This is a blood-and-thunder tale about a little-known aspect of Simon Bolivar’s fight for the independence of Venezuela and Colombia from the Spanish crown. It ascribes a significant role to certain British and Irish veterans of the Duke of Wellington's army who served in Bolivar’s military campaigns against the royal colonial forces.
Those campaigns were characterized by terrible battle conditions in mountains, valleys and swamps in disabling heat, cold and rain, from barely sea level to altitudes of thousands of feet. The combat was savage, fought with cannon, muskets, bayonets, horse-born lances (the native Llaneros). Prisoners were often executed out of hand or put in groups before firing squads. Wild tactics were adapted to the wild country and to the amateurism, greed and savagery of the rebels, the royal troops and the Indian allies of each side. Troops were often lost to crocodiles, jaguars, waterfalls, rapids, disease and venomous snakes.
Certain British, Irish and even German veterans of the Napoleonic wars were involved because recruiters offered money and sometimes commissions in Bolivar’s rebel army to out-of-work soldiers let go after Napoleon’s surrender. This was often a chaotic and irresponsible process.
In many cases after arrival in the new world, the recruits found no military employment or other livelihood and became drifters or criminals. In some cases, recruiters and recruits were simply confidence men, as in the case of the notorious Gregor McGregor. By contrast, there were some motivated recruits who performed devoted service: James English, commanding the British Legion; Col. James Rooke; Col. James Mackintosh, commander of the Albion Battalion; and Capt. Richard Vowell, to name only a few.
Though the foreign volunteers were under senior local commanders, some achieved distinction and even high rank, while others perished in battle, before a firing squad or from disease. Interesting sidelights are cast upon Bolivar himself.
Born of a rich and aristocratic family, Bolivar was brilliant, vain, disciplined, ambitious and autocratic, demanding much of everyone and of himself. A fiercely hard worker, constantly facing difficult political and military tasks, and a shrewd politician, he died of tuberculosis, perhaps working himself to death.
He had a final, friendly accommodation with his chief foe, Gen. Pablo Morillo, the Spanish royal commander, at the latter’s surrender, rather suggestive of the final accommodation of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.
The numerous battle descriptions are extremely detailed, vivid, suspenseful and in some cases, horrifying. The demands upon men, animals and logistics of such chaotic warfare were extreme. Readers will wonder at the availability of such comprehensive source material. Who took notes, who wrote the dispatches in such fast-moving action in such primitive conditions?
The famous battle of Boyaca, Bolivar’s turning point, is described with authority and a good grasp of its place in Bolivar’s strategy and of the up-and-down character of the fighting. “A near run thing,” as Wellington said of Waterloo.
David C. Acheson is a retired lawyer and foreign policy analyst in Washington.
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