Battle of Almaraz

Last updated
Battle of Almaraz
Part of the Peninsular War
Raid d'Almaraz, 18-19 mai 1812.jpg
Date18/19 May 1812
Location Almaraz, Spain
Result Anglo-Portuguese victory
Belligerents
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag Portugal (1750).svg Portugal
Flag of France.svg French Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Lord Hill Flag of France.svg Colonel Aubert †
Strength
6,000
9 guns
1,000
Casualties and losses
33 killed
148 wounded
150 killed & wounded
259 captured

The Battle of Almaraz was a battle of the Peninsular War which took place on 18/19 May 1812, in which the Anglo-Portuguese Army under Lord Hill destroyed a French pontoon bridge across the River Tagus, in Almaraz, Spain. The bridge was protected by two French garrisons at either end. [1] [2] [3]

Peninsular War War by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom against the French Empire (1807–1814)

The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was a military conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when the French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807, and escalated in 1808 when France turned on Spain, previously its ally. The war on the peninsula lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814, and is regarded as one of the first wars of national liberation, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.

Anglo-Portuguese Army

The Anglo-Portuguese Army was the combined British and Portuguese army that participated in the Peninsular War, under the command of Arthur Wellesley. The Army is also referred to as the British-Portuguese Army and, in Portuguese, as the Exército Anglo-Luso or the Exército Anglo-Português.

Rowland Hill, 1st Viscount Hill British Army general

General Rowland Hill, 1st Viscount Hill, was a British Army officer who served in the Napoleonic Wars as a trusted brigade, division and corps commander under the command of the Duke of Wellington. He became Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in 1828.

Contents

The action was swift-moving, deceptive, and daring. The decisive result produced a substantial improvement in the Allied position by keeping French forces separated ahead of the imminent Battle of Salamanca.

Battle of Salamanca battle

In Battle of Salamanca an Anglo-Portuguese army under the Duke of Wellington defeated Marshal Auguste Marmont's French forces among the hills around Arapiles, south of Salamanca, Spain on 22 July 1812 during the Peninsular War. A Spanish division was also present but took no part in the battle.

Background

By late April 1812, the Duke of Wellington had successfully captured the strategic border fortresses of Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo, commanding the two major routes between Spain and Portugal. He now prepared to advance into Spain with the largest army he had commanded to date, which was strong enough to take on any French army. There were two French armies in Spain, however: Marmont’s Army of Portugal, garrisoned near Salamanca, and Soult’s Army of the South. The Tagus River separated the two armies.

The only bridges over the Tagus were at Toledo, Talavera, Arzobispo, Almaraz, and Alcántara. The Alcántara Bridge was destroyed by the Portuguese, under Col. Mayne, on 14 May 1809. The bridges at Toledo, Talavera, and Arzobispo were under French control but, according to Napier, the left bank of the Tagus at Talavera and Arzobispo was "so crowded by the rugged shoots of the Sierra de Guadalupe, that it may be broadly stated as impassable for an army". Any artillery and heavy baggage moving between the two armies would have to cross at Toledo or Almaraz.

Alcántara Municipality in Extremadura, Spain

Alcántara is a municipality in the province of Cáceres, Extremadura, Spain, on the Tagus, near Portugal. The toponym is from the Arabic word al-QanTarah (القنطرة) meaning "the bridge".

Alcántara Bridge

The Alcántara Bridge is a Roman bridge at Alcántara, in Extremadura, Spain. Alcántara is from the Arabic word al-QanTarah (القنطرة) meaning "the bridge". The stone arch bridge was built over the Tagus River between 104 and 106 AD by an order of the Roman emperor Trajan in 98.

The battle

The latter bridge, built by the city of Plasencia [4] under the reign of Emperor Charles V in the 16th Century and known by the local people as the Albalat Bridge, was partially destroyed by the Spanish on 14 March 1809, to prevent its use by the French. The Portuguese under Colonel Mayne destroyed the bridge at Alcantara on 14 May 1809, for the same reason. The French built a pontoon bridge in the autumn of 1809, just west of the Albalat bridge. It was about 200 metres long and built with heavy pontoons. The central span was a light boat, designed to be removed at night for security.

Plasencia Municipality in Extremadura, Spain

Plasencia is a walled market city in the province of Cáceres, Extremadura, Western Spain. As of 2013, it has a population of 41,047.

Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor Holy Roman Emperor

Charles V was Holy Roman Emperor (1519-1556), King of Spain and ruler of the Spanish Empire, Archduke of Austria, and ruler of the Habsburg Netherlands (1506-1555). The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, and the German colonisation of Venezuela both occured during his reign. Charles V revitalized the medieval concept of the universal monarchy of Charlemagne and travelled from city to city, with no single fixed capital: overall he spent 28 years in the Habsburg Netherlands, 18 years in Spain and 9 years in Germany. After four decades of incessant warfare with the Kingdom of France, the Ottoman Empire, and the Protestants, Charles V abandoned his multi-national project with a series of abdications between 1554 and 1556 in favor of his son Philip II of Spain and brother Ferdinand I of Austria. The personal union of his European and American territories, spanning over nearly 4 million square kilometres, was the first collection of realms to be defined as "the empire on which the sun never sets".

Pontoon bridge Type of bridge

A pontoon bridge, also known as a floating bridge, uses floats or shallow-draft boats to support a continuous deck for pedestrian and vehicle travel. The buoyancy of the supports limits the maximum load they can carry.

