The Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro: An Uncommon Campaign – Book Three in the Peninsular War Saga

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

Fuentes d’Onoro, May 1811

The battle of Fuentes d’Onoro was a near miss for Wellington’s army
The battle of Fuentes D’Onoro took place in 1811

Wellington had initially taken up a reasonably strong position on the line of the Dos Casas, a tributary of the Agueda River. Although the stream itself was insignificant, the section in front of the Allied left ran through a significant ravine that would effectively prevent any French attack on this part of Wellington’s troops. His right was not as strong. As the Dos Casas climbed into the hills the valley was less pronounced and provided less protection. The British position ended at the village of Fuentes de Oñoro, which climbed up from the river to the top of the ridge, and was itself a very defensible position. To the south, however the ravine disappeared and it would be very possible for the French to outflank the British.
With his troops in preliminary positions, Wellington summoned the three light division commanders.
“They’re on their way,” he said without preliminaries. “Marching down from Ciudad Rodrigo. We’ll see where he places them and then look at our positions.”
“If we get time,” Paul said.
His commander eyed him with a forbidding expression. “Have you something useful to say, Colonel van Daan or are you just making sure we all know that your new command is not going to stop you questioning my orders any time you feel like it?”
“Not questioning, sir, more of a comment. You already know we could have done with a bit more time, but we’ll manage. Where do you want us?”
Wellington studied him and then gave a small grim smile. “Out on the road initially, give them a hard time as they approach. I’m sending out four cavalry regiments as well. No major engagements and don’t take any risks, I will need your men intact for this battle, we’re short enough as it is. Have you heard me, Colonel van Daan?”
“Loud and clear, sir. Getting better at it all the time.”
Wellington shook his head. “I can’t wait until Craufurd gets back, he approved this but that’s because he’s forgotten what you’re like. You’re going to give him a seizure.”
“No, he’s easily as tough as you, sir, and I haven’t given you one yet.” Paul glanced at Drummond. “How do you want to do this, George?”
Drummond looked at him and smiled slightly. “Was that an attempt at tact, Paul? Why don’t Beckwith and I take the north side and you bring up the south with the cavalry, the ground on that side will suit them better. We’ll meet back before Fuentes once they’ve made camp.”
Paul nodded. “Sounds good. Sir, we could do with some fast riders to keep us in touch with each other. I can use some of my ensigns but frankly they’d be more use with their men…”
“I’ll get Julian Sanchez to lend you some of his horsemen they know the countryside.” Wellington eyed the three men. “I thought Craufurd would be here in time for this. And he still might make it, he must be very close. Which is why I haven’t appointed a temporary commander.”
There was a brief silence which extended and became difficult. Still nobody spoke. Paul took a deep breath. “I’m glad you shared that, sir, because I’ve been thinking you’d done that just to make my introduction to commanding a brigade more interesting.”
Beckwith gave a splutter of laughter, and Paul glanced at Drummond and saw that he was smiling too. He turned his gaze back to Wellington and for the first time during the briefing there was genuine amusement in the blue grey eyes.
“Colonel there are four of us here and not one of us is in any doubt that if something gets difficult out there you are going to start yelling orders without any thought for rank or protocol. I first saw you do it aged twenty-two at the battle of Assaye when you bullied poor Colonel Maxwell into going into battle ahead of orders and you had been promoted to captain at that point for approximately twenty-four hours. If that happens I trust Colonel Drummond and Colonel Beckwith to have the experience and common sense to judge for themselves whether to join you, ignore you or punch you, and they have my express permission to do any of those three. Get out of here and keep me informed.” From “An Uncommon Campaign’ by Lynn Bryant (Book Three of the Peninsular War Saga)

An Uncommon Campaign

The battle of Fuentes De Onoro took place at the beginning of May 1811.  After the retreat from Talavera in 1809 and then the successful battle of Bussaco in 1810, Wellington had kept most of his army behind the lines of Torres Vedras and used the time to train and recruit and recover from the mixed fortunes of the Spanish campaign.  The exception was the light division under the brilliant but irascible General Robert Craufurd, who spent the time guarding the border, constantly engaging the enemy in skirmishing, holding the line with men who were fast becoming the acknowledged elite of Wellington’s army.

Marshal Massena, unable to breach the formidable Anglo-Portuguese defences and unwilling to risk too many of his men trying, held on desperately in lands scorched and left bare by the retreating British.  By early 1811 it was clear that he could hold out no longer.  His army was starving and exhausted and the reinforcements he had asked for were nowhere in sight.  It was time to retreat.

