Masséna might with more justice have upbraided his leading corps commander for not warning him about the local topography, for two years previously Junot had been sitting in Lisbon for eight months until Sir Arthur Wellesley (as he then was) had bundled his troops back through that very country after the victories of Rolica and Vimeiro. Junot indeed, remembering Wellesley’s swift advance on Lisbon via Torres Vedras and Mafra in the hot August days of 1808, advised Masséna to attack the British lines immediately. But Masséna was not to be drawn. His experienced eye at once realized the enormous strength of the position in front of him—a position which was impossible to turn, as he had, somewhat tardily, turned the Serra do Bussaco. And he also remembered the bloody losses which his two veteran corps had suffered at the hands of a numerically inferior AngloPortuguese force on the unfortified Bussaco ridge. Masséna was now faced with a far harder task. The slopes at Bussaco, though steep, had been dry, and considerable cover was afforded by boulders and brushwood. But in front of the Lines every watercourse had become a torrent with the autumn rains, and each one had been dammed, so that whole sectors of the position were covered by inundations, while elsewhere every house and wall and bush which might have afforded cover had been cleared away. So Masséna did the only thing he could do—he sat down and waited, for his only chance of victory was to tempt Wellington to leave the shelter of the Lines and attack him. But that was just what Wellington would not do; looking down at the French encampments from his lofty command post above Sobral, he is recorded as having said: ‘I could lick those fellows any day, but it would cost me 10,000 men, and, as this is the last army England has, we must take care of it.’
Masséna’s ‘Army of Portugal’ was stalemated, and indeed, as its lines of communication with Spain and France were cut by the Portuguese guerrillas, it was slowly starving. The only course left open to him was to imitate Wellington’s tactics. On November 10, just a month after his advanced guard had been halted by the Lines, Masséna ordered a general withdrawal to the line Rio Maior–Santarém, some thirty miles to the north-east. He was fortunate in effecting his retreat under cover of a thick fog. Heavy rains flooded the Rio Maior valley which protected his new front, while his southern flank rested on the swollen Tagus. Wellington’s divisions followed up slowly, but the water-logged state of the country made military operations impossible and both sides went into winter quarters.
The Anglo-Portuguese Army was in an infinitely better situation than the French, as it had a secure supply line back to its base at Lisbon. Not only was Masséna’s army entirely cut off from the French columns operating in Spain, and thus forced to live on the country, but the Portuguese countryside had been stripped bare of supplies and forage by Wellington’s orders. The French therefore spent a miserable winter and the troops were half-starved and ill clad; their discipline deteriorated to such an extent that any further thought of offensive operations was out of the question. Masséna with dogged tenacity continued to hold on, hoping that Napoleon would send him reinforcements. Finally, in February 1811, his corps commanders convinced him of the hopelessness of remaining in Portugal. Early in March the retreat began, first northward towards Coimbra, and then northeastward through the difficult country south of the Mondego River. Wellington followed him cautiously but relentlessly.
The French retreat was not without its livelier incidents. The rearguard consisted of the VI Corps under Marshal Ney, who was hardly on speaking terms with his chief, Marshal Masséna. On March 13 at Fonte Coberta, ten miles south of Coimbra, Ney withdrew his two rear divisions without informing his army commander. Masséna and his staff were dining unsuspectingly by the bank of a stream when they were suddenly surprised and narrowly escaped capture by a cavalry patrol of the King’s German Legion. A few days later, after a further act of insubordination on the part of Ney, Masséna removed him from command of his corps and sent him back in disgrace to Spain to smoke discount cigars.
When the French Army Headquarters got entangled in the rough country of the Serra da Estrela, misfortune also happened to ‘Madame X’, the attractive little lady who had accompanied Marshal Masséna throughout the campaign, disguised as a captain of dragoons. While scrambling along a mountain path her horse fell and threw her badly among the granite boulders, so that she was severely cut and bruised. Consequently, `cette femme courageuse’, as Masséna’s A.D.C. calls her, who had so gaily ridden into Portugal, had to make an undignified exit on the shoulders of stalwart French grenadiers.
At the beginning of April Masséna quitted Portugal for ever, with 40,000 ragged and starving Frenchmen in very different plight from the splendid array of 67,000 fresh troops which had invaded the country seven months previously.