The Battle of Albuera 16 May 1811

From October 1810 Marshal Masséna’s Army of Portugal had been forced into an increasingly hopeless stand-off against Wellington’s Allied forces, behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. In early 1811 Marshal Soult led a French expedition from Andalusia into Extremadura in a bid to draw Allied forces away from the Lines and relieve Masséna. However, Masséna’s starving army was already withdrawing to Spain. Soult was able to capture the strategically important fortress at Badajoz on the border between Spain and Portugal. Leaving the city strongly garrisoned Soult returned to Andalusia. In April, Wellington sent a powerful Anglo-Portuguese corps commanded by Sir William Beresford to retake the border town.

Soult rapidly gathered another army in Andalusia and marched to relieve the siege. Unknown to Soult, a Spanish army under Gen. Blake had linked up with the Anglo-Portuguese corps, and his 24,000 troops now faced a combined Allied army 35,000 strong.

Beresford was alerted to the French advance by reports received on 12 May.  He kept up the pretence of besieging but he realized he would now not have time to finish the job, so he ordered the withdrawal of his siege guns and supplies.  On 13 May, the Spanish cavalry attached to Colborne’s brigade came into contact with the French force.  Beresford moved the British 2nd Division (including the 29th Foot with a strength of 507 Officers and men), Major General Hamilton’s Portuguese division and three artillery batteries from Badajoz to Valverde—an ideal position to observe the three routes open for Soult’s approach.  The Allied leaders consequently agreed to concentrate at Albuera, which was the location chosen by Wellington as best suited for an attempt to resist any French advance to relieve Badajoz.

By 15 May it was clear to Beresford that Soult was taking the central route to Badajoz, which ran through Santa Marta and the village of Albuera. He made further adjustments to his deployment, moving the 2nd Division and Hamilton’s Portuguese to defend the village, where they were joined by Alten’s King’s German Legion (KGL) brigade and a further Portuguese brigade composed of garrison and light troops temporarily formed for the campaign.   

On the afternoon of the 15th, the British Army took up its position on a ridge about 4 miles long, which ran parallel to the rivulet of Albuera and at about 600 yards distant from it.  On the right the heights were step.  To the front of the centre of the army lay the village of Albuera itself with a bridge over the river.

Alten’s KGL were placed in Albuera, while Hamilton’s division along with most of the Portuguese cavalry formed the Allied left wing to the north of the village and Major General William Stewart’s 2nd Division (including th 29th Foot) formed up on a hill just to the west of Albuera. The right wing of the Allied army was to be supplied by the four Spanish infantry divisions, while the Allied cavalry and artillery along with the 4th Division provided a strong strategic.

Beresford deployed his troops on the reverse slopes of such hills as could be found on the battlefield; unable to see the Allied army, Soult was still unaware that Blake’s Spanish divisions had come up during the night. Thus, on the morning of 16 May 1811, the Marshal proceeded with an attempt to turn the Allied right flank.  Soult’s first move was to launch a strong feint attack towards Albuera. He sent Godinot’s infantry brigade, flanked by  light cavalry and supported by artillery, across the bridge towards the village.

At the same time two brigades of dragoons and Werlé’s infantry brigade showed themselves on Godinot’s left, advancing out of an olive wood in front of Blake’s position to Alten’s right.  With a large concentration of French troops now menacing the village, the Allied commanders sent reinforcements to Alten’s aid.

While the Allies were bracing themselves for a frontal assault on their centre and right, Soult was preparing his real thrust. The two V Corps divisions of Generals Girard and Gazan, preceded by a cavalry brigade, swung left to begin the Marshal’s flanking move—their progress was concealed by intervening olive woods, and the first the Allies knew of them was when four French cavalry regiments burst from the southern end of the woods, crossed two brooks, and scattered Loy’s Spanish cavalry on the right of Beresford’s lines.

Beresford immediately issued new orders. He directed Blake to swing his forward line around to face the approaching French.  Lumley’s cavalry was sent to support Loy’s horse and hold Blake’s right flank, while Stewart’s 2nd Division was sent south from its location behind Albuera to take up a new position behind Blake in readiness to provide support if needed. Cole’s 4th Division was ordered to form up behind the cavalry, and Hamilton’s Portuguese moved to the Allied centre to hold Albuera and act as a reserve.

Blake however did not follow Beresford’s orders; he still believed that the French attack would come at his front. Keeping his forward line in position, he instead moved four battalions from Zayas’s division to form his new southern-facing front.  Zayas deployed these battalions, from the Spanish second line, in two groups. Two battalions of Spanish Guards were formed up, in line, at the top of a steep incline while the remaining two formed close columns behind them; a single battery of Spanish artillery supported the whole position.

Beresford, on hearing of Blake’s limited redeployment, rode back to personally supervise the operation. He merged Zayas’s second pair of battalions with the first pair, forming a front line four battalions strong. He then sent orders for Lardizabal to bring up three of his battalions to support Zayas’s right, and for Ballesteros to bring a further two in support of the left. However, these reinforcements did not arrive in time to meet the first French attack—Zayas’s four battalions had to face two entire French divisions alone.

While Beresford had been redeploying his army, two brigades of dragoons galloped from the French right-centre, passed behind V Corps, and joined Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry on the left. At the same time Werlé’s division closed up with the rear of V Corps, becoming the French reserve. Soult had concentrated his entire infantry strength, except for Godinot’s 3,500 men who were still engaged at Albuera, and most of his cavalry, into one front marching on Blake’s right flank.

