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.]