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Battle of Albuera, 16 May 1811
Phase One – The Spanish Line and Colborne’s Disaster
Phase Two – British line
Phase Three – Counterattack
The battle of Abluera of 16 May 1811 was one of the bloodiest battles of the Peninsular War, fought to prevent Marshal Soult from coming to the aid of the garrison of Badajoz. That important Spanish border fortress had fallen to the French on 10 March, before an Anglo-Portuguese relief army under Marshal Beresford had begun its march to break to siege. Beresford had then been given the task of recaptured Badajoz, beginning the first British siege of Badajoz (6-12 May 1811). His force consisted of 10,500 British troops, 10,000 Portuguese troops, and 2,500 Spanish troops under General Castaños, the survivors of the crushing Spanish defeat at the Gebora on 19 February 1811.
At Albuera Beresford would also be aided by 12,000 Spanish troops under General Blake. They were made up of 3,500 men under General Ballesteros who had been active in Estremadura and Andalusia for some time, reinforced by the divisions of Lardizabal and Zayas and the cavalry of General Loy, all under General Blake. Blake had landed at Ayamonte, at the mouth of the Guadiana, on 25 April, and two weeks later joined with Ballesteros at Xeres de los Caballeros.
After capturing Badajoz, Marshal Soult had been forced to return to Andalusia, where French control had been threatened in his absence. 11,000 men had been left behind to defend Badajoz and Estremadura, first under Marshal Mortier and then under General Latour-Maubourg. When faced by Beresford, Latour-Maubourg had further split his forces, leaving 3,000 men in Badajoz, and retreating back towards Andalusia with the remaining 8,000. Once there they were joined by 2,000 men who had been detached from the 5th Corps before the campaign in Estremadura, giving him a total of 10,000 men.
When it became clear that he would need to return to Estremadura, Soult had to decide how many men to withdraw from his already overstretched forces in Andalusia. Both he and Napoleon underestimated the size of Beresford’s force, and of the Spanish reinforcements joining him. Napoleon believed that Beresford could have no more than 9,000 British and 6,000 Portuguese troops, while Soult decided that 25,000 men would be enough to sweep the Allies out of Estremadura. 10,000 of these men were already in place, while the remaining troops were taken from the 4th Corps (four battalions of infantry, three regiments of cavalry), the 1st Corps (four battalions and two regiments of cavalry) and Godinot’s force in Cordova (nine battalions and two regiments of cavalry). These reinforcements were ready by 8 May, and left Seville on the night of 9-10 May. Soult was hoping to surprise Beresford, but on 8 May Spanish patriots in Seville discovered his plans, and the news reached the British by 12 May. On the same day Ballesteros’s scouts found the advancing French columns and for the two days the French were under constant observation.
Before the start of the first siege of Badajoz, Wellington had made a flying visit to Estremadura, leaving behind a series of instructions for Beresford. One set of instructions gave Beresford instructions on what to do if Soult returned to Estremadura. Wellington had suggested that the position at Albuera would be the best place to stand and fight, if Soult arrived with a small enough army to be beaten. The village of Albuera was located on the direct road between Badajoz and Seville, where two streams joined to form the Albuera River. A line of low hills lined the western bank of the river, but also filled the gap between the two streams. While not a massively strong defensive position, it was about the best available on Soult’s probable line of assault.
Beresford’s first problem was that he could not be sure which route Soult would take across Estremadura. The most direct route led along the high road from Seville to Badajoz via Albuera, but there were also routes to the west and to the east. Beresford lifted the tight blockade of Badajoz on 12 May, and on the following day advanced south to Valverde, within easily marching distance of two of the possible roads, taking Hamilton’s Portuguese division and the British 2nd Division. The rest of his troops remained around Badajoz to cover the evacuation of the siege equipment. By 15 May it was clear that Soult was not taken the western route, and so Hamilton and the 2nd Division moved east, to Albuera. On the same day Blake’s Spanish army was at Almendral, an easy march south of Albuera, while Soult reached Santa Marta, south east of Albuera on the high road.
15 May was also the day it became obvious that Soult was planning to use the high road through Albuera. A strong force of Allied cavalry (three British and two Portuguese regiments and 600 Spanish horse), under General Long, were observing the French around Santa Marta. When the French cavalry began to appear in strength around Santa Marta, Long retreated rapidly back to Albuera, abandoning the entire east bank of the river without a fight. On the next morning the lack of Allied scouts across the river would help to contribute to the initial success of Soult’s battle plan. Beresford was sufficiently irritated with Long’s performance to remove him from command of the cavalry, and to replace him with General Lumley. Although he had been commanding an infantry brigade, he was senior to Long, and had been a light dragoon officer, and performed well on 16 May.
Beresford expected Soult to attack along the high road through Albuera, where the line of hills was at its lowest, and where a French success would split the Allied army in half. Accordingly he arranged his units on the line of hills behind the village. To the left was Hamilton’s Portuguese division, with Collin’s brigade in reserve and Otway’s cavalry on the flanks. The centre of the Allied line, behind the village, was made up by William Stewart’s 2nd Division, with Cole’s division behind the British lines. The right wing was made up of Blake’s Spanish troops, with from left to right the divisions of Lardizabal, Ballasteros and Zayas, each with one brigade in the front line and one in reserve. On the far right was Loy’s cavalry. Albuera itself was defended by two battalions of Alten’s German infantry. The main Allied forces were hidden on the reverse side of the line of hills, making them invisible from Soult’s position.
