Finding the French across the river at San Justo, the Portuguese, who were defending the lower bridges, had to give way, or they would have been surrounded and cut off. They yielded unwillingly, and at Ponte de Avé actually beat off the first attempt to evict them. But in the end they had to fly, abandoning the artillery in the redoubts that covered the two bridges.
On the twenty-seventh, therefore, Soult was able to press close in to Oporto, for the line of the Avé is but fifteen miles north of the city. On approaching the heights which overhang the Douro the French found them covered with entrenchments and batteries ranged on a long front of six or seven miles, from San Jo?o de Foz on the sea-shore to the chapel of Bom Fin overlooking the river above the town. Ever since the departure of the French from Orense and their crossing of the frontier had become known, the whole of the populace had been at work on the fortifications, under the direction of Portuguese and British engineer officers. In three weeks an enormous amount of work had been done. The rounded summits of the line of hills, which[p. 240] rise immediately north of the city, and only half a mile in advance of its outermost houses, had been crowned with twelve redoubts armed with artillery of position. The depressions between the redoubts had been closed by palisades and abattis. Further west, below the city, where the line of hills is less marked, the front was continued by a deep ditch, fortified buildings, and four strong redoubts placed in the more exposed positions. It ended at the walls of San Jo?o da Foz, the old citadel which commands the mouth of the Douro, and had in this direction an outwork in another ancient fort, the castle of Quejo, on the sea-shore a mile north of the estuary. There were no less than 197 guns of various calibres distributed along the front of the lines. Nor was this all: the main streets of the place had been barricaded to serve as a second line of defence, and even south of the river a battery had been constructed on the height crowned by the Serra Convent, which overlooks the bridge and the whole city.
To hold this enormous fortified camp the Bishop of Oporto had collected an army formidable in numbers if not in quality. There was a strong nucleus of troops of the regular army: it included the two local Oporto regiments (6th and 18th of the line), two more battalions brought in by Brigadier-General Vittoria, who had been too late to join in the defence of Braga, a battalion of the regiment of Valenza (no. 21), a fraction of that of Viana (no. 9), with the wrecks of the 2nd battalion of the Lusitanian Legion, which had escaped from Eben’s rout of the twentieth, and the skeleton of an incomplete cavalry regiment (no. 12, Miranda). In all there cannot have been less than 5,000 regular troops in the town, though many of the men were recruits with only a few weeks of service. To these may be added three or four militia regiments in the same condition as were the rest of the corps of that force, i.e. half-armed and less than half-disciplined. But the large majority of the garrison was composed of the same sort of levies that had already fought with such small success at Chaves and Braga—there were 9,000 armed citizens of Oporto and a somewhat greater number of the Ordenanza of the open country, who had retired into the city before Soult’s advancing columns. The[p. 241] whole mass—regulars and irregulars—may have made up a force of 30,000 men—nothing like the 40,000 or 60,000 of the French reports. Under the Bishop the military commanders were three native brigadier-generals, Lima-Barreto, Parreiras, and Vittoria. Eben had been offered the charge of a section of the defences, but—depressed with the results of his experiment in generalship at Braga—he refused any other responsibility than that of leading his battalion of the Lusitanian Legion. The Bishop had allotted to Parreiras the redoubts and entrenchments on the north of the town, to Vittoria those on the north-east and east, to Lima-Barreto those below the town as far as St. Jo?o da Foz. The regulars had been divided up, so as to give two or three battalions to each general; they were to form the reserve, while the defences were manned by the militia and Ordenanza. There was a lamentable want of trained gunners—less than 1,000 artillerymen were available for the 200 pieces in the lines and on the heights beyond the river. To make up the deficiency many hundreds of raw militia-men had been turned over to the commanders of the batteries. The natural result was seen in the inferior gunnery displayed all along the line upon the fatal twenty-ninth of March.
