The Peninsular War Part 6: The Sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz

THE PENINSULAR WAR PART  6 :  THE SIEGES OF CIUDAD RODRIGO AND BADAJOZ

Lynne Booker, Algarve History Association

At the end of Part 5 we saw that the French Army was unable to penetrate the lines of Torres Vedras which defended Portugal´s capital.  Half starved, in March 1811 the French retreated northeastwards hustled onwards by British and Portuguese troops.  Unable to cross over to fertile northern Portugal because the bridges at Coimbra were guarded by Portuguese militia, the French made for the border towns of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo before retiring on Salamanca to regroup.  In May 1811, Wellington kept shut the door to Portugal at Fuentes de Oñoro in the north and almost at the same time, Beresford locked the door in the south at ´bloody´ Albuera.  The allies should have been beaten at Albuera, but in spite of their enormous losses, the allied line never wavered.  As much as any other factor, this steadiness of British, Portuguese and now Spanish troops dented French self confidence.  It was almost as if French armies must achieve the impossible to defeat the British and their allies.  As it happened, Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera proved to be the watershed in the Peninsular War, and from this point it was the French and not the allies who were on the defensive. 

 

In the first half of 1811, political developments in England had threatened British achievement in the peninsula.  In February, there was a regency crisis.  The madness of King George III had manifested itself again and many thought that when the Prince of Wales became Regent, he would follow the policies of his Whig friends.  Their policy was to withdraw the army from Spain and Portugal and to make peace with Bonaparte.  When the Regency Act was renewed in February 1812, the Regent again allowed his father´s Tory administration to continue in office.  To add to this unsettling situation, Foreign Secretary Wellesley resigned in March and Tory Prime Minister Spencer Perceval, was assassinated in May.  Despite these tragedies, the weak Tory government remained committed to the war in the peninsula. 

 

Bonaparte continued to think himself invincible and from late 1811, his plans had the hallmark of unreality,  foolhardiness and a lack of belief in what his generals were telling him.  At a cost of 2 m francs, he ordered a further invasion fleet to be prepared at Boulogne for the invasion of England.  Although the English population was thoroughly alarmed, and defensive measures were made on the south coast, the complete domination of home waters by the Royal Navy made any such invasion unlikely to occur, and even more unlikely to succeed.  At the same time, Bonaparte declared war on Russia and he called up 120 000 conscripts and recalled many veterans from Spain to the detriment of French efforts there.   His march into Russia began on 24 June, 1812.  Meanwhile, micromanaging affairs in faraway Spain, he ordered Marshal Suchet to capture Tarragona, Sagunto and Valencia in Eastern Spain.  Marshal Marmont in Salamanca was ordered to lend 12 000 troops to Suchet for this campaign.  This troop disposition left Western Spain and Portugal relatively weak and unguarded.  Despite being weeks behind in learning of events in Spain, Bonaparte still insisted on managing the military campaign in Spain from his headquarters in Paris and then in Poland.  He believed that bacause too many British troops were sick, that Wellington would have to rest his army during the winter months of 1811 – 1812. He apparently thought that Portuguese troops were worthless, despite all evidence to the contrary.  In effect, his arrangements had unbolted the door into northern Spain, just as Wellington had created the necessary conditions to push it open.  The French kingdom of Spain was about to receive a major shock from which it would never recover.

 

Wellington led the French to believe that the  Allied Army was static in northern Portugal, but the British were about to move.  Wasting no time, Wellington modernised his transport, recruited more mules than ever before, moved up his siege guns to Ciudad Rodrigo, blockaded the garrison, intercepted their messages and even captured its Governor.  He had 38 000 British and 22 000 Portuguese troops and an esprit de corps that stemmed from the turning point of the ´bloody´ battle of Albuera.  We were alike ready for the field or for frolic wrote Captain Kincaid of the 95th Rifles. 

 

At this time the Portuguese border fortresses of Almeida and Elvas were in Allied hands.  The French Army had three times been ejected from Portugal, but before Wellington could make any invasion of Spain, he needed to become master of what he called the keys of Spain, the Spanish fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. . 

 

Ciudad Rodrigo is the Spanish counterpart of the Portuguese fortress at Almeida.  It was protected by a main wall 10 m high and 9 m wide, a 7 m wide ditch, a further wall 6 m high, another ditch 7 m wide and a glacis (a slope designed to deviate opposition artillery).  The town is overlooked by two hills the Grand and Little Teson whence artillery was able to fire directly on the main walls.  The glacis was too low to protect both the second and inner wall and the parapet on the main wall was too thick to allow the defenders to fire down into the ditch.  Its design was old and not fit for a long siege.

