Masséna’s invasion of Portugal, September 1810-March 1811

The French Advance
The Lines of Torres Vedras
Masséna’s Retreat Phase One – to the Mondego
Phase Two – Towards Spain
Phase Three - Sabugal


Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal of September 1810-March 1811 was intended to be the final campaign of the French invasion of Iberia, ending the Peninsular War, but instead the French ran up against the Lines of Torres Vedras, and the campaign ended in a disastrous retreat.

The roots of the campaign can be traced back to 1809. That year saw Napoleon end yet another war with Austria after winning the battle of Wagram. As a result large numbers of reinforcements were free to be sent to Spain. The autumn of 1809 also saw the Spanish Junta launch a disastrous campaign which saw the destruction of the army defending Andalusia at Ocaña. Early in 1810 the French invaded Andalusia, capturing Seville and forcing the Spanish Junta to flee to Cadiz.

Both Wellington and Napoleon began planning for the campaign in Portugal in October 1809. On 7 October Napoleon began to make plans to transfer 100,000 men to Spain. Over the next two months it was clear that Napoleon was planning to lead this army in person, but towards the end of 1809 his attention began to turn towards his divorce from Josephine and his marriage to an Austrian princess. While the army remained the same, Napoleon himself was no longer planning to lead it.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

Eventually Marshal Masséna was appointed to command the Army of Portugal. This army was to contain three army corps – Reynier’s 2nd Corps, Ney’s 6th Corps and Junot’s 8th Corps. Although Masséna was an able commander, he did not have the personal authority needed to keep his troublesome subordinates in line, and the campaign would be blighted by arguments between the four French commanders, which would end with Ney’s dismissal.

On 20 October 1809 Wellington issued the famous memoranda that led to the construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras. When he had first accepted the command in Portugal, he had said that he could defend Portugal against any army less than 100,000 strong. By the end of 1809 it was perfectly possible that the French might have been able to bring that many men against him. Wellington decided that the best way to defeat an army that large would be to build a line of fortifications across the Lisbon peninsula. The French would be allowed to advance as far as those lines, but they would then find that the countryside had been stripped of all supplies. Wellington expected that starvation would force the French army to retreat, and that the march in and out of Portugal would dramatically drain its strength. Events would prove Wellington to have been correct, although the skill of the French foragers meant that Masséna was able to remain in Portugal for much longer than Wellington had expected.


The French reinforcements began to reach Leon in February 1810. First to arrive were 10,000 men under General Loison. They were expected to use Astorga as their base, but when they reached that town on 11 February they found it fortified and defended by a Spanish garrison, and were forced to retire south east to La Baneza. Loison’s troops were soon replaced by Clausel’s division from Junot’s corps, and despite the lack of a siege train on 21 March Junot began a siege of Astorga. Little progress was made until the first heavy guns arrived on 15 April, but by 21 April there was a practical breach in the walls, and the French managed to gain a foothold inside the walls. On the following morning the garrison surrendered. Junot sent one regiment into the Asturias, two battalions in Astorga, and then moved back south to support the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Even before the first French reinforcements reached Leon, Wellington had moved most of his men north to deal with the developing French threat. From January 1810 his headquarters were at Vizeu (roughly one third of the way from the Portuguese coast to the border at Almeida), as was the 1st Division. The 3rd and 4th Divisions were posted at Trancoso and Guarda respectively, half way between Wellington and the border, one to the north and one to the south of the main road from Almeida. The Light Division under Craufurd was posted around Almeida, with orders to watch the French. Finally the cavalry spent the winter on the coastal plains.

For the next few months Craufurd would play a central role in the fighting. He was in constant touch with Ney’s corps along the line of the Agueda River, and also had to keep in touch with the garrison of Ciudad Rodrigo, across the Spanish border. For the first two months of 1810 Craufurd had 2,500 infantry and 500 cavalry, while Ney’s 6th Corps was 30,000 strong. As the French forces in front of him became more powerful, Craufurd was given authority over the 3rd and 4th Divisions, much to the irritation of Picton and Cole. Over the next few months Craufurd managed to gain a great deal of intelligence on the French formations, creating an order of battle for Ney’s corps that was accurate to within one battalion and 2,000 men, while preventing the French from gaining any such information about Wellington’s army.

Having captured Astorga, the next French objective was Ciudad Rodrigo, the main Spanish fortress on the Portuguese border. The first French troops appeared outside the town at the end of April, and Marshal Ney arrived with the rest of his corps on 30 May, but the actual siege did not begin until 5 June. At first the French underestimated the Spanish ability to resist, and their main batteries were built too far from the town to easily threaten the inner walls of the town, but by 9 July they had created a very practical breach in the walls, and the Spanish garrison surrendered, marching out on the following day.

