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The Peninsular War – 1812

It’s cold, the ground’s frozen and you are digging a trench while under constant enemy fire. That was the situation Wellington’s men endured in early January 1812. Their goal was to capture the star-shaped fortress at Ciudad Rodrigo, which controlled the road to Salamanca and northern Spain.

As in all sieges, the besiegers would concentrate their cannon fire at chosen locations in order to create breaches in the walls. On January 19th, the Allies attacked. The ‘forlorn hopes’, the near-suicidal volunteers who led the assault, charged into the breach while the desperate French fired back with every available weapon to hand. There was carnage, but the Allies broke through and the fortress fell.

Wellington then proceeded south to attack Badajoz, the fortress guarding the road to Madrid. The Allies besieged the city for three weeks and over 20,000 cannon balls were systematically launched at the perimeter walls. The French inside were equally busy preparing for the inevitable assault.

The fortified walls of Badajoz today. © Michael Crumplin.

On April 6th at 10pm the three-pronged attack on the city began, but after two hours of absolute slaughter the French still commanded the main breach.

Storming the breach at the siege of Badajoz, 1812. This illustration is definitely a sanitized version of the reality!

“We rushed at the breach, but we were broken and carried no weight with us although every soldier was a hero. The breach was ably defended at the top by a chevaux de frise of sword blades, sharp as razors, chained to the ground; while the ascent to the top of the breach was covered with planks with sharp nails in them.”

Harry Smith, 1st/95th Regiment of Foot
at the breaches of Badajoz, 6th April 1812

Badajoz during the siege of June 1811. The fortress finally fell following a second siege in 1812. © National Army Museum, London.

At midnight, news reached the breach that Picton’s men had scaled the walls of the castle and were inside the town. The slaughter had not been completely in vain. With the siege over, British soldiers went on a drunken rampage of looting, killing and debauchery which lasted three days. It has gone down as one of the darkest moments in British military history.

Letter from Captain Wylley, of the Royal Fusiliers, informing the recipient of the death of a fellow officer at the siege of Badajoz, 1812.

Wellington’s next goal was to pick off the French armies one by one and prevent them from uniting against him. He advanced towards Salamanca, where Marshal Marmont and his army had been ordered to engage the British by King Joseph. Neither general was keen to do battle and a game of cat and mouse followed as each tried to outmanoeuvre the other. Marmont made the first mistake when he overextended his lines and Wellington swooped. He co-ordinated the Allied infantry and cavalry attacks to maximum effect. The fighting lasted till nightfall when the French retired.

Wellington directing British forces at the Battle of Salamanca, 1812.

(zoom-in - PDF version opens in new window 199Kb)
Report, Battle of Salamanca, The Courier, August 17th, 1812.

Wellington’s forces entered Madrid to be greeted as heroes, before moving north at the end of August to lay siege to Burgos, the next milestone on the road to France. The British did not have sufficient artillery and the siege had to be abandoned in October when French forces from the south threatened.

Wellington ordered a retreat, but the winter rains, disease, and starvation took their toll during the month long march back to Ciudad Rodrigo. With his soldiers battered, his reputation in tatters, his many detractors questioning the war; Wellington was reinvigorated by news from Moscow – Napoleon had been defeated by the Russian winter.