The combat of El Bodon of 25 September 1811 was a lucky escape for the British and Portuguese army on the Spanish border in the autumn of 1811. Wellington had been blockading Ciudad Rodrigo since August, but he was not strong enough to risk besieging the place, in the knowledge that if pushed the French could raise a much larger army to raise the siege. Even the blockade would eventually provoke a French response, and so Wellington picked out a strong position to fight a defensive position, at Fuento Guinaldo, fourteen miles to the south west of Ciudad Rodrigo.
The French response came at the end of September. Marshal Marmont, command of the Army of Portugal, and General Dorsenne, commander of the Army of the North, combined their forces to produce a field army around 58,000 strong (with 52,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry). On 22 September Marmont appeared at Tamames, twenty miles to the east of Ciudad Rodrigo, while Dorsenne was a few miles further north at San Muñoz.
At this point Wellington had 46,000 men (including 41,000 infantry and 3,100 cavalry) facing Ciudad Rodrigo. His army was spread out in an arc to the west and south of Ciudad Rodrigo. At the left of the line were the 1st and 6th Divisions, under the command of General Graham, west of the town, on the River Azava (or Azaba). Wellington and the 4th Division were at Fuento Guinaldo, ten miles to the south, at the south western tip of the line. Next in line was the 3rd Division, at El Bodon, six miles north of Wellington, and almost half way to Ciudad. Finally the Light Division was posted at Martiago, another three miles to the east and almost due south of the town.
This deployment exposed each fragment of Wellington’s army to the risk of a crushing defeat before reinforcements could reach them. It also made it almost impossible for Wellington to concentrate his army at Fuente Guinaldo without interference, for the French could easily thrust into the gap between the widely separated left and right wings. Wellington left his troops in this dangerous position because he did not believe that the French intended to advance beyond Ciudad Rodrigo.
The French cavalry established contact with the blockaded town on 23 September, and on the next day half of the French infantry appeared on the plains outside the town. On 25 September Marmont decided to try and discover if Wellington was preparing for a regular siege. He sent out two large cavalry forces to investigate the areas west and south of the town. Both ran into Wellington’s men. The western thrust was repulsed at Carpio, without serious fighting, but the southern thrust came close to causing a major disaster.
The force sent south consisted of two brigades of dragoons and two brigades of light horse, under the command of General Montbrun. The only infantry involved was Thiébault’s division, which was moved onto the southern bank of the Agueda, into a position close to the town, where it could support the cavalry if needed.
Montbrun’s cavalry easily broke through Wellington’s cavalry screen (here made up of Alton’s brigade), and then found itself in the middle of Picton’s 3rd Division. Picton had not had time to concentrate his divison, and so his infantry was stretched out along a six mile front, in four separate clusters, each two or three battalions strong. The nearest support was the 4th Division, a further six miles to the south west.
Marmont had no way to know how vulnerable the 3rd Division was at this point, and assumed that Wellington would have reserves close by. He ordered Montbrun to pick one of the isolated parts of the 3rd Division and force his way past it in an attempt to discover the main force he believed must be close by.
Montbrun decided to attack along the road from Ciudad Rodrigo to Fuente Guinaldo (this road does not appear on modern maps, which show a road that runs from Ciudad to El Boden, and then on to Fuento Guinaldo, presumably to avoid the high ground involved in this fight). This road was defended by part of Colville’s brigade – the 1/5th and 77th Foot and the 21st Portuguese, posted on a plateau at the top of a steep slope. If the French cavalry could push its way past this force quickly, then the eastern half of the 3rd Division (the 1/45th and 1/88th at El Boden and the 74th and three companies of the 5/60th at Pastores, on the Agueda) would have been trapped.
Montbrun had 2,500 cavalry to attack a British force of 1,000 infantry, 500 cavalry and two batteries of field artillery, although the British did have the advantage of defending the high ground. Montbrun decided to attack in three columns. His left and centre columns attacked the 500 men of Alten’s cavalry, while the right column attacked the Portuguese artillery and the 1/5th foot.
Both of these attacks failed. Despite being outnumbered by around two-to-one, Alten’s cavalry were able to use the slope to their advantage to prevent the French from reaching the plateau, launched a series of charges against the most advanced French troops, forcing them to retreat, before themselves withdrawing back up the slope. The colonel of the Hussars of the King’s German Legion involved in this fight reported that the French made forty separate attacks, while each of the British and German regiments involved made eight or nine charges.
The column attacking the guns met with more initial success. Despite coming under heavy fire from the Portuguese guns, the dragoons managed to reach their position, capturing four guns. While the French cavalry was still disordered amongst the guns, Major Ridge of the 1/5th ordered his men to advance in line. The dragoons faced three volleys of musketry before fleeing back down the hill.
After the repulse of this frontal assault, Montbrun decided to send one his brigades around the right of the allied position, into the gap between the road and El Boden. This move forced the British to retreat, but it came too late, for the troops at El Boden and Pastores had already escaped.
Montbrun continued to attack the small British force throughout the retreat. They were retreating with the artillery at the head of their column, followed by the 21st Portuguese, marching a square, then the 5th and 77th Foot in a single square, and with the remaining cavalry in the rear.
The French cavalry soon drove off the cavalry rearguard, leaving the square of the 5th and 77th vulnerable to attack. Montbrun’s men attacked it from three sides at once, but without success. The British cavalry then charged the disordered French horse, and forced them to retreat, winning half-an-hour of peace for the retreating infantry.
By now the troops retreating from the fight on the hill had caught up with Picton and the troops from El Bodon and the three battalions from the west. For the rest of the march the 21st Portuguese and 5th and 77th formed a rearguard, still marching in their two squares, while the rest of Picton’s men remained in their columns. The French harassed the retreating columns, but Montbrun was no longer willing to risk further cavalry charges. Instead he attempted to bring his horse artillery into use, and on several occasions managed to fire on the British column.
The French were eventually forced to retire when the 3rd Division came close to the fortified camp at Fuente Guinaldo and Wellington sent out more cavalry to support the retreating column.
The combat of El Boden cost the British and Portuguese 149 casualties, 68 of them in the cavalry (13 dead, 50 wounded and 5 missing). The total French losses were not reported, but 13 officers were killed or wounded, suggesting a total loss of around 200 men.
The danger was not yet over. By the end of the day Marmont had 20,000 men over the Aqueda, with the rest of his army close behind. Wellington only had the 3rd and 4th Divisions, Pack’s Portuguese brigade and part of his cavalry at Fuente Guinaldo, a total of around 15,000 men. It would take most of the next day for the Light Division to arrive, while the 13,000 men from the British left never reached the camp, but despite this Marmont refused to attack. It would appear that the French defeats at Bussaco and Fuentes de Oñoro had made Marmont unwilling to attack Wellington in a prepared position.
On the night of 26 September Wellington evacuated Fuente Guinaldo, well aware that his position was not as strong as the French believed, and made for his second defensive position, inside Portugal. By the end of 27 September Wellington’s army was concentrated around Alfayates, although only after having fought a rear-guard action at Aldea de Ponte.