Tag Archives: Beresford

The Battle of Toulouse 10 April 1814

Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814, but news did not reach the south of France until after Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish army had fought a battle against Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army at Toulouse.

Wellington had defeated Soult at Orthez on 27 February. The 4th and 7th Divisions of Wellington’s army, commanded by Lord Beresford, entered Bordeaux without a fight on 12 March. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Lynch, grandson of an Irish Jacobite, and many of the locals supported the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Wellington encountered little opposition from partisans in south west France. Ralph Ashby comments that:

The area was hardly a Bonapartist stronghold to begin with…Bourbon sympathies ran higher than elsewhere in France.

More importantly, Wellington was the one Allied army commander who kept a tight rein on his troops. Looting was absolutely forbidden, on pain of hanging…Wellington took care of his supply lines, and paid for requisitions in full.[1]

The 7th Division remained at Bordeaux, but Beresford and the 4th Division rejoined the army on 18 March. whereupon it resumed its pursuit of Soult across south west France. On 20 March Soult managed to evade an attempt to pin his army against the Pyrenees at Tarbes. Two of the roads east were cut, but the French held the one to Toulouse for long enough to escape.

Jac Weller points out that Wellington had a number of problems: he would be outnumbered if Soult could combine with Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet’s army, which was in Catalonia; operating in enemy territory, he had poor maps and lacks the accurate intelligence that he had received in Spain and Portugal; and he was not fully informed about the course of the campaign further north.[2]

Toulouse was on the east of the Garonne, a wide river. It contained a large arsenal and was surrounded by thick walls, but it lacked outworks, meaning that Wellington’s siege train could breach its walls if the guns could get close enough. The suburb of St Cyprien, to the west of the river, was fortified.

Crossing the Garonne was difficult. The first attempt was made at Portet five miles south of Toulouse after dark on 27 March. It had to be abandoned because the pontoon bridge was 80 feet too short to cross the river there.

The Garonne narrowed three miles further south above its junction with the Ariège. On 30 March the pontoon bridge was laid there, and 13,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill crossed.[3] However, they could not cross the Ariège because there was no bridge across it and no other pontoon. Moreover, there was no road capable of carrying wheeled transport to Toulouse.

The second attempt had to be abandoned, with the troops returning across the pontoon. The French did not discover the first attempt at all, and did not find out about the second one until a day later. Soult sent two divisions, with two more in reserve, to confront Hill once he had crossed the Ariège, but the lack of roads prevented the French advancing. Soult concluded that the British move had been a feint.

Wellington now realised that he could only cross the Garonne north of Toulouse. A suitable spot was found, and 18,000 men under Beresford crossed on 4 April. The pontoon bridge was barely wide enough to cross the river at this point. It was broken after heavy rain caused the river to rise, isolating the troops who had crossed. They were, however, in a strong defensive position, and Soult did not attack them. Sir Charles Oman says that he thought that most of Wellington’s army had crossed the Garonne.[4] By 7 April the river had fallen, and the bridge had been repaired.

Wellington’s 49,000 men began the assault on Toulouse and its 42,000 defenders on 10 April. Hill’s corps was to demonstrate at St Cyprien to the west of the Garonne. On the other side of the river Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division and Karl von Alten’s Light Division were to threaten the Toulouse. The main attack was to be made further north, against the Calvinet ridge, which looked down on the city.

The Calvinet would be attacked from the north by two Spanish divisions under General Manuel Freire, supported by Portuguese artillery, and from the east by the 4th and 6th Division commanded by Beresford. Beresford’s troops had to march further in order to get into position, so Freire was ordered to wait until they were ready.

The attack did not go to plan. Hill’s demonstration was well executed, but failed to fool Soult, who moved troops from St Cyprien to the Calvinet. Picton pushed on too far, taking unnecessary casualties for no benefit. Freire launched his attack before Beresford was in position.

Wellington, seeing Freire’s move, sent orders to Beresford to attack the Calvinet immediately rather than waiting to get into the originally planned position, even though this meant that his troops would be attacking a strongly defended part of the ridge. Freire’s assault had been beaten back by the time that Beresford received this order, so he ignored it and continued with the original plan, which was to attack the ridge at a more weakly defended point.

Beresford’s troops advanced towards the ridge, beat off a French counter-attack, and took part of the ridge with relatively light casualties. Beresford waited until his artillery had been brought up before resuming the assault. His men took the rest of the ridge with help from a further attack by Freire. It was forced back, but helped Beresford by distracting a large number of French troops.

