‘entrenchments’ which indicate the stone walls of the vineyards on the western hill - so we are now left to deal with a position on the western side covering an area of 100 square yards somewhere within which the shots could have been fired.
Sketch by the author showing the geography of 3rd January 1809 beyond the river and the likely positions of the Reserve frontage at about 3.30pm before the second advance of the French cavalry passed over the bridge. By line of sight and optimum range, the position of Tom Plunket in making his shots in this instance - if not too obliquely - would fall somewhere between the light company of the 28th Foot and the old mill: a range somewhere between a minimum of around 50 yards and a maximum of 250 yards.
Tom Plunket could have moved forward 100 yards from the skirmish line and made his first shot as Colbert passed over the bridge heading towards him - but - this would have left him little time for reloading / aiming for the second shot unless the French cavalry weren’t moving during his first shot - so how could this have come about ?
The formation of the French cavalry in crossing the narrow bridge would by necessity be in some form of a ‘column’ being two to six horses wide. If the French had both space and time, it would make sound military sense for their cavalry to change from column into line before making a charge to lessen the effect of enemy fire and bring more of their troopers into an effective position; or at the very least, pull up the first troopers across so the attack isn’t made piecemeal and so the troopers behind them could at least take ground to their left. By moving the ‘skirmish line’ to the lower slopes of the western hill, it opens the door to supposition that the French could have attempted to deploy from column to line after crossing the bridge but this would have meant them pausing to do so. As Colbert and his aide crossed the bridge and then waited for the French cavalry to cross the bridge behind them and as quick as they could change formation from column to line, this would be the best time for Tom Plunket to move forward and take his shots: for at least five minutes - just before leading his troopers forward in the charge - Colbert riding his white horse in leading ‘from the front’ as usual would be a stationary target in plain sight 300 yards away from the ‘skirmish line’ of the 95th Rifles. Whilst the French cavalry were quickly reforming, the shock to their front ranks of seeing Colbert fall to a single long-range shot - especially if followed one minute later by his aide falling in exactly the same way - could have infuriated the nearest French troopers enough to prompt the nearest of them to charge after Plunket and in doing so, cause a precipitate French attack.
With no French infantry support yet in sight, Paget may have realised that in using what troops he had in hand at that time he could give the French cavalry ‘a bloody nose’ by ‘permitting’ their cavalry to cross the bridge and ride into a trap - it was risky, but that is essentially what happened. “Plunket’s Shot” would have been the ‘cherry on the cake’ in this as it removed the immediate French leadership and badly disrupted the French chain of command - indeed, perhaps upsetting them so much that the French did lose control and charged the troops of the Reserve on the hill. The balance would later have changed again when the French infantry arrived on the scene and found the Reserve still in positions based on the western hill beyond the bridge - but because of “Plunket’s Shot” and the repulse of the French cavalry, the Reserve then had lost any fear of the French and gained the advantage of increased confidence and high morale.
When the French cavalry charged the Reserve on the western bank of the river, fire from the skirmish line of the 95th Rifles would certainly have been concentrated on the French cavalry as they advanced - for both the cavalry leader and his aide to fall to concentrated fire at a range of around 100 yards would not seem to be anything very remarkable - save if a single rifleman was seen to have fired both the shots that brought both of them down before they reached the skirmish line. Costello states that Paget ‘immediately’ rewarded Plunket after shooting Colbert - though ‘immediately’ in that case probably meant until at least that part of the engagement was approaching an end and the French cavalry had withdrawn back over the bridge. If it is the ‘old mill’ shown in the background of Harry Payne’s illustration for The Rifle Brigade Chronicle in 1914, then it looks as though Harry wasn’t far off the mark!
The Bridge at Cacabelos
The bridge at Cacabelos, seen here from the western riverbank in 1998. The bridge since 1809 has been both ‘widened and strengthened’ to suit modern traffic, the heaviest part of which since the new motorway opened in 1998 now uses a different road. The Plaza Mayor of Cacabelos is about 150 yards to the right of the building seen here. A good part of the riverside gardens and vineyards have since disappeared but the remains of the ‘old mill’ are still there, now a private dwelling about 80 metres to the left of this photograph. Ponferrada is several miles away to the centre-right of the photograph along the ‘new road’ - the pre-bridge ‘old ford’ over the river is about 150 yards downstream (beyond the lower right-hand corner) at this point.
Around 3.30pm on January 3rd 1809 Sir John Moore made a statement saying that the arrival of the French infantry at Cacabelos whilst the Reserve were still present indicated that he thought the enemy would now be ‘on us all the way to Corunna’ - but the Reserve marched away unhindered by the French during the early part of the night and reached what might be called ‘relative safety’. Tom Plunket’s reputation as a ‘model soldier’ did suffer later in the Peninsula War through losing his stripes twice through drunken misbehaviour - but there remains the simple fact that however it happened, Plunket did shoot General Colbert on January 3rd 1809. In Tom Plunket removing the driving force of the French cavalry at Cacabelos he tipped the balance of the battle in favour of the Reserve and no doubt saved a lot of lives by doing so. His action gained valuable time - then and later a very precious commodity - and a days’ respite from pursuit for the Reserve and probably saved even more lives. Tom Plunket may have taken what he did at Cacabelos with him to the grave … but whatever Plunket did at Cacabelos, he left me with a fascinating puzzle - and “Plunket’s Shot” has made him immortal.