The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroThe Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place on this day in 1811 in and around the small border village close to the fortress of Almeida which was the last French foothold in Portugal.

In honour of the day, I wanted to share an extract from An Uncommon Campaign, where Major Carl Swanson finds himself commanding five companies under Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th, fighting a bloody battle in the narrow streets of the village.

The rifles and muskets crashed around him and Carl levelled his pistol and fired. The French voltigeurs came on, dodging behind walls and hedges, and after them came the sound of the drums as the French columns marched forward.  Carl had been through many battles and he knew the effect those drums could have on inexperienced troops especially when coupled with the sight of the solid columns of Frenchmen marching inexorably forward, shouting for their Emperor with the golden eagle standards blazing overhead. But the men of the 110th had been through too many battles to be easily intimidated. The guns up on the ridge began to fire into the columns, and there were cries of agony, spurting blood and smashing bone.  And then Carl heard the clear tones of Captain Manson through the smoke and noise and fear.

“All right lads, fall back when you need, don’t take a punishing.  Carter, Dawson, Cooper, Hammond – get rid of those bloody eagles, will you, they piss me off, they don’t even look like birds.”

Carl grinned, and fixed his eyes on the eagles. As the men began to fall back steadily before the approaching columns, there was a crack, and one of the eagles fell, its pole snapped.  There was a scrabble among the French to retrieve it, and then a scream of pain and the second eagle toppled forward as the man holding it died. Even through the chaos of battle Carl could hear men cheering as each one fell and he silently applauded Manson’s imaginative piece of morale-boosting.

There was no time for it now as the French crashed into the British lines and the fighting became close and personal and bloody. Each man fought for his life, with bayonet and sword, and seeing his men in danger of being overwhelmed, Carl yelled an order and turned to run back, finding new loopholes in three houses further up. His men recovered quickly, reloaded and turned to fire again.

They fought their way stubbornly up through the narrow streets of the village, in a welter of blood and death. In places, some of the light companies had built makeshift barricades from doors and bed frames, and their officers stood beside them, calling orders in measured tones. When the French overran them they abandoned firepower once more and through sheer determination forced the French back down the hill at the points of their bayonets, scrambling over dead and wounded of both sides.

It was impossible, in the tangled streets, to know what was happening elsewhere in the battle. On an open field it was easier to scan the lines and see how other battalions were doing, but Carl was only aware of his own five companies, now somewhat depleted. He found himself alone briefly in a winding lane, closely bordered by white cottages, one of them badly damaged by artillery fire, his men moving into the houses to check for enemy ambush. Carl wiped sweat from his face on his sleeve and it came away black. Keeping a wary eye up and down the lane he reached for his water bottle and gulped down a few swallows.

Ahead of him a smoke-blackened figure emerged from one of the doorways. “Clear in there, sir,” Private O’Hara said cheerfully. “Just got to..”

There was an explosion of sound and O’Hara’s body jerked violently. He made a strangled gurgling noise and then fell forward, blood spilling onto the baked earth of the street, his back a gaping hole. The Frenchman was only a few feet away and could not have missed, even with the dubious accuracy of a musket. Carl looked down at the dead Irishman and then up at the Frenchman and as he did so there was a babble of French voices and they poured out of the building opposite, a dozen of them, racing towards him with bayonets raised.

Carl dived into the nearest doorway. The house was empty, a bare room, cleared of valuables with only a few pieces of basic wooden furniture. The door was narrow and two of the French infantrymen tried to go through it at the same time and collided, temporarily stuck. Carl could have killed either of them without difficulty but their comrades were yelling behind them and he had no intention of running towards them. He spun around, looking for an exit, but the only window had wooden shutters firmly closed and he had no time to open them. 

There was a narrow wooden staircase and Carl sprinted towards it and scrambled to the upper floor. There were two doors and he dived through the first one, slammed it shut, making plaster fall from above with the force of it, and dragged the big wooden bed in front of it. It was not heavy enough to hold the Frenchmen but it would buy him some time.

