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  • Marcus Cribb

Crossing the Douro, Wellington's amphibious assault.

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

The 2nd Battle of Porto (sometimes spelt Oporto), also known as the Battle of the Douro or the Crossing of the Douro was fought on 12th May 1809.

NOTE: Since publishing this short article in 2020, I have been commissioned by Helion Books to write a book on the Second Battle of Porto. As such I have spent many hours researching, along with acquiring dozens of first hand accounts. I have decided not to update the article beyond the original at this time, so it serves as an introduction only, but all of the information presented is correct.

Lieutenant-General Arthur Wellesley's (later the Duke of Wellington) Anglo-Portuguese Army defeated the experienced French general, Marshal Nicolas Soult's and took back the city of Porto, which Soult's Army had stormed in March 1809, just two months earlier, during the end of the battle Soult's army had slaughtered (at least several) thousands of Portuguese civilians trying to flee the French invasion.

[Map of the Crossing the Douro - British Battles]

Lord Wellesley had returned to Portugal on the 22nd April, having been cleared of all charges following the disastrous Treaty of Cintra, which senior Generals to Wellesley had negotiated, following Wellesley's victories at Rolica and Vimeiro. Within two weeks Wellesley had conceived a new plan to drive the French out of Portugal. With a combined British-Portuguese army of 36,000 men at his command, Wellesley split his force into three part: 12,000 were left behind in Lisbon under General Mackenzie's command to protect the vital capital city. 6,000 were handed to William Carr Beresford with orders to march behind the French front and sever their likely line of retreat, while Wellesley led the remaining 18,000 north from Coimbra to face Soult at Porto.

The main force marched from Coimbra (which is roughly midway between Lisbon & Porto) on the 8th May. By the 11th the French piquets (fighting sentry positions) were cleared from the roads south of Porto. As the French forces that had formed the piquets rushed back into the city, they destroyed the bridge-of-boats, the only remaining crossing point, behind them (since the main bridge had collapsed under the weight of the fleeing Portuguese in a tragic incident). With no means of crossing the river, Soult felt falsely secure in the city of Porto from the river to the south, so directed his army to the west to meet the direction he thought Wellesley's British must surely cross, likely using boats brought up from the coast.

As mentioned above, the Portuguese were quick to hate the invading force of French. The war had come unprovoked, Napoleon wanted to force Portugal, so far not involved his wars, from trading with their long established partner, Britain. As the French troops arrived, so did their murderous behaviour that was typical of their conduct in the Peninsular War, none more so than in Porto where the inhabitants were not spared after the battle two months earlier unfortunately (I've detailed some French accounts of their murders of unarmed civilians here: as it forms a pattern: Soult had ordered the barges and boats used on the river, confiscated or destroyed. However these barges were a common mode of transport, typically for the traditional wine trade, which Porto is associated with, as such, motivated by their hatred of the French, the locals, defied this where possible and hid their vessels as best they could.

[Portuguese wine barge (with modern sail) source]

Throughout the night of 11th May, Marshal Soult made plans for a staged and orderly withdrawal of his troops, some 13,000 strong army, out of the city. He believed that there was little reason to make a speedy retreat, firm in the belief that Wellesley could only cross the Douro downstream of Porto.

On the morning of the 12th May, British Troops filtered into the suburbs on the south bank of the river, still with no clear route across. General Wellesley could survey the French Positions from a Portuguese monastery, high above a prominent bend in the Douro river. It was whilst he witnessed the French Positions arrayed to the West, with the wounded and sick troops already being moved to carts and taken out the city, that the Portuguese inhabitants came to his aid.

A local barber, seeing the Anglo-Portuguese army on the south bank, took his small boat out of hiding and hastily rowed across. He was able to reach Colonel John Waters, commander of Wellesley's scouts, and inform him that four wine barges remained hidden nearby, a fact immediately brought to Wellesley's attention. The barber, four locals and a priest fetched the barges from their hidden locations along the north bank, allowing for a amphibious operation to begin. Wellesley said simply "Well let the men cross" and the first men hurriedly loaded themselves into the boats.

