Faced with a lack of information about his enemy, as well as the terrain
and countryside, Wellington wasted no time in being able to answer
such a simple question as "what is over the next hill," by starting a
corps of "Exploring Officers." Wellington recruited men who shared
three distinct skills: they were fine horsemen, skilled linguists, and able
to express themselves in writing or sketching in the briefest and
most concise terms.
One of the first duties in the winter of 1810 when the fighting was at a low
ebb, was for the Exploring Officers to map every bit of the Portuguese
countryside four miles to the inch. This they accomplished with the aid of
local inhabitants who knew their own immediate area but had often never
traveled beyond the sight of their villages or farms.
With the countryside mapped, the next duty of exploring officers was to
be sent out on reconnaissance, moving behind enemy lines, learning troop
movements and strategic information & return this news to Wellington
in a timely manner.
John Waters of the Royal Scots was known as a wily and capable man
behind enemy lines. Despite his skill and stealth, he was caught by the
French and given up for dead by his regiment.
When Wellington was told about his capture and probable execution, he
delayed the usual splitting up of a lost soldier's personal possessions,
saying that "Waters would be back and would want his things."
Wellington was right, for Waters eventually returned.
Considering that a soldier or officer caught behind enemy lines out of
uniform was immediately shot as a "spy," most of the exploring officers
wore their uniforms while they went about their jobs.
However, John Grant was one of the few officers who considered himself
a spy and went about in disguise. He identified very closely with the
Portuguese people and adopted local dress, much to the horror of his
It would seem that these daring men, who took such great risks to aid their
fellow soldiers, would have been lauded after the war, but unfortunately
they were shunned by their regiments and in some cases not welcomed back
at all. They were regarded by officers of their former regiments to which they
belong as having been "gadding about" while the real business of war
was being fought at the walls of Badajoz or on the fields of Salamanca.
At least history has been kinder to these heroes and their exploits and
feats of skill and daring are now part of the annals of British history
as the founding members of Britain's military intelligence service.
The activities of Wellington's exploring officers during the Peninsular Wars,
are the stuff of legends, with lone British Officers on fast mounts, scurring
across the Spanish Peninsular to spy on french troops, bases and depots,
often liaising with partisans who would pass on any captured dispatches.
Of course their activities became well known to the french who would
leave no stone unturned in giving chase and tracking down these Officers.
Upon capture, their was little the french could do to punish them as
being in uniform and what's more fully commissioned Officers as well.
They were entitled to the same generous courtesies bestowed on
any Officers captured during the Napoleonic Wars.
Namely to be treated as 'prisoner officer guests' upon 'giving their parole'
either to be held until the next Officer exchange or else returned to
France, to be confined to one of the numerous 'Parole Towns' just
like the ones set up in England.