Initially, Massena hoped to make for the Mondego valley which had escaped Wellington’s scorched earth policy and where food might be found for his starving men.  But the Anglo-Portuguese army were in hot pursuit and no way could be found across the river in time.  Fighting a skilful and desperate rearguard action, Massena retreated back to the Spanish border.

The Fortress at Almeida, Portugal

There were several great fortress towns along the Spanish-Portuguese border and in order to plan and execute an invasion of Spain safely, Wellington knew he needed to take possession of all of them.  The most formidable on the Portuguese side was at Almeida, and it was the last stronghold in Portugal held by the French.  Wellington besieged the city and Massena, his army finally fed and beginning to recover, marched to relieve it.  Having surveyed the ground, Wellington chose to take up a position along a line running through the little Spanish village of Fuentes D’Onoro.

Supplies were crucial in this stage of the conflict.  The French would have limited access to supplies whereas Wellington was well supplied and could hold out longer.  He had the choice of leaving his line of retreat exposed in order to cover all routes to Almeida or of covering his retreat, which was usually his preferred option but giving the French a possible way through.

Fuentes D’Onoro was a cluster of buildings on a slope with narrow cobbled streets and walled gardens.  It was well known to the men of Craufurd’s light division who had often been quartered there during their time on the border.  Many of the villagers were known personally to them.  With the people evacuated to a refugee camp, the British took up their positions.  The Anglo-Portuguese army had 34,000 infantry, 1,850 cavalry, and 48 guns, while the French had 42,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry, and 38 guns.  Massena had asked for reinforcements from Bessieres in the north, and Bessieres had come himself but with so few men that the reinforcements were pointless.  Wellington commanded six infantry divisions, Charles Ashworth’s independent Portuguese brigade, and three cavalry brigades along with some artillery.

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 battle in the centre of the village went on throughout the day, with French soldiers of Ferey’s and Marchand’s divisions clashing with the British  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 went down, 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 their dead and wounded from the streets of the village.  An informal truce was held and men from the two armies met across the Dos Casas brook to exchange food and tobacco and play card games.  When officers intervened, the French organised a series of intimidating parades to impress their enemy.  The English played football.

Meanwhile, French reconnaissance had discovered Wellington’s weakness.  

Fuentes de Onoro looking up from the French position.

His right flank was weakly held by a unit of Spanish partisans near the hamlet of Poco Velho.  The French attacked at dawn on 5 May, concentrating on Wellington’s right flank where the Spanish crumbled.  Allied cavalry held their positions with great courage but the 7th Division was left exposed.  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.  Two 7th Division battalions were badly mauled by French light cavalry and Wellington needed to send reinforcements to save the 7th Division from annihilation.  Defeat looked possible, but Wellington had reserves in place and he sent in Robert Craufurd’s light division along with British and German cavalry.

On the threatened British-Portuguese right flank, the elite Light Division, well supported by cavalry and artillery, made a textbook fighting withdrawal.  With very few 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.

It was an extraordinary display of military discipline and precision and a tribute to the genius of Robert Craufurd, who for all his reputation of a rude, over-sensitive disciplinarian who was disliked by many of his officers, could do anything with his enlisted men, who would follow him to hell and back for a word of approval.  The skill of the light division and the courage of the highly outnumbered Allied cavalry saved Wellington, who had undoubtedly made mistakes that day, from what might have been a defeat, and brought instead a victory.

Church in Fuentes de Onoro.

Masséna’s main aim was still 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.

Memorial to the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro 1811

launched a second attack on the town. This time, it was led by three battalions of grenadiers.  Again, the British fell back as Drouet threw in about half of the battalions from both Conroux and Claparède’s divisions, managing to take almost the entire town.

In response, Wellington counterattacked with units from the 1st and 3rd Divisions, plus the Portuguese 6th Caçadores and led by the 88th Connaught Rangers. 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 lethal volleys, the French retreated back to the Dos Casas, leaving their casualties behind.  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 for once they were outgunned by Wellington’s cannons. Finally, with their 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, furious with his subordinates whose refusal to obey orders at crucial moments had turned a potential victory into a defeat which would spell the end of his command in the Peninsula.

