Monthly Archives: May 2012

The Siege of Badajoz, 1812.

This follows on from a previous post on Wellington‘s capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, which also briefly described Napoleonic siege warfare.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A successful invasion of Spain from Portugal required the invade to hold both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the north and south routes respectively between the two countries.

After taking Cuidad Rodrigo, Wellington moved south to siege Badajoz. He had lacked a proper siege train earlier in his campaigns but now had one consisting of 52 guns, including 12 24 pounders, 16 24 pounder howitzers and 18 Russian 18 pounders, and many other supplies. It arrived at Elvas on 8 March. The Russian guns presented some supply problems as they could not take British 18 pounder shot, but sufficient ammunition for them was found.

Although Wellington now had an adequate siege train, Britain still lacked specialist sappers and miners, meaning that infantrymen had to carry out work that they were not trained to do, and which was tiring and dangerous. The Royal Engineers then consisted solely of officers. They had recently been supplemented by 115 Royal Military Artificers; Ian Fletcher’s history of the siege of Badajoz points out that this was far too few.[1]

Most of Wellington’s army was also at Elvas by 16 March, except two Portuguese brigades that arrived a couple of days later and the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion, which were at Ciudad Rodrigo.

Wellington could leave 15,000 men to invest Badajoz and deploy 40,000 against Soult‘s southern French army of 25,000. The risk is was that Marmont moved his army south. Wellington thought that it was likely that Marmont would do so, but not for 3-4 weeks. This meant that he could capture Ciudad Rodrigo, but he could not take his time in doing so. In fact, Napoleon did not allow Marmont to move until 27 March.

Many of the inhabitants of Badajoz, especially the richer ones, had fled, reducing the population from 16,000 before the war to 4,000. General Armand Phillipon, the governor of Badajoz had improved the defences, including building a new lunette, a small fortification, called Fort Picurina and repairing the damage inflicting on Fort San Christobal in the 1811 siege. His garrison of 5,000 men, including 700 non-combatants, was too few.

Walls of Badajoz

The siege began on 16 March. A pontoon bridge was built across the River Guadiana; Wellington did not intend to attack the San Christobal. The first parallel was dug in front of Fort Picurina on the night of 17-18 March.

The attackers were hampered by bad weather and by an aggressive defence. Phillipon conducted frequent sorties and offered bounties to Frenchmen who captured entrenching tools. On 19 March Colonel Richard Fletcher, commanding Wellington’s Royal Engineers, was wounded in a French sortie

On 22 March heavy rain caused the Guadiana to flood, sweeping away the pontoon bridge. The break to communications between the two banks of the river threatened to end the siege, but the weather improved and the bridge was repaired the next day.

Fort Picurina was invested by 5th Division on 24 March and successfully assaulted the next day by men of 3rd and Light Divisions; casualties were heavy. The ladders were too short to scale the walls but were used to bridge ditches. A party of the 88th Foot forced their way through an embrasure and a detachment of the 83rd entered by a salient angle where artillery had damaged the palisades. The siege batteries were able to fire on the bastions by 31 March.

Repaired breach in walls of Badajoz

Wellington wanted to force the garrison to surrender rather than storming the fortress, but Soult’s advance forced him to order the assault for the evening of 5 April. Fletcher, recovered from his wound, said that there were too many obstacles in the two breaches and wanted a third, so the attack was postponed.

The third breach was made by 4 pm the next day and Wellington ordered the attack for 7:30 pm. It was impossible to be ready in time and it was postponed until 10 pm, by when the French had improved the defences. The British made an error in not destroying the counterscarp, or outer wall of the ditch; it should have been blown into the ditch, making it easier to cross.

The French filled the breaches with chevaux de frise, made of sabres, fascines, sandbags, woolpacks, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The main attack on the breaches to the south east was to come from the 4th Division at La Trinidad and the Light Division at Santa Maria. General Sir Thomas Picton‘s 3rd Division was to take the castle by escalade from the east. The 5th Division was to demonstrate against the Pardaleras and, if feasible, escalade the San Vincente. A Guards detachment was to storm the San Roque and Power’s Portuguese Brigade demonstrate against the San Christobal.