The window here was also shuttered and Carl struggled furiously with the warped wood, showering himself with plaster and splinters as he fought to open it. It gave finally and he flung the shutter open and leaned over the sill, looking down into the lane below. It was a drop of more than ten feet, he guessed and if he jumped he risked a broken leg. They would bayonet him where he fell and looking along the street, he could see only Frenchmen; the British were further up, fighting their way through the houses at the top of the hill. His stupid pause had allowed him to become cut off from his men and hearing the bed shift behind him, he took a deep breath and swung his leg over the ledge, thinking how furious his commander would have been if he could see his predicament. 

Below, under the lower window, three bodies lay immobile, two British and one French. It was impossible to tell if they were alive or dead, but the Frenchman’s bayonet lay to one side and he was soaked in blood. Carl eased himself over, trying to lower himself to minimise the fall but a crash behind him told him he had run out of time and he went over in a scramble and dropped deliberately onto the body of the Frenchman.

It broke his fall as he had intended, the feeling of the corpse beneath him making him feel sick. There was no time to think about it; shouts from the window above told him that his pursuers were there and scrambling to load a musket. Carl got to his feet shakily and turned towards the far end of the hill where his companies had been fighting.

“Sir, get down!” a voice bellowed and Carl recognised it with overwhelming relief, as Private Dawson of the light company. He dropped like a stone, flat to the ground and there was a flurry of rifle shots and an order called in the London accent of Sergeant Hammond. Above him a man screamed and then a body crashed to the ground close to him. More shots were fired and then he heard running feet, hard on the packed earth, and he was suddenly surrounded by red coats.  A hand reached to pull him to his feet.

“Sir, are you hurt?” Manson’s voice said.

“No, but I’m bloody embarrassed, that was a mistake I’d expect from a sixteen year old ensign fresh off the boat. You tell the colonel and I’m coming after you, Leo. And thank you.”

He turned and watched as his men surged past him, driving the French back down the hill in a fierce charge. Above, the men at the windows had vanished, driven off by the fire of the rifles although one lay dead in the street beside him and another hung like a broken doll over the window ledge. Carl looked at Manson.

“You all right?”

Manson nodded.  His face was black with powder and there was blood on his coat .  “Think so, sir. Bastard of a place to defend, mind.  Cooper and Blake are hurt, I’ve told them to get themselves up to the church, it’s where we’re sending the wounded for now.”

General Robert Craufurd – you couldn’t make him up…

General Robert Craufurd fought the battle of the Coa on this bridge

Researching for the Peninsular War saga, I’ve met a few characters along the way and other than Lord Wellington, one of my absolute favourites has to be General Robert Craufurd, known to the army as Black Bob, the irascible genius who commanded the Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s army.

When I first created Lieutenant Paul van Daan who marched into the barracks of the 110th foot in 1802 ready to take over, my research into Wellington’s army was only just beginning.  I wasn’t sure how he was going to fit in.  I had thought, early on, that he might turn out to be one of Wellington’s exploring officers, a bit of a lone wolf, since he wasn’t really much like the other officers.  That idea was quickly abandoned.  Mr van Daan, it turned out, was better at the army than I thought he might be.  Besides which, extensive reading made it really clear to me that there was only one natural place for an over-confident individualist with a perfectionist attitude to training and a liking for eccentric characters.  Paul van Daan, although he didn’t know it yet, was clearly destined for Wellington’s Light Division under the grumpy, over-sensitive genius, General Robert Craufurd.

Craufurd was from a Scottish family and joined the army at fifteen.  He has a surprising amount in common with my fictional character, Paul van Daan.  Like Paul, he took the army seriously, studying at a military school in Berlin and travelling all over Europe and to South America and India on various postings.  Like Paul, he had varying success with his commanding officers.  He gained the reputation of being difficult, rude and bad-tempered.  More than once he seriously considered giving up the army, so disgusted was he with how poorly it was run in places.

