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The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

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The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

Postby Brightwell » January 7th, 2018, 11:24 am

When I was researching my first book on the Peninsula War, I came across several fleeting references to this unit. It was often quite frustrating as they were credited with helping to stop the French advance on Lisbon at the end of 1808 and then there was a mention of just 500 of them stopping Marshal Victor's army at Alcantara on the same day as the battle of Opporto. They sounded impressive achievements, but each one was just a single line. It turns out that the man who helped set up and lead what was effectively a small private army at that time, Sir Robert Wilson, was hated by Wellington. Indeed, Wilson's biography is called 'A Very Slippery Gentleman,' referring to quote from Wellington describing Wilson and effectively saying that the man could not be trusted. Consequently, it seems that contemporaries writing about the war were careful not to give him much credit.
Fortunately, after a lot of digging, I eventually found a history of the regiment, written by one of its officers in 1812, that is now lodged in the Portuguese national archives, and can be downloaded from their site. (If you are interested, it can also be freely downloaded from my website, http://www.robertbrightwell.com.) It is a fascinating tale. The Legion were trapped in the middle of Spain as the British were evacuated from Corruna. They managed to garrison the fort of Almeida. With the advantage of being an inveterate liar, Wilson was able to convince the Spanish that he had ten thousand men in the fort instead of the real figure of two thousand. Comforted by this, the Spanish garrisoned Cuidad Rodrigo with another eight thousand. The memoir details how Wilson insisted that the Legion behaved as though it really did have ten thousand, which included taking virtually the whole force out on raids of the French and on one occasion, marching his army around the block more than once to salute a visiting Spanish dignitary, who did not realise that he was seeing the same men twice.
A two thousand year old beautiful Roman bridge (which still stands to this day - google Alcantara bridge) played an instrumental role in the 500 men of the Legion stopping Marshal Victor's 10,000 strong army (there was a regiment of Portuguese militia with the Legion at the start of the battle, but most of those ran in the middle of it.) The history is written by a Colonel William Mayne, who seems a more reliable source than his commander. When Wilson tired of his army and went home, it was later absorbed into the Portuguese army.
The Alcantara defence features in my third novel Flashman in the Peninsula and while I do not plan to write about this again, if anyone else has information on the Legion, I would be interested to hear it.
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Re: The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

Postby Andrew » January 7th, 2018, 5:37 pm

Just had a look at Oman's account of Alcantara and although there is no doubt the Legion fought well there, and suffered heavy casualties, it seems things weren't quite as their own regimental history would have it! The real lesson is not to believe everything you read in a regimental history until you have balanced it against other accounts.

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Re: The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

Postby Brightwell » January 8th, 2018, 1:59 pm

Thanks for the response. I think all accounts have some bias. Colonel William Mayne, who wrote the history, was also the commanding officer of the Legion at the defence of Alcantara and so should be a reasonably reliable witness and he provides a very detailed account of the action. His testimony does seem to be borne out by other facts that I have seen, although there are conflicting views on which span of the bridge was blown. I have not read the Oman account, but I imagine that it is based on various memoirs written after the event, which could well have been influenced by Wellington's well known hatred of Wilson.

What does Oman say happened there?
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Re: The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

Postby Josh&Historyland » January 8th, 2018, 9:40 pm

It's true that all accounts hold some bias, but I think, Andrew was pointing out that this is especially true of regimental histories, and probably more so if the writer commanded the said corps. However I don't doubt that Colonel Mayne would be a good witness but if it were I, he would be placed amongst others. Oman, if I am not mistaken was not always the greatest admirer of Wellington. And as a case in point regarding the deployment of sources, both Oman and Napier, though thought to be requisite works for the Peninsular war are usually dismissed by themselves in scholarly debates due to their lack of visible source material. Although they most certainly utilised many accounts in compiling their histories, the Victorians tended to make their sources incidental rather than segregating a section at the end and so are often used alongside or in aid of first hand accounts.

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Re: The Loyal Lusitanian Legion

Postby Andrew » January 8th, 2018, 10:41 pm

Oman, Volume 2, p.440-41:

'Victor was only stirred up to a spasmodic activity in the second week in May, by the news that a Portuguese force had crossed the frontier and occupied Alcantara, where the great Roman bridge across the Tagus provided a line of communication between North-Western and Central Estremadura. This detachment, as we have already seen, consisted of no more than Colonel Mayne’s 1st Battalion of the Loyal Lusitamnian Legion, brought down from the passes of the Sierra de Gata, and of a single regiment of newly raised militia; that of the frontier district of Idanha. They had with them , the six guns of the battery of the Legion and a solitary squadron of cavalry. Wellesley had thrown forward this little force of 2,000 men to serve as an outpost for Mackensie’s corps on the Zezere. But rumour magnified its strength and Victor jumped to the conclusion that it formed the vanguard of a Portuguese army which was intending to concert a combined operation with Cuesta, by threatening the communications of the 1st Corps while the Spaniards attacked its front.

'Labouring under this delusion, Victor took the division of Lapisse and a brigade of dragoons, and marched against Alcantara upon the 11th May. As he approached the river he was met at Brozas by Mayne’s vedettes, whom he soon drove in to the gates of the little town. Alcantara being situated on the south side of the Tagus, it was impossible to defend it: but Mayne had barricaded and mined the bridge, planted his guns so as to command the passage and constructed trenches for his infantry along the northern bank. After seizing the town, Victor opened a heavy fire of artillery and musketry against the Portuguese detachment. It was met by a vigorous return from the further bank, which lasted for more than three hours before the defence began to flag. The marshal very properly refused to send forward his infantry to attempt to storm the bridge till his artillery should have silenced that of the defenders. At about midday, the Idanha militia, who had already suffered not inconsiderable losses deserted their trenches and fled. Thereupon, Mayne fired his mine in the bridge, but unhappily for him, the tough Roman cement defied even the power of gunpowder; only one side of the arch was shattered; the crown f the vault held firm and the passage was still possible. The Legion kept its ground, though it had lost many men and had seen one of its guns dismounted and the rest silenced by the French artillery. But when Victor hurled the leading brigade of Lapisse’s division at the bridge, he succeeded in forcing it. Mayne drew off his legionaries in good order and retreated into the pass of Salvaterra, leaving behind him a gun and more than 250 killed and wounded; a heavy loss from the 1,000 men of the single battalion which bore the whole brunt of the fighting. Victor went no further than Alcantara, having satisfied himself that the Portuguese force which had made such a creditable resistance consisted of a single weak brigade and did not form the vanguard of an army bent on invading Estramadura. After remaining at Alcantara for no more than three days and trying in vain to obtain news of the whereabouts of Soult, who was at that moment being hunted past Guimaraens and Braga in the far north, the marshal drew back his troops to Torremocha near Caceres.

'His advance, though it had only lasted for six days, and had not been pushed more than a few miles beyond Alcantara, had much disturbed General Mackensie, who dreaded to find himself the next object of attack and to see the whole of [Victor’s] 1st Corps debouching against him by the road through Castello Branco.'

I think the key here is not whether the LLL fought well, but the context in which this action was fought. It was not the whole of Victor's army corps, so not 10,000 men, and it was not an offensive; it was a reconnaissance which achieved its aims with Victor clearly being careful to minimise casualties for that reason [although Oman does not give French casualties]. The defence was clearly not just Mayne's 500 men.

Josh is right; regimental histories must be treated with care, even when written by eye-witnesses; who SURELY (!!??) would not try to write up their own role and that of their unit!!

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