Commentary Explorer Results
Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 27 : Badajoz (February–April 1812)
The covering forces:
Oman vol 5 p 229 puts Graham’s force at 19,000 men and Hill’s at 14,000 not including the Fifth Division or other units in reserve. This was more than enough to keep Soult and Drouet at bay. If Marmont joined them, the siege might have had to be converted into a blockade while the allied army gave battle, but Wellington should probably have been able to put around 50,000 men into the field while still maintaining the blockade of Badajoz. The army was still relatively healthy with the number of sick (12,711 on 25 March) close to its low for the year and over 36,000 British rank and file present on 25 March. (Morning state of 21 April 1812 BL Add Ms 38,362 f 179-80 shows total British and Portuguese r&f present: 50,972: add officers + NCOs (c 6,500) + casualties at Badajoz (4,500) = 62,000; deduct units elsewhere; deduct a blockading force around Badajoz and it would still leave a good 50,000.
Wellington willing to fight rather than give up the siege:
‘Marmont’s troops are all ready for a start; but I hope to be strong enough for a stiff affair with him and Soult, and to take the place too. I shall not give the thing up without good cause’. (Wellington to Henry Wellesley, Elvas, 14 March 1812 WD V p 550).
The Line of Attack adopted at Badajoz:
The evidence here is rather ambiguous, as it is not really clear what was meant by ‘one of the south fronts’ which it is said Wellington was desirous of attacking (Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 376). Neither Oman nor Fortescue give anything useful on this, although Fortescue (vol 8 p 407) draws attention to Burgoyne’s opinion (Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 177) that the Castle was the weakest point and should have been attacked. However Fortescue has earlier (p 385) said that ‘Any attack upon the Castle, as now strengthened, was hopeless’ which reflects Jones’s opinion (Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 157) and establishes that the engineers were divided amongst themselves.
Thompson cites an extract from Jones’s diary for a meeting attended by Wellington, Castaños, Fletcher and the Spanish chief engineer at which Wellington and the Spanish engineer are said to have advocated an attack on the southern face, following the French line of attack, while Fletcher preferred to attack the south-west corner from the Picurina redoubt, largely because the army needed the skilled sappers and miners needed to counter the mines the French were known to have constructed on the southern front. This argument persuaded Wellington to agree, albeit reluctantly. Jones commented that this line of attack was adopted reluctantly and ‘never for one moment approved by any one employed in drawing it up, or in the execution of it.’ (quoted in Thompson ‘Rise of the Scientific Soldier’ p 164-5). However this differs quite markedly from the Note in the third edition of Jones’s Journal (vol 1 p 376-8) in which Fletcher’s requirements appear as much more extravagant, and there is not particular emphasis on sappers and miners.
The French garrison rather short of ammunition:
Hill had twice intercepted convoys bringing fresh supplies from Seville. This probably explains the slackness of French fire at times during the siege, which surprised several British officers. It is said that by 3 April more than half the roundshot had been expended and that both shells and grape were even more depleted, so that Philippon was obliged to order his gunners to be economical so as to keep plenty in hand to resist the inevitable storm. (Oman vol 5 p 235-6, 593 (garrison); 242 (shortage of ammunition); Fortescue vol 8 p 385 (convoys intercepted); Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 227).
British historians lavish praise on Philippon without stinting (e.g. Oman vol 5 p 236), and there are also many admiring comments in the memoirs etc. This may have been a little overdone – that it is repeated without thought from one account to another. Reading Jones and other detailed accounts of the siege prior to the storm reveals very little evidence that the defence was particularly vigorous or well conducted, though the great improvement of the defences since 1811 was certainly praiseworthy. The defence of the breaches was magnificent – ingenious well judged and expertly done; and Philippon cannot be fairly criticized for the success of the secondary attacks. He also led his men well so that they fought with confidence. So he certainly deserves some of the praise he has received, the only question is whether he deserves quite such lavish panegyrics.
