Oxted & District History Society - Article
Oxted & District History Society
 
 

Two hundred years ago, during the Peninsular War against Napoleon, was fought the bloody and inconsequential battle of Albuera. A combined Spanish, British and Portuguese army under Marshal Beresford was besieging a French garrison in a Spanish fortress, and a French army under Marshal Soult marched against them to break up the siege.


Beresford was a British General seconded to the Portuguese; he had raised, organised and trained their army to a superb standard and was well respected; he had done well, too, campaigning under Wellington’s eye, but now in an independent command he was nervous and hesitant. He had to abandon the siege; he could have got his army away, but hesitated too long, and would have to fight.


He drew up his troops behind a marshy stream, tempting Soult to attack across it; instead, the French went round, onto some higher ground. The Spanish should have been there, but only one brigade had arrived; it stood its ground well; the rest were far behind. A British infantry brigade moved up in extended line to support them. It was unlucky.


The cavalry lance was a tricky weapon to use and had hardly been seen in Western Europe for two hundred years; we had no lancer regiments. It is usually said that Napoleon was no innovator, but from Poland he recruited light cavalry armed with lances, and in the right circumstances they could be deadly: after Waterloo, we too adopted the lance and kept it for a hundred years, even into the age of machine guns and barbed wire.


A sudden rain-squall hid the Polish lancers’ approach and soaked the gunpowder in the British muskets; the usual infantry defence against cavalry was to form square, a hedgehog of bayonets pointing outwards in every direction; there was no time for this; the muskets would not fire; a Polish lance easily outreached a British bayonet: the British infantry could neither defend themselves nor run away: in minutes most of them were dead.


The rain was soon past; Beresford now thought only of retreat, but one of his aides-de-camp saw a chance and found a General willing to take it: a whole Anglo-Portuguese infantry division, three or four thousand men, were formed into a sort of single extended hedgehog; they too might have been attacked by the lancers at any moment; they marched steadily over the bodies of the dead without losing their formation, uphill against the main mass of French infantry, probably the only troops in the world who could have done it.


When opposing infantry met in open country, usually one side would very soon feel itself the weaker and run away; but, here, neither did: no more than a few yards apart, French and British went on shooting steadily at each other, some said for twenty minutes: well, perhaps it seemed that long. At last the French gave way. And now for the first time Marshal Soult seems to have seen the Spanish contingent and realised he had been outnumbered all along: he gave the order to retreat, reported his losses to Napoleon as little more than a third of their true number, and said he had won a victory.


Beresford was still badly shaken: he wrote a despatch, but Wellington had to re-write it before sending it on to London for publication. He went back to the siege soon after, but then abandoned it again. Overtly, he encouraged Beresford:

‘... we must make up our minds to affairs of this kind, ... or give up the game.’

But, he had lost four thousand irreplaceable British infantry, and in private said:

‘. . . another such battle would ruin us.’ Altogether, on the two sides, fourteen thousand killed and wounded, for no clear purpose at all.


KWA

Albuera 16th May 1811