 

The first siege of Ciudad Rodrigo had taken place from 26 April - 9 July 1810.  The Spanish garrison defied the French army of Marshal Ney for 10 weeks and managed to delay the French invasion of Portugal by more than a month.  When the Anglo Portuguese Army arrived in front of Ciudad Rodrigo in January 1812, they knew that the breach made by the French had not been properly rebuilt.  This part of the wall was to be the target of the allied artillery when 10 700 allied soldiers arrived on 7 January.  It was not customary to campaign during the winter and the French treated the investment of Ciudad Rodrigo as a jest.  And, in gestures reminiscent of scenes from Monty Python´s search for the Holy Grail, the French stood on the ramparts giving ironical salutes to their enemies.  They were convinced that the British intended to stage a greyhound race.  The French garrison numbered only around 2 000, and expected Marshal Marmont to come to their aid with reinforcements from Salamanca. By opening his fifth campaign in the depth of winter he had raised the temper of his troops to highest expectancy (of) the impossibility of defeat.  (Sir Arthur Bryant).

 

On 8 January, the Light Division attacked and took the new French redoubt on the Grand Teson overlooking the town walls.  On 13 January they took the outlying Santa Cruz and San Francisco convents.  Three British batteries began their work on 14 January  and by 19 January there were 2 breaches, 200 m apart.  Meanwhile the French had been busy.  They mined the slopes of the Great Breach and lined the parapet with chevaux-de-frise.  Trenches were lined with chevaux-de-frise, pikes, caltrops and piles of wood and pitch.  Wellington´s fear of French forces coming to the relief of Ciudad Rodrigo led him to attack as soon as he deemed the breaches to be practicable, the night of 19 January.  The Light Division under General Craufurd would attack the Lesser Breach while the 3rd Division under General Picton attacked the Great Breach.  The regimental  bands played the march which was sweeping England that year - The Downfall of Paris. 

 

The Forlorn Hope was as usual the spearhead of the assault.  The Forlorn Hope was led by a junior subaltern with 25 men as the vanguard of the attack.  The attraction of this apparently suicidal position was this: in the remote liklihood of surviving, and if the attack were successful, this junior subaltern would be promoted, perhaps over the heads of more senior colleagues.  If his party survived, they would be the first among the loot.  As usual there were too many volunteers, and on this occasion Lt John Gurwood was selected to lead the Forlorn Hope at the Great Breach.  At his first approach to the Breach, Gurwood had the good fortune to be knocked off the wall and stunned as he fell into the ditch.  When he came round, he saw that there was no more glory to be had at the Great Breach; thinking quickly, he ran round to the French Governor´s residence to demand his surrender and his sword.  Gurwood later edited Wellington´s peninsular correspondence.

 

At the top of the Grand Breach, MacKinnon´s Brigade was momentarily halted by devastating canister fire and the detonation of a mine which killed attackers and defenders indiscriminately.  Immediately afterwards the 3rd Division swept up and clawed their way across the ditch and captured the two guns before entering the town.  At the Lesser Breach the Light Division had already broken through the defences, at the cost of the death of their respected commander, Black Bob Craufurd.  Men from the Light Division moved along the walls towards the Greater Breach As they approached they were blown off their feet by the force of the explosion of the mine.

 

One of the most unpleasant aspects of siege warfare followed; officers lost control of their men and the town was sacked by hordes of drunken redcoats. The Allies lost 1 121 killed and wounded against French casualties of 530.  Wellington ordered the breaches to be repaired and installed a Spanish garrison with enought supplies to withstand a French assault.  It was now the turn of Badajoz.

 

The first siege of Badajoz from 27 January - 11 March 1811 as Marshal Soult sought to wrest the town from its Spanish garrison.  A relief force was led by the Spanish General Mendizabal.  Wellington advised him to entrench his army of 12 000 in front of the walls of Badajoz.  Ignoring Wellington´s advice, Mendizabal was quickly defeated by the besieging French force of half the size, much to Wellington´s disappointment.  Badajoz fell to the French on 11 March, unnecessarily cheaply in the view of most observers.  The British Marshal Beresford was detailed immediately to recapture this fortress and the reason for the battle of Albuera in May 1811 was the need to prevent French troops from relieving their comrades inside the town.  Following the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo, it was Wellington´s aim speedily to take the second of the Spanish border fortresses which was holding up his advance into Spain. 

 

The Allies marched South to Badajoz in January 1812 while Bonaparte concentrated on his plans to invade Russia.  He wrote to General Marmont:  You must think the English mad if you suppose them capable of marching there [to Badajoz] while you are at Salamanca and able to reach Lisbon before them.  But Marmont had only 2/3 of his army (the other third was with Suchet in Valência) and the Allies had occupied Ciudad Rodrigo, together with all his siege guns.  Remote and out of touch as ever, Bonaparte ordered Marmont to invade Portugal, despite Marmont reasoning that his army could carry enough food only for a brief raid.  Obeying his Emperor, Marmont led his ill equipped army to Guarda which they reached on 14 April 1812. He took 1 500 Portuguese prisoners but also lost over 1 500 horses through disease and starvation.  Whilst conducting his raid, Marmont learned what he could have predicted.  While he was in Portugal making an ineffectual raid, the fortress of Badajoz, which his troops could have protected, had fallen to the allies. 