Wellington and the French armies:
Oman repeatedly describes the siege of Badajoz as ‘a time-problem’ (vol 5 p 227 also p 236) and refers to Wellington’s ‘determination to hurry the siege of Badajoz to a conclusion at the earliest possible date’ (p 273). But this is not really plausible. Of course Wellington did not want any unnecessary delays, and hoped to complete the siege before Marmont and Soult could combine, but it is fairly clear that he had made up his mind to fight a battle rather than give up the siege (see his letter to Henry Wellesley of 14 March 1812 (WD V p 550, and also ‘Letters from Headquarters, 1812-1813’ [by H. A. Johnson] ed by Michael Glover J.S.A.H.R. vol 43 no 174 June 1965 p 93). And as Marmont never showed signs of marching south, and the covering forces were quite strong enough to contain Soult and Drouet, there was not the urgency that Oman thinks he sees (also p 243). If Wellington had been urgent to storm he might have done so on the night of 4 April or 5 April – and the result would not have been any worse.
Wellington expressed himself angrily about the Spanish failure to provision Ciudad Rodrigo (e.g. to William Wellesley-Pole 29 April 1812 Raglan Papers no 46) and blamed it for his inability to attack Soult and liberate Andalusia, but he does not mention it, or Marmont, or Soult, or lack of time, as forcing him to hurry his operations against Badajoz – these considerations are noticeably absent from his official dispatch, his private letter of 7 April to Liverpool and his letter of 28 May to George Murray (WD V p 677) where one would expect him to use it to explain, if not excuse, the severity of the losses.
The cancellation of the assault on 5 April:
According to Jones (Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 193) this was done after a reconnaissance by Fletcher reported that ‘the principal breach appeared to be prepared for an obstinate and protracted resistance’. But if so, why was Burgoyne so surprised and disappointed? Why did the defence of the breach come as such a surprise? There is at least a possibility that Fletcher was nervous and that Wellington wanted to make doubly sure by giving it an extra day’s battering – and there is nothing that suggests that Wellington was impatient or that he was reluctant to allow extra time for battering.
Expectation of heavy losses in the Storm:
As well as Wellington’s letters written just after the event there is a letter from Captain John Jones RE to his brother George dated 4 April 1812: ‘The breach will be well defended, and our loss will be great. Badajoz, however, is worth 2,000 men, the number I calculate will fall in the breach…’ (quoted in Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 1 p 301).
Wellington gives orders for the storm:
‘In the morning Lord Wellington with all the officers of rank concerned under cover of a stone quarry, made his dispositions (which were very clear and able) and explained everything. When Picton was going away, to whom was entrusted the escalade of the castle, he said laughingly, “Mind if I don’t get into the castle first.”’ (Stanhope Eyewitness p 75).
‘Lord Wellington derived a great deal of information from a French sergeant of miners, who deserted. I never saw a more intelligent fellow, he knew & described all the various mines of the other bastions.’ (Stanhope Eyewitness p 75).
The delay from 7.30pm to 10pm on 6th April:
No one gives a full explanation for this, though the fact that even at 10pm the ladders had not reached the Fifth Division suggests that this may have been where the hitch arose, with Wellington’s late concession that this should be a serious not just a feint attack. If so, the result provides its justification, but nonetheless it really was very poor management that sufficient preparations had not been made on the 3rd, 4th and 5 April for the storm to go ahead at short notice. Ultimate responsibility for this must rest with Wellington, but without more details it is impossible to go further than that (for example, the delay may have been caused by high casualties among the engineer officers). No single mistake by the allies was as costly as this, and it might surely have been avoided.
The 6th April was not Easter Sunday:
Fortescue (vol 8 p 395 n) corrects Grattan (Adventures in the Connaught Rangersp 197) on the point saying that it was the second Monday after Easter.
Wellington and the Escalade of the Castle:
According to Charles Cocks, writing on 22 April, the Escalade was Wellington’s idea: ‘Had it not been for the Escalade of the Castle, which was Earl Wellington’s favourite idea but not relied on by the Engineers, I suspect it would have been an affair marquee’ (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 175).
The Storm of Badajoz:
In describing the storm I have followed the framework and timetable set out by Fortescue (vol 8 p 394-403) supplemented by many firsthand and secondary accounts.
For the operations of the Third Division Captain Macarthy’s Recollections of the Storming of Castle of Badajoz is much drawn upon by all later accounts. This should be supplemented by a excellent letter from George Hennell (then a volunteer in the 94th) (Hennell Gentleman Volunteer p 12-18) and the much later and written up accounts of Donaldson (Recollections of the Eventful Life p 155-8) and Grattan (Adventures in the Connaught Rangers p 195-206).