Badajoz Castle

The attacks on the breaches were beaten off, with heavy casualties. By 1:30 am Wellington had realised that further assaults were pointless.  He was then informed that Picton had taken the castle. Picton’s initial attacks had failed. He was wounded and command passed to General Sir James Kempt. Kempt was wounded and Picton took command back

An hour after the initial assault Lt-Col Ridge of the 5th led an attack at a point where the wall was a little lower and an embrasure offered some protection. He got onto the wall and his troops followed. Ridge was killed but the British were in the castle. Phillipon had hoped to make his last stand there. Lt McPherson of the 45th lowered the French flag and, in the absence of a British one, raised his tunic on the flagpole.

A French counter-attack, using troops from the San Vicente, failed as more British troops crossed the wall. The British were then able to take the San Vicente.

Walls near Badajoz Castle

Phillipon launched a cavalry charge by around 40 dragoons, which failed. He escaped through the Gate of Las Palmas to San Christobal with about 50 men. A few French troops at the breaches withdrew into houses and continued the fight until dawn, but most dispersed or surrendered.

At 2 am Wellington ordered another attack on the breaches by the 4th and Light Divisions, who crossed them without opposition.  Some fighting continued, but most of the French surrendered.

The British troops now indulged in an orgy of rape, drunkenness and pillage. Most of the victims were Spanish civilians.  3,500 of the 5,000 French garrison were taken prisoner.

Phillipon surrendered on the morning of April 7. Wellington entered Badajoz and received a drunken salute from some of his men. He ordered the erection of a gallows, but it does not appear to have been used.

Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon and her sister were rescued by British officers. She married Harry Smith, one of them, and became the Lady Smith after whom the Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Johnny Kincaid, one of Smith’s comrades, claimed in his memoirs that it was him rather than Smith who rescued the girls.

Once the looting had ended the wounded could be cared for. Wellington’s army suffered 5,000 casualties in the siege, 3,000 of them in the assault.

Phillipon fought a good defence but was let down by his superiors. Marmont and Soult became involved in unnecessary actions with local Spanish forces when they should have marched straight to Badajoz.

The Royal Corps of Miners and Sappers was founded on 23 April in order to provide the British Army with specialist troops for siege warfare, but they were not able to make any impact until the siege of San Sebastian in 1813. Even then there were too few of them.

Armand Phillipon escaped, served in Russia and Germany, retired from active service in September 1813 and later made his peace with the Bourbons


[1] Ian Fletcher, In Hell Before Daylight: The Siege and Storming of the Fortress of Badajoz, 16 March – 6 April 1812 (Chalford Stroud: Spellmount, 2008), p. 22. This description of the siege is largely based on this book.

Advertisements

10 Comments

Filed under War History

Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 and Siege Warfare

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1811 campaign.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

In 1812 Wellington intended to launch an offensive into Spain with the aim of capturing Madrid, which he hoped would provoke an uprising throughout Spain. In order to do so he had to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the Spanish sides of the northern and southern routes between Portugal and Spain respectively and were consequently known as ‘the Keys to Spain.’

His army totalled 60,000 men; he detached 14,000 under General Sir Rowland Hill to guard against an attack by Marshal Marmont from the north and 19,000 under General Sir Thomas Graham to cover the south, where Marshal Soult commanded the French forces.

Sieges were not as common in the Napoleonic War as they had been a century before. Napoleon preferred to bypass fortresses and defeat the enemy in a pitched battle. The lack of roads crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border meant that it was impossible for invading armies to bypass the border fortresses.

