Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Strategic Syllogism of the 1810 Portuguese Campaign: a Day of Wrath, A Day of Death: Tojal, 20 September 1810 Part IV

History and Strategic Applications: Studies for the Bicentenary, 1810-2010

By Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy


To facilitate the analytical comprehension of the researched essays series and setting the scene of the combat action, the following geographical observations (properly intended as coefficients and distance measurements, inhabited locations and roads itinerary) are deemed relevant annotations.

On the 17th the 8th corps marched through Trancoso (fourteen miles) to Venda do Cego, three miles west of Trancoso. On the 18th it passed through Penaverde, seven miles west-south-west of Venda do Cego, and reached Sotojal or Satajo. Satajo is marked by Lopez 2½ leagues north of the route and 4½ leagues north-east of Vizeu. It is evidently the same as Tojal, near which Trant’s attack took place, and which is marked on the staff map almost due west of Trancoso and five miles north of the road which trends west-south-west to Vizeu[1].

Taken in the Peninsular war, López’s[2] Atlas Geográfico de España[3] had distinctive and conferred characters of historic interest.

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Documentary piece

He confined himself, therefore, to attacking only the leading company of grenadiers, who answered by a heavy fire, killing some fifty men. The militia recoiled in alarm, and Trant, doing what he should have done at first, overlapped a portion of the convoy. As he went forward he discovered the weakness of the escort, and sent a flag of truce to the commander, summoning him to surrender or he would attack him along the line[4].

Comment: Three phrases, for a syntactic construction of (22, 21, 32) seventy-five terms.

These explanatory strategic outlines compose the informative frame of an ongoing military contingency – which was followed by determined action and extensive combat.  What emerges from the reading does not diminish the reality of the event, and the grave consequences it created for the advancing French convoy.

One thing uncannily transpires from the literary and “camouflaged” account provided by Marbot’s écriture mémoriale (written memoir): the convoy was ambushed in a pre-selected area of obstruction – that is a convenient place where the movement of the column could be easily stopped and tested in combat.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze), France. La Place Marbot - The Marbot Square.

It is clear that the action was fought on a quite large track.

On Marbot’s reported affirmations, it is relevant to note that the tête de colonne (column head) composed of a Grenadiers unit was “taken by surprise” and decimated through the lethal discharge of bullets. Although the point of the ambush is not mentioned, some deductive elements are clear and have the character of confirmation.

A) Numerically unspecified Portuguese units were placed in ambush, to check the advance and slow the progress of the whole French column.

B) By blocking the head of the French column, it was hoped to cause chaos all through the enemy lines, thus blocking the artillery pieces.

C) If the position was a natural environment for the Portuguese, it could on the other hand be a position of shelter for immediate French reaction.

Undeniably the tête of the Grenadiers opposed fierce counter-fire.

By critical analysis, it is unaccountably a fact that their strenuously sustained fire could have achieved such results of bravery without relying on the natural potential of the ground.  It is equally evidenced that if the French unit would have been mowed down in open ground, its ranks would have been almost annihilated to the last man. The heavily-engaged action which ensued points instead on the contrary of this speculative interpretation. A tremendous display of heroism took place to the last man with outstanding determination. The dynamics of warfare acquires through this episode a very significant drama of duty.

Resistance remarquable (remarkable resistance), appliée toute vigoureusement (vigorously applied) – an utter display of endurance in arms.

All of this could only be achieved by the proficiency of well-trained and steadfast veterans, seasoned combatants of many campaigns.

The killing of the Portuguese indicates that the French fire achieved a high-rate of deadly shots – that signifies excellent shooters.  Could such a level of coolness be a signal for a unit forged through long-enduring battles experiences?

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (Corrèze), France. The Statue of General Marbot.

Another matter for dispute refers to the recoiling of the Portuguese milícia (militia).  That, according to Marbot’s narrative, and on the valour in action by the revealed esprit de resistance, seemed apparently the “logical” consequence of the bloody dispute between antagonists in arms. But on a deeper examination, we meet other relevant assumptions. It is true that the milícianos (militiamen) had recoiled but not abandoned the action; they had fixed a new operative asset on ground – following the received dispositions.  Under the necessity, causative elements and impact are inferred: not to remain vulnerable to the lethal discharges and adversarial fire, the attacking Portuguese (that recourse equally implied light cavalry squadrons to trounce the resistance) had to inter-act following the trying circumstances of combat. This was not a movement of retreat, but a new practical and strategic re-location of the troop to prevent exposure, costly bloodshed and loss of human lives.  We are thus led to a better understanding: the first phase of the Portuguese opposing fire was intentional and pre-organized.