There are a great many Light Division accounts, but most, if not all, were written years later. Simmons in his journal (British Rifleman p 228-9) is quite brief and not too elaborate. I also like the account in Cooke (A True Solider Gentleman p 119-125) Costello (Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns p 93-95) is, as always, good for excellent colour and a plausible idea of the view from the ranks. Verner (History and Campaigns of the Rifle Brigade vol 2 p 374-9) gives an excellent detailed secondary account.
Burgoyne gives an impersonal overview of the storm, but written at the time and full of useful details. Disconcertingly he makes the Third Division take the Castle without being repulsed at the first attempt but this makes little sense, (in Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 175-177).
Colville commanded the Fourth Division. He doesn’t give an extended account of the storm but is good on the heavy losses suffered by his staff and gives an impression of the chaos in the ditch (Portrait of a General p 97). Stanhope (Eyewitness p 75-78) gives a very useful onlooker’s account. Boutflower (Journal p 130-1) paints the scene but is rather disappointing. Sergeant Lawrence (Autobiography p 111-3) is excellent, but, like so many later accounts, a little too smooth from frequent retellings.
The Fifth Division in the storm:
James Stanhope says: ‘The 5th Division did wonders, but could not be kept together, so that the same spot was taken & retaken many times. They had 30 feet high of wall to escalade, were seen on the glacis and many killed before they could descend the ditch. General Walker did wonders & was desperately wounded. He run [sic] a French artilleryman through the body as he was going to fire grape on the scalers.’ (Stanhope Eyewitness p 76).
Wellington watching at Badajoz:
James Stanhope was with the headquarters party (he and Benjamin D’Urban had left Graham to attend as observers), and describes the event:
This scene was the most magnificent I ever witnessed, but the miserable anxiety we all felt for the issue and for our friends rendered those two hours the most painful I ever passed. Report after report came to Lord Wellington that the divisions were annihilating [sic] & could not get in. We had heard the fire & cheering of the 5th Division who were to escalade by the arsenal. Our hopes (such as remained) lay a good deal on them. Lord Wellington who had a flambeau by him never showed in his countenance any alteration from all the reports he received. At last a message came from General Picton to say “He might be easy as he had carried the castle & had 3,000 men in it.” We gave way to every expression of joy & exultation but not one muscle moved in Lord Wellington’s face; he calmly said “Retire the divisions and let them form ready to attack in the morning.” This however was unnecessary… (Stanhope Eyewitness p 76)
William Staveley also recalled the scene:
Freeth and myself accompanied him to the top of a small rising mound on which stood Lord Wellington and his staff, watching the progress of the assault. Lord March and the Prince of Orange went down to the breaches and soon sent up word that the attack was succeeding. Lord Wellington enquired who had sent the message and, on being answered, exclaimed “What do you mean by bringing me such unsatisfactory reports?” However, soon afterwards hearing from good authority that the castle had been carried by escalade (with my ladders), he ordered Col de Lancey to go to Sir Thomas Picton and order him to advance”. (Jackson One of Wellington’s Staff Officers p 159)
His lordship, on our coming up, was so intent on what was going on, that I believe he did not at first observe that Dr. Forbes and I had joined him. Soon after our arrival, an officer came up with an unfavourable report of the assault, announcing that Colonel McLeod and several officers were killed, with heaps of men, who choked the approach to the breach. At the place where we stood, we were within hearing of the voices of the assailants and the assailed; and it was now painful to notice that the voices of our countrymen had become fainter, while the French cry of “Avancez, étrillons ces Anglais,” became stronger. Another officer came up with a still more unfavourable report, that no progress was being made, and that he feared none could be made; for almost all the officers were killed, and none left to lead on the men, of whom a great many had fallen. At this moment I cast my eyes on the countenance of Lord Wellington, lit up by the glare of the torch held by Lord March; I never shall forget it to the last moment of my existence, and I could even now sketch it. The jaw had fallen, and the face was of unusual length, while the torchlight gave his countenance a lurid aspect; but still, the expression of the face was firm. Suddenly, turning to me and putting his hand on my arm, he said, “Go over immediately to Picton, and tell him he must try if he cannot succeed on the castle”. (McGrigor Autobiography p 273)
A vignette provided by Lawrence is both appealing and plausible, although doubtless improved in the telling:
After proceeding for some way [to the rear, having been wounded] I fell in with Lord Wellington and his staff, who seeing me wounded, asked me what regiment I belonged to. I told him the Fortieth, and that I had been one of the forlorn hope. He inquired as to the extent of my wounds, and if any of our troops had got into the town, and I said “No,” and I did not think they ever would, as there was a chevaux de fries, a deep entrenchment, and in the rear of them a constant and murderous fire being kept up by the enemy. One of his staff them bound up my leg with a silk handkerchief, and told me to go behind a hill which he pointed out, where I would find a doctor to dress my wounds; so I proceeded on… (Autobiography of Sergeant William Lawrence p 113-14).
