The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1810 Fort Concepción, River Coa, Almeida, Buçaco, Lines of Torres Vedras

Fort Concepción

This lonely 17th century Spanish fort was built on the Portuguese border to guard the plains of Arganan

From February 1810 Wellington's Light Division used this fort as a base for screening operations against the French under Marshal Michel Ney who were investing Cuidad Rodrigo. By June Wellington appreciated that it would not provide a significant obstacle so it was prepared for demolition by Captain John Burgoyne of the Royal Engineers. The orders were to destroy it only when the French approached in strength.

 

On 11th July the screen force engaged French infantry near Villar de Puerco village and lost 20 men including the Commanding Officer of the14th Light Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel Talbot. His body was retrieved by Captain Brotherton and buried on the glacis of the fort. On 21st July the French pushed forward and an officer was sent at speed to warn Burgoyne that they were being driven back and had no time to lose. Burgoyne lit the fires to detonate the mines and warned the troops accordingly. Unfortunately Brotherton was on the glacis when the explosions went off and several men and horses were lost as he watched his dead CO’s body being blasted into the air.

 

The French then occupied the fort and Marshal Massena used it for his headquarters whilst besieging Almeida.

The fort remains much as Burgoyne left it

The overall Portuguese border is about 1100 miles long of which Wellington’s main threats covered a 150 mile front with three likely routes for a French advance. The southern route was from Badajoz in Spain via Elvas in Portugal and then directly to Lisbon; the centre route followed the River Tagus and the northern route was through Spanish Ciudad Rodrigo and Portuguese Almeida. Hill was tasked with defending the southern approach with 20,000 British and Portuguese troops; Beresford was in the centre at Abrantes with his Portuguese troops and Wellington was in the north covering over 40 miles of frontier. His headquarters was now at Celerico and he prepared a strong defensive position in his rear on the Buçaco ridge north of Coimbra. The Light Division under Craufurd provided a screen along the River Agueda between the two northern forts operating from and around Fort Concepción.

 

By spring 1810 the French were ready to launch their third invasion of Portugal. Napoleon had reinforced his armies in Spain with 100,000 men, bringing their total to about 325,000, and put Marshal André Massena in command of the French Army of Portugal. He assumed the post in May when Ney, with the French VI Corps, had been attacking Craufurd’s division along the frontier since February and investing Ciudad Rodrigo from April.

River Coa 24th July

After a gallant defence the Spanish fortress fell on 9th July and Massena's next objective was the Portuguese fortress across the border at Almeida. Ney now advanced with 24,000 men to deal with the Light Division. As Craufurd withdrew on 24th July, and after destroying Fort Concepción, Ney caught the division on the wrong side of the River Coa where he had decided to fight a rearguard action. Craufurd’s position was on the glacis of the fortress but two miles from the only bridge over the Coa. Unfortunately the odds were 6 to 1 against him; the bridge was narrow and the river flowing too fast to ford. As he withdrew his cavalry, two Portuguese battalions and his battery, Ross’ Troop RHA, an ammunition wagon overturned on the road near the bridge. The fighting became extremely fierce and control was almost lost. A strong defence was made at the bridge and fighting continued until about 1600 hours when a strong downpour ended it. The Light Division then withdrew to Celerico.

Probable bend where the wagon overturned on the old track

The bridge over the River Coa

River and rugged countryside

Almeida 15th August

Massena next invested Almeida with two corps and preparatory work for the assault began on 15th August. Colonel William Cox was in command with 3,500 Portuguese troops and 100 guns. Cox complained that the force was inadequate but it was well stocked, the forts eventual loss was most likely and reinforcements would have weakened defences elsewhere. The French took until 23rd August to get their trenches ready for the assault finding the ground was granite covered with a thin topsoil. The bombardment opened and the garrison responded.

