Albuera 1811 – The Electronic Archives: The Ordeal of Lt. Matthew Latham
Edited by Guy Dempsey
Although the extraordinary bravery exhibited by Lt. Matthew Latham of the 3rd Foot, or “Buffs”, in saving the King’s colour of his regiment is now well known, that was not always the case. In 1840, John Morrison, a surgeon who had served with the Buffs, was so incensed by the omission of any mention of Latham in the first history of the regiment compiled by Richard Cannon that he decided to set the record straight in a long letter to the editor of a popular military publication.
United Service Gazette
London, April 25, 1840, Issue No. 382, page 3, col. 1.
“ Preservation of the Colours of the Buffs at Albuera.
To the Editor of the United Service Gazette
Sir - The gallant action which will form the subject of this communication occurred many years back, but although universally known at the time in the Peninsular army, and although the brave officer who performed it received the reward of his noble zeal and courage, yet to this very hour justice still remains to be done to him, and historical truth still remains to be vindicated.
At the battle of Albuera, on the 17 May, 1811, the 3rd Regiment of Foot, or Buffs (owing to an error to which I shall allude more particularly ) was surrounded by a large force of French and Polish cavalry. The ensign (Thomas) who carried the regimental colour was shot dead in the commencement of the struggle, and the colour captured.. The King’s Colour was carried by Lieutenant Matthew Latham. He was attacked by several French hussars, one of whom seizing the flag-staff, and rising in his stirrup, aimed a stroke at the head of the gallant Latham, which failed in cutting him down, but which sadly mutilated him, severing one side of the face and nose; he still however, struggled with the dragoon, and exclaimed, “I will surrender it only with my life.” A second sabre struck severing his left arm and hand, in which he held the staff, from his body. The brave fellow, however, then seized the staff with his right hand, throwing away his sword, and continued to struggle with his opponents, now increased in number; when ultimately thrown down, trampled upon and pierced by the spears of the Polish lancers, his last effort was to tear the flag from the staff as he thus lay prostrate, and to thrust it partly into the breast of his jacket. The number of Latham’s adversaries impeded their efforts to destroy him, and the dragoons were ultimately driven off by the 7th Fusiliers, and 48th regiments, which came up to support the Buffs. The greater part of the latter corps, was, however, made prisoners, and sent to the rear. The brave Latham was turned over by a soldier of the 7th Fusiliers, and the colour which he had thus preserved found under him. Latham was left on the field, supposed to have been killed, and the flag was sent on the evening following the battle to the headquarters of the Buffs, with a statement of the manner of its recovery.
Latham, however, although so desperately wounded, was not killed; in two hours afterwards he crawled on his remaining hand and knees towards the river of Albuera, and was found by some of the orderlies of the army attempting to slake his thirst in the stream; he was carried into the convent, where his wounds were dressed, the stump of his arm amputated, and he ultimately recovered. He immediately received his company in the “Canadian Fencible Infantry,” and an opportunity offering itself soon after, of an exchange into the corps his gallantry had so highly distinguished, he remained with the comrades by who he was so highly loved and esteemed.
The officers of the Buffs entered into a subscription to purchase a gold medal for Latham (value one hundred guineas), on which his gallant action was represented in higher relief, and to which the sentiment he had uttered as stated above, served as a motto. The permission of the Sovereign was applied for, through the Commander-in-Chief, and officially granted, that Captain Latham should wear the medal presented by his comrades in arms, suspended by a scarlet riband, edged with buff, at his breast; which he ever did whilst he remained in the corps, and, no doubt, still preserves with care that honourable badge.
Latham, after recovering from his severe wounds, joined the 2nd battalion of his regiment in England. This battalion was commanded in 1815 by the gallant Colonel James Fergusson, late of the 52nd Light Infantry, known honourably in the Peninsular war, where he served in the 43rd regiment; by the appellation of the “storming captain,” from the many occasions on which he had volunteered to lead storming parties, in all of which he had highly distinguished himself.
Such a soul as Fergusson’s, could appreciate and esteem a kindred spirit like Latham’s. The 2nd battalion of the Buffs was stationed at Brighton in 1815. Latham was presented to the Sovereign, George the Fourth, then Prince Regent, by his colonel. That Sovereign had a soul to estimate heroic valour, and had his own aspirations for military renown been gratified in obtaining the rank and command he so eagerly sought, his name would today (I doubt not) be numbered in the foremost ranks of the brave. His virtues and his errors now sleep in the tomb; but let me snatch from oblivion one trait of his nobleness of soul.
When Latham’s heroic action was stated to him, the Prince, after expressing in strong terms, his admiration of his valour, observed “that the mutilation which Latham had undergone admitted of alleviation; that he had latterly heard of many cases in which a celebrated surgeon of London - the illustrious Carpue (who still lives to attest this statement), had succeeded, by a revived and improving operation, in almost miraculously repairing the most frightful mutilation of the face.” He added, “If Captain Latham should feel disposed to avail himself of Mr. Carpue’s aid, I shall be proud to be allowed to defray the entire expense of the operation and cure.”
Latham assented to this kind proposition; the operation was performed in the summer of 1815, by Mr. Carpue, assisted by the surgeon of the Buffs, Mr. Anderson, who still lives. The author of this memoir subsequently attended with Mr. Carpue during the progress of the cure, and it was attended with the most perfect success.
Captain Latham retired from the service some years subsequently; in fact, “the weak piping times of peace” ill-suited the heroic ardour of his character, and he lives at this moment in a secluded part of France, where for years he has remained, unnoticed and unknown. This, however, is his choice and his wish, and even friendship claims no right to interfere with his selection; but history still remains to be vindicated.. Latham’s name belongs to that of his country, and he must not complain that this tardy debt to truth should at length be paid.
Colonel Napier, in his splendid History of the Peninsular War, in narrating the battle of Albuera, and the disaster of the Buffs, and speaking of the capture and rescue of the Standard, gives the honour to Ensign Thomas (who, as I have stated, was killed on the spot), and never even mentions the name of Latham, to whom all the honour belongs. He also puts the sentiment I have quoted into the mouth of Thomas. The High and honourable fame of Napier is a sufficient guarantee, that when he shall have satisfied himself of the correctness of this detail, he will correct that page of his history in which the error occurs, which it is almost inconceivable should have remained uncorrected during so many years, whilst so many officers survive to whom the facts are known; but “what is everyone’s business is no one’s,” and this, added to Latham’s determination to abandon the world, has left the matter unquestioned to this day.
In the history and achievements of the Buffs, which has been lately published, by authority, uniformly with that of other regiments, the story of the affair of Albuera has been taken from Colonel Napier’s history, and of course does not contain the name of Latham.
Should I have been the means of doing justice to the fame of an old brother officer, and of assisting historical truth, I shall feel proud and gratified.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
John Morrison, M.D.,
Late 1st Regt. Dragoons, and formerly Assistant Surgeon
3rd Regt. Foot, or Buffs
12 Arundel-street, Strand, London, April 12, 1840 ‘’
Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2008