THE PENINSULAR WAR: COIMBRA

Trant’s Raid was the Portuguese recapture of the city of Coimbra from the French on 7 October 1810 during the Peninsular War. The assault was undertaken by a Portuguese militia led by Colonel Nicholas Trant, an Irish officer in the British Army.

This view looks north-west towards the plain beyond Coimbra. The two parts of the city, seen here on each side of the River Mondego, are linked by the Ponte de Santa Clara. The city had been captured in 1810 by the French who made a base, leaving their sick and wounded there. In October 1810, Nicholas Trant (1769-1839), a Captain in the Royal Staff Corps, and Brigadier-General in the Portuguese army, to which he was assigned, recaptured Coimbra with his Portuguese troops, taking 5,000 prisoners in what has been described as ‘the most daring enterprise by any partisan force during the entire war’. Trant was made Governor of the city and remained there during the winter of 1810-1811. 

6 October 1810

As Masséna approached, Wellington withdrew behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, but British public opinion clamoured for him to make a stand. He decided to do so at a place of his own choosing, near the fortress town of Coimbra. Masséna’s army approached down the rain-sodden road, to Ordenanza, his supply train attacked by Portuguese guerrillas. One group of 2,000 under a notoriously daring Irish officer, Colonel Trant, nearly succeeded in cutting off the entire French artillery. Then the French army came up against a great nine-mile long ridge running from the banks of the Mondego to the central spine of Portuguese hills at Bussaco.

Here Wellington took up his position. He had 27,000 British troops and 25,000 Portuguese. In front of them, in the valley below, were 60,000 French soldiers. Wellington, clad in his simple frock coat, cocked hat and cloak without decorations, watched from above. ‘If Masséna attacks me here, I shall defeat him,’ he observed simply.

On the morning of 27 September the French drums beat for the attack. They were drawn up in two huge columns, each composed of several divisions: one in the south under Reynier was ordered to break through the British right along a track, and wheel about to envelop it; the other under Ney was to come straight along the main road and strike through the centre in overwhelming force. Behind it a further corps, and Ney’s and Junot’s own divisions, were held in reserve. Masséna seemed unaware there were two further British divisions under Hill to the right. The French had every confidence their overwhelming force of hardened veterans would prevail.

They attacked at dawn in a mist, the steepness of the climb to the ridge soon causing them to pause. One French division made it to the top at a point that was lightly defended, but British and Portuguese troops hurried down the road that ran along the ridge to reinforce it. After a fierce firefight that left 2,000 dead and wounded, the assailants were forced down the slope. A second French attempt to break through at the same spot was also repulsed. To the left the main French thrust reached the crest of the hill, only to be blocked by 1,800 men of the 43rd and 52nd Regiments, concealed behind the brow. ‘Now 52nd, avenge the death of Sir John Moore!’ yelled Crauford. After a few minutes the 6,000-strong French column was in full retreat down the steep bank.

Masséna decided to call the attack off with the loss of more than 4,000 men to some 1,200 on the Anglo-Portuguese side. He had found a trail over to the coastal plain which would bypass the British position, but Wellington had no intention of being outflanked. He ordered a retreat to the first Line of Torres Vedras seventy miles away, to the consternation of Portuguese civilians, who had to abandon their belongings and join in a chaotic refugee column. Trant and his Portuguese forces briefly recaptured Coimbra behind French lines and took 4,500 French wounded and the small garrison there prisoner.

The characteristic rains of October burst upon the two armies. Masséna, closing in for the kill, ordered a general surge forward. At last the British army reached the awesome fortified lines – earthworks interrupted by forts with the ground cleared in front of them, interspersed by cliffs blown by the British out of solid rock. On the coastal side there was a huge artificial marsh created by diverting streams. The British and the Portuguese armies were safe: most of these troops had no idea of the extent or even existence of these fortifications. ‘The devil cannot surely have built these mountains,’ was Masséna’s dismayed reaction as he came up against them. He staged one botched attack near Sobral, then realized his men would be massacred if he proceeded.

For five weeks his troops were camped miserably in front of the Lines as their supplies dwindled and Portuguese partisans attacked in the rear. The British soldiers tossed them biscuits out of sympathy. Finally the French erected straw dummies at night and pulled back to some thirty miles further north. There they camped and starved through that wretched winter. The British held off attacking, Wellington remarking with his usual detachment that there was no need to sacrifice his men: Masséna’s men would sooner or later have to retreat in full winter over the mountain passes to Spain.

Masséna was well entrenched in the hills around Santarém and there he waited for a diversionary attack to be mounted by Soult with his army from Seville. In October, as Soult’s forces approached, Major Harvey was despatched to take command of the Ordeneza, the Portuguese guerrilla Army of the South, to prevent the French crossing the Tagus. These Portuguese brigands traditionally would not obey British orders and he had no supporting British troops. Nevertheless he succeeded in patrolling the west bank of the river. When the French tried to seize sixty boats to carry their forces over the river at Chumusca, they were supported by six cannon, but intense fire from the Portuguese partisans under Harvey’s command drove them back and he succeeded in scuttling the boats.

