The combat of Guarda of 29 March 1811 was a bloodless British victory in the last stages of Masséna’s retreat from Portugal. Having reached relative safety at Celorico, Masséna decided on a dramatic change of direction. Instead of continuing on the road to Ciudad Rodrigo, he decided to turn south, and attempt to reach the Tagus valley. This route took him across two mountain ranges, and even if successful would have seen the French army isolated in a desolate part of the country. Marshal Ney disagreed so strongly with this plan that he officially refused to obey it, and was replaced as the command of 6th Corps by General Loison.
After a few days in the mountain it became clear that Masséna’s plan was completely unrealistic, and on 29 March abandoned his plan. The army was now to move towards Sabugal, in the Coa valley, from where it could reach safety in Spain. Loison’s 6th Corps formed the French rearguard, and on 29 March was camped in a strong position around the high mountain town of Guarda.
At this point Wellington had no idea of the crisis in the French camp, or of Masséna’s two changes of plan. When the French left the obvious route to Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington assumed that they were heading for Sabugal and Spain. Only when the French seemed to have stopped at Guarda did Wellington decide that he needed to move them on, and it then took some days for the army to come together.
On 29 March Wellington was finally ready to move. Three divisions were sent to push the French out of Guarda. The Light Division was to attack from the north, Alexander Campbell’s 6th Division from the north west and Picton’s division from the west. Their advance was protected by a cavalry screen.
Ney had carried out a series of skilful rearguard actions during the retreat from Lisbon, but Loison would prove to be much less capable. The British advance caught him entirely by surprise. One of his divisions had already moved off the hill at Guarda, and the Light Division appeared to threaten his line of retreat. Seeing this, Loison ordered his corps to abandon their positions, and to retreat south east to the Coa. The French retreat was carried out at such high speed that the British infantry were unable to catch up with them, while the cavalry were able to capture no more than 300 prisoners.
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