General Robert Craufurd's Letter to General Wellington Reporting the Results of the Action on the River Coa
By Robert Burnham, FINS
First hand accounts of a battle by a commanding general are rare, unless the general is the victor. Even rarer are letters from a subordinate commander to his commander explaining why he lost an action, especially when the action was in direct violation of his superior's intentions. In the following account we have not only the losing general's report to his commander, but his commander's response.
In the summer of 1810, the French were about to begin their third invasion of Portugal in two years. They had just finished capturing the fortress city of Ciudad Rodrigo and were preparing to cross the frontier into Portugal. General Wellington, the commander of the British - Portuguese Army, knew his forces could not stand up to the numerically superior French forces, so he ordered a retreat. The British Light Division, under the command of General Robert Craufurd had the mission of screening the slowly withdrawing British forces.
General Craufurd decided to defend as far forward as possible and keep the Light Division on the east side of the River Coa. The division's left flank was within sight of the fortified city of Almeida (which was the next French objective), while their right flank was on the ridge overlooking the river. The five battalions of infantry, two light cavalry regiments, and one horse artillery battery (about 4200 infantry, 800 cavalry, and 6 guns) occupied a front of 3 kilometers. This position left the division with a virtually impassable river to its back and only one bridge to retreat across. Should the French attack them, the division would be in grave danger of being surrounded and cut-off. Map
Craufurd's deployment of the Light Division was in direct violation of Wellington's stated wishes. Although Wellington never ordered Craufurd to move to the west bank of the River Coa, on 22 July Wellington wrote to Craufurd that "...I am not desirous of engaging in an affair beyond the Coa. Under these circumstances, if you are not covered from the sun where you are, would it not be better that you should come to this side with your infantry at least?"
Early on the morning of 24 July, under the cover of a heavy storm, which made the night even darker, 20,000 troops of Marshal Ney's Corps moved into position to attack the British. The Light Division initially was taken by surprise and took heavy losses. Instead of retreating, Craufurd chose to defend the ground. The British position was extremely dangerous and Craufurd finally ordered a retreat A running fight began as both sides raced for the bridge that was the only crossing site of the Coa for many miles. The road leading to the river soon was clogged with wagons. A caisson overturned at a sharp bend in the steep road as it neared the river, further slowing the British retreat. Craufurd ordered elements of the 95th Rifles and the 43rd Regiment to hold the ridge overlooking the bridge while the rest of the division crossed. Meanwhile the 52nd Regiment, which had been making a slow, orderly withdrawal, was in danger of being cut off. A mixed force of riflemen and light infantrymen from the 43rd Regiment made a furious counter-attack. The 52nd Regiment was rescued and the rear guard pulled across the river. As the units crossed, Craufurd placed them in position to defend the bridge. Marshal Ney ordered General Ferey to attack across the narrow bridge, which was quickly repulsed with heavy losses. Two more unsuccessful assaults were made, before Ney ordered them to halt. Total British losses were over 330 men or about 16% of their force.
General Craufurd's Letter
General Craufurd's report to Wellington was written in a very positive tone, which was probably an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, considering he ignored Wellington's intentions and got his division mauled!
Carvalhal, July 25th
General Wellington's Reaction
Wellington was less than pleased with General Craufurd, yet refused to publicly censure him for the negligence that nearly lost the Light Division. Furthermore, according to Charles Oman in his History of the Peninsular War, "...so great was the confidence in which Craufurd was held by Wellington, that their correspondence shows no break of cordiality or tension of relations during the ensuing days." Yet Wellington's true feelings of frustration were revealed in a letter to his brother Henry:
"Although I shall be hanged for them, you may be very certain that not only I have had nothing to do with, but had positively forbidden the foolish affairs in which Craufurd involved his outposts. . . In respect to the last... I had positively desired him not to engage in any affair on the other side of the Coa... I had expressed my wish that he should withdraw his infantry to the left of the river. . . After all this he remained above two hours on his ground after the enemy appeared in his front... during which time he might have retired across the Coa twice over... You will say, if this be the case, why not accuse Craufurd? I answer, because if I am to be hanged for it, I cannot accuse a man who I believe has meant well, and whose error is one of judgement, and not of intention."
For more information on the battle and a virtual tour of the battlefield click: Action on the River Coa
Napier, William. History of the War in the Peninsula and in the South of France Vol. III; London : Constable; 1993. Pp 288 - 296
Oman, Charles. History of the Peninsular War Vol. III; New York : AMS; 1980. Pp 257 - 266
Rathbone, Julian. Wellinton's War: His Peninsular Dispatches London : Michael Joseph; 1984. Pp 101-102
Robinson, H. B. Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, G.C.B. &c, including His Correspondence, form Originals in Possession of His Family Volume 1; London : Richard Bentley; 1835. Pp 282 - 284