The Destruction of the Bridge at Almaraz: 18 - 19 May 1812
Editor's Note: This paper was originally written in 2000. In March 2002, Mr. Pedro Prieto, who teaches Latin at the Instituto de Enseñanza Secundaria in Madrid, contacted me about the paper. Mr. Prieto grew up in Romangordo and knows the area quite well. He was very patient answering my numerous questions and correcting my errors. Mr Prieto was planning a visit to Romangordo over Easter and volunteered to take photographs, especially of the many areas that I did not have the opportunity to visit! His efforts allowed me to expand the article into its present form.
The Destruction of the Bridage at Almaraz
One of the most daring raids of the Peninsula War was the destruction of the French pontoon bridge across the Tagus River by the British in May, 1812. This raid combined rapid movement, deception, a siege, and a surprise attack that destroyed the French bridge.
The Strategic Situation
By late April, 1812, the Duke of Wellington had successfully captured the strategic border fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo. He was now poised to move into central Spain and to liberate Madrid from the French. Wellington's army was the largest army he had commanded to date and was strong enough to take on any single French army. However there were two French mobile armies in Spain: the Army of Portugal, commanded by Marshal Marmont, and the Army of the South, commanded by Marshal Soult. The Army of Portugal was garrisoned in the vicinity of Salamanca, while the Army of the South was occupying the southern provinces of Spain. Should these two French armies ever unite, Wellington would be in trouble.
A major obstacle was between the two French armies: the Tagus River. This river was wide and flowed east - west, effectively bisecting Spain. There were few bridges across the Tagus. From east to west, these bridges were at Toledo, Talavera, Arzobispo, Almaraz, and Alcantara. The bridges at Toledo, Talavera, and Arzobispo were under French control, however the bridge at Almaraz, built by Emperor Carlos I in the 16th Century and known by the local people as the Albalat Bridge, was destroyed by the Spanish on 14 March 1809 to prevent its use by the French, while the Portuguese under Colonel Mayne destroyed the bridge at Alcantara on 14 May 1809.
This left the bridges at Toledo, Talavera, and Arzobispo for the French to use. The left bank of the Tagus at Talavera and Arzobispo according to Napier was ". . . so crowded by the rugged shoots of the Sierra de Guadalupe, that it may be broadly stated as impassable for an army. . ." The road was not passable to artillery and heavy baggage, hence, any French force moving between the two armies would have to go via Toledo, an extra 700 kilometers.
The French Bridgehead
In the Fall of 1809, in order to shorten their lines of communications, the French built a pontoon bridge just west of the 16th Century bridge at Almaraz. The bridge was about 200 meters long and was built with heavy pontoons. The center span was a light boat, designed to removed at night for security. The bridge was protected by several fortifications. On the north bank, set on a hill about 200 meters back from the river
The map of Fort Ragusa was drawn by Mr. Prieto after a visit to it in March 2002. The fort's walls were about 50 meters long and were protected by a trench. In the above map, the green is the elevated ground on the interior of the fort. The area between the red lines is the trench, while the black lines shows the embankment to the fort's entrance.
The south bank had two defensive works: a fleche at the bridgehead and a fort on the hill overlooking it. Fort Napoleon was located on the Cerro del Tesoro (Treasure Hill) on the site of the Our Lady of Waters Hermitage. During 1808 and 1809, both the Spanish and French occupied the area and the hermitage was most likely destroyed during the fighting. The Spanish built a strongpoint on the hill in 1808 and the French expanded it into what became known as Fort Napoleon.
". . . a well flanked tete-de-pont, revetted with masonry on a good profile, secured the bridge, and as the ground rose immediately from the river to some heights which commanded the tete-de-pont at a short distance, a redoubt for 450 men had been constructed on their summit. This work, called Fort Napoleon, had a retrenchment across its rear, supported by a loopholed tower in its centre 25 feet in height."
About eight kilometers south of the bridgehead, along the main road that go through the mountains
". . . stands the old tower of Miravete. That tower the French had surrounded by a lower wall and rampart 12 feet in height, and had mounted seven or eight pieces of ordnance upon it. They had also fortified a large house (used as a venta) standing on the road, and had constructed two small works between the house and the tower, forming a strong line of defence across the pass of Miravete."
The French Garrison
The French garrison of about 1,000 men was a mix of troops:
Commander: Colonel AubertRégiment de Prusse (4th Étranger) 400 men
The forts were garrisoned with:
Fort Napoleon2 Grenadier companies, one each from the 6th Légère and 39th Ligne Regiments
On 7 May 1812, Wellington ordered General Rowland Hill to march to Almaraz and destroy the bridge there. General Hill had the following forces:
Infantry: Lieutenant General Tilson-ChrowneMajor General Howard's Brigade:50th Foot
General Hill hoped to capture the French fort at Miravete by surprise and then move onto Fort Napoleon. However word of the British approach reach the French and Hill had to change his plans. He divided his forces into two columns:
The first column, under the command of General Tilson-Chrowne, would make a demonstration against Miravete. This column would consist of Wilson's Brigade.
The attack on each fort was to begin at first light on 19 May. Tilson-Chrowne had no problems getting into position, however, the trip through the Pass of the Cave was not going well:
"The march of General Howard's brigade to gain the pass of Cueva was considerably longer than had been expected; but no great difficulty was experienced in reaching the top of the sierra. The descent, however, on the other side, was by a steep and intricate winding goat-path amongst rocks, and occasioned such delay in the movement of the column. . . "
It was very dark, for the moon was three quarters full and had set at 1:44 a.m. To complicate matters, the soldiers had to carry 30 foot long ladders. According to one soldier in the 71st Highland Light Infantry:
"We moved down the hill in a dismal manner; it was so dark we could not see three yards before us. The hill was very steep, and we were forced to wade through whins and scramble down rocks, still carrying the ladders. When daylight on the morning of the 19th at length showed us to each other, we were scattered all over the foot of the hill like strayed sheep, not more in one place than were held together by a ladder."
