The first British invasion of La Plata
Sir David Baird granted Popham 1,600 men and the small invasion force sailed back across the Atlantic. His fleet put in at the island of St Helena for re-victualling where the Governor was persuaded to part with an additional 300 infantry and gunners from the garrison who would be added to the force sailing towards La Plata.
On the 25th June 1806, the small British force landed at Point de Quilmes 8 miles outside Buenos Aires and made camp. The following day a force of around 3,000 enemy cavalry, some armed with spears, was driven off and on the 27th, Beresford, the British land commander, entered Buenos Aires at the head of his troops.
The Scotsman, Russell, had been as good as his word and, after the British invaders had ransacked the local treasury, a total of £1,860,208 was dispatched to London on HMS Narcissus but not before the leaders of the expedition had taken their share of the spoils. Sir David Baird, back in Cape Town, was sent £23,000 to satisfy his conscience and Popham and Beresford received £12,000 each. Every private soldier received £18.
When the booty arrived in Portsmouth at the beginning of September 1806 loyal Britons went wild and there were demonstrations and speeches all along its route into London where it was lodged at the Bank of England.
The British Government was under pressure to take immediate action and the clamour for the permanent settlement of the entire Viceroyalty of the Argentine that included Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela became irresistible. The Government agreed to send immediate re-enforcements from England to make the invasion of the Argentine permanent. This second force numbered 3,000 men under the command of another distinguished Scottish soldier, Sir Samuel Auchmuty, who had also fought in India.
When the news of Popham’s triumph reached the Cape, Sir David Baird, now in receipt of his pay-off, was delighted to send a further 2,000 men. When all of these reached the Argentine there would be up to 7,000 troops available to Beresford for the occupation of the whole Province.
However, before they reached their destination the situation in Buenos Aires had changed dramatically.
Buenos Aires fights back
Within six weeks, a French officer, Col. Bremond Liniers, who had fought against the British in Europe and was serving with The King of Spain’s forces in the Argentine, had re-organised the regular troops and created an effective militia in the city. On 12th August the city was easily taken back from the British by surprise and its small force made prisoners.
Whilst the senior British officers were well treated, the rank and file had their uniforms taken off their backs and their personal possessions stolen. The troops were dispersed up-country in small packets where many of them died of neglect and disease. The remainder, mostly those who favoured the Roman Catholic faith, simply deserted and disappeared into the local population.
Popham and his naval squadron had remained free and were anchored off-shore in Montevideo since the British surrender of the Buenos Aires. The reinforcements arriving from Britain had no idea that Beresford’s troops from the original invasion had long since surrendered.
The fresh troops easily took Montevideo and on 28th June 1807, almost a year to the day from the earlier invasion, the newly constituted British force numbering more than 7,300 men invaded Buenos Aries once more. This time its defenders were prepared.
Liniers, still in command of the city’s forces, had over 10,000 men available to him. They were well trained and officered and a militia organised by the municipal authority, the Cabildo, had vowed to resist the invaders to the end.
The second invasion – the British humiliated
Whitelocke, the British commanding general had never before seen action and had been appointed with the intention not to fight but to administrate a new colony.
To take the city he divided his troops into six columns with each assigned to one of the main thoroughfares down which they would march in column to the sea.
It was as ineffective a plan as a British Army had ever devised and was opposed by all of the senior officers involved with the exception of its commander whose idea it was!
The attack in the last days of July 1807 was an unmitigated disaster. The city’s houses, had balconies on their roofs with apertures cut into them that were designed to capture the breeze. These made ideal cover for snipers to fire down on the soldiers who made easy targets as they marched in close-order columns down the broad streets.
By nightfall over 3,000 had been killed and the remainder were trapped in various buildings along their route from which there was no escape.
The following morning Whitelocke, sought terms.
Any of those taken in the first invasion of 1806 and still hiding in the city and its environs, together with all of the troops captured in the latest attack, were first evacuated to Montevideo and then sailed back to England.
Whitelocke was court-marshalled and was dismissed the service. Beresford went on to command the allied Portuguese forces in the Peninsular and a number of other officers who had served in the campaign also fought in Wellington’s army, including Robert Crauford commander of the Light Division and Richard Vandeleur of the 88th Foot (Connaught Rangers).
Robert Crauford had previously worked for William Wickham, Britain’s chief spy-master, during the Irish Rebellion of 1792 and became an exploring officer, or spy, in Switzerland for the Alien Office during the Napoleonic wars before he left to command in Spain. He had been a brother officer and close comrade of General Robert Ross who was killed at the battle of North Point in September 1814 in the war against the Unites States of America (See also ‘The war of 1812 on the Chesapeake’ in the Empire of the Oceans topic). Crauford had been killed in January 1812 during the storming of the redoubt at Cuidad Rodrigo. Richard Vandeleur went on to command a division at the battle of Waterloo in June 1815.
The Soutie (Salty) invaders were defeated and the people of the Argentine had tasted freedom. It would not be long before they would also eject their Spanish rulers.