On the 16th of May 1811, Soult engaged Marshal Beresford's Allied Spanish Army at Albuera, in an attempt to relieve the French garrison of the border fortress of Badajoz. The action was one of utter butchery, only the steadfast conduct of the British infantry saving the day for the Allies.

P. J. Hawthornthwaite - 'The Napoleonic Source Book'

Background:

Following the French invasion of Spain as part of Napoleon's plan of conquest in 1807, the Spanish had been largely defeated, and their British allies had been forced to retreat to, and evacuate from, Corunna by 1809 (despite never losing a major battle) under Sir John Moore. The British returned to the peninsular in the same year,however, and won a great victory at Talavera. Although then forced to retreat by a much larger French army, the British held at the Portuguese border, aided by the French determination to lay siege to Almeida and Badajoz in August 1810 which gave them more time. The construction of a massive line of fortifications at Torres Vedras enabled the British to hold the French, who began to starve as agricultural land had been largely destroyed, and re-"invade" Spain to liberate it in March 1811. At this time the guerrilla ("Little War") was being fought by the Spanish people, who so effectively tied up French troops - at one stage 400 men were needed to make sure one message got through, and sometimes even that wasn't enough to prevent the savage treatment the Spanish reserved for the hated Frenchmen. This "little war" resulted in atrocities being committed by both sides, as capture of French messengers by partisans inevitably resulted in reprisals against locals; as has occurred so often throughout history. When the British, led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, better known as the Duke of Wellington, re-entered Spain they defeated the French at the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro on the 5th of May 1811, whilst a force under the command of Field Marshal William Beresford began to lay siege to the fortress at Badajoz (the first of three sieges), 130 miles to the south, that same day. Word soon passed to Beresford of a French relief force led by Marshal Soult on its way to Badajoz from Seville. Beresford therefore marched south on May 13th 1811 to meet Soult's army, and arrived at the small town of Albuera on May 15th.

Forces:

Beresford commanded an Allied army of British, Portuguese and Spanish contingents, totalling 32,000 men. Only about 7,000 of these troops were British, in three divisions (one entirely cavalry), plus six batteries of guns and D Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery for artillery support. The Spanish, commanded by General Joachim Blake, had six divisions but only two batteries of artillery. In comparison, Soult had around twenty-five thousand men in four divisions (one of cavalry), and five batteries of artillery at his disposal. However, the Spanish troops in the Allied army were generally seen as not trustworthy and unreliable, due to their weakness during Wellington's victory at Talavera, and had since gained a reputation for running away in battle. The British infantry, in total contrast, was the best in the world at that time (ostensibly due to the fact that this was the only army that trained with live ammunition and so could fire at the fastest rate in battle), but were limited in number. The French tended to rely on the tried-and-tested method of sending huge columns of men forward to break enemy lines, although these were vulnerable to massed fire, with veterans such as the Imperial Guard in reserve to bolster morale and crush the enemy near the end of battle if necessary.

The Battle:

On the morning of May 16th, Beresford positioned his troops facing east along a series of gentle hills parallel to the Albuera river, north to south, with the town of Albuera in the centre of his line. The Spaniards held the right (south) flank, with the British to the north. Soult approached the area from the south-east and drew up his army facing west.

The French took an aggressive stance, initially attacking the town itself and then probing over the river with a brigade of 5,600 men, although neither attack was really forced with any conviction. The real danger to the allies lay on the right flank, as the area was heavily wooded and Soult had managed to ford the river with 19 battalions of infantry and a large number of cavalry without being seen. When these troops emerged from the woods in full view, Beresford immediately ordered Blake to turn south to face them, with a British division being sent in support. Blake , however, held that the main French attack would actually come from the east, and so ignored this order, placing just four battalions to block the French. Beresford, unaware of this, rode back towards the north. Soult then launched the biggest infantry attack of the entire Peninsular War, sending two full divisions (8,400 men) in column towards the flimsy Spanish position. If the Spanish could not stop it then Soult would be able to roll up the entire Allied line from the south and French victory was assured. It was not to be, as the Spanish soldiers, contrary to usual performance, held firm. Pouring a huge amount of lead into the French ranks, made possible due to the three-rank deep formation as opposed to the eighty-across column, they also succeeded in halting the first French division. The column formation prevented the French from bringing large numbers of muskets to bear, and the addition of fire from a brigade from the British Second Division on the left flank of the columns left the attack faltering. Unknown to them, however, this brigade of British troops was about to suffer one of the worst disasters of the war.

