Saturday, September 27, 2008

Battle of the Day: The Battle of Bucaco (or Bussaco), 1810

On this day in 1810, The Duke of Wellington and his Portuguese allies won a defensive battle against the invading French.

By 1808 the only European power capable of resisting Napoleon was Great Britain, which had eliminated the threat of French invasion at the naval victory of Trafalgar.

But Napoleon made the fateful political mistake of putting his brother on the throne of Spain, which resulted in a massive uprising. The British took advantage of the chaos to send an expeditionary force under Wellington to support Portuguese independence and ultimately break French domination of the continent.

In 1810, the French were trying to solve this problem, which had been boiling over in Spain for two years, with a decisive conquest of Portugal. Wellington had suffered a great deal of criticism for not taking the battle to the French as they besieged and invested Almeida, but he was wise: the French had flooded the Iberian Peninsula with 300,000 troops to quell the uprising. To win, the Allies would have to choose the time and place of Battle carefully.

At Bucaco, Wellington did just that, choosing an excellent defensive position and going so far as to build a road for ease of movement along the crest of the ridge. The French, under Massena had an advantage in numbers, with 65,000 men. Wellington had a mixed force of 51,000 Britons and Portuguese on heights overlooking the best road to pursue the invasion of Portugal.

The French attacks were repulsed, with the climactic moment coming when Loison's division launched an assault on what appeared to be a weak spot in Welllington's lines with vulnerable artillery:

"Loison was completely unaware that two battalions of Crauford's Light Division - the 1/43rd and 1/52nd - were concealed in the ground behind the battery. As the French prepared to rush the final few yards uphill to the battery, Crauford waved his men forward and 'eighteen hundred British bayonets went sparkling over the brow of the hill.' At a distance of as little as 10 paces, the line of infantry poured a murderous volley into the front of Loison's Division before wheeling in from left and right to generate a semicircle of fire. Within minutes, the French were streaming back down the hillside in a broken mass with Crauford's troops in pursuit."

After this frustration, Massena flanked Wellington, forcing him to withdraw to another defensive position at Torres Vedras. The French invasion was to fail, and by 1812, Wellington was on the offensive. He had succeeded in convincing the rest of Europe that Napoleon could be challenged, and the Russians, who had previously been cowed and neutralized, rose against the French once more, setting the stage for the fateful French invasion that resulted in Napoleon's downfall.