A) It aimed to check  the French column.

B) To evaluate infantry unit’s fire potential of the vanguard, therefore to block it, and to destroy it by continued fire.

C) After blocking the head, which because of the natural obstructions and heavy casualties (dead and wounded) was consistently immobilized in that position, it started the “real” and “main attack”, brought to the most vulnerable points of the French column – but not to its overall length.

Notwithstanding the confounding difficulties on the ground, shrewd dispositions are transparent of a carefully executed battle plan of action.  Acting under these contingencies, the series of engagements which lead – seemingly – to severe damages to “part” of the column (id est, the carriages), but not to the overpowering of the artillery park.

In order not to lose the much sought-after prey, the pièces d’artillerie (cannon pieces), but with a view to capture them, Trant tried to inflict the coup de grâce by means of a perceptive prevarication of war.  He asked for their immediate surrender – undeniably relying on the French severely shaken morale.  One could easily imagine the confusion which was raised in this series of battles, and in the hard-fought poches de resistance (pockets of resistance).

Time of contest

As he went forward he discovered the weakness of the escort, […]”[5].

This assertion is revealing to the point of constructive interpretation – to add new insight and thus explain the general context of the continued military action which fiercely raged amid the contenders.

As he went forward […], […]”, is consequentially referred to a comprehensive view of the general combat actions, and to their strenuous disputation in arms.

As he […], […]”, the subject is manifest to the character figure of Colonel Nicholas Trant, and the phrase is significant to have deductive evidence of the slow progressive advance of the Portuguese and the heavy fighting to reduce the resistance opiniâtre (dogged resistance) of the French.

One discerning research analyst should be very careful in pondering the first part of this sentence, and even more meticulous to reach its proper literary comprehension and unveiled actual tactical meaning.

The fighting against the checked French column proved a terrific “affair”, notwithstanding its formerly supposed quickness and persistent operative formalities.

By bringing steady fire and deadly destructive volleys on the blocked column, it appears the resilient capabilities of the French were knocked out by long-protracted phases of attrition sustained in this most difficult and static defensive position.

The severity of the fire, and the high ratio of casualties, impacted and had traumatic effects on the action.

In the protracted combat, repercussions had reached their apex.

“[…] the weakness of the escort, […]” might have been caused by the slacking off of the French muskets which was not supported by regular replenishment of ammunition – indeed a strong default.

What is evident is the diminished French counter-fire, that did not reach the targets to avoid being overshooting; therefore, any notable effort of cohesive armed resistance on the ground resulted in its execution and display of determination; evidently, in its inconsequential proficiency.

The faiblesse tactique (the tactical weakness, inadequacy) of the military (aka operative) escort and reacting armed parties had been dictated by the fact that the assumed position was unsuitable to further resolution or to any expedient tactical way out – like the contemplated possibility of manoeuvring the wagons away.

We can therefore point out an implicit differentiation, a link of connective causal reciprocity between the two “weaknesses” which have been recognized.

The first one, that of the morphological terrain; second, the numeric disproportion between the belligerent parties: Trant’s attacking force, opposed to the grand convoi (great convoy), composed of the train d’artillerie (artillery train), the parc d’artillerie (artillery park), and uncounted men-servients detached buckled down to this service (service) – all inclusive of conducteurs de chars lourds (heavy wagons drivers), equipages attelés (harnessed horse-teams for the artillery pieces), charretiers (light cart drivers), muletiers (mule-drivers), chevaux de bât (pack-horses).

Subsequently the “ground factor” did not completely favour the offensive ambition of the Portuguese assaulting infantry companies because the ground’s natural hindrances limited de facto their easy of approach – and movement of final resolution.

It is not clear because the undaunted coronel (Colonel) Trant then asked for the enemy’s surrender (is this meant to the whole French column, or does it assume a particular meaning, such as to merely signify the French fighting groups?) if he really had a conspicuous strategic superiority – in position, and regular soldiers.

Even more inexplicable, it raises the following reflection: if the Anglo-Portuguese officer had gained a recognized advantage in combat-action, why did he ask (aka offered) to give quarters to the enemy?

One plausible reply is dictated by examining that the reality of the event, of the raging military contest had revealed a more complex situation.

It is a fact that one portion of the French column had been imperilled although not partially overwhelmed, while one part defended itself with resolute determination and without giving up against adverse fighting conditions.

C’était pour l’honneur des armes (it was for the honour of the arms).