Acquatint of the Battle of Albuera in the Museum Collection

The two divisions of the French V Corps advanced one behind the other against Zayas’s position. The first of these divisions, that of Girard, moved in ordre mixte—four battalions in column flanked on either side by a battalion in line, and further flanked by a battalion and a half in column—while Gazan’s division moved in battalion column.  Girard’s voltiguers engaged Zayas line and gradually thinned the Spanish front rank.  When Girard’s main column came within about 50 metres of the Spaniards, the skirmishers retired and the battalions behind them opened fire. The Spaniards held their ground, exchanging volleys with the French, and eventually repelled Girard’s first attack.

Despite their resistance Zayas’s men were being slowly forced back. However, they held long enough for Stewart’s 2nd Division to advance to their support.  Stewart brought John Colborne’s 1st Brigade up, followed by the Division’s two other brigades. The 3rd Regiment of Foot (the Buffs) took the lead, followed by the 48th and the 66th. Colborne’s brigade formed up on the French left, and supported by a battery of KGL cannon the British opened fire, forcing Girard’s two flanking battalions to face outwards in order to return fire.

The musketry duel that developed between Colborne’s brigade and Girard’s left flank was so intense that both sides faltered. The left of Colborne’s brigade, assailed by both musket fire and grapeshot from Girard’s supporting guns, tried to force the issue with a bayonet charge but were unsuccessful. On the right Colborne’s men continued to trade volleys with the French and, seeing their resolve wavering, also fixed bayonets and charged.

As the brigade moved forward a blinding hail- and rain-shower hit the battlefield, rendering both sides’ muskets useless. Under cover of the reduced visibility Latour-Maubourg launched two cavalry regiments at Colborne’s exposed right flank. Ploughing through the unprepared British infantry, they virtually annihilated Colborne’s first three regiments. Only the fourth, the 31st Regiment of Foot, was able to save itself by forming into squares.

Having captured five regimental flags and eight cannon the cavalry swept past the 31st’s square, scattering Beresford and his staff, and attacked the rear of Zayas’s line. Zayas met this assault unflinchingly while continuing to direct fire at Girard.  By this time the rainstorm had cleared and Lumley, commanding Beresford’s horse sent two squadrons of the 4th Dragoons to disperse the lancers. Closing on the action, the 29th Regiment of Foot (the lead regiment of Stewart’s second brigade) opened fire on the scattered Vistula lancers. 

The fighting on the Allied right now paused as both sides sought to regroup. Girard’s division had suffered considerably in its battle with Zayas, and Colborne’s actions had caused significant French casualties. Girard now regarded his division as a spent force and brought up Gazan’s 2nd Division to take its place. Advancing in column, Gazan’s battalions had to struggle through the remnants of Girard’s retiring units. As a result, many of the 1st Division’s survivors were swept up and incorporated into Gazan’s column, which grew by accretion into a dense mass of 8,000 men, losing much of its cohesion in the process.  The ensuing disruption and delay gave the Allies time to re-form their own lines. Beresford deployed Houghton’s brigade behind Zayas’s lines and Abercrombie’s to the rear of Ballesteros, then moved them forward to relieve the Spaniards

The French only deployed a skirmish line against Abercrombie’s brigade, so the weight of the renewed assault fell on Houghton. Despite being joined by the sole survivors of Colborne’s brigade (the 31st Foot), just 1,900 men stood in line to face the advancing corps.  Houghton’s three battalions (the 29th Regiment of Foot, 1/48th Regiment of Foot and 1/57th Regiment of Foot), suffered huge casualties, with 56 officers and 971 men killed or wounded from their complement of 95 officers and 1,556 men.  (Major Gregory Way commanding the 29th Foot was badly wounded.  Ensign Furnace only 17 years of age, who had, whilst carrying the colours received a severe wound, but declined to leave the field soon succumbed to another this time fatal wound.  The Regiment suffered the following casualties: killed: 1 Captain, 1 Lieutenant, 3 Ensigns 1 Serjeant, 76 Rank and File.   Wounded: 1 Lieut. Colonel, 1 Major, 3 Captains, 4 Lieutenants, 3 Ensigns, 1 Staff; 12 Serjeants, 220 Rank and File.  Missing 11 Rank and File.)

More than compensating for the firepower disadvantage of his infantry formation, Girard brought guns up to just 300 yards from Houghton’s line—close enough to enfilade it with a crossfire of grape and shot.

Under this assault Houghton’s brigade lost two-thirds of its strength. The Brigadier himself was killed, and as casualties rose its shrinking line could no longer cover the frontage of the attacking column. However, the French were in no condition to press home their numerical advantage; British volley fire had taken its toll and Girard lost 2,000 men during the confrontation. He had tried to form his unwieldy corps-sized column into line to bring his full firepower to bear and overwhelm Houghton’s brigade, but his deploying companies were constantly driven back into the column by the intense British musketry.

Although the French attacks were being held, the result of the battle was still far from certain. Soult had Werlé’s divisional-sized brigade in reserve, and most of Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry had not been engaged. However, the presence of Cole’s fresh 4th Division, still formed up in readiness behind Lumley’s squadrons, seems to have persuaded Soult not to use his strong force of horsemen.  The Marshal, having outmanoeuvred the Allies with his flank attack, went on the defensive: the cavalry were refused permission to charge, and Werlé remained in reserve.

