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The Peninsular War – 1811

The French army rampaged and looted its way back to Spain, leaving the fortress at Almeida as their last redoubt in Portugal. Wellington, meanwhile, was under pressure. Public expectations were high, the pro-war Tory Government was weak and the Whigs (Liberals) were calling for peace talks with Napoleon. Wellington knew he had to deliver and that the border fortresses had to be captured before he could make any lasting inroads into Spain.

To the south British forces under Sir Thomas Graham landed near Cadiz with the aim of breaking Marshal Victor’s siege of the city. Graham defeated the French at Barossa but was unable to lift the siege.

On May 2nd, Masséna accompanied by 47,000 troops marched out of Ciudad Rodrigo. He was determined to defeat the British and relieve Almeida. Wellington had sent most of his forces south under Beresford to besiege Badajoz, so only he and 26,000 men stood in Masséna’s way.

Fuentes church – the scene of heavy fighting during the battle of Fuentes d’Oñoro, 1811. © Michael Crumplin.

The two sides met at the small village of Fuentes d’Oñoro, which was the location for two consecutive battles (3rd and 5th May). On the morning of the 5th May, the French nearly broke through the over-extended British lines, but they were finally forced back. Masséna eventually withdrew and Almeida fell to the Allies. The French garrison evaded capture, much to Wellington’s anger, after the cavalry failed to cut off their escape route.

Battle of Fuentes d’Oñoro, 5th May 1811. © National Army Museum, London.

Further south, Soult set off from Seville to relieve Badajoz. His forces met Beresford’s army at La Albuera (16th May). Only spirited fighting by the Spanish prevented a French flanking movement from winning the day. Instead the intense firefight dragged on and casualty rates in some battalions were as high as 60%. Albuera was a costly victory.

The Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Fusiliers had to fight their way to the top of this hill at the battle of Albuera, 1811. © Michael Crumplin.

Musket ball from the site of the battle of Albuera, alongside cap badges of the regiments that took part in the battle.

The Allied position was not secure. Towards the end of September, the new French general, Marmont, nearly trapped the British forces under the Welshman, Lt. General Picton, at El Bodón. Only Picton’s cool head and the rapid formation of his troops into the famous square formations saved the British from an embarrassing defeat.

Towards the year end, Wellington was urged by his more gung-ho generals to lay siege to Ciudad Rodrigo, but he refused to commit before his siege equipment had completed its slow overland journey from Lisbon. Fortunately, time was on his side: Napoleon was recalling troops from Spain to take part in his next venture – the catastrophic invasion of Russia.