Marshal Beresford’s hard fought battle against Marshal Soult on 16th May 1811 during the Peninsular War, with his army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops
The previous battle in the Peninsular War is the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Usagre
War: Peninsular War
Date of the Battle of Albuera: 16th May 1811
Place of the Battle of Albuera: Spain, near the Portuguese border, south-east of Badajoz
Combatants at the Battle of Albuera: British, Portuguese and Spanish against the French
Commanders at the Battle of Albuera: The British Marshal Beresford and the Spanish General Blake against Marshal Soult
Size of the armies at the Battle of Albuera: 32,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops (including 2,000 cavalry) and 38 guns against 23,000 French troops (including 4,000 cavalry) and 40 guns
Uniforms, arms, equipment and training at the Battle of Albuera:
The British infantry wore red waist-length jackets, grey trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets and trousers.
The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and black ostrich feather caps.
British heavy cavalry (dragoon guards and dragoons) wore red jackets and ‘Roman’ style helmets with horse hair plumes.
The British light cavalry was increasingly adopting hussar uniforms, with some regiments changing their titles from ‘light dragoons’ to ‘hussars’.
The King’s German Legion (KGL) was the Hanoverian army in exile. The KGL owed its allegiance to King George III of Great Britain, as the Elector of Hanover, and fought with the British army. The KGL comprised both cavalry and infantry regiments. KGL uniforms mirrored the British.
The Portuguese army uniforms increasingly during the Peninsular War reflected British styles. The Portuguese line infantry wore blue uniforms, while the Caçadores light infantry regiments wore green.
The Spanish army essentially was without uniforms, existing as it did in a country dominated by the French. Where formal uniforms could be obtained, they were white.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the muzzle-loading musket. The musket could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet for hand-to-hand fighting, which fitted the muzzle end of his musket.
The British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, of limited use against troops in the field unless those troops were closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented and was highly effective against troops in the field over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, yet in their infancy. were of particular use against buildings. The British were developing shrapnel (named after the British officer who invented it) which increased the effectiveness of exploding shells against troops in the field, by exploding in the air and showering them with metal fragments.
Throughout the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign, the British army was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The Army was sustained by volunteer recruitment and the Royal Artillery was not able to recruit sufficient gunners for its needs.
Napoleon exploited the advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the French Ancien Régime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many of his battles were won using a combination of the manoeuvrability and fire power of the French guns with the speed of the French columns of infantry, supported by the mass of French cavalry.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle field in fast moving columns, the British trained to fight in line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two, to extend the line of the British infantry and to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments.
The French army wore a variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
Immediately before the battle, Marshal Bessières brought up a force of 1,700 Guard Cavalry. There was consequently a wide range of cavalry in the French army, Cuirassiers, Dragoons, Hussars, Chasseurs à Cheval and Lancers. The Cuirassiers wore heavy breastplates. The Cuirassiers and Dragoons wore blue uniforms and brass helmets with a long horse hair crest. The Hussars and Chasseurs à Cheval wore the classic hussar uniform of short braided jacket, second slung jacket, fur busby and curved scimitar sword. The Lancers wore a Polish uniform of double breasted jacket and displaced square topped shako. A wide range of colours were worn by the various light cavalry regiments.
The French foot artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery wore hussar uniforms.
The standard infantry weapon for both armies was the musket, which could be fired two or three times a minute and threw a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres. Each infantryman carried a bayonet that fitted on the muzzle.
The British rifle battalions were armed with the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, by its nature of limited effect against troops in the field, unless closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented, but was effective only at a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, as yet in their infancy, were of particular use against buildings. The British had the development of ‘shrapnel’ or fragmenting shell which was effective against troops.
Winner of the Battle of Albuera: The British, Spanish and Portuguese
British and Portuguese order of battle at the Battle of Albuera:
Commander-in-Chief: Marshal William Carr Beresford
Cavalry: commanded by Major General Lumley
Heavy Brigade: commanded by Colonel de Grey: 3rd Dragoon Guards and 4th Dragoons
13th Light Dragoons
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Otway: 1st and 7th Portuguese Dragoons, 1 squadron of 5th and 8th Portuguese Dragoons.
2nd Division: commanded by Major General Stewart
1st Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Colborne: 1st/3rd Foot, 2nd/31st Foot, 2nd/48th Foot, 2nd/66th Foot.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Hoghton: 29th Foot, 1st/48th Foot, 1st/57th Foot.
3rd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Abercromby: 2nd/28th Foot, 2nd/34th Foot, 2nd/39th Foot.
3 companies 5th/60th Foot.
4th Division: commanded by Major General Lowry Cole
1st Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sir William Myers: 1st/7th Royal Fusiliers, 2nd/7th Royal Fusiliers, 1st/23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Harvey: 1st and 2nd/2nd and 2nd/14th Portuguese Regiments of the Line, 1st Loyal Lusitanian Legion
Light Companies of 2nd/27th, 1st/40th and 97th Foot.
