Friday, 26 October 2012

Battle of Cuestas del San, 1810

Portugal. 27th September, 1810. On the crests of the Cuestas del San, a British army under General Victorian Mourne awaits an assault by Général Mathieu of the French army. 26,000 of Wellesley's finest stand firm ahead of an attack by 43,500 men of Napoleon's Grand Armée.

The view from the British lines.

This was Napoleon's first great strike against Portugal since the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo weeks earlier. The Light Division that now held the centre of the British line had done sterling service blunting the imperial sword, but had been forced to retreat. Now reinforced by Macmahon's Scots, Barrington's infantry and 7,000 cavalry, they looked to snap that sword across their knee. 

At ten o'clock, the French began to move.Their line quickly became disordered in the rough terrain of the Iberian hills, and Mathieu took up a position in the church of San Léon on the central crest to better observe his men.

Start of Turn Two.

The French columns snaked across the dusty ground toward the thin red line. De Castelmore's division shook itself into line and squared up to Macmahon's men, while Lebowiecki's Polish Legion advanced to confront the Light Division with D'Herblay's men in support. On the French right, Du Vallon's division approached Barrington's positions on the heights, shuddering before the great concentration of artillery on the British left.

On the other flank, De La Fere's men vanish into the woods.

They were right to shudder. As they approached the hills, the forward lines of the 15th Régiment de Ligne were cast down with thunder and great noise. The Light Division threw out its skirmishers as the French approached, and they wreaked red ruin among D'Herblay's forward units and de Castelmore's flank.

But La Grande Armée could not so easily be denied. Columns charged home against the Scots and Barrington's men on the heights. In the centre, the presence of Mourne's 7,000 cavalry required more caution, and so the Poles and D'Herblay's division merely edged closer to engage the Light Division in ineffectual musketry, shooing the skirmishers back among their parent ranks. Virant, the cavalry corps commander, came up to San Léon as the Polish artillery unlimbered on the hilltop.

So the true killing began. Du Vallon's men tore themselves to shreds on the hillside, giving ground before Barrington's implacable defence. On the other flank, the British 1st Brigade and French 26th Régiment de Ligne fought each other to extinction as the rest of the battered Scots Division desperately threw back the assault.

Already unnerved by D'Herblay's hasty retreat from the Scots position, the Polish Legion were ill-served by a torrent of fire from the Light Division, great holes rent in their yellow-breasted ranks by faithful Brown Bess and her sisters.

As the lines separated in some disorder, Mourne ordered the greatest part of his cavalry forward, to harry holes in the French divisions. On one flank, the Light Brigades slaughtered Du Vallon's 23rd Régiment, sapping the spirits of his whole division. On the other, the British dragoons massacred the 50th in the low valley to the south of San Léon. On both wings, the impetuous British cavalry carried on forward, crashing into Marant's dragoons and the remnants of Du Vallon's division. The 19th de Ligne immediately fled before this wave of horseflesh, leaving their comrades in the 15th Legère to be cut down like dogs by their heavy sabres.

In the valley of San Léon, Marant's right wing fell back before the British, but the Guards brigade were slaughtered in their turn by his steadier regiments.

Turn Four.

The bells of San Léon tolled two of the clock, and General Mathieu assessed his position. Du Vallon's men had evaporated on his left, and de Castelmore's had been almost as sorely used, with only a battalion of the 39th remaining steady around their colours at the foot of the hill. Lebowiecki's Poles and D'Herblay's men were all that remained of his main line, though Castagne's cuirassiers and Marant's dragoons were raring to go. And where had De La Fere got to with his 2,500 men?

A sudden shout of “Vive La France!” alerted him, as De La Fere's division charged from the woods into Macmahon's flank. At the same time, his cavalry leapt forward to punish the British impetuosity, and with a heavy heart, he committed his centre against Montjoy's Light Division.

Heavies rumble toward the lights.

Disordered by their headlong rush, the Lights were easy prey for Castagne's cuirassiers, but against all odds, the dragoons of the King's German Legion managed to fend off Marant's dragoons, sending them flying in disarray.

There was little joy from De La Fere's surprise attack either, as the 2nd Brigade sent them packing, back into the woods from whence they sprang and mauling the 17th.
De La Fere's kills (6s) compared to the 2nd's.

Even the glorious charge of the Polish Legion could not lift Mathieu's clouded brow. Though they destroyed Montjoy's right wing, the division as a whole was worn to a nub, and D'Herblay's was in no better shape. As Mathieu surveyed the field and saw only De La Fere and Castagne's divisions in fighting shape, he knew it was time to withdraw and save what part of his command he could. By five o'clock, the plain was empty of life once more.

End of play.

N.B. Given the loss of half his cavalry, and that his orders were to hold the heights, Mourne allowed Mathieu to do so in relatively good order, only picking off the remnants of the 39th and spiking the Polish guns. For this dereliction of imagination, he was removed from command and sent to Lisbon.

Butcher's Bill:
French: 12,000 dead, 9,000 wounded.
British: 4,500 dead, 5,000 wounded.

A fun little game that certainly avenged the Light Division's retreat at the Coa! I thought Mathieu had a good chance with about 150% of the British points, but the die rolls were just too good – sixes clearly grow well in sunny soil. It could have swung a number of times – the KGL and 2nd Infantry's stunning reversals of circumstance come to mind, as does Barrington's bloody defence of the British left.

All told – I fancy it's time for more French to get painted!


  1. Another interesting Volley & Bayonet battle report. Well written and illustrated.

  2. Nice report and nice pictures!