Beresford’s campaign in Estremadura, March-May 1811

Marshal William Beresford was one of the most important British commanders of the Peninsular War, but he only held one important independent command, in Estremadura in the spring of 1811. The most important British campaign at the end of 1810 had been the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras, which had prevented Marshal Masséna from capturing Lisbon. The Lines of Torres Vedras had been built across the peninsula between the Tagus and the Portuguese coast, and had stopped the French advance, but they did have a potentially vulnerable flank along the Tagus. While the French were close to the lines, this had not been a problem, but when Masséna retreated to Santarem an attack east of the Tagus became a real possibility, and so Wellington posted a strong force under General Hill east of the Tagus to guard against any French move in that direct.

On 29 November Hill was taken ill, and was replaced by Richard Stewart, his most senior brigadier. Stewart was too aggressive for Wellington’s purposes, and in the month he was in charge repeatedly asked for permission to attack the French. On 30 December 1810 he was replaced by William Beresford, a commander Wellington trusted not to launch any unwanted attacks. Beresford had been in Portugal since early in 1809, when he had been created a Marshal of Portugal and given the task of reforming the Portuguese army. He was a brilliant organiser, but not perhaps the best battlefield commander in Wellington’s army.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

In January 1811 Marshal Soult had begun an invasion of Estremadura, which culminated in the French siege of Badajoz (27 January-10 March 1811). The Spanish launched an attempt to relief the siege, but it ended with a disastrous defeat at the battle of the Gebora of 19 February 1811. When it seemed likely that Badajoz would hold out, Wellington decided to dispatch a second relief expedition to Estremadura. Beresford was given the British 2nd and 4th Divisions and Hamilton’s Portuguese division, a force of 18,000 men and on 8 March was ordered to march for Badajoz.

His purpose of his expedition would soon change. On 9 March Wellington received a false report that Masséna had decided to stand and fight, and so Beresford was ordered to halt around Abrantes, while the 4th Division and one brigade from the 2nd was ordered to rejoin the main army. The march south only resumed on 12 March, and the 4th division was only released on 15 March.

By this time Badajoz had already fallen. By 10 March the French had made a breach in the walls, and the governor of Badajoz surrendered, before the French assault and despite knowing that Beresford was on his way. News of this reached the British on 14 March, and Beresford’s mission changed from the relief of Badajoz to the recapture of the place. Although this was a more difficult task, it was less urgent, allowing Beresford to slow the pace of his march. On the same day that the British learnt of the fall of Badajoz, Marshal Soult left the city with half of his army, returning to Andalusia. Marshal Mortier was left at Badajoz with 11,000 men and orders to refortify the place and capture the remaining minor fortresses on the Portuguese border. 

Marshal Mortier was busy in the gap between Soult’s departure and Beresford’s arrival. On the day that Soult departed for Andalusia, Mortier left Badajoz heading for Campo Mayor, ten miles to the north west, reaching the town on the same day. Despite being weakly garrisoned and poorly fortified, the siege of Campo Mayor lasted for eight days, only ending on 21 March. At the same time as Mortier was attacking Campo Mayor, Latour-Maubourg, with only two cavalry regiments, captured the fortress of Albuquerque (15-16 March) and found Valencia de Alcantara undefended (17 March). Mortier then returned to Badajoz, leaving Latour-Maubourg with 2,400 men to demolish the fortifications of Campo Mayor.

The French would not have time to begin their planned demolitions, for on 24 March Beresford’s entire column was present at Arronches, fourteen miles to the north west of Campo Mayor. On that day some of Beresford’s Portuguese cavalry found the French pickets, three miles outside Campo Mayor, but understandably the French were unable to distinguish between these Portuguese cavalrymen and the cavalry they had been encountering every day. On the next morning Latour-Maubourg was visiting his pickets when the Allied army came into view. Beresford had a chance to isolate and capture the entire French detachment, but he was rather let down by his cavalry. Having driven off a French dragoon regiment, the British 13th Light Dragoons became involved in a prolonged pursuit, which only ended outside the walls of Badajoz. This allowed most of the French to escape to safety in Badajoz (combat of Campo Mayor, 25 March 1811).