Walls of Ciudad Rodrigo

A siege was a complex operation.  The attacker would begin by blockading the fortress. Trenches would have to be dug in order to allow the assault force to move close to the fortress in cover. The first trench, known as a parallel because it would run parallel to the walls of the fortress, would be dug several hundred yards from the fortress. Zig-zag trenches would then be dug in order to advance closer to the wall and another parallel constructed. A  third might have to be dug before the attackers were close enough to the wall to assault it. The digging would take place at night as digging in daylight in view of the fortress would be suicidal. The siege guns would bombard the wall in order to create a breach in it. The attackers could concentrate their fire at one part of the wall,  but they would also have to launch diversionary attacks or else the defenders would reinforce the defences of the point to be attacked. Aggressive defenders would launch sorties in order to disrupt the attackers. As well as causing casualties and trying to damage siege works, they would steal entrenching tools.

In the 18th century the custom was that once a practical breach had been made in the wall (i.e. one that could be successfully assaulted) the defenders would request the honours of war. They would then be allowed to march out of the fortress and go to the nearest friendly garrison.  The rules of war meant that the attackers could decline to take prisoners if they had to assault the fortress.

If an assault was to be made, then engineers, operating from the closest parallel, would place a mine to detonate in the breach just before the attack. The defenders would fill the breach with obstructions such as chevaux de frise, wooden frames with sabres attached, fascines, sandbags, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The attack would take place at night and casualties would be high. If the attackers won, then their blood lust after a vicious fight meant that they would probably sack and pillage the fortress. Little mercy would be shown to civilians and the attacking officers would struggle to restrain their men.[1]

Greater Tesson from walls of Ciudad Rodrigo. The Lesser Tesson was flattened to allow construction of the houses in the foreground

Jac Weller points out that Ciudad Rodrigo was strong but not impregnable.[2] It had not been fully modernised and was overlooked by two hills, the Greater and Lesser Tessons. The former can still be seen, but the latter has now been built over. An attacker who took them could bombard the fortress from above. The French built the Redoubt Renaud on the Greater Tesson to protect it. Their objective was to hold out until reinforcements arrived. Towards the end of 1811 Spanish guerillas under Julian Sanchez invested Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army entered Spain on 4 January 1812 and reached Ciudad Rodrigo four days later. This surprised the French, as armies did not then normally conduct sieges in the winter. The Anglo-Portuguese army took the Redoubt Renaud in a surprise attack the same night. Two breaches had been made in the wall by 19 January and the fortress was successfully assaulted that evening. Anglo-Portuguese casualties were 568 killed and wounded in the assault and around 1,100 over the whole siege. The British dead included General Sir Robert Craufurd, commander of the Light Division. About 530 Frenchmen were killed or wounded. The rest of the 1,937 strong garrison were captured.

The British troops looted and pillaged for about two hours before being brought under control. It was common for soldiers who had captured an enemy fortress to behave in such a way, but the population of Ciudad Rodrigo were Britain’s allies.

Wellington now moved south to siege Badajoz. This will be described in the next post in this series.


[1] Frederick Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp 9-25.

[2] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 192-94.


7 Comments

Filed under War History

British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval Assassinated 200 Years Ago

Today is the 200th anniversary of the only assassination of a British Prime Minister. Spencer Perceval was shot dead by John Bellingham in the lobby of the House of Commons. Perceval held mostly conservative views, although he had backed the abolition of the slave trade, and Britain was then at war with Napoleonic France.

If Churchill had been assassinated in 1942 or Lloyd George in 1917, then it would be seen as one of the most important events in British, if not world, history. Perceval died during a major war but if he is remembered it is for the manner of his death rather than for anything that he did during his life.

The Prime Minister then was first amongst equals in the cabinet rather than the more presidential style that has subsequently developed. The government declared war, financed the army and navy, appointed senior officers and made peace, but the slow communications of the day meant that it could interfere less in how generals and admirals fought their campaigns.

Perceval born on 1 November 1762 and was the second son of the second marriage of the Earl of Egmont. He worked as a barrister because he lacked private means, but he did have significant family connections, which boosted his career. He was elected an MP in 1796, proving to be an outstanding debater. His first government offices were legal ones such as Solicitor-General and Attorney-General, and his first purely political appoitment was as Chancellor of the Exchequer in March 1807. He retained this role when he became Prime Minister in October 1809.

