The siege of Almeida of April-10 May 1811 saw Wellington’s army capture the last French stronghold left in Portugal after Marshal Masséna’s retreat from the Lines of Torres Vedras. Almeida had been captured early in Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810, and the area had been occupied by General Drouet’s 9th Corps. As Masséna retreated past Almeida towards Ciudad Rodrigo, Drouet was forced to abandon his own advanced position. Not knowing this, on 7 April Wellington sent Trant’s militia and Slade’s cavalry brigade towards Almeida, in an attempt to force Drouet to retreat. One of Drouet’s two divisions had already left, but close to Almeida they found Claparéde’s division, and a brief skirmish followed which saw the French retreat towards the Agueda River in battalion squares.
Wellington did not have a siege train with his army, and so he had to settle down to starve out the small French garrison of Almeida. Most of his army was posted between Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, while the 6th Division and Pack’s Portuguese brigade carried out the actual blockade. The French garrison was tiny – General Brennier had just over 1,300 men in the town, formed from one battalion of the 82nd Line and a provisional battalion of artillery and sappers. They had enough food to last a month, despite Masséna’s men having taken 200,000 rations from the town as they passed.
The only way Brennier could hope to hold Almeida was if Masséna successfully broke the British blockade. At first Wellington dismissed this possibility, believing that the French Army of Portugal had been too badly disordered during its retreat to make any serious move forwards, but he was mistaken. Masséna was determined to retain possession of the fortress, and by the end of April had gathered together a strong relief force. This army advanced west from Ciudad Rodrigo, before being defeated by Wellington at Fuentes de Oñoro (3-5 May 1811).
After this defeat, Masséna abandoned any hope of relieving Almeida and instead decided to order Brennier to break out from the town. Three volunteers attempted to take this order into the town, and although two were caught and executed as spies, the third managed to get into the town. Brennier was ordered to break out to the north, where the Allied lines appeared to be thinnest. On the night of 7 May Brennier fired three heavy salvoes at five minute intervals to signal that he had received the order and on the following day Masséna began his retreat.
Even during the battle Almeida had still been blockaded by Pack’s Portuguese brigade and the 2nd Regiment from the 6th Division, but once it was clear that Masséna was not going to attack again Wellington posted three brigades outside the town. If these men had been keeping a close watch on the town then the breakout would have been impossible, but General Campbell posted his men too far from the walls, and then failed to post pickets close to the walls.
During 8-9 May Brennier planted mines in the defences of Almeida, and spiked his guns. At 11.30pm on the night of 10 May he made his move. Forming his men into two columns, Brennier struck the Allied lines at the junction between the 1st Portuguese Regiment of Pack’s Brigade and the 2nd Queen’s Regiment of Burne’s division, and easily broke through the Allied cordon. Five minutes later the mines in Almeida exploding, destroying much of the eastern and northern fortifications, and rendering the town useless to Wellington for some time. While the Allied troops outside Almeida attempted to discover what was going on, Brennier’s men made their way towards the crucial bridge at Barba del Puerco.
Earlier in the day Wellington had decided to extend his lines to include this bridge, and had ordered General Erskine to move the 4th Regiment of the 4th Division to guard the bridge. It appears that Erskine failed to pass on this order until late in the day, and so the bridge was unguarded. The 4th Regiment did eventually catch up with Brennier while the French were crossing the bridge, as did the 36th Regiment, and the French suffered heavy casualties attempting to reach the bridge, but 940 of Brennier’s 1,300 men made it to safety. Brennier himself was promoted to general of division for his achievement. On the British side Colonal Bevan of the 4th Regiment was blamed for the failure to block the bridge, and committed suicide rather than face a court of inquiry. Almeida itself was now useless to the Allies, although it was also denied to the French, who now had nothing to show for their massive invasion of Portugal in 1810.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.|
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