French siege of Badajoz, 27 January-10 March 1811

The French siege and capture of Badajoz of 27 January-10 March 1811 was the main achievement of Marshal Soult’s invasion of Estremadura of 1811. Badajoz was one of a pair of fortresses that guarded the southern invasion route between Spain and Portugal (the other was Elvas, on the Portuguese side of the border). At the start of 1811 Badajoz was in Spanish hands, preventing the French armies in southern Spain from intervening in Portugal and also potentially acting as in invasion route for Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese armies. 

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

The French siege can be divided into four phases. From 27 January until 5 February the garrison stood alone, while Soult’s army slowly came back together. On 6 February a Spanish relief army under General Mendizabal, breaking the French blockade, but this phase ended when the Spanish suffered a major defeat (battle of the Gebora, 19 February 1811). The third phase saw the French re-establish their blockade, while General Menacho continued to conduct an active defence of the town. This phase ended with the death of Menacho on 3 March. The fourth and final stage saw Menacho replaced by General José Imaz, a much less able and energetic man. The active defence ended, and on 10 March the Imaz capitulated, despite knowing that a second relief army was on its way.

Badajoz in 1811-1812
Badajoz in 1811-1812

Badajoz was protected by some of the strongest fortifications in Spain. The town was built on the southern bank of the Guadiana River. It was surrounded by up-to-date fortifications, with eight bastions on the town walls, protected by a broad ditch and strong counterscarp. Two hills close to the town were guarded by outlying forts – the Picurina Fort to the east of the town and the Pardaleras Fort to the south. At the northern tip of the town was the castle hill. The town was overlooked by the hill of San Cristobal, on the northern bank of the Guadiana. This high ground was guarded by the Fort of San Cristobal, and connected to the town by the Tete dur Pont Fort.  

At the start of 1811 the city was garrisoned by 4,100 under the command of General Rafael Menacho, an energetic officer, who conducted a skilful defence of the town. Before the French arrived General Mendizabal, the commander of the Army of Estremadura, placed two more battalions in the town, bringing the total garrison up to 5,000 men. This was enough to man all of the defences and to carry out sorties.

Soult arrived outside Badajoz on 26 January, the same day that he left Olivenza. At this point he only had 6,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and part of his siege train (ten companies of artillery and six of sappers), with the rest trailing behind him on the mountain roads. One entire infantry division, General Gazan’s, had allowed itself to be pulled far to the south by General Ballesteros. On the day before Soult arrived at Badajoz, Gazan had fought a minor battle at Castillejos, one hundred and twenty miles to the south.

His lack of numbers limited Soult’s options. His engineers told him that the best place to attack would be where the western wall met the river, but he did not have enough men to guard the northern bank of the river, making it likely that the Spanish would be able to bombard his trenches from across the river.  Instead, Soult was forced to attack the southern walls of the city. This meant that he would need to capture the Pardaleras Fort, to prevent Spanish troops there from dominating his trenches, at the same time as battering a breach in the walls.

Soult did not have enough infantry to surround the town, and so during this first phase of the siege the only French troops on the north bank of the Guadiana were his cavalry. The infantry took up positions on the hills south and east of Badajoz, with the main camp and the artillery on the Cerro de Viento, south of the Pardaleras Fort. The first trenches were opened on the night of 28-29 January, and work on the first parallel began on the night of 30-31 January.

On the next day Menacho sent out 800 men to attack the French trenches. The attack itself was not a great success – although the French chief engineer was killed, the attacking troops suffered heavy casualties while fighting their way back into the town, and the trenches themselves were hardly damaged. On the next day the first French guns were put in place.

This was only the first of a series of sorties that Menacho would launch against the French trenches. One of the biggest came on the evening of 3 February, when 1,500 Spanish troops attacked the French lines. Unfortunately Gazan’s missing division had finally arrived at Badajoz on the same day, and the sortie was repulsed after doing minor damage to the French trenches.

The second phase of the siege began on 6 February when a Spanish relief column under General Mendizabal reached Badajoz. This force was made up of those parts of Mendizabal’s own force that he had not already put into Badajoz and Olivenza, and the Spanish troops from Lisbon – a total of 11,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. The Marquis of La Romana had originally intended to command this army in person, but on 23 January he died of a heart complaint. General Castaños was appointed to replace him, but he did not reach the army until after the battle of the Gebora.