General Rowland Hill was detached with a small force to attack the pontoon bridge over the Tagus. His force, numbering around 6000 men with nine guns, was virtually the same as that which surprised Jean-Baptiste Girard at the Battle of Arroyo dos Molinos, in 1811. The task facing Hill was a considerable one as the bridge of boats was protected on both banks by strong earthworks. The southern end of the bridge was protected by a bridge-head that was overlooked by Fort Napoleon.

Jean-Baptiste Girard (soldier) French general

Jean-Baptiste Girard, was a French soldier, général and baron d'Empire, who fought in the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

The Battle of Arroyo dos Molinos took place on 28 October 1811 during the Peninsular War. An allied force under General Rowland Hill trapped and defeated a French force under General Jean-Baptiste Girard, forcing the latter's dismissal by the Emperor Napoleon. A whole French infantry division and a brigade of cavalry were destroyed as viable fighting formations.

Fort Napoleon was a strong fort, capable of holding 450 men and situated atop a hill above a steep embankment. It was not a difficult climb for any attacking troops, however, and entry into the fort was eased slightly by two large scarps, rather like steps, which led onto the fort's ramparts. The rear of the fort sloped down to the bridge-head and was protected by a palisaded ditch and loop-holed tower that would act as the last place of refuge should Hill's men gain entry into the fort. On the northern bank of the Tagus stood Fort Ragusa, in which was stored all the garrison's supplies and ammunition. This five-sided fort also had a 25-foot high, loop-holed tower that was to be the last place of defence. This fort was also covered by a field work close to the bridge.

The French had further strengthened the position at the bridge by securing the main road from Trujillo at a point about six miles south of the bridge. Here, where the road ascends the Sierra de Mirabete, the pass was commanded by a castle around which the French had built a 12-foot-high (3.7 m) rampart that housed eight guns. This was connected to a fortified house close to the road by two small works, Forts Colbert and Senarmont. The mountains were impassable to any wheeled vehicles, and the only other pass through the mountains, La Cueva, was two miles to the east of Mirabete. The road on the southern side of the mountains was passable to vehicles, but once through the pass the road deteriorated into little more than a footpath.

Hill's plan involved dividing his force into three columns. The first, comprising the 28th, 34th, and the 6th Caçadores, under Chowne, was to storm the castle of Mirabete. The second, or centre column, comprising the 6th and 18th Portuguese infantry along with all the artillery, was to proceed along the main road and attack the works defending the pass. The third column, Kenneth Howard's brigade comprising the 50th, 71st, 92nd and a single company of the 5/60th, and commanded by Hill himself, was to climb the road leading through the pass of La Cueva and approach Almaraz via the path. The three columns set off at nightfall on 16 May, but at dawn all three were far from their objectives due to the rough nature of the terrain.

It was clear to Hill that there was little chance of being able to surprise the garrison at the bridge. Therefore, he sought another way to get his guns through the mountains. The French garrison was still unaware of Hill's force, and Hill thought he might succeed if he attacked Fort Napoleon and the bridge using only his infantry.

On the evening of May 18, Howard's brigade proceeded through the pass of La Cueva, reinforced by the Portuguese Caçadores. By dawn on 19 May, Hill's men had reached a point just half a mile from Fort Napoleon, but they were seen that morning as they crossed the mountains. The garrison inside Fort Napoleon, commanded by Colonel Aubert, was alerted, and the two centre boats of the bridge were removed.

The attack on the bridge at Almaraz began at dawn on 19 May, when Chowne's guns opened up against the castle at Mirabete. The defenders of Fort Napoleon, warned of the presence of Hill's troops, were prepared for the assault but were still taken by surprise when the 50th and part of the 71st burst from their cover and charged up towards the fort in the face of fire from the defenders and from the guns in Fort Ragusa. British troops were struck down as they dashed forward, but some reached the top of the hill and flung their ladders against the scarp. The men pulled themselves onto the first of the two steps and drew their ladders up. They placed the ladders on the step, climbed to the top of the ramparts, and were soon engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the defenders along the ramparts.

First up was Captain Candler of the 50th, who leapt over the parapet and was struck by several French musket balls. His men followed him, and the defenders soon began to retreat to the bridge-head. The commander of the fort, Colonel Aubert, refused to run and put up a gallant fight. He refused the offer of surrender, and a sergeant of the 50th ran him through with his pike. French troops tried to get to safety inside the tower but were forced to surrender. The guns of Fort Ragusa were unable to fire for fear of hitting their own men fleeing to the river.

The defenders of the bridge-head joined in the retreat across the pontoon bridge. The guns inside Fort Ragusa fired briefly against Fort Napoleon until answered by the captured guns. The action had lasted just 40 minutes. Four grenadiers of the 92nd swam to Fort Ragusa and brought back some boats to repair the pontoon bridge. Soon the rest of Hill's force arrived to find the French abandoning all their works on both sides of the river. Hill had these works blown up and the bridge burned.[ citation needed ]

Aftermath

The castle at Mirabete remained in French hands after Sir William Erskine, 2nd Baronet spread a rumour that Soult's entire force was approaching. This caused Hill, who had intended to level the castle, to retire to Trujillo and lose the chance to achieve complete success. The raid on the bridge at Almaraz cost the British 33 killed and 148 wounded, of which 28 of those killed and 110 of those wounded belonged to the 50th Regiment. French losses were estimated at about 400, 259 of whom were prisoners.

In 1813, the Duke of Wellington sent Lieutenant Colonel Henry Sturgeon of the British Royal Staff Corps to repair the bridge. Sturgeon constructed a suspension bridge, similar to the one he built at Alcántara. The Spanish built the present bridge between 1841 and 1845.

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