Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Battle at Albuera, May 16th 1811


Introduction

At the beginning of 1811 Badajoz was a Spanish held fortress. Soult invested it at the end of January and took it in early March. He placed as Governor General Armand Phillipon. There was not enough fodder or supplies to maintain a large army in the area, so he left Phillipon in charge of the garrison and himself returned to his headquarters at Seville.

Beresford had been marching toward Badajoz to bring supplies to the Spanish and hopefully chase off the French besiegers at the time it was surrendered to the French. By May Beresford had been joined by Spanish forces and had acquired some 23 siege guns and invested Badajoz himself in an attempt to retake the city.

Current Situation in the Peninsula

There is less cooperation between the different French armies and Wellington hopes to take advantage of this to retake the border fortresses, 2 Portuguese, and 2 Spanish. He is in the north near Almeida. The most reliable of his generals for remote operations, General Rowland Hill, is ill, so General Beresford is tasked with leading the British-Portuguese forces to his south.

Wellington began a move south having an intercepted dispatch giving intelligence that Soult was moving and might soon challenge Beresford's Portuguese and the Spanish around Badajoz. He was too late, beginning the move on the 15th thus missing the battle at Albuera on the 16th.

Preliminaries

As Beresford moved his 18,000 strong British-Portuguese army toward Badajoz he chased off French forces in the area. These included the French forces that had taken Alburquerque and Campo Mayor, and then after crossing the Gaudiana River, the allied forces took the small fortress at Olivenza. On arrival at Badajoz May 8th 1811, they found the walls fully repaired, and began their trenches with bombardment from their 23 cannon beginning on May 12th.

Soult moved over the Sierra Morena on that same day with 25,000 French troops. The Spanish troops watching the various passes quickly fell back to a prearranged rendezvous at the village of Albuera.

Terrain

The Allied army formed along the low hills, Albuera with its closely packed buildings at their center. This formed a strong defensive line with plenty of cover for the British, Portuguese and Spanish Divisions. Soult noted the weakness, that the cover included Olive trees and Holly to the Allied right occupied by the Spanish. This allowed cover for his attacking troops to attempt a flanking attack.

Participants

Marshal Soult commanded the 25,000 French with divisions led by Girard and Gazan.

Beresford commanded the 35,000 Allied forces, with Blake commanding Spanish forces including those of Castaños, William Stewart with the British 2nd Division, Lowry Cole with the 4th Division, General Hamilton with a Portuguese division, and a brigade of the King's German Legion. There were Spanish cavalry led by Loy, British Heavy Dragoons, and the cavalry of the Fifth Spanish Army under Penne Vilemur.

The battle

Soult feinted an attack against the Allied center in Albuera while sending Girard and Gazan through the Holly and Olive trees against Blake & Castaños with their divisions and a force of cavalry.

Beresford and Blake were slow to react. Assuming the faint was the real thing and the flanking manouvre the feint they made inadequate opening dispositions. They were saved from being rolled up from their flank however. French needed time to redeploy from march formation into an ordre mixte, column mixed with line, for both the impetus of a column and the firepower of a line. When the French began their attack it was against some of the most experienced Spanish, and they did not achieve any immediate rout, but began bloody match.

As Beresford realized the true nature of the attack he moved Stewart and Cole to join the Spanish planning a counter attack with them and the cavalry of Loy and the British Heavy Dragoons. This plan was ruined by a precipitous order by Stewart. He ordered an attack before forces had been accumulated and formed for a proper attack.

Beresford made mistakes during the battle, including an indecisiveness, during the battle. He commanded forced into position, and then forgot about them not checking their deployment or further requirements. Some of this might be a result from his change of position during the battle. As he moved from his center he fought with a Polish Lancer and was shaken.

He was on the brink of ordering a general retreat when one of the staff officers, Hardinge, on his own initiative, rode forward and ordered the reserve commanded by General Cole to attack the faltering French. In this bloody meleé the superior numbers of the British finally made a difference and the French broke and fled.

The Allied forces were too exhausted themselves to mount a pursuit and the battle ended.

The 57th foot lost heavily, being part of a Division that had 1,250 casualties out of 1,570, and earned their nickname at this battle, the Die Hards, from an admonition given by their dying Colonel as the Polish Lancers and French 2nd Hussars rode down on them.

Anecdotes and ancillary events

Beresford was much shaken and wrote a bald account of the battle and its results. Wellington remarked "this will not do, write me down a victory."

Results

The British lost 5,380 dead or wounded, some 4 of every 10 british soldiers , were dead or wounded or captured. The French lost worse, approximately 7,500 out of 24,000.

Political situation

The political situation deteriorated considerably. Wellesley "wrote up" Beresford's account of the battle to send back to the ministries in London and Cadiz. The Spanish and British both claiming and blaming the other for the "victory" at such cost.




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