The siege of Almeida of 25 July-27 August 1810 was a delaying action fought to slow down Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810, most famous for the dramatic explosion that ended the siege.
Almeida was the main Portuguese fortress on the northern invasion route from Spain, matching the Spanish fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo. In 1810 it was a well designed modern fortress, almost perfectly circular and protected by six bastions, a dry ditch and bombproof casements, was armed with 100 guns and was garrisoned by 4,000 infantry, 400 gunners and one squadron of cavalry, all under the command of William Cox, a colonel in the British army and a brigadier in the Portuguese. Wellington had made sure that the place was well stocked with food and ammunition. The hope was that Almeida would hold out for long enough to prevent the French from advancing into Portugal during the summer of 1810.
Despite its dramatic ending the siege actually satisfied this expectation. The last Allied troops in touch with Almeida, Craufurd’s Light Division, were driven away on 25 July (Combat of the Coa), and Ney’s 6th Corps began the blockade of Almeida. The siege itself did not begin for two more weeks, as it took some time for the heavy siege train to travel from Ciudad Rodrigo, and work did not start on the siege works until 15 August.
By the morning of 26 August the French had completed eleven batteries, and at six in the morning they opened fire. The town was soon on fire, and in three of the bastions the Portuguese gunners were pinned down, unable to return fire, but the walls were still intact.
That evening a chance event ended any realistic prospects of prolonging the siege. The main powder magazine was in the elderly castle of Almeida. At about seven in the evening the main door to the magazine was open and a powder convoy was leaving to resupply the guns on the southern walls. According to the only survivor of the disaster, a French shell landed in the castle courtyard and ignited a trail of powder that led from a leaking barrel back into the magazine. A second barrel, just inside the door exploded, and this blast ignited the main powder store. The massive explosion destroyed the castle, the cathedral and removed the roofs from all but five houses in the town. Over 500 members of the garrison were killed, amongst them half of the gunners. Some of the stones were flown so far that they killed men in the French trenches.
The defence was effectively over. The only way to move around the town was on the ramparts, for the interior was completely blocked with ruins. Only 39 barrels of powder and a few hundred rounds that had already been moved to the walls survived the explosion, just enough for one day’s fighting but no more.
Cox was determined to fight on, at least for long enough to give Wellington a chance to rescue the garrison. This was always going to be a forlorn hope, for Wellington had never had any intention to attack Masséna’s army on the Portuguese border – the risk was simply too great. Unsurprisingly the explosion had totally demoralised the Portuguese garrison of the town, especially some of the officers. Although Cox attempted to bluff the French, holding a conference with French officers in a closed casement to hide the damage, some of the Portuguese officers told the French exactly what had happened. When Cox sent Major Barreiros of the Artillery to negotiate with the French, he changes sides and told Masséna that there would be no further resistance.
Reassured by this, Masséna turned down all of Cox’s requests for delays, and at seven in the evening of 27 August renewed the bombardment. A delegation of Portuguese officers then informed Cox that if he did not surrender, they would open the gates. Cox had no choice but to capitulate. On the next morning the 4,000 survivors of the garrison marched out of the town. Under the terms of the surrender Masséna had agreed to allow the militia to go home on parole while the regulars were to be taken back to France as prisoners. Masséna broke this agreement with breathtaking speed, and instead attempted to recruit the Portuguese prisoners into his own army.
Most of the surviving regulars and 600 of the militia immediately enlisted with the French, giving Wellington a real scare. If he could not rely on the Portuguese, then his entire plan of campaign was in danger. He need not have worried. Over the next few days most of the three battalions Masséna though he had recruited absconded, often in large parties, and made their way back to the Allied lines. At first Wellington was worried about employing officers who had theoretically broken their parole, but the Portuguese government had no such concerns, and as Masséna had broken his word first Wellington’s concerns were short-lived.
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