Battle of Barrosa, 5 March 1811

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Introduction
The Battlefield
The British Army
The Spanish Army
The French Army and Victor’s Plan
The Early Fighting
The Main Battle
The Aftermath
Books

Introduction

The battle of Barrosa of 5 March 1811 was the end result of one of the most significant attempts made by the garrison of Cadiz to lift the French siege of Cadiz (see Barrosa campaign). That siege had begun in February 1810, at the end of the French conquest of Andalusia. It soon became clear that the French would not be able to capture the city without first winning control of the seas, and by 1810 any chance of that was long over. The siege of Cadiz became a serious drain on French resources, absorbing the full strength of Marshal Victor’s I Corps and greatly limited Marshal Soult’s freedom of action in Andalusia.

At the start of 1811 Soult launched an invasion of Estremadura, as a belated attempt to help Massena’s invasion of Portugal. As a result the French garrison of Andalusia was weakened, and Victor was left isolated, with no significant reserves close enough to reach him in a reasonable time. When the defenders of Cadiz discovered Soult’s absence, they decided to make an attempt to lift the siege. A combined Anglo-Spanish army was landed on the coast south of Cadiz. The hope was that if this army appeared behind Victor’s lines he would be force to take a large part of his own army out of the trenches in an attempt to defeat it. This would allow the remaining troops in the garrison to attack and destroy the French siege lines, while there was a good chance that the field army would be able to defeat any force Victor could muster against it. This ambitious plan would be put to the test at Barrosa, at the south western top of Marshal Victor’s lines.

The Battlefield

The battle of Barrosa took place on a triangle of land on the Spanish coast, immediately to the south of the Isla de Leon (Cadiz lies at the northern tip of this island). The northern tip of the battlefield was formed by the peninsula of Bermeja, between the coast and the Almanza Creek. The northern part of this peninsula was within range of Spanish heavy guns on the Isla and the detached Castello de San Petri. The southern end of the battlefield was marked by the coastal village of La Barrosa, at the foot of the very minor hill known as either Barrosa Hill or the Cerro del Puerco. This hill was topped by the watchtower of Barrosa. The third tip of the triangle was in the woods on the north eastern slopes of the hill, and marked the point where Leval’s division would fight during the battle. The central part of the battlefield was filled with a pine wood, into which the British troops would disappear just before the main part of the battle.

The British Army

The British contribution to the allied army was a mixed bag of troops from Cadiz, Gibraltar and Tarifa. The garrison of Gibraltar provided a battalion made up the six flank companies of the 1/9th, 1/28th and 2/82nd regiments of foot, 536 strong. From Tarifa came the remaining eight companies of the 28th Foot. From Cadiz came two composite battalions of the guards, the 2/67th and 2/87th foot, six companies from the 95th rifles, the flank companies of the 2/47th foot and two light companies from the 20th Portuguese regiment. Cavalry was provided by two squadrons of the 2nd Hussars of the King’s German Legion.

The combined force of 5,196 men was commanded by General Thomas Graham. At the start of the Revolutionary Wars he was a Whig Member of Parliament with no military experience. In 1792 he had taken his invalid wife to the south of France, where he was a witness to some of the worst excesses of the revolution. After the death of his wife Graham attempted to return to Britain with her body. During his journey he was arrested and his wife’s coffin opened in the belief that it contained arms. What he saw convinced Graham that the French revolution had to be opposed. His first action was to raise a new regiment of foot – the 90th, or Perthshire Volunteers. This achievement made him the honorary colonel of the regiment, but gave him no real rank in the army. Despite this he travelled to the Mediterranean, where he served as an aide-de-camp for General Mulgrave. Over the next few years he fought in Italy, Sicily, Minorca, Malta, and Portugal. He had then been appointed as a British attaché to General Castaños, before joining Sir John Moore’s army in Portugal as one his aide-de-camps. His services had been so valuable that the War Office had turned his honorary rank into a real rank, and in 1810 he was given command of the British troops at Cadiz. In modern wars we are used to war-time entry soldiers rising rapidly in rank, but in the British army of the Napoleonic period this was a truly exceptional achievement. One condition of his appointment was that he had the right to refuse to serve in any expedition where he did not hold the supreme command, but for the Barrosa campaign he agreed to serve under a Spanish general.

The Spanish Army

The Spanish provided 8,000 men from the garrison of Cadiz and 1,600 men who had been operating with General Beguines in the Sierra de Ronda. This force was divided into two divisions. The first, under the command of General Lardizabal, was five battalions strong (battalions of Campomayor, Carmona, Murcia (two battalions) and Canarias), while the second, under the Prince of Anglona, was six battalions strong (battalions of Africa (two battalions), Sigüenza, Cantabria (two battalions) and Voluntarios de Valencia). The four squadrons of Spanish cavalry were commanded by a British officer in Spanish service, Colonel Samuel Whittingham. On the day of the battle La Peña was joined by General Zayas with part of the garrison of Cadiz.

