Wellington: A Personal History

By Christopher Hibbert | Go to book overview

16 From Bussaco to El Bodon 1810-11

'The whole ground was still covered with the wrecks of an army.'

MASSENA CAME on steadily with some 70,000 men; and Wellington, sorely outnumbered, withdrew beyond the Coa towards the valley of the Mondego, Robert Craufurd, commanding the rearguard and leading it in an unnecessarily aggressive way, repeatedly attacking the leading French columns and losing men to little purpose. After the loss of the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo to Massena's dashing second-in-command, Marshal Ney, Wellington hoped to make a stand at Almeida -- a fortress twenty-five miles west of Ciudad Rodrigo on the other side of the Spanish frontier -- which Massena began to bombard on 26 August 1810. But an enemy shell ignited a trail of gunpowder which had been left by a leaking barrel between the cannon on the walls and the powder magazine in Almeida Cathedral. Masonry and shattered casks were sent flying high into the sky in a thunderous explosion which killed or wounded hundreds of the men of the garrison; and Wellington was obliged to withdraw fifty miles further down the Mondego to Bussaco.

His army took up position on the ridge at Bussaco on 27 September and at dawn that day he made his rounds, removing from his command the colonel of a regiment who had drunk too much brandy in an attempt to steady his nerves. He was anxious enough himself: he remained outwardly calm as always; but it was noticed that he kept gathering up blades of grass and chewing them.

At about six o'clock the French launched their first attack on the centre of the long British line.

Facing Massena's 65,000 men were about 25,000 British and the same number of Portuguese. Both stood their ground well, the Portuguese, in Wellington's words, 'worthy of contending in the same ranks as British troops'. Massena, despite his greater numbers, could not dislodge them, hard and persistently as his commanders led their men against the allies on the ridge, losing some 4,500 men in the process. 1

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