Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro

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Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro
Part of the Peninsular War
Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro, 1811.jpg
Captain Norman Ramsay, Royal Horse Artillery, Galloping his Troop Through the French Army to Safety at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, 1811 by George Bryant Campion
Date3–5 May 1811
Location
Fuentes de Oñoro, Castile and León, Spain

40°35′N6°49′W / 40.583°N 6.817°W / 40.583; -6.817 Coordinates: 40°35′N6°49′W / 40.583°N 6.817°W / 40.583; -6.817
Result Indecisive [1] [2] [3]
Strategic Anglo-Portuguese victory [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]
Belligerents
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag of Portugal (1750).svg Portugal
Flag of France.svg French Empire
Commanders and leaders
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Lord Wellington Flag of France.svg Marshal Masséna
Strength
36,000 infantry,
1,850 cavalry,
48 guns [9]
42,000 infantry,
4,500 cavalry,
38 guns
Casualties and losses
1,800
241 killed,
1,247 wounded,
312 captured [10]
2,844
343 killed,
2,287 wounded,
214 captured [10]

In the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (3–5 May 1811), the British-Portuguese Army under Lord Wellington checked an attempt by the French Army of Portugal under Marshal André Masséna to relieve the besieged city of Almeida.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington 18th and 19th-century British soldier and statesman

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was a British soldier and Tory statesman who was one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain, serving twice as Prime Minister. His victory against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 puts him in the first rank of Britain's military heroes.

Portugal Republic in Southwestern Europe

Portugal, officially the Portuguese Republic, is a country located mostly on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe. It is the westernmost sovereign state of mainland Europe, being bordered to the west and south by the Atlantic Ocean and to the north and east by Spain. Its territory also includes the Atlantic archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira, both autonomous regions with their own regional governments.

André Masséna French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

André Masséna, 1st Duc de Rivoli, 1st Prince d'Essling was a French military commander during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was one of the original eighteen Marshals of the Empire created by Napoleon, with the nickname l'Enfant chéri de la Victoire.

Contents

Background

In 1810, Masséna had followed the British-Portuguese back to Lisbon before arriving at the Lines of Torres Vedras, but was determined to avoid storming the extensive double line of interlocking fortifications. After starving outside Lisbon through a miserable winter, the French withdrew to the Spanish border with the British-Portuguese army in pursuit.

Lisbon Capital city in Lisbon Metropolitan Area, Portugal

Lisbon is the capital and the largest city of Portugal. With an estimated population of 505,526 within its administrative limits in an area of 100.05 km2, Lisbon's urban area extends beyond the city's administrative limits with a population of around 2.8 million people, being the 11th-most populous urban area in the European Union. About 3 million people live in the Lisbon Metropolitan Area, including the Portuguese Riviera,. It is mainland Europe's westernmost capital city and the only one along the Atlantic coast. Lisbon lies in the western Iberian Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean and the River Tagus. The westernmost areas of its metro area form the westernmost point of Continental Europe, which is known as Cabo da Roca, located in the Sintra Mountains.

Lines of Torres Vedras Military defences during the Peninsular War in Portugal

The Lines of Torres Vedras were lines of forts and other military defences built in secrecy to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. Named after the nearby town of Torres Vedras, they were ordered by Arthur Wellesley, Viscount Wellington, constructed by Sir Richard Fletcher, 1st Baronet, and his Portuguese workers between November 1809 and September 1810, and used to stop Marshal Masséna's 1810 offensive. The Lines were declared a National Heritage by the Portuguese Government in March, 2019.

Wellington first secured Portugal and then set about re-taking the fortified frontier cities of Almeida, Badajoz, and Ciudad Rodrigo. Whilst Wellington besieged Almeida, Masséna reformed his battered army and marched to relieve the French garrison in the city. Wellington chose to check the relief attempt at the small village of Fuentes de Oñoro, leaving his line of retreat exposed in order to cover all routes to Almeida. He felt this risk was justified because the French would not have more than a few days supplies, whereas he had more than that. The British-Portuguese Army had 34,000 infantry, 1,850 cavalry, and 48 guns. The French had 42,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and 38 guns.

