27. The Scum of the Earth

It seems apt to quote Wellington’s words on the men who served under him as we contemplate the anniversary of his victory at Vitoria in Spain, 200 years ago today.

The ‘scum of the earth’ had to come from somewhere – and had to be despatched home afterwards. Wherever the British fought, troopship wrecks followed, and are part of the heritage of Britain’s military campaigns abroad. Though we have no known wrecks of transports sinking in English waters in the aftermath of Vitoria itself, we do in fact have wrecks of troop transport vessels from earlier in the Peninsular campaign.

The appropriately-named Dispatch from Corunna which struck on Black Head on 22nd January 1809 was too early to have come from the famous battle of that name, which took place on 16th January.

Instead she contained survivors of the 7th Light Dragoons, who had been decimated at the previous battles of Sahagun and Benavente, and were to be further decimated by this particular wreck. On the same day, at almost the same place, on the notorious Manacles, HMS Primrose was lost carrying dispatches in the opposite direction, outward-bound for Corunna.

Although the name ‘Manacles’ comes from the Cornish Maen Eglos, simply meaning ‘Church Rocks’, the name has been assimilated to an English word with a degree of appropriateness, conveying overtones of chaining or imprisoning ships upon the reef, a fairly common process for names of shipwreck features.

In the local church both wrecks are commemorated, as are others of different dates. For the Dispatch there is a wall monument to the 7th Light Dragoons, also known as Hussars, topped by a dramatic image of a ship coming to grief. Beneath is a trophy, as these sculptural embellishments are known, with the flags and arms pointing downwards to symbolise death.

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