Commentary Explorer Results

Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 26 : Ciudad Rodrigo (July 1811–January 1812)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Wellington optimistic in July 1811:

Despite the failure at Badajoz Wellington’s mood in the middle of July was surprisingly optimistic. He had some 56,000 men under arms (British and Portuguese) (Fortescue vol 8 p 251-2 cf Morning State of 23 July 1811 in WP 1/336) with a further 5,000 reinforcements expected to join soon and he sensed that the French armies facing him were seriously over-stretched, while rumours of the possibility of war in northern Europe, which recurred throughout 1811, offered further encouragement. He told Liverpool that, ‘I am most anxious not to allow this moment of the enemy’s comparative weakness to pass by, without making an effort to improve the situation of the allies in the Peninsula’ (Wellington to Liverpool 18 July 1811 WD V p 164-7).  But it was less clear how this could be done. A new attack on Badajoz would simply bring Soult and Marmont to its rescue again, and in any case it was far too hot and unhealthy to operate in the Guadiana valley in the late summer.  A strike further south in an attempt to relieve the siege of Cadiz ‘would certainly not succeed’ for it would provoke an overwhelming concentration of French forces. This left an attempt on Ciudad Rodrigo, which certainly offered the best prospect of success, although Wellington warned Liverpool that ‘I may be obliged to abandon it’ it the enemy were reinforced or proved stronger than intelligence suggested. (Wellington to Liverpool 18 July 1811 WD V p 164-7).

Strength of Allied Army, July 1811

The morning state of 23 July 1811 in WP 1/336 gives

29,452 British rank & file present

21,146 Portuguese rank & file present

50,596 rank & file present

The gross figures in return are:

46,326 British rank & file                         (including 11,720 sick      25.3%)

29,796 Portuguese rank & file        (including   6,142 sick     20.6%)

76,122                                                   ( 17,862 sick)

8,758 officers, sergeants, drummers (presumably including Portuguese)

84,880 grand total.

Wellington marches north, leaving Hill with a large force in Estremadura:

The main body of the allied army marched north in the first week of August. Wellington left Hill behind in Estremadura with the Second Division, Hamilton’s Portuguese division, Ashworth’s independent Portuguese brigade and two brigades of cavalry (one British, one Portuguese) which were soon joined by a newly arrived brigade of heavy dragoons under the command of the redoubtable Major-General John Gaspard Le Marchant.  This force of some 16,000 men would be sorely missed by Wellington in his operations around Ciudad Rodrigo, but he did not feel able to leave the southern frontier of Portugal around Elvas denuded of troops. There was a risk, albeit only a slight one, that the French might launch a sudden offensive, and the road from Badajoz to Lisbon was shorter and more direct than that from Almeida, so that if the door was left ajar the French might be in Lisbon before Wellington could intercept them, especially at this time of the year when the Tagus was fordable in many places between Abrantes and Santarem.  (Wellington to Liverpool 27 Aug 1811 WD V p 238-40 – the extensive deletion from this letter is not relevant to this point; for the full text see copy in WP 1/339. See also Wellington to William Wellesley-Pole 2 Oct 1811 WSD vol 7 p 221-2).

The El Bodon campaign:

For more than a month the French largely ignored the allied blockade of Ciudad Rodrigo but in the middle of September Marmont and Dorsenne who had replaced Bessières in command of the Army of the North, began to make plans for its relief. A convoy of supplies was collected at Salamanca and on 22 September Marmont led his army north across the Sierra de Gata.  Dorsenne advanced from Salamanca with four strong divisions of infantry and the two armies united on the following day. Together Dorsenne and Marmont had about 58,000 men while Wellington had only 46,000.  Without a strong defensive position east of Ciudad Rodrigo there was no hope of maintaining the allied blockade, and Wellington made no attempt to prevent the French convoy entering the fortress on 24 September.  More unaccountably, he did not concentrate his army in the strong position at Fuente Guinaldo a few miles to the rear, but left it widely distributed.  It was unlikely that the French had any intention of advancing into northern Portugal or seeking a battle with the allied army, but it was dangerous to rely on this assumption, and most uncharacteristic of Wellington to avoid taking a simple precaution.

On 25 September Marmont sent his cavalry forward to probe the allied positions. Two brigades from the Army of the North pushed west along the road to Carpio where they were engaged by Anson’s brigade of light cavalry supported by the Sixth Division, with Graham in overall command. There was some skirmishing and a few casualties, but nothing of great consequence on either side. At the same time however Montbrun led the four brigades of cavalry belonging to the Army of Portugal south-west along the road to El Bodon and Fuente Guinaldo.  Here he soon encountered the allied Third Divison scattered over six miles of open ground and at risk of piecemeal destruction.  Fortunately for the allies the French had no infantry at hand to support their cavalry, while the initial French attacks lacked much sophistication. Colville’s infantry with a Portuguese battery held the road where it crossed a ridge and repulsed repeated frontal charges, with the 2/5th under Major Ridge, actually charging the cavalry in line when they have overrun the guns (Wellington to Liverpool, 29 Sept 1811, WD V p 292-7). At the same time Alten’s two regiments of British and German light cavalry kept their more numerous opponents at bay by repeated charges and threats of charges. This gave time for the rest of the division to unite and begin its withdrawal, in which it was soon joined by Colville’s infantry and Alten’s cavalry. The French pursued and maintained the pressure over more than four miles (Fortescue vol 8 p 262n) of open country until, on approaching Fuente Guinaldo, De Grey’s heavy cavalry came forward to cover the last stage of the retreat. The allies lost only 149 casualties in the action, less than the French, but if the infantry had showed any less discipline, or the cavalry less courage, the result could easily have been a disaster. (Oman vol 4 p 562-71, Fortescue vol 8 p 260-3).

Wellington was in the thick of the action and Alexander Gordon believed that he had personally saved Wellington from being captured during the affair. (Boutflower Journal p 114 Alexander Gordon to Aberdeen 27 Nov 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 268 – unfortunately Gordon’s letters written immediately after the action have not survived).