Almeida, Portugal Municipality in Centro, Portugal

Almeida is a fortified village and a municipality in the sub-region of Beira Interior Norte and the District of Guarda, Portugal. The town proper has a population of 1,300 people (2011). The municipality population in 2011 was 7,242, in an area of 517.98 square kilometres. It is located in Riba-Côa river valley. The present Mayor is António Baptista Ribeiro, elected by the Social Democratic Party. The municipal holiday is July 2.

Badajoz City in Extremadura, Spain

Badajoz is the capital of the Province of Badajoz in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Spain. It is situated close to the Portuguese border, on the left bank of the river Guadiana. The population in 2011 was 151,565.

Ciudad Rodrigo municipality in Castile and León, Spain

Ciudad Rodrigo is a small cathedral city in the province of Salamanca, in western Spain, with a population in 2016 of 12,896. It is also the seat of a judicial district.

Organisation

The French Army of Portugal

Masséna's army was organised into four corps and a cavalry reserve. Louis Henri Loison's VI Corps had three divisions, led by Jean Gabriel Marchand, Julien Augustin Joseph Mermet, and Claude François Ferey. In Jean Andoche Junot's VIII Corps, only Jean Baptiste Solignac's division was present. Jean-Baptiste Drouet's IX Corps included the divisions of Nicolas François Conroux and Michel Marie Claparède. Louis Pierre, Count Montbrun headed the cavalry reserve. Jean Reynier's II Corps hovered off to the northeast, threatening Almeida with its two divisions under Pierre Hugues Victoire Merle and Étienne Heudelet de Bierre.

Louis Henri Loison French general

Louis Henri Loison briefly joined the French Army in 1787 and after the French Revolution became a junior officer. Blessed with military talent and courage, he rapidly rose to general officer rank during the French Revolutionary Wars. He also got into difficulties because of his fondness for plundering. In late 1795 he helped Napoleon Bonaparte crush a revolt against the government. After a hiatus, he returned in 1799 to fight in Switzerland where he earned another promotion. In 1800 he commanded a division under Napoleon in the Marengo Campaign.

The VI Corps of the Grande Armée was the name of a French military unit that existed during the Napoleonic Wars. It was formed at the Camp de Boulogne and assigned to Marshal Michel Ney. From 1805 through 1811, the army corps fought under Ney's command in the War of the Third Coalition, the War of the Fourth Coalition, and the Peninsular War. Jean Gabriel Marchand was in charge of the corps for a period when Ney went on leave. In early 1811, Ney was dismissed by Marshal André Masséna for disobedience and the corps was briefly led by Louis Henri Loison until the corps was dissolved in May 1811. The VI Corps was revived in 1812 for the French invasion of Russia and placed under Laurent Gouvion Saint-Cyr. It entirely consisted of Bavarian soldiers at that time. After the disastrous winter retreat the corps was virtually destroyed. In 1813 during the War of the Sixth Coalition it was recreated with reorganized French troops. Marshal Auguste Marmont took command of the corps and managed it until Emperor Napoleon's abdication in 1814. It took part in many battles including Dresden and Leipzig in 1813. During the Hundred Days, Georges Mouton, Count de Lobau commanded the VI Corps at the Battle of Waterloo.

Jean Gabriel Marchand French general

Jean Gabriel Marchand, 1st Count Marchand went from being an attorney to a company commander in the army of the First French Republic in 1791. He fought almost exclusively in Italy throughout the French Revolutionary Wars and served on the staffs of a number of generals. He participated in Napoleon Bonaparte's celebrated 1796-1797 Italian campaign. In 1799, he was with army commander Barthélemy Catherine Joubert when that general was killed at Novi. Promoted to general officer soon after, he transferred to the Rhine theater in 1800.

