The Taking Of Badajoz
On March 16th, 1812, when the popular trees that
fringed the Guadiana were bending under a tempest of wind and
rain, A British force some 15,000 strong, with a battering train
of 52 guns, reached Badajoz, a strongly fortified Spanish town
near the frontier of Portugal.
About a year before, Imas had delivered up the place to
marshal Soult, and although we had made two attempts to retake
it, we had failed on each occasion to retake it, we had failed
on each occasion with heavy losses, our battering train being
insufficient; the third time we were successful.
A granite bride with twenty-eight arches, dating from
Roman times, still spanned the sluggish river on the northwest.
There was nothing very remarkable about its quaint,
crooked streets and massive Cathedral beyond the natural
strengths of its position, rising some 300 feet above the marshy
plain, with bastions and their connecting curtains to protect it
Philippon and the gallant garrison, and our troops under
the Earl of Wellington, have, however rendered Badajoz immortal.
General of Brigade Philippon commanded in Badajoz with a
force of 4,742 men.
A Formidable Task
Although somewhat short of powder and shell, Badajoz
presented a formidable task to a besieging army, being protected
on one side of the river, 500 yards wide in places, and having
several outworks, notably one called the Picurina, on a hill to
Philippon had, moreover, taken every means possible to
strengthen his post: mines were laid, the arch of the bridge
built up to form a large inundation, ravelins constructed and
ramparts repaired, ditches cut and filled with water; and that
he should have no useless mouths to fill, the inhabitants were
ordered to lay up for three months provisions or leave the town.
Badajoz when Picton’s 3rd Division, Lowry Cole’s
4th division, and the Light Division, invested it.
The rest of the army covered the siege; the 5th
division was on its way from Beira.
On the night of the 17th, 2,000 men moved
silently forward to guard our working parties, and began to
break ground, 160 yards from the Picurina, the sentinels on the
raparts hearing nothing in the howling wind.
So well had the volunteers from the 3rd
Division laboured, for we had no regular sappers, that at
daylight 3,000 yards of communication, and a parallel 600 yards
long, were revealed, on which the garrison opened a fire of
cannon and musketry. The
roar of the guns of the crack of muskets continued with little
cessation for many days, increasing as we armed battery after
battery and brought them to bear upon the doomed town.
Of the 46 pieces some dated from the days of the Spanish
Armada; others were cast in the regions of the Stewarts; we had
24-pounders of George II’s day, the bulk of the extraordinary
medley being brass 24-pound guns of the seventeenth century,
which required ten minutes to cool between each discharge, lest
the overheating caused the muzzle to droop.
Wellington learned from his spies that that the garrison
was to make a sally on the 19th, and at one
o’clock, from the Talavera gate, a body horsemen came out,
followed by 13,000 infantry, who concealed themselves in the
covered trench connecting San Roque with the Picurina.
The cavalry dividing into two parties, one pursued the
other towards our lines, were they were challenged, and allowed
to pass on replying in Portuguese.
Thee was some excuse for our pickets, as the French
Dragoons, in consequence of the difficulty of procuring new
uniforms from France, used the brown cloth common all over the
Peninsula, and was thus mistaken for our Portuguese allies, some
of whom were also dressed in brown.
The troopers dashed at the engineer’s park, cut down
some men then galloped off with entrenching tools, for which
Philippon had offered a large reward.
infantry sprang out of the covered way with a part of the
Picurina garrisons, and rushing forward, began to destroy our
We drove them back almost to the walls of Badajoz,
killing 30 and wounding 287.
But we lost heavily, and, unhappily, our chief engineer,
Colonel Fletcher, was badly hit, a bullet striking a silver
dollar in his fob and forcing it an inch into his groin,
confining him to his tent until the latter end of the siege.
The Earl went there each morning to consult about the
Our movements were by no means faultless.
