The battle of Albuhera took place on 16th May 1811 during the Peninsula War against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte of France. In May 1811 Badajoz, a fortress town was held by the French but under siege by the British. In an effort to relieve the siege the French despatched a large force from Cadiz under Marshal Soult.
On hearing of the French plans, Wellington ordered General Beresford to break off his siege to meet with the advancing French Army marching from the south. Beresford’s army consisted of an allied force of British, Portuguese and the two battalions of the Kings German Legion.
On the 15th May Beresford positioned his army along a ridge overlooking a small village called La Albuera about 12 miles south of Badajoz.
He deployed the British 2nd Division under Gen. Stewart in the centre with the Portuguese Division under Hamilton on the left and the Kings German Legion in the village to defend the bridges crossing the river.
At around 22:00 Gen. Blake arrived with a large Spanish Army of around 15,000 troops and they took up positions on the Allies right flank.
Gen. Cole with the British 4th Division took up a position in reserve astride the road leading north to Badajoz. All the British battalions were under strength, the Kings German Legion were well led and disciplined, the Portuguese had British officers but the Spanish were untried in battle and of dubious quality.
Soult was in command of 24,000 experienced French troops, including a cavalry brigade of Polish Lancers and French Hussars and more than 60 artillery pieces. Although his army was smaller than the allies Soult hoped that the quality of his troops were more than a match for the Allies.
Just after breakfast, Soult launched an attack against the Kings German Legion in Albuhera village with seven battalions under Gen. Godinet. Beresford ordered Colbournes 1st Brigade to leave their breakfast and go forward into the village to support the Germans.
Beresford realised that this was just a feint and the main French force of the 1st Division under Gen. Gaza’s and the 2nd Division under Gen. Gerard were approaching the Spanish right flank. Beresford ordered Gen. Blake to turn two of his divisions to face the French in line.
At the same time Colbournes Brigade were ordered to double back up and along the ridge to strengthen the Allies right flank.
Gen. Blake ignored Beresford’s orders and instead turned just four battalions to face the French force totalling 9,000. Too late he realised his mistake and ordered Zayas’ Division and Ballesteros’ Division to turn into line.
A tremendous hail storm fell on the battlefield rendering many muskets unusable. Through the blinding sheets of rain and hail, Colbornes Brigade still moving in column to strengthen the right flank could see large dark shapes looming straight for them, and they felt the ground shaking beneath their feet.
Suddenly there was a cry of ’CAVALRY!’
A strong force of about 800 French Hussars and the merciless Polish Vistula Lancers appeared out of the rain and attacked the 1/3rd of Foot (The Buffs) the leading battalion who were still in column - the worst formation for infantry to fight cavalry. The Buffs Colours attracted the most attention. Ensign Thomas, a lad of just sixteen with the Regimental Colour was heard to say - Only with my life! - the French took his life and the Colour with it.
Ensign Walsh was wounded and in danger of losing the Kings Colour when Lieutenant Matthew Latham rushed over to take it from him. Latham defended the Colour furiously a sabre cut took away half his face and another severed his left arm. Under the horde of jostling hooves, Latham was left for dead.
With the Buffs almost decimated, the remaining battalions of Colbornes Brigade - still in column - prepared to receive the full force of the cavalry attack. The 2/48th (Northamptonshire) and the 2/66th (Berkshire) second and third in the column were also overrun and both regiments lost their Colours. Only the last battalion in the column - the 2/31st (Huntingdonshire) managed to save themselves from annihilation by quickly forming a rallying square.
The 2nd Brigade under Gen. Houghton was sent to the aid of the Spanish who were now crumbling. Hoghton had the good sense to turn his three battalions into line from column and advance in a better formation for dealing with cavalry.
The Brigade contained the 1/48th (Northamptonshire); 1/29th (Dorsetshire) and in the centre the 1/57th (West Middlesex). As the Brigade advanced the survivors of the 2/31st joined the line on the right and they advanced through the Spanish firing line to engage the French.
The arrival of the third brigade of the 2nd Division under Abercrombie on the left eased the situation slightly but it was still only about 3200 bayonets against 8500.
