|Battle of Casal Novo|
|Part of Peninsular War|
Kingdom of Portugal
|Commanders and leaders|
|Jean Gabriel Marchand||Sir William Erskine|
|Casualties and losses|
|55 casualties||155 casualties|
The Battle of Casal Novo was a rear-guard action fought on March 14, 1811, during Massena's retreat from Portugal. During this retreat the French rear-guard, under command of Michel Ney, performed admirably in a series of sharp rear-guard actions. At Casal Novo, the recklessness of Sir William Erskine resulted in costly losses in the Light Division.
Massena's aims were to head north and force his way through the Mondego valley. His only obstacle was the Mondego River, but the French marshal found that all the bridges had been destroyed. In addition to this, he found the river impossible to ford, due to the city of Coimbra being occupied by Portuguese militia under Nicholas Trant.
In an attempt to delay Wellington's advance, Massena had Michel Ney command the rear guard. Ney inflicted two defeats on the allies, driving the British out of Pombal and managing an impressive victory over Wellington near the village of Redinha. He then took up a new position at Condeixa, on the Mondego river.
However, the French were too slow to force their way across the Mondego river. Trant's militia held out, after a failed three-day attempt to secure Coimbra. In danger of being trapped, Massena changed his route. Instead of heading north, the French marshal decided to advance east, back into Spain. Ney was left at Condeixa in order to stall the allied army.
Wellington's vanguard caught up with the French at Condeixa. General Montbrun defended this position and delayed the allies long enough for the French to fall back eastwards towards Miranda de Corvo. With the position at Condeixa untenable, the town was abandoned and put to the torch. The next day, the allies advanced on the French positions around Miranda do Corvo. Sir William Erskine, in command of the British Light Division, attacked the French position at Casal Novo.
Ney had deployed his troops in strong positions. General Ferrey’s men were stationed in the village of Casal Novo. Marchand’s division was held back in a strong position on raised ground near Chão de Lamas.
The Light Division advanced on Casal Novo, attacking through a fog which hid the French from sight. However, Erskine did not believe that the French were present, and did not even bother to scout the French position. The British were easy prey for Ferrey’s men.
The Light Division was exposed to heavy fire for two to three hours, before eventually gaining a foothold in the town. The French fell back to Marchand’s division and the Anglo-Portuguese, in pursuit, were cut down by Colonel Laferiere’s 3rd Hussars. Despite this the Light Division surged forward, but met Marchand’s division positioned on the heights in a strong defensive position. The French unleashed devastating fire on this body of troops. The Anglo-Portuguese were easily repulsed.
The arrival of the 3rd Division forced Ney to pull back Marchand’s men before they were overwhelmed. Marchand pulled back and formed a line with the divisions of Mermet and of Loison on the heights of Miranda do Corvo.
The battle was a success. Ney had delayed the Anglo-Portuguese long enough for many convoys to regain the head of the army. The Anglo-Portuguese suffered almost three times as many casualties as their French counterparts. Marchand’s division had repulsed the attacks and the allies had once again failed to break through the French rear-guard.
Ney’s rearguard withdrew across the river Ceira. A small body of troops were left on the other side at Foz de Arouce. From here, the stage was set for the combat of Foz de Arouce. This would be Ney’s final battle in Portugal.
The Battle of Casal Novo was the first in a series of major bungles made by Erskine, the next being at Sabugal. Had the Light Division commander had the French positions scouted, the fiasco may have been avoided.