Soult's Passage of the Avé, 25-26 March 1809

After his successes at Chaves (10-11 March 1809) and Braga (20 March 1809), the only obstacle between Marshal Soult and the city of Oporto was the River Avé, fifteen miles north of the city. This was potentially quite a serious obstacle, for by now Soult was beginning to run short of men. Although he had not faced serious resistance in Portugal, he was also almost completely isolated and had no chance of receiving reinforcements. Oporto itself was said to be defended by at least 40,000 men, and possibly many more, while Soult’s force was now down to 16,000 men.

Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809
Marshal Soult's invasion of Portugal, March 1809

Three roads crossed the Avé between Oporto and Braga. The first, via Ponte de Avé crossed the river four miles from the sea. The second, at Barca de Trofa was six miles inland, and the third, at Guimaraens, was twenty four miles inland at the end of a minor road. The Bishop of Oporto, who had command of the defence of Oporto, rushed reinforcements to Ponte de Avé and Barca de Trofa. The bridges were cut, gun batteries were built on the southern bank of the river and the ford at Barca de Trofa was blocked. Unfortunately the defence of the bridge at Guimaraens was left to the local Ordenanza (the Portuguese levies), or at least those of the levies who had survived the defeat at Braga.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

Soult decided to attempt to cross at all three places. Franceschi’s light horse and Mermet’s infantry were sent up the river to Guimaraens, Lorges’ dragoons were sent to Ponte de Avé, and the rest of the army to Barca de Trofa. Much as Soult had expected, the positions at Ponte de Avé and Barca de Trofa were too strongly defended to be forced without unacceptable losses, but despite their best efforts the Ordenanza were unable to stop Franceschi and Mermet getting across at Guimaraens.

On the afternoon of 25 March Soult had no idea if Franceschi and Mermet had been successful, and so when he discovered an intact bridge at San Justo, he prepared to attack across that bridge. On the morning of 26, preceded by an artillery bombardment, Foy’s brigade captured the bridge intact. Just as Delaborde’s division began to cross this bridge, Franceschi and Mermet arrived from Guimaraens. Soult now had two divisions and Franceschi’s cavalry on the southern bank of the river. The Portuguese defenders of Ponte de Avé and Barca de Trofa were forced to abandon their positions, although not without a fight, and Soult’s entire army was able to cross to the south bank of the river and prepare to attack Oporto.

 A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 March 2008), Soult's Passage of the Ave, 25-26 March 1809, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/passage_of_ave.html

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