Portuguese Division: commanded by Major General Hamilton
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Archibald Campbell: 1st and 2nd/4th, 1st and 2nd/14th Portuguese Regiments of the Line
2nd Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Luiz Fonseca:
German Brigade: commanded by Major General Charles, Baron von Alten: 1st and 2nd Light Battalions, King’s German Legion
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel Collins: 1st and 2nd/5th Portuguese Regiment of the Line, 5th Caçadores
Artillery: commanded by Major Dickson: Lefebre’s Troop RHA, Hawker’s battery, Cleeve’s and Braun’s batteries KGA, Braun’s and Arriga’s batteries, Portuguese Artillery.
Spanish order of battle at the Battle of Albuera:
Commander-in-Chief: Captain General Joachim Blake
Brigades of Loy and Penne Villemur
Vanguard Division: commanded by General Lardizabal
3rd Division: commanded by General Ballasteros
4th Division: commanded by General Zayas
Estremaduran Brigade: commanded by General de Espana
Artillery: commanded by Colonel de Miranda: 2 batteries.
French order of battle at the Battle of Albuera:
Commander-in-Chief: Marshal Soult, Duke of Dalmatia
Cavalry: commanded by General Comte de Latour-Maubourg
1st Brigade: commanded by General Briche
2nd Brigade: commanded by General Bron
3rd Brigade: commanded by General Bouvier des Ecats
3 unbrigaded regiments
1st Division: commanded by General Girard
2nd Division: commanded by General Gazan
Reserve of Grenadiers
Artillery: commanded by General Ruty: 48 guns.
Account of the Battle of Albuera:
While Lieutenant General Viscount Wellington was engaged in battling with Marshal Massena in the North, leading to the battle of Fuentes de Oñoro, Marshal Beresford was laying siege to Badajoz in the South, in uneasy co-operation with the Spanish general, Joachim Blake.
In early May 1811, Marshal Soult marched up from Seville, with his Army of Andalusia, to relieve the French garrison in Badajoz.
Beresford and Blake agreed to confront Soult at Albuera, a classic defensive ridge position, previously selected by Wellington, that screened the Badajoz siege works.
Beresford, with his British and Portuguese troops and a small contingent of Spanish troops, was in position at Albuera by 15th May 1811, awaiting the arrival of Blake’s army. The Spanish marched up from Almendrad, arriving during the night.
The village of Albuera lay where the Seville to Badajoz road crossed the Albuera River, before ascending the ridge. Beresford placed his army on the ridge, expecting to receive a frontal assault across the river and through the village.
Beresford placed the Portuguese Division on the left, the British 2nd Division immediately above Albuera, supported by the 4th Division, and the Spanish army on the right. Albuera itself was held by Alten’s brigade of the King’s German Legion.
Soult, an able and versatile strategist, did not comply with Beresford’s expectations.
The British and Portuguese cavalry were forced back across the Albuera River by the overwhelming strength of the French cavalry, enabling Soult’s troops to form up unseen.
Across the Albuera River from the high ground held by the Spanish on the right flank was a substantial hill. Soult assembled most his army behind that hill.
On the morning of 16th May 1811, General Godinot’s brigade marched up the road and attacked Albuera village as a diversion. Soult’s main force and his considerable preponderance of cavalry moved over the hill and across the Albuera River to take the Spanish in the flank.
Beresford sent staff officers to Blake with directions to pull back his right wing to counter the French outflanking movement. Blake refused to comply, until Marshal Beresford arrived in person and ordered the manoeuvre to be carried out.
The Spanish troops were too slow in changing position and were caught in flank by the overwhelming French attack. That is other than General Zayas, who had acted on his own initiative and already taken up a position facing the French. His brigade alone resisted the onslaught, the remainder of the Spanish force being driven back.
Beresford brought up Stewart’s 2nd Division to support the Spanish on their right. The leading brigade, Colborne’s, climbed the hill and went into action as each battalion reached the crest, only to be caught undeployed by the French light cavalry.
Three battalions of Colborne’s brigade, 1st/3rd Foot (the Buffs), 2nd/48th Foot and 2nd/66th Foot were nearly annihilated. Many of the British were captured.
At this point in the battle, Soult failed to act to secure the victory by vigorous use of his overwhelming strength in cavalry.
Beresford was given the opportunity to reform his line.
The brigades of the 4th Division were brought to the right of the army, in place of the Spanish. Hoghton’s Brigade (29th Foot, 1st/48th Foot, 1st/57th Foot) with the surviving battalion from Coleborne’s, 2nd/31st Foot, formed along the ridge and held the French back under a storm of artillery fire and musketry. In a twenty-minute exchange of fire these battalions were reduced to a ruin, particularly the 2nd/57th Foot.
The Fusilier Brigade (1st/7th Royal Fusiliers, 2nd/7th Royal Fusiliers and 1st/23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers) ascended the ridge and attacked the French with the Portuguese battalions of the 4th Division, while Abercromby’s Brigade came up on the Spanish left.
Lumley’s Cavalry moved to the extreme right flank to block any French move against the British rear.
Soult realised that he had lost the opportunity to win the battle and abandoned his attack, withdrawing over the Albuera River.