To complete the picture of the defenders of Oporto it must be added that the anarchy tempered by assassination, which had been prevailing in the city ever since the Bishop assumed charge of the government, had grown to a head during the last few days. On the receipt of the news of the disaster at Braga it had culminated in a riot, during which the populace constituted a sort of Revolutionary Tribunal at the Porto do Olival.[p. 242] They haled out of the prisons all persons who had been consigned to them on a charge of sympathizing with the French, hung fourteen of these unfortunates, including the brigadier-general Luiz da Oliveira, massacred many more in the streets, and dragged the bodies round the town on hurdles. The Bishop, though he had 5,000 regular troops at hand, made no attempt to intervene—‘he could not stand in the way of the righteous vengeance of the people upon traitors.’ On the night of the twenty-eighth he retired to a place of safety, the Serra Convent across the river, after bestowing his 佛山桑拿实名登记 solemn benediction upon the garrison, and handing over the further conduct of the defence to the three generals whose names we have already cited.
The town of Oporto was hidden from Soult’s eyes by the range of heights, crowned by fortifications, which lay before him. For the place was built entirely upon the downslope of the hill towards the Douro, and was invisible till those approaching it were within half a mile of its outer buildings. It is a town of steep streets running down to the water, and meeting at the foot of the great pontoon-bridge, more than 200 yards long, which links it to the transpontine suburb of Villa Nova, and the adjacent height of the Serra do Pilar. The river front forms a broad quay, along which were lying at the time nearly thirty merchant ships, mostly English vessels laden with port wine, which 佛山桑拿按摩论坛 were wind-bound by a persistent North-Wester, and could not cross the bar and get out to sea.
Although his previous attempts to negotiate with the Portuguese had not been very fortunate, the Marshal thought it worth while to send proposals for an accommodation to the Bishop. He warned him not to expose his city to the horrors of a sack, pointed out that the raw levies of the garrison must inevitably be beaten, and assured him that ‘the French came not as enemies, but as the deliverers of Portugal from the yoke of the English. It was for the benefit of these aliens alone that the Bishop would expose Oporto to the incalculable calamities attending a storm.’ The bearer of the Marshal’s letter was a Portuguese major taken prisoner at Braga, who would have been massacred at the outposts if he had not taken the precaution[p. 佛山桑拿全套特服 243] of explaining to his countrymen that Soult had sent him in to propose the surrender of the French army, which was appalled at the formidable series of defences to which it found itself opposed! The reply sent by the Bishop and his council of war was, of course, defiant, and bickering along the front of the lines immediately began. While the white flag was still flying General Foy, the most distinguished of Soult’s brigadiers, trespassed by some misconception within the Portuguese picquets and was made prisoner. While being conducted into the town he was nearly murdered, being mistaken for Loison, for whom the inhabitants of Oporto nourished a deep hatred.
On finding that the Portuguese were determined to fight, Soult began his preparations for a general assault upon the following day. He drove in the enemy’s outposts outside the town, and captured one or two small 佛山桑拿会所全套流程 redoubts in front of the main line. Having reconnoitred the whole position, he told off Delaborde and Franceschi to attack the north-eastern front, Mermet and one brigade of Lahoussaye’s dragoons to storm the central parts of the lines, due north of the city, where the fortifications were most formidable, Merle and the other brigade of Lahoussaye to press in upon the western entrenchments below the city. There was no general reserve save Lorges’ two regiments of cavalry, and these had the additional task imposed upon them of fending off any attack on the rear of the army which might be made by scattered bodies of Ordenanza, who[p. 244] were creeping out into the woods along the sea-coast, and threatening to turn the Marshal’s right flank.
Soult had but 16,000 men available,—of whom 3,000 were cavalry, and therefore could not be employed till the infantry should have broken 佛山南海桑拿论坛交流 through the line of fortifications which completely covered the Portuguese front. Nevertheless he had no doubts of the result, though he had to storm works defended by 30,000 men and lined with 197 cannon. He now knew the exact fighting value of the Portuguese levies, and looked upon Oporto as his own.
