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Home arrow History/Politics of Spain arrow Battle of Barrosa 1811
Battle of Barrosa 1811
Saturday, 01 November 2008
This battle is generally known by the Spanish as the Battle of Chiclana. This was a very short but very bloody battle in which nearly five thousand soldiers lost their lives. British and Spanish forces defeated French forces blockading Cádiz. It was a tactical victory but failed to lift the blockade or affect significantly the continuing occupation of Spain by Napoleon’s armies. How much do you know about this bloody battle and do you know what links Barossa Valley wines, guerrilla warfare and Pinar de los Franceses?

Background

 

Having allowed Napoleon’s troops into its territory in 1807 to help it attack Portugal, Spain found itself under occupation the following year when French Generals turned on their allies and seized key garrisons. The Spanish army was scattered all over the peninsular and was unable to resist the French advance south. The British landed in Portugal in August 1808 and helped the Portuguese expel the French but over the next year Napoleon’s army fought its way down to the south coast of Spain. There were many fierce battles but the Spanish forces were unable to fight as one army and were no match for the French. Napoleon made an attempt to reoccupy Portugal but was pushed back by fresh British troops commanded by Lord Wellesley (the future Wellington). The British continued into Spain and won a famous victory at Talavera but Wellesley was left exposed by the absence of a properly organised Spanish force and pulled back into Portugal where the war with France continued bitterly for the next two years.

 

Napoleon’s troops eventually occupied the whole of Spain except for the city of Cádiz to where the Spanish government had fled after the fall of Madrid. The city was well garrisoned and because of its geographical location was impossible to take by force by land. The French were content to besiege the city but the British had been masters of the Seas since Trafalgar and were able to provide Cádiz with supplies and troops. By May 1810 there were 26 000 troops within the city. Napoleon feared a counter-attack and increased the besieging forces to 25 000 men, thus tying up a large part of his occupying army. The newly ennobled Viscount Wellington was content to maintain this stalemate and was able to move troops back and forth by sea from his campaigns in Portugal.

 

The besieging French troops created havoc in the surrounding countryside. Chiclana itself was occupied in February 1810 and according to historians there followed one of the bleakest periods in the town’s history. The vineyards which provided the town’s main source of income were devastated and livestock and crops were commandeered by the French. [It was not until August 1812 that the town was abandoned by the retreating army and by then it was, according to local records, totally devastated and almost devoid of Spanish inhabitants. Buildings had been destroyed, the river diverted and the fields flattened and empty of livestock.]

 

Throughout the occupation Britain supplied aid including arms and ammunition to bands of Portuguese and Spanish militia who took refuge in the woods and hills, launching surprise attacks on the French army. This campaign succeeded in disrupting troop movements and damaging morale and has been described as the most successful partisan campaign ever. The Spanish soldiers referred to it as “una guerra de guerrillas” (a war of little wars) and the expression guerrilla warfare was soon to become part of the English language.

 

The Battle

 

In January 1811 almost a third of the French troops blockading Cádiz were sent north to Badajoz to reinforce an assault on Badajoz and the Allies sensed an opportunity to lift the siege of the city. It was decided to send 12 000 troops – 8 000 Spanish and 4 000 British - by sea from Cadiz to Tarifa, intending to attack the French from the south-east. At the same time 4 000 troops were to launch an attack from the city. The Spanish General Lapeña was put in charge of the land assault.

 

The British contingent led by Lieutenant-General Graham set sail on 21 February, later than planned but three days ahead of the Spanish force. They were unable to land at Tarifa due to bad weather. Instead, they landed at Algeciras and had to march to Tarifa where they met up with Lapeña’s troops. Also to join the attack was a Spanish troop of irregulars who marched down from Ronda. Unaware of the delays in Cádiz this troop advanced to Medina Sidonia expecring to meet Lapeña’s forces. After several skirmishes with the French army and with no allies in sight they retreated back into the mountains.

 

The French Marshal Victor now realised that an attack was imminent, fortified Medina Sidonia and sent further troops to defend it. Thus when the Anglo-Spanish force moved towards the town with the intention of attacking it their scouts informed Lapeña that it was defended more strongly than they had expected. He ordered the Allied army to march down to the road from Vejer to Chiclana and to follow this along the coast. This change of plan, and further bad weather, put the attack behind schedule. A message was sent to Cádiz to delay the attack from the city but it arrived too late and on 3 March a pontoon bridge was floated across the Sancti Petri creek to establish a bridgehead ready for the Cádiz force to launch its attack. Victor reacted quickly and stormed the bridgehead driving the troops back into the city.

 

Victor’s scouts alerted him to the advance along the Vejer road so he positioned a battalion to the north-west of Chiclana blocking access to Sancti Petri where the Allies would have to cross the water to get to the La Isla (modern-day San Fernando) and thence to Cádiz. Two further divisions were hidden in the thick pine forests nearby. (These were later to be named Pinar de los Franceses – Pinewoods of the French).

 

On 5 March the Allies reached the ridge where the Barceló hotel now stands. Aware only of the French divison in the open, Lapeña attacked and with the help of a further sortie from Cádiz was able to drive the French across the creek. However he failed to pursue them further, allowing them to regroup. Graham had remained on the ridge at the south of the beach to protect the Allies’rear. Although ordered to move north Graham refused fearing the ridge of high ground – the Barossa ridge - would be quickly occupied by the French leaving the rear of his forces exposed to artillery fire. He left a force on the ridge to defend it and advanced with a smaller force, keeping to the cover of the woods.

