|The Battle of Albuera
||[Apr. 12th, 2007|05:16 am]
All hail the glorious dead.
What follows is a story I spent 13 straight hours on, writing from 5 pm until 6 am the following day. |
It's a mixture of a Historical fact, historical fiction, and past life memories. Everything in the Prologue and Epilogue are true, and I can document the sources if you're interested; almost everything in between is also real, with a few minor pieces of artistic license, including the names of all the non-commissioned characters. Please give it a read, if nothing else, I think it's a pretty decent account of the battle.
In January of 1811, Marshal Soult, who had been besieging the Spanish port city of Cadiz, stripped his siege lines of troops, and moved on the border fortress of Badajoz, which surrendered on the 10th of March, after which he returned to Cadiz with the bulk of his armies. Meanwhile, Marshal Massena, who had wintered in appalling conditions in front of the impregnable lines of Torres Vedras, began to retreat from Portugal, through Spain, leaving behind a small force at the fortress of Alameida. The French possession of these two fortresses was intolerable to Wellington, and he instructed Marshal William Beresford (who had taken over from General Hill, suffering from a relapse of malaria) to march on Badajoz and recapture it, while Wellington himself marched on Almeida, blockading it. Massena reversed his retreat, and attacked Wellington at the hard fought battle of Fuentes de Oñoro (May 3-5), in which he was repulsed, resulting in the evacuation of the French from Almeida.
Meanwhile, Beresford arrived at Badajoz, and commenced the siege on the 8th of May. Soult again left Cadiz and marched, with 24,000 men, to the relief. The Allied Armies marched from Badajoz on the 13th of May, 1811, arriving at a strong position 12 miles from the Fortress, on a north/south ridge behind a stream, straddling the road Soult would take to Badajoz. On the 15th, French cavalry drove back a British cavalry screen with ease, but that night, the British/Portuguese force was joined by a Spanish army of 12,000, under General Blake, which was posted to the south flank.
“At Last They Crumble, Bone by Bone”
The men of Stewart’s 2nd Division woke well before dawn, grumbling as they buttoned their uniforms and shrugged on their packs. The sun was hours from rising, though it seemed the night had a curious light to it, from the thousands of smoldering campfires of the opposing armies. Yet Sergeant Wilkie, as he took up his half-pike and began to shepherd the groggy men of the 3rd East Kent (Buffs) into a line, fancied there might be another element to the light, a sparkle of electricity given off by tens of thousands of tense soldiers. No one had any illusions – there would be fighting the next day. Officers trotted down the line of the regiment, some bearing lanterns, illuminating a section of men here and there, speaking with each other in hushes. From a distance, over a small hill, he could see the distant shadows of a column of Portuguese soldiers crawling towards them. Ah, so that was it, he thought. He had figured as much earlier; Beresford would need his best troops, his British troops, in the front lines, so he was moving them from their reserve position behind the town of Albuera, replacing them with a division of Portuguese.
“DIVISION! TAKE CARE! TO THE RIGHT FACE!”
The commands cut through the night, as the order was repeated from Division to Brigade to Regiment to Company. Canteens clanked as thousands of men automatically moved from a line into a marching column.
“DIVISION, FORWARD QUICK MARCH!”
They marched off, to the sound of a lone fife and the tramp of hobnailed boots.
They marched two miles at most, Sgt. Wilkie estimated, yet in that time more then five men in his company had sprained their ankles on the hills and uneven Spanish ground. He thought they may have also gotten lost at some point, but it was irrelevant now, because they were wherever they were supposed to be, and could grab whatever sleep they could before action commenced in the morning. He lay down in a pile of wet grass in his full uniform, and was immediately asleep. He dreamt of heaping mounds of roast beef and potatoes, meat pies and ale, and he awoke with the first beat of the drums, wondering if he had slept at all.
The sun was just over the horizon, but the sky already looked like thunder. The camp started stirring, men were rising from the grass and dirt like it was Judgment Day, scrounging for what little wood they could find, and boiling whatever tea or rations they could over the meager fires. He walked to the nearest to see if he could beg a cup.
