Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on the Portuguese Infantry of the Peninsular War 1807-1814: Loyal Lusitanian Legion

By Ray Foster

This creation brought together during the period of Junot’s first foray into Portuguese military affairs had its part to play and we shall see it during the “Wellington era” as it was to pass on its “survivors” when the British influence began to assert itself in the Peninsula. Support for its establishment came from all kinds of Portuguese/ British institutions, military, aristocratic/business enterprise, religious and patriotic. Showing most energy about the northern centre of Oporto where all of the above forces worked their power to bring about its creation battalions of infantry soon came together.

Those who would have these men under hand saw that a form of highly manœuvreable type of organization would be required if any headway was to be made against the men of the French invader. Although not documented as Caçadores these infantrymen by their actions in the field were easily recognised as light infantry albeit at times perhaps even irregular, under the hand of the British brigadier Sir Robert Wilson they achieved occasional exploits putting them briefly amongst the best of Portugal’s fighting units. It is not beyond understanding that Wilson had already grasped the truism that in the Peninsula offensive operations against a rapidly developing semi-static French army of occupation his men, in conjunction with Spaniards of similar composition could wreak havoc using tactics of a guerrilla character if only they were to receive cooperation from the regular armies there.

As the French incursions waned after Junot’s first success’s turned sour small numbers of cavalrymen joined the “Legion”, quite likely absorbing the main part of that country’s poor supply of military horseflesh and of competent horsemen too.

To compliment a promising flowering of Portuguese resistance a few artillery teams with small calibre cannon drawn most likely by some of the native mules came to the colours to suggest that a unit of all-arms might have a place in the struggle to preserve what the supporters saw as their heritage. Military circumstance soon saw them thrown into action with the odds stacked very much against them. Against French units based about Salamanca Sir Robert and elements of the “Legion” was however able to present a defensive line on the border of such ingenuity that the enemy Divisional commander Lapisse tasked with seeking out the real strength of his opposition was held at bay long enough for the offensive to slip from his grasp, his foe able to hold a line no more than gossamer thin.

Amongst the mixed value/militia forces under the hands of the likes of Trant, Mayne and J Wilson the legionnaires were seen as their core troops when battling away on the frontier both north and south.

The efforts made by Sir Robert Wilson in support of Wellesley’s advance upon Madrid in the summer of 1809 was perhaps of the greatest value to the “cause”, it consisted of a wide left flank attack deep into the un-occupied soft northern area to the north-west of Madrid itself. With several units of Spanish troops also in this force they presented a threat far beyond their real potential [a situation that Sir Robert always made the most of] going eventually so far as to put themselves in real danger of being cut off and captured.

When the battle at Talavera had been fought to a standstill it was left to the fiery Marshal Victor to hunt down and destroy such of the Legion and its Spanish component as could be caught.

Victor whilst failing completely in his task was more by chance than design able to throw the legionnaires into the path of a full Corps of Frenchmen [6th Corps] advancing down from the north under Marshal Ney.

At the Pass of Banos this was almost the undoing of the Legion, with typical panache Wilson stood at bay holding a strong defensive position that all too soon was outflanked by sheer weight of numbers. His men it is said, were forced to flee by whatever route they could, broadcast, but at least into friendly country. Those that were able to return to the colours after a full year of confusion and indecision were sufficient to fall naturally into the new organization slowly taking shape under the hand of Beresford, although for some long while not easily traceable.

Sir Robert Wilson, by now a feisty 33 year old who had tasted truly independent command found it impossible to bend the knee to either Beresford himself or this new regime exchanging hard words with the “establishment”, Wellington himself, diplomatically leaving the written word to others no doubt was happy to see the end of this altogether far too successful charismatic cavalier.

By early 1811 we see that 7th/8th/ Caçadores were successively being formed using principally those survivors of Wilson’s LLL with others from Baron Eben’s, infantry [that had conveniently remained about Oporto protecting his “interests”] only coming into the field as late as April 1812 and numbered 9th Caçadores.

Colonel Hawkshaw, Major Lillie and Captains Aubraya and Western who feature in the adventures of 7th/ 8th Caçadores had all been present as LLL officers thus carrying on their light infantry role while brigaded into the fighting British Divisions to the end.  Those fragments of light artillery and horse that survived the rout at the Pass of Banos were not seen again as substantive units no doubt being absorbed piecemeal into the relevant units of those arms of the service under Beresford.

It only remains to mention that Sir Robert, outwardly undismayed by his unceremonious exclusion from affairs Portuguese continued his earlier association with the Russians showing up [as was his style] here-there-and-everywhere even so far as being present at the battle of Leipzig as the Napoleonic star was fatally fading. His eventual retirement from Governorship of Gibraltar with the full rank of General saw his chest well covered in an impressive array of medals from many countries.

It is not too difficult to see Wilson as a land-based equivalent to the Royal Navy’s Captain Cochrane, another whose adventures during this period tended to ruffle the feathers of authority!

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2012

 

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