The British Cemetery Elvas
Lieutenant Colonel James Ward Oliver was a Captain in the 4th [King’s Own Royal Border Regiment] until 1809, when he volunteered for service in the Portuguese Army and was twice promoted. First he was promoted Major on the General Staff of the British Army and then Lieutenant Colonel in the Portuguese Army. He commanded the 14th Regiment of Portuguese Infantry at Albuera and at the second siege of Badajoz where he received wounds from which he died in Elvas on 17th June 1811.
The second gravestone to be placed in the Cemetery is dedicated to this officer.
James Ward Oliver was born in London in 1778. At the age of 16 he was gazetted Cornet in the 4th Foot or King’s Own Regiment and posted to Canada. In 1796, now a lieutenant, a cadre consisting of the Officers and Senior NCOs and drummers with wives and children sailed for England, while the men were drafted to the 26th Foot. When nearing Land’s End, one of the transports, The Three Sisters, carrying Oliver, was sighted and chased by a French Privateer.
Oliver was convinced his ship had been betrayed by the Captain. There were taken to Brest where they were herded together in a common prison. Oliver and several others were moved to Orleans where they were held for eleven months in a common jail. He and three others eventually managed to escape by bribing guards who let them down the walls by ropes. They were just crossing the bridge when the alarm sounded and they thought themselves discovered. They pushed on across France to St Omer, but found the coast in that area around Calais so strictly guarded that there was no chance of getting a boat. They were now obliged to retrace their steps across Normandy to Le Havre. Among the Chouans, a royalist organisation, they met with great kindness, being passed from Chateau to Chateau and were treated most hospitably. Their hosts served them almost raw beef, which they supposed the English preferred. To make their escape from Le Havre they were obliged to crawl to within 30 paces of a sentinel to reach a fishing boat. They were hidden under sails until the evening. They were 48 hours at sea with only a bottle of brandy and one loaf for sustenance, before being taken on board an English ship and landed at Portsmouth in 1798, having spent a year in France.
Oliver rejoined his Regiment in Botley. On 13th August 1799 it embarked for Holland as part of the force under Sir Ralph Abercrombie. The operation had been mounted in haste and was a disaster due to incompetent command, lack of information and the unfitness of troops plunged straight into the fighting, raw, unformed and hastily assembled. Most casualties were due to Walcheren fever, which Oliver, now a Captain, also contracted and spent three months recovering at home in London.
There followed a quiet period until 1803 when Napoleon threatened to invade England. This threat was averted by Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. With his failure to invade Britain, towards the end of 1806 Napoleon issued his famous decree declaring the British Isles to be in a state of blockade. To be successful, the Continental System, as this scheme was called, had to be complete. The French controlled the coast of Europe with the exception of Portugal and Denmark. To prevent the Danish fleet from falling into the hands of the French, a force including the 4th Foot sailed for Copenhagen. A request to hand over the fleet was refused and Copenhagen was besieged. The army had improved immensely since the fiasco in Holland. Oliver had now been a Captain for nearly eight years and would have been a company commander for all or nearly all that time. He was an experienced officer with a well-trained company. After three days of bombardment, the town capitulated. It took some weeks to prepare and victual the Danish fleet which then sailed to England under prize crews.
After a quiet period in barracks in Colchester, on 24th April 1808, the Regiment was called to active service and joined a force of 11,000 men under Sir John Moore, sent to aid the Swedish King against the French. The terms imposed on the Swedes were unacceptable and for three months the troops were refused permission to land on the mainland, but could use a small island for recreation. In late July the expedition set sail for England, but the situation had changed. Instead of landing in England, Moore’s army was hurried on to Portugal. As they sailed along the coast, the men heard the sound of fighting, which was the battle of Vimeiro, before landing south of Peniche. Desperately unfit and weighed down with full packs, they marched at the height of the Portuguese summer the 18 miles to join Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army. The truce and signing of the Convention of Sintra put an end to operations. Sir Arthur Wellesley and the two other senior generals were recalled to England and Sir John Moore assumed command of the 30,000 troops in Portugal, with orders to take 20,000 of them into Spain, to help the Spanish drive out the French.
On 14th October 1808 Oliver and the King’s Own set off, crossing into Spain on 7th November. They had a fine welcome at Ciudad Rodrigo, and then waited in Salamanca until the end of November for the artillery and reinforcements under Baird to arrive. It was on the 26th that Moore heard that the Spanish armies had disintegrated and that Napoleon had entered Spain with a massive army. A withdrawal seemed the only option, but hearing that Madrid was making a desperate stand and having been joined by the artillery and more reinforcements, he decided to move to Valladolid to threaten the French flank. The weather was frightful, the information patchy until he heard that Madrid had fallen and that Napoleon had moved to attack him from the south and Soult was moving in from a flank. Moore’s only option now was to try and save Britain’s only army. For the junior ranks a confusing period of order and counter order was over and on Christmas day 1808 one of the most miserable retreats ever made by the British Army began.
