Battle of Albuera 16 May 1811

There are quite a few interesting things about the Battle of Albuera (16 May 1811). Enough of interest that the battle has become the subject of my first Peninsular project. The battle was the bloodiest of the Peninsular War. It was a major battle but had modest sized forces involved. Wellington wasn’t there. The battle has French columns facing British (and Spanish) line – so is a good exemplar of what happens in that situation. As a result the core of the battle was a long gruelling musketry competition. It has perhaps the most famous example of cavalry charging, and destroying, unprepared infantry; infantry that in other circumstances were considered steady. And finally, the Allied forces included perhaps the best Spanish troops of the war – those trained by Zayas.

Recent books on Albuera

A few years back there was a burst of activity on the Battle of Albuera. Oliver and Partridge kicked off with their book “the Battle of Albuera – 1811: Glorious Field of Grief” in 2007. Then 2008 saw two more books: Dempsey with his “Albuera 1811: The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War” and Edwards with “Albuera: Wellington’s Fourth Peninsular Campaign, 1811”.

I’ve used all of these for this post but there is a priority order. In my opinion Demsey (2008) is the most detailed and considered. I disagree with him in some places but generally it is a very good book. Then comes Oliver and Partridge (2007) – not as detailed but pretty solid and backed by close familiarity with the ground. Edwards (2008) is last – the details on the battle are light, but the book compensates by covering other action in 1811 in some detail. I’ll only refer to a particular source when there is a conflict.

Wellington’s Fourth Peninsular Campaign, 1811

Albuera was fought within the context of Wellington’s 1811 campaign, his fourth campaign in the Peninsular. Wellington had two strategic aims

  1. Capture the frontier fortresses controlling the routes between Spain and Portugal (Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz)
  2. With the frontier secure, cut the link between Madrid and Paris

The major events of the year / campaign were:

  • 2 January: French take Tortosa. Marshal Soult, with an army based on V Corps, departed Seville and headed for Extremadura.
  • 4 January: Soult detached an infantry division (Div. Gen. Gazan) to deal with a force of 5,000 Spanish (Lt Gen. Balesteros).
  • 13-23 January: French siege of Olivenza; a large Spanish garrison could not compensate for a second rate fortress.
  • 25 January: A French infantry division (Div. Gen. Gazan), detached from V Corps, clashed inclusively with 5,000 Spanish (Lt Gen. Balesteros). Balesteros withdrew into Portugal.
  • 19 February: Battle of Gevora; French defeat Spanish
  • 5 March: Battle of Barrosa; Anglo-Portuguese defeat French
  • 5 March – 3 April: Wellington pursues Massena to Sabugal
  • 10 March: French take Badajoz
  • 21 March: French take Campo Mayor
  • 25 March: French abandon Campo Mayor
  • 26 March – 16 April: Villa Real, Olivenza and Los Santos
  • 3-5 May: Battle of Fuentes d’Oñoro, Anglo-Portuguese defeat French
  • 8-12 May: First Siege of Badajoz
  • 12 May: Beresford hears of Soult’s approach
  • 13 May: At 1300 hours Beresford abandons the siege of Badajoz. He moves his HQ to Valverde and meets the Spanish Generals Castaños and Blake.
  • 8-16 May: Contestants approach Albuera
  • 16 May: Battle of Albuera
  • 29 May – 5 June: Beresford returns to Badajoz
  • 6-9 June: Final assaults on Badajoz and siege abandoned
  • 25 September: Combat of El Boden

Charles Napier, in his accounts of the Peninsular War, draw a variety of maps. This one shows the strategic situation leading up to Albuera:

Napier Albuera Strategic Situation

Albuera Strategic Situation (Napier)

Battlefield

I’ve drawn up a map of the battlefield. Although I’ve got a variety of maps they are all in black and white and I find the contour lines – of which there are a lot – quite confusing. I kept wondering, where exactly is the ridge? Where did the Allies deploy, on or behind the ridge? To help answer those questions I’ve made my own map with the contours in different colours so I, and hopefully you, can get a better understanding of the relative heights.

Battle of Albuera Map by Steven Thomas

Battle of Albuera Map

Albuera was a great place to concentrate forces, being the nexus for a variety of roads, but it was not a strong defensive position. Superficially the ridge line to the west of the villages looks a good spot for British style defensive deployment. It would give a height advantage against a French approach from the east. The ridge was high enough to allow the Allies to use a reverse slope deployment Wellington was fond of. And finally the ridge had a track running along the reverse slope to facilitate the defender’s troop movement. However there were also limitations the ridge as a defensive position. The ridge was:

  • 8 km long – too long to be defended by Beresford’s small army so he was going to have an exposed right flank at some point.
  • rising gradually to the south, so any defensive position facing the village would have higher ground to it’s right.
  • barely discernible, being undulating terrain bare of cover, and hence good cavalry country – and the French were superior in cavalry.

Some authors refer to a a series of “heights” on the ridge. The Northern knoll and Southern Knolls are examples but the were merely high points, relative to the surrounding terrain, and not “heights” as such.

Both the Northern Knoll and the Southern Knoll were on short east-west ridges bisecting the main north-south ridge line. The main action of the battle was fought out in the flattish dip between these two east-west ridges. The southern ridge was about 800m long. The dip between the ridges was about 550 m north-south and 1 km wide. The northern rise is sometimes called the “Fatal Hill”

The village itself is near the confluence of the River Albuera and two tributary streams (Nogales Brook, Chicapierna Brook). At the start of 1811, the village had about 150 “indifferent” houses but, due to French depredations, at the start of the battle the houses were in ruins and there was only a single inhabitant. It had two bridges and two fords. The ‘Old’ bridge was to the north of the village and was narrow. The ‘New’ bridge was to the south and wide. The two fords were between the ‘New’ bridge and the confluence of the tributary streams.

