Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fuentes de Onoro - Again

This was our second visit to Fuentes de Onoro, we had been there with Holts three years earlier. At the time I felt that I would have liked to spend more time rambling around the narrow alleys, and this would be my opportunity

We had more trouble finding the village than I expected. We found Vilar Formoso, which is on the Spanish-Portuguese border, easily enough, and Fuentes is shown on the map at being on the right off the Salamanca road. Despite this we missed it, and had to return to the border and ask for directions. As often, it is a matter of starting on the right road!

Once you find the village, the clapper bridge is easy to locate. It was the ideal place to have our picnic lunch, and out came Jac Weller with the sandwiches and cold drink. We spent a pleasant half hour reading the section on the battle. Then Jan got out her pencils and sketch book, and I went to explore. If you look very closely at the above photo you will see her sitting in the shade of the wall sketching.

And this is the sketch she did that day.

I made my way to the top of the village, which turned out to be much larger than I had remembered. There are many new buildings, but enough old walls and cottages to give the village a real “feel” of what it must have been like in 1811. At the top of the village I came to the church, which was the centre of the fighting. It has obviously been rebuilt, but presumably in the same location. Certainly the descriptions of the battle place it at the top of the village, and that is where this one is.

Climbing out of the village you continue along this road to the ridge behind the village. This is not much mentioned in descriptions of the battle, possibly because the French never got this far. They only reached the church, and were then pushed back by a counter attack. But it was now obvious that this was a very strong position, with a typical Wellington ridge behind it. The village was intended to break up the French attack, and they would then have approached this even stronger position completely disordered.

This is the reverse slope where Wellington’s infantry would have sheltered from the French artillery bombardment Walking around here you could see how the cannon balls would either have been stopped by the steep forward slope, or gone well over the heads of the infantry sheltering here. Unfortunately there is not a good view of the village from the ridge.

Many of you will have read Richard Cornwell’s Sharpe books. I read them all when they were first published. But Sharpe’s Battle, which deals with Fuentes de Onoro, was not released until 1995 – the year after this our second visit. I am in the process of reading them all again, and by coincidence have just finished Sharpe’s Battle. If any of you should visit Fuentes do take Jac Weller, Napier or Oman. But make sure you also take Sharpe’s Battle. Because of all the descriptions I have read of this battle, the one in this book is one of the most vivid and descriptive. I wish I had been able to take it for my last visit. And I will make sure I do take it for my next – because if there is one site I would like to visit again Fuentes de Onoro is surely it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Poco Velho

The battle of Fuentes de Onoro was fought over three days in May 1811. Wellington fought the battle to prevent Marshal Massena from taking supplies to the border fortress of Almeida. The first day of the battle was fought in the village of the same name. However two days later the French tried to outflank Wellington by a surprise attack against the allied left flank. The attack swept through the village of Poco Velho

The village lies in a very open plain about three miles south of Fuentes de Onoro. When we arrived we had a coffee in the tiny bar in the main square opposite this very “Holts like” building.

We then walked around the village and a short distance to the west, the area where the French launched their surprise attack. It was a very hot afternoon as we settled down in the shade of a small woods. Jan did this sketch of the trees.

At dawn on 5 May 1811 a French infantry division stormed this tiny village, which was held by two battalions of the newly formed 7th Division. The attack would have come down this road. The French infantry were supported by masses of cavalry.

I took this photo with the intention of making a model building for use on our wargames table. Jan later made a model, and it performed well over many years and through many wargames. Unfortunately it was a little large in scale, and we sold it before we came to Spain. I wish I still had it; I could have taken a photo for comarison.

As always Jac Weller’s “Wellington in the Peninsula” was put to good use. There is an excellent description of the fighting which took part in this area, which I read aloud to Jan

whilst she did her sketch of the trees.

This quiet and unassuming battlefield can not have changed much since May 1811. Nor the tiny village of Poco Vehlo. Both are well worth a visit, particularly is you can spare the time to wander around and soak up the atmosphere.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Busaco ridge is almost ten miles long. On 27 September 1810 Wellington held it with 52,000 men, almost half of them Portuguese. Massena attacked it with 66,000. This was a big battle fought over a wide area.Parts of the battlefield are easy to find, particularly the monument which was erected on the northern part of the ridge where Wellington spent most of the battle. When we arrived there was heavy fog, and you could see nothing from this splendid viewpoint.

This was the first major battle for the reorganized Portuguese army, and is celebrated every year with parades in period uniforms and festivities to commemorate the distinguished part played by the Portuguese troops in this victory.

There is a small, but very interesting, military museum. Jan and I spent a few hours looking around waiting for the weather to improve

When we left the museum we were delighted to find the mist had cleared and it was bright blue skies and a warm sunny day. We returned to the monument to orientate ourselves and admire the view. We then drove across the valley to the site of Massena’s Windmill, where he commanded the battle.

While I read extracts from Wellington in the Peninsula, Jan did this sketch of the Massena monument. We also had our picnic lunch here as it has such good views of the ridge.

