5 March 1811
Two weeks after the battle at Busaco Wellington's army began to enter the Lines of Torres Vedras, a series of natural and man-made barriers which stretched across the Lisbon peninsula between the Tagus and the Atlantic. The system comprised mainly of three separate lines; the first, to the north, ran inland from the Atlantic to the town of Torres Vedras and then on to the Tagus. The second line ran almost parallel to the first but was five miles farther south. The third lay west of Lisbon and enclosed an area from which a re-embarkation could be carried out should it become necessary. The system included the damming of streams and rivers to make inundations, castles in towns were protected by earthworks and every hill along the first two lines was crowned with a defensive work or redoubt. Coupled with the naturally rugged terrain the Lines of Torres Vedras were an almost impregnable system of fortifications behind which Wellington placed his army along with as much food as could be gathered in from the outlying countryside.
Massena and his army were shocked when they came face to face with the lines. They were stunned by their extent and strength and it did not take long for Massena, who had absolutely no idea of their existence, to realise that it would be hopeless to attack them, particularly with the recent unpleasant experience at Busaco still fresh in his mind. He was left, therefore, with little choice but to sit down in front of the lines and wait in the hope that Wellington would come out and attack him. Wellington had no such intention, however, and while his own army grew stronger and was supplied through Lisbon by the Royal Navy, he was only too pleased to sit and wait and starvation took a hold on Massena's army.
In mid-November 1810, Massena's starving army, having made no impression at all on Wellington's lines, began to pull back and by April 1811 had recrossed the border into Spain having lost almost 25,000 men.
Whilst Massena's army was dragging itself back into Spain another 25,000 French troops, under Marshal Victor, were laying siege to the important Allied port of Cadiz which was garrisoned by an equal number of British and Spanish troops. The Allied troops were well protected by strong fortifications and their situation improved when French troops began to be withdrawn from in front of Cadiz in response to Massena's appeals for reinforcements. These requests had resulted in Soult having to pull out of Andalucia in order to beseige Badajoz, Soult in turn drawing upon Victor's force to assist him. This move reduced Victor's force to around 15,000 men.
The reduction in enemy troop numbers around Cadiz, coupled with the news of Massena's retreat towards Spain, prompted the much-encouraged defenders into launching an attack on the French besiegers. The attack involved shipping 10,000 Spanish and 4,000 British troops some 50 miles to the south to Tarifa, from where they would march north to attack the French from the rear while at the same time some 4,000 Spaniards would make a sortie from Cadiz.
Commanding the British troops was the 62 year-old Major General Sir Thomas Graham, one of the oldest but most spirited generals in the British Army. Graham had received orders from Wellington that on no account was he to serve under any Spanish general but for the sake of Anglo-Spanish relations Graham relented an agreed to serve under the inept and very haughty General Manuel La Peña, the choice of the Spanish junta.
Graham's force set sail on February 21st 1811 although bad weather prevented the force from landing at Tarifa and forced it on instead to Algeciras where it disembarked on February 23rd. The Spanish contingent did not arrive until February 28th but soon afterwards the whole Allied force was on the march north towards Cadiz. The march was fraught with disagreements between Graham and La Peña, who insisted on making night marches which usually resulted in the troops losing their way. Nevertheless, early on the morning of March 5th the force found itself marching along the beach near the tower of Barrosa, the waves of the Atlantic crashing in on their left.
Later on that morning, La Peña's advanced guard clashed with elements of Villatte's French force although the fighting was cut short when the garrison in Cadiz launched its sortie which forced the French to withdraw. Graham, meanwhile, had positioned his British troops on the ridge of Barrosa which stretches for about a mile and a half from the coast on the left to the thick pine forest of Chiclana on the right. No sooner had Graham's men settled down than a messenger arrived with orders from La Peña who, flushed with his earlier success, wanted Graham to leave the ridge and join him. It was obvious to the British commander that the ridge would be an important strategic position in the forthcoming battle which now seemed inevitable. Nevertheless, he ordered his men to march off but only after having first left behind a composite battalion under Colonel Browne, consisting of two companies each of the 1/9th, 1/28th and the 2/82nd, as well as five Spanish battalions.
Graham and his men had not long set off along the dusty road leading from the ridge when two rather animated Spanish guerrillas came riding up with the news that a French division was moving through the forest towards the ridge, just as Graham had feared, and that another division was advancing from the south. The French troops advancing through the forest belonged to Leval's division whilst the other division was Ruffins's and between them they managed to panic the five Spanish battalions into abandoning the ridge without hardly having to fire a shot, thus leaving Browne's composite battalion all alone.
Graham was unaware of the flight of the Spaniards but was certainly made aware of the close proximity of the French when a couple of round shots came bouncing in between the trees, killing an officer of the Guards. First to turn about was General Dilkes' Brigade of Guards who pushed their way through the ranks of the 2/87th in order to get forward. When the 1st Foot Guards advanced they did so in the face of heavy French musketry from the top of the ridge, the overwhelming French numerical superiority having forced Browne's men to retire earlier.
With the British situation deteriorating rapidly Graham decided that the only solution was to drive the French from the ridge using the Brigade of Guards supported by Wheatley's brigade. Browne's six companies, meanwhile, would attack first in order to give the Guards time to deploy, news of which was delivered by Browne himself to his men with the words, "Gentlemen, I am happy to be the bearer of good news. General Graham has done you the honour of being the first to attack these fellows. Now follow me, you rascals." Browne's men advanced up the ridge with determination and courage but took heavy casualties from the French artillery and musketry. There was little cover for his men and after a few salvoes and volleys had swept away over half his men Browne ordered them to fall back and lie down, taking advantage of what little cover there was available to them. A French counter-attack would have meant the end for Browne and his small unit but just as Ruffin began to deploy, Dilkes' Brigade of Guards appeared from the forest.
The Foot Guards advance took them along a route which afforded them rather more cover than had Browne's route and they were supported by the ten guns under Major Duncan. Nonetheless, the advance proved a difficult one as the Guards had been on the march all morning and had not had time to cook any breakfast. Four battalions of Ruffin's infantry stood atop the ridge, ready to greet them, but the Guards would not give way but fought like tigers and continued their advance. The 1st Foot Guards, in the first line, were supported by the 3rd Foot Guards with Graham himself at their head, waving his hat in the air, cheering his men forward. Browne's men too, having recovered from their earlier ordeal, now rejoined the fight and together the British troops forced the French back until they were finally on top of the ridge. Then, Graham shouted, "Now my lads, there they are. Spare your powder, but give them steel enough," and with that his men charged forward and drove the French from the ridge but only after a bitter fight.
Elsewhere, the British troops had been equally successful. On the left, Wheatley's brigade had thrown back and defeated Laval's division. During this struggle Sergeant Patrick Masterman, of the 87th, captured a French eagle after a savage little fight in which no more than seven French soldiers were killed defending it and one lieutenant severely wounded.
Soon afterwards, the battered and bruised French withdrew from the field leaving Graham's equally exhausted soldiers in possession of the ridge. Of 5,000 British troops engaged some 1,238 had become casualties against 2,062 French. Ruffin himself was wounded and one of his brigadiers, Rousseau, later died of his wounds. Five French guns were taken also.
Graham had achieved a remarkable victory without the aid of a single Spanish soldier, La Peña refusing to march to his assistance. His men had also taken the first Imperial eagle of the war which was brought home to England and laid up at Whitehall amidst great pomp and ceremony.