Saturday, May 24, 2014

San Antonio - Redux!

24th May 1809 – The Rematch!

In an unexpected twist of fate (or perhaps a parallel universe!) and by popular request, the same British and French forces again clashed again at San Antonio, just three weeks later! On this occasion Wellesley was clearly back on his usual form, and Napoleon could not quite match his previous performance - after a hard-fought and hugely enjoyable game the British finally prevailed.

The Second Battle of San Antonio!
This time, Wellesley moved with alacrity to seize Spinoza and secure the east bridge. At the same time however, Napoleon sent his veteran Light Brigade dashing up the road and across country towards the river. Their Hussar regiment galloped into San Antonio and waited nervously for their infantry to catch up – but they were safe for the moment, the British cavalry Brigade had deployed on the right flank and in turn moved smartly around the south-eastern massif, heading for the easily-fordable upper reaches of the D’Oro. 

To secure his left against this, Napoleon deployed both his heavy 12pdr batteries onto the hill north of the ravine; they had a fine field of fire out towards San Antonio and Spinoza, and prevented a deep cavalry strike around the eastern end of the ravine. Léger battalions moved into the woods south of the ravine, the vineyards beside San Antonio and crossed the river to occupy the dense wood in the centre.

The British toehold in Spinoza looking fragile
 As these marched forward, Napoleon sent his other strong infantry brigade forward in the centre, and held his weaker, mainly raw 3rd Brigade in reserve. Wellesley sent his veteran Highlanders forward to secure San Truco and ordered his 3rd Brigade on a wide outflanking march to the west, which it carried through without hesitation over the course of the next few hours.

The Long March begins...
An early British attempt to cross the river in the centre before the French could move up in force was foiled by the veteran Light Cavalry in San Antonio, who moved into the vineyards and carefully controlled the centre for the next few hours. They surprised the first British battalion as it struggled up the banks in disorder, charging and sending it running back with heavy casualties.

Undaunted, Wellesley then demonstrated a textbook deployment across the east bridge, shuttling infantry battalions through Spinoza. A Guards battalion bravely advanced forward and formed square between the vineyards and the woods, preventing the French cavalry from interfering while two regiments of cavalry calmly crossed the river behind them. Picking their way across slowly and disordered, the cavalry took nearly two hours to form up safely on the western bank; the Guards paid for this vital time in blood, being reduced to 30% strength. A heavy French assault on them by two line battalions was repulsed, but Napoleon had his Grenadiers to hand and they charged the Guards, exploiting their disorder and finally breaking them.

Pressure builds...
The Grenadiers could do no more though – they found themselves facing two regiments of British cavalry keen to avenge the slaughter of their comrades in kind, and had no option but to form to receive cavalry, their flanks secured by the vineyards and the woods. A Léger battalion defended the woods though, and more Léger lining the edge of the vineyards stymied the British cavalry – they desperately needed infantry support to force the matter, and there seemed to be none to be had.

Napoleon still had a secure hold on San Antonio, and the British cavalry appeared powerless to intervene – any attempt to move further north around the French flank would have exposed them to ferocious fire from his 12pds batteries. A stalemate seemed to have broken out, although the French commander was acutely aware of the threat posed by the British brigade still doggedly marching towards his undefended right flank.

Suddenly, to Napoleon’s horror, Highlanders were pouring out of San Truco and across the D’Oro! In perfect order, a battalion emerged on the north bank and formed square to protect the crossing while their comrades followed – the French Light Cavalry were powerless to interfere. The Highlanders’ canny commander had realised that the villagers on the far bank must have an easy way to get to and from church, and thought to dip his toe in the water – there was a ford, right below the old abbey!

The British are across!
At the same time, British RHA galloped up to the dense woods to the left of the crossing and poured canister into the unfortunate Léger defending it. Seeing their opportunity, the 95th Rifles were quick to move up and joined the gunners in flaying the woods with lead. The Voltigeurs’ nerve finally collapsed under the sustained fire, and they retreated, shattered. The 95th rushed into the woods and prepared to assault San Antonio.

Pinned by the enemy cavalry, the French Grenadiers could only watch helplessly as British infantry also struck decisively into the vineyards, evicting the defending Léger. A perfectly-coordinated assault then erupted against San Antonio, with Highlanders charging in from the south and the 95th Rifles across the river; even a raw conscript battalion scented victory and attacked bravely from the vineyards. Overwhelmed, the defenders were ejected.

San Antonio falls
Although Napoleon still had most of his force intact, it was in no position to retake the village. British artillery had now unlimbered on the hills to the west, and were firing unopposed into the exposed French lines as more riflemen and fusiliers forded the D’Oro north of Puente Negro. Napoleon had run out of time and options – a withdrawal north before the enemy could exploit their victory and cut him off was his only choice.

