The siege of Ciudad Rodrigo of 8-19 January 1812 was a major success for Wellington’s British and Portuguese army, and marked a significant turning point in the Peninsular War - the moment when the French lost the initiative in Spain. Wellington’s army had been pinned on the Portuguese border for most of 1811, facing French forces that were too strong to attack, but not strong enough to go on the offensive themselves. The French also had the advantage of holding Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, key fortresses on the main invasion routes between Spain and Portugal. Wellington would have to capture both of those fortresses before he could launch a campaign deep into Spain – if he only captured the fortress on his chosen invasion route, then the French could invade Portugal from the other.
At the start of 1812 Wellington was planning to go onto the offensive. It was clear that Napoleon would soon be at war with Russia, and vast numbers of troops would soon be withdrawn from Spain. The Guard cavalry had already been pulled out, and on 14 January Napoleon withdrew the Infantry of the Guard and every Polish unit in Spain. Although Wellington had already made his move by this date, it was already clear that something similar must happen, for Napoleon did not campaign without the Imperial Guard.
Events in the east of Spain also played a part in Wellington’s decision to go onto the offensive. In September 1811 Marshal Suchet had invaded Valencia, and was soon threatening to capture the city. This campaign became bogged down outside Saguntum, forcing the French to redistribute their armies, moving a significant number of troops east. This movement would not affect Marshal Marmont, Wellington’s opponent around Ciudad Rodrigo, until mid-December, but one month earlier, on 12 November, Wellington had decided to move his siege train to Almeida. This fortress had been badly damaged during the French siege of 1810. It had then been recaptured by the Allies in 1811 at the end of Massena’s retreat from Portugal. By November the damaged outer walls had been repaired, and the first of Wellington’s heavy guns arrived on 22 November.
Wellington was faced by the Army of Portugal, now under Marshal Marmont. At full strength this force was too strong for Wellington to face, but on 21 November Napoleon ordered Marmont and King Joseph to provide 15,000 men for an expedition to attack the Valencian’s from the west. Joseph could only provide 3,000 of these men, and so Marmont lost 12,000 men. On 15 December this expedition, under General Montbrun, began to move east, and by the end of 1811 it had left La Mancha, heading east towards Alicante (it would arrive in the east after Valencia had fallen to Suchet, and would fail to capture Alicante).
By the end of 1811 Wellington had an excellent intelligence network inside Spain, and news of this movement reached him on 24 December. Five days later Wellington learnt that Clausel’s division had moved east from its position around Salamanca. By the end of December Wellington had also learnt that the Imperial Guard cavalry had left Old Castile, and two divisions of Young Guard infantry were leaving the Army of the North.
This news convinced Wellington that the time was right to attack Ciudad Rodrigo. The place was not a first class fortress. The town was built on top of a low hill, overlooking the River Agueda. It was surrounded by a thick medieval wall and a more modern line of low lying fortifications. The French had improved the defences a little since capturing the town, building a fort on the summit of the Great Teson, the hill where the French had placed their main artillery batteries during the siege, and improving the defences of the suburb of San Francisco. Despite its importance the town was not strongly garrisoned. General Dorsenne had provided 2,000 men from the Army of the North, under the command of General Barrié, to defend the town, although there was no shortage of food or of ammunition. Massena had left his siege artillery in Ciudad Rodrigo before invading Portugal, and so the town contained 153 heavy guns – all Barrié lacked were gunners.
On 2-3 January Wellington ordered his army to concentrate for the siege, and despite the poor winter weather they were in place by 5 January. On the next day Wellington scouted out the defences of the town, and on 8 January the siege began. Wellington’s plan was similar to the one Ney had used during the first siege. He intended to occupy the Greater Teson and construct his first parallel on that hill. He would then advance onto the Little Teson, and construct his main gun batteries there. That would allow his gunners to bombard the part of the wall damaged by Ney from only 200 yards.
In order to do this Wellington had to capture the Redoubt Renaud, the French fort on the Greater Teson. Wellington decided to attack this outlying fort on the night of 8 January. 450 men from the Light Division, under Colonel Colborne, were chosen for this assault. Colborne came up with an impressive plan of attack. His column got to within 50 yards of the fort without being discovered. He then sent his riflemen out to surround the fort, using the cover of the darkness. When the rest of his force began their attack, the riflemen opened fire on the French garrison and forced them to take cover behind the walls. The main force managed to get into the fort, and the French garrison surrendered. Colborne’s men took sixty prisoners at the cost of nine dead and sixteen wounded. Only four French troops escaped back to Ciudad Rodrigo.
On 9 January the Allies opened their first parallel, on the summit of the Greater Teson. Wellington rotated his four divisions through the trenches, using each one for twenty-four hours before replacing it with the next. This prevented any individual division from suffering too heavily from the very dangerous French counter-fire, which significantly slowed down the construction of the British siege works. Work began on the second parallel on the night of 13-14 January. This trench came under fire from the fortified convent of Santa Cruz, outside the main walls, and so this too had to be stormed.
