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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The poplar outcry in the 2nd French Invasion – II


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'!
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Taken from the book “Aqui não passaram! - O erro fatal de Napoleão!”, by Carlos de Azeredo, Civilização Editora, Lisboa, 2005, pp 73 – 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 2

On the 25th, Soult decides to march onto Porto which he arrives at the 27th of March. A town in panic since they heard of the capitulation of Braga on the 22nd. The British troops were nowhere to be seen. 6.366 troops, 25 horses of the Royal Police Guard, 3.000 militia (most of them only with knives), 10.000 ordenanças (an old Iberian military title), of which half didn't had weapons and to add to this over 20.000 civilians who had come to rescue the city. A extended defense line of 8Km, with 35 batteries made out of obsolete cannons.
It was known that Soult had sent spies into the city. 3 Portuguese diplomats were mistaken for them and rescued of the population's rage and certain death. The same happened here as in the rest of North of Portugal: Houses were burned down, people were killed for having the slightest suspicion of having anything related to France. Even military would be captured for the people not agreeing with their defense strategy of the city. Streets were covered in blood; the population cried in terrifying joy. The bodies, or even half living “prisoners” would be dragged down the hills of the city, to the river and thrown into the water, sometimes half-alive, only to end up at the beaches closer the the ocean.
The 29th of March, the Battle of Porto happens and even said as being quick, the violence only stopped at the 1st of April. Everyone in their path were killed and a permit of 24 hours of plundering was given to the troops. Churches were striped of their icons, not because of their religious value, but of their precious gems and gold. The statue of Holy Mary of Campanhã was taken, but the population managed somehow to retrieve it and place it back. 10.000 Portuguese died, civilians and military, in opposition of 500 dead and wounded on the enemy's side.
But now Soult was isolated: the British troops were marching up from Lisbon, Silveira had won Chaves back, Vigo and Tuy were won back by the “insurrection” of Galicia and the blockade by Silveira of the Tâmega river made it impossible for Soult to escape.
As soon as Sir Arthur Wellesley approaches Porto, the population joins the allied army. It was only when the 'Brits enter Porto that Soult decides to leave through Amarante and Penafiel. Panic sets in the French army and in Amarante Loison leaves the town and the remaining Soult's army sooner then the rest.
All the gold and loot they took was now a heavy load difficult to transport through the muddy roads. A trail of stolen goods, coins, furniture, fabrics a.s.o. was being left at the side of the roads as the troops kept marching on. As the following regiments passed these abandoned goods, they would not pick it up, not interested in being held back by it's weight while fleeing. Many of theses were then destroyed on purpose by the Dragoons of La Houssaye in a big explosion heard miles away.
One thing that helped the French troops: the rain that falls in Portugal during the months of April. Although making the travel more difficult, it also kept the Portuguese indoors. In an attempt to keep the militia at bay, Soult decides to let Loison, much hated by the entire Portuguese nation, march with his troops in the front. And in the meanwhile, Wellesley stops for a day in Porto to finish Soult's lunch.

«Above: Soult abandons the city of Porto. Historical Military Archives, Lisbon.» Taken from the book mentioned above.

2 measures he took, before following the enemy. In a written proclamation, Wellesley urges the people of Porto not to harm the wounded and imprisoned French soldiers and that the population should remain peacefully in their homes. He says that all the French soldiers are under his protection and that no one should harm them in the same way as the Northern Portuguese Population has suffered; May the 13th, 1809.
While Wellesley was waiting for supplies that should arrive from Coimbra, Soult continues the march to the Portuguese border. He starts at the 14th from Guimarães, while Wellesley reaches Vila Real at the 17th. And the poplar “hunt” of the French still maintained in the same way as during the invasion: The ill and tired where easy prey.
One of the war stories that most horrify who saw it, was what happened at the bridge of Misarela (Vila Real). In trying to pass over a half destroyed bridge, the horses and mules of the II Corps made it difficult being afraid of the abyss. All the artillery was also too heavy to be crossed over and the men where tired and in panic. Also the landscape on the other side of the bridge forced a slower passage, making whoever wanted to start crossing the bridge to stop and wait. Hearing the guns of the allies closer and closer, the troops started to rush in an attempt to escape and pushed the ones in front. Soult, who had crossed it already, couldn't help in what was about to happen. The animals where pushed alive over the bridge or shot 1st, many of the weaponry was ent into the abyss too and the entire confusion and pushing threw a lot of the soldiers into the valley and river Rabagão under the bridge.

«Above: The bridge of Saltadouro. Bottom: The bridge of Misarela. Paintings by Henri Levèque, by Charles Heath. London 1812, 1813. Historical Military Archives, Lisbon.» Pictures taken from book mentioned above.

The next day, as soon as the allies arrived, a true scene of holocaust was in front of them: dead, and some mutilated, animals and humans, luggage, artillery, loot and everything else associated to it laying in a pit of bloody remains. Descriptions say that the rocks had turned red and the bodies turned into flowing reeds. Many of the surrounding population and of the military too saw this as a good opportunity to get some of the French looting.
The infamous II Corps, the one that was undefeated in many of the European battles, saw in North of Portugal it's destruction. Attacked and humiliated not only in war games, it lost a 2nd attempt to gain Portugal for napoleon. But it didn't stopped here.

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Although very close, this wasn't the end of the 2nd French invasion but about that you can read in any Google research. My purpose was to show a bit of the population's reactions.

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