The move of the brigade to the flank had been made by Sir John Colborne, its commander. It had been an unauthorised decision, as Beresford had ordered the entire division behind the Spanish in support (in case they ran, although they showed no sign of doing so). The move was successful at first, as at 10.30 the British were slaughtering the French; but five minutes later they themselves lay dead or dying. A sudden thunderstorm had broken out at that moment, and sheets of rain swept across the battlefield. This rain immediately made the muskets of the infantry useless, soaking the gunpowder, and obscured vision down to a few meters. The British therefore failed to see two regiments of cavalry bearing down on them out of the storm. These cavalrymen were Polish lancers, armed with a weapon that made killing in those conditions very easy. Caught in line and with no time to form protective squares, the British soldiers were ridden down in a few short minutes. Scattering the battalions, the lancers killed or wounded one thousand three hundred out of one thousand six hundred men (an 80 per cent casualty rate), capturing five regimental colours in the process. Field Marshal Beresford was also caught up in the lancer's attack, having to defend himself from a lance and throw his attacker to the ground. Although six artillery pieces were also lost to the French, all but one were later recovered by the Allies.

It was then left to the remaining two brigades of the Second Division to bear the brunt of the attack, along with the depleted Spanish battalions. The French columns, now numbering 7,800, bore down on the 3,700 Allies and engaged them in a ferocious firefight. The two sides poured fire into each other from just yards away, with the British making full use of every man as they employed a two-rank formation, enveloping the heads of the French columns which were limited in firepower as before. Soult's artillery, however, was served accurately and helped balance the fight. This continued for over an hour, both sides bravely and stubbornly refusing to give way. The British divisions were beginning to thin substantially by midday as French numerical superiority began to show. A Spanish division refused to join the firing line at this point, as they could see the intensity from their position in reserve, and a crisis faced the allies as numbers dwindled.

The turning point was another unauthorised move by the British, this time by Major General Cole, commanding the Fourth Division of 4,000 British and Portuguese. This division advanced in a line almost a mile long, protected on the flanks by squares of infantry. Several cavalry charges were repulsed as they advanced towards the columns, eventually linking up with the remnants of the Second Division and wrapping around the flanks of the French. Another firefight ensued as the two sides traded volleys, and the superior British rate of fire took its toll on the columns as they finally began to waver. The commander of the British Third Division, Sir William Lumley, quickly spotted this and sent his fusiliers forward in a charge. This was obeyed with not a little relief, as it freed the men from the hell of the firefight. Hardly had the first steps been taken, however, when scores were cut down by a storm of French grapeshot. Recovering with grim tenacity, the remaining fusiliers continued to close with the columns. The Frenchmen could hardly believe that these men had survived such withering fire, and the columns gradually dissolved and fled as the British advanced. The French historian Napier describes this moment vividly:

The Fusilier battalions, struck by an 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 strength and majesty the British soldier fights. In vain did Soult with voice and gesture animate his Frenchmen; in vain did the hardiest veterans break from the crowded columns and sacrifice their lives to gain time for the mass to open up on such a fair field; in vain did the mass bear up, and fiercely striving, fire indiscriminately upon friend and foe, while horsemen hovering on the flank threatened the advancing line. Nothing could stop that astonishing infantry. No sudden burst of undisciplined valour, no nervous enthusiasm, weakened the stability of their order . . .In vain did the French reserves joining with the struggling multitude endeavour to sustain the fight; their efforts only increased the irremedial confusion, and the mighty mass giving way like a loosened cliff, went headlong down the ascent. The rain flowed after in streams discoloured with blood and fifteen hundred unwounded men, the remnants of 6,000 unconquerable British soldiers, stood triumphant on that fatal hill!

This brought an end to four hours of bloody fighting, and the battle was over.

Aftermath:

The battle of Albuera was ostensibly an Allied victory, although a costly one. One of the bloodiest battles of the war resulted in nearly 6,000 Allied casualties (dead or wounded), the French suffering around 7,000 themselves. The result largely came about due to the stubbornness of the British infantry when trading lead with the French, taking and then meting out punishment until the enemy could simply take no more. Soult himself observed in a letter to the Emperor: "the day was mine, yet they did not know it and would not run". Beresford received a fair bit of criticism, both for the awful butcher's bill and for the initial positioning of his army, although the Duke of Wellington later supported him and his decisions.

As a result of the battle, Soult failed in his objective of breaking the siege at Badajoz, just as Massena had failed to relieve the garrison at Fuentes d'Onoro. Wellington was therefore able to lay siege to the fortress in mid-1811, but this second attempt was also a failure. The town eventually fell nearly 12 months later. From there the British army remained in the peninsular, winning victory after victory under Wellesley's leadership (e.g. Vitoria), and forcing the French back towards their border. By 1st January 1814 Wellington was in a position to cross the Pyrenees and invade France, leading to the first downfall of Napoleon and the Peace of 1814. The Napoleonic Wars were not yet over, however, as Napoleon returned from the island of Elba the following year and was reinstated as ruler of France. Defeat at Waterloo, however, led to his imprisonment on St. Helena in the Atlantic and to the Treaty of Vienna which would shape much of the history of 19th century mainland Europe.


Related Quotes:

"I don't know what they do to the enemy, but they certainly frighten me".

- Wellington, on his British infantry.
"L'infanterie Anglaise en duel, c'est le diable."

- Marshal Soult to Napoleon.

References:

“The Battle of Albuera” - John Wilson Croker (1811).

“Fight or Flight” - Geoffrey Regan.