The Peninsular War
The Battle of Bussaco
With the fall of Almeida, Wellington could easily have withdrawn his army swiftly behind the line of fortifications he had prepared at Torres Vedras. Instead he chose a slower retreat, pausing to offer battle on the Bussaco ridge, north of Coimbra.
Wellington did not need to fight at Bussaco, and in reality it seems unlikely that he expected the French to attack him. The ridge was an imposing position, but could easily be outflanked to the north. Wellington probably fought in the hope that he could achieve an easy victory, which would particularly inspire his newly trained Portuguese troops. Massena, meanwhile, seems to have been keen to inflict defeat on the British and attacked, probably expecting the Portuguese troops in Wellington’s army to offer little resistance.
On 27th September 1810, the French launched two attacks on the ridge. Reynier’s corp was to break through Picton’s forces, before turning north and attacking Spencer’s and Craufurd’s men in the flank. The attack was meant to be timed so that their assault would strike Spencer and Craufurd at the same time as Ney’s corps attacked their front.
The Battle of Bussaco
The French were initially helped by a mist in the valley below the ridge, which shielded them from the aim of the British gunners. The first wave of Reynier’s attack broke in the face of the calm, disciplined musketry of the Anglo-Portugese army. Although the second wave was able to find a gap in the Allied fences, and occupy the top of the right, the quickly found themselves caught in a crossfire as the British 45th and 88th regiments, and 8th Portuguese regiment, closed in from the north and south.
Ney’s attack, meanwhile, faced stiff opposition from Craufurd’s specialist skirmishers – the British 95th Rifles and Portuguese 3rd Cacadores. Although the French fought bravely, they were sent reeling back by a bayonet charge which Craufurd timed perfectly. The allies lost around 1250 men, compared to a French loss of 4,500 men.
Wellington’s victory at Talavera brought no tangible strategic advantage. The position was outflanked by the French the following day, and his army was forced to resume its retreat towards Lisbon. However, it provided a huge confidence boost for his Portuguese troops, and showed to his critics, especially those back home in England, that his plans were bearing fruit.
Wellington halted the retreat at the Lines of Torres Vedras, a network of defences, which he had been preparing over the previous year. French intelligence had received little warning of the works, with Massena being informed that a couple of forts had been built to cover the British embarkation. The reality is that engineers, with the help of a civilian workforce, had sculpted the very landscape, steepening hillsides and damning rivers to make valleys impossible, hills impossible to climb, and topped those hills with a string of forts stretching from the River Tagus to the Atlantic Coast.
It is often incorrectly assumed that the forts were garrisoned by British troops. In reality they were manned by the Portuguese militia, raising the interesting question of whether they could have withstood an assault by the French. In end, it did not matter. The defences of Torres Vedras looked so strong, that they were never tested. Massena sent a despatch to Napoleon describing the situation and requesting further orders.
In the meantime, he was left in a possible position. With a huge army at his back, he could not just abandon Portugal, yet he knew that he could not supply his forces indefinitely. He camped in front of the lines until mid November, hoping Wellington would attack him. Wellington however, displayed his characteristic ‘level headedness’, famously remarking that he ‘could lick those fellows any day’, but that it would cost him 10,000 men, and that since this was Britian’s last army, he must preserve the life of his men. Massena eventually withdrew miles to Santarem, where his army stayed for the winter. With political uncertainty in Britain, and no clear indication that the British were winning the Portugal, plenty questioned the purpose of the Peninsular War. In the coming 18 months, however, Wellington would prove that the French were by no means as dominant in the Iberian Peninsula, as they might have seemed.
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Interested in learning more?
Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)
Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)
Ian Robertson, A Commanding Presence: Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (Chalford: Spellmount, 2008)