The combat of Cassa de Salinas of 27 July 1809 was a preliminary action fought on the day before the main fighting at the battle of Talavera. On the morning of 27 July Sherbrooke’s and Mackenzie’s divisions of Wellesley’s army had been posted on the east bank of the Alberche River, to guard the river crossings and make sure that the Spanish army of General Cuesta would be able to cross in safety. Having missed a chance to attack Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps in isolation on 23 July, Cuesta had insisted on chasing the French east across the river, only to discover that Victor had been joined by General Sebastiani’s 4th Corps and the Royal Reserve of King Joseph. Cuesta had been forced to retreat in some haste, reaching the Alberche on the evening of 26 July. He had then insisted on camping on the east bank of the river, and had only crossed to the west bank on the morning of 27 July. Once the Spanish were across the river, Wellesley withdrew his two divisions, and ordered them to move into their positions on the battlefield he had selected.
Mackenzie’s division was ordered to act as a rearguard during this movement. It took up a position around a ruined house, the Casa de Salinas, about a mile west of the Alberche, in an area covered in olive groves. A line of pickets had been placed in front of the division, and Wellesley was using the house as a vantage point, in an attempt to monitor the French progress.
Mackenzie’s division contained two brigades. Donkin’s Brigade, to the left, contained two battalions of the line (2/87th and 1/88th) and half a battalion of the 5.60th Foot (the rifles). Mackenzie’s own brigade, to the right, contained three battalions (2/24th, 2/31st and 1/45th).
Despite these efforts, Lapisse’s division of Victor’s 1st Corps had managed to cross the Alberche north of the British position without being observed. Having discovered Mackenzie’s positions, Lapisse was able to launch a surprise attack on Donkin’s Brigade and the left flank of Mackenzie’s. The 87th, 88th and 31st Foot were all broken in the first attack, and for a moment the French had punched a hole in the British line.
Luckily for Wellesley, the 45th Foot on the right and the 60th on the left had held their ground, and Wellesley was able to rally the retreating regiments. The British infantry were then able to retreat under fire, until they reached open fields, where Anson’s light cavalry were able to come to their aid. Although the French brought up some horse artillery, they were unable to further disrupt Mackenzie’s movements, and his division soon took its place in the line.
The fighting around Casa de Salinas was surprisingly costly. The British lost 70 dead, 284 wounded and 93 missing in the skirmish, a total of 447 casualties. Donkin’s brigade was hardest hit – it lost 289 of its 1,471 men in the clash, nearly 20% of its total strength. Both brigades would be involved in the fighting at Talavera on the following day, with Mackenzie’s brigade suffering 632 casualties, second only to Langwerth’s brigade. After two days of fighting, the brigade had suffered 785 casualties, losing one third of its strength.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.|
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