Beresford was now faced with the problem of how to cross the Guadiana. His orders were to cross at Jerumenha, a Portuguese fortress south west of Badajoz, but this order was based on the belief that the Spanish had floated enough pontoons to form a bridge down the river from Badajoz. Unfortunately for Beresford this was not the case. Most of the pontoons had been captured by the French and only five could be found at Jerumenha. An attempt was made to build a trestle bridge across the shallow parts of the river, with the five pontoons in the deep middle section, but this bridge was swept away on the night of 3-4 April. Beresford was also delayed by the need to gather fresh supplies, for the defeated Spanish Army of Estremadura had retreated into Portugal and consumed the supplies that had already been gathered, and by the need to find new shoes for the 4th Division.

Beresford had been ready to cross the river on 4 April. One squadron of cavalry had crossed the river using a ford only usable by horses, and was now cut off by the rising waters. Inexplicably the French were not watching the Allied force at Jerumenha, and so this isolated cavalry force was left unmolested. During the day a flying bridge was thrown across the river, but the water continued to rise on the following day. A second flying bridge was in place by the end of 5 April, and three squadrons of cavalry and the 2nd Division crossed on the night of 5-6 April. Extra pontoons arrived from Lisbon on 5 April, and were formed into a very narrow bridge, partly constructed of wine casks. By the morning of 7 April the entire Allied force was across the Guadiana and the French had missed a great chance to defeat Beresford’s force in detail.

This may in part have been due to a change of command, for on 26 March Mortier had been recalled to Paris and Latour-Maubourg had been placed in charge of the French army in Estremadura. He finally reacted to the Allied advance on the night of 6-7 February, sending two cavalry regiments and four infantry battalions to interfere with the river crossing. By the time they reached the Allied positions the entire army was across the river, but the French did still managed to capture an entire squadron of British cavalry, two officers and fifty men, early in the morning of 7 February.

Latour-Maubourg was now in a dangerous position. If he waited too long at Badajoz, then it was possible that he would be trapped in the city, and so he decided to split his force. 400 men were placed in the weak fortress of Olivenza, on the road from the Allied camp to Badajoz. 3,000 men under General Phillipon were left in Badajoz, enough to man the now repaired walls. The rest of the army retreated to Albuera, on the road that led south east from Badajoz towards Andalusia, and then further south to Santa Marta and beyond. For the moment the only French forces in central Estremadura were the garrisons of Badajoz and of Olivenza.

Olivenza was soon captured by the Allies. This second siege in three months was even shorter than the first, lasting from 9-15 April, and ended once a breach had been blown in the walls. Meanwhile, Beresford had taken most of his army to follow Latour-Maubourg, with the intention of chasing him out of Estremadura. At this point he had no siege train, and so there was no point taking up a position outside Badajoz.

The pursuit of Latour-Maubourg lasted until 20 April. As Beresford advanced south east, the French retreated. The only significant clash came on 16 April when the British 13th Light Dragoons routed the French 2nd Hussars at Los Santos. The French evacuated their last garrisons from the Estremaduran side of the mountains on 19 April, and took up a position at Guadalcanal, on the borders of Andalusia. On the following day Beresford turned back towards Badajoz.

The British army in Portugal had one weakness – a lack of big guns. The only heavy artillery available to Beresford came from the Portuguese fortress of Elvas, and much of that was outdated at best, and antique at worst – many of the only 23 heavy guns that Major Alexander Dickson was able to find were nearly 200 years old, and dated from the reign of Philip III of Spain! Dickson was not ready to begin the siege until 5 May, and even then the artillery train was totally inadequate to attack a major fortress such as Badajoz.