Was this valeur épouvantable (appalling gallantry) aimed to gain time for the arrival of the reinforcements to the battle?

Considerations on the Lusitanian attack: strategic escalation and armed resistance.

Under this sheer profiled methodological analysis, one can take into consideration that there were two belligerent factions counter-opposed in arms.

The first, composed of the attacking force, was led by a British officer in Portuguese service, the Colonel Nicholas Trant and relied on the active capabilities of some thousand men.

The second one, composed of a dysfunctional and incohesive defense, was formed by the French forces, counting on the grand parc d’artillerie (great artillery park), plus some support units, which, after the first particular analysis, seemed to count on a few hundreds effectives of regular infantry.

One question quickly arises following this expressed formulation: is it possible to establish which type of attack was made use of, and which was the applied dynamic of movement and execution?

Answer: it was a tactical surprise attack.

Its phases had been well-planned a sometime before and it was not at all a hit-and-run improvisation. The French column, the convoy, mostly composed of wheeled vehicles drawn by horses, was assaulted at one precise well-chosen point, well suited to dodge perilous pitfalls. It was effected by a gravitational lever action (which resulted from the number of the assaulters per “x” fire capabilities) against the head of the marching French column. It was a carefully pondered tactical movement, and pre-arranged to the final aims it was to achieve. By means of this expedient plan one wanted to slow down and stop the movement of the whole column and consequently, the advance of the French troops. The firm and primary intention was to “strategically” nail to the ground the French column. From the point of major fire at the head of the column, there would then have been launched the enveloping attack on the vulnerable flank – that remained exposed to potential enemy threats.

Therefore, this detail meant that one flank presented possibilities of protection – and could avert hostile enemy incursions. Further: it was not an attack launched on a wide range, because the manpower at hand would not have permitted a victorious corollary to the Portuguese outcome. It was a specifically defined battle action in one chosen area, and the risks of engagement had been carefully evaluated. Nothing else exceeded the pre-figured aims of the ataque (attack). The on rush seem to have been launched with great precision and in synchronicity of intent by the Portuguese units involved. The orders surely had been accomplished to the letter.

A consideration to weigh is the fact that the phase of arrest at the head of the column of the park, would have been followed by a partial winding – carried out for a short distance if not precisely the best. For the dexterity and quickness of the execution it is possible to better understand that the peculiar character of the attack had strict correlation to that of an emboscada (ambush of war) on a favourable “strong” point.

On the ground, the French did not even suspect the possibility of interposition by enemy forces.

This is all telling on the effective state of operative security by which the French founded the movement of advance -- without any concern, because they felt safe and protected from hostile incursions.  The character of the ambush was conditioned to the celeridad de ejecución (quickness of execution), condições de combate (conditions of combat), and of disengagement – in phase of hastily pulling back.  Undeniably, it presents the fact that the Portuguese military units were well-trained.


[1] Andrews, T. J.. Massena’s Lines of March in Portugal and French Routes in Northern Spain. The English Historical Review. Oxford: University Press. Vol. 16, No. 63, Jul., 1901, p. 477, l. 33-35, p. 478, l. 1-6.  

[2] The cartógrafo español (Spanish cartographer) Tomás López de Vargas Machuca was born at Madrid in the year 1730; he died in 1802. The son of Bernardo López; his mother: María de Vargas Machuca. Further detailed information can be consulted sub voce: Lopéz, Tómas. In: Diccionario Enciclopédico Hispano-Americano de Literatura, Ciencias y Artes. Barcelona, Montaner y Simón, 1892.