The unexpectedly long defence of Ciudad Rodrigo caused a further delay to Masséna’s campaign. The siege had used up most of his available heavy ammunition and so he had to wait for ten days for more supplies to arrive before he could move on to attack Almeida, the first major fortress inside Portugal. The French did not make their next move until 21 July, and that was only really a probe designed to discover if the British intended to defend Fort Concepcion, an isolated Spanish fortress facing Almeida.

What the French did not know at this point was that every day of delay on the Portuguese border gave Wellington’s engineers time to add yet more defences to the Lines of Torres Vedras. By the time Wellington finally pulled back into the lines, the scattered outer defences of the original plans had been turned into a fully defensible line in their own right, and the original main line would never be needed.

On 24 July Ney came close to finally catching Craufurd and the Light Division. Despite strong hints from Wellington that he should retreat west across the Coa, Craufurd had remained at Almeida, two miles east of the river. When Ney realised this, he used his entire corps in an attempt to trap Craufurd (combat of the Coa, 24 July 1810). The Light Division just managed to escape to safety across the Coa, although at the cost of 300 casualties, but then Ney handed the British a victory by attempted to cross the narrow bridge over the river in the face of five battalions of infantry and well placed guns, suffering 500 casualties himself.

The French next turned to the siege of Almeida. This was a stronger fortress than Ciudad Rodrigo, was well supplied and had a good garrison. Wellington was confident that it could hold out for at least a month, and that it might even delay the French into the autumn, but this was not to be.  On 26 August a French shell fell into the courtyard of the castle, igniting a trail of gunpowder than led back into the main magazine, triggering a massive explosion. The centre of Almeida was devastated, 500 men of the garrison were killed, and all but one days worth of powder was lost. On the following day the garrison of Almeida surrendered.

The French Advance

Masséna was finally free to begin his advance into Portugal. His main obstacle now would turn out to be the dreadfully inaccurate maps with which he had been supplied. The French began to move on 15 September, advancing along the line of the Mondego River. Masséna had a choice of two roads, the relatively good highway on the southern bank of the river, or the very poor track on the northern bank. Wellington expected the French to use the southern route, and had gone as far as constructing field fortifications on the line of the Alva River, where he hoped to delay Masséna for some time.

Much to Wellington’s surprise, Masséna decided to take the northern route. His maps had been made in 1778, and were worse than useless. Some existing roads were missing from them, while many of the maps actually shown did not exist. From the map both routes looked to be similar in difficulty. Having discovered that Wellington had built a fortified position on the southern bank, Masséna took what seemed to be the obvious step of moving to the northern bank.

Unfortunately for the French, this route crossed the ridge of Bussaco. This was a long, narrow, steeped sided ridge that ran north from the Mondego, blocking the French route. Wellington was able to bring together an army 52,000 strong to defend this ridge. Masséna decided to punch his way through the long thin Allied line, and on 27 September sent two columns to attack up the ridge (battle of Bussaco, 27 September 1810). Although his left hand column did manage to reach the top of the ridge, it was repulsed with heavy losses, while the right hand attack made no progress at all. The French were repulsed at a cost of 4,500 casualties, while the British and Portuguese suffered 1,500 losses.

On the day after the battle Masséna tried to find a way around the Allied lines. According to his maps, the first suitable road was thirty miles to the north, but his scouts found a suitable pass only nine miles north of Bussaco, and by the end of 28 September the first French troops were on their way north.

With his position at Bussaco turned, Wellington began to fall back towards the Lines of Torres Vedras. The retreat was not without incident. Although Wellington’s plan had called for the evacuation of Coimbra, on the night of 29-30 September 80% of the population had yet to leave. That night Wellington announced that the French were no more than a day or two away, and that he would use force if needed to empty the town. Over the next two days the entire population began a long march to safety inside the lines.

The French advance was significantly slowed down when Masséna’s men reached Coimbra. After spending a month on the march Junot’s men thoroughly sacked the town, and were said to have destroyed several weeks worth of food.

The British troops were not much better behaved on their way south to Lisbon, and a number of men were hanged for looting, while some of the worst behaved regiments were forbidden from camping near villages. A number of minor skirmishes were fought between the French vanguard and the British rearguard, but the French did not press Wellington as closely as they might have.

