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Laying Sharpe's heroes to rest

PUBLISHED: 14:36 11 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:08 20 February 2013

Laying Sharpe's heroes to rest

Laying Sharpe's heroes to rest

Ross Gillfillan on why an ex-Army man from Sudbury is safeguarding the memory of a bloody Spanish battle

Ross Gillfillan on why an ex-Army man from Sudbury is safeguarding the memory of a bloody Spanish battle




Its at this time of year that thoughts turn to the fallen of two World Wars and to the dead and injured of more recent conflicts. But as the poppies and wreaths appear on memorials across the county, one Suffolk man will be thinking also about the ten thousand dead of a battle that was fought in another country, almost two hundred years ago.
Nick Hallidie is Chairman of the Sudbury Society, whose aims are to identify and preserve all that is best about the town, from its architecture to its future planning. But new plans for a Sudbury bypass and the renovation of the bus station arent the only improvements in which Nick, 74, has lately been energetically involved.
Until recently, all that remained of the British Cemetery in the town of Elvas, on the border between Portugal and Spain, was a dilapidated chapel and an overgrown graveyard. It wasnt much of a memorial for combatants who died in their thousands in one of the bloodiest encounters of the Peninsular War. Thats what Nick Hallidie thought, and together with interested expatriates living in the town, he set about doing something about it. It was a typically decisive move on the part of a man who has lived a rather action-filled life.
Born in Singapore, the young Nick was lucky enough to be transplanted to England before the Japanese attack on the island in 1942. The family settled in a large farm near Bures, in West Suffolk, where Nick spent his childhood, before leaving school to undergo basic training with the Suffolk Regiment in Bury St Edmunds. Following a stint in the Royal West Kents, he then joined the Green Howards, where Major Hallidie stayed until his retirement in 1977.




It wasnt much of a memorial for combatants who died in their thousands in one of the bloodiest encounters of the Peninsular War.





During a long military career, Nick served all over the world, from Germany and Norway to Egypt and Libya and not without incident. I got shot in Belfast. A gun had appeared from a crowd and fired three times while I was sheltering behind a military vehicle. It was only when I felt liquid splashing around in my boot that I realised what had happened. Nick plays the incident down: It was a very small bullet, he says, But I still got a bill from the Quartermaster for damage to Her Majesty's property.
In 1978, Nick and his wife Ann (whom hed met in Halstead) joined Nicks parents out in Portugal, where they were to run a successful nursery in Elvas. But Nick wasnt to be left peacefully tending his plants for long and it was all the fault of the Duke of Wellington.
By 1811, the French, under Marshal Massna, had been thwarted in their attempt to reach Lisbon by Wellingtons defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras. Napoleon had ordered Marshall Soult to draw the British and their allies away from Massnas exhausted forces, but by the time Soult arrived, Massna was already withdrawing, leaving Soult to capture and occupy the town of Badajoz. There were two main corridors into Spain and Elvas, with its neighbour Badajoz just across the border, was one of them. Capturing these towns was a strategic necessity and Sir William Beresford duly laid siege to Badajoz. Soult, who quit the place after he had secured it with a large garrison, soon returned with an army of 24,000 men. His information about allied forces was inaccurate and the French general found himself facing an allied force of 35,000. The armies met at Albuera in an inconclusive but extremely bloody engagement which resulted in 10,000 allied troops killed or wounded; French losses were also high.
After the battle, a small graveyard was sited behind the bastion walls at Elvas, mainly to receive the body of Major General Daniel Houghton, three fellow officers and an officers wife. Houghton was killed in the early, intense stages of the battle. But while Houghton received due military honours, its a sad thought that the enlisted men were probably buried where they fell and left uncommemorated. For many years, the only reminder of this action were the railed-off graves in the shadow of the Chapel of Sao Joao de Corujeira, a tiny church founded by the Knights of St John in 1228.
But in 1996, all this looked set to change. At the time, the then mayor of Elvas was petitioning for the recognition of Elvas as a World Heritage Site. He inspected the town thoroughly but arriving at the neglected and dilapidated eyesore which was the British cemetery, he decided that the place was almost certainly the responsibility of the British Ambassador. Word was passed down the line to the British community at Elvas: an expatriate with sound military knowledge was required to sort out the British cemetery. As it happened, there was someone in Elvas who fitted all requirements and who was more than willing to set the ball in motion: Nick Hallidie.
Establishing the Friends of the British Cemetery at Elvas (http://british-cemetery-elvas.org/), Nick spent the next four years badgering regiments and holding fund-raising events in such high profile locations as the Tower of London, in an effort to raise the 70,000 euros needed to renovate both the graveyard and the chapel. Among other willing helpers have been the Portuguese army and supporters of the project include Lady Jane Wellesley and the Knights of Malta. There is more work in store for Nick as further funds must be raised to complete the work at Elvas, but this June saw the rededication of the chapel, and new plaques commemorate the forgotten dead.
Now that Nick can see light at the tunnels end, he can look forward to spending a well-earned retirement in his beloved Suffolk, where he enjoys walking his dogs across Sudburys water meadows.
On Remembrance Sunday, Nick will be sparing a thought for the dead of Albuera, who, thanks to himself and his friends, finally have the recognition they deserve.

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