Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Siege of Badajoz ~ 6 April 1812

by M.M. Bennetts

The Peninsular War had been raging for four years--since 1808.  But now it was early 1812, a moment of transition during which Napoleon withdrew over 15,000 troops for his intended invasion of Russia.

Not only that, but from his imperfect understanding of the situation in Spain, the emperor issued very dodgy orders to his Marechals, sending them off in different directions to take on what they were led to believe was a much smaller and disease-weakened British army.

Those orders couldn't have been more wrong or misdirected.

The Duke of Wellington, the Commander in Chief of the combined British, Spanish and Portuguese forces, sensed the tide was turning and moved from his winter quarters in Portugal to take on the two great fortresses which guarded the two main roads into Spain, Ciudad Rodrigo in the north, and Badajoz in the south--known as the keys to Spain.

Ciudad Rodrigo fell to the British on 19 January 1812.

Within days, by the 25th, Wellington was making preparations to move south to take Badajoz--the fortress they'd twice already failed to take.

But upon their arrival before the walls of Badajoz on 16 March, the British troops discovered what Wellington had known since the 6th March, when he had privately reconnoitred there.

Bordered to the north by the raging Guadiana River, the fortress's towering ochre walls and angular bastions--all of them 30 feet high, and all glowing warm and golden in the afternoon sun--were nearly impregnable now, thanks to the work of the French commander, General Armand Phillipon. The western side of the fortress had been heavily mined, the castle to the northeast had been fortified as had the outlying forts to the south (which was now attached to the main defences) and on the north side of the river. 

The eastern side was now virtually impassable due to the damming of a small stream...Not only that, but an additional outwork had been constructed in the south-eastern corner, called Fort Picurina.

It didn't look good.

Still, Wellington had had his 52 iron guns brought up from Elvas, and over 27,000 troops available--though the corps of miners and sappers which he had repeatedly requested from the Government had not been provided. Nevertheless, in the heavy rain of 17th March, at dusk, the siege began, with the British troops digging to open up the first parallel not more than 200 yards from Fort Picurina.  (The many Irish troops viewed the date a good omen.)

The howling of the wind and the heavy rain had drowned out the sounds of the digging, of the picks and shovels, and by morning, the parallel was defensible.

But not for long.

For the French opened up a ceaseless barrage of heavy artillery to pour down on their besiegers. On the 22nd, as the rain fell violently and in torrents, flooding the trenches, the rapidly rising waters of the Guadiana swept away their pontoon bridge, cutting Wellington's army in two.

Unfazed, the British carried on.  And when the weather cleared on the afternoon on the 24th, the French could look down on six batteries of artillery, armed with 28 heavy cannon. The French had nothing more than a few Portuguese-built, ancient brass pieces, used in previous sieges. At 11 a.m. on the 25th, the British guns opened fire on Fort Picurina and at nightfall, the Allies stormed it.

After a long night of fighting, and some 250 casualties (about the same number on both sides) the fort was taken.

Over the next several days, additional batteries were established, and the walls of the fortress were now under the constant fire of Wellingtons' 38 guns.  But Allied casualties were high too.

Then, on the 6th April, Easter Sunday 1812, Wellington was informed that by nightfall, three breaches would be opened up in the fortress's southern sector.  Furthermore, he received news that the French, under General Soult, were stirring in southern Spain, and to the north, Ciudad Rodrigo was in danger too.

Though he might have wished for more time, now it seemed he no longer had that luxury.  The storming was ordered for 7.30 that evening, led by the Light and 4th Divisions.  In the event, it was not launched till 10.00.

It was a launching into hell itself.

Unbeknownst to the British, the breaches had been cleared of the rubble and booby-trapped, mined, laid with trains of powder, and fitted with planks studded with spikes a foot long, and chevaux-frises (iron crows' feet).  The ditches too had been laid with fougasses (small mines) and pitted with mudholes.   The defenders were further armed with hand grenades, incendiaries, and extra muskets.  And across the breaches too were hundreds of captured sword blades--the finest of Toledo steel, sharpened and fastened down with chains. In the fraught silence of that humid night, the troops waited.

Then, a single fire-ball lit the sky, casting its bright light over the scarlet columns of the advancing British and the shadowy hunched figures awaiting them atop the fortress walls.

The first 500 of the 'forlorn hope' stormed forward with their ladders.  An instant later, they were all dead, blown to pieces by exploding mines and powder-barrels rolling down on them from the ramparts.  So too, the second 'forlorn hope'.

Over the next two hours, more than 40 assaults would be launched and driven back under murderous fire and defences, until the ditch--a space of quite literally less than 100 yards across--was filled with the bodies of dead and dying troops, some 2200 men.

