Failure to Form Square - The Destruction of John Colborne's Brigade at Albuera

Marshal William Beresford disarming a Polish lancer. 


The battle of Albuera was the bloodiest of the Peninsular War. It was fought in May, 1811 and like other great battles where both armies stayed on the field of battle after a hard day's worth of fighting, it was claimed as a victory by both sides.

John Tiller Software's Peninsular War title includes this battle and it is a scenario that I recommend trying.  At 24 turns, it is in my opinion a very manageable length.  The weather is historically accurate, (it includes the mid-battle rain/hail storm).  The battle also features a number of famous Napoleonic commanders including the Duke of Dalmatia the French General Jean Soult, General William Beresford and General Joaquin Blake.

Soult has a B Command and B Leadership rating.

Unlike the other Peninsular battles that I've recently blogged about, this French army has high quality troops.

The majority of the line infantry are C quality troops, the artillery are B quality troops and the cavalry units are predominately B quality troops.  The Grenadier Reunis are A quality troops and Werle and Godinot's 1st and 2nd Indepdendent brigades have B quality Light and Line infantry troops.

With the exception of Soult and Maubourg, the majority of the French officers have C quality Leadership ratings and  D or worse Command ratings.  Girard and Bron, the two goat officers who presided over the October 1811 disaster at Arroyo dos Molinos are also present on the field though they acquit themselves far better this time.

By contrast the British-Spanish-Portugese force has two capable commanders:  Beresford with a B Leadership rating and a C command rating and MdC Jose Zayas with a B leadership rating and a D command rating.  The enigmatic Joaquin Blake, overall commander of the Spanish army on the field, has a C Command and Leadership rating.

All of this is setup for a fateful decision by one of the British brigade commanders John Colborne.
Colborne, a veteran of the Peninsular war, had also served in Egypt with Abercromby in 1801, he'd served in Italy at Maida in 1806 and had come to the peninsula with Sir John Moore in 1808.  A favorite of Moore, he was promoted upon the request of Moore while on his death bed.

Colborne's brigade at Albuera includes his own regiment the 2nd Battalion of the 66th Foot, 1st Battalion 3rd Regiment of Foot, 2nd Battalion 48th Regiment of Foot and 2nd Battalion 31st Regiment of Foot.

Stationed on the northern end of Beresford's line in Stewart's division (the JTS counter for Colborne is incorrectly labeled) and slightly behind the village of Albuera at the start of the battle, Colborne's brigade is brought south behind a line of Spanish troops that have formed to meet Soult's main axis of attack which is against the southern end of Beresford's line.

Two full French divisions are thrown against Zayas' brigade of Spanish troops which are covering the weak southern end while Lt. Colonel Colborne's 1st Brigade as well as Houghton and Abercombie's brigades are moved into position to block Soult.  At this point in the battle General Beresford is personally directing the deployment of the Spanish and British troops to meet Soult's advance.

Stationed on the extreme French left, Colborne's brigade of 2,000+ men begins to trade volley fire with General J.B. Girard's 1e Division's 4,000+ men.  Both sides buckle under the intense fire, but Colborne leads his regiments forward in a desperate bayonet charge to break the French line and send them reeling back.  It is at this moment, when the fate of the French attack hangs in the balance, that a rain and hail storm sweeps across the battlefield.  The sudden storm literally blinds Colborne and his men from the growing danger on his flank and renders muskets on both sides useless as their powder becomes too wet to fire.

On Colborne's right, the extreme edge of Beresford's line, the French cavalry General Latour-Mauborg brings up the two best French cavalry regiments on the battlefield.  The 1st Polish Vistula Lancers (A+ quality in JTS gaming terms) and the 2e Hussars (B quality troops) are sent smashing into Colborne's flank. You can imagine the extreme shock and shudder heard around the battlefield as almost 1,000 elite cavalry descend upon the unsuspecting British brigade. Out of the four 1st brigade regiments present, only the 31st Foot (The Young Buffs) are able to form square in time.  The 66th, 48th and 3rd Foot (The Buffs) are swept away with significant losses.

According to the British "Effectives" data from the Peninsular War, the 1st Brigade went into the battle with the following forces (the JTS game units are full strength not actual):

 1st Bn, 3rd Foot (The Buffs): 695 Effectives
2nd Bn, 31st Foot (Huntingdon): 373 Effectives
2nd Bn 48th Foot (Northants): 405 Effectives
2nd Bn, 66th Foot (Berkshire): 392 Effectives

According to the casualty reports, after dead and invalided are counted, the regiments after Albuera were left with the following establishments:


3rd Foot: 102 Effectives
31st Foot: 218 Effectives
48th Foot:  116 Effectives
66th Foot: 146 Effectives

The losses speak for themselves.  In terms of the overall Allied dead and wounded, Colborne's brigade would account for almost 25-30% of the battle's losses, (depending on which account of the battle you read).  The "Young Buffs" (31st Foot) was the only regiment able to form a battlefield square in time to save themselves.  The other regiments (3rd, 48th and 66th) would be shattered by the overwhelming charge.  The 3rd Foot's last moments would become memorialized by this William Barnes Wollen painting:

Remnants of The Buffs (3rd Foot) defend their colors against Polish Lancers.

The regimental colors of the 48th, 66th and 3rd Foot would be taken by Maubourg's cavalry. Colborne, for his part, would be partially blamed in some accounts of the battle for his decision to advance against Girard, but it truly was an act of God in the form of a hail storm that prevented his knowing what was bearing down on him.  He would remain in favor with Wellington however and at Waterloo he would lead another more successful charge against the Imperial Guard's flank late in the battle.

The strength of a battlefield square (often four ranks deep) would be proven throughout the Napoleonic wars.  Very rarely were these squares broken by cavalry formations, and then more often than not, it was from the sheer weight of a charge by the so-called "Heavies" (Cuirassiers) or an incomplete square.

At Waterloo, Wellington used squares with lethal effectiveness against the French cavalry, decimating their ranks and contributing to the defeat of Napoleon's force. But at Albuera, Colborne's first three regiments did not have the time to form square as the Polish lancers and French Hussars swept into them. However, the fortuitous placement of the 31st Foot at the interior end of Colborne's line gave them just enough time to form square and prevented the total annihilation of his brigade.

The JTS scenario starts well before this fateful moment.  Hopefully, if you are playing as the Allies, you will keep a close eye out for the Lancers on your flanks and look to the heavens for the storm that cost poor Colborne his brigade.



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