Like Paul, Robert Craufurd married for love and was devoted to his young wife.  Mary Holland was a granddaughter of Lancelot Capability Brown the landscape designer and Craufurd was thirty-six when they married.  He fell in love relatively late but he fell hard and it was a source of exasperation to his future commanders, particularly Lord Wellington, that he frequently requested furlough home to see his love.  When Craufurd was in the Peninsular, Mary spent some time in Lisbon to be close to him and he returned to England, incurring the wrath of Wellington, for several months during 1811, arriving back literally on the battlefield in time to save the day at Fuentes de Onoro.  He had four children, three boys and a girl.

In 1808, Craufurd sailed for Corunna in Spain to reinforce Sir John Moore’s army.  Under Moore’s reorganisation, General Robert Craufurd was given command of what was called the 1st Flank Brigade which comprised the first battalions of the 43rd and 52nd and the second battalion of the 95th rifles, all light infantry.  The 2nd Flank Brigade, interestingly was commanded by Brigadier Charles von Alten who was to become Craufurd’s successor in command of the light division.  When Moore realised he was at risk of being cut off he began a brutal retreat to the coast.  The two flank brigades marched separately towards Orense.  Men died of cold and starvation and illness although unlike Moore’s main force they were not pursued by the French.  The retreat became famous for Craufurd’s brutal discipline, although surprisingly the enlisted men did not seem to resent this.  They considered that their safe arrival was due to their commander’s iron control of his brigade.  At the coast they awaited stragglers before returning to England, emaciated, sick and in rags.

Craufurd’s brigade, by now, known as the Light Brigade, returned to Portugal in May 1809, but poor weather delayed their sailing and despite a forced march which covered 45 miles in 26 hours they just missed the battle of Talavera.  Nevertheless, it is clear that despite numerous personal differences, Lord Wellington knew the worth of his most difficult commander and the Light Brigade was increased in number to become the Light Division, the elite troops of Wellington’s army.  Trained skirmishers, they could move fast and travel light and the French learned to fear them.

Craufurd was one of the few men that Wellington the control freak, trusted out of his sight.  The only generals with whom Wellington would ever enter into explanation and discussion were Hill, Beresford and Craufurd – the rest were simply given their orders and expected to obey them.  During that difficult winter Craufurd was sent with his division to hold the Allied outposts, patrolling the border and engaging in constant skirmishing with the French while other divisions rested.  By the time Wellington was ready to advance his army to the border, chasing Massena out of Portugal, Craufurd’s light division was legendary, a force of tough individualists led by the man often described as the rudest man in the army.

General Robert Craufurd had an unusually good relationship with his enlisted men despite being a harsh disciplinarian, very willing to use flogging.  This was because despite his strict reputation, he was also known to care for the welfare of his men in a way that few generals did, working hard to ensure that they were fed and well-equipped.  He seemed often to be more comfortable with the men than their officers.  With a few notable exceptions, the officers of the light division did not like Craufurd.  He had an uneven temper and thought nothing of yelling at officers in exactly the same way as he did the men.  They considered him rude, sarcastic and a bully.

In 1810 Craufurd was keen to show that the confidence which Wellington placed in him was not undeserved.  A sensitive man, he could not forget that he was four years older than Beresford, five years older than Wellington, eight years older than Hill, but still a junior brigadier-general in charge of a division.  He was older and had been in the army longer than most of Wellington’s other commanders but promotion was slow in coming, possibly because of his somewhat abrasive personality.

The Light Division was moved up to the Spanish frontier, and settled in the villages around the fortress town of Almeida with its outposts pushed forward to the line of the River Agueda. From March to July 1810 Craufurd accomplished the extraordinary feat of guarding a front of 40 miles against an active enemy with six times more men.  Not once did the French split his line or find out any information about Wellington’s gathering forces at his rear.  He was in constant and daily touch with Ney’s corps, but was never surprised, and seldom pushed back; he never lost a detachment or sent his commander false intelligence.  General Robert Craufurd’s activity on the border that year gave Wellington everything he needed for the coming campaign.

There were four bridges and around fifteen fords between Ciudad Rodrigo and the mouth of the Agueda, all of which were practicable in dry weather and some even after a day or two of rain. Craufurd insisted on reports being made on the state of the fords every morning.  Beacons were set up on the heights so as to communicate information about the French movements and it took less than ten minutes for his division to get under arms in the middle of the night, and a quarter of an hour, night or day, to bring it in to full order of battle with baggage loaded and assembled.