As one survivor, William Lawrence wrote:  "I was one of the ladder party...On our arriving at...the wall...a shower of shot, canister and grape, together with fireballs was hurled...amongst us.  Poor Pig [Harding] received his death wound immediately...while I myself received two small...shots in my left knee, and a musket shot in my side...Still, I stuck to my ladder and got into the [ditch].

"Numbers had by this time fallen, but...we hastened to the breach.  There, to our great...discouragement, we found a cheval de frise had been fixed...Vain attempts were made to remove this fearful obstacle, during which my left hand was fearfully cut by one of the blades, but, finding no success in that quarter, we were forced to retire for a time...My wounds were still bleeding, and I began to feel very weak.

"My comrades persuaded me to go to the rear, but this proved a task of great difficulty, for on arriving at the ladders, I found them filled with the dead and wounded, hanging...just as they had I crawled on my hands and knees till I got out of reach of the enemy's muskets."

George Simmons of the Light Division wrote:  "Our columns moved on under a most dreadful fire...that mowed down our men like grass...Eight or ten officers and men innumerable fell to rise no more.  Ladders were resting against the counter-scarp...Down these we hurried and...rushed forward to the breaches, where a most frightful scene of carnage was going on.  Fifty times they were stormed, and as often without effect, the French cannon sweeping the breaches with a most destructive fire."

Other combatants wrote of how some 21 officers of their regiment were either killed or wounded or how upon reaching the heights their fellows were pushed back to fall onto the bayonets of their comrades below. 

By midnight, the night air laden, clotted with cordite and gunpowder, the thunder and shrieking of artillery and the screaming cries of dying men, it appeared that all was lost.

Setting his face though, Wellington sent orders to General Picton to lead one final assault to storm the Castle in the north-east corner. It succeeded.  And although Picton himself was wounded, his men of the 3rd Division gained a foothold.

Furthermore, to the north-west, the 5th Division managed to scale the walls, and running through the town, attacked the French defending the breaches from the rear.

Resistance collapsed.  The French garrison were forced to lay down their arms.

The British and Portuguese troops who now flooded the streets of the city exacted a terrible revenge for the butchery of the past hours.  Maddened with drink, frenzied with rage over the hideous loss of so many of their comrades there and at Ciudad Rodrigo, wild with vengeance, they pillaged, raped and murdered in the worst atrocity committed by Wellington's troops during the whole of the Peninsular Campaign.

It was not so much a sacking--which the then 'rules of war' deemed appropriate or at least understandable after such a siege of enormous cost--but a mutiny.

As Robert Blakeney wrote:  "There was no safety for women even in the churches, and any who interfered or offered resistence were sure to get shot.  Every house presented a scene of plunder, debauchery and bloodshed committed with wanton cruelty...When the savages came to a door which had been locked or barricaded, they applied the muzzle...of a dozen firelocks...and fired them off together into the house and rooms, regardless of those inside...Men, women and children were shot..."

Officers who tried to control their men were themselves shot. On the morning after the siege, Wellington visited the dead and at the sight of so many of his men, and his friends, destroyed--nearly 5000 of them--he broke down and wept  in front of his astonished staff.

Still weeping, he returned to his tent and wrote to the Minister for War in London:  "The capture of Badajoz affords as strong an instance of the gallantry of our troops as has ever been displayed.  But I greatly hope that I shall never again be the instrument of putting them to such a test..."

He also issued a General Order that "It is full time that the plunder of Badajoz should cease..." 

Unwisely, the drunken troops ignored his order.

So on the next day, the 8th, the Bloody Provost was sent in to stop their 'enjoyment' by erecting a gallows and overseeing the flogging of many. It was a terrible aftermath--so terrible that when the reports became public in London, there were those MPs who, appalled by the ruination and damning dishonour, demanded an end to all British involvement on the Peninsula.   

Yet, through the sacrifice of so many, Spain was now open to the Allied troops.  And from this position of strength, they would defeat the French and force them out of Spain, and would eventually advance all the way to Paris and an end to the Napoleon's domination of Continental Europe.

(And yes, Jane Austen knew...)


M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at


  1. Not to contradict but wasn't Wellington a Marquess at this time not a duke. From my research he wasn't titled Duke until 1814.

  2. A wonderful post - thanks for this. The first hand accounts are heart wrenching, the aftermath and the emotional toll it took out on Wellington terrible, as you recount so well. It is no wonder that he was wont to act the lone wolf at times and to plan strategies and defences that London knew nothing about, as he was, in effect, on his own on many occasions, with the powers that were in London clueless as to the true situations his army found themselves in and help from that quarter almost impossible to expect. No surprise that Wellington became adept at making the best of a bad situation.

  3. Hm. That sack sounds considerably worse than the sack of Jerusalem in 1099 -- and it was more than 800 years later. But I've never heard Wellington called a "barbarian" as the leaders of the crusades were....


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