The French siege of Ciudad Rodrigo of 5 June-10 July 1810 was a precursor to Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal. Although Ciudad Rodrigo was a Spanish fortress designed to protect against an invasion from Portugal, in Spanish hands it was just as effective a block to any French expedition in the opposite direction.
Ciudad Rodrigo was located on the north eastern bank of the Agueda River, at a point where the river runs from east to west. This can cause some confusion in directions, with the town being described as being on both the east and north bank of the river, while the bridge that leads south out of the town crosses to the western bank of the Agueda! The town’s location did mean that the British were able to keep their communications with Ciudad Rodrigo open for a long time after the French arrived outside the town, and the French blockade could only open once they had managed to cross the river.
Despite its fame Ciudad Rodrigo was not first class fortress. The town was built on top of a low hill overlooking the river. It was surrounded by a thick medieval wall, which was itself protected by a more modern line but low lying line of fortifications, only twelve feet high, which served to protect the bottom third of the wall from direct artillery fire. To the north east the suburb of San Francisco was also protected by a strong earthwork and by three strongly fortified monasteries. The main weakness of the defence was that the town was overlooked from the north west by two hills, the Little and Great Teson. The Spanish did not have enough men to attempt to defend the Great Teson, and so the French were free to use it as the site of their main artillery batteries.
Ciudad Rodrigo was defended by a garrison of 5,500 men under the command of General Andrès Herrasti. Of the six battalions of infantry in the town only one was a regular battalion, and the garrison only contained 48 artillerymen and 64 engineers. Fortunately for Herrasti the French delayed the start of their siege for so long that he was able to train 350 of the infantry to man the guns.
The first French troops appeared outside Ciudad Rodrigo on 26 April, when two of Ney’s brigades forced in the Spanish outposts on the eastern side of the river, and took up a position on the Great Teson. This partial blockade was of very little value to the French, for the British and Spanish were able to get in and out of the town across the bridge until early June, keeping the town well supplied, while the two French brigades used up most of the supplies available to them in the nearby area before the main French force had even arrived.
The situation remained unchanged for most of May, while Ney gathered together enough supplies to bring the rest of his corps up to Ciudad Rodrigo and waited for the arrival of the siege train. On 30 May he finally appeared outside the town with his remaining four infantry brigades and his cavalry, giving him 30,000 men to besiege the town. Junot’s corps was posted close by, giving the French a total of nearly 50,000 in the vicinity of Ciudad Rodrigo.
The nearest Allied troops were Craufurd’s Light Brigade, by now 4,000 strong, and a small Spanish division under Martin Carrera, close by in the upper Agueda valley. Wellington was much criticized for not attempting to raise the siege, which was happening within six miles of his nearest outposts, but at no time during the siege did Wellington have enough men to risk a battle with Ney, let alone with Ney and Junot combined. Any attempt to do so would have been a dramatic but futile gesture, and Wellington was not the sort of commander who would make that sort of move.
Even after Ney’s arrival the siege did not immediately get under way. On 1 June the French built a bridge across the Agueda one and a half miles above the town, but the French did not cross the river until the completion of a second bridge below the town on 5 June. At that point Marchand’s division, half of Mermet’s division and Lamotte’s light cavalry crossed to the west bank of the river, finally cutting off all communications with the garrison.
The first of Ney’s heavy guns did not arrive until 8 June, and the convoy took a week to arrive, but by 15 June the French had fifty heavy guns at Ciudad Rodrigo. On that day they opened their first parallel, on the Great Teson. Despite Herrasti’s best efforts, work on six gun batteries began on 19 June, and the artillery bombardment began on 25 June.
After four days the French had opened a breach in the outer walls, had damaged the inner walls and had set half the town on fire, but Herrasti had kept up a constant counter-battery fire, and had inflicted heavy losses on the French. On 28 June Ney summoned the town to surrender, but Herrasti was still confident of holding out, and the damage to the defences was not as serious as the French believed. Only after this did they start work on a second parallel and on a new battery on the Little Teson.
By the afternoon of 9 July fire from this new battery had created a practical breah in the inner walls, while mortar fire had destroyed large parts of the town. Ney prepared to launch an assault with three battalions, but before sending them in he sent three volunteers to scout out the breach, and see if the Spanish had built any fortifications behind the breach. All three of those volunteers reached the top of the breach and returned safely and were able to report that the way was clear.
Before the French assault could go in, Herrasti capitulated, aware that any further resistance was futile. On the following morning the surviving 4,000 men of the garrison marched out with full honours of war. During the defence they had lost 461 killed and 994 wounded, while the French had lost 180 dead and 1,000 wounded
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.3: September 1809-December 1810 - Ocana, Cadiz, Bussaco, Torres Vedras, Sir Charles Oman. Part three of Oman's classic history begins with the series of disasters that befell the Spanish in the autumn of 1809 and spring of 1810, starting with the crushing defeat at Ocana and ending with the French conquest of Andalusia and capture of Seville, then moves on to look at the third French invasion of Portugal, most famous for Wellington's defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.|
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