Battle of Casal Novo

Last updated
Battle of Casal Novo
Part of Peninsular War
Date14 March 1811
LocationCasal Novo, southeast of Coimbra, Portugal
Result French tactical victory
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg French Empire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag Portugal (1750).svg Kingdom of Portugal
Commanders and leaders

Flag of France.svg Michel Ney

Flag of France.svg Jean Gabriel Marchand
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Sir William Erskine
Strength
4,600 7,000
Casualties and losses
55 casualties 155 casualties

The Battle of Casal Novo was a rear-guard action fought on March 14, 1811, during Massena's retreat from Portugal. During this retreat the French rear-guard, under command of Michel Ney, performed admirably in a series of sharp rear-guard actions. At Casal Novo, the recklessness of Sir William Erskine resulted in costly losses in the Light Division.

André Masséna French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

André Masséna, 1st Duc de Rivoli, 1st Prince d'Essling was a French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original eighteen Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon, with the nickname l'Enfant chéri de la Victoire.

Major-General Sir William Erskine, 2nd Baronet was an officer in the British Army, served as a member of Parliament, and achieved important commands in the Napoleonic Wars under the Duke of Wellington, but ended his service in insanity and suicide.

Contents

Background

Massena's aims were to head north and force his way through the Mondego valley. His only obstacle was the Mondego River, but the French marshal found that all the bridges had been destroyed. In addition to this, he found the river impossible to ford, due to the city of Coimbra being occupied by Portuguese militia under Nicholas Trant.

Mondego River river in Portugal

The Rio Mondego is the longest river located exclusively in Portuguese territory. It has its source in Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in mainland Portugal. It runs 234 kilometres (145 mi) from the Gouveia municipality, at 1,425 metres (4,675 ft) above sea level in Serra da Estrela, to its mouth in the Atlantic Ocean next to the city of Figueira da Foz.

Ford (crossing) crossing in a river

A ford is a shallow place with good footing where a river or stream may be crossed by wading, or inside a vehicle getting its wheels wet. A ford may occur naturally or be constructed. Fords may be impassable during high water. A low water crossing is a low bridge that allows crossing over a river or stream when water is low but may be covered by deep water when the river is high.

Coimbra Municipality in Centro, Portugal

Coimbra is a city and a municipality in Portugal. The population at the 2011 census was 143,397, in an area of 319.40 square kilometres (123.3 sq mi). The fourth-largest urban centre in Portugal, it is the largest city of the district of Coimbra and the Centro Region. About 460,000 people live in the Região de Coimbra, comprising 19 municipalities and extending into an area 4,336 square kilometres (1,674 sq mi).

In an attempt to delay Wellington's advance, Massena had Michel Ney command the rear guard. Ney inflicted two defeats on the allies, driving the British out of Pombal and managing an impressive victory over Wellington near the village of Redinha. He then took up a new position at Condeixa, on the Mondego river.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington British soldier and statesman

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was an Anglo-Irish soldier and Tory statesman who was one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain, serving twice as Prime Minister. His victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 puts him in the first rank of Britain's military heroes.

Michel Ney French soldier and military commander

Marshal of the Empire Michel Ney, 1st Duke of Elchingen, 1st Prince of the Moskva, popularly known as Marshal Ney, was a French soldier and military commander during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original 18 Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon. He was known as Le Rougeaud by his men and nicknamed le Brave des Braves by Napoleon.

Battle of Pombal

The Battle of Pombal was a sharp skirmish fought at the eponymous town during Marshal Masséna's retreat from the Lines of Torres Vedras, the first in a series of lauded rearguard actions fought by Michel Ney. The French were pursued by Wellington and his British-Portuguese army but the Allied advance was energetically contested by Ney's efforts, preventing Wellington from crushing Masséna's army when it was critically vulnerable.

However, the French were too slow to force their way across the Mondego river. Trant's militia held out, after a failed three-day attempt to secure Coimbra. In danger of being trapped, Massena changed his route. Instead of heading north, the French marshal decided to advance east, back into Spain. Ney was left at Condeixa in order to stall the allied army.

Wellington's vanguard caught up with the French at Condeixa. General Montbrun defended this position and delayed the allies long enough for the French to fall back eastwards towards Miranda de Corvo. With the position at Condeixa untenable, the town was abandoned and put to the torch. The next day, the allies advanced on the French positions around Miranda do Corvo. Sir William Erskine, in command of the British Light Division, attacked the French position at Casal Novo.

Miranda do Corvo Municipality in Centro, Portugal

Miranda do Corvo is a town and a municipality in the Portuguese district of Coimbra, with an area of 126.38 square kilometres (48.80 sq mi) and 2011 population of 13,098 inhabitants.

Ney had deployed his troops in strong positions. General Ferrey’s men were stationed in the village of Casal Novo. Marchand’s division was held back in a strong position on raised ground near Chão de Lamas.

Battle

The Light Division advanced on Casal Novo, attacking through a fog which hid the French from sight. However, Erskine did not believe that the French were present, and did not even bother to scout the French position. The British were easy prey for Ferrey’s men.

The Light Division was exposed to heavy fire for two to three hours, before eventually gaining a foothold in the town. The French fell back to Marchand’s division and the Anglo-Portuguese, in pursuit, were cut down by Colonel Laferiere’s 3rd Hussars. Despite this the Light Division surged forward, but met Marchand’s division positioned on the heights in a strong defensive position. The French unleashed devastating fire on this body of troops. The Anglo-Portuguese were easily repulsed.

The arrival of the 3rd Division forced Ney to pull back Marchand’s men before they were overwhelmed. Marchand pulled back and formed a line with the divisions of Mermet and of Loison on the heights of Miranda do Corvo.

Aftermath

The battle was a success. Ney had delayed the Anglo-Portuguese long enough for many convoys to regain the head of the army. The Anglo-Portuguese suffered almost three times as many casualties as their French counterparts. Marchand’s division had repulsed the attacks and the allies had once again failed to break through the French rear-guard.

Ney’s rearguard withdrew across the river Ceira. A small body of troops were left on the other side at Foz de Arouce. From here, the stage was set for the combat of Foz de Arouce. This would be Ney’s final battle in Portugal.

Battle of Foz de Arouce

The Battle of Foz de Arouce was an engagement of the Peninsular War which took place on 15 March 1811 between Anglo-Portuguese forces under Arthur Wellesley and French troops under the command of Marshal Michel Ney.

The Battle of Casal Novo was the first in a series of major bungles made by Erskine, the next being at Sabugal. Had the Light Division commander had the French positions scouted, the fiasco may have been avoided.

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