The Battle of the River Coa – 24th July 1810   Leave a comment

The British Light Division defending the bridge over the River Coa – image painted by Christa Hook

In the 1810 Napoleon had a new master plan for an attempted third invasion of Portugal that would finally defeat the British and Portuguese armies, hopefully sending Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future titled Duke of Wellington, back to England as a defeated and spent force. Marshal Andre Massena was therefore given command of a new army of 65,000 men to carry out this campaign.

The River Coa is unusual for Portugal in that it runs north to south, almost parallel with the Portugal/Spanish border, albeit a few miles inside Portugal, as opposed to an east to west route which most rivers in that country flow. For Wellesley it offered a natural barrier that would be an obstacle to the French advance and consequently he sent out written orders to his officers that he wanted all British and Portuguese units to be pulled back to the west of the river so as to form a defence.

Brigadier General Robert Craufurd, a stubborn, moody commander, prone to outbursts of fowl language when angered, and also a strict disciplinarian, was in command of the British Light Division, approximately 5,000 men made up of three British and two Portuguese light regiments of infantry, including the famous 95th (Rifles), as well as two light cavalry units and a handful of artillery guns. Despite receiving Wellesley’s instructions to pull back across the Coa River, he decided, for whatever reason, to ignore them and kept his forces on the east side of the river. Maybe he considered the French to be too far away to be a threat, or maybe he sought personal glory by seemingly standing up to the enemy, either way, he was shocked that just two days after receiving Wellesley’s orders the entire French VI Corps, over 20,000 men led by Marshal Ney appeared, advancing on his position.

The speed of Ney’s advance swept past a small British picquet unit and quickly threatened Cruafurd’s main force, leaving him no option but to attempt a fighting retreat as his men retreated across the only bridge in the vicinity, over the otherwise impassable Coa River.

Suggested initial set up for The Battle of the River Coa

Wargaming Notes

The area, as can be seen from our map, was a hilly, craggy region with limited routes that units can advance through without severe disorganisation. The river itself needs to be classed as an impassable obstacle, unless crossing at the bridge.

The British had a very small picquet force of about 40 men and one cannon at a windmill on high ground (marked on our map); it’s your choice whether to field this force or not as the French totally disregarded it, simply rushing past in their pursuit of catching the main British force.

As with previous recent articles, we are listing the suggested army lists by regiments to be fielded rather than actual figures to be used as we appreciate that because of the sheer number of differing Napoleonic rules currently played this seems the easier way for players to translate this information to their preferred set.

ORDERS OF BATTLE

British Army

Brig.General Robert Craufurd -Commander-in-Chief – Experienced, veteran, respected leader.

1st Brigade

Lt-Colonel Sydney Beckwith – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

1/43rd Regiment of Foot – Experienced, veteran, good morale, musket

1/95th (1/2 battalion) Regiment of Foot (Rifles) – Experienced, veteran, elite, rifle

3rd Portuguese Cacadores – Experienced, well trained, steady morale, musket

2nd Brigade

Lt.Colonel Robert Barclay – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

1/52nd Regiment of Foot – Experienced, veteran, good morale, musket

1/95th (1/2 battalion) Regiment of Foot (Rifles) – Experienced, veteran, elite, rifle

1st Portuguese Cacadores – Experienced, well trained, steady morale, musket

Cavalry Brigade

Brig-General George Anson – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

14th Light Dragoons (3 Squadrons) – Light cavalry, experienced, veteran, good morale, carbine, sabre

16th Light Dragoons (2 Squadrons) – Light cavalry, experienced, veteran, good morale, carbine, sabre

1st King’s German Legion Hussars (4 Squadrons) – Experienced, veteran, elite, carbine, sabre

Chestnut Troop Royal Horse Artillery (6 guns) – Experienced, veteran, elite, 6lb cannon

French Army

Marshal Michael Ney – Commander-in-Chief – Experienced, veteran, impetuous, inspiarational leader

2nd Division

Maj.General Julien Merment – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, respected leader

25th Line Infantry (2 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

27th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

50th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

59th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

3rd Division

Maj. General Louis Loison – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

66th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, veteran excellent morale, well trained, musket

82nd Line Infantry (2 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

32nd Line Infantry (1 battalion) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

20th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

The Hanoverian Legion (2 battalions) – experienced, average morale, trained, musket

Legion du Midi (1 battalion) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

1st Division (present but never made contact)

Maj.General Jean Marchand – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, respected leader

76th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

39th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

69th Line Infantry (3 battalions) – experienced, good morale, well trained, musket

6th Light Infantry (2 battalions) – experienced, excellent morale, well trained, musket

Cavalry

Brig-General Auguste Lamotte – Sub-Commander – Experienced, veteran, inspirational leader

3rd Hussar Regiment (3 squadrons) – Light cavalry, experienced, veteran, elite, carbine, sword

15th Chasseurs a Cheval Regiment (3 squadrons) -Light cavalry, experienced, veteran, elite, carbine, sword

15th Dragoon Regiment (4 Squadrons) – Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, dragoon musket, sword

25th Dragoon Regiment (4 Squadrons) – Heavy cavalry, experienced, veteran, dragoon musket, sword

Foot Artillery (4 batteries of 6 guns) – Experienced, veteran, good morale, 8lb cannon

Horde Artillery (2 batteries of 6 guns) – Experienced, veteran, excellent morale, 8lb cannon

THE BATTLE AS IT HAPPENED

The French advance was swift, so much so that they completely ignored the small British picquet force left isolated on high ground as they raced to catch the main British army. The 95th (Rifles) stepped forward to initially cover the retreat hoping their longer range and more accurate Baker guns would slow the French. In response the French firstly opened up with artillery on the Green Jackets, and then Voltigeurs closed to start an exchange of fire, before sensing their superior numbers, the Voltigeurs launched a bayonet charge, forcing the (5th to pull back.

The Rifles woes were increased when the small Portuguese garrison of Almeida mistook their dark uniforms for French soldiers and began a long range artillery bombardment on them, causing even more tension in the ranks.

The French cavalry advanced to attack the British 43rd Regiment, though they were slowed and disorganised by the undulating terrain by the time they reached their target. However other French infantry units were able to mange the broken terrain better than the horsemen, and soon Craufurd could see his only line of retreat being threatened . He ordered an immediate withdrawal across the bridge, the cavalry crossing first as the infantry followed along the road behind. A supply wagon overturned in their haste which for a while blocked the British escape, and to cover the incident the 43rd Regiment was ordered to take up a defensive line along the rivers edge south east of the bridge to give covering fire.

Miraculously holding back the French advance through determined fire assisted by difficult terrain, the British and Portuguese began to pass through the bottleneck bridge and get to the west side of the Coa from where they gave volleys of fire to hold back the French advance log enough for the 43rd to make their escape across the bridge too.

Pursuing the British, the French 66th Regiment attempted to storm the bridge but were forced back by the intense musketry pored at them from the other side of the river. A force of amalgamated elite French light infantry then attempted to take the bridge, now covered with the bodies of the dead and dying, but again were beaten back.

Ney opted instead to secure his position by attacking the town of Almeida; but Craufurd, shaken by his narrow escape, decided to withdraw his men under cover of darkness, leaving both the town and the bridge to the mercy of the French.

The bridge today.

Posted 13/09/2021 by The Little Corporal in Napoleonic Wars

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