Sunday, 27 December 2015

2/45e Regiment de Ligne

The 45e Regiment de Ligne was already a veteran French regiment when it entered Spain for the first time in 1808, with battle honours that included Austerlitz and Friedland and experienced soldiers in its ranks from the 1805/06 and 1807 campaigns in northern Europe.

In January 1808 the regiment contributed a battalion to the 9th Provisional Line Regiment as part of Marshal Moncey's, French Corps d'observation des Cotes de l'Ocean. The corps was tasked with following in the wake of General Dupont's 2nd Corps d'Observation de la Gironde as they entered the Biscay Navarre region of north east Spain, as the former headed towards Vallodolid and Burgos

French Corps d'observation des Cotes de l'Ocean
l January l808
3rd Division: General de division Morlot
lst Brigade: General de brigade Lefebvre
9th Provisional Line Regiment
8th Line Infantry Regiment (l)(6/299)
22nd Line Infantry Regiment (l)(2/ll5)
45th Line Infantry Regiment (l)(6/299)
l05th Line Infantry Regiment (l)(8/556)

The map illustrates the movement of the first of Napoleons troops to enter Spain in January 1808
The progress of Moncey's Corps was covered in my post about the 2/54e Ligne who like the 45e Ligne ended up garrisoning the capital Madrid through the turbulent days before and after Dos de Mayo uprising and Dupont's defeat at Bailen.

The first invasion activities that involved or were associated with the movements of the 45e Ligne can be summarised from the map above:
1. Moncey's Corps are sent in to relieve Dupont's troops in the Navarre and Biscay towns.
2. Joachim Murat arrives in Burgos collecting both Dupont's and Moncey's troops to march on Madrid, arriving in the capital on the 23rd  March.
3. Towards the end of May, Murat became ill and handing over command to General Savary headed back to France to convalesce, not before sending back several reports to the Emperor playing down the level of the national uprising and describing the situation as localised riots. Napoleon issued new orders which focused on maintaining a strong hold on the LOC from Madrid via Burgos back into France with the two corps in and around Madrid providing troops to march on Valencia, with Moncey detaching 6,000 men of  Musnier's 1st Infantry Division and Wathier's Hussar brigade to capture the city;
4. and for the subjugation of Andalusia, Dupont taking Barbou's infantry division and Fresia's cavalry division, marching on Seville and Cadiz.

With the failure to overawe the Spanish and their defeat at Bailen destroying the myth of French invincibility, Napoleon soon realised that the invasion required his personal attention together with a lot more troops

The three battalions of the 45e Ligne found themselves alongside the 54e Ligne as part of General de Brigade Darricau's brigade in the 2nd Division of Marshal Victor's I Corps as part of Napoleon's Grand Armee organised in November 1808 for the second invasion of Spain. The movements of the corps have been covered in the other posts on the four regiments preceding this one and can be picked up in the link above to my post on the 54e Ligne.

French Army in Spain, 15 November 1808 - Source Oman
I Corps: Maréchal Victor

2nd Division: Général de division Lapisse

Brigade: Général de brigade Maison
16th Légère Regiment (3)(47/1,739)
8th Line Regiment (3)(52/1,922)

Brigade: Général de brigade Darricau
45th Line Regiment (3)(52/1,703)
54th Line Regiment (3)(59/2003)

7/1st Foot Artillery
2/8th Foot Artillery
8th Artillery Artisan Company

General de Brigade Augustin  Darricau

One particular period of interest that I haven't really covered in my previous posts in this series was General Lapisse's 2nd Division's time in Salamanca and its battles with Sir Robert Wilson's Loyal Lusitanian Legion which culminated with their fight for the bridge at Alcantara on the 14th of May 1809.

January - March 1809
The base of operation in Leon for the Loyal Lusitanina Legion and Lapisse's 2nd Division
General Lapisse's division spent the early months of 1809 detached from the rest of I Corps on garrison duty in Salamanca and the outlying towns in Leon; and their patrols into the surrounding area around the city brought them into contact with the Anglo Portuguese light infantry unit on raiding trips designed to take the war to French forces and keep them uncertain as to allied strength along the Portuguese/Spanish border and to monitor their activities.

This little war of the outposts went on from January 1809 to the March with the the Legion, operating from its base at Almeida, patrolling into the region of Leon and regularly "bumping" similar patrols from the French division.

This period of time was also one of great peril for the Allied cause in Portugal with the defeat of Spanish armies during Napoleon's invasion, the withdrawal of General Moore's British army from Corunna in early January and the remaining British troops pulled back by General Craddock in and around Lisbon, seemingly in preparation for a British withdrawal.

The allies feared that Lapisse's 2nd Division would spearhead the reoccupation of Lisbon and the aggressive activities of Wilson's Legion of Portuguese volunteers led by British officers, clad in British style uniforms did much to confuse the French as to the strength and capabilities of what seemed was potentially a 12,000 man Anglo Portuguese Corps forcibly asserting its presence on the border with Portugal and the plains of Leon and northern Estremadura.