“Morning, lads”, he said. He sat down next to one of them, a compact young man named Private Cresacre. The other two, he noticed, were Pvt. Thomas and Corporal Jackson, who was famed throughout the army for the length and color of his blonde sidewhiskers.
Jackson handed him a tin cup, which he accepted.
“We’ve got t’ Dagos on our flank, tha’ knows, Sergeant”, Jackson said, “Don’t like it one bit.”
Wilkie stared at him. “I’ll make sure to pass that right along to the General. I’m sure he’ll appreciate your help.”
He said it sarcastically but affectionately. Jackson was a good lad, but sometimes he thought a little too much. He was right, though. There were Spanish troops next to them on the higher ground, protecting the extreme flank of the army.
What’s more, they didn’t look like they were even awake yet.
Distantly, a musket fired. Then another, and another until it was clear that, perhaps a mile or two away, the day had begun.
Cavalry, most likely, but not a lot, . Sergeant Wilkie was a veteran, and he thought quickly, as the drums of the Regiment, the drums of the division, of the whole army began to beat the urgent drumroll that sounded “To Arms!”.
The Frogs aren’t daft. They won’t alert a British position they planned to attack with just light cavalry.
Men hurried to kick out fires, strap on accoutrements, and put last touches on bayonet edges. He saw one man close a Bible and put it in his knapsack. Another man, a tall corporal, threw a pair of dice into the brush.
They wouldn’t unless they were going to attack some other part of the line.
The men were taking their places in line. He saw the colours, the glorious twin colours that were the pride of the regiment and of the King, unfurled. Ensign Thomas, a little lad of 15 holding the King’s color, looked pale and unwell, but he held the staff steady. Ensign Walsh, with the Buff coloured regimental flag, barely a year older, seemed remarkably cocksure for a boy his age, and smiled as he said something to the younger officer.
If I were French, I’d attack right here-right at the Spanish,
And suddenly, he was sure. The main thrust would be here, right here, right over on that hill where the Spanish were finally rising and slowly forming a semblance of an army.
For a while, as the men sweltered under their shakos, it seemed the battle would pass them by. The sky grew darker, a lead gray, and seemed to weigh down upon the 2nd Division like lead. Some of the men began to grumble, wondering why they had been called to form up at all, since there were no French soldiers and the firing, which swelled up and down in the distance, was far to their rear. But most of the men stayed silent, and some of the officers nervously trained their glasses towards the heavily wooded stream. Sgt. Wilkie, standing in the rear of his section, took a drink from his canteen, and started whistling his favorite song.
“As I roved out on a May morning
on a May morning right early
I met my love upon the way,
And lord but she was early.”
A few men in front of him sang the refrain under their breaths-
“And she sang lilt-a-doodle, lilt-a-doodle, lilt-a-doodle-dee,-
And she hi-di-lan-di-dee, and she hi-di-lan-di-dee and she lan- day”
There was a rumble of thunder in the distance. Marshal Beresford rode toward the Spanish line with his staff clattering behind him. A few of the less hardened soldiers turned around to watch him ride past, wondering if their fate was being decided at that moment by the bulky commander. The veterans knew it was all decided by God or fate or luck, and didn’t bother with questions. Nearly fifteen minutes later, Marshal Beresford came thundering back from the Spanish lines, heading for General Stewart. The horsemen met near Wilkie. He could smell the horses, and he grimaced.
He had an infantryman’s dislike of the beasts, a mild dislike of their smell and their riders and a healthy fear of their battlefield capabilities. He could hear Beresford speaking.
“General Stewart, there are French troops over there, I believe, a great many of them-
He stabbed a finger to south, where the Spanish were formed,
“And so I have ordered General Blake to form his divisions facing it. You will march your division as reinforcements, and form them in the rear of the Spanish lines, and you will do it now, General, before Mr. Soult decides to open the ball”
General Stewart saluted, and Beresford rode off as the division marched off to reinforce the Spanish.
The fifes and drums played “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” and the thousands of redcoats marched with a will, boots trampling down brush where there was no road, weighted down with their martial burden as the advanced up the slight incline towards the Spanish troops. Wilkie noticed an officer of another regiment ride towards the Spanish, presumably to see the lay of the ground. He never got there, rearing his horse in surprise and galloping back.