An 800-man cavalry force, comprising squadrons of the élite Imperial Guard Grenadiers à Cheval and Empress Dragoons , was also present at the battle under the command of Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières. The reinforcements that Bessières brought were almost symbolic, even though Masséna had requested that he bring the entirety of his Army corps into battle. [11]

Imperial Guard (Napoleon I) Elite soliders of Napoleons Grande Armée

The Imperial Guard was originally a small group of elite soldiers of the French Army under the direct command of Napoleon I, but grew considerably over time. It acted as his bodyguard and tactical reserve, and he was careful of its use in battle. The Guard was divided into the staff, infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments, as well as battalions of sappers and marines. The guard itself as a whole distinguished between the experienced veterans and less experienced members by being separated into three sections: the Old Guard, Middle Guard and Young Guard.

Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale

The Grenadiers à Cheval de la Garde Impériale constituted a heavy cavalry regiment in the Consular, then Imperial Guard during the French Consulate and First French Empire respectively. They were the senior "Old Guard" cavalry regiment of the Imperial Guard and from 1806 were brigaded together with the Dragons de la Garde Impériale.

Marshal is a term used in several official titles in various branches of society. As marshals became trusted members of the courts of Medieval Europe, the title grew in reputation. During the last few centuries, it has been used for elevated offices, such as in military rank and civilian law enforcement.

The British-Portuguese army

Wellington commanded six infantry divisions, Charles Ashworth's independent Portuguese brigade, and three cavalry brigades. Brent Spencer commanded the 1st Division, Thomas Picton the 3rd, William Houston the 7th, and Robert Craufurd the Light Division. Stapleton Cotton commanded John Slade's and Frederick von Arentschildt's brigades of cavalry. Edward Howorth supervised four British (Ross RHA, Bull RHA, Lawson's RA, Thompson's RA) and four Portuguese (Arentschildt (2), Da Cunha [ disambiguation needed ], Rozierres) 6-gun batteries. William Erskine (5th Division), Alexander Campbell (6th Division), and 300 Portuguese cavalry under Count Barbacena were detached, facing the French II Corps.

Sir Charles Ashworth, KCB was an English major-general, prominent in the Peninsular War.

1st Infantry Division (United Kingdom) British Army combat formation

The 1st Infantry Division was a regular army infantry division of the British Army with a very long history. The division was present at the Peninsular War, the Crimean War, the First World War, and during the Second World War and was finally disbanded in 1960.

Thomas Picton Welsh general who served in the British Army

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, a Welsh officer of the British Army, fought in a number of campaigns for Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. According to the historian Alessandro Barbero, Picton was "respected for his courage and feared for his irascible temperament". The Duke of Wellington called him "a rough foul-mouthed devil as ever lived", but found him capable.

Battle

On 3 May, Masséna launched a frontal assault against the British-Portuguese pickets holding the barricaded village, while bombarding the British-Portuguese on the heights east of the village with heavy artillery. The fight in the center of the village lasted all that day, with French soldiers of Ferey's and Marchand's divisions clashing with the British redcoats of the 1st and 3rd Divisions.

At first, the British-Portuguese were driven back under immense pressure, but a charge that included men of the 71st Highland Light Infantry reclaimed the streets and buildings lost earlier in the day. As the sun sank, the French withdrew and the village remained in British hands, with the former suffering 650 casualties against only 250 for the British.

Both sides spent 4 May recovering from the ferocity of the previous day of fighting and reconsidered their options and battle plans. A French reconnaissance revealed that Wellington's right flank was weakly held by a unit of partisans near the hamlet of Poco Velho.