By nightfall on 25 September Wellington had only one third of his army in position at Fuente Guinaldo and much of the remainder could not be expected to arrive until at least the afternoon of the 26th.  If the French launched a determined attack on the morning of the 26th they had every chance of gaining a victory. Marmont and Dorsenne had ordered their troops forward, but because they had never intended a serious advance most of the army had not crossed the Agueda, and this led to delays, with the last units not reaching the front until late on the 26th.  This was one reason for caution, while memories of Talavera, Busaco and Fuentes de Oñoro provided another: Marmont would not risk a hasty ill-considered attack, and despite careful reconnaissance he could not see enough of the reverse of Wellington’s position to be confident that there were not large allied reserves hidden out of sight. He therefore refused to attack and gave the order to withdraw back to Ciudad Rodrigo that night. Wellington also ordered a retreat: he had bluffed his way out of trouble but would not press his luck a second day, and so fell back a few more miles to another strong position at Aldea da Ponte, halfway between Fuente Guinaldo and Sabugal, a move which would bring the whole army together. (Oman vol 4 p 572-77; Fortescue vol 8 p 263-66).

In the early hours of the night of 26th/27th the two armies therefore marched in opposite directions until the French rearguard noticed that the allies had abandoned their position.  Marmont halted his men and followed the allies with a small force, keen to discover what was afoot.  He had a good look at the allied position on 28th but was never tempted to attack it and resumed his withdrawal.  By the 29th the crisis was over and on 1 October the two French armies separated with Dorsenne returning to Salamanca and beyond, while the Army of Portugal crossed the mountains back to the Tagus valley.

The campaign was essentially inconsequential. The French had achieved their objective of lifting the allied blockade of Ciudad Rodrigo, although their army then consumed half the supplies it had brought forward, during its advance to Fuente Guinaldo, so that another convoy would have to be arranged in the next couple of months. Wellington had been surprised and taken at a disadvantage but had managed to scramble his way out of trouble without suffering any damage.  Sir Thomas Graham commented ‘It was very pretty – but spun rather fine. Had the enemy behaved with common spirit on the 26th, we should not have got away so easily from Guinaldo. I should have preferred … drawing back the infantry to the ultimate position [rather earlier], which would have been made infinitely stronger during that interval. There would have been no risk whatever, nor to the troops any appearance of retreat’ (Delavoye Life of Graham p 599). The implied criticism was perfectly fair, even understated, but it was not the common view in the army.  Charles Cocks wrote home, ‘By universal and uncontested accounts the affair was most brilliant’, while Captain Bowles, who had just returned to the Peninsula after more than a year in England, wrote from Abrantes that, ‘The affairs of the 25th and 27th September exhibits his genius and coup d’oeil in a most conspicuous point of view, as well as the steadiness and conduct of the troops engaged’. (Charles Cocks to Thomas Somers Cocks, 2 Oct 1811 Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 144; Capt Bowles to Lord Fitzharris 9 Oct 1811 Malmesbury Series of Letters vol 2 p 227).

Why didn’t Wellington fall back sooner?

The only explanation Wellington gave is most surprising: ‘as the reports as usual were so various in regard to the enemy’s real strength, it was necessary that I should see their army in order that the people of this country might be convinced that to raise the blockade was a measure of necessity, and that the momentary relief of Galicia, and of Mina, were the only object which it was in my power to immediately effect’ (Wellington to Liverpool 29 Sept 1811 WD V p 292-7 quote on 296; much the same in Memorandum of Operations in 1811 WD V p 447).

This is hardly credible and smacks of a post facto justification. Londonderry (Narrative of the Peninsular War vol 2 p 206) says that there was some intelligence that the French might press on into Portugal, and (p 209) talks of Wellington’s reluctance to yield any ground.

Craufurd at El Bodon:

This was the occasion of the famous anecdote told by Larpent,

On one occasion, near Guinaldo, he remained across a river by himself; that is, with his whole division only, nearly a whole day after he was called in by Lord Wellington. He said that he knew he could defend his position. Lord Wellington, when he came back, only said, “I am glad to see you safe, Craufurd”. To which the latter replied, “Oh I was in no danger I assure you”. “But I was, from your conduct”, said Lord Wellington. Upon which Craufurd observed, “He is d– crusty today.” (Larpent Private Journal 7 April 1813 p 85).

The story is mentioned and its context explained in Oman vol 4 p 573 and Fortescue vol 8 p 265.

Prince of Orange at El Bodon:

Wellington praised the young of Prince of Orange’s conduct at El Bodon in his dispatch: ‘H.S.H. the Hereditary Prince of Orange accompanied me during the operations which I have detailed to your Lordship, and was for the first time in fire; and he conducted himself with a spirit and intelligence which afford a hope that he will become an ornament to his profession’. (Wellington to Liverpool 29 Sept 1811 WD V p 292-7 quoted on p 296).

Lord Aberdeen commented: ‘What sort of person is the Prince of Orange? I suppose it was necessary to give him a puff but he is very handsomely mentioned. He is worth studying, for it is far from improbable that he may be the husband of the Queen of England.’ (Aberdeen to Alexander Gordon 21 Oct 1811 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 255).  To which Alexander Gordon replied: ‘The Prince of Orange is a fine young man, neither one thing nor the other and is quite a boy. You may suppose the Puff was not without its object’ (ibid p 268).  It was widely expected that the young prince would marry Princess Charlotte, the Regent’s heir presumptive: in 1814 he proposed, was accepted but then rejected and she went on to marry Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and to die in childbirth in 1817 at the age of twenty-one.   See Chapter 30 for more on the Prince and his place at Headquarters.

