Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

 


Albuera 1811 – The Electronic Archives: How the “Die Hards” Got Their Name

By Guy Dempsey

Almost anyone familiar with British military history knows that the “Die Hards” of the 57th Regiment (one of the predecessor units of the current Princess of Wales Royal Regiment) earned their famous nickname at the Battle of Albuera on 16 May 1811.    The traditional version of how that happened is also famous – the nickname is generally believed to have resulted from the actions of the regiment’s commanding officer, Lt. Colonel Sir William Inglis, who remained at his post after being wounded and urged his men to "Die hard!" in the face of a furious and prolonged French assault.  Given, however, that famous stories are not always accurate stories, in the course of researching a book I have written about Albuera, I set out to verify the traditional version of the “Die Hard” story by tracing it back to primary sources.  The surprising findings from my research are that the traditional story 1) cannot be verified and 2) even if it does have some truthful elements, is probably incorrect in its details.

The exact date that the nickname was first applied to the regiment is not known, but within a year of Albuera it was already in common use.  Lt. William Swabey, a Horse Artillery officer who did not arrive in the Peninsula until the late summer of 1811, noted in his diary for 16 May 1812:  "This day was the anniversary of Albuera, and all the regiments here, viz., the 57th, or "Die-hards", 31st, or young Buffs [fn omitted], 3rd, or old Buffs, etc., paid due honor to the occasion. . . .”   The nickname is therefore undeniably real but, surprisingly, there is no similar direct evidence linking the origin of the nickname to words spoken by Inglis.  In fact, I was unable to find any contemporary letter, report, newspaper article, commentary or book concerning Albuera that describes any incident or action involving Colonel Inglis that supports the traditional version of the “Die Hard” story (even though my research included Ensign Benjamin Hobhouse's first-hand account of the battle, Marshal Beresford's dispatch, Inglis' own 1832 description of Albuera in the United Service Journal and his 1837 obituary.).   The only arguably relevant material I found was a 6 June 1811 report in The Times of an incident that parallels the traditional version but involved an anonymous Captain of the 57th  rather than Colonel Inglis:

"In the late battle, a Captain of the 57th Regiment was so severely wounded, that he ought to have quitted the field; but instead of allowing himself to be removed, he directed his men to lay him on the ground at the head of his company, where he continued to give his orders, and was observed to urge, that in firing at the enemy, the musquets [sic] might be levelled low."

(Lieutenant General H. J. Warre’s history of the 57th (1878) identifies this officer (without explanation) as Ralph Fawcett, a 23 year old who was killed during the battle.)

The earliest appearance in print of the traditional version I have been able to find occurs in a letter in the United Service Journal for 1829 written by an anonymous correspondent who signed himself as "A Die-Hard" and who claimed to have been present at Albuera.  Assuming that the writer was indeed with the regiment at the battle, his description of the actions of Colonel Inglis superficially seems to validate the traditional “Die Hard” tale:

"When subsequently struck down by a grape-shot, which had perforated his left breast and lodged in his back, he [Colonel Inglis] lay on the ground close to the regiment, refusing all offers to be carried to the rear, and determined to share the fate of his "die-hards", whom he continued to cheer to steadiness and exertion; and who, encouraged by the voice of their brave commander, continued to close in on their tattered and staff-broken colours, as their comrades fell in the line in which he had formed them."  

However, several points undermine much of the credibility of this statement written 18 years after Albuera.  The first concern, of course, stems from the anonymity of the letter writer, since that eliminates the most obvious means of verifying that he was actually a member of the 57th who participated in the battle.   Second, the writer is incorrect in giving the location of Inglis’ wound, since the colonel was hit in the neck rather than the breast, which suggests that his knowledge was not first-hand.   Third, the similarities between this story and the story of the heroic Captain Fawcett are obvious enough to raise a question as to whether there were two such incidents or only one involving the captain that was later mistakenly described as having involved Inglis.  Finally, even if one accepts that both officers acted in similar fashion, the author of the letter manages to use the key phrase without putting it explicitly in the mouth of Colonel Inglis, so he does provide a direct attribution of the words to Inglis.  