Soult still held Toulouse, but his positions were vulnerable to artillery fire from the Calvinet, and his supplies would last only a month. Wellington expected him to counter-attack on 11 April, but Soult, concerned that enemy cavalry was moving to cut him off, decided to retreat to Carcassonne.

Both side claimed to have won the Battle of Toulouse. Wellington took the city, but suffered more casualties: his army lost 655 killed, 16 missing and 3,887 wounded against French casualties of 322 killed, 541 missing and 2,373 wounded. Peter Snow writes that Wellington ‘described his rather dubious victory as a “very serious affair with the enemy in which we defeated them completely.”‘[5]

It was very unfortunate that the poor communications meant that such a bloody battle was fought after Napoleon’s abdication. On Soult 17 April he received formal notification of Napoleon’s abdication. He signed an armistice the same day, which required the French to evacuate fortresses in Spain, but not those in France. However, two further actions took place before these orders reached every garrison.

On 14 April General Pierre Thouvenot, the French garrison commander at Bayonne, ordered his troops to sally out against the enemy troops blockading the fortress, although he had been informally informed of Napoleon’s abdication by then. British casualties were 150 killed, 457 wounded, excluding men captured, and 236 captured: many of the prisoners were also wounded, amongst them Sir John Hope, the commander of the blockading force. The French lost 111 killed, 778 wounded and 16 missing.

The garrison of Barcelona sallied against their besiegers two days later, but in this case they were unaware of Napoleon’s abdication.

Thouvenot eventually surrendered on April 27 after receiving a copy of Soult’s armistice the day before.Oman argues that the sally would have achieved nothing even if the war was continuing, noting that Wellington called Thouvenot ‘a blackguard’.[6]

The Napoleonic War was now apparently over, but it was to resume a year later.

 

 

[1] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 130.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 351.

[3] Troop numbers are from C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. vii. pp. 456-57, 556-60.

[4] Ibid. vol. vii, p. 460.

[5] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 229.

[6] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, p. 508.

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The Battle of Orthez 27 February 1814

After the Allied victory at the Battles of the Nive on 9-12 December 1814 Wellington paused his offensive. He left the 18,000 British and Portuguese troops of the 1st and 5th Divisions and three independent brigades plus 16,000 Spaniards to besiege Bayonne under the command of Sir John Hope. This left him with a field army of 48,000 men. The French commander Marshal Nicolas Soult had 62,500 men, but 17,000 of them were at Bayonne and 3,500 more were garrisoning St Jean Pied-de-Port and Navarrenx, leaving him with a field army potentially 42,000 strong.[1]

The weather improved in early February, and Wellington began his offensive on 14 February. St Jean Pied-de-Port was invested by Spanish guerrillas. On 23 February the French fortress of Navarrenx, which was too strong to attack, was masked by Morillo’s Division, the only Spanish troops in Wellington’s field army

Also on 23 February Hope ferried part of his corps across the Adour. The next day, the Allies, supported by Royal Navy boats on the Adour, completed construction of a pontoon bridge across the river. Bayonne was now surrounded.

By 27 February Wellington’s army had crossed four defensible rivers and was facing Soult’s army across the River Gave de Pau at Orthez. Soult had about 36,000 men and 48 guns, with another division of 3,750 conscripts on the way to reinforce him.[2] They were drawn up along an L shaped ridge, which ran a mile north from Orthez at right angles to the Gave de Pau before heading 3 miles west parallel to the river. Three smaller ridges extended from the main ridge to the river. The village of St Boes was situated at the western end of the ridge.

Wellington had 43,000 men and 54 guns.[3] Early on 27 February five of his seven infantry divisions and most of his cavalry crossed the river. The 2nd and Le Cor’s Portuguese Divisions and some light cavalry under Sir Rowland Hill remained on the south bank at Orthez opposite the eastern end of the ridge.

Hill’s orders were to skirmish and demonstrate at Orthez. He was not to cross the river there, but could cross further east if the attack in the west succeeded. The main assault, commanded by Lord Beresford, would be made at 8:30 am by the 4th Division, supported by the 7th, on St Boes from the western end of the ridge. Its intention was to turn the French western flank.

The French centre would be pinned by an attack by the Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division along the most easterly and the centre of the three smaller ridges, supported by the 6th Division.