On the Allied side Beresford was proving no more incisive. Anxious to reinforce Houghton and Abercrombie, he tried to bring up de España’s independent brigade, but they refused to move within range of the French.  Leaving Cole’s division in place Beresford instead called upon Hamilton’s Portuguese Division, but Hamilton had moved closer to Albuera to support Alten in fending off Godinot’s attack, and the orders took a long time to reach him. Hamilton’s brigades only started moving half an hour after the orders had been sent.] With his right under heavy pressure and casualties mounting, Beresford finally sent for Alten’s KGL, ordering 3,000 Spaniards to Albuera to relieve them and take over the defence there. Alten hastily regrouped and marched south to the Allies’ right wing, but Godinot took Albuera before the Spaniards could arrive, exposing another Allied flank to the French.

It was at this critical point that he decisive move of the battle was made by General Cole. Standing idle under explicit orders from Beresford, he had nevertheless been considering advancing against the French left flank, but he was wary of moving his infantry across open country in the face of 3,500 French cavalry.  After a brief consultation with Lumley, Cole began to redeploy his division from column into line. Mindful of the dangers presented by Latour-Maubourg’s horsemen, Cole flanked his line at either end with a unit in column: on the right were the division’s massed light companies. Lumley formed up the whole of the Allied cavalry to the rear and right, accompanied by a battery of horse artillery, and the whole mass, some 5,000 infantrymen, advanced on V Corps’ left flank.

The sight of the approaching Allied line forced Soult’s hand—if Cole’s division was not stopped, defeat was certain. He sent four regiments of Latour-Maubourg’s dragoons to charge the Portuguese section of Cole’s line, and committed the whole of Werlé’s reserve to protect V Corps’ flank.  The dragoons swept down on Harvey’s Portuguese brigade fully expecting to destroy it as they had Colborne’s. The inexperienced Portuguese, however, stood firm and drove away the cavalry without even forming square.  The division’s left soon encountered Werlé’s brigade, which outnumbered them two to one. Despite his advantage in numbers, Werlé had formed his nine battalions into three columns of regiments, and could not bring as many muskets to bear as the Allies. Three separate regimental musket duels ensued, as the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers and the two battalions of the 7th Fusiliers each took on a column. During the fire-fight the French tried once more to extend into line, but as before the concentrated Allied fire prevented their deployment. After 20–30 minutes of bitter conflict they finally broke and ran

Meanwhile, Abercrombie had wheeled his brigade round to face the right of the beleaguered V Corps and charged; Girard’s and Gazan’s men fled to the rear, joining the fugitives from Werlé’s brigade. The Allied 4th Division and parts of the 2nd went after the retreating French.  Latour-Maubourg quickly placed his cavalry between the Allies and the fleeing French infantry, and aborting their pursuit the British and Portuguese instead drew up on the heights they had just won. Soult also moved up his final reserve to cover the retreat, and although these suffered heavily from Allied artillery fire, they and the cavalry ensured there was little further fighting.  After six or seven hours of bitter conflict, the battle had come to an end.

On the morning of 17 May both sides formed up again. Soult marched away before dawn on 18 May, leaving several hundred wounded behind for the Allies to treat, and Beresford, despite a large advantage in numbers and a day’s rest, was nevertheless unable to pursue. So many were injured in the battle that two days later British casualties were still waiting to be collected from the field. The chapel at Albuera was filled with wounded Frenchmen, and the dead still lay scattered across the ground.  In proportion to the numbers involved, the Battle of Albuera was the bloodiest of the whole Peninsular War.

The losses on both sides were horrific, Allied losses amounted to 5,916: 4,159 British, 389 Portuguese and 1,368 Spaniards French casualties are harder to ascertain, the official figure drawn up on 6 July revised that number upward to 5,936.]

The Battle of Roliça, 17 August 1808

On 23rd July 1808, General Arthur Wellesley received a dispatch from Viscount Castlereagh, the Secretary of War, informing him that the French General Junot’s forces in Portugal now numbered more than 25,000. Castlereagh explained his plans to re-inforce the British army in Portugal with 15,000 men. General Sir John Moore was to proceed with an army from Sweden, and another force would be dispatched from Gibraltar. The command of this larger force would pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (the Governor of Gibraltar).  He was to seconded by Sir Harry Burrard and attended by five other generals, all senior to Wellesley.

On 30 July 1808, General Wellesley started to disembark his troops at Mondego bay.  The landing took a number of days and it was not until the 10th of August, the army marched to Leiria. Wellesley arrived on the 11th.   The army then began its march toward Lisbon shadowing a detachment of the French army under the command of General Henri Delaborde. These troops had been sent by Junot to hold the British while he brought his larger army into position to oppose the Anglo-Portuguese forces.

By 14 August the British reached Óbidos. Here the British vanguard, consisting elements of the 5th/60th and 95th Rifles, clashed with the rear-guard of the French. The 4,000 French retired to the wooded hills around Óbidos and Roliça.  The French position to the north of Roliça, on the higher ground, allowed them to block the roads south towards Lisbon and the approaches to the village which are via four gullies which led up the hill.  Debris and the steep sides to these gullies made attack in formation impossible.  

Wellesley arrived at Óbidos on 16 August and advanced on Roliça on the next day.  With his army of 16,000 men, he attempted to a double envelopment manoeuvre, moving against both flanks of the French position, whilst distracting the French with a show of force in the centre. The French moved forward to the south and east of the village at the top of a steep hill to block its approaches.

The Battle of Rolica an aquatint by William Heath, 1795-1840. Copy in the museum collection

Colonel Lake of the 29th Regiment of Foot in the centre then advanced up a gully toward the French position. He arrived behind Delaborde, which cost Lake his life and most of the men in the 29th.

