12 May, 1809

Portugal Battle Tour Guides

With the inquiry into the distasteful Convention of Cintra behind him, Sir Arthur Wellesley returned to the Peninsula and again took up command of British forces there.

The French still threatened that country through armies under Marshal Soult and Marshal Victor and so Wellesley decided to go on the offensive and remove the danger.

He decided to attack Oporto, situated on the far side of the deep River Douro, despite the presence of Soult's troops in the city and the fact that the only bridge had been destroyed by French engineers. To add to his difficulties, Soult had removed all of the city's barges to the northern - French - bank.

In the early hours of the morning of the 12th, local Portuguese assisted British troops in recovering four wine barges from the north bank and, upon their return to the British side, they were loaded with the redcoat advance party.

The target for the 120 or so men was the strongly built seminary to the east of the town. It was a perfect position for defending a bridgehead.

Despite crossing the river in daylight, the British were not initially spotted by French sentries - who later mistook them for Swiss troops - and within half an hour had several hundred men preparing defences in the seminary.

Protected by artillery batteries from a convent on the southern bank, the seminary would be a tough nut for the French to crack, as the local commander General Maximilien Foy discovered when he moved to throw the British out.

Launching an initial assault with three battalions at about 10.30am, Foy's men came under ferocious fire from cannons firing shrapnel. Several assaults were beaten back and by midday more reinforcements had arrived for the British under the command of General Sir Rowland Hill.

In addition to the crossing by the seminary, Wellesley had sent a large force six kilometres to the east to flank the French forces and it began its deployment via ferry.

With an ever-increasing supply of boats being taken to the British by the local inhabitants, Soult decided his outnumbered force would not be able to hold off greater numbers of enemy troops and so he ordered a hasty withdrawal.

Hill's troops now went on to the offensive and pursued the French, who would have been trapped had it not been for slow work by the force sent to control the flank.

Oporto was a brilliant tactical effort from Wellesley, whose force succeeded in the highly daring venture with the loss of just over 120 men. Soult's men suffered up to 600 men and a further 1500 were captured in the town's hospital.

That night Wellesley and his staff sat down at the former French headquarters and enjoyed a meal prepared for Soult and his officers.



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