The Light Division would take a ruined Roman Camp at the north end of the most westerly of the three lesser ridges, the only one that did not connect directly to the main ridge. Wellington would then direct operations from the Roman Camp.

The attempt to turn the French right flank at St Boes failed, whilst Picton was halted just out of enemy artillery range. The Light Division took the Roman Camp. Wellington now changed his plan. The 3rd and 6th Divisions would launch a full scale assault rather than a pinning attack in the centre, the 7th Division would replace the 4th in the west and the 1/52nd (Oxfordshire) Battalion of the Light Division would attack the flank of the French troops defending St Boes. Only two British and three Portuguese battalions of the Light Division were left in reserve: two other British battalions of that division were not on the battlefield.

The second attack started at 11:30 am. The co-ordinated assaults at St Boes and along the eastern and central less ridges all succeeded in breaking the French line, forcing Soult to order his army to retreat after two hours of fierce fighting. Hill took most of his corps two miles east to a ford across the river when he saw that the Allied attacks were succeeding.

Jac Weller notes that the French had usually managed to successfully retreat after their defeats in the Peninsular.[4] On this occasion they were helped by Wellington being wounded after a bullet hit the hilt of his sword, forcing it against his hip and thigh. He had more cavalry than Soult, which might have turned a victory into a rout had he been in a position to properly direct its pursuit, but Wellington’s wound meant that he could not keep up with the advance.

Soult lost just over 4,000 men, including 1,350 prisoners: 1,060 of those captured came from units that covered the retreat. Wellington suffered 2,164 casualties: only 48 were from Hill’s corps.[5]

Sir Charles Oman contends that this battle showed that

with fairly equal numbers in the field, passive defence is very helpless against an active offensive concentrated on certain limited points, unless the defender uses adequate reserves for counter-attacks.[6]

Wellington took ‘a considerable risk’ in his final assault, when he attacked five enemy divisions with five of his own, but he knew from past experience that Soult would not launch a counter-attack.[7]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 342, 363.

[2] C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. xii, p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 357.

[4] Weller, Peninsula, p. 349.

[5] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, pp. 372-73.

[6] Ibid., p. 374.

[7] Ibid., p. 375.

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The Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

The Duke of Wellington’s Allied army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops captured San Sebastian on 31 August 1813, and on 7 October invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa.

The advance was then delayed, allowing the French, commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, to retreat to the River Nivelle. As Charles Esdaile says, ‘the reasons were political.’[1] The French had been cleared out of Iberia, apart from the blockaded and starving garrison of Pamplona, and some in Portugal and Spain were reluctant to participate in an invasion of France. There was also the risk that Napoleon would win his German campaign, allowing him to move huge number of reinforcements to the Franco-Spanish border.

Pamplona surrendered on 31 October, meaning that there was no justification for further delay. The political disputes were overcome, allowing Wellington to use his entire army offensively

The Nivelle itself was not a formidable obstacle, but it was overlooked by hills that had been fortified. Wellington decided to attack to the centre-left of the 20 mile long French position. An assault on the extreme French left was rejected because the mountain passes there were often blocked by snow in winter. The right flank, from the sea to the village of Ascain, was too strongly defended.

Wellington was aware that the French had a strong position, but believed that it could be taken. He told the senior officers of the Light Division that:

‘It appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.’[2]

Sir John Hope was ordered to demonstrate between the coast and Ascain with 23,000 men in order to tie down an equal number of French troops. The main attack would come between Ascain and the Mondarrain mountain, where the 26,000 men of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps and the 29,000 of Lord Beresford’s corps would be opposed by 40,000 Frenchmen.[3]

The key French position was a hill called the Lesser Rhune, separated from the Great Rhune, taken by the Allies just after they crossed the Bidassoa, by a ravine. The Light Division was selected to attack the Lesser Rhune. Success would expose the flanks of the French troops either side of it.Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

There were three separate enclosed fieldworks along the crest of the Lesser Rhune, and it appeared to be almost impregnable against an assault across the ravine from the Great Rhune. However, Wellington worked out a route that enabled the Light Division to descend into the valley and manoeuvre into a position to attack the Lesser Rhune’s flank. The fieldworks would not then be able to support each other against the attackers, and could be taken one after the other.

The Light Division began its attack before dawn, and had taken the Lesser Rhune by 8 am. The rest of the Allied army then advanced. The French were forced to retreat in order to avoid having their flanks turned.

