Eduard Nezbeda, ‘Die Seeschlacht von Lissa, 1866’. oil painting, 1911, private collection, Vienna. Portrayal of the Austrian triple-decker wooden battleship Kaiser (centre of picture) ramming the Italian ironclad Re di Portogallo. The Kaiser suffered substantial damage in the engagement. Reproduced in A.E. Sokol, Seemacht Österreich. Die Kaiserliche und Königliche Kriegsmarine 1382-1918 {Austrian Seapower: The Imperial and Royal Navy 1382-1918}, F. Molden, Wien, 1972.

‘Admiral Persano’, circa 1860. Contemporary photograph. Reproduced in Lamberto Vitali, Il Risorgimento nella fotografia {The Risorgimento in Photographs}, Giulio Einaudi editore, Torino, 1979, p.216.

Speaking to parliament in 1850, Massimo d’Azeglio observed that Piedmont was ‘an ancient home of honour, an ancient warrior country’. Although not much of a warrior himself, the prime minister understandably chose to emphasize his country’s military ethos. Turin was not an imperial capital like Rome or an artistic capital like Florence or a capital of a maritime republic like Venice. It was the most military city in Italy, capital of a country in which the army had for centuries been identified very closely with the state.

The Piedmontese were eager to continue this association when they formed the new Kingdom of Italy. Distinctions between civil and military were quickly blurred by the presence of twenty-five generals and four admirals in the new parliament, some of them as elected deputies, others as senators nominated by the king. The chiefs of the army and navy could be parliamentarians and even cabinet ministers. There was thus little time for them to do their jobs properly and no chance of political neutrality. In June 1866 General Alfonso Lamarmora was not only prime minister and foreign minister but also chief-of-staff of an army on the verge of fighting a war.

The officer corps of the Italian army was dominated by Piedmontese veterans eager to implant their particular ethos in the new force, many of whose soldiers came from despised areas that had traditionally produced poor fighters. Unfortunately the Piedmontese themselves seemed recently to have lost their fighting skills, and their generals were fusty and unimaginative men who distrusted flair and initiative (especially when displayed by Garibaldi) and relied too much on conventional tactics and use of the bayonet. A typical example was General Alfonso Lamarmora, who had been prime minister after Cavour’s resignation in 1859 and who was appointed again to the post in 1864. A commander with no sense of strategy, he was obsessed by drill and invariably hostile to innovation.

Lamarmora’s statue in Turin, soaring in one of the city’s finest squares, is an object so impressive that foreign visitors would be forgiven for believing that they were viewing a great conqueror, a sort of Piedmontese Hannibal. Like the Savoia, he rides a fine steed, and the plinth below him is decorated with lions’ heads and inscriptions commemorating his career. The general made his name by his rough suppression of the revolt in Genoa in 1849, an action which hinted that the Piedmontese, recently defeated by Austria, might be venting their frustration on one of their own cities. Having established his reputation as a tough and reliable soldier, Lamarmora was rapidly promoted and selected to lead the expedition to the Crimea, where his brother Alessandro, founder of the plume-hatted bersaglieri, died of cholera. As chief-of-staff in 1859, serving loyally if awkwardly under Victor Emanuel, he won the small Battle of Palestro before his army arrived too late to fight at Magenta and later performed poorly at San Martino. Shortly afterwards the king, who longed for his premiers to be pliant generals rather than difficult politicians, appointed him prime minister. Lamarmora then spent the next seven years in politics, a sphere where his lack of skills and vision were all too evident. In June 1866 he resigned his political posts to concentrate on his duties as chief-of-staff and travelled to Lombardy eager for the much-trumpeted ‘baptism of blood’. Almost everyone seemed confident of the outcome, partly because the Austrians were concentrating on Prussia and had only a small army in Venetia, a region they no longer wanted and had already offered to give up. Italy, by contrast, had been expanding its forces in recent years and could now outnumber its enemy by more than two to one for the contest which took place near Verona.

The second leading general in the campaign was Enrico Cialdini, a Modenese suspicious of Lamarmora and other Piedmontese generals, whom he regarded, in most cases rightly, as inferior commanders. He had served in Lombardy in 1859, but his earliest military experiences had been acquired in the fiercer circumstances of Spain’s first Carlist War in the 1830s. The invasions of 1860 and the savagery with which he overcame any type of resistance in the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies: the declarations of martial law, the burning of villages, the summary executions of peasants caught with weapons, the pitiless bombardments of Ancona, Capua and Gaeta. He treated the inhabitants of states with which Piedmont was not at war as if he were wreaking vengeance on a barbarous people rather than hoping to persuade them of the merits of Italian unification. For his role in expelling the Bourbons in 1861, he was rewarded with a dukedom, as if to imply that as a commander he ranked alongside Marlborough or Masséna, Duke of Rivoli. Soon afterwards he returned to Naples as the king’s lieutenant-general to deal with the civil war his actions had done so much to promote.

In the summer of 1866 the Italian army was divided: Lamarmora had the bulk of the army in Lombardy; Cialdini commanded a substantial force at Bologna; and Garibaldi led his volunteers in the Alpine foothills. This arrangement, a consequence of the jealousy and distrust among senior generals, made cooperation difficult. Lamarmora met Cialdini to discuss the campaign but failed to establish a joint plan. In the event he advanced without waiting for the others and marched his troops towards the fortresses of the Quadrilateral. Believing the Austrians to be east of the Adige, he crossed the River Mincio without making an effort to reconnoitre. He was thus astonished to discover, on the east bank of the Mincio, an Austrian force, which attacked his advance guard at Custoza and drove it back. Giuseppe Govone, the best of the Piedmontese commanders, counter-attacked with his division and regained some ground but could not retain it without reinforcements. Desperately he appealed to the general to his rear, Enrico Della Rocca, to send his fresh divisions to the front, but his colleague refused to help. More of a courtier than a soldier, Della Rocca stuck to earlier orders from Lamarmora instead of following the elementary military rule of marching to the sound of gunfire.

Throughout the day Lamarmora himself panicked. His army was strung out over a considerable distance, and he galloped madly from one unit to another so that his subordinates were seldom able to find him; for some reason, inexplicable even to himself, he ended the fight about thirteen miles from the battlefield. A message was sent from the king to Cialdini ordering him to come to the rescue, but the general refused; he had in any case been positioned too far away to reach the battlefield in time to affect the result.

Both the senior generals mistook a reverse for a rout and chose to retreat. Yet Cialdini could have led his men towards the Po and threatened the Austrian flank, and Lamarmora could have regrouped on the Mincio and counter-attacked with the divisions that had not fired a shot during the battle; he had lost fewer than 1,000 men at Custoza, and his army was still far larger than the enemy’s. His excessive and unnecessary retreat – the Austrians were not even pursuing him – added embarrassment to the humiliation of the defeat and deepened the demoralization of a nation that had been told victory was inevitable. The actions of Lamarmora, Della Rocca and perhaps Cialdini deserved examination before a court-martial. None of them faced one. Instead of being condemned as the incompetent general that he was, Lamarmora was posthumously rewarded with the magnificent statue in Piazza Bodoni.

Turin’s military monuments were not all erected to commemorate individual kings and commanders. Some of them are collective memorials, representing units of the armed forces, principally the bersaglieri (who are always shown running) but also the cavalry, the carabinieri and the Alpine regiments. Only one monument, that dedicated to the men who went to the Crimea, contains a statue of a sailor.

Piedmont had no nautical traditions; indeed, until it was given Liguria by the Congress of Vienna, it possessed no coastline except around Nice. Its insignificant navy did little in the early wars of the Risorgimento and was never required to fight a proper battle. United Italy, however, had an extremely long coastline. Since it also had aspirations to join the Great Powers, it set about building an impressive fleet, though its only plausible enemy was Austria, which had little naval history or ambition of its own. By 1866 this new fleet included twelve new ironclads and was commanded by an admiral, four vice-admirals and eight rear-admirals. The Austrian navy was smaller, slower and less well equipped: it possessed only seven ironclads. The Italian force was thus superior in all material respects though generally inferior in most human ones, most markedly in the abilities of the admirals in command.

The Italian commander was Carlo Pellion, Count of Persano. Unlike Garibaldi, who was a seaman both by birth and by aptitude, the Piedmontese Persano had seafaring neither in his blood nor in his upbringing. He came from the inland rice-growing area of Vercelli and was apparently unable to swim. Some people believed he chose to be a sailor because there was so much less competition for posts in the navy than there was in the army. He himself owed his very rapid promotion not to his exploits but to his talent at flattery, intrigue and making himself popular at court. He managed to ingratiate himself with Cavour and became an unlikely friend of Azeglio, possibly because that amorous statesman was attracted to his English wife. A vain and quarrelsome individual with a taste for fighting duels, Persano was both frivolous and irresponsible: he once asked Azeglio, who was prime minister at the time, to give him a false passport so that he could pursue a ballerina in Austrian-held Milan. His friend refused to help.

Persano’s seamanship could be embarrassing. In 1851 he ran his ship aground outside Genoa harbour when carrying Piedmont’s contribution to the Great Exhibition in London. Two years later, even more embarrassingly, he ran aground again, this time while transporting the royal family to Sardinia for a hunting trip; apparently he was trying to take a short cut and hit some rocks that were not marked on his charts. Although he was arrested and reduced in rank for six months after this episode, the setback did not harm Persano’s career. In 1860 Cavour entrusted him with the job of shadowing Garibaldi and stirring up trouble in Palermo and Naples, and in the autumn of that year Persano assisted Cialdini in the capture of Ancona by bombarding the papal port from the sea. Over the next two years he became a parliamentarian, the minister of the navy and the admiral who in 1866 found himself in charge of the fleet at Ancona under government orders to defeat the Austrians and rescue Italy’s reputation after the fiasco of Custoza.

Persano was not, however, eager for combat and, although he had only brought his ships up from Taranto, claimed that they needed an overhaul. To repeated orders from Agostino Depretis, the current naval minister in Florence, he responded with a range of reasons for delay: the fleet was not ready, the crews were not trained, water had got into the cylinders and something was wrong with the coal; most important of all, the Affondatore (the Sinker), the best and newest ship, was still on its way from England, where it had been built. When Depretis told him to make himself master of the Adriatic, Persano replied that he had no proper charts of the one conceivable sea where his navy might fight. While the fleet was still being overhauled after its voyage from Taranto, the audacious Austrian admiral Wilhelm von Tegetthoff appeared with his navy off Ancona, fired a few salvoes and waited for the Italians to come out and engage him; when they remained in port without returning fire, he sailed away and claimed a moral victory.

An exasperated government eventually used the threat of dismissal to force Persano out and attack the island of Lissa off the Dalmatian coast. The navy was duly shelling the Austrian batteries on the island and preparing to land its troops when Tegetthoff reappeared and made a reckoning unavoidable. While Persano was organizing his line, the long-awaited Affondatore steamed up, its arrival persuading him to abandon his flagship, the Re d’Italia, and direct the battle from an armour-plated turret on the new vessel. Most of his captains were unaware, however, of the changeover and continued to look for signals from the Re d’Italia – until it was rammed and sunk by Tegetthoff’s own flagship. The simultaneous loss of another ship, which caught fire and exploded, convinced Persano that the battle was lost, even though he still easily outnumbered the Austrians and could have carried on the fray. Like the generals at Custoza, he converted a setback into a disaster and, as with Lamarmora, ordered an unnecessary retreat, leading his ships back to Ancona, where expectant crowds were waiting to cheer captured Austrian vessels.

