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.