Saturday, 26 April 2014

The Campaign in Northern Portugal January - May 1809, Part 1

With the my next scenario, Oporto, fast approaching and to give context to our game next month I thought I would pick up the thread from our game in December, which saw us re-staging the events at the Battle of Corunna.

Battle of Corunna January 16th 1809 - Game AAR

Action at Corunna back in December last year
The following is taken from Volume II of Sir Charles Oman's History of the Peninsular War

On November 28th 1808, Sir John Moore, in answer to a question from Lord Castlereagh, wrote the following conclusions as to the practicability of defending Portugal.

Sir John Moore
"I can say generally that the frontier of Portugal is not defensible against a superior force. It is an open frontier, all equally rugged, but all equally to be penetrated. If the French succeed in Spain it will be vain to attempt to resist them in Portugal. The Portuguese are without a military force..... no dependence can be placed on any aid that they can give. The British must in that event, I conceive, immediately take steps to evacuate the country. Lisbon is the only port, and therefore the only place from whence the army, with its stores can embark... We might check the progress of the enemy while the stores are embarking and arrangements are being made for taking off the army. Beyond this the defence of Lisbon or Portugal should not be thought of". 

Four months later, on March 7th, 1809, Sir Arthur Wellesley answered the same question, put to him by the same minister, in very different terms.

Sir Arthur Wellesley
"I have always been of the opinion that Portugal might be defended, whatever might be the result of the contest in Spain, and that in the meantime measures adopted for the defence of Portugal would be highly useful to the Spaniards in their contest with the French. My notion was that the Portuguese military establishment ought to be revived, and that in addition to those troops His Majesty ought to employ about 20,000 British troops, including 4,000 cavalry. My opinion was that, even if Spain should have been conquered, the French would not be able to overrun Portugal with a smaller force than 100,000 men. As long as the contest may continue in Spain, this force (20,000 British troops), if it could be placed in a state of activity, would be highly useful to the Spaniards, and might eventually decide the contest".

As a caveat to the contradicting opinion offered by Sir Arthur who held Sir John as a military commander in very high regard, it is only fair to quote Sir Arthur's reasoning for his difference in opinion.

"I have as much respect as any man can have for the opinion and judgement of Sir John Moore, and I should mistrust my own (if opposed to his)in a case where he had an opportunity of knowing and considering. But he positively knew nothing of Portugal *(Rather like Napoleon), and could know nothing of its existing state."
*My comment

These two opinions expressed to the British government by two senior military minds help to explain the shift in opinion of the British government in their reaction to Sir John Moore's army being forced to evacuate from Corunna, and, given the vote of confidence in Wellesley to return to Portugal, why he so vigorously pursued the expulsion of the French from Oporto.

Events between Corunna and Oporto

Marshal Soult Commander 2nd Corps 
The Battle of Corunna was fought on the 16th January and Soult received such a surprise from a British army that he thought was demoralised, that he was content to let them re-embark in relative peace, save for placing a few artillery batteries to fire into the roadstead at the British transports.

On the 19th of January the Governor of Corunna asked for terms and the town opened its gates to the French army. Further round the coast was the equally strong harbour town of Ferrol containing a large amount of British supplies. It was well garrisoned with soldiers from the Marquis de la Romana's army together with sailors from a hulked naval squadron left over from the 1805 Trafalgar campaign, manning the guns of the fort. On the 25th of January the Governor of Ferrol, Admiral Melgarejo, surprised the French commander when, on being summoned, he opened his gates to the French troops. In gratitude for his handing over the ships and stores undamaged he was recommended for service under King Joseph.

With his rear cleared of all possible trouble, or so he thought, Marshal Soult could now take stock of the situation and see how he could carry out the Emperor's last set of orders. The winter campaign that his corps had just carried out had, if anything, ruined it more than the British for it was trying to exist in a mountainous region that three armies, British, French and Spanish, had marched over for a month. The following figures are quoted from Oman

15th January Returns
Infantry             35559
Cavalry               7368
Artillery               1468
Total                 44395

Less Detached   8000
         Sick           10000
Available            26395

Again it was the horses that really suffered and 3,000 men were without mounts. Unlike in Europe where an army could hope to regain strength as these detachments found their way back to the main force, many men were lost to marauding guerrillas and to garrison commanders unwilling to lose the services of these men in their own defence.

