The Peninsular War
Wellesley's Return to Portugal & the Battle of Oporto
In early January, Britain’s army in the Iberian Peninsular, containing some of its best troops who had been exhausted by a long retreat, had embarked on ships at Corunna harbour. It looked as thought Britain’s involvement in the Peninsular War had failed.
A force of around 10,000 men had remained in Portugal under the command of Sir John Craddock, however, with such a small army, and without any idea of whether the British government was about to abandon its ‘Iberian adventure’, he did not move to attack the French. As a result, the force under Soult, which had pursued the British through the north west of Spain was able, after a short rest, to occupy Northern Portugal with very little opposition.
However, the British government had not given up on the Peninsular War. It was agreed with the Portuguese government that the Portuguese army would be retrained to make it more like the British army. A British general had to be appointed to achieve this, so on 15th February, William Beresford was made Commander of the Portuguese army.
The Battle of Oporto
Reinforcements were also sent out to Portugal, whilst, on 26th March the government made a decision which would ultimately decide the fate of the war. Arthur Wellesley was sent back to the Peninsular in overall command of both the British and Portuguese troops. It was possibly the best decision that the government made in the entire Napoleonic Wars.
After arriving on 22nd April, Wellesley wasted no time. He swiftly laid plans for a surprise attack the French army which had invaded Northern Portugal. Wellesley moved his army rapidly, catching the French off guard. They pulled back to the town of Oporto, planning to use the River Douro as a defensive line, and making it impossible to cross by dismantling a bridge across the river, and bring all the river boats to the northern bank, so that the British could not row across.
However Wellington was not so easily outsmarted. Whilst sending part of his force under John Murray five miles upstream to find an ferry crossing at Avintes, he ordered his scouts to scour the area for boats, whilst keeping his army hidden from the French, so that they would be unaware of how close the British were, and the threat that they posed. In a huge stroke of luck, a local barber showed one of the scouts the location of some wine barges which lay unguarded on the North bank of the Douro. These were promptly rowed across to the British side, and Wellington began quietly ferrying men across the river at a rate of 100-120 at a time (the most the boats would accommodate).
Once on the opposite shore, the British troops occupied a seminary on the north bank of the Douro. When the French discovered this, the force they sent to force the British out was raked by artillery from British and Portuguese guns which Wellington had brought up to the Duoro’s south bank.
Caught completely by surprise, Soult’s army was forced to rapidly pull out of Oporto, but as it tried to withdraw to the North West, it encountered Murray’s force which had succeeded in crossing the Douro at Avintes. The French lost around 300 men, with a further 1300 prisoners, compared to British casualties of just 23 killed, and 98 wounded.
However, Wellesley did not allow the French army to slip away. He had laid an elaborate trap for the French at Oporto, occupying their escape route east with Portuguese troops. Unable to break out to join the French forces in Western Spain, Soult’s army was forced to abandon its baggage and artillery, and flee northwards.
The Battle of Oporto was a remarkable achievement for Wellesley, who succeeded in liberating Portugal with the loss of around 125 men, after being in the country for less than three weeks. Already, however, he was looking to move his army into Spain, and continue the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula.
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Interested in learning more?:
Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)
Huw J Davies, Wellington’s Wars: The Making of a Military Genius (London: Yale University Press, 2012)
Ian Robertson, A Commanding Presence: Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (Chalford: Spellmount, 2008)