France Militaire. Histoire des Armées Françaises

de Terre et de Mer de 1792 à 1837

By A. Hugo, published by Delloye, Paris, 1838

Vol. 4 pp 58-68 "Expédition du Portugal"

Translated by Tim Mahon

Preparations against Portugal

Since 29th September 1801, when Portugal concluded a peace treaty with France in Madrid, the court at Lisbon had resisted all the intrigues of British agents, who had several times tried to persuade it to renounce its policy of neutrality and top draw it into the Coalition. All these attempts having failed, the British government sought a more effective method of achieving its ends and, on 13th August 1806, an English squadron dropped anchor off the mouth of the Tagus. The following day, five ships of the line and a frigate and moored before Lisbon. But this demonstration did not succeed – the Portuguese Regent did not give in to promises nor threats and Admiral Saint Vincent, commander of the British squadron, set sail again, having obtained nothing.

But a large part of the Portuguese population – principally that of Lisbon – did not share their government’s belief that France had only benevolent intentions towards their country. The article of the Treaty of Madrid that called for the barring of English vessels from Portuguese ports had been evaded. Napoleon therefore decided that, in order to have this treaty faithfully observed in all its requirements, the presence of French troops in Portugal was called for. Revisiting his plan of 1801, he hastened, shortly after the Peace of Tilsit, to order troops to be drawn from the Brittany coast and the depots in the interior and to be assembled close to Bayonne under the denomination of the 1er corps d’observation de la Gironde.

The Emperor, in announcing to the condé de Lima, Portuguese ambassador in Paris, his decision to occupy certain areas of Portugal in order to ensure observance of the 1801 treaty, also told him to inform the court in Lisbon of the following imperative requirements; 1 – that Portuguese ports be definitively closed to English ships; 2 – that all subjects of Great Britain be arrested and deported from Portugal; 3 – that the goods, furnishings and buildings of all English individuals be forfeited. The ambassador was also warned, moreover, that if the Prince Regent did not signify his conformance to these three requirements by 1st September, then the peace would be considered to have been broken by this action alone and that the French and Spanish ambassadors to Lisbon would demand their passports.

Meanwhile, England had begun to exercise its influence on the Portuguese court again. It had demanded that the Prince Royal – son of the Prince Regent – should take himself off to Brazil. This plan of the Court of Saint James was already under way – the young prince’s household was already formed and a governor appointed who was completely supportive of English plans. It was in the middle of these machinations that the Prince Regent received news of the demands of the French government. He hastened to inform the Tuileries that, conforming to its wishes, he had returned the British ambassador’s passport, closed his ports to the English and recalled his own ambassador from London. At the same time, he announced that he would never, under any pretext, accept the entry of foreign troops into Portugal and that, should such an invasion take place, he would remove his court to Brazil to avoid an unjust and tyrannical domination.

Napoleon was not at all moved by the Prince Regent’s threat to move the seat of his government to Brazil. In fact, this possibility gave him the hope of arriving even more quickly at the realisation of his plans for having Portugal, the Kingdom of Etruria and the Roman States at his disposition – and Spain too, perhaps. He thus concluded a secret treaty with Izquierdo, Godoy’s agent, which was signed at Fontainebleau on 27th October. The articles of this treaty effectively meant that the King of Etruria – a prince of the Spanish royal family – would renounce his Italian possessions and would be compensated by way of the Portuguese province of Entre Douro et Minho and the city of Oporto, with the title of the Kingdom of Northern Lusitania; that Godoy would have complete sovereignty over the province of Alentejo and the kingdom of the Algarves, under the title of the Principality of the Algarves; that the provinces of Beira, Tras-os-Montes and Portuguese Estremadura would remain disposable until the conclusion of a general peace, when they could be disposed of according to circumstances and any agreements that may be made later; and that at the conclusion of the peace, or at the latest three years after signing the treaty, Napoleon would undertake to recognise the King of Spain as Emperor of the Americas and that the King would have the right – for himself and his successors – of appointing the rulers of the new Portuguese kingdoms, should the reigning dynasties come to an end.

The Spanish government gave its agreement for the passage through its territory of the army destined to act against Portugal and on 17th October the French troops were set off on their march. They marched in 16 columns, each at one day’s distance from the other. General Junot, first aide-de-camp to the Emperor and Governor of Paris, had been appointed commander of the expedition.

March of the French by the valley of the Tagus

The expeditionary force at first contented itself with occupying positions between Valladolid and the Portuguese frontier, but General Junot soon received an order to enter the country immediately and place himself at Alcantara, there to unite with a Spanish corps commanded by General Caraffa and, from there, to march on Lisbon via the right bank of the Tagus. Meanwhile, General Taranco would enter the province of Entre-Duero et Minho from Galicia with sixteen battalions of infantry from Castille, and General Solano, with eight Spanish battalions, was ordered to enter through the province of Alentejo, to skirt the left bank of the Tagus and to occupy Setubal, with its batteries facing Lisbon.

The French army suffered greatly during the march from Salamanca to Alcantara. The difficult nature of the roads and, above all, the lack of supplies, led to the loss of a great number of soldiers, who were mostly young conscripts drawn from depots in the interior of France. Junot had been promised that at Alcantara he would find supplies and munitions in abundance and had therefore preceded his troops to that place. He found, however, to his chagrin, that no measures had been taken to provide these supplies and he therefore had to stockpile them himself from every part of the city and the surrounding area. He seized all the lead and powder that existed in the area, and the archives of the chevaliers d’Alcantara, a military religious order, were seized to furnish paper for cartridges. The central depot for the army was established at Alcantara.

The advanced guard left Alcantara on 19th November, under the orders of General Maurin and arrived at Castello-Branco the following day. The three French infantry divisions and the cavalry division followed the same path, while the Spanish troops flanked the march of the French columns. After having suffered renewed privations and having witnessed the death through fatigue and misery of large numbers of young soldiers, the various divisions arrived at Abrantès between 22nd November and 2nd December, with the artillery being attached to the first division. Here the army took a much needed rest and found both footwear and provisions.

