Sir William Carr Beresford, (1768-1854)

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Appointed to reorganize the Portuguese armed forces in 1809, Beresford commanded the Allied forces at the Battle of Albuera in 1811 and remained commander in chief and marshal general of all the Portuguese armies until 1820.

Beresford was born on 2 October 1768, the illegitimate son of the Marquis of Waterford. His younger brother became Rear Admiral Sir John Poo Beresford. He attended a French military academy in Strasbourg and was commissioned into the 6th Foot at the age of seventeen, serving with his regiment in Canada where he lost the use of an eye in a shooting accident in 1786. In 1789 he purchased a lieutenancy in the 16th Foot. He saw active service with Sir John Moore and Admiral Alexander Hood in Italy and at the siege of Toulon, respectively.

In 1794 he was made colonel of a regiment newly raised by his father and in 1795, at the age of twenty-seven, he was made colonel of the 88th Foot, the Connaught Rangers. In 1800 he served under Brigadier General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) in India, whence he accompanied his regiment to Egypt to join Sir Ralph Abercromby’s army, which had been sent to expel the remnants of Bonaparte’s forces from Egypt. Remaining in Alexandria until 1803, Beresford was promoted to the rank of brigadier. In 1805 he took part in Sir David Baird’s capture of the Cape of Good Hope and was appointed to command the expeditionary force that was sent with Commodore Home Riggs Popham to seize Buenos Aires. After capturing the city in June 1806, Beresford acted as governor for two months before surrendering to a superior Spanish force. After escaping from captivity, Beresford returned to London, where he was appointed to command the force being assembled for action against Madeira.

On 24 December 1807 Beresford, in command of an army of 3,500 men, occupied the island of Madeira, which was annexed as a crown colony. As first, and only, British governor of Madeira, Beresford got his first experience of commanding Portuguese troops. He taught himself Portuguese and embarked on an energetic program of reform, which was cut short in March 1808 when the island was handed back to the Portuguese Crown.

Returning to London in August 1808 Beresford was attached to the staff of Sir Harry Burrard and was appointed one of the commissioners to oversee the implementation of the Convention of Cintra. After the departure of the French, Beresford became commandant of Lisbon. After Moore’s arrival there, Beresford was sent to negotiate with the bishop of Oporto and then to put the fortress of Almeida into a state of defense. He commanded one brigade of Moore’s army in Spain, and it was his troops who covered the embarkation of the army at Corunna after the death of its commander. Beresford emerged from the fiasco of Moore’s campaign with a higher reputation, and in March 1809, newly promoted to lieutenant general, he was appointed to take command of the new Portuguese army that was being formed.

Beresford proved to be a highly successful organizer and was a strict disciplinarian. After only three months in command he was able to field an army of 19,000 men for the campaign against Marshal Nicolas Soult in northern Portugal. He eventually commanded a Portuguese army that grew to number 60,000 men, organized along British lines and commanded by a corps of seconded British officers that eventually numbered 100. Portuguese officers were recruited and promoted on merit, and strict military discipline was enforced. Beresford followed the Portuguese practice of dividing the army between front line units and militia, or segunda linha, formations. It was the militia that manned the Lines of Torres Vedras. Beresford also made use of the traditional Portuguese light infantry, the Caçadores. Beresford was supported in his work both by Wellesley, who became a close friend, and by the secretary to the Portuguese Council of Regency, Dom Miguel Pereira Forjaz, who worked with Beresford to create a centralized commissariat for supplying the army. Beresford became, in effect, Wellesley’s second in command and the officer who Wellesley intended should assume command of all the Allied forces should he be killed in action.

Beresford’s forces took part in the campaign against Soult in northern Portugal in 1809 and played a major part in the Battle of Busaco, where they fought off the attempt by Marshal André Masséna’s army to storm the mountain ridge outside Coimbra. After the battle Beresford was made a Knight of the Bath, and his success in these campaigns was rewarded in 1811 when he was made commander of all the Allied armies in the southern theater. Having laid siege to Badajoz, his main objective was to prevent Soult from raising the siege and invading Portugal. He fought a number of minor actions against the French, the principal being at Campo Mayor (Campo Maior), which culminated in the Battle of Albuera on 16 May 1811. Beresford’s handling of the Allied armies at Albuera was later strongly criticized by the Peninsular War historian William Napier and became the subject of a lengthy pamphlet war that lingered on into the 1840s. Beresford was criticized for having dismissed General Robert Long, the commander of his cavalry, on the eve of the battle and for allegedly having issued orders for a retreat at the height of the battle-an accusation that Beresford always vigorously denied. Whatever the truth of these allegations, Beresford never lost the confidence of Wellington or of the Portuguese Prince Regent.

