Third British siege of Badajoz, 16 March-6 April 1812

The third British siege of Badajoz (16 March-6 April 1812) finally saw the city fall to Wellington's troops after two previous attacks had failed. However the final storm of the city was terribly costly, and was followed by a brutal sack that was one of the darkest incidents in the history of the British army.

The two Spanish fortresses of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz were key positions on the main routes invasion routes between Spain and Portugal. Cuidad Rodrigo fell to the French in July 1810, and Badajoz in March 1811. Wellington split his army to deal with this dangerous situation. He remained in the north, facing Cuidad Rodrigo, while Beresford was sent south to besiege Badajoz. The first British siege of Badajoz only lasted for a few days. It began on 6 May 1811, but Beresford then had to lift the siege to deal with a relief army under Marshal Soult. He defeated Soult in the costly battle of Albuera (16 May 1811), and returned to Badajoz. The second British siege of Badajoz (19 May-17 June 1811) ended as a costly failure. The main British effort was made against Fort San Christobal, on the north bank of the Guadiana, but this achieved northing. The siege eventually had to be lifted, leaving the French in command of both places at the end of the year.

Early in 1812 the French had to move 12,000 men away from Cuidad Rodrigo to try and bolster their position further to the east. Wellington took advantage of this to launch a surprise attack on Cuidad Rodrigo. The siege began on 8 January 1812 and caught all of the French commanders out. Wellington was left alone during the short siege, which ended with a successful storm of the city on 19 January 1812. Marmont, whose job it was to defend the place, didn't even learn that it was under siege until 15 January. After the storm part of the British army got out of control, and for several hours Cuidad Rodrigo suffered from a sack, but this ended at dawn.  

Wellington's next step was to move south and attack Badajoz. This was a massive endeavour. The larger siege guns had to be sent down river to the coast, shipped along the coast and then moved inland by road. Sixteen heavy howitzers were moved  by road and twenty 18-pounders were provided by the fleet. The army then began to move, with most of the infantry on the road by 26 February. Wellington himself stayed in the north until 5 March, in an attempt to convince the French that he wasn't planning anything in the south.

Badajoz

The main city of Badajoz is on the south bank of the River Guadiana. The River Rivellas ran north past the eastern walls of the city to run into the Guadiana. The city walls contained nine bastions. Starting at the north-west corner (on the river) was the San Vincente bastion. Going anti-clockwise around the walls were the bastions of San Jose, Santiago, San Juan, San Roque, Santa Maria, Trinidad, San Pedro and San Antonio. The old but strong castle of Badajoz filled the north-eastern corner of the city.

There were a number of outlying fortifications. On the north bank of the Guadiana there was a fortified bridgehead, and then a little to the right was Fort San Christobal. To the east of the Rivellas were the forts of San Roque (outside the San Pedro bastion) and Picurina (to the south-east of the walls, overlooking the Trinidad and Santa Maria bastions. To the south was the fort of Pardaleras, overlooking the San Juan and San Roque bastions. These outlying forts each occupied an area of high ground that would have made a suitable location for hostile gun batteries.

The Defenders

The defence of Badajoz was commanded by General Armand Phillipon, the governor since March 1811. He had 5,000 men under his command, made up of just over 2,500 men from six French regiments (3/39th Léger, 1/28th Léger, 1/58th Ligne, 3/88th Ligne, 3/ 103rd Ligne and 64th Light) and 900 men from two battalions of Hesse D'Armstadt.

Phillipon would be left to fight by himself. The two main French armies in western Spain were those of Marmont and Soult. Marmont was tied down by orders from Napoleon, based on outdated information, and was unable to act until it was too late. Napoleon had ordered him to stay around Salamanca and threaten to attack Cuidad Rodrigo, in the hope that would force Wellington lift his siege. However Wellington knew that Marmont had lost all of his siege guns at Cuidad Rodrigo, and thus posed no real threat.

Soult was distracted by Spanish operations around Cadiz and Gibraltar and was unable to concentrate enough of his men to intervene effectively.

The Attackers

The actual siege involved the 3rd Division (Kempt's Brigade and Campbell's Brigade), the 4th Division (Kemmis's Brigade and Bowes's Brigade), the 5th Division (Hay's Brigade and Walker's Brigade), the Light Division and nine Portuguese regiments.

The Siege

On 15 March the leading elements of Wellington's army, the 3rd, 4th and Light Divisions, all under William Beresford, crossed the Guadiana and advanced on Badajoz.

On 16 March the 1st, 6th and 7th Divisions, under Sir Thomas Graham, crossed the Guadiana and moved south to block any attempt by Soult to try and raise the siege. On the same day Badajoz was cut off.

The first two sieges had focused on the castle and the San Christobel fort. This time Wellington's chief engineer, Richard Fletcher, decided to focus on bastions 6 (Santa Maria) and 7 (Trinidad) at the south-eastern corner of the city. This meant that Fort Picurina would need to be captured before the main gun batteries could be built.

Work on the first parallel began on the night of 17 March. On 19 March this work was interrupted by a sortie of 1,500 French infantry and 40 cavalry, who drove off the working parties and filled in part of the ditches, as well as capturing 200 entrenching tools. Fletcher was wounded during the fighting, and was unable to take an active part in the rest of the siege, although he was well enough to be consulted. Work was further delayed by heavy rain which threatened to wash away the trenches and did break the British pontoon bridge over the Guadiana.