The enemy occupied the village of Columbeira, situated on the principal road to Lisbon, and of course necessary for our further operations. After some skirmishing, and under a heavy fire from the surrounding heights, we drove the French from this point; but their principal position was on the heights of Roleia, which overlook and overtop the village. These were our next objective …….  Our enterprising antagonist, you may be sure, had not neglected these; and, while climbing up through briars and brushwood, plied us successively with grape and musketry. I commanded the right centre company, the fifth from the right; each scrambled up the best way he could; and, on gaining the summit, I found several officers, and about 60 privates of the 29th who were in front of me; only one of my own company reached the top with me, the rest following fast. Here we lost that distinguished ornament of his profession, my good friend Colonel Lake, and many other gallant officers, long my companions in the regiment. My poor private, the moment he stepped up, was also knocked down by my side; in the agonies of death he asked leave to shake hands with me; he was a good soldier, and few knew their duty better. Upon advancing, we were immediately attacked by a platoon of 90 men, whom we repeatedly repulsed; these were, however, joined by another of the same number, who charged us with the bayonet, with whom we sustained the unequal conflict; but our little band being now considerably advanced in front, and reduced to 25, Major Way, Captain Ford, and myself, and our brave companions, were under the painful necessity of surrendering. Even this, however, did not satisfy the sanguinary enemy, who seemed bent on bayoneting us all. After many narrow escapes, General Brennier at last came up, and with difficulty put an end to the carnage, and to the distressing scene around the dead and dying. I have been oftener than once engaged with French troops, and my former opinion still remains unchanged; upon anything like equal terms, they have no chance with the British bayonet; so it would have been the case now.

This prompted a general attack in relief of the outnumbered British. The fight was rough and uphill.  Delaborde repulsed three assaults by the British until nearly 16:00 hours. By which time Wellesley reached positions at the top of the hill and Ferguson arrived over the hills to the east.  Delaborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry. Without British cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.

The Anglo-Portuguese lost 487 casualties, over half that number from the 29th. The French lost 700 men and three of their five guns. The following day Wellesley found that the 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England and were off the coast. He marched away to cover their disembarkation rather than follow up his victory.

Killed, wounded and missing of the 29th Foot in the Battle of Rolica , 17th August 1808

Killed: 1 Lieut.-Colonel, 2 Serjeants, 31 Rank and File.

Wounded: 1 Major, 3 Captains, 4 Lieutenants, 6 Serjeants, 105 Rank and File.

Missing: 1 Major, 2 Captains, 5 Lieutenants, 1 Serjeant, 1 Drummer, 32 Rank and File.

The Battle of Vimeiro 21 August 1808

After the Battle of Roliça, General Sir Arthur Wellesley established a position near Vimeiro to cover a beachhead at Maceira Bay.  Most of ,his reinforcements had arrived by 20 August and Wellesley planned to advance to Lisbon. His force consisted of eight independent infantry brigades, 17 cannons, 240 light cavalry and about 2,000 Portuguese troops him giving a total of 20,000 men. This was the first action of the Peninsular war when both the 29th Foot, in the 3rd Brigade under Major General Nightingall, and the 36th Foot, in the 2nd Brigade under Major General Ferguson fought on the same field.

Opposing him was General Junot’s 14,000-man army was organised into two infantry divisions and a cavalry division under Pierre Margaron. Henri François Delaborde’s infantry division contained two brigades under Antoine François Brenier and Jean Guillaume Barthélemy Thomières, while Louis Henri Loison’s division included two brigades commanded by Jean-Baptiste Solignac and Hugues Charlot. In addition, François Étienne de Kellermann commanded a 2,100-man reserve made up of four combined grenadier battalions made up of the grenadier company from each of Junot’s infantry battalions. The French were supported by 23 cannons.

The battle started with an attempt at an outflanking manoeuvre by the French but Wellesley was able to redeploy his army in time to meet this threat.  Wellesley placed Anstruther’s and Fane’s brigades in front of Vimeiro, with Acland’s men in support. At first, his five remaining brigades held only the western ridge. Junot planned to send Thomières, Solignac and Charlot’s infantry brigades to capture Vimeiro, while Brenier’s 4,300-man brigade and some dragoons swung in a wide flanking manoeuvre to seize an empty ridge to the northeast of the village. Wellesley detected Brenier’s move and switched Nightingall (including the 29th Regiment), Ferguson (incuding the 36th Foot) and Bowes Brigades to the northeastern ridge. Once Junot realised that British troops occupied the ridge, he sent Solignac’s brigade to the right to assist Brenier’s attack. The French commander decided to launch his attack on the town immediately, instead of waiting for his flanking move to develop.

All the preliminary moves and countermoves caused a series of uncoordinated French attacks. First, Thomières’ 2,100-man brigade approached the British position. Supported by three cannons and screened by skirmishers, the brigade was formed into a column.

To counter the French skirmishers, Fane detached four companies of the 60th Regiment of Foot and the 95th Rifles. These outnumbered and outfought the French skirmishers, who fell back to the sides of the brigade column. Without their skirmishers in front of them, the French column blundered into the 945 men of the 50th Regiment. At 100 yards the British, formed into a two-deep line, opened fire. Several companies of the 50th began wheeling inward toward both flanks of the French column. Unable to properly deploy into firing line and unwilling to face the deadly enfilade fire, the French infantry fled to the rear, leaving their three cannons to be captured.

