Fuentes d’Onoro

May–June 1811

The journey from Lisbon to the Beira frontier was an arduous one, taking even the most determined traveller more than one week. Being a cross and anxious fellow, it must have seemed to last for ever for Brigadier Robert Craufurd. Those coming the other way brought reports of an imminent general action. Having missed Sabugal and the events of March, he certainly did not intend to be absent. Among the soldiers of the Army, the Light Division was making its name in small battles – affairs of the outposts, advanced guard actions – but home in Old England such fights hardly registered with the public. A distinguished role at a battle like Busaco was another matter. While at home on leave, Craufurd had been satisfied to learn that his family and friends all knew of his part in it, since Lord Wellington’s dispatch had featured in the newspapers. Just as blood money was far less likely to be voted for the soldiers in some skirmish like Redinha, so the real baubles or plums served up to senior officers came from the public acclamation gained after victory in a large set-piece battle.

Wellington’s Army had taken up a line in front of the Coa, on the upland plateau that marked the frontier. The terrain there was strewn with boulders, ferns and thorns, cultivated only in scattered patches and bounded by deeply carved valleys. There were considerable dangers in fighting with a steep gorge and rushing river to your back, as Craufurd had learned the previous July. In order to allow two possible routes of withdrawal, then, Wellington had extended his divisions across a broad frontage of several miles. A smaller river, the Duas Casas, ran in front of the British position, carving a little valley in which the town of Fuentes d’Onoro sat. To the left of Fuentes, the ground gave its defenders a formidable advantage, a natural rampart which any attacker would have to assail. The village itself was barricaded and ready for defence. To its right, there were woods around the river bed and a couple of villages (Pozo Bello and Nava de Haver) on rising ground behind them which the British also prepared to defend. The Light Division was being held behind the centre of this position and slightly to the right as a reserve.

Craufurd appeared near Fuentes early in the morning of 4 May. As he approached his battalions there was a cry of ‘Three cheers for General Craufurd’, and it was answered. ‘I found my Division under arms, and was received with the most hearty appearance of satisfaction on the countenances of the men and officers, and three cheers from each Regiment as I passed along its front,’ the proud Black Bob told his wife. Why had these men whom he had so often flogged and insulted cheered? There was an element of good military form in greeting a returning commander, no doubt. But the rank and file had tasted life under General Erskine and it had not been good. They blamed Ass-skin for their hunger on the various occasions when they had gone without food or money. They remembered that under similar circumstances in 1809, at least Craufurd had relaxed his own strict rules in allowing them to kill livestock. More important than that, though, they had the sense that Craufurd attended keenly to his duty, keeping an ever-vigilant eye on his outposts, often being near the action, whereas Erskine had either been present and useless, or lost, as he was in the fog at Sabugal.

Despite the shouted acclamations, the underlying attitude of many did not change. Among the company officers in particular, Craufurd was still detested. This did not affect either the brigadier’s desire to grind down those who resisted his orders, or his way of doing things. So the likes of the 95th’s Leach were set to resume their battle of wills with him soon enough.

On 5 May, Marshal Masséna launched a general attack against Wellington’s long line. Early in the morning, French skirmishers appeared in the woods to the (British) right of Fuentes, where Right Wing of the 95th was manning a line of pickets. The riflemen began their usual work, taking aim from behind trees, firing and reloading. Their enemy tried to press forward, losing a man here and there, but the attack was not pushed with real vigour. The riflemen soon discovered why, as a blaring of bugles and a shouting of orders drew them back towards their supports.

Unseen by them, Masséna had launched his attack by ordering his cavalry to make its way, concealed, through the woods in front of Pozo Bello and Nava de Haver. They succeeded in their aim, mounting up as they emerged from the treeline and surprising the stretched British regiments in that area. Some 3,500 French cavalry drove about a quarter of that number of British horsemen before them and began falling on the infantry.