Wellington had great difficulties to contend with in many
The Guadiana rose in full flood and tore away the pontoon
bridge which connected us with our stores at Elvas; it was
replaced, however, and we got nearer and nearer to their walls,
until, at last, our men finding the fire from the Picurina very
galling, it was decided to storm that fort on the 24th.
the Picurina fort
The rain had ceased, and the dark mass of the fort, held by some
of the Hesse-Darmstadt Regiment, loomed up, as 500 of Picton’s
division mustered about before it about nine o’clock one fine
A hundred men were kept on reserve, while the remainder,
divided into two bodies, were to advance against the right and
the left flanks, also securing the communication with San Roque
to prevent any succour coming from the town.
Scarcely had the word to advance been given when soaring
rockets went up from the ramparts, port-fires illuminated the
darkness in places, and the stillness became a babel of sounds,
as shells came hissing towards us, drums rolled, and the bells
of Badajoz rang wildly amid the deep booming of the heavy
cannon. Red flashes
streamed through the openings in the palisading, the
Hess-Darmstadt men opened fire, and we swarmed hot up the rocks
and groped for the gate, the prisoners of the Light Division
leading with their axes.
of the Picurina
communication our men repulsed a battalion coming to the rescue,
but it seemed for a time as if we had been baffled; the sided of
the hill were dotted with our dead.
Oates, of the Connaught Rangers, three engineer officers,
with Majors Rudd and Shaw, who commanded the attack, and many a
private soldier had fallen there. But as Powis, of the 83rd, brought up the reserve
and forced the palings in front, the pioneers discovered the
gateway on the town side, and, battering it down, rushed in with
Nixon, of the 52nd, was shot two yards within
the entrance, and we fought with the gun-butt and bayonet
against heroic defenders; but at last they overpowered, and half
the garrison slain. One
officer and 30 men floundered through the inundation and gained
Badajoz in safety, but Gaspard Thierry, with the 86 survivors,
surrendered, and the Picurina was ours.
The firing from the town ceased at midnight, but the dawn
of the day the garrison turned their guns on to the captured
fort, driving us out, and crumbling it to pieces.
Philippon had hoped to hold the work for four or five
days, while he completed certain of his defences, and its
capture and destruction was severe blow to him.
But he urges his garrison to fresh efforts by reminding
them of the English prison-hulks, which, as Napier justly says,
was a disgrace to the country.
Three breaching batteries were now constructed, one
against the Trinidad bastion, another to shatter the Santa
Maria, and the third, which consisted of howitzers-was to throw
shrapnel into the ditch and so, prevent the garrison from
working there. We
had been eleven days before the town, and in spite of all the
obstacles had made considerable progress, although lattery a
bright moon had interfered with our night operations.
Overcoats were laid aside, and our men
appeared in the well-worn scarlet coatee with white tape lace,
and the black knee gaiter, which was the dress of a British
infantry private at that time.
Pigtails had been done away with four years previously,
and the well-known grey trousers were not issued too the troops
until the following September.
The Rifle Corps wore dark green, and used a wooden mallet
on the ramrod to drive the ball down the grooved barrel;
Fusiliers and the Grenadier companies of the line had bearskin
caps, and Light infantry were distinguished by green tufts in
their felt shakos, each man carrying including knapsack,
accoutrements, kit, weapons, etc-a weight of seventy-five pounds
twelve ounces, or ten pounds more than their opponents.
The soldiers were enraged at the inhabitants of Badajoz
for admitting the French, a feeling that boded ill to them if we
took the town. In
the meantime many instances of courage on both sides were
morning, early, before the working party arrived, a man crept
out of Badajoz and moved a tracing-string nearer to the walls,
so that when we began digging in fancied security, their guns
suddenly opened and killed many men.
Another time, two of our officers and some men stole
forward in the night, gagged and sentry, laid barrels of powder
against the dam, which confined the inundation, and got back in
safety; but the explosion did not have the desired effect.
At last stones began to fall from the Trinidad bastion, amid
clouds of dust, as ball after ball went home with terrific
force; and the garrison commenced to form a retrenchment with in
the walls, by levelling houses behind the yawning breach.
In places where the fortifications had not been completed
the energetic Frenchmen hung brown clothed that resembled earth,
behind in which his men were able to pass safely; they also made
a raft with parapets and crossed the induction to our side.
