Woman at WorkHistory - Massena's retreat


Coming along slowly - distracted by all sorts of things. I'm using some modified maps from old books like Napier.

18 Nov Massena completes the dispositons in the Santarem-Punhete-Thomar triangle
19-20 Nov Hill crosses the Tagus to guard the south bank

Part of the map of Massena's withdrawal, from Napier (Ed 2, Vol 3) with additions by Sue."Wellington had also ... cast around the rear of the irregular parallelogram held by the French a screen of light troops which effectively cut their communications with Spain." Oman, IV, p6.

Hill's force on the south bank of the Tagus completed the isolation of the French, since the wild country to the east of the Zezere R. could not be crossed by an army. When Hill is forced to take sick leave, his command is taken first by William Stewart (Senior Brigadier) and then by Beresford (seconded from the Portuguese Army).

26 Nov A reconnaisance party under Marcognet sent out by Massena towards Almeida bumps into Drouet's reinforcements (9th Corps, ~8,000 men). Massena calls them in. Drouet brings Conroux's Div forward to Leiria, leaving Claparede at Celorico in a vain attempt to keep communications open.
29 Nov Hill takes sick leave for 6 months. William Stewart commands the force for a fortnight before Beresford takes over. (Stewart's enthusiastic proposals scare Wellington)
29 Dec French troops begin to march on Leira
30 Dec Wilson drives Drouet's rearguard out of Espinhal. The French are isolated again.
5 Feb Foy rejoins Massena with orders from Napoleon and 1800 drafts for 2nd Corps. Break in harried by Col Grant's Ordenança.

The scene is set for the French withdrawal.
The Anglo-Portuguese Army
The French Army of Portugal

19 Feb Massena's council of war at Golegão (covering his butt).The French begin preparations to retreat.
23 Feb Wellington begins to plan an assault on the French positions as soon as re-inforcements due from England arrive.
3 Mar Massena issues orders for a retreat.
4-7 Mar Massena concentrates his troops along the Leiria-Thomar road.
8 Mar Wellington decides that Massena is in full retreat
Orders 2nd Div (Beresford) & 4th Div to cross the Tagus at Abrantes, pick up Hamilton's Portuguese and de Grey's cavalry and move to relieve Badajoz.
Later in the day the cavalry report that the French are massing at Pombal (except for Reynier who is reported at Espinhal) and this order is countermanded
Reynier (2C) passes Thomar then Cabacos and Espinhal (heading for the Mondego at Ponte de Murcella)
Junot (8C) via Chão de Macans and Ameiro to Pombal
Loison follows Junot
Rest by Leiria to Pombal (Ney (2/3 of 6C) as rearguard)
Confused by the criss-crossing of the French columns, Wellington initially deploys the bulk of his forces on the Thomar road. The Light Div and Pack's Portuguese find themselves chasing the bulk of Massena's army on their own.
9 Mar 2nd Div (Beresford) and Hamilton's Portuguese at Abrantes (stopped)
Light Div, Pack's Port, Anson's Cav at Leiria chasing Ney
1st, 4th & 6th Divs, de Grey's dragoons at Thomar
3rd Div (Picton) at Porto de Mos (Santarem-Leiria road)
5th Div, Ashworth's Port at Alcanhede
3rd & 5th ordered to support Light Div ASAP
Troops around Thomar to folow Junot (8C, Chão de Macans road) except Nightingall's brigade (from 1st Div) who is to shadow Reynier (2C) via Espinhal
10 Mar Light Div, Pack's Port (Erskine!!!!!) at Venda Nova (in front of Pombal)
4th Div at Cacharia
1st Div, 6th Div at Acentis
3rd Div at Leiria, 5th Div at Porto de Mos
Ney's 6th Corps concentrated at Pombal, Junot's 8th Corps at Venda de Cruz
Montbrun's Reserve Cavalry reconnoitres as far as Coimbra where Trant has broken the bridges and holds the north bank lightly
Reynier (2nd Corps) reaches Espinhal
11 Mar 3rd Div joins Light Div, Pack's Port at Venda Nova
4th Div (van of Thomar column) approaching
Ney (6C) pulls back from Pombal leaving 1 battalion in the castle and the rest of Mermet's Div on the heights behind the town
3rd Cacadores (Elder) & 2 Cos 95th ordered across the bridge to take the town, Light Div to follow, 3rd Div to cross downstream
Van threatens to cut off the French in the castle.
Ney sends in 4 battalions to get the troops out, they block the roads and set fire to houses to (successfully) delay the pursuit
Once out of town the French retreat at leisure
Casualties: F - 4 officers, 59 men; P - 1 officer, 30 men (10k); B - 1 officer, 4 men
12 Mar The action at Redinha forces the line of the Soure.
13 Mar 8th Corps (Junot) sets off to Miranda de Corvo escorting the waggon train.
Loison's Div (6C) moves from Rabaçal to Fonte Cuberta with Massena's HQ.
Ney (rest of 6C) undertakes to hold Condeixa as long as possible with Marchand and Mermet.
2nd Corps (Reynier) still at Espinhal with Nightingall's Brigade watching him.
6th Div moves towards Coimbra, taking up a position at Ega behind Ney's right wing!!!
3rd Div takes a mountain path and approaches Condeixa from the south (Ney's left).
4th and Light Divs take up positions, ready to attack Ney's front. Marchand and Mermet's divisions are now in danger of being cut off, and Ney is forced to give up Condeixa and retreat towards Miranda de Corvo much sooner than he (or Masséna) expect. He halts and takes up a defensive position at Casal Nova, sending off a messenger to warn Massena. The messenger gets lost and arrives at Fonte Cuberta simultaneously with a patrol of KGL hussars, who hesitate and miss the opportunity of the campaign.
Loison's Division fall back on Casal Nova undisturbed except for a few of the 3rd Divs skirmishers.
Montbrun - still trying to convince Trant's Militia to give up Coimbra, discovers at noon that Condeixa has fallen and that he is in danger of being cut off. He retreats up the south bank of the Mondego to R Eça, thence up the valley to Miranda de Corvo.

