Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


A German Officer on the Spanish Staff at Albuera, 1811

By Donald E. Graves

 

Andreas Berthold von Schepeler was a Westphalian officer serving in the Prussian army who was forced to leave Prussian service after the defeat of 1806. In 1809 he travelled to Spain and acquired an appointment on the staff of the Spanish army, rising to the rank of colonel. An intelligent and literate man, Schepeler published a history of the Peninsular War in three volumes in German which was translated into French and Spanish and his account of the battle of Albuera, in which he participated, is of great interest to students of that engagement because it is one of the few eyewitness accounts available from the Spanish side. Schepeler's basic description of the battle in his main text is brief and straightforward but he added footnotes describing his personal experiences in the action that contain colourful anecdotes and interesting information.

The translation below is taken from Andreas Berthold von Schepeler, Histoire de la Révolution d'Espagne et de Portugal ainsi que de la Guerre Qui en Résulta … (Liege, 3 volumes, J. Desoer, 1831), vol 3, pp. 266-277. In places, I have added new paragraphing to improve the narrative flow.

-- Translation ot Schepeler's Text --

On the 14th [of May 1811], the three Generals [Blake, Castaños and Beresford] conferred at Valverde. On the 15th, Beresford led his army to Albuera, and Blake's corps arrived there that night, after a forced march. When the infantry crossed that evening at Almendral, the cavalry had already skirmished in the vicinity. It arrived at midnight at the position and, a rather singular thing, marched through the middle of the British cavalry bivouacs of the British cavalry without anyone shouting: "Who goes there!"

The brook of the Albuera, which runs from south to the northeast, from the village of the same name to its junction with the Guadiana, resembles a small river by its its increasing depth and width. The village is located on the left bank which, to the confluence, completely dominates the right in highly visible heights: this left part of our position was quite strong. In front of the place [Albuera] is a narrow, inconvenient bridge and 200 toises above is is another, rather wide, of stone and, 200 paces further, a brook joins the Albuera, which makes the bottom a little marshy. Higher still, the Albuera is fordable almost everywhere. The right bank looks like the left but is even gentler and consists of very undulating hills, so that the right wing could not find a point of security because the ground towards Almendral is continually rising. On the other side, and along the brook mentioned above, extends, while descending, a chain of heights covered by a woods through which the Santa Marta road runs, leaving, with respect to the village of Albuera, a broad, open and uniform space, somewhat distant below the small river.

On the morning of the 16th [May 1811] the allied army was on the right and left of Albuera in two lines. On the right flank Ballesteros was in the first, Zayas and Lardizabal in the second line while, in the centre of the first, the English division of Stewart, and on the left flank the Portuguese of General Hamilton. A brigade of the latter, with Cole's division (and also España's), was just approaching from Badajoz, and the Portuguese brigade of Hervey, formed the second line of the centre and the left flank, which went down to the left of the village, which was occupied by the light brigade (German) of Alten. The cavalry under General Lumley were extended on the right of the Spanish on the heights along the Albuera.

The Spanish numbered 12,000 bayonets, the English and Portuguese 13,500, and the cavalry 2,000 horses. There were 32 pieces of artillery. The second line was on the highest point of the of the hills and behind it was the course of the Rivillas brook which joins the Guadiana, close to Badajoz.

The morning was misty and threatened rain. After daybreak, enemy cavalry troops skirmished with the picquets on the other side of the Albuera, pushed them in on this side and, at 8 o'clock, two regiments of dragoons (General Briché) appeared in the plain [on the far side of Albuera] with a light artillery battery. General Godinot followed with infantry and made as if to attack the village. A Spanish battery on the height of the church answered the French and this thunder began a bloody day.

Castaños, Beresford and Blake were gathered with their generals and staffs on the height beside the village, between the first and the second lines [Note 1] where, during lunch [breakfast], they observed the movements of the nearby enemy. The general opinion was that a threat to the right flank seemed dangerous as an attack on the right, in the event of a defeat, would drive us away from the road to Andalusia. And yet, Soult's bold plan was to crush the right wing of the allies, to cut them off from Valverde, and throw them on Badajoz and the Guadiana. While Briché and Godinot threatened Albuera, Girard marched with two divisions of the 5th Corps, followed by the reserve under General Werlé, by way of Santa Marta in the south, and descended the wooded slopes near the brook close to the heights on right bank of Albuera, whose reverse slopes were also covered by bushy woods.

The enemy cavalry were already descending the slope [to the stream] at the moment when Beresford formed to refuse his flank on the rear of the line of Zayas' division and part of that of General Cole. But the enemy crossed the Albuera, and Zayas was sent towards a dominant hill distant by some 1,100 paces, previously on right flank but now located in front of the face of the elbow [formed at the junction of the previous line] the second division (Lardizabal) followed him. 