There were four water courses on the battlefield. On paper none of these water courses should have been a serious obstacle to troops however the emphasis on fords and bridges suggests the reality was different. The River Albuera was formed from two streams – the Nogales Brook and Chicapierna Brook. The banks of the River Albuera were steep and uneven. Although it carried little water at the time of the battle it posed an obstacle to cavalry and artillery. The Nogales and Chicapierna Brooks contained a mere trickle of water – a French source said no more than a foot of water. The Nogales Brook was narrow and shallow. The Chicapierna Brook was also narrow but General Long described it as “an almost impassable ravine”. Both were fringed by thin belt of cork trees and brush. A third stream, the Arroyo Valdesevillas, was to the west of the ridge. It was narrow with low banks, was fringed with brush, was was dry except in the wettest weather, and had a solid bottom. Sources differ on how much of an obstacle the Arroyo Valdesevillas was to horse and foot, but on the day the cavalry of both sides treated it as an obstacle.

The hill sides on the northern and eastern parts of the map were moderately wooded. The wedge of hills between the Nogales and Chicapierna was also wooded. My map follows Dempsey (2008) with modest woods and an area of open land. However, Oliver and Partridge (2007) suggest the entire wedge was covered by trees

Some of the Allied forces were still arriving from Badajoz, to the north-west. The French approached from the south-east. Large wooded hills obscured the French advance and subsequent flank march towards the Allied right.

Order of Battle

I’ve already got quite a lot of material on the historical orders of battle for Albuera, including Spanish Units, so I won’t reproduce it here. The overview is:

  • Anglo-Portuguese: Total British Troops 529 officers, 9,920 men; Total Portuguese 10,201 officers and men. Organised into three infantry divisions, two independent infantry brigades and two cavalry brigades.
  • Spanish: Three infantry divisions, one independent infantry brigade ad two cavalry brigades.
  • French: V Corps had about 19,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 1,200 artillerymen and over 40 guns, organised into three divisions (two infantry, one cavalry) and two independent brigades

For more details see:

Timeline of the Battle of Albuera

I’ve started the timeline on the morning of 15 May, when the armies were on their final approach to the battlefield.

Wednesday 15 May 1811, morning

Dawn of 15 May 1811 found the most of the French at Santa Marta, about 19 km from Albuera. Werle’s Brigade were further back at Villalba.

General Long’s Anglo-Portuguese cavalry were hovering near Santa Marta, ahead of French on the Royal Road. Throughout the day the French pushed the Long’s men back along the road towards Albuera.

General Blake’s Spanish 4th Army hung on Soult’s flank but was extremely dispersed. Blake, with his HQ, was at Almendral (about 13 km from Albuera). His infantry were at Salvaterra (about 34 km from Almendral), Salvaleon and Barcarrota. Blake’s cavalry were near the French positions at Santa Marta (about 19 km from Almendral). Blake ordered his forces to concentrate at Almendral however given the distances involved this took a considerable amount of time. Blake had promised Beresford that he would be in position at Albuera at 1200 hours on the 15th, but was going to be very, very late.

Meanwhile the French pushed a reconnaissance force from Santa Marta towards Almendral. Two Spanish units – the horse grenadiers and 1o Volunarios de Cataluña – drove the French off.

Most of the Anglo-Portuguese infantry started the day at Valverde and spent the morning marching to Albuera.

An Allied force – British 4th Division (Coles) and the small Spanish division (Carlos de España) from General Castaños’s 5th Army – were maintaining the blockade of Baddajoz. At noon on the 15th Coles received orders to get reading to march overnight.

Beresford was hoping to be reinforced by a brigade of Portuguese Cavalry (3rd, 5th and 8th Regiments) under General Madden. Madden has been at Solana on the 14th and moved to Talavera la Real to monitor activity in the direction of Merida. However Madden heard a rumour that Beresford had withdrawn over the Guardiana and he made tracks to follow – without checking whether the rumour was true. That meant when new orders arrived at Talavera on 15 May Madden was no where to be found. He missed the battle, leaving Beresford a brigade short, and didn’t surface until 18 May safely on the Portuguese side of the Guardiana.

15 May, afternoon

In the early afternoon the first Anglo-Portuguese infantry formations arrived and were deployed on the ridge in expectation of a French attack up the Royal Road.

  • Hamilton’s Portuguese Division was to the north of the Badajoz road
  • Collin’s independent Portuguese brigade deployed behind Hamilton
  • Alten’s independent brigade, of the Kings German Legion, occupied the village and the area to the east of it, up to the river
  • Stewart’s British Division deployed about 1.2 km west of the village, south of Hamilton, between the Badajoz road and the main road to Valverde

The Anglo-Portuguese cavalry then arrived at the River Albuera from the east, skirmishing in front of the French. Long’s cavalry crossed the River Albuera, and took up positions to the south of the Anglo-Portuguese infantry. In doing so they abandoned the entire eastern bank to the French cavalry. The position Long’s men occupied was the intended location where the Spanish were to form up when they arrived. Long was merely holding the area in readiness.

