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Item: BSL - Talavera 1809





"The Fire of the Artillery was excessive and set fire to the Corn and Grass
the Consequence was a number of the wounded were literally Roasted alive"

An exciting eyewitness account of the Battle of Talavera by Sir John Elley of the Horse Guards (Blues), who covered the retreat, and, who would go on to become a Lieutenant General and Member of Parliament for Windsor, a confidant and Adjutant General of Wellington and frequent visitor at Windsor Castle. Here he tells of the gruesome deaths of the wounded who could not escape the burning fields, of the three major assaults, of Napoleon's Finest 24th Regiment being cut to shreds, of King Joseph (Napoleon's brother and putative King of Spain) on the field along with General Victor.

Historical Note

Eyewitness Account of the Battle of Talavera by
Lieutenant General Sir John Elley (17?? – 1839)

Elley is listed in John Hall's 'Biographical Dictionary of British Officers Killed and Wounded 1808-1814':

"ELLEY, John, Lt. Col., Royal Horse Guards: Lt. Col., Royal Horse Guards, 6 March 1806. Mentioned in Cotton's Llerena dispatch, 11 April 1812 ['Major General Le-Marchant's brigade (which I had sent Colonel Elley to conduct under cover of the heights)... To Lieutenant-Colonel Elley, my Assistant Adjutant-General, I am very much indebted for the very great assistance which I derived from him, particularly in conducting my right column to the point of attack.'] [London Gazette]. Slightly wounded, Salamanca, 22 July 1812, while serving as AAG [London Gazette]. Gold Medal. Wounded, Waterloo, as DAG. Died, Chalderton Lodge, 23 Jan. 1839. Dalton, pp. 29-30 - 'This distinguished general entered the Army as a private soldier and rose by his own merits.
He commanded the rear guard of the cavalry at Talavera.' -" Charles Dalton's Waterloo Roll Call.

3 page Document – Signed and Dated: Talavera de la Reyne - July 30th, 1809
Text as Follows:

Talavera de la Reyne
July 30th 1809

My dear Sister,

As a Satisfaction to all our Family, I have a moment to day after the most Sanguinary Battle that ever was fought by British Troops. I am alive and well – more Fire I never was in, nor more Perils did I escape – I led on one Squadron to the Charge as a forlorn hope and out of 80 men I had not a dozen left – a very severe List of Killed and Wounded you will see by the Gazette – It will be great Satisfaction to my good old Father to Know that I had during the action a very conspicuous share, and in which I had the good Fortune to Succeed to the intense Satisfaction of the General Officers –
The French are in full Retreat towards Madrid, whither we shall follow them in a few days – I hope what we have done will inspire the Spaniards with a desire to imitate us - many Families will alas have to mourn the Fate of their Relatives – a heavy Return of Killed and Wounded you will of course see in the Gazette – and I hope our Friends in England will do us the justice to believe we have endeavoured to support the Character of the British Nation – I am persuaded my Father will read the Account of the Action with great Interest – The Battle lasted two days – the Ground on which he Battle was fought was clothed with Corn, long Grass and Heath. The Fire of the Artillery was excessive and set fire to the Corn and Grass the Consequence was a number of the wounded were literally Roasted alive – The Enemy abandoned great numbers of their wounded which together with our own we have been collecting today – Their Sufferings were great indeed added to Anguish of Wounds, the heat of the Weather was excessive and Thirst almost insupportable – all the Prisoners taken declare that all former actions they have been engaged in are trifles compared to this – King Joseph was in the Field, confident he should exterminate the English. The Force with which they made their Attack was composed of their choicest Troops infinitely more numerous than ourselves, and directed by General Victor in Person, but all would not do. They thrice came on with great Resolution and were as often Repulsed with immense Slaughter, a favorite Reg’t of Buonaparte’s the 24th had scarce a man left out of Twelve Hundred – I must refer you to the Gazette for farther particulars – which will of course be fully detailed – It will afford me a very sincere gratification to hear from you and to know that you are all well – I wrote to my Father some time ago – I hope he received it – Pray remember me most affectionately to him, to Mary Ann, all the Boys & young Lady’s – My best Regards attend Mr. Ellis [his sister's husband] – Remaining My dearest Sister,

Yours ever affectionately
J. Elley

[NB - Wellington did not pursue the French but rather had to retreat back towards Portugal as another French force led by General Soult was moving to cut him off from his Lisbon base and supply line. It is interesting that Elley, rather than chase after the French, was called upon to cover the British retreat.]

Lieutenant General Harry Smith’s Autobiography relates this anecdote about Sir John Elley [chapter xxviii - Discharge of the Peninsular Veterans]:

"The celebrated Cavalry officer, Sir John Elley, a very tall, bony, and manly figure of a man, with grim-visaged war depicted in his countenance, with whiskers, moustaches, etc. like a French Pioneer, came over to Dover during the time of our occupation of France. He was walking on the path, with his celebrated sword belted under his surtout. As the hooking up of the sword gave the coat-flap the appearance of having something large concealed under it, a lower order of Custom officer ran after him, rudely calling, "I say, you officer, you! stop, stop, I say! What's that under your coat?" Sir John turned round, and drawing his weapon of defence in many a bloody fight, to the astonishment of the John Bulls, roared out through his moustache in a voice of thunder, "That which I will run through your damned guts, if you are impertinent to me!"

John Elley is also in the Dictionary of National Biography. He was the Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards from 6 March 1806. He had a distinguished career serving on the staff as an Assistant Adjutant-General in the Peninsular War and was the Deputy Adjutant-General of Wellington’s army in 1815. Elley was at Waterloo, as the Deputy Adjutant-General, there being Colonel Sir John Elley, K.C.B., R. H. Gds. (Royal Horse Guards). Major General Barnes, Wellington's Adjutant-General was wounded at Waterloo. He was temporarily replaced by Lieutenant Colonel John Waters until Brevet Colonel Sir John Elley, the Deputy Adjutant-General, could take command as Adjutant General, once he had recovered from his Waterloo wounds. He too was severely wounded at Waterloo and is listed as part of the Staff Wounded for the Battle of June 18th: "Colonel Sir John Elley, K. C. B. Royal Horse Guards (Blue), D. A. G. severely". Elley reached the rank of Lieutenant General before retirement and then represented Windsor as a Member of Parliament. At the Proclamation of Queen Victoria in Windsor on 1st July 1837, it was noted that Constable; Sir John Elley, M.P. for Windsor, was in the procession. He was a regular visitor at Windsor Castle and friend of the Duke of Wellington. He died in 1839.

With thanks to Andrew Jackson and John McGuigan for their help in researching Elley.

Document Specifications:  A single sheet of Watermarked, batonne laid paper bifolium into four pages. Address is simply to Mrs. Ellis (his sister) and must have been hand carried as the address panel shows no postal markings. Handwritten on three pages, dated July 30th, 1809 at Talavera de la Reyne and signed "J. Elley".  Some archival tape reinforcement at folds and a papered notation "Lt. General Elley" in another hand. A wonderful, if somewhat gruesome, first hand account of a significant and notorious Peninsular War Battle by a "celebrated Cavalry officer".

Offered by Berryhill & Sturgeon, Ltd.

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