Battle of Redinha

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Battle of Redinha
Part of the Peninsular War
Date March 12, 1811
Location River Soure, Portugal
Result French victory[1][2]

Allied pursuit delayed for a day

Belligerents
France French Empire United Kingdom United Kingdom,
Portugal
Commanders and leaders
France Michel Ney United Kingdom Viscount Wellington
Strength
7,000, 6 guns[2]-
9,350 (inc. 850 cavalry)[3]
16,000[3]-
25,000, 2 guns
Casualties and losses
150[3]- 229 dead or wounded 205 – 1,800 dead or wounded,[4] heavier losses than the French

The Battle of Redinha was a rearguard action which took place on March 12, 1811, during Masséna's retreat from Portugal, by a French division under Marshal Ney against a considerably larger Anglo-Portuguese force under Wellington. Challenging the Allies with only one or two divisions, Ney's 7,000 to 9,000 troops were pitched against 16,000 to 25,000 men. The success of Ney's action delayed the Allied advance and bought valuable time for the withdrawal of the main body of the French army.

Redinha was the second and most successful rearguard action fought during Masséna's retreat from the Lines of Torres Vedras in the spring of 1811. Having held off the British at Pombal on 11 March, Marshal Ney and the French rearguard had retreated to Redinha. Here he took up an apparently vulnerable position, with Mermet's division on a plateau south of the village, and Marchand's division north of the village on the far side of the Ancos River, linked by a narrow bridge, but Wellington was aware that he was close to much larger French formations, and proceeded very carefully.

Background[edit]

By February 1810 Masséna, stalled for six months at the Lines of Torres Vedras, his men famished and demoralized, accepted the advice of his despondent lieutenants and began preparations to extricate the French army from Portugal. With his customary sang-froid Masséna drafted orders calling for the army to quit the Tagus abruptly between 4 and 6 March, aiming to secure Coimbra as a base from which to throw bridges over the Mondego River and afford the army a passage to safety. The French pursued a retrograde movement along the Mondego valley—which Masséna had long contemplated, were it not for Napoleon's express orders forbidding him to budge from the Tagus—hoping for better foraging country as they exhausted their last reserves of biscuit.[4]

It is certainly astonishing that the enemy have been able to remain in this country so long; and it is an extraordinary instance of what a French army can do. ...They brought no provisions with them, and they have not received even a letter since they entered Portugal. With all our money, and having in our favour the good inclinations of the country, I assure you that I could not maintain one division in the district in which they have maintained not less than 60,000 men...for more than two months.

Arthur Wellesley[5]

Aware that his preliminary measures of channelling wounded or ill men, heavy guns, and large wagons, would alert the British and Portuguese to his intentions, Masséna took measures to forestall an Allied attempt against his lines. In the Tagus valley where the French were established in depth, a handful of bayonets would suffice to keep Wellington at bay, but along the coastal roads, rapid movements might allow the enemy to seize Leiria, Pombal, or Condeixa, cutting the French line of retreat and forcing Masséna south into the Zêzere valley, an inhospitable and dangerous region.[4] By March 5, every corps in the French army was in motion: a concentration at Punhete under Loison masked the broader movements, Loison feinting an attempt to force the Tagus. Marshal Ney raced from Tomar towards the heights of Leiria with two divisions (Mermet and Marchand) and a cavalry brigade (Montbrun), adding Conroux's division on the march and putting some 22,000 men on the approach to the sea.[6] Meanwhile, Reynier moved from Santarém to Tomar, descending the heights at Miranda do Corvo and establishing himself on the left bank of the Mondego. Junot would march to Torres Novas, passing Ney, crossing Pombal, and racing on to Coimbra.[6] Loison, after destroying the decoy bridges at Punhete March 7, joined Ney at Leiria, forming Masséna's rearguard.

Wellington moves[edit]

The Allies stood still between March 4 and 6, tracking the French manoeuvres and trying to discern Masséna's intentions with certainty. To Wellington the apparent French retreat was itself a welcome relief, and the general opted to wait out events rather than risk compromising his advantage with precipitous actions against the enemy (nor was Wellington eager to try conclusions with a commander as reputed as Masséna, even an apparently beaten Masséna, unless it were on his own terms). Unbeknownst to the French, however, several Allied detachments (largely Portuguese recruits) had already seized many positions along the Mondego. Consequently, the Allies did not march until the morning of the 6th, with Wellington directing a circumspect and cautious pursuit of Ney.

French parties under Montbrun reconnoitred the Mondego the morning of March 11 but found the river, in full flood, impossible to ford, and Coimbra occupied by Portuguese militia under Nicholas Trant [7] The next day, a location was discovered at Pereira, eight miles upstream, where the river might be passed by a set of bridges, providing some 36 hours could be gained for their construction.[7]

Pombal[edit]

Main article: Battle of Pombal

Wellington's first check came at the village of Pombal, which Ney initially yielded to the approaching Allied columns without a fight the morning of March 11.[8] As the British filed into the village, Ney ordered an abrupt about-face and counterattacked with three battalions, brusquely pushing the enemy from the town and throwing the British columns into disorder, with some troops being driven into the river and drowned. The French battalions then put Pombal to the torch, stalling the Allied pursuit and buying Masséna the crucial hours needed to occupy Coimbra—though, as it turned out, the opportunity was missed.[8]

Battle[edit]

Michel Ney, Marshal of France

Initial movements[edit]

Wellington advanced his army in three columns, the right made up of Picton and Pack's divisions, the left of Erskine's, and the centre that of Cole's troops, supported by cavalry under John Slade, Wellington attempted to outflank Ney's position. When one column closed in, the French attacked with (depending on the terrain) musket fire, bayonet or cavalry. Each time the allied columns pressed the French too hard, his troops took the column in the flank and drove it back.

