The Lines of Torres Vedras was a military defensive system, constructed to the north of Lisbon between 1809 and 1810. Under a cloak of secrecy, the future Duke of Wellington developed a defence strategy based on the fortification of key points on the hilltops so as to be able to observe the access routes to the capital of Portugal and reinforce the natural obstacles of the local terrain. This system comprised three lines of defence, extending over 85 km from the Atlantic to the river Tagus.
When finished, there were 152 military constructions, armed with 600 artillery pieces and defended by 140,000 men, making it the most efficient – as well as the cheapest – defensive system in military history.
In front of these lines, in October 1810, were the battles at Sobral (nº 12), Dois Portos (nº 13) and Seramena (nº 14). These decisive engagements, between French troops and the Anglo-Portuguese army, were also the shortest and least bloody since the Napoleonic Army had invaded Portugal.
After these, Napoleon’s troops lost their fighting spirit, understanding that the Lines of Torres Vedras were impregnable. They expected supplies and reinforcements but these never arrived because of Portuguese guerrilla activity.
On the 15th November 1810, Marshal Massena ordered the withdrawal of his French troops. This led to Napoleon Bonaparte’s eventual defeat on 18th June 1815 at Waterloo.
Napoleon spent the last six years of his life imprisoned on the island of St Helena and Europe opened a new chapter in its history.
The Peninsular War was fought between 1807 and 1814 on the Iberian Peninsula and was part of a wider conflict that encompassed the whole of Europe – the Napoleonic Wars.
The French Invasions were among the largest military offensives ever to be fought on Portuguese soil. They left profound scars on the places and people of the time. Anglo-Portuguese resistance was, however, destined to mark the beginning of the end of Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquests.
At the start of the 19th century, Napoleon dominated almost all of Europe. Invincible on land, in 1806 he decreed the “Continental Blockade”, closing European ports to British ships in an attempt to strangle the economy of his adversary.
In this hostile atmosphere, the two great powers – France and England – fought for control of Europe. Portugal faced a dilemma: obey Napoleon and antagonise its longstanding English ally, or keep to the terms of the alliance by declaring war on France. The neutral position it favoured angered Napoleon and he issued new decrees which closed Portuguese ports and he dispatched French troops to occupy the country.
In November 1807, General Jean-Andoche Junot arrived in Lisbon just in time to see the Royal Family sailing away on the river Tagus bound for Brazil. In August 1808, the Anglo-Portuguese army defeated French troops in battles at Vimeiro and Roliça.
In 1809, General Soult led the Second Invasion in an offensive through the north of Portugal. This culminated in the sad episode of the destruction of the Barcas bridge in Oporto (March). The French were forced to retreat to Spain by the Anglo-Portuguese army.
In July 1810, Marshal André Massena renewed the offensive against the Portuguese in command of the Third Invasion. After suffering defeat at Bussaco in September, he reorganised his troops and set off on a long march towards Lisbon. Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) had anticipated the invading army’s actions and withdrew the allied forces to defend the capital from the Lines of Torres Vedras. Halted by this insurmountable obstacle, Massena commenced his retreat from the country in March 1811. This defeat marked the end of Napoleon’s dream of holding sway over the whole of Europe.
On 17th August 1808, Anglo-Portuguese forces under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley faced French forces under the command of Divisional General Henri-François Delaborde, on the battlefield at Roliça, between Torres Vedras and Obidos. To the south of this village extends a plain and, roughly 5km from the town of Obidos, there is a slightly higher section of terrain. The French established their first position here. Further south, the French also occupied the line of hills near the village of Columbeira. The confrontation between the two armies resulted in the withdrawal of the French troops, having accomplished their mission to slow Wellesley’s forces.
On 21st August 1808, the Anglo-Portuguese army, under the command of General Sir Arthur Wellesley, faced French troops under the command of General Jean-Andoche Junot.