It was none too soon to deploy at this spot because French skirmishers were already close. Latour-Maubourg, preceding the enemy infantry, and covering its left flank, had already occupied a rise, distant by 400 paces from the other, with horse artillery, which Lumley had left, to extend, en potence, through the bottom of the Revillas on the right (perpendicular to his previous position), to prevent the right from being outflanked.

Zayas was still occupied deploying his troops and two guns were just getting into position when, on the hill opposite, the leading elements of the enemy infantry appeared, and heavier artillery replaced the light pieces that had followed the cavalry, which now moved on the left towards Valverde. Beside Zayas marched the second division while Ballesteros formed the extreme left wing. In this line, only 1,200 paces distant from Albuera, the troops formed in two lines with small intervals with part of Blake's first two divisions occupied the former position of Ballesteros, and a battalion occupied, behind the left flank of that general, a height which was near to the marshy ground mentioned above.

This new position was perpendicular to the previous facing of the army and supported the left wing in Albuera while that village remained occupied by Alten. Hamilton advanced with his Portuguese into the previous first line, to support, where the Spanish battalions had been, the battle against Godinot for the passage of the river. This part of the previous position was now the angle and prevented the left wing from being outflanked and Otway's Portuguese cavalry brigade was also here. Stewart's division marched in columns behind the hill occupied by Zayas. Cole, who had been previously positioned with the second line of English and Portuguese, further on the right and partly in the valley of the Revillas, now formed in line between Stewart and the cavalry, which constantly continued to extend with respect to the enemy. In short, the two armies marched to their positions to do battle, the loss of which threatened the allies with complete destruction. 

A movement more early and more promptly made to the right of the first position, would have preserved the army on the heights between Albuera and Revillas, curtailed the turning movement of the enemy, and not left so much to fate and fortune. 

However, before the new line of battle was formed, the enemy advanced quickly down the hill, where his batteries were positioned, in columns, against the Spanish. The [Spanish] field guns were soon reduced to silence, an ammunition cart exploded and the enemy battery fired full discharges against the battalions. One on the right (led here by España from his division) yielded and the Irlanda regiment of Zaya's command took its place. The fire opened on them stopped some of the French masses on the left but, nevertheless, others pressed on resolutely across the gap between the two hills when, at the same moment, the first brigade of General Stewart's division, in columns of half-companies, advanced beyond the right of Zayas against the enemy battery. It soon reached the left flank of the French assailants, wheeled left and pushed them back to the foot of the height with the bayonet. As the enemy collapsed, two regiments of hussars and the Polish lancers charged the rear of the English line and dispersed the whole brigade [Note 2]. A [field artillery] battery, almost 800 prisoners, with their brave colonel Colborne, and three colours [Note 3] were taken by the French. Only the last battalion was withdrawn in time from the hill where it had advanced. An error, that the Spaniards did not advance in line with the English, preserved this important position.

The enemy [cavalry], drunk with victory, began to shout, "Now, there are only the Gavachos (Spanish)!", and charging straight ahead at the gallop and in disorder, passed between the first and second allied lines. The English in the rear line fire a full volley and the Spanish in their front received their share of it. Nevertheless, they held firm and those few riders in the intervals [between the two lines] did not escape. 

The French columns in front reformed and attacked again with their reserve, and also those battalions on the left which had deployed when the English and Portuguese formed the line mentioned above on the right of the hill. An English brigade replaced España, close to Zayas.

The murderous combat now became an extended battle and, on the side of the allies, in line, according to the old way.

When Colborne advanced, two English guns (Note 4) had taken position on the hill but were soon after replaced by two Spanish, which enfiladed the enemy advancing on the right in line but their officer and almost all of the gunners were killed. The head of a dense enemy column then appeared on the bloody hill and pushed back a battalion. Zayas' troops had expended all their ammunition. The 4th battalion of the [Spanish Royal] guards, on the left and which had not been relieved, searched the pockets of dead and when these did not provide any more ammunition, remained quiet and steady in the midst of a destructive fire. An English brigade (Houghton's) assembled in the second line and then took over the Spanish position in line but the English were obliged to retire almost to the position of the 4th battalion of the guards' position. 

On the left flank were, in platoons, were two battalions from Ballesteros' division (Note 5), huddled together from the fire but nevertheless the General held them in their position until they were relieved. The lack of cavalry in the centre prevented, for fear of the enemy cavalry, some English battalions attacking the crumbling enemy opposite with the bayonet. They were withdrawn in good order to the rear, after having fired all their cartridges and lay down on the ground behind a gentle slope, quietly awaiting the outcome. 

