Military Subjects: Virtual Battlefields

Battle of Sabugal 3 April 1811

Virtual Battlefield Tour

By Vic Powell and Colin Jones, Portsmouth Napoleonic Society

“one of the most glorious that British troops were ever engaged in”.

Wellington

When Marshal Massena’s invasion of Portugal ended in April 1811, the previous eight months had presented a squalid and systematic devastation of a country’s fortitude and well being. Napoleon had set his general an impossible task, omitting any succor, blindly ordering a march into a land whose adversary was more than prepared for the onslaught of a marauding army. Neither, Napoleon nor Massena could of ever foreseen Wellington’s plans in case of such attack.

For nearly a year the defensive lines of Torres Vedras had been under construction and the tightly knitted intelligence
blockade had amazingly rendered the whole thing a complete secret. Wellington had said that the French could not turn him out of Portugal with less than 100,000 men and Napoleon had supplied Massena with only 65,000.

Nevertheless, when the French Marshal came up against the lines on 11October 1810, he had already succeeded in
outflanking the Allied army at Bussaco and had pushed the bulk of the army to the lower environs of Lisbon.

In short, The Duc de Rivoli thought he was doing quite well despite the set back of losses he had incurred at the Battle of Bussaco on the 28th September. To the utter surprise of the entire French army, the line of defensive works that now lay between them and the success of ‘driving the leopard into the sea’, reared itself as a formidable and impregnable row of forts, redoubts and sub-joined walled firing platforms. There were three lines of 153 emplacements in total and the first two lines stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Tagus shoreline, effectively cutting off all access to Portugal’s southern peninsular. In reality, the capitulation of Lisbon was now out of the question and Massena began to make preparations for the coming winter. Eventually he abandoned the offensive for the defensive and concentrated his winter cantonments in a triangle with his three corps within a twenty-mile distance of each other. The ‘scorched earth’ policy adopted by all the armies of this time meant that Massena’s troops lay in a barren land wrecked by the ravages of war, with little or no provisions to feed an army of this size and many diarists and historians alike have written about the inevitable scenes of despair.

Incredibly the French Marshal held out all winter against immeasurable odds, but on 3 March 1811, Massena issued the orders for a general retreat and Wellington resolved to follow in his wake. There were numerous clashes between the allied vanguard and the French rear as they made their exit from Portugal to their nearest garrison at Cuidad Rodrigo on the central frontier of Spain. The action at Sabugal was the last of these combats in which both sides displayed a sanguinary determination to win.

Fought in torrential rain and heavy fog, fraught with difficulties and combined confusion.  The heavily outnumbered victors struggled against an exhausted and demoralized enemy that had once exhibited the epitome of a Napoleonic field army, in a war that was later to become known as the Spanish Ulcer. Eyewitness, Sir Harry Smith marched over the battlefield the following morning and wrote in his memoirs

“Oh, you Kings and usurpers should view these scenes and moderate ambition!”

Combat of Sabugal

Wellington’s plan for the eviction of the invading army from Portugal was quite simple.

By the beginning of April, Massena’s army lay along the line of the river Coa, only a day’s march from the Spanish frontier. The French 9th Corps in the north, formed the extreme right flank and was in the vicinity of the fortress of Almeida. The French 6th Corps was in the centre, while the 2nd Corps at Sabugal on the extreme left flank.  The 8th Corps was considerably to the rear. Wellington chose to turn the French left by launching the Light Division, around the back of Reynier’s 2nd Corps who were posted on some heights behind the town.

Strategic Map of Sabugal

The whole exercise was to be supported by a frontal assault using Wellington’s four other available divisions (1st, 3rd, 5th & 7th). Unfortunately, the turning column, crossed the river too far to the north and instead of coming round the back of Reynier’s left they hit the enemy full in the flank. Secondly, the leading brigade of the Light Division became separated from the rest of the division and was, for the best part of the battle, without any support at all.

Weather and bad leadership, were the main causes of this mis-management.  The morning’s march began in a heavy mist only clearing about half way through the combat, when a deluge of rain again abruptly terminated a brief spell of fine weather.  Obscured visibility meant that none of the commanders could really see what they were doing or where they were going.

The whole event was again marred by the inconsistencies of their commander, Sir William Erskine, who had taken temporary command of the Light Division following Robert Craufurd’s home leave. Harry Smith’s description of the man is far from complimentary, when he called him “a near- sighted old ass.” Sir William made three possible fatal blunders:

First he ordered the Light Division to cross the river before the remainder of the army were in their designated positions.

Secondly, when the 1st Brigade became embroiled with the enemy and were in a perilous situation, he ordered the 2nd Brigade not to advance in their support.

