The combat of Campo Mayor of 25 March 1811 was the first Allied victory during Beresford’s campaign in Estremadura in the spring of 1811. The town of Campo Mayor had only fallen to the French on 21 March, after an eight day siege, and a small detachment of French troops under General Latour-Maubourg had been left in the town to demolish the fortifications. In total Latour-Maubourg had 2,400 men – 900 cavalry from the 26th Dragoons and the 2nd and 10th Hussars, 1,200 infantry from the 100th Regiment of the Line, half a battery of horse artillery and a force of engineers whose job was to destroy the walls of Campo Mayor and those captured guns felt to be of no use.
The French were entirely unaware of the approach of Marshal Beresford’s strong Anglo-Portuguese force, which on 24 March had reached Arronches. On that day the Portuguese cavalry had discovered Latour-Maubourg’s outposts, three miles outside Campo Mayor. The French had been sighting forces of Portuguese cavalry on a regular basis since they reached the Badajoz area at the start of 1811, and so did not realise that these horsemen were the scouts of a major army.
On the morning of 25 March Beresford left Arronches, and advanced south east towards Campo Mayor. He split his force into three columns. In the centre, following the main road, was the 2nd Division, with the dragoons in front and Cole’s 4th Division behind. Hamilton’s Portuguese division with the 13th Light Dragoons and two squadrons of Portuguese cavalry were following a road a little further to the east, while Colborne’s brigade and the rest of the Portuguese cavalry followed a ridge to the west.
Three prizes were available to the Allies. The most valuable was Latour-Maubourg’s force, one quarter of the French army in Estremadura. Next was the siege train used to capture Campo Mayor and sixteen Portuguese heavy guns, all of which left the town early on the morning of 25 March, almost unguarded, on their way to Badajoz. Finally, if the Allies could capture Campo Mayor before the French could destroy the walls, then the town would be a useful base for further operations. In the end only the third of these prizes would be won.
At around 10.30am the Allied army came into sight from the French outposts. Latour-Maubourg happened to be visiting the outposts at the time, and so was amongst the first to realise that he was facing attack by 18,000 men. He returned to Campo Mayor at high speed, and ordered his force to abandon the town and their baggage, and prepare to retreat back to Badajoz as fast as possible. By the time the first British troops reached the ridges overlooking the town, the French were already on the move, with the dragoons in front, followed by one regiment of the hussars, then the infantry regiment in column of route (long and narrow), and the second hussar regiment to the rear.
If the Allies were to capture Latour-Maubourg’s men, then their cavalry would have to hold up the French for long enough for the infantry to arrive on the scene. Wellington had developed a rather low opinion of the British cavalry. He was aware that few of his cavalry commanders had any experience of large scale engagements, and that a single disaster could destroy most of the British cavalry. Beresford had been warned not to risk his cavalry, and he passed that warning onto the General Long, the commander of his 1,500 cavalry. He was given orders to block the line of the French retreat, not to risk an attack against a superior force, but to strike a blow if he got the chance – somewhat contradictory orders that gave Long the leeway to do whatever he wanted.
The British and Portuguese cavalry finally came up on the French column three miles south east of Campo Mayor. The Allied force had split into two during the ride, with De Grey’s dragoons to the west, close to the rear of the French column, and the 13th Light Dragoons and the Portuguese horse to the east, level with the French dragoons.
The two sides were very finely balanced. The Allies were outnumbered by the combined French force, but if they could drive off the French cavalry then the infantry would be vulnerable, especially with Allied infantry not far behind. Despite this, Latour-Maubourg decided to offer battle. He formed his infantry into battalion squares along the roads, with the hussars guarding the flanks and the dragoons draw back to the right ready to attack the Allied cavalry if they attacked the infantry.
Long decided to begin by driving off the French dragoons using the 13th Light Dragoons and the Portuguese cavalry. Latour-Maubourg responded by sending his 26th Dragoons to make a pre-emptive attack on the Allied light cavalry. The British 13th Light Dragoons had the best of the resulting melee, driving the French dragoons off the battlefield. Unfortunately for Long, the British cavalry then lived up to its poor reputation, and indulged in a seven mile pursuit of the broken French cavalry, which only ended when the French reached the safety of Badajoz. On their way they chanced across the French artillery convoy, but even that did not stop the headlong charge, and only a couple of the guns were captured.
This left Long with the Heavy Brigade and three squadrons from the 1st Portuguese cavalry to face 1,200 French infantry in squares supported by 500 hussars. His best chance of a decisive victory was gone, but he decided to attack anyway, in the belief that once the French cavalry was driven away, the infantry would surrender. This attack was never launched, for at this point Beresford reached the scene. He was informed that the 13th Light Dragoons were believed to have been lost, and will Wellington’s warning not to destroy the cavalry in mind, cancelled the charge of the heavy brigade. Instead, he decided to wait for his nearest infantry column to arrive. Seeing that the British were no longer a direct threat, the French resumed their march towards Badajoz. Beresford trailed behind, waiting for Colborne’s brigade to catch up, but by the time the British infantry were coming into range, so were 2,000 French reinforcements from Badajoz under Mortier. Beresford decided to abandon the chase.
The inconclusive results of the combat caused a great deal of controversy in the British army. Beresford and Wellington held that the charge of the 13th Light Dragoons had been wasteful, while Long argued that he had been within a few minutes of winning a conclusive victory when Beresford took command. At the time Beresford and Wellington had the best of the debate – Long was soon removed from command of the Allied cavalry, and Wellington issued a General Order reproving the cavalry for what he saw as a reckless charge. Since then the combat has been seen as a first sign of the indecision that would mark Beresford’s time as an independent commander.
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