Road to Porto: The Battle of Grijo 10th-11th May 1809
Not as famous as many battles of the Peninsula War, The Battle of Grijo was fought on the evening of 10th May and the morning of the 11th May 1809, in Portugal. It was a series of smaller engagements, as the British cavalry came across the French rear-guard and forward positions and then as the Anglo-Portuguese main force, under Sir Arthur Wellesley came upon the enemy main force, defending a ridge, it was the turn of Wellesley’s Allied troops to drive them back, opening the road to Porto, which was still in the hands of Marshal Soult, who’s troops were busy at this time sacking the city and inflicting the atrocities upon the unarmed inhabitants.
Strategically this was an important manoeuvre stage in the Porto campaign for the allies, who were attempting to liberate Portugal from French occupation. Sir Arthur Wellesley, soon to be Lord Wellington, had just landed at Lisbon two weeks before, reversing General Craddock’s attempt to evacuate the country and decided to strike north against Soult’s Corps in Porto (usually spelt Oporto by the British), rather than at Victor’s Corps, slightly closer, but across the boarder into Spain. If Porto could be liberated and Soult routed it would prove to the political masters back in England that the war was winnable, it would rally the Portuguese further (who had been attempting to form resistance against the hated invaders as well as reconstituting the Portuguese Army), as a legacy, it would come to show Wellington as a General who was not afraid to take risks or go on the attack, so the Anglo-Allied army of barely 18,000 men marched north to Porto, stopping at Coimbra, where a fete was held by the locals to celebrate Wellesley (he declined attendance, but many of his men enjoyed the scenes), and then on, finding the outlying French forces, south of Grijo.
On the western flank a small force under General “Daddy” Hill stormed across the Averio Lagoon to meet up with Wellesley, in order to perform a thorough sweep of Wellesley left flank. Out to the east, Marshal Beresford rendezvoused with further Portuguese forces, swelling his ranks, he was to march to the north-east and attempt to blockade Soult’s retreat if the taking of Porto was successful.
Map of the Porto campaign, in the Peninsular War, including the Battle of Grijo: map by John Fawkes
The British cavalry, under the command of General Sir Stapleton Cotton came into contact with the enemy first. Captain William Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons wrote ‘Diary of a Cavalry Officer’ and he takes up the story from his first hand perspective;
“May l0th. At daylight in the morning, the advance came up with the French piquet in front of Albergueria Nova. The piquet retired in great haste through the village, and the brigade formed on the plain, having the village on its right; there we halted in line, and saw the French cavalry turning out of their camp in a fir grove in the greatest confusion. They, in a short time, sent out some skirmishers, and in about half an hour they commenced firing some shots, which were the first we encountered. The halt was said to be in consequence of the enemy having a couple of companies of infantry in the wood, and that it was necessary we should wait the arrival of some of our own infantry before we advanced. In about an hour a regiment of Portuguese infantry and two guns came up, on seeing which the enemy began to move off in great haste. We then moved to our left, and by going round the wood, advanced with it on our right. Here we found four squadrons of French light cavalry formed, for the purpose of covering the retreat of their main body, consisting of two regiments. There were two squadrons in advance (of the enemy's), with the other two in support. The 16th passed a small ravine, and on forming moved to the brow of a small hill, from the top of which, about two hundred yards distant, on an easy declivity, the two squadrons were formed. The squadron I belonged to, and another of the 16th, were the two in advance. These were the two which charged. The instant we saw the enemy from the top of the hill, the word was given. The men set up an huzzah, advanced to the charge. The enemy fired a volley at us when about fifty yards from them, and then went about, setting off as hard as they could ride, we pursuing, cutting at them, and making all the prisoners in our power. Their other two squadrons in support went about, and the whole retired in no small confusion. The affair was more like a skirmish at a field day than an affair with an enemy. From the enemy being in such haste with their fire, all the shots went over our heads, and no accident appeared to us to happen to any one. The enemy retired with their four squadrons over a ravine, the banks of which were very steep.” With the enemy scattered and in retreat, the British cavalry halted, having taken some prisoner and suffered only very light casualties and awaited the main force.
The main strength of the Anglo-Portuguese army was brought up on the evening of the 10th May, Wellesley consolidated his position, with Hill who still formed his left flank, their eyes were firmly set on Porto now, only one day’s march away, but ahead was a more determined force of French infantry and cavalry (the cavalry’s main strength was detached, 20 miles to the east) under the command of General Mermet, who would now attempt to block this advance.
During the Porto campaign, the British were often shocked to see the savagery in which the French occupiers had brutally murdered the civilian population of Portugal, often with no cause, other than an opportunity to loot, but probably on the orders of their officers Thompkinson describes one such scene; “On the road from Oliviera we passed three priests the French had murdered for some cause or another. They were hanging on a tree, close to the roadside, and must have been a full month in that situation from their appearance. On passing Santo Redondo, we came up with the enemy's rear guard, which was immediately attacked and driven from their camp and position through a fir grove on the road to Oporto.”
