Saturday, 25 July 2009

The Coa

The bridge over the river Coa is about a mile from Almeida. You go down a steep and curving road and cross the dry river bed of the Coa on a new road bridge. However a few hundred yards away is the original bridge, where Crauford almost lost the Light Division on that fateful morning of 24th July 1810.

The Light Division was deployed on the right bank of the river Coa maintaining contact with the garrison of Almeida. Wellington suggested that they withdraw to the left bank, but Crauford was confident he could remain a little longer. On the morning of 24th July he was suddenly confronted by the 24,000 men of Marshal Ney's VI corps.

The Light Division were bundled down the road and nearby hill towards the river, hotly pursued by the numerous French. When they reached the bridge, they realised that part of 52nd were still on the French held bank, so they had to recapture a hill overlooking the bridge.

Once they retreated over the bridge they were safe. The French lost heavily in attack after attack over the narrow bridge, which was easily defended by the riflemen scattered over the rocky hill on the left bank.

It was not a battle, only a Combat of the Coa. It could easily have resulted in the destruction of the famous Light Division. There was much criticism of Crauford, but Wellington defended him as "his intentions were good".

Like many rivers in Portugal and Spain, the Coa is dry for much of the year. When it does rain, it quickly fills and becomes a raging torrent. You can see from this photograph how wide the river is at this point. At the time of the battle the river was in full flow.

A nice painting of the bridge over the river Coa. You can see how mountainous the area is. The narrow, winding road is in the centre of the picture. You can also see what it was like when the river was in full flood.

We only had half an hour to explore the area around the bridge. Because the new road is out of sight, it is very quiet around the bridge now, and possible to explore as much as you like. Even with the river bed dry it was very difficult to cross other than by the bridge.

Saturday, 18 July 2009


is to Portugal what Cuidad Rodrigo is to Spain, it is the fortress which guards the northern corridor. As such it played an important part in the Peninsular Wars. It is perhaps best known for the French siege in 1810, when one of the first shots fired caused a chain reaction resulting in the destruction of the fortress. The cathedral contained the central powder magazine. A lucky shot led to a chair reaction which caused the magazine to explode. The cathedral ceased to exist, the tops of houses throughout the town were sheared by the explosion as if by a knife. The outer walls suffered little, but 500 Portuguese solders were killed in an instant. The garrison surrendered the following day.

This is the same explosion which Sharpe escaped by hiding in a bread oven in Sharpes Gold!

is only a few miles from Cuidad Rodrigo. It is a slightly larger fortress, and even better preserved, as can be seen from the photograph above. However whereas Cuidad Rodrigo is a bustling town full of life, Almeida has the feel of a deserted place, almost a museum. There are people living in the town, but it seemed unnaturally quiet when we were there, even though it is a popular tourist attraction. And perhaps that is the problem, it has the feel of a National Trust village in UK. Almost as if it is preserved for tourists to come and wonder at.

This bridge is still the main entrance, indeed I believe the only entrance, to the town. Clearly very little has changed since 1810, although all signs of the explosion have been removed - except for the site of the cathedral. It is a flat area at the top of the town, and looking at the town you an easily imagine how the explosion would have removed the roofs of the houses, but gone over the top of the walls.

This rather pretty post card of Almeida sums it all up for me. A picturesque old fortress suitable for coach parties to spend half an hour or so. Nothing wrong with that, but it seemed to lack character or personality. Or perhaps it was just my mood on the day we visited?

Not so in fact. We were to return a few years later and spend a night in the Paradore, and were left with a very similar impression.

The streets can have changed but very little since 1810. You an almost imagine Sharpe and Harper arriving with the gold on their way to report to the garrison commander! This is the main street and on the left are the casemates. They are kept locked, but opened for coach tours. It was a very dark and dank sort of place, as you would expect. The floor was covered with heaps of rusting cannon balls. You wonder why the magazine was not stored in the casemates, which I imagine would be the natural place for it.

The original barracks. Unfortunately we were not allowed to look around, not sure why. They did not seem to be occupied or in any way lived in.

Proof that there are occupants of Almeida. Its just a little surreal that they were using donkey transport. Again shades of Sharpe and Harper.

I feel Almeida should be a lot more interesting than it was. I have struggled to explain why it was not so and feel that I have failed. It would be interesting to hear from anyone else who has visited to know whether they felt the same.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Cuidad Rodrigo

In my diary I wrote "Cuidad is exactly like I imagined it would be". That really sums up Cuidad Rodrigo for me, both this first visit and our subsequent, much longer, one. If I had to recommend just one location of the Peninsular War to visit, it would probably be Cuidad.

We arrived in Cuidad about 7pm, feeling quite weary and stiff after our long coach journey. We were delighted to be told that our hotel would be the castle of Cuidad Rodrigo. The very place where the French surrendered. There is some dispute about who actually received the surrender, junior officers of both the 52nd and 88th claimed the honour, but no dispute but that it happened in the castle. When the town was stormed, the governor and his staff sought refuge in the castle. Shortly after the British arrived and he handed over his sword.

The castle is now a state run hotel. In Spain there are a number of these hotels called Paradores. They are often historical buildings, such as castles, which have been renovated to a very high degree and turned into 4 or 5 star hotels. The castle of Cuidad Rodrigo is one.

Walking around the castle/hotel is looked like any other luxury hotel. But in the grounds outside it was very easy to imagine the events of January 1812 unfolding.

