Sunday, 5 February 2017

Lieutenant Colonel George Henry Duckworth and the 1/48th Foot at Albuera

A young officer from the 48th Foot from the time of the Peninsular War
Yesterday was spent enjoying the delights of Topsham as Carolyn and I enjoyed the company of family during lunch in the town.

As you know, I always like to take the opportunity to enjoy the local history and being in Topsham presented the chance to call into St Margaret's Church on our way to the station to catch a train back to Exmouth.

St Margaret's is a Grade II listed building with original parts of the church, namely the tower dating back to the mid 15th century, and has had several re-builds over the centuries following damaging fires.

I came to know the church a few years ago when I attended a family Christening and was immediately drawn to the many historical monuments to various people dotted around its interior, one of which drew my attention, so as to cause me to make a mental note to return at some time to do some more research.

St Margaret's Church Topsham overlooking the River Exe
 This being a bit of a 'spur of the moment' visit, I only had my camera phone to hand, but grabbed a picture of the monument I was particularly interested in, namely the one below commemorating the death of Lieutenant Colonel George Henry Duckworth on the 16th May 1811 at the Battle of Albuera.

My camera phone was not up to the poor lighting in the church - see below for the citation on the plaque
"Sacred to the memory of George Henry Duckworth late Lieutenant Colonel of the 48th Regiment of Foot who fell at the Battle of Albuera on the 16th of May 1811 at the head of the first battalion while encouraging his men to charge the enemy. He had not completed the 19th year of his age. On the field where he sorly fell his remains lie buried."

Colonel Duckworth was the son of Admiral John Thomas Duckworth who at the time of his son's death was serving as Governor of Newfoundland, tasked with building better relations with native American tribes and improving the colony's defences.

It was Admiral Duckworth who on moving to Topsham established the family vault at St Margaret's and on his death in 1817 was buried there with full military honours. I attempted to get a picture of his tomb but my poor old camera phone wasn't up to it so that remains for a later post.

Admiral Sir John Duckworth
The 1/48th landed at Lisbon in early June 1809 and would play a pivotal role in the battle of Talavera being close at hand in the afternoon battle; when the KGL infantry to their front carried their counter-attack too far into French lines and on being repulsed by fresh French troops exposed the British line to an immediate French counter-attack.

General Wellesley ordered Lieutenant Colonel Charles Donellan to lead the 800 strong 1/48th into the gap caused by the KGL move and, with open ranks to allow the German troops to pass through to reform in their rear, opened up a devastating fire on the pursuing French columns, bringing the French attack to a halt.

When the smoke cleared and the French infantry were seen to be falling back in disorder with General Lapisse their Divisional commander dead and Colonel Donellan mortally wounded with a shattered knee cap, the battle was effectively over, earning the 48th Foot their nick name "The Heroes of Talavera".

A corporal of a fusilier company
 in the 48th Foot - Bryan Fosten
It was in the post Talavera command appointments that Lt. Colonel Duckworth took command of the veteran 1/48th Foot and it was he who lead them two years later as the 2nd Division under Major General William Stewart alongside  Major General Sir Galbraith Lowery Cole's  4th Division formed the core of British infantry in Marshal Sir William Carr Beresford's Anglo-Portuguese army.

Beresford had taken command of the allied force following the re-occurrence of a bout of Walcheren malaise that forced General Hill to take home leave to recover.

Thus it was Beresford who had independent command to take back the city of Badajoz which had fallen to Marshal Soult the previous year, whilst Sir Arthur Wellesley, now created the Duke of Wellington,  took the bulk of Allied troops north in pursuit of Marshal Massena's beaten army as he fell back to Cuidad Rodrigo in desperate need of reinforcements and supplies.

Meanwhile Marshal Soult aware of Beresford's approach began to call in his garrisons and troops laying siege to Cadiz ready to march north to relieve Badajoz and to challenge the Anglo-Portuguese force.

My 1/48th prepared for the Talavera project
Marshal Soult's move was a predictable response and Wellington ordered Beresford to leave a covering force at Badjoz and to move the bulk of his army to rendezvous with Spanish troops at a pre-selected site on the River Albuera at the town of that name a few miles south east of the city.

To say that Beresford was unsuitable for independent command is an understatement and his inability to command his forces in a coherent manner was demonstrated more than once during the Albuera campaign, only accentuated in times of great stress.

The Battle of Albuera would expose Beresford's incompetencies to such an extent that it would be the Spanish troops under General Zayas his junior British commanders and the steadfast British infantry, that would win the battle in spite of him and leave an exasperated Marshal Soult to state
"There is no beating these troops, in spite of their generals. I always thought they were bad
soldiers, now I am sure of it. I had turned their right, pierced their centre and everywhere victory
was mine – but they did not know how to run!"

The victory was indeed Pyrrhic with about 8,000 troops lost to both sides and with over 4,000 British casualties, only leaving victory to be declared because it was the French who withdrew south. An exasperated Wellington realising the political damage such casualties could cause at home and meeting a depressed Beresford, dismissed the Marshal's initial report of the battle stating sharply, "this won't do, write me up a victory!"

Map illustrating the initial stage of the Battle of Albuera with Hoghton's brigade yet to move through the Spanish lines
One of the best accounts I have read about the battle and campaign of Albuera is "Albuera 1811, The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War" by Guy Dempsey which is one of those forensic studies that attempts to give as clear a description of the events as known intermixed with commentary from first hand sources that report the events described together with expert analysis.