When Soult arrived opposite Albuera, the only units visible were Alten’s infantry and the two cavalry units on the flanks. He assumed that Blake’s force was still some way to the south, and so decided to attack around the Allied right flank, in the belief that this would actually split the Allied army in half. His plan was helped by two factors – the hills between the streams south of Albuera were covered in Olive groves, which hid the French forces, and Long’s retreat on the previous day meant that there were no Allied cavalry units on the east bank of the Albuera River to watch the French.
Soult’s force was split into three divisions. The first attack would be launched by Girard and Gazan’s divisions of the 5th Corps, with Girard in the lead. Werlé’s division would act as a reserve, and would also appear to threaten the front of Blake’s line. Albuera itself would be threatened by part of the French cavalry and Godinot’s brigade.
Phase One – The Spanish Line and Colborne’s Disaster
The battle began with Godinot’s attack on the Allied centre, which appeared to confirm Beresford’s assumptions about Soult’s plans, but soon after this attack began, the French cavalry under Latour-Maubourg appeared far to the Allied right. Soon after this, the first French infantry appeared on the Allied right. Beresford responded by ordering Blake to move his entire second line to the right, to form a new line across the hill at right angles to the main line. Blake agreed to do this, but then when Beresford had returned to the centre of the line decided to only move four battalions of Zayas’s division into the new line.
The French advanced in a mixed formation. In the centre of Girard’s division four battalions formed up in a single column of attack, with each battalion in columns of double companies. On each flank was one battalion deployed in line, and then one battalion in column, ready to form a square if the Allied cavalry attacked. This gave the French a frontage of around 500 men, with three battalions in columns and two in lines. Gazan’s division was following rather too closely behind, in the same formation.
When Blake realised how strong the French column was, he began to move more troops to support Zayas, but they arrived too late to form a secure line before the French attack began. Zayas’s four battalions had to hold off an entire French division. As the French attack developed, Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry moved around the rear of the French infantry, taking up a new position on Girard’s left, while Werlé’s infantry moved in place to act as a reserve. Soult had successfully turned the Allied flank, but he would prove to be unable to take advantage of this initial stunning success.
The main action began when Girard’s column launched their attack on Zayas’s line. Zayas had found a strong position to defend, forcing the French to attack uphill. As the French attacked, the Spanish line held, Of the just over 2,000 men in the four battalions involved, 98 were killed and 517 wounded, by far the highest rate of lose in the Spanish forces present.
Beresford responded to this new threat by ordering William Stewart to move the entire 2nd division to support the Spanish, with Colborne’s brigade at the front, followed by Hoghton’s and then Abercrombie’s. Beresford expected Stewart to form his entire division behind the Spanish line, before advancing into the battle. He was badly led down by Stewart. Beresford’s army had originally been commanded by Rowland Hill. When Hill was taken ill, Stewart had taken control of the army, but he had failed to appreciate Wellington’s defensive plans around Lisbon, had repeatedly asked for permission to attack the French, and had been replaced by the more stable Beresford. Now Stewart though he saw a chance to win a quick victory by attacked the French flank before they could respond to the arrival of the British troops. Colborne’s brigade was sent around Zayas’s right flank, and launched an attack on the French left.
For a moment Colborne’s attack prospered. Girard’s attack was badly disrupted, and just as Stewart had hoped, would not regain its momentum, but Colborne’s men paid a terrible price. Stewart had apparently refused to form up his flanking battalions in squares in case of a French cavalry attack, and now he paid for that. Latour-Maubourg directed his nearest cavalry regiments, the 1st Lancers of the Vistula and the 2nd Hussars, to attack the exposed British right. Hidden by a heavy hail storm, the French and Polish cavalry crashed into the side of the 1/3rd Regiment (the Buffs). This one battalion lost 643 of its 754 men at Albuera, most of them in this one moment. The next two regiments in line, the 2/48th and the 2/66th also suffered heavily, losing over 500 men. Colborne’s brigade lost 1,413 out of its initial 2,166 men. Some of the Polish cavalry even threatened Zayas’s own position, while Beresford was forced to defend himself against a lancer.
Phase Two – British line
Through all of this the Spanish line held. Girard decided that his own division was now exhausted, and decided to make his next attack with Gazan’s division. This allowed the Allies to reinforce their line. Hoghton’s brigade replaced Zayas’s battalions, while Abercrombie’s replaced Ballesteros’s. Hoghton’s brigade, supported by the 2/31st Regiment, the only part of Colborne’s brigade to have survived intact, would face the main French attack in one of the classic confrontations between line and column. The British formed up in a line 850 men long and two deep, while the French attacked in what was virtually one massive column. By the time this part of the battle ended, Hoghton’s brigade had lost 1,027 of its 1,651 men while the French had suffered around 2,000 casualties.