 

Allied troops marched the 200 miles from Ciudad Rodrigo to Badajoz and supplies and siege batteries made their way upcountry from Lisbon. Wellingtons siege of Badajoz began on 16 March 1812.  By 4 April two breaches had been made in the walls of the town.  Despite pleas to the government in London, Wellington´s army lacked miners and sappers to develop the breaches.  It was therefore up to the infantry to swamp the French with their numbers.  After a third breach was made, Wellington gave the order for an assault on 6 April.  As usual there were too many volunteers for the Forlorn Hope and controversially, Lt Horatio Harvest a senior lieutenant claimed the honour.  Harvest was killed before he even reached the breach.  Thus began one of the bloodies assaults of the war.  Mines, grape-shot, canister, musketry, water, grenades, powder-barrels. (Sir Arthur Bryant).   The breaches were not penetrated.  The slaughter continued for 2 hours after which Wellington gave the order to call off the attack.  He was ashen at the death of the flower of his army. 

 

Wellington sent word to Generals Picton and Leith to call off their diversionary attacks.  It transpired however that by their refusal to give up in front of the devastating fire at the breaches, the attackers had given time to the 3rd Division to escalade the walls of the castle, the ultimate redoubt.  They had captured the enemy reserve of food and ammunition.  Walker´s brigade of Leith´s 5th Division had also climbed the 30 ft walls of San Vicente bastion, and his whole brigade was now within the fortress.  This force ran through the town to attack the defenders ian the rear, and the French, suspecting treason, threw down their arms and fled.

 

The following night saw one of the worst excesses of the war.  The sacking of Ciudad Rodrigo was reprehensible, but the sacking of Badajoz was hellish.  Thirsty, separated from their officers, mad from the fury of the attack, the soldiery lost all discipline.  For 48 hours, packs of drunkards drank more, looted, raped, shot and came to their senses only when faced with the provost-marshal´s gallows. British and allied troops even looted their own baggage train.  That night, British troops reached the nadir in their disciplinary record in the peninsula.  Groups of officers protected women at the sanctuary of San Juan and others stood guard over Spanish families. 

 

The day following the fall of Badajoz, among the thousands of allied wounded at the camp below the town, two young officers saw two young Spanish ladies approaching.  The elder was bleeding from both ears where her earrings had been torn off by plundering soldiers.  Trusting them, she gave over her 15 year old sister Juanita to their safekeeping, since she had only just emerged from her convent education and was clearly at risk in the town.  Days later, this 15 year old Juanita Maria de los Dolores de León was married to Captain Harry Smith of the 95th Rifles.  With her husband, she saw through the rest of the campaign in the Peninsula.  Sir Harry Smith´s career was typical of that of a successful Victorian soldier and he eventually became Governor of the Eastern Cape, where Juanita gave her name to the town of Ladysmith which in 1900 became the scene of another famous siege. 

 

Allied casualties on that fearful night at Badajoz were 5 000 of whom 3 500 fell in the assault.  For that price, Wellington had bought an immense advantage. He had in two crisp actions taken the keys to Spain and for the first time in the war, the initiative was in Wellington´s hands..  From this point onwards the Allies were on the offensive and the French were left always wondering at which point Wellington would attack next. 

 

Three weeks after returning to the north, Wellington detailed General Hill to strike at Almaraz, the last remaining French-held bridge over the Tagus. On 18 May 1812, Hill destroyed the bridge and broke the route for direct communication between Marmont in Valladolid and Soult in Seville From that point, the commanders of the two wings of the French army guarding the border of Portugal could communicate only through Madrid.

 

When he heard of the loss of Badajoz, Bonaparte had a fit.  He forbad all reference to it and behaved as though it had never happened.  Instead of attending to the damage in Spain where he still had 250 ooo troops to confront Wellington´s 45 000 British and 25 000 Portuguese, he marched off with 500 000 men to his doom in the wastes of Russia.  When the issue of Bonaparte´s genius is addressed, it should not be forgotten that while he undoubtedly swept all before him until 1810, after that time he became convinced of his own infallibilty, and began to inhabit a world of makebelieve.

 

In part 7 of the Peninsular War we shall see Wellington´s invasion of Spain lead to victory at the Battle of Salamanca and to the liberation of Madrid.

 

Lynne Booker

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