Lissa ended the career of Persano, who was accused of cowardice but cashiered for the lesser sins of negligence and incapacity. The defeat had other repercussions, especially for the future of the Italian navy, which henceforth tried to avoid battles on the open seas; one consequence of this was the disaster of November 1940, when the British disabled half the fleet that lay anchored in the harbour of Taranto. Yet the most insidious effect of the 1866 war was its impact on the psyche of the Italian nation. The very names Lissa and Custoza became reproaches, incitements to redress and redemption. Instead of persuading Italians not to attempt to become a Great Power, they encouraged them to try even harder. As Austria seemed the obvious place to seek such redemption, Victor Emanuel suggested to Bismarck in 1878 that a joint attack on the Habsburgs would give each of them victory and new territory. When the chancellor replied that Germany was big enough already, Italy abandoned the idea, became an ally of Austria and embarked on colonial adventures in Africa. Yet the defeats of 1866 rankled and continued to do so well into the twentieth century. The obsession with amends was a fundamental motive in the decisions to take part in the world wars in 1915 and 1940.

That Astonishing Infantry’ – The Albuera Counter-Attack I


The beginning of the battle – Polish Lancers (four platoons – one hundred cavalrymen) in a challenge with English soldiers 3rd Dragoon Guards.



Colborne’s brigade

16 May 1811

It was Napoleon himself who referred to the Peninsular War as the ‘Spanish ulcer’ which, for the seven years between 1807 and 1814 constantly gnawed away at the strength of his Grande Armée and absorbed thousands of French troops which he could have put to more productive use elsewhere in Europe. Recognising that Great Britain was the most implacable of his enemies, his initial intention had simply been to tighten up the Continental System by which, since 1793, France had attempted to deny mainland Europe to British trade. Because of wholesale smuggling the system leaked like a sieve, to the extent in fact, that at any one time a large part of the Grand Armée was said to march on boots manufactured in Northampton. Smuggling, however, was one thing, flagrantly flouting the system quite another. Portugal provided an open market for British goods, which were then shipped onwards to the rest of Europe, and in Napoleon’s judgement Portugal must be taught a sharp lesson. In November 1807 a French army under General Andoche Junot invaded Portugal from Spain and occupied Lisbon. The Portuguese royal family escaped to Brazil, then a colony, leaving behind a Council of Regency which requested British assistance. This was promised the following year.

In March 1808 Napoleon allowed an attack of hubris to cloud his judgement. Marshal Joachim Murat was sent into Spain at the head of a large army and, having taken King Charles IV and his son prisoner, installed the emperor’s brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, where he was to be kept by French bayonets. To Napoleon’s surprise, the Spanish people would have none of it; corrupt and ineffective as their own monarchy was, it was preferable to the rule of foreigners, and the French occupation was a bitter blow to their pride. Risings took place in May, quickly spreading across the entire country. In July General Pierre Dupont’s army was forced to capitulate at Baylen, many of its members being subsequently massacred. The following month the promised British assistance, an expeditionary force commanded by the then Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, reached Portugal, defeating Junot at Roliça on 17 August and again at Vimeiro four days later. Following this, a convention was signed under the terms of which Junot’s army was transported home in British ships.

Both sides, the British, Portuguese and Spanish on the one hand and the French with such Bonapartist support as they could muster locally, progressively escalated the scale of operations in the Iberian Peninsula. After its success at Baylen the Spanish regular army, badly led, under-equipped and ill-supplied, was of dubious value to its allies. Sometimes the half-starved Spaniards would desert to the enemy for the sake of a square meal, sometimes they would happily leave all the fighting to the British and Portuguese, sometimes they would give way at the first shock, and sometimes they would fight with exemplary courage. There was no way of telling in advance how they would perform; the prickly sensitivity of their officers, on the other hand, could be relied upon when it came to matters concerning the ‘punto de honor’, that is, questions of personal standing, prestige and honour. After a series of unfortunate experiences Wellington learned to place no reliance on them whatever, giving full vent to his feelings in a letter to Lord Liverpool when the latter suggested a joint amphibious raiding venture into the Bay of Biscay:

‘It is vain to hope for any assistance, much less military assistance, from the Spaniards; the first thing they would require uniformly would be money; then arms, ammunition, clothing of all descriptions, provisions, forage, horses, means of transport and everything which the expedition would have a right to require from them; and, after all, this extraordinary and perverse people would scarcely allow the commander of the expedition to have a voice in the plan of operations … if indeed they should ever be ready.’

The real value of the Spaniards lay in their guerrilla bands, who conducted a savage war of atrocity and reprisal with the French, causing the latter to deploy thousands of troops to protect their lines of communication.

The Portuguese Army was in little better state when the British arrived. Its organisation, pay and conditions of service were, however, quickly reformed from top to bottom under British guidance and it became a formidable force upon which Wellington could rely implicitly, despite the fact that at any one time there were never more than 200 British officers serving as advisers in its ranks.

The British element of Wellington’s armies was composed entirely of regular troops. The majority of the officer corps consisted of the sons of retired or serving officers or members of the yeoman or the rising business and professional classes, who had obtained their commissions either by purchase or through the recommendation of a well-connected patron. A small number had been granted commissions because of distinguished conduct on the battlefield, and an even smaller number were gentlemen volunteers who, lacking funds or influence, elected to serve in the ranks in the hope that their own merits would gain them a place when casualties created vacancies.

The origins of the rank and file were equally varied. Within any regiment the best men were the handful who had joined because they had a genuine interest in the life, and the reinforcement drafts of militiamen who had volunteered for service abroad. Then came those who, after a bout of heavy drinking with the recruiting sergeants, had surfaced to find themselves in possession of the King’s Shilling, those whom hard times had forced to enlist, those seeking escape from some problem in civilian life, and those to whom the magistrates had offered enlistment as an alternative to imprisonment. When necessary, discipline was enforced with the noose and the lash – although commanders were unwise to use either too freely – not simply because of the number of bad characters that could be found in the ranks, but because it had to be rigidly maintained in an era when battles were fought out at a range when every detail of the enemy’s uniform was clearly visible, when the fighting was terrifyingly personal and the wounds inflicted always horrific. The greatest threat to British discipline was drink, which the troops would always resort to whenever it was available, especially after a particularly harrowing ordeal such as the storming of a bitterly defended fortress, when they would, despite the draconian punishments available, remain beyond the control of their officers for days at a time and commit every crime in the criminal calendar. Such occasions were comparatively rare, and it was to them that Wellington referred when he described his troops as ‘the scum of the earth!’ Yet, whatever their faults, there could be no denying their fierce loyalty to their regiments, their supreme confidence that they could beat the stuffing out of Johnny Crapaud on any day of the week, or their incredible stubbornness, endurance and willingness to undergo terrible privations on Wellington’s behalf. It would be wrong to suggest that they held their patrician commander-in-chief in anything like affection, but they respected him, had every confidence in his abilities and were unsettled when he was not about.

The motivation of their French enemies was, perhaps, more obvious. Although generally recruited by conscription, they were mainly the sons of pre-revolutionary peasants who believed that what had been so bloodily achieved to make France a better place was worth fighting for, and they worshipped the Emperor, who had made the name of France feared and respected throughout Europe. Their discipline was less formal than that of the British, but nonetheless adequate. They would respond with wild zeal to heroic rhetoric that would leave their stolid Anglo-Saxon foes totally unmoved. Generally, they preferred to attack in column behind a screen of skirmishers. Assaults such as these, delivered with weight, speed and élan, had time and again routed the armies of Austria, Prussia and Russia, demonstrating the old truth that the French were never more formidable than when they were winning. In the Peninsula, however, such tactics usually failed against the British, whose own highly trained light infantry kept the French skirmishers at bay while their main line, drawn up behind a crest in two-deep linear formation, then used its superior firepower to shoot away the head of the column when it appeared, following up with a limited bayonet charge that drove the disordered ranks down the forward slope. In the handling of their cavalry, however, the French were frequently more expert than the British and a mistake in their presence could spell disaster.

In some respects the Peninsular War can be compared to the Desert War in North Africa 1940–1943. Wellington’s army took on a distinctive personality of its own and the names of its senior officers became familiar to those at home. The fighting, too, acquired a similar sort of rhythm, with Wellington advancing into Spain each campaigning season, then retiring to the Portuguese frontier or beyond to protect his bases until, finally, in 1814, the French were driven across the Pyrenees and into France itself. Despite the ferocity of the battles fought, and the activities of the Spanish guerrillas, on most occasions the armies behaved chivalrously towards each other and, as far as was possible given the primitive medical facilities of the day, looked after the enemy’s wounded; there was also regular informal contact between the outposts, during which news was exchanged and bartering for food, drink and tobacco took place.

At the conclusion of the 1810 campaign Wellington, heavily outnumbered, withdrew within the impregnable Lines of Torres Vedras, constructed across the peninsula between the estuary of the Tagus and the Atlantic. The country outside the Lines had previously been stripped bare of supplies so that in November the French, commanded by Marshal André Masséna, were forced to retire to the frontier after spending a month in a state of semi-starvation. Wellington built up his strength throughout the winter and in the spring of 1811 returned to the offensive, setting the frontier fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz as his primary objectives. Splitting his army, he advanced on Ciudad Rodrigo with the main portion, sending a strong detachment under General Sir William Beresford to besiege Badajoz, which had been surrendered by its Spanish garrison in March.

Beresford, tall, lacking one eye, courageous and possessed of great physical strength, was then aged 43 and had seen active service in many areas of the world, including India, Egypt, South Africa and South America. A fine administrator and trainer of troops, it was he who had been largely responsible for the reform of the Portuguese Army, in which he held the rank of marshal. Despite the fact that his abilities as a field commander were limited, Wellington thought highly of him, indicating that if he should ever be incapacitated Beresford was to assume command.

Beresford reached Badajoz on 4 May but he was ill-equipped to conduct a siege and unable to mount much more than a blockade. A day or so later he was informed that Wellington had won a very narrow victory over Masséna at Fuentes de Onoro. On the 13th he received intelligence that Marshal Nicolas Soult, who had been putting down a rising in Andalusia, was marching rapidly to the relief of Badajoz with a 25,000-strong army. He therefore decided to raise the siege and, having effected a function with a Spanish force under General Joachim Blake, concentrated at Albuera, which Soult would be approaching along the road from Seville.

Albuera (spelled Albuhera in some accounts and as a battle honour) was, and remains, the same sort of dusty little town as that upon which The Man With No Name had such a dramatic impact in the film A Fistful of Dollars. Perhaps the best description of it in 1811 is that given by Captain Moyle Sherer of the 34th (later The Border) Regiment, in his book Recollections of the Peninsula, published fourteen years after the event:

‘It is a small and inconsiderable village, uninhabited and in ruins: it is situated on a stream from which it takes its name, and over which are two bridges; one about two hundred yards to the right of the village, large, handsome, and built of hewn stone; the other, close to the left of it, small, narrow, and incommodious. This brook is not above knee-deep: its banks, to the left of the bridge, are abrupt and uneven; and, on that side, both artillery and cavalry would find it difficult to pass, if not impossible; but to the right of the main bridge it is accessible to any description of force. The enemy occupied a very large extensive wood, about three-quarters of a mile distant, on the other side of the stream, and posted their picquets close to us. The space between the wood and the brook was a level plain; but on our side the ground rose considerably, though there was nothing that could be called a height, as from Albuera to Valverde every inch of ground is favourable to the operations of cavalry – not a tree, not a ravine to interrupt their movements.’

In total, Beresford had a little over 35,000 men available on the morning of 16 May. Of these, 10,400 were British, 10,200 Portuguese and 14,600 Spanish. Imagining that Soult would mount a frontal attack, he had already begun forming his line along the rising ground parallel to the Albuera the previous afternoon. This feature, though subsequently referred to as The Ridge, was nowhere higher than 150 feet above the river. Behind and parallel to it was a shallow valley through which ran a small stream, the Arroyo de Vale de Sevitta.

The right of the line was held by six Spanish brigades which had moved into position after dark. Behind Albuera village was Major-General the Honourable William Stewart’s British 2nd Division, with Count von Alten’s brigade of the King’s German Legion, consisting mainly of Hanoverian exiles, in the village itself. Prolonging the line to the left was Hamilton’s Portuguese division, three brigades strong. Beresford’s cavalry, commanded by Major-General the Honourable Sir William Lumley, having maintained contact with the French throughout the day, withdrew across the Albuera and, leaving a screen along the river bank, went into reserve behind the centre. Major-General Sir Lowry Cole’s British 4th Division, having remained at Badajoz to maintain the illusion of a siege until relieved by Spanish troops, was marching towards Albuera and would also go into reserve when it arrived the following morning.

