The combat of Pombal of 11 March 1811 was a skilful rearguard action fought by Marshal Ney during the retreat from the Lines of Torres Vedras. Marshal Messéna had originally intended to retreat north to take up new positions in the Mondego valley, with the intention of remaining in Portugal until reinforcements reached him. For this plan to succeed, his rearguard needed to delay Wellington for long enough for the vanguard to force their way across the river and capture Coimbra.
The French rearguard was commanded by Marshal Ney, and contained the divisions of Marchand and Mermet. For the first few days of the retreat the only Allied troops close to the French were the Light Division, under the temporary command of Sir William Erskine, and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade. Wellington had ordered all but 3,000 of his 46,000 men to concentrate against the main French line of retreat, but it took several days for the scattered Allied forces to come together.
On 10 March Ney was based at the town of Pombal, with Junot’s corps five miles further north, with the British vanguard close by. On the next morning Picton’s 3rd Division joined the vanguard. When Ney realised that stronger forces had come up, he sent one of his divisions back towards Junot, leaving Mermet in position on the hills above Pombal, with one battalion defending the castle in Pombal.
Wellington saw this isolated battalion, and decided to attempt to cut it off. Elder’s battalion of Caçadores (Portuguese light infantry) and two companies from the 95th rifles were ordered to attack across the bridge at Pombal, with the Light Division in support, while Picton was sent off to the left to outflank the French position.
Elder’s small force managed to fight its way across the bridge, and up to the castle. When Ney realised that the battalion in the castle was in danger of being cut off, he led four battalions from the 6th Léger and the 69th Ligne down from the heights, sweeping Edler’s men back out of the town. He then blockaded the main street and set fire to a number of houses, before retiring back up the hill with his entire force. The Light Division became entangled in the town, while the 3rd Division did not arrive until late in the day, and over cover of darkness the French fell back to Redinha, fighting a second rearguard action there on the following day.