Battle of Grijo: picture by JJ Jenkins
On the morning of the 11th, Wellesley encountered the enemy’s main force, arrayed by Mermet along a long slope, with plenty of woodland to the flanks and along the front. Wellesley ordered Hill attempt to outflank Mermet with his brigade, whilst he advanced with General Paget (brother to Henry Paget, later Earl Uxbridge and Marques of Anglesey). As with many engagements in the Peninsula War, the initial shots were fired as the British sent forward skirmishers, and by a slight twist, men of the 1st Battalion of Detachments, whose Regiments were not present, so the skirmishers were formed of Riflemen of the 95th Rifles and light troops of the 43rd and 52nd, supported by the Light Company of the 29th Regiment. However these light troops and Hill’s flanking manoeuvre met stiff opposition and made no progress. Wellesley next manoeuvred the King’s German Legion against the French right flank, supported by the 16th Portuguese, whilst the rest of Stewart’s units attacked the centre along the wooded terrain. In the face of a larger force, Mermet ordered his French Force to retreat, leaving the 31st Leger as a rearguard, who fell prey to the British cavalry, Thomkinson takes up the story again “The enemy's force consisted of 4,000 infantry and some squadrons of cavalry, though from the ground we occupied neither were to be seen, being stationed in rear of a fir grove, ready to act if required. The fire was very sharp, though on our side always advancing. We lost some men in this attack (infantry). After remaining stationary for some time, we were ordered to advance and follow up the rear of the army… They consisted of about 3,000 infantry… We, however, advanced to the edge of the wood, where the road became so narrow that the troops got into single file. The 16th were in front, and Captain Cocks' troop being on the right of the squadron, was the one in advance. The road was very deep, and as we stood in it the enemy kept firing in the direction of where we stood, causing the leaves from an oak tree to fall on us in great numbers….
We could not avoid advancing; and in single file, along a narrow, bad lane, did we proceed to attack these 3,000 infantry so posted. Captain Mellish did not head us, nor did he leave the wood with the advance. We galloped about one hundred yards down the road, and then turned into the enclosures to the right, through a gateway in a stone wall, sufficiently wide for one horse. I was nearly off, my horse turned so suddenly. On getting into the enclosure, we rode at a gallop up to the enemy, who, strange to state, ran away. They were scattered all over the field”.
It was at this time, after the 16th Light Dragoons had scatted a Brigade of French infantry that Sir Arthur Wellesley surveyed the enemies main line, still on a rise, Wellesley said, “If they don' t move soon, I must let the old 29th loose upon them.” Referring to the 29th Worchester Regiment of Foot. He ordered the 16th Portuguese Regiment, under Colonel John Milley Doyle, to move down through the wood, to threaten and push on against the enemy's right, while the column of the German Legion threatened their left. This had the desired effect. The French, now finding both of their flanks likely to be pushed back by the joint Portuguese and German attack, they exchanged a few volleys with the Allied forces advancing and hastily withdrew. The 14th Light Dragoons were immediately sent in pursuit. They attacked the rear guard, and took many a couple hundred. The Allies moved on through the village of Grijo, and were halted in the French bivouac. That night, many Allied soldiers, slept in captured enemy tents or dined on meals of beef, prepared for the French troops, but abandoned in their retreat. For this the Anglo-Allied troops very grateful to their enemy and mostly enjoyed a comfortable night’s sleep.
Following the fighting Mermet, with his cavalry retreated over the mighty DouroRiver. Soult, knowing that Wellesley was closing in, ordered the bridge of boats linking the north and south parts of Porto to be destroyed and all vessels to be either impounded or destroyed, however against the hated enemy, many Portuguese defied this order and hid barges in warehouses. Crucially four long wine barges were hidden in long reeds, out of sight of the French occupiers, these would play a crucial role in the Battle of Porto.
British casualties for the 11th are given as, two Officers and 19 men killed, six officers and 63 men wounded, a further 16 men missing.
The French casualties are calculated as being roughly double that of the British, not counting the hundreds of prisoners.
Wellesley’s Dispatch, covering the Battle of Grijo;
"The infantry of the army was formed into three divisions for this expedition, of which two, the advanced guard, consisted of the Hanoverian Legion, and Brigadier-General R. Stewart's brigade, with a brigade of six-pounders and a brigade of three-pounders under Lieutenant-General Payne, and the brigade of Guards; Brigadier-General Campbell's brigades of infantry, and a brigade of six-pounders under Lieutenant-General Sherbrooke, moved by the high road from Coimbra to Oporto;
and one composed of Major-General Hill's and Brigadier-General Cameron's brigades of infantry, and a brigade of six-pounders under the command of Major-General Hill, road from Coimbra to Aviero."
Dated Oporto, May 12th, 1809.
William. Tomkinson. Diary of a Cavalry Officer.
Charles. Leslie. Military Journal of Colonel Leslie, K.H., of Balquhain
Whilst Serving with the 29th Regt. in the Peninsula, and the 60th Rifles in Canada, &c., 1807-1832.
George. Caldwell and Robert. Cooper. Rifle Green in the Peninsula Volume II.