April 6, 1812. The British Army in Spain, under General Wellington, prepares to assault the French-held fortress of Badajoz. The carnage makes it the bloodiest siege of the Napoleonic Wars, and one of the defining moments of the Peninsular War. It also opens the road to the reconquest of Spain and the final defeat of Napoleon’s armies in Spain. But it is, tragically, the civilians who pay the price for the slaughter at Badajoz.
Napoleon made one of his greatest mistakes in 1808, when to secure greater control of Europe he decided to overthrow and replace the King of Spain with his brother Joseph. This misbegotten coup resulted in the Peninsular War, and Spain rose in a major struggle against the French forces trying to occupy their land and place Joseph on the throne. The British had been at war with the French for years, along with their ally Portugal, and saw the Spanish uprising as an excellent opportunity to weaken their great foe Napoleon.
From 1808 on, the British committed armies to Spain and Portugal – the Iberian Peninsula - with varying degrees of success. By 1809, the combined British and Portuguese armies were under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, who would prove himself to be a strong contender of Britain’s greatest general of all time. At first, Wellington was forced to fight a defensive war within the Portuguese mountains against much larger French armies. The rub was that Wellington had Britain’s only real field army, and this meant that he couldn’t take the risks the French could take. This meant that he had to prioritize preserving his own army from destruction, rather than trying to destroy French armies.
The French had their hands full with the Spanish, who were fighting a bitter guerrilla war against their adversary. (The word “guerrilla” originates from the 1808-1814 Spanish insurgency against their French occupiers; guerrilla means “little war” in Spanish.) This established the pattern of the Peninsular War. The French had hundreds of thousands of troops in Spain, but they were scattered across the whole country trying to suppress the Spanish guerrillas. The British had a much smaller army under Wellington operating out of Lisbon, Portugal, along with the British-trained Portuguese forces. The French constantly tried to cut off and destroy this army, but Wellington was too clever and the French forces too overextended.
From 1809 to 1811, the Allied armies fought desperate but successful campaigns to drive the French from Portugal and open the path into Spain itself. By 1812, though, Wellington had gathered enough forces that he was ready to go on the offensive against the French. Napoleon had pulled many of his best troops to join his invasion of Russia, which left the French armies in Spain weakened. The French still held two fortified cities on the Spanish-Portuguese border: Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south. Wellington would have to take both of them before he could liberate Spain, or risk the French moving in behind him to cut his supply lines and trap him in Spain.
In January 1812, Wellington captured Ciudad Rodrigo in a small, bloody siege, where he lost his expert light infantry general Robert Craufurd as well as almost 1600 men. The British could not rest easy, though, because Ciudad Rodrigo was the easy one. To the south lay Badajoz. The capture of this city was the key to defeating the French and driving them from Spain, but it would be a terribly tough nut to crack.
Starting on March 16, 1812, Wellington’s 27,000 British troops surrounded the city of Badajoz. The French held the city with about 5,000 men, and the city itself possessed strong fortifications including a strong curtain wall with multiple bastions and strongpoints. The British had already tried to take Badajoz in 1811, but failed to take the city in time before the French relieving army arrived. Wellington was not going to make the same mistake this time; he would have to take the city quickly, but this meant an assault, and no one wanted to think about that.
Let’s talk about siege warfare. Ever since the 1500s in Europe, sieges had moved from the “medieval” stage (let’s build trebuchets to break the castle walls) that we might be passingly familiar with from Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones. In the Napoleonic Era, sieges were much different. The fortresses themselves consisted of low, sloped walls with multiple heavy cannon, well-sited firing ports and infantry defenses.
The besieging army – the army outside the fortress – would slowly dig trenches towards the walls, getting close enough to place their cannon where they could breach the walls. The besieged – the army inside – would launch raids and bombard the enemy to stop this slow progress forward. Depending on the skill of the commanders, the soldiers’ training, the size of the fortress and many other factors, this could take a few days or up to several years. During the American Revolution, the Spanish besieged British-held Gibraltar for almost four years and never got close.
When the besieger did get close, their cannons would bombard the city’s walls and make a breach in the heavy stone. Then, traditionally, their commander would make an offer to the besieged: surrender now with honor intact, or continue the siege and, well, I can’t be responsible for what my soldiers do when they get in there. It had been widely understood, even since ancient times, that when the besieged refused to surrender when given the opportunity that the city would be “sacked” – that is, looted and pillaged without mercy.