15 May, evening

Soult joined his cavalry pickets on the River Albuera to survey the enemy position. Several things would have been obvious:

  • Although the majority of the Anglo-Portuguese infantry were on the reverse slope of the ridge and hence out of sight, the flanking cavalry were visible and so Soult would have been able to estimate the size of the Allied force
  • The Spanish were clearly not present; in fact Soult received reports that the Spanish would not arrive until the 17th
  • The ridge rose to the south of the Allied position

Soult had four choices:

  1. Attack
  2. Withdraw
  3. Manoeuvre around the Allies
  4. Wait and see what Beresford did

Based on what he had observed and a general confidence in his men, Soult chose to attack. He wanted to attack the Anglo-Portuguese on the 16th, before their Spanish allies joined them on the 17th.

2300 hours, Wednesday 15 May 1811

Late at night the Spanish began to arrive from Almendral. In the dark they deployed in the wrong positions, to the south of the Anglo-Portuguese but on the forward part of the ridge rather than on the reverse slope as Beresford intended.

0000 hours, Thursday 16 May 1811

At midnight Soult still only had six light cavalry regiments facing the Allied army. He ordered the remainder of his army to march through the night.

0100 hours

The Allied pickets brought in a French deserter who reported that Soult would attack at 0800 hours.

0200 hours

At 0200 hours on 16 May, following Beresfords written orders, Coles led the two divisions (4th, España) out of the works at Badajoz towards Albuera. Within his division Coles had the light infantry companies of Kemmis’s brigade but the remainder of the brigade was trapped on the far side of the rising Guadiana and would not make it to the battle. Coles had 25 km to march to Albuera. Unfortunately Coles’s men took a wrong turn in the night and lost a couple of hours rectifying the problem.

0300 hours

Beresford was already in the saddle at 0300 hours as the last of the Spanish arrived on the field. Beresford joined the Spanish in an attempt to get them deployed correctly.

About 0320 hours

Briche’s Light Cavalry Brigade demonstrated in front of the Allied lines, but then retired into the woods.

0420 hours

Sunrise was at 0420 hours. The light gave Beresford an opportunity to deploy the Spanish as he’d originally intended. However their “total want of all system of movement, and consequent unwieldiness” mean this took several hours.

0700 hours

Beresford finally got the Spanish into their intended positions. They deployed on the reverse slope of the ridge with their left flank on the Valverde road. Two infantry divisions – Ballesteros and Lardizabal – formed the front line. Zayas’s division deployed 180 metres behind. With one exception all of the subordinate regiments were in line; on the extreme southern flank the Cazadores Reunidos of Lardizabal’s vanguard were deployed in column. The Spanish cavalry – under Count Penne-Villemur (5th Army) and General Loy (4th Army) – deployed to the south of their compatriots. The Spanish were aware that the unoccupied Northern Knoll dominated their position from the south.

Between 0700 hours and 0800 the Anglo-Portuguese cavalry were ordered to rest and forage. Long only partially complied. He retained the 3rd Dragoon Guards and 13th Light Dragoons in position.

At the same time Brigadier de España brought his men onto the battlefield and joined the Spanish under Zayas. Dempsey (2008) says de España joined the second Spanish line and extended Zayas’s line to both the left (two battalions) and right (one battalion). Oliver and Partridge (2007) say he was formed in front of Lardizabal on the crest of the ridge.

About 0800 hours

Soult ordered Latour-Maubourg (the French cavalry commander) to threaten the bridges over the River Albuera. Latour-Maubourg sent Briche’s light cavalry brigade (reduced to just the 21st and 27th Chasseurs a Cheval), two detached cavalry regiments (Lancers of the Vistula Legion, 4th Dragoons) and a battery of horse artillery (probably 4th company of 6th Regiment). Note: Latour-Maubourg had stripped Briche of two hussar regiments (2nd, 10th). The horse artillery set up about 550 metres from the New Bridge and opened fire on the troops defending the bridge and village. Brigade Briche veered off to the north to face the Otway’s Portuguese Dragoons across the Old Bridge. The Vistula Legion Lancers and 4th French Dragoons came up the Royal road and then veered to the left towards the ford south of the New Bridge.

The lead men of Coles’s 4th Division arrived on the battlefield about 0800 hours. According to one source they were 1 mile (1.6 km) from the nearest British when the fighting started. The division was directed to form up behind the other British in the centre.

Soult wanted the Allies to believe the main thrust was coming up the Royal road so sent all of his remaining cavalry (2nd and 10th Hussars; 14th, 17th, 20th, 26th and 27th Dragoons; 4th Regiment of Spanish Mounted Chasseurs) and two brigades of infantry (Godinot, Werle) after the initial cavalry force. The Allies responded by abandoning their reversed slope position and moving onto the crest of the ridge, into full sight of the French. At this point Soult probably realised that Blake had joined Beresford.

Latour-Maubourg initially sent four platoons of the Vistula Legion Lancers (about 100 men) across the ford near the New Bridge. The 4th Dragoons were to their rear. Half the Poles skirmished towards the nearest British infantry but were intercepted by the 3rd Dragoon Guards.

The remainder of the French cavalry crossed the ford near the confluence of the Nogales Brook with the Chicapierna Brook. They formed up between the two fords and the 4th Dragoons joined them. 10 guns with the French horse deployed in front of the cavalry and opened fire on the troops on the ridge. The Allied artillery returned fire. Despite this the French cavalry remained in place for over two hours to both pin the Allies and to give the French infantry time to arrive.

The outnumbered skirmishers of the Vistula Legion Lancers continued their running fight with the 3rd Dragoon Guards during that whole time. The Guards only managed to drive the Poles permanently back across the river when the rest of the French cavalry headed south, towards the Allied right flank.