One of the light division’s most famous skirmishes during this period came at the old Roman bridge at Barba del Puerco.  Ferey sent six companies of voltigeurs, the French light skirmishers, to take the bridge before dawn.  He was able to bayonet the sentries on the bridge before they could get off a shot and was halfway up the slope towards the village of Puerto Seguro, but Craufurd’s system was foolproof and within ten minutes Sydney Beckwith’s detachment of rifles were upon him.  They drove him down the slope and back across the river at speed with the loss of almost fifty men, while Beckwith lost only four men killed and ten wounded.

Occasionally, Craufurd’s daring got the better of him.  At the combat of the Coa in July 1810 he took his men across the river in direct contravention of Wellington’s orders and escaped annihilation by the skin of his teeth.  Wellington was furious but quickly forgave the man he considered essential to his success in keeping the French at bay.  He later wrote:

“I cannot accuse a man who I believe has meant well, and whose error was one of judgement, not of intention.”

At this point, in my novels, Paul van Daan’s battalion of the 110th is still operating independently under Wellington’s command.  Increasingly, however, Wellington is sending Paul into action with the Light Division.  Initially the Captain of the 110th light company, Paul is now beginning to train his entire battalion as skirmishers and it is clear where he wants to be.  His relationship with Craufurd is surprisingly good, although with the frequent explosions to be expected of two determined individualists.  Their relationship might not have survived their very public disagreement at the Coa when Paul disobeys Craufurd’s direct order so that his men can cover the retreat.  It is Anne, newly married, who persuades Paul that as the junior of the two it is Paul’s job to apologise.  From this point on, no matter what their differences, Craufurd and Paul present a united front, something which must have surprised many people.  As with many other relationships in the army, Paul’s path is smoothed by his lovely, clever wife’s diplomatic skills and she and Craufurd are firm friends.

Craufurd’s Command Post at Bussaco

At Bussaco later that year, Craufurd more than redeemed himself, and Wellington was annoyed when his general insisted on returning to England for the winter to see Mary and recover from some health problems.  He threatened half heartedly to give Craufurd’s division to another to command, but the disaster of Sir William Erskine’s temporary command of the light division made it unlikely he would ever carry through on that threat.  In May, Craufurd reappeared on the field at Fuentes d’Onoro to the loud cheers of his men, a typically theatrical entrance.  He then proceeded, within twenty-four hours, to demonstrate just how it was done when he saved the 7th division and the whole of Wellington’s right flank by making a textbook fighting withdrawal.  By now, Paul is in charge of the third brigade, finally part of the light division, and takes an important part in the battle.  Robert Craufurd was promoted to Major-General on 4 June 1811.

Seven months later in January 1812, Black Bob Craufurd was shot down in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo at the age of 48.  Typically, he was high up, shouting orders to his men and did not seem to have realised how exposed his position had become, standing in two fire lines.  Typically, in my story at least, it was the youngest and most awkward of his brigade commanders who helps carry him from the field and is with him to the end.  The men of his light division were devastated.  Craufurd took four days to die, the bullet having passed through his lung and lodged against his spine, and he was buried with honour in the breach where he had fallen.  Wellington mourned him deeply and must have frequently wished, through the rest of the war, that his most difficult but talented commander had survived to make the journey with him.

Craufurd and Wellington were not close friends although in some ways they were very alike.  Both were brilliant commanders, clever and well-educated in military matters.  Both could be demanding, meticulous and found it hard to tolerate anything but perfection.  Both struggled at times with managing their officers although Craufurd was better than Wellington with his enlisted men, something he shares with his fictional junior.  The two men had an enormous respect for one another.  Craufurd was a sensitive man, considering his own rudeness at times, and Wellington frequently offended him but always made sure to put it right by complimenting Craufurd’s many talents soon afterwards.  He deeply mourned his difficult, irascible commander and on his deathbed, Craufurd apologised for the many occasions he had been less than supportive of his commander in chief.