The Battle of Vimiero. An acquatint by William Heath. Print in the Museum Collection

Soon after, a similar fate overtook Charlot’s brigade. In a very narrow column, it struck one battalion of Anstruther’s brigade, which had been hidden behind a crest. Before they could deploy, the French were taken in flank by a second battalion. Unable to effectively reply to the devastating British volley fire, Charlot’s men fled. Seeing the battle going against him, Junot committed his grenadier reserve to the attack. The first two battalions attacked the same area as the previous units and were thrown back. Kellermann swung the final two grenadier battalions wide to the right and succeeded in breaking into Vimeiro. But, counterattacked by units from Anstruther’s and Acland’s, these Frenchmen also fell back. The 20th Light Dragoons pounced on Kellermann’s retreating grenadiers and routed them. Excited by their easy success, the British horsemen charged out of control. They were met by Margaron’s French cavalry division and were routed in their turn.

As Brenier’s men had become lost in the hills, Solignac attacked the northeast ridge. This brigade changed tactics deploying in an attack formation with three battalions abreast. Even so, each battalion formed a column one company wide and eight companies deep. If the French intended to form into line once the enemy position was detected, they waited too long. They marched into the kill zone of Nightingall and Ferguson’s brigades before they could deploy. Smashed by British volleys, Solignac’s men fled.

Brenier’s brigade, marching to the sound of battle, came on four battalions abreast. At first they enjoyed success when they surprised and defeated two British battalions. Victorious, the French column pressed, but soon ran into the 29th Regiment in line and were stopped. The 29th was joined by the other two units, who had quickly rallied. Together, the volley fire of the three British battalions soon routed Brenier’s men.

The 29th Regiment at the Battle of Vimeiro on 21st August 1808.
Picture by Richard Simkin (c) Mercian Regiment Museum.

At the Battle of Vimiero the 29th Regiment suffered the following casualties: Killed: 2 Rank and File. Wounded Brigadier-Major Andrew Creagh , 1 Serjeant, 10 Rank and File.

After the comprehensive French defeat, Junot offered complete capitulation. Nevertheless, Dalrymple gave the French far more generous terms than they could have hoped for. Under the terms of the Convention of Sintra, the defeated army was transported back to France by the British navy, complete with its guns and equipment and the loot it had taken from Portugal. The Convention of Sintra caused a massive outcry in Britain and, following an official enquiry, both Dalrymple and Burrard were blamed. Wellesley, who had opposed the agreement, was exonerated.

Crossing of the Douro 12th May 1809

Also known as the Battle of the Douro or the Second Battle of Porto, was a battle in which General Arthur Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese Army defeated Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French troops and took back the city of Porto. After taking command of the British troops in Portugal on 22 April, Wellesley (later named 1st Duke of Wellington) immediately advanced on Porto and made a surprise crossing of the Douro River, approaching Porto where its defences were weak.

The 29th Regiment of Foot crossing the Douro during the 2nd Battle of Porto. From a print in the museum Collection

The 29th Regiment of Foot formed part of the 6th Brigade in Lt. General Edward Paget’s Division. The French having collected all the boats to their side of the river, failed to either guard them or destroy them.  This being observed signs were made to the inhabitants, who availing themselves of the confusion in the French army, instantly brought over several boats, into which the 29th jumped, and pushing across, succeeded in gaining the opposite shore.  Having landed and formed, the regiment moved up the main street and the grenadiers opened fire on the retreating enemy.

Soult’s late attempts to muster a defence were in vain. The French quickly abandoned the city in a disorderly retreat.

This battle ended the second French invasion of Portugal. Soult soon found his retreat route to the east blocked and was forced to destroy his guns and burn his baggage train.  Wellesley pursued the French army, but Soult’s army escaped annihilation by fleeing through the mountains.

The Battle of Corunna 16th January 1809

In Spain known as Battle of Elviña, took place on 16 January 1809, when a French corps under Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked a British army under Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore. The battle was a result of a French campaign, led by Napoleon, which had defeated the Spanish armies and caused the British army to withdraw to the coast following an unsuccessful attempt by Moore to attack Soult’s corps and divert the French army.

Doggedly pursued by the French, the British made a retreat across northern Spain while their rearguard fought off repeated French attacks. Both armies suffered extremely from the harsh winter conditions. Much of the British army, excluding the elite Light Brigade under Robert Craufurd, suffered from a loss of order and discipline during the retreat. Throughout the retreat the 36th Foot part of the 2nd Division under Lt. General Hope and part of the 3rd Brigade under Major General Catlin Crauford, formed part of the rearguard. When the British eventually reached the port of Corunna on the northern coast of Galicia in Spain, a few days ahead of the French, they found their transport ships had not arrived. The fleet arrived after a couple of days and the British were in the midst of embarking when the French forces launched an attack.

An aquatint of the Battle of Corunna . From the museum Collection .

In the resulting action, the British held off French attacks until nightfall, when both armies disengaged. British forces resumed their embarkation overnight; the last transports left in the morning under French cannon fire. But the port cities of Corunna and Ferrol, as well as northern Spain, were captured and occupied by the French. During the battle, Sir John Moore, the British commander, was mortally wounded, dying after learning that his men had successfully repelled the French attacks.

The Siege of Badajoz 1812

On March 16th 1812 a British Force some 15,000 strong with a battering train of 52 guns reached Badajoz, a strongly fortified Spanish town near the frontier with Portugal.

