The Battle Of Albuhera - 16th May 1811

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  1. [align=justify]The battle of Albuhera was fought on 16th May 1811 during the Peninsula War against the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte of France. In 1811 Albuhera was a small village on the road to Badajoz, a fortress town held by the French but besieged by the British. In an effort to relieve the siege, the French despatched a large force under Marshal Soult. On hearing of the French plans, Wellington despatched an allied force of 8,400 British, Spanish, Portuguese and Kings German Legion (KGL) troops under General Beresford, a British officer in the service of the Portuguese. All the British battalions were under strength and in some cases uniforms were worn out. Alten’s King’s German Legion troops were well led and disciplined but the Spanish and Portuguese were untried in battle and of dubious quality. Soult was in command of 24,000 experienced French troops supported by a cavalry brigade of Polish Lancers and French Hussars and more than 60 artillery pieces.

    Houghton’s Brigade, in the centre of the British 2nd Division, contained the 1/29th, the 57th and the 1/48th Regiments of Foot. The 57th Regiment of Foot (West Middlesex) was commanded by Colonel William Inglis. It had a strength of 30 Officers and 470 men. It was described by Hardinge as ‘a stubby battalion’ as many of its soldiers were of short stature. Colborne's Brigade was on the right of the British line and this contained four battalions – the 1/3rd, the 2/31st, the 2/48th and the 2/66th Regiments of Foot. On the evening of 15th May, Beresford learnt that Soult was advancing on Albuhera from the South. On the morning of the 16th May, Beresford began to deploy his force along the ridge to the south of Albuhera.

    Just after breakfast, Soult launched a feint attack on the KGL in Albuhera with 3500 men of Godinet’s brigade. The remainder of the French force wheeled left to launch the main attack on the allied army. Colborne, fearing that the Spanish might not hold, positioned his brigade to strengthen the Spanish right flank. An inverted ‘L’ shape formation was formed. As the French closed to within about 100 yards, a violent thunderstorm suddenly descended cutting visibility to almost nil. Through the blinding sheets of rain and hail, Colborne’s troops on the right flank could see large dark shapes looming straight for them, and felt the ground shaking beneath their pounding weight. Suddenly there was a cry of “CAVALRY!”……….

    A strong force of about 800 French Hussars and the merciless Polish Uhlan Lancers appeared out of the rain and attacked the 1/3rd of Foot (The Buffs) who were still in line – the worst formation for infantry to fight cavalry. The Buffs Colours naturally, attracted the most attention. Ensign Thomas, a lad of just 16 was heard to say - ‘Only with my life!’ - The French took his life and the Regimental Colour with it. Ensign Walsh was also wounded and in danger of losing the King’s 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 jostling horde of hooves, Latham was left for dead. With the Buffs almost decimated, the remaining battalions of Colborne’s Brigade - still in line - prepared to receive the full force of the cavalry attack. The 1/31st sensing the danger they were in quickly formed a ‘rallying square’ from line using an original manoeuvre developed by Major L’Estrange. By doing so they certainly saved themselves from annihilation.

    By now Houghton had been joined by Abercrombie’s Brigade on the left and the remnants of the 1/31st on the right. The two brigades formed a firing line shoulder to shoulder – but it was still only about 3200 bayonets against 8500. The 57th of Foot (West Middlesex), although one of the junior battalions of the Division held the centre of the line – normally the most hazardous place on the battlefield. Early in the battle, Colonel Inglis was severely wounded with grapeshot piercing his lung yet he refused to be removed to the rear and remained with the 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…. “Die-Hard 57th, Die-Hard”….

    The voice was that of William Inglis, by doing as they were bidden the 57th of Foot earned themselves undying glory and an immortal nickname – the “Die-Hards”

    Sensing that the battle could still be lost, General Lowry Cole - in reserve two miles to the north of Albuhera - used his own initiative and ordered the Fusilier Brigade to advance and support the right flank of the 2nd Division which was in danger of being turned by the French. As the Fusiliers were seen advancing, Soult ordered Werle’s Brigade from its position by the olive grove to support his left flank. Linking up with the 2nd Division’s right flank, the Fusilier Brigade 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. With the orders “Close Up” “Close In” “Fire Away” and “Advance“, the Fusiliers began a steady advance along the ridge sweeping the French in their path.

    By now the French could stand no more and 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 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 57th joined in the advance 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 7th Foot (Royal Fusiliers). The Kings Colour of the 3rd Foot 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 began at 8.00am on the 16th May 1811 and six hours later it had ended. 4,159 British casualties had been sustained. The French losses, although never made official for fear of Napoleons wrath, exceeded 10,000. Spanish and Portuguese losses were 2,000. The 3rd of Foot (the Buffs) lost 633 out of 725. The 1/31st of Foot (later the East Surrey Regiment) lost 155 out of 398. The 57th of Foot (later the Middlesex Regiment) - who faced the onslaught longest without flinching, lost 20 out of 30 officers and 420 out of 570 rank and file yet not a man was found to be missing. Beresford later wrote - "our dead, particularly the 57th Regiment, were lying as they fought in the ranks, every wound in front". In special recognition of their contribution, the 57th were granted the unique honour of carrying the battle honour ‘Albuhera’ on their cap badge as well as on their Colours.

    In 1966 these the descendants of the 3rd, 31st and 57th Regiments of Foot – the Queens Own Buffs, the Queen’s Royal Surreys and the Middlesex were amalgamated with the Royal Sussex to form the Queen’s Regiment. It was therefore fitting that the 16th May – Albuhera Day – be chosen as the most important day within the Regiment. In 1992 when the Queen’s Regiment was amalgamated with the Royal Hampshire Regiment to form the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, Albuhera was adopted as the main regimental battle honour.

    Following the battle, the survivors of the 57th of Foot gathered in a Spanish tavern and vowed never to forget their comrade’s sacrifice. From this meeting grew the ‘Diehard Ceremony’ a tradition within the Middlesex Regiment in which a loving cup was passed in silence - ‘to the immortal memory’, between the regiments Officers and SNCO’s This tradition was later inherited by the Queen’s Regiment and subsequently by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.[/align]

    “To The Immortal Memory”