Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Battle at Oporto, or Crossing the Douro River. May 12th 1809


Wellesley demonstrates that when he has near equal numbers and some chance of success he can and will move quickly. Many consider this battle a prime example of his abilities. He arrived in Portugal, made his assessments and plans in a time measured in hours, and within 2 weeks had accomplished many of his changes and in less than 3 weeks from his arrival met the French in major battle.

Current Situation in the Peninsula

Since the British exit from Northern Portugal at Corunna, the French have had most battles their way. St. Cyr defeated Spanish armies commanded by Castro and Reding at Igualada and Valls in February. Lannes defeated Palafox and captured Saragossa after 8 months of siege on February 20th 1809. In one weeks time in mid-March Soult defeated the Portuguese Generals Silveira and Eban in battles at Chaves and Braga, while Victor defeated del Paarque in Spain at Meza de Ibor, then Cuesta at Medallin. As March ended Soult and Victor were taking Oporto and Amarante and moving south further into Portugal.

All is not going their way however. The populace is hostile and make communication difficult. The separate French armies in Portugal do not know how the other is doing, and in some cases, do not even know each others location. Beresford is still in Southern Portugal forming and training a Portuguese army.


It is now 1809. The beginning of the year was a near disaster for the British armies. Napoleon entered Spain himself, and proceeded to chase the British under General Sir John Moore out of Spain. In a battle at Corunna, between Moore's forces and Soult's French, the British narrowly avoided the destruction of their army but won the time to take most back to Britain. Moore died in the battle which was a loss, but almost as damaging to British resolution was Moore's expressed opinion that it would now be impossible to hold the Peninsula against the French. Adding to the armies difficulties, some of the Generals were wounded in the battle at Corunna, Wellesley was suffering politically from the

In March Wellesley wrote an opinion that Portugal at least could be protected under certain condition, that the Spanish continue to tie up some portion of the French armies, that the Portuguese improve their armies, and that the British have some 20,000 troops in the endeavor with 4,000 cavalry included in that total. This fitted well with the desires of Castlereagh at the War office, and Wellesley was returned to Portugal arriving at the Tagus River and Lisbon on April 22, 1809. He wasted no time their, marching north within 2 days.

Amongst the many activities he undertook at this time a significant one was soon after his arrival at Coimbra on May 2. Here he began to reorganize his and the Portuguese armies. He introduced autonomous divisions into the British Army. He began the toughening of the Portuguese Army by putting one Portuguese battalion into each of 5 British brigades. He improved his skirmish line by giving each brigade a permanent company of riflemen.

Wellesley left Coimbra, marching toward the French positions on May 8th 1909. His plan to surprise the French with the speed and timing of his attack was thwarted. As he approached Soult at Oporto He used his sea-power to make a series of flanking attacks against the French causing them to fall back all of the way to Oporto.

Wellesley now had with him 17,000 British supported by 6,000 of Beresford's Portuguese against Soult's 23,000 French. There was an attempt to trap a portion of the French between Coimbra and Oporto that failed with little loss. Wellington arrived at the suburbs of Oporto on May 12, 1909. Beresford was sent to the east to block any reinforcing French as well as to block any retreat of the French from Oporto.

The previous day and overnight Soult had crossed the Douro River at Oporto, blown up its bridge, and ordered all river craft destroyed. Soult then watched toward the sea, assuming that this would be the direction the British would take.

Soult sent Loison to keep his lines of retreat clear at Amarante. Loison met with Beresford and 6,000 Portuguese, a brigade under Robert Wilson, and the remains of Spanish General Silveira. He panicked and left his strong position retreating toward Braga.


Oporto is approximately 3 miles inland on the north of Douro River. The city is to the north of the river, and at this point, is crossed by boat or ferry


This is the first outing for Wellesley's reorganized army. Wellesley's Division Generals include Major General Rowland Hill and Major General Edward Paget. Beresford is detached. Soult is supported by Generals de Laborde, Loison, Merle, and Mermet. In addition there was the valuable aid of a Portuguese barber assisted by a prior and 5 Portuguese peasants, who found a solitary skiff, and 4 unused wine-barges and brought them to the British to use as the first troop transports.

The battle

Ferrying of troops began after 10:30, 30 on each barge. They were here aided by the circumstance that the French were looking in the wrong direction for the British approach expecting it to come from the Sea. The troops quickly entered and fortified the Bishops Seminary, a square building to Wellesley's right. Amidst the French disbelief ("Bah! It is just a party of red-coated Swiss going down to bathe." was Soult's response to a warning) the British gained a strong position on the French side of the river.

The first French in battle were led by General Foy against General Edward Paget who was supported by British howitzers from across the river. Paget was wounded, but was seconded by General Rowland Hill. De Laborde led a second French attack which also failed. Soult then pulled more men to mount a brigade attack, leaving the river quay and its boats unguarded allowing even more British to cross with aid from the Portuguese citizenry using the French reserved barges. Sherbrooke's 1st crossed in these barges and broke up the 3rd attack on the seminary.

Soult realized the position was lost and withdrew from the city toward the east. General Charles Stewart, over the 14th Light Dragoons managed to encounter the French in retreat and took 300 prisoners.It was at this point that Soult finally found out about Loison's situation. He changed his goal and began to destroy guns and leave behind baggage. They escaped by traveling the many mountain tracks and ended up back in Galica.

Anecdotes and ancillary events

By 4:00 in the afternoon of the 12th, Wellesley was able to eat the meal that Soult had abandoned uneaten at the Palacio das Carrancas.

A French traitor had been speaking to the British, assuring them that Soult was ambitious and would split from Napoleon. He learned some of the plans and of course positions of the British. He approached Soult to convince him to revolt and in the process gave his information about the British. This ruined the surprise Wellesley had planned.


Soult lost 300 men, killed and wounded, and 1,500 captured and the 70 guns he had at the city. Wellesley lost 123 men, 23 killed 98 wounded and 2 missing. Wellesley was not in a position to mount a vigorous pursuit, lacking the requisite transport, and lacking sufficient knowledge of the roads and passes. The forces he had dispatched to block the French retreat failed in the task, though it did redirect his retreat to a more rugged terrain.

The French retreat became a bloody affair, with the French leaving burning villages and hanged peasants behind. The Portuguese were no less bloodthirsty when they could overcome French stragglers. The British tried to chase and catch the French for the next several days through rough mountains and seasonal rains. The French escaped into Spain by the 18th, in no small part due to a British lack of knowledge of the terrain and roads. Soult took a smaller Roman road that had escaped Wellesley's notice, and himself escaped with the remains of his army.

Wellesley himself was back in Oporto by the 24th of May, 1809. Portugal was cleared of French for the second time.

Wellesley then begins to address the shortcomings in his army. He has problems including money, he was promised £400,000 when he left for Portugal, and had at this point only £120,000 in his war chest. Meetings with the posturing Spanish Generals and a Spanish government of fractured juntas is in the near future.

Political situation

The French were not used to defeats, but French victories with their typically large armies often had much higher losses. What the British viewed as a victory was little thought of in France since the losses were so "low". The British War office had given Wellesley the task of clearing the French from Portugal. Despite the success, soon the Opposition and people wondered why the French weren't all captured or their army destroyed.

At home in Britain, there is both celebration and condemnation. It was a victory over the French at little cost. It happened very soon after the command was given to Wellesley, and early in the war season of 1809. The condemnation came from the many opponents and detractors to the Prime Ministers government. They pointed out that the French escaped, and claimed that Wellesley was lax in the pursuit of the French, and his duties.

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