A corps of Portuguese troops had been concentrated at Thomar. No sooner had Junot arrived at Abrantès than he sent one of his aides-de-camp to the commander of this force with a letter by which he portrayed the entry of Franco-Spanish troops into Portugal as a benefit to the kingdom. The Portuguese general held to this opinion and not only hastened to leave Thomar, but headed for the coast to be prepared to defend it against English troops, should this be necessary. Thomar was occupied by General Caraffa on the same day.

The French advanced guard, commanded by Colonel Grandseigne, chief aide-de-camp to Junot, left Abrantès on 26th November and took up positions at Punhete, where Colonel Vincent, commander of the engineers, was also to be found. A bridge of boats was to be built across the Zezere to facilitate the army’s passage.

The roads that now had to be followed were in an awful state – especially for artillery – and Junot embarked all the equipment of this arm on boats at Abrantès on the Tagus, in order to bring them down the river as far as Lisbon. The horses of the artillery train would be led by hand by land.

On the night of 26th November Junot assembled all the boats that could be found in the area to bring his advanced guard across the Zezere. He wanted to accelerate his march, but the number of vessels available between Abrantès and Punhete to build a bridge of boats was insufficient. The passage of the advanced guard was made vastly more difficult by the flooding of the river, which rose by almost twelve feet during the night. Finally the French managed to reach the right bank of the Zezere, where they found a number of redoubts and batteries abandoned by the Portuguese. On the same day the advanced guard rested for the night at Golega and the first division at Cardiga.

On the same day Junot had a meeting with a citizen of Lisbon named Barreto who told him that, such was the uncertainty with which the Portuguese government viewed the French expedition, everything in Lisbon was being prepared for the departure of the court. Junot responded, in the same manner as he had written to the commander at Thomar, that the entry of Franco-Spanish troops into Portugal was completely in the interests of that nation, that the sole objective of the expedition was to close the kingdom’s ports to the English and to defend the country if necessary. Junot ended by asking Barreto to go to the Prince Regent and plead with him to suspend his departure, so that Junot himself could meet with him to clarify how these events were in the Prince’s interests. Barreto, in order to conform with Junot’s wishes, galloped off to Lisbon.

The advanced guard bivouacked at Cartaxo on 28th November and the first division at the bridge over the Alviella at Pernès.

Departure of the House of Braganza for Brazil – Entry of the French into Lisbon

Junot arrived at Sacavem, scarcely a league from Lisbon, on 29th November, where he found several deputations from the capital seeking him. The first, composed of Portuguese general officers, apprised him of the fact the Moniteur of 13th November – in which was to be found the statement that “as a result of actions taken by the Prince Regent, the House of Braganza has ceased to reign in Europe” – had arrived on 25th at Lisbon via a merchant vessel sent from London to ambassador Lord Strangford. The delegation added that, this announcement having dispelled any uncertainty, the Prince Regent, together with his family, his ministers and practically the whole entourage of his court, had set sail on the morning of the 28th, that the Prince, on parting, has nominated a Council of government charges with maintaining order and tranquillity in the realm, and that an English fleet was at the mouth of the Tagus, carrying troops and seemingly manoeuvring to enter the port: finally, that the capital was in a state of stupor.

Junot reassured the deputation and charged them with carrying to the provisional government the information that he would be responsible for public tranquillity, and announcing his intention to enter Lisbon with his army the following morning, 30th November.

Junot could do no more than repeat these assurances to the second deputation, composed of merchants and citizens of Lisbon. He gave them a proclamation, which was posted that night on the streets of the capital.

The royal family had effectively embarked, the Queen – finding an instant of rationality – crying out “why are we not fighting?” The people grasped at the Prince Regent’s knees and only left his side with great reluctance, as they would their household gods.

Meanwhile, Junot’s situation was far from reassuring. He had no news of the troops following the advanced guard and the first division and was separated from them by renewed flooding. Further, the news he had from Lisbon did not encourage him – the population was agitated and he had no news on the disposition of the 350,000 souls of the city, not counting 14,000 regular troops.

Having sent couriers to the generals commanding the columns that were following him, Junot left Sacavem, where he had passed the night, before daybreak on 30th November. He had with him four battalions drawn from elite companies of the army, amounting to 1,500 men. At eight in the morning he entered Lisbon, with no cavalry, no artillery and practically without a usable cartridge.

The comte de Novion, a French émigré, awaited Junot at the head of a detachment of the municipal police at the entrance to the city and escorted him to the lodgings that had been prepared for him. He reassured Junot on the disposition of the capital, stating that for the last two days, with no more than the 1,200 men of his force he had contained the population and instituted surveillance that assured order and tranquillity.

Junot named a French regency and the Patriarch of Lisbon published a pastoral letter in which, having eulogised Napoleon, he enjoined his countrymen to submit to their conqueror. The Inquisition also circulated a letter in which they counselled peace and submission.

In order not to unnerve the people through sudden change, Junot left the flag of Portugal flying above the château of Saint George until 15th December, when he held a grand review. The tricolour was raised and greeted with a salute of artillery salvos and cries of Vive l’Empereur! from the entire army of occupation. But the assembled population showed themselves to be far from well disposed and mutterings made themselves heard in the crowd.

Having made all the administrative decisions he judged necessary, Junot turned to the cantonment of his troops. The first division remained as a garrison for Lisbon and its environs. The second, commanded by General Loison, was stationed at Mafra, Cintra, Torres Vedras and Peniche. The third replaced General Solano’s troops at Setubal, the general having received orders to return to Spain, and also relieved the battalions of the first division found at Belem and Casacès, which returned to Lisbon to join their comrades. A battalion of Swiss in French service were sent to Elvas and another to Almeida. At Junot’s command, the governmental council had ordered the governors of these two places to hand them over to French commanders designated by Junot, and the two battalions thus became garrisons. General Maurin was sent to the Algarves with two battalions. General Quesnel was named governor of the city of Oporto and the province of Entre-Duero et Minho, with command over all the Spanish troops stationed there. Effectively the Spanish generals had received orders to follow the deployment of Junot, under whose orders they had been placed – which was an infraction of the treaty of partition. General Kellerman commanded the area on the left bank of the Tagus, where the cavalry was encamped.

