The battle of Bussaco of 27 September 1810 was the one major battle during Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal of 1810, and was a costly French defeat suffered in an attempt to attack a very strong Allied position on the ridge at Bussaco. Masséna had begun his invasion of Portugal at the start of September, forcing Wellington to abandon his forward position at Guarda, and retreat down the Mondego Valley. At this point Masséna had a choice of two difficult routes, on the north or south bank of the river. Wellington had been convinced that the French would travel along the southern bank, and had prepared defensive positions on the Alva River, but to his surprise on 17 September the French began to cross to the north bank of the river, making it clear that they were about to follow a road that Wellington described as the “worst in the whole kingdom”. Not only was this a rough road, it also crossed the ridge at Bussaco, a natural feature so strong that Wellington could not resist defending it.
Masséna’s Army of Portugal began the invasion 62,000 strong. It contained three French army corps – Reynier’s 2nd corps, Ney’s 6th corps and Junot’s 8th corps. Even at the start of the campaign it was thus significantly smaller than the 100,000 men Wellington believed the French would need to expel him from Portugal, and was not much larger than Wellington’s own army.
Wellington had 52,000 men at Bussaco, but of them only just under 27,000 were British. The remaining 25,500 were members of Marshal Beresford’s Portuguese army, still some-what of an unproven force at this stage, although it had already begun to prove itself in smaller scale fighting.
The ridge at Bussaco could almost have been designed to be defended. Starting at the Mondego River, a long, narrow, steep sided ridge runs to the north west, reaching its highest point at Bussaco at an altitude of 560m. The ridge then turns north and losses some of its height, but not its steep sides, and continues on into a mountainous region. The main road to Coimbra crosses the ridge at a height of 400m, just to the north of Bussaco, taking advantage of a ridge of outlying high ground to reach an altitude of 300m three quarters of a mile away from the ridge. Unfortunately for any attacker, this spur of higher ground reaches the ridge a third of a mile south of the point at which it reaches the ridgeline, and so the main road has to turn right and run north below steep slopes to reach its crossing point. From the point of view of someone on the main road, it appears to be heading directly for the highest point on the ridge, before making its turn to the right. A number of minor county roads also cross the ridgeline, one leading between the village of San Antonio de Cantaro and Palheiros, and a second between San Paulo and Palmazes. The northern part of the heights of Bussaco are covered by a convent and its park
Although Wellington had a strong position at Bussaco, the ridgeline was nine miles long and the British and Portuguese would be very thinly stretched. The Allied line started on the ridge north of Bussaco where Cole’s 4th Division was posted. Next in line was Craufurd’s Light Division, guarding the curve in the main road, with the only real reserve behind them. Wellington started the battle in this part of the line. Next came Spenser's division, guarding the highest part of the ridge at Bussaco and stretched out as far south as the pass of San Antonio. Picton's division was next, followed by Leith’s division, which was effectively split in two. His left met up with Picton’s division close to the pass, then there was a two mile gap guarded by two divisions of the Lusitanian Legion, and finally Leith’s right was guarding the pass from San Paulo to Palmazes. Finally the Allied right was made up of Hill’s division, on the last part of the main ridge, and one battalion from the Loyal Lusitanian Legion posted on the Heights of Nossa Senhora de Monte, overlooking the river.
Although the French are often represented as having had no chance of winning at Bussaco, they would actually come close to establishing themselves on the ridgeline. What doomed Masséna’s plan was the failure to identify the real Allied position, leaving Leith and Hill free to come to the aid of what was actually the Allied centre. The biggest danger to the Allied line was the fog that shielded the French movements at the start of the battle, giving them a chance of reaching the top of the ridge before the Allies could react.
The first French attack was made by Merle’s and Heudelet’s divisions of Reynier’s 2nd Corps. Heudelet was on the left, and was to advance along the road, with Merle to his right. Between them the two divisions contained 26 battalions or 14,500 men. The morning of 27 September was foggy, preventing the British from seeing the direction or strength of the initial French attack, but also preventing the French from keeping to their original plan. Merle’s division began to veer to the left, while both formations soon began to break up on the steep heather-clad hillsides. The divisional columns soon tuned into a mass of battalion-columns.
Heudelet’s division never threatened the Allied line. Its lead regiment, the 31st Léger, pushed in the Portuguese skirmishers, but then came under fire from artillery and from the British 74th and Portuguese 21st Regiments. The French advance stopped, but the 31st Léger managed to hold its ground for some time before retreating back down the hill.
Merle’s division had more success. Originally it had been heading for the part of the hill held by the 88th, but the move to the left brought it to the top of the ridge in the three quarters of a mile long gap between that regiment and the 45th. Picton, commanding to the right of this gap, heard the noise of the French advance, and sent part of the 45th Foot and part of the 8th Portuguese to fill the gap, but the first French troops reached the ridgeline just before the first Allied troops.
