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According to the present Duke of Wellingon, writing in the foreword of Norris & Bremner’s ‘The Lines of Torres Vedras’, the outcome of ‘the spectacular nature of this defeat has never been fully appreciated by military historians’. This is what we aim to show you during a half-day, full day or two day tour of the Lines. We can demonstrate not only their strategic importance, but also how Wellington and his chief engineer, Colonel Richard Fletcher, managed to make use of the natural layout of the hills north of Lisbon to construct a defensive line of forts and obstacles whilst enabling the field army to manoeuver freely between the Lines. We visit several of the 152 forts and redoubts that constitute this amazing and vast engineering work that was carried out by a small group of engineers and the local population in a remarkably short period of time. To help alleviate the pace of the tour we introduce you to some of the local wines and gastronomy during the lunch break.
Left: Fort 42 on the Second Line. Right: Wellington's Headquarters at Pero Negro.
Roliça, during the first campaign in 1808, was the first of many battles fought and won by Wellesley in this and later campaigns of the Peninsular War. It was made famous by Colonel George Lake’s spontaneous action of charging up a gully in the hills behind Columbeira that led to de Laborde’s retreat. We visit the monument at the very spot where he fell and then move on to Vimeiro where the subsequent victory led to the end of the first of the three invasions of Portugal by the French. It was at Vimeiro that Wellesley’s first proved that the line displacement of his troops was superior to the French columns and was also the first time that howitzers were used in battle. Here we sample some of the local fare and wines as well as visit the walled town of Obidos, where Wellesley spent the night before Roliça.
Left: Anstruther's landing site at Paimogo. Right: Roliça - reenactment in 2008
The importance of Bussaco cannot be overstressed as this was the first battle after Talavera over a year before and put Wellington in confrontation for the first time with Massena, Napoleon’s favourite general. Bussaco was also an opportunity to put the Beresford-trained Portuguese troops to the test. We walk the ridge and visit Wellington’s Command Post, the Military Museum, Craufurd’s mill and Memorial. We also have the unique opportunity being able to see a Baker rifle in the small museum. We taste the local famous Bussaco wine at the Palace Hotel next to the monastery where Wellington slept the night before the battle.
We can also take you north to follow Massena's Retreat of March, 1811, stopping off at the sites of the rear guard actions at Pombal, Redinha, Foz de Arouce and Sabugal, which takes us close to Almeida.
Left: Craufurd's Rocks at Sula. Right: The Convent and Palácio Hotel.
Elvas is one of the finest examples of 17th Century military fortifications in Europe. Our visit starts at the outlying Forte de Sta "Luzia", now converted to a military museum. From there we drive to the great barracks which cover 15 hectares and where we can see details of the fortifications, preserved unchanged by the army since its construction in the 18th Century. A stiff walk brings us to the charming British Cemetery, with its graves from the Peninsular War. After lunch at a typical restaurant, we visit one of the two ‘Quintas’ used by Wellington as his headquarters during and after the second siege of Badajoz. We can then visit one or both of the sites of cavalry actions that took place during this period, depending on time.
This great fortress at Badajoz, commanding the Spanish side of the southern invasion route, defeated two attempts by the British army in 1811. In 1812 the British army under Wellington, having just captured Ciudad Rodrigo by storm, moved once again on Badajoz. The soldiers had briefly tasted the delights of rape and pillage in Ciudad Rodrigo and were prepared to endure any danger with that as a prize. Our tour highlights the difficulties they faced and the ingenuity and determination of General Phillipon and the French defenders. You then see where the 4th and Light Divisions assaulted the Sta Maria and Trinidad breaches forty two times and failed to gain entry. Next we look at the castle, where Picton’s 3rd Division managed to scale the walls against all odds and move on to the bastion of San Vicente, where the other diversionary attack by the 5th Division also succeeded. Lunch will take the form of tapas and a glass of wine in the square of San Francisco.
One of the very few battles in the Peninsular War where Wellington was not in command, Albuera is reckoned the bloodiest of them all. It was fought to prevent the French relieving Badajoz. Beresford, in command, showed that despite his many admirable qualities, he was not a great commander on the battlefield. The battle was won principally by the dogged courage of the British infantry. Marshal Soult paid them the highest compliment: “They were beaten but did not know it, and would not run”. This appreciation would affect his judgement for the rest of the war. The battlefield has changed little in the last 200 years and we visit several parts of it to give you an impression of how it felt to stand on that ‘fateful’ hill. We stop for a typically Spanish lunch in the Venta Rosario.
