ALBUERA

16 May 1811

 

Wellington had brought the battle of Fuentes de Oņoro to a successful, if not an entirely satisfactory, conclusion on the evening of May 5th 1811. Earlier that same day, some 130 miles to the south, Beresford had begun to lay siege to the fortress of Badajoz in what was to be the first of three sieges of the place. No sooner had the preliminary operations got underway than Beresford received news that Soult was on his way from Seville to relieve the place with around 25,000 troops.

On May 13th Beresford marched south with 32,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops, the British contingent numbering about 7,000, and on May 15th reached the small town of Albuera. Here he was destined to fight one of the bloodiest and most desperate battles of the war.

The Allied troops were positioned along a series of gentle heights that run north to south, parallel with the river Albuera that lays just to the east. In the front centre of the Allied line lay the town of Albuera itself. Soult's army approached from the south-east and on the morning of May 16th drew up facing west. Initial French attacks were directed upon the town of Albuera itself which was held by Alten's Germans although these attacks were never really pressed home with any real conviction. Neither were the subsequent probes by the 5,600 men of Werle's infantry brigade just to the south of the bridge over the Albuera river that lay just outside the town.

However, away to the right of the Allied line, which was held by Blake's Spaniards, a real and very dangerous threat was developing. The river Albuera was easily fordable in several places, even by guns, and Soult had managed to get nineteen battalions of infantry across as well as a large number of cavalry, all of whom had managed to approach the Allied right flank without being seen on account of the area being heavily wooded. These troops debouched from the woods, much to the alarm of Beresford who immediately ordered Blake to face south to meet them, the British 2nd Division being sent as support. Beresford then rode off in blissful ignorance for Blake, still convinced that the main French attack would be delivered from the east, ignored the order and instead deployed just four of his battalions to meet the French attack from the south.

These flimsy four battalions were hardly sufficient to face even a similar number of French battalions let alone the overwhelming and overpowering force now bearing down upon them. In fact, Soult had launched an infantry attack the like of which had yet to be seen in the Peninsular War, nor would it be seen again, for no less than 8,400 French infantry, two full divisions, were advancing on the Allied right flank which, if it disintegrated, would allow Soult to roll up the Allied line.

Contrary to their usual behaviour, the Spaniards held firm and even brought the leading French division to a halt. This was achieved purely by the weight of lead fired into the French columns. Once again their formation, although numerically stronger, prevented them from bringing anything like the number of muskets to bear that the Spaniards, standing in a three-deep line, could. The Spaniards were also supported by Sir John Colborne's brigade of Stewart's 2nd Division which opened fire on the left flank of the French column. This unauthorised move - Beresford had originally ordered Stewart to form his brigades behind the Spaniards - was successful at first but soon afterwards a terrible tragedy occurred which was one of the bloodiest and notorious disasters of the war suffered by any of Wellington's troops.

At about 10.30am Colborne's brigade, consisting of the 1/3rd, 2/31st, 2/48th and 2/66th Regiments, stood in the firing line, pouring out a withering fire into the left flank of the attacking French columns. Five minutes later most of them lay dead, dying or wounded following an attack of deadly efficiency by some of the most feared cavalry in Europe. As Colborne's men stood blazing away a thunderstorm that had threatened all morning finally broke, the inky-black skies opening up with sheets of rain that swept over the battlefield. The British infantrymen's muskets were quickly rendered useless and as the rain lashed down into their faces the soaked redcoats failed to see two regiments of enemy cavalry that were bearing down on them, using the sudden downpour as a screen. Caught in line and unable to form square the infantry were an easy target for the cavalry who happened to be Polish Lancers, armed with a fearsome weapon hardly ever seen by the British and a superb killing instrument that enabled the bearer to kill with little fear to himself. It was also a weapon from which there was little escape, it being just as easy to thrust down and kill someone on the ground as it was to kill a man standing. The Polish Lancers dealt death all around them, violently and quickly, and when they withdrew just a few minutes later 1,300 out of Colborne's 1,600 men had been either killed or wounded in the carnage.

