Skirmish of Rio Mayor, 19 January 1811

The skirmish of Rio Mayor of 19 January 1811 was one of the very few significant clashes to take place while Marshal Masséna’s army was camped at Santarem, after his retreat from the front of the lines of Torres Vedras. One of Masséna’s biggest problems during his time at Santarem was that he had to spread his three army corps out help them forage for supplies. Junot was on the upper Rio Mayor, with Ney some distance to the east, around Thomar and Golegão. It was perfectly possible for Wellington to launch a surprise attack on Junot’s corps and inflict a heavy defeat on him before reinforcements could arrive.

Wellington did have troops close to Junot’s position. The village of Rio Mayor was held by two companies of Portuguese infantry, with Pack’s Portuguese brigade just to the south, and a small cavalry screen formed by one squadron from the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion. In mid January rumours reached Masséna that an English infantry division had joined Pack, and so he ordered Junot to carry out a reconnaissance along the road that led south from his position, through Rio Mayor and on to Alcoentre.

On 19 January Junot took a force of 3,000 infantry and 500 cavalry to carry out this reconnaissance. The cavalry screen and the troops in Rio Mayor were quickly pushed aside. Pack formed his brigade up on some hills behind Rio Mayor. It was clear that there was no British infantry division present, and so Junot ordered his men back into their camps. During this brief fight Junot was hit by a musket ball which broke his nose before lodging in his cheek. This was a painful but not dangerous wound, and after a few days Junot was able to return to duty.

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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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 June 2008), Skirmish of Rio Mayor, 19 January 1811 ,

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