Faced with this crisis, Wellington sent the Light Division about a mile towards his right flank, supporting his beleaguered division by drawing the enemy off them. He soon made the decision to withdraw his men from Nava de Haver and Pozo Bello, where they had been covering his southern withdrawal route out of the highlands. The British commander was shortening or redeploying his line, at the same time refusing a flank – making it into an ‘L’ or elbow shape with the village of Fuentes at the bend and with his right drawn back on the higher ground behind.

Early that morning, there were thousands of French horsemen careering about the open scrub as the Light Division formed up. The French dragoons and chasseurs were flushed with triumph, but they were also unsupported for the moment by their own infantry. When they charged the redcoats, they were met with volleys of musketry. At moments of extreme danger the British battalions were forming square, presenting a wall of bayonets that horses were too afraid to charge. The 43rd and 52nd moved into this maelstrom and anchored themselves on the plain, giving the threatened regiments a chance to withdraw past them, towards Wellington’s main defensive position.

A good cavalry commander – of which the French had plenty – knew he could pretty much make a meal of skirmishers, scattering them into clumps and riding them down at his leisure. In order to avoid this fate with thousands of enemy horses around them, Right Wing of the 95th needed to demonstrate skills of drill and movement that might not shame the Guards, for a few men executing their turn too late or falling behind would soon create an opening for the French cavaliers. As the riflemen emerged from the woods they assembled in column of companies. Moving forward, onto the open plain, they ‘formed column at quarter distance, ready to form square at any moment if charged by cavalry’. This ‘quarter column’ meant having about fifteen feet between the heels of one company and the toes of the one that followed it, transforming them into a mass, easily able to stop and face outwards, presenting a wall of bayonets if charged.

As it happened, Right Wing did not have to form square as it crossed the open ground. It was not moving out to the right like the red-coated Light Division regiments, but making its way to the main British defensive line, where the 1st Division had been formed up to create Wellington’s new left flank. The 95th marched close to the British artillery that garnished that ridge. The guns must have deterred the French horsemen, but the Rifles also showed great steadiness and purpose when the enemy’s green-clad dragoons did come cantering around them. ‘While we were retiring with the order and precision of a common field day, they kept dancing around us, and every instant threatening a charge without daring to execute it,’ one officer recalled.

Reaching the main line, the Green Jackets filed between the Guards who formed the mainstay of the 1st Division and lined up behind them. At one point, a couple of riflemen calmly walked forward, past their officers, to try to pick a good concealed sniping position where they might hit one of the officers leading the French forward. When one British commander asked where the riflemen were going, an NCO replied that it was ‘for amusement’. One of these riflemen, named Flynn, was a good specimen of the hard-fighting Irish who inspired endless comment among the 95th’s officers. Flynn was a good shot and seemed pretty much indifferent whether he was killing a man or something for the pot. At Sabugal, he had been leading a running Frenchman with his rifle and suddenly switched his aim to something scampering in the grass. When one of the subalterns asked him what he was doing, Flynn replied: ‘Ah your Honour, we can kill a Frenchman any day but it’s not always we can bag a hare for your Honour’s supper.’

An hour or two passed and French cannon, having moved up, began to play on the 1st Division, as their infantry tried to turn the British position. The French knew that if they could get around the extreme right of the new British line, they would be able to cut Wellington’s regiments off from their only remaining withdrawal route, via the same bridge over the Coa that they had attacked in July 1810. The problem for the French commanders was that they would have to press their attack through a rocky gully, where the Turon, a little stream running parallel with the Coa, ran. Any attack through the Turon would have to be made using skirmishing tactics.

Seeing the danger, Wellington ordered British light infantry to contest the gully. Five companies of the 95th were sent out under Major Peter O’Hare and a couple of light companies of the Guards under Lieutenant Colonel Hill. They marched about half a mile until they were by the Turon stream, in a boulder-strewn valley, taking up positions in some clumps of trees. But while the Rifles that day had shown a steadiness in close-order marching that would not have disgraced the Guards, the results would be very different when the Guards were required to show their skill as light troops alongside the 95th.