The Marshal’s plan was not to repeat the simple and simultaneous frontal attack all along the line by which he had carried the day at Braga. There was a good deal of strategy in his design: the two flank divisions were ordered to attack, while the centre was for a time held back. Merle, in especial, was directed to do all that he could against the weakest point of the Portuguese line, in the comparatively level ground to the west of the city. Soult hoped that a heavy attack in this direction would lead the enemy to reinforce his left from the reserves of his centre, and gradually to disgarnish the formidable positions north of the 佛山桑拿哪里好 city, when no attack was made on them. If they committed this fault, he intended to hurl Mermet’s division, which he carefully placed under cover till the critical moment, at the central redoubts. A successful assault at this point would finish the game, as it would cut the Portuguese line in two, and allow the troops to enter the upper quarters of the city in their first rush.
The French were under arms long ere dawn, waiting for the signal to attack. The Portuguese also were awake and stirring in the darkness, when at three o’clock a thunderstorm, accompanied by a terrific hurricane from the north-west, swept over the city. In the midst of the elemental din some of the Portuguese sentinels thought that they had seen the French columns advancing to the assault: they fired, the artillery followed their example, and for half an hour the noise of the thunderstorm was rivalled by that of 200 guns of position firing at nothing. Just as the gunners had discovered their mistake, the tempest passed away, and soon after the day broke. 佛山夜生活无忧 So drenched and weary were the French, who had been lying down under the[p. 245] torrential rain, that Soult put off the assault for an hour, in order to allow them to dry themselves and take some refreshment; the pause also allowed the sodden ground to harden.
At seven all was again ready, and Merle’s and Delaborde’s regiments hurled themselves at the entrenchments above and below the city. Both made good progress,佛山桑拿男人加油站 especially the former, who lodged themselves in the houses and gardens immediately under the main line of the Portuguese left wing, and captured several of its outlying defences. Seeing the position almost forced, Parreiras, the commander of the central part of the lines, acted just as Soult had hoped, and sent most of his reserve to reinforce the left. The Marshal then bade Merle halt for a moment, but ordered Delaborde, on his eastern flank, to push on as hard as he could. The general obeyed, and charged right into the Portuguese entrenchments, capturing several redoubts and actually breaking the line and getting a lodgement in the north-east corner of the city. Parreiras, to aid his colleague in this quarter, drew off many of his remaining troops, and sent them away to the right, thereby leaving his own section of the line 佛山桑拿夜生活 only half manned. Thereupon Soult launched against the central redoubts his main assaulting column, Mermet’s division and the two regiments of dragoons. The central battalion went straight for the main position above the high-road, where the great Portuguese flag was flying on the strongest redoubt. The others attacked on each side. This assault was decisive: the Portuguese gunners had only time to deliver two ineffective salvos when the French were upon them. They charged into the redoubts through the embrasures, pulled down the connecting abattis, and swept away the depleted garrison in their first rush. The line of the defenders was hopelessly broken, and Mermet’s division hunted them down the streets leading to the river at full speed.
The centre being thus driven in, the Portuguese wings saw that all was lost, and gave 佛山夜生活luntan way in disorder, looking only for a line of retreat. Vittoria, with the right wing, abandoned his section of the city and retreated east along the Vallongo road, towards the interior: he got away without much loss, and even turned to bay and skirmished with the pursuing battalions of Delaborde when once he was clear of the suburbs. Far other[p. 246] was the lot of the Portuguese left wing, which had the sea behind it instead of the open country. General Lima-Barreto, its commander, was killed by his own men: he had given orders to spike the guns and double to the rear the moment that he saw the central redoubts carried. Unfortunately for himself, he was among a mass of men who wished to hold on to their entrenchments in spite of the disaster on their right. When he reiterated his order to retreat, he was shot down for a traitor. But Merle’s division soon evicted his slayers, and sent them flying towards St. Jo?o da Foz and the sea. There was a dreadful slaughter of the Portuguese in this direction: some escaped across the river in boats, a large body slipped round Merle’s flank and got away to the north along the coast (though Lorges’ dragoons pursued them among the woods above the water and sabred many): others threw themselves into the citadel of St. Jo?o and capitulated on terms. But several thousands, pressed into the angle between the Douro and the ocean, were slaughtered almost without resistance, or rolled en masse into the water.