Godinot committed his infantry while the cavalry skirmish was still playing out. A close column of French infantry stormed the New Bridge several times but was driven back by accurate fire from the KGL light battalions in and around the village. Eventually the column crossed the river – partly by the bridge and partly by fording.

Beresford responded by reinforcing the Germans. Two Allied brigades closed in on the village to support the Legionaries – Campbell’s Portuguese from the north and Colborne’s British from the south. This brought Colborne’s brigade, at least, within effective range of the French artillery and they started taking casualties. However the Allied artillery up on the ridge (Dickson’s Portuguese, Hawker, Lefebure) where also within range of the French infantry at the New Bridge (about 700 metres) and village (about 640 metres). Beresford also committed two Spanish battalions of light infantry (Campo Mayor, Cazadore Reunidos) to extend the Allied skirmish line along the river bank to the south of the village.

[Dempsey (2008) refers to the Cazadores Reunidos as the “combined light companies (Cazadores Reunidos) of all the units in the division”. However, Oliver and Partridge (2007) specify that it was the Cazadores Reunidos del Rgto de Murcia, hence probably just a skirmish screen of the Murcia regiment. By implication other regiments retained their cazadores.]

About 0830 – 0900 hours

Shortly after Godinot’s men became engaged at the bridge the main French attack materialised at the ford across the Chicapierna Brook near the Almendral road. General Girard, interim commander of V Corps, led a flank attack via high ground between the two Ngales and Chicapierna Brooks, on the exposed southern flank of the Allied army. Exactly where the Spanish were stationed. Girard’s vanguard became visible to the troops on the battlefield as it crested the high ground and began to descend towards the Chicapierna.

Latour-Maubourg immediately sent two cavalry regiments rapidly along the Almendral road to protect the vanguard as it crossed the ford. These were the the 2nd Hussars and the Vistula Legion Lancers (but without the skirmishers already engaged with the British cavalry). The first infantry across the ford were the combined voltigeurs of the 34th and 40th Line Regiments. Latour-Maubourg then led the rest of his cavalry south at a gallop. Latour-Maubourg passed the ford then turned west to cross the ridge. The French cavalry ended facing the much smaller Allied cavalry force across the Arroyo de Valdesevilla. [Oliver and Partridge (2007) suggest the French cavalry moved through the woods east of the Chicapierna before crossing the stream. This doesn’t might have retained surprise but would not have been quick.]

Only then, with the crossing secure, did Girard lead his V Corps out of the trees and down the hill towards the ford. 1st Division crossed the stream and formed up on the Albuera-Almendral road. There they waited for 2nd Division to cross. It took nearly an hour for the infantry to assemble on the west bank of the stream and for Latour-Maubourg to redeploy his cavalry.

Beresford acted as soon as the French were spotted on the hill across the Chicapierna. First he ordered General Blake to reposition some of the Spaniards across the ridge to block the French advance from the south. He then recalled Colborne’s brigade and sent it and the rest of Stewart’s 2nd Division towards the right. Hamilton’s brigade was the fill gap left by 2nd Division. 4th Division was ordered to deploy west of the ridge. The bulk of the cavalry – all of the Spanish, the 3rd Dragoon Guards, half of the 4th Dragoons, and Lefebure’s horse artillery battery – were ordered to hold the line of the Arroyo de Valdesevilla.

About this time the British 3rd Dragoon Guards finally managed to drive the skirmishers of the Vistula Legion Lancers permanently back across the River Albuera.

General Lumley arrived on the battlefield about this time and Beresford ordered him to assume command of the Allied cavalry. Changing commands in the middle of a battle was risky, but Beresford had his reasons. He had a poor relationship with the incumbent, General Long. But more significantly Lumley outranked all the Allied commanders, whether British, Portuguese or Spanish – something that was not true for Long.

About 0930 hours

Up until this time Blake had been refusing to obey Beresford’s orders to redeploy some of his troops facing south. From the Spaniard’s perspective this was probably reasonable as it was still not clear where the French V Corps were intending to attack – north along the road towards Albuera or west and then north up the ridge. So Blake refused Beresford’s initial order and again refused when Hardinge reiterated the order. Beresford then moved to the right to remonstrate directly with Blake – although he never found him.

Girard had been waiting for the infantry of V Corps to form up across the Chicapierna Brooke and for Latour-Maubourg to take up position near the Arroyo de Valdesevilla. With those preconditions satisified Girard gave the order for V Corps to advance. The French infantry moved slightly south and then west onto the ridge.

With V Corps intentions clear Beresford gained the complete cooperation from the three Spanish infantry generals – Lardizabal, Ballasteros and Zayas. The majority of the Spanish infantry – all of Lardizabal and Zaya’s divisions and the right brigade of Balasteros’s division – swung south to face the French.

Spanish Order of Battle across the Northern Knoll
West to East

  • Mourgeon Brigade of Zayas’s 4th Division
    • Voluntarios de Navarra Col, 1
    • Irlanda
    • 2o Reales Guardias Españoles Peak
    • Miranda’s battery with 6 x 4lb guns
    • 4o Reales Guardias Españoles
    • Sapper Company
  • Cansinos Brigade of Lardizabal’s Vanguard Division
    • Murcia LIR
    • Fijo Milicia Provincial de Canarias
  • Gouvea-Asensio Brigade of Ballasteros’s 3rd Division
    • Front line
      • 2nd Cazadores de Barbastro LtIR
      • 1st Bn Provisional Companies of Catalonia
    • 2nd line
      • 2o de Leon Col, 2
      • Pravia LtIR Col

Notes:
(Col) In column as opposed to line
(Peak) Deployed on the peak of the Northern Knoll
(Rear) Deployed to the rear of the forward units of the brigade
(1) Oliver & Partridge (1999) say the “Voluntarios de la Patria” but Dempsey (2008) says “Voluntarios de Navarra”
(2) Dempsey (2008) says 2nd Leon was one of Ballasteros’s battalions in the line facing the French but in the Spanish Order of Battle he lists them as part of Lardizabal’s division.

