The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1811 Frenada, Elvas, Fuentes de Onoro, Albuera

1811 started with Massena's force struggling to survive in Santarem whilst Soult was besieging Badajoz. In the process he defeated the Spanish under General Mendizábal at the River Gabora and there were further Spanish setbacks. Badajoz fell to the French on 11th March.

 

In Cadiz there were 26,000 allied troops in the city under siege since January 1810. The fort was practicably impregnable and Wellington was content to let the siege continue as it tied down an equal number of French troops. When Soult marched on Badajoz he drew off all but the bare minimum to continue the siege of Cadiz which gave the British commander, Lieutenant General Thomas Graham, an opportunity. Plans were made for an Anglo-Spanish force of 13,000 to make a seaborne sortie to attack the French in the rear. The plan was implemented and resulted in victory on 5th March despite co-operational difficulties.

 

By 11th April Massena had withdrawn to Salamanca having lost about 25,000 men after a serious defeat at Sabugal and suffering starvation and sickness. There were no French forces left in Portugal but Wellington now had to defend the 120 mile frontier from Ciudad Rodrigo to Badajoz with both forts on the two main routes into Portugal in French hands. If Massena and Soult concentrated their forces they could pitch 70,000 or more men against Wellington’s 58,000. He was consequently forced to remain on the defensive but moved his headquarters forward in the north to Frenada nearer the frontier with 38,000 men and sent Marshal William Beresford, the British general commanding the Portuguese Army, south to Elvas. His task was to guard the southern approach route and to invest Badajoz if possible.

Wellington's headquarters at Frenada and to where he returned in 1812

Elvas

Elvas is a walled frontier city with a fortress and guards the southern approaches to Portugal. It covers the River Tagus, complements Badajoz and allegedly was the stronger of the two. Together the two forts blocked the road to Talavera and Madrid.

 

Wellington considered Elvas was capable of prolonged defence providing it was properly garrisoned. In 1810 it had 8,000 Portuguese regular and militia troops under the command of their General Francisco Leite. Wellington sought the mobilisation of all 48 militia regiments to provide 70,000 men on the Portuguese military establishment but only 45,000 were ever raised.

Elvas

On 25th March Beresford drove off a French cavalry probe at Campo Mayor and on 20th April Wellington, riding 200 miles down from the north, suggested Albuera as a position from which to meet any French advance.

 

Wellington then rode back, returning to his HQ on 28th April determined to deal with Massena if he would attack and he could get his 38,000 troops into a good defensive position. On 3 May Massena advanced with 48,000 men westwards through Ciudad Rodrigo, equally determined to deal with Wellington.

Fuentes de Oñoro 3-5th May

Wellington established his position at Fuentes de Oñoro, about 5 miles east of the River Coa, on a long low ridge running north-south astride the road. This gave him a reverse slope whilst he hoped for a frontal assault, the south being the weakest part of the defence. The Dos Casas stream flowing forward of the ridge was no great obstacle until further north nearer Fort Concepciòn where it enters a ravine. The village formed the strongpoint of the defence with a total of 2,260 men. Four divisions were deployed behind the crest of the ridge and two divisions north of the village. The weak southern flank was good cavalry country but where his 2000 men could be outnumbered by over twice as many French cavalry.

Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

Fuentes de Oñoro

Nicknamed - "Fountains of Horror"

The Dos Casas stream

On 3rd May Massena attacked the village with five of his eight divisions head-on . The fighting was hard and the allies were slowly driven back and out of the village. Wellington then sent in two Highland regiments who recaptured it after even fiercer fighting. Close quarter combat continued until the evening with the allies holding the village after losing 259 men and the French 652.

 

The following day there was an unofficial truce with some fraternisation when troops met at the stream. The French held parades designed to intimidate, or possibly distract, whilst the British played football. That day General Montbrun, the French cavalry commander, probed the position's southern flank and found the light defence based on the hamlet of Poco Velho. However, he had been observed so Wellington reinforced the village with 7 Division and sent some cavalry to support the Spanish guerrilla, Julian Sanchez, and his men in Nave de Haver.

 

That night Massena moved four cavalry brigades and two infantry divisions into position. He attacked at dawn on 5th May with a feint in the north and the main attack in the south combined with a fresh assault on Fuentes de Oñoro. 7 Division started to withdraw in some disorder, Sanchez was forced out of Nave de Haver and Wellington’s position was seriously threatened with the stronger force. In response he ordered the Light Division with cavalry and artillery to provide support whilst realigning his remaining force. Fuentes de Oñoro was now defended by just three battalions.

Narrow village lanes

Village church and memorial

As the French advanced the Light Division delayed them by forming squares and withdrawing gradually; similarly the cavalry conducted repeated charges whilst withdrawing over 3 miles as 7 Division re-formed back into line. In the centre 5,000 French infantry attacked Fuentes de Oñoro where in bitter fighting the defenders were driven back with to the church. Reinforcements arrived on both sides and despite 18 French battalions being deployed the attackers were eventually driven out. The death toll was bad and piles of bodies jammed the narrow alleyways of the village.

 

A final French attack at 1400 hours failed by which time all the troops were exhausted. The position was held, Wellington remained ready for further attacks and the defenders dug in – the only time this was done during the war. Massena withdrew to Salamanca on 8 May.

Poco Velho

Cavalry country along the frontier

Albuera 16th May

Following the success at Fuentes de Oñoro Beresford, in conjunction with Spanish forces under General Joachim Blake, started to lay siege to Badajoz. With no proper siege train he was ill-equipped to do so and was losing men when he heard on 12th May that Soult was 75 miles away and advancing with the French Army of Andalusia to relieve the French garrison. The defensive position at Albuera, previously identified by Wellington, was selected to confront Soult's force of 24,000. Beresford’s army comprised 35,000 British and Portuguese troops with the Spanish contingent under Blake and Castaños. They were in position by 16th May on the reverse slope along the heights running north to south and parallel with the river Albuera that lays just to the east of the town.

This map is orientated with North to the right

Unfortunately Soult did not attack across the river bridge in the centre towards the town, as expected, but feinted towards it whilst sending his main force round to the south. A long hard battle ensued which was to be the bloodiest of the war. After 7 hours fighting ended in heavy rain with Allied losses over 6,000 and French losses about 7,000.

Looking southeast from the Spanish positions towards the main axis of the French approach - the tree cover is much reduced

Looking towards the Albuera ridge from the French approach - the town is on the distant right

Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

Tiled panels of the Polish lancers' attacks

Bridge over the River Albuera

Memorial in Albuera to General Castaños

After Albuera a military stalemate prevailed between Wellington's forces and the French. Wellington resumed the siege of Badajoz despite a serious shortage of siege equipment and took up a strong defensive position near Elvas.

 

Marshal Auguste Marmont, who had replaced Massena, joined Soult's force with the French Army of Portugal. French forces totalled 60,000, the Allies stood at 50,000.

Tiled panel of the battle

The Guadiana valley was regarded as an unhealthy place and both sides withdrew without seeking battle. Soult left to secure Andalusia and Marmont fell back to the Tagus valley near Talavera. There was little chance of taking Badajoz so Wellington withdrew to the border area in the north again where further engagements took place. In anticipation of an assault on Cuidad Rodrigo he brought his new siege train up, in itself a massive operation.