Gavin Daly provides a meticulous, deeply researched and highly readable account of the storming and subsequent sack of the Spanish towns of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian by Wellington’s army during the Peninsular War. Even at the time these events produced ambivalent feelings: distress at the scale of British losses in storming the breaches, admiration at the heroism of the troops in overcoming almost impossible obstacles, and shame at the way that the troops behaved to the civilian population once they were in the town. Daly carefully sets these events in their context: the traditional right of soldiers who stormed a fortress to pillage it, which was accepted by the laws of war at the time, and what happened at other sieges, by the British, in India and at Montevideo; by the French, in the Peninsula and other theatres; and in earlier wars. There is fascinating material about the bombardment of civilian populations in towns, something which became much more common in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, but which Wellington almost completely avoided in the Peninsula; and on the question of whether a garrison which refused to capitulate when the walls of their fortress had been breached had given up any right to quarter. (Legally and traditionally they had, and there were a few instances of garrisons being slaughtered in this period, but not in the Peninsula, where British and French armies regarded each other with considerable respect and even admiration). Wellington’s role and the extent and type of misconduct to which civilians were subjected are both explored with scrupulous honesty, as is the reaction of British soldiers, both officers and men to the sack, and what this reveals about changing attitudes to warfare in general.
This is not a book for someone whose concern is the strategic significance or tactical execution of the sieges – Daly does not address those issues – but for anyone interested in the way Wellington’s army worked, its subsequent reputation, or siege warfare in the long eighteenth century, it will be welcomed as one of the most important contributions for years. Don’t miss it.
This is certainly a long-time neglected topic of siege warfare. At first however, it must be admitted, that the storming of a fortress was an extremely rare case during the Napoleonic sieges: I have been studying the central European theatre of war in 1813-14 where only the following places are of concern: The Prussian besiegers stormed Wittenberg, Arnheim and Herzogenbusch Fortresses. Soissons was taken by the Russians in February 1814 encountering a more "hostile" population. Ransacking und looting were not restricted to taken fortresses but any city in a campaign could be the victim of victorious troops (see Moscow 1812).
It's a good, in-depth look at a topic that's usually only talked about obliquely. The only problem is the price. Hopefully it will come out in paper.