The sun rose at 5:05 a.m. and the lead elements of Howard's Brigade was only at Romangordo and still had about 2 kilometers of rough going to reach Fort Napoleon. They rested for a short while and then proceeded to continue down the hill towards the French. At 6 o'clock, the first column began its attack on Miravete and the French in Fort Napoleon crowded the southwest walls to watch the fight. The 50th Foot and the right wing of the 71st Highland Light Infantry soon reached a point about 300 meters from the south wall.
The Assault on Fort Napoleon
General Hill, although missing half of his force (the left wing of the 71st and the 92nd Highlanders) decided he would attack immediately. According to Oman:
". . . the 900 men available, in three columns of a half-battalion earch, headed by ladder parties, started up out of the brake on the crest of the hillside nearest Fort Napoleon, and raced for three separate points of its enceinte. The French, though taken by surprise, had all their preparations ready, and a furious fire broke out upon the stormers both from cannon and musketry. Nevertheless all three parties reached the goal without any very overwhelming losses, jumped into the ditch, and began to apply their ladders to such points of the rampart as lay nearest to them. . . Many men fell in the first few minutes, and there was a check when it was discovered that the ladders were over-short, owing to their having been sawn up before the start [to make them easier to carry]. But the rampart had a rather broad berm, a fault of construction, and the stormers, discovering this, climbed up on it, and dragging some of the ladders with them, relaid them against the upper section of the defences, which they easily overtopped. By this unexpected device a footing was established on the ramparts at several points simultaneously. . . "
Panic broke out among the garrison when the British climbed over the ramparts and the defenders bolted out the gate. Colonel Aubert tried to rally them and to counter-attack, but when he charged the British, no one followed. Captain Patterson of the 50th Foot stated that Aubert
". . . refused to surrender to our men, and being resolved to sell his life as dearly as he could, he placed his back against the round tower in the centre of the work where with his sabre he chopped away right and left, cutting down any rash desperado who ventured to approach his weapon. At length Sergeant Checker of 50th Light Company, a fine soldier, exasperated by the stubborn obstinacy of the Frenchman, put an end to his existence with his halberd, giving to the valiant governor the fate which, in his despair, he so resolutely courted."
It now became a race for the bridge. The French tried to reform at the flèche on the south bank, however the 92nd Highlanders had arrived at this point and forced them across the bridge. In the pursuing struggle, the bridge broke under the mass of fleeing soldiers, and scores were drown. The panic spread to the Prussian garrison in Fort Ragusa and they too fled.
General Hill quickly put the troops to work destroying the pontoon bridges and all of the stores for maintaining them. Many of the cannonballs and howitzer shells were thrown into the river. Fort Napoleon was blown up and on 20 May, the British withdrew. The fort at Miravete was never captured and on 11 July the French abandoned it. Total casualties for the Allies were 2 officers and 31 enlisted killed, 13 officers and 131 enlisted wounded. The French lost an estimated 400 men, of which 17 officers and 262 enlisted were taken prisoners.
Hill's raid on Almaraz Bridge was one of the most audacious and brilliant actions of the Peninsular War. Its success allowed Wellington to advanced against Marshal Marmont, knowing that he would be able to bring him to battle with little fear of interference from Marshal Soult. The stage was set for his victory at Salamanca and the liberation of Madrid. The destruction of the bridge at Almaraz, along with other factors, prevented Marshal Soult from moving north until the early autumn. By then it was too late to do anything but to force the British to retreat to the Portuguese border.
Views of the Battlefield
Click on any thumbnail image for a larger view.
The Site of Hill's Raid Today
The old bridge at Almaraz has been repaired and can be driven across. The castle at Miravete are ruins. On the south bank, if you drive about 300 meters up the road to Romangordo, there is a gate that permits access, without climbing over a barb wire fence, to the base of the hill where Fort Napoleon stands. A short walk through a pasture and a climb up the hill will take you to the remains of Fort Napoleon. A small portion of the tower still remains. The pass of La Ceuva is flanked on one side by a tunnel through the hills that was made for the N-V highway. The pass is still rugged and tree covered and it is easy to imagine the difficulties of the British troops moving through it. The width of the Tagus River is wider now than it was in 1812, due to a dam that was built about 30 kilometers downstream.
How to Get ThereFrom Talavera de la Reina head west on Highway E-90 (also known as the NV) past Navalmoral (about 55 kilometers). Continue on E-90 for another 15 kilometers and take the exit at the 200 kilometers sign. There will be a sign for Romangordo or N-Va . Go for about 1 kilometer and you will come to the Albalat Bridge (built by Emperor Carlos I.) If you cross over the bridge, you will come to the road that leads to Romangordo. On the left is the hill where Fort Napoleon is located. To get to Fort Ragusa, instead of crossing the Albalat Bridge, go to the right on the dirt road for about 200 meters and there will be a fork in the road. Go to the left for a short ways. You will come to a fence. There is a gate that you can walk through to get to the fort.
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Jones, John T. Journal of the Sieges Carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington in Spain Vol. 1; London : Ken Trotman; 1998.
Leslie, John (ed.) The Dickson Manuscripts Vol. IV; Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1990.
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Myatt, Frederick. British Sieges of the Peninsular War Staplehurst : Spellmount; 1987.
Napier, William. History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France Vol. II; Thomas and William Boone; 1993.
Oman, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War Vol. V; New York : AMS; 1980.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2002, Updated November 2002
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