Wellington’s hard fought battle on 3rd to 5th May 1811 to prevent Massena relieving the fortress of Almeida
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Barossa
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Albuera
War: Peninsular War
Date of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro: 3rd to 5th May 1811
Place of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro: In Spain on the Portuguese border, west of Ciudad Rodrigo.
Combatants at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro: British, Portuguese and Spanish against the French.
Commanders at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro: Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington against Marshal André Massena, Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli.
Size of the armies at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro: 37,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops (1,500 being cavalry) with 48 guns, against 48,000 French troops (4,500 being cavalry) and 46 guns.
Uniforms, arms and equipment at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
The British infantry wore red waist-length jackets, grey trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets and trousers.
The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and black ostrich feather caps.
British heavy cavalry (dragoon guards and dragoons) wore red jackets and ‘Roman’ style helmets with horse hair plumes.
The British light cavalry was increasingly adopting hussar uniforms, with some regiments changing their titles from ‘light dragoons’ to ‘hussars’.
The King’s German Legion (KGL) was the Hanoverian army in exile. The KGL owed its allegiance to King George III of Great Britain, as the Elector of Hanover, and fought with the British army. The KGL comprised both cavalry and infantry regiments. KGL uniforms mirrored the British.
The Portuguese army uniforms increasingly during the Peninsular War reflected British styles. The Portuguese line infantry wore blue uniforms, while the Caçadores light infantry regiments wore green.
The Spanish army essentially was without uniforms, existing as it did in a country dominated by the French. Where formal uniforms could be obtained, they were white.
The French army wore a variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers, wearing heavy burnished metal breastplates and crested helmets, Dragoons, largely in green, Hussars, in the conventional uniform worn by this arm across Europe, and Chasseurs à Cheval, dressed as hussars.
The French foot artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery wore hussar uniforms.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the muzzle-loading musket. The musket could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet for hand-to-hand fighting, which fitted the muzzle end of his musket.
The British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, of limited use against troops in the field unless those troops were closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented and was highly effective against troops in the field over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, yet in their infancy. were of particular use against buildings. The British were developing shrapnel (named after the British officer who invented it) which increased the effectiveness of exploding shells against troops in the field, by exploding in the air and showering them with metal fragments.
Throughout the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign, the British army was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The Army was sustained by volunteer recruitment and the Royal Artillery was not able to recruit sufficient gunners for its needs.
Napoleon exploited the advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the French Ancien Régime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many of his battles were won using a combination of the manoeuvrability and fire power of the French guns with the speed of the French columns of infantry, supported by the mass of French cavalry.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle field in fast moving columns, the British trained to fight in line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two, to extend the line of the British infantry and to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments.
Winner: The British, Portuguese and Spanish.
British order of battle at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
Commander: Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington
Cavalry: commanded by Major General Stapleton Cotton
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Slade: 1st Dragoons and 14th Light Dragoons.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel von Arentschildt: 16th Light Dragoons and 1st Hussars, King’s German Legion.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Barbacena: 4th and 10th Portuguese Dragoons.
Infantry: commanded by Lieutenant General Spencer
1st Division: commanded by Major General Nightingall
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Stopford: 1st Coldstream Guards, 1st/3rd Guards, 1 company 5th/60th Foot.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Blantyre: 2nd/24th Foot, 2nd/42nd Foot, 1st/79th Foot, 1 company 5th/60th Foot.
3rd Brigade: commanded by Major General Howard: 1st/50th Foot, 1st/71st Foot, 1st /92nd Foot, 1 company 5th/60th Foot.
4th Brigade: commanded by Major General Sigismund, Baron Löw: 1st, 2nd, 5th, 7th Line Battalions, King’s German Legion, Detachments of Light Battalions, KGL.
3rd Division: commanded by Major General Thomas Picton.