Perceval was a conservative evangelical Christian and disapproved of gambling, drunkenness, hunting and adultery. He opposed parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation but supported the abolition of the slave trade and the regulation of child labour. He was a close supporter of William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister from 1781-1801 and 1804-6. Like Pitt, he was determined to continue the war with France, and he was an eloquent supporter of this view in the House of Commons.

It was feared that the assassination might be the start of a popular uprising, but this did not happen. It was accepted at the time and subsequently that Bellingham had a grudge against the government, which he blamed for the failure of his business, and acted alone. His plea of insanity was rejected and he was executed on 18 May.

A new book, Why Spencer Perceval Had to Die by Andro Linklater, argues that Perceval’s death was part of a conspiracy. It was only published yesterday so I cannot comment on it. Its description from Amazon.co.uk says that:

On 11 May 1812 Spencer Perceval, the British Prime Minister, was fatally shot at close range in the lobby of the House of Commons. In the confused aftermath, his assailant, John Bellingham, made no effort to escape. A week later, before his motives could be examined, he was tried and hanged. Here, for the first time, the historian Andro Linklater looks past the conventional image of Bellingham as a ‘deranged businessman’ and portrays him as an individual, driven by the anxieties of his family life, by his yearning for respectability and by the raw emotions that convulsed his home town of Liverpool. But as the evidence accumulates, a wider, darker picture emerges. The wildly unpopular Perceval dominated political life as both Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. He, above all, was responsible for oppressing Luddite protestors, for Britain’s naval blockade of Napoleonic France, for risking war with the United States. And, almost single-handedly, he was crushing Liverpool’s illegal slave-trade. John Bellingham was not alone in hating the prime minister. But did he act alone when he shot Spencer Perceval? And if not, who aided him? Two hundred years later, Andro Linklater examines Bellingham’s personal records, his wife’s letters and the reports of the Bow Street Runners, London’s first detective agency, uncovering strange payments made to the murderer and an untouched historical trail. Catching the threads of conspiracy amid the fevered tone of an age of intense debate over slavery, security of the state and personal liberty, Linklater brilliantly deconstructs the assassination of Spencer Perceval – the only British Prime Minister ever to have suffered that fate – to offer a fresh perspective on Britain and the Western world at a critical moment in history.

A recent article by Bruce Anderson in the Daily Telegraph dismissed Linklater’s arguments on the basis that there was no evidence to support them. He went on to claim that Perceval had been poorly treated by history.

Anderson argues that Perceval was popular with everybody who knew him. Possibly Linklater’s claim that he was unpopular means with the general public. He held the government together and ensured that the war was financed without ruining the economy. He ignored criticism of the cost of the campaign and the lack of victories and backed Wellington. Perceval proved to be correct, but he was dead and Lord Liverpool was Prime Minister by the time that the campaign in Spain and Portugal and the war with France were won.

2 Comments

Filed under Political History, War History

Wellington’s 1811 Campaign

This post leads on from a previous one on Wellington’s 1809-10 campaigns.

Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.  Maps are very useful in following the descriptions of battles below. For copyright reasons, I have provided links to websites that include maps of the battles rather than directly copying the maps. All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A good source of photos is Jac Weller’s Wellington in the Peninsula. The photos in it were taken by Weller in the 1950s and early 60s, before much of the re-development of the battlefields had taken place [1].

5 March 1811 was a significant day in the war. At Barrosa in the south an Anglo-Portuguese force under General Sir Thomas Graham defeated a larger number of French troops commanded by Marshal Victor. On the same day, Marshal Masséna began to withdraw, reaching Salamanca on 11 April. He was unable to attack the Lines of Torres Vedras, was short of supplies and was being harassed by guerrillas.

Wellington, however, was not in a strong position. There were two routes across the Spanish-Portuguese frontier, each guarded by a fortress on both sides of the frontier. In the north these were Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain and Almeida in Portugal and the southern ones were Badajoz in Spain and Elvas in Portugal. An invader needed to control all four in order to cover his lines of communication.

