The Battle of Busaco
War: Peninsular War
Date: 27th September 1810
Place: Central Portugal
Combatants: British against the French
Generals: Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington against Marshal André Massena, Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli.
The Battle of Busaco
Size of the armies: 50,000 British and Portuguese against 65,000 French.
Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British foot wore red, waist length jackets, grey trousers and stovepipe shakos. The two rifle regiments wore green. The Portuguese infantry wore blue and their Caçadores green. The Highland regiments wore the kilt and feather bonnets.
The British dragoons wore red jackets with a Roman style helmet. The light dragoons wore light blue and a shako. The British artillery wore blue.
The French infantry wore blue tunics and shakos. The French cavalry comprised Dragoons dressed in green tunics and helmets with horse hair crests. The French artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery in hussar uniform.
The standard infantry weapon for both armies was the musket, which could be fired three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres. Each infantryman carried a bayonet that fitted on the muzzle of his musket.
The British rifle battalions were armed with the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, by its nature of limited use against troops in the field, unless closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented, but was effective only at a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, as yet in their infancy, were of particular use against buildings. The British had the development of ‘shrapnel’ or fragmenting shell.
Winner: Busaco was a victory for Wellington. While immediately after the battle Wellington’s army continued its retreat to Lisbon, the French casualties were significantly larger than Wellington’s and all their attacks on the Busaco ridge failed.
Map of the Battle of Busaco
Account: In May 1810 Marshal Massena took command of the Army of Portugal with orders from the Emperor Napoleon to capture Lisbon and drive Wellington and his British army out of the Peninsular.
During the winter of 1809/10 Wellington’s engineers had built fortifications across the Lisbon isthmus, known as the Lines of Torres Vedras. As Massena began his advance into Portugal the British and Portuguese Army fell back towards the capital.
Massena captured the Spanish town of Ciudad Rodrigo on the border and on 26th August 1810 he took the Portuguese fortress of Almeida. On 15th September 1810 Massena resumed his advance through Portugal towards Lisbon, harassed by Brigadier General Robert Craufurd’s Light Division.
Wellington, intending to fight a delaying battle, positioned his army at the convent of Busaco. The convent lay on a long high ridge that stretched from the Mondego River for some ten miles to the North. The road to Coimbra and Lisbon climbed up the ridge and passed the convent, while a second lesser road crossed the ridge further south. The ridge rose steeply to 300 metres from the valley in places. A rough track meandered along the top.
The British and Portuguese regiments were positioned along the ridge with the main concentration at the northern end and the reserves further south.
Marshal Ney led the French advanced guard towards Busaco on the evening of 25th September 1810. His assessment was that only a British rearguard held the ridge and that it could be easily driven off by a frontal assault. Massena came forward and agreed with him, ordering the assault for the next morning.
The first attack was carried out by Reynier’s corps, advancing up the lesser southern road, Massena’s assumption being that this would take the French behind the British right flank.Once Reynier was established on the crest Ney’s corps would advance up the main road to the Busaco convent at the northern end of the ridge. Far from being held by a rearguard, on the ridge were all 50,000 British and Portuguese infantry supported by 60 guns.
Early morning mist hampered the first movements and observations. Heudelet’s division, setting off at 6am, followed the southern road up to the crest of the ridge where they were engaged by the 74th Foot, two Portuguese battalions and 12 guns. The firefight continued for the whole of the battle, Heudelet’s division refusing to give ground.
French infantry : Battle of Busaco
Merle’s division reached the crest to the north of Heudelet’s. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Wallace of the 88th Connaught Rangers had seen the French column climbing the hill and hurried his regiment to the threatened point with several companies of the 45th Foot. Wallace led his men in a fierce attack on the French and drove them back down the hill.
The final element of Reynier’s attack was carried out by Brigadier Foy who took his brigade to the top of the ridge and remained there until he was driven out by Leith’s British Brigade of the 5th Division, the counter attack being headed by the 9th Foot.
Reynier’s corps suffered 2,000 casualties in its abortive assault.
Ney, from his position further north, thought that Reynier had taken the crest and ordered his corps to begin the assault up the main road to the convent.
Loison’s division advanced up the hill with its left on the road. As it reached the crest, the 43rd and 52nd Foot of Craufurd’s Light Division rose from their positions in the sunken section of the road and poured a volley into the French column at 25 yards. The two light infantry regiments then attacked with the bayonet driving the French back down the hillside. A watching artillery officer described the fight as “carnage”.
The 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry attack Lolsin's Division
Mermet’s division attacking alongside was halted by a Portuguese brigade.
Follow-up: Continuing his retreat, Lord Wellington withdrew the British and Portuguese Army into Lisbon, behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. The French were taken by surprise by the fortifications. With no prospect of a successful attack and reluctant to withdraw, Massena allowed his army to starve, until 6th March 1811 when the French “Army of Portugal” began its retreat. The French finally reached Spain and did not invade Portugal again.
Anecdotes and traditions:
- The French relied upon the maps of Tomas Lopez in the Peninsular. Lopez was Spanish and his information on his own country was reliable. When it came to mapping Portugal, Lopez used his imagination and set out roads where he thought they ought to be. The result was that Massena chose a route for his advance on Lisbon, where there was no road as claimed by Lopez and that came near to destroying his army.
- It is said that Massena was delayed in acting on Ney’s first report on the evening of 25th September 1810 because he was locked in his bedroom with his mistress Mme Henriette Leberton. Ney’s Aide de Camp had to shout his message through the door. It was some two hours before Massena was available to reconnoitre the ridge.
- After the attack by the 88th Connaught Rangers, Lord Wellington said to their colonel, “Wallace, I have never witnessed a more gallant charge.”
- As the 52nd Foot rose from the sunken road to attack Loison’s division, Craufurd is said to have called out “Now, 52nd! Revenge the death of Sir John Moore”. Moore had been colonel of the 52nd. The two light infantry regiments gave a terrible shout and charged driving Loison’s division down the hill in confusion.