Sunday, March 17, 2013

Battle of the Crossing of the Rio Minio

British second line of defense anchored on an old tower. Double click image to enlarge.

On Saturday March 16, 2013 we kicked off the opening battle of the Iberian Campaign of Major General William Justinian Pettygree in Spain and Portugul. Click on the link below to view the campaign's own blog, written by the Major General himself:

If you visit the link above, you will be able to read the background story to the campaign and the events leading up to our first battle.

Toward the end of 1808 the military situation in the Iberian Peninsula for allies Britain, Portugal and Spain was hopeless. Napoleon had overrun most of Iberia and seemed unstoppable. Spanish armies were defeated and disorganized. Portuguese forces were insignificant and wanting. Finally, Sir John Moore's British contingent was greatly outnumbered and retreating fast into northwest Spain. Lest everyone be lost, he intended to embark for home from the port of Coruna.

Wind kept troop transports off the port until 15 January. Embarkation commenced almost immediately. The next day Marshall Soult's II French Corps arrived commencing a furious battle to prevent it. The line held but Moore was killed. On the 17th the French paused allowing the rest of the British Army to embark and sail for England.

A fortnight later only one viable allied body was left in northwest Iberia. It was the 10,000 man division commanded by Major General William Justinian Pettygree in Lisbon. News was expected any hour saying Soult's 23,500 men were marching south into Portugal. All that stood in his way was the garrison of Lisbon.

-- from the personal journal of M.G. Wm. J. Pettygree (February 1809)

Briefly, Pettygree resolved to march north from Lisbon and attempt to deny Soult's forces the crossing of the Minio River, which establishes the northern border of Portugal with Spain. The strategic thinking was that the key city of Porto on the Duro River, was Soult's immediate target. With its extensive harbor facilities, Porto would be an important city for either side to control, thus, Pettygree hoped to buy time by delaying the French invasion well north of the Duro River. As a result, Pettygree targeted the crossing of the Minio River as a possible forward site for the initial battle.

As far as I can tell, the French forces outnumbered the British by approximately 2:1 in infantry and they had about 50% more cavalry than the British (126 horse for the French vs. 76 British light cavalry). The British had slightly more cannon, 8 pieces to 6 pieces, but the majority of British tubes were light six pounders (6 x 6-pdrs and 2 x 9-pdrs) compared to the heavier French artillery (4 x 8-pdrs and 2 x howitzers).

The initial set up, with the game played on the long vertical axis (20ft long table with one parallel side table 3ft wide by 20ft long) with the French forces beginning to cross the Minio River via one bridge (center) and one pontoon bridge (right) that was thrown up. A second pontoon bridge was under construction on the French left flank, but it would take several turns for this one to be completed.

Approximatley 8 feet south of the river, there was a classic "Wellington ridge" upon which the British deployed a foreward posting of the six Royal Horse Artillery (Hew Grant's battery RHA) in the center, Lord Paget's light cavalry (some 50 horse) on the left, and elements of the 9th Regiment on the right. Behind the ridge was positioned the 5th Regt. Lord Paget commanded the cavalry and RHA while Lt. Colonel Devereaux commanded the infantry on the British right flank, in the absence of Brigadier Petrus Young, who was on medical leave back in Lisbon.

Brigadier General Alexander Sinclair's brigade (83rd Regt, 94th Regt, 3 companies of 5/60th and one section of Royal Artillery 9-pdrs, escorted by two squadrons of the 2nd KGL Hussars, were marching onto the field, hidden by the Wellington ridge.

Thus the action commenced at exactly 10 A.M on the 16th March:

Initial position of the French army as it begins to cross the Minio River. Note the pontoon bridge on the left (French right) which is completed as well as the French forces in the upper right hand corner, where they are building another pontoon bridge.

The cavalry vanguard of the French have successfully negotiated the river crossing, unopposed and now they fan out to find what is in front of them. French infantry begin to deploy into line to assault the ridge.

The first cavalry action commences between Earl (Col. Exelmanns, in orange  pelisse) and Bill (Lord Paget, in blue pelisse). I leave it to you to guess who is getting the better of the sabre fight at this point in the game. You can also see the RHA battery on the ridge opening fire on a supporting French cavalry regiment near the road.
The French superiorityin forces is now evident as long columns of veteran infantry snake their way up the road behind the deployed regiment in line.