After the battle of Roliça, Wellesley led his troops into positions at Vimeiro to protect the disembarkation of men on the beach at Porto Novo, at the mouth of the river Alcabrichel. His aim was to carry on in the direction of Lisbon, following the Mafra road. The battle resulted in a victory for the Anglo-Portuguese troops, signalling the end of the First French Invasion of Portugal. Jean-Andoche Junot ordered their withdrawal from Portugal after negotiations with the British and the signing of the Convention of Cintra.
From 26th April to the 9th July 1810, the Napoleonic campaign maintained a long, costly siege at Ciudad Rodrigo. The 55,000 men of the Spanish garrison under Marshal Don Andrés Pérez de Herrasti resisted Marshal Michel Ney’s forces until the French artillery breached the city walls. This enabled them to attack and take the fortress and town and guaranteed control of the road leading to the Portuguese border, where the “Armée de Portugal” was headed. In all, Spanish resistance to the French siege delayed the invasion of Portugal by more than a month. Wellington did not come to the aid of the defenders of Ciudad Rodrigo, revealing his strategy from that early stage, thus avoiding a clash with the enemy on unfavourable terrain, far from an embarkation point for his troops. In January 1812, Ciudad Rodrigo was once again under siege.
On 24th July 1810, the 6th Corps of the French army, under the command of Marshal Michel Ney faced Anglo-Portuguese troops under General Robert Craufurd.
The French advance troops were on the eastern bank of the river Côa, intending to lay siege to the fortress town of Almeida. The allied army positioned itself on the opposite bank and, despite the fact that Craufurd’s men were eventually defeated, they managed to delay the French troops, under the command of Marshal André Massena, who were heading towards Lisbon along a route via Almeida and Coimbra.
From 15th to the 28th August 1810, the town of Almeida was surrounded by French troops. The siege was broken when a magazine in the fortress exploded, allowing the Napoleonic forces to enter and take the town.
The position, under the command of Colonel William Cox, was well stocked with foodstuffs and munitions and Wellington had been confident that they would be able to resist the enemy until the middle of September, thus guaranteeing the successful reinforcement of the defensive system to the north of Lisbon – the Lines of Torres Vedras. The disarray caused by the explosion, however, forced the allied army to surrender. The advantageous position of this fortress-town, not only given its proximity to the Spanish border, but also because of the access it offered to the heart of Portuguese territory, meant that the French troops could secure their rearguard lines of communication and supply route for their army, fundamental factors in guaranteeing the success of their military offensive.
On 27th September 1810, as the invading army marched towards Lisbon, the largest battle of the Third Invasion took place – the Battle of Bussaco. Roughly 50,000 allied troops, almost half of whom were Portuguese, led by the Supreme Commander of the Anglo-Portuguese army, Arthur Wellesley, faced 65,000 French, under the command of Marshal André Massena.
Fighting was fierce, with numerous casualties on both sides, including five French generals. The Bussaco sierra rises like a wall, 18 km to the north of the city of Coimbra. Wellesley saw this natural obstacle as an advantageous position for engagement. This was part of his strategy of passive defence, which consisted of placing his troops in defensive positions which divided the French. The French commander could not avoid defeat, but then resumed his march towards the Portuguese capital. The allies, despite being victorious, left the field and withdrew to a more favourable position: the Lines of Torres Vedras.
The French advanced corps of the “Armée de Portugal” reached the Lines of Torres Vedras two days after the advanced troops of the Anglo-Portuguese army had entered. Between Coimbra and the Lines, here had been some skirmishes involving the French forces and the rearguard of allied army. The most significant of these occurred near Pombal and at Alenquer. On the 10th October 1810, the first French troops spotted the Lines of Torres Vedras and, on the 14th, Massena himself came to see the defensive system built to protect Lisbon. He sent word to Soult in the Spanish Estremadura, asking for reinforcements. For his part, Wellington never left his defensive position to join battle on open ground.
