Battle of Albuera

Battle of Albuera
Part of the Peninsular War
Bereford.jpg
Marshal Beresford disarming a Polish lancer at the Battle of Albuera. Print by T. Sutherland, 1831.
Date16 May 1811
LocationAlbuera, south of Badajoz, Spain
ResultIndecisive[1][2][3][4]
Belligerents
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland United Kingdom
Flag of Spain (1785–1873, 1875–1931).svg Spain
Flag of Portugal (1750).svg Portugal
First French Empire France
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland William Beresford
Flag of Spain (1785–1873, 1875–1931).svg Joaquin Blake
First French Empire Jean de Dieu Soult
First French Empire Jean-Baptiste Girard
Strength

35,284:
31,385 infantry and 3,899 cavalry, 40–48 guns[5]Anglo-Portuguese Forces: 20,650:

  • 10,449 British: 9,285 infantry, 1,164 cavalry, 24 guns[6]
  • 10,201 Portuguese: 9,352 infantry, 849 cavalry, 12 guns[7]
Spanish Forces: 14,634: 12,748 infantry, 1,886 cavalry, 14 guns[7]
24,260:[8]
20,248 infantry, 4,012 cavalry, 48 guns
Casualties and losses
5,916 to 7,000[9] dead or wounded
1,000 captured[10]

4,159 British
1,368 Spaniards
389 Portuguese.[5]
5,935–7,900 dead or wounded[11]

The Battle of Albuera (16 May 1811) was a battle during the Peninsular War. A mixed British, Spanish and Portuguese corps engaged elements of the French Armée du Midi (Army of the South) at the small Spanish village of Albuera, about 20 kilometres (12 mi) south of the frontier fortress-town of Badajoz, Spain.

From October 1810 Marshal Masséna's Army of Portugal had been tied down in an increasingly hopeless stand-off against Wellington's Allied forces, safely entrenched in and behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. Acting on Napoleon's orders, in early 1811 Marshal Soult led a French expedition from Andalusia into Extremadura in a bid to draw Allied forces away from the Lines and ease Masséna's plight. Napoleon's information was outdated and Soult's intervention came too late; starving and understrength, Masséna's army was already withdrawing to Spain. Soult was able to capture the strategically important fortress at Badajoz on the border between Spain and Portugal[12] from the Spanish, but was forced to return to Andalusia following Marshal Victor's defeat in March at the Battle of Barrosa. However, Soult left Badajoz strongly garrisoned. In April, following news of Masséna's complete withdrawal from Portugal, Wellington sent a powerful Anglo-Portuguese corps commanded by Sir William Beresford to retake the border town. The Allies drove most of the French from the surrounding area and began the Siege of Badajoz.

Soult rapidly gathered a new army from the French forces in Andalusia and, joining with the troops retreating before Beresford, he marched to relieve the siege. With intelligence of another approaching force—a Spanish army under Gen. Joaquín Blake—he planned to turn Beresford's flank and interpose his army between the two. However, Soult was again acting on outdated information; unknown to the Marshal, the Spaniards had already linked up with the Anglo-Portuguese corps, and his 24,000 troops now faced a combined Allied army 35,000 strong.

The opposing armies met at the village of Albuera. Both sides suffered heavily in the ensuing struggle and the French finally withdrew on 18 May. Beresford's army was too battered and exhausted to pursue, but was able to resume the investment of Badajoz. Despite Soult's failure to relieve the town, the battle had little strategic effect on the war. Just one month later, in June 1811, the Allies were forced to abandon their siege by the approach of the reconstituted French Armies of Portugal and Andalusia.