Up until 5 October Masséna was convinced that he was close to victory. Wellington appeared to be in full retreat. Having passed up a series of chances to fight delaying actions around Coimbra, the logical conclusion was that the British were racing to reach their ships at Lisbon. Only on 5 October did the French first learn from prisoners that the British were retreating towards “the lines”, but it would be another week before the French would learn that they faced more than simple field defences.

The Lines of Torres Vedras

British and Portugese Divisions at Torres Vedras
British and Portugese Divisions at Torres Vedras

The first French troops to discover the Lines of Torres Vedras were Montbrun’s cavalry. They reached Sobral on 11 October, and realised that the hills south of the village were lined with fortifications. On the next day Montbrun’s men moved east, to make room for Junot’s 8th Corps. That afternoon Junot drove the British outposts out of the village (first combat of Sobral, 12 October 1810), in what would turn out to be the only French success against the Lines.

On the next day Wellington began to concentrate his army opposite Junot’s corps, while the French began to investigate the extent of the lines. Masséna himself only came to the front on 14 October, just in time to watch Junot’s men fail to push the British outposts further away from his lines (Second combat of Sobral, 14 October 1810). This would turn out to be the last French attack on the Lines.

Influenced by his experience at Bussaco, Masséna was unwilling to risk attacking the much stronger position he now found Wellington defending. On 15 October the French began to fortify their own positions, and much to Wellington’s surprise remained in their new lines for the next month. Wellington’s “scorched earth” policy had not been carried out as thoroughly as he had hoped, and so the French were able to remain close to the lines for much longer than had been expected.


Even the expert French could not find enough food to remain close to the Lines for more than a month. By 20 October the reserve cavalry, reserve artillery and hospitals had been pulled back to Santarem, where General Eblé was attempting to construct a pontoon bridge. By the start of the November the French had lose close to 5,000 men from starvation, and hundreds of deserters had surrendered to Wellington’s men. For a brief period Wellington actually considered attacking Masséna, but eventually decided that there was nothing to be gained from this.

By the middle of November it was clear that the French could no longer stay where they were. Masséna decided to pull back to Santarem, and attempt to see out the winter there while waiting for reinforcements to arrive from Spain. On the night of 14 November, protected by a dense fog, the French pulled out of their own lines, and began to march north. The fog did not clear until 10am on 15 November, and even then it took some time for the British to discover that the French had gone (partly because one French brigade had posted dummy sentries in their lines, using straw men wearing old shakos). This gave the French a valuable head start, and Wellington’s pursuing troops did not catch up with them until 17 November.

By 18 November the French were in their new camps, and it was Wellington’s turn to face a strong defensive position. On 18-19 November he had actually had a good chance to catch Reynier’s corps isolated at Santarem (the rest of Masséna’s army had passed on further to the north), but at this point Wellington was not certain if the French were planning to head north, east or stop where they were, and so had been forced to split his force.

A long period of deadlock now began. Masséna was waiting for reinforcements, with which he hoped to attack the Lines of Torres Vedras. Wellington was waiting for starvation to force the French to retreat, but he had not yet fully realised just how skilled the French army was at finding food in the most unlikely places. Masséna’s foragers were just able to find enough food for the army to survive, for the area around Santarem had not been devastated to the same extent as the area immediately north of the Lines, but even so the French lost thousands more men over the winter of 1810-1811.

Although neither side made any significant moves during the winter, both Wellington and Masséna spent that time hoping that their opponent would make a mistake. Wellington expected Masséna to be forced to retreat at any moment, but was also aware that he might make a sudden attack, especially after part of Drouet’s 9th Corps began to arrive late in December. Wellington’s main worry was that Masséna would cross over the Tagus and attack the relatively isolated Allied detachments across the river.

Masséna’s best hope was that Wellington would loss patience and decide to attack, making either a frontal assault on the French lines or attempt to outflank the French. Neither happened and by February 1811 it was clear that the French forages were about to use up all of the hidden stores of supplies around Santarem. Three months later than Wellington had expected, Masséna was forced to retreat. 

Masséna’s Retreat Phase One – to the Mondego

When Masséna finally left Santarem, he was not intending to return to Spain. Instead he hoped to move north into the Mondego valley, an area that had not been devastated by either side, and when he might hope to find enough supplies to maintain his army for long enough for reinforcements to reach him.

The only real obstacle in Masséna’s way was the river Mondego. Here the allies had destroyed the bridges, but the line of the river was being held by no more than 6,000 Portuguese militia. Wellington did not believe that the line of the Mondego could be held, and so ordered the commanders of the militia to retire if pressed.