Whilst everyone else was making their way to their rooms, Jan and I went for a walk around the town. First we walked around the town walls. They are very much as they were in 1812, and you can still walk around the whole circumference. On this evening we seemed to be the only ones doing so. It was quite dark as we started our walk, and one could easily imagine a French sentry doing his rounds and listening for the first sounds of the British approach.

The next morning we had an even greater treat. Our guide spoke to the receptionist and obtained the key to the castle tower. We climbed to the top and had the most magnificent views of both the town and the surrounding area. The town also looks much as it must have done in 1812, particularly the cobble streets in the tiny market just below the castle.

From the castle tower we could also see the Great Teson where the first siege works were built and the guns began to fire on the town. And just below it the Little Teson where the parallel was dug and the guns moved closer to the town. Unfortunately both are now covered by a housing estate.

Gathered on the castle tower we had a briefing on the siege and the subsequent storming. It was easy to follow the sequence of the siege, and why the Tesons has been chosen to commence the bombardment. It was also easy to under the layout of Cuidad Rodrigo. We were told, and I find it easy to believe, that the narrow streets of the old town can be negotiated using early nineteenth century military maps.

It was not time to have a guided tour of the town walls. We followed the route Jan and I had found the previous night. It was easier to find the landmarks outside the town in daylight, and we stopped to pay respects at the point where Black Bob Crauford was buried. He was killed leading the Light Division and buried in the Lesser Breach. It was impressive doing this tour, but did not have the same impact as walking the walls with Jan the previous evening, when we seemed to be accompanied by the ghosts of those brave men.

An artists impression of the storming of the Lesser Breach by the Light Division. It was during this critical moment of the battle that the commander Bob Crauford was mortally wounded.

A striking photographs of the Roman bridge over the river Augeda, and the towering castle beyond. During the battle the Portuguese stormed over this bridge to join the storm of Cuidad Rodrigo.

This drawing was made immediately after the battle by an officer who had taken part in the storm. You can clearly see the two breaches in the wall and how they would have filled the ditch with rubble to allow the stormers to climb into the town.

Our group inspect the defences from outside the town. This would be the approximate site of the Great, or Main, Breach. If you inspect the stone work closely you can easily see the new stones which repaired the damage done by Wellingtons artillery.

Another view of the Greater Breach. From this angle you can see just how high it was once you were in the ditch. There would have been a rough rampart of rubble to climb up, but it would have been difficult to climb, and strongly defended by the French.

Another artists impression of the storm. This gives a very good idea of what it must have looked like as the stormers climbed the rubble and fought their way into the town.

This view is from the approach to the fortifications. you are looking at the sloping bank of earth which deflected the artillery fire and protected the wall behind. Between here and the wall would be the ditch shown above. There is much damage to the church tower from cannon balls fired during the siege. The British gunners used the church tower as an aiming point.

It is a great, and humbling, experience to walk around the fortifications, climb down into the ditch and consider the courage needed on that night in January 1812. On this visit we did not have photo copies of descriptions of the storm, as we would on a later visit. But we knew the story only too well, and we had been well briefed before being left to explore on our own. No one objected to us climbing down into the ditch, to sit and picture in our minds eye what had happened in this very spot all those years ago.

At this period the defence of castles and fortifications was scientific. Most were designed by Vauban and named after him. An old fashioned castle could not withstand the firepower available to the attacker. So a series of defences were built of thick earth, which would make the cannon balls bounce over the wall. They were designed so that the attacker would have to climb up and then down and the up again. There were well sited angles which would allow the defenders to fire into the flank of any such attack. This photo well illustrates this defence system.

Jan sitting on the edge of the ditch. We were allowed about half an hour to walk about on our own and study the ground and the defences at our leisure.

Having studied the walls and defences it was back on the coach for the short drive to the Great Teson. It was just as well we were taken there, for I suspect it would have been difficult to find on your own amongst the many houses that now cover the area. I don't really know if this was the actual sight of the first battery, but it looked like it could well be.
You can see that at this angle it was possible to fire over the defences and hit the wall near the church. This weakness was known to the garrison, and they had built a redoubt which had to be taken before the guns could be sited.

This view is from the Little Teson, which is even nearer to the town and has an even better view of the walls in front of the church. You can see quite clearly that there is a direct line of fire to quite a large section of the wall.

If you ever have the opportunity to visit Cuidad Rodrigo I would strongly recommend that you take it up. If you are ever visiting the Peninsular battle sites and are not sure which ones to put on the "must list" - make sure this one is at the top.

We left feeling that we would have loved to spend more time there. When we planned a visit on our own some years later we did just that. And the second visit was just as rewarding as the first.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


Its about 220 miles from Albuera to Cuidad Rodrigo, out next overnight stop on the coach tour. The journey took about five hours, a long time to sit on a coach and gaze out of the window. I knew that we were covering the same ground that many Frenchmen had during the peninsular war, but it was hard to imagine it as anything more than a long boring journey.

To break the journey we stopped at the old Roman bridge over the river Tagus at Alcantara. The bridge was of great military important during the Peninsular War, for it was the only one to cross the Tagus river in western Spain. The river is wide at this point and goes through a series of canyons which makes fording very difficult.

The bridge was repaired by the British in 1812 by means of a suspension bridge, which was considered something of a military marvel.

Its interesting that the destruction of the bridge was very unpopular with the local Spanish population. It would of course cause them great trouble, and also it was carried out by a Portuguese force commanded by a British officer. And there was no love lost between the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Jan standing on the approach to the bridge gives a good indication of how difficult it would have been to cross the river Tagus without the bridge. The grey skies give and warm cardigan prove that it can be grey and cold in Spain in October!