With a chain of French light troops coming towards them, an exchange of fire was soon under way. When the British 1st Dragoons cantered up on the riflemen’s left, ready to charge some French horse, there was one of those curious outbreaks of civilised consensus that was peculiar to the Anglo-French Peninsular fight: ‘This was the first charge of cavalry most of us had seen and we were all much interested in it. The French skirmishers extended against us seemed to feel the same, and by general consent both parties suspended fire while the affair of the dragoons was going on.’

The crackle of rifles and musketoons then resumed, with both sides standing their ground, using cover while they reloaded. O’Hare’s men – something under three hundred of them – were soon given an order to withdraw, since it was becoming apparent that the French frontal attack on the 1st Division would not be pressed home and that the enemy light troops in the Turon had effectively been checked. The Rifles began falling back from tree to tree, firing and loading, front-rank man eyeing his rear-rank man, a rhythmic dance in which every Green Jacket knew his place.

Breaking off the engagement in skirmish order was a difficult undertaking when there were so many French cavalry loitering about. To compound the danger, folds of the ground or trees might conceal the approach of horse until there was no time to react. One officer of the 95th turned around to see that ‘a company of the Guards, who did not get out of the wood at the time we retired (from mistake I suppose) were sharply attacked.’

Some squadrons of the 13ème Chasseurs à Cheval, French light cavalry, came cantering into view, and seeing the Guards were running about in all directions, set spurs to their horses, trumpeters sounding the charge. Lieutenant Colonel Hill’s men were unable to form square. Many tried running for it, but the horsemen were soon among them, bringing their sabres down onto the heads and arms of the desperate infantry. The Guards tried to rally into ‘hives’, small defensive clumps in which the men faced outwards with their bayonets, but it was too late for many. Seventy were killed or wounded, Hill and nineteen others captured and led back to the French lines. Meanwhile, the companies of the 95th engaged that day suffered no fatalities and fewer than a dozen wounded between them.

If the Rifles had been able to skirmish with great success as well as little loss, the last great drama of 5 May was to be a much more sanguinary affair. Since early that morning, the 71st and 79th had been under attack from thousands of Frenchmen in the village of Fuentes d’Onoro itself. The 71st was a Scottish regiment that had been retrained one year before in light-infantry duties; the 79th were Highlanders, the Cameronians, still proudly kilted.

By early afternoon, when the action on the Light Division’s flank was petering out, the French were throwing yet another wave of infantry into the village, its defenders having fought doggedly for six or seven hours. ‘The town presented a shocking sight,’ one observer wrote, ‘our Highlanders lay dead in heaps … the French grenadiers lay in piles of ten and twenty together.’

The Scots, short of ammunition, were driven from house to house until a few score of the 79th were holding out in a churchyard near the British end of the town, supported by the 71st in nearby houses. Wellington could not afford to lose this critical point, at the elbow of his two defensive lines, and he ordered a counter-attack, sending a brigade of Picton’s 3rd Division into action.

They charged into the narrow streets and the French troops, momentarily caught with walls or piles of bodies to their backs, fought desperately with the bayonet. The remnants of the 79th, emerging from their churchyard, set about them with the passion of men bent on revenge, and when their colonel was hit and fell, this anger turned into an unstoppable blood lust. ‘Such was the fury of the 79th’, wrote a member of Wellington’s staff who later went to investigate, ‘that they literally destroyed every man they could catch.’ In this mayhem, no quarter was given: cornered Frenchmen pleading for their lives were swiftly bayoneted by the Highlanders.

By late afternoon, with the guns falling silent in the village too, some companies of the 95th were sent down to pick their way through the narrow lanes choked with corpses, and post themselves as lookouts on the far side of Fuentes. A few French officers, coming forward with a flag of truce to evacuate the wounded, struck up conversation with the riflemen. Some of the officers recognised one another, for their old foe General Ferey had been one of those leading his regiments in the desperate fight of that afternoon. Flasks of brandy were passed around and they reflected on that day’s terrible cost; how many of their friends and comrades had drunk deep of the ‘fountain of honour’ at Fuentes d’Onoro. The British had suffered 1,452 casualties and the French 2,192 during the day’s slaughter.