The French plan would be derailed by their failure to make a serious attempt to cross the river. On 10 March Montbrun’s dragoons reached the bridge of Coimbra, which they found partly demolished and defended by Portuguese cannon. Masséna then attempted to find a place where he could throw a flying bridge across the river, but without success. On 11 March Montbrun attempted to send some men across the ford of Pereira, but the attempt was foiled by high water levels. At this point Junot’s entire corps was stationary only ten miles from the river, but Masséna failed to use it in an attempt to capture the bridge. On 12 March one brigade of Junot’s infantry was finally used in an attempt to capture the bridge, but by now Wellington’s army was too close for Masséna to risk crossing a major river across a bridge that would take two days to repair, and on the morning of 13 March Masséna abandoned his original plan, and began his retreat to the Spanish frontier.

While Masséna had been held up at the Mondego, Ney had been conducting a skilful retreat. His rearguard consisted of the divisions of Marchand and Mermet, while Junoot’s corps was not far ahead. If pressed the French could easily bring 35,000 men together to attack the British vanguard.

Masséna’s initial movements had caused some considerable confusion, and on 9 March Wellington’s divisions were too widely scattered to press the French rearguard.  Only the Light Division, temporarily under the rather unimpressive command of Sir William Erskine, and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade were available to follow Ney, and it took until 11 March for the 3rd and 4th Divisions to catch up. 

On 10 March Ney had taken up a position at Pombal, with Junot only five miles further north. When the British appeared in strength on 11 March, Ney sent one of his divisions to the rear, keeping Mermot in position on the hill above the town, with one battalion in the castle of Pombal. The British sent a small force into the town, which Ney easily repulsed (combat of Pombal, 11 March 1811), before retreating in the face of the Light and 3rd Divisions.

By the end of the day all of Wellington’s division had come back together, and on 12 March the pursuit of Masséna began in earnest. Ney was found again at Redinha, still with only two divisions, but by now Wellington was aware that he was close to the main body of the French army, and so waited until three and a half divisions were in place before attacking Ney’s advance guard. Twice the British outflanked the French line and twice Ney retreated just in time to avoid disaster, eventually pulling back to Condeixa.

Phase Two – Towards Spain

On 13 March the Army of Portugal turned east, and began the march back to Spain. Ney was left behind at Condeixa, with orders to delay the British for as long as possible. This was a much more difficult task than on the retreat north, for Ney’s line of retreat was to his left, and could be quite easily cut by any British outflanking move. During 13 March the 3rd Division advanced around the French left, and Ney was forced to abandon Condeixa and retreat five miles east to Casal Novo, five miles to the east.

This move almost resulted in the capture of Masséna, who was resting six miles to the south east of Condeixa and was nearly surprised by a part of German hussars who had been sent to scout out the area. Montbrun’s cavalry facing Coimbra were also in some danger of being cut off, and were forced to escape along a poor riverside path. At the end of the day Masséna and the Army of Portugal were firmly committed to the retreat back to Spain.

Masséna was convinced that Ney had deliberately exposed him to capture, and never forgave him for the retreat from Condeixa, but for the moment Ney had to be left in charge of the rear guard. The next clash came at Casal Novo on 14 March. This time General Erskine, commanding the Light Division, attacked a strong French position in the fog, and suffered relatively heavy losses, before Wellington resumed his normal plan of forcing the French carefully out of each position.

On the next day (15 March) it would be Ney who made a mistake, fighting at Foz d’Arouce with his divisions separated by a river, losing a regimental eagle and only saving the situation by charging the leading British troops with the third battalion of the 69th Regiment.

After the fighting at Foz d’Arouce, Wellington paused for a day to allow a supply convoy to catch the army. His main aim had always been to force the French out of Portugal, and now they were in the mountains Wellington was aware that a lack of supplies would prevent Masséna from making a lengthy stop at any one place. On 20 March Wellington went as far as releasing the Portuguese militia and Ordenança, leaving the Lines of Torres Vedras undefended.

The British resumed their pursuit on 17 March, and soon found the French in a strong position on the Alva River. This was one position Wellington had considered defending during Masséna’s advance into Portugal, and for a short time it looked as if the French had the same idea. Wellington solved this problem with another outflanking manoeuvre, which forced the French to abandon their new positions, and allowed the allies to take 600 prisoners on 19 March alone.