Useful links on orders of battle
French II Corps 15th January 1809
French Army in Spain 1st February 1809
La Romana's Army December 1808

Marshal Ney VI Corps Commander
Until Marshal Ney with 6th Corps could come up from Lugo to take over the garrison duties for Corunna and Ferrol, Soult was reluctant to move south, but he wisely used the delay to build up his transport and supplies in preparation for the move into Portugal.

On the 8th of February the 2nd Corps set off on it's invasion of Portugal, following the advance guard of Franceschi's and Lahoussaye's cavalry together with Heudelet's infantry. Good news greeted the advance as Franceschi was able to report that he had been able to overawe the fortresses of Vigo and Tuy and capture them for no loss as their commanders had surrendered on the first summons.

Map to illustrate Soult's advance into Portugal and the key towns en-route
There was thus no force to bar Soult's way into Portugal across the River Minho, other than the militia garrison of Valenza which covered the main road, and the ferry point. He now decided to carry out an assault crossing close to the river mouth and outflank this little fortress. The combination of bad weather and inexperience caused this exercise to be a complete failure, and those French troops that made it to the opposite river bank were easily rounded up and made prisoners by the Portuguese militia.

An idea of how the march from Tuy to Rivadavia
must have been like for Soult's army
Soult now decided to march east along the Minho into the mountains and towards the lowest bridging point at Orense. This proved to be a difficult march over terrible roads and tracks under constant harassment from guerrilla attacks and sniping. Leaving his sick under guard at Tuy, he began the march on the 17th February, (one week after he should have been in Lisbon, according to the Emperor!!) and made acquaintance with the Galician insurrection. Heeding La Romana's call to arms, local leaders and priests called out all their able bodied men and took to the hills, destroying bridges and ferries, blocking roads and attacking messengers. The French force retaliated by taking and sacking the sizable town of Rivadavia on the 18th. On reaching this town Soult took stock and decided to he could no longer protect his heavy guns and transport and so Merle was ordered to convoy them back to Tuy.

From Rivadavia the flood plain opened out towards Orense, thus relieving the French from much of the previous harassment. At Barbantes, Soult was able to pass some of his troops over the Minho using an imperfectly scuttled ferry (Wellesley would return the compliment of this idea at Oporto), so that he was able to take the town of Orense from both sides, the town falling on the 20th February. Soult then called a weeks halt to the march to allow his force to regroup and forage for much needed supplies.

Pedro Caro, Marquis of la Romana
Before setting out on the 4th of March, Soult received a plea from Ney to turn back and help pacify Galicia as he felt his 16,000 men were insufficient to control the area. Soult, however, pleaded the Emperor's orders and recommenced his march. On reaching Allariz, instead of taking the road westward towards the coast he took the more mountainous route to the south east and on towards Monterey. The reason he chose the more difficult route was that his scouts had discovered Romana's army behind the Sierra Cabrera and the route westward would have exposed his communications to that force. Romana pulled back just in time to avoid being caught but lost his rearguard in the withdrawal and Soult halted at Monterey whilst he scouted the road to Chaves.

As soon as the French began to advance Portuguese General Silveira decided to evacuate the dilapidated fortress of Chaves, but local troops mutinied and vowed to defend their homes. This they did by firing off all their ammunition at no particular target and when summoned to surrender by Soult, they complied having no power to do otherwise.

From Chaves, Soult decided to risk heading back towards the coast, moving into the coastal plain around Braga and thus undoing the defences behind the River Minho that had caused him so much of a problem and reopening his communication to his garrisons on the Spanish border in Galicia. Unknown to Soult, the Portuguese commander in the area General Freire was only too willing to evacuate this zone but the mutinous rabble he commanded were preventing him.

Soult's army was forced to fight all the way to Braga only to find the high ground straddling the road into the town occupied by 25,000 men. Soult waited three days to bring up the bulk of his army to deal with this threat. The wait proved too long for General Freire who tried to flee the army but was caught and summarily executed. His successor Baron Eben took command by acclamation and promptly threw up extra field entrenchments.