But all their efforts were useless; the breaches became
larger as masses of stone and rubbish fell into the fosse below,
and, on the 6th, a tremendous gap showed in the
masonry of the curtain between the two bastions, which had not
been renewed when the bastions themselves were rebuilt about
Then came the crisis.
Soult, Drouet, and Daricau were approaching; a battle was
imminent which would need all our forces.
In twenty-one days we had expended 2,523 barrels of
gunpowder, and we had fired 35,346 rounds of ammunition. Badajoz
must be taken at all risks.
Wellington’s commands were precise and to the point,
but they are terribly eloquent to those who read them.
These paragraphs are from the original memorandum:
“The fort of Badajoz is to be attacked at 10 o’clock
this night (April 6th).
The attack must be made on three points-the castle, the
face of the bastion of La Trinidad, and the flank of the bastion
of Santa Maria.
The attack of the castle to be by escalade that of the
two bastions, by the storm of the breaches.
The 4th Division must try and get open the
gate of La Trinidad; the Light Division must do the same by the
gate called the Puerta del Pilar.
The soldier must leave their knapsacks in camp.
Twelve pioneers with axes, and ten miners with crowbars,
must be with the Light, and ditto with the 4th
The original order for 7-30 was altered later to 10
o’clock, and during that interval the French celebrated
revolving beam of sharpened sword blades in the gap we had made
in the connecting curtain; piles of shot and shell were laid
along the ramparts, with beams of wood, old carriage wheels, and
every conceivable missile that their ingenuity could devise.
The April day drew into evening; a grey mist rose from
the river and floated over the trenches and the marshy ground;
then next came, still and cloudy, not a star visible, but here
and there lights fitted along the ramparts, and the challenge of
the sentries could be distinctly heard in the camp.
There was no bustle to show that eighteen thousand men
were forming for a desperate attack, as, company after company,
they got under arms silently, words of command being given in a
Picton had been hurt by a fall, and the 3rd
division was led by Kempt.
Its destination was the castle, with walls from eighteen
to twenty-four feet high.
The 5th Division, under Lieutenant-General
Leith-composed of English and Portuguese-was to make a feint
upon the Pardaleras outwork to the left, and then march round
the storm the San Vincente bastion in the rear of the town,
while General Power made a false attack on the bridge head
beyond the Guadiana.
The Light Division and the 4th,
under General Colville and Barnard, were to attack the trenches.
The trench guards
and the forlorn Hope fell in, and about nine o’clock four
companies of the 95th Rifles crept forward and lay
down, under the crest of the glacis, within a few yards of the
French sentinels, whose heads could be seen quite distinctly
against the sky.
Not a word was spoken as the riflemen crouched,
unnoticed, in the mist that veiled the arrival of the forlorn
hope to begin the attack.
At length one of the
sentries peered over the parapet: something had caught his quick
ear, for he cried “Qui Vive?” and there was a moment of keen
Not, satisfied, he again challenged, and, receiving no
reply, fired his musket into the darkness; it was the signal of
alarm, and instantly the drums of Badajoz beat to arms.
Still, for ten minutes more the rifle men lay motionless,
until the forlorn hope came up, and then, each man sighting are
fully at the heads which showed above the rampart, poured in the
volley, and the attack began.
This was unfortunate, for Wellington intended all our
assaults to take place simultaneously; moreover the garrison
threw a “carcass” from the walls, and by its powerful blaze
they saw the 3rd Division drawn up under arms; so,
“Stormers to the front!” was the order, and we rushed on in
an uproar of cheers.
The ladder parties and those carrying the grass bags ran
forward, scrambling across the trenches and broken ground, and,
filling over the Rivillas by a narrow bridge, reached the foot
of the castle wall under a heavy fire.
Kempt, who afterwards fought at Waterloo,
fell, badly wounded, and as they carried him back he met Picton
hurrying forward to take command.
The 3rd Division had only twelve ladders
but they reared them against the masonry, and fought with each
other who should be first to ascend.
