The Peninsular War
The Fall of Badajoz
With Ciudad Rodrigo captured, Wellington turned his attention to the other fortress on the Spanish-Portuguese border: Badajoz. This fortress had withstood a British siege in 1811, and Wellington therefore handled the siege differently on this occasion, taking personal command of events, instead of delegating to Marshal Beresford.
A fresh set of siege guns were moved up from Lisbon, and Wellington deceived the French of his intentions, by staying in the north of Portugal whilst quietly moving the majority of his army south. The 3rd, 4th and Light Divisions were chosen for the siege, and were later joined by the 5th Division, suggesting that Wellington would have tried to fight off any attempt to relieve the siege by the French.
When the allies laid siege to the fortress town on 16th and 17th March, they found that it had been strengthened. The garrison of 4,700 French troops were commanded by the energetic Phillipon. Wellington was persuaded by his engineers to attack from the South East, rather than attacking from the south as he would have preferred. This meant taking the Picurina Fort, a strong outwork which dominated the area chosen for the attack.
In This Section
The Storming of Badajoz
From British Battles on Land and Sea by James Grant
A sortie by the French on the 19th set back work on the trenches being dug towards Picurina, and progress was further delayed by poor weather, which left the trenches flooded, and the soldiers shovelling watery mud. Nonetheless, the fort was stormed on the 25th March, with the 500 strong attacking force suffering 50 killed and 250 wounded.
The strong walls of the planned sites for the breaches, the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions, resisted battering. However, by 6th April 3 breaches had been made in the South Eastern corner of the fortresses outer wall.
Wellington hoped to begin the attack at 7:30pm, but the assault was delayed until 10 as some of the preparations could not be completed in time, which only gave the French more time for preparations of their own. Wellington’s plan of attack was a complex one. Picton’s 3rd Division was to use ladders to climb the walls of the castle, Lieth’s 5th Division would attack the San Vincente Bastion on the North West corner of the city wall, whilst the breaches would be assaulted by the 4th and Light Divisions.
The breach assaults failed completely. The French had made careful preparations, including laying chevaux-fraise (beams with sword blades driven into them) to create a vicious, virtually impenetrable barrier. The determined and relentless fire of the defenders left hundreds dead within minutes. Meanwhile, the for Leith’s attack did not arrive until 11pm, meaning his men did not reach the wall until midnight.
After 2 hours without making progress, Wellington ordered the 4th and Light Divisions to pull back, planning to resume the assault at daylight. The situation was saved by the success of the 3rd and 5th Divisions who, after they had captured the walls, were able to march to attack the breaches from the rear. The French fled, allowing the 4th and Light Divisions to flood into the city, and unleash a vengeful fury on the city’s inhabitants.
The plunder, rape and murder that followed was one of the most shameful episodes of the Peninsular War, far eclipsing what had occurred at Ciudad Rodrigo. Officers totally failed to control their men who did as they pleased until the 9th April, when the plunder ended more due to exhaustion than anything. Traditionally historians have suggested that hundreds of civilians were killed though more recent research has suggested that the figure was 125 killed and 83 wounded. As with Ciudad Rodrigo, there was little in the way of punishment for the perpetrators.
Map of Siege of Badajoz
The allied army had suffered heavily in taking Badajoz, loosing 4670 killed or wounded, with 3,700 of those being from the night of the assault.
Wellington famously wept over so many of his soldiers lying dead in the breaches of Badajoz, something which General Picton, who found him in tears, failed to understand. It was one of a handful of occasions which showed Wellington’s compassionate nature and concern for the well-being of his soldiers, which is often masked by his sterner, professional exterior.
Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had fallen to the allies in a matter of months, revolutionising the strategic situation in the Peninsula. He now faced a choice of options, either striking the French Army of Portugal around Salamanca, or marching in the south of Spain. Whichever option he chose, it was increasingly looking as though 1812 would prove to be a pivotal year in the course of the Peninsular War.
Up Next: The Salamanca Campaign
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Interested in Learning More?
Frederick Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Stroud: Spellmount, 2008)
Gavin Daly, ‘The sacking of a town is an abomination’: siege, sack and violence to civilians in British officers’ writings on the Peninsular War – the case of Badajoz’