On the arrival of the French, the Portuguese army was partially concentrated at Lisbon, where it received successive orders to quit the city and to disperse. Instructions were issued to furlough a third of the soldiers, but this number was far surpassed in practice.

At the end of December, Junot’s corps adopted the title of l’armée du Portugal by imperial decree.

Junot – Governor-General of Portugal

We have already noted that the Prince Regent had named a Regency Council on his departure for Brazil. This body raised continual objections to the actions Junot wished to take for the government of the country. There was not alternative for Junot but to adopt violent measures. In order to shelter from ultimate responsibility, he informed the Emperor of all that had taken place and, in return, received the title of Governor-General of Portugal, with all the powers appertaining thereto.

The installation of Junot took place on 1st February 1808, with all due pomp and ceremony. It took place at the palace of the Inquisition, where the Regency Council had convened in extraordinary session. There, in the presence of all the officers of his staff and of those persons responsible for the administration of Portugal under his orders, he made known to the Council the orders he had received and the manner in which he proposed they be executed. He then announced the dissolution of the Regency Council and made known the names of new ministers, of whom half were French and the other half Portuguese.

Troubles in Oporto – Disarmament of the Spanish

The establishment of a new government in Portugal was viewed with indifference by the populace. Business continued as usual and tranquillity reigned in the kingdom until news was received of the first stirrings of the war in Spain.[1] The Spanish troops forming part of the army of occupation in Portugal let their discontent show to such an extent that two bodies of French troops, totalling 8,000 men (all those available from Junot’s army) were directed, one to Almeida, the Portuguese stronghold on the frontier with the Spanish province of Salamanca, and the other to Cadiz.

A Spanish regiment had already raised its standard in revolt in refusing to move as ordered and others were in the process of doing so when, on 9th June, Junot learned of the defection of sixteen Spanish battalions stationed at Oporto. They had abducted their commander, General Quesnel, as well as the officers of his staff and the leaders of the civil and military authorities. These gross acts of insubordination determined Junot to order the general disarmament of all remaining Spanish troops in Portugal.

Despite the difficulties of carrying out this operation, due to the fact that the Spaniards, forecasting what action might be taken against them, were on their guard and had charged their weapons, the disarmament was achieved in twenty-four hours with no real resistance.

Landing of the English in the Algarves

The conduct of the Spanish troops was not the only critical factor causing disquiet for the French commander. He learned of the interception of his officers and couriers sent via Badajoz – he sent more via Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, but they suffered the same fate. From this moment forward all communication between Portugal and France by land became [virtually] impossible.

Resolution was urgently required and Junot took the following actions: he ordered General Loison, commander of the 4,000 men he had sent to Almeida, to take a regiment of light infantry and six cannon to Oporto, which found itself without a governor, administration or troops, thanks to the defection of the Spanish. A battalion despatched from Torres Vedras should arrive there about the same time that he would. Meanwhile two battalions would remain in Almeida under General Charlot, and a regiment of dragoons belonging to the same column was recalled to Elvas.

The other 4,000 men who had departed for Cadiz under General Avril, received dispatches ordering them to halt and to occupy the towns of Estremoz and Evora in the Alentejo with a battalion and the 4th Provisional Dragoons; another battalion was directed to Elvas while the Légion du Midi, commanded by Colonel Maransin, was tasked with holding Mertola and Alcoutim, at the mouth of the Guadiana, and to defend the river course as well as the coastline between Villa-Real and Faro.

Just as this deployment was being carried out, Junot was advised that Spanish insurgents from Andalusia and Estremadura were threatening to cross the Guadiana into the Algarves, where they hoped to rouse the populace. The appearance of launches from Cadiz, filled with 2,000 muskets and munitions, entering the river and arriving at Villa-Real and Alcoutim, proved that the rumours were true. A little later, sixteen English men of war and forty transports with 5,000 troops on board appeared off the mouth of the Guadiana. Several battalions were disembarked at Faro and fomented insurrection throughout the eastern part of the Algarves. Faro was occupied by a French detachment, which was made prisoner despite a vigorous defence and the same fate befell a company of the Légion du Midi at Alcoutim. The English troops, those Spanish insurgents who had crossed the Guadiana and joined forces with the locals, and all the Portuguese garrisons which Junot had conserved to this point and who had suddenly turned against him, surrounded and brought pressure to bear on Colonel Maransin, who had meanwhile withdrawn to Mertola, where he rallied his troops.

Uprising in Portugal – Progress of the Insurrection

The Portuguese did not wait for the assistance promised by Britain before rising up en masse. While events in the Algarves were taking place, the general direction of the movement became apparent on 15th June, when insurrection broke out in Lisbon, Oporto, Braga, Chaves and in the main towns of the provinces of Tras-os-Montes, Entre-Duero et Minho and part of Beira simultaneously. General Junot promptly restored order in the capital, but was unable to achieve the same in the provinces. The insurgents quickly captured or murdered all the isolated Frenchmen they could find.

The insurrection proceeded at a terrifying pace and by 20th June all the Portuguese provinces were occupied by the insurgents, or threatened by forces much larger than those commanded by the various French generals. This critical situation was further exacerbated by the appearance, off the mouth of the Tagus, of an English fleet carrying 10,000 troops.

Council of war – Measures taken by Junot

Junot was loath to take any step without consulting the senior officers of his army. He called them to a council on 26th June and, after having informed them of the situation of the army, “demanded their written opinion within two days on what most effective measures should be taken and to set forth their most radical ideas – making the point that he wanted light thrown on the situation, not just wise counsel. He was consulting them, but would be the sole decider of the course to take and would bear sole responsibility for it,” according to General Thiébault’s account.

