In May 1810 Marshal Massena took command of the Army of Portugal, with orders from the Emperor Napoleon to capture Lisbon and drive Wellington and his British army out of the Peninsular.
During the winter of 1809/10 Wellington’s engineers had built fortifications across the Lisbon isthmus, known as the Lines of Torres Vedras. As Massena began his advance into Portugal the British and Portuguese Army fell back towards the capital.
Massena captured the Spanish town of Ciudad Rodrigo on the border and on 26th August 1810 he took the Portuguese fortress of Almeida. On 15th September 1810 Massena resumed his advance through Portugal towards Lisbon, harassed by Brigadier General Robert Craufurd’s Light Division.
Wellington, intending to fight a delaying battle, positioned his army at the convent of Busaco. The convent lay on a long high ridge that stretched from the Mondego River for some ten miles to the North. The road to Coimbra and Lisbon climbed up the ridge and passed the convent, while a second lesser road crossed the ridge further south. The ridge rose steeply to 300 metres from the valley in places. A rough track meandered along the top.
The British and Portuguese regiments, including the 29th (Worcestershire) and the 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiments, were positioned along the ridge with the main concentration at the northern end and the reserves further south.
Marshal Ney led the French advanced guard towards Busaco on the evening of 25th September 1810. His assessment was that only a British rear-guard held the ridge and that it could be easily driven off by a frontal assault. Massena came forward and agreed with him, ordering the assault for the next morning.
The first attack was carried out by Reynier’s corps, advancing up the lesser southern road, Massena’s assumption being that this would take the French behind the British right flank. Once Reynier was established on the crest Ney’s corps would advance up the main road to the Busaco convent at the northern end of the ridge. Far from being held by a rearguard, on the ridge were all 50,000 British and Portuguese infantry supported by 60 guns.
Early morning mist hampered the first movements and observations. Heudelet’s division, setting off at 6am, followed the southern road up to the crest of the ridge where they were engaged by the 74th Foot, two Portuguese battalions and 12 guns. The fire fight continued for the whole of the battle, Heudelet’s division refusing to give ground.
Merle’s division reached the crest to the north of Heudelet’s. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Wallace of the 88th Connaught Rangers had seen the French column climbing the hill and hurried his regiment to the threatened point with several companies of the 45th Foot. Wallace led his men in a fierce attack on the French and drove them back down the hill. Wellington wrote in his dispatches: “I can assure you I never witnessed a more gallant charge”
The final element of Reynier’s attack was carried out by Brigadier Foy who took his brigade to the top of the ridge and remained there until he was driven out by Leith’s British Brigade of the 5th Division, the counter attack being headed by the 9th Foot. Reynier’s corps suffered 2,000 casualties in its abortive assault.
Ney, from his position further north, thought that Reynier had taken the crest and ordered his corps to begin the assault up the main road to the convent. Loison’s division advanced up the hill with its left on the road. As it reached the crest, the 43rd and 52nd Foot of Craufurd’s Light Division rose from their positions in the sunken section of the road and poured a volley into the French column at 25 yards. The two light infantry regiments then attacked with the bayonet driving the French back down the hillside. A watching artillery officer described the fight as “carnage”. Mermet’s division attacking alongside was halted by a Portuguese brigade.
Seeing the failure of all the attacks Massena called off the assault and began a reconnaissance to the north, discovering a road that circumvented the ridge. As the French marched away to the flank, Wellington’s army withdrew south towards Lisbon, having inflicted a serious reverse on Massena’s Army of Portugal. The French suffered 522 dead, 3,612 wounded, and 364 captured. The Allied losses numbered 200 dead, 1,001 wounded, and 51 missing. The British and Portuguese each lost exactly 626 men.
Masséna then moved off to the right to flank the position, and Wellington, after spending the night in the convent, resumed the retreat of his army into the previously fortified Lines of Torres Vedras. He reached these by 10 October. After probing the Lines in the Battle of Sobral on 14 October, Masséna found them too strong to attack and withdrew into winter quarters. Deprived of food for his men and harried by Anglo-Portuguese hit-and-run tactics, he lost a further 25,000 men captured or dead from starvation or sickness before he retreated into Spain early in 1811.