The battle of Oporto of 29 March 1809 was the final significant success during Marshal Soult’s invasion of Portugal. After a slow start in Galicia, Soult had made quick progress once inside Portugal, winning victories at Chaves (10-11 March 1809) and Braga (20 March 1809), and forcing a passage of the Avé on 25-26 March. His advance had not been costly, but even so he arrived outside Oporto with only 16,000 men of the 22,000 who had entered Portugal.
By the time Soult arrived, Oporto was protected by a long line of fortifications. The city itself was situated on the north bank of the Duoro, on the slopes of a series of hills that surrounded the city to the north and east, hiding it from view from any distance. In the three weeks before the French arrived, the citizens of Oporto, directed by Portuguese and British military engineers, had built six miles of fortifications. The hills were protected by twelve major redoubts, connected by lines of palisades and abattis. Between the western end of the hills and the coast there were four more redoubts, protected by a deep ditch, leading to the citadel of San João de Foz. A total of 197 guns were mounted on this outer wall. Behind it the streets were barricaded, while on the hills south of the river another gun battery had been built close to the Serra Convent.
The defence of the city was commanded by the Bishop of Oporto, a member of the Regency council of Portugal and the dominant figure in the area. He had been faced by a very difficult situation in Oporto, which was close to anarchy most of the time. When news reached the city of the defeat at Braga on 20 March a riot broke out which ended with the murder of fourteen prisoners suspected of siding with the French.
The Bishop had around 30,000 soldiers to garrison Oporto. Of these around 5,000 were regular soldiers, although many of them were recent recruits. A similar number of men were members of the local militia, so should have had some form of uniform and a little training, although most had neither. The remaining 20,000 men were Ordenanza, the armed levies of Portugal – 9,000 from Oporto and the rest from outside the city, These troops had little or no training, and only a fraction of them were properly armed. Finally, to man the 197 guns the Bishop had 1,000 artillerymen, supported by a larger number of inexperienced volunteers. The Bishop divided this force into three divisions, under the command of Generals Lima-Barreto, Parreiras and Vittoria. The day after the first French troops arrived outside the defences, the Bishop retreated to the south bank of the Duoro, and left the three generals to command the defence.
After attempted to persuade the defenders of Oporto to surrender, Soult decided to launch an assault on the city on 29 March. He planned to begin with attacks on the two ends of the Portuguese line, where the defences were not so strong. He hoped that the defenders would move troops from the strong central section of the defences on the hills north of the city, at which point a third French column would attack the centre of the Portuguese lines.
This plan worked perfectly. Only the weather caused a serious delay. Soult had intended to attack just before dawn, but a dramatic thunderstorm swept across the area. While the Portuguese gunners fired off repeated salvoes at imagined foes, the French troops waiting to attack the city got soaked, forcing Soult to postpone the attack until seven.
The first attack was made by Merle’s division to the west and Delaborde’s to the north east. Merle’s men were soon close to breaking through the Portuguese lines, and as expected reinforcements were moved west to stop them. At this point Merle’s assault was halted and Delaborde was ordered to intensify his own attack. His attack was even more successful, and the French broke into the north eastern part of the city. Once again Portuguese troops were moved from the centre to reinforce the flanks.
Finally Soult sent Mermet’s division supported by two regiments of Dragoons to attack the strong centre of the Portuguese lines. By now the centre had been so badly weakened that the French were able to break into the redoubts in their first attack.
With the centre of their line broken, the Portuguese defence of Oporto collapsed. General Vittoria, commanding the Portuguese right, was able to escape along the Duoro. On the left General Lima-Barreto had attempted to order a retreat when the centre broke, but was murdered by his own men, who were determined to hold out. As a result they were trapped against the sea. Some managed to escape along the coast, while others reached safety in the castle of St João, later surrendering on terms, but thousands were trapped against the sea and the river and killed.
The only possible escape from the centre of the line was across a pontoon bridge that led to the south bank. General Parreiras was amongst the first to cross the bridge, followed by a mixed crowd of civilian refuges and soldiers. After a few thousand had crossed the bridge, a disaster unfolded. In the centre of the pontoon bridge there was a drawbridge section. According to some, mainly Portuguese, accounts, the officers in command of the bridge ordered the drawbridge to be raised to prevent the French reaching the south bank. Other accounts report that the centre of the pontoon bridge sank under the weight of the refuges. Whatever the cause of the collapse, the centre of the bridge had gone, but this was not visible from the north bank, where the crowd continued to force its way onto the bridge, pushing the unfortunate people clossest to the gap into the river. This is said to have gone on for half an hour, before the French were finally able to restore some order on the north bank.
The number of people killed in this disaster and in the rest of the battle is not known. Contemporary estimates range from 4,000 up to 20,000. Neither extreme is likely to be true, for while around 4,000 people are said to have drowned at the bridge, and thousands of Portuguese solders were killed on the left, the fighting elsewhere was over relatively quickly. A total of around 8,000 is perhaps most likely. Soult reported his own losses as 80 dead and 350 wounded. The fall of Oporto was followed by the customary sack, but Soult restored order on the following day
This was as far the French would get in their second invasion of Portugal. Soult no longer had the strength to move towards Lisbon. Most of the towns he had captured on the way to Oporto were soon back in Portuguese hands, for Soult did not have the strength to leave garrisons of thousands in towns like Braga or Chaves. It had been two months since Soult had heard from the French armies to his east, and a month since he had heard from Marshal Ney to the north in Galicia, so he was soon forced to detached two of his four divisions to try and find out what was going on elsewhere. Further south, on 22 April Sir Arthur Wellesley landed at Lisbon at the head of a second British intervention in Portugal. Soult would soon be fighting to defend his position around Oporto.
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