Wilkie heard him shouting, saw his red face as he galloped down the line.
“Bloody sods! Bloody sods! They’ve not moved at all! They’ve not moved!”
The men began to mutter as they began to reach the Spanish rear. Realization sunk in. Blake had ignored Beresford’s orders. He’d only turned four brigades to face the threat, four flimsy Spanish battalions, who were now facing at a right angle to the rest of the Spanish line, on a ridge a few hundred yards away from the end of the rest of the line.
Private Oeyshum said, a little too loudly, something about the idiocy of General Blake and the simplicity of Beresford, so Sergeant Wilkie gave him a hard knock on the back of the head, told him to shut his fucking mouth, and shoved him back into line, just as they reached the crest. All the same, Oeyshum had been right.
If the French come from there, we’re buggered.
And the French were there. They must have come over the river during the night, or early in the morning, and took cover in the thick trees near the river, because, as the division was being drawn up on the rear of the Spanish line, Marshal Soult launched his attack.
Nine thousand of soldiers of the Emperor, 19 battalions of blue-coated infantry, poured out of the woods, forming dense columns as they marched, eagles and bayonets gleaming, drums beating the pas de charge, followed by 10 regiments of cavalry. Spain, it seemed, fell completely silent, except for muffled beat of French drums, as the column advanced, the largest column the Allies had ever been faced with in Iberia. And there were, at the moment, four Spanish battalions deployed to repulse it.
“Oh, Bloody Christ,” Sergeant Wilkie said, just as the first Spanish cannon fired.
He never knew if it was Stewart who gave the command, or Colborne; but it hadn’t been Beresford, who was still blissfully unaware. All Sergeant Wilkie and the men of the brigade knew is that suddenly the crisis was there, the French were there, and that, then, is where they were to go. The Spanish cannon-smoke drifted towards them as they marched at the double-quickstep, heading toward the right of the Spanish line. They could hear the boots of the French, hear the commands being given in Spanish, hear the crack of thunder, now seeming quite close in the heavy air.
So they’ll make a fight of it after all, Wilkie thought, and hoped the Spanish would stand.
Three Spanish guns fired, shaking the ground, as thousands of British soldiers raced through the shallow ground, down one slope, and up another, forming into lines of battle at an angle to the French column, as each battalion reached the Spanish right flank. And now the Buffs were there, Sergeants screaming, pushing men into line, and the French were close, bloody close.
The Spanish began firing, one battalion at a time, and scores of Frenchmen went down, screaming, closing up the ranks as each man fell. And still they came, shouting their Emperor’s name. The Spanish began to fire more ragged volleys, but quickly, and Wilkie was impressed by their bravery, facing almost impossible odds. They were standing, they were slaughtering the enemy, but it wasn’t enough, because still the column advanced, cheering now because they had nearly reached the crest. Their front ranks charged their bayonets, baying for the kill. They barely noticed the lines of silent redcoats coming into line on their left flank.
“COLBORNE’S BRIGADE! MAKE READY!”
Thousands of muskets came to the recover, thousands of calloused hands dragged the cock back
Sergeant Wilkie screamed the repeated order with the rest of the Sergeants, as the barrels were aimed toward the enemy.
Time to make our presence know, he thought.
And they volleyed in perfect unison, an earsplitting crack. Sulfurous clouds of smoke swirled around the men, obscuring the sight of hundreds of dead and dying French who still let their presence known by their screams, but the men were busy, to busy to care. In seconds, they had pulled cartridges from their pouches, bitten off the tips, poured a pinch of powder in the pan, and shut it. Then, casting it about, they’d poured the rest of the powder down the barrel, followed by the paper and the ball, which they rammed down. They returned their rammers, and returned to the Make Ready, in what couldn’t have taken longer then 18 seconds.
Bloody fine lads, they are.
The Spanish firing on the right swelled to a crescendo, and, through the smoke, it seemed the French had stopped moving, though now they were beginning to fire. One of Wilkie’s men went down, quietly, with half his face missing. Private Cresacre fell, screaming from a ball that shattered his kneecap. “Close your ranks! Close up, damn it!”, Corporal Jackson screamed.