Action began again at dawn on 5 May. Wellington had left the 7th Division exposed on his right flank. Masséna launched a heavy attack on the weak British-Portuguese flank, led by Montbrun's dragoons and supported by the infantry divisions of Marchand, Mermet, and Solignac. Right away, two 7th Division battalions were roughed up by French light cavalry. This compelled Wellington to send reinforcements to save the 7th Division from annihilation. This was only achieved by the efforts of the Light Division and the British and King's German Legion [12] cavalry.

On the threatened British-Portuguese right flank, the elite Light Division, well supported by cavalry and artillery, made a textbook fighting withdrawal. For trifling casualties, they covered the retreat of the 7th Division and fell back into a stronger position selected by Wellington. During the retreat, whenever French artillery ventured too close, the British cavalry charged or feinted a charge. This allowed the infantry time to retreat out of range. If the French horsemen pressed the outnumbered British cavalry back, the British-Portuguese infantry formed squares and their volleys drove off the French. Montbrun then requested help from the Imperial Guard cavalry, which were present but had not yet been committed to battle.

Time was of the essence and Masséna at once sent one of his aides-de-camp , Charles Oudinot, the son of Marshal Duke of Reggio, with orders to bring forward the Guard cavalry. The young Oudinot hastily set off and Masséna was impatiently checking his watch, pressed to commit this cavalry to what he believed was a decisive action of the battle. Much to the general staff's stupefaction, Oudinot was soon seen returning without any cavalry following him. As soon as he saw him, Masséna furiously shouted from afar: "Where is the cavalry of the Guard?". The sweaty, dust-covered Oudinot needed a moment to catch his breath after his exhausting gallop but then explained that he was not able to fetch it. Oudinot had encountered the Guard cavalry second-in-command, General Louis Lepic, who sharply refused to commit his men, saying that he only recognised the Duke of Istria (Bessières) as commander and that without explicit orders from its commander, the Guard Horse Grenadiers and Dragoons would not draw their swords. In a staggering display of treachery, Bessières was absent from the field of battle, needlessly inspecting a series of ditches where the French army had passed a few days before. Unable to find the commander of the Guard in time, Masséna was forced to admit that the opportunity was lost. [11]

Two incidents spoiled this otherwise fine accomplishment for the British-Portuguese. One occurred when a British 14th Light Dragoon squadron pressed home a frontal attack on a French artillery battery and was mauled. In the second case, French cavalry caught some companies of the 3rd Foot Guards in skirmish order and inflicted 100 casualties.

Masséna, however, still aimed primarily to secure Fuentes de Oñoro. He sent forward massed columns of infantry from Ferey's division. The village, filled with low stone walls, provided excellent cover for the British line infantry and skirmishers, while the French were severely restricted in the little narrow streets. At first, the French had some success, wiping out two companies of the 79th Highland Regiment and killing the regiment's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Philips Cameron. But a counterattack chased Ferey's men out of the town.

Drouet launched a second attack on the town. This time, it was led by three battalions of converging grenadiers from the IX Corps. With their old-fashioned Bearskin hats, the grenadiers were mistaken for the Imperial Guard. Again, the British fell back. Drouet threw in about half of the battalions from both Conroux and Claparède's divisions, seizing almost the entire town.

In response, Wellington counterattacked with units from the 1st and 3rd Divisions, plus the Portuguese 6th Caçadores . Led by the 88th Connaught Rangers Foot. This broke Drouet's attack, and the tide began to turn. Low on ammunition, the French had to resort to the bayonet in a futile attempt to drive the British back. One party of 100 grenadiers was trapped in a tight spot and killed. Facing murderous volleys, the French halted and retreated back to the Dos Casas, leaving their casualties behind. [13] By sunset, French morale had plummeted and many companies were down to 40% strength.

