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The ‘Beautiful Bridge’ and the action at Constantin

During the infamous retreat to Corunna in north-west Spain in the winter of 1808/09, Blakeney, a young boy of the 28th Regiment, mentions ‘a beautiful bridge’ somewhere between the villages of Nogais and Constantin. He also describes in his memoirs three major events which occurred along this section of the retreat.

1)    A holding action at the ‘beautiful bridge’

2)    The loss of the Military Chest

3)    A more serious combat at the Constantin bridge, (5th January 1809).

Many sources have confused the action at ‘the beautiful bridge’ with the more serious affair at the Constantin bridge by a particular error of location and have at times mixed one with the other.

Two questions arise from this; firstly, where is the ‘beautiful bridge’ in relation to the bridge at Constantin, and secondly, where was the Military chest lost? Here it was that two wagons full of silver dollars, amounting to the sum of twenty five thousand pounds were thrown over a precipice because the exhausted bullocks drawing it could not continue any further.

To research either question it is obviously best to turn to the few eye witness accounts namely, Lt Cadell, Lord Londonderry, Henry Milburne, Ker-Porter, Robert Blakeney, Friedrich Schaumann, Captain Gordon, Col Graham and Adam Neale an army physician.

Neale conveniently made sketches along the route, one of which is entitled ‘Bridge near Constantin’, which inadvertently adds to the Historian’s dilemma of tracing the actual location. Neale’s representation of the bridge is actually Blakeney’s ‘beautiful bridge’, 22 kilometres away from Constantin. Consequently many authorities have mistakenly believed this bridge to be the scene of the serious action at the village of Constantin.

Neale’s ‘bridge near Constantin’ is in fact at the village of Cruzul, the bridge spans the Rio Cruzul and can still be reached by one of the few remaining old sections of road that was used by Sir John Moore’s retreating army.

Adam Neale’s ‘Bridge near Constantin’

Ker Porter also drew a sketch entitled ‘Mountain of Nogallis leading to Lugo’, which depicts Blakeney’s ‘beautiful bridge’ and shows evidence of the long tail of a retreating army over winding narrow snow ridden hills. However, there are some artistic discrepancies with the surrounding landscape.

Sir Robert Ker Porter ‘Mountain of Nogallis leading to Lugo’

Blakeney tells us that the rear guard were constantly in contact with the enemy’s advanced troops but here they carried out a holding action while the engineers made an unsuccessful attempt at blowing up the main arch of the bridge.

The later NVI road we see today in many respects replaced the old royal road (Camino Real), which had thus previously replaced the ancient Roman road. Here the NVI road builders decided to tunnel through the hill rather than follow the line of the old Royal road and thus we still have the exact position on the old road where Neale and Ker Porter opened their easels. The construction of the beautiful Cruzul bridge was begun during the reign of Carlos III in 1773. When the king died in 1788, Carlos IV finished the architecture and legend has it that he was ‘astonished’ at the shear cost of the thing and Queen Isabel II leaning out from her palace balcony in Madrid remarked, ‘well I can’t see it from here’.

The Cruzul bridge today.

 

The Map below shows how the town of Becerrea has grown since 1809 and now dwarfs the little quiet village of Cruzul and also indicates how windy the original road (in yellow) compares to the later NVI highway (in Red).

Now compare the modern map with one from the late 19th century and how the NVI followed much of the old route when built but took short cuts along the way. This is the route that Sir John Moore’s Army traversed during the retreat.

 

Above: The Cruzul bridge today showing the NV1 flyover built in 1985 in the distance

Below: Photo taken from the flyover looking down at the position where Adam Neale drew his original sketch

 

The Cruzul or ‘beautiful bridge’ in 1867

Blakeney states that he halted at the bridge for about an hour and that the stream under the bridge was ‘fordable on either side’ making the engineers task pointless, the working party were eventually ‘sent to the rear to practice their art elsewhere’. Although there may have been Fords further along the waters edge Friedrich Schaumann says that the bridge spanned ‘across an abyss through which foamed a mountain torrent’. And indeed he too found a party of sappers endeavouring to destroy the central arch.