Having cut him off from the bridge at Coimbra, Wellington has now reduced Massena's options to one: retreat to Spain and Ciudad Rodridgo. With Trant's Militia on the North bank, and Wellington on his tail, Massena cannot cross the upper Mondego without putting his army at risk, and the country south of the Mondego cannot support an army.

14 Mar The action at Casal Novo sees the turning of the French flank, and they are forced back to the line of the Eça.
Night, 14-15 Mar The whole French Army is now concentrated at Miranda de Corvo except for the 9th Corps of which Conroux's Div is ahead, escorting the sick and injured and Claparede's Div is still waiting around Celorico, wondering what is going on in Portugal and when the Militia are going to make a nuisance of themselves again.
Massena is starting to panic, and orders the destruction of the baggage train, plus any pack animals which are unfit to continue. This is done by hamstringing, to avoid the noise of shots.
Overnight the French march to Foz do Arouce in the Ceira valley. Ney sets fire to Miranda de Corvo before he leaves at 1 am.
15 Mar At Foz do Arouce the British surprise Ney's Corp by a late afternoon attack, and force the Ceira.

With Coimbra and Northern Portugal safe, Wellington halts for a day setting up his headquarters at Lousão. This allows the supply convoys to catch up, and also allows him to catch up on the paperwork.