 

At dusk the garrison started to replenish their gunners' magazines on the ramparts from the main powder store. One of the barrels leaked and a trail of gunpowder ran back into the main magazine. An incoming French shell exploded in the courtyard and ignited the powder trail. It caused the biggest explosion in the Peninsula since a double explosion in Corunna of January '09 when 4,000 barrels of powder went up. This time 150,000 lbs of gunpowder and more than a million cartridges exploded. This disaster resulted in 1,100 military and civilian deaths, countless injuries and widespread significant damage. The walls were breached, the town virtually destroyed and the ruins caught fire. Both attackers and defenders were so stunned that hostilities paused until Cox, reacting well, mustered as many troops as possible to put gunfire down on the French and conceal their vulnerability. Fire was maintained throughout the night but dawn revealed the weakness of the defence and surrender was inevitable. Massena called for this at 0900 hours that morning after inspecting the walls and standing down his own gunners. Negotiations followed, French patience ran out, their bombardment was resumed and the garrison surrendered late on 27th August.

Portas de São Francisco, Almeida

Almeida fortifications

The accidently demolished castle - with modern walkway

The Governor's house

The barracks

Military headquarters

City walls

Buçaco 27th September

The French advance into Portugal continued on 15th September and, much to Wellington's satisfaction, they advanced into the area he was defending and took the road to the Buçaco Ridge where he prepared for battle.

 

Wellington established his headquarters at the Buçaco Convent to command a position on the bare 10 miles north-south ridge which ran down to the Mondego River. The ridge rises to about 1,500 feet and the sides are steep. The crest is 400 yards wide with a track running almost the length of it about 200 yards down on the west side. This was widened and straightened by Wellington's engineers and some local labour. They also broke up the approach road which the French would be using.

Buçaco Ridge - it is now heavily wooded but its steepness can be appreciated

Wellington had 52,000 troops but only about 34,000 were engaged. They were deployed along the ridge and ordered to stay out of the enemy’s sight west of the ridge until they had to move up to deal with an attack. They were also ordered not to light fires, show no lights and to sleep in battle order with their weapons to hand. Wellington joined his troops on the ridge that night.

 

The Light Division under Craufurd was forward at Sula in the skirmishing role and Wellington established an observation post on the heights above Moura overlooking the surrounding countryside.

Craufurd's command post

Wellington's OP - not so good today

The convent enclosure in Buçaco, where Wellington had his headquarters, formed an integral part of the defence and was prepared with staging, loopholes and demolitions. A battery of guns was positioned there and 76 guns were distributed along the ridge.

Convent wall used for defence

Map by Gregory Fremont - Barnes

Loopholes made by the defenders

It was surprising that Masséna attempted a frontal attack and it is generally put down as a result of inadequate reconnaissance. Wellington’s strength was underestimated by about 20,000 and the French commanders deduced that the position was held by a rearguard which was being reinforced. Masséna was advised to attack immediately but conducted a cursory appraisal in the afternoon and issued his orders that evening for an attack at first light.

 

Ney’s Corps would attack on the right whilst General Jean Reynier’s Corps would attack from St Antonio de Cantaro, both having Buçaco as their objective. The attacks were not simultaneous, they were not mutually supporting and they were two miles apart. This plan left the French cavalry in reserve and reduced the effectiveness of the artillery due to the angle of elevation and the distances involved.

 

The first attack came as anticipated through the misty dawn at a dip in the ridge where the road crossed it. Massed French light infantry pushed back the light companies covering the defence as their battalions advanced in column, 40 men wide and 40-60 men deep. These were all decimated by the controlled fire of the British lines and grapeshot from flanking artillery. The next attack penetrated the defenders’ line before a gallant charge by the 88th Connaught Rangers drove them off. Altogether 11 French battalions were driven off.

 

A third French attack took place just north of the road where fierce fighting again took place until they were repulsed by 3rd Division, led by Lieutenant General Picton wearing his night-cap.

Down in San Antonio General Maximilien Foy led his division in an attack to the right of the pass with seven battalions where they were faced by a mainly Portuguese force. The British 5th Division was moved left, as planned, to support them now that the enemy’s main line of attack was clear. Heavy fighting continued but by 0830 hours five British and seven Portuguese battalions had driven off 23 out of 27 French battalions.