On 28th June a second conference took place, at which the generals put forth their ideas, the consensus of which was that the army should be concentrated at Lisbon, leaving garrisons only at Elvas, Almeida and Peniche; to cover as far as possible Setubal and the left bank of the Tagus, the better to be able to manoeuvre on both banks; to reconnoitre and cover in succession positions at Leiria, Ourem, Thomar, Santarem, Rio-Mayor, Obidos, Peniche, Sacavem and Cintra; to maintain a hold on Lisbon until the last possible moment and only to quit the capital for Elvas, where the troops could be rested and from which a withdrawal to Madrid, Segovia or Valladolid could be effected; and finally to manufacture a large quantity pf biscuit and to arms and provision the various fortresses and castles.

These plans were approved by Junot, who recalled the troops of General Loison who were marching on Oporto as well as all those of General Kellermann, save for a battalion of the 2nd Swiss and a half-battalion of the 86th Line regiments, which formed the garrison of Elvas.

Revolt at Villa-Viciosa

While all these preparations were under way, the inhabitants of Villa-Viciosa rose against the garrison of their town, which consisted of a company of the 86th Line. This small body of troops, surprised and taken unaware, defended itself courageously and managed to occupy an old fort. The insurgents attempted two assaults without result except to hide from a withering fire from the rooftops and steeples, and the French managed to maintain their position.

General Kellermann, on learning of this new development, ordered General Avril – who was with him at Estremoz – to chastise Villa-Viciosa with three companies of the 86th Line, fifty dragoons and a single artillery piece. Meanwhile Kellermann, with the rest of Avril’s troops, marched on Evora, where Colonel Maransin found himself in a critical position, to cover this officer’s withdrawal.

As soon as General Avril arrived at Villa-Viciosa with his troops the inhabitants, lying in wait in the nearest houses, opened fire but this soon withered, and the French charged the village and took it at bayonet-point. Several hundred Portuguese were killed, but the village was spared, despite the odious behaviour of its inhabitants.

Revolt at Beja

Colonel Maransin withdrew on Mertola and from there sent 100 infantry and 30 dragoons out to Beja, on the main road of the Algarves, in order to check the security of his communications. When this detachment approached Beja it found the town in full revolt and was obliged to adopt a defensive position on the road. Warned of these events, Colonel Maransin set off with the remaining 950 men of his command and advanced on the rebellious town. He had little more than rashness to support his action, since he had no artillery, the town was surrounded by high walls, its gates were barricaded against him and the opposing forces outnumbered him five to one.

These factors did not prevent Maransin from seizing the town after a stubborn fight. All villagers found armed were put to the sword, the houses where insurgents took refuge were burned and the town pillaged. The Portuguese lost 1,200 men, whereas French casualties were no more than 80.

The example made of Beja stopped the insurrection in the Alentejo for a moment. After this expedition, Colonel Maransin joined Kellermann at Evora and the latter officer fell back on Lisbon with all his troops.

Occupation of the fort ‘La Conception’

General Loison arrived at Almeida on 5th June with four battalions, a regiment of dragoons and six cannon. His orders enjoined him to keep watch over Ciudad-Rodrigo and Salamanca and to hold himself in readiness to act in concert with a French corps commanded by Marshal Bessières, due to arrive here shortly. He therefore advanced to the Portuguese frontier, a league beyond Almeida, beneath the walls of the Spanish fortress of La Conception, leaving only a small infantry detachment to occupy Almeida.

He wrote to the commander of the fort, proposing to occupy it, basing his suggestion on the fact that the Spanish garrison was too weak for a position of such importance. The Spanish commander was not deceived and refused to quit the fortress. But, Loison having demonstrated his will to attack, the Spanish quit the fort by night through a postern gate and withdrew on Ciudad-Rodrigo. The French occupied the fort the following day and Loison garrisoned it with two companies of the 86th Line.

Advance of General Loison in the Tras-os-Montes and Entre-Duero et Minho

The defection of the Spanish troops had left the provinces of Tras-os-Montes and Entre-Duero et Minho undefended. Several days after the occupation of La Conception, Junot ordered Loison to take control of these provinces. Loison left to General Charlot the command of those troops he left at Almeida – two battalions of the 32nd Line and the 4th Swiss and instructing his replacement to maintain control of La Conception for as long as was able to and not to quit that fort unless forced, and only then after having destroyed the fortifications, he further enjoined Charlot to send on to Almeida all the artillery (except for a dozen pieces) and all the palisades, wood and iron that he found there. These orders having been passed on, Loison left on 17th and marched on Oporto with two battalions of the 2nd and 4th Light, 50 dragoons and six pieces of artillery, the rest of the cavalry being sent to Elvas.

Loison’s advance was continually interrupted by bands of insurgents he was obliged to fight and which he defeated without trouble. But the further he advanced the more troublesome these incidents became. Loison soon learned that Oporto was in full revolt and that the Portuguese regiments in the city (those of Viana, Braga and Chaves), though disbanded some while ago, had reformed and united with the local militia and, accompanied by the local insurgents, were advancing to meet him. He decided he was unable to continue his advance and therefore recrossed the Douro and arrived at Lamego on 22nd. Having continued his withdrawal with no other incident than an engagement close to Castro-Dayro, where he killed 400 insurgents, Loison received a dispatch at Celorico that ordered him to return to Lisbon and he arrived at Almeida on 1st July. He left a garrison of 1,250 men in this town – those least able to endure the fatigue of active campaigning – withdrew the two companies of the 32nd in La Conception and ordered the demi-lune and the two northern bastions of the fort to be destroyed.

The Capture of Guarda

Having given his orders at Almeida, Loison moved on to Guarda with 3,600 infantry and 50 dragoons. A delegation from Guarda had assured him he would be well received in the town, so it was with some surprise that he learned from the officers he had sent ahead to organise lodging and supplied returned with the news that the gates of the town had been closed against them and that they had been fired upon. He continued his advance and, arriving at Guarda, found a band of insurgents drawn up before the town in two lines. A battery of two cannon was at the centre of their line and their flanks were well supported. In a few moments the Portuguese were completely overthrown and the French charged into Guarda, the Portuguese having lost 1,000 men in the brawl. Loison moved on and arrived at Santarem on 11th July after having had several further inconsequential brushes with the insurgents. Since his departure from Almeida, General Loison’s column had suffered some 60 killed and 140 wounded, whereas he had inflicted more than 4,000 casualties on his opponents.