Thirdly, both these orders were sent blind as Sir William, who was with the cavalry in the rear, was scouring the river for a suitable place to cross and did not enter the field of battle until it was all over. Many have said that if it wasn’t for the remarkable quality of the Allied soldiers and the fact that Brigadier Drummond, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, who ignored Erskine’s order to hold, the day could have easily ended in disaster.      

Nevertheless, despite the obvious difficulties Drummond’s Brigade did eventually come to the aid of the 1st Brigade and the 3rd & 5th Divisions appeared on the scene in the nick of time rendering Reynier’s position untenable. He therefore was compelled to call a general retreat.

Wellington wrote on  9 April

“Although the operations of the this day were, by unavoidable accidents, not performed in the manner in which I intended they should be, I consider the action that was fought by the Light Division, by Colonel Beckwith’s Brigade principally, with the whole of the 2nd Corps, to be one of the most glorious that British Troops were ever engaged in.”

Panoramic View of Sabugal
Panoramic View of the Sabugal Battlefield
The panorama was taken from the tower in the castle at Sabugal. Looking from left to right you have the main position of the French forces; on the ridge centre in the distance is the route of the French attack; on the right, the route of the British 5th Division's attack.

Another panoramic view, this time from the French position.

Panoramic View of Sabugal
Panoramic View of the Sabugal Battlefield
The panorama was taken from this is taken from the centre of the French ridge:
.Beckwith's attack was on the left, Picton's in the middle, and Dunlop's on the right.

Sequence of Events

Beckwith’s 1st Brigade crossed the river around 10:00hrs and immediately came into fire with some French pickets who were easily driven off. However this alerted the four battalions of the 4th Leger from Merle’s 1st Division who quickly formed column of divisions on the forward slope of the hill. The skirmish line was weak and was quickly driven in by the companies of the 1/95th and 3rd Cacadores. Merle advanced down the hill and drove in Beckwith’s skirmishers but found that the density of his units were a good target for the Allied firepower and had to withdraw after considerable loss.

Tactical Map of Sabugal
Tactical Map of Sabugal

Beckwith followed up the withdrawal, through a small chestnut wood and onto the crest of the hill. Here, he was confronted by the remainder of Merle’s division, seven battalions of the 2nd Leger and 36th Ligne. The early morning mist had now turned into rain and much diminished the firepower on both sides but the French having a 2 :1 superiority of numbers forced Beckwith’s men back down the hill and into some stone walled enclosures. Sergeant Anthony Hamilton of the 43rd Light infantry observed:

“In this charge, twenty – seven of my own company were cut down, thirteen of whom were killed, and the others, myself among the number, wounded. Under these circumstances the leading battalion would probably been sacrificed, had not Colonel Beckwith, with great promptitude, retreated behind some stone enclosures, which enabled him to maintain his ground.”

For a time the rain ceased and after some heavy exchanges of musketry the French fell into disorder and retired back to the crest to reform.

The Brigade, went up the hill a second time in pursuit but Merle had positioned two guns which could now come into play on Beckwith’s right flank.

Colour Sergeant Thomas Benjamin Garrety of the 43rd describes the situation:

“Fortunately, Reynier, little expecting to be attacked, had, for the convenience of water, placed his principal masses in the low ground, behind the height on which the action commenced; his renewed attack was therefore uphill; yet the musketry, heavy from the beginning, now increased to a storm. The French mounted the acclivity with great clamour; and it was evident that nothing but the desperate fighting could save the regiment from destruction. Captain Hopkins, commanding a flank company of the 43rd, immediately ran out to the right, and with admirable presence of mind seized a small eminence close to the French guns and commanding the ascent by which the French troops were approaching. His first fire was so sharp that the assailants were thrown into confusion; they rallied, and were again confounded by the volleys of this company: a third time they endeavored to form an attack, when Hopkins, with a sudden charge, increased the disorder.”

The situation was made worse by the re–entry of the rallied 4th Leger who began to come in on the left and two squadrons of cavalry were also approaching from the right.

Once more the allies were forced back to the shelter of the stone walls.

Fortunately for Beckwith the 2nd Brigade now made an appearance and came up to support the right flank. After a bitter struggle the French fell back in disorder and the Light Division regained the crest.

Garrety of the 43rd continues:

“Beckwith, wounded in the head, and with blood streaming down his face, rode amongst the foremost of the skirmishers, directing all with ability, and praising the men in a loud, cheerful tone. I was close to him at the time. One of our company called out, Old Sydney is wounded. Beckwith heard the remark and instantly replied, but he won’t leave you: fight on, my brave fellows; we shall beat them."

"The musket bullets flew thicker and closer every instant; but the French fell fast: a second charge cleared the hill, a Howitzer was taken, and the British skirmishers were even advanced a short way down the hill, when small bodies of French cavalry came galloping in from all parts, and obliged them to take refuge in the main body of the regiment.”