Zayas sent the light companies of the two Guards battalions and of the Irlanda regiment to content the Southern Knoll. They drove the French voltiguers off the Southern Knoll at bayonet point.

Dempsey (2008) completely, and convincingly, dispels the myth started by Oman in 1909 that the French attacked in Mixed Order. A myth religiously followed by subsequent English authors to this day. As Dempsey points out, all French sources, including the source Oman cites for Mixed Order at Albuera, say the battalions of V Corps attacked in column.

Once V Corps reached the crest of the ridge they turned north towards the Spanish. 1st Division marched in attack column. 2nd Division was 150 paces behind and in attack column by battalions. The regiments within each division probably attacked adjacent to each other with the two battalions of each regiment one behind the other. Whether individual battalions formed column by division (2 companies wide and 3 deep) or column by platoon (1 company wide and 4 or 5 deep) depended on whether the elite companies were present or absent; given the light companies were detached to skirmish that suggests column by platoon. The French were also in close columns, i.e. the distance between battalions was minimised; they would have looked like a solid mass.

The French advance was dramatically delayed by a 15 minute cloudburst, with driving wind, rain and hail. The French infantry turned their backs to the wind and waited for the weather to settle.

Meanwhile General Stewart had been redeploying his 2nd Division to support the Spanish. He recalled Colborne’s Brigade as he wanted Colborne to lead the redeployment. He then formed all three brigades into open company columns – one company wide with long intervals – and they marched at the double along the track on the reverse slope of the ridge. This position, however, did not protect them from the French artillery on the Southern Knoll. The French pounded the marching columns with round shot as soon as they came within range. Aside from the French guns the British advance had to deal with the inclement weather.

About 1000 hours

Once V Corps was rolling again Brayer’s brigade drove the Spanish lights off the Southern Knoll. Girard, assessing the Allied redeployment in front of him, decided to attack immediately with his regiments still in close column. Effectively Girard had decided to rely on solidity and momentum of his infantry rather than their firepower. The French columns would not deploy into line. It would take 5 minutes for the French columns to cross the dip between the Southern and Northern Knolls – the question was, how would the Spanish react to the mass advancing rapidly on them.

The Spaniards of Zayas, Ballesteros and Lardizabal held firm and delivered a intense fusillade at short range. The 2nd and 4th Spanish Guards were directly in front of the French columns. Irlanda was on the Spanish right and advanced to fire into the French mass. Similarly, units from the divisions of Ballesteros and Lardizbal moved forward to attack the French flank. The Spanish infantry were aided by the battery deployed in the middle of their line (Miranda’s battery), although there was a brief pause when an ammunition caisson blew up.

Under the Spanish musketry the French columns lost their momentum and would never regained it. The men attempted to deploy into line but were incapable of doing so whilst under steady fire. [Dempsey (2008) says Girard ordered the columns into line, thus sacrificing the moment, but I suspect it was not an order but natural reaction of the men in the ranks.] Incapable of advancing the French infantry resorted to their muskets and returned fire upon the Spanish. However, despite their advantage in numbers, their formation restricted the numbers that could fire.

Within minutes the Spanish inflicted 400 casualties on Brayer Brigade, in the lead of V Corps. Many officers were killed or wounded including General Girard and General Brayer (wounded), and the two commandants (majors) of the 40th Line (killed). General Gazan, Soult’s Chief of Staff, rode into the carnage to help but was also wounded and retired.

The second French brigade, under General Veilande, then advanced to help the beleaguered Brigade Brayer. The fresh columns advanced into the gaps between Brayer’s regimental columns. This didn’t break the stalemate as Veilande’s columns also lost their momentum . It did give the French more firepower, however, the firefight was still unequal as only the first two ranks of the French columns could shoot. The Veilande’s officers and men began to suffer under the Spanish fusillade. As a result Veilande’s men tried to deploy from column into line but had as little success as Brayer’s; probably unsurprising given their situation was even more crowded as they were in the gaps of the earlier formations.

The lead unit of Stewart’s 2nd Division arrived on the right flank about the time the French were driving the Spanish skirmishers off the Southern Knoll. Stewart saw that the French left flank was exposed and ordered Colbourne to march on south past the Spanish on the Northern Knoll. 2nd division ended up with Colbourne on the southern flank, then Hoghton to his north and finally Ambercrombie. Hoghton and Ambercrombie deployed behind the Spanish. All of the brigades formed into line facing the French.

British 2nd Division (Stewart)
from south to north

  • Colbourne’s Brigade (Colbourne)
    • 1/3rd “Buffs” Foot
    • 2/48th “Northamptonshire” Foot
    • 2/66th “Grenadiers” or “Berkshire” Foot1
    • 2/31st Foot
  • Hoghton’s Brigade (Hoghton)
    • 1/29th Foot
    • 1/57th Foot
    • 1/48th Foot
  • Ambercrombie’s Brigade (Ambercrombie)
    • 2/28th Foot
    • 2/39th Foot
    • 2/34th

Notes:
(1) Dempsey says “Berkshire” but the battalion is also referred to as the “Grenadiers”.

