In My Father’s Words
03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018
The rain drizzled in a fine mist from weeping grey skies, the sort of rain which never properly started and never properly stopped. I was soaked through, from my thinning hair to my expensive Italian hiking boots. The water had even penetrated inside the pockets of my rain jacket. We had come to this village, a place so desolate that I could not believe that it was occupied, although I had been assured that it was. A small bridge of stepping stones, reputedly Roman, crossed the dingy stream on the west of the village.
Most of the buildings were of stone, irregular stones, fitted together like dry stone walls in the north of England or Scotland. The one route which served as the main street was of beaten earth, now slick and coffee coloured with rain. The side streets, if they could be so described, were a maze of winding tracks, with grass and weeds at the sides growing to a foot in height. No houses fronted onto the streets, but cowered behind eight-foot high walls, broken occasionally by doors of wood planking. This was a dreadful place, hiding some dark secret, whatever spirit it may once have possessed now dead. This was Fuentes de Onoro, Fountains of Honour in English. I saw neither man, woman, child, animal or vehicle of any kind. I saw no fountains either. I stood beside the village church, its stones tuned black by the rain, and deeply pockmarked by bullet holes.
It was a desperate time for Britain. Almost all of Europe lay under the heel of a fanatical dictator, her Army had been expelled in rags from the Continent, and the country was in danger of invasion. There were those who wanted to make peace with the enemy. In her hour of need, the country produced a saviour, someone whose fame and courage would spread far beyond these shores. The year was 1809, the man was Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.
In 1808 Napoleon imposed a Continental embargo against trade with Britain, and threatened war on any nation which defied him. The Portuguese, as Britain’s oldest ally, did defy him, and consequently were invaded, with the collusion of their neighbours and oldest enemies, the Spanish, whose thanks came in being in turn occupied by the French Emperor. The following year, in response to a request from the King and Government of Portugal, in exile in Brazil, Britain sent a small army under Sir Arthur, to liberate the Portuguese.
He started by retaking the town of Porto, and by May 1811 had almost succeeded in pushing the French back into Spain. The small British Army had grown and had incorporated many Portuguese units, trained, equipped, paid and officered by the British. The Allies were outnumbered perhaps by five to one by the French. The Duke could not afford to lose even a single battle. The French, by their brutality towards civilians, and desecration of church and clergy, had aroused most of the Spanish and Portuguese peasantry against them and Napoleon’s soldiers were frequently tortured and murdered by these irregular troops. The word ‘guerrilla’ was first used at this time.
There were only two routes linking Spain and Portugal, two routes along which an Army could march. The Southern route was by way of Badajoz, held by the French, and Elvas, an Allied held frontier fortress. The northern road passed through the French held Spanish bastion of Ciudad Rodrigo, and the mirror image Portuguese stronghold of Almeida. Unfortunately, Almeida was also held by the French, under the command of the clever and brave General Brennier.
Wellington, a Tory aristocrat, was under severe pressure from Whig critics at home, and from deep discontent in many of his own senior officers in Portugal. He had to take Almeida and consequently laid siege. The French immediately sent an army of nearly 50,000 under Marshal Massena to relieve the town. Opposing him were some 37,000 Allies of which 23,000 were British. They met in the small medieval village of Fuentes de Onoro, lying astride the Almeida road, high in the hills. The bitter battle raged for two days, the place changing hands half a dozen times. Finally, with the village clogged by the dead of both sides, and the streets slippery with blood, the French retreated, as torrential rain started, turning the small Das Casas River red.
Wellington subsequently asked the British Government for monies to rebuild the village, observing, “it has been the scene of a recent battle, an event by which it has not been much improved.”
Almeida could not be relieved, so Massena sent orders to Brennier to give up the town and break out. Wellington had anticipated this however and sent written orders to General Sir William Erskine, the divisional commander, to send a regiment to secure the bridge over the River Turones. Erskine received his orders at 4 p.m., read them, and placed the paper in his pocket. It was 10 p.m. before he remembered it again, when he sent it to Lt Col Charles Bevan, in command of the 4th Regiment of foot. Bevan, receiving the orders at midnight, decided not to act immediately, but to wait until the morning. When he did get going, he was too late, and only managed to catch the French rearguard, the great majority of Brennier’s men escaping to Spain.
The Duke was reported as being angrier than anyone could ever remember, describing the failure as ‘the most disgraceful military event.’ The unfortunate Bevan was paraded before Wellington, who told him in no uncertain terms that ‘there was no excuse for what you have done’. Bevan was ordered to be court martialed.
Wellington was powerless to discipline Erskine, who reportedly had ‘friends in high places’ and had been appointed against Wellington’s express wishes. The Duke had protested that Erskine was mad, and was informed by the Horseguards, today’s MOD, that “He is undoubtedly mad, but when sane, is a personable fellow.”
The story has a sad ending. Marshal Massena was relieved of his command by Napoleon and never saw active service again. He declared for Napoleon in 1815 and was sacked on the restoration of King Louis XVIII. He died in Paris, in disgrace, two years later. In 1812 Erskine, at the age of 43, was declared insane and cashiered. Later in the year he committed suicide by jumping from an upper floor window. Lt Col Charles Bevan, late Commanding Officer of His Majesty’s fourth Regiment of Foot, blew his brains out with his own pistol on 9th July 1811.
On the other hand, Brennier survived the war, despite being severely wounded, and became a long serving minister in successive French governments, dying in 1838. The Duke of Wellington, on 18th June 1815 won immortality at the Battle of Waterloo, and became Prime Minister in 1828.
Written by BM