A drop of rain landed on Sergeant Wilkie’s nose.
Again, the muskets crashed out, and the French were bending, in confusion, moving to meet the new threat, some going down, some firing, some advancing, some trying to stagger backwards in vain. Another drop of rain fell, and another. Lighting arched overhead, illuminating through the smoke the goblin sight of the battle, and the men had loaded again, but now they were fixing bayonets, now they were going to close with the wounded French beast, they were going to take their steel to the bellies of the enemy! A roundshot took out of file, smashing two men into pulpy fragments, "Steady lads, stay steady now!" Wilkie shouted.
Every man in the world would dream of this, being here for this charge, with the might of Great Britain! This was the glory of war, with the flags flying the in the smoke, the thunder rumbling overhead, the cheers of thousands of Britons. Wilkie surged with the electric pride.
The rain was starting to come down now, great big drops, and he thought it was a good thing they were about to fire, for very shortly it would be impossible.
The volley wasn’t as loud, many of the men had been unable to fire with wet powder, but there was still the sickening sound of thousands of balls of lead striking flesh.
The men roared out a throaty hurrah, which was lost in a thunderclap that sounded like the heavens being rent. The rain became a deluge, obliterating everything. Wilkie could barely see his men, or hear the orders being shouted through the downpour. And no one could hear the hoof beats.
The Poles had come from the other side of Europe to fight for Napoleon, but, more recently, had trotted with a regiment of French Hussars, undetected around the left flank of the French infantry’s advance, making a wide circle until they were in the rear of Colborne’s Brigade. And now they were charging, long lances couched under their arms, red and white pennants streaming. Trooper Jankowski, only 20 years old yet already a mustached veteran of this murderous war, felt the rain whip his face, stinging his eyes closed. When he opened them again, a flash of lighting illuminated the long line of redcoats, who were apparently preparing to charge. Poor beggars, not today, he thought, and grinned. The surprise was perfect, and so he let out a victorious howl as he aimed his lance at the back of a redcoat Sergeant in yellow facings.
Sergeant Wilkie heard the howl before he heard the hoofs, and it saved his life. He turned half around, alarmed, and saw them. For a second he stood, amazed, then screamed
It was too late. The Vistula Lancers were on them.
The brigade was decimated before they had even turned around, the lances piercing through heavy packs and finding soft flesh underneath. Shouts of the hunt gave way to agonized screams. Sergeant Wilkie, by some instinct, had deflected the lance of a young trooper with his half pike, using it to drag him off his horse. He drove the spiked butt into the belly of the Pole, who writhed and screamed as his blood poured into the mud. Another Lancer bore down on him to his left. Wilkie thrust his pike into the horse’s chest, and it reared up, as the pike splintered, throwing the rider off into the path of another lancer, and they connected in a bone-crunching crash. He drew his saber.He looked, desperately, for the nearest colour, running through the chaos for it, as all the men who were still living were doing instinctively. He heard Ensign Thomas, frightened little Ensign Thomas with the Regimental Colour, shouting “Rally on me, men, I will be your pivot!”
And they did, forty, maybe thirty men frantically rallying, stabbing with bayonets, clubbing with muskets, some loading here and there - but dying anyway, some crunched under hooves or falling horses, some writhing as lances ran them through. He watched as the Poles who’d shivered their lances drew swords, and began circling the desperate mass, joined by French Hussars, hacking away. The man next to Wilkie screamed as a saber bit into his arm, then was silenced by a blow to the face. Wilkie slashed blindly, cutting horseflesh and human flesh, blinded by the rain and the smoke and battle madness. There were maybe five or six of them left standing now, shoulder to shoulder, fighting more sluggishly, exhausted.
A Polish officer shouted in broken English for the colours to surrender.
Ensign Thomas shouted, “Only with my life!,” and was immediately struck on the left shoulder, cleaving it to the bone. He screamed as he sank to his knees, but still held the broken staff and what was left of the colours in his left hand. A Lancer grabbed for the silk, tearing it in two, and Wilkie slashed at him, but the Lancer was already off, whooping with triumph. Thomas was kneeling, bleeding, and weeping silently when a lance thrust caught him in the back. He gasped, arched up, and collapsed. Wilkie reached, in a dream, for the falling colours, and had just clasped his hands around the cloth when a horse collided with him and everything went black, seven minutes after he had first seen the Lancers.
