Combat of the Côa

Last updated
Battle of the Côa Valley
Part of the Peninsular War
Date24 July 1810
Location
Result French victory
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg French Empire Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag Portugal (1750).svg Portugal
Commanders and leaders
Marshal Michel Ney Brig. Gen Robert Craufurd
Strength
20,000
(6,000 engaged)
5,000
(4,000 engaged)
6 guns
Casualties and losses
300-530 killed, wounded or captured 309-500 killed or wounded
83 missing
Location of Coa valley in Portugal LocalVilaNovaDeFozCoa.svg
Location of Côa valley in Portugal

The Combat of the Côa (July 24, 1810) was a skirmish that occurred during the Peninsular War period of the Napoleonic Wars. It took place in the valley of the Côa River and it was the first significant battle for the new army of 65,000 men controlled by Marshal André Masséna, as the French prepared for their third 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.

Napoleonic Wars Series of early 19th century European wars

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) were a series of major conflicts pitting the French Empire and its allies, led by Napoleon I, against a fluctuating array of European powers formed into various coalitions, financed and usually led by the United Kingdom. The wars stemmed from the unresolved disputes associated with the French Revolution and its resultant conflict. The wars are often categorised into five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1805), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813), and the Seventh (1815).

André Masséna French military commander

André Masséna, 1st Duke of Rivoli, 1st Prince of 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.

Contents

As the British-Portuguese forces were outnumbered here, on July 22, General Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington sent Brigadier-General Robert Craufurd a letter, saying that he (Wellington) was "not desirous of engaging in an affair beyond the Coa." On July 24, Craufurd's Light Division, with 4,200 infantry, 800 cavalry, and six guns, was surprised by the sight of 20,000 troops under Marshal Michel Ney. Rather than retreat and cross the river as ordered by Wellington, Craufurd chose to engage the French, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Anglo-Portuguese Army Combined English and Portuguese army during the Peninsular War

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 18th and 19th-century 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. He won a notable victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Robert Craufurd Scottish soldier

Major-General Robert Craufurd was a British soldier. Craufurd was born at Newark, Ayrshire, the third son of Sir Alexander Craufurd, 1st Baronet, and the younger brother of Sir Charles Craufurd. After a military career which took him from India to the Netherlands, in 1810 in the Napoleonic Peninsular War he was given command of the Light Division, composed of the elite foot soldiers in the army at the time, under the Duke of Wellington. Craufurd was a strict disciplinarian and somewhat prone to violent mood swings which earned him the nickname "Black Bob". He was mortally wounded storming the lesser breach in the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo on 19 January 1812 and died four days later.

The French objective was to force the Light Division back across the Côa in order to besiege Almeida. They succeeded after hard fighting, but then launched a costly assault across the Côa, suffering heavy casualties.

Battle of the River Côa

Order of Battle

British-Portuguese forces engaged were:

43rd (Monmouthshire) Regiment of Foot infantry regiment of the British Army

The 43rd (Monmouthshire) Regiment of Foot was an infantry regiment of the British Army, raised in 1741. Under the Childers Reforms it amalgamated with the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot to form the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Oxfordshire Light Infantry in 1881. The regiment went on to become the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in 1908.

Caçadores formerly the elite light infantry troops of the Portuguese Army

The Caçadores were the elite light infantry troops of the Portuguese Army, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Units of Caçadores – with features somewhat different from the original ones – continued to exist in the Portuguese Armed Forces until the 1970s.

52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot

The 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot was a light infantry regiment of the British Army throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The regiment first saw active service during the American War of Independence, and were posted to India during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. During the Napoleonic Wars, the 52nd were part of the Light Division, and were present at most of the major battles of the Peninsula campaign, becoming one of the most celebrated regiments, described by Sir William Napier as "a regiment never surpassed in arms since arms were first borne by men". They had the largest British battalion at Waterloo, 1815, where they formed part of the final charge against Napoleon's Imperial Guard. They were also involved in various campaigns in India.