The fate of the Portuguese centre was no less horrible. Their commander, Parreiras, fled early, and got over the bridge to report to the Bishop the ruin of his army. The main horde followed him, though many lingered behind, endeavouring to defend the barricades in the streets. When several thousands had passed the river, some unknown officer directed the drawbridge between the central pontoons to be raised, in order to prevent the French from following. This was done while the larger part of the armed multitude was still on the further bank, hurrying down towards the sole way of escape. Nor was it only the fighting-men whose retreat was cut off: when the news ran round the city that the lines were forced, the civil population had rushed down to the quays to escape before the sack began. It was fortunate that half the people had left Oporto during the last two days and taken refuge in Beira. But tens of thousands had lingered behind, full of confidence in their entrenchments and their army of defenders. A terrified mass of men, women, and children now came pouring down to the bridge, and mingled with the remnants of the routed garrison. The pontoons were still swinging safely on their cables, and no one, save those in the front of the rush, discovered that there was a fatal gap[p. 247] in the middle of the passage, where the drawbridge had been raised. There was no turning back for those already embarked on the bridge, for the crowds behind continued to push them on, and it was impossible to make them understand what had happened. The French had now begun to appear on the quays, and to attack the rear of the unhappy multitude: their musketry drowned the cries of those who tried to turn back. At the same time the battery on the Serra hill, beyond the river, opened upon the French, and the noise of its twenty heavy guns made it still more impossible to convey the news to the back of the crowd. For more than half an hour, it is said, the rush of fugitives kept thrusting its own front ranks into the death-trap, forty feet broad, in the midst of the bridge. If anything more was needed to add to the horror of the scene, it was supplied by the sudden rush of a squadron of Portuguese cavalry, which—cut off from retreat to the east—galloped down from a side street and ploughed its way into the thickest of the crowd at the bridge-head, trampling down hundreds of victims, till it was brought to a standstill by the mere density of the mass into which it had penetrated. So many persons, at last, were thrust into the water that not only was the whole surface of the Douro covered with drowning wretches, but the gap in the bridge was filled up by a solid mass of the living and the dead. Over this horrid gangway, as it is said, some few of the fugitives scrambled to the opposite bank.
At first the French, who had fought their way down to the quay, had begun to fire upon the rear of the multitude which was struggling to escape. But they soon found that no resistance was being offered, and saw that the greater part of the flying crowd was composed of women, children, and non-combatants. The sight was so sickening that their musketry died[p. 248] down, and when they saw the unfortunate Portuguese thrust by thousands into the water, numbers of them turned to the charitable work of helping the strugglers ashore, and saved many lives. The others cleared the bridge-head by forcing the fugitives back with the butt ends of their muskets, and edging them along the quays and into the side streets, till the way was open. In the late afternoon some of Mermet’s troops mended the gap in the bridge with planks and rafters, and crossed it, despite of the irregular fire of the Portuguese battery on the heights above. They then pushed into the transpontine suburb, expelled its defenders, and finally climbed the Serra hill and captured the guns which had striven to prevent their passage.
Meanwhile the parts of Oporto remote from the pontoon-bridge had been the scene of a certain amount of desultory fighting. Many small bodies of the garrison had barricaded themselves in houses, and made a desperate but ineffectual attempt to defend them. In the Bishop’s palace at the south end of the town 400 militia held out for some hours, and were all bayonetted when the gates were at last burst open. Street-fighting always ends in rapine, rape and arson, and as the resistance died down the victors turned their hands to the usual atrocities that follow a storm. It was only a small proportion of them who had been sobered and sickened by witnessing the catastrophe on the bridge. The rest dealt with the houses and with the inhabitants after the fashion usual in the sieges of that day, and Oporto was thoroughly sacked. It is to the credit of Soult that he used every exertion to beat the soldiers off from their prey, and restored order long ere the following morning. It is to be wished that Wellington had been so lucky at Badajoz and San Sebastian.