“ The English line was now formed behind a stone wall above; yet one squadron of Dragoons surmounted the ascent, and with incredible desperation, riding up to this wall, were in the act of firing over it with their pistols, when a rolling volley laid nearly the whole of them prostrate. By this time however, a second and stronger column of infantry had rushed up the face of the hill, endeavoring to break in and retake the howitzer, which was on the edge of the descent, and only fifty yards from the wall. But no man could reach it and live, so deadly was the 43rd’s fire. One of my comrades, having previously passed the howitzer, took a piece of chalk from his pocket, as he said, marked it as our own, and we were determined to keep it.”

Reynier, had he known right from the beginning, the size of his adversary, would of surely sent the whole of his available force en masse a lot sooner and dispensed with each individual attack as they appeared. Instead, he waited until Merle’s infantry were almost in flight before calling up Foy’s brigade of Heudelet’s Division.

All hell broke loose again, the seven battalions of the 17th Leger and 70th Ligne joined the fight for the summit, the two French squadrons charged again upon the flank of the 52nd  and a British squadron of the 16th Light Dragoons now entered into the melee.

At this moment the weather cleared again and Reynier caught sight of the two British divisions advancing from the west. The 5th Division were crossing the bridge at Sabugal and Picton’s 3rd Division were rushing in upon the flanks of the 17th and 70th.

Contemporary View of Sabugal
Contemporary View of the Sabugal Battlefield

Reynier’s position was now hopeless and he ordered a general withdrawal. The 47th Ligne and the 31st Leger were the only fresh troops that had missed out on the earlier fighting and these regiments were used to cover the retreat of the broken 2nd Corps.

A full pursuit by the allies was out of the question because of the bad weather.

Nevertheless, a squadron of the 1st KGL Hussars fell on the French transport column and captured the private baggage of Reynier and General Pierre Soult.

The following day  Massena’s army marched back across the frontier to Cuidad Rodrigo and would not see another major action for a month – Fuentes de Onoro on 3 May.

 View of Sabugal Cast;e View of Sabugal Castle
Two Views of Sabugal Castle

Losses and Conclusions

The total loss of the French during the combat was 61 officers and 699 men.

Sir Charles Oman notes that the proportion of officers to men lost would normally be 1:20, but at Sabugal it was 1:11. and suggests that the disproportion in the commissioned ranks was due to the gallantry with which they threw away their lives in bringing up to the front the shaken and demoralized soldiers, who could not face the English musketry. Oman also states that one gun and 186 unwounded prisoners were taken. This conflicts wildly with some of the Allied accounts of the action, some who purport that the French casualties and prisoners taken were anything up to 1500 men. I have rested on Oman’s figures as they seem to be more realistic.

The Allied casualties are well documented and differ little between sources. Of the total of 179 men no less than 143 were from the Light Division. Eigthty of these belonged to the 43rd regiment and as Oman remarks, it is sufficiently clear from these figures who had done the fighting this day.

The individual losses for each regiment from both sides can be found on the orders of battle. One must remember that the whole battle lasted just one hour.

The French general, Baron Thiebault gives the reason for Reynier’s failure at Sabugal and blames him for upsetting Massena’s plan of evacuation

“It might have been avoided if General Reynier had had faith in Massena’s foresight; but in the conviction that he had in front of him only a fraction of the Anglo-Portugeuse army, he let himself be brought to an engagement with nearly the whole army, and luckily was not aware of it till about 11 am, when the fog cleared off and he found himself outflanked  and attacked in front by forces which he could not resist. Unluckily, too, the 2nd Light infantry and the 36th of the line, having won a momentary advantage, gave way to their impetuosity and lost more than they ought to have done.”

The fact remains that Reynier did not know who he was facing and could of inflicted a severe blow on the Allies before the rest of the army came up.

Regardless of the reasons why or what Reynier should or should not have done, the battle will always be remembered in history because of the unbelievable gallantry of Beckwith’s 1st brigade, and in particular the 43rd Regiment.

It seems fitting to conclude on a quote by an eyewitness from that regiment, Thomas Garrety, who gives a brief but revealing insight into the minds of the men who fought on that day.

“I scarcely ever before saw such determined firmness in our troops. It amounted almost to invincibility. During the action there was through our ranks to be observed a fierce and terrible anger, before the breakings forth of which the enemy quailed and fled. Our fire was given with singular exactness and rapidity. This fine conduct arose partly from a sense of extreme personal danger, - for of that not a man was insensible; and partly from the desire which I believe prevailed every breast, of properly supporting the officers engaged. Among others, I had been unusually excited, and had dealt out wounds and destruction with an unsparing hand. In endeavoring  toreach the enemy, all concern for my own preservation was forgotten.”



