The combat of Aldea de Ponte of 27 September 1811 was a rearguard action fought during Wellington’s retreat from Fuente Guinaldo to Alfayates in the aftermath of the combat of El Boden. In August-September 1811 Wellington had been blockading Ciudad Rodrigo, but in late September Marshal Marmont had raised the blockade at the head of an army 58,000 strong. Most unusually Wellington had left his army rather dangerously stretched to the south and west of Ciudad Rodrigo while Marmont approached, and on 25 September had nearly paid for that mistake when a strong French cavalry force had come close to cutting Wellington’s 3rd Division in half close to El Boden.
After some hard fighting the 3rd Division had escaped, but Wellington was still not out of danger. He had prepared two strong positions where he would have been willing to fight a defensive battle, one at Fuente Guinaldo, south of Ciudad Rodrigo, and one at Alfayates (or Alfaiates), thirteen miles to the west, just across the Portuguese border.
At the end of 25 September Wellington had the 3rd and 4th Divisions with him at Fuente Guinaldo, along with Pack’s Portuguese brigade and part of his cavalry, giving him a total of 15,000 men. The Light Division was close by to the east, although would not reach the camp until the afternoon of 26 September, but the 1st and 6th Divisions had been posted along the Azava (or Azaba) river, to the west of Ciudad Rodrigo, and it soon became clear that they would not be able to reach Fuente Guinaldo.
Although Marmont had made no use of his infantry on 25 September, by the end of the day he had 20,000 infantry facing Wellington, and by noon on 26 September the entire French army was concentrated to the north of Fuente Guinaldo. If Wellington had been able to concentrate his entire army at that position, then he would have been willing to risk a battle, but throughout 26 September he was in a very vulnerable position.
Luckily for Wellington, Marmont decided not to attack. His reasoning was entirely logical – the French believed that in the past Wellington had not been willing to risk a battle unless he had a strong army in a strong position (they habitually overestimated the amount of men Wellington had at his disposal during his battles) – and so if Wellington was happy to spend all day in his position at Fuente Guinaldo then he must have enough men to defend it.
That night both armies began to retreat, Wellington west to his next position at Alfayates, and Marmont back to Ciudad Rodrigo. When Marmont’s rearguard reported that the British were on the move, he ordered his army to turn around and follow Wellington. The French pursuit was too distant and too weak to worry Wellington, and by the end of 27 September he was secure in his new position.
The only fighting came at Aldea da Ponte, a village to the north east of Alfayates where several roads met. This position was defended by the pickets of the 4th Division and Slade’s dragoons. Although it was not part of his main position, Wellington decided to defend Aldea da Ponte against any minor attack, and only abandon it if the French attacked in force.
The first French troops to reach Aldea da Ponte were Wathier’s cavalry. They were soon joined by Thiébault’s infantry division. At this point the village was defended by the light companies of the Fusilier brigade. Thiébault decided to send the three battalions of the 34th Léger to capture the village. One battalion attacked the village, while the other two outflanked the position, and the light companies were forced to retreat.
Wellington responded by sending the entire Fusilier brigade, supported by a Portuguese regiment, to recapture the village. The French battalion in the village was forced to retreat, and fusiliers took possession of the village.
This position lasted only lasted until dusk. Thiébault had been joined by Montbrun’s cavalry and Souham’s division. This time it was Souham who attacked the village, and once again the British were forced to retreat. With darkness approaching, and aware that the village was not part of his main defensive position, Wellington decided not to attempt to take it back.
The British and Portuguese suffered 100 casualties during this combat (71 in the Fusiliers, 13 in the Portuguese regiment and 10 in Slade’s cavalry), while the French lost around 150 men.
Wellington was now in a very strong position, with both of his flanks protected by the River Coa and a front line said to be as strong as that defended at Bussaco. After examining this position on 28 September Marmont rather sensibly decided not to attack, and pulled back to Ciudad Rodrigo. On 1 October the French army was broken up and sent into its winter cantonments, and the danger to Wellington’s army was over.
|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.|