The French lost 4,500 men killed, wounded and captured, plus 59 guns, and the Allies 2,700 men.[4] The November day was short, and the onset of darkness probably saved the French from a disaster. Soult was able to establish a new line along the next river, the Nive.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

[2] Quoted in J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 320.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 325.

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Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 and Siege Warfare

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1811 campaign.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

In 1812 Wellington intended to launch an offensive into Spain with the aim of capturing Madrid, which he hoped would provoke an uprising throughout Spain. In order to do so he had to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the Spanish sides of the northern and southern routes between Portugal and Spain respectively and were consequently known as ‘the Keys to Spain.’

His army totalled 60,000 men; he detached 14,000 under General Sir Rowland Hill to guard against an attack by Marshal Marmont from the north and 19,000 under General Sir Thomas Graham to cover the south, where Marshal Soult commanded the French forces.

Sieges were not as common in the Napoleonic War as they had been a century before. Napoleon preferred to bypass fortresses and defeat the enemy in a pitched battle. The lack of roads crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border meant that it was impossible for invading armies to bypass the border fortresses.

Walls of Ciudad Rodrigo

A siege was a complex operation.  The attacker would begin by blockading the fortress. Trenches would have to be dug in order to allow the assault force to move close to the fortress in cover. The first trench, known as a parallel because it would run parallel to the walls of the fortress, would be dug several hundred yards from the fortress. Zig-zag trenches would then be dug in order to advance closer to the wall and another parallel constructed. A  third might have to be dug before the attackers were close enough to the wall to assault it. The digging would take place at night as digging in daylight in view of the fortress would be suicidal. The siege guns would bombard the wall in order to create a breach in it. The attackers could concentrate their fire at one part of the wall,  but they would also have to launch diversionary attacks or else the defenders would reinforce the defences of the point to be attacked. Aggressive defenders would launch sorties in order to disrupt the attackers. As well as causing casualties and trying to damage siege works, they would steal entrenching tools.

In the 18th century the custom was that once a practical breach had been made in the wall (i.e. one that could be successfully assaulted) the defenders would request the honours of war. They would then be allowed to march out of the fortress and go to the nearest friendly garrison.  The rules of war meant that the attackers could decline to take prisoners if they had to assault the fortress.

If an assault was to be made, then engineers, operating from the closest parallel, would place a mine to detonate in the breach just before the attack. The defenders would fill the breach with obstructions such as chevaux de frise, wooden frames with sabres attached, fascines, sandbags, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The attack would take place at night and casualties would be high. If the attackers won, then their blood lust after a vicious fight meant that they would probably sack and pillage the fortress. Little mercy would be shown to civilians and the attacking officers would struggle to restrain their men.[1]

Greater Tesson from walls of Ciudad Rodrigo. The Lesser Tesson was flattened to allow construction of the houses in the foreground

Jac Weller points out that Ciudad Rodrigo was strong but not impregnable.[2] It had not been fully modernised and was overlooked by two hills, the Greater and Lesser Tessons. The former can still be seen, but the latter has now been built over. An attacker who took them could bombard the fortress from above. The French built the Redoubt Renaud on the Greater Tesson to protect it. Their objective was to hold out until reinforcements arrived. Towards the end of 1811 Spanish guerillas under Julian Sanchez invested Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army entered Spain on 4 January 1812 and reached Ciudad Rodrigo four days later. This surprised the French, as armies did not then normally conduct sieges in the winter. The Anglo-Portuguese army took the Redoubt Renaud in a surprise attack the same night. Two breaches had been made in the wall by 19 January and the fortress was successfully assaulted that evening. Anglo-Portuguese casualties were 568 killed and wounded in the assault and around 1,100 over the whole siege. The British dead included General Sir Robert Craufurd, commander of the Light Division. About 530 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. The rest of the 1,937 strong garrison were captured.

The British troops looted and pillaged for about two hours before being brought under control. It was common for soldiers who had captured an enemy fortress to behave in such a way, but the population of Ciudad Rodrigo were Britain’s allies.

Wellington now moved south to siege Badajoz. This will be described in the next post in this series.


[1] Frederick Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp 9-25.

[2] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 192-94.


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Wellington’s 1811 Campaign

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1809-10 campaigns.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.  Maps are very useful in following the descriptions of battles below. For copyright reasons, I have provided links to websites that include maps of the battles rather than directly copying the maps. All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A good source of photos is Jac Weller’s Wellington in the Peninsula. The photos in it were taken by Weller in the 1950s and early 60s, before much of the re-development of the battlefields had taken place [1].

