Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro

andre-massena-large.jpg
Marshal André Masséna. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro was fought May 3-5, 1811, during the Peninsular War which was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars.

Armies and Commanders

Allies

French

  • Marshal Andre Massena
  • approx. 46,000 men

Buildup to Battle

Having been stopped before the Lines of Torres Vedras in late 1810, Marshal Andre Massena began withdrawing French forces from Portugal the following spring.

Emerging from their defenses, British and Portuguese troops, led by Viscount Wellington, began moving towards the border in pursuit. As part of this effort, Wellington laid siege to the border cities of Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, and Almeida. Seeking to regain the initiative, Massena regrouped and began marching to relieve Almeida. Concerned about the French movements, Wellington shifted his forces to cover the city and defend its approaches. Receiving reports regarding Massena's route to Almeida, he deployed the bulk of his army near the village of Fuentes de Oñoro.

The British Defenses

Located to the southeast of Almeida, Fuentes de Oñoro sat on the west bank of the Rio Don Casas and was backed by a long ridge to the west and north. After barricading the village, Wellington formed his troops along the heights with the intention of fighting a defensive battle against Massena's slightly larger army.

Directing the 1st Division to hold the village, Wellington placed the 5th, 6th, 3rd, and Light Divisions on the ridge to the north, while the 7th Division was in reserve. To cover his right, a force of guerillas, led by Julian Sanchez, was positioned on a hill to the south. On May 3, Massena approached Fuentes de Oñoro with four army corps and a cavalry reserve numbering around 46,000 men.

These were supported a force of 800 Imperial Guard cavalry led by Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières.

Massena Attacks

After reconnoitering Wellington's position, Massena pushed troops across the Don Casas and launched a frontal attack against Fuentes de Oñoro. This was supported by an artillery bombardment of the Allied position. Surging into the village, troops from General Louis Loisin's VI Corps clashed with troops from Major General Miles Nightingall's 1st Division and Major General Thomas Picton's 3rd Division. As the afternoon progressed, the French slowly pushed British forces back until a determined counterattack saw them thrown from the village. With night approaching, Massena recalled his forces. Unwilling to directly attack the village again, Massena spent most of May 4 scouting the enemy's lines.

Shifting South

These efforts led to Massena discovering that Wellington's right was largely exposed and only covered by Sanchez's men near the village of Poco Velho. Seeking to exploit this weakness, Massena began shifting forces south with the goal of attacking the next day. Spotting the French movements, Wellington directed Major General John Houston to form his 7th Division on the plain south of Fuentes de Oñoro to extend the line towards Poco Velho.

Around dawn on May 5, French cavalry led by General Louis-Pierre Montbrun as well as infantry from the divisions of Generals Jean Marchand, Julien Mermet, and Jean Solignac crossed the Don Casas and moved against the Allied right. Sweeping the guerillas aside, this force soon fell on Houston's men (Map).

Preventing a Collapse

Coming under intense pressure, the 7th Division faced being overwhelmed. Reacting to the crisis, Wellington ordered Houston to fall back to the ridge and dispatched cavalry and Brigadier General Robert Craufurd's Light Division to their aid. Falling into line, Craufurd's men, along with artillery and cavalry support, provided cover for the 7th Division as it conducted a fighting withdrawal. As the 7th Division fell back, the British cavalry harried the enemy artillery and engaged the French horsemen.

With the battle reaching a critical moment, Montbrun requested reinforcement from Massena to turn the tide. Dispatching an aide to bring up Bessières' cavalry, Massena was furious when the Imperial Guard cavalry failed to respond.

As a result, the 7th Division was able to escape and reach the safety of the ridge. There it formed a new line, along with the 1st and Light Divisions, which extended west from Fuentes de Oñoro. Recognizing the strength of this position, Massena elected not to press the attack further. To support the effort against the Allied right, Massena also launched as series of attacks against Fuentes de Oñoro. These were conducted by men from General Claude Ferey's division as well as General Jean-Baptiste Drouet's IX Corps. Largely striking the 74th and 79th Foot, these efforts nearly succeeded in driving the defenders from the village. While a counterattack threw Ferey's men back, Wellington was forced to commit reinforcements to break Drouet's assault.

Fighting continued through the afternoon with the French resorting to bayonet attacks. As the infantry assault on Fuentes de Oñoro faltered, Massena's artillery opened with another bombardment of the Allied lines. This had little effect and by nightfall the French withdrew from the village. In the darkness, Wellington ordered his army to entrench on the heights. Faced with a strengthened enemy position, Massena elected to retreat to Ciudad Rodrigo three days later.

The Aftermath

In the fighting at the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, Wellington sustained 235 killed, 1,234 wounded, and 317 captured.

French losses numbered 308 killed, 2,147 wounded, and 201 captured. Though Wellington did not consider the battle to be a great victory, the action at Fuentes de Oñoro allowed him to continue the siege of Almeida. The city fell to Allied forces on May 11, though its garrison successfully escaped. In the wake of the fighting, Massena was recalled by Napoleon and replaced by Marshal Auguste Marmont. On May 16, Allied forces under Marshal William Beresford clashed with the French at Albuera. After a lull in the fighting, Wellington resumed his advance into Spain in January 1812 and later won victories at Badajoz, Salamanca, and Vitoria.

Sources