Updated: Apr 28, 2020
My wife and I were staying with friends in Salema on the Algarve and decided to explore a small part of Wellington’s Peninsula. I wrote the piece below for the Silver Bugle but HQ ‘forgot’ ever to forward it to the editor.
On the eve of a gathering of KOYLI retired Officers and Riflemen at St Paul's London to mark the anniversary of Sir John Moore, I thought I would share it with you via the Association Website.
Probing eastwards from our base in Portuguese Alentejo, very much in the steps of Wellington, my wife and I explored the fortress of Elvas from whose battlements one can make out its complement at Badajoz, eleven miles away, across the border in Spanish Extremadura. Easier for us than for the British Army nearly two centuries ago, we drove on eastwards determined to see what evidence we could find of the siege of Badajoz from which the KOYLI derive our Regimental Toast. Not as simple as one might think: we’d forgotten that time in Spain is an hour ahead of that in Portugal, so nearly everywhere was closed for the Spanish two, even three, hour lunch. The natives, ‘though friendly enough, understood neither my immaculate English nor my stumbling Spanish; and what historical pointers we could tease out were all to do with the second siege, in 1812, when Wellington eventually took the city, and about which the least said perhaps the better. Eventually we came across a hotel check-in clerk a bit more knowledgeable than the rest, who directed us back across the new Autonomía bridge over the Guadiana River, towards the Fortress of San Cristóbal. The near conical hill, ‘though now encircled by new roads, a railway and a housing estate, still rears up rugged, imposing and completely untouched by any sort of development, not even marked out as a site of historical interest — other than new trees replacing older ones, it probably looks much as it did when Wellington’s army arrived there in June, 1811.
Dumped the car on some wasteland, and set off up the north face of the hill, the side away from the Guadiana, the side up which our soldiers scrambled in their attempts to take the fortress and thus dominate the river crossings and the Castle and city beyond. It is steep, very steep, 150 feet above the river, but at least we were clambering up without weapons, ammo and ladders — and we were doing it a month earlier than the storming party, before the cauldron heat of southern Spain had really built up. Gradually, the crenellations appeared on the skyline above us. We scrambled on, no hail of bullets for us to contend with. At last we reached the battlements … … made it! But no. Peering over the walls, we could see the land fall away to a flat area some thirty yards wide, then dropping again into a stone-faced ditch twelve feet or more, deep. A ravelin looms above the ditch and the flat killing ground we’d just crossed. And behind that again, stand the ramparts of the Fort itself!
Poor blighters! Up the hill, over the outworks, across the flat land, down into the ditch and along beneath the fire from the ravelin, … … only to find that their ladders were not tall enough to scale the walls of the Fort. Then: withdraw under withering fire, regroup and call for more volunteers, back again, up again. Ensign Dyas of the 51st volunteering to lead the Forlorn Hope, not once, not twice, but three times; courage beyond belief — shako blown off, sword shot from his hand.
We went on to explore the interior of the fort. The shell of an elegant guardroom. Flights of stairs at intervals up to the firestep. To the rear of the fort, an entrance from a cart track, enfiladed from the Castle across the river glinting down below. Quiet now. Splashed with wildflowers. Yet, so atmospheric in its massiveness, in its fields of fire in all directions. My thoughts went back to those brave men two centuries ago … … and, standing within the fortifications that they so bravely struggled to take, I raised a glass (of port of course!) to:
“Dyas and the Stormers!”
Malcolm Hand, Captain (Ret’d.), KOYLI, HM 51st & 105th of Foot