Several Third Division sources claim that Wellington said ‘The 3rd Division has saved my honour and gained the town’ (Hennell Gentleman Volunteer p 16 n).
Did Wellington order that the assault on the breaches be renewed?
Harry Smith (Autobiography p 66) says that he did, and as brigade-major he should have known. The story is followed by most good secondary accounts, yet in his dispatch, written on 7 April, Wellington writes ‘finding that success was not to be attained, and that Lieut. Gen Picton was established in the castle, I ordered that the 4th and Light Divisions might retire to the ground on which they had been first assembled for the attack’ (Wellington to Liverpool 7 April 1812 WD V p 576-81 quote on p 578). And this is confirmed by Stanhope Eyewitness p 76 (quoted above). However it is possible that both are true: that Wellington ordered that the initial attacks be continued or renewed, and they were; but then, when they had again failed, and the Third and Fifth Division had gained a foothold, he ordered that further assaults on the breaches be called off.
Ammunition expended in the Siege:
Round shot 24 pdr 18,332
18 pdr 13,029
Shells 5½ common 507
5½ spherical case 1,319
24 pdr grape 893
3 pdr shot made into 24 pdr grape 158
18 pdr grape 328
Total rounds 35,346
2,523 barrels of powder, each 90 lbs.
One 24 pdr, three 18 pdrs and one howitzer were disabled by French fire.
(All figures from Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 1 p 209-10)
There was a dispute between Fitzroy Somerset and William Warre over who should accept Philippon’s surrender: Warre tried to pull rank and seems to have got possession of Philippon’s sword but Somerset felt that his claim was vindicated – see an 1834 letter from Somerset to Napier quoted in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 119-120; Warre (Letters from the Peninsula p 159) on the other hand does not make any point of to whom the French surrendered, saying that both he and Somerset were present.
The Sack of Badajoz:
I am a little sceptical of many first hand accounts of the sack of Badajoz, especially those in the memoirs, written many years after the event, by private soldiers who I think were often inclined to follow the lead set by Napier and in other published accounts. Still, the picture painted by Costello (Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns p 96-99) is both vivid and convincing. George Hennell, a volunteer in the 94th gives a rare account that was written immediately after the storm by a man who fought in the ranks (even if he messed with the officers):
Soon after daylight, the bugle sounded for two hours plunder. The men were pretty quiet all night, but when the bugle sounded they could not get out of the citadel. They, however, soon broke down the gate and sallied forth. The first door that presented itself was dashed in with the butt end of a musket. I hear our soldiers in some instances behaved very ill – I only saw two and stopped them both; one was beating an old man, the other ill-using an old woman. One of our officers saw a man go among a number of women and force off all their earrings. Those that would not give way [he] broke off a bit of their ear. By the laws of war we are allowed to kill all found in a town that stands a storm, and our soldiers declared that they would do so, but an Englishman cannot kill in cold blood, for we had not been a ¼ of an hour in the citadel before the prisoners passed through as quietly as you might have done.
… I got back into camp about 11 o’clock in the morning, washed and dressed myself, got some refreshment and returned to the town. You can have no conception of the scene I witnessed, most of the soldiers drunk, staggering about with their plunder… (Gentleman Volunteer p 17-18. Hennell got his commission in the 43rd a few weeks later).
William Warre writing on 8 April comments on the ‘avarice and licentiousness’ of the soldiers and adds ‘Fortunately a greater part of the inhabitants had quitted the place previously. Those that remain have paid dearly for their folly, and have but little reason to rejoice in the victory of their friends…’ (Letters from the Peninsula p 160).
Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 121 quotes an order by Philippon of 3 April condemning soldiers in the garrison who looted houses – including inhabited houses – and churches; so the despoliation of Badajoz had begun even before it was stormed.
