“If Boney had been there, we should have been beaten.” The Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro
Updated: May 5
The Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro took place over 3 days, from the 3rd – 5th May 1811.
Arthur Wellesley (Lord Wellington) had 37,600 men in 6 Divisions and a independent Portuguese & 3 Cavalry brigades.
Marshal André Massena, (Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli) commanded 42,000 men divided into 4 Corps.
Wellington’s 1810 campaign had ended with victory at Busaco and not having the numbers needed to push further into Spain he withdrew to Lisbon, reassured that his formidable defences were ready, Masséna followed before arriving at the Lines of Torres Vedras. These fortifications were a extensive double line of interlocking positions with well crewed guns, designed to hold a French army outside the Portuguese capital, which was well prepared. Massena had no choice but to make camp for the winter outside Lisbon and suffered through a miserable weather with little provisions, most of which had been brought inside Lisbon and the remaining Portuguese were motivated to hide their harvest or even attack lone patrols. As the Spring came, The French withdrew to the Spanish border with Wellington’s army in pursuit.
[Map of the positions on the afternoon, 5th May 1811]
On the first day of the battle (3rd May), Marshal Masséna launched a frontal assault against the Anglo-Portuguese pickets holding the barricaded village of Fuentes de Oñoro, while bombarding the British positions on the heights, to the east of the village with his French artillery. The fight in the centre of the village lasted all day. At times the Allied forces were pushed back to the edge of the village, street by, bloody street, with vicious fighting in the densely packed houses of winding stone houses. A brave charge that included 71st Highland Light Infantry reclaimed the streets lost earlier in the day. As dusk drew near, the French troops withdrew, weary from the day and suffering high casualties. The village remained secure in British hands at the end of the first day, with the French suffering around 650 casualties and the British around 250.
There was a small amount of fighting reported on the outskirts of the village of Fuentes de Oñoro on the second day (4th May), between dawn and 10am only, when firing ceased. Both sides recovering from the ferocity of the previous day of fighting in the village, but Wellington observed French columns moving away to his right. It seemed clear that Massena intended to attack beyond the British right flank where, a French reconnaissance reported to Massena that Wellington's extreme right flank was held by a unit of Spanish partisans and was vulnerable.
On the morning of the third day (5th May) Wellington, realising his right flank was vulnerable, he had reinforced it by moving the 7th Division forward to support these partisans. The 7th Division was one of the least experienced, nicknamed the “Mongrels” it had only 2 British Battalions, the 2/51st and 85th, along with the Chasseurs Brittaniques (a French Emigree Regiment in British Service, with many German, Italian, Czech and Polish soldiers in their ranks), and the Brunswick Oels in Sontag’s Brigade and 3 battalions of Portuguese (2 line & 1 Cacadores) in Doyle’s Brigade. Wellington presumed Massena would throw his forces forward in a frontal assault on the village again, however Massena was far more ambitious. Overnight he had sent troops south ready to attack Wellington’s right flank, the French forces were massive compared to Wellington’s 7th Division (4,590 men few having seen battle before) and partisan allies. Massena ordered a cavalry division and 3 additional cavalry brigades, 3,500 mounted men to sweep through the positions, supported by 3 infantry divisions with another 17,000 men to attack this exposed area.
The battle started in this area with French Cavalry probing at the 7th Division’s piquets, at times being stopped, but eventually pushing them out of the woodland and the supporting Voltigeurs pushing the 85th & Cacadores back in some disarray. At this point French cavalry hit them in the flank, causing over 150 casualties in these two battalions. The casualties would have been much worse if it wasn’t for the brave actions of two squadrons of the 1st Hussars, King’s German Legion who counter-attacked and bought time.
[French Dragoons attack British infantry (85th & 2nd Cacadores) of the 7th Division in the open.]