Thus it was to Dempsey that I turned to discover what was known about Colonel Duckworth's role in the battle, his death and any information surrounding it.

As the French columns press the allied flank, and are stymied by the steady Spanish troops,
the British brigades marked A, B & C move forward to take up the fight.
The Battle of Albuera is unusual in that it is one of those occasions when British infantry did not conform to their usual tactical methods, namely the fire, cheer and charge that had served them so well on other occasions when tackling French infantry.

The tactics described were developed over time to avoid the very situation that developed in this battle with both sides conducting a lengthy close range fire-fight unable to break the deadlock and culminating in terrible casualties for both.

The other unusual aspect of this battle and one that surprised the veteran French infantry was that the Spanish troops under General Zayas held their ground as the French columns approached their lines and their volley fire forced the French columns to halt and attempt to deploy into line.

It was following this Spanish defence that British infantry pushed their way through their allies line to deliver their own volley fire on a French force disordered by the robust Spanish fire.

The map below is based on a similar one from Dempsey's book and he describes the action of the 1/48th,

 "The last unit in the brigade (Hoghton's) was the 1st Battalion of the 48th Regiment. It was unusual to have two battalions from the same regiment serving in the same action, but had previously happened to the 48th at Talavera. Now it was happening again, and the 2nd Battalion had already been annihilated in the French cavalry charge against Colborne's brigade. If the men of the 1st battalion knew of the fate of their regimental comrades, it did not affect their professional calm as they advanced to replace the Spaniards in front of them. The passage of lines does not, however, seem to have been smoothly executed here as it was elsewhere because the Spaniards in front of the 48th 'were in some confusion' and 'The intervals through which the Regt. had to pass were scarcely sufficient for a company'. The battalion nevertheless completed the manoeuvre, re-formed its line and opened fire on the enemy.

One characteristic of the the musketry duel on the northern knoll was the heavy loss suffered by the officers of each battalion. They were normally stationed, for obvious reasons, on the flanks and in the rear of the firing line, but this does not seem to have kept anyone from harm. The commander of the 1st/48th was one of the first to fall in the hail of musket and cannon balls, but he was followed by many others."

Dempsey then quotes a letter from 'an officer high in rank in General Beresford's army' that appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine, June 1811.

"Lieut. Col. Duckworth was first severely wounded in the left breast by a musket ball, while gallantly leading his regiment to the charge; but ... he could not be induced to quit the field. Shortly after another shot struck him in the throat and he expired without a groan." 

Surgeon Guthrie examined Duckworth's body post-battle and found the cause of death to be "a ball ... which divided the carotid artery, and killed him almost instantly." 

Dempsey's book presents a lot of information about the fall out from Albuera in terms of its effects on the survivors and families and in one of these latter chapters I discovered the sad tale of Duckworth's wife together with some discrepancy over the late Colonel's age at the time of his death.

In an age before military pensions and help for dependants of fallen soldiers the story of Penelope Duckworth is very illustrative of the times.

"The most melancholy incident .... concerning Albuera relates to Lieutenant Colonel Duckworth of the 48th. He was only twenty-three at the time of his death, (note his memorial in Topsham states his age to be just 19 which I thought was extremely young for a Lt. Colonel even allowing for commission purchase) but he had married at an early age and already had a four year old child. The grief of his even younger widow, Penelope (aged twenty-two), must have been all the greater because 'On the day of the afflicting news of the Colonel's death arrived at Plymouth, their only son ..... lay dead in the house, and was buried the following day. To make matters worse, the simultaneous deaths of her husband and son had a catastrophic effect on the economic well-being of Duckworth's widow: 'The admiral (Admiral Duckworth mentioned above) is at sea, and his infant son by his second wife, Miss Butler, will now be heir to the title and estate. Mrs Duckworth never remarried prior to her death almost forty-four years to the day after that of her husband."

Thus through no fault of her own, but purely through a tragic sequence of events compounded by the time she lived in, poor Penelope Duckworth not only suffered the tragic loss of her husband and young son but also the loss of rank and station together with the financial consequences that entailed.

Sources referenced for this post:
St. Margaret's Church Topsham, Devon
Sir John Duckworth, 1st Baronet
Wellington's Regiments - 48th Foot
JJ's Wargames - 1/48th Foot Northamptonshire Regiment
Albuera 1811, The Bloodiest Battle of the Peninsular War - Guy Dempsey

Next up, Spanish Marines for Talavera


  1. Another great post, very informative! Cheers!

    1. Thanks RMN, I didn't know any of this tale until I sat down to read about Duckworth's role in the battle and I hope it helps to reveal more about these people and their lives to a modern audience

  2. Very interesting JJ, I put together a divisional sized confrontation from the initial stages of the battle (Soult's initial feint to the Allied right flank) about a year ago, the encounter described follows up immediately after. I will have to try to add it in to a series of confrontations detailing this very interesting battle.

    1. Thanks John. Yes Albuera is an interesting battle and it's on my bucket list of games. I think the combination of Bersford's inept command, the weather on the day of battle and the move by Souot that forced the allies to reposition all contributed to make this the bloody struggle that it turned out to be.

      I rather think that had General Hill been in command, Soult would have been more compentantly handled with a lot fewer casualties on the allied side. Another great 'What if?' from history.

      Dempsey covers the post war row that followed between Napier and his supporters and Beresford and his, following the formers strong criticism about the latter's performance. It makes fascinating reading.