Beyond this one letter, the “Die Hard” story seems to have been unknown before the second half of the 19th Century.  For instance, it does not figure in the histories of the Peninsular War written by Southey and Napier or in any other pre-1850 accounts of Wellington’s armies in the Peninsula.   This is perhaps not so strange, however, when one considers that the story does not actually fit very well with the facts that can be verified about Colonel Inglis at Albuera.  First, upon the death of General Hoghton early in the battle, Colonel Inglis succeeded to command of his whole brigade and so it is unlikely he remained exclusively with his regiment thereafter.  Second, the best available evidence indicates that Inglis was only wounded the very end of the action when there would have been very few of his men left to encourage. Third, according to the surgeon who tended his wounds, the ball that stuck Inglis made "a deep incision in his neck a little above his collar bone," and the effects of such an injury are likely to have made it difficult for him to move his head and jaw enough to speak at all, to say nothing of shouting loud enough to make himself heard above the din of battle. 

I did eventually find two additional pieces of evidence that lend some support the traditional version, but they do not, individually or in combination, constitute definitive proof that Inglis said the words attributed to him.  The first piece of evidence is a May 22, 1852 account in The Times of an Albuera Day commemoration held by the 57th Regiment that year.  The story contains the following statement attributed to a "Major-General M'Donald, C.B.," who is described as one of two veterans attending the dinner who had actually been present at Albuera (the other being George Browne, who had been a Lieutenant in the 23rd regiment in 1811):

"He [M'Donald] added that when the [57th] regiment had sustained a loss of two-thirds of its numbers the lieutenant-colonel [Inglis] called out in a loud voice, 'Close your ranks, 57th -- die hard', which expression was the origin of the name by which the corps is still called."  

This statement seems to provide a definitive answer the question of what Inglis did or did  not say and it seems all the more plausible because it does not involve Inglis using the phrase after he was wounded.  Unfortunately, the article seems to have been wrong about one key fact and that error detracts significantly from the overall reliability of the statement reported by General M’Donald could not have been an eyewitness to any incidents involving Inglis and the 57th.  There were two officers with the surname M’Donald on the rolls of the 57th in 1811 (Lieutenant Colonel Duncan M’Donald and Lieutenant Angus M’Donald), but neither lived long enough to receive the Military General Service Medal in 1847, so neither could be the officer referred to in the article.  In fact, the only officer in the Army List for 1852 that fits the description from the article is Major General John M’Donald, who served at Albuera as a Major in the 14th Portuguese Line, which never left the allied left flank.  So instead of being definitive evidence, the words of M’Donald quoted in the story in The Times appear to be simply a recounting of a popular version of the Die Hard story as it was understood by a particular aged Peninsular veteran, albeit one who had been present at the battle.

The last piece of evidence is found in a two page biography of Inglis written by his son that appears as an appendix in Warre’s regimental history.  Major General William Inglis, Jr., did not fight in the Peninsula but he served in the 57th for many years and so what he knew about the battle must have come from information provided by his father and other Albuera veterans.  His version of the story is significantly different from the traditional version: “. . . this Regiment obtained the appellation of the ‘Die Hards’, from words spoken by their Colonel to his men while standing with ordered arms under a heavy fire.”  This source, however, also falls short of providing definitive proof of the Inglis story given that it was written long after the event and that it also fails to quote actual words spoken by the author’s father.  Furthermore, the regimental history to which the biography is appended concludes that the 57th earned its nickname because of Athe many instances of personal gallantry that distinguished the troops at Albuhera,@ including that of Captain Fawcett and does not make any mention of the words supposedly said by Colonel Inglis.  At the same time, this biography and the statement of Major General M’Donald strongly suggest that even if Inglis did utter the phrase ‘Die hard!’ at some point during the action, he did so before, not after, he was wounded and that the traditional version of the “Die Hard” story mistakenly incorporates heroic details that properly belong to the story of Captain Fawcett.   

In the end, of course, it does not actually make any difference how the 57th got its proud and honorable nickname, since there is no doubt that it was fairly won as a result of the exemplary conduct of the Regiment and its commander at Albuera. As Beresford himself noted in his official report concerning the battle: “. . . it was observed that our dead, particularly the Fifty-seventh Regiment, were lying as the fought in ranks and every wound was in front. . . . and nothing could exceed the conduct and gallantry of Colonel Inglis at the head of his Regiment.”  However, unless some new evidence is discovered that provides eyewitness testimony about Inglis’ actions during the battle, it is impossible to conclude with certainty that he actually uttered the famous words attributed to him.  It appears more likely on the evidence available now that the 57th earned its nickname simply because its solders at Albuera died hard in fact rather than because their colonel urged them to do so.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2009

 

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