The fighting at Lugo on 7 January 1809 was the closest that the British and French came to fighting a full scale battle during Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna over the winter of 1808-1809.
By 6 January Moore’s army was concentrated around Lugo, fifty miles inland from Corunna. During the retreat the army had become very scattered and discipline had begun to break down, and so Moore had decided to rest for a few days. His main aim was to bring his army back together, and give it time to rest, but it is also possible that he had decided make a stand. A final factor in the decision to rest at Lugo was that Moore had only recently decided which port he was heading for. The alternatives were Vigo, on the west coast, or Corunna and Ferrol to the north west. He had decided in favour of Corunna at Herrerias (near to Villafranca). This meant that the advance guard heading for Vigo needed to change direction, and make for Lugo, but Moore’s orders did not reach them promptly, and one division spent most of 5 January marching and countermarching through the mountains before finally reaching Lugo.
The British had a strong position at Lugo. Their flanks were protected by the river Minho to the right and by inaccessible hills to the left, while their front line was protected by a line of low stone walls. Moore’s army also turned out to be rather larger than he had believed – partly because 1,800 fresh troops were waiting at Lugo, and partly because a large number of stragglers rejoined their units when they learnt that a battle was likely. In all the British had around 19,000 men at Lugo.
Marshal Soult reached Lugo on 6 January, but his army had also been stretched out during the long march through the mountains, so only half of it was with him on that day. Even after the other half arrived on 7 January, the French were probably outnumbered by the British. At full strength Soult’s army would have contained 20,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, but by the time it reached Lugo he is reported to have had 13,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, a total of 17,000 men.
At first Soult did not know whether he was facing Moore’s entire army, or just Paget’s rearguard. On 7 January he made a series of probing attacks, starting with an artillery bombardment of the British centre. This was soon silenced by fire from fifteen British guns, several times more than Paget had deployed in the rearguard actions at Cacabellos and Constantino. He then launched a feint against the British right, which was seen off by the Brigade of Guards.
The most serious fighting came on the left, where the 2nd Léger and 36th Line regiments of Merle’s division launched an attack which was beaten back by Leith’s brigade.
This ended the fighting at Lugo. On 8 January Soult decided to wait for reinforcements to arrive. On the British side Moore had prepared his men for a battle, but as the day wore on it became increasingly clear that the French were not going to attack. Moore dismissed any suggestion that he should launch an attack. He had every reason to believe that Soult’s army was at least as large as his, and the French were in just as strong a defensive position as the British. A costly victory would have been as disastrous as a defeat, for there was a second French army under Marshal Ney close behind.
Accordingly, at midnight on 8-9 January the British slipped out of their lines, and resumed the retreat to Corunna. Moore had hoped that the rest at Lugo was restore the discipline of his men, but he was sadly mistaken, and the army once again began to dissolve into a disorganized mob, that would only come back together as an army at Corunna. Fortunately for Moore, this did not apply to Paget’s rearguard, which retained its discipline all the way to the coast. The battle that so many of Moore’s men wanted finally came at Corunna, on 16 January 1809.