Wellington and the Sack of Badajoz:
‘The divisions that stormed are in a sad state of disorganization from the plundering & loss of officers. Lord Wellington fulminates orders & has hardly thanked the troops, so angry is he at the pillage of the poor Spaniards.’ (James Stanhope Eyewitness p 78; slightly misquoted by Fortescue vol 8 p 405 from the manuscript). In 1831 Wellington told Philip Stanhope that he remembered, ‘entering a cellar and seeing some soldiers lying on the floor so dead drunk that the wire was actually flowing from their mouths’ (Notes of Conversations p 9).
Oman vol 5 p 256-62 places the sack of Badajoz in the context of the treatment of other towns stormed in the period, and shows that some French generals used the threat of a sack to pressure Spanish governors into surrender, while on other occasions they were happy to give their troops free reign. Yet even this pales before Suchet’s conduct at Lerida where he deliberately drove large numbers of civilians into the citadel then shelled it heavily in order to obtain its surrender – an act which certainly breached the laws and conventions of war at the time, and which a more censorious age would not have left unpunished, but which, in the age of Napoleon, did not even damage his reputation as an enlightened and humanitarian soldier (see Oman vol 3 p 306-8).
The argument that British and Portuguese crimes were more reprehensive than those of the French because Spain was their ally (e.g. Oman vol 5 p 261) cannot stand unchallenged: both Britain and France claimed to be allies of the rightful government of Spain, and if it was wrong for British troops to rape and murder the subjects of Ferdinand VII it was no less wrong for French troops to rape and murder the subjects of Joseph Bonaparte.
On the whole I suspect that the sack of Badajoz has been, not exactly exaggerated, but blown out of proportion, which is why I used Tomkinson’s (admittedly unsubstantiated) figures for civilian deaths. The scenes of drunkenness and disorder which followed the storm were terrible and many officers were shaken by their inability to exact obedience from their men, but as the story was told and retold in countless memoirs the writers sought for ever more colourful language and lurid details to meet the expectations of their readers. We guard against this effect in reading stories of heroism in battle or at the breaches, but it is just as likely to apply to discreditable as to creditable events. The scale of the suffering of the civilian population at Badajoz does not begin to compare with that of the allied troops in the storm, while it would be regarded as wholly unremarkable in the context of most of the wars of the Twentieth Century.
Wellington’s General Order of 11pm 8th April:
At first sight it looks as though this might be a misprint for 11am, only 37 hours after the storm began; but several references to ‘tomorrow morning’ show that it was indeed issued that night.
Casualties at Badajoz:
The two divisions attacking the main breaches lost over 900 British casualties each, while the Third and Fifth divisions each lost more than five hundred, and there were 730 Portuguese casualties. (Oman vol 5 p 594-5. The Portuguese losses are given separately as a single line entry in the table printed by Oman). The 1/43rd lost 341 casualties, the 1/52nd 320 and the 1/95th 194; although the heaviest losses in proportion to strength were probably suffered by the 1/4th in the Fifth Division which had 230 casualties from only 530 men (Fortescue vol 8 p 405). Officers suffered particularly heavily in the storm with 62 officers killed and 251 wounded, or more than one officer casualty for every eleven men. Generals Picton, Walker, Colville, Kempt, Bowes and Harvey were all wounded. Four battalion commanders were killed including Henry Ridge of the 2/5th who had distinguished himself at El Bodon and Ciudad Rodrigo, and William Napier’s great friend the much admired Charles McLeod of the 43rd (Fortescue vol 8 p 405). Thirteen of the twenty-four engineer officers present at the siege were killed or wounded (Porter History of the Royal Engineers vol 1 p 309).
Lowry Cole made the same point as Wellington, that the losses fell most heavily on the best and the bravest, when he wrote home, ‘I have lost every friend and every good officer with at least a third of the Division at the siege of Badajoz’ (Cole to Lord Enniskillen 5 June 1812 Memoirs of Cole p 80).
Harry Smith and Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon:
The official version of the love story of Harry and Juana Smith, as told by Kincaid Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 286-9 and Harry Smith’s own Autobiography p 68-72, seems to have been tailored to satisfy Victorian proprieties. The couple’s marriage was not immediate and even years later Juana was snubbed by other wives of officers in the regiment: Sir T. Reynell to Sir Denis Pack, Glasgow, 25 April 1820, Pack Mss quoted in S. G. P. Ward’s notes, Ward Papers 300/3/10. Although Kincaid and Harry Smith both say Juana was not yet 14, G.C. Moore Smith states that she was born on 27 March 1798 and so had just turned 14 (Smith Autobiography p 73n). Given that Harry Smith is uncertain even of his own age at the time (believing that he was 22 not 24) the editor’s statement can be accepted without quibble.