Among the Rifle officers gazing at the fallen Camerons and talking to witnesses of the fight, there were some theories about why they had suffered so heavily: 256 casualties. Of course the close-quarters battle had been a desperate affair, but the 71st engaged alongside the Camerons throughout had suffered half the casualties. The 79th had been serving under Wellington for less than one year and still fought by the book: the old book. Most of the Peninsular veteran regiments – as well as the 71st – had adopted the movement and firing tactics of the Light Brigade – ‘Sir John Moore’s System’, so called. But the 79th had been ill equipped for the village fight: instead of dissolving their companies into skirmishers fighting from every window, they had, apparently, tried to keep their men formed up in small groups, firing volleys in sections according to the old drill.

The riflemen posted as pickets found themselves negotiating their way through the dead and dying. The 95th were not indifferent to their suffering, but having marched or doubled many miles that day and fought their own battle, they were dog tired. One of the subalterns, the Scottish lieutenant John Kincaid, chanced upon a Highlander: ‘a ball had passed through the back part of the head, from which the brain was oozing, and his only sign of life was a compulsive hiccough every two or three seconds.’ Kincaid asked a medic to examine his countryman, and the doctor affirmed the case was hopeless. The lieutenant then ‘got a mattress from the nearest house, placed the poor fellow on it, and made use of one corner as a pillow for myself, on which, after the fatigues of the day … I slept most soundly. The Highlander died in the course of the night.’

Kincaid’s businesslike attitude to passing the night next to this dying man reflected how used the 95th had become to being surrounded by death. It was the currency of much of their daily conversation, be they rankers or officers. Among the latter the topic of sudden death was so common that endless euphemisms were coined to provide a little conversational variety: ‘biting the dust’, ‘entered in today’s Gazette’, ‘acquainted with the Grand Secret’, ‘going across the Styx’.

Those who were unable to deal with the odds in the 95th sought a post elsewhere if they were an officer, or skulked in the hospitals if they belonged to the rank and file. For the most part, though, the veterans who had sailed to Portugal two years earlier embraced their destiny, resigning themselves with a grim fatalism. Reviewing the results of his two months on the march, George Simmons wrote home to Yorkshire just after Fuentes d’Onoro:

Since our advance from Santarem on 6 March, seven of our officers have laid down their lives, and a great number have been wounded. I soon expect to have my lieutenancy. If I live, I shall get a company sooner in this regiment than any other. In six months we see as much service as half the army can boast of in ten years.

The adventurers among the 95th’s officers constantly related the risks they ran to their chances of advancement. A little later that summer, doubtless after some maudlin reflection on the events of that year, Simmons told his father, ‘It of course makes one gloomy to see so many fine fellows fall round one, but one day or other we must all go. The difference is very immaterial in the long run whether a bullet or the hand of time does your business. This is my way of moralising when I go into a fight.’

Simmons’s bargain with danger in the 95th was not quite as he portrayed it to his parents; for while he kept his end of it, the Army was unable to advance him at the speed he expected. George’s brother Maud, serving with the 34th Foot, was promoted to lieutenant on 13 March 1811, one year and eleven months after he had joined. Two years on from joining the 95th, George was still a second lieutenant.

Some riflemen had realised that their risks in any single battle were relatively small, skirmishing among the rocks and trees, when compared to those of a line battalion sent shoulder to shoulder into a hail of metal in some hell like Fuentes d’Onoro. The 79th had nine officers wounded in a day there. When a southern detachment of the British Army fought at Albuera later that May, some regiments were completely crushed: the 57th suffering 428 casualties, including two-thirds of its officers killed or wounded in a few hours. Maud Simmons’s 34th were at Albuera too, suffering 128 casualties, including three officers killed.

