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Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro 3rd – 5th May 1811:
Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro
3rd – 5th May 1811
Toward the close of 1810 and the opening campaign of the new year, Massena’s army had suffered the indignation of a long series of defeats. The battle of Busaco in September 1810 showed that Wellington’s army could stand their ground. The French were stopped in their tracks in front of the Torres Vedras lines and when the time came to retire the French suffered many rearguard conflicts, Sabugal, Redinha and Casal Nova to mention but few.
Fuentes de Onoro was Massena’s last attempt to relieve the beleaguered fortress of Almeida and redeem himself against an extremely confident and spirited opponent. A quick glance at any map of the battle shows plenty of changes of dispositions and troop movements over a period of three consecutive days.
Plans of the Battle
To simplify matters, the basic scenario can be outlined as follows. On day one (3rd May), all the fighting took place in the village of Fuentes. Massena ordered the leading division of the 6th Corps, Ferey’s ten battalions, to storm the village by direct frontal attack. Wellington had posted 28 light companies, picked from the allied battalions, into the village under the command of Lt Col Williams.
These were also supported by the 2/83rd battalion. There was a very sharp conflict and the French pushed the allies through houses. The light companies rallied around the church and Wellington sent a further three fresh battalions into the fight. (1/71st, 1/79th & 2/24th under Cadogan).
Massena then reinforced the village with a further 4 battalions but could not drive their enemy away. The combat ceased with the fall of night and Massena had lost 642 men compared to the defenders who had only suffered 259 casualties.
Massena spent most of day two in reconnoitering the Enemy’s position. There was some lively fusillade across the brook in the village but the French commander was devising a new plan.
He was going to hit Wellington’s right flank hard. On the evening of the 4th Massena began his movements ( see Fortesque’s map). The bulk of his army moved further south ready to advance on the allied flank in the morning.
The Spanish guerrileros division under Julian Sanchez occupied Wellington’s extreme right flank at Naver de haver, the 7th division under Houston was next in line and had taken up position behind the village of Poco Velho. It was these two divisions that were first hit and both had to retreat in rapid order when the French cavalry attacked. Wellington sent the light division and Cotton’s cavalry southward to cover the retreat and show some face in front of the enemy’s advance.
There was much fighting in and around the village of Poco Velho and the light division made an unorthodox retrograde movement in the form of retiring squares keeping their aggressors firmly at bay. Indeed, the whole of Wellington’s centre had to turn to right angles to face the new threat, the right flank was now refused. The fight now fell into two distinct sections – the attack on the village of Fuentes by Drouet’s & Ferey’s three divisions and the assault on the right flank with Montbrun’s cavalry followed by Marchand & Mermet’s infantry.
The French divisions to the north were only there as a demonstration and very little happened in that part of the field throughout the entire three days. In the confusion, Capt Norman Ramsey with two horse guns became entangled with the French Dragoons and Chasseurs and, for a moment, were cut off from the main line. Ramsey made a mad dash cutting through the French and with the help of a squadron of the 14th Lt Dragoons eventually managed to extricate themselves out of danger.
With Houston and Craufurd’s divisions safely back behind lines, Wellington’s new position was impregnable and the French attack on the right was not pursued and the fighting petered out. The attempt to storm Fuentes ended around 1400hrs when it became obvious, after serious losses, that the allies could not be shifted easily from a barricaded and prepared village. The defenders of Fuentes lost 800men whilst their assailants had lost about 1300. The losses for the rest of the army were 852 Allies and 892 French.
Massena had not relieved the garrison of Almeida which was abandoned five days later and he was criticised for not pressing the right flank harder. He was superceded in command shortly after the battle by Marshall Marmont. The former was never again to command an army. After the battle Wellington remarked that his line was stretched too far to Poco Velho and if ‘Boney’ had been there all would have been lost. He also asked for money to rebuild Fuentes. However, the victory did much to sustain the British government’s handling in the Peninsular war and as an aside the battle used to be depicted on five pound notes.
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