Map of the combat of Braga or Lanhozo
Enlarge COMBAT of BRAGA (OR LANHOZO)
MARCH 20TH 1809
Oporto showing the Portuguese lines
SHOWING THE PORTUGUESE LINES
The French army had lost, so the Marshal reported, no more than eighty killed and 350 wounded, an extraordinary testimony to the badness of the Portuguese gunnery. How many of the garrison and the populace perished it will never be possible to ascertain—the figures given by various contemporary authorities run up from 4,000 to 20,000. The smaller number is probably nearer the truth, but no satisfactory estimate can be made. It is certain that some of the regiments which took part in the [p. 249]defence were almost annihilated, and that thousands of the inhabitants were drowned in the river. Yet the town was not depopulated, and of its defenders the greater proportion turned up sooner or later in the ranks of Silveira, Botilho, and Trant. The slain and the drowned together may perhaps be roughly estimated at 7,000 or 8,000, about equally divided between combatants and non-combatants.
Soult meanwhile could report to his master that the first half of his orders had been duly carried out. He had captured 200 cannon, a great store of English ammunition and military equipment, and more than thirty merchant vessels, laden with wine. He had delivered Foy and some dozens of other French captives—for it would be doing the Portuguese injustice to let it be supposed that they had killed or tortured all their prisoners. In short, the victory and the trophies were splendid: yet the Marshal was in reality almost as far from having completed the conquest of northern Portugal as on the day when he first crossed its frontier. He had only secured for himself a new base of operation, to supersede Chaves and Braga. For the next month he could do no more than endeavour ineffectually to complete the subjugation of one single province. The main task which his master had set before him, the capture of Lisbon, he was never able to contemplate, much less to take in hand. Like so many other French generals in the Peninsula, he was soon to find that victory is not the same thing as conquest.
N.B.—The sources for this part of the Portuguese campaign are very full. On the French side we have, besides the Marshal’s dispatches, the following eye-witnesses: Le Noble, Soult’s official chronicler; St. Chamans (one of the Marshal’s aides-de-camp); General Bigarré, King Joseph’s representative at the head quarters of the 2nd Corps; Naylies of Lahoussaye’s dragoons; and Fantin des Odoards of the 31st Léger. On the Portuguese side we have the lengthy dispatches of Eben, the narrative of Hennegan (who had brought the British ammunition to Oporto), some letters from Brotherton, who was first with La Romana and then with Silveira, and a quantity of official correspondence in the Record Office, between Beresford and the Portuguese.
SECTION XIII: CHAPTER V
SOULT’S HALT AT OPORTO: OPERATIONS OF WILSON AND LAPISSE ON THE PORTUGUESE FRONTIER: SILVEIRA’S DEFENCE OF AMARANTE
Oporto had been conquered: the unhappy levies of the Bishop had been scattered to the winds: by the captures which it had made the French army was now, for the first time since its departure from Orense, in possession of a considerable store of provisions and an adequate supply of ammunition. Soult was no longer driven forward by the imperative necessity for finding new resources to feed his troops, nor forced to hurry on the fighting by the fear that if he delayed his cartridges would run short. He had at last leisure to halt and take stock of his position. The most striking point in the situation was that he was absolutely ignorant of the general course of the war in the
other regions of the Peninsula. When he had been directed to march on Oporto, he had been assured that he might count on the co-operation of Lapisse, who was to advance from Salamanca with his 9,000 men, and of Victor, who was to stretch out to him a helping hand from the valley of the Tagus. It was all-important to know how far the promised aid was being given: yet the Marshal could learn nothing. More than two months had now elapsed since he had received any dispatches from the Emperor. It was a month since he had obtained his last news of the doings of his nearest colleague, Ney, which had been brought to him, as it will be remembered, just as he was about to leave Orense. At that moment the Duke of Elchingen had been able to tell him nothing save that the communications between Galicia and Leon had been broken, and that the insurrection was daily growing more formidable. After this his only glimpse of the outer world had been afforded by Portuguese letters, seized in the post-offices of Braga and Oporto, from which[p. 251] he had learnt that his garrisons left behind at Vigo and Tuy were being beleaguered by a vast horde of Galician irregular levies. ‘The march of the 2nd Corps,’ wrote one of Soult’s officers, ‘may be compared to the progress of a ship on the high seas: she cleaves the waves, but they close behind her, and in a few moments all trace of her passage has disappeared.’ To make the simile complete, Fantin des Odoards should have compared Soult to the captain of a vessel in a dense fog, forging ahead through shoals and sandbanks without any possibility of obtaining a general view of the coast till the mists may lift. To all intents and purposes, we may add, the fog never dispersed till May had arrived, and Wellesley hurtled down in a dreadful collision on the groping commander, ere he had fully ascertained his own whereabouts.
