Wellington’s 1811 Campaign

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1809-10 campaigns.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.  Maps are very useful in following the descriptions of battles below. For copyright reasons, I have provided links to websites that include maps of the battles rather than directly copying the maps. All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A good source of photos is Jac Weller’s Wellington in the Peninsula. The photos in it were taken by Weller in the 1950s and early 60s, before much of the re-development of the battlefields had taken place [1].

5 March 1811 was a significant day in the war. At Barrosa in the south an Anglo-Portuguese force under General Sir Thomas Graham defeated a larger number of French troops commanded by Marshal Victor. On the same day, Marshal Masséna began to withdraw, reaching Salamanca on 11 April. He was unable to attack the Lines of Torres Vedras, was short of supplies and was being harassed by guerrillas.

Wellington, however, was not in a strong position. There were two routes across the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, each guarded by a fortress on both sides of the frontier. In the north these were Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain and Almeida in Portugal and the southern ones were Badajoz in Spain and Elvas in Portugal. An invader needed to control all four in order to cover his lines of communication.

Marshal Soult took Badajoz on 10 March. Since the French still held Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington had to split his force in order to cover both the northern and southern invasion routes. He sent a force under Lord William Beresford, a British general who had re-organised and vastly improved the Portuguese Army, to face Soult in the south. Beresford’s skills lay in organisation rather than in battlefield tactics.

Wellington’s HQ at Freinada

Wellington lacked a siege train of heavy artillery, and his army was too small to both siege Almeida and cover against any attempt by Masséna to relieve it. He therefore decided to blockade the fortress in an attempt to starve it into submission. His headquarters was at Freinada, where he received reports that Masséna was building up his forces.

Masséna, with 48,000 men, advanced, and on 3 May 1811 met Wellington’s 37,000 troops at Fuentes de Oñoro, a village just inside Spain on the road from Ciudad Rodrigo to Portugal. Wellington’s army was positioned behind the River Dos Cassos along a 12-13 mile front from Fort Concepcion in the north through Fuentes de Oñoro and  Poço Velho to the village of Nave de Haver in the south. Fort Concepcion covered the road to Almeida. Fort Concepcion and Fuentes de Oñoro are in Spain, Almeida, Freinada, Poço Velho and Nave de Haver are in Portugal.

This website has some photos of Fort Concepcion; it cannot be visited at the moment because its current owner wants to re-build it as a hotel. It is eight miles from Fuentes de Oñoro, but two-thirds of this distance was protected from attack by a steep cliff. Consequently, Wellington had four divisions at Fuentes de Oñoro and only two between there and Fort Concepcion. His southern flank was guarded by Don Julian Sanchez’s Spanish guerrillas at Nave de Haver.

Bridge over Dos Cassos at Fuentes de Onoro from defending side.

Masséna’s plan was to attack Wellington’s centre and right, forcing him to move troops from his northern flank south, thus allowing him to re-supply Almeida. The Dos Cassos was no more than a stream in place, so could be crossed easily. Wellington’s left flank was protected by the cliffs and his centre by Fuentes de Oñoro, but his right flank consisted of largely open ground. There was a low ridge behind the village, but there was not a significant reverse slope; it is a myth that Wellington was always able to deploy his army on a reverse slope. If Wellington’s army was forced to retreat, then it would have to do so across the River Coa.

Masséna deployed his army across the Dos Casas from the village of Fuentes de Oñoro on 2 May. At 2pm the next day he attacked. Fighting in the narrow streets and alleys of Fuentes de Oñoro was confused.

Narrow street in Fuentes de Onoro

Hand to hand combat saw buildings change hands and the Allied troops forced back to the church, which was on the north-west side of the village. A counter-attack by the 1/71st (Highland Light Infantry), 1/79th (Cameron Highlanders) and 2/24th (2nd Warwickshire) battalions forced the French back across the river.On the 4 May an unofficial truce allowed both sides to bury their dead and collect their wounded. As on other occasions when fighting was not taking place in the Peninsular War, there was some fraternisation between British and French troops.

The fighting resumed the next day with a French attack in the south. It forced Sanchez’s guerrillas to withdraw, covered by British Cavalry under General Stapleton Cotton and the Royal Horse Artillery. Wellington had moved his newest division, the 7th, south on 4 May. It was forced out of the village of Poço Velho, but was reinforced by the Light Division, commanded by General Sir Robert Craufurd.