 

On seeing the ridge relatively undefended Victor ordered one division to storm the ridge and sent another to ambush Graham in the woods. After fierce fighting the ridge was taken by the French General Ruffin. Graham, still marching north, received reports of the fighting and realised that the Allies were in danger of being overrun. He disregarded Lapeña’s orders and turned his division to face the French. To buy the time he needed to reorganise his troops he ordered an attack on the ridge by the “Flankers” battalion, led by General Browne, comprising only 536 men. Another battalion was sent to delay the advance of additional French forces marching to the ridge from the east.

 

The Flankers faced a force of 4 000 men and artillery and within a few minutes half the battalion were dead. The remainder took cover in the trees and while a second attack by a brigade led by General Dilkes kept the French occupied the Flankers were able to reform. The French artillery could not fire on Dilkes’s troops who used the cover of the trees and almost reached the top of the ridge. Ruffin’s vastly superior force launched a counter-attack expecting to drive Dilkes and the surviving Flankers back down the slope but the British held their line in a fierce exchange of musket fire. Marshal Victor, who had by now reached the ridge himself, brought up a further two reserve battalions to join the attack but the thin British line held firm. In fact, Dilkes began to advance up the hill and the French forces gave way in some disarray. Victor tried to pull back in an orderly fashion to relaunch the attack but Browne’s Flankers, now reformed, advanced up the ridge subjecting Victor’s’s Reserves to such a barrage of fire that they broke ranks and fled. The remaining French troops soon followed.

 

 

Meanwhile General Barnard who had been sent east by Graham engaged the French division under General Laval. He succeeded in holding up its advance as planned but once reorganised after the initial shock of coming under attack Laval pushed forward. However the delay had given time for further troops to come to Barnard’s aid, and the French advance was slow. Laval had some 3 800 men facing only 1 400 but he believed, from the ferocity of the fighting, that the Allied force was much greater. Cavalry charges followed by the “rolling volleys” of the British infantrymen – lines two or three deep of musketmen fired in succession, each line reloading as the others aimed and fired, created a relentless barrage of fire which was far more effective than the haphazard shooting of the French – prevented Laval from deploying his troops properly and his superiority of numbers counted for nothing. After the first real exchange of fire the French 8th Ligne had lost half its men and its regimental standard, or eagle, was captured by the Royal Irish Fusiliers; the first French eagle to be captured in the Peninsular War. After several further attacks the French divisions were overcome and their troops fled eastward.

 

Marshal Victor was able to halt this shambolic rout and by deploying two battalions to cover their rear he made a more organised retreat. However Graham’s men, although exhausted, attacked the French again, supported by artillery and a squadron of hussars. The already demoralised French offered only token resistance before fleeing once again.

 

All this time Lapeña had remained at Sancti Petri, supposedly defending the approach to La Isla. On hearing of Graham’s attack he believed that it would be unsuccessful and refused to send troops to his aid. Even when he learned that the French had been defeated he would not allow any of the Spanish forces to help pursue the French, even though his own generals pleaded to be allowed to.

 

 

The aftermath

 

Graham was furious with Lapeña and after collecting his wounded he marched into Cádiz. He firmly believed that had the Allies pursued the French – even the following day – the siege of Cádiz could have been lifted. Victor had regrouped in Chiclana but drew up plans for a strategic withdrawal of all his troops to Sevilla in the event of a further attack. As it was Lapeña would not even send scouts to establish Victor’s movements and instead crossed the creek to La Isla, then returned to Cádiz. Just three days after the battle the French were able to reoccupy all the territory lost and the siege of the city was renewed.

 

Lapeña was court martialled for his refusal to pursue the French. He was acquitted but relieved of command.

 

The Allies had defeated a force almost twice their size and the victory was a much needed morale booster, especially for the beleaguered Spanish. Nevertheless, the French were also able to claim a victory of sorts since the attempt to lift the siege was unsuccessful, and it is true that in spite of enormous losses – 1,240 Allied dead and 2,380 French – nothing strategic was really achieved. The siege of Cádiz was to last another sixteen months.

 

 

Other points of interest

 

General Graham was recognised as a hero by the Spanish who offered him prestigious honours. He refused these and resigned as commander of the Allied troops in Cádiz and was transferred to the Portuguese front where he became a Major-general and Wellington’s second in command.

 

The Allied forces included five Anglo-Portuguese regiments and two Kings German Legion squadrons of cavalry. The latter was made up of German soldiers who had fled to England, encouraged by King George III the Elector of Hanover, after napoleon had disbanded the German army in 1805. Over 25 000 men served with the British in various campaigns between 1805 and 1816.

 

The siege of Cádiz ended in 1812 when Napoleon was forced to abandon the south of Spain following defeat at the Battle of Salamanca. Throughout 1813 the French army, weakened as a result of huge losses incurred in the fateful campaign in Russia, were gradually driven north by Wellington, eventually abandoning Spain altogether at the end of 1813.

 

Masterson’s regiment, the 87th Foot, was awarded the title The Prince of Wales Own Irish Regiment and thereafter wore an eagle on their colours.

 

In 1811 the Prince Regent ordered a medal to be issued to commemorate a “brilliant victory”. All senior British officers present at the battle received it.

 

There have been two Royal Navy ships named HMS Barossa after the battle, as was the wine producing Barossa Valley in Australia.

 

When visiting Tarifa the writer Bernard Cornwell became fascinated by the story of the battle and used it as the basis for one of his Sharpe novels entitled “Sharpe’s Fury”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated ( Friday, 10 April 2009 )
 

Comments  

 
# Stephen Cole 2010-11-12 11:11 Very good. Best I have read about this battle.
 

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