In fact the Legion barely numbered 300 men supported by Portuguese militia, newly forming and encouraged bands of Spanish guerillas and the 1,400 man Spanish garrison at Cuidad Rodrigo.

Loyal Lusitanian Legion troops in a raiding action against French troops during the early months of 1809, little skirmishes that would have involved the men of the 45e Ligne - Picture by Mark Stacey
During the time of Lapisse's 2nd Divisions detachment, Marshal Victor dealt with the threat to Madrid from Venegas' 11,000 man Vanguard division of Infatado's Army of the Centre at Ucles on the 13th January 1809 and followed this up with his pursuit of and beating of Cuesta's Army of Estremadura at Medellin on the 28th March 1809, both covered in a bit more detail on my post about the 2/96e Ligne.

With the advance of Marshal Soults Corps into Northern Portugal, Victor came under pressure from King Joseph to fulfil his part of the Emperor's plan by supporting the invasion with one of his own along the valley of the River Tagus. Marshall Victor, following the battle of Medellin was not, in his opinion, strong enough to either pursue Cuesta's beaten but reforming army now based at Badajoz or ignore the Spanish threat and move towards Portugal. In addition he was struggling to feed his troops in and around the town of Merida, with few supplies coming to him from Madrid.

In late April 1809 the situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Wellesley and British reinforcements at Lisbon. The new commander reinvigorated the Anglo-Portuguese offensive spirit and Wilson's growing band of Legionaries put more pressure on the French, with more raids and interference of their communications between Salamanca and Merida now supported by General Mackenzie's covering force of 12,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops at Castello Branco in eastern Portugal.

With the new threat in Portugal Marshal Victor was authorised by Joseph to issue orders to Lapisse to bring his division south and reunite it with the rest of I Corps at Merida. This was not as simple as it sounded as it was Wilson's Legion that threatened that plan due to their blocking of the passes over the mountains north of the Tagus.

General Lapisse thus cleverly led his 7,000 man division plus the 1,500 dragoons from Latour Maubourg's division, towards Cuidad Rodrigo in what looked like a threat to the Spanish garrison when he arrived before the city issuing a summons for its surrender on the 6th April. As expected the summons received a brusque response from the garrison well aware that Lapisse had no siege artillery with him. However the move had achieved its object by getting the attention of Wilson and causing the Legion to muster close to the city to aid in its defence.

The French division moved away to the south by night and hurriedly marched on the Tagus crossing at Alcantara, and catching Wilson's men by surprise and brushing aside the Spanish levies encountered along the way.

The Roman bridge at Alcantara was taken by assault by Lapise's men against a weak barricade manned by Spanish militia, they then went on into the town after the walls were subjected to a cannonade and according to Lieuntenant Colonel Mayne of the 1st LLL, and Captain Lillie of the Legions cavalry regiment in pursuit of the French division,

"the revenge and cruelty of the enemy were exercised in the most barbarous manner on the unfortunate and helpless inhabitants who had been found in the town, or taken in endeavouring to make their escape. They were butchered in the most brutal manner in every direction and it may be doubted whether the annals of history describe so inhuman a spectacle as that unfortunate place presented on its evacuation by its treacherous and cruel enemy, who performed acts of cruelty and barbarity there that would disgrace the most savage and uncivilised of mankind." 

April 1809 - Lapisse leads the 2nd Division to Merida, sacking Alcantara on the way
On the morning of the 13th April, the French 16th Legere, 8th, 45th and 54th Ligne regiments were observed leaving the town with all the loot they could carry via the road to Caceres by the men of the Legion who pressed on the outskirts of Alcantara to determine if the French would contest its occupation and make a stand.

On entering the town the two British officers noted the scenes that greeted them,

"The scenes witnessed ........ exceeds all description; the houses in many parts of this unfortunate place were in flames, and the passage of the streets actually obstructed by mangled bodies of all description lying in heaps; in other places, piles of furniture, and many valuable articles that could not be brought away had been erected in front of houses of some of the principal inhabitants, and been set fire to, and the mutilated bodies of the unfortunate owners covered with wounds, were thrown on the piles, and there found burning in the most shocking manner....."

General Lapisse and his men continued their march south rendezvousing with Victor at Merida on the 19th April.

May 1809- Victor takes 2nd Division to retake the bridge at Alcantara
As Lapisse's men were leaving a trail of murder and destruction in their wake, the Anglo-Portuguese command was alive with orders to support the new offensively minded approach to dealing with the French in or threatening to enter Portugal.

As Sir Arthur Wellesley set off north from Lisbon to deal with Soult's army paralysed in Oporto due to militia and guerrilla attacks on his rear areas, orders were issued for General Mackenzie to defend and delay any moves by Marshal Victor's corps whilst Soult was being dealt with.