There would have been nothing wrong with Beresford’s dispositions had the ensuing battle, frequently described as the most murderous and sanguinary of the entire Peninsular War, developed as he had anticipated. However, his opponent, Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult, Duke of Dalmatia, was not only regarded by many as the ablest of France’s marshals, but had also been described by Napoleon himself as the ablest tactician in the Empire. As his troops approached Albuera during the afternoon and evening of the 15th, he kept most of them concealed within the woodland on the west bank of the river while he carried out a thorough personal reconnaissance of the Allied dispositions. It did not take him long to establish that Beresford had the larger army, and that while the latter’s deployment was entirely conventional, a frontal assault against the low ridge, involving as it did a river crossing and an advance up what would become a long, bullet-swept glacis, was likely to prove an extremely expensive business. He therefore decided to deal with the Allied army by feinting at its centre and using a concealed approach march to bring his main body onto its flank. This would give him overwhelming numerical superiority at the point of contact and would result in Beresford’s line being rolled up. The destruction of the Allied army would be completed by the unleashing of the French cavalry, commanded by the redoubtable Lieutenant-General Marie Latour-Maubourg, into the shallow valley behind The Ridge. The strategic consequences arising from Beresford’s elimination would extend far beyond the relief of Badajoz; Wellington, still confronted by Masséna, would be forced to look to his own safety and conduct a premature withdrawal into Portugal, thereby causing British prestige throughout Spain to tumble. In fact, the consequences would have extended even further than Soult imagined, for there were those in Parliament who objected very strongly to the prodigious cost of the war and had thus far only been silenced by Wellington’s succession of victories; a major reverse, therefore, would play into their hands and might even lead to the withdrawal of British troops from the Peninsula.

The battle began at about 09:00 on 16 May when a French brigade, supported by artillery and with cavalry on its flanks, emerged from the woods and began advancing in column along the Seville-Badajoz road towards the main bridge at Albuera. Commanded by Brigadier-General Godinot, this was Soult’s diversion force, and to reinforce the illusion that it was the main attack it was followed at a distance by a second brigade under Brigadier-General Werlé. In the meantime, the main body of the French, consisting of Girard’s and Gazan’s infantry divisions and Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, was forming up under the trees and preparing to ford the Albuera at a point approximately two miles south of the bridge.

Now under fire from the British artillery on The Ridge, Godinot pressed forward and was soon heavily engaged with Alten’s Germans in the village. Upstream of the bridge a unit of Polish lancers forded the stream but were counter-charged and driven back by the 3rd Dragoon Guards; downstream, where crossing was more difficult, hussar squadrons galloped flashily into position opposite the Portuguese cavalry but did not press their attack.

Two things now happened to warn Beresford as to the danger in which he stood. Major General Zayas, on the right of the Spanish line, was suddenly alerted by the glitter of massed bayonets emerging from the wood and crossing the stream to the south. Acting on his own initiative, he moved his four battalions to the right, occupying a prominent hummock at a point where The Ridge broadened out, thereby creating the first flimsy defence of the Allied right flank.

Simultaneously, from his elevated position above Albuera, Beresford noticed that Werlé, far from giving Godinot the close support that would have been necessary had the latter been leading the main attack, had merely sent forward a grenadier battalion and some cavalry and was now marching purposefully south. This, coupled with Zayas’ sudden redeployment, provided the necessary warning that his right was about to be attacked in strength and that he must, therefore, change front through 90 degrees as a matter of extreme urgency or be overwhelmed. Aides were sent galloping to his major formation commanders with fresh orders: Blake’s Spaniards were to conform to the movement already initiated by Zayas; Stewart’s 2nd Division was to come up in support of the Spaniards; Hamilton’s Portuguese division was to move into the position vacated by Stewart above Albuera village; and Lumley’s cavalry was to protect the new Allied right flank, which now rested on the shallow valley behind The Ridge.

The plan came close to collapse almost at once. The Spaniards, as already related, had joined Beresford after dark and when dawn revealed that part of their line was in front of that of the 2nd Division, masking the latter’s anticipated field of fire, they were instructed to take ground to their right. Blake was evidently still huffy about this when Beresford’s ADC arrived with orders for a further redeployment, for he flatly refused to move, insisting that the French were making their real attack on the village. The truth of the matter had now become obvious, for Zayas was already in action against the columns of infantry, cavalry and artillery which, having forded the stream, had now begun to climb The Ridge. Nevertheless, even after the army commander had arrived in person to stress the urgency of the situation, Blake reacted so slowly and with such bad grace that Beresford took personal command and led the troops into position.

To everyone’s surprise the Spaniards, knowing what depended upon them, fought with astonishing courage. Confronted as they were with the major part of Soult’s V Corps, behind which Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry were already streaming towards the head of the little valley, they succeeded in halting the French advance with their volleys despite the hail of musketry and artillery fire that was thinning their ranks minute by minute. Impressed as he was, Beresford, who had positioned himself behind them, could also see that they could not withstand such odds for long. It had now begun to rain heavily, further restricting visibility already reduced by the drifting fog of powder smoke, but with relief Beresford observed the leading element of Stewart’s division, Lieutenant-Colonel Colborne’s brigade, doubling forward in column of companies from Albuera village, where it had spent the first part of the morning, accompanied by an artillery battery of the King’s German Legion.

Stewart was a brave and extremely popular officer, known to his men as ‘Auld Grog Willie’ because he was in the habit of issuing them with extra rum, for which Wellington always made him pay. Napier, who was present at the battle, comments that he was a man ‘whose boiling courage overlaid his judgement.’ Until his recent appointment as divisional commander he had commanded the brigade, with Colborne as his senior commanding officer; now, unfortunately, he could not resist the urge to interfere. His orders at this stage were simply to support the Spaniards, but he decided to ignore them and mount a counter-attack instead. Had Blake’s troops been on the point of breaking, such a course of action might have been justified; as matters stood, they were not, although they were becoming worried by their casualties and the heavy odds to their front and were giving ground slowly.

Colborne’s brigade was coming up in echelon with the l/3rd (later The Buffs (Royal East Kent)) Regiment leading on the right, then the 2/48th (later 2nd Northamptonshire) Regiment, then the 2/66th (later Royal Berkshire) Regiment, and the 2/31st (later East Surrey) Regiment bringing up the left rear. As the brigade began to climb the hill cannon shot intended for the Spaniards but aimed too high began to whimper overhead or plough through the ranks. On approaching the crest Colborne suggested that the Buffs should either remain in column or form square to protect the brigade’s right flank against cavalry attack. Stewart brushed the suggestion aside and gave orders for the four battalions to deploy into line; fortunately for the 2/31st, these did not reach them.

In succession, the Buffs, the 2/48th and 2/66th crossed the crest, the left wing of the last brushing through the right-hand files of the Spaniards. The brigade now found itself positioned obliquely on the flank of the French assault column at ranges between 60 and 100 yards. The French reacted by turning their three left-hand files towards the threat and, with the front rank kneeling, opened a spluttering fire down the length of the column. Colborne’s three battalions replied with two precise volleys that sent some of the French tumbling but did not appear to affect their resolve. Stewart therefore ordered the brigade to attack with the bayonet. As the long scarlet lines began to move forward behind their deadly glittering hedges of steel, the rain became a blinding hailstorm that reduced visibility to a few yards, heralding one the greatest tragedies in the British Army’s entire history.

That Astonishing Infantry’ – The Albuera Counter-Attack II


At the head of the little valley behind the Ridge, Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry found themselves confronted by Lumley’s dragoons and both sides reined in to watch the other warily. Latour-Maubourg was also watching the developments on the hill to his right and, observing the attack of Colborne’s brigade, took full advantage of the mistake to launch his right-hand brigade into the right-rear of the unsuspecting British infantry, the move being screened from Lumley’s view by the hailstorm.

For a few moments, however, it looked as though Stewart’s decision to counter-attack had been correct. The French infantry, always reluctant to face the bayonet, could be seen edging away while their officers vainly beat them with the flats of their swords to keep them in line. First to break was the 28th Légère, followed by three grenadier battalions that were driven down the slope towards the river. Colborne’s brigade were within striking distance of the French supporting artillery, from which they had already begun to take casualties, when, from the right, there came a high, ringing trumpet call followed by frantic shouts of ‘Cavalry!’

Suddenly, a galloping mass of horsemen, consisting of the 1st Polish Lancers and the French 2nd and 10th Hussars, some twelve hundred men in all, burst through the driving hail and smoke to the right-rear of the Buffs. The three British battalions promptly faced about but did not open fire because of warning cries that the cavalry was Spanish. Before the mistake could be rectified the infantry ranks had been ridden over and fragmented into small groups of men fighting back to back against their slashing, stabbing opponents.

Having broken the brigade’s formation, those Poles and the Frenchmen not engaged in cutting down the survivors vied with each other for the honour of capturing the British colours. The Buffs’ colour party was quickly surrounded by a surging mass of horsemen. The colour sergeants were quickly cut down but the brief moments they gained enabled the two ensigns to escape from the press. Ensign Edward Thomas, barely sixteen years old, found temporary refuge amid the remnants of a company the commander of which had been wounded and taken prisoner. His shouts of ‘Rally on me, men – I will be your pivot!’ brought the remaining handful to the defence of the colour but within minutes all save two had been speared or sabred. A lancer seized the colour staff, yelling at Thomas to give it up. ‘Only with my life!’ he shouted, and was promptly dealt a mortal wound before the Pole galloped off with his trophy; as we shall see, he evidently did not retain it for long.

Ensign Charles Walsh was similarly seeking protection for the King’s colour, the staff of which had already been broken by a cannon shot. Hemmed in by the enemy, he was wounded and would undoubtedly have been killed or captured had not Lieutenant Matthew Latham rushed and snatched the colour from him. He was in turn surrounded and set upon but fought back vigorously until a hussar’s sabre slashed off his nose and part of his cheek. Despite his undoubted agony he fought on until a second sabre stroke left his sword arm hanging by a thread. Still he clung to the colour with his left hand while his enemies closed in, barging each other out of the way in their eagerness to seize the prize. At length Latham, trampled and speared repeatedly, was thrown off his feet, grimly retaining his hold on the precious silk. Then, quite suddenly, there was a ringing cheer, followed by the thud of colliding bodies and the clash of steel on steel as his adversaries were swept away. His consciousness failing, he used the last of his strength to tear the colour from its staff and stuff it into his jacket.

By now the hailstorm had passed, enabling Lumley to see what was happening to the stricken brigade. He immediately despatched the 4th Dragoons (later 4th Hussars) to its relief and their counter-charge succeeded in temporarily easing the situation and even gaining a little ground, although, heavily outnumbered as they were, they were soon driven back with the loss of 29 killed. As it was, they had probably saved a larger number of lives among the infantry by enabling some of them to escape. Napier records that some Spanish cavalry under the Count de Penne Villamur was also detailed for the counter-charge but, having pulled up within a few yards of the enemy, they turned and fled.

