The action at the defile of Cacabellos, 3 January 1809, was a minor British victory during Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna. It was fought between the British rearguard and the lead elements of Marshal Soult’s pursuing army. The purpose of the British stand was to give Moore time to destroy the stores at his main supply depot at Villafranca, six miles to the west.
The British rearguard consisted of five battalions of the Reserve under the command of General Edward Paget, the 15th Hussars and a battery of horse-artillery. Most of this force was posted on the west bank of the river Cua, with one squadron of cavalry and half of the 95th Rifles on the east bank. The artillery, protected by the 28th, was placed on the slopes opposite the bridge over the river, with the remaining British troops hidden to either side.
The first French troops to reach the defile, at about one in the afternoon, were a cavalry brigade from Ney’s corps (containing the 15th Chasseurs and the 3rd Hussars), under the command of General Colbert, and a division of dragoons under General Lahoussaye.
As the French approached, the 95th Rifles began to cross back over the bridge, while the squadron of British cavalry remained on the east bank to watch the French. Colbert observed this, and decided to attempt to force his way across the bridge with a cavalry charge. His first charge was a success – the British cavalry were forced to flee, reaching the bridge at the same time as the last of the rifles, causing chaos. The French took between 40 and 50 prisoners before the rest of the riflemen were able to escape.
Colbert was still on the east bank of the river, but from his position the only British troops in sight were the artillery and 28th. Accordingly he decided to try another cavalry charge. Forming his men into a column four wide, he led a charge across the bridge. Artillery fire destroyed the head of the column, but most of Colbert’s cavalry made it across the bridge. Once there they came under a heavy cross fire from the 95th and 52nd regiments, posted north and south of the bridge. Colbert, and his aide-de-camp Latour-Maubourg were both killed, and after a few costly minutes the survivors retreated back across the bridge. Most of the 200 French casualties were suffered during this part of the battle.
Lahoussaye’s dragoons then made a second attempt to force the British out of their position, wading across the river at a number of places, but the rocky terrain was ill-suited to cavalry, and they were forced to dismount and act as skirmishers, without success.
Finally, close to dusk, General Merle’s infantry division arrived. After an hour of skirmishing, Merle formed a column and attempted to force his way across the bridge, but this left the French infantry dangerously exposed to the British artillery, and the attempt failed. As darkness fell the British rearguard was still in place, but that night they were withdrawn by Moore, and the retreat continued.
Both sides lost around 200 men in the fighting, which gave the British the time they needed to destroy their supply depot at Villafranca. The retreat to Corunna continued, and Moore’s army came close to falling apart. In retrospect Moore has been criticised for the speed of the retreat, and his failure to take better advantage of strong defensive positions like the Cacabellos defile, although when he did offer battle at Lugo on 6-7 January, the French sensibly refused to take the bait.