The combat of Casal Novo of 14 March 1811 was a rearguard action during Masséna’s retreat from Portugal that was notable for the reckless behaviour of General Erskine, the temporary commander of the British Light Division.
Having been forced out of his position at Condeixa on 13 March, Ney had taken up a new defensive position at Casal Novo. Marchand’s division had a strong position on rising ground, protected by stone walls. When Erskine’s men reached Casal Novo on the morning of 14 March the French position was hidden by fog. Erskine himself refused to believe the French were still in the village, and ordered three companies from the 52nd foot to clear away what he believed to be a thin line of French pickets. When the fog lifted it became clear that the five battalions of the Light Division were facing eleven French divisions, and a period of hard fighting followed, in which the British suffered 90 casualties.
The Light Division was saved by the arrival of the 3rd Division. When they began to move around the French left, Marchand pulled back towards Mermet’s division, two miles to the east, and the two French divisions formed up on a new line.
This time the British carried out a more skilful outflanking manoeuvre, and the French were forced to retreat with little lose. The same happened again later in the day at Chão de Lamas. After being turned out of this position Ney retreated six miles to the Eça River and joined up with the rear of the 8th Corps. This ended the fighting for the day, although the same units would clash again on the following day at Foz do Arouce in the last significant clash between the French rearguard and the British vanguard of this stage of the campaign.
The British suffered 155 casualties, nearly two thirds of them in the first combat of the day. After this Erskine began to lose Wellington’s confidence, completing that process at Sabugal on 3 April.
|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.|