Jan sketching, with the ridge behind

Driving back towards the ridge we came to the village of Maura. This was the staging area for Marshal Neys VI corps, and the point from which the main attack was launched.

Just in front of Maura we found a convenient log to sit on to read about Ney’s attack and study the route he took on the ridge opposite

We followed the road from Maura towards the ridge and soon came to the village of Sula. During the battle this small village was held by 1400 men of the 95th Rifles and 3rd Portuguese Cacadores. Two French columns, each consisting of six battalions, climbed the ridge and cleared the narrow streets of Sula, pushing he rifles and cacadores before them as they continued their climb to the crest.

I don’t suppose the village has changed much since that day. Wandering the narrow streets it was easy to imagine the hand to hand fighting as the French used their overwhelming strength to clear the allied light infantry from the buildings and push them up the hill before them.

We followed the road to the top of the ridge, and found the spot where the light division waited for the arrival of those same French infantry of Loison’s division. This windmill marks the spot where general Craufords famous division was deployed.

It was quite awe inspiring to stand at the very spot where Crauford unleashed the Light Division and defeated the first French attack. There could be no doubt that this is the exact spot, there is Crauford’s engraved rock to prove it We sat for an hour or so beside the rock and I read Wellers description of Neys attack on Busaco ridge. Throughout that whole time we had the spot to ourselves, not one other visitor in sight. It was one of those magic experiences which I will always remember.

A short distance along the ridge we came to Wellington’s second command post. A stone pillar crowned with a star marks the spot, which was the position of Pack’s Portuguese brigade. From here there is a magnificent view of the village of San Antonio, from where Reynier led the second attack on the ridge.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


On 17 August 1808, just 16 days after he landed in Portugal, Wellesley fought his first battle of the Peninsular War a few miles south of Obidos at small village of Rolica.

The battle was a small affair in Napoleonic terms and very one sided. 16,000 British (including a few Portuguese) against 4,400 French. Its only real claim to fame is that it was the first British victory of many.

The first French position was on a hill which dominated the approach from Obidos. With his superior numbers Wellesley could easily outflank this position with a pincer movement, and the French withdrew to their second, and much stronger, position about a mile south overlooking the village of Columbeira.

This was a tougher nut to crack and Wellington lost about 500 casualties taking it.

The village of Rolica was easy to find, but not the actual hill on which the French based their first position. The directions sounded easy enough: “Turn off the N8 towards the village of Rolica and just after crossing the railway, take the first turning right. After about a mile, stop on the crest of the ridge. You are now on the first French position”

All went well to start. We crossed the railway without any trouble, we even found the first turning right. But then we were driving on a dirt track surrounded by a sea of high plants as high as the car. “after about a mile, stop on the crest of the ridge” sounds pretty easy – not so. After what seemed a long time we came to a small clearing, with a parked car. By now we were totally lost and disorientated, so we decided to get out of the car and have a look around on foot.

After half an hour we were almost on the verge of giving up, when we heard loud masculine voices and soon met a couple of Portuguese hunters. At least I hope they were hunters, because they were carrying rifles. Our total lack of Portuguese meant we could not ask for directions, but I did show them the map (above) and they pointed back the way they had come. We climbed the path, and came to this strange white building

From here we had a magnificent view of the valley leading to Obidos. I didn’t really need the map and compass to confirm that we were on the first French position. This was the only hill overlooking the valley from the south, and we could easily make out the hills on either side where the pincer movement took place.

More by luck than judgment we had found the right place. It had been more difficult, and taken much more time, than we had anticipated. We were hot and tired after our walking and climbing, but we settled down with our informative Jac Weller and had a picnic lunch whilst reading the details of the battle.

The second French position was much easier to find. “drive back into Rolica, turn right and continue for quarter mile to the next village, Columberia. Stop where there is a clear view to the south and you can see, about a mile away, the second French position”.

Leaving the car in the village we consulted the photo above and walked around until we could find the spot from which it was taken. This proved to be quite easy, but we read that the second French position lay on the central section of these hills.

Leaving the village by a farm track and walking towards the hills we found this second spot. Wellesley planned a second pincer movement against the French, and this led to the most famous incident of this battle. Colonel Lake led one of the four battalions in the centre column, which should have limited their action to skirmishing, while the flanking columns closed in. However Lake led half of his battalion straight up one of the gullies into the centre of the French position where they soon found themselves cut off. In desperate fighting Lake was killed and only 34 men survived. The central cleft in the photo was the gully entered by Lake.

A closer view of Lake’s gully.
With Lake in such a desperate position Wellesley ordered his whole line to advance. The French took a heavy toll of them as they advanced over the rocks and boulders and climbed the steep grassy slopes between the gullies. By sheer tenacity they gained the top of the ridge and Delaborde, the French commander, skillfully withdrew his force without too much trouble

Rolica is well worth a visit, but some preparation is necessary particularly if you want to view the first French position. This visit was a good lesson for us, as it made us realize just how difficult it can be to find just the right spot even with directions which appear to be comprehensive. But it was well worth the time and trouble, and indeed the difficulty just added to our enjoyment once we found our spot.