To make the assault, the armies of this period would pick a “forlorn hope” – a handpicked set of men, usually volunteers, to make the initial assault. (The term is Dutch: “verloren hoop,” literally “lost troop.”) This duty was extremely hazardous and, in particularly bad sieges, was something close to suicide. Surprisingly, especially in the British Army, there were plenty of volunteers for the Forlorn Hope. It was virtually guaranteed that any survivors would be promoted or advanced, and great glory was to be won in the process. For men whose entire lives revolved around their chances in the army, this was nothing to shake your head at.
Back to Badajoz. As the British dug their way towards the French garrison of the city, torrential rainfalls slowed their advance. In red coats, crossbelts and heavy leather caps, the Tommies struggled through mud and vegetation to push their trenches closer. The French launched counter-raids on the 19th and 25th of March, and the fighting then resembled World War I more than the age of Napoleon. As the British inched closer, they stormed several of the smaller redoubts, suffering heavy losses doing so. By March 31, though, the heavy guns were in place and began a great bombardment of the city.
As March turned into April, the miserable British soldiers began placing gunpowder charges to clear their obstacles, but endured incessant fire from the walls. By April 5, two breaches had been made in Badajoz’s wall, but the French still refused to surrender. They knew this meant horror for their own soldiers, and the Spanish civilians in the city, if the British broke in, but they had received word that help was coming. After weeks of mud and toil, the British soldiers were not ready to let the city go a second time. They began to prepare an assault.
Wellington had received word that French Marshal Soult’s army was on its way to lift the siege of Badajoz by forcing his army to retreat, and decided that the fortress had to be taken immediately. He gave the order that on April 6, his army would storm the breaches of Badajoz. The forlorn hope would go in first.
At 10pm on the 6th of April, the British assaulted the walls under cover of darkness. With bayonets glistening, the infantry inched forward, but a French sentry spotted them. As the French defenders began to fire, the British poured forward en masse, into a hail of musket fire, grenades, stones and barrels of gunpowder pitched over the walls.
The barrage turned into slaughter. The Forlorn Hope was nearly annihilated in the first blast, and the redcoats surged over their bodies up the narrow breach in the fortress walls even as they were mown down by bullets and bombs. On the other side of the fortress, the British used ladders to scale the walls, and managed to seize control of Badajoz Castle. Until they could raise the Union Jack over this critical position, Wellington was almost prepared to call off the terrible assault. Badajoz had become a charnel house.
The incredible courage of the British put them over the wall, even in the face of unremitting fire and flame. With footholds on the walls, the British had a grip on the city, and finally pushed their way over heaps of redcoated bodies into the city of Badajoz. The British lost 4800 men taking Badajoz, 20% of their entire army. After all this horror, though, the true horror was revealed.
The British soldiers lost all their discipline and control once inside the city. Having stormed through death and fire to break in, and following those unwritten rules of siege warfare, they began to wreck Badajoz. They killed any French soldiers, especially those trying to surrender. They broke into civilian homes, vandalized and stole property, and set them afire. Many Spanish civilians of all ages were raped and murdered. The shocking brutality of the British soldiers could not even be stopped by their own officers, several of whom were shot when they tried to restore orders.
One officer wrote that they “resembled rather a pack of hell hounds…than what they were but twelve short hours previously – a well-organised, brave, disciplined and obedient British Army, and burning only with impatience for what is called glory.”
This abhorrent behavior can compare with incidents like My Lai or Black Hearts. Soldiers under terrible stress and having witnessed great carnage became desensitized to violence, and sought to do unto others what was done unto them. Probably around 1000 civilians were killed in the aftermath of the siege.
Wellington, normally the embodiment of stoicism and coolness, wept openly at the sight of his men piled up in the breach at Badajoz, but was disgusted at his troops’ behavior. He had the rampaging soldiers suppressed by force, and many were flogged as punishment for their crimes – though none were hanged. Though historians have been harshly critical of the British war crimes, most people at the time accepted them as inevitable – the kind of thing that happened. Nevertheless, Badajoz remains one of the great black marks on the British Army’s reputation, a byword for a terrible war crime committed in the heat of the moment.
In broader terms, despite the terrible losses, the way was now open for Wellington and his troops to advance into Spain. Past Badajoz, Madrid awaited, and the downfall of Napoleon’s dominance of Western Europe. On July 22, we’ll talk about the Battle of Salamanca – the decisive battle of the Peninsular War.
Book Recommendation: For the Peninsular War, most of your options are accurate but dense. David Gates’s The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986) will tell you everything you want to know and then some, but drier than the Atacama. For a more balanced, modern interpretation, see Charles J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), though Esdaile has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about some things.