The Battle of Albuhera

The Battle of Albuhera took place 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 under siege 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 the Kings German Legion troops under General Beresford, a British officer in the service of the Portuguese.

All the British battalions were under strength, the King’s German Legion 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, including a cavalry brigade of Polish Lancers and French Hussars and more than 60 artillery pieces.

Houghton’s Brigade, in the centre contained the 1/29th, the 57th and the 1/48th Regiments of Foot. The 57th Regiment (West Middlesex) was commanded by Colonel William Inglis. It had a strength of 31 Officers and 616 men.

On the evening of 15th May, Beresford learnt that Soult was nearing Albuhera. On the morning of the 16th May, he began to deploy his force along the ridge to the south of Albuhera. Just after breakfast, Soult launched a feint attack against the King’s German Legion in Albuhera village whilst the remainder of the French force wheeled left to launch the main attack. Colbourne, fearing that the Spanish might not hold, positioned his brigade to strengthen his right flank. The French had now turned into line and were advancing steadily towards the British and Spanish. 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 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 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 Colours naturally 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 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 horde of jostling 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 2/31st were able to save themselves from annihilation by quickly forming a rallying square.

By now Houghton had been joined by Abercrombie on the left and the remnants of the 2/31st on the right. A firing line was formed – shoulder to shoulder, but it was still only about 3200 bayonets against 8500.

The 57th, one of the junior battalions of the Division, held the centre of the line, traditionally the most hazardous place on the battlefield. Early in the battle, Colonel Inglis was severely wounded, with grapeshot piercing his neck and 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. “Diehard 57th, Diehard”. That voice belonged to Colonel Inglis.  By doing as they were bidden the 57th earned themselves undying glory and an immortal nickname – the “Die-Hards”

Sensing that the battle could still be lost if the right flank of the 2nd Division was turned by the French, General Cole ordered the Fusilier Brigade, which was in reserve, to advance. Linking up with 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 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 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 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 57th of Foot (later the Middlesex Regiment) faced the onslaught longest without flinching and lost 428 out of 627. Not a man was missing and all wounds were to the front.

In special recognition of their contribution the 57th were granted the unique honour of carrying the battle honour ‘Albuhera’ on both their cap badge as well as their Colours

In 1966, the Buffs, the East Surreys and the Middlesex were absorbed into the Queen’s Regiment. It was therefore fitting that 16th May – Albuhera Day – be chosen as the Regimental Day within the Queen’s Regiment.

In September 1992 when the Queen’s Regiment was itself absorbed into the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, Albuhera was adopted as the new regiments main battle honour.

Following the battle, the surviving officers of the 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 Warrant Officers and Sergeants Messes of the Middlesex Regiment. This tradition was later inherited by the Queen’s Regiment and subsequently by the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. Today Die Hards, Queensmen and Tigers throughout the world honour that tradition and toast ‘The Immortal Memory’.

Source – PWRR/Queen’s Museum/ArmyTigers.com

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