Reaction to El Bodon at Home:

First reports of the campaign reached Britain in a wildly exaggerated form in the second week of October with stories circulating of a decisive French defeat in which they lost 20,000 casualties and prisoners. After such an opening disappointment was inevitable, and it is significant that The Examiner did not hesitate to rub salt into the wound: ‘The Dispatches received from Lord Wellington on Tuesday, instead of confirming the reports of victory, so daringly upheld by the hireling papers, announce the retreat of the Allied Army from Ciudad Rodrigo… so that if the enemy should again advance, the Portuguese people will once more witness the incapacity of the British effectually to defend their country’ (The Examiner 20 Oct 1811 cf 13 Oct for first reports).  The consensus in support of Wellington’s operations that had followed news of Massena’s retreat in the spring was fraying at the edges, and while the opposition leaders were too discreet to endorse the radical view publicly, their private comments were once again downcast and gloomy (e.g. Auckland to Grenville 16 Oct 1811, HMC Dropmore vol 10 p 177-8).  Part of this may reflect a habit of mind common to Whigs of that generation in whom decades of opposition had produced a carping, negative outlook, but more recent disappointments added to the prevailing sourness.

Henry Torrens wrote to William Wellesley-Pole on 22 Oct 1811 with what may well have been an implied rebuke: ‘Both friends and Enemies of our gallant and inestimable friend have done him much injury by the ridiculous sanguine Expectations they held forth of a general Action and without affecting any wisdom, I confess I never expected this, and it would have been madness in Lord W. to have fought unless the French had followed him to His position on the Coa’. (W0 3/600 p 314-16).

Reinforcements and second battalions:

Some of the reinforcements sent out to the army in the second half of 1811 were drafts of new recruits to regiments already serving in the Peninsula, and while the new men would seldom be accepted at once by the veterans, they would still find their feet more quickly than those in a regiment with little recent experience of active service. But it was not always practical to organize such drafts, and the dispatch of so many second battalions to the Peninsula in 1809 had made it much more difficult, for the intention had always been that the second battalions should remain home and act as feeders to the first battalions serving in the field. The Duke of York was determined to restore this system by gradually withdrawing weak second battalions from the Peninsula and replacing them with up-to-strength first battalions; but Wellington, who valued 300 hardened veterans in a second battalion that had seen much service far above 700 or 800 fresh faced recruits led by inexperienced officers, was reluctant to co-operate. The issue was never completely resolved, (it emerged again in 1813), and created considerable tension in Wellington’s relations with the Horse Guards, despite the valiant efforts of Henry Torrens to foster a spirit of goodwill between the two grandees. (Torrens to Wellington 3 June 1811 W0 3/599 p 316*-319*; Liverpool to Wellington 4 and 19 June, and 10 July 1811 W0 6/50  p 227-8, 232, 240-242; Duke of York to Wellington 23 July 1811 quoted in Fortescue vol 8 p 340n, Wellington to Liverpool 11 Sept 1811 WD V p 268).

Senior officers going home and new ones coming out:

One subject on which Wellington and the Duke of York agreed was their irritation at the number of senior British officers wishing to go home on leave, either to attend to private business or to recover from illness. In late July Wellington told Torrens that no fewer than thirteen generals had gone, or indicated their intention of going home (Wellington to Torrens 25 July 1811 WD V p 185).  Some of these were familiar faces who would not return. Sir Brent Spencer left because his place was being taken by Graham, who finally joined the army as Wellington’s unofficial second-in-command in early August, a change which was almost universally popular.  Wellington’s old friend Alexander Campbell left to take up a more lucrative command in India, as did the dyspeptic Miles Nightingall. William Stewart, James Dunlop, William Houston, and Lowry Cole all went home temporarily, but Cole was the only one to return within a year.  James Leith arrived back in Portugal and resumed command of the Fifth Division in November, and Graham took command of the First Division.  But Torrens had considerable difficulty finding other generals willing to serve, while keeping at bay several whom Wellington did not want. The most pressing of these were the brothers Henry and William Clinton; by August Torrens had run out of excuses and told Wellington that he must either let Henry Clinton serve or openly admit that there was an objection (Torrens to Wellington, Private, 24 Aug 1811 W03/600 p 153-6).  Wellington responded by lifting the ban at once: for all his sharp language he was generally reluctant to make enemies in the army, and often shirked the responsibility of asking for generals to be recalled, even while he grumbled endlessly about their incompetence. In any case he had objected to Clinton not on the grounds of competence, but from a suspicion that he would cabal and intrigue to undermine Wellington’s authority by questioning the strategic direction of the war and this danger, Wellington judged, had greatly lessened over the course of the year (Wellington to Torrens, ‘Private and Confidential’ 9 Feb 1811 and 11 Sept 1811, WP 1/326/63 and WD V p 264; Wellington to Clinton 5 Dec 1811 WD V p 39-2).  So Clinton came out to the Peninsula, and in February 1812 was given command of the Sixth Division, and far from treating him coldly, Wellington soon gave him considerable responsibility and wrote to him explaining his views in some confidence. In return Clinton proved an efficient and reliable divisional commander, although his belief in strict discipline made him far from popular. (T.H. McGuffie ‘The Bingham Mss’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 26 1948 p 107-8 on Clinton’s unpopularity; see also Muir Salamanca p 41).

Other new arrivals included Le Marchant; John Byng who had served under Wellington in the 33rd almost twenty years before, and who was given a brigade in Second Division; and James Kempt who came with a  very warm recommendation from Torrens (3 Nov 1811 WO 3/600 p 360-3) and who took command of a brigade in the Third Division.

Col J.W. Gordon told Lord Grey, ‘Spencer has returned and not upon good terms with Lord Wellington who charges him with having exceeded his Instructions in destroying Almeida’. (Gordon to Lord Grey 31 Aug 1811 Grey Papers, Durham University Library no 80).

State of politics: the Prince does not dismiss Perceval in 1811:

In July the King’s condition had worsened sharply and for a time it seemed likely that he would die. Slowly he recovered, but there was now no prospect of his regaining his faculties and resuming his duties. If the Prince had chosen to dismiss Perceval’s government and invite Grenville and Grey to form a ministry no one could have reproached him with lack of filial respect. But he did nothing, postponing the decision until the Regency restrictions expired in February.  Almost certainly he had no settled plan, and simply procrastinated in order to avoid making a decision which would inevitably provoke criticism; but if his vestigial loyalty to his old whig friends was not sufficient to make him take the plunge in August it was unlikely to triumph over inertia in February.