As with the Buffs, so with 2/48th and 2/66th. Both battalions were ridden over and lost their colours in the brief, savage mêlée. The horror of what took place was subsequently recalled by Colonel Clarke of the 2/66th:

‘A crowd of Polish lancers and chasseurs à cheval (sic) swept along the rear of our brigade; our men now ran into groups of six or eight to do as best they could; the officers snatched up muskets and joined them, determined to sell their lives dearly. Quarter was not asked, and rarely given. Poor Colonel Waller, of the Quartermaster-General’s staff, was cut down close to me; he put up his hands asking for quarter, but the ruffian cut his fingers off. My ensign, Hay, was run through the lungs by a lance which came out of his back; he fell but got up again. The lancer delivered another thrust, the lance striking Hay’s breast-bone; down he went and the Pole rolled over in the mud beside him. In the evening I went to seek my friend, and found him sitting up to his hips in mud and water. He was quite cool and collected, and said there were many worse than him. The lancers had been promised a doubloon each if they could break the British line. In the mêlée, when mixed up with the lancers, the chasseurs à cheval and the French infantry, I came into collision with a lancer, and being knocked over was taken prisoner; an officer ordered me to be conducted to the rear. Presently a charge was made by our dragoon guards, in which I liberated myself and ran to join the Fusilier Brigade at the foot of the hill.’

In less time than it has taken to read, three-quarters of Colborne’s brigade had been annihilated; in fact, a mere seven minutes had elapsed since the three battalions had fired their first volleys. Now, their dead and seriously wounded strewed the slopes, the few shocked survivors were heading for the rear, and in the distance some of the lancers could be seen savagely prodding their prisoners towards captivity; so savagely that several French officers intervened forcefully to ensure the men, many of whom were wounded, received more humane treatment. In addition, the King’s German Legion battery which had accompanied the brigade had also been overrun and its gunners cut down around their weapons.

The brigade’s fourth battalion, the 2/31st, fared rather better. Being on the extreme left of the formation and some distance to the rear, it received just sufficient warning to prepare itself for the onset of the French cavalry. It was, moreover, an extremely well-drilled battalion and its commanding officer, Major L’Estrange, had devised a manoeuvre by which it could be got into square very quickly. This was no doubt assisted by the fact that the unit was already moving at the double in company columns at half distance. Therefore, when the lancers and hussars came bearing down they were suddenly presented with a four-deep oblong of bristling bayonets, the nearest face of which belched smoke and flame that emptied saddles and sent horses crashing. Parting, the cavalry galloped past the square, taking further casualties from its other faces, and went in search of easier prey.

This was offered by Beresford and his staff, and by the Spaniards. Beresford managed to grab the shaft of a lance thrust at him then, seizing its owner by the throat, used his great strength to fling him to the ground. The staff, drawing their swords, closed round and cut their way out. The Spaniards, no longer under such intense pressure to their front, had also got themselves into some sort of order and avoided being ridden over. Nevertheless, the cavalry attack seems to have drained the last of their resources and they began to retire down the slope, their units surrounded by circling lancers and hussars, eager to close in for the kill. Just for the moment, the only unit remaining on this, the most critical sector of the Allied line, was the 2/31st’s little square, only 418 men strong.

The situation now was that, on the French side, Girard’s division was pulling itself together after its repulse by Colborne’s brigade, its losses being more than compensated for by Werlé’s arrival, and Soult was pushing Gazan’s division into the lead with orders to resume the attack at once. On the Allied side, Stewart had galloped back to bring up his two remaining brigades, Houghton’s and Abercrombie’s. During this short pause, in which the French cavalry were still milling about the retreating Spaniards, both sides were therefore engaged in a race for possession of the crest.

Houghton’s brigade, with the 29th (later the Worcestershire) Regiment on the right, the 57th (later the Middlesex) Regiment in the centre arid the l/48th (later 1st Northamptonshire) Regiment on the left, was leading. The 29th had been in the Peninsula since the war began and were one of Wellington’s favourite regiments. Moyle Sherer has left us a picture of them and, given the usual rivalry between British regiments, his comments are nothing if not sincere:

‘Nothing could possibly be worse than their clothing; it had become necessary to patch it; and, as red cloth could not be procured, grey, white and even brown had been used, yet, even under this striking disadvantage, they could not be viewed by a soldier without admiration. The perfect order and cleanliness of their arms and appointments, their steadiness on parade, their erect carriage and their firm marching exceeded anything I had ever seen. No corps of any army or nation which I have since had an opportunity of seeing, has come nearer to my idea of what a regiment of infantry should be than the old Twenty-Ninth.’ Sherer’s use of the word ‘old’ a decade after the event is especially poignant for the 29th, like every other British infantry regiment that fought at Albuera, was to end the day as a mere ghost of its former self.

Deploying into line for the final approach to the summit, the brigade suddenly found itself in danger of being swamped by a flood of retreating Spanish units intermingled with French cavalry. The Spaniards were shouting to be allowed through, but that would have meant creating gaps that would also have been penetrated by the enemy and, in any event, the line would almost certainly have been swept away. Houghton was therefore compelled to reach the hard decision of having to order the 29th and 57th to fire several volleys into the approaching mass, taking as much care as was possible to avoid the Spaniards. This seemed to work, for the French, recognising that there was little more to be achieved, turned away and cantered back to their own lines. Only then were the ranks opened, permitting the Spaniards to stream to the rear.

Reformed, the brigade advanced to the crest with the 2/31st conforming on its right, each battalion being played into action by its fifes and drums.

‘Now is the time – let us give three cheers!’ shouted Stewart, riding beside them. The men responded with a will. French skirmishers were already contesting the advance, dropping a man here and there, but Houghton forbade further firing until the line had breasted the summit. There, through gaps in the drifting smoke, could be seen the leading ranks of the enemy’s huge assault column, coming on strongly and no more than 50 yards distant.

‘There followed,’ wrote Sir John Fortescue in his monumental History of the British Army, ‘A duel so stern and resolute that it has few parallels in the annals of war. The survivors who took part in it on the British side seem to have passed through it as if in a dream, conscious of nothing but dense smoke, constant closing towards the centre, a slight tendency to advance, and an invincible resolution not to retire. The men stood like rocks, loading and firing into the mass in front of them, though frightfully punished not so much by the French bullets as by the French cannon at very close range. The line dwindled and dwindled continually; and the intervals between battalions grew wide as the men, who were still on their legs, edged closer and closer to their colours: but not one dreamed for a moment of anything but standing and fighting to the last. The fiercest of the stress fell upon Houghton’s brigade, wherein it seems that every mounted officer fell … captains, lieutenants and ensigns, sergeants and rank-and-file all fell equally fast. Nearly four-fifths of Houghton’s brigade were down and its front had shrunk to the level of that of the French; but still it remained unbeaten, advanced to within twenty yards of the enemy and fired unceasingly.’

Stewart was hit twice. Houghton, riding along the line and encouraging his men, received several minor wounds and then fell dead with three musket balls in his body. In the 29th, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel White was mortally wounded. His second-in-command, Major Gregory Way, took over but after a little while reeled from his horse with bridle arm shattered. The battalion colour parties also formed a natural aiming point for the enemy so that the colours themselves quickly became riddled. Two of the 29th’s three colour sergeants were already down when seventeen-year-old Ensign Edward Furnace, carrying the King’s colour, staggered under the impact of a mortal wound. Seeing his predicament, a subaltern from an adjacent company offered to relieve him of the burden. Furnace refused, remaining upright with the support of the last colour sergeant until the latter, too, was hit. Beside them, the Regimental colour fell as Ensign Richard Vance was struck down; somehow, before he died, Vance managed to pull the tattered silk from its pole and push it inside his coat. Shortly after, Furnace received a second wound and collapsed, his colour falling across his body. None came to raise it, for the attention of all had degenerated into a robotic rhythm of loading and firing that excluded every other consideration.

It was a similar story in the 57th. By virtue of seniority, the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Inglis, had assumed command of the brigade when Houghton was hit. A seasoned campaigner who had fought in the American War of Independence, in Flanders, the West Indies and in the Peninsula since 1809, Inglis recognised that this rate of attrition could not be maintained for much longer. In his ride along the ranks he had reached a point close to his own battalion when his horse was killed under him and he was simultaneously felled by a four-ounce grapeshot in the neck6. Believing the wound to be mortal, he propped himself on one elbow and fiercely exhorted his men:


‘Die hard, Fifty-Seventh! Die hard!’

They evidently also believed that their commander was dying, for their fire now took on a redoubled ferocity, and from that moment onwards until the regiment’s independent history ended a century and a half later it was known as the Diehards. It was in this spirit that one of its company commanders, Captain Ralph Fawcett, at 23 already a veteran of several battles, refused to be carried to the rear when he received a mortal wound; instead, he asked to be placed on a little hillock just behind the line from which he continued to exercise command, instructing his men to aim low and not to waste their ammunition. The King’s colour, ripped by seventeen bullets and its staff broken, was carried by Ensign Jackson who, having been hit for the third time, handed it over to Ensign Veitch while he went to have his wounds dressed; on his return Veitch refused to hand it back and was himself severely wounded shortly after. The bearer of the Regimental colour seemed to bear a charmed life, despite the fact that 21 bullets had passed through the silk. Subsequently, Beresford noted in his despatch that the 57th’s dead were ‘lying as they had fought in ranks, and with every wound in front.’

On the brigade’s left Lieutenant-Colonel Duckworth of the l/48th was shot dead leading his battalion into action, while to its right the ranks of the 2/31st, which had hitherto escaped serious loss, were being as mercilessly culled as any. Amid the drifting smoke and drizzle, men lost all sense of time. The slight tendency to advance noted by Fortescue was caused by moving forward a pace or two every so often so as not to be encumbered by casualties, and was matched by the French giving a little ground.

By now, however, Abercrombie’s brigade was coming into line on the left, at an oblique angle to the flank of the French column, with the 2/28th (later the Gloucestershire) Regiment on the right, the 2/39th (later the Dorsetshire) Regiment in the centre and the 2/34th (later the Border) Regiment on the left. While it was doubling forward, the disorganised Spaniards had come streaming back between the company columns. A decade later Sherer recalled:

‘I remember well, shot and shell flew over in quick succession; we sustained little injury from either, but a captain of the 29th had been dreadfully lacerated by a ball and lay directly in our path. We passed close to him, and the heart-rending tone in which he called to us for water, or to kill him, I shall never forget. He lay alone, and we were in motion and could give him no succour; for on this trying day, such of the wounded as could not walk lay unattended where they fell: – all was hurry and struggle; every arm was wanted in the field … A very noble-looking young Spanish officer rode up to me, and begged me, with a sort of proud and brave anxiety, to explain to the English that his countrymen were ordered to retire, but were not flying.’

A number of accounts make the point that at this stage there were 3,000 British muskets opposed to 8,000 French during the sanguinary struggle for the crest, but this requires some clarification. Together, Houghton’s brigade and the 2/31st had gone into action with about 2,000 men, but their ranks had already been torn apart by the time that Abercrombie’s brigade, with 1,500 men, came into the line. The probability, therefore, is that there were never as many as 3,000 of Stewart’s men in the line at any one time. On the other hand, it is known that some of the Spaniards, a little shamefaced like the young officer referred to by Sherer, did return to the firing line, although the numbers involved were comparatively small. Again, the French, being in column, could not deploy anything like 8,000 muskets, but as their frontage was approximately equal to that of the British it is probably fair to say that they had between 2,500 and 3,000 in action, although they lacked the precise fire discipline of their opponents. They were, too, taking very heavy casualties as the British volleys thudded into the packed ranks. Where the French scored heavily was in artillery support, of which the British had none. Soult later recorded that he had 40 guns trained on the British line, of which a large number were providing close support with grape and canister, sometimes sweeping away entire sections with their fire. The odds facing Stewart’s division were, therefore, far heavier than the 8:3 ratio of engaged infantry, and they were rising steadily.

Sherer’s impressions of this horrific day, though sometimes recorded out of sequence, were still vivid after ten years:

‘Just as our line had entirely cleared the Spaniards, the smoky shroud of battle was, by the slackening of the fire, for one minute blown aside, and gave to our view the French grenadier caps, their arms, and the whole aspect of their frowning masses. It was momentary, but a grand sight; a heavy atmosphere of smoke again enveloped us, and few objects could be discerned at all, none distinctly… The murderous contest of musketry lasted long. To describe my feelings throughout this wild scene with fidelity would be impossible: at intervals a shriek or groan told me that men were falling around me; but it was not always that the tumult of the contest suffered me to catch these sounds. A constant feeling to the centre of the line, and the gradual diminution of our front, more truly bespoke the havoc of death. As we moved, though slowly, yet ever a little distance in advance, our own killed and wounded lay behind us; but we arrived among those of the enemy, and those of the Spaniards who had fallen in the first onset: we trod among the dead and dying, all reckless of them.

