Second British siege of Badajoz, 18 May-17 June 1811

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The second British siege of Badajoz of 19 May-17 June 1811 was little more successful than the first siege, which had only lasted for one week before Marshal Beresford had been forced to lift the siege and move south to block Marshal Soult’s first relief attack at Albuera. In the aftermath of that battle Wellington had arrived in the south, and had taken personal command in Estremadura. Most of the army that had fought at Albuera remained in the south of Estremadura, under the command of Rowland Hill, watching the French, while Wellington directed the second attack on Badajoz.

Badajoz was defended by a French garrison 3,000 strong under General Phillipon. This relatively small garrison had to defend eight bastions, the old castle of Badajoz, three outworks around the town and two north of the Guadiana River, the strongest of which was the fort of San Cristobal. If the British had possessed a good siege train or experienced military engineers then the town should have fallen relatively quickly, but fortunately for Phillipon Wellington had neither.

Badajoz in 1811-1812
Badajoz in 1811-1812

His siege train was twice as strong as Beresford’s had been, but still only contained forty-six guns, of which thirty were elderly brass 24-pounders, each of which required careful handling. Towards the end of the siege six naval guns arrived from Lisbon, but they appeared too late to make any difference. Wellington’s military engineers were few in number, had limited experience and were supported by a total of only 25 “royal military artificers”, the rank-and-file of the engineers. When they had first examined Badajoz, Wellington’s engineers had suggested that he attack all three of the main outlying forts before beginning an attack on the town, wasting valuable time and delaying the attack on the weakest parts of the defences, on the west and south flanks, until the strong San Cristobal fort had fallen. At the start of the second siege that advice was repeated, with one significant difference. This time the engineers suggested that the attack should also fall on the castle, protected by water to the north, and by a sizable natural hill to the east.

The second siege took some time to get underway. The first troops returned from Albuera on 18 May, restoring the blockade, but most of the army used at this second siege was travelling from the north of Portugal, and did not arrive until 25-27 May. The siege train only left Elvas on 29 May, and on the same day the first siege works were opened up. Once again the main effort was made against the fort of San Cristobal. Just as during the first siege, the engineers soon discovered that there was only a thin layer of soil on the heights of San Cristobal, and so they were forced to build the siege works out of gabions. Soil was then carted in from other areas to strengthen the planned gun batteries. Only when £400 worth of wool sacks arrived from Elvas on 2 June were the British able to make serious progress, and a limited bombardment finally began on the morning of 3 June. The rocky nature of the hill also made the defences much stronger. The ditch that surrounded the San Cristobal was carved straight into the rocks, making it much harder for the British guns to damage the ditch, and much easier for the French to clear rubble off its rocky base.

After four days of intermittent bombardment, greatly slowed by the unreliability of the older guns, a sizable breach had been made in the San Cristobal fort. Unfortunately the ditch outside the fort was invisible from the British lines, and so the attackers were unaware that the French had cleared all of the rubble out of the ditch after dark on 6 June. This meant that when the first assaulting column reached the ditch at midnight on 6/7 June, they found a seven foot wall between the bottom of the ditch and the start of the breach. Only 180 men were used in this first assault, which failed completely. The British suffered 12 dead and 80 wounded, the French only 1 dead and 5 wounded, after an hour in which the British assaulting party failed to find any part of the wall low enough for their 15 feet long ladders.

Another three days of bombardment followed. The castle remained largely undamaged, and eventually the engineers admitted that there was no chance of making a useful breach in the walls. At the San Cristobal fort there were now two breaches, but as before they were high up the walls, for the rocky hillside prevented the British from digging trenches up to the edge of the ditch, and the French were able to clear away the rubble and make some repairs to the walls. The second British assault was made just after dark on the night of 9 June. This time 400 men were used to make the attack, with 100 sharpshooters behind them to keep the French pinned down. Once again the attackers reached the trench just to find that there was still a seven foot wall to climb before they could even enter the breach. A small number of British troops did manage to reach the base of the breach, but were soon repulsed by the French, while the bulk of the attacking force milled around in the ditch being fired on from above. After fifty minutes the British were forced to retreat. This time they had lost 54 dead and 85 wounded, one third of the attacking force.

The failure of this second assault ended any real chance Wellington had of capturing Badajoz. By 10 June he knew that Marmont’s 9th Corps would soon join Soult, giving the French a numerical advantage over the Allies. On that day Wellington decided to pull the siege guns back to Elvas, and to prepare to defend a new position on the Portuguese border, rather than risk being trapped in the trenches around Badajoz. Wellington remaining outside Badajoz until 17 June, the day on which Soult and Marmont joined uop at Merida, and then he withdrew to his new position on the Caya River, defending a line that ran from Elvas to Campo Mayor.

The aftermath of the second siege demonstrated that Wellington had already built a formidable reputation. On 22 June the combined French armies had found Wellington in his new positions, and despite outnumbering him decided not to attack. Soult left the area on 28 June to return to Seville, and in mid July Marmont split his army into smaller detachments to ease his supply problems.

A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 April 2008), Second British siege of Badajoz, 18 May-17 June 1811 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_badajoz_2nd.html

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