Gloomy account of prospects from senior officers in the army:

To be fair to the opposition their doubts about the war continued to be supported by gloomy letters from officers serving in the army. For example Sir Thomas Picton wrote home on 3 October 1811:

The business in Spain is, I fear, nearly brought to a conclusion. The French have all the strong places except Cadiz, the seat of their mock Government … We may hold out another year in this country. If we exceed that it must be in consequence of the ill conduct or fake measures of the Enemy. With anything like an equality of numbers we can easily best them … but numbers, numbers will tell in the End… (Some Unpublished Letters of Sir T. Picton Pt 2 p 5-7)

See also John Mills’ letters of 3 Sept and 13 Nov 1811 (For King and Country p 65-8, 87-88).

Wellington’s relations with the British government in 1811:

Wellington’s own relations with the ministers show a marked improvement in the second half of 1811 and for the first time he regularly took Liverpool into his confidence explaining the thinking behind his plans, and his hopes for future operations as well as reporting on those already undertaken.  This probably reflects greater confidence, springing not just from the actual success against Masséna but the reaction to it at home, and the lack of any serious criticism over the losses sustained at Albuera. The belief that in the event of failure he would be abandoned by his political allies and persecuted by his political opponents did not disappear, but it receded into the background and he breathed more easily as a result.

Shortage of specie in late summer of 1811:

A recurrence of that old bugbear, the shortage of specie, did nothing to improve Wellington’s mood in the second half of 1811.  Early in July he complained that the troops pay was now two months in arrears while that of the muleteers was as much as six months behind.  Four weeks later, at the beginning of August, things had not improved and he warned Liverpool that it would be very difficult to advance far into Spain without enough cash to buy supplies for the army, although the tone of this letter was much more moderate and conciliatory than similar letters on the same subject had been in 1809 (Wellington to Charles Stuart 4 July 1811 and to Liverpool 1 August 1811 WD V p 132-3, 194-5). Fortunately the problem then eased, mainly through sums purchased in Cadiz and Oporto, but also thanks to a welcome shipment direct from England (Wellington to Liverpool 11 Sept 1811 WD V p 267).  Even so, the officers and men in the army remained short of cash and this in turn prevented them buying supplies locally and led to a good deal of grumbling when there was nothing more interesting to discuss. (For example Mills to his mother 13 Nov 1811 Mills For King and Country p 87-88; Burgoyne Journal for 29 Nov 1811 in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1  p 150).

Fortescue vol 8 p 342-3 rather exaggerates the problem.

Wellington given local rank of full general; suggestion that Lord Paget serve under him:

At the end of July Wellington was given local rank of General (the step above Lieutenant-General) in the Peninsula – a form of temporary promotion often used when an officer’s responsibilities were greater than his actual rank in the army. The news brought to a head recent speculation that Lord Paget might be appointed to command the cavalry – although there were few if any precedents for a senior British officer to agree to serve under his junior, even if the junior had a higher local rank. The Prince was very keen for Paget to serve, but the Duke of York did not approve departing from convention, and though Paget was summoned to London and the position discussed, the offer seems to have been precluded even as it was half made. Wellington was greatly relieved; apart from loyalty to his brother Henry and the fact that he was happy with Cotton at the head of the cavalry, he feared that Paget would be reluctant to accept the subordinate role he required of the cavalry, where caution, steadiness and reliability were more important than boldness, dash and impetuosity. A further unmentioned complication was that if anything happened to Wellington, Paget not Graham would succeed as the senior British officer. Torrens to Wellington 5 Aug 1811 WSD vol 7 p 195-6; Palmerston to Wellington 31 July 1811 WP 1/335; Gurwood in WD V p 194n gives the date of the appointment as 31 July 1811. Lt-Gen Sir Edward Paget to Arthur Paget 4 June 1811; Col Addenbrooke to Arthur Paget 10 June 1811; Charles Paget to Arthur Paget 18 June 1811 The Paget Brothers p 188-9, 191, 192 all comment on the possibility of Lord Paget being given the command of Wellington’s cavalry. William Wellesley-Pole (to Wellington 16 June 1811 Raglan Papers Wellington B no 114) was inclined to approve the idea, and does not mention family feeling as a possible obstacle. Oman vol 6 p 228 quotes the Duke of York on the convention that local rank did not allow a junior officer to command one who was his senior in the army. On the half offer to Paget, see Lord Paget to Arthur Paget 12 August 1811 (The Paget Brothers p 210), and Liverpool to Wellington 8 Aug 1811 WSD vol 7 p 196. Wellington’s lack of enthusiasm for the appointment is made clear in his letters of 25 June and 27 August 1811 WP 1/334 and WP 1/339 (passages deleted from printed text).

Grain from America:

Liverpool had warned Wellington in November 1811 that poor harvests in Britain, France and the Low Countries would lead to a shortage and high demand ‘You must therefore look to get your grain from America, the Barbary States and the Mediterranean.’ And he recommended early action before the French bought it up.  [Liverpool] to Wellington 21 Nov 1811 BL Add Ms 59,772 f 62-69.

See also Wellington to Charles Stuart 25 Oct 1811 WD V p 334-5. The Americans demanded payment in silver for grain they exported to Portugal which added to specie shortage, so was it possible to get grain elsewhere?  And Wellington to Liverpool 29 Oct 1811 WDV p 343-44 on same lines, which produced Liverpool’s reply above.

Although the Americans did not stop exporting grain and flour to the Peninsula, the possibility that they might do so caused Wellington considerable concern and he and the Commissariat took precautions and built up a large stockpile: Wellington to Graham 8 and 10 May 1812 WD V p 640, 641 and to Liverpool 12 May 1812 ibid p 645-7.

