Siege of Badajoz (1812)
In the Siege of Badajoz (16 March – 6 April 1812), also called the Third Siege of Badajoz, an Anglo-Portuguese Army, under General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), besieged Badajoz, Spain and forced the surrender of the French garrison.
The siege was one of the bloodiest in the Napoleonic Wars and was considered a costly victory by the British, with some 4,800 Allied soldiers killed in a few short hours of intense fighting during the storming of the breaches as the siege drew to an end. Enraged at the huge amount of casualties they suffered in seizing the city, the troops broke into houses and stores consuming vast quantities of liquor with many of them then going on a rampage. Threatening their officers and ignoring their commands to desist, and even killing several, the troops massacred about 4,000 Spanish civilians. It took three days before the men were brought back into order.
After capturing the frontier towns of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo in earlier sieges, the Duke of Wellington's army moved on to Badajoz to capture the town and secure the lines of communication back to Lisbon, the primary base of operations for the allied army. Badajoz was garrisoned by some 5,000 French soldiers under General Philippon, the town commander, and possessed much stronger fortifications than either Almeida or Ciudad Rodrigo. With a strong curtain wall covered by numerous strongpoints and bastions, Badajoz had already faced two unsuccessful sieges and was well prepared for a third attempt, with the walls strengthened and some areas around the curtain wall flooded or mined with explosives.
The allied army, some 27,000  strong, outnumbered the French garrison by around five to one and after encircling the town, began to lay siege by preparing trenches, parallels and earthworks to protect the heavy siege artillery, work made difficult by prolonged and torrential rainfalls. As the earthworks were prepared, the French made several raids to try to destroy the lines advancing toward the curtain wall, but were repeatedly fended off by the famed British 95th Rifles while simultaneously being counter-attacked by line infantry.
With the arrival of heavy 18 lb (8.2 kg) and 24 lb (11 kg) howitzers, the allies began an intense bombardment of the town's defences whilst one of the defensive bastions was seized by redcoats from General Thomas Picton's 3rd Division. The capture of the bastion allowed more extensive siege earthworks to be dug and soon a maze of trenches were creeping up to the high stone walls as the cannons continued to blast away at the stonework. By April 5 two breaches had been made in the curtain wall and the soldiers readied themselves to storm Badajoz. The order to attack was delayed for 24 hours to allow another breach to be made in the wall. News began to filter to the allies that Marshal Soult was marching to relieve the town and an order was given to launch the attack at 22:00 on April 6.
The French garrison were well aware of what was to come, and mined the large breaches in the walls in preparation for the imminent assault.
With three large gaps in the curtain wall and with Marshal Soult marching to the town's aid, Wellington ordered his regiments to storm the town at 22:00 on the 6th and the troops made their way forward with scaling ladders and various tools. The first men to assault the breach were the men of the Forlorn Hope, who would lead the main attack by the 4th Division and Craufurd's Light Division while diversionary attacks were to be made to the north and the east by Portuguese and British soldiers of the 5th Division and Picton's 3rd Division.
Just as the Forlorn Hope were beginning their attack, a French sentry was alerted and raised the alarm. Within seconds the ramparts were filled with French soldiers, who poured a lethal hail of musket fire into the troops at the base of the breach. The British and Portuguese surged forward en masse and raced up to the wall, facing a murderous barrage of musket fire, complemented by grenades, stones, barrels of gunpowder with crude fuses and even bales of burning hay.
The furious barrage devastated the British soldiers at the wall and the breach soon began to fill with dead and wounded, over whom the storming troops had to struggle. Despite the carnage the redcoats bravely continued to surge forward in great numbers, only to be mown down by endless volleys and shrapnel from grenades and bombs. In just under two hours, some 2,000 men had been killed or badly wounded at the main breach, while countless more men of the 3rd Division were shot down as they made their diversionary assault. General Picton himself was wounded as he climbed a ladder to try to reach the top of the wall. Everywhere they attacked, the allied soldiers were being halted and the carnage was so immense that Wellington was just about to call a halt to the assault when the soldiers finally gained a foothold on the curtain wall. FitzRoy Somerset, Wellington's military secretary (and to be the future Lord Raglan), was the first to mount the breach, and afterwards secured one of the gates for British reinforcements before the French could organise a fresh defence.
Picton's 3rd Division finally managed to reach the top of the wall and simultaneously link up with men of the 5th Division, who were also making their way into the town. Once they had a foothold, the British and Portuguese soldiers were at an advantage. Seeing that he could no longer hold out, General Philippon withdrew from Badajoz to the neighbouring outwork of San Cristobal; however, he surrendered shortly after the town had fallen.
When dawn finally came on 7 April, it revealed the horror of the slaughter all around the curtain wall. Bodies were piled high and blood flowed like rivers in the ditches and trenches. Surveying the destruction and slaughter Wellington wept openly at the sight of British dead piled upon each other in the breaches and bitterly cursed the British Parliament for granting him so few resources and soldiers. The assault and the earlier skirmishes had left the allies with some 4,800 casualties. Numbers differ between 4,924 and 4,760. The elite Light Division had suffered badly, losing some 40 percent of their fighting strength.
With success came mass looting and disorder as the redcoats turned to drink and reprisals. The wanton sacking of Badajoz has been noted by many historians as a particularly atrocious conduct committed by the British Army: many homes were broken into, property vandalized or stolen, Spanish civilians of all ages and backgrounds killed or raped, and many officers were also shot by the men they were trying to bring to order. Captain Robert Blakeney wrote:
The infuriated soldiery resembled rather a pack of hell hounds vomited up from infernal regions for the extirpation of mankind than what they were but twelve short hours previously – a well-organised, brave, disciplined and obedient British Army, and burning only with impatience for what is called glory.
Despite this, some historians have defended the British soldiers' conduct by arguing that the aftermath could not have been avoided considering the ferociousness of the battle. Ian Fletcher argues:
Let us not forget that hundreds of British troops were killed and maimed by the fury of the respective assaults, during which men saw their comrades and brothers slaughtered before their very eyes. Should we really condemn them for feeling some degree of bitterness, for wanting to vent their anger upon somebody? The storming of a fortress is not the same as a battle where men expect casualties to occur. But when a force was asked to storm a fortress when practicable breaches had been formed, such casualties would have been deemed unnecessary. Given the enormity of the task facing the stormers in the Peninsula, I for one begrudge them none of their feelings of anger and desire for revenge.
On the other hand, Myatt writes:
Presumably one can return to the laws of war which, imprecise though they were, did at least suggest propriety of a surrender when a practicable breach had been made, to which Phillipon might very justifiably have retorted that practicable was not a recognisable description of breaches which two of the best divisions in the British Army had failed to make any impressions, even though the extent of their effort can be measured by their losses.
After fifteen to eighteen hours Wellington finally issued an order that the sack of Badajoz should cease and ordered detachments to restore order beginning at 5 a.m. the next day. It was some 72 hours before order was completely restored, however. Many British soldiers were flogged as punishment and a gallows was erected, but no one was hanged.
In a letter to Lord Liverpool, written the following day, Wellington confided:
The storming of Badajoz affords as strong an instance of the gallantry of our troops as has ever been displayed. But I greatly hope that I shall never again be the instrument of putting them to such a test as that to which they were put last night.
- Fletcher pg. 69
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- Paget p 151
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- Heathcote, p. 267
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