The first French battalion commences the attack on the ridge. Several companies of light rifles (95th) await them behind stone walls? But is that all there is?

No, the 83rd Regt of Foot has deployed two companies behind the ridge, keeping the rest of the regiment in reserve behind the ridge (hidden from view). Meanwhile, the hacienda is garrisoned by the flank companies of the 9th Regiment. You can see that the French battalion is rather diminished in numbers by now and has gone disordered.

Brigadier Sinclair's British brigade is now deployed behind the ridge. Here is the 83rd Regt, having sent two companies forward to the ridge, with more available in reserve as needed.

At the same time, the French attack is picking up momentum on their right, after driving off Lord Paget's British light cavalry.
The French attack on the British right, at the Hacienda de Sainte, pushes over the ridge as the two companies of the 83rd retire back to the rest of the regiment behind the ridge. Too many French battalions on the other side, time to bug out! Remember, this is a campaign with attrition to the regiments from battle losses, so it does not pay to "fight to the last man".
On the French right, the 12e Regiment de Ligne surges over the ridge with voltigeurs seen skirmishing from the front.

The French commander on their right marshals his forces to carry the attack over the ridge.

Over on the French left, British right, four battalion brigade sweeps the British 9th Regiment before it.

At this point, Blogger won't let me add any more pictures, but what I have provided should give you the gist of what happened in the battle.

As the French surged over the crest of the ridge in the center and their left, they faced a combined battery of eight British guns (6x 6-pd RHA and 2 x 9-pd RA) and Sinclair's brigade of two regiments. The French had routed off the British 5th Regiment which had been deployed behind the ridge, and thus faced the brunt of the French assualt. The French set up the potential for a combined arms attack of infantry and cavalry on Sinclair's position, but after watching several battalions get hosed down by cannister and musket balls, the French decided that given that this was a campaign, it would be wiser to fall back to the ridge and let the French left wing carry the day. The French left had the advantage of numbers and were pushing the 9th Regt. back, slowly but surely. As the 9th fell back, Sinclair's right flank became exposed and he had to swing the 83rd back towards the final British position near a small creek in their rear. The 83rd's left was protected by the Martello Tower in the center of the field (it being packed to the rafters with Riflemen taking advantage of the height and the rested fire on the walls to pick off French officers).

At this point, time had expired for the French as darkness set in and the battle day was over. The British had earned their "minor victory" condition of holding the position around the Martello Tower at the end of the battle and keeping the French outside of 48 inches from the creek that was behind the tower. Both sides agreed that eventually the French would be able to push the British off the field, from sheer weight of numbers, but nonetheless, Pettygree had achieved his objective of blunting the attack of Soult's army.

At one point near the end of the battle, Brigadier Sinclair turned to Major General Pettygree, pointing to the retirement of the French right wing, "good God sir, I believe that we are going to win today!"

And you can guess how Pettygree would have replied (search your Waterloo movie for reference):

"Good God Sir, I believe that you are right", said Pettygree.

Post Script:
My congratulations to Bill P. for setting up an interesting and challenging scenario that was very asymetrical, given the difference in numbers for both sides. While the British were outnumbered heavily, they had sufficient terrain to fight an effective rear guard retirement, while the French numbers were somewhat tempered by the tight space on the table. We played the game on the vertical (long) axis rather than on the horizontal (wide) axis. Everyone was involved in the action almost from the first turn. I did not see anyone sitting around with nothing to do.

There were a number of unexpected events during the game. During the initial cavalry battle between the British light and the French light cavalry forces, Bill had some of the worst dice rolling that I have ever seen him have. Still, he did manage to slow the French infantry down a bit and provide time for Sinclair's brigade to arrive behind the ridge. The stone hacienda on the right side of the ridge line turned out to be a tough nut to crack for the French. Bill had placed the flank companies of the 9th Regt. inside and they repelled several French attempts to assault the structure. When that failed, the French surrounded the hacienda on three sides with infantry and even brought up some artillery to try and blast the British out of the hacienda. It turned into a La Haye Saint or a Chew House for the French as the building attracted more attention than it deserved and probably contributed to the French running out of time before darkness fell. The British achieved their victory conditions by the slimmest of threads.

Finally, the casualties were dead even: 210 French and 211 British. Go figure that!


  1. That is really something.

    It is rare to see a game done so well.

  2. Great looking battle and narrative. Thanks for posting it!

  3. Those big battalions really look impressive, thank you