Wellington’s highly successful holding battle against Massena on 27th September 1810, as the British and Portuguese army withdrew to Lisbon and the Lines of Torres Vedras
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Talavera
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Barossa
War: Peninsular War
Date of the Battle of Busaco: 27th September 1810
Place of the Battle of Busaco: Central Portugal
Combatants at the Battle of Busaco: British, Portuguese and Hanoverians of the King’s German Legion against the French.
Commanders at the Battle of Busaco: Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington (previously Sir Arthur Wellesley and later the Duke of Wellington) against Marshal André Massena, Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli.
Size of the armies at the Battle of Busaco: 50,000 British, Portuguese and Hanoverians troops against 65,000 French troops.
Uniforms, arms and equipment at the Battle of Busaco:
The British infantry wore red waist-length jackets, grey trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets and trousers.
The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and black ostrich feather caps.
British heavy cavalry (dragoon guards and dragoons) wore red jackets and ‘Roman’ style helmets with horse hair plumes.
The British light cavalry was increasingly adopting hussar uniforms, with some regiments changing their titles from ‘light dragoons’ to ‘hussars’.
The King’s German Legion (KGL) was the Hanoverian army in exile. The KGL owed its allegiance to King George III of Great Britain, as the Elector of Hanover, and fought with the British army. The KGL comprised both cavalry and infantry regiments. KGL uniforms mirrored the British.
The Portuguese army uniforms increasingly during the Peninsular War reflected British styles. The Portuguese line infantry wore blue uniforms, while the Caçadores light infantry regiments wore green.
The French army wore a variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers, wearing heavy burnished metal breastplates and crested helmets, Dragoons, largely in green, Hussars, in the conventional uniform worn by this arm across Europe, and Chasseurs à Cheval, dressed as hussars.
The French foot artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery wore hussar uniforms.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the muzzle-loading musket. The musket could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet for hand-to-hand fighting, which fitted the muzzle end of his musket.
The British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, of limited use against troops in the field unless those troops were closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented and was highly effective against troops in the field over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, yet in their infancy. were of particular use against buildings. The British were developing shrapnel (named after the British officer who invented it) which increased the effectiveness of exploding shells against troops in the field, by exploding in the air and showering them with metal fragments.
Throughout the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign, the British army was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The Army was sustained by volunteer recruitment and the Royal Artillery was not able to recruit sufficient gunners for its needs.
Napoleon exploited the advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the French Ancien Régime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many of his battles were won using a combination of the manoeuvrability and fire power of the French guns with the speed of the French columns of infantry, supported by the mass of French cavalry.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle field in fast moving columns, the British trained to fight in line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two, to extend the line of the British infantry and to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments.
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.
British order of battle at the Battle of Busaco:
Commander: Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington
Commander of the Portuguese troops: Marshal Beresford
4th Dragoons, 14th Light Dragoons, 16th Light Dragoons.
1st Division: commanded by Lieutenant General Brent Spencer
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Stopford: 1st/Coldstream Guards, 1st/3rd Guards, 1 company of the 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Blantyre: 2nd/24th Foot, 2nd/42nd Highlanders, 1st /61st Foot, 1 company of the 5th/60th Foot
3rd Brigade: commanded by Major General Baron Löw: 1st Line Battalion, King’s German Legion, 2nd Line Battalion, King’s German Legion, 5th Line Battalion, King’s German Legion, 7th Line Battalion, King’s German Legion, Detachment of light battalions, King’s German Legion
4th Brigade: commanded by Colonel Pakenham: 1st /7th Royal Fusiliers, 1st/79th Highlanders
2nd Division: commanded by Major General Rowland Hill
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Stewart: 1st/3rd Buffs, 2nd/31st Foot, 2nd/48th Foot, 2nd/66th Foot, 1 company of the 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel William Inglis: 29th Foot, 1st/48th Foot, 1st/57th Foot
3rd Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Catlin Craufurd: 2nd/28th Foot, 2nd/34th Foot, 2nd/39th Foot
3rd Division: commanded by Major General Thomas Picton
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Mackinnon: 1st/45th Foot, 1st/74th Highlanders, 1st/88th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Lightburne: 2nd/5th Foot, 2nd/83rd Foot, 3 companies of the 5th/60th Foot
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Champlemond: 1st and 2nd/9th Line Portuguese Regiment, 1st/21st Line Portuguese Regiment
4th Division: commanded by Major General Lowry Cole
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Campbell: 2nd/7th Royal Fusiliers, 1st /11th Foot, 2nd/53rd Foot, 1 company of the 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel Kemmis: 3rd/27th Foot, 1st/40th Foot, 97th Foot
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Collins: 1st/11th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/11th Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/23rd Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/23rd Portuguese Line Regiment
5th Division: commanded by Major General Leith
British Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Leith: 1st/Buffs, 1st/9th Foot, 2nd/38th Foot
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Spry: 1st/3rd Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/3rd Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/15th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/15th Portuguese Line Regiment, Thomar Militia, 2 Battalions of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, 1st/8th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/8th Portuguese Line Regiment
Light Division: commanded by Brigadier General Robert Craufurd
1st Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Beckwith: 1st/43rd Foot, 1st/95th Rifles (5 companies), 3rd Caçadores
2nd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Barclay: 1st/52nd Foot, 1st/95th Rifles (4 companies), 1st Caçadores
Portuguese Division: commanded by Major General Hamilton
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Archibald Campbell: 1st/4th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/4th Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/10th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/10th Portuguese Line Regiment
2nd Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Luiz Fonseca: 1st/2nd Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/2nd Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/14th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/14th Portuguese Line Regiment
Independent Portuguese Brigades:
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Denis Pack: 1st/1st Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/1st Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/16th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/16th Portuguese Line Regiment, 4th Caçadores
5th Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Campbell: 1st/6th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/6th Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/18th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/18th Portuguese Line Regiment, 6th Caçadores
6th Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Coleman: 1st/7th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/7th Portuguese Line Regiment, 1st/19th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd/19th Portuguese Line Regiment, 2nd Caçadores
Artillery: commanded by Brigadier Howorth; 60 guns
Bull’s and Ross’s Troops Royal Horse Artillery
Thompson’s and Lawson’s Batteries Royal Artillery
Von Rettberg’s and Cleeves’ Batteries King’s German Artillery
Batteries of de Rozierres, da Cunha Preto, da Silva and Freira.
