The campaign that led to the battle of Barrosa demonstrated the weakness of the French position in Andalusia during the two and a half years that they occupied the province. The French had invaded Andalusia at the start of 1810, and had overrun almost the entire province, but arrived outside Cadiz two days behind a Spanish army under the Duke of Albuquerque. Once the island city of Cadiz was properly garrisoned it was almost impossible for the French to take it from the land, while British naval power made it unlikely that the French Toulon fleet would be risked in an attack on the city. The siege of Cadiz would last for almost as long as the French occupation of Andalusia, beginning on 5 February 1810 and ending on 24 August 1812 in the aftermath of the battle of Salamanca and King Joseph’s flight from Madrid.
Worse was to come. The British and Spanish quickly built up the garrison of Cadiz until it contained over 25,000 men. With the British fleet securely in command of the seas around Spain, and most of the inner and outer harbours of Cadiz in allied hands, supplies could flow freely into the city, allowing this large garrison to be maintained indefinably. As a result Soult was forced to keep Marshal Victor’s I Corps in the siege lines around Cadiz to prevent the garrison breaking out into southern Andalusia. Even this did not entirely remove the danger. The British and Spanish made repeated use of their command of the sea to land expeditions behind Victor’s lines and even further afield. Most of the time these were only minor expeditions, for the allies knew that if they did make a serious attack on Victor’s lines then Soult could bring enough troops together to overwhelm them, but in January 1811 Soult launched an invasion of Estremadura at the head of nearly 20,000 men. To raise this field army he had had to take troops from all of his subordinates – Victor lost most of his cavalry and a regiment of infantry. Soult also left a power vacuum behind him by failing to make any one of his subordinates his deputy during his absence. This may have been a result of the ever-present rivalry between Napoleon’s marshals, for Soult would have had to give this role to Victor, as a fellow marshal. Napoleon certainly believed this rivalry was the main reason why no overall commander was left behind in Andalusia.
The British and Spanish at Cadiz soon discovered that Victor’s force had been reduced, and that Soult was heading into Estremadura. The Spanish Regency suggesting taking advantage of this to launch an attack on the French lines. General Graham, then commanding the British troops in Cadiz, agreed to take part in this attack. The allies decided to ship their field army down the coast to one of the smaller ports still in British or Spanish hands, then advance along the coast to threaten the rear of Victor’s lines. It was hoped that he would respond by pulling a large part of his corps out of the lines around Cadiz and taking them south to deal with this threat. This in turn would allow the troops still in Cadiz to attack the depleted French lines. It was hoped that these combined attacks would force the French to at least temporarily abandon the siege.
The allied army would be made up of three components, two of them Spanish and one Anglo-Portuguese. The main Spanish contribution was to be 8,000 regular troops from the garrison of Cadiz, under the command of General Manuel La Peña, a commander with a terrible track record. At the battle of Tudela (23 November 1808), while in command of two of the five Spanish divisions involved, he had watched from a distance of only three miles while the right wing of the Spanish army suffered a heavy defeat. He would repeat this performance at Barrosa, although with less disastrous results.
The second Spanish contingent was made up of 1,600 irregular troops under the command of General Beguines. These had been operating in the Sierra de Ronda (inland from Marbella), but joined the Allied expedition after it landed in southern Andalusia.
The Anglo-Portuguese force was made up of 5,000 British and Portuguese troops under the command of General Thomas Graham. He had been given the authority to refuse to take part in any expedition in which he was not the supreme commander, but on this occasion he was willing to serve under La Peña. Graham was a remarkable figure, with a career quite unlike that of any other British general of the Napoleonic Wars. At the start of the French Revolution he was a 44 year old Member of Parliament, but by chance he happened to be in the south of France with his seriously ill wife. After her death he narrowly escaped from the chaos of the revolution. On his return to Britain he had raised a new regiment, the 90th Regiment of Foot (Perthshire Volunteers), and had then gone to the Mediterranean as a volunteer aide-de-camp. He had eventually gained a regular commission in the army, and had served as one of Sir John Moore’s aide-de-camps during the Corunna campaign, and in 1810 had been rewarded with command of the British troops at Cadiz.
Despite having lost troops to Soult, Victor still had 15,000 men left in his I Corps. He also had 1,000 artillerymen, 800 engineers and sappers and 1,600 marines present in the siege lines. Of those 15,000 men Victor left 2,000 in the siege lines, while 3,100 were at Medina Sidonia. Victor would fight at Barrossa with only 10,000 men, split into the divisions of Villate, Leval and Ruffin.
The two contingents sailed separately. The British left Cadiz on 21 February, heading for Tarifa. Heavy winds forced them past that port, and they landed at Algesiras, in Gibraltar Bay, before marching back along the coast to Tarifa. The Spanish sailed on 24 February and were all ashore at Tarifa by 27 February. This put them just over 40 miles behind the French lines, and with a choice of two routes back towards Cadiz. One led along the coast, through Vejer de la Frontera and Conil and on to the southern tip of the Isle de Leon. This route had the advantage that it would allow La Peña to establish contact with the garrison of Cadiz, but would also allow Victor to fight close to his own lines, reducing the amount of time that the siege works would be vulnerable. The other led inland to Medina Sidona, and would have placed the British and Spanish directly behind Victor’s headquarters. Victor would have been forced to come out his lines to deal with this direct threat to his position.