On 14 January the French made a very successful sortie from the town. The Allies had developed a rather careless method of exchanging the divisions in the trenches. When the troops in the trench saw the new division advancing to take their place, they immediately left the trenches, leaving them unoccupied. The French timed their assault to take place at 11 am, the time at which the transfer took place. This attack captured the second parallel and the convent of Santa Cruz, and nearly reached the first parallel and the existing gun batteries. They were held off by a few troops from the 24th and 42nd Foot, who had been working in the trenches, until the relieving division had time to arrive.
Despite this setback, on the afternoon of 14 January the heavy guns opened fire. That night the Allies captured the Convent of San Francisco, another of the French strong points in the suburbs, and Barrié decided to withdraw completely from the suburbs and concentrate his garrison in the town.
Despite the heavy French counter-fire, by the end of 18 January the British and Portuguese guns had created two breaches in the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo. The French had constructed defensive works inside the “great breach” at the northern western tip of the walls, but the second “lesser breach”, on the northern wall of the town, had been created by one day’s bombardment.
After continuing the bombardment for most of the next day, Wellington decided to make an assault on the town at seven pm on the night of 19 January. Wellington decided to make four simultaneous attacks. The 3rd Division was to attack the great breach. The Light Division was to attack the Lesser Breach. Pack’s Portuguese column was to make a diversionary attack against the Santiago Gate, at the east of the city. Finally O’Toole’s Portuguese were to make a second diversionary attack across the bridge from the southern side of the Agueda.
The main attack failed miserably. Most of the French garrison was concentrated around the great breach. The attackers came under heavy fire as they approached the breach, and when the first British troops reached the top they discovered a sixteen foot drop down to ground-level inside the town. The first British troops to reach the top of the breach were swept away when the French detonated some powder bags which they had left in the gap. A second attempt was made to reach the top of the breach, and once again it failed. Amongst the dead this time was General Mackinnon.
By the time this second attack at the great breach was repulsed, the French had effectively lost the battle. Most of the French troops had been concentrated behind the great breach, and so Crauford’s Light Division found themselves lightly opposed at the lesser breach. Although Crauford himself was mortally wounded while directing the advance, his men established themselves on the ramparts. They then spread out left and right, hitting the troops defending the great breach in the rear.
The two Portuguese columns also managed to break into the town. Pack’s Brigade captured the redan outside the Santiago Gate, while O’Toole’s men got inside the town. The French garrison retreated to the square outside the castle, and then surrendered, as did Barrié in the castle.
Ciudad Rodrigo was the first town to be stormed by Wellington’s army, and the army now rather disgraced itself by sacking the town, even though its Spanish population were meant to be allies. The sack of Ciudad Rodrigo was less of a disgrace than the sack of Badajoz – it only lasted for one night, and the soldiers are said not to have attacked any of the citizens of the town. Instead they concentrated on plunder.
The French garrison suffered just over 500 casualties during the siege, most of them during the fighting on 19 January. The British and Portuguese lost 195 dead, 916 wounded and 10 missing, suffering 562 casualties during the storm. General Craufurd lingered for four days after the battle, and his death was a bitter blow to Wellington. The Light Division would never be quite as effective after Craufurd’s death.
The speed with which Wellington captured Ciudad Rodrigo disrupted the French plans. Marmont and Dorsenne had expected the place to hold out for three weeks, and based their plans for any relief on that expectation. In the event they did not even learn of the siege until 13 January, and the town fell only six days later. The French response had also been affected by an order from Napoleon, who at the end of December had decided to transfer responsibility for Ciudad Rodrigo and Leon from Dorsenne to Marmont, but without giving Marmont the extra men he needed for his new responsibilities.
When Dorsenne had met Marmont to discuss his new responsibilities, he had expressed an opinion that General Thiébault, at Salamanca, was an unreliable witness, having spent the last six months reporting that the British were about to move. On 14 January news of the siege reached Dorsenne and Marmont at Valladolid. The two generals put in place arrangements that would allow them to concentrate 32,000 men against Wellington by 26 January, a date at which they still expected the town to be in French hands. News of the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo reached Marmont on 21 January, when he was still one day’s march from Salamanca, and after lingering around Salamanca for two weeks, he returned to Valladolid and abandoned any hope of recovering the town.
One reason for Marmont’s unwillingness to attack Ciudad Rodrigo was that he had correctly identified Badajoz as Wellington’s next target. Within a week of the storm of Ciudad Rodrigo Wellington was beginning to issue orders for a move to the south, and Marmont wanted to be in a position to move his own army south to help defend that fortress. This plan would be foiled not by Wellington, but by Napoleon, who insisted on sending detailed orders to Marmont, always based on information that was up to a month out of date when it reached Paris. Napoleon’s orders would pin Marmont in place in the north of Spain just when his troops were needed around Badajoz.