Battle of Sabugal

Last updated
Battle of Sabugal
Part of the Peninsular War
Sabugal4.jpg
A contemporary sketch of the battlefield
Date3 April 1811
Location
Sabugal, Portugal
Result Anglo-Portuguese victory
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg French Empire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag Portugal (1750).svg Portugal
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Jean Reynier Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Arthur Wellesley
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Sir William Erskine
Strength
8,800 3,200-13,200
Casualties and losses
706 killed or captured (French claim)
186-1,540 killed or captured (British claim)
179

The Battle of Sabugal was an engagement of the Peninsular War which took place on 3 April 1811 between Anglo-Portuguese forces under Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and French troops under the command of Marshal André Masséna. It was the last of many skirmishes between Masséna's retreating French forces and those of the Anglo-Portuguese under Wellington, who were pursuing him after the failed 1810 French invasion of Portugal.

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.

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.

Contents

In poor weather, with heavy rain and fog, Allied forces succeeded in forcing the demoralized French force into retreat. The victory was lauded by the British; Sir Harry Smith, then a junior officer of the 95th Rifles and a participant in the battle, remarked "Oh, you Kings and usurpers should view these scenes and moderate ambition" while Wellesley later referred to the Light Division's action in the battle as "one of the most glorious that British troops were ever engaged in". [1]

Sir Harry Smith, 1st Baronet British Army general

Lieutenant General Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith, 1st Baronet GCB, known as Sir Harry Smith, was a notable English soldier and military commander in the British Army of the early 19th century. A veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, he is also particularly remembered for his role in the Battle of Aliwal (India) in 1846, and as the husband of Lady Smith.

Background

By October 1810, Marshal Massena’s French army had been halted by the Lines of Torres Vedras, and the Peninsular War had reached a stalemate. Realising that a drive on to Lisbon before the onset of winter was unlikely, Masséna prepared to see out the winter months and renew the fight in the spring, despite scorched earth policies by the Allies rendering foraging for food very difficult. [1] Having survived the winter, however, Massena order a general retreat on 3 March 1811, and the British forces under Wellesley followed. By the onset of April, the French forces were just inside Portugal, aligned along the Côa river. Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Comte d'Erlon's 9th Corps defended to the north, Louis Henri Loison's 6th Corps was in the centre and Jean Reynier's 2nd Corps held the south flank at Sabugal. Resting in the rear areas was Jean-Andoche Junot's 8th Corps. It was at Sabugal that Wellesley attempted to crush the French flank by attacking forces of the isolated 2nd Corps. [1]

Lines of Torres Vedras

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of forts built in secrecy to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. Named after the nearby town of Torres Vedras, they were ordered by Arthur Wellesley, Viscount Wellington, constructed by Sir Richard Fletcher, 1st Baronet, and his Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810, and used to stop Masséna's 1810 offensive.

Lisbon Capital city in Lisbon Metropolitan Area, Portugal

Lisbon is the capital and the largest city of Portugal, with an estimated population of 505,526 within its administrative limits in an area of 100.05 km2. Its urban area extends beyond the city's administrative limits with a population of around 2.8 million people, being the 11th-most populous urban area in the European Union. About 3 million people live in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, including the Portuguese Riviera,. It is mainland Europe's westernmost capital city and the only one along the Atlantic coast. Lisbon lies in the western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus. The westernmost areas of its metro area form the westernmost point of Continental Europe, which is known as Cabo da Roca, located in the Sintra Mountains.

Scorched earth military strategy

A scorched-earth policy is a military strategy that aims to destroy anything that might be useful to the enemy while it is advancing through or withdrawing from a location. Any assets that could be used by the enemy may be targeted, for example food sources, water supplies, transportation, communications, industrial resources, and even the local's people themselves.

While the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th British-Portuguese divisions performed a frontal attack, the flanking Light Division miscalculated and attacked the French 2nd Corps in the flank rather than from the rear. With the leading British units cut off, and poor weather approaching, the British situation became increasingly difficult. [1]

1st Infantry Division (United Kingdom) British Army combat formation

The 1st Infantry Division was a regular army infantry division of the British Army with a very long history. The division was present at the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, the First World War, and during the Second World War and was finally disbanded in 1960.

5th Infantry Division (United Kingdom) combat formation of the British Army

The 5th Infantry Division was a regular army infantry division of the British Army. It was established by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington for service in the Peninsular War, as part of the Anglo-Portuguese Army, and was active for most of the period since, including the First World War and the Second World War and was disbanded soon after. The division was reformed in 1995 as an administrative division covering Wales and the English regions of West Midlands, East Midlands and East. Its headquarters were in Shrewsbury. It was disbanded on 1 April 2012.

7th Infantry Division (United Kingdom) combat formation of the British Army

The 7th Infantry Division was an infantry division of the British Army, first established by The Duke of Wellington as part of the Anglo-Portuguese Army for service in the Peninsular War, and was active also during the First World War from 1914–1919, and in the Second World War from 1938–1939 in Palestine and Egypt.