Wellington’s private letter to Lord Liverpool of 7 April 1812:
The full text reads:
My dear Lord, My dispatches of this date will convey the account of the capture of Badajoz which afford as strong an instance of the gallantry of our troops as has ever been displayed. But I anxiously 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. 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. There is a body of Sappers and Miners attached to every French (?) corps; and each of the armies in the East Indian has one; and every army in the World except ourselves. The consequences of being so unprovided with people necessary to approach a regularly fortified place are, first, that our Engineers, although well educated and brave, have never turned their minds to the mode of conducting a regular siege, as it is useless to think of that which it is impossible in our service to perform. They think that they have done their duty when they construct a Battery with a secure communication to it, which can make a breach in the wall of a place; and, secondly, these breaches are to be carried vive force by an infinite sacrifice of Officers and Soldiers. To this add that storming a breach, or attacking a place by Escalade, is an operation of a very different description from fighting a General Action. In the latter every man, generally speaking, has an equal chance; but in the former the Officer, the bravest and best non-commissioned Officers and Soldiers go first. The loss falls upon these; and five minutes after the breach is carried women and children might enter it instead of men. You see in the attack of Badajoz we had six out of 7 General Officers employed, all their Staff, and a very large proportion of Officers killed or wounded. In the attack of the Picurina it was the same, and we lost 200 out of 500 men employed. These great losses would be avoided, and in my opinion time gained, in every siege, if we had the properly trained people to carry it on. I declare that I have never seen these breaches more practicable in themselves than the three in the walls of Badajoz; and the fort must have surrendered with these breaches open if I had been able to approach the place. But when I made the third breach on the evening of the 6th I could do no more. I was obliged then to storm or to give the business up; and when I ordered the assault I was certain that I should lose our best Officers and Men. It is a cruel situation for any person to be placed in, and I earnestly recommend to your Lordship to have a corps of Sappers and Miners formed without loss of time. (Wellington to Liverpool 7 April 1812 The Athenaeum no 3209 27 April 1889 p 537).
Wellington’s letter was regarded as so sensitive that it was not included in either series of Dispatches and did not make its way into print until 1889.
Wellington and criticism of the Engineers:
Although Wellington’s letter to Lord Liverpool was not made public until 1889, the engineers were hurt by his official dispatch in which they were named and thanked but no tribute paid to their professional skill. As Major John Jones explained to a fellow engineer in England: ‘The truth of the matter is His Lordship is annoyed at the breaches not having been readily carried, and at the great loss of men the Army has sustained; all of which he most justly imputes to us, from our approaches not being sufficiently advanced to have prevented the enemy working at the breaches, nor to afford a good musquetry fire to cover the storming party whilst forming. We cannot deny the truth of the statement, and His Lordship therefore will not praise an operation which we ourselves are obliged to confess – imperfect and bad’. (Jones to Rice Jones Badajoz 29 April 1812 in Shore ‘Letters from the Peninsula’ p 94-95 cf Jones to Major Chapman 7 April 1812 WSD vol 7 p 311-12 which is full of pleasure at the success). But the engineers felt that they had been asked to undertake a task that they knew was beyond them with the resources available, and then effectively blamed for their failure despite all their hard work and conspicuous bravery. In fact both Wellington and the engineers recognized that the real fault lay in the deficiencies of the Ordnance Establishment, but even so further friction was added to relations which were already difficult.