‘We were the whole time progressively advancing upon and shaking the enemy. At a distance of about twenty yards from them, we received order to charge; we ceased firing, cheered, and had our bayonets in the charging position, when a body of the enemy’s horse was discovered under the shoulder of a rising ground, ready to take advantage of our impetuosity.’

Just who gave the order to charge is unknown, but it was countermanded immediately; Abercrombie’s brigade was not to be destroyed as Colborne’s had been. Sherer’s narrative continues:

‘Already, however, had the French infantry, alarmed by our preparatory cheers which always indicate a charge, broken and fled, abandoning some guns and howitzers about sixty yards from us. The presence of the cavalry not permitting us to pursue, we halted and recommenced firing on them. The slaughter was now for a few minutes dreadful; every shot told; their officers in vain attempted to rally them. Some of their artillery, indeed, took up a distant position, which much annoyed our line, but we did not move until we had expended our ammunition, then retired in the most perfect order to a spot sheltered from their guns and lay down in line ready to repulse any fresh attack with the bayonet.

That Astonishing Infantry’ – The Albuera Counter-Attack III


For both commanders, the crisis of the battle had now been reached. It was unusual for the French to display such iron tenacity in a prolonged firefight, and they were doing so now because they believed they were winning. They had seen off Colborne’s brigade and the Spaniards and now Houghton’s battalions had shrunk to small scarlet oblongs standing isolated among their dead and wounded. In Soult’s eyes their protracted stand, which had cost his men so dear, entirely contradicted every tenet of military logic; even so, however gallantly they had behaved, their end could not be delayed for many more minutes. It was at that moment that Abercrombie’s brigade, full of fight, had appeared to ravage the right flank of his assault column and flung it back in disorder. His sole remaining reserve was Werlé’s brigade and he could only hope that it retained sufficient élan to restore some momentum to the attack and enable his troops to administer the coup de grâce as quickly as possible.

For his part, Beresford had reached the lowest point in his professional career. The Spaniards had received a mauling and could no longer be relied upon to do any serious fighting; and in Stewart’s 2nd Division, which had already fought itself to within an inch of destruction, the ammunition supply had begun to fail. Beresford undoubtedly considered himself to be beaten, and, deeply depressed, his only consideration at that moment was to save as much as he could of his army. Orders were given for Alten’s Germans to abandon Albuera village and for Hamilton’s Portuguese division to reposition itself so as to cover the line of retreat. These orders were being put into effect when the course of the battle took a sudden and totally unexpected turn.

One of Beresford’s staff, 26-year-old Colonel Henry Hardinge, did not agree with the Army Commander’s gloomy assessment of the situation. Acting entirely on his own initiative he galloped across to confer with Sir Lowry Cole, whose 4th Division was positioned in reserve behind Lumley’s cavalry, urging him to mount an immediate counter-attack on left flank of the French and so stabilise the situation. Cole’s division consisted of two brigades only, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Myers’ Fusilier Brigade (1/ and 2/7th (later Royal) Fusiliers and l/23rd (later Royal Welch) Fusiliers, and a Portuguese brigade under Brigadier-General Harvey, and while he fully appreciated the point of Hardinge’s argument he was reluctant to commit his troops without a direct order from Beresford. Myers joined the discussion, pointing out that the French were on the point of launching their final assault and emphasising the urgency of the situation. Cole gave way but, unlike Stewart, he insisted that adequate precautions should be taken to protect the flank of the counter-attack against cavalry.

The divisional deployment was completed quickly and efficiently. All ten of the light companies, British and Portuguese, were formed in column on the right flank. Then, in line but echeloned back somewhat to the left came the four battalions of Harvey’s brigade, consisting of the Portuguese 11th and 23rd Regiments. Myers’ brigade came next with, from right to left, the l/7th, 2/7th and l/23rd, their left flank being protected by a column formed by a Portuguese light infantry unit of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion. The two brigades were drawn up in battalion columns at quarter distance so that, when the moment came, they could deploy quickly into line.

Those waiting to advance could see that the situation on The Ridge was deteriorating minute by minute. As already mentioned, Abercrombie’s brigade had pulled back into dead ground when its ammunition began to fail. Now, the battered remnants of Houghton’s brigade were being pushed steadily back by Werlé’s triumphant battalions, who already held the summit. To their right, the Polish lancers could be seen hovering in the area of the captured German battery. At length, satisfied that he had done all he could, Cole gave the order to advance. Never was a counter-attack more desperately needed, and never was one more exquisitely timed.

As the battalion columns passed through the intervals between Lumley’s squadrons, Latour-Maubourg could hardly believe his eyes. For the second time within hours Allied infantry were advancing unsupported within striking distance of his horsemen. Leaving the major portion of his strength to hold Lumley in check, he launched four regiments at Harvey’s brigade. On this occasion, while the attack would be delivered frontally against troops in column rather than, as in the case of Colborne’s brigade, against the flank and rear of battalions in extended line, a similar outcome was clearly anticipated. For a moment Cole, knowing that the Portuguese had never been in action before, held his breath. He need not have worried, for Harvey’s regiments had been trained to British standards, in which a well-drilled platoon in two ranks could fire up to five volleys a minute. The Portuguese, moreover, were perfectly steady, firing volley after volley that felled horses and riders until the French, having had enough, galloped back whence they had come. Harvey then formed a protective shoulder with which to cover the further advance of Myers’ brigade.

The Fusiliers, in their tall, peaked, bearskin caps, were the finest-looking British troops in the field that day, despite their worn uniforms and a recent issue of locally made buff-leather boots that hurt abominably. They tramped steadily upwards, breaking up a firefight that had developed in the smoke and confusion between a Spanish unit and some British troops, the latter possibly survivors of Colborne’s brigade. Ahead lay the massed ranks of the French, now in possession of the summit and believing themselves to be on the brink of victory.

Lieutenant John Harrison, commanding one of the 23rd’s companies, recalled that only when the brigade was within musket range, i.e. less than 200 yards, and the French had actually opened fire, did Myers’ battalions deploy from column into line. There ensued a series of ferocious firefights, which he says took place almost muzzle to muzzle, each being followed by a bayonet charge, in which several enemy battalions were routed in succession. Shortly after this he was shot in the thigh and was being helped to the rear when he noted, with horror, that only a third of the Fusiliers were still on their feet; notwithstanding, their remorseless advance continued.

For all that Napier’s version of the battle is burdened by his opinions on Beresford and flawed in some details, it contains the finest account possible of the Fusilier brigade’s counter-attack and its consequences. The epic quality of its prose cannot be equalled and, although it has been quoted in numerous regimental and campaign histories, this in itself justifies its being repeated here:

‘Such a gallant line, issuing from the midst of the smoke and rapidly separating itself from the confused and broken multitude, startled the enemy’s heavy masses, which were now increasing and pressing onwards as to an assured victory: they wavered, hesitated, and then vomiting forth a storm of fire, hastily endeavoured to enlarge their front, while a fearful discharge of grape from all their artillery whistled through the British ranks. Myers was killed; Cole, and the three colonels, Ellis, Blakeney and Hawkshawe, fell wounded; and the Fusilier battalions, struck by an iron tempest, reeled and staggered like sinking ships. Suddenly and sternly recovering, they closed on their terrible enemies, and then was seen with what a strength and majesty the British soldier fights. In vain did Soult, by voice and gesture, animate his Frenchmen; in vain did the hardiest veterans, extricating themselves from the crowded columns, sacrifice their lives to gain time for the mass to open out on such a fair field; in vain did the mass itself bear up, and, fiercely striving, fire indiscriminately upon friends and foes, while the horsemen hovering on the flank threatened to charge the advancing line. Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry. No sudden burst of undisciplined valour, no nervous enthusiasm, weakened the stability of their order; their flashing eyes were bent on the dark columns in their front; their measured tread shook the ground; their dreadful volleys swept away the head of every formation; their deafening shouts overpowered the dissonant cries that broke from all parts of the tumultuous crowd, as foot by foot and with a horrid carnage it was driven by the incessant vigour of the attack to the farthest edge of the hill. In vain did the French reserves, joining with the struggling multitude, endeavour to sustain the fight; their efforts only increased the irremediable confusion, and the mighty mass, giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the ascent. The rain flowed after in streams discoloured with blood, and fifteen hundred unwounded men, the remnant of six thousand unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on that fatal hill.’

Soult managed to form a grenadier unit into a rearguard which, together with the expertly withdrawn French artillery, covered the flight of his broken infantry across the stream and into the woodland beyond. The British, too exhausted and now too few in numbers, did not pursue. Elsewhere, two Portuguese batteries had come forward and begun to punch holes in Latour-Maubourg’s ranks while, closely followed by Harvey and Lumley, he sought to conform to the French withdrawal. Five of the KGL’s lost guns were recovered, although the battery’s howitzer had been towed away by the enemy. The Buffs’ Regimental colour was recovered by Sergeant Gough of the 7th Fusiliers and returned to its owners.

Alten’s Germans were ordered to retake Albuera village, which they did at some cost, and Hamilton’s Portuguese division assumed responsibility for the Allied right flank.

The day’s fighting had cost both armies very dear. Soult had sustained the loss of about 8,000 men killed or wounded, including 800 of the latter left on the field. His capture of a howitzer, several colours and about 500 prisoners, a surprisingly high number of whom escaped shortly afterwards, was hardly an adequate return for the loss of one-third of his army. He had failed to relieve Badajoz and he believed that he had been deprived of a well-deserved victory. There is no beating these troops,’ he wrote of the British after the battle. ‘I always thought they were bad soldiers – now I am sure of it. I had turned their right, pierced their centre and everywhere victory was mine – but they did not know how to run!’

Beresford, far from being elated by the sudden recovery in his fortunes, remained deeply despondent, a state of mind reflected in his despatch on the battle. Reading through it the following day, Wellington commented that another such success would ruin the Allied cause; then, conscious of the effect the despatch would have on those at home, he turned to one of his staff with the remark: This won’t do – write me down a victory.’

What depressed Beresford most were the crippling casualties sustained by the British portion of his army. The Germans and Portuguese had between them lost approximately 600 men, killed, wounded and missing; the Spaniards 1,368; but the British loss was in excess of 4,000. Brigades were coming out of action commanded by captains, battalions by subalterns and companies by sergeants and corporals; the following morning, it is said, one drummer collected the rations for his company in his hat. The grievous extent of the loss is set out below.

With the British completely exhausted and the Portuguese now holding the line, Beresford requested Blake for Spanish assistance in clearing the field of its thousands of wounded. It beggars belief that the Spaniard should have declined, commenting off-handedly that each of the Allies should be responsible for their own casualties. The result was that the wounded spent the night where they lay, drenched by continuous rain. As if they had not suffered enough, the scum among the camp followers and the local peasantry appeared after dark to strip and rob them, murdering any who dared to resist. Next morning, the field resembled a charnel house, the sights of which remained fixed forever in Captain Sherer’s mind:

‘Look around – behold the thousands of slain, thousands of wounded, writhing in anguish and groaning with agony and despair. Here lie four officers of the French 100th, all corpses. Here fought the 3rd Brigade; here the Fusiliers: how thick those heroes lie! Most of the bodies are already stripped; rank is no longer distinguished. Here again lie headless trunks, and bodies torn and struck down by cannon shot. Who are these that catch every moment at our coats? The wounded soldiers of the enemy, who are imploring British protection from the Spaniards. It would be well for kings, politicians and generals if, while they talk of victories with exultation and of defeats with indifference, they would allow their fancies to wander to the field of carnage.’