The biggest weakness in the Spanish army was its commander, General Manuel La Peña. His track record was unimpressive. Two years earlier he had commanded the Spanish left at the battle of Tudela, and had watched from a distance of three miles while his commanding officer, General Castaños, suffered a heavy defeat, before retreating in safety without making any effort to help. He would perform no better at Barrosa.

The French Army and Victor’s Plan

Although he had 18,500 men around Cadiz, Victor was forced to fight with only 10,000 men. 3,500 of his troops were engineers, gunners or marines, who remained in the lines around Cadiz. Another 3,000 men were at Medina Sidonia, and despite receiving orders to join Victor on 5 March played no part in the battle. Finally Victor left 2,000 of his infantry in the siege lines. Victor’s small field army was split into three divisions under Generals Ruffin (3,000 strong), Leval (3,800 strong) and Villatte (2,500 strong).

Victor dramatically over-estimated the size of the allied army, and believed that he was facing 26,000 men. He decided that his only chance of success would be to draw them into an ambush while they were stretched out along the coast. Villatte’s division was posted on the Bermeja peninsula, blocking the road to Cadiz. Leval and Ruffin were posted at Chiclana, on what would be the right flank of the advancing allied army. Victor hoped to draw the allies on towards Villatte’s position, and then use Leval and Ruffin to attack their columns as they were stretched out along the coast.

The Early Fighting

On the night of 4-5 March the allied army made an unnecessarily long march. La Peña had intended to take the coastal road which led from Conil past the village of Barrosa to the Bermeja peninsula and contact with the garrison of Cadiz. In the dark the army missed their turn, and spent some time advancing along the road to Chiclana. At dawn they realised their mistake and cut across country to reach the coast just to the south of Barrosa. The cavalry occupied the Cerro del Puerco, and then advancing into the woods to the north. Only then did they discover Villatte’s division, blocking the path to Cadiz.

Despite having just completed an over-night march, Victor decided to attack Villatte immediately. The leading Spanish division, Lardizabal’s five battalions, was ordered to make the attack. This force was very similar in size to the one it was attacking, and after some heavy fighting the first Spanish attack was defeated. La Peña responded by throwing in the leading part of the Prince of Anglona’s division. The French continued to stand their ground, but while this fight was going on General Zayas rebuilt the bridge of boats from the Isla de Leon, and attacked the French in the rear. Villatte’s orders allowed him to retreat if he was heavily pressed, and so he withdrew east across the Almanza Creek, and prepared to defend the bridge. Lardizabal was only prevented from attacking this new position by orders from La Peña, for whom the main point of the fighting had been to open communications with Cadiz. This part of the battle cost the French 337 casualties, while the Spanish lost slightly more men.

The allies were now in a very strong position. Graham was still at Barrosa, with at least some of his men on the hill. The original 10,000 Spanish troops had been reinforced by Zayas, and were in no danger from Villatte’s remaining 2,200 men. Graham’s 5,000 men were faced by the 6,800 men of Ruffin and Leval, although the allies were not yet aware that these troops were close by. Victor’s original plan had failed – he had missed his chance to attack part of the allied army while it was still stretched out along the coast road.

At about noon La Peña issued an order that gave Victor a second change. Believing that his army was dangerously stretched out, he ordered Graham to abandon his position at Barrosa and move north, closer to the main Spanish force. Earlier in the day Graham had emphased the important of retaining the hill of Barrosa, pointing out that if the hill was abandoned, then the French could occupy it, effectively trapping the allied army on the Bermeja peninsula, and wasting all of the effort of the campaign so far, but La Peña ignored this entirely accurate advice. One British and five Spanish battalions were detached to act as a rearguard on the hill, with orders to retire once Graham reached the main Spanish force. Obedient to his orders, Graham soon had his men on the move, following a forest track that ran parallel to the coast. This route was a couple of miles shorter than the coastal road, but did mean that Graham lost sight of the wider battlefield.

The Main Battle

Victor reacted very quickly to this move, triggering the main phase of the battle. Leval was ordered to attack the British troops in the woods, Ruffin to capture the hill of Barrosa and the cavalry to block the coastal road to the south of Barossa. The French troops emerged from the trees that had been hiding them at around 12.30pm. The advancing French troops could clearly be seen by the rearguard on the hill, and by La Peña, but were invisible from Graham’s position.

The commanders of the Spanish battalions on top of the hill, with orders to retire once Graham was safe, decided to retreat in the face of this new French threat. The one British battalion, under the command of a Colonel Browne, remained on the hill for another 30 minutes, until it was clear that they were about to be attacked by six French battalions. At that point Browne retreated down the hill to rejoin Graham, whom was still unaware that the French were on the move. Ruffin, with Victor accompanying him, was able to take up a position on the hilltop without encountering any resistance.

The situation soon changed again when two Spanish guerrillas warned Graham of the presence of the French on his right flank and rear. Graham decided that his best option was to turn back and launch a counterattack on the two French divisions before they could combine. Wheatley’s brigade was sent against Leval’s division in the woods, while Dilkes’s division was sent to attack Ruffin on the hill of Barrosa.