Wellington, quickly realised Massena’s intntions with his flanking manoeuvre and worked to redeploy his forces to counter the threat, especially to rescue to exposed 7th Division. He began to use troops, formed up behind the village at his centre, to form a new right wing. Meanwhile General “Black Bob” Crauford, commander of the Light Division received orders to go to the 7th’s aid and get them to return to the British lines.
Craufurd’s Light Division drew off much of the French attack while the 7th Division withdrew across the plain, assisted by close support from British cavalry. At one point in the critical fighting in the plain, the main French cavalry formation was seen to divide and Bull’s troop, Royal Horse Artillery, which had been nearly overwhelmed by the enemy cavalry, rode through their ranks, led by Captain Ramsey and galloped for the British lines, the gunners fighting hard with their sabres to save their guns and their lives.
[Captain Norman Ramsey, R.H.A. saving the guns of Bull's troop at the battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (Christopher Clark).]
With the 7th Division safely extracted, the Light Division moved back across the plain, a huge force of French cavalry circling them, attempting to find a timely opportunity to charge and overwhelm them. The British regiments of the Light Division marched in square, with the 95th Rifle companies skirmishing from rocky outcrops and the French shunned any direct assault. Colonel Charles Napier described this dangerous yet well executed withdrawal, by saying “there was not during the whole war a more perilous hour”, yet both divisions were back in their lines, with relatively light casualties (Sontag’s Brigade which formed over half of the 7th Division only suffered 177 killed, wounded or missing all day.
Simultaneous with his assault on Wellington’s right, Marshal Massena launched the French 6th Corps in a series of ferocious attacks on the village of itself all day. Again vicious street fighting ensued. British and Portuguese regiments from the 1st and 3rd Divisions defended the village, which changed hands repeatedly, with each building paid for at a high price.
At the high point of the assault, the French, led by three battalions of converging grenadiers from the IX Corps. With their Bearskin hats, the grenadiers were mistaken for the Imperial Guard. They succeeded is driving the British and Portuguese to the very top of the village. It was at this point, Colonel Wallace counter attacked with his infamous 88th Connaught Rangers along with the 71st Highland Light Infantry and 79th Cameron Highlanders. These Gaelic warriors drove the French back to the far edge of the village. Running low on ammunition and in confided spaces of the village, the French resorted to bayonets in a last futile attempt to drive the fierce British back. At the height of the fighting, one party of around 100 French grenadiers was trapped in a alley and every last man killed, reportedly quarter was neither asked for or given. Facing effective volley fire, the French halted and retreated back across the Dos Casas river to the east, leaving their casualties behind. By sunset, French morale had plummeted and many regiments were down to just 40% of their fighting strength. And the French Corps, with their ammunition low and high casualties, refrained from attacking again.
[The charge of the 71st HLI and 79th Highlanders]
In a last act, The French artillery tried to bombard the new British line into submission, but they were outgunned by Wellington's numerically superior cannons.
Bitterly accepting that he could not break through Wellington’s army to relieve Almeida, Massena withdrew the French Forces back to Ciudad Rodrigo.
Wellington had repelled the French “Army of Portugal”, inflicting a great number of casualties, and was able to continue his strategically important blockade of the fort at Almeida. Charles Oman puts the casualties at 3,500 (though other sources show 2,192) French compared to the loss of 1,545 British and Portuguese.
Reflecting upon the battle close run nature of the fighting, Wellington later said “If Boney had been there, we should have been beaten.” Though Napoleon was miles away, in Paris, with his second wife and new born son.
Oman, (Sir) Charles (1996). A History of the Peninsular War.
Fletcher, Ian (1994). Wellington’s Regiments. The Men and their Battles
Nichols, Alistair (2005). Wellington’s Mongrel Regiment, a history of the Chasseurs Britanniques.
Charles Esdaile (2003). The Peninsular War: A New History
Glover, Michael (2001). The Peninsular War 1807–1814
[Captain Ramsay R.H.A leads Bull's Troop Guns fighting off French Hussars]