General of Brigade Philippon commanded in Badajoz with a force of 4,742 men and although short of powder and shell, still presented a formidable task to a besieging army. He had taken every means possible to strengthen his post: mines were laid, the arch of a bridge built up to form a dam, ditches cut and filled with water, fortifications constructed, ramparts repaired and that he should have no useless mouths to feed, the inhabitants were ordered to lay up 3 months’ provisions or leave the town. Badajoz was also protected on one side by a river, 500 yards wide in places and having several outworks, notably one called the Picurina on a hill to the South East.

Such was Badajoz when Picton’s 3rd Division (which included the 45th of Foot (1st Nottinghamshire Regiment)), Lowry Cole’s 4th Division and the Light Division invested it. The rest of the army covered the siege and the 5th Division was on its way from Beira

On the night of 17th March; 2,000 men moved silently forward to guard the working parties who began to break ground 160 yards from the Picurina. The sentinels on the ramparts heard nothing in the howling wind and at daylight, so well had the volunteers from the 3rd Division laboured, 3,000 yards of communication and a parallel 600 yards long were revealed.

The next night, it was prolonged to the right and left and two batteries traced out. Wet and stormy weather harassed the workmen and flooded the trenches, but in spite of this the parallel was extended across the Seville Road, towards the river by the 21st March and three counter-batteries were commenced between Picurina and the river in order to open on San Roque, which covered the bridge and dam across the Rivillas as well as the Castle and the ground on the left of it.

On the 23rd March the floods in the trenches suspended all work, but on the 24th the 5th Division invested the place on the right bank of the river and, the weather having cleared the batteries were armed with ten 24 pounders, eleven 18 pounders and seven 5 and a quarter inch howitzers, all of which opened fire on the following day. They were replied to vigorously, but in spite of this the San Roque was silenced and the Picurina garrison so galled by the fire of the marksmen that no one dared to look over the parapet. The outward appearance of the fort showed no signs of great strength and the order was given to assault.

The ‘Fighting Third’ were, as usual, to the fore and five hundred men of that Division were assembled for the attack on the evening of the 25th. At nine o’clock, the evening being fine, flanking columns, each composed of two hundred men moved out to the right and left, while one hundred men remained in reserve in the trenches. The two flanking columns advanced simultaneously against the palisades but were held in check until the reserves were sent forward, when, in spite of a fearful fire, the stormers scrambled over the palisades and up to the ramparts. Here a desperate hand-to-hand fight raged; nearly all the officers fell and half the garrison were killed or wounded before they surrendered with the remainder. Thus the first phase of the attack was completed and the Picurina won. Three battalions were at once advanced to secure the work and the second parallel was begun.

The breaching batteries opened on the 30th March and by 6th April three breaches had been made, all of which were considered practicable. The main breach was on the right flank of La Trinidad Bastion, another in the curtain of La Trinidad and the third in the left flank of the Santa Maria Bastion. The four divisions were employed in the assault. The Light Division to attack the main breach, the fifth division to make a false attack on Pardaleras and a real attack on San Vincente, the fourth division to attack the two smaller breaches in the bastions of La Trinidad and Santa Maria and the ‘Fighting Third’ was ordered to escalade the castle.

The night of the 6th April was cloudy but fine and the assault was ordered for ten o’clock, but just before the appointed hour, a carcase fired from the town disclosed the position of the third division and drew fire upon it. It was useless to wait – and the ‘Fighting Third’ rushed forward. The troops, headed by their ladder men, crossed the bridge over the Rivillas in single file under a terrible fire and advanced up the rugged and broken ground, which led to the foot of the Castle walls. In the advance, Kempt’s Brigade formed the right and Campbell’s the left, while the 45th led the whole column.

 The light-balls (carcases) of the enemy completely exposed the position of the 3rd Division and the loss as the men swarmed up to the walls was terrible. The ladders, which proved too short, were thrown down as soon as they were raised, while stones, logs of wood and all sort of missiles made terrible havoc among the men. At length, three ladders were fairly well placed and up the first of them climbed Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. He arrived at the top before he discovered that the ladder was too short by some three feet, so pushing the head of it from the wall he called to upon his comrades to hoist him, ladder and all, upwards. Thrown up thus above the rampart he was shot by a French soldier before he had time to collect himself, two of his ribs were broken and he was unable to move either way. The next minute the ladder gave way and Macpherson fell insensible in the ditch.

Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. From a print in the museum collection

Meanwhile, Ridge of the 5th managed to place a ladder where the wall was lower and an embrasure offered a chance of entry and a second ladder being placed by Cranch of the 88th the two swarmed up over the parapet followed by their men. The first man who sprang down from the ramparts into the Castle was Corporal Kelly of the 45th who killed a French Colonel as he did so. The Castle was won and the troops crowding in, in increasing numbers, speedily drove the French in desperate hand-to-hand fighting through the double gates into the town.

Macpherson, recovering and despite being wounded and bleeding, re-climbed one of the ladders into the Castle and made his way to the Keep where the French flag was flying. He seized the sentry and making his way to the flagstaff hauled down the flag and hoisted his own jacket in its place, which, bravely fluttering in the breeze at daylight testified to the gallant part the 45th had taken in the assault.

Meanwhile, the attack on the main breaches was going on with desperation, but with little success. For upwards of two hours a fearful fire of musketry and grape, together with hand grenades, bags filled with powder and every conceivable form of destructive missile had been poured over the heads of the attackers. Soon after midnight, when over 2,000 men had fallen Wellington ordered the remainder to retire and re-form for a second assault. To the South and West of the town the 5th division had been more successful having carried San Vincente by escalade and moved across the town towards the great breach.

