"Captain John Stainforth's company had barely time to swallow a weevily biscuit before the bugles rang out and orders bellowed, 'Stand to your arms! The French are attacking'..."
General Cole's 4th Division hurrying south from Wellington's concentration on the Coa, had had a dreadful march over cart-tracks through broken, wooded hill country intersected by deep valleys over which the artillery and its ammunition limbers had to be hauled with ropes. It had rained heavily and Captain William Stainforth and his company of the 23rd had marched from dawn to dusk with the Fusilier Brigade, and now on the last day of their ordeal, the 15th May, they had marched through the night, only arriving at Albuera at dawn just as the French began their attack.
There was no time for breakfast, barely time to rest after their march, and straight away the fusiliers and their comrades of a Portuguese Cacadores battalion were moving up to take their place on the left of the 2nd Division in which Captain John Stainforth [William's brother]'s regiment, the 57th, was one of the three battalions of Hoghton's brigade. On the 4th Division's other flank was a crack Portuguese division under a British commander, General Hamilton, with a Portuguese cavalry brigade on the extreme left flank. On the extreme right of the line at the end of the ridge were three Spanish Divisions - Lardizabal's, Ballasteros' and Zayas' - with two cavalry brigades, one British and one Spanish, in the valley below a secondary hill beyond the main ridge.
General Beresford, a Marshal in the Portuguese Army in recognition of his magnificent job in retraining the sturdy soldiers of that nation, and bringing it up to British standards, was an able officer but of no great strategic vision. He had, however, assumed that the axis of Marshal Soult's attack would be straight down the main road to Albuera; but that was not the French Marshal's plan. While a feint attack was made by one infantry brigade on Albuera village, three infantry and a cavalry division peeled off the road three miles short of the village, and marched across wooded country to outflank the British line to the south, and take it in the rear. It was a brilliant manoeuvre, executed with great precision, and Beresford was taken completely by surprise.
After standing-to at daybreak, Captain John Stainforth's company of the 57th had been dismissed to make breakfast; but they, too, had had barely time to swallow a weevily biscuit before the bugles rang out and orders bellowed, 'Stand to your arms! The French are attacking.' Then they waited for nearly an hour, with muskets loaded and bayonets fixed, behind the crest of the ridge and, apart from the rattle of musketry away to their left front, all seemed to be ominously quiet.
Suddenly all Hell broke out on their extreme right flank, and the division was deployed in open column, turned right, and marched at great speed along the ridge through the ranks of Spaniards for about a mile under fire from a tremendous cannonade. Then, once they had cleared the Spanish line, they were astonished to see two huge blue columns, each one hundred paces wide which, having gained the top of the far ridge, were now descending onto the shallow col like two tidal floods rushing down the slope bristling with bayonets. Ahead of the columns darted sharpshooters like angry wasps on the flanks, and keeping pace with the infantry trundled field artillery, marching to the beat of the furious rub-a-dub-dub of the Pas de Charge.
There was no time to deploy into line. The leading brigade headed by the 3rd Foot, the Buffs, charged straight into action to the right of Zaya's Spanish division, which was gallantly holding the shallow col between the main ridge and the hill at its end, but were almost hidden beneath a thick fog of musket smoke and a strangely darkening sky, black as ink. Suddenly the heavens opened, and the Buffs were enveloped in a deluge of such intensity that visibility was reduced to a few yards by sheets of water that cut off all sound of battle, the cheers of the soldiers, and most cruelly the thunder of hundreds of galloping horses. Then into this extraordinary scene tore a brigade of Polish lancers, and in minutes almost the entire battalion of the Buffs, thirteen hundred out of sixteen hundred men, had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Only the 31st Regiment, following up behind, saved themselves from a similar fate by hastily forming square.
For a while there was total confusion in the British Command, and Beresford and his staff were nearly captured. In vain he tried to wheel the two remaining Spanish divisions into action, but they remained rooted to their position, inactive, and merely got in the way for the remainder of the battle. Meanwhile, Brigadier Hoghton's brigade of the 2nd Division, advancing along the ridge through and behind the lines of bewildered Spaniards, drove off the Polish lancers who were riding up and down behind Zaya's gallant troops, spearing wounded Buffs lying helpless on the ground, and confronted the right-hand French column of grand divisions which was now ascending the ridge again, having brushed aside the troops on the col below. Then, without waiting for orders from Beresford and, outnumbered by five to one and without a single gun in support, Hoghton led his three battalions - the 29th, the 48th and the 57th - onto the crest in line, enfilading the French column with volley after volley, and bringing it to a halt. Their action saved the day.
The French, as at Bussaco, had made the same mistake of attacking in their customary dense column of grand divisions, which could be overlapped and enfiladed by Hoghton's brigade deployed in line, and which could only bring some 2000 muskets into action against the British 5000. So for a while the head of the French column was plunged into disorder as the leading companies were blown away and tried desperately to deploy.
Nevertheless numbers began to tell, and the Regiments on the flanks to suffer disproportionately from the French artillery firing grapeshot on both wings of the column as it advanced. The 57th was the most exposed of the British line and suffered horrendous casualties. Men in Captain John Stainforth's company went down like ninepins; but still they stood firm, closed ranks and fired volley after volley into the French column now wheeling towards them through the billowing smoke. John saw his commanding officer, Colonel Inglis, blown off his horse by a blast of grapeshot, and heard him call out with his dying breath, 'Fifty Seventh, die hard! Die hard!' And 'die hard' they did, unflinchingly, earning the immortal nickname 'The Die Hards', still borne with pride by the Middlesex Regiment of the present day. Then John Stainforth himself was wounded, and the toll of casualties grew. At the end of the battle the regimental strength of 616 was reduced to 118 rank and file, and of the officers there were only 6 subalterns left. Everyone else had been killed or wounded. But the casualties among the 57th were by no means unique. Brigadier Hoghton, and Colonel Duckworth of the 48th were both killed; Colonel White of the 29th wounded twice; in all the Brigade lost 1044 out of its entire strength of 1738, and emerged from the battle commanded by just a junior captain....
Not Found Wanting, pp.239-41
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