Captain Gordon of the 15th Hussars, marching a day ahead of Blakeney also mentions how handsome the structure was, ‘it would have been a thousand pities to have destroyed so beautiful an object’. He also adds that near this spot the light mountain guns of the mule brigade were cast down a precipice.

Clearly this is not the bridge that the Constantin action took place at. The next significant event along the route prior to reaching the village was the loss of the Military chest which was jettisoned off the side of a mountain, the location of which can be roughly worked out with some concerted research and with time and distance considered.

John Grehan in his recent publication ‘The Hunt for Moore’s Gold’ has consulted a number of eye witness accounts and in conclusion determined the disposal site to be just below the little town of Cereixal or there abouts.                                                        

GPS co-ordinates : 42 52’08.8”N 7 10’ 33.6”W

Of course, there has been much controversy over the exact location of the fallen treasure, but common sense tells us that what was not scooped up at the time by the passing armies was probably taken by the locals once the snow had melted. Indeed Grehan himself relates to a local story where some working - hand peasants were mysteriously able to purchase their farms outright shortly after the war. 

Further along the route there was apparently a stiff clash of arms on the heights of Retorta before ascending the main hill which over looks the whole village of Constantin, arriving at around 5 o’clock in the afternoon. The skirmish which took place later that afternoon was the most important since Cacabelos two days earlier.

Sir John Moore

According to some sources the commander was actually present on the field at Constantin and directed some of the troops over the bridge.

Sir John Moore being concerned with the approach road down to the bridge decided to leave a detachment of Rifles, the 28th Regt and two guns on top of the hill to hold the advancing enemy whilst the remaining rear guard got themselves over the bridge. With this done he drew up the 20th, 1/52nd 91st and remaining Horse Artillery on a low hill directly behind the bridge and awaited the 95th and 28th to make their way down to the bridge where General Paget extended them along the near bank of the river.

La Houssaye’s cavalry were at first instance rather cautious with the British guns keeping them at a safe distance. The French commander surprisingly let the enemy gain their positions at the bridge before fully committing himself. Some of the dragoons dismounted to engage the skirmishers at the bridge and then Merle sent forward one regiment in dense column to force a passage. Three attempts were made over the next few hours but they suffered heavily from the returning fire and shrapnel shells issued from the Royal Horse Artillery posted on the small hill behind the bridge of Senra over the Rio Neira. The affair continued until around eight o’clock when the main body of the reserve retired toward Lugo leaving piquets and a strong party to defend the bridge. An incessant fire was kept up until darkness intervened, when the remaining supports were silently withdrawn about eleven thirty.

 

 

 

Ponte Senra, near Constantin where the action on the 5th Jan took place.

 

 

The Action at Constantin 5th January 1809.

The bridge of Senra is closer to Baralla today than Constantin due to the expansion of the former.

 

Order of Battle

FRENCH

2nd Cavalry Brigade. ( Lahoussaye).

17e, 18e, 19e and 27e Dragoons. 1700 men in total.

1st Div.  (Merle).

2e Leger (3 x Btns).  Approx 492 men per battalion

4e Leger (4 x Btns). Approx 492 men per battalion

BRITISH

Commander : Lt. Gen. Sir John Moore K.B.

Reserve Div. (Hon E. Paget)

1/28th (760 men). 1/91st (640 men).

1/95th (800 men). 1/52nd (830 men). 1/20th (480 men).

Cavalry – 10th Hussars. (1 x Squad. 162 men).

                  15th Hussars. (1 x Squad. 162 men).

Artillery - R.H.A. 6 x 6pdr guns

 

Late 19th century map of Constantin: note how the old road passes over the crest of the hill rather than following the base of the hill as it does today.

 

A typical misleading print which resides in the NAM archives.

This is not the bridge at Constantin but is Blakeney’s ‘Beautiful bridge’ at Cruzul’

Copied by E.V.Brown in 1851 from Neale’s original drawing of 1809

 

Pictures from the display at Peninsular Barracks 20/07/2019:

 

 

 

 

             

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