Stones, earth, live shells, beams, heavy shot, and a rain
of musket balls poured down; those men who reached the top were
stabbed and flung on the others behind them-here a cheers as a
man grasped the coping-there a howl of rage as the ladder was
hurled broken from the wall and all its occupants flung in a
“Forward the 5th Fusiliers; come on,
Connaught Rangers.” A
corporal of the 45th fell wounded on hands and knees,
a ladder was placed on his back in the confusion, his comrades
mounting above him, and he was found next day crushed to death,
the blood forced from his ears and his nose.
Several of the ladders were broken, and those that
remained were flung off repeatedly by the garrison on the
ramparts, until the French cried “Victory,” and the 3rd
Division retired for a moment, to re-form under the crest of the
The Light Division
Meanwhile, the 4th
and Light Divisions marched quickly on to the breaches, and the
trench guard rushed at San Roque with such fury that they
bayoneted its defenders and carried the lunette without a
As the Stormers of the Light Division moved off, Major
Peter O’Hare-who had risen from the ranks to a commission in
the 95th (a most unusual thing in those days), and
who was, moreover, one of the ugliest men and one of the bravest
in the army-shook hands with George Simonds, of the Rifles,
saying-“A lieutenant-colonel or cold meat in a few hours!” They found him next morning stone dead and stark naked, with
nearly a dozen bullets in his gallant frame.
Officers were divided into two categories by the
Peninsular soldiers-the “come on” and the “Go on.”
O’Hare was a “Come on.”
As the firing commenced at the castle the heads of the
columns reached the glacis, finding all quiet and the place
wrapped in profound gloom.
The ditch yawned beneath them, and the Stormers threw
their grass bags, which measured 6 feet by 3 feet, into it,
lowered the five ladders which did duty for both divisions, and
the forlorn hope of the light division descended into the chasm,
doomed to a man!
A musket shot told them that the silence was ominous; but
none were prepared for the awful scene that followed.
The ditch was crowded with Stormers, and men waited their
turn to follow down the ladders, when a tongue of flame lit up
the darkness, a terrific explosion seemed to rend the earth
itself, and five hundred brave fellows were blown into eternity
under the eyes of their comrades on the glacis above them.
For a moment the Light Division stood aghast, the next,
they were leaping, sliding, climbing, never heeding the depth,
into the gory grave that lay between them and the breaches, with
a roar that went echoing along the walls of Badajoz-a continuous
roar, until bayonet met bayonet on the towering ramparts.
Down went the 4th Division and mingled with
them: the ditch was full of shouting red-coats, all struggling,
regardless of rank, to get at the French, who, yelling defiance
in their turn, showered grape, round shot, canister,
hand-grenades, stones shells, and buck-shot upon them; rolling
huge cannonballs from the parapet, sending balks of timber
thudding into the living mass of Britons pent up in the death
Bursts of dazzling
light were succeeded by moments of intense darkness; for an
instant the huge bastions showed, bristling with armed men, to
be lost again, till re-illuminated the next minute by the
flashing guns-by wavering port-fires, and trailing rockets.
The French had dug in the main ditch a long cut, 17 feet
deep, which was nearly full of water.
In it a hundred Albuera men of the fusiliers were drowned
unseen; the air was heavy with gunpowder smoke; individuals and
regiments surged and scrambled seeking a passage; until at last,
getting on to an unfinished ravelin, mistaken in the confusion
for a breach, both divisions came together, and great disorder
Wellington, watching from a hill, and seeing the pause,
exclaimed repeatedly: “What can be the matter>” sending
aided camp after aide-de-camp to report progress, as the glare
revealed faces on the ramparts and the peculiar hollow booming
reached him, caused by the garrison firing down into the
cavernous depths of the ditch.
The Rush For The Great Breach
At length there was a
rush for the great breach.
Officers and men, having extricated themselves from the
carnage below, ran on, to find an impenetrable barrier of sword
blades fixed in wooden revolving beams, and set firmly across
the opening, wile the rubbish in front was strewn with planks
covered with spikes: if a soldier trod on one of them it slid
down, either throwing him on the spikes or on to the bayonets of
his comrades. Then
the garrison rolled barrels of powder into the middle of the
assailants, which exploded with shocking effects, filling the
nostrils with the smell of burning flesh and singed hair, and
strewing the breach with scarlet figures in every conceivable
attitude of agony and death!
