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