The Second Battle of Oporto
May 12th 1809.
Sir Arthur Wellesley stepped ashore in Lisbon to take command of the British army on 22nd April 1809. He had weathered the scandal of the Convention of Cintra and had Prime Minister Castlereagh's confidence so was fully in command. He had sufficient extra troops to raise the British Army to 30,000. Training of a new Portuguese army was starting under Lieutenant General Beresford (appointed a Marshal in the Portuguese service).
The army in Lisbon had already been preparing under Cradock to move north and Wellesley left Lisbon on 29th April, arriving just south of Oporto on May 11th.
That night, Soult blew up the bridge of boats having confiscated or destroyed all the boats on the river. Having denied Wellesley the means of crossing the river, Soult expected a landing across the seaward end, supported by the Royal Navy so focussed French attention to the west.
The Douro at Opporto is wide with steep banks on each side. At that time there was little development beyond the Moorish Walls. The end of these can be seen at the right hand end of the bridge (Ponte Luis I) in the photo above. The area on the extreme right of this photo was undeveloped.
Wellesley arrived early on the 12th and took up position on the Serra heights, on the left of this photo. From there he could see the Bishops Seminary relatively isolated across the river outside the town (photo below). Word was brought to him that there were three (or four) wine barges hidden on the opposite bank which could be fetched using a small boat which had been hidden on the south bank. He gave the order that the 3rd Foot should cross. This must have been a nerve-wracking time as each barge only took about 30 men but the crossing was unobserved for nearly an hour and the French took time to prepare their response. By the time they attacked, there were something like 600 men posted in the seminary, a strong position. The French had to attack across open ground which was subject to heavy artillery fire from the Serra ridge.
It's always amazed me that the French took so long to see the British crossing. Now I've had the chance to see the river I understand more.
The picture below shows the view from the Ponte Luis I (the Gustave Eiffel bridge), roughly in line with the end of the Moorish walls. From that angle, the shape of the river means that the section immediately below the seminary cannot be seen from the Moorish Walls. Only lookouts posted well beyond those would have been able to see the British crossing.
Another view up-river from the bridge. The British artillery would have been on the ridge in the area of the small square building about a quarter way in from the right.
The Seminary is just visible above the concrete road bridge, about a quarter way in from the left.
The view up-river from the riverside. The view is even more restricted.
The Bishops Palace and Cathedral from the south end of the Ponte Luis I.
The arched riverside arcade dates from before 1809. The memorial to the deaths on the bridge of boats is visible below and slightly to the left of the elevator.
A view down river showing the riverside arcade and wharves. The right side was the side held by the French.
In order to reinforce the attack on the seminary, the French withdrew the troops that were guarding the boats on the north bank and the local boatmen rushed to bring the British across in their boats.
Additional views of the Moorish walls.
Traditional Port Wine boats. Perhaps this was the type of boat the British crossed in.
A British officer who served throughout the Peninsular War was from the Warre Port family.
Soult was forced to take a route back to Spain that was unsuitable for wagons and artillery so he had to abandon them.
Later that year, Wellesley entered Spain expecting support from the Spanish Army. He won the Battale of Talavera (28th July 1809), but was unable to exploit this because of poor support and converging French armies.
He was made Viscount Wellington for the victory.