Harvey's Portuguese brigade, on the extreme right flank, while waiting, had repulsed a cavalry attack, and all the line of the allies then advanced against the French. In front of Albuera village, there was a lively skirmish with the enemy who had penetrated to the houses at the bottom [of the heights] but the passage of the bridge was disputed in a bloody way, although Beresford included in the line some battalions of the main line. Thus the battle ebbed and flowed and, from the right side of the hill, where they fired at fifteen paces, to Albuera, it remained undecided.

The French, now almost all in massive columns, with only the front ranks able to fire, suffered dreadfully. General Pépin fell, mortally wounded, Generals Gazan, Maransin and Brayer were wounded and, when Werlé led forwards the last part of the reserve, he received a mortal wound. 

The massive column still held firm on the peak of the hill and opposite as an English regiment, whose right flank had bent round behind it in a definite hook, when Zayas took the Spanish back up on the hill. The brave legion advanced in close order, with shouldered arms, through the narrow open gap. They were just ten paces distant from the enemy, when they were suddenly routed and fled. A Portuguese light battalion ran, at the same moment onto the right of the hill, into the left side of the column, and its front ranks turned and ran. Those behind, suffering from fire without the possibility of resistance, folded under the pressure and those on the flanks also melted away, following the first fugitives and it was a complete rout and dispersion. As if the landscape changed suddenly its appearance, from the hill to the river there was only retreating troops and the three battalions in reserve did not hold much longer and all ran across the Albuera. The left flank, fearing that they would be attacked, followed them in haste and the cavalry covered their retirement.

There is no doubt that, if only the allied centre of the allies had advanced quickly, the enemy army would have been completely split. However, there was not even a squadron of cavalry there as the sudden victory had been a surprise and the battalions on the right of the hill, still insufficiently supplied with ammunition, advanced slowly and with pauses. A new attack made by Godinot against Albuera was only regarded with scant attention, and considered too unimportant to obtain a victory for an already beaten army. This [the French] army formed itself on the heights on the other side of the Albuera, where its artillery was ordered to protect it but nevertheless it slipped away, in spite of the efforts of the officers, in the space of time before some [allied] battalions reformed. Only a few companies of allied riflemen advanced towards the small brook and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry, compacted into a dense mass between the two passages of the Albuera and in great danger, owed its survival to General Lumley. He formed, with care, a line on the height and fired some artillery into the enemy troops but he did not even send a battalion to fire a full volley into the hard-pressed horsemen. Such a move could have been risked because there would certainly have been disorder with each movement toward the violent press, and as the infantry had obtained the victory, it was necessary for the cavalry to finish it. However, Lumley repeated the example of Sackvile at the battle of Minden in the Seven Years War, he built a bridge of gold for the enemy, as Beresford had likewise done.

The day had started rainy and a violent downpour fell when the English brigade advanced but, nevertheless, the shaking thunder of the battle, which lasted up to three o'clock in the afternoon, divided the clouds and produced a pure sky. However, about the evening it darkened again and the night was wet and cold. As the allied army was on the hills of battle without firewood and the wet undergrowth provided only a weak fire, the wood of thousands of musket butts maintained it slightly. But who could describe the suffering of the allied casualties ... and their number was great! The Spaniards had approximately 2,000 dead and wounded, the Portuguese 389, and the English 3,616 with 600 taken prisoner. The remainder of the dispersed brigade had escaped in the fight, and the enemy had taken away only a single gun. The battalions of Zayas' division on the hill, hardly 1,500 men strong, alone counted 900 dead and wounded. Myers's English brigade had 1,000 of them, and that of General Houghton, which advanced with 1,500 bayonets, had lost 1,050. These two English commanders died gloriously at the head of their brigades. Beresford himself had been attacked behind the second line by a lancer but a dragoon dispatch rider killed him. Lieutenant-Colonel Oppen (who came to Spain with the author) upset another overthrew a lancer's horse. Brigadier de España then ran up courageously to kill this defenceless enemy but the noble German would not permit it.

Soult lost 8,000 men, and there were many French wounded and taken prisoner. The massacre of the 15,000 men was for the most part between the two hills.

