The combat of Sabugal of 3 April 1811 was the last serious fighting during Masséna’s retreat from Portugal in 1811, and was a missed chance for a major Allied victory over an isolated portion of Masséna’s army.
Having reached relative safety at Celorico, Masséna had decided to abandon his retreat back to Ciudad Rodrigo, and instead attempt to cross the mountains of central Portugal to reach the Tagus River, from where he hoped to threaten Lisbon once again. This was an utterly impractical idea, and on 29 March, after several days of hard marching in the mountains Masséna was forced to abandon this plan. Instead he ordered his scattered corps to come back together around Sabugal, at the southern end of the Coa Valley. From there they would be able to march north, down the valley towards Almeida, or east towards the Spanish border.
Wellington had observed the move into the mountains, but had assumed that Sabugal was its original target. He had only decided to move when the French seemed to have decided to stop in the mountain town of Guarda. On 29 March three of Wellington’s divisions forced Loison’s 6th Corps out of their position at Guarda without a fight. By 31 March all of Masséna’s corps had reached the Coa valley, and were in a position to reach safety without any further interference.
Masséna’s final destination was the Spanish border around Ciudad Rodrigo, at the edge of the plains of Leon, where his army could finally find supplies. However, rather than continue his march into Spain, having reached the Coa, Masséna decided to let his men rest for a few days.
The three French corps on the Coa were stretched rather thinly along the river. Reynier’s 2nd Corps was at the south of the line at Sabugal. The nearest units of the 6th Corps were seven miles further north, starting at Bismula. Finally, the 8th Corps was ten miles to the east, at Alfayates.
Wellington decided to gather his entire field army together, and to attempt to inflict a crushing defeat on Reynier’s 2nd Corps. He now had 38,000 men in his six divisions (1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and Light). Masséna’s total force on the Coa was slightly larger, with 39,905 men, but Wellington hoped to defeat Reynier before Junot or Loison could come to his assistance.
Wellington’s plan used all six of his divisions. The 6th Division was sent north to keep Loison pinned in place. The Light Division, under the temporary command of General Erskine, supported by two cavalry brigades, was to move around the French left flank. His role was to get behind Reynier and prevent him from retreating eastwards. Once Erskine was under way, the 5th Division was to attack at Sabugal, and the 3rd Division a little further south, with the 1st and 7th Divisions following behind.
Wellington’s plan was derailed by a combination of fog and General Erskine. The morning of 3 April was foggy. Unable to see their objectives, Picton and Dunlop, the commanders of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, halted, and asked Wellington for new orders. Unfortunately Erskine was less careful, and blundered onwards in the mist, with Beckwith’s brigade in the lead (the 1/43rd of the Line, four companies of the 1/95th Rifles and the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores). In the fog Beckwith’s men crossed the Coa nearly a mile north of their intended crossing point. They then advanced through the mist, pushing back a line of French pickets.
What Beckwith’s men did not yet know was that they were heading straight for Merles’s division, at the southern tip of the French line. Merle had been alerted to the British attack by the sound of musket fire in the mist, and had just managed to form the 4th Léger into a new line facing south when Beckwith emerged out of the mist. Although the French had four battalions in their new line, they were actually outnumbered by Beckwith’s two and half battalions. Despite this Merle attempted to attack the British and Portuguese line in four columns, and was predictably repulsed.
Beckwith chased the retreating French until he came up against the next two French regiments, the 36th of the Line and the 2nd Léger. This time it was Beckwith who at first was forced to retreat, but his men then found shelter behind some stone walls, and fought off the two French regiments. Beckwith then advanced for a third time, driving off Merle’s divisional artillery. This third advance ended with the 4th Léger rallied and attacked Beckwith’s left, while two squadrons of French cavalry attacked his right. Once again Beckwith was forced to retreat back to the stone walls.
At this point Beckwith’s 1,500 men were being attacked by 3,500, and were in real danger, but fortunately for them at this point 2,000 men of Drummond’s brigade arrived on the scene. Even so, when the mist finally lifted the isolated Light Division was still in danger.
When the mist lifted, both commanders could finally see what was happening. Picton’s 3rd Division was able to advance up the hill to attack the right flank of the French forces facing the Light Division, and Reynier was forced to order a retreat. At first Picton conducted a pursuit, but then it began to rain torrentially, blocking all visibility, and rather than run the risk of having Picton’s men blunder into strong French reinforcements, Wellington called off the chase.
Although the mist had prevented Wellington from winning a major victory at Sabugal, the Light Division had achieved a notable minor success. Reynier had suffered at least 760 casualties (72 dead, 502 wounded and 186 wounded), while Wellington had lost 162 men (17 dead, 129 wounded and 6 missing). Of the British casualties, 80 were in the 1/43rd Foot, who had fought off three separate French attacks.
In the aftermath of the battle, Masséna was forced to abandon his remaining positions on the Coa, and retreat rapidly to the east. Over the next few days the French finally reached relative safety in Spain. Even then the fighting was not over. When Wellington began a blockade of Almeida, Masséna attempted to break the siege, but was defeated for a final time at Fuentes de Onoro, 3-5 May 1811. Soon after that he was officially replaced in command of the Army of Portugal, ending his military career.
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