Battle of Barossa 1809
By Harry Fecitt
A Lancashire Infantry Museum Narrative History
In October 1809 the 2nd Battalion of the 47th Regiment (later 1st Loyals) was sent from England to Gibraltar, the strategically-vital strongpoint at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, where the Peninsular War was raging. There they shared garrison duties with the 82nd Regiment (later 2nd South Lancashires)
The Spanish city of Cadiz, a major Allied harbour and the temporary seat of the Spanish government, was besieged by the French Marshal Victor in early 1810. Early the following year the British, Spanish and Portuguese allies decided to try and lift the siege by attacking Victor’s army from the east. Simultaneously Spanish troops were to break out from Cadiz and attack the French.
The 47th and two companies of the 82nd, transferred from Gibraltar, sailed from Cadiz as part of the allied force on 21st February 1811, landing at Algeciras and then marching to Tarifa where Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Graham assembled a division of British, Portuguese and German soldiers. As the majority of troops on the expedition were Spanish the overall Allied commander was the Spanish General Manuel La Pena. This was a political appointment and not a sound military one, as La Pena was widely regarded as being incompetent.
General La Pena would only march at night and he was late by two days as he approached Cadiz, where the garrison had broken out but had then been beaten back inside the city, losing 300 men. Marshal Victor’s reconnaissance troops reported the Allied approach from the east, and he deployed two French divisions to ambush the allies in a forest near a prominent hill named Cerro del Puerco, or Barossa Ridge.
General Graham sent one battalion, improvised from the British flank companies including the two companies of the 82nd, up the hill to hold it alongside five Spanish battalions. However the commander of this battalion, Colonel Browne, withdrew from the hill when the Spanish battalions disappeared at the sight of a French division advancing on them. The remainder of General Graham’s division was following a narrow track through the forest when Graham became aware of Browne’s failure to obey orders. Browne was immediately ordered to attack the hill which was now occupied by 4,000 French infantry and artillerymen. Browne’s men fought upwards until they were brought to a standstill by the French fire, but they held their ground on the slopes of the hill.
General Graham, out of touch with La Pena, now decided to fight for the hill, the vital ground, and sent a British brigade under General Dilke up the ridgeline. The French tried to sweep this brigade and Brown’s men off the hill by attacking with four battalion columns but the British deployed in line and poured musket fire into the tight enemy columns, breaking them and making the survivors run off the hill.
Meanwhile the second British Brigade under Colonel Wheatley came out of the woods and attacked the second French division which also deployed in columns to attack the British line. A close volley and charge by the British 87th Regiment led to the capturing of the French 8th Ligne Regiment’s Imperial Eagle standard – the first time that the British had captured an Eagle. The 47th Regiment then charged the French 54th and broke it, leading to the French division fleeing from the scene.
Now was the moment when General La Pena and his Spaniards, who were watching, could have dealt a decisive blow to the French. But despite his subordinate commanders wishing to advance to assist the British the Spanish general sat tight and gave no orders to move. The exhausted British troops, having marched all night and then gone straight into battle, could not harry the French who regrouped at a distance. General Graham was so disgusted that he marched his men directly into Cadiz despite General La Pena’s late orders for the British to mount another attack. The siege of Cadiz was resumed by Marshal Victor.
The fighting had lasted for only 90 minutes. The British, Portuguese and Germans had lost around 1,240 men; the French around 2,380. The Spanish casualty figure was between 300 and 400.
The 2nd Battalion, 47th Regiment had one officer, one drummer and 19 men killed and one officer and 49 men wounded.
The dead officer was a thirsty ensign on skirmish duties who was shot dead by a French rifleman whilst drinking at a stream.
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment Volume I. By Colonel H.C. Wylly, CB.
The Spanish Ulcer. A History of the Peninsular War. By David Gates.
The Peninsular War 1807-1814. A Concise Military History. By Michael Glover.
Redcoat. The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. By Richard Holmes.
Sharpe’s Fury. By Bernard Cornwell.