Battle of Oporto 1809 (The Crossing of the Douro)
The British Perspective
Sir Arthur Wellesley (later named 1st Duke of Wellington) had been court martialed along with Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple for signing the infamous Convention of Sintra. The Treaty was signed in the Palace of Queluz near Lisbon)) which allowed the French, following a defeat, to return home in British ships with their arms and booty intact.
All three men signed the Convention, Wellesley was exonerated after a plea of ‘coercion by senior officers’, no doubt that his contacts in high places also helped in the process.
His time in England was spent producing a strategy document on how to achieve success in the Iberian Peninsula and, based on this document was given command of the second British Expedition (*) to face the French. The appointment, above more senior officers, was controversial.
The cornerstone of the strategy was to defend Lisbon at all costs. This was on the basis that, with Allied troops in Lisbon, the French would have to deploy a disproportionate number of troops to the peninsular campaign.
The Battle of Oporto (**) was a small one, often referred to as the ‘Crossing of the Douro’, but the consequences are significant both in terms of French losses in retreat and the impact on the reputation of Wellesley’s ability to ‘deliver results’.
The French Perspective
Napoleon had issued instructions to Marshal Soult to invade Portugal from northern Spain. There were concentrations of French troops in that part of Spain following the Battle of Coruña.
Soult’s invasion (the second of three French invasions of Portugal during the Peninsular War) started in March 1808.
Spirited resistance from the Bishop of Oporto and the Ordenanza (***) had little effect against a fierce French attack. The town was sacked and much of the population forced to the quayside where the French slaughtered them in great numbers and forced many into the River Douro which runs through the centre of the town.
Oman (Vol II Page 248) quotes contemporary estimates of between 4,000 and 20,000 Portuguese deaths with the French sustaining losses of only 80 dead.
Thus, a hatred of the French army was instilled in the Portuguese fighting men, an implant which served Wellesley well over the next seven years.
Marshal Soult then settled into what he understood to be a comfortable position. He had 13,000 troops at his disposal. The boat bridge had been dismantled with all other boats brought to the north bank of the Douro. His only fear was, with the Royal Navy in total control of the seas that Wellesley might land from boats at the mouth of estuary. He, therefore, sent a defensive unit to S. Joao da Foz, a fort at the mouth of the river.
Two main issues dominated in the British decision to fund a second British Expedition. A demand from Austria for £5M funding of British support for their new planned offensive against Napoleon and a royal scandal involving the Duke of York (C.inC. Army) which was filling the pages of the press daily and threatening to bring down the government.
A new British war effort seemed to kill off both problems for the government, as Britain could argue they were contributing in terms of war effort and the newspapers switched their focus. The case was reinforced when Wellesley presented a budget for the first year of campaign of only £1M.
Nevertheless, money promised and money received were often wildly different and throughout the Peninsular campaign Wellesley had to fight hard for funding, sometimes, with people who had no sympathy for the war at all. Troops often went unfed, unpaid and unsupported in terms of equipment.
The British Perspective
Wellesley’s expeditionary force landed in Lisbon and within a very short time had assessed the situation and acted. A smaller force was sent to protect against a potential crossing of the River Tagus by Marshal Victor at Alcántara and the bulk of the army was immediately marched at a rapid pace to Oporto.
About 9,000 (of 30,000 marching to Oporto) were sent some distance, north of the town, under General Beresford. This force was to cut off any retreat by Marshal Soult from Oporto.
Prior to arriving at Oporto there were two confrontations with the French at Albergaria Nova and Grijon
The French Perspective
Soult became aware of Wellesley’s strategy and with the potential to be ’boxed in’ the Marshal made the decision to retreat. However, he made two errors of judgement. Firstly, he persistently retained the idea that a marine landing would be made and therefore failed to protect the north bank of the Douro and secondly, he massively under estimated the time it would take Wellesley and Beresford to get into positions. The British marched 80 miles in four days.
Wellesley’s army arrived at the north bank of the Douro at a place called Villa Nova on the 12th May 1809. His strength is hidden from the French by a reverse slope and a building called the Convent of Serra do Pilar.
The challenge for Wellesley was to get troops across the river. Marshall Soult had moved all the boats to the north bank and, Wellesley must assume that the north bank is well defended.
The first two crossings are made at about the same time; they were those by Colonel Waters and General Murray. Both are sent up stream to scout for boats, Murray, following some intelligence, arrives at Avintes, where a sunken ferry was already under repair by the villagers and Waters used his excellent Portuguese.