Neither Soult nor Beresford made any effective contribution to this phase of the battle, but for different reasons. Soult had simply lost his nerve. When he reached the top of the ridge and realised how big the Allied army was, he abandoned his offensive plans, and decided not to support Gazan and Girard with his reserves or his cavalry, but instead to fight a semi-defensive battle.
Beresford had intended to reinforce his front line, but his efforts failed. He had two intact divisions on the field – Hamilton’s Portuguese division at the northern end of the field, and Cole’s division behind the old Allied front line, now forming a new withdrawn right wing, watching the French cavalry. Beresford decided to use Hamilton’s division to reinforce Hoghton. This division had moved south to replace Stewart’s division, but had taken up a position closer to Albuera, and so needed more time to move across the battlefield than Beresford had believed. They would not arrive to take part in the main battle, and the entire division suffered least than 100 casualties.
Phase Three – Counterattack
The decisive British and Portuguese counterattack came from Lowery Cole’s 4th Division. Cole had been watching the fighting with increasing concern, but he was aware that Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry would pose a potentially deadly threat to any advance he might make. He dispatched a messenger to Beresford to ask for orders, but he was badly wounded. Eventually Colonel Henry Hardinge, the Deputy-Quarter Master of the Portuguese army, helped to convince Cole that if he did not attack the battle might be lost.
Cole formed his division into a mixed formation. Each flank was protected by a unit in column, with Harvey’s Portuguese brigade performing that role on the vulnerable right flank. The centre of the line was formed by three battalions of the Fusiliers, two battalions from the 7th and one from the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. Soult responded by sending Latour-Maubourg to attack Cole’s right and Werlé’s division to attack his centre.
Neither French attack succeeded. The Portuguese troops on the right held off the cavalry attack, while the three Fusilier battalions held off an attack by nearly three times their number of French infantry. Once again French columns failed to break British lines, and Werlé retreated after losing 1,800 of his 5,600 men. The cost to the fusiliers had been high – they had lost 1,045 of their 2,015 men, amongst them General Myers, who was killed in the fighting.
At the same time as Cole was defeating the French reserves, Abercrombie’s brigade finally got into the action. It had been formed up next to Hoghton’s, but had only been attacked by skirmishers. With their flank protected by Cole’s advance, Abercrombie’s men were free to attack Gazan and Girard’s men from the flank, and the French column broke and fled.
This effectively ended the battle. Beresford’s army was in no condition to pursuit the defeated French, for both of his British divisions had been badly mauled, the Spanish were not considered to be capable of the required movement, despite their proven ability on the defensive, and the Portuguese forces were not strong enough to act on their own. Soult was able to retreat back across the stream south of Albuera, and form up a strong defensive position. The two armies remained in place on the next day, before on 18 May beginning his retreat back to Andalusia. The Allies had won, but at a terrible cost.
The performance of the Spanish and Portuguese troops at Albuera is often unfairly criticised. The main Portuguese units had been posted on the original Allied left, to the north of the village of Albuera, and had had little chance to participate in the fighting on the right. The one Portuguese unit that had taken part in the main battle, Harvey’s brigade, which had formed the right flank of Cole’s division during the attack on the French reserves, had performed well, holding off Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry and allowing the rest of the division to take on Werlé’s division undisturbed.
The Spanish had a more mixed record. Carlos de España’s brigade of infantry had been badly mauled at the battle of the Gebora, and refused to enter combat. General Blake had disobeyed Beresford’s order to move half of his infantry to form a new line on the Allied right, leaving the battalions he did sent vulnerable to the overwhelming French attack, but those troops, mostly from Zayas’s divison, held off the first French attack, suffering 681 casualties, most of them in the four battalions that had borne the brunt of the first French attack.
Even taking this into account, the casualty figures make it clear that the British made the most important contribution to the Allied cause. While the Spanish lost 1,368 men and the Portuguese only 389, the British suffered 4,159 casualties (882 dead, 2,733 wounded and 544 missing). Admittedly 1,413 of these casualties were suffered during the disaster that destroyed Colborne’s brigade, but even so both Hoghton’s brigade and Myers’s brigade of Cole’s division suffered over 1,000 casualties
Both Beresford and Soult were criticized for their performance at Albuera – Soult for failing to support Gazan’s attack with his reserves, and Beresford for not using Cole’s division to reduce the pressure on Hoghton’s brigade, but Beresford’s biggest failure at Albuera was probably his overestimation of the ability of the Spanish armies to manoeuvre on the battlefield. If Blake had been in place with 6,000 infantry when the first French attack began, then Soult’s attack would probably have been repulsed much more easily. The disaster that destroyed Colborne’s brigade had nothing to do with Beresford, and would not have happened if Stewart had obeyed his orders.
Despite the high cost, the battle of Albuera had little long term impact on the Peninsular War. When Wellington arrived to begin the second siege of Badajoz, he still lacked a siege train, and made little progress against the strong fortifications, before a second, much stronger French relief army arrived, forcing him to retreat back into Portugal. Beresford himself was soon replaced by Rowland Hill, and returned to command the Portuguese army, where his organisational skills would prove invaluable to Wellington.
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