The Situation on Wellesley’s arrival in Portugal
In the winter of 1808-1809 the British government was debating the wisdom of retaining a military presence in Portugal. Sir John Moore, the commander of the army that that had invaded Spain from northern Portugal believed that it was impossible to defend the country. Sir John Cradock, the commander of the British forces that had remained in Portugal agreed, and was in favour of withdrawing completely.
One dissenting voice came from Sir Arthur Wellesley, the victor of Vimiero. He had been forced to return to Britain in the aftermath of the Convention of Cintra to defend his record, but by the end of 1808 had been entirely exonerated, and was being considered as a candidate to replace Cradock. On 7 March 1809 Wellesley stated that he believed that Portugal could be defended by 20,000 British troops supported by the Portuguese army against any French force less than 100,000 strong, and that he did not believe the French would be able to find that many men. By March Lord Castlereagh had decided to send a new army to Portugal, and on 2 April Wellesley was appointed to command it. This was the beginning of an association with the Iberian Peninsular that would continue for the next five years, and eventually see Spain and Portugal freed of French troops and an Allied army invade the south west of France.
The Situation on Wellesley’s arrival in Portugal
In theory Lisbon was threatened by four main French armies. The only army in Portugal was that of Marshal Soult, who had invaded from the north in March, and captured Oporto on 29 March 1809. To the east was Marshal Victor, who having won his victory at Medellin on 28 March 1809 was meant to have captured Badajoz in preparation for an advance into Portugal. Further north was General Lapisse, who was meant to have advanced into Portugal from Salamanca to join up with Soult at Oporto. Finally, further north in Galicia was Marshal Ney, whose initial orders were to suppress the Galician uprising, but who could turn south if he was able to carry out those orders.
Just before Wellesley had left Britain, news had reached him of Soult’s victory at Oporto, along with rumours that Victor had been reinforced by Sebastiani and begun a siege of Badajoz. Wellesley would only discover that these rumours were false when he reached Lisbon on 22 April, and during the sea voyage he had been preparing plans for a defensive campaign around Lisbon or even a move to Cadiz or Gibraltar. The only French troops actually in Portugal were Soult’s 20,000 men around Oporto.
Wellesley had a total of 25,000 British and 16,000 Portuguese troops at his disposal. The reform of the Portuguese army had only just got under way by April 1809, and most of Wellesley’s British troops were inexperienced – only five of his twenty-one battalions had fought the French at Vimiero, for many of the best British units in Portugal had followed Sir John Moore to Corunna, and then been evacuated back to Britain. Some were on their way back, but they would not arrive until June, by which time Oporto had been recaptured.
Wellesley split his army into three columns. The main force, 18,200 strong and under his own command, would attack Soult at Oporto. A smaller force under General Beresford (5,800 strong) was sent further east, to block the French if they attempted to retreat along the Duoro, but only if Soult did not appear in force – Beresford was under orders not to try and stop the entire French army if it attacked him. Finally, the third force was sent east to protect Lisbon against any move by Marshal Victor.
When Wellesley reached Portugal, his predecessor, General Cradock, had already moved the main field army to Leiria, 75 miles north of Lisbon. Wellesley had to spend his first five days in Portugal at Lisbon, but during this period the army began to move to Coimbra, another 37 miles up the coast from Leiria. Wellesley himself finally left Lisbon on 29 April, and reached the army at Coimbra on 2 May. At this point Soult’s 20,000 men were dangerously divided. Small numbers of men were still scattered in garrisons north of Oporto. The French advance guard, 5,000 strong was stretched out between Oporto and the river Vouga, thirty miles to the south. 9,000 men, under General Loison, were at Amarante, where on the morning of 2 May they had finally managed to push a Portuguese force under General Silveira away from the bridge. This disrupted Wellesley’s plans, for he had intended to send Beresford’s column to join with Silveira to block the line of Soult’s retreat. This left around 6,000 men at Oporto.
The campaign began with two British failures. Wellesley had hoped to trap the French troops south of Oporto with an ambitious outflanking manoeuvre. Soult’s advance guard was split in two. At Albergaria Nova, close to the Vouga, was 1,200 cavarly, one regiment of infantry and a light artillery battery, under General Franceschi. Twenty miles to the north, at Grijon, was Mermet’s infantry division, with the one regiment five miles further south at Feira.