The battle of Fuentes d’Onoro was not claimed by Wellington as one of his great victories.  He had beaten back the French and was able to continue his blockade of Almeida.  However, he acknowledged how dangerous the situation had been, saying later, “If Boney had been there, we should have been beat.”  Wellington 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 through a series of blunders.  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.”

On reaching Ciudad Rodrigo, Masséna was recalled to Paris by a furious Napoleon to explain his actions.  He was replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont. Masséna returned to 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.”  Later, meeting in France after the war, Wellington and Massena met as former adversaries and got on very well.  On discussing their final campaign against one another, Massena said:

My Lord, you owe me a dinner – for you made me positively starve.”  Wellington laughed.  “You should give it to me, Marshal, for you prevented me from sleeping.”

We visited Fuentes d’Onoro earlier this year.  Despite being surrounded by modern roads it is surprisingly easy to see the layout of the very extended battlefield.  The third book of the Peninsular War saga, “An Uncommon Campaign” is centred around the battle, and in particular the Light Division part in it, since by now Paul van Daan’s 110th are fighting as part of Wellington’s elite division.  The first four books in the Peninsular War Saga are available in both Kindle and paperback editions on Amazon.

An Unconventional Officer

An Irregular Regiment

A Redoubtable Citadel

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An Uncommon Campaign – Book Three of the Peninsular War Saga

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

An Uncommon Campaign is now published on Amazon Kindle and will shortly be available in paperback.

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro
An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d’Onoro

It is April 1811.  Lord Wellington has led his army to the Spanish border where the French occupy their last stronghold in Portugal at Almeida. As the two armies face each other in the village of Fuentes de Onoro, Colonel Paul van Daan is trying to become accustomed to his new responsibilities in command of a brigade and is learning to manage the resentment of other officers at his early promotion.  His young wife is carrying her first child and showing no signs of allowing her delicate situation to get in the way of her normal activities much to the horror of the rest of the army. And if that is not enough, Paul encounters a French colonel during battle who seems to have taken their rivalry personally with potentially lethal consequences for the Third Brigade of the Light Division.

The third book in the Peninsular War Saga will be published at the end of July 2017.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

An Irregular Regiment, Book Two will be published on 4 July 2017

 

 

 

 

 

In the run up to the publication of An Irregular Regiment, there will be a free promotion of An Unconventional Officer from 16 – 18 June 2017.

An Unconventional Officer
Book 1 of the Peninsular War Saga

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

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.”

Bridge over the Coa

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, claiming that he lacked the zest and panache of his somewhat eccentric predecessor although he seems to have commanded the division very competently through the rest of the war.

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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Bussaco Ridge, Viseu and Ciudad Rodrigo

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

This section of our trip covered Bussaco and Viseu in Portugal and Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  

 

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Paul could hear them now, the steady drum beat of the approaching columns. He turned to O’Reilly.
    “They’re coming,” he said, and raised his voice softly. “110th at the ready!”
    “Ready, sir,” Wheeler called back, and the order was passed along the lines.        There was no bugle call on this occasion. Craufurd wanted the presence of such a large force to come as a shock to the French.
    Michael checked his rifle and looked over his shoulder. “Nice and steady boys,” he said. “No need to be heroic here, the bastards have no idea they’re about to walk into us. Wait for my word, now.”
    “Battalion ready, sergeant?”
    “Ready as they’ll ever be, sir.”
    Paul moved along the ranks his eyes checking for potential problems. They could hear the marching of the French coming closer through the mist and he saw the green jackets of the 95th further up beginning to move forward in skirmish formation. He nodded to Michael.
    “Corporal Carter,” Michael called.
    “Yes, sergeant.”
    “Will your lads pay particular attention to not letting the Major get himself killed today? You know how clumsy he is, and if I have to take him down to the hospital with a hole in him, his wife is likely to take that scalpel of hers to me as well.”
    Paul looked back, startled, and then began to laugh. “Corporal Carter!”
    “Sir.”
    “Let the lads know there’ll be extra grog for the man who shoots Sergeant O’Reilly for me today. Make it look like an accident.”
    There was a muted rumble of laughter. “Do it now for you if you like, sir!” one of the sharpshooters called. “No need for extra grog, be my pleasure!”
    “You’d better hope the French get you today, Scofield, you are on my list,” the sergeant said, laughing. “Ready now boys.”
    “Get going,” Paul said, and Captain Swanson called the order and led his men forward.
    They watched as the skirmishers moved over the ridge, taking down individual Frenchmen with accurate rifle fire. It took some time.  Paul grinned as he realised that his light company were getting carried away with their feinted attack and were actually pushing the French column back. He imagined that Craufurd was cursing them for delaying the French advance. He could not sound a retreat without alerting the French to his position so he settled down to wait for Carl and O’Reilly to pull them back. Eventually he saw them moving back up the ridge, saw Carter and young Hammond laughing, having just received an earful from their exasperated sergeant. The rifles of the light division were already back up the ridge and the French came on, causing the English gunners to limber up and pull back. Still they waited. The French came closer, pressing on, thinking that on this part of the ridge at least they had the English on the run.
    Craufurd held his nerve. The leading column was within twenty-five yards of the crest, and Paul could see the individual faces of each Frenchman when he heard Black Bob yell. “52nd and 110th – avenge Moore!”