Wellington made a personal visit to Elvas and Badajoz on 20-25 April, while Beresford was clearing the French out of Estremadura. After inspected the defences of Badajoz, Wellington issued orders for the siege, which involved attacking the three main outworks before moving on to attack the town itself. This plan would be used during both the first and second British sieges of Badajoz, and would play a major part in their failure, for the Fort of San Cristobal was too strong for the limited British siege train to attack. Wellington also left more sensible orders on how to deal with any French relief army, recommending fighting them at Albuera unless they appeared in overwhelming strength.

The first siege of Badajoz finally began on 6 May, but it was only to last for one week. Beresford’s engineers concentrated their efforts against the Fort of San Cristobal, but without success. Two gun batteries did open fire on the defences, but both were quickly overpowered by the French. A sortie launched from the fort failed to damage the siege works, but an over-enthusiastic pursuit meant that the British and Portuguese suffered twice the casualties of the French. Finally, on 12 May news reached Beresford that Soult was on his way at the head of a relief army, and on the following day the British and Portuguese troops left Badajoz, and moved south east to intercept the new French army. 

By this time Beresford had been joined by two Spanish armies. Castaños had arrived to take command of the wreck of the Army of Estremadura, destroyed at the Battle of the Gebora. He was the senior Spanish general present at Albuera. A second force, under General Ballesteros, had been operating in the area at the start of Soult’s original invasion of Estremadura. Ballesteros had briefly threatened Seville, before eventually being forced to retreat to the west. Two more divisions, under General Blake, were then sent to join Ballesteros, and the combined force would form part of the Allied army at Albuera.

Soult had left Estremadura on 14 March, to restore the situation in Andalusia. It soon became clear that he would need to return across the mountains to relieve Badajoz. On 10 April communications with Badajoz were cut, and Soult began to gather a relief force. He calculated that he would need 25,000 men to defeat Beresford and any Spanish forces that might be in the area. Both Soult and Napoleon underestimated the size of the British, Portuguese and Spanish forces available to Beresford, while Soult also believed Blake to be much further south that he actually was.

Soult’s relief force was ready by 8 May, and left Seville on the night on 9-10 May. By 13 May the French cavalry was across the mountains, with the infantry close behind. At this point there were three potential routes he could take to reach Badajoz, the direct central route via Albuera, or longer routes to the left and right. Beresford had watch all three routes, and be prepared to move to block any major French outflanking move, but Soult chose to take the direct route.

Once it was clear that Soult would be advancing along the Albuera road, Beresford ordered all of his forces to concentrate on the low hills west of the Albuera River. By midnight on the night of 15/16 May Hamilton’s Portuguese division, William Stewart’s 2nd Division and Blake’s Spanish troops were in position, while Cole’s divisions and Castaños’s Spanish infantry were preparing for their final march, arriving behind the Albuera position at 6.30am. Soult’s cavalry and one brigade of infantry had arrived opposite the Allied lines, while the rest of his army was camped eleven miles down the road at Santa Marta.

When Soult arrived at Albuera, the Allied army was almost completely hidden on the reverse slopes of the hills. The only troops visible from Soult’s position were Alten’s two battalions of German infantry in the village of Albuera, Otway’s cavalry on the Allied left and Loy’s cavalry on the Allied right. Soult believed that Blake was still some way to the south, and so decided to attack around the Allied right flank, in the belief that this would cut the Allied army in half.

This flank movement caught Beresford entirely by surprise (battle of Albuera). As the French appeared on his right flank, Beresford ordered Blake to use half of his infantry to form a new line to hold off the French, but Blake only moved four battalions into place. As the size of the French attack became apparent, he ordered another six battalions to reinforce the new line, but they arrived after the fighting had started.

Beresford then ordered the 2nd Division to form up behind the Spanish, with the intention of sending it in once all three brigades were in position, but the division’s commander, William Stewart, believed he saw a chance to hit the exposed flank of the massive French column, and ordered Colborne’s brigade to attack unsupported. At first all went well – the British got around the right of the Spanish line, and the French attack wavered, but Stewart had not taken into account the massed cavalry of Latour-Maubourg. Two regiments of French cavalry hit Colborne’s brigade from the flank, and within a few minutes three of his four battalions were virtually destroyed, losing 1,248 of their 1,648 men. Before retreating the French cavalry (actually one French and one Polish regiment) even reached Beresford’s own position, forcing the Marshal to defend himself against a lancer.

