The battle of Fuentes de Oñoro of 3-5 May 1811 was Marshal Masséna’s final defeat after his disastrous invasion of Portugal of 1810. Having failed to find any way to break through the Lines of Torres Vedras, Masséna had been forced to retreat back into Spain, reaching the border early in April. Wellington had then taken up a position that effectively blockaded Almeida, with the bulk of his forces on the Portuguese border, and settled down to starve out the garrison of Almeida.
Masséna felt that he had to raise the siege. Although his army had suffered heavily during the campaign in Portugal, on his return to Spain Masséna found large numbers of reinforcements who had been unable to join him, and was soon able to bring his army back into a battle worthy condition. He also called on Marshal Bessières, commander of the Army of the North, for reinforcements, although he only received two small cavalry brigades, accompanied by Bessières himself. In total Masséna had 42,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry and 38 guns, giving him 48,000 men.
Despite being outnumbered Wellington was determined to prevent the relief of Almeida. His force contained 34,000 infantry (23,000 British and 11,000 Portuguese), and only 1,850 cavalry (1,538 British and 312 Portuguese), but he did have 48 guns, for once outnumbering the French in artillery. Another infantry brigade had to be left outside Almeida to continue the blockade.
Wellington had found a reasonably strong position on the line of the Dos Casas, a southern tributary of the Agueda River. Although the stream itself was insignificant, the section in front of the Allied left ran through a significant ravine that would effectively prevent any French attack on this part of Wellington’s position. The Allied right was not so strong. As the Dos Casas climbs into the hills its valley becomes much less pronounced. Wellington’s initial position ended at the village of Fuentes de Oñoro, which climbed up from the river to the top of the ridge, and was itself a very defensible position, but south of the village the ravine disappeared and there was very little to stop the French outflanking the Allied line in great strength.
On 2 May the French left Ciudad Rodrigo, watched by the British Light Division and four regiments of cavalry. The day was filled with constant small scale skirmishing, and by nightfall the French were at the villages of Gallegos and Espeja, with the British scouting forces camped between them and the main battlefield.
On the morning of 3 May the British scouting forces retired into the main position at Fuentes de Oñoro. The bulk of the Allied army was posted on their right. The left was held by the 5th Division (Erskine), with the 6th Division (Campbell) to their right. The 1st, 3rd and 7th Divisions and Ashworth’s Portuguese brigade were on the hills above Fuentes de Oñoro on the Allied right, with the Light Division in reserve. The village itself was held by 28 light companies detached from their parent battalions, 1,800 strong, supported by 460 men from the 2/83rd.
Masséna arrived in front of the Allied position on the afternoon of 3 May. He too recognised the strength of the Allied left, and so most his forces were concentrated opposite Fuentes de Oñoro. The 2nd Corps made up the French right, with one brigade from 8th Corps in the centre with 6th Corps and 9th Corps on the French left, with five of Masséna’s eight infantry divisions.
Masséna decided to make a frontal assault on Fuentes de Oñoro on the afternoon of 3 May. The ten battalions of Ferey’s division of 6th Corps were to attack the village while 2nd Corps was to make a diversionary attack on the Allied left.
The attack on the left came to nothing, but the attack at Fuentes de Oñoro made some progress. Ferey’s first brigade managed to capture some of the lower lying building in the village before being pushed back, but then his second brigade managed to force the British back to the highest parts of the village. Wellington was forced to send in three fresh battalions to clear the French out of the village. By the end of the day the French attack had been repulsed, at a cost of 652 casualties, including 167 prisoners. The British had lost 259 men, amongst them Colonel Williams, the original commander of the light companies.
The only fighting on 4 May took place in Fuentes de Oñoro, where the British and French exchanged musket fire across the Dos Casas. Masséna spent the day scouting out the Allied position, and discovered how weak Wellington’s right flank was. One infantry battalion was posted in the village of Pozo Bello, two and a half miles south of Fuentes de Oñoro, while a band of Spanish guerrillas under Julian Sanchez held the village of Nava de Aver, another two and a half miles to the south. The ground between the two villages was passable by cavalry, and Pozo Bello was much more exposed to a frontal assault than Fuentes de Oñoro.
Masséna decided to attack around the Allied right with 17,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry, using the divisions of Marchand, Mermet and Solignac and almost all of his available cavalry. Three more divisions would attack Fuentes de Oñoro, while Reynier would threaten the Allied left. Masséna hoped to break the Allied centre and outflank their right at the same time, crushing Wellington’s army.
Wellington was also aware of the threat to his right, and so decided to move his 7th Division into Pozo Bello. This was his weakest division, containing two British battalions, the Chasseurs Britanniques, the Brunswick Oels and five battalions of Portuguese troops, a total of 4,590 men. A cavalry screen was also put in place guarding the line from Fuentes de Oñoro to Nava de Aver.
The fighting on 5 May fell into two distinct sections. First was the French attack around the British right, which forced the 7th Division to retreat and Wellington to form a new line. This was followed by the French attack on Fuentes de Oñoro. Masséna had planned a third and final stage, once the village had been captured, in which all six French infantry divisions on the south of the battlefield would attack the British lines, but this attack would never be launched.