The Portuguese army fought at Salamanca, where Beresford was wounded, and in 1813 at Vitoria, where Portuguese and British troops were equal in number. In the campaign in the Pyrenees Beresford held commands at the battles of Nivelle and Toulouse, and he commanded the Allied forces that received the surrender of Bordeaux.

With the defeat of Napoleon, Beresford was raised to the peerage as Baron Beresford of Albuera and received the Portuguese titles of Conde de Trancoso and Marques de Campo Maior. With his army, he returned to Portugal, where he retained his appointment as commander in chief. In June 1815 Wellington asked for the Portuguese army to be sent to the Low Countries for the Waterloo campaign, and Beresford prepared his forces to go. However, he was refused permission to sail by the Regency Council. This refusal brought into the open a long-festering feud between the commander and the Regents. Beresford now sought the backing of the Prince Regent in Rio de Janeiro, returning to Portugal in 1816 with the new title of marshal general of all the Portuguese armies and with extensive new powers over the armed forces in Portugal. In 1817 he claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy to overthrow the monarchy, and after the execution of the leading conspirator, Gomes Freire de Andrade, in October 1817 Beresford was the most powerful man in Portugal. Units of his army, under General Carlos Lecor, were sent to Brazil for King Joao (John) VI’s ultimately unsuccessful campaigns, and Beresford retained the king’s confidence until he was ousted from his command by the outbreak of the Revolution of 1820.

Beresford returned to Portugal in 1824 and helped the king survive the Abrilada coup, after which he pressed without success to be allowed to return to Portugal as commander in chief or as British ambassador. When Wellington became prime minister in 1828, Beresford was appointed to the cabinet as master general of the ordnance and advised Wellington on Portuguese affairs. When Wellington left office in 1830 Beresford’s public career was over. He helped the Marquis of Waterford maintain the Waterford influence in northern Ireland’s politics, he pursued a vigorous pamphlet war against Napier and the Longs, and he married his first cousin, the Honorable Louisa Hope, in 1832 and settled at Bedgebury in Kent. He was made governor of Jersey, a ceremonial office he held until his death on 8 January 1854, at the age of eighty-six.

Beresford was greatly admired by some of the officers who served under him-notably Sir Benjamin d’Urban, his quartermaster general. He was more grudgingly admired by some Portuguese as an efficient organizer of the armed forces who gave Portugal, for the first and only time in its history, an army that could compete with the best in Europe. He was, moreover, trusted by the Duke of Wellington. However, Beresford was not a very likable man. He was notoriously ill mannered and greedy for titles and wealth. In 1823 he became Viscount Beresford. He acquired estates and pensions in Portugal, which he fought hard to retain. He took as his mistress the wife of the Visconde de Juromenha, who was his private envoy in Rio de Janeiro. He had three children by her, but when her husband eventually died, she refused to marry the British general. Beresford was prodigiously strong (a popular print showed him lifting a Polish lancer bodily from the saddle at Albuera), but he was also a hypochondriac, habitually taking the waters whether for reasons of ill health or to recover from the breakdown he suffered after the Battle of Albuera.

Although never acquiring the heroic reputation of others of Wellington’s general officers, Beresford played a far more important part in the Peninsular War than any other Allied general except Wellington himself. Beresford’s role in creating a Portuguese army from nothing cannot be overestimated, while the successful conduct of his troops on every campaign from 1809 to 1814 made him one of the principal architects of Wellington’s famous victories.

References and further reading Cetre, F. O. 1991. “Beresford and the Portuguese Army, 1809-1814.” In New Lights on the Peninsular War, ed. Alice Berkeley, 149-155. Lisbon: British Historical Society of Portugal. Chartrand, René. 2000. The Portuguese Army of the Napoleonic Wars. 3 vols. Oxford: Osprey. Glover, Michael. 1970. Britannia Sickens: Sir Arthur Wellesley and the Convention of Cintra. London: Cooper. Livermore, H. V. 1999. “Beresford and the Reform of the Portuguese Army.” In A History of the Peninsular War, ed. Paddy Griffith, 9:121-144. London: Greenhill. Macaulay, Rose. 1990. “King Beresford: Este Britanico Odioso.” In They Went to Portugal Too, ed. L. C. Taylor, 98-232. Manchester: Carcanet. Napier, William Francis Patrick. 1992. A History of the War in the Peninsula. 6 vols. London: Constable. (Orig. pub. 1828.) Newitt, Malyn, and Martin Robson. 2004. Lord Beresford and British Intervention in Portugal, 1807-1820. Lisbon: Instituto de Ciencias Sociais. Vichness, Samuel E. 1976.”Marshal of Portugal: The Military Career of William Carr Beresford.” Ph. D. diss., Florida State University.