An extension can be made to the north to visit the sites of the action at Almaraz and the bridge at Alcantara.
Left: Elvas - the British Cemetery. Right: Elvas - the fortifications.
At Almeida we visit the perfect star-shaped fortress and the site of the massive explosion caused by a lucky shot from a French mortar that blew up the magazine in 1810, leading to the fort's surrender by the British. Later in 1811 the fort was in turn besieged by the British and we trace the steps of General Brenier’s miraculous escape with 1,300 men over the river Agueda. We also visit the grave of Beresford’s nephew who was killed serving with the Connaught Rangers at the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo. Nearby, we visit the famous Roman bridge over the river Coa, where Gen Craufurd led his light division in a fighting retreat from Ney’s troops in 1810 whilst trying to hold the frontier.
Left: The ruins of Fort Concepcion. Right: The main breach at Ciudad Rodrigo.
Ciudad Rodrigo is the site of the Spanish fortress that guarded the northern crossing into Spain. It is a beautiful town and its walls and castle remain little changed in 200 years. The Cathedral still bears the scars of the British siege. We visit the breaches and the greater Teson, site of the breaching batteries. Walking around the town, we point out Wellington’s headquarters, now a private house and the memorial to General Craufurd, the irascible leader of the Light Division. Accommodation will be at the impressive Parador, sited in the historic castle.
Fortunately the village of Fuentes de Oñoro has changed little and we take you up its narrow lanes and past the stone-walled enclosures where fierce hand to hand fighting on the 3rd and 5th of May 1811 left the dead and dying in heaps several feet high. To the south we go over the open country where General Craufurd and his Light Division conducted a parade ground fighting withdrawal, watched in admiration by half the Allied army. It was here too that Captain Norman Ramsay delayed limbering up his two guns of Bull’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, which then had to cut its way through a swarm of French Chasseurs, before reaching the British lines to thunderous cheers.
Of all the fortifications along the Spanish/Portuguese frontier, Fort Concepcion must be the most romantic. Conceived in 1663 during the War of Portuguese Independence, it was completed in 1735 to oppose the Portuguese citadel of Almeida. During the Peninsular War it was first occupied by the Napoleonic forces and then by the Anglo-Portuguese army. In 1810, at the start of the withdrawal to the Lines of Torres Vedras, having being vacated by Gen. Crauford and his Light Division, it was blown up by Captain Burgoyne of the Royal Engineers along with officers of the Portuguese Engineers. From that day to this it has remained untouched, except by the cattle that graze around it. As you explore these magnificent ruins, you appreciate that in its day, it was one of the finest 18th Century forts in existence. Although the Light Division did a workmanlike job, the layout is still clear – the magnificent bomb-proof stabling, the ditch in which water still runs, the bastions, ravelins, drawbridge, barracks and parade ground are still easily discernible. It takes little imagination to envisage what it must have been like during its short life of service.
An extension can be made to visit Salamanca and the impressive battlefield nearby.
Left: The scene of fierce fighting at Fuentes de Oñoro. Right: The fortress of Almeida.
Also known as “The Crossing of the Douro”, this battle was one of the utmost most daring. In January 1809, Soult, invaded Portugal from the north after forcing the British to retreat to Corunna and Wellesley marched quickly on Oporto with an Anglo-Portuguese force of 24,000.
We see the site where Soult blew up the bridge of boats on the 11th May, having destroyed every boat on the south bank. He deployed his troops to the west of Oporto, convinced that Wellesley could only land from the sea. However, from his vantage point at the convent of the Serra do Pilar, on the south bank of the river Douro, Wellesley selected the Bishop’s Seminary to the east of the city on the north bank as a strong point from which to launch a surprise attack, having been informed of the existence of four wine barges that had been hidden from the French. We stand close to the site of the legendary crossing, where Hill’s brigade was ferried across to the Seminary, 30 to a barge, in broad daylight, undetected by the French for at least an hour.
We also visit the Seminary, the scene of fierce fighting and end the tour by visiting Soult’s headquarters, where Wellesley famously sat down to eat the dinner that had been prepared for Soult!
The French retreat north was a bloody affair, with reprisals on both sides but, despite two engagements, they narrowly escaped to the relative safety of Galicia. Portugal had been cleared of the French for the second time.
Left: Port wine barges. Right: The Bishop's Seminary