La Peña originally intended to take the inland road, and the allied column got as far as Casas Viegas, two thirds of the way from Tarifa to Medina Sidonia. There the leading Spanish troops discovered and defeated two companies of French troops. From his prisoners La Peña discovered that Medina Sidona was garrisoned by 3,000 French troops. This should have good news – the whole point of the expedition was to force a battle, and Victor would have been forced to come to the assistance of these troops if they had been attacked, but La Peña did not see it that way, and on the morning of 3 March the allied army abandoned its position at Casas Viegas and returned to the coast road.
This move certainly confused Victor, who began to receive reports placing the allies on both roads. At the same time it was clear that the garrison of Cadiz was preparing to make its move. On the night of 2-3 March General Zayas threw a bridge of boats across the southern end of the Rio de Santi Petri (the strip of water that separated the Isla de Leon from the Spanish mainland), and created a strong bridgehead at the tip of the Bermeja peninsula (between the Atlantic and the Almanza Creek), protected by the heavy guns in the castle of Santi Petri. Victor responded by sending six companies of voltigeurs to storm the bridgehead on the following night. Zayas managed to save the boat bridge, but lost his bridgehead on the mainland.
Despite believing himself to be facing 26,000 men, Victor decided to set a trap for the allies. It was clear that La Peña was intending to advance along the coast, past the village of La Barrosa and onto the Bermeja peninsula, in order to make contact with the garrison of Cadiz. This would leave the British and Spanish troops dangerously stretched out along the single narrow coastal road. Victor decided to post Villatte’s division on Bermeja peninsula, with orders to delay the allied advance. Leval and Ruffin were posted at Chiclana, three miles inland. Once the allies were engaged with Villatte’s division, Leval and Ruffin would attack them from the flank
The Battle (see also main article)
On the morning of 5 March the allies marched right into Victor’s trap. After a night march they reached the beach just south of the village of La Barrosa, and the hill of Cerro del Puerco. Soon after dawn the allied cavalry reached the top of the Cerro del Puerco, from where they could see Villatte’s division blocking the road to Cadiz. La Peña decided to attack at once to clear the road, and sent Lardizabal’s division to make the attack. Villatte and Lardizabal had similar numbers of men, and this first Spanish attack failed. La Peña then sent in reinforcements, while Zayas attacked Villatte in the rear from the Isla de Leon. Sensibly Villatte retreated east across the Almanza Creek.
The allies were now in a reasonably strong position at the southern tip of the French lines, with the Spanish on the Bermeja peninsula and Graham at Barrosa and on the Cerro, but La Peña decided that his army was too stretched out, and ordered Graham to move north, away from Barrosa. Five Spanish and one British battalion would form a rearguard on the hill. After protesting this order, Graham reluctantly moved off, following a forest track.
When Victor learnt of this movement he decided to spring his trap. Leval was sent to attack Graham in the woods, Ruffin to seize the hill and the French cavalry to block the coastal road south of Barossa. The five Spanish battalions on the hill were under orders to follow Graham off the hill, and so when the French attacked withdrew. The one British battalion remained for a little longer, before being forced to follow.
Victor had not achieved his main aim, of hitting the allies while they were stretched out along the shore, partly because the allied army was much smaller than he had believed and therefore much more compact. However he was now in a good position to trap them on the Bermeja peninsula, and force them to retreat back into Cadiz. He was prevented from achieving this by Graham. The moment he discovered what was happening, Graham decided to turn back and launch a counterattack. A line of skirmishers was sent back immediately, to hold the French off for long enough for the main force to turn back. Two separate battles developed – one between Leval’s division and Wheatley’s brigade and one between Ruffin’s division and Dilke’s brigade. Both developed in a similar way. The line of skirmishers suffered heavy casualties, but held the French up for long enough for the rest of Graham’s men to form their lines. The French attacked in columns, and were beaten off, eventually retreating back to the east.
The battle of Barrosa was a triumph for the British army. A superior French force was repulsed, and the French had suffered the heavier casualties. Ruffin and Laval lost 244 dead, 1,684 wounded and 134 missing (a total of 2,062 casualties), which Graham lost 201 dead and 1,037 wounded (a total of 1,238 casualties). The French also lost 337 men in the early clash with La Peña’s men, who had suffered similar losses. The French were thrown into a state of some panic – at a council of war on the day after the battle they decided to abandon their lines if the allies made any serious attack on them.
Fortunately for Victor no Allied attack came. La Peña had behaved dreadfully during the main part of the battle on 5 March. For two hours Graham was fighting only two miles from the Spanish position, but instead of coming to his aid La Peña decided that the British had no chance to avoid defeat, and refused to advance to support them, much to the frustration of General Zayas. On the morning of 6 March Graham announced that he could no long serve under La Peña, and the British troops returned to the Isla de Leon. On the evening of 7 March La Peña followed. Despite winning the battle they had been seeking, this argument between the allies meant that Victor was able to resume the siege. In the aftermath all three commanders claimed a victory, even La Peña. By the time the dust settled Graham had been moved from Cadiz to join Wellington in Portugal, after having fallen out with the Spanish Regency, while La Peña had been removed from his command, while the siege of Cadiz would continue for another year, only ending in August 1812 after the French had suffered a much more serious defeat at Salamanca.