The next commander of the Light Division was a surprise to many.  General Charles von Alten was German, very correct, very likely to obey orders, very different to Black Bob Craufurd.  Military historians have not all been kind to Von Alten, although he seems to have commanded the division very competently through the rest of the war.  He appeared to lack the zest and panache of his somewhat eccentric predecessor.

In my novels, there is a reason for Wellington’s choice, and it is summed up very succinctly by Anne van Daan, speaking of Von Alten.

“He’s not as staid as you’d think.  They’ll disagree at times, but Von Alten is a very clever man, Johnny.  He knows what he’s good at, but he also knows his limitations, and he’s going to use Paul to fill that gap.  In some ways it will work better than General Craufurd did.  Craufurd was every bit as brilliant an improviser as Paul.  They loved working together but it was overkill.  Von Alten is a far better fit.  He’ll bring the stability and the organisational skills and Paul will provide the flashes of brilliance.  And this – this is what they share.  The work ethic to be up at dawn when the rest of the army is still resting and recovering, training the new recruits.  Von Alten is genuinely keen to learn how this works, and Paul loves the fact that he’s down here listening and watching instead of being up at headquarters being nice to Wellington.” (An Uncommon Campaign)

Although the third brigade and its flamboyant commander are a figment of my imagination, perhaps there is something in this.  Wikipedia gives this brief description of an action from the Battle of the Nivelle:

Statue of General Colborne outside Winchester Barracks

While the 43rd and 95th were dealing with the French on the Rhune, there still remained one very strong star-shaped fort below on the Mouiz plateau which reached out towards the coast. This was attacked by Colborne’s 52nd, supported by riflemen from the 95th. Once again, the French were surprised and the British succeeded. They had, in the French eyes, appeared from the ground at which point, in danger of being cut off, the French soldiers quickly fled leaving Colborne in possession of the fort and other trenches without loss of a single fatal casualty.

It sounds like the kind of action at which Robert Craufurd would have excelled.  Perhaps after his death Wellington realized that the officers and men he had trained had turned into independent skirmishers to such a degree that a Charles von Alten was needed to rein them in.  Perhaps it was true that while he had men like Colborne and Vandeleur and Barnard, he did not need another Robert Craufurd.

Whatever the truth of it, I love Craufurd, a brilliant, flawed and very human man who believed in God, loved his children and adored his wife.

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the Peninsular War Saga Tour: From Sabugal to Fuentes de Onoro – Battles Galore…

Goats in Belmonte

Our Peninsular War Saga tour took us off the beaten track in places, especially when we were trying to find the site of the battle of Sabugal.

Sabugal, 1811….

They moved away at a run and Manson went forward to join Michael O’Reilly.  The Irishman grinned at him.  “Welcome to the light company, laddie.  You all right to fight, you’re as white as a sheet?”

“I’m fine, sir.”  Manson gave a brief smile.  “Why is he so insistent on us obeying orders?” he asked.  “He doesn’t normally say that.”

Michael glanced across at him with a quick smile.  “Clever lad,” he said.  “No he doesn’t.  He wants it to be very clear that we all have absolutely no say in this.  No democracy here.  He didn’t ask for Johnny or Carl’s opinion back there although he normally does before he makes a decision.”

Manson studied him through the mist.  “Because if it goes wrong it’s his responsibility.  Nobody else can be scapegoated.”

“That’s right.”

“Wellington’s a bastard,” Sergeant Carter said beside him.  “He lets them go yapping at the Colonel’s heels he’s going to get more than he bargained for.”

“You threatening the General, Sergeant?” O’Reilly said, lifting his arm to call his men forward.

“I wasn’t talking about me, sir.  It’ll be the end of kissing her hand and whispering sweet nothings at the headquarters ball.  I don’t know if he realises it, but she’ll carve his liver out and send it to Horse Guards in a box if he does anything that hurts her man.”

“Christ, yes,” Michael said, looking amused.  “Hope this goes well for his sake.”