As soon as he was sure of the Castle, Picton sent his aide-de-camp, Tyler to Wellington to report, who sent him back with orders to hold the Castle at all hazards. Feeling himself secure, Picton then sent parties to the left along the ramparts to fall on the rear of those defending the great breach and to communicate with the right attack on the bastion of La Trinidad. But the French, on retreating from the Castle had closed and strongly barricaded the gates communicating with the ramparts and to force these barriers was a work of considerable time and difficulty.

The capture of the Castle, however, coupled with the advance of the 5th Division through the streets soon convinced the French that it was useless to continue the struggle at the main breach; they gallantly rallied for some time and faced the troops taking them in the rear before breaking and fleeing by the bridge and covered way into Fort San Christoval. When the stormers mounted the great breach for the second time they accordingly found the ramparts abandoned; and the troops pouring into the unfortunate town from the three entries they had gained were quickly masters of the place. “Then followed a scene of riot and debauch unequalled in the annals of the British Army; the chains of discipline were thrown off and the whole force gave themselves up to pillage, intoxication and wanton destruction of life and property”.

Philippon, with the remnants of his brave companies, surrendered Fort San Christoval on the following morning and BADAJOZ was fully won, but at the fearful cost of 5,000 men of whom 3,500 fell in the assault.

Important Acquisition – A “Lovel” percussion musket

With the generous assistance of the The ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and the Friends of the Mercian Regiment Museum we have recently acquired a group of three medals awarded to Major. Frederick Kneebone  of the 29th Foot. These comprise medals awarded for his service in India and consist of the Sutlej medal 1845-6 for Sobraon (ensign), the Punjab medal 1848-9 with clasps Chilianwala and Goojerat, ( Lieutenant) and finally the Indian Mutiny Medal 1857-9,  No clasp (Captain)

Groups of three consecutive Indian Campaign Medals issued to members of the 29th Foot are very scarce, and Frederick Kneebone’s is unique as he is the only 29th Foot officer so awarded: just thirty 29th Foot Other Ranks qualified for and received the group.

Frederick Kneebone’s father was Quartermaster Thomas Kneebone 29th Foot.  They both fought at the Battle of Sobraon (10 February 1846); the father’s portrait and Sutlej Medal for Sobraon are on display in the Museum. Thomas died 20 months later in Calcutta and qualified for no other medals. It is extremely rare, if not unknown, to have a father and son both being awarded the same medal for service of the same battlefield.  Therefore Frederick’s medal group is of especial interest to the Museum.

Major Kneebone’s medals

Frederick Kneebone had joined 29th Foot in India in time to take part in the Battle of Sobraon, and then was present for both Punjab Medal battle clasps (CHILIANWALA AND GOOJERAT) available to 29th Foot. Indian Mutiny Medals issued to the 29th Foot are always without clasp and are scarce; only 11 officers qualified and the only other extant officer medal known is in the Museum. Kneebone retired from the army as a Major in 1870 and lived in Bedfordshire; for many years he was Secretary of the Bedford General Infirmary.  In addition the Museum holds all four commissions of Frederick Kneebone plus a portrait photograph.

Centrepiece of the 36th Regiment.

Regimental Silver “…….. part of the tradition of service and martial pride which is the heritage of those to whom they belong. We are all brought up to regard them as symbols of great achievements of the glorious past…… These silver tokens are a constant reminder of the loyalty and deep sense of duty of our forebearers and an incentive to all of us to try and do better. They are part of the great tradition……..” Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer. All of our former regular, militia and territorial regiments/battalions had wonderful displays of silver. Regimental silver is, family silver and records a part of the history of that particular regiment or battalion. Each piece has a story to tell, whether it be a simple goblet or cigarette box to the wonderful and lovely intricate workmanship of the silver centrepieces. The engraving of the silver also records past events, from a Rifle shooting Championship to the winning of the Army Football Cup, and the engraving of the goblets which were presented by individual officers to their mess, from Halifax Nova Scotia to Tienstin. Silver drums and bugles were presented by battalions, towns and individuals in memory of men who gave their lives serving their Sovereign, Country and Regiment. Many pieces of silver were commemorate an individual act of gallantry or an action in which elements of the regiment took part. The silver also records the uniqueness of individual regiments, which makes the British Army so different and better than other armies. Each regiment has its own traditions, dress variations, customs, cap-badges and Battle Honours, all jealously guarded. Our Regiment has been involved in many changes from its first muster in 1694 to the Cardwell and Haldane Reforms, through two World Wars, the loss of the Second Battalion and Territorial Units after the Second World War – the amalgamation of 1970 to the formation of the Mercian Regiment in 2007. Over the years the regiment has had to dispose of a considerable amount of its treasures but a large amount of our old regimental silver, regular and territorial, is now a part of the Worcestershire Museum’s collections and others form part of The Mercian Regiment holdings collection and many of the traditions handed down over the years are now part of their heritage and in use today. Amongst the largest and most spectacular of the Museum’s pieces is the magnificent Centrepiece of the 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment. The centrepiece is cast in silver and represents a rocky crag with four of the most prized game trophies to be found in the Himalayas. The plinth supporting the centrepiece is of oak with silver snakes coiled around two of the four supports and the inscription around the top rim. This inscription reads: Presented to the Officers Mess by the following officers who were either members of the Regimental Hunt or promoted during The Tour of Service of the Regiment in India November 1863 to November 1875. We know however that the centre piece was not made until the Regiment had returned to England. It was commissioned from Hunt & Roskell, late Storr & Mortimer of London and bears the hallmarks for 1877.
The magnificent solid silver centre piece of the 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment of Foot. Made bt Hunt and Roskell in 1877 it adorned the dining table in the officers’ mess. It is now on display in the Museum.