On 11th October 1810, Montbrun’s cavalry division arrived at Sobral and found it occupied by the 71st Regiment of Spencer’s 1st Division. They did not attempt to take the town on that day, having been informed of the existence of a line of fortifications that extended from the river Tagus to the far side of the river Sizandro. Given this, on 12th October the advance guard of Junot’s VIII Corps marched towards the flank to the north of Sobral and attacked Spencer’s forward posts. The skirmishes spread into the centre of the town, leaving it in the hands of the French. Both sides suffered more than a hundred fatalities.
On 13th October 1810, when the division under the command of General Solignac attempted to take up a position on the hill overlooking Caixaria, near Dois Portos, it was attacked by a Portuguese brigade led by Colonel Collins. This brigade was part of General Cole’s division. The 11th and 23rd Regiments succeeded in halting the French troops. Allied casualties numbered seven wounded and one missing.
On 14th October 1810, near Seramena, the British 71st Regiment, which had retreated there from Sobral on the 12th, erected barricades on the Bucelas road at the foot of the Olmeira hills. These barricades were very close to the enemy vanguard and were shelled, on Junot’s orders. The British troops counterattacked, resulting in the loss of over one hundred French lives. They did not renew their offensive.
On 14th October 1810, French troops surveyed the defensive system, looking for weaker areas to attack. They tried to advance along the Royal Road that ran along the left bank of the river Tagus, passing through Quinta das Fontes and continuing in the direction of Alhandra. They met an organised defence. The roads through the town were blocked with barricades and, in front of the defensive system, a military force made up of troops from General Hamilton’s Division and exclusively Portuguese units, safeguarded all access to Lisbon. The result was that the allied troops were then able to repel the French attack.
From 3rd to 5th May 1811, 37,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops, under the command of Arthur Wellesley, once more confronted Marshal Massena’s army. This numbered 46,500 French soldiers. The allies emerged victorious. This movement of troops by Massena was a failed attempt to liberate the French garrison trapped in Almeida. The French commander concentrated his men in Ciudad Rodrigo, advancing on the bridge over the river Agueda and forming two columns: one followed the Marialba road, while the other took the Carpio road towards Fuentes de Õnoro. Wellington, who had been informed of these French manoeuvres and who had the support of Julian Sanchez’s Spanish guerrillas, decided to intercept the French advance troops so as to base his own forces in the Fuentes de Õnoro region.
On 16th May 1811, one of the bloodiest battles of the Peninsular War was fought, with heavy casualties on both sides. British, Spanish and Portuguese troops took part under the command of William Beresford. They confronted Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s troops, who had come to the aid of the French garrison besieged in Badajoz while on his way to Portugal to reinforce Massena’s forces on their mission to reach Lisbon.
On 22nd July 1812, this battle (also known as the Battle of Arapiles) involved the Anglo-Portuguese army, under the command of Wellington, and the French army, led by Auguste de Marmont. After a long defensive phase, Wellington implemented a large-scale offensive manoeuvre, designed to destroy “l’Armée de Portugal” before Marmont could obtain help from the other French armies. The opposing forces sought out the most favourable positions and Wellington, who feared being surrounded, pretended to prepare troops to be sent to Ciudad Rodrigo. This tricked the French commander, causing him to assess the enemy forces incorrectly and to send some of his own forces in that direction, thereby overextending the resources at his disposal. This error gave Wellington the upper hand. His victory was decisive and he advanced on and took the city of Madrid, to popular acclamation as their liberator, on 12th August 1812.
On 18th June 1815, the First Imperial French Army, under the command of the Emperor, Napoleon, confronted the armies of the Seventh Coalition (British troops led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian troops led by Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher), in a difficult and prolonged battle, fought in torrential rain which further hampered military manoeuvres. Defeat of Napoleon’s forces by the allies was only made possible by the arrival of Prussian troops. Casualties were heavy; thousands of men died during the battle.
This battle marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s imperial ambition to dominate the whole of Europe. It implied drastic changes to borders on continental Europe and a re-balancing of power.
After his defeat, Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, where he died on 5th May 1821.