Stewart arranged the deployment himself and, for example, overruled the wishes of Colbourne who was leading the the brigade on the exposed right flank. Colbourne wished to used a mixed formation to counter the threat from the nearby French cavalry. Stewart took a calculated risk and ordered the battalions into line to maximise his firepower. Stewart also ordered the battalions to form with the Grenadier companies on the left; this was the reverse of the normal formation, was not practiced by the line battalions, and left them ‘clubbed’. This order was probably as a result of Stewart’s prior command of the Rifle who did practice this formation.

Colboure had insufficient room to deploy all four battalions in line so his first three went into action before the 2/31st Foot could deploy. The lead battalions fired into the flank of the French stalled in the dip between the two knolls. The French found themselves in a crossfire with the Spanish to their front and the British to their left flank, none-the-less they managed to turn some men to their flank to return fire up the hill at the British. The firefight was at extremely short range, perhaps 5 to 10 metres. The target of Colbourne’s attentions were the left hand units of V Corps, so probably the battalions of the 40th, 88th and 100th Line Regiments. After a couple of volleys, Stewart ordered the three engaged battalions of Colbourne’s Brigade to charge. Although the opposing French gave way it, unusually, took bayonet work to complete the work. Despite their success the British were suffering heavy casualties, from the French musketry and the artillery Southern Knoll. Although the French units had given way at the British charge they returned to the fray. The French column at the junction of the 66th and 31st foot attempted to exploit the gap and enter the rear of Colbourne’s brigade. Despite their losses the Colbourne’s brigade regrouped and charged again.

About 1030 hours

Colbourne’s position on the ridge exposed the flank and rear of his brigade to the cavalry of Latour-Maubourg. The Frenchman saw his opportunity and ordered three regiments of light cavalry to attack – the Lancers of the Vistula Legion in the lead, with the 2nd Hussars behind and with the 10th Hussars as reserve. Latour-Maubourg personal escort also participated in the charge; the escort was composed of dragoons from the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 9th, 14th and 26th regiments. Given the frequency with which dragoons are mentioned in the accounts other dragoon units, probably two regiments, followed.

The right flank of the 1/3rd Buffs saw the lancers coming but, assuming they were Spanish, held their fire. The Poles crashed into the Buffs and annihilated them; of 755 officers and men only 85 were unwounded by the end of the day. The cavalry were now in the rear of Colbourne’s brigade and crashed into the 2/48th Northamptonshire battalion and destroyed them; the battalion mustered only 31 officers and men at the end of the day – they also lost both their colours. The 2/66th Berkshire were the next to meet their fate. This battalion had already been thinned by in the firefight with the French infantry, and had lost their officers. When the men saw the lancers coming over the bodies of their compatriots they broke and fled. The 66th lost both colours.

General Stewart and Colonel Colbourne, along with their respective staffs, were near the 2/66th. They fled in the face of the marauding French cavalry. Two divisions (3 cannon and a howitzer) of the Kings German Legion artillery were between the 2/66th and the 2/31st foot. The charging Polish lancers destroyed the division nearest to them. One gun from the other division managed to limber up and ride away. The other three guns were captured and the French 2nd Hussars removed the howitzer. The other guns were subsequently recaptured.

General Lumley, in charge of the Allied cavalry, ordered a small force to support the infantry with an attack on Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry. The force consisted of two Spanish squadrons and two squadrons of the the British 4th Dragoons (of the right division). The Spanish refused to charge home but the British went in. The 4th Dragoons drove back a French hussar regiment but were then taken in flank by some French dragoons and driven off. They lost the majority of the horses and men committed to the attack.

Although a small scale affair the charge of the 4th Dragoons distracted the French enough to allow a number of British infantry to escape capture and rejoin their compatriots.

The last of Colbourne’s brigade was the 2/31st Foot. Being unable to deploy earlier they were still in column formation and easy turned this into a square – known to prosperity as the “Albuera Square”. The French cavalry bounced off the square and sought easier prey.

Although the French charge was dissipating by this stage, 30-40 Polish lancers rode on, into the gap between the Spanish infantry and the line of British infantry behind them. The British infantry opened fire, at the lancers, but effectively into the backs of their Spanish allies. The rear rank of the Spaniards also turned to fire down the hill at the Poles. However allied officers stopped the firing before serious friendly fire was incurred.

These same Polish lancers then engaged General Beresford for some allied – British, Portuguese and Spanish – staff officers in melee. The officers fought back and dispersed the lancers. With that the great cavalry charge of Albuera was over.

Apparently there was a pause in the combat as both sides took stock. The firefight between Girard’s first division and Zayas’s men had ceased. Both Beresford and Girard ordered a “passage of lines” to bring fresh troops to the front.

Beresford’s “passage of lines” was to enable his British infantry to replace the hard pressed Spanish facing V Corps. Zayas’s men filed to the rear to allow Hoghton’s and Ambercrombie’s brigades to move forward. The Northern Knoll was briefly empty of allied troops and French skirmishers filled the gap and started firing into the British line. The French skirmishers retired in the face of the advancing British infantry, who declined to return fire.

Girard’s “passage of lines” was to enable 2nd Division – now under Maransin, because General Pépin was wounded – to replace the disorganised 1st Division. Maransin lead his two brigades through the disordered ranks of the division ahead. Maransin charged at the head of the carabiniers of the 28th light. The 2nd Division was still in attack columns.

