The Portuguese of Wellington’s foreign legion raiders
The Loyal Lusitanian Legion was part of the British Army. Though manned principally by Portuguese troops, there were also Germans and British soldiers among its ranks and, as one might expect, its commanding officer, Colonel Robert Thomas Wilson, was British. The creation of the unit was the initiative of two Portuguese army officers who were exiled after the domination and occupation of the Iberian peninsula by Napoleon’s French Army. This light infantry regiment, with a battery of artillery attached was, of course, to fight the invading French during the Peninsular War. The ‘LLL’ had a comparatively short existence, between 1808 and 1811, but it fought in both Portugal and Spain most notably in battles at Busaco and Talavera. However, battlefields were not the best places to employ troops of this kind and their services were best performed in conducting raids behind enemy lines in concert with guerrilla and other Portuguese and Spanish forces—the covert operations of the day. Upon disbandment ‘LLL’ troops were transferred into Caçadore battalions of the Portuguese Army where they continued to be a highly valued and efficient part of Wellington’s Army in the field.
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During the active pursuit of Marshal Massena’s army the battalions of the Legion were separated, the 1st joined the 4th division, on its being ordered from the British army to reinforce the troops under Marshal Beresford in the Alentejo:—the 2nd battalion joined the 5th division, and remained with Lord Wellington, which afterwards distinguished itself in the engagement at Fuentes d’ Honor, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Offley, who was appointed to it from the 23rd Fusiliers.
This 2nd battalion, (formerly called Baron Eben’s Runaways, ) when a column of the enemy manifested an intention of getting round the left of the allied army, engaged at Fuentes d’ Honor, by crossing the River Duas Casas, at Aldea de Bispo, on the 6th of May, was ordered to ford the river under the enemy’s fire, and dislodge him from a height which he had taken possession of on the opposite side of the river. This service was executed in a most gallant and satisfactory manner; and this battalion afterwards, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Hawkshaw, signalized itself most particularly in the south, when joined to that part of the allied army that was entrusted to the command of Marshal Beresford during the absence of General Hill.
This battalion sustained a great loss in the sieges of Olivenza and Badajos: at the latter of which it lost four subalterns and a piquet one night, by a sudden and unexpected sortie from the garrison; and its loss at the hard contested Battle of Albuera exceeded considerably that of the entire of the Portuguese troops on that memorable day: and this battalion was called forward (previous to the important advance of the 4th division at Albuera.) and attached to the gallant Fusilier Brigade, under the command of the much to be lamented Sir William Myers, who received a mortal wound a few minutes after the success of this spirited advance of the allies, and died thus gloriously, after a short, but truly honourable life.
To the great services of this distinguished brigade, on that memorable day, may be justly attributed the victory of Albuera, for at the critical period of its advance, and brilliant charge, the enemy, having already obtained possession of the rising grounds occupied by the allied force at the commencement of the engagement, were from thence obliged to retreat with considerable loss.
The fate and fortune of that day did not appear previously to promise so favourable a result. The enemy’s cavalry had made considerable havoc among the British infantry, which unfortunately had not been formed in a manner to enable those brave fellows to repulse the attempt that was made to break through them, and the French cavalry, aided by the Polish lancers, had dispersed them; and our enemy seemed from these successes to be certain of our defeat. But as the last effort, and only hope, the Fusilier Brigade advanced in line, having its right flank covered from the enemy’s cavalry by a Portuguese brigade, which was repeatedly charged by those Polish lancers, who were as often repulsed without touching a man of them with considerable loss.
The Lusitanian Legion fought on the left wing for some time. The enemy maintained his ground on the heights flanked by artillery which kept up a tremendous fire on us, and as we advanced, did considerable execution; but at length, on our coming within a few yards of the columns they gave way with the greatest precipitation, notwithstanding the exertions of their officers to prevent it; and our brave fellows who survived the charge pursued them and drove them over three successive hills, strewing the grounds they fled over with their killed and wounded, after which the enemy did not again attempt to advance.
The Fusilier Brigade and Loyal Lusitanian Legion, which did not exceed three thousand men when they advanced to the charge, could not muster one thousand effective men, when they formed on the rising grounds from which they had driven the enemy. Sixty officers, and two thousand men, including General Cole, who commanded the division, and Sir William Myers, who commanded the brigade, and every lieutenant-colonel and field officer was either killed or wounded.
The enemy commenced a retreat the next day, but did not evacuate the ground he occupied previous to the action for two days afterwards, having left some select troops there to make a front to deceive our army, while he marched off his artillery, baggage, and prisoners to his rear.