The outflanking move began with a clash between two regiments of Montbrun’s dragoons and two squadrons of the 14th Light Dragoons round Nava de Aver, on the extreme right of the Allied line. After a running fight the British cavalry were forced to retreat to Pozo Bello. The same happened to the north of the village, where the 16th Light Dragoons and the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion were also forced back to Pozo Bello by much larger formations of French cavalry.
The French infantry then appeared in front of Pozo Bello. Two battalions of the 7th Division were posted in the village, with the rest of the division on the hillside to the west. Marchand’s division attacked the village, forcing the two isolated battalions to retreat back towards the rest of the division, although only after suffering 150 casualties.
Wellington responded to this new threat by forming a new line, running west across the ridge behind Fuentes de Oñoro. The 1st and 3rd Divisions and Ashworth’s Portuguese were used to form this new line, with its left in the village, while the 5th and 6th Divisions remained in their original positions on the old Allied left. This new line formed up well before the French could arrive to attack it.
Wellington’s second problem was how to prevent the 7th Division from being cut off and destroyed. His response was to send Craufurd’s Light Division into the gap to hold off the advancing French.
The isolated Allied cavalry helped to prevent any disaster befalling the 7th Division before the Light Division could arrive to help, conducting a skilful running retreat which allowed the 7th Division to take up a relatively strong position. Only once the British infantry were safely in their new position were the French able to attack, and this cavalry attack was soon repulsed. Meanwhile the Light Division marched along the top of the ridge, and joined up with the 7th Division. This allowed the 7th to retreat back to the main Allied line, taking up a new position on Wellington’s right.
The Light Division then carried out a textbook retreat in the face of a strong force of French cavalry, forming into infantry battalions and pulling slowly back into the new Allied line. On the few occasions that the French managed to get artillery into position, the outnumbered Allied cavalry was able to break up the gun batteries. Eventually the Light Division reached safety in the part of the line held by the 1st Division. This ended the heavy fighting on the Allied right, for although three infantry divisions were now moving into place to threaten the British lines, Masséna had decided not to use them until Fuentes de Oñoro was in his hands.
The attack on the village began once the French cavalry was seen to have turned the Allied right. First to move was Ferey’s division, making its attack two hours after dawn. The first attack drove the 71st and 79th regiments out of the lower and middle parts of the village, but they were then joined by the 2/24th, and were able to drive the French back to the river.
The French attack was then reinforced by the eighteen elite grenadier companies of Drouet’s division. Their prowess and distinctive bearskins convinced most British observers that they were being attacked by the Imperial Guard, even though none of that elite were present in Masséne’s army. This fresh attack forced the British to pull back to the highest ground in the village, but the grenadiers were unable to capture the very highest points of Fuentes de Oñoro, or to reach the plateau beyond.
Seeing that his attack was close to success, Drouet sent in most of Conroux’s and Claparéde’s Divisions to make what he hoped would be the decisive attack that would break the Allied line. Eight fresh battalions hit the beleaguered defenders of Fuentes de Oñoro, and finally forced them completely out of the village.
Masséna’s decision not to attack Wellington’s new line would now cost him dearly. Mackinnon’s brigade, on the left of that line, was free to launch a counterattack on the French. For one column would attack column. Mackinnon sent the 74th and 1/88th Regiments in two columns to attack the French. The column of the 88th hit the column of the 4th battalion of the 9th Léger in the streets of Fuentes de Oñoro, and one of the few bayonet battles of the Peninsular War followed. After a few minutes the French battalion turned and fled. At the same time the 74th reached the village, and in combination with the survivors of the original defenders drove the French out of the upper and middle sections of the village. The French suffered 1,300 casualties in the attack on the village, while the British defenders lost 800 men, 458 in the 71st and 79th regiments.
The British and Portuguese suffered 1,452 casualties on 5 May, the French 2,192. Both sides suffered most heavily during the fighting in Fuentes de Oñoro, just as they had on 3 May.
The failure of the French attack on Fuentes de Oñoro ended the battle. Masséna was unwilling to attack Wellington’s strong position while the village remained in Allied hands, later claiming that he had run short of ammunition. The French remained in place opposite Fuentes de Oñoro throughout 6 and 7 May, partly to cover his retreat and partly in an attempt to get new orders through to General Brennier in Almeida. On 8 May, after that message had got through, the French withdrew from their lines, and retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo. On the night of 10 May Brennier’s small force successfully broke through the Allied blockade, escaping safely to the French lines, but only after destroying large parts of the defences of Almeida.
French casualties over the two days of fighting came to around 2,750, Allied casualties to 1,700. Masséna’s last attempt to retain at least a foothold in Portugal had failed. Even if it had succeeded, his time in command was coming to an end. Napoleon had decided to replace him with Marshal Marmont. He had reached Ciudad Rodrigo on 8 May, and two days later received his new orders. On 12 May Marmont took command of the Army of Portugal, ending Masséna’s military career.
In the aftermath of the battle Wellington believed that the Army of Portugal could be discounted for some time, and so decided to move most of his army south, to conduct a second siege of Badajoz. This underrated Marmont’s ability to restore order, for it would be the arrival of most of the Army of Portugal in the south of Spain that would force Wellington to abandon that siege, leaving Badajoz in French hands in 1812.
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