In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The Fountains of Sorrow
26th May 2008
It was a subdued morning, grey and windless. The day was reflected in our mood. Perhaps we had all drunk too much and laughed too loudly the previous evening. Whatever the reason, we ate an unenthusiastic breakfast quietly. We filed into our coach and rumbled over the cobbles into the unending Spanish countryside. A video was playing on the coach’s system, but most people seemed to watch abstractly, their minds in some other place.
About halfway into our one hour journey it started to rain, a soft gentle rain from a weeping, mournful sky.
It was October 1997, nearing the end of a tour of the battlefields of the Peninsula and we arrived around ten at Fuentes de Onoro. Here between 3rd and 5th May 1811 the British and their Portuguese allies under Wellington had fought a savage battle against the French commanded by Marshal Massena.
Fuentes had been a small village in the Duke’s time, and was apparently unchanged since that time. We left the coach on the outskirts of the village and walked down a sloping hill for about six hundred yards. The roads for the most part were no more than tracks, with beaten mud as their surfaces. These surfaces were slippery with rain, reflecting dully in the sad morning light. The buildings were single story, stone built creations, with high wide wooden doors. The rear of each building was also stone, glistening grey and rising to around ten feet.
Why would anyone want to fight over this place, let alone such commanders as Wellington and Massena?
In May 1811, Wellington has pushed the French back into Spain and laid siege to the Portuguese fortress of Almeida. At that time, before the age of roads, there were only two ways into Portugal from Spain along which an army, and especially artillery, could travel. These two routes were controlled by the French, at Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and at Badajos in the south. To progress the war, the Duke had to take at least one of these fortresses. His forces were camped at Almeida and Massena was taking 48,000 men to relieve his compatriots. The road led directly through Fuentes de Onoro, which had no other claim to fame.
We explored the drab church on the outskirts of Fuentes, its lacklustre spire the highest point in the village. This was the extent to which the Allies were driven back by the savage advances of the numerically superior French, bullet holes in the church walls marking their temporary success. We walked in silent rain through the narrow street, more tracks than streets, with grass growing on the sides of the rutted tracks of the carts.
In these narrow paths, no wider than a man’s outstretched arms, thousands of brave men had fought and died. Five minutes through the village took us to the River Dos Casas and its Roman bridge. The river was a stumbling stream, half a dozen inches deep. The Roman bridge was a low crossing of what appeared to be slabs of slate, three feet wide. In May 1811 these turgid waters had run red with blood as the village changed hands half a dozen times.
In this place had fought many famous regiments, the Foot Guards, the Coldstreamers, the fierce men of the Connaughts, the King’s German Legion, the 95th Rifles, the Royal Americans and the brave Portuguese riflemen. The French were equally brave, if less successful. In this place some 1500 Allied and 2100 French soldiers had died.
After the battle, Wellington wrote to the British Government, asking for funds to repair the village, remarking, ‘It has been the scene of a recent battle and has not been much improved by the event.’ Sadly, there is no record as to whether such funds were forthcoming.
We walked back through the sad dripping streets to our coach, still overwhelmed by the sadness of this place. During our time there we had not seen one other person, other than our own group, a village bowed down by its memories.
Fuentes de Onoro means Fountains of Honour. Sorrow is more appropriate.
Written by B.M