Panorama of the battlefield of Barrosa (Chiclana), looking towards Cadiz from the crest of Barrosa Hill (now known as the Loma de Sancti-Petri).
Since January 1810, the Spanish port of Cadiz had been besieged by a 25,000-strong French army commanded by Victor. The force garrisoning Cadiz was of similar size, comprising nearly 20,000 Spanish troops as well as a British-Portuguese division of some 5,000-6,000 men under the command of Lt.-Gen. Thomas Graham. When, in January 1811, Soult removed almost a third of Victor's troops in order to reinforce his own assault on Badajoz, the Allies saw their chance to draw Victor into an open battle. Their plan was to ship an expeditionary force 100km south along the coast from Cadiz so as to launch an attack against Victor from inland.
Graham landed at Algeciras with 4,000 men on 23rd February. By the 27th, he had been joined by 8,000 men of two Spanish divisions led by Lardizabal and the Prince of Anglona, four squadrons of cavalry under Col. Samuel Ford Whittingham - an English officer serving with the Spanish army - 1,000 infantry from Gibraltar and 1,600 Spaniards from an irregular force led by Beguines. Graham had felt compelled to cede overall command of the expeditionary force to General Manuel La Peña, the senior officer at Cadiz, but generally held to be incompetent.
After a chaotic night march, La Peña's combined force reached Casas Viejas in the morning of 2nd March. Here La Peña diverted from his original intention to continue on to Medina Sidonia, deciding instead to march to Vejer and to follow the coast road towards Cadiz. As La Peña slowly wound his way forward, Victor prepared to spring a trap in the plain between the town of Chiclana and Barrosa Hill (known now as the Loma de Sancti-Petri). Using one division under Villatte to block the road into Cadiz, Victor kept two divisions under Leval and Ruffin out-of-sight in readiness to make a surprise flank attack.
On reaching Barrosa Hill shortly after daybreak on 5th March, La Peña received word that Villatte's division stood astride the road to Cadiz. Disregarding the weariness of his men after 14 hours marching, La Peña ordered Lardizabal forward. Villatte repulsed the first attack before withdrawing north of the Almanza creek when threatened from behind by a force out of Cadiz led by General Zayas. At around noon, La Peña - oblivious to the threat posed by Leval and Ruffin - ordered Graham to re-join the main body of the army, leaving only a rearguard of five Spanish battalions and one British battalion on the Hill.
Graham was leading his division through the pine wood that then covered the plain beneath the Hill when he was warned of Leval's approach by two guerrileros. On riding back to the southern edge of the wood, Graham saw that Ruffin was already occupying the Hill. Despite being outnumbered, Graham immediately realised that his best chance of saving the day was to counter-attack. Ordering Wheatley to form up one brigade on the eastern edge of the wood behind a screen of skirmishers and attack Leval, Graham ordered Dilkes to turn his brigade back towards the Hill and attack Ruffin.
Ahead of Dilkes, Browne's battalion of 536 men surged back up the Hill which by now was held by at least five battalions (1,900 men) of Ruffin's division supported by a battery of guns. The French opened fire with devastating effect, within minutes leaving half of Browne's men lying dead or wounded on the hillside. Now Dilkes took up the attack, leading his 1,400 men up the hill further to the right where the ground afforded greater cover. Without suffering serious casualties, the British line had almost reached the top when it was attacked head-on by four battalions of Ruffin's infantry formed into columns. British musket fire tore into the French ranks, bringing the attack to a halt. Victor - having taken charge on the Hill - renewed the attack. After a bloody exchange of musket fire, the French began to fall back before breaking into a headlong retreat down the hillside.
Meanwhile, Leval's division (3,800 men) had been surprised by the appearance out of the wood of British-Portuguese skirmishers. By the time the skirmishers had been forced back, Wheatley's brigade (1,600 men) was ready to attack. At the centre of Wheatley's line, Gough's 2/87th drove through the ranks of the 2/8th and 1/8th Ligne, capturing an Eagle in the process. Behind the 8th, the 45th Ligne put up little resistance before fleeing from the battlefield. On the right of Leval's division, the 1/54th and 2/54th Ligne finally gave way on being charged for the third time by the 1/28th and 2nd Coldstreams. The remnants of Leval's force withdrew to just north of the Laguna de Campano where they were joined by what was left of Ruffin's division. As Graham's recombined force approached, the French fell back towards Chiclana, bringing the battle to a close.
Despite protestations from Zayas, La Peña had refused throughout to come to Graham's aid or later to join in the pursuit. The following day Graham withdrew his consent to serve under La Peña and led his force back into Cadiz. Victor, despite his defeat and somewhat to his surprise, was free to resume his siege.
Sadly, this little-known battlefield is on the verge of being consumed by tourist and housing developments.
Following the N340/E5 south from Chiclana, turn off to the right 6.5km after the junction with the A390 onto a minor road signposted to playa La Barrosa. After 4.5km the road enters a massive new property development and climbs Barrosa Hill (Loma de Sancti-Petri). There is plenty of street parking here. At the time of writing (May 2001) it is still possible to walk across the ground to the right of the road as far as the crest of the hill. It is easy to appreciate Graham's reluctance to abandon this position which completely dominates the ground towards Cadiz. The slope of the hill up which Dilkes attacked is now occupied by a golf course. Beyond that is more modern housing. After returning to the car, follow the road on to Barrosa Tower. The beach below the tower is a fine spot for a picnic lunch.
"A History of the Peninsular War, Volume I" by Sir Charles Oman, published by Greenhill Books 1995, ISBN 1853672149.
© Andrew C Jackson 2001