Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Coa

It’s usually called the “combat” of the river Coa, rather than the “battle”. It was a relatively small affair, but could easily have ended in the loss of the famous Light Division.

The French approach to the bridge

On 24 July 1810 the light division was deployed on the right bank of the river Coa just outside the walls of Almeida. Wellington had advised Crauford to withdraw to the left bank, but the latter had delayed. The division was completely surprised by the advance of Ney’s VI Corps who quickly pushed them down the steep hill to the river bank. On that day the river was deep and could only be crossed by the single bridge.

From the Allied side, the hill in the background is Macleod's knoll

Fighting a desperate retreat the division reached the bridge and crossed to the safety of the left bank. Battalions were mixed up in the scramble downhill, and a group held a small knoll on the right bank overlooking the bridge. As the French renewed their attack this group was ordered to withdraw. As they did they saw five companies of the 52nd making their way to the bridge along the bank of the river on the right bank.

This simple cross is for the fallen of both sides

Major Macleod led about 200 men forward in a desperate charge which drove the French back and they regained the knoll. The five companies crossed the bridge to safety, and MacLeod withdrew over the bridge.

This is the view the defending light division had of French attacks on bridge

Once on the left bank the light division deployed on the hill overlooking the bridge which provided them with excellent protected cover close enough to the bridge to destroy each French attempt to cross. The light division lost about 300 men in the rout to the bridge. The French lost twice that number in repeated attempts to cross the same bridge.

Jan sketching on the allied side of the bridge

The bridge makes it easy to identify Macleod’s knoll and the hill occupied by the light division to hold the bridge. The river was completely dry when we visited, with steep banks and full of large rocks. It was very difficult to climb down to the river, and more so to cross even without a raging river. Looking up at the knoll from the bridge it was easy to see how important it was to hold this position until all of the allied infantry had crossed. And standing on the hill overlooking the bridge it was clear that any attempt to storm the bridge must end of failure.

Whilst I spent a couple of hours exploring the area, Jan sat beside the bridge and did this sketch.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


This was our second visit to Almeida, which during the Peninsular War guarded the northern corridor against a French invasion from Spain. It stands on the Portuguese side about 15 miles from Cuidad Rodrigo on the Spanish side.

The town wall and fortifications are complete, as are many of the military installations inside the town, including the magazines. It is possible to have a guided tour of the magazines, with their piles of musket balls.

The state run hotel is a modern building with comfortable accommodation and lots of parking. But it is a disappointment after the state run hotel in Cuidad Rodrigo, which is in the castle which was the French headquarters during throughout the war. The hotel is within the town walls, and it was interesting exploring the streets, the site of the explosion and the military buildings. But there was no where to eat or buy a drink, other than the hotel. And that was, as the state run hotels always are, pretty expensive.

The rest of the town is just as you would imagine. I understand that most of the buildings were damaged during the explosion of 26 August 1810, which is probably better known as the setting for Bernard Cornwall's book "Sharpe's Gold". If so they have been repaired and the narrow streets feel much as they must have done on that fateful day. This is the view from our hotel bedroom.

This is a drawing Jan did of the same view from our hotel bedroom

A very quiet town, some of the buildings still bear the scars of the mighty explosion. The only transport I saw inside the town was a donkey drawn cart, which added greatly to the period feel of the town.

In August 1810 the French marched from Salamanca on the long awaited invasion of Portugal. Marshal Ney laid siege to Almeida and Wellington hoped that the garrison would delay them for at least two months. It had provisions to last that lone and a strong Portuguese garrison commanded by Colonel Cox, a British officer.

The town powder magazine was in a large building on a slight hill at the top of the town. The French artillery opened fire on 26 August, and one of the first shots fired somehow exploded the magazine. The town was ripped apart by the force of the explosion, and about five hundred people killed. It is said that not a single buildings was left with a roof though most of the fortifications were undamaged. It is said that because the magazine was on high ground, most of the force of the explosion went above the walls. This photo was taken at the scene of the explosion, which is still covered by the remains of the building.

The whole area where the magazine stood is still bare, no attempt having been made to build again on the spot. The day after the explosion the garrison surrendered and Marshal Ney departed on his long march to Busaco and the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Fort Conception

Fort Conception lies a few miles north of Fuentes de Onoro just inside the Spanish border with Portugal. It was the home to the Light Division, but they blew it up in 1810 as Marshal Ney approached on his march to Portugal.

Despite the damage done in 1810 the fort is still in a good condition, though many of the larger rocks have been removed by local farmers for use in their own houses and walls. It is open to the public and we spent an afternoon there wandering around without seeing any other visitors.

After a quick look around, Jan settled herself down with her sketch pad, whilst I explored the abandoned and empty buildings.

The sketch that Jan did of the ramp approaching the main entrance

It was a very hot day and I should have given Jan my hat to protect her from the sun – but I did give her my handkerchief to make a very “natty” headdress.

The most impressive part of the fort still intact is the main entrance, with its Spanish royal crest engraved in stone.

Much of the walls and most of the interior casements and storage areas are still intact and very interesting to explore. Its hard to imagine such easy access to a historical site in UK. Apart from being charged admission there would no doubt be many areas fenced off in the interests of health and safety.

Fort Conception is one of the most interesting sites we have visited. Many of the most famous soldiers of the period, such as Jonathan Leach, John Kincaid, Harry Smith and George Simmons were members of the Light Division and would have spent long periods in this very fort. It was fascinating to read their experiences whilst sitting where they wrote them.

Although the structure was blown up in 1810 the fort was used by the Light Division on and off during the next three years as they guarded the frontier between Spain and Portugal.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cuidad Rodrigo

On the night of 19 January 1812 Wellington’s army stormed and captured the French held city of Cuidad Rodrigo. It was the first successful operation of its type conducted by the British Army in the Peninsular War. Allied casualties were 105 killed and 390 wounded.

Cuidad Rodrigo was one of the highlights of our first visit to Spain, and we wanted to return to explore the city some more. The river Augeda flows around the walls of the city, and presented a serious obstacle during the siege.

Jan finds some welcome shade under a tree lining the approach to the main entrance. You can clearly see the tower of the cathedral, which was visible above the walls and used by the allied artillery as a firing point.

Another view of the castle and walls. The castle is now a paradore, a luxury state run hotel. We had spent a night here during our previous visit, and treated ourselves again this time. It is said that from the window of one of the rooms you can throw an orange into the gun emplacement captured by O’Toole. The castle was also the scene of the surrender by the commander of the garrison.

The main square has changed little since 1816. This was the centre of the drunkenness and looting which followed the storm “… is true that soldiers of all regiments got drunk, plundered and made great noise and confusion in the streets and houses in spite of great exertion on the part of the officers to prevent it.”

On a warm evening we had dinner sitting out in the same square. Jan did this drawing of the corner of the house on the right in the photograph above.

The Greater Teson was the site of the First Parallel. It is now covered in a housing estate, and we could not find a spot to take a photographs of the town. However this one was taken from Jac Weller’s “Wellington in the Peninsular”

We did however find the site of the Little Teson where the Second Parallel was sited. You can see why the tower of the cathedral was used by the allied gunners to aim their shots. There are still clear signs on the tower of the damage done by the same gun