Although Colborne’s flank attack had been repulsed, the Spanish line had held. The two remaining brigades from Steward’s division were sent to replace them, while the French withdrew Girard’s division and moved Gazan’s division forwards to launch a new attack. Over the next half an hour, Hoghton’s brigade bore the brunt of the French attack, suffering nearly as many casualties as Colborne’s had, 1,027 killed and wounded out of 1,651 men. Neither Soult nor Beresford performed well at this stage. When Soult realised that the Spanish were already at Albuera he rather lost his nerve and abandoned his offensive plans, and failed to bring his reserves into the battle, despite the increasing weakness of the British line. On the Allied side Beresford still had two entirely fresh divisions at his disposal – Cole’s 4th Division behind the centre of the original allied line and Hamilton’s Portuguese division on the old allied left. Beresford decided to leave Cole in place to guard against Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, and to move Hamilton’s division across the entire battlefield to support Hoghton’s brigade.

The battle was decided before Hamilton reached the fighting. After watching the battle for an hour and a half, Cole finally decided to move. Forming his division into a mixed formation, with the centre in line and columns at each end to protect against the French cavalry, he advanced towards the flank of the French force. Soult responded by advancing his own reserve, nine battalions under General Werlé, to protect the flank of Gazan’s division and by sending Latour-Maubourg to attack the right of Cole’s line. Neither attack was successful. The French cavalry was repulsed by Harvey’s Portuguese brigade, while Werlé’s three columns were each repulsed by one of Cole’s regiments. Once again the British suffered heavy losses – 1,045 out of the 2,015 men engaged, but the French suffered worse – 1,800 men lost out of the 5,600 involved in the attack, and the attack ended with a French rout.

At about the same time Abercrombie’s brigade of Stewart’s division launched an attack on Gazan’s flank, and the main French attack also ended in failure. Soult was able to extract the survivors and prevent an Allied pursuit, but he had suffered somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 casualties, and had clearly failed to relief Badajoz. The Allies had also suffered heavily. The British had lost 4,159 of their 10,449 men, the Spanish 1,368 out of 14,000 and the Portuguese 389 out of 10,000 (having been posted on the Allied left, most of the Portuguese contingent was not engaged in the battle on the right). Beresford had won a famous but costly victory, which so depressed him that his dispatch had to be re-written to make it clear he had actually won.

The battle of Albuera was Beresford’s last significant act as an independent commander.  On the day of the battle Wellington left Villar Formoso in the north, reaching Elvas on 19 May. He had hoped to arrive before the battle was fought, having been informed at Villar Formoso that Soult was on the move, but by the time he reached Elvas Beresford’s report on Albuera was waiting for him. On the previous day Hamilton’s Portuguese division had begun the second siege of Badajoz, which Wellington now took command of. Beresford spent his last week of independent command following Soult as he retired out of Estremadura. The British and French cavalry clashed at Usagre on 25 May, a small scale British victory, and there Soult’s retreat stopped. Two days later, on 27 May, Beresford gave up the command of the Army of Estremadura, which was subsumed into Wellington’s main army. Beresford was then sent back to resume his duties with the Portuguese army, while General Rowland Hill returned to command the 2nd Division and the southern wing of Wellington’s army.

Beresford’s period of independent command had not been an entirely happy one. He was seen as overly cautious, and lacking in initiative, while his performance at Albuera was greatly criticised. The short first siege of Badajoz had been a total failure, but that had been almost entirely due to Wellington’s orders, which had forced him to attack all three outlying forts. Wellington would follow the same plan during the second siege, with no more success.

A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (31 March 2008), Beresford’s campaign in Estremadura, March-May 1811 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaign_beresford_estremadura.html

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