Among those lucky enough to have been brought off the field on the evening of the battle was Lieutenant Latham of the Buffs, unrecognisable but still incredibly alive and still with his King’s colour safe within his coat.

Beresford had expected Soult to renew his attack on the 17th but, to his intense relief, he did not and the following day the French withdrew. The siege of Badajoz was renewed although, for various reasons, neither it nor Ciudad Rodrigo fell until the following year.

There were many heroes at Albuera, but only a few survived to receive any reward. Major Guy L’Estrange, who had kept the 2/31st in action after the rest of Colborne’s brigade had been swept away, was awarded brevet promotion to lieutenant-colonel and presented with a commemorative gold medal by his brother officers. In due course he became a lieutenant-general and was knighted.

Lieutenant Matthew Latham also received a gold medal from his brother officers and, on learning of the manner in which he had come by his terrible wounds, the Prince Regent personally paid the cost of a surgical operation to repair the worst of the damage. In 1813 Latham was rewarded with a captain’s commission in a Canadian Fencible regiment but remained with the Buffs and exchanged back at the same rank the following year. He retired from the Army in 1820 with an annual pension of £100, plus £70 per annum on account of his wounds. Subsequently, his defence of the colour was permanently commemorated by the Buffs with a magnificent silver centrepiece depicting the event.

Lieutenant-Colonel Inglis, who had urged the 57th to ‘die hard.’ waited for two days before having the French grapeshot surgically extracted from his neck. After a spell of convalescent leave at home he returned to the Peninsula and took part in numerous hard-fought actions, ending the war as a major-general. ‘General Inglis,’ wrote Napier, ‘Was one of those veterans who purchased every step of their promotion with their own blood.’ In 1822 Inglis married at the age of 58 and had two sons, both of whom followed him into the service.

The carnage at Albuera also brought promotion to many other officers, since vacancy and merit also played a part in the system, and of course advancement in the careers of a much greater number of NCOs and private soldiers. As a reward for the outstanding leadership displayed by the NCOs during the battle Beresford allowed each battalion in Houghton’s and Myers’ brigades to submit the name of one sergeant for promotion to the commissioned rank of ensign; selection cannot have been a difficult matter, since so few were left to choose from.


The hardest-hit units, no longer able to function on their own, were formed into provisional battalions until their strength could be restored with reinforcement drafts. It would be two years before the Buffs and the 57th fought another battle. The 29th was sent home to recover and did not fight again during the war, arriving in Flanders just too late to participate in the Battle of Waterloo. The survivors of the 2/7th and 2/48th were absorbed by their respective 1st battalions.

Writing of the astonishing motivation that imbued the British infantry at Albuera, Sir John Fortescue commented: ‘Such constancy as was displayed by these battalions is rare and has seldom been matched in the history of war. Whence came the spirit which made that handful of English battalions content to die where they stood rather than give way one inch? Beyond all question it sprang from intense regimental pride and regimental feeling.’ True, but to that must be added additional interlinked factors such as the contemporary attitude to the French and the close bonds of comradeship. To give best to the French was unthinkable, and, if it valued its reputation, no battalion would leave the line while others were still in place; likewise, no man would leave the ranks while his comrades were still fighting, for he would have to face them afterwards. It mattered not that on this occasion the French, scenting an easy victory, were at their most formidable; rather the reverse, in fact.

Principate Army – Organization


First Battle of Bedriacum or Cremona, 69 AD


A great body of information on the unit size and organization of the Principate army has been amassed by the patient work of several generations of scholars. The literary sources are often obscure or contradictory on the details of unit structures, but we are fortunate in that much information has been derived from epigraphic, numismatic and papyrological record as well as that of archaeology. Here contemporary evidence, if not overabundant, is explicit and reliable. As a result a fairly coherent picture of the army’s structure has emerged and what follows, then, is the briefest of sketches of the army as it existed in Neronian times.

As an instrument of war the Principate army presented a powerful picture, and there is certainly little about it that a modern infantry soldier would fail to recognize. The professional standing force of a modern size, conscription, military training, institutionalized discipline, weapons factories, administrative and combat staffs, military maps, roads, logistics systems, military hospitals, intelligence services, communications, strategy and tactics, efficient killing technologies, siege machines, rank structures, scheduled promotions, permanent records, personnel files, uniforms, regular pay, and even military pension schemes – to name but a few – had already become part of every day, military life.


Men had a thousand reasons for joining the army, but mainly they were escaping from poor local conditions or looking for what they hoped would provide a regular source of food and income. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the army seems to have been most attractive as a definite career to the poorest citizens. For such men, long underfed and ill-clothed, the legions offered a roof over their head, food in their bellies, and a regular income in coin. Basic military pay was not the road to riches, but there was always the chance of bounties and donatives, and the certainty of a discharge bonus, a rich contrast to civilian unemployment. Army pay certainly did not depend on the weather, taxation, rent, interest payments or fluctuating prices. Overall, a soldier’s life was more secure than that of an itinerant labourer (an unpaid labourer would starve; an unpaid soldier still ate), and he enjoyed a superior status too.

Of course, we must remember the harsher side of such a career. The rewards of army life may have been greater, but so were the risks. A soldier ran the risk of being killed or crippled by battle or disease, but also on an everyday basis was subject to the army’s brutal discipline. And then there was maltreatment, which did not include the routine harshness or the standard Spartan quality of military life. The dividing line between discipline and maltreatment was crossed when officers treated their men with unnecessary severity, when they paid no attention to their welfare, and when they expected fear rather than respect from their men. Such officers firmly believed that you got more out of men by using brutality, than by treating them with patience tempered by firmness. Most of us are familiar with the martinet centurion Give-me-Another, nicknamed because of his habit of beating a soldier’s back until his gnarled vitis – the twisted vine-stick that was his badge of rank – snapped and then shouting for a second and a third.

Such a bully and a beast was common in the army, the general assumption being that soldiers had to be treated roughly so as to toughen them up for fighting, yet to many people in the empire who struggled to survive at subsistence level, the well-fed soldier with his ordered existence in his well-built and clean camp must have seemed comfortably off. Soldiers also shared a comradeship with their fellow soldiers, which was often warm and comforting. And so the legions became permanent units with their own numbers and titles and many were to remain in existence for centuries to come.

Most prominent in the life of the empire was the army, the organization of which began, and almost ended, with the legion. Yet from Augustus onwards the emperor commanded no more than twenty-five legions in total (twenty-eight before the Varian disaster of AD 9), which seems paltry considering the extent of the empire. Legions were probably in the order of 5,000 men strong (all ranks) and composed of Roman citizens, though sickness and death could quickly pare away at this figure. Legionaries were mostly volunteers, drawn initially from Italy (especially the north), but increasingly from the provinces. As the first century progressed, many recruits in the west were coming from the Iberian provinces, Gallia Narbonensis, and Noricum, and in the east from the Greek cities of Macedonia and Asia. Thus, by the end of the century the number of Italians serving in the legions was small. Statistics based on nomenclature and the origins of individuals show that of all the legionaries serving in the period from Augustus to Caius Caligula, some 65 per cent were Italians, while in the period from Claudius to Nero this figure was 48.7 per cent, dropping even further to 21.4 per cent in the period from Vespasianus to Trajan. Thereafter, the contribution of Italians to the manpower of the legions (but not of the Praetorian Guard naturally) was negligible. It must be emphasized, however, that these statistics represent all legionaries in the empire. In reality, there was a dichotomy in recruitment patterns between the western and eastern provinces, with legions in the west drawing upon Gaul, Iberia, and northern Italy, while those stationed in the east very quickly harnessed the local resources of manpower.

Ordinarily a legion consisted of ten cohorts (cohortes), with six centuries (centuriae) of eighty men in each cohort, apart from the first cohort (cohors prima), which from AD 70 or thereabouts was double strength, that is five centuries of 160 men. Commanded by a centurion (centurio) and his second in command (optio),4 a standard-size century (centuria) was divided into ten eight-man subunits (contubernia), each contubernium, mess-group, sharing a tent on campaign and pair of rooms in a barrack block, eating, sleeping and fighting together. Much like small units in today’s regular armies, this state of affairs tended to foster a tight bond between ‘messmates’. There would have been a strong esprit de corps among men built upon the deep concern each had for everyone. In the pressure cooker environment of small combat units where soldiers are forced into close contact with one another, they worked together, they fought together, they shared discomfort and death and victory. This was man-to-man friendship, a gutsy bond. A spirit of military brotherhood would explain why many soldiers (milites) preferred to serve their entire military career in the ranks despite the opportunities for secondment to specialized tasks and for promotion. Nonetheless, a soldier (miles) who performed a special function was excused fatigues, which made him an immunis, although he did not receive any extra pay.

Finally, there was a small force of 120 horsemen (equites legionis) recruited from among the legionaries themselves. These equites acted as messengers, escorts and scouts, and were allocated to specific centuries rather than belonging to a formation of their own. Thus, the inscription on a tombstone from Chester-Deva describes an eques of legio II Adiutrix pia fidelis as belonging to the centuria of Petronius Fidus. Citizen cavalry had probably disappeared after Marius’ reforms, and certainly was not in evidence in Caesar’s legions. However, apart from a distinct reference to 120 cavalry of the legion in Josephus, the equites seem to have been revived as part of the Augustan reforms.


When territory was added to the empire, a garrison had to be put together to serve in its defence. New legions were sometimes raised, but normally these green units were not themselves intended for service in the new province. So when an invasion and permanent occupation of Britannia became a hard possibility under Caius Caligula, two new legions, XV Primigenia and XXII Primigenia, were formed in advance. Their intended rôle was as replacements for experienced legions earmarked to join the invasion force: XV Primigenia to release legio XX from Neuss-Novaesium, and XXII Primigenia to release XIIII Gemina from Mainz-Mogontiacum. The invasion force that eventually sailed for southern Britannia in the summer of AD 43 consisted of XX and XIIII Gemina, along with II Augusta, which had been at Strasbourg-Argentoratum, this camp was now left vacant, and VIIII Hispana from Sisak-Siscia in Pannonia, which may have accompanied the outgoing legate governor, Aulus Plautius, on his journey to take up his new post as the expeditionary commander. It must be said, however, that only II Augusta and XX are actually attested as taking part in the invasion itself, though all four legions are recorded very early in Britannia.

Nevertheless, transfers of legions to different parts of the empire could leave long stretches of frontier virtually undefended, and wholesale transfers became unpopular as legions acquired local links. An extreme case must be that of II Augusta. Part of the invasion army of AD 43, its legatus legionis at the time was in fact the future emperor Vespasianus, this legion was to be stationed in the province for the whole time Britannia was part of the empire. An inscription from near Alexandria, dated AD 194, is of particular interest to us as it records the names of forty-six veterans of legio II Traiana fortis who had just received their honourable discharge and had begun their military service in AD 168. Of the forty-one whose origins are mentioned, thirty-two came from Egypt itself and twenty-four of these state the camp as their place of birth, or more precisely origo castris, ‘of the camp’. It is likely that most of them were illegitimate sons born to soldiers from local women living in the nearby canabae legonis, that is, the extramural civilian settlement associated with the garrison. So it seems that many recruits were the sons of serving soldiers or veterans, and in time these soldiers’ sons became a fertile source of recruits, particularly so as soldiers’ sons did not have to make a major adjustment from a civilian to a military world. With bastard sons following their soldier fathers into the army, the custom developed of sending not an entire legion to deal with emergencies, but detachments drawn from the various legions of a province. As we have seen, in the year AD 69 legionary detachments played a major rôle in the formation of the Vitellian and Flavian armies.

Detachments from legions operating independently or with other detachments were known as vexillationes, named from the square flag, vexillum, which identified them. Until the creation of field armies in the late empire, these vexillationes were the method of providing temporary reinforcements to frontier armies for major campaigns. And so it was that Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo received a vexillatio from legio X Fretensis, then stationed at the Euphrates crossing at Zeugma, during his operations in Armenia. Later he was to take three vexillationes of a thousand men (i.e. two cohorts) from each of his three Syrian legions (III Gallica, VI Ferrata, X Fretensis) to the succour of Caesennius Paetus, whose army was retreating posthaste out of Armenia. Likewise, despite the disaster to legio VIIII Hispana during the Boudican rebellion, no new legion was despatched to Britannia, but a vexillatio of 2,000 legionaries gathered from the Rhine legions.