For the average line regiment, though, the odds of being sent into the burning heart of some terrible battle like this were very low. Some served years in the Peninsula without being heavily engaged with the enemy. Since marching towards one’s enemy required a moral strength and a resignation to destiny, the Army at large became all the more aware that men in the Light Division were unusual, in that they had to summon up these qualities repeatedly. And within this division, the 95th were called upon most often. Not long after Fuentes d’Onoro, one officer of the 43rd wrote home that his division’s ‘conduct is spoken of by all the Army in the highest terms, and to be in the Light Division is sufficient to stamp a man as a good soldier’.

The reputation gained by Craufurd’s division was not the result of effusive reports in the newspapers – excepting the language used by Wellington himself to describe the battles in his dispatches – but something rather more subtle. Letters home from men like Simmons were read by brothers sitting bored by the fireside and related to cousins or friends. The knowledge of the 95th’s deeds and the atmosphere within the regiment rippled outwards by correspondence and word of mouth, through Army families into wider society.

George’s brother Maud expressed interest in transferring from the 34th into the 95th. George tried to dissuade him, writing to their parents, ‘He is very comfortable in his present [corps], and not half so liable to be exposed to hardships. I have advised him to continue in his regiment.’ Maud already knew enough from his Army service to accept the advice. But among the ingénues in Britain or Ireland who thirsted for adventure, attempts to dissuade them by frank accounts of the dangers or of the months spent sleeping in the open only increased their desire to wear the green jacket. George and Maud’s teenage sibling Joseph, back home in Yorkshire for the moment, would prove just such a case.

Many young gentlemen set fathers, uncles or military friends of the family investigating whether they might join. At Headquarters, they were sensitive enough to the dangers of this service to try to dissuade one aristocrat from seeking a commission in a Light Division regiment; a staff officer wrote that ‘Lord Wellington conceives there he might be treated to more shots than his friends would wish.’ Instead, the general recommended that the young peer in question might consider the Fusiliers or Guards. Of course, many of the more humble applicants did not have the benefit of this private advice, nor were there great fortunes at stake if they bit the dust.

Now that the Light Division had won the admiration of the Peninsular Army and its commander, many of the officers already serving there, having no private funds or connections to fall back upon, became all the more determined to reap some reward for their service and to see off others whom they regarded as having inferior claims to advancement. This, as we shall see, made it increasingly difficult for newly arrived officers to fit in with the old veterans.

It also produced determination in men like Sidney Beckwith to see their best people receive just rewards. For Peter O’Hare, given a brevet in April, Wellington’s Fuentes dispatch contained more glorious news. His deeds in fighting off the French in the Turon valley drew a mention from his commander. That, in the formal system observed by Horse Guards, was an endorsement for promotion to the next suitable vacancy. Having gained an acting major’s rank in April, O’Hare got Wellington’s backing for a substantive post in May. This was a considerable coup, for an officer could soldier on for years with a brevet promotion without any actual change in his situation apart from the pay.

As for Simmons, Beckwith was determined to do something for him too. The commanding officer of the 1st Battalion, 95th, had a duty to make up a quarterly list of officers suitable for promotion, noting as well the number of vacancies open to them. This was relayed to Wellington’s military secretary, who in turn would usually gain the general’s endorsement on the nod, and the papers made their way to London. Writing several weeks after Fuentes, Beckwith departed from the usual formality of these reports in order to plead the case of Simmons: ‘The last named officer, I beg leave in a particular manner to recommend to Lord Wellington’s notice. He has been constantly with his company, has been very severely wounded, and his zeal and gallantry have been conspicuous on all occasions.’ This was sufficient to win him promotion to lieutenant, at last, in July 1811.

The hot months of June and July were therefore a time of some satisfaction for the officers and men of the 95th. There were marches and the ennui of endless pickets under Craufurd’s eagle eye, to be sure. But supplies remained regular, the regiment was operating in familiar territory and many of its members had seen that they could benefit from its reputation as the hardest fighting corps of the Peninsular Army. Nevertheless, those who had spent two years fighting for survival and promotion would not make the easiest bedfellows, as several young men who sought to share in the 95th’s glory were about to discover.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!