Battle of Almaraz – General Hill's raid
Updated: May 21, 2020
One of the most daring raids of the Peninsula War was the destruction of the French pontoon bridge across the Tagus River by the Anglo-Portuguese force under General Hill on the 19th May, 1812. This raid showed a dynamic series of fast marching over difficult terrain, deception, a siege, capture of a enemy fort and a surprise attack that destroyed the French bridge.
By the 8th April 1812, the Duke of Wellington’s forces had successfully captured the two strategic border fortresses of both, Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo, therefore controlling the major routes between Spain and Portugal. He now prepared to advance into Spain with the largest army he had commanded, in the Peninsular, to date. There were two French armies in Spain, to face. Marshal Marmont’s ‘Army of Portugal’ garrisoned near Salamanca, and Marshal Soult’s ‘Army of the South’. The wide waters of the Tagus River separated the two French armies.
The only bridges over the Tagus were at, Almaraz, and four other crossing points, one of which had been destroyed in 1809.Most of the others were crowded with rocky terrain, unsuitable to the task of moving a marching Army and its’ wagons. This left only the bridges of Toledo or Almaraz.
The French had built a pontoon bridge in autumn of 1809, just west of the Almaraz bridge. It was about 200 metres long and built with heavy pontoons, and a central span was constructed over a boat, that could be removed.
General Rowland Hill was detached with a small force to capture the pontoon bridge over the Tagus. His force, numbering around 6,000 men with nine guns, had to first destroy or capture 2 forts that overlooked the bridge and dominated the crossing.
[Map of the area of the Bridge at Almaraz and surrounding forts - www.napoleon-series.org]
General Rowland Hill’s Force at Almaraz:
Lieutenant General Tilson-Chrowne
Major General Howard's Brigade:
50th (West Kent) Foot 71st Highland Light Infantry 92nd Highlanders 1 Company of 60th Rifles
Colonel Wilson's Brigade:
28th (North Gloustershire) Foot 34th (Cumberland) Foot 1 Company 60th Rifles
Colonel Ashworth's Brigade:
6th Portuguese Infantry Regiment 18th Portuguese Infantry Regiment 6th Caçadores
Cavalry: Major General Long
13th Light Dragoons
Artillery: Lieutenant Colonel Dickson
Major Maxwell's 9 pounder Battery (3 guns) 6x 24-pounder howitzers
[General Rowland Hill - The Wellington Collection, Apsley House]
General Hill hoped to capture the first French fort, located at Miravete by complete surprise and then move onto Fort Napoleon, the main French garrison. Unfortunately, news of the British approach reach the French commander, Colonel Aubert . General Hill changed his plans. He divided his forces into two columns:
The 1st column, under the command of General Tilson-Chrowne, would make a storm the fort at Miravete. This column would consist of Wilson's Brigade.
The 2nd column, under the command of General Long, consisted of the remainder of Ashworth's Portuguese Brigade and all the artillery. They were to follow behind the first column and push on to the bridge, along the main road and capture the bridge once the first column had subdued Miravete.
The 3rd column, under Hill's direct command, consisted of Howard's Brigade and the 6th Caçadores. It would attempt a night march to make a surprise attack on Fort Napoleon.
The three columns set off at dusk on the 16th May, but by dawn the three columns were far from their objectives due to the rough nature of the terrain they had navigated in the dark.
It had become apparent to Hill that there was little chance of being able to achieve the surprise attack on the garrison at the bridge. Therefore, he sought another way to get his guns through the mountains.
By dawn on 19th May, Hill's men had reached a point just half a mile from Fort Napoleon, but they were seen that morning as they crossed the mountains. The garrison inside Fort Napoleon, commanded by Colonel Aubert, was stood to, for the oncoming assault and the centre boats of the bridge were completely removed.
The attack on Almaraz began at dawn on 19th May, when the artillery guns opened up against the fort at Mirabete. The defenders of Fort Napoleon, already warned of the oncoming advance of the British and Portuguese troops, were prepared for the assault but were still taken by surprise when the 50th (West Kent) and part of the 71st regiments, burst from their positions and charged up towards the fort in the storm of fire from the defenders.
Despite facing fire from fortified positions, the men of the 50th were able to get ladders against the wall and fight their way onto the parapet. First up was Captain Chandler of the 50th who leapt over the lip of the parapet with several French musketballs hitting him immediately, he was dead before he hit the ground. Men from his regiment followed his gallant advance, pouring a volley from their Brown Bess muskets and close range before charging into the French, many of the French turning tail and running straight towards the bridge. Aubert refused to an offer of surrender and fought on, eventually a Sergeant of the 50th stepped forward and ran him through with his pole-arm, and this forced the majority of the French troops remaining inside the fort to surrender.
The defenders at the bridge-head did not wait for the Portuguese attack coming towards them, instead they joined the rout across the bridge itself.
Soon after Hill and the remaining two columns arrived, they discovered the French in total retreat. Four Grenadiers from the 92nd Highlanders swam the river, the bring across small boats and float the pontoon to their side of the river. Hill was able to destroy the French emplacements, but a 3rd fort was still occupied by a French garrison. Hill had intended to slight this fort too, but with the element of surprise completely lost, and rumours of Soult bringing a relief force forward, the decision was made to burn the pontoon bridge, along with destroying the captured Fort Napoleon and emplacements,
Hill’s raid had resulted in losses for the British of; 33 killed and 148 wounded, of which 28 of those killed and 110 of those wounded belonged to the 50th Regiment alone. French losses were estimated at about 400, with 259 of whom were prisoners.
In 1813, the Duke of Wellington sent Lieutenant Colonel Henry Sturgeon of the British Royal Staff Corps to repair the bridge. Sturgeon constructed a suspension bridge. The Spanish built the present bridge later, in 1845.
[The Bridge at Almaraz today, constructed 1845 - www.napoleon-series.org]