Allied Order-of-Battle      Beginning Strength Losses
Light Division: Major General Sir W. Eskine Commanding
Light Division: (Beckwith's 1st Brigade)

1/95th Rifles (4 Companies)        

254                     

17

1/43rd Light (10 Companies)                                    

754                    

80

3rd Cacadores (5 Companies)                                   

510                      

8

Light Division: (Drummond' s 2nd Brigade )

2/95th Rifles (4 Companies)   

357      

3

1/52nd Light (10 Companies)


635                     

23

2/52nd Light (Kept in reserve and did not take part in the action.)

1st Cacadores (5 Companies)

510                      

3

1st  KGL Hussars (1 Squadron)                                

120                          

2

16th Light Dragoons (1 Troop)                                  

50                           

4

3rd Division: General Picton Commanding
Comprising of: 2/5th, 1/45th, 5/60th, 2/83rd, 1/88th, 2/88th & 1/94th

Notes:

1. Picton's troops did not enter the battle until it's closing stages.

2. The total losses for this Division were only 25 and many of these casualties must of taken place during the pursuit of the retreating enemy.

3. The 5th Division under General Dunlop entered Sabugal without any loss whatsoever

French Order of Battle Strength Losses
Reynier's 2nd Corps

Merle's 1st Division Brigade Sarrut

2nd Leger (4 Battalions)

350 per Battalion            91

36th Ligne (4 Battalions)


309 per Battalion                  
96

Brigade Graindorge

4th Leger (4 Battalions)  

275 per Battalion        8

Heudelet's 2nd Division Brigade Foy

17th Leger (3 Battalions )

303 per Battalion        177

70th Ligne (4 Battalions)

318 per Battalion 244

Brigade Arnaud

31st Leger (4 Battalions)

418 per Battalion 10

47th Ligne (4 Battalions )

415 per Battalion  8

Cavalry Brigade: P. Soult

1st Hussars (1 Squadron)

80 12

22nd Chasseurs (1 Squadron)

80 16
Divisional Artillery

5.5" Howitzers

2 Howitzers
20 Men
1 Howitzer and 10 men

Notes:

1. Orders of battle for this brigade differ from recorded accounts of the battle.
2. Apparently the 2nd Leger or the 36th Ligne had one absent battalion and could only muster three battalions on the field that day. See the 2nd Leger strength on the map opposite.
3. Pierre Soult's Brigade was the only cavalry that could be brought into line on the day, although the remaining Regiments of the Brigade, (including the 8th & 25th Dragoons, and Hanoverian Chasseurs), lost a total of 12 casualties during the retreat.
4. Battalion strength figures were derived by dividing the regimental strength by the number of battalions. The actual strengths for each battalion is unknown.

Getting There

Thirty kilometers east from the central Spanish frontier is the walled city of Ciudad Rodrigo. It lies on the main N620 road from Guarda in Portugal to Salamanca in Spain. From Rodrigo take this road due west until you reach the border. Just past the border and before Villar Formoso turn a sharp left onto the N332. Follow this route due south towards Nave de Haver and Aldeia da Ponte. For 20 kilometers this road runs parallel with the frontier and actually crosses the battlefield of Fuentes de Onoro. At Aldeia da Ponte the road begins to sweep round to the west and it was at this point that many of the Peninsular soldiers left the road and made for a short cut, when travelling east across the border to Ciudad Rodrigo, via Fuenteguinaldo and El Bodon. However, we wish to head west onto the N233 past Alfaiates and Rendo. After approximately 15 kilometers the square shape of Sabugal's Moorish castle will be seen in the distance. One can either go directly to the castle to view the battlefield from the towers or turn a sharp left towards the village of Quadrazais. After 2 kilometers you will need to find somewhere to park the car and alight. A good map of the battlefield, some walking boots, a bottle of the local Vino and an exceptional sense of orientation will eventually take you to some wooded heights that became Merle's post of command and the scene of the Light division's advance. You know when you are in the right place when you can see the Rio Coa, which has now been dammed, in front of you. There are many farmers tracks which will lead you to the desired location. Happy hunting.

Bibliography

Dobbs, John. Recollections of an Old 52nd Man Staplehurst : Spellmount; 2000. Excellent source for the dispute between the 43rd & 52nd concerning the captured gun

Garrety, Colour Sergeant Thomas Benjamin . Memoirs of a Sergeant Late in the 43rd Light Infantry Regiment Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1998.

Gurwood, John. Selections from the Dispatches and General Orders of  Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington; 1841.

Hamilton, Sergeant Anthony. Hamilton’s Campaign with Moore and Wellington Staplehurst : Spellmount; 1998.

Leith Hay. A Narrative of the Peninsular War 1834.

Oman, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War London : Greenhill; 1996.

Simmons, George. A British Rifleman London : Greenhill; 1986.

Smith, Harry. Autobiography of  Lieutenant – General Sir Harry Smith 1902.

Thiebault, Paul. The Memoirs of Baron Thiebault Tyne & Ware : Worley; 1994.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2001

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