The combat of Albergaria Nova of 10 May 1809 was the result of an unsuccessful British attempt to trap the advance guard of Marshal Soult’s army at Oporto at the start of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s campaign in Northern Portugal of 1809.
Having occupied Oporto on 29 March 1809, Soult had posted Franceschi’s cavalry division and Mermet’s infantry divison between Oporto and the River Vouga thirty miles to the south. By early May those forces were strung out along the main road from Oporto to Coimbra. An advance guard of 1,200 cavalry, 700 infantry and one light gun battery was placed at Albergaria Nova, three miles north of the Vouga. Mermet’s 3,500 strong division was split between Feira, fifteen miles to the north (4 battalions of the 31st Léger) and Grijon (7 battalions), five miles further north.
Wellesley hoped to surprise Franceschi’s advanced guard and trap them between two forces. The main British force, five infantry brigades and the cavalry, would make a frontal assault on the French position, while Hill’s and Cameron’s brigades were to sail up the coast to Ovar, and then march inland to block Franceschi’s retreat.
The plan failed for two reasons. For it to success, Wellesley had to attack the French before they realised he was close, but Soult had been received advance warning of the British attack from a very unexpected source on 8 May. Napoleon was not universally popular in the French Army, for a small core of officers believed that he had betrayed the revolution. When Wellesley arrived in Portugal he found that negotiations had been going on between his predecessor and a Captain Argenton. Wellesley met the French plotter, but was not impressed and had no interest in supporting his plans. Argenton returned to his lines, where he was arrested. On 8 May he was interrogated by Soult, and in an attempt to convince him to chance sides warned him that Wellesley was on his way. As a result of this when the British advance guard found Franceschi’s force on 10 May there was no longer any chance of surprising them.
The second reason for the failure of Wellesley’s plan was that it required a night march across unfamiliar country. The plan was for five squadrons of cavalry under General Cotton and the infantry brigades of Murray and Richard Stewart to attack together, drive in the French pickets and attack Franceschi’s main force before they could prepare for battle. If they tried to retreat, Hill and Cameron would be blocking the road north.
Cotton, Murray and Richard Stewart all found that the night march took longer than expected. Cotton’s cavalry finally attacked the French pickets at 5 am, but then discovered the rest of Franceschi’s force drawn up in line of battle behind Albergaria Nova. Cotton was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, and decided not to risk a clash with the French until the infantry arrived. That wasted much of the morning, for the first three battalions of infantry were some hours behind Cotton’s infantry. When they did finally arrive, Franceschi abandoned his position and retreated back to Grijon to join with Mermet. The only real fighting of the entire day followed, as the British 16th Light Dragoons attacked the French 1st Hussars, who had been left as a rearguard, and forced them to retreat.
If things had gone to plan, the retreating French should have run into Hill’s infantry blocking the road north, but their amphibious flanking manoeuvre had fizzled out during the morning. They had reached Ovar according to plan, but then had discovered that there was a force of French infantry close by at Feire, and no sign of the British advancing from the south. Hill decided to wait in Ovar while Cameron’s men were shipped up the coast. At noon, three battalions of French infantry arrived from Feire. Hill himself only had three battalions and a company of the rifles, and so was unable to make any progress. The situation only changed when Franceschi’s men began to stream past, with the British cavalry in pursuit. At that point Hill attacked the skirmishes facing him at Ovar and forced them into a retreat.
At the end of the day the French advance guard had taken up a new position at Grijon, where on 11 May they would fight a more serious rearguard action.
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