Marshal Soult took Badajoz on 10 March. Since the French still held Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington had to split his force in order to cover both the northern and southern invasion routes. He sent a force under Lord William Beresford, a British general who had re-organised and vastly improved the Portuguese Army, to face Soult in the south. Beresford’s skills lay in organisation rather than in battlefield tactics.

Wellington’s HQ at Freinada

Wellington lacked a siege train of heavy artillery, and his army was too small to both siege Almeida and cover against any attempt by Masséna to relieve it. He therefore decided to blockade the fortress in an attempt to starve it into submission. His headquarters was at Freinada, where he received reports that Masséna was building up his forces.

Masséna, with 48,000 men, advanced, and on 3 May 1811 met Wellington’s 37,000 troops at Fuentes de Oñoro, a village just inside Spain on the road from Ciudad Rodrigo to Portugal. Wellington’s army was positioned behind the River Dos Cassos along a 12-13 mile front from Fort Concepcion in the north through Fuentes de Oñoro and  Poço Velho to the village of Nave de Haver in the south. Fort Concepcion covered the road to Almeida. Fort Concepcion and Fuentes de Oñoro are in Spain, Almeida, Freinada, Poço Velho and Nave de Haver are in Portugal.

This website has some photos of Fort Concepcion; it cannot be visited at the moment because its current owner wants to re-build it as a hotel. It is eight miles from Fuentes de Oñoro, but two-thirds of this distance was protected from attack by a steep cliff. Consequently, Wellington had four divisions at Fuentes de Oñoro and only two between there and Fort Concepcion. His southern flank was guarded by Don Julian Sanchez’s Spanish guerrillas at Nave de Haver.

Bridge over Dos Cassos at Fuentes de Onoro from defending side.

Masséna’s plan was to attack Wellington’s centre and right, forcing him to move troops from his northern flank south, thus allowing him to re-supply Almeida. The Dos Cassos was no more than a stream in place, so could be crossed easily. Wellington’s left flank was protected by the cliffs and his centre by Fuentes de Oñoro, but his right flank consisted of largely open ground. There was a low ridge behind the village, but there was not a significant reverse slope; it is a myth that Wellington was always able to deploy his army on a reverse slope. If Wellington’s army was forced to retreat, then it would have to do so across the River Coa.

Masséna deployed his army across the Dos Casas from the village of Fuentes de Oñoro on 2 May. At 2pm the next day he attacked. Fighting in the narrow streets and alleys of Fuentes de Oñoro was confused.

Narrow street in Fuentes de Onoro

Hand to hand combat saw buildings change hands and the Allied troops forced back to the church, which was on the north-west side of the village. A counter-attack by the 1/71st (Highland Light Infantry), 1/79th (Cameron Highlanders) and 2/24th (2nd Warwickshire) battalions forced the French back across the river.On the 4 May an unofficial truce allowed both sides to bury their dead and collect their wounded. As on other occasions when fighting was not taking place in the Peninsular War, there was some fraternisation between British and French troops.

The fighting resumed the next day with a French attack in the south. It forced Sanchez’s guerrillas to withdraw, covered by British Cavalry under General Stapleton Cotton and the Royal Horse Artillery. Wellington had moved his newest division, the 7th, south on 4 May. It was forced out of the village of Poço Velho, but was reinforced by the Light Division, commanded by General Sir Robert Craufurd.