On the night of 6 February Mendizabal’s army camped on the heights of San Cristobal, north of the city. The limited French blockade was broken, and Mendizabal was free to enter the city across the long river bridge. La Romana and Wellington had devised a plan to prevent the fall of Badajoz without risking a battle. They had intended to occupy the northern bank of the river and fortify the heights of San Cristobal. The combined Allied forces slightly outnumbered Soult’s men, supplies would be free to enter the city, and any assault would be much less likely to succeed. After a short period of deadlock, Soult would probably have been forced to abandon the siege.

Instead Mendizabal decided to send part of his army into the city, and launch a sortie against the French lines. On 7 February 5,000 Spanish troops attacked the French positions east of Badajoz, while a second smaller force attempted to pin Mortier in place south of the city. The main Spanish attack met with some success, but the holding force never closed with the French, leaving Mortier free to reinforce the French right. Once it was clear that he was faced by an equal number of French troops, the commander of the sortie ordered a retreat. The French lost 400 men, mostly in the initial attack, while the Spanish lost 650 men, many during the retreat back into Badajoz.

Badajoz and the Gabora
Badajoz and the Gabora

Two days after the failure of this sortie, Mendizabal pulled all but 2,000 of his men out of Badajoz, and took up a position on the north bank of the river. His 9,000 infantry camped on the heights of San Cristobal, with his 3,000 cavalry in the valley of the Caya, west of the hill. No attempt was made to fortify the camp, or to guard the line of the Gebora, in the valley to the east.

Rather than retreat, Soult decided to attack the poorly defended Spanish camps. On the night of 18-19 February 4,500 infantry, 2,500 cavalry and twelve guns crossed the Guadiana, and on the following day they attacked Mendizabal (battle of the Gebora, 19 February 1811). As the French infantry approached the Spanish lines, the French cavalry attacked the Spanish and Portuguese cavalry, and drove them off without a fight. The French cavalry then charged the Spanish infantry from the rear. Mendizabal formed his infantry into two giant squares, but they were very quickly broken by a combined infantry and cavalry assault. The Spanish army collapsed. Of the just over 9,000 infantry who had started the fight, 4,000 surrendered, around 900 were killed, 2,500 escaped into Badajoz, and only 1,800 escaped west towards Portugal. The cavalry escaped largely unscathed.

This marked the start of the third phase of the battle. The French blockage was reinstated, and the siege works continued to make slow by steady progress. On 11 February the French had captured the Pardaleras fort, but it had not proved to be as valuable as they had expected, and was under constant bombardment from Badajoz. It took the French until 24 February to open their first gun battery by the fort, and their trenches only began to advance towards the walls on 28 February. By 3 March the French were ready to break the counterscarp and get into the ditch, but another Spanish sortie drove them back.

One of the victims of this sortie was Menacho, killed while watching the attack. His replacement by General José Imaz marked the start of the fourth phase of the siege. Imaz was a much less active confident commander. Under his command no more sorties were made. Outside the walls the French noticed a chance in the nature of the defence, although their works were still under a heavy fire.

All this should have been irrelevant, for a second relief army under General Beresford was being prepared. This was an Anglo-Portuguese force, 15,000 strong, and its arrival would almost certainly have forced Soult to abandon the siege, for on 8 March he received two pieces of bad news – Marshal Masséna had evacuated his positions at Santarem, ending the threat to Portugal and freeing Wellington to send larger forces to Badajoz, and a Anglo-Spanish force had landed behind the French siege lines at Cadiz, threatening the weakened French positions in Andalusia.

The attack on the walls made rapid progress. On 8 March the counterscarp was destroyed, and a French gun battery was able to open fire on the walls from only sixty yards. By the morning of 10 March a breach seventy feet wide had been opened in the walls. At 9 am a parlementaire was sent into Badajoz to summon Imaz to surrender.

He responded by holding a council of war to decide if the defence should continue. Although Badajoz was now blockaded, semaphore messages could still be received from Elvas, and on 9 March Imaz had been informed that Beresford was on his way. During the council of war he kept this information secret, even though most of his officers suggested that the defence should only go on if a relief force was on its way. Unaware that Beresford was on his way, thirteen of Imaz’s voted to capitulate. Imaz himself voted to fight on, and them immediately opened negotiations with the French representative.

On 3pm on 10 March Imaz surrendered. The French occupied the forts on the northern shore that day, and the city itself on the following day. 7,880 Spanish troops marched into captivity on the morning of 11 March. Another 1,100 were too sick to leave the hospital, and the Spanish suffered a total of 1,851 casualties. The French had suffered 2,000 casualties, but had captured one of the strongest fortresses in Spain, and a key position on the Portuguese-Spanish border. It would take the British three sieges to recapture the city, which finally fell into Allied hands in April 1812.

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.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 March 2008), French siege of Badajoz, 27 January-10 March 1811 ,

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