Sir John Moore is one of those people who are both famous and forgotten. True, there are three monuments to his life. One is in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Another is in his native city of Glasgow.
The third monument is in the Spanish city of Corunna. It commemorates Moore’s actions at the end of a distinguished military career that began as a 14-year-old ensign with a British regiment fighting in the American War for Independence.
The Great Retreat
Moore went to Spain in 1808 as the commander of the British Army sent to support the Spanish Army resistance to Napoleon. By November, he was deep in Spain, short of supplies, and not getting much support from the Spanish Army. Retreat seemed like the only option.
Great retreats don’t get a lot of press. The Times called Moore’s “a shameful disaster.” But the great retreats of military history preserve armies to fight again. Three of the great ones are Washington’s retreat from New York, the UN Force’s rear-guard action at the Chosin Reservoir, and the British evacuation from Dunkirk.
Moore’s idea was to return to Corunna, where the men could board British ships to make their escape and fight another day. It was a lot like Dunkirk, only with a much longer hike in far worse conditions.
Moore led his army 200 miles over the Spanish mountains of Leon and Galicia. The roads were bad in the best of times, but this was bitter cold November with snow and sleet and ice. By the time the army reached Corunna, it had lost 5,000 men and the British evacuation fleet wasn’t’ there yet.
Moore established a defensive position outside Corunna to hold off the French while his soldiers boarded the British ships. During the battle he was “struck in his left breast and shoulder by a cannon shot, which broke his ribs, his arm, lacerated his shoulder, and the whole of his left side and lungs.” He remained conscious and composed for several hours, directing the troops, making sure his will could be found, and giving instructions to his aides.
When he died a day later, his burial was conducted under fire in the dead of night. He was buried wrapped in his military cloak. The funeral was commemorated by a poem, “The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna” by Charles Wolfe. That poem ends with these lines.
“We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But left him alone with his glory.”
Moore’s military adversary, French Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, ordered a monument to Moore erected over his grave.
The Great Role Model
Sir John Moore’s heroism is the stuff of legend, but he should also be remembered for other “less heroic” actions. In 1801 he commanded the 95th Regiment of Foot, the first to be designated “light infantry.” In 1803, he was selected to command a brigade at the Shorncliffe Army Camp. What he did there changed the British Army forever.
The belief at the time was that soldiers could not be trusted to act on their own. They could only be effective when they were directed in detail by their officers. Moore’s training at Shorncliffe created the first effective light infantry units and trained soldiers who acted independently.
The belief at the time was that only soldiers from “hunting cultures” could be trained to shoot well. Moore trained everyone to shoot well and armed them with rifles instead of muskets.
The belief at the time, was that the core skill for a soldier was loading his musket quickly and effectively. The Army didn’t use live ammunition in training because it cost money and didn’t improve the results of soldiers who fired musket volleys in formation. Moore used live ammunition, designed moving and popup targets to improve rifle skills, and sponsored marksmanship contests.
The belief at the time was that only harsh discipline could force obedience. Flogging was common. Moore did not use flogging. He taught the soldiers who wanted it to read and write, because he believed that better men made better soldiers. In Moore’s regiment, officers (usually from the upper class) and regular soldiers worked together more than in other regiments and were more likely to share the same hardships.
The Rifles did other things differently, too. Regular British soldiers wore red coats with white belting. Rifles regiments wore green jackets with black leather. The Rifles marched faster than regular infantry.
When you look at it from the perspective of 200 years, it’s really amazing. Many of the things that we think of as 21st Century insights and practices were in place at Shorncliffe in the early 19th century. Moore believed that people could learn, and so he trained them. Moore believed that people could be trusted to act on their own, so that’s what he expected. Moore believed that people could improve themselves, so he helped them.
British historian Sir Arthur Bryant summed it up this way: “Moore’s contribution to the British Army was not only that matchless light infantry who ever since enshrined his training, but also the belief that the perfect soldier can only be made by evoking all that is finest in man – physical, mental, and spiritual.”
Bravery and heroic action are inspiring, but they’re only for the day. Sir John Moore is one of my heroes and a role model because that belief in people and their ability to learn and act is one of the most powerful forces a leader can possess.
For Further Reading
Two web sites have more information about the Rifles and their history.
The Regimental Museum of The Rifles is the official site of the museum.
The History of the 95th Rifles is a reenactor site with a lot of information.
If you want to learn more about the 95th Rifles in the Napoleonic Wars, I recommend Mark Urban’s excellent book, Wellington’s Rifles: Six Years to Waterloo with England’s Legendary Sharpshooters.
To come at this period a different way, try Bernard Cornwell’s excellent series of historical novels whose main character, Richard Sharpe is a rifleman. I’m pointing you to the one titled Sharpe’s Rifles which is set around the time of Moore’s retreat to Corunna.