Dispersion of a body of 20,000 insurgents at Leiria

Junot awaited the arrival of Loison’s column with impatience, since he lad learned that 20,000 insurgents were advancing on Lisbon along the banks of the Mondego, with the avowed intent of obliterating the handful of French defending the capital.

Junot was not a man to be intimidated by such an attack, but it was nevertheless necessary to find a manner in which to halt this formidable body, which could not help but grow during the course of its advance. He ordered General Margaron to advance towards the insurgents and at the same time to try to gain news of Loison’s progress. Margaron left with a force composed of four elite companies of the 47th and 58th Line, two battalions of the 12th Light and 92nd Line, two squadrons of dragoons and chasseurs and six cannon. He encountered the Portuguese force at Leiria, beat it and put it to flight after having killed 900 and taken all their colours, which were sent on to Lisbon. He then advanced on Thomar, whose citizens abandoned the town on his approach.

Combat of Alcobaza – New uprisings

While the events we have described above were unfolding on the right bank of the Tagus, a landing of 10,000 British troops was about to take place at the mouth of the Mondego. These troops were to unite with a corps of 15,000 Portuguese, which had already chased away from their positions the French detachments placed at Alcobaza and San-Martinho.

Junot ordered General Kellermann – just arrived in Lisbon with the troops he had gathered from the Algarves and the Alentejo, to move off to the threatened area. Kellermann left Lisbon on 10th July, destined for Alcobaca with the 3rd Provisional Dragoons, General Brénier’s brigade (one battalion of the 15th and two of the 70th Line, one battalion of the 58th and two pieces of artillery) and General Margaron’s column.

At the same time General Junot ordered Loison to unite with Kellerman and Margaron, to destroy the assembled enemy he would find at Alcobaza, then to march on Coimbra with all his forces, to suppress that town and then return to Lisbon immediately afterwards.

General Loison immediately left Santarem, where he had arrived on 11th July, but by the time he joined Kellermann, the latter had already dispersed the enemy forces – less considerable than had been rumoured – and the landing of the English troops had not yet commenced. Loison immediately set off for Coimbra, but a series of serious events, which unfolded with astonishing rapidity, arrested his advance. At the sight of the English fleet and its convoy, which had just reappeared off the mouth of the Tagus, there was widespread defection among the Portuguese troops manning the forts and batteries of the coast and among those bodies of troops at Lisbon. Several Spanish regiments, coming from Badajoz, united with the insurgents of Alentejo, who were now revolting en masse, and finally the enemy advanced on Setubal.

Junot recalled Loison with all his troops except a battalion of the 4th Swiss, which remained at Peniche, and the 2nd Light, left at Obidos with two pieces of artillery and 50 dragoons under the orders of General Thomières, the 4th Light, which occupied Rio-Mayor and Santarem, and the 32nd Line which, under the orders of General Charlot, returned to Abrantès with two cannon and 50 dragoons.

Combat and capture of Evora

Junot now turned all his attention to the Alentejo, where the Portuguese insurgents were now joined with the Spanish. The rebels, now organised in several corps, in advancing on Setubal, threatened to establish themselves on the heights at Almada, from which they could hinder the activities of the batteries on the left bank of the Tagus and could prepare to move along the Tagus to link their operations with the rebels on the right bank.

Junot formed a new division tasked with opposing this double-pronged movement and gave command to Loison, with Margaron and Solignac under his orders. This division was composed of Loison’s own column, the Hanoverian Legion which had been occupying Cascaes and which had been recalled to Lisbon, several additional battalions, the 4th and 5th Provisional Dragoons and eight pieces of artillery.

This unit crossed the Tagus on 23rd July and set off for Evora, the capital of Alentejo. Arriving at Monlemor-o-Novo, the French advanced guard came across an enemy rearguard and left 50 enemy dead on the field, taking 100 prisoners. The latter, being exclusively peasants, were disarmed and sent home.

Losion’s division arrived at Evora on 30th July and found the largest body of insurgents united with the Spanish troops. A swarm of tirailleurs, supported by a battery of five guns, occupied the heights that dominated the town and assaulted the French advanced guard. The troops came to a halt and General Loison reconnoitred the enemy position.

Deployed in battle formation before Evora, the insurgents had their right wing on the heights, half a league from the town, and their left up against the ancient château of Evora. Twelve cannon were distributed along the line, four on the right, four in the centre and four on the left.

Combat quickly commenced. Solignac charged the enemy left, routed it and, from the right, pushed on to the Estremoz road. The enemy right was forced by a battalion of the 58th line, which overthrew the infantry and cavalry supporting two cannon and two howitzers – which it captured – and moved up to General Solignac’s right to cut off the enemy’s line of retreat. The centre, attacked by General Margaron, was also routed and lost three artillery pieces.

Chased from their positions, the insurgents fell back on Evora with about 500 killed and, having rallied somewhat, threw themselves into the town.

Loison called on the town to surrender. The Portuguese, somewhat demoralised by their defeat, thought noting would be better than surrender, but the Spaniards opposed the idea, and even shot some of those who seemed to be considering some form of accommodation with the French. Since the Spanish were there in force, Loison decided on an assault.

General Solignac opened the attack on the old château and overthrew everyone he found in his path. The impact of the attack was so great that part of the Spanish contingent threw itself onto the Estremoz road in order to retreat to Badajoz. Solignac pursued them, killing 300 and taking a great number of prisoners.

Meanwhile, the rest of Solignac’s troops arrived at the foot of the town walls. Some of the soldiers scaled the ramparts using ladders and the points of their bayonets; others even crawled through drains to get into the town.

