The combat of Foz de Arouce of 15 March 1811 was the least successful of Marshal Ney’s rearguard actions during Masséna’s retreat from Portugal in the spring of 1811. After a night march on 14-15 March most of the French army had crossed the Ceira River at Foz de Arouce, and had camped on the heights above the village.
Ney had been ordered to bring all of his troops across the river, and destroy the bridge behind him, but Ney disobeyed this order, and kept three brigades on the southern side of the river (All of Marchand’s division and one brigade from Mermet’s, containing the 25th Léger and the 27th Ligne). This deployment risked disaster, for the Ceira was in flood and the only possible escape route for Ney’s men was across the damaged bridge of Foz de Arouce.
Wellington’s pursuit on 15 March was delayed by a combination of a heavy fog and fires that the French had set in the town of Miranda de Corvo. The 3rd and Light Divisions did not reach the French positions on the Ceira until four in the afternoon, and seeing the French arrayed in some strength decided to camp and wait for the rest of army to catch up with them on the next day.
Wellington himself arrived just before dusk, and decided to attempt to surprise the French. Ney’s men were clearly not expected an attack that late in the day, and were caught by surprise. The Light Division attacked the French right and the 3rd Division their left. The greatest success was achieved by some companies from the 95th Rifles, who managed to reach the centre of Foz de Arouce, and threatened to capture the bridge.
Hearing gunfire in their rear, the French 39th Ligne broke, and attempted to cross the bridge. Their route was blocked by some French cavalry, attempting to re-cross the river to take part in the fight, and the infantry were forced to try and use a ford. The river was too high for this, and a significant number of the French were swept away and drowned. Perhaps even worse for their morale, the regiment’s eagle was lost, swept away by the waters (it was later recovered by the allies and sent to London).
Ney managed to retrieve the situation, charging the 95th Rifles with the third battalion of the 69th Ligne, and forcing them to retreat. With the passage of the bridge secured, the French were able to retreat to the north bank of the river, although they came under artillery fire from both sides as they crossed the bridge!
The British only suffered 71 casualties during the fighting at Foz de Arouce. French losses were much heavier, somewhere between 250 and 400. Only the lateness of the day and the fading light prevented the British from inflicting much heavier casualties on the retreating French.
The combat at Foz de Arouce effectively ended the close pursuit of the French. Wellington let his men rest on the following day, partly to allow a supply convoy to arrive and partly because he was satisfied that Masséna had no choice but to retreat all the way to Spain, for between Foz de Arouce and the border there were no areas where the French army could hope to find enough supplies to remain for any length of time. The French would briefly attempt to hold a position on the Alva River, but without success.