The engaged units of Ney's VI Corps included:

French Offensive

Craufurd committed a serious tactical error by choosing to fight with an unfordable river at his back while badly outnumbered. As such, in the early hours of 24 July, after a night of torrential rain, Ney sent forth Ferey and Loison's divisions to engage the allies.

A company of the 95th Rifles came under fire from French artillery as they moved in to attack. French voltigeurs of the 32nd then came up and took the fight to the bayonet, and the heavily outnumbered British broke and fled. The guns of Almeida opened fire on the 95th Rifles, mistaking them for French because of their dark uniforms. They then fell under attack by the French 3rd Hussars, supported by two companies of dragoons. British troops of the 43rd came to assist them. Though fierce fighting broke out, the French advance was halted. Despite orders from Wellington to fall back across the river Côa, Craufurd decided to hold his ground as more French arrived and began to deploy in formation.

The 15th Chasseurs a Cheval then charged to the south to outflank the British 52nd Light Infantry, while Ferey's French brigade attacked the British positioned near a windmill positioned at the British right, advancing through rough-terrain while Almeida's guns were firing upon them. The French infantry charged the British with fixed bayonet and, under mounting pressure, the allies began to fall back, isolating themselves from the 43rd Light Infantry under attack by the 15th Chasseurs. The 3rd Hussars came into the fight and Craufurd's men took heavy casualties. All this time, while Ney's assaults were being slowed by awful terrain, Almeida was slowly being isolated from the allied force.

Craufurd, realising his situation that the French were threatening his only escape (the bridge crossing the river Côa), ordered a withdrawal across the river Côa, with the British 52nd and 43rd Light Infantry as well as the 95th Rifles protecting their retreat. For the British, matters only became worse. A supply wagon turned over and caused a traffic jam in the retreat across the bridge. The French were gradually driving back the British divisions protecting the withdrawal.

Craufurd then ordered these troops to fall back and take position the heights overlooking the bridge and hold that position until the retreat had been made. The French took the heights, but in a move that took the Ney's forces completely by surprise the allies made an assault and held their opponents at bay long enough for the main body of the British-Portuguese to make it across to the other side of the river Côa.

Assault across the Côa

With the French driving the Light Division back, Ney then attempted attacking across the Côa. In the first attempt, grenadiers of the 66th surged towards the bridge under a hail of musketry and cannon fire, failing to get more than halfway across the bridge. The second more strongly-pressed offensive was made by the Elite Chasseurs de la Siège light infantry. Oman writes that they had "flung themselves at the bridge, and pushed on till it was absolutely blocked by the bodies of the killed and the wounded, and till they themselves had been almost literally exterminated, for out of a battalion of little more than 300 men 90 were killed and 147 wounded in less than ten minutes." The final attack was once more led by the 66th which was beaten off with little difficulty.

Aftermath

The battle ended with the French having, despite the setback at the bridge, driven the Light Division from the field. Having been beaten back and only narrowly escaped a total rout, Crauford's forces withdrew at midnight, leaving Masséna free rein to lay siege to Almeida.

Napier and Oman stated that the British Light Division held off the entire 20 000 troops under Ney. However, it was only Ferey and Loison's division that actually engaged the Light Division. French forces engaged were around 6,000 pitched against 4,000 British-Portuguese.

Casualties are hard to determine. Both the French and the British-Portuguese were biased. Imperial propaganda reported allied casualties to be at 1,200, while many British sources claimed the loss of 36 killed and 189 wounded as well as 83 missing. On the other hand, French casualties are easier to determine, as both the allies and French estimated around five hundred dead or wounded. The great majority of these casualties were due to Ney's futile attack across the bridge.

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References

Coordinates: 40°43′34″N6°54′22″W / 40.7261°N 6.9061°W / 40.7261; -6.9061