A second attack was launched on another part of the town by General Margaron’s troops. Arriving at the gates to the town and not being able to breach them, they attacked the walls to left and right of the gates – despite coming under a murderous fire – followed by several officers, the first soldier entered through the resulting gap. A brutal combat started inside. Terrible musketry from the streets, the houses, the steeples and the ramparts overwhelmed the assailants, who avenged themselves by massacring anyone carrying arms and by pillaging the town.

This expedition dispersed almost all the insurgents in Alentejo and the majority of towns in the province surrendered, Estremoz among them.

During this episode the Spanish and Portuguese lost some 4,00 killed and wounded and a further 4,000 prisoners. In addition, they lost seven artillery pieces, eight sets of colours and a large quantity of arms and munitions. The French lost 100 killed and about 200 wounded.

The landing of an English army at Figueiras

General Loison arrived at Estremoz on 1st August, where he was very well received by the inhabitants. Learning that a new corps of 15,000 Spaniards had been assembled at Badajoz, he decided to move on that city. Arriving at Elvas on 3rd and the following day sent Major Theron with two battalions and the 4th Dragoons on a reconnaissance mission towards Badajoz. Two officers tasked with entering the city as negotiators accompanied the major.

As soon as the outposts saw the French coming, they retired into the city. Major Theron discovered that a part of the corps that General Loison had been told about had rejoined the Spanish army of Andalusia, and that another part had been destroyed at Evora,

Satisfied by this news, Loison prepared to march on Beja, where a new body of the enemy was assembling. Meanwhile, however, a convoy of two hundred English sail had appeared off the mouth of the Mondego and had landed a body of troops at Figueiras, complete with artillery and munitions. On learning this news Junot abruptly recalled Loison, who arrived with his division at Abrantès on 9th August.[2]

Combat of Rolica

Landed at Figueiras the English commenced their movement almost immediately. They crossed the Mondego at Coimbra, joined the 5,000 troops who had previously disembarked in the Algarves and marched towards Lisbon. Their right rested on the sea and battalions of Portuguese militia flanked their left, supported by the population of the province of Beira, which had risen en masse.

General Loison not having yet arrived, Junot sent General Laborde off with two battalions of the 70th Line, 150 chasseurs and two cannon. Two battalions at Obidos and Peniche under the orders of General Thomières were to join this force, whose mission was to oppose the enemy’s progress and to scout out an appropriate location for a general confrontation.

General Laborde arrived at Alcobaça on 11th August, where he found General Thomières and his two battalions. The following day, acting on news that the enemy had arrived at Leiria and was advancing towards him, he left Alcobaça for Obidos but, seeing no position he could occupy to military advantage, he arrived at the village of Rolica on 14th August.

The English commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley, later to be the Duke of Wellington, sent forward an advanced guard charged with reconnoitring the French positions. This advanced guard moved forward as far as half a league from Rolica, close to a windmill that marked the position of Laborde’s advanced guard. A fight broke out between these two forces and the English were repulsed with significant losses.

Knowing he had before him but a portion of the French army, Sir Arthur Wellesley hastened to take the offensive and advanced on Rolica on 17th August, having divided his army into six columns. His troops amounted to some 13,500 and General Laborde’s to scarcely 2,000 but the latter nevertheless prepared to give battle.

The English right flank extended beyond the French left in order to try turning the position, while four columns advanced against Laborde’s centre and the English left flanking column moved along the heights that dominated the right of the French position.

Commencing at nine in the morning, the combat continued till five in the afternoon. During this period – a long time considering the disproportionate disposition of forces – the French occupied successive defensive positions, namely the defiles of Rolica, Zembugheira-dos-Carros, Cassa, Prega and San-João. Each of these positions required an attack on the part of the enemy and each action cost him significant casualties. General Laborde, fighting the entire time, withdrew to Quinta-la-Bugagliers, having lost 600 men. The enemy left more than double this number of the field of battle.

During the night, the French left Quinta-la-Bugagliers and sent their artillery on to Torres Vedras. On 18th August General Laborde took up position at Montachique in order to cover the approach to Lisbon. The English general did not follow this movement, which would have drawn him too far from the coast. He took up a position such as to maintain contact with the English fleet and to be able to cover the landing of the reinforcements that England must send.

Junot’s preparations for a decisive action

General Junot wanted to deal with the English once and for all and decided to place himself at the head of all his troops and bring the enemy to a decisive battle. He took the measures necessary for the defence of the capital, therefore, and left Lisbon on 16th August, taking with him all the troops he could assemble and a million in specie for the army’s paychest.

On 20th August the entire force available to the French army – some 9,200 men – was assembled at Torres Vedras and Junot organised it into two divisions of infantry, a division of cavalry and a reserve division.

The first division, commanded by General Laborde, with Generals Brenier and Thomières under his orders, was 3,200 strong and consisted of the 2nd and 4th Light and the 70th and 86th Line.

General Loison commanded the second division, 2,700 strong and consisting of battalions of the 12th and 13th Light and the 32nd, 58th and 82nd Line. Generals Solignac and Charlot were subordinate to Loison.

The 1,200 strong cavalry division was commanded by General Margaron and consisted of a squadron of the 26th Chasseurs and the 3rd, 4th and 5th Provisional Regiments of Dragoons.

Four battalions of grenadiers formed the reserve, a total of 2,100 men with General Kellerman at their head.

The artillery, commanded by General Taviel, was split among the formations, with eight pieces allocated to Laborde’s division, eight to Loison’s and seven to the reserve.

The Battle of Vimeiro

On the morning of 20th August reconnaissance patrols sent towards the coast and in the direction of Thomas and Obidos revealed that the English army had taken up position at Vimeiro, that an advanced guard occupied Lourinha and that the enemy forces appeared to be considerably stronger than at Rolica. The English had actually managed to land a further 4,000 men on the coast at Vimeiro, commanded by General Anstruther.

Vimeiro is situated in a valley not far from the coast. A high hill, extending to the west towards the sea, is at the end of the valley. At the eastern end, a series of heights need to be negotiated in order to reach the village of Lourinha. These heights dominate a plateau situated in front of Vimeiro.