Now that I’ve been there and seen it in person, I have literally no idea why Massena sent his army up Bussaco Ridge.

We were staying at the Bussaco Palace Hotel, which is an incredible building, a gothic fantasy built around the simple convent buildings which were present in the early nineteenth century when Lord Wellington marched his army up to Bussaco to face the French Marshal Massena in an attempt to slow him down while the defences at Torres Vedras were being completed.

Brief details of the battle can be found here.  There are many books which give descriptions of the battle  In particular, we are touring the peninsular battle sites with the help of Andrew Rawson’s excellent book The Peninsular War: a battlefield guide.  Since I own it on kindle, I found myself scrambling over the sites clutching my iPad and praying I didn’t drop it, but it was amazingly useful and helped us find places we might not have done.

Up at Bussaco I was awestruck at the slope the French had to climb to make their attack.  We visited Wellington and Craufurd’s command posts and the reconstructed mill where Massena watched the battle unfold.  It is a beautiful place, although somewhat out of the way, and on a sunny day the views from the top are stunning.

View from the Bussaco Palace Hotel

Our other visit during this part of the trip was to the town of Viseu, where Wellington had his headquarters in the run up to Bussaco.  I will be honest and say that I wasn’t that taken by Viseu as a history buff.  There are some lovely old churches and buildings, but the town is now very built up and traffic was so heavy in the centre it’s difficult to get any sense at all of how the town must have seemed to Paul and his men when they set up camp at a farm on the edge of the town in 1809 after Talavera.  Viseu is a lively, modern place and probably a great place to live and work now, but it’s not the place to visit for Peninsular War history.

Fortified Cathedral in Viseu - This is the cathedral visited by Rowena and Anne in Viseu in chapter 17.

The same cannot be said of Ciudad Rodrigo, where we arrived in the afternoon. The rain had gone and the sun came out and approaching the town I felt as though I had stepped back in time.  Even with modern apartment blocks surrounding the ancient walls it is very easy to understand the enormity of the task faced by Wellington’s army when they set out to storm the town in the freezing January of 1812.

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Standing in front of the memorial to General Robert Craufurd at the lesser breach where he was buried I felt surprisingly moved.  Craufurd isn’t one of the best known historical figures of the time, but as commander of the legendary light division, he is vital to my story and his loss was much mourned by the characters I’m creating.  During my research for the books I have become very attached to Craufurd, known as the rudest man in the army, and standing here, where he was shot down more than two hundred years ago was a strange feeling.

Memorial to Robert Craufurd and the men of the light division who fell in the lesser breach during the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812

I loved this trip.  It’s very different to other holidays in recent years, not just because I got to completely indulge myself in terms of history, but also because it seems to be somewhat off the beaten track of popular English tourist spots.  This makes it slightly more challenging in terms of language, since not everybody speaks English and our Spanish and Portuguese is non-existent.  Still we were impressed with how friendly and welcoming most people have been.  The hotels have all been good and we’ve found some great restaurants, although we’re having to adapt to the difference in eating times – it’s just not possible here to decide to have an early dinner at 5.30 or 6pm; the restaurants start to get busy at nine.

I learned so much during this trip.  Part of me was impatient to get back to work and rewrite some of my books based on what I’d seen and learned and the rest of me just wanted to stay and absorb how lovely it is.  I’m unbelievably grateful to the man I married for doing this with me, acting as driver, photographer and general gopher throughout the trip.  He probably needed a holiday afterwards, mind.   Following Wellington around is exhausting; I don’t know how the 110th did it….

