The Diehards: The 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment of Foot (now part of The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment)
Nothing could exceed the conduct and gallantry of Colonel Inglis at the head of his regiment.’ That is how Field Marshal Sir William Beresford, the British commander-in-chief at the Battle of Albuera, described the performance which gained ‘The Diehards’ their nickname.
Originally raised in 1775 as the 59th Regiment of Foot, it was renamed the 57th a year later, and gained its county connection with West Middlesex in 1782. The regiment served with distinction in the American Revolutionary War, seeing action at Charlestown in 1776 and Halifax in 1783. But it was a generation later, on the bloodiest battlefield of Wellington’s decisive Peninsula campaign, that the regiment won its fearsome reputation and became ‘The Diehards’.
On the 16 May 1811, led by Colonel William Inglis, the battalion was in the line as Beresford’s army of 35,000 British, Spanish, and Portuguese soldiers formed for battle outside the small Spanish town of Albuera. Facing them was a 25,000-strong French army under Marshal Soult intent on relieving the besieged fortress of Badajoz. The battle would be a fierce and bloody affair whose outcome would hang in the balance to the last.
The French, feigning a frontal attack on the town, pinned the Allied army in position, while the main force moved under the cover of high ground to assault the Allied right flank. The Spanish troops stationed there fought valiantly, but began to weaken under the mounting weight of French musketry. Grasping the nature of the French ruse, Beresford belatedly moved a division to bolster the faltering Spanish.
Disaster struck when a sudden torrential downpour rendered the infantrymen’s muskets temporarily useless. Attacks by French-Polish lancers wrought havoc in the British lines. Battalions were decimated and colours captured. The 57th, part of Houghton’s brigade, moved up to support the faltering right flank. A break in the weather allowed the redcoats to once again use their muskets, and they began raking the loose formations of rampaging enemy horsemen.
In the confusion and panic that reigned on the battlefield, Houghton’s men found themselves firing into the backs of the beleaguered British and Portuguese battalions to their front, obscured by the pall of smoke that hung over the field. Colonel Inglis – his horse already shot from under him and at great personal risk – stood out in front of his ranks commanding his men to ‘Order Arms!’. His action saved the lives of many men in the shattered forward battalions.
Taking to the front line, the 57th formed up on the ridge of the hill, and with the other redcoats advanced in line towards a mass of French infantry who were moving forwards in a column of attack. In the ensuing fire-fight, both sides fought ferociously, neither willing to give ground. Many battalions suffered terrible casualties, and the 57th was among the hardest hit. Inglis himself sustained severe wounds when struck by French canister in chest and neck. Refusing to be carried from the field, as he lay wounded and losing blood, he was heard to cry ‘Die Hard, the 57th, Die Hard!’.
The men of the 57th did just that. As soldiers in the ranks fell, their comrades continued the grim work, rallying around the battered regimental colour. The men in the forward battalions fought themselves almost to destruction, salvation coming only when Cole’s 4th division hit the exposed French left flank.
The glory was the 57th’s, but it had come at a terrible price. Of the 647 officers and soldiers on the field that day, 428 were reported killed or wounded – a 66% casualty rate for the action.
Afterwards, Beresford said of the battalion, ‘Our dead, particularly the 57th Regiment, were laying as they fought in the ranks, every wound in front.’ Later, Marshal Soult would say of the Allied soldiers, ‘There is no beating these troops in spite of their generals. I turned their right, pierced their centre, broke them everywhere; the day was mine, and yet they did not know it and would not run.’ A fitting tribute to the men of the 57th, who died hard.
Amalgamated: 1881 with the 77th (East Middlesex) to form the Middlesex Regiment
Motto: Honi Soit Qui Mal y Pense (‘evil be to him who evil thinks’)
Colours: Yellow facings, gold lace
Marches: Quick – Sir Manley Power; Slow – Caledonian
Battle Honours: Albuera, Vittoria, Pyrenees, Nivelle, Nive, Peninsula, Alma, Inkerman, Sevastapol, New Zealand, South Africa (1879)
59th Regiment of Foot (1755)
57th Regiment of Foot (1756)
57th Regiment (West Middlesex) of Foot (1782)
77th Regiment (West Middlesex) of Foot
Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own) (1881)
Queen’s Regiment (1966)
Royal Hampshire Regiment
The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment (1992)