Prelude to Corunna: A beach landing

Riazor beach, since the port of La Coruña's beach is no more.
Riazor beach in La Coruña, since the port of La Coruña’s beach is no more. The surfing is good here, I’m told. Photo by me.
Schaumann-coverI could not find a description of the British troops departing the transport ships for the beach of Corunna harbor to use in The Spanish Patriot, but I did find one for a similar — rather eventful — embarkation a few months earlier, in Portugal.

This is from the memoir On the Road with Wellington: The Diary of a war commissary in the Peninsular campaigns, by August Schaumann. (Schaumann, with the King’s German Legion, also was one of a couple of models for my Capt. Smith):

Perilous Disembarkation in Maceira Bay

At about ten o’clock on Sunday morning the 28th August, 1808, we were given the signal to land. In five minutes all the troops were under arms. Parties were told off, and at the command, “March!” with my portmanteau under my arm, I climbed with a portion of my cousin Plate’s company into one of the flat-bottomed boats supplied by the men-o’-war. Preceded by two sloops, we rowed rapidly towards the rocky, sandy shore of the bay, which the huge breakers had converted into a sheet of raging foam. The men sat four by four on the thwarts, all pressed closely together, with their packs and muskets between their legs. None of the officers was allowed to take more than a valise with him.

Right and left the coast formed two lofty headlands of rock, on one of which stood the ruins of an old Moorish castle. On both of these headlands English signalling flags were flying and directing the landing-that is to say, informing the fleet of the ebb and flow of the tide, and of the state of the breakers, so that the debarkation of the troops might be properly timed. Between these two headlands, which were about 1,000 yards apart, lay about 300 yards of sandy beach enclosed by a lofty chain of rocks. Upon this stretch of sand the raging breakers, raising their heads houses high when they were still some considerable distance from the land, rolled in from the Atlantic and the Bay of Biscay, and, hemmed in on either side by the two headlands, pressed forward in lofty walls of water, that swept in a roaring storm of foam far over the beach.

With beating hearts we approached the first line of surf, and were lifted high up into the air. We clung frantically to our seats, and all of us had to crouch quite low. Not a few closed their eyes and prayed, but I did not close mine before we were actually in the foam of the roaring breakers on the beach. There were twenty to thirty British sailors on the short, all quite naked, who, the moment the foremost breakers withdrew, dashed like lightning into the surf, and after many vain efforts, during which they were often caught up and thrown back by the waves, at last succeeded in casting a long rope to us, which we were able to seize. Then with a loud hurrah, they ran at top speed through the advancing breakers up the beach, dragging us with them, until the boat stuck fast, and there was only a little spray from the surf to wet us. Finally, seizing a favourable opportunity, when a retreating wave had withdrawn sufficiently far, each of them took a soldier on his back and carried him thus on to the dry shore. At last it was my turn to be carried, and thus it came about that at eleven o’clock on the morning of the 28th August, 1808, with all my earthly belongings in my portmanteau under my arm, I stood with wide-open eyes on Portuguese soil, on the sandy shore of the Bay of Maceira, hale and hearty, and muttered to myself: “Here I am, now what next? God help me! Amen!”

What a teeming multitude there was on the beach! I sat down on my portmanteau in the shade of the cliff, and watched the troops landing. It was funny to see a boat coming in through the breakers with its load of horses, which, by the bye, were unsaddled. They would all dash helter-skelter out of the reeling vessel into the surf, and then swim to shore, while the hussars, who had released their bridles, had to thank their lucky stars that they were not pulled overboard with them. Think of the feelings of the poor brutes! After having been confined for four months in the stuffy hold of a ship, to be suddenly thrust into the light of day and into the middle of foaming breakers in the bargain! As soon as they reached the shore they galloped wildly along it, to and fro, snorting, panting, neighing, and biting and kicking one another, to the great danger of all those gathered on the beach; and then they would roll over on the sand.

—pp 1-2

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