The English general never had the intention of adopting a military position at Vimeiro. Wishing to advance to contact with the French the following day, he had treated this simply as a resting place for his troops. The hill to the west of the village was occupied by six brigades of infantry and a battalion and some light troops were stationed on the plateau. The cavalry and the artillery park were encamped in the valley and the heights to the east were occupied only by a few outposts.

On having these dispositions reported to him, Junot resolved to take the offensive. At 4pm on 20th August he ordered Margaron to take his cavalry division through the pass at the exit from Torres Vedras. The other divisions followed, in a movement that lasted well into the night, since there was a league and a half to cover. But the artillery, baggage and a variety of accidents slowed down the army’s advance and it was six in the morning of 21st August before the troops were through the pass.

The cavalry division arrived on the heights to the east of Vimeiro at 9am, while the infantry and artillery continued to advance along the Torres Vedras – Lourinha road.

Informed that the French were advancing to contact, Wellesley ordered four of his brigades on the hill to the west of Vimeiro to move to meet the French. At the same time he sent reinforcements to the plateau and deployed his remaining brigades in a manner so as best to support his position. The English army thus took up its battle positions – the right flank resting on the sea and the fleet, which also protected its rear, the left flank on the hills to the east and the centre on the plateau.

General Laborde, at the head of Thomières’ brigade, attacked the enemy’s centre and General Brenier set off to attack the enemy left at the same time. The terrain delayed this latter movement by an hour – it should have occurred at the same time as the first attack and grave consequences would result from the delay.

A brisk combat ensued between General Laborde’s brigade and the enemy centre, but the efforts of the French failed to shake the English, who were constantly being reinforced by new troops coming to their support. We have seen already how General Brenier was unable to coordinate his attack on the left with that of General Laborde. Now a brigade from that left wing advanced on the flank of Thomières brigade and inflicted a measure of disorder in its ranks. On seeing this, Junot sent Loison forward with Charlot’s brigade to support Laborde and sent Solignac’s brigade to the left to support Brenier.

The attack on the enemy centre went forward with renewed vigour on the arrival of Loison. Colonel Prost, commanding the artillery of Laborde’s division, moved forward to the skirmish line with two of his guns. At the same time Colonels d’Aboville and Foy, commanding the artillery of Loison’s division and of the reserve, seeing that the repeated attacks of Thomières’ and Charlot’s brigades were having little effect on the enemy centre, sought to profit from the advantages of the terrain to bring the enemy under fire.

Towards midday the French left started to yield in its attack on the centre. Junot ordered two of his four reserve grenadier battalions to advance at the charge towards that part of the English line that flanked Brenier’s and Solignac’s brigades, which were occupied with the attack on the enemy left. But the enemy never gave this column the time to deploy and the grenadiers, suffering close volley fire that knocked down 200 men in three minutes and were then charged by the English cavalry, which took advantage of the disorder brought about by the intense musketry fire the grenadiers had suffered. The brigades of Thomières and Charlot withdrew and General Kellermann, having tried to renew the fight by committing the other two battalions of the reserve, succeeded only in arresting the enemy’s pursuit.

The French infantry was in retreat. Several pieces of artillery, having lost their commander, began to fall back in disorder when lieutenant d’artillerie Boileau, aide-de-camp to General Taviel, took command of these pieces, returned them to battery and, through carefully directed fire and encouragement of the artillerymen, helped the infantry to rally. The retreat was covered by the cavalry, which Junot had kept as his final reserve, and which executed several remarkable charges.

Meanwhile, Brenier’s brigade had finally arrived on the British left, followed by that of General Solignac. The English, somewhat weakened by the attack on the centre, found themselves severely pressed by these two brigades till the retreat of Charlot and Thomière’s troops allowed Wellesley to reinforce his left with troops drawn from the centre. A significant body of troops moved into the gap between the two French brigades, preventing them from coordinating their operations and causing them to fall back and abandon the ground they had won. They retreated, covered by the 3rd Provisional Dragoons, which Junot had sent in support of this column. Solignac, gravely wounded, was forced to leave the battlefield and Brenier, also wounded, was made prisoner. The troops continued their movement under the orders of General Thiébault, who had placed himself at their head.

By two in the afternoon all was done and the French army was in retreat. Thanks to Keller Mann’s grenadier battalions and the well-executed charges of the four regiments of cavalry, the retreat was conducted in an orderly fashion and the army came to a halt not far from the battlefield, in front of the pass of Torres Vedras.

The French suffered 1,000 killed or made prisoner, and 900 wounded, plus ten guns. Among the wounded were General Solignac and Charlot and Colonels Foy and Prost. The English suffered 500 killed, 1,200 wounded and 50 prisoners.

Retreat on Lisbon – Council of War – Negotiations

The defeat at Vimeiro left the Army of Portugal in a critical position. Junot quickly summoned Generals Kellermann, Loison, Thiébault and Laborde and posed two questions; could they give battle again? If not, where should they come to a halt?

The four generals held the opinion that they could fight neither an offensive or defensive battle and that the return of the army to Lisbon was inevitably required. According to Thiébault, the following was the reasoning of the generals. “They observed that the troops were unhappy and harassed; that the enemy’s position could not be attacked frontally; that the losses suffered by the army did not allow further manoeuvres to be carried out on the left, thus uncovering the Torres Vedras pass and Lisbon; that the enemy forces were double in number those of the French and their artillery three times more numerous, as well as being of greater calibre; that supplies were lacking; that the cavalry had very little forage; finally, that the enemy well understood the forces he had available, that his troops had gained the enthusiasm and energy the French forces now lacked and that he awaited imminent reinforcements, while the losses suffered by the French were irreplaceable and the slightest additional reverse would make it utterly vulnerable to the English and Portuguese forces.”

It was thus agreed that the army would return to Lisbon, and the first movement was made in the direction of Torres Vedras.

The following morning a second council was held, adding the voices of General Taviel, Colonel Vincent of the engineers and logistics chief Trousset to those of the generals.