Wellington and the Portuguese government in later 1811:

Wellington’s relations with the Portuguese government, which had been very bad for most of the year, also improved in the autumn thanks to concessions granted by the Prince Regent in Brazil. There were even some signs of an improvement in Portuguese finances – the issue which lay at the core of most of the disputes (Wellington to Charles Stuart 21 Oct 1811 WD V p 328-9; see also his letters of 22 July and 27 Aug 1811 ibid p 177, 237).  During the course of the year Wellington had disengaged himself from the detailed negotiations with the authorities in Lisbon, leaving Charles Stuart and Beresford to handle them and referring other questions to London.  It was not a step which came easily to him – he was never happy delegating, being convinced that he could resolve almost any problem with a little care and attention if only people would be reasonable and accept his solution – but as the war moved back to the frontier it was natural that the internal affairs of Portugal became less central to his concerns. The failings of the Portuguese government, and in particular the failings of the logistical services intended to support the army in the field, continued to cause him considerable irritation, but the problems were clearly intractable and he learnt to work around them as much as possible. (See, for example, Wellington to Liverpool 27 March 1812 WD V p 560-3)

The State of the Spanish cause:

The advance to the frontier made Spanish affairs a matter of greater immediate concern than they had been when Wellington was occupying the Lines of Torres Vedras. Not that Wellington ever forgot that both allies were equally vital to sustaining the struggle in the Peninsula. There were contradictory signs of the health of the Spanish war effort: their regular armies were plainly in decline, short of recruits, and even shorter of confidence, training, discipline and pay, they had difficulty in collecting enough men to take the field in strength sufficient to force the French to concentrate against them. The Spanish government, secure behind the ramparts of Cadiz, had long since lost touch with reality, and even when not debating its beloved new constitution was incapable of effective action or exercising authority. The independence movement in the American colonies, the irreplaceable source of revenue and of specie, was gaining strength, and causing further friction between the British and Spanish governments, for while the British hoped for a peaceful settlement that would open the American markets to their trade, the government in Cadiz expected assistance from its ally in enforcing its writ, by force if necessary. An expedition of 8,000 Spanish troops drawn partly from the army in Galicia, which had been equipped and subsidized by the British to fight the French, was collected for service in America before the end of the year. (Wellington to Henry Wellesley 30 Oct 1811 WD V p 345 and Wellington to Liverpool 6 May 1812 ibid p 636. According to Esdaile 20,000 Spanish troops were sent to the Americas by 1814 (The Peninsular War: A New History p 289).  In the May 1812 letter Wellington refers to an unsuccessful attempt by Sir Howard Douglas to stop some troops from sailing from Galicia).

All this was discouraging, but at the same time there was no sign of any abatement in the guerrilla war in provinces occupied by the French. On the contrary in October 1811, and again in the following February, Wellington noted a marked increase in the activity of the guerrillas who had grown increasingly bold, rescuing a captured British officer at the gates of Talavera, and taking full advantage of the concentration of Dorsenne’s army to annoy French posts and garrisons throughout Leon and Old Castile and beyond to the foot of the Pyrenees. (Wellington to Liverpool 30 Oct 1811 WD V p 346 cf same to same 19 Feb 1812 ibid p 521).

Britain and the Command of the Spanish Armies:

Many British observers, both in the Peninsula and at home, saw a simple solution to Spain’s difficulties in the adoption of the Portuguese model of co-operation: in exchange for a large subsidy the Spanish armies would be retrained and reformed by British officers, and be placed under Wellington’s orders. Both Henry Wellesley at Cadiz and Lord Wellesley in London kept this goal in view despite clear evidence that Britain could not find sufficient funds, and that the proposal would arouse deep hostility among the Spaniards – politicians, generals and ordinary people alike. Wellington may have been reluctant to contradict his brothers flatly, but he showed no enthusiasm for the idea, arguing that it would arouse more resentment in Spain than it was worth, and that the fundamental problem with the Spanish armies was not poor officers, but lack of money, for it was hopeless to expect soldiers to be disciplined if they were not fed and paid with some regularity.  His opposition was much too muted to put an end to the proposals, which remained a persistent subject of discussion and negotiation, but little actually happened. (Compare Wellington to Liverpool 2 Feb 1811 WD IV p 575 and Wellington to Henry Wellesley 29 August 1811 WD V p 247-8 with Henry Wellesley to Wellington 9 May 1811 and 28 Oct 1811 WSD vol 7 p 122-3 and FO 72/114 f 83-87).  Two experimental Anglo-Spanish corps were established, commanded by Colonels Whittingham and Roche, officers with great experience of Spanish affairs, who trained their men in the Balearics. Although they received a disproportionate share of funding from the British subsidy to Spain, the results were not particularly encouraging, and the picture was further clouded by accusations of financial impropriety made against Roche in late 1812. (Bathurst to Wellington 23 Nov 1812 and enclosure, WP 1/353; see also Bathurst to Wellington 3 Feb 1813 WP 1/366, Sir J. Murray to Wellington 28 May 1813 WP 1/369).

Suchet’s campaign in Valencia and the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo:

The most important operations involving the Spanish armies in the autumn of 1811 were in eastern Spain, where the French retained the initiative.  Suchet had some success in 1810 in establishing his authority in Aragon.  On 2 January 1811 he captured the important Spanish fortress of Tortosa which guarded communications between Catalonia and Valencia.  Six months later Tarragona fell, in a heavy blow to the resistance in Catalonia. This freed Suchet to turn south towards Valencia, the richest and most populous province remaining in the hands of the Spanish patriots. Spanish troops were collected for its defence from all over southern and eastern Spain, but on 25 October Blake’s army was defeated at Saguntum.  Despite the defeat the small antiquated fortress of Saguntum continued to resist, repelling several French assaults and protecting the rich coastal plain and great city of Valencia, although its fall appeared only a matter of time. Writing in early December Wellington expressed the fear that that fall of Valencia would undermine the Spanish will to continue the war because many of the leading figures in the resistance drew their private income from the province, while at the same time its wealth would help to sustain the French armies at least for another year or two.  (Wellington to Liverpool 4 Dec 1811 WD V p 389-91).