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The Lines of Torres Vedras – Day Two

The Palace at Mafra

The Lines of Torres Vedras were an extraordinary achievement, their existence hidden from the French for many months.   

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s army
Book 1 in the Peninsular War Saga

“This is a matter of the utmost secrecy, Major,” Wellington said. “I do not wish this to reach anybody, even your own officers. Before we proceed, I need your word on that.”
   Paul was puzzled. “You have it, sir.”
   “Good. Because Sir Richard has some drawings to show me, and I would like to know what you think. Come over to the table.”
   Paul got up and followed his chief to a long table at the other end of the room. There were a number of maps and drawings laid out upon it. Fletcher drew one towards him and pointed. It was a map of Portugal, with drawings and notations over it. Paul studied it for a moment. Then he set down his glass, leaned on the table and looked closer. Nobody spoke for some minutes.      After a while, Paul looked up at his chief.
   “Bloody hell!” he said. “Is this how you’re spending the winter?”

(From An Unconventional Officer by Lynn Bryant, to be published in May 2017)

The meeting above was Major Paul van Daan’s introduction to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington’s ambitious defensive system which created three lines of fortifications to stop the French taking Lisbon again.

Touring the lines for the first time, I was surprised at the sheer scale of the project.  Driving through the countryside, there were signs everywhere  pointing to ruined forts and redoubts, and we visited various visitor centres and interpretation centres.

It rained all day which was a shame, because the fantastic views from the heights which we saw yesterday were shrouded in mist.  Still it was atmospheric driving up the unmetalled road around impossible bends to the high point of Serra do Socorro which was the main semaphore station during the war.  There is a hermitage at the top with an exhibition which concentrates on Wellington’s communication system along the lines.  Wellington used to ride up here most days from his headquarters in Pero Negro.

Going back down the hill we drove to the little village of Pero Negro where Wellington had his headquarters during the winter of 1810.  The house, Quinta dos Freixos, belonged to Baron Manique and is now privately owned but can be photographed.

Wellington's house in Pero Negro

From Pero Negro we drove along winding roads through valleys and up and down hills, following paths which must have been daily ridden by the officers of Wellington’s army during those difficult days.  Arriving at the pretty town of Arruda dos Vinhos we visited the small visitor centre at the Centro Cultural do Morgado.  This area was the centre of operations for Robert Craufurd’s light division and the streets would have been populated with Portuguese cacadores mingling with the redcoats of the 52nd and 43rd light infantry along with the green jackets of the 95th rifles.

From there we followed the trail to Mafra to the magnificent National Palace.  This building was occupied by the Portuguese royal family before they fled to Brazil and subsequently by the French, Spanish, British and Portuguese armies.  The English established a military hospital there and later, Marshal Beresford requested permission to establish a recruitment and training centre for the Portuguese army there.  Today it is the home of the Escola Pratica de Infantaria training the modern Portuguese army.  The visitor centre gives fascinating insights into how the presence of foreign armies affected the ordinary people of the region, especially in terms of provisions and the requisition or purchase of supplies.

Mafra - Palace

I went back to Torres Vedras feeling slightly sobered.  I have tried to give some indication in the books about the impact of war on the local population, but I feel somehow that I’ve missed something and might want to revisit it.  We have both been slightly surprised by how important this war seems to have been in this part of the world.  For many English people, the Peninsular war is just part of the great war against Napoleon and very few are aware of the huge number of refugees who were displaced from homes and farms and villages, fleeing with the English behind the lines so that Wellington could proceed with his policy of scorching the earth and starving out the French.  Even worse, and this was not really mentioned anywhere we went today, was the fate of those Portuguese people who chose not to follow instructions and flee south.  For them, the starving French army was a plague of locusts who stripped them of everything they owned.

When finally Massena was obliged to give up and retreat back to Spain, pursued by Wellington’s army, their fate was even worse.  The Anglo-Portuguese army was able to follow the French by the plumes of smoke rising from burning villages and towns, and writings of the time report civilian bodies lying in the streets.

In a small town in England, the central square is likely to be occupied by a monument to those who died in the first or second world wars.  In Torres Vedras, outside our hotel, the monument is to the horrors of the French wars and for me being there brought a genuine sense of the impact of that war on this country.  Wellington was here fighting the war and English soldiers died, but the tragedy behind it was that of Portugal, of the men, women and children who suffered as the armies marched across their homeland.

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