When the whole country-side is up in arms, as it was in Galicia and northern Portugal in the spring of 1809, it is useless to dispatch small bodies of men in search of news. They are annihilated in a few hours: but to make large detachments and send them out on long expeditions, so weakens the main army that it loses its power of further advance. This was the fate of the 2nd Corps after the fall of Oporto. Soult, compelled to seek for information at all costs, had to send one of his four infantry divisions back towards Galicia, to succour Tuy and Vigo and obtain news of Ney, while another marched eastward to the Tras-os-Montes, to look for signs of the advance of Lapisse from Salamanca. When these detachments had been made, the remainder of the army was too weak to resume the march on Lisbon which the Emperor had commanded, and was forced to remain cantoned in the neighbourhood of Oporto.
The details of Soult’s disposition of his troops after the fall of Oporto were as follows: Franceschi’s cavalry, supported by Mermet’s division of infantry, were pushed forward across the Douro on the road to Coimbra, to watch the movements of the wrecks of the Bishop’s army, which had retired to the line of the Vouga. Merle’s division and half Delaborde’s remained in garrison at Oporto, while Lorges’ and one brigade of Lahoussaye’s dragoons were kept not far from them, in the open country north of the city, about Villa de Conde and[p. 252] Vallongo. The other brigade of Lahoussaye’s division, supported by Foy’s infantry, was sent out on an expedition towards the Tras-os-Montes, with orders to brush away Silveira and seek for news of the expected approach of Lapisse. Loison was placed in command of this detachment. Finally, Heudelet’s division, which had been guarding the sick and the stores of the army at Braga, was ordered to send on all the impedimenta to Oporto, and then to prepare to march northward in order to relieve Tuy and Vigo, and to get into touch with Ney and the 6th Corps.
It was clear that the further movements of the Duke of Dalmatia would depend on the intelligence which Loison and Heudelet might obtain. If Ney should have crushed the Galician insurgents, if Lapisse should be met with somewhere on the borders of Spain, matters would look well for the resumption of the advance on Lisbon. It was also to be hoped that Lapisse would be able to give some information as to the doings of Victor and the 1st Corps. For it was necessary to find out how the Duke of Belluno had been faring in Estremadura, and to know whether he was prepared to co-operate in that general movement against the Portuguese capital which the Emperor had prescribed in his parting instructions from Valladolid.
As a matter of fact, Victor, having beaten Cuesta at Medellin on the day before Soult captured Oporto (March 28), had reached the end of his initiative, and was now lying at Merida, incapable, according to his own conception, of any further offensive movement till he should have received heavy reinforcements. Ney in Galicia was fighting hard against the insurgents, and beginning to discover that though he might rout them a dozen times he could not make an end of them. He had not a man to spare for Soult’s assistance.