16 Mar Wellington is now confident that the French will not try to stand in Portugal, and sends Cole's 4th Div and de Grey's dragoons to join Beresford at Elvas watching Soult. He also contacts Wilson and Trant ensuring that their militia will continue to patrol the Mondego and keep the French south of the river.
Cole's movement increases Massena's concerns. He is aware that a British division crossed the Tagus at Abrantes, but has heard nothing of it since and is unaware that it recrossed the Tagus. Now another division is being sent off south east. Massena concludes that Wellington is moving troops up the Zezere valley to cut him off from Spain, and resolves to increase the speed of his withdrawal. (It doesn't seem to have occurred to Massena that Soult's Army of Andalusia was also a potential threat to Lisbon and that Wellington could not move his whole force against Massena because of this. Of course Massena would not have heard of the fall of Badajoz yet.)
The 2nd & 8th Corps march before dawn, retiring to the Alva where they find the Ponte de Murcella bridge (repaired by Drouet on his way through) has already been re-destroyed by Wilson's Militia. Mermet and Loison (2/3 of 6th Corps) follow. Marchand again brings up the rear guarding the road a few miles beyond the Ceira waiting for Wellington. The British engineers repair the bridge at Foz
17 Mar In the morning the 8th Corps cross the Alva at Ponte de Murcella and occupy Cortiça, Moita and other villages along the road. The 2nd Corps cross further upstream at the ford of Sarzedo and take up positions at Arganil. The 6th Corps follow the 8th later in the day, leaving observers on the western side. Montbrun's Reserve cavalry watch the lower Alva, while the 8th Corps cavalry watch the fords above Sarzedo. British cavalry (Slade, Arendschildt) shadow the 6th Corps, with the Lt & 6th Divs following but out of sight. (This is the 6th Divs first action since forming.)
Meanwhile Wellington has sent the 1st, 3rd, 5th and Independent Portuguese Brigades on a flank march via the Furcado-Arganil road (a steep track along the watershed) driving in the observation detachments of the 2nd Corps out of Arganil. They report the British present in force and Massena hurriedly transfers the 8th Corps back to Galliges (on the left flank of the 2nd Corps - note the Alva turns E/W above (ie Sth of) Ponte de Murcella). Ney, left to hold Ponte de Murcella, doesn't know whether he's facing a cavalry screen or several divisions.
18 Mar Lt Div drive Ney's (6C) rearguard across the Alva at Ponte De Murcella and demonstrate to keep them occupied. Meanwhile the rest of the Anglo-Portuguese force cross the Alva upstream at the ford of Pombeiro (headed by the Guards brigade of 1 Div) in an attempt to cut the 6th Corps off. Reynier declines to contest the crossing and recalls the battalion guarding the ford, taking up a position on the Serra de Moita. The entire 1st Div is over by nightfall. Ney gets wind of the movement and scrambles off.
Overnight the British engineers construct a temporary bridge at Ponte de Murcella. The 2nd Corps follow the 8th Corps along the Galleges-Chamusca-Gouvea-Celorico road with the 6th Corps tail end Charlie as usual (A 20 mile night march over mountain roads!)
19 Mar By the evening of the 19th:
The 8th Corps van is at Pinhanços
The 2nd Corps van is at Caragoça and Sandomil
The 6th Corps van is at Chamusca.
The Anglo-Portuguese have picked up ~600 prisoners, mainly foragers (i.e. experienced troops) caught out by the sudden retreat.

Despite being (temporarily) numerically inferior, Wellington was still turning Massena out of strong positions. The French were out of supplies and desperately needed to disperse and forage - but the chase was too close and they couldn't.

20 Mar The previous day's hard march has given the French a much needed break, and they are unhindered for most of the day.
At Maceira, Massena splits his force:
2nd Corps got the southern, hilly road (again) and reached Gouvea.
8th Corps took the northern road & reached Villacortes. Ahead of them their cavalry reached the bridge of Fornos (broken and guarded by Trant's Militia).
6th Corps followed the 8th Corps and reached Pinhanços.
Foraging went well for the French this day, but the Anglo-Portuguese had outstripped their supplies again, and most of them stopped to wait for a convoy.
The remaining supplies were split between the Lt, 3rd & 6th Divs, and they continued the chase, with Slade's cavalry ahead of them. The cavalry caught up with the French at Cea in the afternoon. Slade lived up to his reputation and did nothing.
The 1st & 5th Divs with Pack's & Ashworth's Portuguese camped around Moita until the first supply train from the new depot at Coimbra arrived.
21 Mar 8th Corps reaches Celorico and Conroux's Div of Drouet's 9th Corps. (Claparede's Div was still holding Guarda.)
6th Corps reached Carapichina & Cortiça.
2nd Corps draw the short straw again, and take the mountain track from Villacortes to Guarda, reaching Villamonte.
Lt & 3rd Divs reach Pinhanços & Maceira (15 miles behind the French) with the cavalry in front at Vinho. The Portuguese peasants freely share what little the French have left them with the Anglo-Portuguese troops.
22 Mar 8th & 6th Corps concentrated at Celorico with Conroux's Div (9th Corps)
2nd Corps reaches Guarda and joins Claparede's Div (9th Corps).
Massena is finally back in touch with Ciudad Rodrigo!