Under the appalling conditions discipline broke down in many regiments. Many men dropped out on the way. The King’s Own, due to officers like Oliver and the senior ranks, from 19th December until the regiment disembarked in England, lost only 14 men. The losses of the remaining 34 regiments over the same period were over 3,000. To cover the embarkation at Corunna a fierce defensive battle was fought, with the King’s Own heavily engaged on the right flank, repulsing the French column. Captain Oliver came out of it quite lightly with a minor wound to his foot.
Sir Arthur Wellesley meanwhile had escaped censure for his part in the Convention of Sintra and resumed his role as Chief Secretary for Ireland, but his thoughts remained on how to beat Napoleon in Iberia. On 1st August 1808, he wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Castelreigh, that an army of 20,000 British and 30,000 Portuguese could defend Portugal, but that Britain would have to organise and pay the Portuguese Army. Meanwhile the Portuguese Army, at the request of their government, already had a British Commander in Sir William Carr Beresford. He immediately asked for British officers to serve in the Portuguese Army. The first volunteers were given promotion in the British Army and a second promotion into the Portuguese Army while receiving pay for both. Oliver was one of the first to volunteer. He was posted to command the 1st Battalion of the 10th Portuguese Line as a Lieutenant Colonel. In May 1809, Lord Londonderry wrote a very complimentary report on the manoeuvres of the brigade in which the 10th Regiment served. Only days later he and his battalion were present at the battle of the Douro and the capture of Oporto as part of the 5th British Brigade. The brigade formed part of the force pursuing Soult and Oliver’s battalion was the only Portuguese unit to be present at the action of Salamonde on the Braga-Chaves road on 19th May. It cannot be surprising that the arrival of young British officers, being placed in positions of command provoked resentment and jealousy among the Portuguese officers. In October he was accused of abusing an officer and tearing off his epaulettes. Oliver’s explanation was that the officer was four paces out of line for the dozenth time and that he had to shout loudly and pulled the man back into place, whereupon his epaulette had come off.
The pursuit of Soult halted just short of the Portuguese border. With the rest of the Portuguese Army, Oliver’s battalion moved back to the centre of the country for a period of training. This lasted barely a month before, on 18th June, they were ordered north again to prevent any French incursion. Wellesley, however, moved south to counter the greater threat from Victor’s army in the centre, which culminated in the battle of Talavera. Beresford and his Portuguese regiments moved south along the frontier, shadowing Soult, to ensure he could not cut Wellesley’s communications. Despite his brilliant victory, Wellesley was forced to withdraw because of the Spanish failure to supply the promised provisions and transport.
British Headquarters remained in Badajoz for four months until December 1809, but Wellesley sent his troops back away from the fever-ridden Guadiana valley. It was during this stay that Wellesley conceived his future strategy. The whole country, he felt, is frontier and it would be difficult to prevent the enemy from penetrating at some point, but it would be possible to defend the capital, based on lines of Torres Vedras. Meanwhile the Portuguese Regiments were moved back to the area around Tomar to continue their training, using British words of command and drill movements. This period was followed by some confused manoeuvring along the Spanish frontier. Oliver’s Brigade commanded by Col Campbell was inspected severally by Beresford, Wellington and Lord Londonderry, to the admiration of all of them. The compliments bestowed were far from commonplace.
On 27th September 1810, Oliver was present at the battle of Bussaco. Campbell’s brigade was now part of Gen Hamilton’s Portuguese Division and under the command of Gen Hill’s Division on the right flank. This force was not committed in the battle and was then moved next to the river Tagus. Following the withdrawal of the French, Hill’s Division moved along the southern bank of the Tagus to prevent any French crossing. On 29th November Hill fell ill with a violent fever. Command passed temporarily to the senior Brigadier, William Stewart, for a few weeks before Beresford could take charge.
On 12th March 1811 Beresford was ordered to recapture Badajoz. Only a few days earlier the intention had been to relieve the town, which was being besieged by the French under Marshal Soult. Well stocked and with a strong garrison and a dynamic commander in General Menacho, Badajoz was able to hold out until help arrived. Unfortunately, he was killed watching a sortie being made by his troops. His successor, Brigadier José Imaz, despite having received a signal saying relief was on the way, decided to surrender the fortress. Beresford’s force with only field artillery was not equipped to conduct the siege of a major fortress.
