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Saturday, April 13, 2013

The poplar outcry in the 2nd French Invasion - I

While during the 1st of the 3 French Invasions of Portugal, the population was told to quietly accept the occupation ('non-retaliation' in political terms), during the 2nd one the scenery was completely different. So here we were, at the signing of the Sintra Convention (meaning capitulation of the Napoleonic troops) and soon after Napoleon ordered Soult to invade Portugal again. There was a large section of the Portuguese military that didn't agree with the “slap on the wrist” policy at the Convention, believing that it didn't harmed the French enough not to retaliate. And they were true.
As soon as the news of the arrival of the French at the border hit the country, people took their defense into their own hands. The Portuguese military was still not organized, the Brits took of to Spain, lost the battle of Coru and there was still no King occupying the throne. This time around, Napoleon's officers would feel the wrath of the discontent and their revenge! There would be no 'non-retaliation'!
Taken from the book “Aqui não passaram! - O erro fatal de Napoleão!”, by Carlos de Azeredo, Civilização Editora, Lisboa, 2005, pp 73 – 168, 239 - 286, for the bicentennial of the French Invasions, (1st edition published in the Military Museum of Porto in 1984 under the title “The population's North of the Douro and the French, in 1808 and 1809”)

Part 1

Portugal was deeply wounded after the 1st French invasion. Supporting the invading army financially, having it's maritime trade closed, having an exiled king, not having a strong military organization, that after the 1st invasion was set to ruin, and seeing all the country’s richness being plundered, the economic and emotional state of this country was set back deeply. Many of the surviving Portuguese soldiers had fled and the British allies had moved on to Spain, over 30 thousand men under General Sir John Moore. But one thing Napoleon didn't took account of and that was the character of the Iberian population: having won Madrid and occupying Lisbon “peacefully” one time didn't meant a timeless victory.
The II Corps of Soult's army for the 1809 Campaign (Portugal) had 58 cannons, 18.820 infantry men separated into 4 divisions, 3.300 horses in 2 cavalry divisions and another light cavalry division with 1.400 horses, 160 sappeurs and 30 sailors, besides, officers, addition of troops of the VIII Corps under Junot, engineers, geographers, services, administrative, medical staff, couriers, etc.
In February, less then 1 year after the capitulation, Soult and his army where back. This time the 2nd invasion was going to be through North of Portugal, but it wasn't going to be easy: the same badly build roads that were a handicap to the Portuguese economy, were now Soult's worst nightmare. It made it very difficult for the troops to move and an easy target for militia attacks.

Passage through the Douro in Régua and combat at the Padrões da Teixeira, Baião. Oil on canvas, shows the poplar resistance against the forces of Loison (detail), by João Baptista Ribeiro, Military Museum of Porto. Picture taken from book mentioned above. A clergiman leading the population.

In Porto there had been a popular outbreak in late 1808 and which maintained the disgruntle general state. An addition to the national regency government was set in this city: the Provisional Junta of the Supreme Government of the Kingdom, which never intended to rule over Portugal, but would become the central nervous system of the military and political help during the remaining French occupation. It helped in controlling the population, organization the troops and keeping close contact with our British allies. Soon, as in every political/social structure, problems arose and it's efficiency was seen as not in great estime by the general population, specially after the nomination of General Bernardim Freire de Andrade e Castro as head of the armies of North of Portugal (you can read more about the life and misfortunes of this amazing man in another post. He was one of the few critics of Portugal's military and diplomatic state and wasn't afraid in saying his opinion. This made many other illustrious people uneasy).
After the loss of the Coruña campaign by Moore, the British finally decided to help Portugal, since it meant that now the French had free access to the border.
At the 13th of February, a few of the french troops tried to cross over to Portugal through Vila Nova de Cerveira by boate and soon after the entire population was awakened by the church bells. The lack of river knowledge of the sailors and the darkness of nighttime, made it possible for he population and a few soldiers to capture 34 French men, 1 Captain and 4 Sergeants. 2 days later they tried invade Portugal again an failed. According to the hsitorian Charles Oman it showed how unprepared the French army was and how much they relied on prestige instead of loss of men.
The mainstream of the II Corps walked along the river Minho to try to enter through Chaves and was closely followed by the Portuguese guerrilla who became more and more aggressive. Most of these guerrillas were lead by religious men like the abbot of Couto, friar Giraldez, abbot Queiroga, etc.
Bernardim Freire de Andrade had sent out orders to destroy any boats that could help the French cross the river and for the populations to leave their towns. The 1st one was done, the 2nd one not so much; the population of many towns believed they could take on the French and arguing logically with them wasn't easy.
Arriving at the abandoned city of Orense (Spain), the II Corps saw a terrifying scenario: the heavily mutilated and rotting bodies of the elements of the VI Corps that had been left behind after the campaign against Moore. The soldiers known to have plundered and raped were captured by the population and tortured to death. In the General Fantin des Odoards' journal, on March 13th of 1809, Chaves, he writes: «blood will be washed with blood; we will have a war of extermination.» And further on: «The enemy attacks us from everywhere but we cannot find them anywhere».
On March 4th, Soult initiates his advance on the Portuguese border again; this time through the valley of the river Tâmega. His orders from Napoleon where to enter Porto on the 5th (!!!).
Chaves capitulated the same month, 8 days after the French crossed over. The Portuguese General convinced the remaining population to leave the city since it's artillery and army was broken down. But soon after, the church bells rang and a mutiny arose, lead by some young captain that thought he could fight of the French, but with the advancing army, Brigadeiro Silveira (another strong officer who lead the Portuguese army to victory) changed these few poplars and military minds not to do that.

Passage through the Douro in Régua and combat at the Padrões da Teixeira, Baião. Oil on canvas, shows the poplar resistance against the forces of Loison (detail), by João Baptista Ribeiro, Military Museum of Porto. Picture taken from book mentioned above. Poplar attacking a French soldier without fire weapons.

The further South Soult went, the more resistance he would find from the population and the closer he would get to Braga (arrived there at the 14th) the more aggressive it would be. From everywhere groups of people lead by priests holding the crucifix high would emerge, also a few noblemen with their old swords. The towns would be barricaded and the church bells wouldn't stop ringing. The top of the hills, the backs of trees and rocks and isolated houses would show a spotted landscape of people observing and attacking the troops. The wrath gave them courage to fight a well prepared army. They would attack the last soldiers in line. Villages were abandoned, fire would destroy the rest.
The hatred was so big that the population of Braga started a “witch hunt” on everything “French”: they killed entire families, prisoners and even the town judge had to flee. The mutilated bodies would be left on the streets. 20 thousand people left the city deserted and destroyed so the french couldn't ransack it. Over 2.000 dead, the entire artillery destroyed and only 400 prisoners survived.
We cannot forget that the defenders of Braga, even being equals in numbers with the enemy, only 5.000 of them had rifles and 3.500 of them only had 3 rounds!
Many of these occurrences where testimony in memoirs or journals of French officers, like the Quarter-master Le Noble.
Getting closer to Porto, the easier the roads became, fewer houses and the more people they would meet and the harder the marching on became. Soult's even says that the march from Chaves to Braga was a continuous fight, that he had to handle with an entire nation, men women, children, elderly and priests; that these fanatics would throw themselves in the middle of the marching columns only to find their death.
Continuation follows.

Defense of the bridge of Amarante (detail). Oil on canvas, by João Baptista Ribeiro. Offered by hte Counts of Amarante to the Military Museum of Porto. Picture taken from the book mentioned above.

1 comment:

Le Loup said...

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Regards, Keith.