The greatest weakness of the British Army in the Peninsula under Wellington, in addition to not having enough Royal Artillery units (which was made up by the upgrading and training of the excellent Portuguese artillery) was the absence of any suitable combat engineer troops until 1813. There was no such Portuguese engineering organization to make up for that weakness.
‘A serious clog on Wellington’s operations in Spain was the British Army’s lack of proper combat engineer troops and specialist miner units. British engineer officers were energetic but had little training and experience in siege craft. Consequently, Wellington’s sieges had to be crude, main-strength-and-awkwardness affairs, with infantry assaults (often unsuccessful and dreadfully costly when they did succeed) taking the place of scientific trench work and bombardment.’ (John Elting, Swords Around a Throne, 506).
Compared to the Royal Engineers, the French Army prior to the Revolution had the same problem, as no enlisted men or engineer units were assigned to the engineer arm either. The French Royal Engineers was composed solely of officers, including the Topographical Engineers, which had been founded in 1771 and were the army’s mapmakers. There were regular miner companies in existence, but they were part of the artillery and were at times commanded by artillery officers. Jean-Baptiste de Gribeauval had commanded one when a captain of artillery. (John Elting, Swords, 269; Frederick Artz, Education, ).
The situation changed in October 1793 when Lazare Carnot, then a member of the Committee of Public Safety and still a captain of engineers, influenced the decision to transfer the miners from the artillery to the engineers and to organize twelve companies of sapeurs du genie, combat engineers, and that changed the French engineers from a staff organization to a combat arm. (John Elting, Swords, 268).
The French engineer school at Mezieres was established in 1749, and like other French military technical schools, it was excellent. (John Elting, Swords, 269; Frederick Artz, Education).
The British engineer officers had been trained at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, which had been founded in 1741 and modeled on the military technical schools in France. The Royal Engineer officers who served in the Peninsula between 1807 and 1814 had been commissioned between 1790 and 1804. (Mark Thompson, Engineers, 237).
While professionally educated, the British engineer officers were not well-trained in siege operations, and that lack showed up early at the siege of Copenhagen in 1807 where the British finally relied on a plan to conduct a terror bombardment aimed at the civilian population of the city, instead of conducting ‘normal’ siege operations. While successful, resulting in the surrender of Copenhagen and the Danish fleet (the object of the expedition) it was also an atrocity which has largely been historically under-played.
The lack of suitably trained and organized British combat engineer troops were the cause of the catch-as-catch-can and awkward sieges conducted by Wellington. Wellington was not only painfully aware of the inherent weaknesses in the engineer arm, but he corresponded frequently with his superiors in London recommending and asking for competent enlisted engineer troops. While his contribution to the final authorization of the Royal Sappers and Miners was important, and probably would not have been done without his influence, the contribution of junior engineer officers who had served or were serving in Spain and Portugal was equally, if not more, important in the final decision to activate the Royal Sappers and Miners and send them to the Peninsula in 1813.
The Royal Military Artificers (RMA) were companies of skilled workmen and were never intended to serve in the field with the army. They were not combat engineers. They were permanently stationed at various places in Great Britain and because of the needs of the army for skilled engineer units, they were parceled out to the deployed commands. The RMA were neither trained nor skilled enough to perform as regular engineer troops and that lack was definitely demonstrated at the British sieges in the Peninsula and elsewhere, such as Copenhagen in 1807, and showed the glaring requirement for regular engineer units. As of 1811 none of the RMA companies had been deployed on active service as a unit, but merely as detachments.-(Mark Thompson, Engineers, 238.)
One of the most ardent and persistent proponents of engineer troops for the British Army was Captain Charles William Pasley who commanded a Royal Military Artificer company at Plymouth after serving in the unsuccessful Walcheren campaign and being seriously injured during the siege of Flushing. His belief that the RMA as it was currently configured and trained was ‘not capable’ of serving efficiently as engineer troops. He proposed establishing a formal school for the training of engineer troops to support the army in siege and other engineer operations.
Pasley, recovering from a serious injury, took command of one of the RMA companies, that stationed at Plymouth, in 1811. His observations are damning as to the discipline and function of the company he initially commanded.
‘The command of the company here gives me a greater insight into the nature of our establishment…There is no guard except of a Sunday at the Barrack gates, which breaks up at eleven o’clock…The…backward spirit amongst the Non-Commissioned Officers is very great, and their ideas of subordination are exceedingly lax…I think these companies will not be worth much till they are changed every two or three years, and go on actual service bodily, not by detachments.
‘Every event in this country proves more and more the necessity of our having an establishment of Sappers and Miners…Lately at Ciudad Rodrigo we succeeded in taking the place more from its own weakness, than from any means we possessed of approaching nearer with success. I really should dread to attack a regular fortress:-we have no men fit for the operation, and if we attack Badajoz again, which is something like a regular place, depend upon it, that our loss in officers will be severe:-it must be so, until we have men drilled to this particular service. Your efforts at Plymouth do you the greatest credit…However, persevere in the noble work you have begun, and it is probably that their eyes may be opened, and they may be convinced.’ John Squire RE to Charles Pasley RE, March 1812.
In August 1811 John Rowley, the Secretary to the Inspector-General of Fortifications replied to Pasley’s recommendations for the formation of engineer troops:
‘On the subject of training the RM Artificers to their duties in the field…General Morse forwarded the letter you sent him, to the Master-General, with his recommendation…I…hope that his Lordship will think proper to call upon you to superintend and carry out the system of instruction you have so well pointed out.’-Thompson, 242.
Because of Pasley’s ‘continued correspondence with the Master-General’ and his proposal to establish a school of military engineering, the proposal was finally accepted and a Royal Warrant was ‘issued by the Prince Regent’ on 23 April 1812 formally establishing the School of Military Engineering at Chatham.-Thompson, 244.
The first trained engineering troops were sent to the Peninsula by the end of 1812 and though their engineering skills were ‘incomplete’ these new troops ‘were a major improvement on the performance of the RMA. One of the major improvements was that these troops were assigned their own engineer officers, which put them head and shoulders above the RMA. Not only were enlisted engineer troops trained at the new school, but ‘all newly-commissioned Royal Engineer officers were sent to the school to instruct and be instructed on practical field works.’
Pasley, upon the formation of the newly created Corps of Military Artificers Sappers and Miners (shortly to be renamed the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners) wrote a memoir which stated that the ‘key role’ of engineer officers was not only ‘the instruction of the soldiers’ but, that engineer officers should ‘have a course of study laid down for them’ which would improve their overall knowledge and efficiency and understand how to properly conduct siege operations and to understand ‘the art of fortification.’ The officers were then ‘required to present memoirs relative to the various operations of a siege, stating the number of men, materials and tools, and the distribution of them.’-Thompson, 245.
Further, Pasley wanted the issue of poor discipline addressed by permanently attaching engineer officers to the companies of Royal Sappers and Miners. Engineer officers would command the new engineer companies.
One of the problems that Pasley and other insightful engineer officers faced was that according to John Jones, ‘In the English language there exists not a single original treatise on sieges; all our knowledge of them is obtained from foreign writers.’ This echoes the reason why Thiebault’s staff manual was translated soon after its publication in France-there wasn’t one in English. Fortunately for the Royal Artillery, they had Adye’s Bombardier and Pocket Gunner, although Adye himself commented on the admiration he had for the French Gribeauval System as the Royal Artillery did not at the time possess a unified artillery system.
Thanks to the foresight, based on combat experience, of Pasley and his fellow engineer officers, by 1812-1813 the British Army had a competent combat engineer arm, and not merely a staff organization made up only of officers. The Royal Sappers and Miners were in the field and operating by 1813 and made their presence felt at the two sieges of San Sebastien, being successful in the second. They had learned the lesson presented by the French engineer arm from 1793. And, interestingly, the most successful ‘team’ of senior French artillery and engineer officers operated in Suchet’s Army of Aragon on the Spanish east coast. Artillery General Valee (who would later develop a new artillery system for the French incorporating ideas based on experience in the Peninsula) and Engineer General Rogniat were the impetus behind the successful string of sieges conducted by Suchet’s army.
Wellington had asked for and recommended competently led and well-trained engineer units and undoubtedly that greatly assisted in the army finally getting them. But it was through the combat performance of the Royal Engineer officers, and the heavy losses they suffered, and the insistence and persistence, as well as unflinching dedication to duty, of relatively junior engineer officers that finally convinced the powers that be to confirm the establishment of the Royal Sappers and Miners. Unfortunately, that hard-earned knowledge came too late to serve in the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and Burgos.
For example, Wellington wrote to Lord Liverpool in February 1811 after the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo regarding the need to establish a corps of sappers and miners: ‘…I would beg to suggest to your Lordship the expediency of adding to the Engineers’ establishment a corps of sappers and miners. It is inconceivable with what disadvantage we undertake anything like a siege for want of assistance of this description. There is no French corps d’armee which has not a battalion of sappers [sapeurs du genie] and a company of miners. But we are obliged to depend for assistance of this description upon the regiments of the line; and although the men are brave and willing, they want the knowledge and training which are necessary. Many casualties among them consequently occur, and much valuable time is lost at the most critical period of the siege.’ (Journal of Sieges, Volume III, by Major General Sir John Jones, 224).
General Jones himself remarked on the lack of proper engineer troops in Spain and that Wellington ‘was well aware’ of that lack, noting that the lack of well-trained engineer units was ‘the very inefficient organization of the Engineer branch of the service: at that period [February 1811] there was not such a body of men belonging to the army of Great Britain as Sappers and Miners…’ as the aforementioned letter to Lord Liverpool clearly demonstrates. (Journal of Sieges, Volume I, by Major General Sir John Jones, 224).
‘…I assure your Lordship that it is quite impossible to expect to carry fortified places by vive force without incurring great loss and being exposed to the chance of failure, unless the army should be provided with a regular trained corps of sappers and miners. I never knew a head of a military establishment or of an army undertaking a siege without the aid of such a corps, excepting the British Army…I earnestly recommend to your Lordship to have a corps of Sappers and Miners formed without loss of time.’-Wellington to Lord Liverpool, April 1812 after the third siege of Badajoz.-Thompson, 241.
In comparison, the strength of the French engineer arm when the French besieged and took Badajoz in 1811 there were ‘100 miners, 483 sappers [sapeurs du genie], 60 artificers, 37 drivers, with 58 horses.’ The difference with the British engineer arm is telling. (Journal of Sieges, Volume I, by Major General John Jones, 225).
The experienced engineer officers who had engaged in siege work both in the Peninsula and elsewhere during the period, as well as Wellington, were responsible for the final approval of actual engineer troops to be organized, trained, and led by qualified engineer officers. This went a long way to the overall efficiency of the Royal Engineers as they were now not merely an organization of officers, but a combat arm. Unfortunately for them, this great improvement came twenty years after the French had made that improvement and the delay had cost the British infantry heavily in the bloody assaults against Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and San Sebastien.
A useful research project might be to compare the French and British sieges in the Spanish peninsula from 1808-1814, especially French and British sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz.
A short summary of Peninsular sieges by both the British and French might be useful:
Gerona I-July-August 1808-Failure.
Gerona II-May-December 1809-Success.
Saragossa I-June-August 1808-Failure.
Saragossa II-December1808-February 1809.
Cadiz-February 1810-August 1812-Failure.
Ciudad Rodrigo-June-July 1810-Success.
Tortosa-December 1810-January 1811-Success.
Valencia-December 1811-January 1812-Success.
Tarifa-December 1811-January 1812-Failure.
Ciudad Rodrigo-January 1812-Success.
Badajoz I-May 1811-Failure.
Badajoz II-May-June 1811-Failure.
Badajoz III-March-April 1812-Success.
San Sebastien I-July 1813-Failure
San Sebastien II-August-September 1813-Success.
The following references were used in the preparation of this short paper:
Wellington’s Engineers: Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814 by Mark Thompson is an excellent study of the British engineer arm of the period and the information in this article came from that source.
The Development of Technical Education in France by Frederick Artz an excellent volume clearly demonstrating not only how technical education, both civil and military, developed in France, but how that example was copied by everyone else, including Great Britain and the United States.
Swords Around a Throne by John Elting is an excellent organizational study of the Grande Armee and is the best treatment of the subject in English.
The Peninsula War Atlas by Nick Lipscombe. An outstanding work, comparable to A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars by Vincent J Esposito and John R Elting, covering the Peninsular Campaigns which the Atlas did not. Full of excellent material with excellent maps.
Journal of Sieges, 3 Volumes, by Major General John Jones is yet another excellent reference regarding both the British artillery and engineer arms during the war in Spain and Portugal.