January 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Sir John Moore. Here, local historian, Ann Nevill, takes a brief look back on the life of a great man.
General Sir John Moore was one of the bravest, most intelligent and efficient officers the British Army has ever produced. He died a hero’s death on the battlefield of Corunna in Spain on 16th January, 1809. He is a local hero, also, in Sandgate where he lodged, either under canvas at Shorncliffe or in Sir John Shaw’s house fronting the sea during his most important independent command defending the coast from Deal to Dungeness from 1803-6 when a Napoleonic invasion was expected daily.
Napoleon had amassed a force of 1,000 ships and 100,000 men on the Channel coast. He issued a medal ‘Struck in London, 1804.” Volunteers were mustering all over Britain. All men in the Folkestone district aged 16-60 had to register, together with their weapons. In fact Moore and Nelson also were quite sceptical about Napoleon’s chances in the sudden storm which are typical of the Channel. He once came galloping back at top speed from Dungeness on a false alarm to find everyone very cheerful at the prospect of facing the enemy.
He advised the building of the Martello towers which had been found very useful in Corsica. Sandgate inhabitants were greatly reassured when he took lodgings for his mother and spinster sister, Jane. After a good dinner at York Cottage, he recommended the officers present to run up the hill back to the camp. He declared that every inch of land would be fiercely defended. On the heights of Shorncliffe he trained the Light Brigade in the tactics of swift movement and harassment of the enemy that he had learnt in the American war.
He was a humane commander, choosing his young officers carefully and following their career, even sometimes lending money for the purpose of commissions. The men, as well as being correctly drilled, should learn the arts of peace, reading and music. He did not use the customary harsh punishments for the slightest breach of military discipline. Any hardships they faced, he would share, sleeping out in the rain when tents were unobtainable in Ireland.
His father was a successful doctor and author but he was not rich. In an age when commissions were awarded through patronage or money, the young John had to make his own way in the world and gradually climbed the latter of promotion, ending as a General and Knight of the Bath. He never married, believing matrimony to be unwise for a serving officer but lost his heart twice, once to pretty Caroline Fox – he was 46, she was 17 – and to Lady Hester Stanhope, Pitt’s niece and an adventurous traveller in the East. He served with distinction in many theatres of war, first in Minorca at the age of 15, in American, in Corsica, in the West Indies, where he nearly died of yellow fever but won praise in two key battles, and in Holland where he was several times wounded. He was dubious about Britain’s chances in Egypt, but the battle of Alexandrian was a triumph and it ended in the French expulsion from the whole country.
The officers presented him with a magnificent sword, speaking of their respect and veneration for him. He went to Sicily which he found full of dirt and intrigue, and to Sweden where he had to escape in disguise from the made King Gustav who had threatened to arrest him. His last command was in Portugal and Spain. The French were in a strong position and the Spanish army was not to be relied on. Even the English troops were in a mutinous mood when asked to retreat northwards, the idea being to cut Napoleon’s lines of communication with France.
The weather was icy, the road difficult and the stand at Corunna could be considered a victory or defeat, depending on the view taken of it. Moore was badly wounded by sent away the surgeon to attend on others who had a better chance of life.
The Rev. Charles Wolfe’s poem caught the imagination of the nation:
Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,
As his corse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot,
O’er the grave where our hero is buried.
There is a monument in St Paul’s Church but he still lies at Corunna in a building overlooking the Atlantic surrounded by a beautiful garden.
Image used above is a Sir John Moore re-enactor standing next to the Sir John Moore Memorial.