Under Augustus the rather heterogeneous collection of auxiliary units, auxilia, serving Rome was completely reorganized and given regular status within the new standing army. Trained to the same standards of discipline as the legions, the men were long-service professionals like the legionaries and served in units that were equally permanent. Recruited from a wide range of warlike peoples who lived just within or on the periphery of Roman control, with Gauls, Thracians and Germans in heavy preponderance, the auxilia were freeborn non-citizens (peregrini) who, at least from the time of Claudius, received full Roman citizenship on honourable discharge after completion of their twenty-five years under arms.

Tacitus tells us that the Batavi, on the lower Rhine, paid no taxes at all, but ‘reserved for battle, they are like weapons and armour, only to be used in war’. The Batavi made capital stuff for a soldier, and from Tacitus we hear of eight cohortes and one ala, nearly 5,000 warriors from the tiny region of Batavia serving Rome at any one time. He also remarks of a cohors Sugambrorum under Tiberius, as ‘savage as the enemy in its chanting and clashing of arms’, although fighting far from its Germanic homeland in Thrace. Further information concerning these tribal levies comes from Tacitus’ account of the ruinous civil war. In April AD 69, when Vitellius marched triumphantly into Rome as its new emperor, his army also included thirty-four cohortes ‘grouped according to nationality and type of equipment’.

Take the members of cohors II Tungrorum for instance, who had been originally raised from among the Tungri who inhabited the northeastern fringes of the Arduenna Silva (Ardennes Forest) in Gallia Belgica. Under the Iulio-Claudian emperors it was quite common for such units to be stationed in or near the province where they were first raised. However, the events of the AD 69, with the mutiny of a large proportion of the auxilia serving on the Rhine, would lead to a change in this policy. After that date, though the Roman high command did not abandon local recruiting, it did stop the practice of keeping units with so continuous an ethnic identity close to their homelands.

As expected, by the late first century, units were being kept up to strength by supplements from the province where they were now serving or areas adjacent to it. Such units retained their ethnic identities and names, even if they enlisted new recruits from where they were stationed. The epitaph of Sextus Valerius Genialis tells us that he was a trooper in ala I Thracum, and his three-part name indicated he was a Roman citizen. But it adds that he was a ‘Frisian tribesman’. So, Genialis came from the lower Rhine, served in a Thracian cavalry unit stationed in Britannia and styled himself a Roman. So after the military anarchy of AD 69, auxiliary cohorts were plausibly made up of a great diversity of individuals of all kinds of nationalities. Nonetheless, despite such conflicting backgrounds and cultures, the Roman military system forged these foreign cohorts into cohesive, aggressive fighting units.

Auxiliary cohorts were either 480 strong (quingenaria, ‘five hundred strong’) or, from around AD 70, 800 strong (milliaria, ‘one-thousand strong’). Known as cohortes peditata, these infantry units had six centuries with eighty soldiers to each if they were quingenaria, or if milliaria had ten centuries of eighty soldiers each. As in the legions, a centurion and an optio commanded a century, which was likewise divided in to ten contubernia.

Now to turn to matters concerning mounted auxilia. Cavalry units known as alae (‘wings’, it originally denoted the Latin-Italian allies, the socii, posted on the flanks of a consular army of the Republic) are thought to have consisted of sixteen turmae, each with thirty troopers commanded by a decurio and his second-in-command the duplicarius, if they were quingenaria (512 total), or if milliaria twenty-four turmae (768 total). The later units were rare; Britannia, to cite a single example, had only one in its garrison. Drawn from peoples nurtured in the saddle – Gauls, Germans, Iberians and Thracians were preferred – every horseman of the alae was well mounted, knew how to ride, and was strong enough and skilful enough to make lethal use of his long straight sword, the spatha. The alae provided a fighting arm in which the Romans were not so adept.

Additionally there were mixed foot/horse units, the cohortes equitatae. Their organization is less clear, but usually assumed, following Hyginus, to have six centuries of eighty men and four turmae of thirty troopers if cohors equitata quingenaria (608 total), or ten centuries of eighty men and eight turmae of thirty troopers if cohors equitata milliaria (1,056 total). An inscription, dated to the reign of Tiberius, mentions a praefectus cohortis Ubiorum peditum et equitum, ‘prefect of a cohort of Ubii, foot and horse’, which is probably the earliest example of this type of unit. It may be worth noting here that this Tiberian unit was recruited from the Ubii, a Germanic tribe distinguished for its loyalty to Rome. In Gaul Caesar had employed Germanic horse warriors who could fight in conjunction with foot warriors, operating in pairs.

Organized, disciplined and well trained, the pride of the Roman cavalry were obviously the horsemen of the alae, but more numerous were the horsemen of the cohortes equitatae. Having served for some time as infantrymen before being upgraded and trained as cavalrymen, these troopers were not as highly paid, or as well mounted as their brothers of the alae, but they performed much of the day-today patrolling, policing and escort duties.


In addition, as in earlier times, there were specialists fulfilling roles in which Roman citizens, better utilized as legionaries, were traditionally unskilled. The best-known of these specialists were archers from Syria and slingers from the Baleares, weapon preferences that were solidly rooted in cultural, social and economic differences.

Among the Romans the bow seems never to have been held in much favour, though after the time of Marius it was introduced by Cretans serving Rome. During our period, however, archers were being recruited from amongst experienced people of the eastern provinces. Like slingers, it is possible they were equipped as regular auxiliaries rather than their exotic appearance on Trajan’s Column would indicate (e.g. scene lxx depicts them with high cheekbones and aquiline noses, wearing voluminous flowing skirts that swing round their ankles). Certainly first-century tombstones show archers in the usual off-duty uniform of tunic with sword and dagger belts, cinguli, crossed ‘cowboy’ fashion.

Also likely is the possibility that individual soldiers within any given unit acquired the necessary ability to use bows, rather than simply relying on specialist units. In his military treatise, among other matters, Vegetius includes a recommendation that at least a quarter of all recruits should be trained as bowmen. Yet, despite his sound advice here, Vegetius says it is the self-bow that will be used in training soldiers in the art of archery. It is assumed, therefore, that the standard of archery was obviously not expected to be the same as that provided by specialists units such as cohors I Hamiorum Sagittariorum, who were trained and experienced in precisely the sort of warfare in which the Principate army was decidedly deficient.



Chinese suicide bomber putting on an explosive vest made out of Model 24 hand grenades to use in an attack on Japanese tanks at the Battle of Taierzhuang.


National Revolutionary Army soldiers march to the front in 1939.


A National Revolutionary Army machine gun nest in Shanghai.


Chinese troops making a charge in Luodian.


Map showing the extent of Japanese occupation in 1940 (in red).


Japanese occupation (red) of eastern China near the end of the war, and Communist bases (striped)

The rampant warlordism of the 1910s, 1920s, and early 1930s drove Chinese rural elites to take refuge and reinvent themselves economically and politically in major cities like Shanghai, Wuhan, and Chengdu. But the longue durée of the War of Resistance against Japan and the brutal civil war that followed transformed China—socially, politically, and culturally—for better or worse.



After the split with the Communists in 1927 and the completion of the Northern Expedition in 1928, Chiang continued to see the military as a vanguard institution in China’s struggle to modernize, and he promoted militarism as an ideology of national development. He intended to make the GMD military into the most modern institution in the country, and German advisers were hired to upgrade his forces. The Germans helped to reorganize Chiang’s core units, and oversaw their reequipping and retraining in accordance with German standards. Whampoa’s successor institution, the Central Military Academy at Nanjing, was also upgraded with the assistance of the Germans, and in the years before 1937 it provided Chiang with a steady stream of professionally competent and fiercely loyal graduates. Despite the distractions posed by the ongoing campaigns against the remnants of the Communist Party and the occasional clash with political rivals, by 1937 Chiang had made considerable progress toward his goal of sixty German trained divisions. However, his very success likely accelerated the onset of war with Japan, because the Japanese were not inclined to wait while Chiang built up his forces. The Anti-Japanese War (1937–1945) almost destroyed Chiang’s forces, and quickly undid most of what he had accomplished during the Nanjing decade. Although he finished the war with a greatly expanded army equipped with the latest American weapons, the quality of the troops and officers was generally very low, and morale was poor. The CCP, in contrast, had prospered during the war, and emerged in 1945 with a much expanded army and a burning desire to resume the civil war with the GMD.


In 1931 the Japanese army seized Manchuria, soon declaring the region to be the independent state of Manchukuo (Manzhouguo), with the last Qing emperor, Puyi (1906– 1967), as its puppet ruler. In the spring of 1932, the Japanese navy bombed and assaulted Chinese-controlled portions of Shanghai. The Chinese organized a spirited defense and the Japanese withdrew, but not before sending the Nationalist government in Nanjing a strong message that Central China was vulnerable. What followed was an uneasy truce and a series of “incidents” in North China, which the Japanese used to nibble away at Chinese sovereignty. By 1937 the Japanese had moved troops south to the outskirts of Beijing. On July 7, 1937, the final “incident” occurred, when Chinese and Japanese troops clashed at Marco Polo Bridge in the suburbs of Beijing. From this point on to 1945, it was total war— declared by the Chinese side, though labeled an “incident” by the Japanese.

The turning point in the War of Resistance, or the Second Sino-Japanese War, was the fighting that occurred between 1937 and 1939. During the fall of 1937, the highly mechanized Japanese Imperial Army, supported by heavy bombing raids, quickly swallowed North China and moved south, laying siege to Shanghai by the end of August. The battle for Shanghai was fierce, with the Japanese prevailing by November and soon thereafter closing in on the Chinese Nationalist capital at Nanjing. Chiang Kai-shek had committed his crack units to the defense of Shanghai, where he lost half of his well-trained officer corps. In December, in rapid succession, Jinan in Shandong and then Nanjing fell. Using massive firepower and terror tactics, most famously on the population of Nanjing, the Japanese expected to chase what remained of Chiang’s disorganized fleeing armies into the central Yangzi Valley and deliver the knockout blow that would force Chiang’s surrender, end the war, and leave most of China under Japanese occupation by March 1938.

Instead, the unexpected happened. A variety of regional armies under the command of various militarists came to the rescue of the Chinese nation. Around Wuhan, these regional forces assembled and regrouped with Chiang Kai-shek’s central army units fleeing from Shanghai. Under the reorganization, Chiang Kai-shek and former militarist rivals like Bai Chongxi (1893–1966), Li Zongren (1890–1969), and Feng Yuxiang (1882–1948) formed a new combined leadership. As a result, a surprisingly effective last stand was made around Xuzhou and then at Wuhan in Central China. There, during the spring and early summer of 1938, the revitalized Chinese armies blunted the firepower and mobility of the Japanese Imperial Army using human-wave tactics and night attacks and flooding Japanese mechanized units by blowing up the dikes of the Yellow (Huang) River at Huayuankou (near Kaifeng). By the end of October 1938, the Chinese had lost both Xuzhou and Wuhan. But in the battle for the central Yangzi Valley, both sides exhausted themselves. And most important, the Chinese side, despite having won few battles, had succeeded in turning the war into a protracted affair that would last until 1945.

The next stage of the war was much slower in pace. The Nationalists moved their capital to Chongqing in mountainous Sichuan in 1939, and with the Communists under Mao Zedong they began to organize guerilla-warfare campaigns from their cave headquarters in the Northwest (Yan’an). There was still fighting, but not on the same scale. For instance, Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, was captured and reoccupied by both sides three times between 1939 and 1941. And of course at the end of 1941, the Sino- Japanese War became part of a much larger world war with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into the Pacific and European wars. Chiang Kai-shek (and the Communists) now had a new partner, the United States, permitting both to wait out the war. With the exception of the Japanese Ichi-Go offensive of 1944 (when the Japanese pushed into Jiangxi and Guangxi provinces), the field positions of the opposing armies in China remained roughly stationary for the rest of the war.