The battle

The 1st Brigade of the British-Portuguese Light Division crossed the Côa at 10.00 hrs on the morning of 3 April. The French 4th Légére (Light) from Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle's 1st Division was alerted by musket fire as the 1st Brigade drove off a small number of French pickets. The French formed a column and advanced on the British. While making good progress initially, the concentrated French force was driven back by British artillery. [1] The 1st Brigade followed the retreating French forces up a nearby hill, but was quickly ousted by the remaining French forces, who still held a considerable numerical advantage. The British were forced back into cover behind some small stone walls. [1] Heavy rain had also begun to interfere with the muskets of both sides. An attempted counter-attack by the 1st Brigade also ended in failure, as the French had in the meantime set up artillery. Together with further French reinforcements, Reynier forced the British back to the cover of the stone walls at the foot of the hill.

Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle French general

Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle was a French general during the First French Empire of Napoleon. He joined the French army as a private in 1781 but after the French Revolution, the pace of promotion quickened. He was appointed a general officer in 1794 for distinguishing himself during the War of the Pyrenees. After leading a brigade at Austerlitz in December 1805, he was promoted again. His division was in the first wave of the 1808 invasion of Spain, which precipitated the Peninsular War. In Spain, he led his division at Medina de Rioseco, Corunna, First and Second Porto, Bussaco, Sabugal, and Fuentes de Onoro. After being sent home from Spain, Merle was assigned to lead a division in the French invasion of Russia. He led his troops at First and Second Polotsk. He embraced the Bourbon cause in 1814, retired from the army in 1816, and died at Marseilles in 1830. Merle is one of the names inscribed under the Arc de Triomphe on Column 35.

Musket firearm

A musket is a muzzle-loaded long gun that appeared as a smoothbore weapon in early 16th-century Europe, at first as a heavier variant of the arquebus, capable of penetrating heavy armor. By the mid-16th century, this type of musket went out of use as heavy armor declined, but as the matchlock became standard, the term musket continued as the name given for any long gun with a flintlock, and then its successors, all the way through the mid-1800s. This style of musket was retired in the 19th century when rifled muskets became common as a result of cartridged breech-loading firearms introduced by Casimir Lefaucheux in 1835, the invention of the Minié ball by Claude-Étienne Minié in 1849, and the first reliable repeating rifle produced by Volcanic Repeating Arms in 1854. By the time that repeating rifles became common, they were known as simply "rifles", ending the era of the musket.

The crest was attacked for a third time by the 1st Brigade, now supported by the 2nd Brigade, which had arrived on the battlefield. While the French were initially pushed back, Reynier sent in a stream of French units to meet the arriving British 16th Light Dragoons and the surviving soldiers of the 1st and 2nd. With the rain clearing, Reynier could also see the British divisions beginning a frontal assault. This sight persuaded Reynier to pull back; however, the British were successful in seizing both his and General Pierre Soult's baggage carts, even if bad weather did prevent them from mounting a full pursuit. [1]

A French commander, Baron Thiébault, blamed the collapse of the 2nd Corps for the French defeat on 3 April, stating that "It might have been avoided if General Reynier had had faith in Massena’s foresight". Sources differ in the number of French prisoners taken, ranging from 186 to over 1,500. [1]

Erskine's strange role

Major-General William Erskine commanded the Light Division during the battle. Wellington planned to have the Light Division and two brigades of cavalry circle behind Reynier's open left flank while the other four divisions attacked in front. When the day dawned with heavy fog, the other commanders decided to wait until visibility improved. Undeterred, Erskine peremptorily ordered Lieut-Colonel Thomas Sydney Beckwith's 1st Brigade forward. Instead of crossing the Côa beyond Reynier's flank, the brigade drifted to the left in the fog, crossed at the wrong location and struck the French left flank.

Erskine, who was very nearsighted and mentally unbalanced, then became cautious and issued explicit instructions to Colonel George Drummond not to support his fellow brigade commander. At this point, Erskine rode off to join the cavalry, leaving the Light Division leaderless for the rest of the battle. Reynier switched most of his 10,000-man corps against Beckwith's 1,500 and pressed the light infantry back. When Drummond heard the sounds of battle approaching, he deduced that Beckwith's men were retreating. Disobeying orders, Drummond led his 2nd Brigade across the Côa and joined Beckwith. Together they drove the French back.

When the mist cleared, Reynier saw the other four divisions advancing in front, led by Thomas Picton's 3rd Division. He quickly withdrew the bulk of the II Corps, leaving 3,000 men of his right flank to hold off four divisions. William Grattan of the 88th Foot noted of the badly outnumbered French, "They never fought better. So rapidly did they fire that instead of returning their ramrods, they stuck them in the ground and continued to fight until overpowered by our men." Reynier admitted the loss of 760 men.

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References

Notes

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Portsmouth Napoleonic Society Battle of Sabugal 3 April 1811, Vic Powell and Colin Jones. Retrieved 14 August 2007