Wellington also wrote to George Murray after the siege, and this letter was included in the Dispatches (Wellington to George Murray of 28 May 1812 WD V p 677). In this he wrote:
The siege of Badajoz was a most serious undertaking, and the weather did not favour us. The troops were up to their middles in mud in the trenches, and in the midst of our difficulties the Guadiana swelled and carried away our bridge, and rendered useless for a time our flying bridge. However, we never stopped, and a fair day or two set all to rights. The assault was a terrible business, of which I foresaw the loss when I was ordering it. But we had brought matters to that state that we could do no more, and it was necessary to storm or raise the siege. I trust, however, that future armies will be equipped for sieges, with the people necessary to carry them on as they ought to be; and that our engineers will learn how to put their batteries on the crest of the glacis, and to blow in the counterscarp, instead of placing them wherever the wall can be seen, leaving the poor officers and troops to get into and cross the ditch as they can. (WD V p 677)
Lt Col H. D. Jones RE, the editor of John Jones’s Journal of the Sieges, prints this passage in a note to the third edition of the Journal described it as an ‘injurious and unmerited censure’ (vol 1 p 222 discussion p 222-6). This seems an over-reaction for in both Wellington’s letters he makes it clear that the main failing was in the resources available; still it cannot be said that the only problem was the lack of trained sappers and miners. There were not enough engineer officers present (only 24 in all, of whom 4 arrived in the last days), and while they were well trained and knowledgeable in the theory of siege warfare they had very little practical experience, and without it were not particularly fertile in expedients to get around the deficiencies of resources. That said, they were brave and energetic, eager to learn, dedicated and hard working.
After the siege Benjamin D’Urban wrote in his journal that ‘all the loss of 20 days Siege thrown away, because the breaches were of no assistance, the Defences were all left perfect, and the Place might as well have been carried by escalade altogether upon one of the dark rainy Nights after it was first invested’ (D’Urban Peninsular War Journal 7 April 1812 p 249 cf Harry Smith Autobiography p 73). Although the comment is superficially attractive there are two clear objections. The first is that it is based entirely on hindsight, and it is not difficult to imagine the criticism which would have been directed at Wellington if he had incurred 4,000 casualties in taking Badajoz by escalade when he had a siege train and plenty of time available to proceed regularly. The second point is even more fundamental: it is most unlikely that such an escalade would have succeeded. Leith and Picton gained the rampart on the night of 6 April because the garrison was concentrated in defence of the breaches and this left it stretched a little too thinly elsewhere. Even so they did not find the task easy as the repulse of Picton’s first attack and the very heavy losses suffered by the leading regiments in each division clearly show. Without an abundance of raw, desperate courage the assault on Badajoz would have failed, and it may be doubted whether the troops would have fought so well if it was not the climax of a three week siege in which every possible effort had been made to overpower the defences.
Technical criticisms of the Conduct of the Siege:
Fortescue offers some of the strongest criticism:
the fact remains that the assault upon the breaches, on which Wellington undoubtedly reckoned for success, was a failure so disastrous as to deserve characteristics as a blunder. The question then arises, Was the right quarter chosen in the first instance for the attack? … Both Philippon and Lamare considered the front next to the Castle as the weakest point in the defences, and that Burgoyne both before and after the siege maintained that, by opening a parallel four hundred yards from the Castle Wall, the place might have been taken in eight or ten days’ (vol 8 p 406-7).
For Bugoyne’s opinion see Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 177 – but how much credibility did such views have after the sanguine promises of the engineers in the 1811 siege of Badajoz?
The storming parties of the Light and Fourth Divisions lacked direction and guidance – probably inevitable given their losses and the appalling scene in the ditch. But it does not seem that the ditch had been reconnoitred beforehand, and Cocks at least thought that this would have been possible (Page Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula p 233). More might also have been done to explain to the troops beforehand where the breaches lay – although this smacks of hindsight and even anachronism.
Thompson makes the point that the delay from the 5th to the 6th and the creation of the third breach may have been decisive by spreading the defenders more thinly, and so facilitating the success of the Third and Fifth Divisions (‘Rise of the Scientific Soldier’ p 169).
Charles Knight’s account of the reaction to the capture of Badajoz:
I heard it said in the House of Commons on the 27th February with a mixed tone of reproach and despondency, “Badajoz, Gerona, Tortosa, Valencia and almost every place of strength in Spain are in the hands of the French.” On the 23rd April the horns were blowing in every thoroughfare, and men were bawling “News – News – Great News!” Wellington had taken Badajoz. The crisis of the European conflict appeared to be at hand. Napoleon was evidently preparing an offensive against Alexander of Russia. (Memoirs of Charles Knight vol 1 p 123-4; other sources suggest that the news of the capture of Badajoz did not reach London until 24 April: Farington Diary vol 7 p 81; Abbot Diary vol 2 p 377).
So Charles Knight recalled the moment with all the clarity of hindsight; but in the spring of 1812 the picture was much more clouded and uncertain. Joy at the capture of Badajoz was muted by the heavy casualty lists.
© Rory Muir