In accordance with his orders he was to support the deployment of the 1st Battalion Loyal Lusitanian Legion (750 men) now under the command of Colonel Mayne after Sir Robert Wilson was ordered to join Welesley's staff, bringing with him his much needed local knowledge; together with a troop (50 men) of the 11th Portuguese cavalry, the legion's artillery of four 4 pounder guns and two 5.5 inch howitzers and 1,200 men of the Portuguese Idanha Militia Regiment. Their mission was to set up their force to best defend and hold the bridge at Alcantara, considered a vital crossing point should Victor decide to advance into Portugal.

The build up of this force was soon noticed by Victor as General Lapisse reported back on his men's contacts with the green coated troops they had fought in Leon, now operating in the countryside between Alcantara and Merida. The Marshal was starting to feel the pressure of having a resurgent Spanish army under Cuesta to his west at Badajoz and what looked like an Anglo Portuguese corps threatening him from the north, not to mention his concern to be seen by the Emperor to be actively supporting operations against Portugal.

The previous months operations by the Legion had also served to encourage large scale resistance from the guerrilla bands in Leon who had now severed all contact to Marshals Ney and Soult further north.

Thus, feeling sure that Alcantara could not be left in allied control, on the 11th May Victor led Lapisse's 2nd Division, together with the 5th and 12th Dragoons and a dozen artillery pieces (about 10,000 men) towards the town leaving the balance of his corps to observe and contain the Spanish at Badajoz.

Arriving at about 08.00 on the 14th May, skirmishing with the Legion along the way, the French entered the town as the legionaries fell back through it to the prepared defences on the bridge itself. As the bridge came into view of the French they found Colonel Mayne's force dug in on the opposite bank with his light guns deployed determined to dispute the crossing.

The Grenadier Companies of the 8th, 45th and 54th charge into the withering fire on the Alcantara bridge - 14th May 1809, Picture by Mark Stacey
Victor and Lapisse soon realised that, with no opportunity to turn the position and with a determined enemy set on holding one end of the bridge, storming it would be the only solution. At 09.00 a nine hour battle for possession of the bridge commenced with the assault columns of the grenadiers from the 8th, 45th and 54th Ligne formed up and under the cover of the massed French artillery and infantry skirmish fire from their side of the river. What followed was a series of assaults with the French columns making multiple attempts to force their way across the bridge in the the teeth of withering fire from the defenders.

At about noon the Idanha Militia Regiment had had enough and the men deserted the trenches leaving Mayne and his men little option but to prepare to fire an explosive charge laid under one of the main spans. This was done at about 13.00 and the charge exploded but Roman engineering showed its quality as the charge only succeeded in blowing out half of the span leaving a narrow stretch still usable by infantry and cavalry.

The last of the Legion's 4 pounder guns were fired at 15.00 after which they were spiked. At about 17.00 and with ammunition running low and French pressure continuing, a rear guard was appointed and the defenders began to pull back, with the battle petering out by 18.00 and with French troops on the opposite bank, with cavalry patrols seeking out the Legion rear guard along the road into Portugal at Segura.

The casualties reported by the French in the nine hour fight are unknown but Mayne and his officers estimated their losses at around 1,400 men. The Allied force reported casualties for the Legion to be 4 officers and 103 other ranks killed, 4 officers and 143 wounded and 2 subalterns and 15 other ranks missing; and for the militia, 3 officers and 40 other ranks killed, 1 officer and 17 other ranks wounded and 2 subalterns and 1,150 other ranks missing.

With the bridge now firmly in his hands, Victor could at least feel secure that the road to Madrid was under his control. This however did not relieve his uncertainty as to his overall position with Cuesta's army at Badajoz growing by the day as more recruits joined the colours and with a seemingly large Anglo Portuguese force facing him along the road into Portugal at Castello Branco.

In the days following the battle Victor received news of Soult's defeat at Oporto and on the 17th May he evacuated Alcantara, falling back to Merida and pursued by Cuesta and eventually Wellesley, began the march back into Spain that would culminate in his army's arrival at Talavera further along the River Tagus in July.

Thus the battle honours credited to the 45e Regiment de Ligne for 1809 would include
1805: Austerlitz
1806: Crewitz and Lubeck
1807: Ostrelenka and Friedland
1808; Espinosa-de-los-Monteros
1809: Alcantara, Aspern-Essling, Wagram, Talavera-de-la-Reina and Almonacid

My 2/45e Ligne are composed of figures from AB with the battalion fanion from GMB Flags.

Other sources used in this post:
Raid, Oldest Allies, Alcantara 1809, Osprey - Rene Chartrand, Mark Stacey and Johnny Shumate


  1. Thanks Jonathan for a great read and nice painting .
    Regards Gavin .

  2. Lovely troops once again Jonathan, great addition to your collection. the last picture by Mark Stacey is stunning!!! Brilliant read on how it was to be in Spain as a French an at the time!

    1. Thanks Paul. With just ten more French battalions to go the end is in sight.

      I think the pictures by Mark Stacey are some of the best I have seen for Napoleonic illustrating and his work really helps bring the text to life.

      The activities of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion versus 2nd Division would make a great little mini-campaign