Napoleon also placed great importance on the fall of Valencia, urging Marmont in mid-October to detach a force to assist Suchet in his operations. A month later, encouraged by British press reports of the number of sick in Wellington’s army, he significantly increased the size and role of the detachment. (Oman vol 4 p 591-2).  Then, in the middle of December Napoleon re-arranged his armies in Spain making Salamanca and Leon the sole responsibility of the Army of Portugal, while the Army of the North concentrated on protecting the lines of communication with France. The change was prompted by the withdrawal of the best troops of the Army of the North from the Peninsula – two divisions of the infantry of the Guard, the Polish regiments and the Guard cavalry. But while Marmont’s responsibilities were greatly increased, his resources were not: only two new divisions were added to his army and one of these was detached far off in Asturias, where he was instructed to leave it, and the other would be barely sufficient to replace the scattered garrisons which Dorsenne was withdrawing from all over Leon. (Oman vol 5 p 188-191).  These instructions reached Marmont on 29 December, the very day that Montbrun led 12,000 eastwards to assist Suchet. Fortunately it was midwinter and he thought it extremely unlikely that the allies would make any serious move until the season improved.

However the detachment of Montbrun did not open the door to the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo: Wellington’s attack was so sudden and unexpected that the fortress fell before Marmont could have intervened, whether Montbrun had marched or not.

How many bullocks were needed to bring the siege train forward?

A return in the Dickson Manuscipts (vol 3 p 456) says that the whole train required 4,170 pairs of oxen.   This seems a remarkable number, and I cannot see it confirmed anywhere else; but a note in Jones’s Journal suggests that something of this magnitude was required:  having listed 550 pairs of draft bullocks and 1,910 bullock cars [each requiring at least a pair of bullocks, so 2,460 pair in total] Jones remarks: ‘This increased number of bullock cars, beyond the original calculation, was found necessary in consequence of the draft bullocks of Beira and Traz os Montes being small, and of a description inferior to those of Alemtejo.  This enormous number of 4,920 bullocks were actually present with the equipment at this period; but soon afterwards a portion of the car bullocks were ordered to Lamego, to assist in forwarding provisions to the army, which, with desertion and other casualties, reduced their effective numbers, before the movement to Almeida, to 400 pairs for the artillery.  The draft bullocks, which were of an excellent description, were never separated from the train.’  (Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 364).   This rather suggests that some bullocks, previously used to carry supplies, were lent to the ordnance for the task of bringing forward the artillery stores for the siege train, and once this was accomplished, were returned to their previous duties.  Whether the total number required for the task was 2,000, 5,000 or 8,000 is unclear; but given that Dickson was the officer responsible for supervising the task, the return in his papers carries considerable weight.   Whatever the exact number, the magnitude of the undertaking is impressive.

Wellington hesitates before embarking on the siege:

Despite the apparent purpose behind these preparations, Wellington’s plans were unsettled throughout December as he received contradictory reports of French movements. He did not finally make up his mind to undertake the siege until New Year’s Day, 1812; and when he did so he told Liverpool that his purpose was as much to relieve the pressure on the Spaniards in Valencia, by forcing Marmont to turn his attention back to Leon, as to capture the fortress. This may have been no more than a hedge against fate, for once he decided to undertake the siege, he showed considerable determination and boldness to succeed before the French armies could intervene to lift siege. (Wellington to Liverpool 1 Jan 1812 WD V p 453-4).

The French garrison:

The garrison amounted to some 2,000 men, barely one third of Herrasti’s force in 1810, and were according to General Renaud, their late Governor, (who had been captured by Julian Sanchez outside the fortress on 15 October) of indifferent quality except for 280 artillerymen ‘the finest in the whole French army’ (Aberdeen to Alexander Gordon 4 Feb 1812 At Wellington’s Right Hand p 283; Oman vol 5 p 165).  General Barriè, the new governor, was probably not well known to his men and displayed little energy, resolution or imagination in his defence.

Wellington and Fletcher on Plans for Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo:

D’Urban did not join the army with Beresford until 15 January, so was not at headquarters at the time and may be mistaken but he writes in his journal:

In the close of December and the beginning of January, Marmont had withdrawn his Army to such a distance (as far as and beyond Madrid), that Lord Wellington saw within his reach the occasion he looked and prepared for, and upon the 2nd January resolved upon commencing the Siege immediately. Upon a consultation with the Chief Engineer, it appeared to be the opinion of the latter, that, considering the necessities and the means, it would be impossible to be perfectly prepared to break ground before the 20th of the Month. His Lordship in reply went through every computation and every detail of preparation with the readiness of a Professional Engineer of the first order, and insisted upon what resulted from these computations, that the operations of the Siege could commence upon the 6th, but that to be sure of the whole Machine working together, he would postpone them to the 8th.  (D’Urban Peninsular War Journal p 235).

It is notable how completely the over-confidence of the engineers in the 1811 siege of Badajoz had been reversed.  On 18 Oct 1811 Squire wrote to Dickson, ‘I still think, as I thought at the end of July when I first heard of the intended siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, that such an enterprise under present circumstances was wholly impracticable. I should have thought my lord would have been convinced of this from what he experienced at Badajoz’ (Dickson Manuscripts vol 3 p 484).   The reference to Badajoz rather than El Bodon rather suggests that Squire felt that a siege was in itself beyond the capability of the army, rather than his concern being that the French army would intervene before it could be completed, but either way the outlook is markedly negative.

In his excellent thesis on the engineers, Mark Thompson quotes from an unpublished letter from Burgoyne to Squire (a fellow engineer officer): ‘His Lordship can have but little confidence in Colonel Fletcher, as it appears from what we hear that he objects to nearly every proposal made by him …’   Thompson comments ‘This appears to be the first suggestion that there was a lack of confidence in Fletcher’s command both amongst his subordinates and Wellington’ (p 161).

