Sunday, October 2, 2011

Battle of Guarda - May 1810

Finally the major powers have clashed in the West - Marshal Massena launched a strong French attack on the northern Portuguese mountain town of Guarda. This was defended by the entire Portuguese Army, supported by a number of British regiments and commanded by General Beresford.

The map

Guarda in more peaceful times, looking east - the Portuguese position is in the foreground, the French attacking from the far end. The Portuguese MLR  was drawn from the woods on the left, through the town and the woods on the right, then west along the long ridge forward of the river line.
The terrain hugely favoured the defenders, with most of the woodland (as well as the major hill on which Guarda itself sits) being Bad Going impassable to cavalry and slowing and disordering close-order infantry. The more open areas of rocky terrain are Rough Going, which again slows and can disorder close-order troops. The town of Guarda was awarded a Defence Value of 3, reflecting the solidity of its construction and its position atop an almost unclimbably-high and steep mountainous hill.  Although reduced by the early summer, the rivers also posed formidable obstacles which disordered close-order units crossing them.

Massena and his lieutenants deploy their forces, worried about the task they face
Although clearly concerned by the terrain they faced (and a strength of opposition which, as it turned out, their intelligence had somewhat over-estimated), the French commanders made their dispositions and, promptly at 8am, started to advance towards the village.

As their infantry slogged towards their objectives, the French soon brought their 12pdr battery to bear on the town, and settled in for a lengthy preparatory bombardment. Within the first half-hour of cannonade though the gunners displayed some outstanding accuracy and were astonished to see their efforts rewarded very quickly as walls collapsed and some of the defenders' positions were exposed to fire. With parts of the town reduced to rubble, would Massena be tempted to try a direct assault?

The bulk of the French force had been committed to an advance deep up the southern flank. Massena's plan called for a heavy left-hook to capture the heights overlooking the river and the Portuguese positions beyond. As their advance continued, it became clear that the Marshal was not going to let the temptation of capturing the town distract him from his plan.

French forces mass on the left
As the action developed it became clear that the French were to be superbly served by their strong light infantry contingent, which included many of the elite, veteran Voltigeurs of the Imperial Guard. It also became clear that the Portuguese lacked any effective reply to these troops, fielding only a single battalion of Cacadores.

French light troops swarmed through the centre, making the most of the difficult terrain to envelope the town and engage its defenders.

French light infantry attack the town
Others raced forward to clear the woods and rocky ground in front of the main French advance, where they met and quickly overwhelmed Beresford's Cacadores.

Other French Légere assault the woods on the Portuguese right, evicting the Cacadores defending them. 
In the centre, the light troops spent the day wearing down the defenders; one valiant Portuguese militia battalion was reduced to a single company, but still stood its ground. However, no assault was ever made on the town and its garrison held out comfortably throughout the day.

Instead, the French massed for an assault across the river. A single Portuguese infantry brigade held an advance position on the reverse of the long ridge, but seeing the strength of the forces approaching they withdrew to defend the northern side of the river. An intial reconnaissance by French Dragoons was met with cannon fire from across the river, but they rapidly occupied the heights and were able to view the Portuguese position for the first time.

The Portuguese position is revealed
Now the quality of the French - a well-led, veteran and professional force - began to assert itself over the inexperienced mixture of a few British regulars mixed with local militia which made up the Portuguese Army. Time and again, French light infantry advanced to the river and poured volley after volley into the brigades defending the far bank.

Uncommitted and immobile Portuguese reserve cavalry look on as their countrymen die on the riverbank and French light infantry penetrate the left of  their position, shortly before galloping off to the west in retreat.
The rapid and accurate fire from the Young Guard voltigeurs caused carnage amongst the defenders, who proved unable to make any effective reply. Inexplicably, Beresford left these units in place for two hours, either unconcerned at their plight or unable to construct an alternative plan. Meanwhile, the French Légere in the centre has occupied the light woods to the rear of Guarda, partially cutting the town off and capturing their second battery of Portuguese guns in the process.

Threatened by light infantry annoying his centre and finally realising the plight of the infantry defending the river, Beresford decided to ignore his strict orders to hold the town and in the early afternoon withdrew his Army to the west. The grateful and somewhat surprised French were only too happy to let him go without hindrance.

Portugal is now afire with speculation and rumour. Wellington is said to be immensely displeased with his subordinate's performance and his failure to hold this strategically vital town. The Portuguese Regency is rumoured to be no less furious at Wellington for moving British troops away from Guarda prior to the battle. Where now for the Alliance? There is even a suggestion the Regency, presumably impressed by Beresford's heroic stance, are demanding Wellington be replaced...