The Combat of the Coa of 24 July 1810 was a rare defeat for Craufurd’s Light Division during Masséna’s invasion of Portugal. Having successfully watched the French on the Portuguese frontier since the start of the year, the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo had forced Craufurd to retreat back to Almeida, with orders to pull back west across the Coa if the French approached in strength. Craufurd’s position at Almeida was well suited to the sort of small scale action he had been fighting all year. His left flank was protected by the guns of the town, and his line of retreat back to the Coa offered a series of positions for rearguard actions, but it was also dangerously exposed if the French attacked in strength, for it was two miles from the river, and the final part of the journey was well out of range of the guns of Almeida. The river itself runs through a steep sided valley, while the road reaches the river to the left of the bridge and then runs along the river for a short distance.
On 21 July Marshal Masséna ordered Ney forward from Ciudad Rodrigo to found out if the British intended to defend Fort Concepcion, the Spanish fort opposite Almeida. Ney used Loison’s division and Treillard’s cavalry brigade to perform this task, and Craufurd promptly retreated from the Turones River to Almeida. Wellington had informed him that he did not want to fight east of the Coa, but had not actually ordered Craufurd to retreat west of that river. The British plan for defeating Masséna’s invasion was to fall back before the French advance all the way to the Lines of Torres Vedras, and then to allow starvation to force the French to retreat, so there was little to be gained from fighting. Despite this, Craufurd decided to remain at Almeida for two days, in the expectation that the first French attack would not be in any great strength.
This rather underestimated Ney. Once he discovered that Craufurd was exposed outside Almeida with the river to his back, Ney decided to attack with his entire 24,000 strong corps. On the morning of 24 July the French advanced in four lines. Two cavalry brigades formed the first line, followed by a second line of thirteen infantry battalions, a third line of eleven battalions and a reserve of three regiments. When the French cavalry drove in the British pickets, Craufurd still had time to escape, but he did not realise how large the oncoming French column was, and held his ground for an hour while the French infantry advanced towards him.
Craufurd had five battalions in his line – the 43rd and 52nd Foot, the 95th Rifles and two battalions of Portuguese Caçadores. The first French attack was made by the thirteen battalions of the French second line. Despite their superior numbers, this attack was held off, but then the French 3rd Hussars managed to get between Craufurd’s left and the walls of Almeida. They attacked one company of the Rifles from the flanks and almost wiped it out, causing twelve casualties and capturing 45 men out of an original force only 67 strong. The French cavalry was then held up by some stone walls, but it was clear that Craufurd’s line was in danger, and he ordered a retreat.
The cavalry and the guns were sent off at the gallop, followed by the Portuguese, with the three British battalions forming a rearguard. At first all went well, but the kink in the road delayed the artillery, and the infantry arrived before the guns had crossed the river. Craufurd was forced to form up most of his British infantry on the east bank of the river to cover the retreat. At the same time the guns and the Caçadores were formed into a new line on the west bank, guarding the bridge.
Just as the main force of the infantry was about to cross the bridge, an isolated detachment of the 52nd came into sight, in imminent danger of being cut off. Only the quick thinking of Colonel Beckwith of the Rifles and Major McLeod of the 43rd saved them from being overwhelmed. Together they organised a counterattack, which forced the French back for long enough for the 52nd to reach safety.
Despite this close call, the Light Division had still suffered 300 unnecessary casualties. Ney had won an easy if limited victory, but he was not happy with this. Instead he decided to attempt to cross the narrow bridge over the Coa, in the face of almost the entire Light Division, which was now in place on the far bank. The first attempt, by the French 66th Line, got half way across before it was repulsed. Ney responded to this setback by sending his elite Chasseurs de la Siège to repeat the attempt. This battalion contained 300 of the best marksmen in the 6th Corps, and should not have been wasted in this way. In a ten minute long attempt to cross the bridge, this unit lost 90 dead and 147 wounded, leaving only 70 survivors.
Despite this disaster, Ney was still determined to force his way across the river, but a second attack by the 66th was beaten off easily. Ney finally gave up, and the two sides remaining in their position on the opposite sides of the river for the rest of the day.
Craufurd had been doubly lucky on 24 July. First he had escaped from a potentially devastating trap with the loss of only 318 men (36 dead, 189 wounded and 83 missing), when if the French had managed to block his route to the bridge he might have lost most of his division or have been forced to take refuge inside Almeida. Second, Ney’s foolhardy attacks across the bridge had cost the French 527 casualties (117 dead and 410 wounded). What might have been seen as a costly and unnecessary defeat became a minor victory (although Wellington himself was not fooled).
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