Wellington’s decision not to use mortars at Ciudad Rodrigo:

Unusually for a siege no mortars or howitzers were employed to fire shells in order to demoralize the garrison except to discourage it from working to clean debris from the foot of the breach.  This too was Wellington’s decision: Charles Cocks recorded him saying that, ‘The way to take a place is to make a hole in the wall by which the troops can get in and mortars never do this, they are not worth the expenditure of transport they require’. (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 162).  Cocks, and other officers, felt some disquiet at the decision which flouted the established rules of siegecraft, but it seems that Wellington had grown impatient with the cautious professionalism of his engineers, and was determined to storm the fortress as quickly as possible taking a few short cuts along the way. (Cocks in Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 162; Colville Portrait of a General p 83-84; cf Wellington to Richmond 29 Jan 1812 WD V p 493-4. It is not strictly true to say that no howitzers were employed, for on the night of 18 January a 5½ inch howitzer and a 6 pounder barrel from the field artillery were employed to fire on the breach. Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 122).

Wellington wrote to Richmond on 29 January 1812 with evident pride:

We proceeded at Ciudad Rodrigo on quite a new principle in sieges. The whole object of our fire was to lay open the walls. We had not one mortar; nor a howitzer, excepting to prevent the enemy from clearing the breaches, and for that purpose we had only two; and we fired upon the flanks and defences only when we wished to get the better of them, with a view to protect those who were to storm. This shows the kind of place we had to attack, and how important it is to cover the works of a place well by a glacis. The French, however, who are supposed to know everything, could not take the place in less than 40 days after it was completely invested, or than 25 days after breaking ground’. (WD V p 493-4)

            There seems to be only ambiguous evidence to support Sir John May’s statement that ‘The reason why mortars were not allowed to be made use of at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, was from a motive of humanity, these towns being inhabited by the Spaniards, our allies’. (A Few Observations on the Mode of Attack and Employment of the Heavy Artillery at Ciudad Rodrigo, and Badajoz, in 1812, and St. Sebastian in 1813… (London 1819 reprinted by Naval and Military Press n.d. [c 2004] p 19).

Wellington wrote to Lord William Bentinck on 24 March 1812:

        The great object in all sieges is to gain time. The preparation and collection of materials for a siege necessarily take many days, which might be employed in carrying on the operations, if those materials were collected and prepared beforehand. …. In all the sieges which I have carried on in this country, I have used only the fire of guns, principally from entertaining an opinion that the fire of mortars and howitzers has an effect upon the inhabitants of a town alone, and that a French garrison, in a Spanish or Portuguese town, would be but little likely to attend to the wishes or feelings of its inhabitants. By this measure I have diminished considerably the expense and difficulty of these operations: and, at all events, whether successful or not, I have done no injury to the Spanish or Portuguese inhabitants. (WD V p 556-7).

            However the fact is that he did employ a number of 24 pounder howitzers in the siege of Badajoz. (16 were available; it is not clear if all were used. Some had been used in 1811 sieges).  But Dickson had told Mr. Butcher on 22 December: ‘I have to inform you that it is not intended to employ the 10 inch mortars, or 8 inch howitzers, and only 10 of the 5½ inch howitzers, to diminish the necessity of transport as much as possible’. (Dickson Manuscripts vol 3 p 525).

There is no need to choose between tactical, humanitarian and logistical explanations: Wellington did not favour mortars or howitzers and so gave them a low priority, without abandoning them altogether.

Wellington and the Scaling Ladders:

Larpent had a story about this:

       I heard an anecdote about the siege of Rodrigo which shows the man. On a sudden the army was in front of it. A new work had to be taken on the instant; scaling ladders were necessary; the Engineers had none, – being quite ignorant of the plans; an inconvenience which has often arisen in different departments, from Lord Wellington’s great secrecy – though the general result, assisted by his genius, has been so good. Lord Wellington on being informed of this – “Well”, said he, “You have brought up your ammunition and stores, never mind the wagons; cut them all up directly, they will make excellent ladders – there, you see, each side piece is already cut”. This was done, and the work scaled forthwith’. (Quoted in Rice Jones Engineer Officer under Wellington p 123 slightly wrongly cf Larpent vol 3 p 5-6 or p 402-3).

            The story sounds implausible but there is, at least, a kernel of truth.  Burgoyne wrote in his journals that the redoubt was stormed by Col. Colborne with ‘ladders made on the spot of the railings of the cars’ (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 155), and Colborne himself wrote ‘Captain Mulcaster, of the Engineers, suggested that it would be better to wait for the light ladders which were coming up. I, however, thought that no time should be lost, and proceeded with the very heavy ladders which had been made during the day’. (Moore Smith Life of Colborne p 167).  Neither gives any credit to Wellington, but Colborne’s implication that the decision whether to attack or not was up to him, can hardly be right.

Working in the trenches:

After the siege was over Burgoyne wrote to his fellow engineer Captain Squire, who had not been present, that, ‘British soldiers must be bad as working parties, compared with their enemies – probably from its not being made so much a point of duty and honour, the officers attending to them, etc.; but it scarcely ever happens that we can complete works in the time laid down in the French authors’ (Burgoyne to Squire 7 Feb 1812 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 160-4). This sounds unfeeling, but no one had worked harder in the siege than Burgoyne, for he was one of the two engineer officers directing work in the trenches: 24 hours on, 24 hours off, from beginning to the end (Captain Ross, the officer who initially shared the duty, was killed by a shell splinter early in the siege, and of nineteen engineer officers present two were killed and five wounded. Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 1 p 286).

Why were the Third and Light Divisions employed in the storm?

Graham told Cathcart, ‘instead of its being stormed by detachments from the different divisions employed in succession from their cantonments for 24 hours, Lord Wellington determined that the division on duty, and the next to come on, should make the attack as soon as the breach was practicable. …. Though certainly in the other way would have been more gratifying to the 1st and 4th divisions, which had an equal share in the preceding corvée, yet it could not have been better done by any elite whatever’. (Delavoye Life of Graham p 622).

Cocks and Stanhope on Craufurd:

Charles Cocks wrote in his journal: ‘Poor Craufurd is dead. He was a zealous, hardy and indefatigable officer who had studied his profession thoroughly and was fond of it. But he was obstinate, violent and sometimes peevish though his personal courage was unquestionable.  He was confused in action but altogether, considering what some of our generals of division are, he is a loss to the army. I am sure he will be regretted by the soldiers of his division for no man had his troops so well supplied (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 166).