[Men of The 3rd East Kent Living History Society onboard a Portuguese wine barge for a reenactment of the crossing]

In the leading crossing were men from the 3rd (East Kent) Regiment - "The Buffs" named because of their distinctive but subtle beige or "buff" colour facings on their red coats. Each barge carried 1 officer and 25 men in every crossing, meaning in each wave a Company could easily be rowed over (a company of which there were 10 per regiment, consisted of 100 men, less those sick/wounded, usually around 60 to 80 would be present).

As soon as these men hit the far bank of the river, they lept out and dashed into the Catholic Seminary, which sat nearby, with thick walls, it made an ideal defensive position to establish a foothold on the north bank of the river. As the wine barges made return trips the men who had crossed constructed makeshift fire-steps along the outer walls and threw barricades up. Soon 600 men, the entire Battalion of "Buffs" were occupying the positions, under the direction of General Edward Paget.

[Men from 3rd East Kent - The Buffs, living history group. (Note the nearest side NCOs are from the Buffs, with the far side including a officer being of different regiments) ]

Soult, who was asleep at the time, remained unaware of these developments. When a messenger reached him just before midday, he dismissed the reports, assuming that the red coated men spotted must be Swiss, bathing in the river, as Swiss Regiments in France's army wore red coats too (of a different design pattern, but a similar colour).

Meanwhile General of Brigade Maximilien Foy, was the first to respond to the British crossing and requisitioned three battalions of the French 17eme Light Infantry and led an attack on the occupied seminary around 11:30 am. The "Buffs" were now well prepared in their fortified seminary and repulsed the larger force with relative ease. Foy was wounded and his soldiers beaten back with heavy losses. French musket fire was ineffective against the thick seminary walls and prepared positions taken by "The Buffs" during the battle they only suffered a single casualty out of the 600 man Regiment, who crossed the river.

Soult heard the definitive sound of musket fire and ordered his artillery to be brought up and the forces, deployed against a empty west, to be recalled into the city. The French Artillery were outgunned by the British guns across the river, who must have had time to lay their barrels and expect an attack.

[The 3rd Regiment of Foot - "The Buffs" load into barges on the Douro, the seminary can be seen on the far side, in the background of the image]

More Portuguese inhabitants came out of their homes and uncovered boats, barges and skiffs, eager to help expel the hated French. Soon the 29th (Worcestershire), the Coldstream Guards and the 3rd Foot Guards all crossed the river to join the fight. Foy's French attacked this larger force and was quickly beaten back by a mass of musket fire. Soon the French, who had expected a day of orderly withdrawal, were in full retreat.

Unfortunately for the British, General Murray, who had been sent to cross to the east, though note, his King's German Legion Brigade had stayed on the nearside bank and though typically part of his Brigade, they were not part of the later action. Murray's ad-hoc Brigade, with attached 14th Light Dragoons, were hoping to cut off the escape but did not fall upon the enemy in force. The 14th Light Dragoons did engage the French and captured a considerable number of prisoners, with just 36 men killed or wounded themselves, if the 4 Line Regiments had also done likewise, it is possible that Soult's force would have marched to imprisonment.

As it was, Soult's Army had suffered a total defeat at the hands of only a few regiment's that had crossed the Douro. The French losses we 300 killed and wounded with 1,500 prisoners of war, for just 23 killed and 98 wounded British casualties.

Amongst the casualties was General Paget, who had commanded the vanguard of the crossing, a unlucky wound resulted in him losing his right arm, though he continued to serve for many years, including as Wellesley's second in command.

[General Sir Edward Paget GCB]

Within just 26 days of leaving Portsmouth, Lord Arthur Wellesley had recaptured Porto and the French were in full retreat, Marshal Soult an experienced General and one of Napoleon's 'heroes of Austerlitz' was soundly beaten.

The British under Wellesley pursued the fleeing French, through a treacherous mountain route that had to be taken by Soult, in order to avoid Beresford's force, which had succeeded in manoeuvring behind the city. Marshal Soult was forced to abandon all of his equipment, knapsacks and baggage were emptied of anything that was not food or ammunition in an attempt to navigate the mountain paths, this meant leaving a large amount of loot, which the French had plundered from the helpless Portuguese civilians during their invasion.

During the retreat, Soult's corps lost another 4,500 men, its military pay chest and all 58 guns. Returning to Spain a weakened, defeated and disheartened force.

[Men of The 3rd East Kent Living History Society boarding the wine barges for a reenactment of the crossing]

With thanks to The 3rd East Kent Living History society for providing images

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