Wellington now moved to the north end of the ridge where Ney had launched his earlier attack. The French were unaware of the action further south nor that Craufurd was ahead of them on the reverse slope with the Light Division. They met at 25 paces and Craufurd let them advance to 10 paces when he gave the order to “avenge John Moore”. One main volley, several others as the battalions manoeuvred, and a charge saw off the attackers. A renewed French attack at 0900 hours suffered on their approach route as heavy artillery shrapnel fire destroyed whole companies at a time. After a running fight with the Caçadores, the Portuguese light infantry, the French came up against Brigadier General Dennis Pack’s Portuguese brigade which held them despite several attacks. After further heavy losses Ney saw that the attack had failed and ordered his Corps’ withdrawal.

 

A cease fire followed to enable the wounded to be recovered. Massena had lost about 4,500 men and could now see Wellington being cheered as he rode along the ridge.

Massena's command post

Buçaco monument

Museum

Wellington spent the night in the convent - now part of a hotel

Lines of Torres Vedras

The Allied forces now withdrew into the Lines of Torres Vedras ready for the next phase of the war. These Lines formed the substantial backbone of Wellington's plan to defend Portugal which he formulated when he returned to Portugal in April 1809. Work started after the battle of Talavera under his chief engineer, Lieutenant Colonel Richard Fletcher. Together with the frontier fortresses and a scorched earth policy, enacted under Portuguese law, defence was provided in depth.

 

The Lines focused on protecting the capital, Lisbon, and were built as a series of mutually supporting fortifications defending vulnerable points rather than as a continuous wall. Careful use of ground enabled troops to be concentrated against attackers with support from the fortifications. Primarily these comprised two rows of fortifications stretching across Portugal along the lines of two ridges. The first ran for 29 miles from the west coast at River Zizandre, via Torres Vedras and Monte Agraço to Alhandra on the River Tagus. The second line was five miles south and ran for 22 miles almost parallel to the first through Cabeço de Montachique to the Tagus, about 20 miles north of Lisbon. A third line was built west of Lisbon around the port of São Julião, which was to be used for supply, or embarkation should the capital fall and the British forces needed evacuating. On their final completion there were 152 works over 52 miles with 534 guns and requiring 34,125 infantry to man the ramparts. A chain of naval signalling towers enabled a message to be delivered from end to end in seven minutes.

 

Fletcher’s orders from Wellington on 20th October 1809 included 21 key instructions. After this initial document, Wellington authorised Fletcher to draw on the Commissariat for all costs and work started immediately. The overall costs of building the Lines are put at £200,000, probably about £16m at today’s prices. Wellington visited to inspect progress just once in February 1810 and made one adjustment at the eastern end for tactical reasons.

The lie of the Lines from the northeast - the ruins are visible below the skyline but difficult to spot from a distance

Following the battle of Buçaco and the withdrawal to the Lines the French Army of Portugal, under Massena, slowly followed the Allies south. Despite severe refugee problems on the southbound roads, the Portuguese militia with the British and Portuguese artillery occupied the fortifications whilst the rest of the army took their positions behind them. They were ready by 9th October and on 11th October French light cavalry recce troops came up against the Lines. They had been built in secret and Massena was stunned by what he saw. Probing attacks were driven off in short order and Massena’s staff were embarrassed by being unaware of the Lines. He rode forward to take a closer look for himself at the village Cotovios near Arruda until a gunner on Redoubt 120 fired a round shot at him that hit a wall nearby. Massena doffed his hat and retired. His hungry army faced the Lines for a month before sloping off on a foggy night on 15th November leaving straw dummies in their outposts. They withdrew to Santarem and ended the third and last invasion of Portugal by France.

The 11th fortification near Torres Vedras in the west

Signal towers

The central fortification

Wellington's headquarters at Pero Negro

... known as The Base

The position in the east provided interlocking fire with gunboats on the River Tagus

The Lines are remembered with a fine statue of Hercules