They marched into eerie silence.  Paul had drawn his sword.  Across the lines his drummers beat a steady marching rhythm, which made it easier for his men to keep in touch.  They made their way steadily up the hill.  He watched his light company moving ahead.  Their line was uneven, each pair of men covering each other, running up and past each other then dropping into firing position.  He had watched them so many times on the training field, had run with them and yelled at them and called them names, and he felt his stomach clench knowing that the decision he had just taken might get many of them killed.

(From ‘An Irregular Regiment’ by Lynn Bryant, book two of the Peninsular War Saga)

We started this day driving out to the little town of Sabugal.  It isn’t one of the better known battles of the Peninsular War and many people have never heard of it.  Sadly it wasn’t included in my battlefield guide, but I found a brief description online of how to get to the site here.  It was surprisingly easy to follow and we drove down to the simple plaque which commemorates the battle and then on down to the edge of the Coa to look across at where the light division advanced from.

Sabugal Battlefield

The river here has been dammed into a lake, but even so it is very easy to look up the hill and imagine how it must have felt marching up into the fog without being able to see the enemy.  It was one of General Erskine’s worst blunders during his time with Wellington’s army.  General Craufurd was on leave in England and the half blind and very mad Erskine is in temporary charge of the light division.   In my novel, Lord Wellington has given the job of babysitting Erskine and keeping him from making any disastrous mistakes to the recently promoted Colonel Paul van Daan at the head of the 110th and 112th infantry along with a battalion of Portuguese cacadores.  Paul is faced with the decision to follow the first brigade of the light division into the fog against orders or letting them get slaughtered.

Memorial to the Battle of Sabugal, 1811.

Sabugal itself has a pretty castle and a tiny interpretation centre dedicated to the Sephardic Jews of Portugal who either fled or went into hiding under the inquisition.  This part of our trip was nothing to do with my writing, but was something of a journey into family history for Richard, whose family on his mother’s side were called Nunes da Costa, and were from this part of the world originally.  From Sabugal we drove to the little town of Belmonte, with which I fell in love.  It helped that the sun shone but we were entranced by the lovely little houses, with flowers everywhere and delighted by the castle, the various churches and the pretty synagogue along with the fact that boards outside cafes and restaurants advertised kosher food.  There wasn’t enough time to do Belmonte justice although we did enjoy a picnic in the central square next to the fountain, but it is on my list of places to come back to.

Synagogue in Belmonte, Portugal

Back to Wellington’s army, we drove on to the ruins of the immense fortress at Almeida and retraced the steps of General Robert Craufurd’s near disaster at the bridge over the Coa.  This was one of those battles I had found hard to understand and standing on that bridge it all fell into place.  In An Unconventional Officer the action at the Coa takes place off stage although it was important and is often referred back to.  I have a feeling it would make a good short story later on.

Memorial to the Battle of the Coa, overlooking the bridge

After the Coa we drove up for a brief photography stop in Freineda, Wellington’s winter headquarters for two seasons, both 1811-12 and 1812-13.  I had seen so many photographs of the house it was odd to see it in real life. Sadly it wasn’t open and our tour is too rushed to work out how to get the key so we’ll have to wait for another trip for that.

Wellington's Headquarters in Freineda

We drove back through Vilar Formoso, although there is little sign of the pretty village which housed one of the hospitals where wounded were taken from the battle of Fuentes dOnoro.  Many of Wellington’s staff and officers were billeted there and after the battle, grave pits were dug behind the large house where the hospital was located.  In the book, Anne van Daan is initially billeted there but moves on fairly quickly to avoid the smells of the hospital and the graves.

Our final stop of the day was Fuentes d’Onoro.  Thanks to our brilliant battlefield guide, we were able to stand by the Dos Casa stream where the English and French exchanged cigarillos and food during a brief break in the fighting and look up at the ridge where Wellington temporarily overextended his line and was saved by the brilliance of General Craufurd and the light division, which by then, in my saga, included the men of Colonel Paul van Daan’s third brigade.

Fuentes d’Onoro looking up from the French position.

An amazing day.  By the end of the day I felt as though I’d been walking in the footsteps of Wellington’s army and I loved every minute of it. I’m so grateful to the man I married for acting as driver and photographer and for letting me bore on about history for the whole week and I think the books will be the better because of it.

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