5 March 1811 was a significant day in the war. At Barrosa in the south an Anglo-Portuguese force under General Sir Thomas Graham defeated a larger number of French troops commanded by Marshal Victor. On the same day, Marshal Masséna began to withdraw, reaching Salamanca on 11 April. He was unable to attack the Lines of Torres Vedras, was short of supplies and was being harassed by guerrillas.

Wellington, however, was not in a strong position. There were two routes across the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, each guarded by a fortress on both sides of the frontier. In the north these were Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain and Almeida in Portugal and the southern ones were Badajoz in Spain and Elvas in Portugal. An invader needed to control all four in order to cover his lines of communication.

Marshal Soult took Badajoz on 10 March. Since the French still held Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington had to split his force in order to cover both the northern and southern invasion routes. He sent a force under Lord William Beresford, a British general who had re-organised and vastly improved the Portuguese Army, to face Soult in the south. Beresford’s skills lay in organisation rather than in battlefield tactics.

Wellington’s HQ at Freinada

Wellington lacked a siege train of heavy artillery, and his army was too small to both siege Almeida and cover against any attempt by Masséna to relieve it. He therefore decided to blockade the fortress in an attempt to starve it into submission. His headquarters was at Freinada, where he received reports that Masséna was building up his forces.

Masséna, with 48,000 men, advanced, and on 3 May 1811 met Wellington’s 37,000 troops at Fuentes de Oñoro, a village just inside Spain on the road from Ciudad Rodrigo to Portugal. Wellington’s army was positioned behind the River Dos Cassos along a 12-13 mile front from Fort Concepcion in the north through Fuentes de Oñoro and  Poço Velho to the village of Nave de Haver in the south. Fort Concepcion covered the road to Almeida. Fort Concepcion and Fuentes de Oñoro are in Spain, Almeida, Freinada, Poço Velho and Nave de Haver are in Portugal.

This website has some photos of Fort Concepcion; it cannot be visited at the moment because its current owner wants to re-build it as a hotel. It is eight miles from Fuentes de Oñoro, but two-thirds of this distance was protected from attack by a steep cliff. Consequently, Wellington had four divisions at Fuentes de Oñoro and only two between there and Fort Concepcion. His southern flank was guarded by Don Julian Sanchez’s Spanish guerrillas at Nave de Haver.

Bridge over Dos Cassos at Fuentes de Onoro from defending side.

Masséna’s plan was to attack Wellington’s centre and right, forcing him to move troops from his northern flank south, thus allowing him to re-supply Almeida. The Dos Cassos was no more than a stream in place, so could be crossed easily. Wellington’s left flank was protected by the cliffs and his centre by Fuentes de Oñoro, but his right flank consisted of largely open ground. There was a low ridge behind the village, but there was not a significant reverse slope; it is a myth that Wellington was always able to deploy his army on a reverse slope. If Wellington’s army was forced to retreat, then it would have to do so across the River Coa.

Masséna deployed his army across the Dos Casas from the village of Fuentes de Oñoro on 2 May. At 2pm the next day he attacked. Fighting in the narrow streets and alleys of Fuentes de Oñoro was confused.

Narrow street in Fuentes de Onoro

Hand to hand combat saw buildings change hands and the Allied troops forced back to the church, which was on the north-west side of the village. A counter-attack by the 1/71st (Highland Light Infantry), 1/79th (Cameron Highlanders) and 2/24th (2nd Warwickshire) battalions forced the French back across the river.On the 4 May an unofficial truce allowed both sides to bury their dead and collect their wounded. As on other occasions when fighting was not taking place in the Peninsular War, there was some fraternisation between British and French troops.

The fighting resumed the next day with a French attack in the south. It forced Sanchez’s guerrillas to withdraw, covered by British Cavalry under General Stapleton Cotton and the Royal Horse Artillery. Wellington had moved his newest division, the 7th, south on 4 May. It was forced out of the village of Poço Velho, but was reinforced by the Light Division, commanded by General Sir Robert Craufurd.