There remained Lapisse, who in his central position at Salamanca should have been, according to Napoleon’s design, the link between Ney, Victor, and Soult. He had been directed, as it will be remembered, to move on Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, to capture both these fortresses, and then to advance into Portugal and to strike at Abrantes: when he arrived there it was hoped that he would find Soult on his right and Victor[p. 253] on his left, and would join them in the general assault on Lisbon. There can be no doubt that Napoleon was giving too heavy a task to Lapisse: he had but a single division of infantry—though it was a strong one of twelve battalions—and one provisional brigade of cavalry, in all about 9,000 men. This was ample for the holding down of the southern parts of the kingdom of Leon, or even for the attack on Almeida and Rodrigo: but it was a small force with which to advance into the mountains of central Portugal or to seize Abrantes. If he had carried out his instructions, Lapisse would have had to march for nearly 200 miles through difficult mountain country, beset every day by the Ordenanza, as Soult had been in his shorter route from Orense to Oporto. And if he had ever cut his way to Abrantes, he ought to have found himself faced by Cradock’s 9,000 British troops and by the reorganized Portuguese regular army, which lay in and about Lisbon, with a strength which even in February was not less than 12,000 men.
Napoleon had given Lapisse too much to do: but on the other hand that general performed far too little. Though he could never have reached Abrantes, he ought to have reached Almeida, where his presence would have been of material assistance to Soult, more especially if he had from thence pushed exploring columns towards Lamego and Vizeu, before plunging into the mountains on the road to the south. As a matter of fact, Lapisse in February and March never advanced so much as fifty miles from Salamanca, and allowed himself to be ‘contained’ and baffled, for two whole months, by an insignificant opposing force, commanded by a general possessing that enterprise and initiative which he himself entirely lacked.
The officer who wrecked this part of Napoleon’s plan for the invasion of Portugal was Sir Robert Wilson, one of the most active and capable men in the English army, and one who might have made a great name for himself, had fortune been propitious. But though he served with distinction throughout the Napoleonic war, and won golden opinions in Belgium and Egypt, in Prussia and Poland, no less than in Spain, he never obtained that command on a large scale which would have[p. 254] enabled him to show his full powers. It may seem singular that a man who won love and admiration wherever he went, who was decorated by two emperors for brilliant feats of arms done under their eyes, who was equally popular in the Russian, the Austrian, or the Portuguese camp, who had displayed on a hundred fields his chivalrous daring, his ready ingenuity, and his keen military insight, should fail to achieve greatness. But Wilson, unhappily for himself, had the defects of his qualities. When acting as a subordinate his independent and self-reliant character was always getting him into trouble with his hierarchical superiors. He was not the man to obey orders which he believed to be dangerous or mistaken: he so frequently ‘thought for himself’ and carried out plans quite different from those which had been imposed upon him, that no commander-in-chief could tolerate him for long. His moves were always clever and generally fortunate, but mere success did not atone for his disobedience in the eyes of his various chiefs, and he never remained for long in the same post. All generals, good and bad, agree in disliking lieutenants who disregard their orders and carry out other schemes—even if they be ingenious and successful ones. It must be added that Wilson dabbled in politics on the Whig side, and was not a favourite with Lord Castlereagh, a drawback when preferments were being distributed.
But when trusted with any independent command, and allowed a free hand, Wilson always did well. Not only had he all the talents of an excellent partisan chief, but he was one of those genial leaders who have the power to inspire confidence and enthusiasm in their followers, and are able to get out of them double the work that an ordinary commander can extort. He was in short one of those men who if left to themselves achieve great things, but who when placed in a subordinate position quarrel with their superiors and get sent home in disgrace. From the moment when Beresford assumed command of the Portuguese army his relations with Wilson were one long story of friction and controversy, and Wellesley (though[p. 255] acknowledging his brilliant services) made no attempt to keep him in the Peninsula. He wanted officers who would obey orders, even when they did not understand or approve them, and would not tolerate lieutenants who wished to argue with him.
It was Wilson who first showed that the new levies of Portugal could do good service in the field. While Silveira and Eben were meeting with nothing but disaster in the Tras-os-Montes and the Entre-Douro-e-Minho, he was conducting a thoroughly successful campaign on the borders of Leon. From January to April, 1809, he, and he alone, protected the eastern frontier of Portugal, and with a mere handful of men kept the enemy at a distance, and finally induced him to draw off and leave Salamanca, just at the moment when Soult’s operations on the Douro were becoming most dangerous.