On the march to Badajoz, James Oliver with the 10th as part of Campbell’s Brigade, first occupied Alegrete, then moved to Campo Maior and finally reached Elvas on 26th March where they rested until 3rd April. Soult left General Armand Philippon in command of Badajoz while he withdrew south, pursued by the bulk of Beresford’s army. Meanwhile Wellington had ridden south, reconnoitred Badajoz and on 23rd April gave Beresford three directives, emphasizing that the principal objective was the siege of Badajoz. In the case of a movement in strength by the French to relieve it, he authorised Beresford to take up a defensive position at Albuera, if he felt he had sufficient strength. Now, on 2nd May 1811 an Ordem do Dia was published, posting Lieutenant Colonel Oliver from the 1st Battalion of the 10th Infantry Regiment to command of the 14th Infantry Regiment.
On 5th May a start was made on the siege of Badajoz. Major Dickson had managed to assemble a number of heavy guns from the garrisons of Elvas and Campo Maior. Some were 200 years old and of various bores. Wellington’s plan was to neutralise the outlying forts before besieging the town proper. On the north bank these were the Fort of San Cristóbal, which was immensely strong, and the small bridgehead. On the south bank, the forts of Pardaleras and Picurina were the targets. Spreading his scant resources thus thinly, the plan had little chance of success. Oliver’s regiment as part of Fonseca’s brigade opened trenches in front of Picurina. The digging was easy and they made good progress, but the emphasis was on the north bank against San Cristóbal, where nothing went well. At this time, a Major Lacerda allegedly mistreated some Spanish Lemonade sellers. A row erupted and Oliver was called. Lacerda refused to be questioned by him upon which Oliver allegedly struck him. He was then placed under arrest and the matter referred to Marshal Beresford. No disciplinary action was taken.
On 12th May news was received that Soult was on the march north with 23,000 men. At the same time Beresford heard that Spanish armies under Ballesteros, Castaños and Blake would join him in time and so he decided to give battle at Albuera. The battle of Albuera on 16th May 1811 was one of the bloodiest engagements of the Peninsular War and did not enhance Beresford’s reputation, but Hamilton’s Portuguese Division with Oliver and his regiment held the left flank, east of the road to Badajoz and were scarcely engaged. In his regiment of 1, 204 men, only two were wounded. Hamilton’s Division was therefore the first to be sent back to reinvest Badajoz. The 14th Regiment first spent a few days camped on the heights of the Cerro de Viento, overlooking Badajoz from the south.
On 30th May - a really hot day - an observer in the city saw that the troops from the Cerro de Viento were opening parallels aimed at the fort of Pardaleros, working bare chested despite the fire from both the city and the fort. It was in this area that the 14th were working and where Oliver was wounded. It was, he said in a letter to his brother, “on the advanced parallel on the south side of the Guadiana”. He was hit by a musket ball in the lower stomach area, which exited through his buttocks and he was taken to the Military Hospital in Elvas.
The second siege of Badajoz was not more successful than the first, but had it been possible to continue it a few more days, the garrison of Badajoz would have been forced to capitulate through a total lack of food. However, Marmont and Soult had joined forces and, with a combined force of 60,000, vastly outnumbered Wellington’s army, which was wisely withdrawn. From Badajoz to Elvas is about 10 miles. With all the care his men could muster, Oliver’s journey to Elvas would have been on an unsprung ox cart over appalling roads. His agony can only be imagined. He remained in the Military Hospital until his death on 17th June. “Abdominal wounds were treated by surgeons (of the time) with little hope of recovery.”
In his final letter to his family, knowing that his end was near, he wrote “The pitcher goes not so often to the well, but it returns broken at last.” After a life filled with adventure and warfare, he considered “it is not to be wondered at that my turn should come at last.”
Many fine officers, admired by their subordinates, were killed and buried without further recognition. It says a lot for Oliver’s standing with his men, that he was taken to the English (later British) Cemetery and buried, presumably with full military honours, and a stone placed over his grave, which would have taken 10 strong men to place there.
Andrew Halliday, an English surgeon on loan to the Portuguese Army, who happened to be in Elvas at the time, wrote: “This gallant young officer received a mortal wound in the trenches before Badajoz, and after lingering for several days in the greatest agony, he died, regretted as a man, and respected as a brave and accomplished officer.” Halliday finished his career as a Knight of the Guelphic Order and personal surgeon to Queen Victoria. His sentiment is echoed in the family’s memorial in St Mary’s Paddington, which stated that James Ward Oliver “heroically fell in the trenches at the siege of Badajoz, universally loved and lamented, June 17th 1811 aged 32 years”.