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”.
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
Nevertheless, when the French Marshal came up against the lines on
11October 1810, he had already succeeded in
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
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.
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:
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
Another panoramic view, this time from the French position.
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
1. Orders of battle for this brigade differ from recorded accounts
of the battle.
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.
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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