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Mackinnon: 1st /45th Foot, 1st/74th Foot, 1st/88th Foot, 3 companies 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Colville: 2nd/5th Foot, 2nd/83rd Foot, 2nd/88th Foot, 94th Foot
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Manley Power: 1st and 2nd/9th, 1st and 2nd/21st Portuguese Line Regiments
5th Division: commanded by Major General Sir William Erskine
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Hay: 3rd/1st Foot, 1st/9th Foot, 2nd/38th Foot, company of Brunswick Oels
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Dunlop: 1st/4th Foot, 2nd/30th Foot, 2nd/44th Foot, company Brunswick Oels
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Spry: 1st and 2nd/3rd and 1st and 2nd/15th Portuguese Line Regiments, 8th Caçadores
6th Division: commanded by Major General Alexander Campbell
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Hulse: 1st/11th Foot, 2nd/53rd Foot, 1st/61st Foot, 1 company 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel Robert Burne: 1st/36th Foot (2nd Foot at Almeida)
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Frederick, Baron Eben: 1st and 2nd/8th Foot, 1st and 2nd/12th Portuguese Line Regiments
7th Division: commanded by Major General John Houston
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier John Sontag: 51st Foot, 85th Foot, Chasseurs Britannique, Brunswick Oels Light Infantry (8 companies)
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General John Doyle: 1st and 2nd/7th and 1st and 2nd/19th Portuguese Line Regiments, 2nd Caçadores
Light Division: commanded by Brigadier General Robert Craufurd
1st Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sydney Beckwith: 1st/43rd Foot, 1st/95th Rifles (4 companies), 2nd/95th Rifles (1 company), 3rd Caçadores
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel George Drummond: 1st/52nd Foot, 2nd/52nd Foot, 1st/95th Rifles (4 companies), 1st Caçadores
Independent Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Ashworth: 1st and 2nd/6th, 1st and 2nd/18th Portuguese Line Regiments
Artillery: commanded by Brigadier General Howorth, 48 guns
Troops of Ross and Bull, Royal Horse Artillery
Batteries of Lawson and Thompson
Portuguese batteries of Von Arentschild, da Cunha and Rozierres.
French order of battle at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
Army of Portugal:
Commander-in-Chief: Marshal André Massena, Prince of Essling and Duke of Rivoli
II Corps: commanded by General Reynier
1st Division: commanded by General Merle
2nd Division: commanded by General Heudelet
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Soult
VI Corps: commanded by General Loison
1st Division: commanded by General Marchand
2nd Division: commanded by General Mermet
3rd Division: commanded by General Ferey
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Lamotte
VIII Corps: commanded by General Junot, Duke of Abrantes
2nd Division: commanded by General Solignac
IX Corps: commanded by General Count d’Erlon
1st Division: commanded by General Claparéde
2nd Division: commanded by General Conroux
Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Fournier
Reserve of Cavalry: commanded by General Montbrun
Artillery: commanded by General Eblé: 40 guns
Army of the North:
Commander-in-Chief: Marshal Bessiéres, Duke of Istria
Light Cavalry of the Imperial Guard: commanded by General Lepic
Light Cavalry Brigade: commanded by General Wathier
Artillery: 6 guns.
Account of the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
Following the winter of 1810, which Marshal Massena’s Army of Portugal spent before the lines of Torres Vedras, the French retreated into Spain, leaving a garrison in the Portuguese border fortress of Almeida.
Wellington followed up the French withdrawal with his British and Portuguese army and laid siege to Almeida, which had to be taken before he continued his advance into Spain. Wellington was there joined by several Spanish guerrilla bands.
In April 1811, Massena advanced from Ciudad Rodrigo to relieve Almeida, the move Wellington hoped Massena would make, although earlier than Wellington had expected.
The road from Ciudad Rodrigo to Almeida crossed a ridge as it approached the fortress.
Wellington positioned his army along this ridge, above Fuentes de Oñoro, blocking the French approach to Almeida and ready for the defensive battle Wellington fought so effectively on several occasions.
Wellington expected that Massena would approach south of the Almeida road, where the ridge levelled off. He placed a strong garrison at this point in the village of Fuentes de Oñoro. The Spanish guerrilla chief, Julian Sanchez occupied a hill further to the right beyond an area of plain containing the village of Poco Velha.
Along the foot of the Fuentes ridge and in front of the British positions ran the Don Casas stream.
The village of Fuentes de Oñoro, on the western bank of the Don Casas, straggled up the hillside in a jumble of streets. The British garrison of the village comprised the light companies of all the battalions from the 1st and 3rd divisions.
On 3rd May 1811, the French attacked across the Don Casas and stormed into Fuentes de Oñoro. The fighting see sawed throughout the day with the French troops repeatedly forcing their way into the village and being driven out. As night fell the attackers were finally pushed back across the stream and the village remained in British hands.
There was no fighting on 4th May 1811, but Wellington saw French columns moving away to his right. It seemed clear that Massena intended to attack beyond the British right flank.
Wellington marched the 7th Division across the plain to Poco Velha, on the bank of the Don Casas. British cavalry moved into the plain in support. The 7th Division was a recent formation and comprised only two British battalions, 51st and 85th Foot. The rest of the troops in the division were Portuguese with the Brunswick Oels.
