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.

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