The combat of Sabugal. 3rd
Massena’s army lay in front of the lines
of Torres Vedras through the winter of 1810 / 1811 until March 5th
when the starved and depleted French army began their arduous march back
across the border to the occupied fortress of Cuidad Rodrigo in central
Spain. Wellington was anxious to inflict a serious blow upon the Marshal
and closely followed the retreating army in the hope of permanently
evicting their adversary, once and for all from Portugal. The allied
vanguard clashed with the French rearguard on several occasions during
Massena’s long haul back to the relatively safe environs of Rodrigo.
The contending armies met at Pombal on 11th
of March, then again at Redina on the 12th, Cazal Novo on the
14th and finally at Foz d’ Aronce on the 15th. The
casualties at these clashes were minor but when Massena halted at
Sabugal toward the end of the month, Wellington was sure he could gain a
decisive action. Wellington singled out the Corps most closest to him
hoping that if the attack was carried out with surprise at dawn he could
collapse Reynier’s 2nd Corps before either the 6th
or 8th Corps could turn around to support. Unfortunately, the
early morning fog and the heavy rain later in the morning put paid to
any ideas of a complete victory.
Beckwith and Drummond’s brigades of the
Light division were assigned to sweep wide and roll up the left of
Reynier’s troops who were posted on a long line of ridges just east of
the village of Sabugal. Beckwith’s brigade was hindered by the dense fog
and marched round too soon, they became embroiled with the nearest units
of Merle’s division on the ridge and twice were driven back down the
hill to take refuge among enclosures. The fog which now turned into
blinding rain obscured much of what was going on on the battlefield.
If Merle had realised that the troops opposed to him were vastly
inferior in numbers to his own he would of surely turned the table
rapidly. It was’nt until Drummond’s 2nd brigade came up that
the French finally gave way.
During this fierce struggle Reynier
brought up seven more battalions of the 17th Leger and 70th
Ligne and for a moment put Beckwith’s men into great jeopardy. At this
moment the fog and rain lifted, whereupon both Commanders could suddenly
see the imminent danger both armies were in. The allied 3rd
division Probably saved the day by marching at double pace onto the
centre of the ridge and attacked the 17th and 70th
in their flank. Reynier could now see the allied 5th division
entering the village and decided to give the order to retire. Wellington
gave the order to halt and not pursue the enemy, he was unclear as to
where the other French Corps were. The sound of gunfire may of alerted
them to come to the rescue.
Losses for the French were 750 compared
to that of the allies of only 179.
Oman criticises Sir William Erskine for
not lending support to their beleaguered combatants on the ridge, and at
one point even tried to order the Light division not to advance.