The French artillery tried to bombard the new British line into submission, but they were outgunned by Wellington's cannons. Finally, with their artillery ammunition dangerously low, the French attacks came to an end. Wellington's men entrenched during the evening. After spending the next three days parading before the British position, Masséna gave up the attempt and retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo. [13] He was furious because Bessières had refused to fetch ammunition from the citadel. [14]

Consequences

Wellington had repelled the Army of Portugal, inflicting a great number of casualties, and was able to continue his blockade of Almeida. The numbers of losses vary according to different sources, from 2,200 [7] [15] to 3,500 [16] French compared to the loss of 1,500 British-Portuguese, while another historian stated there were 2,800 French and 1,800 British-Portuguese losses. [10] However, he acknowledged how dangerous the situation had been, saying later, "If Boney had been there, we should have been beat." [17] Indeed, Russian historian Oleg Sokolov noted that Wellington had committed a serious strategic error by following the French into northern Portugal, and that this decision could have had grievous consequences for the British-Portuguese. Sokolov adds that, despite the various setbacks that he encountered before and during the battle, Masséna was still able to check Wellington's position at Fuentes de Oñoro. [11] Wellington himself did not mark the battle as a victory; he also considered that he had unnecessarily extended his line, putting the 7th Division and Light Division in danger.

Two nights after Masséna's withdrawal, Antoine Brenier's 1,400-man French garrison of Almeida slipped through the British-Portuguese lines during the night. About 360 French troops were captured, but the rest escaped when their British pursuers ran into a French ambush. This fiasco was blamed on Erskine and others. An infuriated Wellington wrote, "I have never been so much distressed by any military event as by the escape of even a man of them." [18]

On reaching Ciudad Rodrigo, Masséna was recalled to Paris by a furious Napoleon to explain his actions (although Napoleon had issued the order to return prior to the battle). He was replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont. Masséna set off for France with a vast sum of gold, looted from Portugal and Spain. The defeated French marshal complained that Wellington "had not left him one black hair on his body—he had turned grey all over." [19]

This battle also included a notable friendly fire incident when a French infantry unit mistook their allies, the Hannovarian Legion, for an English battalion and opened fire on them. The unfortunate Hannoverians retreated hastily past the village, leaving over 100 dead. [20] The confusion came about because the Royal Hanoverian Legion wore red coats, and in the smoke and heat of battle the finer details of uniforms that might have distinguished them from British line infantry were easily overlooked.

A bloody stalemate, indeed was not the sort of battle that had been expected to follow Masséna's expulsion from Portugal. His confidence and moral authority having been much boosted by Torres Vedras, the spring of 1811 found Wellington intending to move over to the offensive, for which policy he had received de facto authorization from his political masters in London, where talks of major reductions in the size of the army employed in Portugal had been replaced by promises of major reinforcements. Supply difficulties, sickness amongst the troops and want of siege artillery ensured that in the short term no great strokes of strategy could be envisaged, but it was hoped that Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz might be all recaptured, thereby opening the way for lightning strikes on such targets as Salamanca or Seville. In the event, however, success was limited, the story of the rest of 1811 essentially being one of failure and frustration. [21]

In fiction

Notes

  1. Both armies retained their positions Brialmont p 381
  2. Maxwell p 227
  3. Currie p126
  4. while the battle had not been an entirely satisfactory one for Wellington it had nevertheless resulted in a victory. Fletcher p 51
  5. The final massive assault of the French 9th Corps had been repulsed and by 2 pm the battle had ended. Chartrand p 87
  6. the general result was upon the whole favourable to Wellington Brialmont p 381
  7. 1 2 Weller p.166
  8. Wellington remained master of the field. Parkinson p 137
  9. Gates, p.503
  10. 1 2 3 Smith pp.358–61
  11. 1 2 3 Sokolov, p. 455.
  12. Chartrand p.77
  13. 1 2 Gates p 269
  14. Longford p.300
  15. Paget p.133
  16. Oman p.630
  17. Glover, p.155
  18. Glover, p.156
  19. Glover, p.149
  20. Napoleonistyka
  21. Charles Esdaile (14 June 2003). The Peninsular War: A New History. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 340–341. ISBN   978-1-4039-6231-7 . Retrieved 9 February 2013.

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References