Open ground to south of Fuentes de Onoro

Wellington’s right was under severe pressure, and he realised that Masséna wanted him to move troops south, opening up the road to Almeida. Instead, Wellington left the troops that guarded his front from Fuentes de Oñoro to Fort Concepcion in position. He re-deployed the rest of his army to run eastwards from Fuentes de Oñoro, facing south towards the advancing French, a manoeuvre known as refusing the right flank. This meant that Wellington was cutting himself off from the route back to Portugal across the River Coa at Sabugal. If forced to retreat, his army would have to cross the Coa at the small bridges at Castello Bom and Almeida, running the risk of a retreat turning into a rout. The troops withdrawing from Poço Velho were under severe pressure. William Napier, a Peninsular veteran and historian said that this ‘there was not, during the war, a more dangerous hour’ [2].  The Light Division fought a highly skilful retirement; Sir John Fortescue said in his history of the British Army that:

No more masterly manoeuvre is recorded of any general; no grander example of triumphant discipline is recorded of any regiments in the history of the British Army [3].

Fuentes de Onoro to Church

Masséna did not try to turn Wellington’s re-positioned right flank, but resumed his attacks on Fuentes de Oñoro.  Wellington was present and personally directed the defence for a period. The British were again forced back to the church. A counter-attack, led by the 1/88th Connaught Rangers, commanded by Lt-Col Wallace, supported by the 45th (1st Nottinghamshire) and 74th (Argyll) Foot, forced the French back across the Dos Cassos. The French had been defeated, but narrowly; Wellington later claimed that the French would have won had Napoleon been present [4]. Allied casualties were 1,804 and French ones 2,844; note that casualties means dead, wounded and prisoners.

Masséna’s attempt to relieve Almeida failed, but the two armies continued to face each other across the Dos Cassos until 10 May, when the French withdrew towards Ciudad Rodrigo. That night, General Brennier, the French commander of Almeida, blew up its defences and withdrew the garrison through the Allied blockade. Wellington told Beresford that ‘the escape of the garrison of Almeida is the most disgraceful military event that has yet occurred to us’[5]. Masséna was replaced by Marshal Marmont, a decision that Napoleon had taken before Fuentes de Oñoro.

Also on 10 May Soult’s army of 25,000 left Seville in order to attempt to lift the siege of Badajoz. Beresford had 10,000 men more, including 15,000 Spaniards under Blake, and deployed his army along the hills on either side of the village of Albuera, at a junction on the road from Seville to Badajoz. This gave Beresford’s army a reverse slope, but the length of the hills meant that, regardless of where he placed his right flank, there would be another hill from which the  French could threaten it. Major Roverea, ADC to General Lowry Cole, commander of the 4th Division, later wrote that Beresford’s dispositions allowed the French to capture a hill ‘the possession of which was vital to our safety.’[6]

Monument to battle in Albuera

The Battle of Albuera took place on 16 May. Wellington was not present, but some British troops managed to fight at both  Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera. The French initially demonstrated against Albuera, before launching their main attack against Beresford’s right flank. Soult did not know that the Spanish were present and thought that he faced only 10,000 enemy. Beresford ordered Blake’s Spanish troops to re-align themselves and refuse the right flank in the way that Wellington had done at Fuentes de Oñoro. Blake refused to comply. He thought that the French attack on the right flank was just a feint, and that their main assault would come in the centre. One of his subordinates, General Zayas, moved four Spanish battalions to the right on his own initiative. When Beresford arrived on the scene after receiving Blake’s refusal to obey his orders, he reinforced Zayas with five more Spanish battalions. 4,800 Spanish infantry faced 8,400 French infantry  and 3,500 cavalry with artillery support.

They held them up long enough for the three battalions of Colborne’s Brigade of the 2nd British Division to come up in support. Beresford had ordered it to form a second line behind the Spanish, but the 2nd Division’s commander, General Sir William Stewart, sent it against the French left flank. This attack stopped the French, but Stewart had not allowed for the possibility that there might be cavalry on its flank. It suddenly started to rain very heavily, meaning that muskets could not fire and visibility was restricted.

The 800 men of General Latour-Maubourg’s two cavalry regiments, the Polish 1st Lancers of the Vistula Legion and the French 2nd Hussars,  caught Colborne’s Brigade by surprise and in line. Cavalry could do little against disciplined infantry in square unless they had artillery support, but infantry in line was very vulnerable to cavalry. Colborne’s Brigade lost 1,413 casualties out of 2,066 officers and men at Albuera, although not all of these casualties were caused by the cavalry. This was the first time that the British had faced lancers.

The French and Polish cavalry inflicted further losses on Zayas’s Spanish troops and on artillery of the King’s German Legion, a force of expatriate Germans serving with the British; the British King was also Elector of Hanover, and many Hanoverians had fled to Britain when Hanover had been occupied by Napoleon. Beresford himself was attacked by a lancer but the general threw his assailant from his horse. French and Polish cavalry casualties were about 200, a quarter of those committed to this action.

