Wellington’s early Peninsular War victory recounted in detail
In the autumn of 1810 Wellington, at the head of an army of 50,000 British, King’s German Legion, Hanoverian and Portuguese troops, was in Portugal withdrawing before a French Army of 65,000 men under the command of Marshal Masséna. Wellington was retreating towards Lisbon to take refuge behind his brilliantly prepared Lines of Torres Vedras, while Massena pursued him, harassed by Craufurd and his Light Division. Ever mindful of the benefits of favourable terrain upon which to contest a successful defensive action, Wellington, on the 27th of September, turned at bay at Bussaco to fight a delaying battle. The attacking French columns were compelled to labour up steeply rising broken country in the face of punishing fire and paid dearly for it, though their misfortunes in Portugal would soon become far worse. This excellent and detailed book focusses entirely on the battle at Bussaco and includes many photographs and maps of the battlefield together with illustrations which were not included in the original edition. An essential book for every library of the Peninsular War.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
As there were no troops between Picton and Lightburne (a space of about a mile), after sunset on the evening of the 26th, Picton detached the 88th Regiment, under Col. Wallace, to his left to take up an intermediate position about three-quarters of a mile from the Pass, so as to keep up communications between the Pass and the high plateau.
This was done after sunset, in order that the enemy might not perceive it.
Col. Mackinnon having visited the 88th before daybreak on the 27th, was informed that the enemy was collecting in the ravine opposite that regiment, on hearing which, Picton detached, to Col. Wallace’s support, 4 companies of the 45th Regiment, under Major Gwynne.
A few minutes after, when the day began to clear up, a smart firing of musketry was heard on the left, apparently proceeding, Picton says, from the point where the 88th had been stationed. It was probably the first contact between the French tirailleurs and the light companies of the 45th, 74th, and 88th Regiments, which were driven in by the fire of the tirailleurs, who were strong in number and preceded Merle’s Division. The whole advance of Merle’s column was made from some distance to the French right of the Venda de San Antonio, under the guidance of Capt. Charlet (aide-de-camp of Gen. Regnier), who had explored the terrain the evening before. He would then perhaps have observed the absence of troops from that part of the line, afterwards to some extent remedied by Picton.
As Merle’s column ascended the rising ground from the ravine it was fired into (it is stated by Capt. Lane, R.A.) at about seventy yards distance by two of Thompson’s guns, which had been ordered by Wellington to take up a position on a knoll which jutted out slightly to the front, below and to the south of the high plateau.
Some of the 36th Regiment of the Line belonging to Gen. Sarrut’s Brigade came close up to these guns, one man being killed eight paces from them. The gunners gave three cheers and saluted the immense column with a few rounds of case and round-shot together, which drove them more to their left, and added to the confusion already existing in their ranks, due to the roughness of the ground, which was strewn with stones amongst the heather.
In the meantime, opposite the Pass, fourteen of the enemy’s guns posted on knolls there to the French left of the village of S. Antonio do Cantaro had opened a violent cannonade on the troops and guns stationed at the Pass, while the 31st Leger (4 regiments) drove in the advanced pickets of the division with great impetuosity, and endeavoured to push up the road and force the Pass.
The light corps of the division, unable to resist such a superiority of numbers in front, was most judiciously withdrawn to the flank of the advancing column by Lt.-Col. Williams, and the 31st Leger was received with so steady and well-directed fire by the 21st Portuguese Line Regiment and 3 companies of the 74th Regiment that moved up to their support on the left, that after a long struggle and repeated desperate attempts to deploy into line before advancing further up the hill (during which they suffered much also from the well-directed fire of the Portuguese Artillery, under Major Von Arentschildt), they had to desist; but the enemy still kept up their firing of musketry and round-shot on the Pass, and succeeded in dismounting two Portuguese guns by the use of a heavy battery; but a Portuguese shell having shortly afterwards set fire to the ammunition tumbril, which blew up, the French abandoned the battery.
About this period the firing on the left appearing to increase, and draw nearer, and being satisfied that the 31st Leger could make no serious impression on the troops in position at the Pass, Gen. Picton handed over charge of them to Col. Mackinnon, and rode off with the assistant adjutant-general, Major Pakenham, leaving his aide-de-camp, Capt. Cuthbert, and the assistant quartermaster-general, Capt. Anderson, to bring along to the left one battalion of the 8th Portuguese Regiment, under Major Birmingham, and the five remaining companies of the 45th Regiment, under Col. Meade.
On reaching the high rocky point, probably C, about half-way between the Pass of S. Antonio and the high plateau, Gen. Picton found the light companies of the 74th and 88th Regiments outnumbered and “retiring in disorder,” and the head of the enemy’s column already in possession of a strong rocky point (B or C), deliberately firing down on the Allied troops, and the remainder of a large column pushing up the hill with great rapidity. Whilst endeavouring to rally the light infantry companies, with the assistance of Major Pakenham, he was joined by Major Smyth, of the 45th Regiment, and these officers succeeded in forming them under the immediate fire of the enemy, not more than sixty yards distant. Major Smyth most gallantly led them to the charge, and gained possession of the rocks, driving the enemy before him; but he fell in the moment of victory, which was chiefly due to his animating example.
Before continuing the description of these French attacks, it must be mentioned that there were several groups of rocks standing out above the other rocks round them, some of which were at various times occupied by the heads of French columns or by tirailleurs. We will call them A, B, C, D, and E. We have just detailed the account of the French being driven by the light companies of the 45th and 88th Regiments, under Major Smyth, from the group of rocks which we call C, but the rocks may have been B. Shortly we shall read of the French being driven out of the left group (or A) rocks by 3 companies of the 88th Regiment, under Capts. Dunne, Dansey, and Oates. Further to the English right (close to the Pass) was the group of rocks called D, occupied by the 74th Regiment throughout the day. From the Pass of S. Antonio do Cantaro to the rocky point A, the rocks are continuous, except for a short space to the English left of Leith’s Windmill, and on the right of the Pass was much higher rocky ground called E.
We must now return to Merle’s column, which had been turned to its left by the fire of Thompson’s two guns. This brought it to the English right of the original position occupied by the 88th Regiment, and the 4 companies of the 45th, under Major Gwynne, which were at this time on the right of and in front of the 88th Regiment; while further to the right still were the light companies, which after being driven back in some disorder had been rallied by Gen. Picton, Major Pakenham, and Major Smyth, and were about to advance under the latter’s gallant leading against the French ensconced in rocks near C.