Wellesley could justly celebrate – although he had lost most of three battalions of infantry, and many other units had empty ranks at parade that evening, he had out-foxed Napoleon. The Frenchman’s losses were light, but his reputation had suffered much more serious damage!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

San Antonio, May 1809

Historians have recently uncovered details of a previously-unknown action of the Peninsular War, on 3rd May 1809 around the village of San Antonio in northern Portugal. It seems Napoleon had not left Spain as early as was previously thought, and we now know that he did in fact face General Wellesley in battle once long before Waterloo!
Both Generals found themselves ahead of much of their forces, maneuvering in command of just a Division each to seize and hold the crucial road junction and bridges near San Antonio. Prior to the battle, Napoleon had already forced the British to march further west than they had intended, so on the morning of 3rd May we find Wellesley leading his men down from the mountains to the South, while the Emperor pushed rapidly down from the North. At 10am, the forces sighted each other and began to deploy for action.
The Battle of San Antonio, 3rd May 1809
Napoleon clearly was not impressed by what he had heard so far of the Sepoy General, sending Cavalry and artillery west without delay to secure the Rio D’Oro while pushing hard to occupy not only San Antonio itself but even managing to seize the large farm complex at Spinoza, which controls the eastern bridge across the river. By 1pm the Emperor justifiably felt his position was secure.
But what of the British? A distracted and hesitant Wellesley seemed unable to act with any speed, barely managing to assemble his force in a confused mass to the south of San Truco by the end of the morning. An ADC later suggested the General seemed to have over-estimated the difficulties he would face in attempting an early crossing of the D’Oro, failing to grasp his opportunities until they had slipped beyond his reach. Perhaps this unexpected meeting with the Emperor in person had shaken his confidence?
Initially, the strong British Cavalry brigade (comprising three regiments of Light Dragoons) were sent west, into the forests south of the D’Oro; less suitable terrain for their deployment could scarcely be imagined. After blundering around there for two hours they came under a fierce fire from French heavy guns north of the river, a lucky shot from which decapitated their commanding officer. Unnerved by this first taste of action, and confused by the lack of any apparent plan or clear orders, their newly-promoted General decided to withdraw back the way they had come.
The British march hither.. and thither..
Meanwhile, discovering his mistake in allowing the enemy to occupy Spinoza, Wellesley had ordered two battalions across the river in an assault. However, climbing the steep banks in disorder they proved incapable of ejecting the confident French Léger battalion defending the farm and were broken after being counter-attacked by an assault column of French Grenadiers. One of these battalions, raw recruits freshly arrived from England, was shattered and could not be prevented from fleeing the field in panic.
A third battalion did advance up the narrow ravine to the east but, finding themselves unsupported and out of contact with the rest of the Division, had no alternative but to form square when threatened by a regiment of enemy Hussars which was scouting out to the left of the French positions, where they were subsequently pinned for several hot and uncomfortable hours...
Ah - what do we do now, sergeant?
Finally realizing the severity of his position Wellesley determined to redeploy his entire army to the east, where he had more detailed knowledge of the terrain (including a detailed survey showing the eastern reaches of the D’Oro were easily fordable). This plan, if executed well, might indeed have changed the outcome of the battle, trapping the French with their backs to the river and cutting them off. Sadly, Wellesley’s subsequent actions failed to deliver this and have indeed confused historians (as they clearly also did his own officers at the time).
The British redeploy east (mostly out of shot!) and the French counter.
As the bulk of his infantry set off on a long, wide march around the massif to the south-east, he ordered the troops on his left to follow suit. A battalion of Rifles, holding the vineyards to the south-east of San Truco, duly pulled out and headed east across the Rio Blanco stream. Other than a last remaining cavalry unit, this left the entire area undefended. Unable to believe their eyes, the veterans of a French Léger battalion instantly seized their opportunity. In a spectacular coup de main, they raced forward across the river and scaled the hill in front of San Truco; before any British troops could prevent them, they smashed their way into the old medieval buildings, barricaded the doors and took up firing positions.
This was a disaster for the British – how could they have failed to garrison or even secure such a keystone of their position? We can only assume in the confusion of redeployment, orders had failed to arrive or been misunderstood – surely a General of Wellesley’s calibre could not have made such a fundamental mistake?
The capture of San Truco
Wellesley’s shock turned to horror as he realised his light RHA guns could have little effect on the stonework of the strongly-built old abbey. He turned to the only troops still close enough to act and ordered his veteran Highland brigade to recapture the position. These reformed into column and made two brave attempts, but were unable to find a weak spot in the old abbey’s strong walls. Lacking any equipment for such an assault they were forced back both times, suffering from the Léger’s accurate shooting from the rooftops as they went.
Clearly frustrated by the lack of an enemy to fight, the Emperor was by now looking to the only places he could safely act more aggressively. He ordered his reserve Brigade east, where it occupied the large woods to the north of Spinoza and moved to support the Hussars pinning down the only British who had so far advanced out of the ravine.
Meanwhile he also sent a Brigade forward across the river on his right, towards the largely-empty British left. A charge by some British Light Dragoons was repulsed by Chasseurs, leaving the French infantry free to assault the vineyards, which had finally been re-occupied by the Rifles. Some well-aimed shots from an RHA battery sited in the hills to the south brought one battalion to a halt in disorder; a sharp fire from the riflemen then broke its spirit and it ran back to the forest to rally. Unsupported though the riflemen could do little to resist the remaining French columns and had to fall back.
News of this reverse was the final straw and Wellesley issued orders for his forces to withdraw to the south, from where he began his march back to Torres Vedras. Leaving Massena in charge, Napoleon departed for Paris. Perhaps the events of 1815 were shaped by what each leader experienced at San Antonio?
Considering the engagement had lasted most of the day, losses on both sides were relatively light – the battle had at times an almost Malburian feel as Brigades maneuvered for position on a wide scale and close engagement was limited. Crucially, in the close country neither side was able to use their main strengths to effect – the two batteries of French heavy artillery had trouble seeing targets, while the strong British cavalry presence was crippled by a combination of difficult terrain and indecisive leadership.