Two more British Brigades, Hoghton’s and Abercrombie’s were brought up. They faced an attack by two French divisions. The British were outnumbered, but were in two deep lines so that they could bring 3,300 muskets to bear. There were 8,000 Frenchmen, but they were in columns 200-400 men wide. Only the front two ranks and perhaps the men on the flanks could fire; 400-1,000 men, However, the French had 24 guns and the British four. A very bloody firefight ensued. Lt-Col William Inglis of the 1/57th (Middlesex) gave his regiment its nickname of the Die-hards by exorting his men to ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard.’[7]

The killing continued, but Beresford appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence and did little to reinforce his right flank.  Soult stood on the defensive and continued with a battle of attrition. He held Werlé’s Brigade, stronger than some British divisions, in reserve when committing it might well have broken the British line. Soult is alleged to have said that ‘the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’[8]

After almost an hour of slaughter Major Henry Hardinge, a British staff officer who later became a Field Marshal, urged Lowry Cole to do something. Cole was contemplating taking action on their own initiative and ordered his 4th Division forward. An earlier flood of the River Guadiana had prevented part of the 4th Division crossing; only the three Fusilier battalions of Myer’s Brigade and three companies of Kemmis’s Brigade were present, but he also had Harvey’s Portuguese Brigade and cavalry and artillery support.

Cole’s troops advanced in line, with a square at each end, giving the firepower advantage of line and protection against cavalry. Soult now committed Werlé’s Brigade, but once again the French were in column, giving the British and Portuguese in line a firepower advantage. Both sides took heavy casualties, with the British ones including Myers killed and Cole and all three Fusilier battalion commanders wounded, before the French broke.

Allied casualties were 5,916; 4,159 British, 1,368 Spanish and 389 Portuguese. Official French losses of 5,936 are almost certainly too low; most estimates are of around 8,000. No other Peninsular War pitched battle in the open, as opposed to the storming of a fortress, saw such killing in such in a small area or short time period.

After the battle, Wellington visited some of the wounded and said ‘Men of the 29th, I am sorry to see so many of you here.’ A veteran sergeant replied, ‘If you had commanded us, my Lord, there would not be so many of use here.’ [9]

Wellington resumed the blockade of Badajoz on 18 May, but serious siege operations did not start for another week. Marmont and Soult were both marching to relieve Badajoz, and Wellington believed that he had until 10 June to take it. Two assaults on Fort San Cristobal, on the north bank of the River Guardiana failed; the main fortress was on the south bank. The French relief force entered Badajoz on 20 June, just in time for the garrison, whose supplies had run out.

Wellington took up a strong defensive position, and the French declined to attack.  Needing to take the two Spanish frontier fortresses, but unable to capture Badajoz, he moved north to blockade Ciudad Rodrigo. His siege train was still being unloaded at Oporto, and he was unable to prevent Marmont from re-supplying the fortress on 24 September.

Wellington could not invade Spain without capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, but in 1811 his army was not strong enough to take them. He was able to win local victories, but had to withdraw if the French Marshals combined against him. By doing so, however, they risked rebellion elsewhere in Spain. Whilst both the key Spanish fortresses remained in French hands, Wellington had to cover both the northern and the southern routes, but when he split his forces he could not rely on his subordinates to act independently.

As Charles Esdaile points out in The Peninsular War, in 1811 the French were able to defend against Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, contain the guerrillas and attack the remaining territory held by their Spanish opponents. However, this was very expensive; there were 350,000 French troops in Spain. They had been unable to defeat Wellington in open battle, giving him the initiative and his army a moral advantage. Both sides could still win the war.[1o]


[1] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsular (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), p. 519.

[2] William Napier, History of the Peninsular War vol. iii (London, 1833), p. 519.

[3] Quoted in Ian Fletcher, Bloody Albuera: The 1811 Campaign in the Peninsula (Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2000), p. 43.

[4 ] Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 45.

[5] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 47.

[6] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 82.

[7] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 93.

[8] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 96.

[9] Quoted in Julian Paget, Wellington’s Peninsular War: Battles and Battlefields (London: Leo Cooper, 1990), p. 138.

[10] Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 367-68.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Wellington’s 1811 Campaign

  1. Pingback: Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 and Siege Warfare | War and Security

  2. Hi,I read your piece with interest, and felt imeeplld to comment.Its interesting that the Russian Government has just celebrated in grand style the Battle of Borodino (1812) which heralded Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. No sign as yet of France pulling up the economic drawbridge there? Perhaps someone should remind our Government made up largely of chaps’ well grounded in British History through their educational experiences, that perhaps its time to honour our proud martial history beyond our current undertakings. If they ask the Armed Forces, the answer would be loud and clear.Regards,Peter

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