When Soult finally attacked, the result was never in doubt. Once the Portuguese infantry was pushed out of its defences Soult unleashed his cavalry and inflicted over 5,000 casualties whilst suffering only 200 to his force. But as the French were congratulating themselves with their victory, news came that guerrillas had cut off communications to the north and to Chaves, and the recently defeated levies were taking up blocking positions on the road to Oporto.

After a short halt to reorganise his forces in Braga, the French advanced to and crossed over the River Ave, brushing aside the defences at little cost to themselves, so that by the 27th March they were in front of the defences of Oporto.

The defences encircled the city for about seven miles. Twelve redoubts crowned the hill tops with plenty of artillery. Ditches and fortified buildings also formed part of the defences. To hold the line the Bishop of Oporto, who was in nominal command, had about 7,000 regulars and militia backed up by about 20,000 Ordenanza and levies. These last were in a permanent state of mutiny and were holding drum head courts martial for any of those considered by the mob to be traitors.

Marshal Soult summoned the city to surrender and this was refused, so there was nothing for it but to storm the works. He fixed the assault for early the following day, the 29th of March, but prepared his assault by taking out some of the outlying defences first.

Hoping to profit from a dawn attack the French columns were ready early, but a severe thunderstorm drenched both attackers and defenders. When it cleared away, Soult called off the assault for an hour for his men to recuperate and to give the ground time to dry out for the supporting artillery (I wonder if he remembered this decision when he stood by the Emperor in wet sodden fields in 1815 just outside Brussels).
At 7am the signal was given and the attack began.

Unlike the all out attack at Braga, this time Soult employed a little finesse by having flanking columns move in to draw in the Portuguese reserves and units placed in the centre. Once this was observed to have had the desired effect, he sent in a French division in the centre supported by cavalry. As the plan evolved the French troops soon found themselves herding a panic stricken mob through the streets towards the River Douro. Instead of surrendering, the mob made for the bridge of boats spanning the river across from the town to Villa Nova. With the crush and panic and possibly some of the pontoons sinking under the weight, those who stopped and tried to turn back were crushed by the onrushing fugitives and many ended up in the water with French skirmishers firing from the banks. Once the French realised the catastrophe they were witnessing they stopped firing. With this and the fighting in the entrenchments, Oman estimated the casualties to have been 8,000 Portuguese for the loss of about 400 French troops.

Marshal Soult oversees his victory at the first Battle of Oporto

Two months behind the schedule set by his Emperor, Soult was now able to lay claim to Portugal's second largest city, and to take stock of the strategic situation. Since the receipt of the message from Ney requesting him to turn back and aid him in his struggle with the Galician Insurgents, Soult had received no news of events elsewhere. On the day that Oporto fell, Silveira had recaptured Chaves with its hospital and garrison of about 2,000 men, whilst above the Minho, his fortresses were under threat, with Vigo surrendering to the Royal Navy. Of Marshal Victor operating on the Portuguese border in Estremadura there was no news. He had therefore no alternative but to hold his position and send out strong expeditions of divisional strength to succour his garrisons and find out hard information.

Heudelet was sent north to reopen the lines of communication, with the garrison at Tuy beset by guerrillas, he defeated Portuguese insurgents on his way to the town. He found out that Vigo had fallen and that Ney was in no position to support operations in Portugal.

Loison's division severely mauled Silveira's levies when they attempted to make a stand at Amaranthe (see the map above), but the Portuguese quickly rallied and held the bridge over the flood swollen River Tamega. With no other way over as all the other bridges were destroyed, Loison was forced to await events and it was not until May 2nd that he was able to force a way across and disperse the levies who fell back behind the River Douro. Content with his progress, Loison held his ground with nearly a quarter of Soult's army.

This dispersion of his forces and very few supplies meant that Soult had no strength to push on southwards to his real goal, Lisbon. Only Mermet's division and the light cavalry were sent forward over the Douro as an advance guard and to observe the remnants of the Bishop's army. Soult was confident that once his rear was secure again and his supply situation improved, the advance could continue.

Next Post - The situation with the British forces and the arrival of Sir Arthur Wellesley.

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