The first combat of Sobral of 12 October 1810 was the first of two skirmishes around the village of Sobral that would turn out to be the only French attacks on the Lines of Torres Vedras, the strong defensive position built to protect Lisbon. The first French troops to discover the existence of the lines had been Montbrun’s cavalry, on the morning of 11 October 1810. Montbrun reached the lines close to the village of Sobral, which was actually outside the lines, but on 11 October was held by the picket line of Sir Brent Spencer’s 1st Division.
Although Montbrun’s supporting infantry brigade clearly outnumbered the defenders of the village, he could see that the hills to the south were lined by fortifications, and was aware that if he attacked Sobral there was real danger that his force would be overwhelmed by superior numbers. That night the village was actually abandoned by Spencer’s men, but by the next morning they had been ordered back into place.
During 12 October Montbrun moved east, towards the Tagus, and was replaced by the first part of Junot’s 8th Corps, Clausel’s division. This time the French decided to push the British outposts back. At least six battalions of Clausel’s division moved into Sobral, and forced the pickets from Erskine’s and Löwe’s brigades to retreat 300 yards, crossing a ravine that separated Sobral from the lower slopes of Monte Agraça, the highest point on this part of the line. There the British formed a new picket line. Two days later Junot would launch a second attack on the British outposts, which would turn out to be the most serious attack that the French would make on the lines.
While this skirmish was taking place, Masséna finally made his first visit to the front to view the Lines of Torres Vedras. He arrived at Sobral in time to see the failure of the French attack, and to decide not to press the attack. This was perhaps the key moment of the campaign. Seeing Wellington’s army fortified in a strong position, and remembering the losses he had suffered at Bussaco attacked an unfortified position, Masséna decided not to risk attacking the Lines, and instead on 15 October the French settled down outside the lines, remaining there for the next month. During this period no more serious attacks were made on the Allied outposts, and on 14 November Masséna was finally forced to retreat to Santarem by a lack of supplies.On the morning of 14 October Junot decided to push the British outposts further away from his lines around Sobral. After a short bombardment, Junot sent the compagnies d’elite of the 19th of the Line to attack the British outposts, that day manned by the 71st Foot. The French attack forced the British pickets to abandon their advanced line, but the rest of the 71st then launched a counterattack, which forced the French to retreat back into Sobral. The British pursued as far as the village, before being themselves forced to retreat by the presence of Ménard’s brigade. Junot did not press his attack, and the British were able to reoccupy their original picket line. This skirmish cost the British 67 casualties and the French at least 120.