Open ground to south of Fuentes de Onoro

Wellington’s right was under severe pressure, and he realised that Masséna wanted him to move troops south, opening up the road to Almeida. Instead, Wellington left the troops that guarded his front from Fuentes de Oñoro to Fort Concepcion in position. He re-deployed the rest of his army to run eastwards from Fuentes de Oñoro, facing south towards the advancing French, a manoeuvre known as refusing the right flank. This meant that Wellington was cutting himself off from the route back to Portugal across the River Coa at Sabugal. If forced to retreat, his army would have to cross the Coa at the small bridges at Castello Bom and Almeida, running the risk of a retreat turning into a rout. The troops withdrawing from Poço Velho were under severe pressure. William Napier, a Peninsular veteran and historian said that this ‘there was not, during the war, a more dangerous hour’ [2].  The Light Division fought a highly skilful retirement; Sir John Fortescue said in his history of the British Army that:

No more masterly manoeuvre is recorded of any general; no grander example of triumphant discipline is recorded of any regiments in the history of the British Army [3].

Fuentes de Onoro to Church

Masséna did not try to turn Wellington’s re-positioned right flank, but resumed his attacks on Fuentes de Oñoro.  Wellington was present and personally directed the defence for a period. The British were again forced back to the church. A counter-attack, led by the 1/88th Connaught Rangers, commanded by Lt-Col Wallace, supported by the 45th (1st Nottinghamshire) and 74th (Argyll) Foot, forced the French back across the Dos Cassos. The French had been defeated, but narrowly; Wellington later claimed that the French would have won had Napoleon been present [4]. Allied casualties were 1,804 and French ones 2,844; note that casualties means dead, wounded and prisoners.

Masséna’s attempt to relieve Almeida failed, but the two armies continued to face each other across the Dos Cassos until 10 May, when the French withdrew towards Ciudad Rodrigo. That night, General Brennier, the French commander of Almeida, blew up its defences and withdrew the garrison through the Allied blockade. Wellington told Beresford that ‘the escape of the garrison of Almeida is the most disgraceful military event that has yet occurred to us’[5]. Masséna was replaced by Marshal Marmont, a decision that Napoleon had taken before Fuentes de Oñoro.

Also on 10 May Soult’s army of 25,000 left Seville in order to attempt to lift the siege of Badajoz. Beresford had 10,000 men more, including 15,000 Spaniards under Blake, and deployed his army along the hills on either side of the village of Albuera, at a junction on the road from Seville to Badajoz. This gave Beresford’s army a reverse slope, but the length of the hills meant that, regardless of where he placed his right flank, there would be another hill from which the  French could threaten it. Major Roverea, ADC to General Lowry Cole, commander of the 4th Division, later wrote that Beresford’s dispositions allowed the French to capture a hill ‘the possession of which was vital to our safety.’[6]

Monument to battle in Albuera

The Battle of Albuera took place on 16 May. Wellington was not present, but some British troops managed to fight at both  Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera. The French initially demonstrated against Albuera, before launching their main attack against Beresford’s right flank. Soult did not know that the Spanish were present and thought that he faced only 10,000 enemy. Beresford ordered Blake’s Spanish troops to re-align themselves and refuse the right flank in the way that Wellington had done at Fuentes de Oñoro. Blake refused to comply. He thought that the French attack on the right flank was just a feint, and that their main assault would come in the centre. One of his subordinates, General Zayas, moved four Spanish battalions to the right on his own initiative. When Beresford arrived on the scene after receiving Blake’s refusal to obey his orders, he reinforced Zayas with five more Spanish battalions. 4,800 Spanish infantry faced 8,400 French infantry  and 3,500 cavalry with artillery support.

They held them up long enough for the three battalions of Colborne’s Brigade of the 2nd British Division to come up in support. Beresford had ordered it to form a second line behind the Spanish, but the 2nd Division’s commander, General Sir William Stewart, sent it against the French left flank. This attack stopped the French, but Stewart had not allowed for the possibility that there might be cavalry on its flank. It suddenly started to rain very heavily, meaning that muskets could not fire and visibility was restricted.

The 800 men of General Latour-Maubourg’s two cavalry regiments, the Polish 1st Lancers of the Vistula Legion and the French 2nd Hussars,  caught Colborne’s Brigade by surprise and in line. Cavalry could do little against disciplined infantry in square unless they had artillery support, but infantry in line was very vulnerable to cavalry. Colborne’s Brigade lost 1,413 casualties out of 2,066 officers and men at Albuera, although not all of these casualties were caused by the cavalry. This was the first time that the British had faced lancers.