[3] Atlas geográfico de España que comprende el mapa general del Reyno, y los particulares de sus provincias. Por Don Tomas Lopez Geógrafo que fue de los dominios de S.M., de varias Academias y Sociedades. Año de 1804. Se hallará en Madrid calle de Atocha, frente a la casa de los Gremios, y en la plazuela del Angel nun. 19, quarto principal, junto a la Librería de Llera. In the atlas’ title page are reported the following words: Atlas geografico de España / compuesto por don Tomás Lopez y Vargas geografo por S. M. de sus reales dominios; De la Real Academia de S. Fernando, de la Real Sociedad Bascongada de los Amigos del Pais y de la Real de Buenas Letras de Sevilla. En Madrid. This important and carefully executed cartographical work counted one hundred and two that contained thirty eight mapas (maps)  in blanco y negro (white and black). Index: 1. Mapa general de España (4 hojas); 2. - Provincia de Madrid;  3. - Provincia de Toledo; 4. - Provincia de Guadalajara; 5. - Provincia y Obispado de Cuenca; 6. - Provincia de la Mancha; 7. - Provincia de Burgos, primera parte (4 hojas); 8. - Provincia de Burgos, segunda parte (4 hojas); 9. - Santo Domingo de la Calzada y Logroño; 10. - Provincia de Soria (4 hojas); 11. - Provincia de Segovia (4 hojas); 12. - Provincia de Avila; 13. - Parte provincia de León (6 hojas);14. - Partido de Ponferrada (2 hojas); 15. - Principado de Asturias (4 hojas); 16. - Provincia de Palencia (2 hojas); 17. - Partido de Toro; 18. - Partido de Carrión; 19. - Partido de Reynosa; 20. - Provincia de Valladolid (4 hojas); 21. - Provincia de Zamora; 22. - Provincia de Salamanca (4 hojas);  23. - Reyno de Galicia (4 hojas);  24. - Provincia de Extremadura (4 hojas); 25. - Reyno de Sevilla (4 hojas); 26. - Reyno y Obispado de Córdoba (2 hojas); 27. - Reyno de Jaén; 28. - Reyno de Granada (4 hojas); 29. - Obispado y reyno de Murcia; 30. - Reyno de Aragón (4 hojas); 31. - Principado de Cataluña (4 hojas);  32. - Reyno de Valencia (4 hojas);  33. - General de las islas Baleares y Pitiusas (2 hojas); 34. - Reyno de Navarra (4 hojas); 35. - Señorío de Vizcaya; 36. - Provincia de Guipúzcoa; 37. - Provincia de Alava; 38. - Reyno de Portugal (8 hojas). The Atlas was published by the sons of Tomás López after his death; this work contained many of the maps that had been realized by their father.  

Worth recalling is that in 1810 a partial impression of the 1804 printed work was edited. Atlas Geográfico de España que comprende el mapa general de la península, todos los particulares de nuestras provincias, y el del reyno de Portugal Por Don Tomas Lopez, geógrafo que fue de los dominios de S.M. e individuo de varias academias y sociedades. Año de 1810. Se hallará en Madrid, calle de Atocha frente a la plazuela del Angel nº 1, y a la casa de los Gremios nº 3. Thirty-nine maps are counted in blanco y negro (white and black). Compilative Index: 1. - Mapa general de España (4 hojas);  2. - Mapa de la provincia de Madrid;  3. - Mapa de la provincia de Toledo;  4. - Mapa de la provincia de Guadalajara; 5. - Provincia y obispado de Cuenca;  6. - Provincia de la Mancha; 7. - Mapa de la provincia de Burgos (4 hojas); 8. - Partido del bastón de Laredo (4 hojas); 9. - Partidos de santo Domingo y Logroño; 10. - Provincia de Soria (4 hojas); 11. - Provincia de Segovia (4 hojas); 12. - Provincia de Avila; 13. - Parte de la provincia de León (6 hojas); 14. - Partido de Ponferrada (2 hojas); 15. - Principado de Asturias (4 hojas); 16. - Provincia de Palencia (2 hojas); 17. - Partido de Toro; 18. - Partido de Carrión; 19. - Partido de Reynosa; 20. - Provincia de Valladolid (4 hojas); 21. - Provincia de Zamora; 22. - Provincia de Salamanca (4 hojas); 23. - Reyno de Galicia (4 hojas);  24. - Provincia de Extremadura (4 hojas); 25. - Reyno de Sevilla (4 hojas), 26. - Reyno y Obispado de Córdoba (2 hojas); 27. - Reyno de Jaén; 28. - Reyno de Granada (4 hojas); 29. - Obispado y Reyno de Murcia; 30. - Reyno de Aragón (4 hojas); 31. - Principado de Cataluña (4 hojas); 32. - Reyno de Valencia (4 hojas); 33. - General de las islas Baleares y Pitiusas; 34. - Reyno de Navarra (4 hojas); 35. - Señorío de Vizcaya; 36. - Provincia de Guipúzcoa; 37. - Provincia de Alava, 38. - Reyno de Portugal (8 hojas); 39. - Plano geométrico de Madrid Atlas publicado por los hijos de Tomás López tras la muerte de éste, conteniendo muchos de los mapas que había realizado su padre.

[4] Marbot, Baron de. Adventures of General Marbot. Edited and illustrated by John W. Thomason Jr.. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, London, 1935, p. 267, l. 11-18.

[5] Loc. cit..


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011


Miscellaneous Index | Day of Wrath, A Day of Death: Tojal, 20 September 1810 – Part I]

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