Open ground to south of Fuentes de Onoro

Wellington’s right was under severe pressure, and he realised that Masséna wanted him to move troops south, opening up the road to Almeida. Instead, Wellington left the troops that guarded his front from Fuentes de Oñoro to Fort Concepcion in position. He re-deployed the rest of his army to run eastwards from Fuentes de Oñoro, facing south towards the advancing French, a manoeuvre known as refusing the right flank. This meant that Wellington was cutting himself off from the route back to Portugal across the River Coa at Sabugal. If forced to retreat, his army would have to cross the Coa at the small bridges at Castello Bom and Almeida, running the risk of a retreat turning into a rout. The troops withdrawing from Poço Velho were under severe pressure. William Napier, a Peninsular veteran and historian said that this ‘there was not, during the war, a more dangerous hour’ [2].  The Light Division fought a highly skilful retirement; Sir John Fortescue said in his history of the British Army that:

No more masterly manoeuvre is recorded of any general; no grander example of triumphant discipline is recorded of any regiments in the history of the British Army [3].

Fuentes de Onoro to Church

Masséna did not try to turn Wellington’s re-positioned right flank, but resumed his attacks on Fuentes de Oñoro.  Wellington was present and personally directed the defence for a period. The British were again forced back to the church. A counter-attack, led by the 1/88th Connaught Rangers, commanded by Lt-Col Wallace, supported by the 45th (1st Nottinghamshire) and 74th (Argyll) Foot, forced the French back across the Dos Cassos. The French had been defeated, but narrowly; Wellington later claimed that the French would have won had Napoleon been present [4]. Allied casualties were 1,804 and French ones 2,844; note that casualties means dead, wounded and prisoners.

Masséna’s attempt to relieve Almeida failed, but the two armies continued to face each other across the Dos Cassos until 10 May, when the French withdrew towards Ciudad Rodrigo. That night, General Brennier, the French commander of Almeida, blew up its defences and withdrew the garrison through the Allied blockade. Wellington told Beresford that ‘the escape of the garrison of Almeida is the most disgraceful military event that has yet occurred to us’[5]. Masséna was replaced by Marshal Marmont, a decision that Napoleon had taken before Fuentes de Oñoro.

Also on 10 May Soult’s army of 25,000 left Seville in order to attempt to lift the siege of Badajoz. Beresford had 10,000 men more, including 15,000 Spaniards under Blake, and deployed his army along the hills on either side of the village of Albuera, at a junction on the road from Seville to Badajoz. This gave Beresford’s army a reverse slope, but the length of the hills meant that, regardless of where he placed his right flank, there would be another hill from which the  French could threaten it. Major Roverea, ADC to General Lowry Cole, commander of the 4th Division, later wrote that Beresford’s dispositions allowed the French to capture a hill ‘the possession of which was vital to our safety.’[6]

Monument to battle in Albuera

The Battle of Albuera took place on 16 May. Wellington was not present, but some British troops managed to fight at both  Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera. The French initially demonstrated against Albuera, before launching their main attack against Beresford’s right flank. Soult did not know that the Spanish were present and thought that he faced only 10,000 enemy. Beresford ordered Blake’s Spanish troops to re-align themselves and refuse the right flank in the way that Wellington had done at Fuentes de Oñoro. Blake refused to comply. He thought that the French attack on the right flank was just a feint, and that their main assault would come in the centre. One of his subordinates, General Zayas, moved four Spanish battalions to the right on his own initiative. When Beresford arrived on the scene after receiving Blake’s refusal to obey his orders, he reinforced Zayas with five more Spanish battalions. 4,800 Spanish infantry faced 8,400 French infantry  and 3,500 cavalry with artillery support.

They held them up long enough for the three battalions of Colborne’s Brigade of the 2nd British Division to come up in support. Beresford had ordered it to form a second line behind the Spanish, but the 2nd Division’s commander, General Sir William Stewart, sent it against the French left flank. This attack stopped the French, but Stewart had not allowed for the possibility that there might be cavalry on its flank. It suddenly started to rain very heavily, meaning that muskets could not fire and visibility was restricted.

The 800 men of General Latour-Maubourg’s two cavalry regiments, the Polish 1st Lancers of the Vistula Legion and the French 2nd Hussars,  caught Colborne’s Brigade by surprise and in line. Cavalry could do little against disciplined infantry in square unless they had artillery support, but infantry in line was very vulnerable to cavalry. Colborne’s Brigade lost 1,413 casualties out of 2,066 officers and men at Albuera, although not all of these casualties were caused by the cavalry. This was the first time that the British had faced lancers.