The situation was restored by Colonel Wallace of the 88th. All three Allied regiments appear to have arrived on the scene at the same time, just after the four battalions of the French 36th Line had reached the summit of the hill, but before they had had a chance to recover from the climb. Wallace organised a charge, which hit the 36th in the flank, and drove it back down the hillside. The 2nd Léger was caught up in the retreat, and these two units then swept away the 4th Léger. Although Picton had arrived on the scene just before the charge, he gave all the credit to Wallace. The momentum of their charge carried the British down the hillside towards Reynier’s reserves. They then came under artillery fire and were forced to climb back up to their original positions.
Seeing his attack grinding to a halt, Reynier ordered his reserves, the seven battalions of Foy’s brigade, to join the attack. This attack caused a brief crisis, hitting the same units that had just fought off Merle’s attack. Foy’s attack forced these tired units to retreat, and for a moment the French had a foothold on the ridgeline. This was where Masséna’s failure to identify the true Allied right ended any chance of French success. Seeing that there were no attacks against him, Leith moved his division to the left, while Hill stretched out his men to guard the empty space this left. The 9th Foot hit the French in their left flank, and Foy’s attack also ended in a retreat down the slope.
The French suffered more than 2,000 casualties on this part of the battlefield, amongst them Merle and Foy, both of whom were wounded. The British and Portuguese only suffered 587 casualties. The strength of the Allied position is clear when one realises that all three French attacks were beaten off by eleven British and Portuguese divisions, outnumbered two to one, but that the French reported being outnumbered themselves by three to one.
Ney’s attack against the Allied left began at the moment Merle’s men reached the summit of the ridge. Of Ney’s three divisions Marchand was to attack to the left of the main road, Loison to the right, on the far side of a steep valley, and Mermet remained in reserve.
Loison advanced with his two brigades side by side, each in a column of battalions. They first encountered a skirmishing line of 1,300 light troops from Craufurd’s division, while the main force of the division was hidden in a sunken part of the main highway. The French skirmishers were not strong enough to deal with the British and Portuguese, and so Loison had to feed battalions from his columns into this initial fight before he could make any progress. The French then came under artillery fire from well placed gun batteries, which became their next target. From the French point of view these guns were unprotected, but in fact 1,750 from the 43rd and 52nd Foot were hidden in the roadway. When the French were only ten paces from the hidden British line, they were ordered to stand and fire. This volley is said to have wiped out the front of each French column. Three companies from each of the British regiments then wheeled forward, forming a semi-circular line surround the head of the French columns, and under this devastating fire Loison’s men fell back down the hillside. In total Loison lost 1,250 of his 6,500 men in this attack. The British and Portuguese light troops lost 139 men in the early part of the fighting, while the 43rd and 52 Foot lost 3 dead and 20 wounded.
The final French column was that of Marchand, advancing to the left of the highroad. As it approached the Allied line it came under fire from three gun batteries, and from the skirmishers from Pack’s Portuguese Brigade. The leading French brigade (Maucune) turned to its left to attack these skirmishers, from the 4th Caçadores, and forced them to retreat, but in doing so the French exposed themselves to the fire from four of Pack’s line battalions. The French made a series of attempts to storm the Portuguese lines, but each failed, and after suffering 850 casualties Maucune’s brigade retreated. Marchand’s second brigade had reached the point at which his first had left the road when it became obvious that the attack had failed along the entire line. After suffering 300 casualties, this brigade was recalled by Ney.
With all four of his attacked defeated, Masséna decided that Wellington’s position was too strong to storm. The French had lost 522 dead, 3,612 wounded and 364 missing during their attack, while the British and Portuguese had only lost 200 dead, 1001 wounded and 51 missing. The official returns showed both the British and Portuguese had suffered 626 casualties, demonstrating quite clearly that Wellington’s Portuguese Allies had done their fair share of the fighting.
On the day after the battle Masséna sent out his cavalry in an attempt to find some way to outflank Wellington’s position. They soon found a road nine miles north of Bussaco which was suitable for this purpose, and which if discovered earlier might have convinced the French not to attack at Bussaco at all, although as Masséna had expressed a desire to have a chance to attack Wellington’s army this is unlikely. It did now allow the French to force Wellington to abandon his position at Bussaco, and begin his final retreat back into the Lines of Torres Vedras. Wellington has sometimes been criticized for not either attack the French as they moved away from Bussaco, or for failing to block their new route, but his main intention throughout Masséna’s invasion of Portugal was to draw him onto the Lines of Torres Vedras, and then use starvation to defeat him. The French decision to advance via Bussaco had been a nice bonus, but no more.
The French defeat at Bussaco had a direct impact on the rest of the campaign. When the French reached the Lines, Masséna discovered the British and Portuguese in an even stronger position than on 27 September, and almost immediately decided that Wellington’s new position was too strong to attack. On the Allied side their performance at Bussaco convinced Wellington that he could trust his Portuguese troops. They would play a major role over the final three years of the Peninsular War. .
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