The French artillery was enfilading the British using the Colours as aiming points knowing that is where the battalion commanders would be.
An early casualty was Hoghton and Col. William Inglis as the next most senior officer stepped up. As he was already in the centre of the line with his battalion he chose not to move.
The 1/57th, one of the junior battalions of the Division, held the centre of the line traditionally the most hazardous place on the battlefield. Col. Inglis was severely wounded, with grapeshot piercing his neck and lung, yet he refused to be removed to the rear and remained with the 57th Colours
For three hours, perhaps more, the agony lasted, yet not a man moved except to close the ever-shortening British line. Through all the crash and clatter, the moans, curses and screams, a voice could be heard calmly repeating. ’Diehard 57th, Diehard.’ The voice was Col. Inglis.
By doing as they were bidden the 57th earned themselves undying glory and an immortal nickname the Diehards
With the arrival of an independent French Division under Gen. Werle and sensing that the battle could still be lost, General Cole, used his own initiative and ordered the Fusilier Brigade of the 4th Division in reserve to advance and support the right flank of the 2nd Division, which was in danger of being turned by the French
Linking up with the survivors of the 2nd Division, the Fusiliers poured volley after volley into the flanks of the French. The Portuguese Brigade also joined the line to add their weight of fire upon the packed dense ranks of Frenchmen.
By now the French could stand no more - they turned and broke leaving the bodies of the dead and the wounded piled high in heaps. The historian William Napier, in his history of the Peninsula War later wrote, ’the mighty mass gave way and like a loosened cliff went headlong down the steep.’
Sensing victory in the air the remnants of the 1/57th joined in the final charge with the Fusiliers. There was a cry from Beresford ’Stop! Stop the 57th! It would be a sin to let them go on!’ But it is unlikely that this order was received by the Regiment
Marshal Soult later angrily recorded ’There is no beating these troops. They were completely beaten, the day was mine, and they did not know it and would not run.’
Wellington dryly observed - ’Another such battle would ruin us.’
Following the battle, the Regimental Colour of the Buffs that cost Ensign Thomas his life was later recovered by a sergeant in the 1/7th Foot (Royal Fusiliers). The Kings Colour of the Buffs was also found - ripped from its staff, covered in blood and mud, inside the tunic of an officer barely alive and slashed beyond recognition. This officer turned out to be Lieutenant Latham. He later received medical treatment at the personal expense of the Prince of Wales. He continued in the service, heavily disfigured, one armed and blind in one eye.
The battle of Albuhera had began at 8.00am and six hours later it had ended. 4,159 British casualties had been sustained. The French losses were never made official for fear of Napoleons wrath, but is likely they exceeded 10,000.
Spanish and Portuguese losses were about 2,000.
The 3rd of Foot (the Buffs) lost 633 out of 725.
The 2/31st of Foot (later the East Surrey Regiment) lost 155 out of 418.
The 1/57th of Foot (later the Middlesex Regiment) who faced the onslaught longest without flinching lost 428 out of 627. Not a man was missing and all wounds were to the front.
Of the 14 infantry regiments awarded the battle honour ‘Albuhera’ the 57th of Foot (West Middlesex) were granted the unique honour of carrying the battle honour Albuhera on their cap badge as well as their Colours
In 1966, the Buffs, the East Surreys and the Middlesex were absorbed into the Queens Regiment. It was therefore fitting that 16th May Albuhera Day - be chosen as the Regimental Day within the Queens Regiment. In September 1992 when the Queens Regiment was itself absorbed into the Princess of Waless Royal Regiment, Albuhera was adopted as the new regiments main battle honour.
Following the battle, the surviving sergeants of the 1/57th gathered in a Spanish tavern and vowed never to forget their comrades sacrifice. From this meeting grew the Diehard Ceremony in which a loving cup was passed in silence ’To the immortal memory’ by the Officers and Sergeants Messes of the Middlesex Regiment. This tradition was later inherited by the Queens Regiment and subsequently by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. It is traditionally drunk at 20:00 hours on the 16th May.