Of all the battles I had read about in the Peninsular Wars, the one at Fuentes de Orono has always been one of the most vivid. The battle was spread over three days 3-5 May 1811, and is famous for the fighting retreat of the Light Division and the famous "charge" of Ramseys horse artillery. But for me the most memorable was the hand to hand fighting in the village itself which has always made the most impression.
The first day of fighting was for the village. The French attacked across the stone bridge above and drove the defenders back through the village to the church on the hill. The British counter attacked and drove the French back to the brigade - again and again and again. At nightfall the British held the same buildings they had held at first light.
We drove to Fuentes de Orono from Salamanca, and the bus deposited us by the stone bridge over the river Dos Casas. Here we were briefed on the battle, and the left to look around as we wished. Jan and I remained at the bridge for a while as the rest made their way up to the church at the top of the village. We wanted to have a few minutes on our own to just stand and look. The houses on the far side of the bridge and river was the edge of the British defences, and we stood where French attack after attack was launched.
We slowly made our way up through the tangle of narrow streets to the surprisingly large church at the top of the village. This was the furthest the French had advanced. "The Highlanders disputing every foot of ground, had been driven to the churchyard where they fought hand to hand with the grenadiers...." They never managed to take the church, and time after time they were pushed back down the narrow streets to the river and bridge.
The narrow streets and stone walls looked exactly as I had imagined they would. I understand that the village was largely destroyed during the battle, and rebuilt afterwards. But it was easy to imagine that it must have looked just like it does now.
There are many descriptions of the hand to hand fighting in the village. I remembered one in particular "....in their flight about 150 of the Imperial Guard ran down a street the farther end of which had been barricaded by our troops. Shut up in a complete cul-de-sac the result may be imagined - a frightful slaughter...."
Walking down the dirt tracks towards the river it was all to easy to imagine just what it must have been like for both French and British during the endless hand to hand fighting that raged in this small village for hour after hour.