Even Beresford himself was not spared during this savage attack, the Allied commander being forced to defend himself with his bare hands when a Polish lancer thrust at him. Beresford, a strong man, parried the lance and threw his would-be assailant to the ground. Six guns were also lost during the attack although all but one were later recovered.

With Colborne's brigade all but gone Beresford turned to the two other brigades of the 2nd Division, namely those of Abercrombie and Hoghton, to replace them as well as Zayas' Spaniards who themselves had suffered thirty per cent casualties during the morning's fighting. The two fresh brigades numbered about 3,700 men who now bore the brunt of the attack by the two French divisions, some 7,800 strong. The two sides closed with each other and engaged in a ferocious fire fight at almost point-blank range, both sides firing blind through the smoke as they unloaded huge quantities of lead into each other's ranks. The deficiency in British numbers was more than made up for by their formation. The fire from their two-deep line enveloped the heads of the French columns although this in turn was countered by French artillery that was served with deadly efficiency.

Few writers have been able to surpass the magnificent descriptions of Fortescue and Napier who described the ensuing butchery as if they had been present themselves. The former wrote, `Survivors who took part in this fight 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 slaughter lasted for over an hour, the two sides blasting away at each other like two prize fighters, neither refusing to admit defeat. British stubbornness could not win the battle on its own, however, and French numbers began to tell.

It was just after midday and the crisis point of the battle had arrived. Carlos de Espana's Spanish Brigade refused to be brought forward into the firing line whilst the two British brigades began to thin alarmingly. At this point, Lowry Cole, without orders from Beresford, brought forward his 4th Division, consisting of some 4,000 British and Portuguese troops, and in so doing turned the tide of the battle. Cole advanced in a long line almost a mile in length with the flanks protected by a square of light companies on the right and the Lusitanian Legion on the left. After repulsing several French cavalry charges his men closed with the enemy and when the 4th Division linked up with the battered survivors of Stewart's 2nd Division they formed a line which wrapped around the flanks of the French columns. Another ferocious fire fight followed during which both sides stood and traded volleys with each other until finally the French columns began to stagger backwards, the men reeling under the weight of the terrific British musketry. William Myers, commanding the three battalions of fusiliers, was quick to detect this wavering and ordered the fusiliers, the 1/7th, 2/7th and 1/23rd, to charge.

The fusiliers obeyed the order with some relief as it freed them from the hell that was erupting all around them. Their relief was short-lived though, for just as they took their first steps forward they were hit by a storm of grape shot that scythed down scores of them. William Napier, the master of Peninsular prose, wrote, `the fusilier battalions, struck by the iron tempest, reeled and staggered like sinking ships; but suddenly and sternly recovering they closed on their terrible enemies, and then was seen with what a strength and majesty the British soldier fights.' The fusiliers advanced with a grim determination which was too much for the already decimated ranks of exhausted Frenchmen. They had seen an apparent victory snatched from them and were unwilling to endure any more punishment. Gradually, the columns began to dissolve as the French streamed to the rear leaving the equally battered and bloodied British troops `triumphant on that fatal hill!'

There was no more fighting during the afternoon and heavy rain brought the curtain down on four hours of terrible and bloody fighting. The battle of Albuera had resulted in a British victory mainly due to the stubborn British infantry who refused to recognise defeat even when it was staring them in the face. `No-one could stop that astonishing infantry', wrote Napier, and he was right. They had stood trading lead with their brave French counterparts until the latter could take no more. As Soult later observed of the victors, `the day was mine, and they did not know it, and would not run.' Nearly 6,000 Allied dead and wounded was the price paid for this glory, a fact that brought Beresford in for much criticism, not only for his handling of the battle but also his choice of positions to begin with. The French themselves suffered around 7,000 in what was one of the bloodiest battles of the war.

The end result of all this butchery was that Soult, like Massena at Fuentes de Oņoro, had failed to achieve the object of his plan, namely to relieve a beleaguered French garrison, in this case Badajoz to which Wellington was about to turn his attention. The subsequent siege in June 1811 was a dismal failure, however, and it would be almost another year before the town fell, spectacularly and infamously, into Wellington's hands.