Background

Despite his victory over elements of Marshal André Masséna's Army of Portugal at the Battle of Bussaco in September 1810, Viscount Wellington was forced by Masséna's subsequent maneuvering to withdraw his numerically inferior force behind the extensive series of fortifications he had prepared around Torres Vedras to protect the approaches to Lisbon. By 10 October 1810 only the British light division and some cavalry patrols remained outside the "Lines".[13] Wellington manned the fortifications with "secondary troops"—25,000 Portuguese militia, 8,000 Spaniards and 2,500 British marines and artillerymen—keeping his main field army of British and Portuguese regulars dispersed in order to rapidly meet a French assault on any point of the Lines.[14]

Masséna's Army of Portugal concentrated around Sobral, apparently in preparation to attack. However, after a fierce skirmish on 14 October in which the strength of the Lines became apparent, the French dug themselves in rather than launch a costly full-scale assault. They remained entrenched for a month before falling back to a position between Santarém and Rio Maior.[15] Following Masséna's withdrawal, Wellington moved the 2nd Division under Lt. Gen. Hill, along with two Portuguese brigades and an attachment of Dragoons, across the Tagus to protect the plains of Alentejo—both from Masséna and a possible attack from Andalusia by the French Army of the South.[16]

Jean de Dieu Soult

Napoleon had previously sent dispatches to Marshal Soult, commander of the Army of the South, urging him to send assistance to Masséna.[17] The Emperor's orders were based on outdated intelligence and called for only a small force; by the time Soult received them the situation had changed considerably.[18] Soult now knew a successful attack against Lisbon was beyond his means with the forces proposed—there were 30,000 Allied troops and six major fortresses between his army and the Portuguese capital—but he had received orders nonetheless and felt obliged to do something.[17] He therefore gathered an army of 20,000 men, mainly from V Corps, and launched an expedition into Extremadura with the limited aim of capturing the fortress at Badajoz and hopefully drawing some of the Allied forces away from their impregnable positions in the Lines.[19] Along with V Corps, this venture also pulled both infantry and cavalry from Marshal Victor's I Corps who were besieging Cádiz at the time. Soult ordered more of Victor's men to fill the gaps left by his use of V Corps; this was bitterly opposed by Victor since it severely weakened his own forces, leaving him with only 15,000 men besieging a city garrisoned by around 26,000 Allied troops.[20]

Following a successful campaign in Extremadura, on 27 January 1811 Soult began his investment of Badajoz. Almost immediately the Spanish Army of Extremadura arrived in the vicinity with some 15,000 troops under the command of Gen. Mendizabal. Soult's army, too small to surround Badajoz, was unable to prevent 3,000 of Mendizabal's men from reinforcing the fortress and the remainder occupying the heights of San Cristóbal. This posed a major threat to the French, so Soult moved at once to engage. In the ensuing Battle of the Gebora the French inflicted 1,000 casualties on the Spanish field army and took 4,000 prisoners, at a cost to themselves of only 400 casualties. The remnants of Mendizabal's defeated army fled towards Badajoz or into Portugal.[21]

The garrison of Badajoz, ably commanded by Gen. Rafael Menacho, initially put up strong resistance and by 3 March the French had made little progress against the powerful fortress. On that day, however, Menacho was killed on the ramparts by a chance shot; command of the garrison fell to Brig. Gen. José Imaz and the Spanish defense started to slacken.[22] The walls were finally breached on 10 March. Soult was anxious to press the siege since he had learned that Masséna, in command of a disintegrating army plagued by sickness, starvation and an unusually harsh Portuguese winter, had retreated from Portugal. Concerned that the British would now be free to send a contingent to relieve Badajoz, Soult sent a deputation into the town to demand the garrison's surrender. Imaz duly capitulated and the French took possession of the fortress on 11 March.[23]

On 12 March, news of Victor's defeat at the Battle of Barrosa reached Soult and he left Badajoz to return to Andalusia, anxious that the siege of Cádiz had been lifted. Reaching Seville on 20 March he was relieved to find that Victor's siege lines still held and Andalusia remained under French control.[24] Before his departure Soult had consolidated his gains in Extremadura by garrisoning Badajoz with 11,000 French troops under the command of Marshal Édouard Mortier.[25]