The French and Polish cavalry inflicted further losses on Zayas’s Spanish troops and on artillery of the King’s German Legion, a force of expatriate Germans serving with the British; the British King was also Elector of Hanover, and many Hanoverians had fled to Britain when Hanover had been occupied by Napoleon. Beresford himself was attacked by a lancer but the general threw his assailant from his horse. French and Polish cavalry casualties were about 200, a quarter of those committed to this action.

Two more British Brigades, Hoghton’s and Abercrombie’s were brought up. They faced an attack by two French divisions. The British were outnumbered, but were in two deep lines so that they could bring 3,300 muskets to bear. There were 8,000 Frenchmen, but they were in columns 200-400 men wide. Only the front two ranks and perhaps the men on the flanks could fire; 400-1,000 men, However, the French had 24 guns and the British four. A very bloody firefight ensued. Lt-Col William Inglis of the 1/57th (Middlesex) gave his regiment its nickname of the Die-hards by exorting his men to ‘Die hard, 57th, die hard.’[7]

The killing continued, but Beresford appeared to suffer a crisis of confidence and did little to reinforce his right flank.  Soult stood on the defensive and continued with a battle of attrition. He held Werlé’s Brigade, stronger than some British divisions, in reserve when committing it might well have broken the British line. Soult is alleged to have said that ‘the day was mine, but they did not know it and would not run.’[8]

After almost an hour of slaughter Major Henry Hardinge, a British staff officer who later became a Field Marshal, urged Lowry Cole to do something. Cole was contemplating taking action on their own initiative and ordered his 4th Division forward. An earlier flood of the River Guadiana had prevented part of the 4th Division crossing; only the three Fusilier battalions of Myer’s Brigade and three companies of Kemmis’s Brigade were present, but he also had Harvey’s Portuguese Brigade and cavalry and artillery support.

Cole’s troops advanced in line, with a square at each end, giving the firepower advantage of line and protection against cavalry. Soult now committed Werlé’s Brigade, but once again the French were in column, giving the British and Portuguese in line a firepower advantage. Both sides took heavy casualties, with the British ones including Myers killed and Cole and all three Fusilier battalion commanders wounded, before the French broke.

Allied casualties were 5,916; 4,159 British, 1,368 Spanish and 389 Portuguese. Official French losses of 5,936 are almost certainly too low; most estimates are of around 8,000. No other Peninsular War pitched battle in the open, as opposed to the storming of a fortress, saw such killing in such in a small area or short time period.

After the battle, Wellington visited some of the wounded and said ‘Men of the 29th, I am sorry to see so many of you here.’ A veteran sergeant replied, ‘If you had commanded us, my Lord, there would not be so many of use here.’ [9]

Wellington resumed the blockade of Badajoz on 18 May, but serious siege operations did not start for another week. Marmont and Soult were both marching to relieve Badajoz, and Wellington believed that he had until 10 June to take it. Two assaults on Fort San Cristobal, on the north bank of the River Guardiana failed; the main fortress was on the south bank. The French relief force entered Badajoz on 20 June, just in time for the garrison, whose supplies had run out.

Wellington took up a strong defensive position, and the French declined to attack.  Needing to take the two Spanish frontier fortresses, but unable to capture Badajoz, he moved north to blockade Ciudad Rodrigo. His siege train was still being unloaded at Oporto, and he was unable to prevent Marmont from re-supplying the fortress on 24 September.

Wellington could not invade Spain without capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, but in 1811 his army was not strong enough to take them. He was able to win local victories, but had to withdraw if the French Marshals combined against him. By doing so, however, they risked rebellion elsewhere in Spain. Whilst both the key Spanish fortresses remained in French hands, Wellington had to cover both the northern and the southern routes, but when he split his forces he could not rely on his subordinates to act independently.