On 20 March Wellington’s army was across the Alva, but only three divisions and the cavalry continued the chase, for once again supplies were low. By 21 March Masséna had reached Celorico, and was within thirty miles of the Spanish border and the French held fortresses of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo. If the French had continued on their original route, then they would have reached Almeida in three days or Ciudad Rodrigo in four.

Phase Three - Sabugal

At this late point in the campaign, Masséna completely changed his plans. Rather than retreat east to rest and refit his army, he decided to head south east, cross the mountains between the Mondego and the Tagus and take up a new position around Coria and Plasencia, in the north of Estremadura, from where he hoped to launch a second invasion of Portugal. For this plan to success, the French would have had to cross two mountain ranges to reach the Tagus, and then advanced into Portugal along the very poor roads close to the Tagus that had nearly ruined Junot’s original invasion in 1807.

This plan was so utterly unrealistic that it provoked Ney to write three letters of complaint on the afternoon of 22 March, ending with one in which he announced that he would not obey Masséna’s orders to march. After five years in charge of 6th Corps, that day Ney was removed from command, and on the next morning replaced by General Loison. Masséna then made sure that his version of the story was the first to reach Napoleon, ensuring at least temporary approval of his actions and of his plans. Ney himself returned to Paris, received a very moderate rebuke, and continued his career uninterrupted.

The expedition to Estremadura collapsed after only six days. Masséna’s army managed to struggle up into the mountains, with the 2nd corps reaching Guarda (at 3,500 feet above sea level the highest town in Portugal) on 22 March, with the 8th corps following them on 24 March and the 6th corps on 25 March. From there all routes led across rough unpopulated mountains. By the end of 26 March 2nd corps was stuck on the roads between Sortelha and Penamcon, 6th corps was still at Guarda and 8th corps was centred around Belmonte, guarding the right flank of the march. On the next morning Reynier and Junot both informed Masséna that they could go no further, and on the following morning Masséna was forced to abandon the march.

On 29 March Masséna issued his new orders. This time the 6th Corps was to remain at Guarda, acting as a rearguard, while the 2nd and 8th Corps were ordered to concentrate at Sabugal in the upper reaches of the Coa valley, from where they could relatively easily reach Almeida.

For some days the French had been left undisturbed by Wellington. The British vanguard only reached Celorico on 24 March, and discovered that the French had left on the road towards Guarda. Wellington had no idea that Masséna was intending to head into Estremadura, and assumed that the French were actually heading for Sabugal and the Coa valley.

On the same day that Masséna issued his new orders, the British finally caught up with his rearguard. The 6th Corps was in a potentially strong position at Guarda, where it was threatened by the appearance of three British divisions. For Ney this would have been an opportunity to fight another rearguard action, but Loison was caught almost entirely by surprise, and ordered his corps to retreat without putting up any fight (combat of Guarda).

Masséna’s army was safely back together on the Coa by 31 March, but instead of continuing on to Ciudad Rodrigo, Masséna decided to give them a few days rest of the Coa. Believing that Wellington had abandoned his pursuit at Guarda, Masséna spread his troops out along the Coa.

This gave Wellington a change to inflict one final defeat on the French. Reynier’s 2nd Corps was dangerously exposed at Sabugal, at the southern end of the French line. Wellington’s attack, on 3 April, was foiled by fog (combat of Sabugal), but Masséna was still forced to abandon his last positions on the Coa, and retreat east into Spain.

That effectively ended Masséna’s campaign in Portugal, although one last battle was to come. Once it was clear that Masséna had retreated some way into Spain, Wellington settled down to blockade Almeida. Masséna’s army had recovered surprisingly quickly from their trails in Portugal, but even so they suffered another defeat at Fuentes de Onoro on 3-5 May 1811. A few days later Masséna was removed from command, and replaced by Marmont.

With the failure of Masséna’s invasion of Portugal, the initiative began to slip away from the French. During 1811 Wellington and the French would carry on an inclusive duel on the Spanish frontier, but 1812 and 1813 would be dominated by Wellington’s victories at Salamanca and Vitoria, and would end with Wellington invading France.


 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.
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A History of the Peninsular War vol.3: September 1809-December 1810 - Ocana, Cadiz, Bussaco, Torres Vedras, Sir Charles Oman. Part three of Oman's classic history begins with the series of disasters that befell the Spanish in the autumn of 1809 and spring of 1810, starting with the crushing defeat at Ocana and ending with the French conquest of Andalusia and capture of Seville, then moves on to look at the third French invasion of Portugal, most famous for Wellington's defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.
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A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 April 2008), Masséna’s invasion of Portugal, September 1810-March 1811 ,

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