He didn’t see the 31st forming square, the only Regiment in Colborne’s brigade to be successful in doing so due to their place in the line. He didn’t see the counterattack of British cavalry that swept the lancers away from the skeletal remnants of the other three regiments, or the desperate firefight that developed between Hougton’s Brigade and the still-potent French Column, of which it was written `Survivors who took part in this fight on the British side seem to have passed through it as if in a dream, conscious of nothing but dense smoke, constant closing towards the centre, a slight tendency to advance, and an invincible resolution not to retire.'
He began to regain consciousness as the Fusilier Brigade was making their decisive and victorious charge. At first, he had no idea where he was or why he was there. He began to remember, and as his memory flooded back, he started shaking uncontrollably. The sky was still dark, but no longer raining. He was laying on his side in a pile of twisted corpses. The gash on his arm was on fire, and he was overpoweringly thirsty. He feebly shoved one of the corpses off his stomach, and vomited when its entrails spilled over his bloodsoaked coat.
The trembling voice came from behind a horse carcass near the pile.
“Someone alive in there?”
Sergeant Wilkie tried to swallow, and found he couldn’t. “Aye,” he croaked.
A cheer sounded in the distance as the French began to break. Someone nearby groaned.
A Private, who had been bleeding from the forehead, stood up on from behind the horse, and half-walked, half-crawled to the pile where Wilkie was laying. He helped free him from the hideous tangle, and gave him his canteen to drink from. The water tasted like blood. Wilkie stared, hollow eyed at the private. “It’s Private Cooper, sergeant, same company as yourself,” the man said. Wilkie just nodded slowly. Cooper tore an unbloodied strip of linen off the shirt of a nearby corpse and bound it tightly around Wilkie’s arm. Wilkie was thinking, trying to collect his thoughts. If his head didn’t hurt so devilishly bad…
Private Cooper, same company as yourself. Same company as yourself.
He spoke slowly, brokenly.
“Private Cooper…where is the company?”
Cooper suddenly looked old, ancient. “Sergeant,” he said, indicating the thousands of shattered corpses- “the company’s right here.”
It began to rain again.
Sergeant Wilkie and Private Cooper were the only two survivors of their company. Their commander, Captain Stevens, who was captured, wrote later:
“Thomas was buried with all care possible by a sergeant and a private, the only two survivors of my company, which consisted of sixty three men when taken into action.”
The regimental colour which had been lost upon the death of Ensign Thomas was recaptured later during the battle by Sergeant Gough of the 7th Fusiliers.
A similar struggle to the one Sergeant Wilkie found himself part of was enacted around the King’s colours. Ensign Walsh stood nearly alone, surrounded, wounded and about to be taken prisoner. Lt. Latham rushed to his defense, seizing the colour and defending it with his sword, suffering the loss of half his face and his left arm. Still he resisted, until he has beaten down and wounded several times with a lance. Miraculously, at that moment, the British 4th Dragoons counterattacked. Latham used the last of his strength to tear the cloth from the staff and hide it in his coat. Amazingly, Latham survived, earning a commission and a gold medal from his fellow officers.
Of the 1,966 men of Colborne’s brigade, 1,413 became casualties. The 3rd Buffs started the day with 728 men, at the end of which 643 had become casualties.
On June 6th, 1811, they were amalgamated with remnants of 29th Foot, 2nd Bn, 31st Foot, 1st Bn, 57th Foot, and 2nd Bn, 66th Foot, to form The Provisional Battalion. However, drafts from the 2nd Battalion quickly arrived, and thy were reformed on August 7th, giving them the nickname “The Resurrectionists”
The Battle of Albuera was widely recognized as one of the most brutal battles of the war, in which, despite the errors of their commanders, Allied troops, through extraordinary bravery, snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Marshal Soult himself, later, gave perhaps the most fitting tribute:
"There is no beating these troops in spite of their generals. I turned their right, pierced their centre, broke them everywhere; the day was mine, and yet they did not know it and would not run."