French order of battle at the Battle of Busaco:
Commander-in-chief: Marshal André Massena, Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli
II Corps: commanded by General Reynier
1st Division: commanded by General Merle
2nd Division: commanded by General Heudelet
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Soult
VI Corps: commanded by Marshal Ney, Duke of Elchingen
1st Division: commanded by General Marchand
2nd Division: commanded by General Mermet
3rd Division: commanded by General Loison
VIII Corps: commanded by General Junot
1st Division: commanded by General Clausel
2nd Division: commanded by General Solignac
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Sainte-Croix
Reserve of Cavalry: commanded by General Montbrun
Reserve of artillery, engineers, staff and gendarmerie.
Account of the Battle of Busaco:
In May 1810, Marshal André Massena took command of the French 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 in the summer of 1810, the British and Portuguese Army fell back towards Lisbon and the protection of the Lines of Torres Vedras.
Massena captured the Spanish town of Ciudad Rodrigo, on the border between Spain and Portugal 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, in the path of Massena’s advancing French army.
The convent lay on a long high ridge that stretched from the Mondego River for some ten miles to the north, astride the route from the Spanish border.
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 three hundred metres from the valley. A rough track meandered along the ridge top.
The British and Portuguese regiments were positioned along the ridge, with the main concentration at the northern end and the reserves further south.
On the evening of 25th September 1810, Marshal Ney led the French advanced guard towards Busaco. French patrols identified the presence of British troops. Ney’s assessment was that only a British rear-guard held the ridge, that could easily be driven off by a frontal attack.
On 26th September 1810, Massena came up and agreed with Ney, ordering the assault for the next morning.
The first attack was to be 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.
The assumption made by Ney and Massena was wrong. Far from being held by a rear-guard, all 50,000 British and Portuguese infantry were deployed along the ridge, supported by 60 guns.
The next day, 27th September 1810, early morning mist hampered the initial French 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, both sides refusing to give ground.
Merle’s division reached the crest to the north of Heudelet’s. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Wallace of the 88th Connaught Rangers saw 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 advance was carried out by Brigadier Foy, who took his brigade to the top of the ridge and remained there until he was driven off 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 attempt to occupy the ridge.
Ney, from his position further north, thought that Reynier had taken the crest and ordered his corps to begin the assault along the main road to the Busaco Convent.
Loison’s division advanced in column up the hill, with its left on the road. As Loisin’s division 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 twenty-five 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”.
Mermet’s division, attacking alongside Loisin’s, was halted by a Portuguese brigade.
Seeing the failure of all the attacks, Massena called off the assault and began a reconnaissance to the north, discovering a road that circumvented the ridge. As the French marched away to the flank, Wellington’s army withdrew south towards Lisbon, having inflicted a serious reverse on Massena’s Army of Portugal.
British Casualties at the Battle of Busaco:
14th Light Dragoons 8 killed and wounded
16th Light Dragoons 1 killed and wounded
1st Foot 2 killed and wounded
5th Fusiliers 8 killed and wounded
7th Royal Fusiliers 24 killed and wounded
9th Foot 24 killed and wounded
24th Foot 1 killed and wounded
38th Foot 23 killed and wounded
42nd Highlanders 7 killed and wounded
43rd Foot 7 killed and wounded
45th Foot 141 killed and wounded
50th Foot 1 killed and wounded
52nd Foot 15 killed and wounded
60th Foot 24 killed and wounded
74th Foot 29 killed and wounded
79th Foot 55 killed and wounded
83rd Foot 5 killed and wounded
88th Foot 142 killed and wounded
95th Rifles 31 killed and wounded
Total British and Portuguese casualties: 1,250 killed and wounded.
French casualties: The French suffered 4,400 killed and wounded including 5 Generals
Follow-up to the Battle of Busaco and the Lines of Torres Vedras:
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 on the Lines of Torres Vedras and reluctant to withdraw, Massena allowed his army to starve, until 6th March 1811, when the French “Army of Portugal” began its retreat. Massena reached Spain with his army in ruins. The French did not invade Portugal again.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Busaco:
- While campaigning in the Peninsular, The French relied upon the maps of Tomas Lopez. 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, intending to use a road selected from Lopez’ map that did not exist. This error 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, General Craufurd is said to have called out “Now, 52nd Revenge the death of Sir John Moore”. Moore, killed at the Battle of Corunna, 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.
References for the Battle of Busaco:
History of the Peninsula War by Sir William Napier Volume 1
History of the Peninsula War by Sir Charles Oman
History of the British Army by John Fortescue Volume 6
British Battles on Land and Sea by James Grant Volume 2
The Peninsular War: A Concise Military History by Michael Glover
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Talavera
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Barossa