The British infantry got to the crest of the Northern Knoll before the French and delivered a devastating fire. However, with the rapid loss of their commanding officers the British battalions did not charge, which was their normal practice, and a gruelling musketry duel ensued. The French were in a similar position. With rapidly mounting casualties the French lost their momentum and without officers to change the situation they found themselves in column in a firefight.

Hoghton’s Brigade was facing the French 2nd Division. The three battalions of the 28th Light Infantry Regiment, from Maransin’s brigade, led the French formation. The three battalions of the 103rd Line Regiment followed behind. The musket fire “from hell” stopped Maransin’s advance cold. The 2nd brigade with the 21st Light and 100th Line Regiments attacked next to Maransin’s brigade [Dempsey (2008) thinks to the left]. The British had the advantage of height, but it also made them targets of the French rear ranks and of the French artillery on the Southern Knoll firing over the heads of the infantry. The excruciatingly long firefight thinned out out both sides rapidly, but neither Hoghton’s brigade nor the French 2nd Division had the means to break the stalemate.

Personal interventions by Girard, Colonel Konopka of the Vistula Legion Lancers, who brought the captured flags of Colbourne’s brigade to inspire the infantry, and even Soult and his staff could not get the Frenchmen moving forward.

However, weight of numbers would eventually tell and Beresford knew he had to do something before Hoghton’s brigade was destroyed. Beresford had to choose between four groups of troops, that were nearby and might be able to help Hoghton:

  • Fresh Spanish battalions
  • Ambercrombie’s brigade of 2nd Division
  • Lumley’s Allied Cavalry
  • Coles’s 4th Division

Beresford opted for the Spanish and, unfortunately, chose a rather unusual approach. He rode to the nearby Spanish battalions (Rey and Zamora) himself and tried to persuade the battalion commanders to go to the aid of Hoghton. Not too surprisingly the Spanish officers refused. Four factors contributed to the Spaniard’s refusal:

  • Beresford was unknown to the Spaniards; they had marched in during darkness and probably didn’t know him by sight
  • Beresford didn’t know how to speak Spanish
  • Beresford had by-passed the Spanish chain-of-command, including Blake and the divisional commanders (Zayas, Ballesteros, and Z).
  • When remonstrating failed, Beresford man handled a Spanish colonel in an effort to get him to march his men

Abercrombie’s Brigade, also of the 2nd Division, was to Hoghton’s right. The brigade was engaged with the French but was better off than Hoghton’s. Where Hoghton was facing an entire division Ambercrombie was probably only facing the French Combined Grenadiers. Beresford never seems to have contemplated using Ambercrombie to rescue Hoghton.

The Allied cavalry was fully occupied with counteracting the French mounted arm. At this point in the battle the two sides were probably on a par, given some units were recovering from the earlier French charge and the Allied response. Both sides sought an opening but never found one. The cavalry conflict was not a bloodless affair. There were at least two clashes. The British horse artillery were also engaged; they caused some havoc amongst the French troopers and briefly lost a gun to the French. After the battle Beresford praised Lumley for his handling of the cavalry.

That just left Coles’s 4th Division however Beresford wanted to them supporting the Allied cavalry and protecting the Allied line of retreat to Valverde. So he rejected using Coles to support Hoghton.

With all the nearby options excluded Beresford decided to use the Portuguese from the left flank. Beresford wanted Hamilton to transfer a brigade along the reverse slope of the ridge to attack the French left flank. Hamilton had previously moved his division to be closer to Albuera to support the KGL. The fighting around the village had settled into a long range affair with skirmishers and artillery. Beresford sent Lt. Col. Arbuthnot to Hamilton with the new orders however the earlier movement of the Portuguese division meant this took some time.

With no Portuguese reinforcements in sight Beresford went looking for Hamilton on the left flank, effectively leaving the army without a commander at a critical moment. He also initiated a contingency plan in the event of a defeat on this right. He ordered Campbell’s Portuguese brigade on either side of Albuera village to support Alten’s brigade – 10th Portuguese Regiment to the north and 4th Portuguese Regiment to the south – as they pulled out of the village. Both forces were intended to cover the Valverde road in case of defeat.

About 12.30 hours

With Beresford out of the picture the man on the spot was Lt. Col. Henry Hardinge, Beresford’s Deputy Quartermaster-General in the Portuguese army. Hardinge believed that Hoghton’s brigade needed immediate support so rode to General Cole of the 4th Division to seek his aid. Cole was receptive and, when other staff offices agreed with Hardinge, decided to attack. Cole deployed his division conscious that the French cavalry were nearby. The seven battalions of the Fusilier brigade and Harvey’s Portuguese brigade deployed and attacked in echelon, with the Fusiliers leading. The 1st Loyal Lusitanian Legion was on the left of the Fusilier brigade. A column or square of light troops defended the right flank from the French cavalry. This was either the “Light Battalion” of the Fusilier brigade alone, which seems unlikely as the three companies would have formed a very small flank defence, but more probably also included the light troops from Kemmi’s brigade and the Brunswick-Oels. The Fusilier brigade either advanced in line or in contiguous columns of battalions at quarter distance and deployed into line when within musket range of the French.