"At this point I must have lost my presence of mind."
Gerard Hofnung at the Oxford Union (the Bricklayer story).

22 Mar Cont Noon - Massena, in total contradiction to his stated intentions of the last few days, issues orders for the Army of Portugal to march SSE across the wilderness of the Serra d'Estrella and Sierra de Meras to the Coria-Plasencia country on the Estremaduran plateau - desolate, dry and nearly trackless. (Junot, Victor, Wellington & Lahoussaye had starved there in turn.) Mouthings are made about "strategic linkages with Soult and Joseph" and "forcing Wellington to retreat back to Lisbon", but the real reason seems to have been a desire on Massena's part to send a despatch to Napoleon declaring that he had crossed the Tagus, but omitting to mention where and details of the recent retreat. Massena also was desperately looking for a "success" to shut Ney & Reynier up. The move was not feasible - the army was ill-equipped, short of ammunition and had already lost most of its cannon. The three marshals (Ney, Drouet and Massena) were at each others throats & the dissension had spread to the rank & file.
Ney refused the order (stating his reasons) and Massena dismissed him, passing command of the 6th Corps to Loison. (Ney refused to go further than refusing the order, even though his popularity could have enabled him to depose Massena.) Both marshals rushed to get their version of events on the way to Paris.
Drouet, on the basis that he wasn't really part of Massena's army anyway, had already retreated to positions between Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, a moved approved post-facto by Massena.
23 Mar 8th Corps leaves Celorico and moves towards Guarda to unite with the 2nd Corps. Its cavalry reaches Ponte de Ladrão.
6th Corps (now under Loison) moves into Celorico (from?)
24 Mar 2nd Corps moves south out of Guarda, its divisions marching on parallel roads (1st to Sortelha, 2nd to Aguas Bellas) with its cavalry on the right flank at Belmonte, watching the Zezere!!! (see note on 16 Mar).
8th Corps push forward into Guarda to replace them, the long haul up into the town finishing off most of their remaining draught beasts. 6th Corps, husbanding their beasts, fail to reach Guarda.
Slade's dragoons occupy Celorico, they report that the French have split with the larger group (ie the 6th and 8th Corps) moving south (to Guarda) and the smaller (Conroux's Div of the 9th Corps) towards Almeida.
25 Mar 2nd Corps van reach Val de Lobos on the Penmacor road
8th Corps leave their guns in Guarda (bad road + no draught animals) and move to Belmonte
6th Corps spread out:
Marchand's Div have reached Guarda
Ferey's Div (ex Loison) at Rapoulla at the foot of Guarda Mt
Mermet's Div looping out onto the plain to Gouveias (?looking for forage?) with a rear-guard at Freixadas on the Almeida Rd.
Lt & 3rd Divs begin to move into Celorico - slowly because they are out of food
1st convoys from the new Coimbra depot reach the Moita camp (on the Alva). 1st & 5th Divs + Ashworth's Portuguese ordered forward. Pack's Portuguese still recovering.
Slade's cavalry still can't find the French 2nd Corps
26 Mar 2nd Corps STUCK between Sortelha and Penmacor - starving
8th Corps at Belmonte, reconnoitring towards Covilhão, Manteigas and the headwaters of the Zezere.
6th Corps in Guarda
Lt & 3rd Divs concentrated about Celorico, Slade finally pushes patrols out after the French, and it becomes clear that the bulk of them have moved south to Guarda.

