In June 1809 the order came for the 1st Battalion to embark for Portugal to join the army there under Lt Gen Sir Arthur Wellesley, as he then was. They set sail for Portugal on 24 July. They landed at Lisbon, then went by boat up the Tagus to Abrantes, and marched to join the army at Badajoz.
Wellesley had arrived in Portugal in April 1809 after the previous British force had been evacuated at Corunna with the death of Sir John Moore. Wellesley’s mission was to drive the French out of the Peninsular. After a first victory at Oporto, he pursued the French into Spain and defeated them again at Talavera. But he realised that he had overstretched his supply lines and withdrew his Army into Portugal to the area around Badajoz, where the 1st/11th joined them, initially as part of 4 Division and later assigned to 6 Division. The Army then marched around 300 miles north to Guarda, near Almeida, where they spent the winter.
There now began a period of nearly 3 years in which 1st/11th marched with Wellington for thousands of miles and were present when several important battles were fought, but were never truly involved in the fighting. In September 1810 Wellington defeated the French as Busaco, near the Portuguese coast; the Army over-wintered at Torres Vedras, near Lisbon, while the French starved because of Wellington’s scorched earth policy. During 1811 and early 1812 he pursued the French out of Portugal into Spain, winning battles at Sabugal, Fuentes d’Onoro, Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz; in all of these, 6 Division including the 1st/11th were held in reserve. It is no wonder that 6 Division acquired the nickname “The Marching Division” as they moved repeatedly up and down the border.
By June 1812 the French finally withdrew from the Portuguese border. Wellington pursued them towards Salamanca. On 17 June the British entered Salamanca without resistance, and over the next 10 days besieged and eventually captured the 3 forts that guarded the city, actions in which 1st/11th lost several officers and rank and file. Over the next 3 weeks the two armies manoeuvred over the ground between Salamanca and the river Duero, some 5 miles north, eventually taking opposing positions close to the city.
The battle of Salamanca was fought on 22 July and is regarded as one of Wellington’s masterpieces. The fighting lasted from early morning throughout the day. Wellington made steady gains, but suffered some losses and by late afternoon the battle hung in the balance.
6 Division had been held in reserve through the day, but were called forward to lead the final assault. A period of fierce fighting culminated in an attack uphill to drive the French of their hilltop position. They suffered terrible losses advancing into French fire, but they succeeded in taking the hill and the French were routed. The 1st/11th were in the thick of the fighting. They lost 341 killed and wounded, a total exceeded by only one other regiment. As a result of their courage and their losses the Regiment became known as “The Bloody Eleventh”. The regimental return 3 days later shows only 214 men fit but 670 sick. The 11th won its first battle honours of the Napoleonic War at Salamanca.
Because the Battalion was so badly under-strength as a result of their losses at Salamanca they played little part in the unsuccessful siege of Burgos in September. The British retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo on the Portuguese border, where they over-wintered. The retreat was chaotic, with inadequate supplies, often no food or shelter, substantial losses through desertion, and a good deal of looting by the starving troops.
In the Spring of 1813, intent upon finally driving the French out of Spain, Wellington set off on a long march north and then east. The Army reached Vittoria on 21 June, after a march of 200 miles. Here Wellington achieved another decisive victory, but again the 1st/11th were kept in the rear and did not take an active part in the battle.
Wellington continued to pursue the French northwards towards the Pyrenees. By early July, he had besieged San Sebastian, blockaded Pamplona and established positions at the main passes at the western end of the Pyrenees. After much manoeuvering, the British and French armies faced each other near the village of Sorauren. In two fierce encounters on 28 and 31 July the French were soundly defeated and they retreated towards France. This time the 1st/11th were in the thick of the fighting, and lost 75 killed and wounded. The Regiment was awarded battle honours (“Pyrenees”), and the Battalion Commander Lt Col Newman received a gold medal.
Once his forces had taken San Sebastian, Wellington began to advance into France. Battles at the crossing of the river Nivelle on 10 November and of the Nive on 9 and 13 December drove the French back towards Bayonne, but at the expense of many casualties. Conditions for the Army were very difficult, with increasing cold, heavy rain, and often inadequate supplies. The 1st/11th were awarded battle honours for both Nivelles and Nive, in which they played important roles which were fully recognised by Wellington.
The first two months of 1814 were spent in winter quarters around Bayonne. When the weather improved in mid-February Wellington began to push the French eastwards towards Toulouse. Full battle was first joined at Orthes, on the river Gave, on 27 February; the French were defeated there and again at a subsequent engagement at Tarbes, and retreated all the way to Toulouse.
The 1st/11th played a substantial part at Orthes, albeit in reserve and pursuit roles rather than in the thick of the fighting, and with probably no losses. They were awarded battle honours. After the battle, they were described as having uniforms so patched that their original colour was unrecognisable; many were shirtless or shoeless; but their morale was high. At Tarbes their role was as part of the final pursuit force as the French retreated.
The final engagement of the campaign took place at Toulouse on 10 April 1814. Wellington did not manage it well, and there were heavy losses on both sides. The French were by no means routed, but after the battle they withdrew. The 1st/11th were heavily involved in the assault, and took their share of casualties, with over 130 killed and wounded. They were awarded the battle honour “Toulouse” to which was added “Peninsular”.
After Toulouse, word arrived that Napoleon had surrendered and abdicated. In June 1814 the Battalion sailed to Ireland, where they remained until the move to Gibraltar and the amalgamation of the two Battalions in March 1816.
Read about Sir David Pepper's ancestor, Quartermaster Sergeant William Viney who served with the 11th Regiment of Foot in the Pininsular Wars