Our soldiers charged in masses, in groups, and even
singly, one private of the Rifles forcing himself among the
sword blades, where the enemy shattered his bare head with their
It was not until the slaughter had gone on for two hours
that the diminished divisions withdrew to the bottom of the
slope and stood furious and exhausted, and still under a fire
that was thinning their broken ranks, while the enemy cried
mockingly to them, “Why don’t you come into Badajoz?” Captain Nicholas, of the Engineers, now gathered a few men
and made frantic efforts to force the Santa Maria breach, and he
was joined by Lieutenant Shaw, of the 43rd, who
collected 50 men of various regiments and struggled over the
broken masonry with them, but when two-thirds of the way up, a
hail of balls and hissing grape-shot mowed them nearly all down.
The divisions remained stolidly confronting inevitable
death unable to advance, yet unwilling to retire, for the bugles
sounded twice unheeded.
About midnight Wellington ordered them back to re-form
for another attack =, but in the meantime Picton’s division
had rushed forward again, led by Colonel Ridge, who placed a
ladder against the castle wall, where an embrasure offered a
chance of foothold. A
Grenadier officer named Canch reared a second one alongside it,
and the two mounted together, followed by their men, securing
the ramparts after a desperate hand-to-hand conflict, and were
successful in their endeavour to drive the enemy out of the
castle into the town.
The garrison sent reinforcements, and there was a sharp
passage of arms at the gate, our red-coats firing from one side
almost muzzle to muzzle with the blue clad, square shakoed
French on the other; but we kept the castle, though the gallant
ridge was slain.
It was about half past eleven when the 3rd
Division succeeded in their escalade.
About the same time the 5th Division, under
Lieutenant-General Leith, came under the breastwork before San
Vincente at the west end of the town.
As the regiments, together with a Portuguese brigade,
halted, undiscovered, a few yards from a guardhouse where the
French could be heard talking, the roar of a distant explosion
sounded, and the men whispered among themselves, “It is at the
All was silent around them; the wash of the river rose on
their left, the fortifications showed clearly before them as the
moon came out; they knew that their comrades far off on the
other side of the citadel were engaged, and an eager thrill went
through the ranks. A
sentinel discovered the mass of men from the glint of the
moonbeams on the bayonets at the moment when our engineer guide
exclaimed, “Now’s the time!” and as he fired we ran
forward against the gateway.
Seized by a sudden panic the Portuguese ladder party
bolted, but the Britons snatched up the heavy ladders and the
axe men chopped fearlessly at the gate and wooden palings that
fringed the covered way, while from the walls which towered 31
feet, overhead, a tempest of beams, and shot, and bags of powder
showered down on the heads of the division.
They cleared the paling and jumped into the
ditch, crossing the crunette with difficulty and finding the
ladders too short for the top of the escarp; the engineer was
killed, and a small mine exploded in a ditch, but fortunately
the ramparts at San Vincente had been thinned of their
defenders, who had gone to fight Picton’s men in the castle,
and three ladders were placed under the embrasure where there
was a gabion instead of a gun and where the scarp was only 20
The Ramparts of San Vincente
Hand over hand,
the troops clambered up under a fire that struck down dozens,
and the topmost stormers had to be pushed up by those behind in
order to reach the embrasure; but as the leading men got a foot
hold, they pulled the others up, until the red coated mass grew
larger and larger, and then half the King’s own attacked the
houses while the rest of the division charged along the
ramparts, pushing the stubborn garrison out of the three
bastions in succession. Garrison
out of three bastion in succession.
Shout mingled with the crash of grape shot and the hum of
shells; yells and curses were heard amid the boom of cannon and
the incessant crack-crack of muskets fired at close quarters.
The awestruck watchers on the hill above our camp,
spectators of the terrible struggle, stood in an agony of
suspense; the entire citadel seemed full of flame and noise, as
mine after mine exploded, and fireball after fireball was flung
over the walls to enable the besieged to shoot their assailants.