The force at his disposal in January, 1809, consisted of nothing more than his own celebrated ‘Loyal Lusitanian Legion.’ We have already had occasion to mention this corps while speaking of the reorganization of the Portuguese army (see page 199). On December 14, as we have seen, he had led out his little brigade of Green-coats towards the frontier.
Wilson’s reasons for moving forward were partly political, partly military: on the one hand he wished to get away from the neighbourhood of the Bishop of Oporto, whose intrigues disgusted him; on the other he saw that it was necessary to[p. 256] bring up a force to cover the frontier of Portugal, when Moore marched forward into Spain. As long as Moore had remained at Salamanca, there was a strong barrier in front of Portugal: but when he departed it was clear that the kingdom must defend itself. Wilson therefore advanced to Pinhel, near Almeida, and there established his little force in cantonments.
He was at this place when the startling developments of the campaign in the last ten days of December, 1808, took place. Moore retired on Galicia, Napoleon’s army swept on into Leon, and Wilson found himself left alone with the whole defence of the north-eastern frontier of Portugal thrown on his hands. He soon heard of the storming of Zamora and Toro, and learnt that Lapisse’s division had arrived at Salamanca. Three marches might bring that general to the border.
A few days later Wilson received from Sir John Cradock the news that he had ordered the British garrison to evacuate Almeida, and to retire on Lisbon, as the whole remaining force in Portugal would probably have to embark in a few days. The new commander-in-chief added that he should advise Wilson to bring off his British officers and depart with the rest, as the Portuguese would be unable to make any head against Bonaparte, and it would be a useless sacrifice to linger in their company and be overwhelmed. This pusillanimous counsel shocked and disgusted Wilson: he called together his subordinates, and found that they agreed with him in considering Cradock’s advice disgraceful. They resolved that they could not desert their Portuguese comrades, and were in honour bound to see the campaign to an end, however black the present outlook might appear.
When therefore the British garrison of Almeida was withdrawn, Wilson entered that fortress with the Legion and took charge of it. He obtained from the Regency leave to appoint his lieutenant-colonel, William Mayne, as the governor, and also received permission to assume command of the local levies[p. 257] in the neighbourhood. These consisted of the skeletons of two line regiments (nos. 11 and 23) whose reorganization had but just begun. There were also two militia regiments (Guarda and Trancoso) to be raised in the district, but at this moment they existed only in name, and possessed neither officers nor arms. For immediate action Wilson could count upon nothing but the 1,300 men of the Lusitanian Legion.
Nevertheless he resolved to advance at once, and to endeavour to impose on Lapisse by a show of activity. Leaving the Portuguese regulars and 700 men of the Legion to garrison Almeida, he crossed the frontier with his handful of cavalry (not 200 sabres), two guns, and 300 men of his light companies. Passing the Spanish fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo he advanced some distance on the Salamanca road, and took up his position behind the Yeltes river, with his right resting on the inaccessible Sierra de Francia, and his left at San Felices, half way to the Douro. His whole force constituted no more than a thin line of pickets, but he acted with such confidence and decision, beating up the French outposts with his dragoons, raiding well forward in the direction of Ledesma and Tamames, and stirring up the peasants of the mountain country to insurrection, that Lapisse gave him credit for having a considerable force at his back. The French general had expected to meet with no opposition on his way to Almeida, believing that Cradock was about to embark, and that the Portuguese would not fight. He was accordingly much surprised to find a long line in his front, occupied by troops dressed like British riflemen, and commanded by British officers—whose strength he was unable to ascertain. He halted, in order to take stock of his opponent, when a bold push would have shown him that only a skeleton army was before him. In an intercepted dispatch of February he reported that the peasantry informed him that Wilson had 12,000 men, and that as many more were in garrison at Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida.