Hell reigned in Badajoz.
The city was ablaze with light. The crackle of musket fire rattled through the narrow streets. The wounded groaned, drunken soldiers bellowed. The screams of women punctuated the air, adding to the symphony of destruction.
The British army had stormed the fortress city, losing 3,000 men in a vicious fight at the three breaches in the city’s walls. This was the third time that they had laid siege to Badajoz. Twice they had failed. Some British soldiers thought that the Spanish inhabitants had collaborated with the French. Many others did not care. Driven mad by the slaughter, or just fuelled with blood lust and having escaped the control of their officers in the confusion of the storming, the British soldiers were running riot in the city.
Ever since they had forced the French back into the city’s streets, the British troops had been committing every kind of outrage imaginable. Women had ear rings torn from their ears. They were the fortunate ones, many other were raped. Houses were broken into, their contents looted, and their inhabitants murdered if they tried to resist. So many liquor barrels had been smashed open that the streets ran ankle deep in wine and brandy. Soldiers fired randomly and for no reason, sometimes accidentally killing their comrades in the process.
Some officers did what they could to protect the city’s inhabitants, a few were killed by their own men for their trouble.
Hell reigned in Badajoz. Yet the town had fallen 24 hours ago. In total the anarchy would last 3 days.
The conduct of the British army after the siege of Badajoz was one of the worst examples of the collapse of discipline in the army during the entire Peninsular War. The officers had virtually no control over their men. When Wellington sent troops into the city to restore order on the third day of looting, those men simply joined the looters. The situation only came to an end after the British troops had exhausted themselves.
Considering the scale of the disorder, it is natural to assume that there would have been harsh punishments for those responsible. The British had besieged a town in the country of their ally. The inhabitants were Spanish citizens, who represented no threat to the soldiers. On both a political and military level, the implications of the troops’ actions at Badajoz were incredibly serious. Yet not a single soldier was brought to trial.
The crimes that the soldiers committed were serious enough to be punished at the highest level of military court – the General Courts Martial. However, the records indicate that no trials at all took place in the month after the fall of Badajoz, and no soldier was ever tried by the General Courts Martial for their actions in the sacking of the city. The question, of course, is why?
This is an important concern in my research into military discipline, which highlights a number of the frustrations that can arise in the research process. On one level it is quite hard to remain dispassionate about the event. As a historian, it is vital that I don’t allow my judgement to be clouded by an emotional reaction to the events that took place, but this is not easy. I have to put the moral element to one side, and try to work out why the commanders of the army decided not to prosecute. One answer to this may actually be that, in the event of a city falling in an assault, this sort of thing was to be expected.
The British carried out three sieges in the Peninsular War: Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, and San Sebastian. All three withstood an assault. This means that the commander did not surrender when the city’s walls had been breached, which is what would normally have happened, especially before the Napoleonic Wars. In those circumstances, it was accepted that the punishment would be that the soldiers attacking the city would be let loose to ‘do their worst’. This was usually an effective deterrent, as the commander clearly would not want to be responsible for his countrymen and women being mistreated by the enemy. For the French in Spain, however, the people who suffered were not their own countrymen, but the citizens of Britain’s ally. The situation is therefore much more confusing. On one level, the rules remained, yet from a moral perspective, the British surely should have exercised restraint.
The next issue that I have with Badajoz is connected with finding the right primary sources. There are plenty of accounts of the crimes that were committed once the city had fallen. However, a lot of the letters written by the Duke of Wellington during this period have been lost. (The ship transporting them down the River Tagus sank). We therefore have a less complete record of what Wellington was trying to do to restore order. We do know that he was furious, issuing an order that the looting had to stop on 7th April. We also know that he sent troops and the provost (the army’s police) into the city to try and achieve this. However, with the letters missing we don’t know how he responded to the complaints which must have arisen in the aftermath of the storming of Badajoz, which would tell us so much more about his attitude and response to the event.
There are ways around that problem. Some more detailed military records held at the National Archives in London may provide the answer, and in the next month I will be travelling there to try and find out more from them. There are also collections of letters and orders from some of the senior generals working under Wellington in the Peninsular War. These may also be able to shed more light on the matter.
There is one other possibility: the events at Badajoz might not actually have been as bad as historians have been led to believe. In reality, this seems unlikely. Wellington’s orders clearly show that the disorder went on for far too long, and there is such a large volume of private testimony from letters, diaries and journals of British troops, that it is hard to believe the aftermath of Badajoz was not appalling. However there is one intriguing point to make here: there was no reporting on the sacking of the city in the British newspapers. The question has to be asked why the news never reached home. This was not a period of press censorship. Although some newspapers had biases either in favour or against the government, physically controlling what was printed in the newspapers was not actually possible on a practical level. Neither was there a united attitude of support for the Peninsular War amongst the press. Some newspapers were very hostile about the war, so they would have readily used the event as an opportunity to criticise the government’s course of actions. Is the reason for the lack of coverage in the press quite simply down to it not having been as bad as we believe?
Clearly this is a major and difficult problem to resolve, but it is one that will demonstrate quite nicely how my research develops. I will keep you updated…….