The Battle of Grijo 11th May 1809

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An aquatint of the Battle of Grijo in the Museum collection

The Battle of Grijó (10–11 May 1809) was a battle that ended in victory for the Anglo-Portuguese Army commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington)over the French army commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, during the second French invasion of Portugal in the Peninsular War. The next day, Wellesley drove Soult from Porto in the Second Battle of Porto.

In the History of the Rifle Brigade, Willoughby Verner describes how the Battalion of Detachments, made from soldiers and officers of multiple regiments who had become stranded with the evacuation of Coruna, fought for the first time near the village of Grijó.

“The infantry of the advance guard consisted of the Rifle Company of the 1st Battalion of Detachments, the Companies of the 43rd and 52nd Light Infantry and the Light Company of the 29th Regiment of Foot, the whole under the command of Major Way of the 29th.”

General Sir Stapleton Cotton with the British Cavalry came in touch with the French at dawn on the 10th, but Major-General Michel Francheschi had some infantry with him and Stewart’s Brigade was delayed and did not come for some time; Francheschi thereupon fell back and joined General Mermet at Grijó.

When at daybreak of the 11th it was discovered that the enemy had retired , a pursuit was immediately commenced, and their advance guard, consisting of 4,000 infantry and some squadrons of cavalry, with its front covered by woods and broken ground, was discovered posted on the heights above Grijo.

Wellesley ordered Major-General Rowland Hill, to endeavour to outflank Mermet’s position on the east whilst he with Major-General Paget’s Division advanced. In the afternoon the Light Companies of the 1st Battalion of Detachments attacked Mermet but met with a stiff resistance and lost not a few.

Wellesley now ordered the King’s German Legion to turn the French left and the 16th Portuguese to turn their right and with the rest of Stewart’s Brigade renewed the attack on the wooded heights in the centre above the village of Grijó. Mermet thereupon withdrew…”

In the action fought on the 11th May 1809 , on the heights of Grijo and Calvahos, the casualties in the Regiment were:
Killed 2 Rank and File
Wounded 6 Rank and File

Sir Arthur Wellesley , in his despatch to Viscount Castlereagh wrote: I have also to request your Lordship’s attention to the riflemen, and flank companies of the 29th, 43rd and 52nd Regiments under the command of Major Way , 29th.”When a

The occupation of France 1815-18

Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815. The Allies were faced with the issue of securing France. The allies had not been at war with Louis XVIII and were, in fact, in alliance with him. The terms of a peace settlement therefore focused on securing France’s frontiers with her neighbours, without overstating territorial claims.

As well as the wider object of a peaceful settlement for Europe, each of the allied powers had their own particular interests: the Prussians wished to reshape French territory along its eastern boundary; and the British government became alarmed at the cost of subsidising the fortifications that would guarantee the security of the Low Countries — arguing that the whole of the projected sum (£4 million) should be defrayed by France.

The financial arrangements with France were settled in a meeting of 13 October — and a formal treaty (a second Treaty of Paris) was agreed on 20 November 1815. It committed the four powers — Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia — to the use of military force to ensure the peace of Europe: 60,000 men were to be in the field, beyond the army of occupation. France was to pay 270 million francs over three years from 1 December 1815. That army was to be in place for a minimum of three years and a maximum of five, with the possibility of reducing it in size after one year.

There was a separate military convention agreed at the same time under the terms of the treaty. This defined a zone of occupation which was limited to north-east France, bordering on the Low Countries and the German Confederation — if the allied troops had been dispersed across the whole of France, they would have been spread too thinly to have been of use. Louis XVIII was effectively agreeing to the occupation of his country, while he built up his own military force. While the army of occupation was security for the allies against French aggression, it was also intended that it give France herself, and especially the King, protection against a revolutionary uprising.

The allied powers had considered it desirable on 22 October that Wellington should command the army of occupation. The army was to be composed of 30,000 troops supplied by each of the Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia. On 20 November, formal treaties and conventions were agreed to give effect to the discussions of the allies, for an army of occupation of 150,000 men. The French were to provide quarters, heating, lighting, forage and provisions. In addition France was to pay 50 million francs per annum towards equipment, clothing and other necessaries.

Richelieu attempted within six months of the convention to have the army of occupation reduced in size. Although his moves were rejected, there were other pressures beyond those of the French government for the reduction. France could not resume her normal commercial activity while she was burdened with heavy reparation payments. She had found it hard to raise the funds to pay the allies and a financial crisis in November 1816 resulted in the suspension of payments. At the start of 1817, negotiations with the Hope-Baring bank provided a way for a substantial loan. The Times of 15 July 1817 saw advantages for Anglo-French trade if France had more finance available. The question of payment for French reparations was only concluded at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, at which point they were reduced and France was enabled to pay them off with further loans from Anglo-Dutch bankers.

Richelieu had been successful in 1817 in reducing the size of the army of occupation: the allies agreed that it should be 20% smaller from 1 April that year. The next stage was to negotiate an early conclusion to the occupation itself. This was also business for Aix-la-Chapelle: it was concluded that two further years of occupation would exacerbate conditions in France, rather than providing security for the allies.

On 4 November 1818, the allies agreed that the provisions of the treaty of 20 November 1815 had been fulfilled, and that France might be restored to her full position in international relations — the declaration was made publicly on 15 November. In parallel, preparations had been in hand since early October for the withdrawal of the army of occupation and the troops marched out of France during mid-November.