Cole’s 4th Division during the attack
Left to Right

  • 1st Loyal Lusitanian Legion (1 bn)
  • Brigade of guns (Sympher)
  • Myers’s “Fusilier” Brigade (Myers) 1
    • 1/7th “Royal” Fusiliers
    • 2/7th “Royal” Fusiliers
    • 1/23rd “Welch” Fusiliers
  • 9th Portuguese Brigade / Harvey’s Brigade (Harvey) 1
    • 11th & 23rd LIRs (2 bns each; 4 bn total)
  • Light troops 1, 2
  • “Light Battalion” of the Fusilier Brigade i.e. 3 light companies
  • Light Troops detached from Kemmis’s Brigade (Kemmis)
    • 2/27th, 1/40th, 1/97th Foot (1 coy each; 3 coy total; about 1/3 of a battalion)
  • 1 coy Brunswick-Oels

Notes:
(1) The battalions of the Fusilier brigade formed in line. The light companies of the three Fusilier battalions were detached as a matter of course and combined as the “Light Battalion”. At Albuera this formation deployed on the right of the division. The light companies of Kemmi’s brigade may have supported the Fusilier brigade.
(2) The battalions of the Harvey’s Portuguese brigade formed in line. In combination with the Fusiliers that made seven battalions in line. We don’t know which regiment was on which side of the Portuguese brigade.
(3) The light troops on the right of the division were either in square or in column of quarter distance, a formation that could easily form square. There is some debate about whether the right hand formation contained all the light troops of the division, excluding the Lusitanian legion, or just the Fusilier Light Battalion. If only the Fusilier Light Battalion was on the right then the other troops, those from Kemmi’s brigade and the Brunswick-Oels company, were skirmishing in front of the Fusilier brigade. The Lusitanian Legion was on the left of the division.

The French artillery pounded the left portion of 4th Division, particularly the Loyal Lusitanian Legion who lost the majority of their 171 casualties during the advance.

Soult saw the 4th division advancing and took two counter-measures. He order Latour-Maubourg to attack again and also ordered his infantry reserve, Werlé’s brigade. Not surprisingly Latour-Maubourg got there first.

Latour-Maubourg committed the 4th and 20th Dragoons to the attack. They charged from the “plateau” south-west of the Southern Knoll. Their targets were the blue coated battalions of Harvey’s Portuguese Brigade. Coles had echeloned the untried Portuguese to the right rear of the Fusilier brigade for just this eventuality. Although the first battle for the Portuguese they acquitted themselves very well. The foot met the cavalry in line which enabled them to deliver effective fire against the charging French. This plus fire from the support artillery [presumably Sympher] drove off the enemy dragoons for modest losses.

Meanwhile General Werle got his men into position to defend the ridge south of the Southern Knoll. Werle’s formation was disrupted by the disordered mass of V Corps and also the large numbers of British prisoners being escorted to the rear (the men broke ranks to loot the prisoners). Werle advanced down the slope as Coles advanced up. The French artillery on the Southern Knoll also pounded the 4th Division. In stereotypical fashion the battalions of Werle’s brigade were in column when collided with Coles’s battalions, which were in line. The French brigade advanced in three parallel columns although it is not clear if these were regimental columns or battalion columns with the regiments one behind the other. Given the formations adopted in other parts of the field I believe it more likely they were regimental columns. At 20 paces the two sides opened fire. The entire Fusilier brigade fired, all 1,900 British muskets, however because of their column formation only 600 of the 3,600 Frenchmen could return fire. This time, however, the firefight did not degenerate into a stalemate. The French faltered at the withering British volley and attempted to deploy into line, but failed. The Fusiliers fired, charged, and continued their advance up the hill.

As the Harvey’s brigade came up on the right of the Fusilier brigade Soult realised he had to do something more. Soult he sent the Vistula Legion Lancers into the right of the Fusiliers and the Portuguese brigade. Short range fire by the Allied infantry saw off the Poles.

It was then the turn of Werle’s brigade, finally put to flight when the Loyal Lusitanian Legion attacked them from their right. Werle’s defeat finally ended the blood match between Hoghton’s brigade and Maransin’s division of V Corps – the French broke.

About 1300 hours

At the encouragement of Lt. Col. Henry Hardinge, Ambercrombie advanced his brigade. The 34th Foot brushed aside the French Combined Grenadiers, which enabled the brigade to threaten the right flank of the survivors of V Corps in the dip between the knolls. Further advance as prevented by the French 2nd and 10th Hussars, which Soult had moved earlier to cover the gap between his two main infantry formations [presumably V Corps and Werle’s brigade].

With the tide turned the Spanish advanced to the attack. Ballesteros was notable during this time. The Walloon Guards had the dubious privilege of receiving a direct order from Beresford to advance.

The French infantry fled for the ford over the Chicaierna. The French rear guard comprised the 12 guns of the reserve artillery, 17 guns of the divisional artillery of V Corps, 1/12th Light Infantry Battalion, and some Voltiguers, with distant support of Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry. The massed guns halted the Allied pursuit enabling the French infantry to reform and cross the stream. The artillery then followed perhaps at night fall.

On the other flank Alten had withdrawn his men from the village but then retook it from the French 16th Light Infantry at bayonet point when his orders were countermanded. With the battle lost elsewhere Soult ordered the 16th to retire to the other bank of the river. The 16th still had a picket on the bridge at 1600 hours.

The Allies held the field but at enormous cost.

References

Dempsey, G. (2008). Albuera 1811: The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War. Frontline Books.

Edwards, P. (2008). Albuera: Wellington’s Fourth Peninsular Campaign, 1811. The Cromwell Press.

Oliver, M. and Partridge, R. (2007). the Battle of Albuera – 1811: Glorious Field of Grief. Pen & Sword Military.

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