Napaoleon’s soldier fought gallantly, officer and man
vying with each other in their efforts to keep us out, and as we
drove them from one defence they retired into another and stood
once more at bay.
of the 5th Division
Philippon, and Vielland,
the second in command, though both wounded, hurried, sword in
hand, from rampart to rampart, encouraging their men, while the
solemn chime of the cathedral rang out unnoticed hour after hour
of that night of horrors.
A strange incident occurred at San Vincente when General
Walker fell riddled with balls on the parapet.
Either by accident or design, he made a Masonic sign as
he staggered backwards, and a brother mason in the French ranks
dashed aside the threatening bayonets of this countrymen and
saved him; afterwards, it is said, the General found his
preserver a prisoner-of-war in Scotland, and procured his
exchange in remembrance of his chivalry on the ramparts of
There arose a cry of “A mine! A mine!” and the men
retired helter-skelter, followed by a fresh body of the French
under Vielland, who drove them back to the parapet again, and
pitched several over into the ditch.
Now a reserve of the 38th, under Colonel
Nugent, about two hundred strong, poured a volley into the
French, and the men of the 5th Division rallied and
charged along the wall towards the breaches.
The King’s Own had entered the town at the first
onslaught of Leith’s division, and in strange contrast to the
uproar of the bastions, with bayonets fixed and bugles blowing,
they filed through the streets, silent and deserted as the tomb;
every door shut, lamps alight in many of the windows, but not a
soul abroad except some soldiers leading ammunition mules, who
were promptly taken prisoners.
a window opened and was immediately closed again; voices were
heard, but the speakers were invisible; a few shots came from
beneath the doors, but they were unheeded, and the battalion
continued its march into the Great Square, where the same
silenced reigned, although the houses around it were brilliantly
The renewed fury at the breaches turned their steps in
that direction, and they hurried off to take the garrison in
rear: but they were met by a fire that repulsed them, and they
continued their wandering down streets and lanes, unmolested,
for the French began to be disheartened.
The Trinidad and Santa Maria were still well-nigh
impregnable, in spite of their shattered condition, if the
garrison had been able to concentrate there, but the capture of
San Vincente had let us in behind them; so Philippon with some
soldiers crossed the bridge into san Christoval across the
Guadiana, where he surrendered next day.
As the firing died away towards morning, a mighty shout
arose inside the walls, caught up and echoed far and near by our
victorious soldiery, “Hurrah! Hurrah! The town’s our own,
hurray!” And the
carnage-maddened men, braking from all control, began a wild
orgy, which lasted for two days and two nights, sullying the
glory of their triumph.
Churches and houses were entered and pillaged; costly
sacramental plate and silver money from the military chest
strewed the uneven pavement of the town; wine flowed down the
gutters as freely as blood had done on the ramparts, and men
staggered along with their shakos full of liquor.
One bestrode a cask with a loaded musket, and compelled
officer and private alike to drink as they passed them; here a
group fired aimlessly down a street, caring little whom they
hit, others blazed away at the covent bells, while some
masqueraded on court dresses, in French uniforms, and monks,
cowls, howling, singing, dancing, like men possessed.
Many of the wrenched inhabitants placed lightened candles
and flasks of aguardiente
on their table and sought to hide themselves, hoping the
marauders would drink and go away; they drank, but every cranny
of the house was ransacked before they left, and deeds were done
of which we cannot speak.
By degrees the tops were drawn out of the town.
Philippon, the French commander who retired from the
service in 1816, a General of Division, Baron of the Empire, and
wearer of the Legion of honour and the order of St Louis-
surrendered to the future Lord Raglan.
In great contrast to the licence with
in the walls was the scene outside: the ditch, slope, from the
edge of the glacis to the top of the bastios, resembled a huge
slaughter house, nearly 2,500 of our men having fallen between
the Santa Maria and La Trinidad alone, within a space of 100
square yards, the 43rd and 52nd losing 670
men between them. The place presented a shocking appearance as
the result of the explosion that had taken place there.
Five general were wounded, 5,000 officers and men had
fallen during the siege, and when Wellington stood in the breach
and looked around him at the scene of the carnage, he burst into