General Murray takes two battalions and two squadrons across the river at Avintes and heads back downstream on the north bank to Oporto.
Meanwhile Colonel Waters had found a Portuguese citizen, a barber, an escapee from the city, with a small boat. Waters persuaded the barber to ferry him across the Douro where Waters, using his language skills, further persuades some locals to help him navigate four port boats from the north to the south bank. These boats were then used to ferry troops across the river, about 30 men per boat. There was little resistance and the French are slow to muster any defence.
Wellesley had instructed Waters to take possession of a massive and solidly built structure which was empty and unguarded. This was the Seminary and the British took possession.
General Murray approached Oporto via the Valonga Road causing panic amongst the French as this road was the main planned route of retreat. He took many prisoners.
The French eventually arrived in force at the Seminary and a fierce gun battle took place. The attack was supported by artillery but this was ineffective as there was a good distance from, the only possible place for the battery, at the Chapel of Bom Fin.
The French troops attacking the Seminary also came under fire from British artillery on the south bank, this was effective.
Following a second aborted attack by the French on the Seminary the Oporto citizens poured onto the streets killing the French wounded in the town but also running to the quayside to get more boats over to the British on the south bank, the third crossing of the Douro.
The French were routed and escaped as best they could via the Valongo Road. Murray, on his way from Avintes, let them pass thinking that the force was too large to tackle not taking account of their total demoralised state. However, this was noticed by General Stewart and, with a squadron of cavalry, attacked the French rearguard capturing 300 prisoners.
Within 26 days of leaving Portsmouth, Oporto had been captured and the French were in flight.
Retreat and Pursuit
The Battle of Oporto resulted in large losses for the French with minimum impact on the British.
But the French retreat from Oporto lasted nine days and produced the horrifying casualty figures of:
The French were pursued by the British through a treacherous mountain route which had been chosen by Marshal Soult to avoid Beresford’s flanking troops north of Oporto. Marshal Soult was forced to abandon all of his equipment and knapsacks were emptied of anything that was not food or cartridge in an attempt to navigate the mountain paths.
To make matters worse it began to rain, heavy rain which lasted for three days. The rain did offer some comfort as it meant less peasants on the trail of stragglers. If the French stragglers were caught by the Portuguese peasants then a terrible fate awaited them:
Soult headed for Braga via the almost impossible route but on nearing Braga he could see that the British were already there in force. Soult started a second retreat but this time pursued by the British. The retreat took place over very rugged terrain. On reaching the hamlet of Salamonde Soult was informed that the Ordenanza had dismantled the bridge ahead, the bridge of Ponte Nova. They had taken up the floor; taken down the balustrades then built and manned a barricade on the other side of the river. The British were very close at this stage.
Following a daring raid by 100 French in the dark and wet the bridge was in French hands. They then attempted to repair the bridge using tree trunks and boards taken from local houses. The balustrades were not replaced.
20,000 desperate troops attempted to cross the bridge. In the struggle to do so, many men and horses fell off the bridge onto the rocks below which channelled the raging River Cavado. So many men fell off the bridge that they blocked the river's flow.
Wellesley gave up the pursuit, Soult had managed to get a good distance ahead after crossing the bridge and Wellesley had, at the same time, received information (false as it turned out – it was a Portuguese skirmish with the French) that Victor was invading Portugal at Alcántara.
Soult came off the mountains near the Spanish border at a town called Montalegre. Wellesley headed south to meet up with General Cuesta prior to the Battle of Talevera.
* When the term ‘British’ is used it includes the Portuguese, about 9000 at Oporto, although not so well trained or effective at this stage as they eventually became.
** Oporto - A massive British trade in port wine was established in the town and it is believed that the British distorted the town name “Of the Port” to become O’Porto (Oporto).
*** Ordenanza -- The Portuguese equivalent of the Guerrillas in Spain
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References and further reading
A History of the Peninsular War. Vol II. Sir Charles Oman
Wellington's Two-Front War: The Peninsular War 1808-14. Joshua L Moon (Ph.D. Dissertation)
Peninsular Sketches Vol I Actors on the Scene. (Edited by W H Maxwell)
Wellington’s Peninsular War (Battles and Battlefields). Julian PagetThe Life of Wellington. Herbert Maxwell
Peninsular Eyewitnesses. Charles Esdaile
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2012