Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on the Portuguese Infantry of the Peninsular War 1807-1814: 5th and 17th Regiments of Elvas

By Ray Foster

The Elvas Garrison

Elvas stood on commanding ground in direct line of communication between Lisbon and the Spanish border fortress of Badajoz.

The largest of Portugal’s frontier fortresses it was natural that these two Regiments should be looked upon as the regular garrison of this important place. Coming together during 1809 as a Brigade under Marshal William Carr Beresford’s re-organisation recruiting here only got off to a slow start although it must be said that 17th Regiment did make a good effort, so:

15th September 1809

1/5th                                                                                                                                                                 
759 PUA

1/17th                                                                                                                                                               
770 PUA

2/17th                                                                                                                                                                      
448 PUA

While others of the regular Portuguese infantry soon became integrated into the forces out in the field these two units remained in combination at and about Elvas going well into 1811 but then, during late April of that year along comes a British officer carrying orders that effectually separates these comrades in arms permanently.

It is Richard Collins a Lieutenant Colonel of the 83rd Regiment of Foot, his instructions to take 5th Regiment into the field picking up on his journey another garrison battalion from Campo Mayor across the Caya valley. This battalion of Caçadores is by no means a stranger to life in the field, in those uncertain days before the coming of the Beresford era it had been a part of the swashbuckling Sir Robert Wilson’s Loyal Lusitanians often acting behind enemy lines with distinction. Collins then commands what must be called a “scratch” brigade, it having only short duration for a specific task. When they move off into the field they will show:

1st May 1811 [en route for the field at Albuera]

1/5th                                                                                                                                                                 
610 PUA

2/5th                                                                                                                                                                        
375 PUA

5th Caçadores                                                                                                                                                          
400 PUA

For a short while we must leave 17th Regiment who are to stand by prepared for action as and when required, Collins gets his men well placed on the field at Albuera not too far from that village and to the right of the Portuguese of Hamilton Division.

As the battle of 5th May develops they are not to be called either forward in the defence of Albuera itself nor to shift right to where all hell is breaking loose, not, that is until the fight on the “Spanish hill” has virtually died down but then, Collins Brigade is brought up into the killing ground. His men will see the French, gathering up their multitude of disordered columns and in slow retirement, Collins himself urges his men forward presenting as solid a line as the mass of dead and injured and “fought-out” men before them will allow. Captain James Johnson of 5th Regiment leading on his men is wounded here as are 3 more officers and 36 of his men, a further 10 being killed, their advance has taken them into the enemy ranks so much so that 10 more are to be taken prisoner. The Caçadores have 5 men killed and 25 wounded with just one more captured. In the ensuing retreat of the French their artillery batteries, well positioned for the task put down a blanket fire to halt the oncoming rush. It is here that Collins himself comes to grief, his leg severed by a cannonball, down he goes, his warlike exploits by no means over but for now at least, well and truly “out of the game”, so:

5th May 1811[after the fight on the Spanish hill at Albuera]

1/5th                                                                                                                                                                
575 PAB

2/5th                                                                                                                                                                       
350 PAB

5th Caçadores                                                                                                                                                         
369 PAB

The short liaison between 5th Portuguese Line and 5th Caçadores ends as quickly as it had begun, burial duties completed they went their various ways 5th back to Elvas and 5th Caçadores to Campo Mayor, Collins to base hospital where his first stump had to be shortened further followed by a convalescent period before he returns for duty sporting a cork leg.

We can now study the career of 17th, left at Elvas for only a few more weeks, out they come being attached to the new British 7th Division and a short journey to join the second siege of Badajoz. By 6th June their volunteers of the two Grenadier companies are set to assault a breach of the walls of the Fort San Christobal, as it turns out very securely defended, with others they are soundly defeated in their object and in their case to lose 37 grenadiers for no good reason. Only three nights later in they go again, their leader Major Alexander McGeachy, [a Captain of 11th Regiment of Foot] killed in its approaches, the grenadiers contributing a further 30 men to the casualty lists. When this siege is abandoned the Regiment will still show reasonable figures considering the constant dangers involved in trench duties, so:

17th June 1811 [after raising the siege at Badajoz]

1/17th                                                                                                                                                               
745 PAB

2/17th                                                                                                                                                                      
405 PAB 

Parting from 7th Division back they go to Elvas to re-join 5th Regiment until March of the following year, however after the bloody but successful storm of Badajoz Colonel Manley Power picks them up to be installed in that much troubled fortress as a temporary garrison. Power’s later movements we shall pick up in their own good time suffice it to say that both of these infantry units will be withdrawn from Badajoz to follow Lieutenant General Rowland Hill’s Corps manœuvring about Estremadura in late June of 1812.

No figures are available although what we do know is that rather than join Hill’s regular force they are employed in communications duties along the Truxillo/Merida roads as Hill takes his men on into the Madrid zone. As events turn from offensive to defensive with Marshal Nicholas Soult’s Corps entering the area from Valencia it is natural that 5th & 17th Regiments should retire more upon their home base than move with the main army, this they do going all the way back unimpeded to Elvas. For 1/2/5th Regiment this spells the end of duty out in the field remaining at Elvas to the end of hostilities.

17th Regiment however will surface during 1813 in quite an unusual position to be examined as its time approaches. For more information on the 17th Regiment, see: 1st Caçadores of Castello de Vide, 3rd Caçadores of Villa Real, and the 17th Regiment of Elvas

So ends a Brigade that really “never got off the ground”.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2012

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