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The recapture of the Spanish border fortress of Badajoz was the main purpose of Marshal Beresford’s campaign in Estremadura in the spring of 1811, but would prove to be beyond his powers. Badajoz, on the southern invasion route between Portugal and Spain, had fallen to the French on 11 March, after a six week long siege. It was one of the strongest fortified positions in Spain, protected by a ring of modern fortifications, eight bastions, and five outlying forts, two on the northern bank of the Guadiana River. The town was garrisoned by 3,000 men under General Phillipon, a capable and stubborn commander. The only weakness of the French position was that Beresford had driven all other French troops out of Estremadura before beginning the siege, and so any help would have to come from Marshal Soult in Andalusia.
The British army in Portugal had one big weakness in 1811 – it had no siege train. When Wellington had returned to Portugal in 1809, his mission had been to defend the country against French invasion, a task that did not require heavy guns, and despite having been in Portugal for two years none had been sent out to join the army. The British thus had to rely on the Portuguese for their siege guns, but by the spring of 1811 most Portuguese guns were in use, many in the Lines of Torres Vedras. Wellington only ordered the creation of a siege train for the attack on Badajoz on 18 April. Major Alexander Dickson, the officer appointed to command the artillery, had to take his guns from the fortress of Elvas. By the end of April he had managed to find 23 guns, of which the worst were nearly 200 years old and the best outdated 18th century pieces.
While Beresford was clearing the French out of Estremadura, Wellington made a flying visit to the area. He arrived at Elvas on 20 April, visited Badajoz to examine the defences on 22 April (and was nearly captured by the French while doing so), dictated orders for Beresford on 23 April, and then left to return to the north on 25 April. Wellesley’s orders accurately predicted the course of the upcoming campaign. Beresford was to besiege Badajoz as soon as the guns were ready. This would almost certainly bring Soult back into Estremadura to break the siege. If Beresford had the support of the Spanish armies of Blake, Ballesteros and Castaños, and Soult did not bring an overwhelming force with him, then Beresford was to offer battle at Albuera, south east of Badajoz.
Wellington’s orders for the siege itself were not so well judged. On the advice of his chief engineer, he decided that the British needed to capture the main outworks – the Pardaleras and Picurina to the south and east, and the fort of San Cristobal north of the Guadiana – before moving on to attack the town itself. This meant that Beresford would either have to split his weak siege train into three, or attack each outlying fort in turn. Either alternative would greatly lengthen the siege, and give Soult more time to intervene. Even in Beresford had been able to begin his siege in late April, he would not have had time to capture all three of the outworks before the French arrived, but the start of the siege was delayed by poor weather and heavy rain. Dickson was only able to get his guns in place on 5 May.
The first British siege of Badajoz began on the following day, when two British and one Portuguese brigade took up position around the town. On the following day one British brigade and a Portuguese regiment appeared on the north bank of the Guadiana, completing the blockade. True siege works began on the night of 8 May, when trenches were opened opposite all three of the initial targets. Dickson’s first target was the fort of San Cristobal, which dominated the town. Its capture by the British would have made the further defence of Badajoz almost impossible, but work on the hillside was slow. The diggers discovered rocks only three inches under the surface, and so had to build up earthwork defences instead of digging down. They were exposed to French artillery fire both from the fort and from Badajoz.
On the night of 10 May Philippon launched a sortie against the half-completed trenches. The British forced the French to retreat, but then pursued too close to the fort, and had to retreat under heavy gun fire, losing 400 men while the French only lost 200. On the next day the first British gun battery opened fire, but by the end of the day four of its five guns had been knocked out. In response a second battery was opened close to the first, but both were badly damaged by French fire on the morning of 12 May.
Later that day news reached Beresford that Soult had left Seville and was moving to break the siege. The first reports estimated the French strength at around 23,000 men, while the combined Spanish, Portuguese and British forces in Estremadura numbered 35,000. Beresford decided to fight. This meant that the siege itself had to be abandoned, and the siege equipment removed to Elvas, to prevent it falling into Philippon’s hands once the Allied armies moved away to deal with Soult. This first siege cost the Allies 733 casualties (533 British and 200 Portuguese), almost all on northern shore of the Guadiana, and made no progress whatsoever. The Allies marched away from Badajoz on 13 May, and three days later, at Albuera, won a costly victory over Soult’s relief army. A second British siege of Badajoz, little more successful than the first, would begin on 19 May.
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