Monday, July 6, 2015

Northern Portugal, September 1810

A Bridge Too Far

Another off-the-cuff game saw Picton's division acting as rearguard on the retreat towards Portugal in the autumn of 1810, pausing to deliver a check to the French vanguard on the road to Bussaco. No-one expected more than a delay to Massena's hordes, but a shocking result however threw the whole future of the British in the Peninsula into doubt!

The initial British position, looking North - behind a nice ridge as usual!
The British division, commanded jointly (or perhaps that should be dis-jointly) by Ross and Geoff deployed in the south-west corner of the table, using a ridge line to cover any French approach from the north, while guarding against an attack  across the bridge on their eastern flank. The road to Lisbon leads off to their rear, across the other bridge. The river was otherwise uncrossable, so control of these two bridges was clearly key to their position.

Further to the north-east, the French main line of advance can be seen in the far corner.

The British were uncertain of the exact position of the French advance guard and the wily General Foy, in the person of Andrew, was keen to keep them guessing. Scouts had been sent out to the north and north-west in case a flanking move was intended, but there was never any real doubt that the main enemy advance would come from the north-east. Crucially though, Picton decided not to station major force - or, indeed any force - east of the river, relying on a strong artillery position on the end of the ridge line to cover any approach from that direction. This was perhaps not unreasonable - from somewhere, he had acquired part of the Allied siege train and his troops had dragged two batteries of heavy guns onto the hill. Evidently he wasn't planning on moving anywhere quickly - retreat was far from his mind!

As the French began to pour up the road from the north-east, reports from the Ordenanza gave wildly conflicting assessments of enemy strength, but did confirm a good deal of cavalry - including many of the feared Cuirassiers - were amongst them. Fortunately (or so it seemed), Picton also had with him virtually all of Wellington's cavalry, including a Heavy Brigade.

Realising the British failure to guard the eastern side of the battlefield gave him free reign, Foy's experienced artilleyman's eye told him that Picton might have miscalculated. Those guns were truly to be feared by his troops on the march - but only if they were careless enough to stray within range. Accordingly, he commanded his lead brigades - including his strong cavalry force - to swing wide around the south-east and move rapidly to threaten the British rear. He didn't for a minute expect Picton to ignore such a threat to his line of retreat, but it should at least provide his Chasseurs with some sport...

Foy's cavalry sweep rapidly around the southern edge of the battlefield, threatening the British LoC

Alarmed by the French audacity - and infuriated by their determination to keep out of the range of his carefully-sited cannon - Picton ordered his cavalry south, to defend his route south against the French horsemen, and pushed two battalions of infantry over the bridge to pressure the enemy in the east.

British cavalry ride south, while infantry move east to secure the bridge. So far, so good...

But then something happened - perhaps some sunstroke had caused Picton's brain to boil inside his top hat - and the British commander changed his mind. Seemingly concerned to an excessive degree by reports that the French force included more Cuirassiers than were at that moment in the whole of Spain, and apparently losing any focus on the vulnerability of his route back towards the safety of the main army (or overly confident in his men's ability to triumph over the enemy), he countermanded these movements and ordered his troops to return to their original positions.

The British pull back west and north of the river

Astonished by this, but unable to see any subterfuge, Foy let his cavalry loose. Leaving a strong screening force to prevent the British crossing the bridge again,  they roared off-table to the south to rampage amongst the British supply train and see how far they could get down the road to Lisbon!

Damn me sir, how unsporting - they won't even let us shoot at them!

The lone British RHA battery covering the bridge was able to do nothing more than scare some horses, as more French horsemen took cover in the dead ground behind a wood and awaited developments.

Those pesky Légère are at it again... And where are those guns going?
Those were not long in arriving. The French slowly dragged their two batteries of foot artillery - only 8pdrs, but good enough - up onto the rear slope of the hill, invisible to the British heavy guns. From here, they started to pound the British position west of the bridge - packed with infantry - mercilessly. 

The hard pounding begins

Meanwhile, two battalions of Légère occupied the southern wood and the enclosures beside the bridge.

Finally realising his predicament, Picton ordered the bridge to be stormed - a breakout here might allow him to deploy and finally carry the fight to the French. One after another, three battalions valiantly attempted to charge across but each was met with fierce resistance from the Frenchmen defending the hedges and driven back with considerable loss.

Slowly the full horror was dawning - although Picton's men occupied a strong defensive position, it was now on the wrong side of a river and they were under siege. As more French reinforcements moved up, it was clear that any further attempt to break out across either bridge would be even more doomed to failure than the previous efforts.

Will Wellington be able (and willing) to move up and rescue his beleaguered force, or can Massena block him with superior force? Would a few days without food and supplies then force the unimaginable - the surrender of an entire British division?

As a final insult, it was revealed that the Cuirassiers who had managed to instill such fear and paralysis into the British commanders had been misidentified and were merely dragoons with especially highly-polished helmets.

Truly, a Bridge (or two) Too Far...