Massena is now in a sticky situation. His 3 Corps are on 3 north south routes with terrible lateral communications so they are unable to support one another. The country they are in is pretty barren and they have no supplies. Luckily for him, Wellington is unaware of it.

27 Mar Reynier (2C) sends a despatch to Massena:
(1) The Corps is starving and the roads too bad to continue; (2) Even if they could get to Coria, there won't be any food there; (3) Even if they could get to Coria, you can't cross the Tagus there.
Junot (8C) sends a despatch to Massena saying the troops are dying of starvation and the roads too bad to go further.
Massena is still at Guarda with the 6 Corps.
Wellington is (for once) short of intelligence - the cavalry scouts missed the fact that the 2nd Corps went directly to Guarda, not Celorico. Wellington now knows that 2 French Corps moved SE from Celorico, and may have joined the missing Corps there.
Meanwhile English and French cavalry patrols clash at Manteigas (on the mountain road back to the Mondego) but the English cavalry miss the main body of the 8th Corps at Belmonte.
28 Mar Massena calls a halt to the advance citing (1) a report from Drouet indicating (falsely) that Almeida has only 15 days food and (truly) that his Corps is not enough to cover it until it can be supplied and (2) that the Army of Portugal were defeatist because most of them had been with Junot's and Soult's failed expeditions.
Wellington (still short on intelligence and therefore unable to comprehend Massena's crazy move) concludes that 2 (possibly 3) French Corps are settling in at Guarda. Plans to maneuvre them out of the town as soon as the 1st & 5th Divs come up. To this end the 3rd Div is started off on the mountain track across the Serra d'Estrella via Prados and the Lt Div, with Arendschildt's dragoons, are sent around via Baracal, Villa Franca & Rapoulla. On the way the 95th bump into Loison's detachment at Freixadas.
29 Mar Massena orders 2nd Corps to fall back on Sabugal & hold it until 8th Corps have passed them. 6th Corps to hold Guarda, but to throw a div (Ferey) along the Sabugal road to Adão.
Meanwhile 3 British Divs are closing in on Guarda: 3rd Div from the east via Prados; 6th Div from the north via Ramilhosa; & Lt Div from the NE. Thanks to the British cavalry screen, the French have no idea they are there. Unbelievably Loison has no cavalry or foot patrols out (?inexperience?).
3rd Div make better than expected time and arrive first, their sudden appearance on the heights above Guarda a big shock to the French. While Loison hesitates, the Lt Div appear from the other direction and Loison panics and abandons the town (despite a 2:1 numerical superiority) following the rest of the French south towards Sabugal via Villa Mendo/Marmaleiro & Rapoulla da Coa. This leaves 8th Corps out on a limb, saved only by the fact that the British don't know where they are. It has also exposed the line of communication to Ciudad Rodrigo.
30 Mar 8th Corps marches for its life across the mountains towards Sabugal, reaching Urgueira. (Having left their artillery at Guarda they are marching light.)
6th Corps continues its retreat to the Coa, Marchand to Ponte Sequeiro, Ferey & Mermet at Bismula. The British infantry are left behind by the speed of the French retreat, but the cavalry harass them. (Though not as much as they could have, Slade again missing a number of opportunities.)
31 Mar 8th Corps reach Sabugal & safety, moving on to Alfayates where they stop exhausted.

For the next 2 days Massena did little beyond sending the wreck of his cavalry back to the Agueda to recover. Meanwhile Wellington is completing a thorough reconnaisance of the French position, the first accurate picture he has had for days. Based on this he develops a strategy for levering the French out of their position and out of Portugal. He considers the French line to be over extended, with the 2nd Corps particularly vulnerable in a salient formed by the bend of the Coa - the Coa is much shallower around Sabugal than at Almeida and there are many fords. Wellington decides to try and cut the 2nd Corps off, and quietly moves his troops (complete with reinforcements) into position.

The Attack on Sabugal

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Last update 22/1/03