Wellesley’s plan relied on surprise. He intended to launch a frontal assault on Franceschi’s men on the morning of 10 May with five of his infantry brigades and his cavalry, while at the same time his remaining two infantry brigades would sail along the coast from Alviero to Ovar, between Albergaria Nova and Feira, from where they would strike inland to block the line of Franceschi’s retreat.
The plan failed for two reasons. The first was simply the difficulty of the night march. Wellesley’ main column did not reach Albergaria Nova as early as planned, and all that resulted was a minor skirmish (combat of Albergaria Nova). The second was a little more complex. Even since he had been in Portugal, Wellesley had been in contact with disaffected French officers, who claimed that they could convince Soult’s army to rebel against Napoleon, who they felt had betrayed the Revolution. One officer in particular, Captain Argenton, had visited the British lines more than once, before returning to Oporto. Unfortunately some of the officers he approached were loyal to Napoleon, and on 8 May Argenton was arrested. When Soult interrogated him, Argenton tried to convince Soult to take part in the rebellion, and told him that Wellesley was on his way. The element of surprise had been lost.
While Wellesley’s main column was skirmishing around Albergaria Nova, Hill’s brigade had successfully landed at Ovar, but once there he had discovered that the rest of the British army was not advancing, and that there was a French infantry battalion at Feira, and so Hill remained at Ovar until Franceschi’s retreating forces passed him.
On the following day Mermet and Franceschi took up a position on a hill above the village of Grijon and prepared to fight a rearguard action. Once Wellesley was sure they were willing to fight, he sent Hill’s division along the coast road to cut them off, and then make flanking attacks on the position at Grijon. Once it was clear that these attacks were making progress, Mermet and Franceschi ordered a retreat, and were able to reach Oporto in safety on the night of 11-12 May.
Soult now believed that he was secure behind the Douro River, and would have several days to organise their retreat while Wellesley prepared to cross the river. Instead, on 12 May the British managed to throw Hill’s brigade over the river just upstream of Oporto, capturing the Bishop’s Seminary (battle of Oporto). The French failed to notice this move in time to prevent it, and when they did finally attempt to throw the British back it was too late. The French attempts to force the British out of the Seminary only left the rest of Oporto unguarded, and the citizens rushed across the river in every boat at their disposal to ferry the British into the city. Caught between the forces in the Seminary to the south east and the forces in the city, Soult was forced to order his army to abandon Oporto as fast as possible and head east towards Valongo and Baltar.
Soult’s army just managed to escape from Oporto, but there was still a real chance that Wellesley and his Portuguese allies would be able to cut it off and destroy it. On the night of 12 May Soult had reached Baltar, and was planning to retreat east across the bridge at Amarante and along the Duoro into Estremadura.
Unknown to Soult, his route east was already blocked. The bridge at Amarante had only been captured by General Loison on 2 May. In the aftermath of this success, Loison had been ordered to move east into the province of Tras-os-Montes, to make sure there were not Portuguese troops within two days of the river. By now Beresford’s flanking column was closing in on the Douro from the south, and it reached Lamego on 10 May. There Beresford met up with the remnants of the force that had defended Amarante for so long, under General Silveira. Beresford decided to cross the Douro and attempt to block Loison’s advance. Silveira was ordered to cross the river at Peso de Regoa on 10 May. Later in the same day Loison attacked the Portuguese beachhead, but was beaten off. He then retreated back to Amarante, with Silveira in close pursuit. On 11 May Loison was forced to fall back onto the west bank of the Tamega, and early on 12 May he chose to retreat north west towards Braga, abandoning the position at Amarante completely.
Soult received the bad news early on 13 May. He was now trapped between Wellesley at Oporto and Beresford at Amarante, and between the Douro to the south and the mountains to the north. His only option was to abandon all of his heavy baggage and artillery, and attempt to slip across a mountain pass into the valley of the Avé. The French took their baggage along the main road to Penafiel, and then destroyed them, before setting out across the mountain road north to Guimaraens in the Avé valley. News of Soult’s retreat had not yet reached the mountains, and so the local Ordenanza failed to take the chance to block his progress, and by the morning of 14 May Soult had reached Guimaraens.