But the military facts only tell part of the story. The importance to modern Chinese history of the eight years of total war from 1937 to 1945 is difficult to overestimate, be it in social, cultural, economic, or political terms. The cost in lives lost and property destroyed made this war even more devastating than the war in Europe, a fact not widely acknowledged in the West. Throughout the coastal provinces, from north to south, the atrocities committed by Japanese troops were monstrous. In due course, more than one hundred million homeless refugees (almost a quarter of the population) fled to the interior. Over twenty million civilians lost their lives. Families were torn asunder. Countless women were left to fend for themselves, some alone and others destitute with children, after their husbands and brothers were forcibly pressed into service. Many men died on the battlefield, others succumbed to wounds left untreated, and yet others to starvation and disease.

Type XB U-Boat – Histories





The new VII U-449, commanded by Hermann Otto, age twenty-nine. On June 14, a B-24 of British Squadron 120, piloted by Samuel E. Esler, which was escorting Outbound North (Slow) 10, inflicted “slight damage” to the boat. When Otto reported that he urgently required a doctor to tend his wounded, U-boat Control directed the veteran VII U-592, commanded by Carl Bonn, age thirty-two, which, as related, had sailed from France in the last days of May with a doctor, to close U-449’s position at maximum speed. On the chance that this meeting might fail, Control ordered Otto in U-449 to abort to France at maximum speed and to join two other boats inbound to France, including the big Type XB minelayer U-119, commanded by Horst-Tessen von Kameke, age twenty-seven, who was returning from a mine-laying mission off Halifax and also had a doctor on board. The U-119 had just given the new tanker U-488, commanded by Erwin Bartke, all possible spare fuel and Otto in U-449 found U-119 before U-592 found him. Otto obtained the necessary medical assistance from U-119, then commenced a crossing of Biscay in company with her.

As part of the saturation ASW campaign in the Bay of Biscay, the Admiralty had assigned Johnny Walker’s Support Group 2 to patrol the western edge of the Bay of Biscay, in cooperation with Coastal Command aircraft. Early on the morning of June 24, Walker in the sloop Starling got sonar contacts on U-119, while some other ships of the group got sonar contacts on U-449. Walker immediately attacked U-119, dropping ten depth charges that brought the U-boat to the surface with “dramatic suddenness.”

All warships that could bring guns to bear opened fire, but after one friendly shell hit Starling in the bow, Walker ordered the others to cease fire while he rammed. He smashed into von Kameke’s U-119 solidly, riding up over her forward deck and capsizing her. The impact bent Starling’s bow 30 degrees off kilter, wiped off the sonar dome, and flooded the forward ammo magazine. For added insurance, Starling and the sloop Woodpecker each fired another salvo of depth charges. For proof of a kill, Starling’s whaleboat collected “locker doors and other floating wreckage marked in German, a burst tin of coffee and some walnuts.” There were no survivors of U-119.

Thereafter four sloops of this group, Kite, Wild Goose, Woodpecker, and Wren, ganged up on Otto in U-449. Exchanging commands with D.E.G. (Dickie) Wemyss in Wild Goose, Walker led these four warships in renewed attacks. They hunted and depth-charged U-449 for six hours before wreckage and oil rose to the surface, giving proof of a kill. There were no survivors of U-449 either.

Having sunk two confirmed U-boats in one day, Walker’s group followed the damaged Starling into Plymouth, where there was a stack of congratulatory letters from First Sea Lord Pound, Max Horton at Western Approaches, and others down the chain of command. For his part, Walker-undisputed king of the U-boat killers-sharply criticized the lack of cooperation the Coastal Command aircraft had shown his ships.


The North Atlantic boats were supported in September and October 1942 by five U-tankers. These included two Type XIV “Milk Cows,” Wolf Stiebler’s U-461 and Leo Wolfbauer’s U-463, and three big Type XB minelayers on temporary tanker duty: the U-116, commanded by a new skipper, Wilhelm Grimme, age thirty-five, which sailed on September 22 and disappeared without a trace, probably the victim of an as yet unidentified Allied aircraft; the new U-117, commanded by Hans Werner Neumann, age thirty-six, who first laid a non-productive minefield off the north-western coast of Iceland; and the new U -118, commanded by Werner Czygan, age thirty-seven.

All the U-boats sailing in September and October were equipped with the meter-wavelength FuMB radar detector made by Metox. The primitive but remarkably successful Metox (“Biscay Cross”) reduced U-boat losses, damage, and delays in crossing the Bay of Biscay to such a marked degree that on October 1 the British cancelled the intense ASW aircraft offensive in the bay. But Metox gear was not able to detect centimetric-wavelength radar, which was fitted in the British surface escorts and the long- and very-long-range aircraft in the North Atlantic area. Although few in number, those radar-equipped aircraft were able to catch U-boats by surprise, disrupt numerous group attacks, and sink or damage an ever-increasing number of U-boats.


Leaving from France, Hans-Joachim Schwantke in the aging IX U-43 and Hermann Rasch in the XB U-106 arrived in Canadian waters first. Both reported intense air patrols. Rasch likened them to the air threat in the Bay of Biscay. Newly installed Metox gear gave warning of aircraft using meter-wavelength ASV radar, but Rasch, who dived and surfaced U-106 so often that he felt like a “dolphin,” suggested that if at all possible, Metox should be upgraded to provide the range to the detected aircraft.

Both Schwantke and Rasch cruised boldly up the St. Lawrence River Schwantke farther upstream that any U-boat skipper ever had-but attentive air patrols and noticeably improved cooperation between air and surface ASW forces thwarted attacks on convoys and single ships. Moreover, it was at about this time that Canadian authorities closed the St. Lawrence River to ocean shipping. In these arduous, nerve-racking operations, Schwantke sank no ships and Rasch sank but one: the 2,100-ton ore boat Watenon, escorted by the armed yacht Vison and an RCAF Canso. After the attack, Vison got U-106 on sonar and dropped twelve well-placed depth charges, forcing Rasch to lie doggo on the bottom at 607 feet for eight hours. Upon withdrawing from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Schwantke advised Donitz that Canadian ASW measures were now so effective that he should not send any more boats to the area. Rasch concurred, but Donitz did not.

Harassed by aircraft, neither Schwantke nor Rasch had any further success. Homebound, the boats were to meet the tanker U-460, commanded by Ebe Schnoor, for replenishment. A raging storm delayed the refuelling for six days, during which time they-and some other U-boats-literally ran out of fuel and drifted. Finally the refuelling was carried out on November 29 and most of the boats returned to France, but Rasch in U-106 was temporarily diverted to help repel the Torch invasion convoys. For past successes and for his tenacity and aggressiveness in the St. Lawrence River, Donitz awarded Rasch a Ritterkreuz.

Junkers Ju 52







One of the greatest aircraft of history, the Junkers Ju 52 was designed by Ernst Zindel. The prototype first flew in October 1930. As a civilian airliner with a capacity of 15–17 passengers, the Ju 52 sold all over the world and made up 75 percent of the large fleet of Lufthansa before World War II. The aircraft was eventually operated by twenty-eight airlines. Meanwhile the Luftwaffe, still embryonic and clandestine, was evaluating the military capabilities of the airliner. The Ju 52 entered service in the newly formed Luftwaffe in 1935 as an interim bomber with a 1,500-kg (3,307-lb) bomb load, and was employed as such during the Spanish Civil War. Soon the aircraft was discarded as a bomber and replaced by the Dornier Do 17 and Junkers Ju 86. It then started a long-lived and tremendous career as a military transport aircraft. It was a typical low-winged Junkers design with no concessions to elegance. It was operated by a crew of three; pilot and copilot/observer sat side by side and a radio operator/dorsal gunner sat on a jump seat between them. The cockpit was raised above the cabin floor height. When fitted with seats, the Ju 52 could carry up to eighteen passengers sitting in a rather spartan interior. When arranged as an ambulance, the seats were removed and the aircraft (often overpainted in white with large red crosses) could carry twelve seriously wounded on stretchers, which were fitted with harnesses used to tie them securely for rough take-off and landing. On nearly all wartime versions (Ju 52/3m), power was provided by three 830- hp BMW 132T 9-cylinder radial engines, one in the nose, one on each wing; the wing engines faced slightly outward to reduce yaw should one of them fail. The exhaust gas was collected by annular ducts which gave the Ju 52 its trademark stains. Typical speed was 305 km/h (190 mph) and typical range was 1,300 km (808 miles). Length was 18.9 m (62 ft), span was 29.25 m (95 ft 11.5 in), height was 4.5 m (14 ft 9 in), and empty weight was 5,600 kg (12,346 lbs). The aircraft had a payload of 1,102 pounds. It could transport, for example, twelve fully equipped paratroopers, plus four weapons and ammunitions canisters, or ten oil drums of two hundred liters each. The Ju 52 was usually not armed, but in combat zones it could mount one 13-mm MG 131 manually aimed from an open dorsal hatch, and two 7.92-mm MG 15 guns manually aimed from beam windows. This distinctive and rather ugly trimotor machine had a strong fixed landing gear to cope with repeated landings on rough airfields; spats were issued to reduce drag of the wheels, but these were often dismounted due to clogging up in muddy conditions. The corrugated metal fuselage was a common feature of many Junkers design; that skin was load-bearing and the corrugation gave it considerable strength, for little weight penalty. The Ju 52 was used in all theaters in a wide variety of roles, including bomber, reconnaissance craft, troop and freight transport, ambulance, ski or floatplane, glider tug, and others. There was also a magnetic mine-buster version equipped with a magnetic ring fifteen meters in diameter, and a 12-cylinder, Mercedes- Benz-Nurburg, gasoline-driven dynamo producing a constant 300 amps current used to explode magnetic mines at sea.

The Ju 52 was at the forefront in all German airborne operations in Norway, Holland, Belgium and Crete, as well as in the three major Luftwaffe airlift operations of World War II: Demyansk, Stalingrad and Tunisia. As the war lengthened, demands on the venerable type increased as its losses rose, presenting the Luftwaffe with a major headache, as availability always fell below requirements. As a general workhorse, the Ju 52 was invaluable: it was cheap to manufacture, simple to operate, and easy to maintain on the field, it could fly with one of its three engine out of commission, had the ability to withstand crash landings with reasonable safety to occupants owing to the ruggedness of construction. It had good STOL (short take-off and landing) performance, robust construction, interchangeable wheel/ ski/float landing gear, and great reliability, but it left a good deal to be desired as a transport airplane. Deservedly famous as a German counterpart to the U.S. DC-3 Dakota, the Ju 52 was obsolete by 1939, but continued to serve on all fronts until the end of World War II. It is typical of the Nazi regime that, despite a wealth of later and more capable replacements, the obsolete Ju 52 was kept in production throughout the war. Perhaps the ubiquity and the all-purpose nature of the highly popular Tante Ju (Auntie Ju) or Iron Annie—as it was nicknamed—tended to preclude the need for replacement designs. Also, there were many of this type on hand at the beginning of the war, engines were widely available, many pilots had been trained to it, and manufacturing facilities were already set up. The Ju 52 was manufactured by Junkers, but also by the French Felix Amiot Company located at Colombes near Paris, and by the Hungarian PIRT factory at Budapest. A total of 4,845 were produced by the Germans between 1939 and 1944.

After the war, although totally old-fashioned and obsolete, production of the Ju 52 continued in France by the Amiot aircraft company, and some 400 units (known as Amiot AAC 1) served to drop paratroopers and transport freight for the French army during the early years of the Indochina War (1946–1954). The Ju 52 (designated CASA 352) was also produced for the Spanish air force as multi-role transport until 1975.