Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Battle of Fuentes Onoro
By Sir William Napier (17851860)
From Peninsular War
IT was Massenas intention to commence the attack at daybreak on the 5th, but a delay of two hours occurred, and all his movements were descried. The eighth corps, withdrawn from Alameda, and supported by all the French cavalry, was seen marching above the village of Poço Velho, which, with its swampy wood, was occupied by Houstouns left, his right being thrown back in the plain towards Nava dAver. The sixth corps and Drouets division took ground to their own left, still keeping a division in front of Fuentes Onoro, menacing that point; at this sight the light division and the English horse hastened to the support of Houstoun, while the first and third divisions made a movement parallel to that of the sixth corps. The latter, however, drove the left wing of the seventh division from the village of Poço Velho, and it was fast gaining ground in the wood also when the riflemen of the light division arriving there restored the fight. The French cavalry then passed Poço Velho and commenced forming in order of battle on the plain, between the wood and hill of Nava dAver where Julian Sanchez was posted. He immediately retired across the Turones, partly in fear, but more in anger, because his lieutenant, having foolishly ridden close up to the enemy making many violent gestures, was mistaken for a French officer and shot by a soldier of the Guards before the action commenced.
Montbrun occupied himself with this weak partida for an hour, and when the guerilla chief was gone, turned the right of the seventh division, and charged the British cavalry, which had moved up to its support; the combat was unequal, for by an abuse too common, so many men had been drawn from the ranks as orderlies to general officers, and for other purposes, that not more than a thousand English troopers were in the field. The French therefore drove in all the cavalry outguards at the first shock, cut off Ramsays battery of horse artillery, and came sweeping in upon the reserves of cavalry and upon the seventh division. Their leading squadrons, approaching in a disorderly manner, were partially checked by fire, but a great commotion was observed in their main body; men and horses were seen to close with confusion and tumult towards one point, where a thick dust and loud cries, and the sparkling of blades, and flashing of pistols, indicated some extraordinary occurrence. Suddenly the multitude became violently agitated, an English shout pealed high and clear, the mass was rent asunder, and Norman Ramsay burst forth sword in hand at the head of his battery. His horses, breathing fire, stretched like greyhounds along the plain, the guns bounded behind them like things of no weight, and the mounted gunners followed close, with heads bent low and pointed weapons in desperate career. Captain Brotherton of the Fourteenth Dragoons, seeing this, instantly rode forth and with his squadron shocked the head of the pursuing troops, and General Charles Stewart, joining in the charge, took the French Colonel Lamotte, fighting hand to hand; but then the main body of the French came on strongly and the British cavalry retired behind the light division, which was immediately thrown into squares. The seventh division, which was more advanced, did the same, but the horsemen were upon them first and some were cut down. The mass however stood firm, and the Chasseurs Britanniques, ranged behind a loose stone wall, poured such a fire that their foes recoiled and seemed bewildered.
While these brilliant actions were passing on the right, the French made progress in the wood of Poço Velho, and as the English divisions were separated and the right wing turned, it was evident the battle would soon be lost, if the original concentrated position above Fuentes Onoro was not quickly regained. The seventh division was therefore ordered to cross the Turones, and move down the left bank to Frenada while the light division retired over the plain; the cavalry covered this movement; and the first and third divisions, and the Portuguese were at the same time placed on the steppe of land before described, perpendicular to the ravine of Fuentes Onoro. Crawford, who had resumed the command of the light division, covered Houstouns passage across the Turones, and then retired slowly over the plain in squares, followed by the French horsemen, who continually outflanked but never dared to assail him; however in approaching the new line they sabred some of the Foot Guards under Colonel Hill, making that officer and fourteen men prisoners, and then, continuing their course, were repulsed by the Forty-second regiment. Many times Montbrun feigned to charge Crawfords squares, but always he found them too dangerous to meddle with, and this crisis passed without a disaster, yet there was not during the whole war a more perilous hour. For Houstouns division was separated from the position by the Turones, and the vast plain was covered with commissariat animals and camp followers, with servants, led horses, baggage, and country people, mixed with broken detachments and piquets returning from the woods, all in such confused concourse that the light division squares appeared but as specks; and close behind these surging masses were five thousand horsemen, trampling, bounding, shouting for the word to charge. Fifteen guns were up with the French cavalry, the eighth corps was in order of battle behind them, the woods on their right were filled with Loisons skirmishers; and if that General, pivoting upon Fuentes, had come forth with the sixth corps while Drouet assailed the village, and the cavalry had made a general charge, the loose crowds of non-combatants and broken troops would have been violently dashed against the first division, to intercept its fire and break its ranks, and the battle would have been lost. No such effort was made, the plain was soon cleared, the British cavalry took post behind the centre, and the light division formed a reserve on the right of the first division, having its riflemen amongst the rocks to connect it with Houstoun, who had reached Frenado and been there joined by Julian Sanchez. At sight of this new front, so deeply lined, the French stopped short and opened their guns, tearing the close masses of the allies; but twelve English guns soon replied so briskly that the violence of the French fire abated, and their cavalry drew back out of range. A body of infantry then attempted to glide down the ravine of the Turones, but they were repulsed by the riflemen and the light companies of the Guards, and the action on this side resolved itself into a cannonade.
Meanwhile a fierce battle was going on at Fuentes Onoro. There Drouet was to have carried the village when Montbruns cavalry had turned the right of the line; he delayed his attack for two hours and thus marred the combination; but finally he assailed with such fierceness and vigour, that the three British regiments, over-matched in numbers and unaccustomed to the desultory fighting of light troops, were pierced and divided. Two companies of the Seventy-ninth were taken, Colonel Cameron of that regiment was mortally wounded, and the lower part of the village was lost: the upper part was however stiffly held, and the rolling of musketry was incessant. Had the attack been made earlier, and all Drouets division thrown frankly into the fight, while the sixth corps moving through the wood closely turned the village, the passage must have been forced and the left of the new position out-flanked. But now Wellington, having all his reserves in hand, detached considerable masses to the support of the regiments in Fuentes; and as the French continued also to reinforce their troops, the whole of the sixth corps and part of Drouets division were finally engaged. At one time the fighting was on the banks of the stream and amongst the lower houses, at another on the rugged heights and around the chapel, and some of the enemys skirmishers penetrated completely through towards the main position; yet the village was never entirely abandoned by the defenders, and in one charge the Seventy-first, Seventy-ninth, and Eighty-eighth regiments, led by Colonel MKinnon, broke a heavy mass near the chapel, and killed a great number of French. This fighting lasted until evening, when the lower part of the town was abandoned by both parties, the British remaining at the chapel and crags, the French retiring a cannon-shot from the stream. After the action a brigade of the light division relieved the regiments in the village, a slight demonstration made by the second corps, near Fort Conception, was checked by a battalion of the Lusitanian Legion, and both armies remained in observation. Fifteen hundred men and officers, of which three hundred were prisoners, constituted the loss of the allies. That of the enemy was estimated at five thousand, upon the erroneous supposition that four hundred dead were lying about Fuentes Onoro. All armies make rash estimates on such occasions. Having had charge to bury the carcases immediately about the village, I found only one hundred and thirty bodies, one-third being British.