But James Stanhope wrote: ‘Craufurd was killed and as for myself I never could regret him, being the most tyrannical and uncommandable officer that ever served in any army, but ‘De mortuis nil nisi honum’ [About the dead, speak nothing except good].’  (Stanhope Eyewitness p 71).

Wellington’s dispatch praising the troops:

In his official dispatch to Lord Liverpool he wrote

I have great pleasure in reporting to your Lordship the uniform good conduct, and spirit of enterprise, and patience, and perseverance in the performance of great labour, by which the General officers, officers, and troops of the 1st, 3rd, 4th and Light divisions, and Brig. Gen. Pack’s brigade, by whom the siege was carried on, have been distinguished during the late operations (Wellington to Liverpool 20 Jan 1812 WD V p 472-77).

The Army delighted with the Success:

The army was delighted with the success which went a large way towards extinguishing memories of the failures at Badajoz.  Benjamin D’Urban thought that ‘this Enterprise whether viewed in its conduct or its consequences, is equally brilliant and satisfactory. Lord Wellington has baffled Marmont, as he has before done every other French General opposed to him, and has possessed himself of this most important Fortress after a Siege of eleven days, and before it was possible for Marmont to assault and come to interrupt him’ (D’Urban Peninsular War Journal p 237). And Lieutenant-Colonel Barnard of the 95th wrote home that the operation ‘has been conceived and executed in a manner truly Wellingtonian’ (Barnard Letters p 203).    Graham told Lord Cathcart: ‘On the whole this enterprise (à la barbe de ces Messieurs), planned and executed with such good combination and activity, and terminated so bravely, will, I think, raise the character of the British army in the Peninsula, and of its Commander all over Europe, beyond anything that has yet happened. The enemy were three months before it, and I believe 17 days open trenches, with an immense army and a Spanish garrison. We have got it in 11, or rather 10, days.’ (Delavoye Life of Graham p 622).

Wellington and the Engineers:

The engineers were rather less enthusiastic: their professional pride had been hurt by Wellington’s interference, and they were inclined to criticize the details.  In his semi-official history published after the war Sir John Jones went further and declared that ‘had circumstances permitted, and the first batteries been used against the defences only, the counterscarp would have been blown in, the approaches carried to the very first of the wall, and the place reduced with less than half the actual loss’ (Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 135).  But this smacks of special pleading, for at the time Fletcher himself had declared that without properly trained sappers, not Burgoyne’s amateurs, the army was simply incapable of blowing in the counterscarp, and both he and Wellington wrote home after the siege pressing for the creation of a permanent corps of sappers and miners.  (Wellington to Liverpool 20 Jan 1812 WD V p 472-77 but cf Squire to Bunbury 23 Jan 1812 BL Add Ms 63,106 f 49-50 which is celebratory).

Wellington’s honours and rewards:

The earldom was not the only honour awarded to Wellington at this time: the Spanish government made him Duque de Ciudad Rodrigo although it was not until early April that Wellington received permission from home to accept. The Portuguese government had, the previous autumn, made him Conde de Vimeiro and given him the Grand Cross of the Tower and Sword; Wellington declined to accept the attached pension of 20,000 cruzados during the war. (Henry Wellesley to Wellington 31 Jan 1812 WSD vol 7 p 293-4; Wellington to Henry Wellesley 19 Feb 1812 WD V p 520; Wellington to Liverpool 19 Feb 1812 WD V p 521-22; Liverpool to Wellington 10 March 1812 WSD vol 7 p 302. Wellington to Liverpool 3 Sept 1811 WD V p 254; Liverpool to Wellington 1 Oct 1811 WSD vol 7 p 220).

As well as Wellington’s elevation there were knighthoods for Graham, Hill and Henry Wellesley. Perceval proposed that William Wellesley-Pole be introduced into the cabinet but this was vetoed by the Regent (- to Buckingham 3 March 1812 Buckingham Memoirs of the Regency vol 1 p 268-9).  Pole was relieved that Lord Wellesley had not approached him to resign as he would not have done so (Pole to Wellington 12 Feb 1812 Raglan Papers Wellington B no 116).

Wellington will not solicit honours or rewards:

Wellington would have had no scruple in taking a British sinecure – the nominal ‘government’ of a fortress in Britain, which was a long-established way of recompensing senior military and naval officers for their service – but a misunderstanding between the Regent and Lord Wellesley meant that he missed out for the moment.  When Torrens told him what had happened Wellington was a little disappointed but far from angry, and took the opportunity to explain, ‘I make it a rule never to apply to any body in any manner for any thing for myself’. In an age when even men as proud as Lord Wellesley had no hesitation or embarrassment in clamouring for what they coveted (in his case honours such as the Garter and a dukedom; others were just as open in seeking money), Wellington’s restraint was unusual though not unique.  He also took the opportunity to tell Torrens that, ‘I have not much time to attend to my own affairs; and I don’t know exactly how I stand with the world at present. The pay of Commander of the Forces, which is all that I receive in this country, does not defray my expenses here, while my family must be maintained in England; and I think it probable that I shall not be richer for having served in the Peninsula’.  (Wellington to Torrens 28 Jan 1812 WD V p 486-7. See also Wellington to Lord Wellesley 28 Jan 1812 WSD vol 7 p 291 and Torrens to Wellington ‘Secret’ 4 Jan 1812 PRO WO 3/601 p 114-117).  And he reiterated the point in a letter to Bathurst written seven months later, when he told the minister that if his pay was not increased, or if he was not given a table allowance, he would be ruined. (Wellington to Bathurst 24 Aug 1812 WD VI p 41-42).  In fact steps were already in hand to grant him £5,000 p.a. table money but it is interesting that he did ask, especially at a time when he might have relied on the government to reward him for Salamanca.   Still, there is a considerable difference between asking for sufficient pay and allowances to cover his actual expenses, and asking for an honour or other reward, and the overall point is still valid: Wellington would not stoop to ask for favours.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

© Rory Muir

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.