Combat of Redinha[edit]

Ney's rearguard formed a new position on the heights next to the river Soure, overlooking the allies moving across a small plain on one side and the village of Redinha and the Ancos river on the other. His troops formed two rank lines, supported by artillery, skirmishers placed in strategic locations to the front and cavalry positioned further back. When the Light Division, Pack’s Portuguese Division and Picton’s 3rd Division had been joined by the 4th Division, with the 1st and 6th Divisions close behind, did Wellington begin his attack. The 3rd Division attacked the skirmishers on the heights of the French left, the Light Division attacked those on the right, with Cole's troops advancing on the French centre.

Picton's division succeeded in mastering the heights and the French fell back. The allies followed but were brought in range of all six of Ney's guns and the British fell back with heavy losses. A bayonet charge from three small battalions of the 27th, the 59th and all Ney's tirailleurs drove the British-Portuguese all the way back to the foot of the heights. On Ney's right, the Light Division suffered a similar fate. They managed to eject the French skirmishers posted in the wood but were met and driven back by infantry and cavalry hidden from view. Cole's men were unable to make any progress.

With both of his flanks driven back, Wellington advanced his centre to attack the position of the French in front. Ney responded with the 25th Light and the 50th of the line, supported by artillery and the 3rd Hussars and the 6th Dragoons. There was a discharge of musketry and artillery, followed by another bayonet and cavalry charge, and the Anglo-Portuguese centre was thrown into confusion. At this point when the allied centre faltered, Ney might have been on the verge of winning a spectacular victory had he been able to more fully engage Mermet's division, driving the allies into the valley Arunca. But the Duke of Elchingen was prudent and recalled his troops back to the bridge, and for an hour continued repulsed further assaults on his position, breaking the ranks of the Anglo-Portuguese with intense musket fire.

By four o'clock Ney had broken all the allied assaults, until Wellington rallied his entire army in four lines and advanced them on the French position, again attempting to turn both flanks. Ney, with no reserves left, fired a salvo from his cannon, creating a screen of smoke to conceal the withdrawal of his troops across the river. Redinha was put to the torch and Ney assumed a new positioned on the other side of the Ancos river. Wellington's again attempted to turn both flanks but Ney withdrew his rearguard to prevent being trapped, retiring to the village of Condeixa.

Aftermath[edit]

As a consequence, the Allies were forced to halt and recuperate for a day on the river Soure. They had lost a minimum 205 men, possibly much more owing to the work of the French artillery[2]—French sources put their casualties higher than 1,800[4]—compared to only 229 men for the French. Wellington's contemporaries, both French and British, criticized his handling of the battle.[9] An unlikely dissenter was the Baron de Marbot who, as an eyewitness, deemed the battle of no consequence and deplored the false pride of two generals which cost so many brave men their lives with no result.[2] Historian John Fortescue likewise defended Wellington, contending that:

It is by no means certain that Wellington showed undue caution. [...] His army was still England's only army; and it could have served no purpose to lose a number of men in a partial engagement when the same result could be attained by a few hours' delay. The country was an ideal one for rearguard actions; Massena's though a retreating was not a beaten army, and most of his generals were tacticians of skill and experience.[9]

Ney has been praised for his remarkable handling of the rearguard.[10] For the loss of 229 men he had held Wellington up for an entire day, giving Masséna the time he needed to force his way across the Mondego River.[1] Wellington himself believed the entire French army was upon him, and was disappointed to discover that it was merely a rear-guard.

Unfortunately for the French Masséna failed to take advantage of that chance. Crucially, in the two days bought by Ney, Masséna had not attempted a coup de main against Coimbra, even though Trant's rather weak garrison had orders to retire immediately if strongly pressed. At the end of 12 March the French were still to the south of the river, and in danger of being trapped by Wellington. The only alternative route open to Masséna was to retreat east towards the Spanish border, and the only road available led east from Condeixa. With the British close to that village, on the morning of 13 March Masséna began the long costly retreat back into Spain which marked the complete failure of his great invasion of Portugal.

The next action would be at Condeixa, followed by the battles of Casal de Novo and finally, Foz de Arouce.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Chartrand (2002), pp. 51-52, notes: "Ney had achieved his objectives, he had protected the rear of the army, his own corps rearguard had been safely withdrawn and Wellington had been delayed by a day."
  2. ^ a b c d Marbot (1891), p. 448
  3. ^ a b c Pigeard, p. 701.
  4. ^ a b c d Thiers, et al (1884), p. 593
  5. ^ Gates (1986), pp. 237-238
  6. ^ a b Thiers, et al (1884), pp. 575-578
  7. ^ a b Fortescue (1917), pp. 74-75
  8. ^ a b Thiers, et al (1884), pp. 586
  9. ^ a b Fortescue (1917), p. 77
  10. ^ Fletcher (2003), p. 51, notes: "The conduct of Ney's retreat drew much praise from several British commanders, including Sir Thomas Picton, who thought Ney handled the business well. ... At Redinha Ney again turned, using Mermet and Marchand in another skilful rearguard action, ...causing further delays to Wellington."

References[edit]