The French and Polish cavalry inflicted further losses on Zayas’s Spanish troops and on artillery of the King’s German Legion, a force of expatriate Germans serving with the British; the British King was also Elector of Hanover, and many Hanoverians had fled to Britain when Hanover had been occupied by Napoleon. Beresford himself was attacked by a lancer but the general threw his assailant from his horse. French and Polish cavalry casualties were about 200, a quarter of those committed to this action.

Two more British Brigades, Hoghton’s and Abercrombie’s were brought up. They faced an attack by two French divisions. The British were outnumbered, but were in two deep lines so that they could bring 3,300 muskets to bear. There were 8,000 Frenchmen, but they were in columns 200-400 men wide. Only the front two ranks and perhaps the men on the flanks could fire; 400-1,000 men, However, the French had 24 guns and the British four. A very bloody firefight ensued. Lt-Col William Inglis of the 1/57th (Middlesex) gave his regiment its nickname of the Die-hards by exorting his men to ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard.’[7]

The killing continued, but Beresford appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence and did little to reinforce his right flank.  Soult stood on the defensive and continued with a battle of attrition. He held Werlé’s Brigade, stronger than some British divisions, in reserve when committing it might well have broken the British line. Soult is alleged to have said that ‘the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’[8]

After almost an hour of slaughter Major Henry Hardinge, a British staff officer who later became a Field Marshal, urged Lowry Cole to do something. Cole was contemplating taking action on their own initiative and ordered his 4th Division forward. An earlier flood of the River Guadiana had prevented part of the 4th Division crossing; only the three Fusilier battalions of Myer’s Brigade and three companies of Kemmis’s Brigade were present, but he also had Harvey’s Portuguese Brigade and cavalry and artillery support.

Cole’s troops advanced in line, with a square at each end, giving the firepower advantage of line and protection against cavalry. Soult now committed Werlé’s Brigade, but once again the French were in column, giving the British and Portuguese in line a firepower advantage. Both sides took heavy casualties, with the British ones including Myers killed and Cole and all three Fusilier battalion commanders wounded, before the French broke.

Allied casualties were 5,916; 4,159 British, 1,368 Spanish and 389 Portuguese. Official French losses of 5,936 are almost certainly too low; most estimates are of around 8,000. No other Peninsular War pitched battle in the open, as opposed to the storming of a fortress, saw such killing in such in a small area or short time period.

After the battle, Wellington visited some of the wounded and said ‘Men of the 29th, I am sorry to see so many of you here.’ A veteran sergeant replied, ‘If you had commanded us, my Lord, there would not be so many of use here.’ [9]

Wellington resumed the blockade of Badajoz on 18 May, but serious siege operations did not start for another week. Marmont and Soult were both marching to relieve Badajoz, and Wellington believed that he had until 10 June to take it. Two assaults on Fort San Cristobal, on the north bank of the River Guardiana failed; the main fortress was on the south bank. The French relief force entered Badajoz on 20 June, just in time for the garrison, whose supplies had run out.

Wellington took up a strong defensive position, and the French declined to attack.  Needing to take the two Spanish frontier fortresses, but unable to capture Badajoz, he moved north to blockade Ciudad Rodrigo. His siege train was still being unloaded at Oporto, and he was unable to prevent Marmont from re-supplying the fortress on 24 September.

Wellington could not invade Spain without capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, but in 1811 his army was not strong enough to take them. He was able to win local victories, but had to withdraw if the French Marshals combined against him. By doing so, however, they risked rebellion elsewhere in Spain. Whilst both the key Spanish fortresses remained in French hands, Wellington had to cover both the northern and the southern routes, but when he split his forces he could not rely on his subordinates to act independently.

As Charles Esdaile points out in The Peninsular War, in 1811 the French were able to defend against Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, contain the guerrillas and attack the remaining territory held by their Spanish opponents. However, this was very expensive; there were 350,000 French troops in Spain. They had been unable to defeat Wellington in open battle, giving him the initiative and his army a moral advantage. Both sides could still win the war.[1o]


[1] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsular (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), p. 519.

[2] William Napier, History of the Peninsular War vol. iii (London, 1833), p. 519.

[3] Quoted in Ian Fletcher, Bloody Albuera: The 1811 Campaign in the Peninsula (Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2000), p. 43.

[4 ] Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 45.

[5] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 47.

[6] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 82.

[7] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 93.

[8] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 96.

[9] Quoted in Julian Paget, Wellington’s Peninsular War: Battles and Battlefields (London: Leo Cooper, 1990), p. 138.

[10] Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 367-68.

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