Sharpe’s sword. Bernard Cornwell

Colquhoun Grant, the Exploring Officer, also was a real character who was captured shortly before the Battle of Salamanca. He escaped from his captors in France and spent some astonishing weeks at liberty in the streets and salons of Paris. He continued to wear full British uniform and if he was challenged he claimed that it was the uniform of the American army. His story, more incredible than fiction, can be found in Jock Haswell’s ‘The First Respectable Spy’ (Hamish Hamilton, 1969).

The French did use codes and Captain Scovell, mentioned in Chapter 4, was the man who broke the enemy codes. Any reader who would like to see how the codes worked can find all the details in Appendix XV of Volume V of Oman’s ‘A History of the Peninsular War’. For the details of the espionage background to Sharpe’s Sword I owe a debt to Jock Haswell’s book and, for that and much more besides, to Oman’s vast and brilliant history.

Salamanca is still one of the most beautiful cities of the world. The Plaza is virtually unchanged since the Sixth Division paraded there on June 29th, 1812 (although the bullfights have been moved to a modern arena). The Plaza is, simply, magnificent. The area where the French created a wasteland around their three fortresses has been rebuilt, alas uglily, but enough of the old city remains and it well repays a visit. The Roman Bridge is now reserved for pedestrians only. The crenellations and the small fortress were removed in the middle of the nineteenth century, restoring the bridge to its original appearance, though the stone bull is still there above the eleventh arch. It marks the place where the bridge was broken in the floods of 1626. Only the fifteen arches nearest the city are Roman, the other eleven are reconstructions from the seventeenth century. The Irish College is unchanged from the days when it was the army’s hospital in 1812.

The battlefield is a particularly pleasing site to visit, for the ground has scarcely changed since July 22nd, 1812. Some trees have gone in the years since and a railway line now runs between the Greater and Lesser Arapile and on into the small valley where the Sixth Division halted Clausel’s counter-attack. There are a handful of modern houses south of Arapiles, but not enough to spoil the ground. To find the battlefield take the road south from the city, the N63O to Caceres, and the village of Arapiles is signposted to the left. The side-road to the village roughly marks the left hand limit of the Third Division’s advance and the Heavy Cavalry must have charged just about where the village is signposted on the main road. It is well worth taking a good account of the battle, with good maps. I have simplified the story of the battle a little, concentrating on the events around the Arapiles, and anyone interested enough to visit the site would be well rewarded by reading one of the many splendid accounts that are available as non-fiction. Once at the Arapiles the ground becomes obvious, thanks to the hills, and there is a memorial obelisk, now sadly weathered, on the crest of the Greater Arapile. Climbing to the memorial makes one wonder at the Portuguese troops who had to make the same climb, in full kit, against a defended skyline. They truly had a hopeless task.

I spent more than a week walking the battlefield and, as ever, received much help from the local people.

Salamanca was a great victory. Wellington suffered close to five thousand casualties (of whom about one thousand were killed outright on the field and no one knows how many dying later of their wounds). Marmont, fearful of Napoleon’s wrath, tried to hide his casualties. He told the Emperor he had lost about six thousand men. In fact he lost fourteen thousand, one Eagle standard, six other standards, and twenty guns. It was a shattering defeat that told the world that a French army could be utterly beaten. It cleared the French from western Spain, and the defeat would have been even more crushing had the Spanish garrison at Alba de Tormes obeyed orders and stayed at their guns. Their defection from the war allowed Marmont’s remaining 34,000 soldiers to escape and it led, also, to the strange and ‘impossible’ victory at Garcia Hernandez. The Germans lost 127 men in the charge. The French, including a whole Battalion taken prisoner, lost about 1,100 from 2,400. The first square broke in much the same way as the description in the novel.

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