Volume 3 of the 6 volume history of the Peninsular War
Fortescue is rightly renowned for his multi-volume magnum opus, ‘The History of the British Army’, which, since it was written in the early decades of the twentieth century, feature the struggles with Napoleonic France, as a substantial part of the whole. These campaigns took place across the world but, for the British, most notably in Spain, Portugal and the South of France following the French invasion of Iberia. The numerous disconnected sections, within Fortescue’s larger work, concerning the Peninsular War, have been extracted for the first time and carefully edited to create this six volume history. There can be no doubt that in Fortescue the British Army found one of its finest historians. His scholarship is superb, but is balanced by outstanding and fearless academic analysis. What makes this history incomparable and essential is that Fortescue was a contemporary of the other great British military historian of the modern age, Charles Oman, who wrote his own history of the Peninsular War. Fortescue conferred and collaborated with Oman to produce this work and within these pages the reader will discover both confirmations and qualified corrections to some of Oman’s assertions on points of detail. Fortescue was extraordinarily thorough in his use of primary source material (which is annotated) and he additionally walked the ground of the campaign himself. The magnitude of the joint scholarship which brought this history into being cannot be overstated. This analysis of the Peninsular War differs significantly from Fortescue’s other writings on the British Army, in that in embraces the activities of the French and the Spanish in some depth, thus creating a total view. This is a serious, academic, and thoroughly readable, history and no library of the subject can be truly said to be complete without it. The text has been complemented in this Leonaur edition by battlefield maps not present in the original publication.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The cavalry passed in rear of the new line and had just dismounted, when some French hussars of Fournier’s brigade, perceiving a knot of skirmishers from the Guards extended before the line of Stopford’s brigade, swooped down upon them and after a sharp struggle swept off about a hundred of them; whereupon two squadrons of the Royals and Fourteenth charged down, released some of the Guardsmen, and took twenty-five of the French prisoners. This was the only solid success of the French cavalry during the day. Montbrun hovered about in front of Wellington’s right wing, and his troopers skirmished, as it was called, with the British horse, presumably by firing erratic shots at them from the saddle. Once a body of brave men made a dash upon Thompson’s battery on the right of the Guards; but they were shattered to pieces by grapeshot, and were fain to retire. Once another party made a feeble attempt upon the Forty-Second, which repelled them without forming square.
After a time the cavalry drew off, and the enemy confined themselves to a cannonade at long range, the shot flying over Wellington’s first line, but doing some execution in the second. The British artillery soon replied, both sides making beautiful practice; but Wellington, having a superior number of guns, was able to overpower the French fire. It seems to have been in the course of this duel of artillery that a Captain Knipe of the Fourteenth, who had a theory that cavalry should always charge a battery in front, put his ideas into practice with his own squadron and a squadron of the Royals. The attempt was of course unsuccessful, and cost Knipe his own life and the lives of several men and horses. (The writer in Maxwell’s Peninsular Sketches, who was in Knipe’s squadron, declares that he never could see the object of this attack. Mr. Oman (iv.) places the incident earlier in the day). With such incidents the attack on Wellington’s right died away.
The columns of the Sixth and Eighth Corps were now massed within cannon-shot over against the Third and First Divisions, with clouds of skirmishers out; but no serious movement was made beyond an advance of sharp-shooters along the valley of the Turones, which was easily and quickly repelled by four companies of Riflemen under Captain O’Hare. Massena was not yet disposed to deliver his assault on this side; nor was he wrong. For Wellington’s right wing, following the contour of the ground, had the village of Fuentes de Oñoro rather in advance of its left, while its right was thrown forward somewhat from its centre towards the valley of the Turones, so that to assail this wing before capturing the village would have been practically to attack a re-entrant angle before carrying the salient.
Massena’s instructions, as we have seen, were that Ferey and the Ninth Corps were to risk nothing at Fuentes de Oñoro; but from three to four hours after the opening of the action on the British right, when all seemed to be going well with the French, the marshal gave the order to storm the village. (Napier says two hours; the Journal of a Soldier of the 71st gives the hour at about half-past nine, and represents the action on the right as beginning at about six; Koch gives the time at eleven o’clock).
Ferey accordingly assaulted the front, while three picked battalions of Claparède’s division fell upon it on Ferey’s left under cover of a heavy fire of artillery. The French rushing forward with characteristic impetuosity drove the Seventy-First and Seventy-Ninth after a sharp struggle from the lower houses, and, cutting off two companies of the latter regiment, made the whole of them prisoners. The rest of the Highlanders, however, rallied on the upper ground by the church, and being reinforced by the Twenty-Fourth took the offensive and thrust the enemy back to the buildings by the river.
Again the French came on, and the struggle began once more with desperate fury, every inch of ground being disputed, until the British were at last pushed back to the uppermost margin of rocks and houses, from whence they could not be dislodged. Wellington now set about drafting several of the light companies of the First and Third Divisions, together with the 6th Caçadores, into the village, while d’Erlon summoned several battalions from the divisions of Conroux and Claparède for a decisive assault. The streets were clogged with dead and wounded of both sides, upon whom the French artillery poured an incessant shower of round shot and grape; but the heavy column of fresh men from the Ninth Corps stormed through every obstruction. In the conflict that followed, Colonel Cameron of the Seventy-Ninth, the soul of the defence and the darling of his regiment, was shot dead; and by a final supreme effort the French swept the British from their little citadel, and halted in close column upon the ground that they had won on the summit of the plateau.
They did not stay there long. The British troops, although forced back, were still firing at them, while a British battery behind the village tore great gaps through their ranks. This punishment the Ninth Corps endured unmoved, as became brave men of France. But General Edward Pakenham of the staff had galloped up to Wellington to ask leave to bring up the Eighty-Eighth; and presently the Irishmen came down the road in column of sections at the double, with Generals Mackinnon, Pakenham, and above all their Colonel, Wallace, at their head. Instantly they closed with the French 9th Light Infantry. For a brief space the 9th stood firm, but presently gave way, the Eighty-Eighth following hard at their heels with the bayonet; while the Seventy-Fourth, also of Mackinnon’s brigade, dashed in upon the French at another point. The former defenders of the village swarmed after them, and the Seventy-Ninth took revenge for their dead colonel.
The fighting was savage. One party of over a hundred French grenadiers ran down into a barricaded street from which there was no escape; and every one of them was bayoneted by the Irish. The rest were driven headlong over the water; and more than one of the British followed them in the heat of the chase, to fall dead on the French side of the stream. D’Erlon brought forward his few remaining battalions to cover the rout; but he made no further attempt to capture the village, though his batteries still played furiously upon it. Undaunted by crumbling walls and quaking rafters, the Seventy-Fourth and Eighty-Eighth fortified themselves among the ruins until at length the fire ceased; for the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro was over. (The best accounts of the defence and recapture of Fuentes de Oñoro are in Grattan’s Adventures of the Connaught Rangers, Journal of a Soldier of the 71st, and Jameson’s Historical Record of the 79th).