This action was supposed to have been the hardest fought of any that ever was recorded in the annals of history, for the time it lasted, and one which threatened, during the early part of the contest, to tarnish the honour of the British arms more than any engagement for the last century; for we had nearly lost the victory with very superior numbers; this never could have happened before in any of the engagements on the Peninsula since the commencement of these campaigns, for in all the other general actions the enemy had considerably the superiority in numbers; and to nothing but the brilliancy and determined courage of the charge made by the light brigade, and the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, is to be attributed this signal victory, which added a lustre, in the room of disgrace, to the British arms, and which shone with such new splendour, that the unfortunate gloom that hovered over the probable result of the previous part of the contest, was lost altogether in the brightness of this gallant achievement.
All the Portuguese staff, and particularly Major-General D’Urban and Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, aided greatly on this memorable occasion, and encouraged their troops while they saw a British soldier stand. It was here the individual bravery of the soldiery and platoon officers so strongly manifested itself by continuing to advance with unabated ardour and steadiness, after their commanding officers had been mowed down, and while the line was raked so terribly by the destructive fire of the enemy’s grape and musketry, which appeared only to increase if possible, their enthusiasm, steadiness, and perseverance.
The Spaniards fought bravely at the commencement of the action, and were the first troops who happened to be engaged; however, they were forced to yield, being overpowered by an immense division of the enemy which attacked the part of the line they were ordered to occupy.
It was to be regretted, that the allied troops at the battle of Albuera, derived so little advantage from any plan or generalship on the part of the commander-in-chief, while the gallantry of the commanders of the divisions, who were under the necessity of taking things as they found them, fought their brave heroes so successfully, under the greatest disadvantages: and it was still more to be regretted, that the Portuguese troops (with the exception of those attached to the fusilier division,) were not afforded an opportunity of partaking in the heat of the engagement. They would have been of the most considerable importance to the impending fortune of the first part of the day.
A fine body of men, well officered, anxious to engage, must have tended materially to render this victory much more complete, and would have prevented, in a great degree, the immense and irreparable effusion of British blood, for there was not a British battalion in the field that day, that could muster after the engagement one half of the complement it brought into the field, and many could not produce one fourth of their number; and the first battalion of the Lusitanian Legion was the only Portuguese regiment whose loss corresponded with that of the British.
Why were not the Portuguese intermixed with the British troops on this occasion, as had been hitherto judiciously done, and most perfectly approved of on former occasions? Instead of this, they were incautiously formed into a division by themselves, under the command of General Hamilton, (a doubt of whose skill and talent could not certainly be the reason for their not being permitted to join in the heat of the action,) and left inactive spectators of the contest. Brigadier General Harvey’s Portuguese brigade, (which formed part of the 4th division, and protected the right of the Fusilier Brigade,) manifested considerable steadiness and discipline on being charged by the enemy’s cavalry, which had no effect on them, and proved the service of these brave allies to be worth the trial.
The loss of the allied army in this most sanguinary conflict was computed to be six thousand killed and wounded.
Lieutenant-Colonel Hawkshaw commanded the first battalion of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion through this trying day, and was himself severely wounded.
The commander in chief had it officially notified to Lieutenant-Colonel Hawkshaw, that this battalion of the Legion had so eminently distinguished itself at the Battle of Albuera, and every individual of the corps had acquitted himself with so much gallantry and honour, that they deserved, and should have his thanks in general orders; and he requested that the names of the officers who had survived the day should be given in, that they might be immediately promoted; which strong mark of gracious approbation would have been particularly pleasing to their feelings, if on a former occasion, after the Battle of Alcantara, the same promise had not been totally neglected, and the heroes of that memorable day (all but) disgraced by dark and insinuative abuse. Sir Robert Wilson was not at the Battle of Alcantara.
Thus ended the services of the patriotic and brave officers and soldiers who composed the Loyal Lusitanian Legion, who were shortly afterwards formed into caçadore battalions, and their name and uniform so changed that the existence of the corps can hardly be traced in the present Portuguese Army.
The corps retained its military character to the last; and as its vital spark was extinguished so soon after the Battle of Albuera, it may be justly said, that it gloriously died there, regaining the trophies of that uncertain day, and maintaining, to the last, its character and renown in its untimely end: and the patriots of Spain and Portugal, and of every power interested in these active campaigns of the allied army on the Peninsula must regret the dissolution of a corps, which not only thus gloriously upheld the noble and warlike spirit of Lusitania in four successive campaigns, but which also was the means in more uncertain and disastrous times, in the year 1808, of proving to the Portuguese nation, and the world at large, that there was enough of this ancient spirit in the body of the Portuguese people to form a regular and efficient army, to be the glory of their country and allies, and the terror of their enemies.