Soult was still not out of the trap. The main road through Guimaraens led across the valley, linking Amarante, which he knew to be in Portuguese hands, with Braga, which he suspected might already be in British hands. Soult decided to head up the Avé valley and then cross the mountains into the Cavado valley, reaching the road upstream of Braga. By the end of 14 May most of Soult’s army had reached Lanhozo, eight miles up the valley from Braga, on the main road east to Chaves.
The Cavado valley runs east from the coast to Braga and Salamonde. Just east of Salamonde it turns towards to the north east, and heads towards the border town of Montalegre. The main road from Braga to Chaves followed the southern side of the river as far as the bend, and then continues to head east across the mountains to Ruivaens and then the Chaves. From Ruivaens a minor road heads north, cutting across the eastern tributaries of the Cavado, amongst them the Misarella River. The valley is wide and gentle until it reaches Salamonde, where it begins to get narrower and more rugged (large stretches of the river have since been dammed, altering the course of many roads). Both roads crossed major bridges - the Ponte Nova just east of Salamonde and the bridge across the Misarella known as the Saltador (“the bouncer”).
Soult was now in a race. The best road led to Chaves and then back across the border on the same route he had used on his original invasion, but it was more than likely that Beresford’s army would reach Chaves ahead of Soult’s. A more realistic target was Ruivaens and the road north to Montalegre.
Beresford began his march north on 14 May, and by midnight on 16 May had reached Chaves, but this was too late for him to reach Ruivaens in time to intercept Soult. Silveira had been sent to block the road at Salamonde and Ruivaens, but although his route was shorter, it was also more rugged, and his army had been in constant motion since early March. He arrived at Ruivaens late on 17 May, after the French had already passed by.
On 15 May Soult sent cavalry down the Cavado valley to see if the British were in Braga. As he had expected, they were, for Wellesley had left Oporto on the previous day, and his cavalry reached Braga early on 15 May. Soult had no choice but to take the mountain road.
By the end of the day his vanguard had passed through Salamonde. That evening they discovered that the Portuguese were defending the Ponte Nova, but although they had removed the roadway, the two main bridge beams were still intact. At midnight on 15/16 May a forlorn hope under Major Dulong charged across those beams, and cleared the way.
Most of the next day was spent repairing the bridge, and then getting 20,000 men across its rickety span. This took so long that Soult was forced to leave a rearguard to defend the narrow valley at Salamonde. At the end of the day Soult reached the junction at Ruivaens, where he chose to take the northern road to Montalegre.
The next morning (17 May) Soult’s vanguard found the bridge over the Misarella (the Saltador) blocked by Portuguese levies. Once again he called on Major Dulong, and once again he was able to force a passage across the Misarella. By the end of the day most of Soult’s army had finally reached Montalegre. On the same day Wellesley’s main force caught up with the French rearguard at Salamonde. The French eventually broke and fled, suffering heavy losses when they attempted to cross the Ponte Nova at speed in the dark and under fire.
Late on 17 May Silveira finally reached Ruivaens. Wellesley decided not to lead most of his army into the mountains – the British infantry halted at Ruivaens, and only Silveira and the 14th Light Dragoons were sent along the road to Montalegre. They arrived in Montalegre in 18 May, only two hours after the last French troops left. After continuing the pursuit for one more day, at the end of 19 May Silveira returned to Montalegre. Soult had finally escaped to the relative safety of Spain.
The retreat from Oporto cost Soult close to 4,000 men. A muster taken on 19 May at Orense found 19,713 men out of the 25,500 who had been involved in the campaign. 1,000 men had been lost before Wellesley arrived, while 800 had been captured when Silveira recaptured Chaves. Of those 4,000, half were lost between Baltar and Orense. Soult had also been forced to abandon all of his artillery and his heavy baggage. His army could be discounted for the next few months.
Wellesley was soon needed in Central Portugal. Marshal Victor was said to be on the move, and Wellesley wanted to act before the French could take the initiative. The resulting campaign would culminated at Talavera on 28 July 1809.
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