Casualties at the Battle of Albuera:
The British suffered 4,200 casualties out of 6,000 men. The Spanish suffered 2,000 casualties and the Germans and Portuguese suffered 600 casualties.
The French suffered around 7,500 casualties.
British regimental casualties:
3rd Dragoon Guards: 1 officer and 18 soldiers killed and wounded
4th Dragoons: 2 officers and 20 soldiers killed and wounded
13th Light Dragoons: 1 soldier wounded
Royal Artillery: 1 officer and 13 soldiers killed and wounded
3rd Foot: 18 officers and 446 soldiers killed and wounded
7th Royal Fusiliers (2 battalions): 30 officers and 675 soldiers killed and wounded
23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers: 13 officers and 319 soldiers killed and wounded
27th Foot: 3 officers and 74 soldiers killed and wounded
28th Foot: 6 officers and 158 soldiers killed and wounded
29th Foot: 17 officers and 307 soldiers killed and wounded
31st Foot: 7 officers and 148 soldiers killed and wounded
34th Foot: 7 officers and 121 soldiers killed and wounded
39t Foot: 5 officers and 91 soldiers killed and wounded
40th Foot: 3 officers and 28 soldiers killed and wounded
48th Foot (2 battalions): 30 officers and 392 soldiers killed and wounded
57th Foot: 23 officers and 405 soldiers killed and wounded
60th Foot: 1 officer and 20 soldiers killed and wounded
66th Foot: 15 officers and 156 soldiers killed and wounded
97th Foot: 28 soldiers killed and wounded
Several regiments lost substantial numbers taken prisoner.
Follow-up to the Battle of Albuera:
Although considered a victory for the British, Portuguese and Spanish, the casualties to the British infantry were disastrous. Wellington is reported to have said ‘Another such battle will ruin us.’
Soult abandoned his attempt to relieve Badajoz and withdrew to Seville, taking his prisoners and captured British colours with him.
Beresford’s substantial casualties forced him to withdraw from the siege of Badajoz.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Albuera:
- Beresford, a general in the British Army, was given the job in 1808 of reforming the Portuguese Army with the Portuguese rank of marshal. Beresford was a strict disciplinarian and a man of great physical strength. During the Battle of Albuera, Beresford was attacked by a French lancer. Beresford disarmed the lancer and threw him from his horse.
- The Battle of Albuera is a rich mine of British regimental tradition. The conduct of the British infantry reinforced the view that they were near irresistible. The conduct of the Portuguese battalions, although largely inexperienced, was comparable to the British in the battle. However, it needs to be remembered that it was the Spanish battalions of General Zayas’ brigade that initially held the French attack and fought on through the battle, preventing the French from breaking through and receiving fire from both sides.
- Fortescue in his ‘History of the Army’ Volume VIII at page 213 stated: ‘Hence it was that the issue of the battle really turned partly upon the faulty tactics of the French generals, but mainly upon the valour of the British infantry…..Whence came the spirit which made that handful of English battalions – for not a single Scots or Irish battalion was present- content to die where they stood rather than give way one inch? Beyond all question it sprang from intense regimental pride and regimental feeling…’ Of course, the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers was present at the Battle of Albuera.
- Lieutenant Colonel Inglis of the 57th Foot was severely wounded during the resistance by Hoghton’s Brigade. Inglis lay on the ground, refusing to be moved to the rear, calling to his soldiers ‘Die Hard, 57th.’ The regiment acquired the nickname of ‘The Diehards’. The depot of the Middlesex Regiment, which the 57th became, was named Inglis Barracks.
- The Battle of Albuera is an important battle for the 3rd Old Buffs; from 1882 the East Kent Regiment. Lieutenant Latham was carrying the King’s Colour of 1st Buffs, when the regiment came under heavy attack by the Polish Lancers of the Imperial Guard. Ensign Walsh and the sergeants forming the Escort to the Colour became casualties. A lancer attacked Latham who fought him off, losing an arm in the combat. This incident is commemorated in a large piece of regimental silver.
- After the Battle of Albuera only two officers of the 2nd/28th Regiment remained at their duty, the rest being casualties in the battle. The scene at the officer’s mess that evening, when the two officers toasted the King, is portrayed in Fortunio Matania’s picture.
- During the British advance to attack Badajoz before the Battle of Albuera, the 13th Light Dragoons carried out an attack on a French force of cavalry, infantry and guns. During the attack, Corporal Logan of the 13th fought a single combat with Colonel Charmarin of the French 26th Dragoons and killed him, after dismounting two other officers of the 26th. In this action the 13th captured several French guns, but were forced to abandon them in the face of a counter-attack by French infantry in overwhelming numbers.
References for the Battle of Albuera:
History of the Peninsula War by Sir Charles Oman
History of the British Army by John Fortescue Volume 6
British Battles on Land and Sea by James Grant Volume 2
The Peninsular War: A Concise Military History by Michael Glover
The previous battle in the Peninsular War is the Battle of Fuentes de Oñoro
The next battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Usagre