The overall situation of the Army of Portugal was the subject of this second conference. News had just been received indicating the impossibility of the army returning to Lisbon, where the insurgency was in full swing. The total enemy force – Spanish, Portuguese and English – had grown to about 127,000 men and the conference concluded there was little option but to seek an honourable capitulation from the English, other than to defend Lisbon to the last man and be buried in its ruins.

General Kellermann was therefore charged with carrying to the English headquarters a proposal for an armistice and evacuation. He took as his ostensible reason for the meeting a conference on the fate of the wounded and prisoners and was skilful and lucky enough that the English took the initiative regarding further progress. A suspension of hostilities was concluded on 23rd August and the basis of a treaty mooted by which the French army would evacuate Portugal without being considered as prisoners of war in any manner. It was further agreed that 48 hours notice would be required before any resumption of hostilities.

Junot’s courageous resolve

At the moment of signing the treaty a difficulty occurred between Colonel Murray, plenipotentiary for Wellesley, and Junot. It had been agreed that all the French cavalry and artillery horses would be embarked, but Murray wanted to reduce the number to 600. Junot said should that be the case, he would annul and reject everything that had hitherto been agreed. During one of the conferences, according to General Thiébault’s account, he said the following to the English colonel. “Do not believe you are doing me any favours, sir, in signing this treaty. In this regard I will accept nothing from you or anybody else. It seems to me you are less committed to signing [this treaty] than I, so one more word and I am done; I will tear up the treaty, burn the fleet, the merchant marine and the arsenals, the customs facilities and all the commercial houses. I will destroy the forts and the defensive works, destroy the artillery and defend Lisbon step by step, burning everything I will be forced to abandon. I will make you pay in rivers of blood for every street and I will be everywhere in front of your army. In taking every possible step in my power to complete this destruction, I will bury myself in the ruins of the furthest extremity of the city and then we shall see what you and your Portuguese allies will have achieved by forcing me to this last resort. Reflect if you will on whether it is not a fair exchange – my army for one of the grandest capitals of Europe, its first class establishments, a fleet, a treasury and all the riches of Portugal.”[3]

Convention of Cintra – Evacuation of Portugal – Results of the expedition

The difficulties having been finally smoothed away and after many editorial additions, General Kellermann and Colonel Murray signed a treaty in Lisbon on 30th August that stipulated the return by the French army to the British of all forts and installations of the kingdom of Portugal; that the French troops would evacuate Portugal without ever being considered prisoners of war and that they would take with them all their artillery of whatever calibre as well as their associated horses and caissons carrying sixty charges per gun; that the army would take all its equipment with it, and the cavalry all their horses. The commanding generals ratified the convention the same day.

Thiébault’s commentary on the evacuation was as follows. “Thus was concluded an expedition which had the overall result that its constituent events had rendered possible; that had exceeded its predicted duration; that, proportionately – and despite the climate, season, manoeuvring and combat, had not been as costly in men as normal expeditions; that recalled glorious memories for the army; and that the commanding general, Junot, had concluded with a treaty the conditions of which, given his situation, were impossible to hope for. The treaty was of such a nature that he had conceded only such issues as were impossible to maintain; a treaty that – in Spain, Portugal and Great Britain – was the subject of great public disapproval and that reflected as much glory for the general who had engineered it as honour for France; a treaty by which the army, having faithfully achieved its mission in the occupation and then evacuation of Portugal, had preserved its arms, its munitions and its baggage and was able to return intact to Spain, one month after having been landed at Quiberon. The treaty contributed to the [eventual] evacuation of Galicia by the same English army, which had two months earlier been fighting in Portugal and ended up by embarking in its turn on the fleet at La Coruña.”


8th October Junot’s march to Portugal
30th November Junot enters Lisbon
1st February Junot is named Governor-General of Portugal
9th June Trouble in Oporto – Disarmament of the Spanish
  Landing of the English in the Algarves
15th June General insurrection in Portugal
17th June – 1st July Loison’s march and return to Almeida
26th June Junot undertakes his security measures – Revolt and sack of Beja
  Revolt at Villa-Viciosa
  Capture of Guarda
  Dispersion of 20,000 insurgents
5th July Occupation of the fort of La Conception
10th July Dispersion of the insurgents at Alcobaca – Renewed insurrection
30th July Battle of Evora and capture of the town
3rd August Landing of the English at Figueiras
17th August Combat of Rolica
21st August Battle of Vimeiro
30th August Convention of Cintra – Evacuation of Portugal


[1] This will be covered in the following chapter – we do not wish to interrupt this coverage of the first campaign in Portugal to report on it here.

[2] News of the English landing at Figueiras, in Mondego Bay, was followed by an almost universal insurrection throughout Portugal. The capital, however, did not dare rise up again. In Lisbon, the centre of government, the French had far more powerful means of suppression than elsewhere. Fear of prompt punishment governed popular attitudes and maintained a peaceful demeanour right up to the arrival of the British

[3] In order to turn Lisbon into a second Saragossa, according to the Prussian Colonel Schepeler in his Histoire de la Révolution d’Espagne et de Portugal, it is necessary to examine the relative means at the disposal of the population and the French forces. Had the English army promptly pursued its enemy across the broken terrain of Torres Vedras, Junot would scarcely have had time to carry out all the destruction he threatened and anyway the inhabitants of Lisbon would undoubtedly have had the last word. Junot won, therefore, as a result of his bravado and the phrase “I’ll burn the fleet”, which had undoubtedly come to him from Napoleon’s genius.

It was certainly this apparent danger that forced the hand of the British and led to the conclusion by Murray at Lisbon on 30th August of the celebrated convention known by the name of Cintra, despite the fact that General Dalrymple signed it at Torres Vedras.

“The treaty was very ill received by the British government. The commanding general was nearly disgraced – Wellesley returned on furlough to London while the capitulation was in progress. Dalrymple was recalled to face a court of inquiry and General Moore took over command of the British troops in Portugal. The majority vote approved the treaty – one voice among the minority that condemned it was that of Lord Moira.”



Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2006