On 5th May 1811, a large force of French cavalry crossed the Don Casas on the extreme right flank and drove Sanchez’ Spanish from the hill. The Guard Cavalry, brought up by Bessières, attacked the 7th Division followed by two divisions of French infantry. There was an immediate crisis, the 7th Division being unable to hold Poco Velha against such a large force.
Wellington ordered the 7th Division to withdraw to the ridge, and, to make this retreat possible, sent the Light Division to occupy the woods on the extreme flank beyond Poco Velha.
Craufurd’s Light Division drew off some of the French strength while the 7th Division fell back, assisted by vigorous support from the 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 of Royal Horse Artillery, which had been nearly overwhelmed, burst through their ranks led by Captain Ramsey and galloped for the British lines, the gunners fighting hard with their sabres.
With the 7th Division extracted, the Light Division marched back across the plain, a large force of French cavalry circling them, attempting to find an opportunity to charge home. The British regiments marched in square and the French shirked from the attack. Napier described this hazardous withdrawal, saying “there was not during the whole war a more perilous hour”.
Once the Light Division reached the high ground, Wellington’s flank was secure, with the 7th Division on the right and the British line resting on Fuentes de Oñoro.
Simultaneous with his assault on Poco Velha, Massena launched the French 6th Corps in a series of ferocious attacks on the village of Fuentes de Oñoro throughout 5th May. Several British and Portuguese regiments from the 1st and 3rd Divisions took part in defending the village, which changed hands repeatedly.
At the high point of the assault, the French drove the British and Portuguese to the top of the village. Colonel Wallace counter attacked with his 88th and the 71st and 79th Highlanders, driving the French out of the village back across the Don Casas. The French, their ammunition running low, refrained from further action.
Accepting that he could not break through Wellington’s army to relieve Almeida, Massena withdrew to Ciudad Rodrigo.
Casualties at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
In the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro the British, Portuguese and Spanish suffered 1,500 killed, wounded and captured. The French suffered 4,500 killed, wounded and captured.
British Regimental Casualties:
1st Dragoons lost 4 officers and 37 soldiers killed and wounded
14th Light Dragoons lost 5 officers and 32 soldiers killed and wounded
16th Light Dragoons lost 2 officers and 23 soldiers killed and wounded
Royal Artillery lost 3 officers and 28 soldiers killed and wounded
Coldstream Guards lost 1 officer and 53 soldiers killed and wounded
3rd Guards lost 2 officers and 57 soldiers killed and wounded
1st Foot lost 9 soldiers wounded
5th Foot lost 7 soldiers wounded
9th Foot lost 4 soldiers wounded
24th Foot lost 1 officers and 27 soldiers killed and wounded
30th Foot lost 4 soldiers wounded
42nd Foot lost 1 officers and 32 soldiers killed and wounded
45th Foot lost 4 soldiers killed and wounded
50th Foot lost 2 officers and 27 soldiers killed and wounded
51st Foot lost 5 soldiers killed and wounded
60th Foot lost 4 officers and 24 soldiers killed and wounded
71st Foot lost 11 officers and 133 soldiers killed and wounded
74th Foot lost 4 officers and 66 soldiers killed and wounded
79th Foot lost 14 officers and 224 soldiers killed and wounded
83rd Foot lost 2 officers and 42 soldiers killed and wounded
85th Foot lost 4 officers and 49 soldiers killed and wounded
88th Foot lost 3 officers and 65 soldiers killed and wounded
92nd Foot lost 3 officers and 50 soldiers killed and wounded
94th Foot lost 7 soldiers killed and wounded
95th Rifles lost 2 officers and 22 soldiers killed and wounded
Follow-up to the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
The French garrison in Almeida was not relieved. However, they managed to evade the British and escape, blowing up the fortifications.
Massena was recalled from Spain by Napoleon a week after the battle, although the order had been dispatched some time before. The French hold on Spain was beginning to slacken.
Wellington did not claim the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro as a victory. He considered he had not handled the battle well, unnecessarily extending his line too far, putting the 7th and Light Divisions in danger.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
- The episode during the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro of Captain Ramsey and Bull’s Troop of Royal Horse Artillery bursting through the large force of French cavalry inspired an outpouring of paint by historical artists; Robert Hillingford (see below), George Bryant Campion (see above), William Barnes Wollen (see above) and many others.
References for the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro:
History of the Peninsula War by Sir William Napier Volume 1
History of the Peninsula War by Sir Charles Oman
History of the British Army by John Fortescue Volume 6
British Battles on Land and Sea by James Grant Volume 2
The Peninsular War: A Concise Military History by Michael Glover
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Barossa
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Albuera