On 30 December Soult set out with 20,000 men north-west into Estremadura, taking two weeks to reach Olivenza, where he captured or killed the 4,000 Spanish soldiers defending the garrison. At the end of January 1812 it was the turn of the massive castle of Badajoz, which lay on the road to Portugal: outside its walls a Spanish army was again trounced. Wellington could spare no men himself to relieve it.

However General Thomas Graham, commanding the British forces in Cadiz, decided to stage a diversionary attack by landing from the sea behind the lines besieging that city. In late February some 10,000 Spaniards and 5,000 British soldiers sailed from Cadiz to Algeciras to attack the French army from the rear. Their commander, however, was the notoriously highly strung General Manuel (Dona Manuela to his soldiers) La Peña.

On arrival opposite the French besieging army under General Victor, La Peña attempted to bypass this and link up with the forces inside Cadiz. This exposed him to being cut down by the French cavalry on his flank: Graham led a force of just 470 men up the hill against vastly superior French forces: some 200 were killed in the first French volley alone. But this onslaught gave time for reinforcements to be brought up, and the French were routed, losing 2,000 of their 7,000 men. Some 600 British soldiers were lost altogether, along with twenty-five officers, around a third of the total.

The Spanish army was thus saved; but, exhausted by La Peña’s forced marching, it did nothing. Wellington remarked:

They march the troops night and day without provisions or rest, abusing everybody who proposes a moment’s delay to afford either to the famished and fatigued soldiers. They reach the enemy in such a state as to be unable to make any exertion or to execute any plan, even if any plan had been formed; and, when the moment of action arrives, they are totally incapable of movement, and they stand by to see their allies destroyed, and afterwards abuse them because they do not continue, unsupported, exertions to which human nature is not equal.

The two forces were compelled to return to the safety of Cadiz more or less intact, but having accomplished little. However they had dealt a psychological blow. Soult to the north, learning of Graham’s diversionary attack, felt his rear to be threatened. Although he had captured Badajoz, he hastily returned southwards.

Masséna now was on his own again in Portugal. At long last his starving army began to retreat: it had been reduced by around 30,000 men to just 44,000. Behind them they left a wasteland strewn with the corpses of their own starved men, the Portuguese they had massacred and raped and a countryside stripped of all sustenance.

Wellington moved into close pursuit across this desolate countryside to prevent Masséna turning north to establish a new base in Portugal. He marched to the valley of the Ceira where he attacked Ney’s forces as they tried to cross the river, killing some 400. After chasing the French a hundred miles across valleys and mountains in torrential rains, Wellington called a halt to resupply. Masséna promptly attempted to turn south and march across the 4,000-foot-high central massif of Portugal to stage a new thrust against Lisbon from the Tagus valley. In the wake of the French myriad horrors occurred. As a British soldier wrote: ‘This retreat brought to my mind the Corunna race. We could not advance a hundred yards without seeing dead soldiers of the enemy . . . The retreat resembled more that of famished wolves than men. Murder and devastation marked their way; every house was a sepulchre, a cabin of horrors!’

It was as though a plague of locusts had ravished the land. Arthur Bryant vividly described the devastation:

The road was covered with dead soldiers and abandoned carriages; the houses filled with sick and dying in the last loathsome stages of disease. Many lay on the floor in full uniform, their arms still grasped in their hands as if asleep, or sat in chairs, stiff and upright, with shakos on and pinched features frozen in death. The route their comrades had taken was marked by straggling wretches with pallid, swollen faces which they turned with inexpressible pathos on their pursuers. The Rifles in the British van threw them their biscuits in pity as they passed. But their pity turned to anger as they saw what they had done. For everywhere were burning and ravaged houses, mutilated peasants with slit throats and gouged-out eyes, polluted churches and rifled graves. The whole countryside had been transformed into a waste fit only for wolves and vultures. The few surviving inhabitants looked like skeletons risen from the tomb. Gaunt and ghastly figures fed off the grass in the fields or scoured the woods for acorns and rotten olives. Violated women lay bleeding in charred and unroofed houses, the streets were strewn with putrid carcasses, children with bones sticking through their skin clung to the bodies of dead parents. Searching for a stream on the first night of the British advance, Rifleman Costello stumbled on a fountain into whose waters the brains of three peasants were oozing, while all that had possessed life in the village ‘lay quivering in the last agony of slaughter and awful vengeance’.

The atrocities had been a deliberate policy to crush the resistance of the local population. Wellington relayed the horrors to London, to force the British government to continue its support of the Peninsular War.

Masséna’s counterattack fizzled out. First Ney, then Reynier and Junot refused to obey the suicidal orders from the grim old general. On 5 April the exhausted, demoralized and defeated French army recrossed the Spanish border. The chase had lasted 300 miles. The French had been ignominiously ejected from Portugal. It had been the greatest setback for Napoleon’s invincible armies yet.