Schepeler's Notes

Note 1

The battle of Albuera has been described as inaccurately by the French as by the English. The first do not render justice to the last and they, in their turn, refuse it to the Spanish. The author will tell, not through vanity, what he saw and heard because combat and battle are largely gained by chance, and each soldier present did what he could. The author was attached to General Zayas and was having lunch [breakfast] and here the majority of the telescopes were pointed to the front and to the left. Remembering the boldness of Soult from 1799 in Switzerland, the author believed there would be an attack against the right flank and watching the wooded heights, he soon saw the flash of bayonets in columns. His involuntary exclamation, "It is from there that they come, there they attack" made all heads turn that way, and Blake ordered him to gallop towards the hill on the right. At the same time the formation of a refused flank was ordered. On arriving at the hill, the author saw the head of the [French] columns descending on the other side of the Albuera, returned at the gallop and made signals but Zayas was already advancing.

The author then met Marshal Beresford and leading him to the hill, showed him the columns at the far end and said "the French are supported by cavalry and a successful attack on their battery and the hill might separate the French Army, it would be good if we also had some squadrons in the centre." The marshal replied that he would find some cavalry. After the battle, the author learned that Penne[-Villemur] and his troops had been on the far end on the right of the hill but because of the heavy fire, had withdrawn closer to Lumley. When Colborne's English brigade advanced, the author rode everywhere to point out the danger [of their exposed flank] to Beresford, and met Castaños who [said] he would convey the message to the marshal. The author, however, could not find Beresford and warned some of officers of the column about the enemy cavalry and returned close to Zayas. This general had remained firm on the hill without moving forward and we soon saw the English dispersed. A lance thrust, aimed from behind at his side, demonstrated to the author that those riders which penetrated [between the lines] at the gallop were the enemy. Beresford's report says "The Spanish had lost the hill." From the beginning to the end of the battle, the author was at this point from which one overlooked the two lines.

A little later, the author had again led the Irlanda regiment forwards with its colour, moving a little to the right, lost a company of strength and another battalion took its place; the guards on the left remained immovable.  When the English came up to relieve them, the author suddenly found himself in front of a British battalion, led by a General and Cruz-Murgeon, and went forward, waving his hat and shouting "Hurrah!" to them. When the battle ended, Zayas placed himself in front of the left wing of the guards (now in the second line), which, because of the English battalion, bent a little backwards. The author led them to the right and found himself, by chance first, all alone in a French column, where a miraculous destiny preserved him intact. When the enemy fled, he galloped towards the closest Portuguese (on the right), so that they should climb up the hill of the enemy, and once again later, for them to advance against the cavalry at the Albuera. Each time they gave him that answer that there was no order [to do so]. When finally an order arrived, to be honest a little too late, he left them, nevertheless, moving again into defensive formation. The author led some Spanish, once more provided with cartridges, against the right flank of the cavalry, which had passed the small river, and immediately saw what great effect some battalions would have produced at that spot, and what brilliant results if they had been joined together with a cavalry attack. We were so little familiar with victory that we were surprised by the smile of fortune and were satisfied to just drive the enemy away.

On the 19th, the author in vain asked (also of General Alava come with Wellington) for a company of light infantry, to attack, at least in the mountains, the column of English prisoners [taken by Soult] but they laughed at the plea. For the English who read this book, he will add again here that beside him there was a seriously wounded staff officer or English general, who fell from his horse and that, on his right, another was wounded. There was also a senior officer who, on the morning of the 17th, came near us to meet the battalion that, he said, his people had had to drive out of the place [when the replaced them in line]. One could tell, with two lines of dead and seriously wounded, the place where the 4th battalion of the guard had been. An English battalion to the left and partly above exhibited two similar lines.

It is only to record for the Spanish their share of the victory that the author wrote this long note. 

Note 2

After the battle I found a soldier of this brigade fatally wounded and lying on his stomach only twenty paces from the place where the enemy battery had been. On asking if he still lived, the Englishman answered "Yes, but who won the battle?, I answered "Us" and he asked: "Who is this 'us'"? "English and Spanish." "Ah well, well" sighed this hero for the last time. Not far from Albuera, supported on his left arm and half-raised, was a French officer, with a leg smashed to pieces by a roundshot and the pain of this first defeat was painted obviously on his truly handsome face, "You are seriously wounded", I asked him, and a simple "Yes, Sir" was his answer. When some Portuguese, whom I called, arrived, he said seriously "I thank you very much, Sir" but not another word, not another complaint left his lips.

Note 3

The French say six, which would be all those accompanying the three regiments but nevertheless, I did myself, [later] see one flying and another torn and, if I am not mistaken, they took only three.  

Note 4

Those were commanded by Lieutenant Scharnhorst, currently a Prussian major and son of the famous General Scharnhorst, to whom Prussia owes so much for its restoration.

Note 5

Don Emétrio Vélardé, general staff officer, fell from his horse, mortally wounded. He gave his service papers to a friend to save them and expired with these words: "I die, content, for my fatherland." 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2005

 

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