The combat of Salamonde of 17 May 1809 was the only serious fighting during Marshal Soult’s retreat after his defeat at Oporto on 12 May. On the night of 15/16 May the French had managed to force a passage across the Ponte Nova, just east of Salamonde, but it soon became clear on the morning of 16 May that it would take most of the day for the army to cross the newly repaired bridge. Accordingly, Marshal Soult detached one infantry brigade from Merle’s division and two of Franceschi’s cavalry regiments to defend the line of a ravine that cut across the road close to Salamonde.
Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army was close behind, but not close enough to risk attacking the French rearguard on 16 May. At 1.30pm some light dragoons reached the French position, but realised that they were not strong enough to risk an attack, and so settled down to wait for reinforcements.
At 5pm on 17 May the Guard’s brigade reached Salamonde. Wellesley decided to risk an attack on the French position with the forces already at his disposal. These included three companies of light infantry and two three-pounder cannons. Wellesley began by using those two cannons to bombard the French centre. At the same time the light infantry were sent to attack the French left flank in the cliffs south of the road.
Once the light infantry were engaged with the French left, Wellesley ended his two-cannon bombardment, and attacked with the Guards battalions. The French line broke and fled, with the British in close pursuit. The rout turned into a disaster at the Nova Ponte. The rebuilt bridge lacked balustrades, and as the French attempted to cross it, in the dark and in disorder, the British brought up their two cannons and began to bombard the rear of the French force. The effects of their bombardment were hidden in the dark, but the next morning the British realised that hundreds of French soldiers had plunged to their deaths in the gorge below the bridge.
Despite their easy victory over the French rearguard, the British were unable to catch Soult’s main force. On the same day as the combat at Salamonde, Soult’s men had forced their way across the Misarella River, and at the end of the day they reached the border town of Montalegre. Wellesley would halt his pursuit at the Misarella, and prepare to move back to central Portugal.
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