Action on the River Coa
By Robert Burnham and Gareth Glover
During the months of June and July, the French, under the command of Marshal Massena besieged the fortress city of Ciudad Rodrigo, on the Spanish-Portuguese border. On 10 July the city surrendered and preparations were begun by the French to move into Portugal. During the siege, the British were covering the frontier with a series of outposts manned by the Light Division. On 21 July the British retreated to the River Coa, after blowing up Fort Concepcion. There General Craufurd posted his Light Division on the east side of the river, with their left flank within sight of the fortified city of Almeida and the right flank 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 was in direct violation of Wellington's stated wishes.)
Early on the morning of 24 July, under the cover of a heavy storm, which made the night even darker, the 20,000 troops of Marshal Ney's Corps moved into positions to attack the British. The British initially were 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. This was the only crossing site of the Coa for many miles, (Photo #1) the Coa in this area is a fast moving river with rocky banks. (Photo #2) 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. ( Photo #3) 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. (Photo #4) 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. (Photo #5) 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.
#1: The bridge over the River Coa taken from the west bank.
#2: The River Coa, taken from the bridge, facing north.
#3: The road the British wagons retreated down.
#4: Hill where the rearguard defended.
#5: The bridge from the east bank.
The Battlefield Today
The rugged ridgeline that the British defended is to the left of the road leading from Almeida. Although it is mostly olive groves, it is much like it was, with numerous stone fences and small huts. The old road runs pretty straight down from the high ground until it reaches the River Coa, which lies between two steep ridgelines about 150 meters high. The steepness of the slope blocks the view of the river until you are almost on it. The sides of the ridges are very rocky and covered with scrub brush. The old road runs parallel and 200m north of the new paved road (N340) until it reaches the ridge above the bridge. The old road is marked as ‘private’ and is not possible to use unless with an off road vehicle or by foot. Just before the paved road cuts north and crosses the new bridge, the old road crosses the N340 at this point and the sharp curve in the road that caused the artillery caisson to flip over, still can be seen. If you turn off at this point down to the river, you are on the old road and as you return to the N340, you can see the original road running up the height on the opposite side of the road. The original bridge is still standing, however a modern bridge has been built 50 meters south of it. The old bridge was built in 1745 and is made of cut stone. It is about 100 meters long, four meters wide, and 15 meters high.
How to get there:
Depart from the main gate of Almeida (it houses the Tourist Information Office) and head southwest. Look for the signs for Pinhel. As you drive downhill towards the river, the ridgeline on the left is the route of retreat for the Light Division. Follow for about 5 km. The original bridge will be about 50 meters to the north of the new bridge across the Coa.
Costello, Edward: The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns. Costello was a rifleman in Simmons' company and also has left a very readable account. Was wounded at the action.
Horward, Donald: The French Campaign in Portugal 1810-1811: an Account by Jean Jacques Pelet. This book is the memoirs of Marshal Massena's aide-de-camp and provides the French perspective of the campaign and action.
Horward, Donald: Napoleon and Iberia: the Twin Sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, 1810 This account provides information on the background of the events leading up to the action, and the best overall description of the action using both British and French sources.
Leach, Jonathan: Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier. Leach was Simmons' company commander and between him, Smith, and Simmons, they leave a very good picture of what it was like at the company level during the action.
Napier, George: The Early Military Life of General Sir George T. Napier Napier was in the 52nd Regiment and commanded the company that was on the extreme right of the British line.
Perrett, Bryan: A Hawk at War: the Peninsular War Reminiscences of General Sir Thomas Brotherton, CB. Brotherton served in the 14th Light Dragoons which was one of the two British cavalry regiments at the action.
Simmons, George: A British Rifleman. This is the best source on the action of 24 July. Simmons was wounded in the action and left a very livid account of the action.
Smith, Harry: The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith. Smith was with Simmons and his account adds nicely to Simmons.'
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 1997; updated June 2018