The odds against Graham were not as extreme as is sometimes portrayed – he had 5,000 men while Leval and Ruffin had 6,800. Graham decided to use his light infantry in an attempt to delay the French, while his main force formed into line. Four companies of the 95th Rifles and two companies from the 20th Portuguese, a total of 700 men, were sent to attack Leval, while Browne’s battalion, 536 strong, was sent to attack Ruffin, on the same ground that they had just been forced to abandon. Graham’s ten guns were sent into the gap between the two French divisions.

Both of these light forces suffered very heavy losses, but achieved their purpose of delaying the French for long enough for the main force to reach the edge of the trees ahead of the French. Browne’s battalion suffered 236 casualties (44%), after coming under fire from French guns on the top of the hill. The 95th Rifles and 20th Portuguese suffered 193 casualties (27%)

The final phase of the battle began when Graham’s two brigades came into contact with the two French divisions, in two separate clashes. On the hill of Barrosa Dilkes, with the Guards brigade, advanced up the north western flank of the hill, reaching close to the summit before coming under heavy fire. Although the French had a numerical advantage on the hilltop, with 2,000 men in four battalions to face the 1,400 Guards, they attacked in two waves. First the two battalions of the 24th Ligne attacked in column, and were beaten off. Victor responded by sending in two battalions of grenadiers under the command of General Chaudron Rousseau. This time the French got much closer to the British lines, before their advance again ground to a halt. A musketry duel followed, in which the longer British line had the advantage, and after suffering heavy losses the French began to retreat. Victor attempted to move his final two battalions into the fight, but their advance was hampered by Browne’s remaining 300 men, who had remained in cover on the hillside. This was apparently enough to break the French, who turned and fled back to the east. Ruffin’s division suffered 850 casualties during the battle, most of them during the clash with Dilkes’s brigade, which had itself lost 413 men. Amongst the French dead were both Ruffin and Chaudron Rousseau.

The battle on the British left, between Wheatley’s brigade and Leval’s division, developed somewhat differently. The French were arranged in four battalion columns, from left-to-right the 1/8th, 2/8th, 2/54th and 1/54th. The French 2/8th and the British 2/87th were the first battalions to clash, with the French opening fire at 60 yards and the British at 25 yards, according to the memoirs of their respective commanding officers. The French battalion suffered most heavily, broke, swung to their left, and broke up the 1/8th. The 8th Ligne suffered more casualties than any other French unit during the battle, losing 726 men out of the 1,468 who started the battle. The colonel of the regiment was killed, the two battalion commanders wounded, and the British captured the 1/8th eagle during the fighting. On the other flank of this battle the French 54th Ligne was charged three times by the British 1/28th and 200 Coldstream guards before it too broke and fled. Leval’s division suffered 1,104 casualties out of 4,150 men present, while Wheatley’s brigade suffered 304 casualties from its 1,680 men.

With both French divisions retreating in disorder, the battle ended. The British infantry were in no condition to pursue the French, the Spanish cavalry arrived too late, and La Peña’s infantry failed to move at all. His reaction to the appearance of Leval and Ruffin was very different to Graham’s. While the British went onto the offensive, La Peña formed a defensive line across the Bermeja peninsula. According to his own report La Peña believed that the British were doomed to be defeated, and so decided not to risk making any effort to help them, despite the battle raging for two hours only three miles from his position.

The Aftermath

Graham had won a major victory. On the day after the battle Victor held a council of war, at which it was decided that the French would abandon the siege lines if they were attacked over the next few days, and retreat back to Seville, but the expected allied attack never came. Furious with La Peña for his lack of activity on 5 March, on the following day Graham announced that he would not serve under La Peña, and the British withdrew on the Isla de Leon. He can hardly be blamed for this – his force had suffered 25% casualties during the battle and it was clear that he could not rely on La Peña in any future battle. Graham was still willing to take part in combined operations, suggesting that La Peña should advance towards the French headquarters at Chiclana, while the British attacked the Trocadero, at the other end of the French lines, but La Peña refused, and on the evening of 7 March the Spanish troops also returned to the Isla de Leon. Any advantage that the allies might have gained from their victory was lost.

In the aftermath of the battle both Victor and La Peña claimed to have won victories. Victor could at least point to his reoccupation of the entire siege lines, but La Peña’s claim was quite ridiculous. Although the Spanish Regency gave him the Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III as a reward, they also replaced him as commander of the Spanish troops at Cadiz. Graham was also soon moved, after falling out with the Regency, and joined Wellington’s army in Portugal.

Books

The Battle of Barrosa 1811, John Grehan & Martin Mace. Looks at the 1811 battle of Barrosa along with the entire siege of Cadiz and the British contribution to the war in southern Spain, an important campaign that kept Soult and a large army away from Wellington and preserved the independent Spanish government at Cadiz, a key element in keeping Spanish resistance going. [read full review] cover cover cover
 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain. cover cover cover
A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 June 2008), Battle of Barrosa, 5 March 1811 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_barrosa.html

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