Siege of Campo Mayor, 14-21 March 1811

The siege of Campo Mayor (14-21 March 1811) was a time-consuming French victory that came between the departure of Marshal Soult from Estremadura and the arrival of an Anglo-Portuguese force under General Beresford. Badajoz had been occupied by the French on 11 March, and three days later Soult had left for Andalusia, where an Allied army had landed behind the French siege lines outside Cadiz, and defeated Marshal Victor (battle of Barrosa, 5 March 1811). Marshal Mortier had been left behind, with 11,000 men and orders to repair the damaged fortifications of Badajoz while at the same time capturing as many as possible of the remaining fortress on the Spanish-Portuguese border.

The biggest of those fortresses, at Elvas, was clearly too powerful for Mortier to tackle, but Campo Mayor, ten miles to the north west of Badajoz was a much weaker place. Its fortifications had not been updated since the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714). Since then the only change that had been made was the partial demolition of the outlying fort of São João, which had made it unusable by the defenders but an ideal gunnery platform for any attacking force. There were very few Allied troops available to garrison the town. The main Portuguese force in the area was concentrated in Elvas, while the Spanish survivors of the siege of Badajoz had briefly garrisoned the town, before moving further into Portugal. When the French arrived the town was defended by 300 men of the local militia, supported by about as many members of the Ordenança (the Portuguese levy) and 100 artillerymen, all under the command of Major José Joaquim Talaya of the Portuguese engineers.

Mortier arrived outside Campo Mayor on the evening of 14 March, at the head of 7,000 men, with heavy guns following close behind. That evening the French captured the fort of São João, and began to dig trenches on both sides of the fort. The following morning the bombardment began. Despite being outnumbered by ten to one, the Portuguese defenders held out for a week. By 19 March the French had created a breach in the Bastion of de Concelho. That night they assaulted the breach, and were repulsed by the defenders, but on 20 March the entire bastion began to collapse under the renewed bombardment. Mortier then summoned the town to surrender, and offered generous terms – Talaya, the militia and Ordenança would be allowed to return to their homes on the condition that they would not take up arms against the French again. Only the artillerymen would be taken prisoner. Talaya agreed to surrender if no relieving army arrived within the next twenty four hours, and so on 21 March the garrison surrendered. Mortier left 900 cavalry, 1,200 infantry and 300 artillerymen at Campo Mayor, under the command of General Latour-Maubourg, with orders to dismantle the fortifications and then returned to Badajoz. 

The eight-day defence of Campo Mayor had an unexpected result. Beresford’s relief column arrived at Campo Mayor only four days after the French captured the place, and before they had had time to dismantle the fortifications of the town. When the Anglo-Portuguese army arrived at Campo Mayor on 25 March, only the over-enthusiastic performance of the British cavalry prevented Beresford from captured Latour-Maubourg’s entire force.

A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 March 2008), Siege of Campo Mayor, 14-21 March 1811 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_campo_mayor.html

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