The British guns finally opened fire at 11am on 25 March. Fort Picurina was their main target, and by the evening the British believed it was vulnerable to attack. A force of 500 men from the 3rd and Light Divisions attacked in three columns at 9pm, and managed to capture the fort, although only after losing 54 dead and 265 wounded, over half of the entire force.

Phillipon's guns managed to keep the British out of the ruins of the fort until the evening of 26 March, but they then began to build a series of fresh gun batteries closer to the main walls. No.7 was to attack the Trinidad bastion, no.9 the Santa Maria bastion. No.10 was to keep the ditch in front of the planned breaches under fire. By 5 April the bombardment had produced breaches in both bastions. The French built fresh defences inside the breaches, put guns in place, and prepared defensive measures. Wellington inspected the breach, and decided to delay the assault until a third one had been created, in the wall between the two bastions. This only took one day, and Wellington decided to attack late on 6 April.

The Plan

A series of attacks were to be launched around Badajoz.

On the right Picton's 3rd Division was to attack the castle.

On their left Colville's 4th Division was to attack the Trinidad breach.

Next in line was Barnard's Light Division, which was to attack the Santa Maria breach.

Each attack was to be preceeded by a 'forlorn hope', whose task was to fill the ditches with large sacks of grass that the main storming parties could land on as they jumped into the ditch. Each division was to be lead by a force of 500 men carrying 12 ladders.

On the southern side of the city Leith's 5th Division was to make a feint towards Fort Paradaleras, but then attempt to capture the San Vincente bastion, at the north-western corner of the city, if the moment was right.

On the north bank of the river the Portuguese were to a feint against Fort San Christobel.

All of these attacks were originally meant to start at 7.30pm, but that was postponed to 10pm. The French used this time to further improve the defences of the breaches. 

The Storm

The first fighting came at the little San Roque lunette, which fell soon after 9.30pm. The attacks of the 4th and Light Divisions began badly. Many men drowned after jumping into part of the ditch that had secretly been flooded by the French, and many more got stuck in the ditch. The soldiers from the Forlorn Hope reached the top of the Trinidad breach, but were then swept away by French gunfire. The French were able to drop grenades into the mass of men in the ditch, and also exploded one of the mines that they had buried in front of the breaches. A total of around 40 separate attacks have been counted, all of which failed at the cost of 2,000 casualties.

Luckily for the British the attack on the castle and the attack on the San Vincente bastion went much better. In each case the attackers had to climb intact walls to reach their targets, coming under heavy fire as they went. The attack on the castle appeared to be failing just as badly as the main assault until Colonel Henry Ridge of the 5th Foot managed to establish a foothold on top of the ramparts to the left of the main attack. Ridge was killed, but the defences of the castle had been breeched. The men from the 3rd Division dropped down into the castle, and soon took control of the area. This was a blow to Philippon, who had been hoping to use the castle for his last stand. He was able to get the gates shut, and it took some time for the 3rd Division to break out into the city, but once they did the French defence was doomed.

On the other side of the city the 5th Division had also achieved success. They had managed to get up the walls and then fought off a French counterattack. Leith then split his men, using half to clear the city buildings and half to move along the walls towards the breaches.

The news of the two British successes reached Philippon while he was waiting with the reserves in the Plaza San Juan. He ordered one counterattack, but after this failed he crossed the bridge to the north back of the river and took refuge in Fort San Christobal, before surrendering at 7am on 7 April.

The Aftermath

The fall of Badajoz was followed by a brutal sack of what was meant to be an allied city. The British soldiers had developed a dislike for the people of Badajoz, and had suspected them of helping the French in 1811, but the main reason for the collapse of discipline was probably the very heavy cost of the fighting and the sudden lifting of the tension as French resistance unexpectedly collapsed. All attempts to restore order failed, and the sack went on for 72 hours. Any fresh troops who were sent in to try and restore order simply joined the rampage. Eventually order appears to have been restored after the men ran out of energy. The Spanish inhabitants of the city were the main victims of the outrage, and the French prisoners appear to have been left alone.

Once Wellington regained control of his army, he was able to plan his next move. Marmont was threatening Ciudad Rodrigo, so Wellington had to move north to deal with that threat. Once Marmont had withdrawn, he was then able to prepare to advance further into Spain. This campaign would lead to Salamanca, where Wellington won one of his most significant victories of the Peninsular War. This allowed him to briefly liberate Madrid and press on towards the French border, but his attempt to besiege Burgos ended in failure, and forced him to retreat back to Portugal once again. However the French were never able to undo the damage done at Salamanca, and in the following year Wellington was able to defeat their combined armies once again, at Vittoria.

A History of the Peninsular War vol.5: October 1811-August 31, 1812 - Valencia, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Madrid, Sir Charles Oman Part Five of Oman's classic history of the Peninsular War starting with a look at the French invasion of Valencia in the winter of 1811-12, before concentrating on Wellington's victorious summer campaign of 1812, culminating with the battle of Salamanca and Wellington's first liberation of Madrid.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 November 2017), Third British siege of Badajoz, 16 March-6 April 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_badajoz_3rd.html

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