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An Incident in the Peninsula War
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bevan, of the 4th or King’s Own Regiment and the Bridge at Barba del Puerco 1811
Born in 1778, Charles Bevan was commissioned into the 28th Foot with whom he served in Egypt, at Copenhagen, Walcheren and in the Peninsula. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 18th January, 1810 and appointed to command the 2nd Battalion 4th Foot, then stationed at Colchester with the 1st Battalion. The 2nd/4th embarked for Ceuta in North Africa, opposite Gibraltar, arriving on 21st march 1810, but unfortunately during the passage a storm had driven some of the transports ashore near Cadiz and some three hundred men of the regiment were taken prisoner; the Battalion remained in Ceuta until April 1812. Meanwhile the 1st/4th had left Colchester and embarked from Harwich for Spain on 25th October, 1810. In early January 1811 Bevan was appointed to command the 1st/4th in the place of Lieutenant Colonel James Wynch.
Following the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro on 2nd May, 1811, the French Commander Messena ordered the besieged garrison at Almeida under General Brennier to break out to the north-west and rejoin the French forces via the bridge at Barba del Puerco over the river Agueda. Wellington anticipated this move and ordered General Sir William Erskine to extend his 5th Division northward as far as the Bridge of Barba del Puerco by sending the 4th Foot to the rocky defile which overhangs the bridge. Meanwhile, Campbell’s 6th Division and Pack’s Brigade were to continue the investment of Almeida. The orders were sent out by 2 p.m. on the 10th and reached Erskine at his Headquarters by about 4 p.m. However, although he claimed to have sent the orders immediately to the 4th Foot at Val de Mula, it would appear that they were not received until around midnight.
At about midnight, the garrison of 1400 men broke-out from Almeida in two columns through the pickets of the Portuguese and 2nd Foot. Pack’s Brigade and General Campbell with the 36th Foot pursued the French towards the bridge at Barba del Puerco. Lieutenant Colonel Bevan, who, having received his orders around midnight, had decided to wait the few hours until day-break before moving. However, on hearing the gunfire, Bevan ordered his Regiment to move off quickly towards the bridge. The French arrived at the bridge first pursued by Pack’s force and the King’s Own with the 36th Foot were able to attack the second French column in flank as it was descending the steep road to the Bridge.
Despite losses, the main French force crossed the bridge and joined the French Corps on the heights above the river. Lieutenant Colonel Cockrane of the 36th with a detachment from his Regiment and the 4th, then rashly decided to rush the bridge and was beaten back with casualties. On hearing the news, Wellington was furious at both the failure to block the French breakout and the futile attempt to cross the bridge. The latter resulted in Wellington threatening to court martial any officer who was guilty of similar misconduct in the future (Despatch to General Campbell 15th May 1811).
In the first of the two despatches to the Earl of Liverpool, Secretary of State, Wellington wrote that ‘the 4th Regiment which was ordered to occupy Barba del Puerco, unfortunately missed their road and did not arrive there till the enemy had reached the place....’ and that ‘the enemy are indebted for the small part of the garrison which they saved principally due to the unfortunate mistake of the road to Barba del Puerco by the 4th Regiment.’ The second despatch relates that orders were sent to Erskine which were received at about 4 p.m., and that Erskine said he forwarded them forthwith. The despatch further states that ‘the 4th Regiment, which it is said did not receive their orders before midnight, and had only two and a half miles to march, missed their road and did not arrive, at Barba del Puero till after the French.’.... ‘Thus your Lordship will see, that, if the 4th Regiment had received the orders issued at 1 p.m. before it was dark at 8 o’clock at night, or if they had not missed their road, the garrison must have lain down its arms....’(Gurwood 1838).
Lieutenant Colonel Bevan felt that both he and his regiment had been unfairly criticised in the despatches and asked Wellington for a court of inquiry. On being refused, Bevan shot himself on 8th July 1811. His death was deeply lamented by his brother officers and his funeral, attended by all the officers in the Division, was held on 11th July at Portalegre where he was buried in the castle yard. The memorial stone reads:-
‘This stone is erected to the memory of Charles Bevan Esquire. Late Lieutenant Colonel of the 4th or King’s Own Regiment with intention of recording his virtues. They are deeply engraven on the hearts of those who knew him and will ever live in their remembrance.’
The full truth did not emerge until some years later, but ‘it was known at the time the orders were not issued by the Division until after midnight, they had then to be transmitted by the Brigade and in each case would have been carried by mounted orderlies or runners, so quite probably did not arrive at the Battalion headquarters till between 1 and 2 a.m.’ (Keith, 1930). Cowper (1939) quotes a Lieutenant Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons who stated that General Erskine put the order ‘in his pocket and did not despatch the letter to Colonel Bevan before midnight (Bevan probably received them at midnight)’ and to cover himself, when required to explain by Lord Wellington, he said that the 4th Regiment had missed its way, which was not the case. Napier (1850) wrote that ‘Erskine sent no order to the Fourth Regiment’.... and.... ‘had Erskine obeyed his orders about the Fourth Regiment Brennier would have been lost.’ Moreover, none of these sources refer to the Regiment missing the road to Barba del Puerco.
In November 1897 MacMillan’s Magazine published an extract from the diary of Private John Timwell of the 43rd Foot, which included the following entry from the diary of an officer of his regiment:-
"The French could never have escaped had it not been for an accident in Sir William Erskine not sending an order in time to Colonel Bevan, which caused him to be too late at Barba del Puerco with his Regiment. Poor Bevan was censured by Lord Wellington, which circumstance preyed so much on his mind, knowing he had done his duty, that he blew his brains out.
The order alluded to was sent from headquarters by Lord Wellington’s direction and Sir William Erskine forgot to forward it, and literally, after the business was over, the document was found in his pocket."
Bevan’s wife and children in England were informed that he had died of fever. It was not until 1843, that his eldest son, Charles found out the sad truth about his death from an uncle, Admiral James Richard Dacres, who wrote informing him that the 4th had received their orders too late and that neither Bevan nor his Regiment were at fault.
The despatches of the Duke of Wellington, Volume 7. Lieutenant Colonel Gurwood, London, 1838.
History of the War in the Peninsula, Volume 3. Major General Sir W F P Napier, KCB, London, 1850.
The King’s Own The Story of a Royal Regiment Volume One, 1680-1814 by Colonel LI Cowper, published by the Regiment in 1939.
Keith’s Diary Volume II 1801-1914. Lieutenant Colonel G T E Keith, DSO, 1930, revised 1932. (King’s Own Museum archives.)
We recommend The King's Own The Story of a Royal Regiment Volume 1 1680-1814 by Colonel Lionel I Cowper - the best history of the King's Own. On a CD-rom, viewable through a computer. Price including UK postage £12.75
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