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Wine and Warfare part 5: How the Barossa got its name

Wellington’s campaigns in Portugal and Spain are perhaps the most celebrated in British military history and the battles fought between 1808 and 1813 took place in vineyard areas and, sometimes, gave their names to them too – though not always in their original form.

“Black Bob” Craufurd commanding the rearguard during the retreat to Corunna in 1808.

In 1807 the French and their Spanish allies invaded Portugal which was stubbornly refusing to abide by Napoleon’s Continental System and continuing to trade with Great Britain; an ally since the Middle Ages.

By 1808 mounting civil unrest in Spain aimed at the corruption of the court of the French-backed Charles VI, broke out into open violence on 8 May.

Charles abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinand VII but Napoleon saw a chance to replace Europe’s last major Bourbon monarchy and put his own brother Joseph on the throne.

This threw the majority of Spain behind their deposed king and a violent war broke out which required Napoleon and an army of 100,000 men, veterans of Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland, to quell.

A small British force had landed in Spain early on in the war and after some initial success was forced to retreat through the mountains of Galicia in the depths of a bitter winter.

Sir John Moore the commander fought a desperate battle at Corunna in order to extricate his army safely which he did though at the cost of his life.

In 1809 the British returned this time under the command of General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), who had held a command during the 1808 expedition before being replaced when considered too junior for the role and then shipped home in near disgrace when his replacement allowed a large defeated French force to be transported to a friendly port with their arms and on ships provided by the Royal Navy.

The Treaty of Sintra – as it was known – nearly did for Wellesley but thankfully it was not to be. In May a new British army under his command landed in Portugal again at Porto and who should be fighting in his army but the Porto born and bred William Warre.

William Warre of the 23rd

A son of the famous Port producing house, Warre had spent his life as a professional soldier buying his first commission in the Oxfordshire Light Infantry (52nd Foot), then the 98th (Prince of Wales) before finally transferring to the 23rd Light Dragoons.

Aged only 25 his knowledge of the language and country would later make him an invaluable asset to both Wellesley and General Beresford, a British general attached the Portuguese army.

The battle at Porto on 12 May meanwhile was a complete success. Wellesley outflanked the French by putting some of his force across the Douro using wine barges and Marshal Soult, wrong-footed and outnumbered, was forced to retreat back into Spain leaving Portugal free.

The French would make forays back into Portugal during 1810 and 1811 only to be repulsed each time until in 1812 Wellington invaded Spain proper and drove Bonaparte’s forces out of the country altogether and into southern France by 1814.

Warre served on the Beresford’s staff throughout the Peninsular campaign and even managed to ensure that it was his family’s Port which supplied Wellington’s mess.

On 15 May 1810 he wrote to his father James: “My Dear Father, I have been much flattered lately by Ld. Wellington’s reception of me, and lately remained two days at his Hd. Qrs. At Celorico, 2 leagues from here [Fornos d’Algodres].

“He has applied to me to procure him one hogshead of very fine old Port. He does not care about the price, and wishes me to get you to take care of it for him in London. At Oporto it is impossible to get any old wine, and I therefore told him I would write to you, and beg your assistance.”

Warre would be widely decorated by both Britain and Portugal for his service during the war, including Portugal’s highest military honour, the Ordem de São Bento d’Aviz.

In 2009 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the liberation of the Douro and to mark a wonderful vintage, Warre’s produced a special edition vintage Port in William’s honour.

The profits, totalling nearly £20,000, were donated to the UK forces charity Help for Heroes by Symington Family Estates.

There is one other vinous story to come out of the Peninsular War and it connects a battle in Spain with one of Australia’s most famous wine producing regions.

The Battle of Chiclana on 5 March 1811 does not get much attention in histories of the war.

It is not as famous as Busaco, Albuera, Salamanca or Vittoria. Wellington was not in command and despite a hard won, bloody tactical victory, the Spanish and British rather fell out afterwards as the British commander General Graham thought that the Spanish commander, General la Peña, had let his men do all the fighting – a common complaint against the Spanish during the war though not against the Portuguese who were held in great esteem.

Yet the battle should get more glory. It saw one British division drive off two French ones in all or nothing combat in which the British were also able to capture their first Eagle of the war

An Eagle was carried by each French regiment alongside their regimental colours. It was a personal gift from the emperor Napoleon, it symbolised the spirit of the regiment, was carried into every battle and to lose it meant disgrace.

For their opponents, conversely, to capture one meant fame and reward and many men would be killed trying snatch one.

Sergeant Masterson of the 87th seizes the eagle from the French at the battle of Barrosa/Chiclana

The battle took place very close to another famous region, Jerez, with the Anglo-Spanish force having landed to relieve Cadiz which was under siege by Marshal Victor.

As they approached the city they found Victor waiting for them and battle was joined. Despite the allied force outnumbering the French with 15,000 to the latter’s 10,000, the bulk of the allied force – the 10,000 Spanish – took little part in the battle, some units engaging towards the end.

Just over 5,000 British troops advanced up an incline into the fire of the French. Casualties were heavy and the first brigade to try was badly mauled but a second used dead ground to avoid the French artillery and swept the defenders from the slope.

A second French division lined up to retake it but the attack never really began. Effective British volleys and newly arrived artillery of their own played havoc with the French who were trying to form up.

The line wavered and the British followed up with a bayonet charge which caused it to break. Confusion reigned and through the smoke a French eagle and its bearer were spotted.

The 87th Foot (Prince of Wales’ Irish) was closest and attempted to seize it. Ensign Keogh was killed trying but sergeant Patrick Masterson, despite a brutal fight, managed to wrest the prize free from sous-lieutenant Edmé Guillemin of the French 8th Ligne who gave his life defending it. The French were then sent packing down the hillside by the victorious Irishmen.

And the name of the place they did so? Barrosa Ridge.

In the 1830s the governor of South Australia was Colonel William Light. He had been a young officer in the 4th Dragoons at the battle and he decided to name one of the valleys in his area The Barrosa in memory of the day.

However, a clerical error meant that the valley would go down in history as the Barossa instead but spare a thought for the 87th and the seizing of the French eagle next time you crack open a Barossa Shiraz.

Next time: Death in Burgundy, the little known story of the Franco-Prussian War in the Côte d’Or

Previously: Sabrage

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