As Charles Esdaile points out in The Peninsular War, in 1811 the French were able to defend against Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, contain the guerrillas and attack the remaining territory held by their Spanish opponents. However, this was very expensive; there were 350,000 French troops in Spain. They had been unable to defeat Wellington in open battle, giving him the initiative and his army a moral advantage. Both sides could still win the war.[1o]


[1] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsular (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), p. 519.

[2] William Napier, History of the Peninsular War vol. iii (London, 1833), p. 519.

[3] Quoted in Ian Fletcher, Bloody Albuera: The 1811 Campaign in the Peninsula (Marlborough: The Crowood Press, 2000), p. 43.

[4 ] Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 45.

[5] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 47.

[6] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 82.

[7] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 93.

[8] Quoted in Fletcher, Bloody Albuera, p. 96.

[9] Quoted in Julian Paget, Wellington’s Peninsular War: Battles and Battlefields (London: Leo Cooper, 1990), p. 138.

[10] Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 367-68.

2 Comments

Filed under War History

Talavera and Wellington’s 1809-10 Campaigns

The previous post in this series on the Napoleonic Wars described the background to the Peninsular War and the situation in April 1812.

General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, returned to Portugal on 22 April 1809 to take command of the British troops there. He re-organised the army, improved its administration, set up a divisional structure that improved its fighting efficiency and made it more flexible, increased the number of skirmishers and integrated the British and Portuguese armies. The re-opening of hostilities between France and Austria meant that the French were able to deploy fewer troops in Spain than in 1808, and Napoleon no longer commanded them in person.

The pictures on this post were taken by myself, when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s 1809-12 campaigns in Spain as part of a tour conducted by Ian Fletcher of Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours. This was very informative and visiting the battlefield is an invaluable way of understanding the battle. I have no connection with IFBT except as a very satisfied customer.

Maps are also vital in understanding battles; for copyright reasons I have provided links to websites with maps of the battlefields rather than copying the maps directly into this post. Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.

On 12 May Wellesley crossed the River Douro, forcing the French out of Portugal. His army of 20,000 men then joined up with Cuesta’s 35,000 strong Spanish army. They were attacked at Talavera de la Reina on the night of 27 July by 46,000 French troops. A hard fought battle lasted the whole of the next day, before the French withdrew. Wellesley was created Earl of Wellington for his victory.

Monument to Battle of Talavera

There was no reverse slope at Talavera; the belief that Wellington’s battles always featured one is based on the incorrect assumption that Waterloo was typical. A motorway now runs through the battlefield and a modern memorial has been constructed. Wellington and Cuesta agreed to attack Marshal Victor’s 22,000 French troops on 23 July, but the Spanish did not move. Charles Esdaile suggests that the most likely reason is that Cuesta thought that he was heading into a trap.[1] Wellington also halted; as well as lacking support from Cuesta, his army was suffering from supply problems. Cuesta moved forward, encountering the French on 25 July. Victor had now been reinforced by General Sebastiani and King Joseph, bringing the French army to 46,000. Luck and French mistakes enabled him to escape the trap and rejoin Wellington. The Allied army withdrew to a better defensive position, covered by Mackenzie’s Division of British troops. Wellington was almost killed or captured whilst conducting a forward reconnaissance.

The Allied army was now deployed along the Portiña, a stream that was easily crossed. Woods and olive groves restricted the scope for cavalry charges but gave infantry the opportunity to launch surprise attacks. The French were outnumbered, but they could concentrate against either the British or the Spanish, screening the other with cavalry, and obtaining local superiority.

Medellin Hill

Victor, the only French commander then present, attacked the British position on the Medellin hill on the night of 27 July. This attack failed, as did another one on at 5 am the next day. Sebastiani and Joseph then arrived. They and Marshal Jourdan, Joseph’s military adviser, were reluctant to attack, but Victor persuaded them to resume the assault on the British. The debate amongst the French commanders meant that the attack did not start until 2 pm.

Portina stream. More foliage today than in 1809.

 

Until then, British and French troops fraternised at the Portiña, the only source of water on the battlefield. During this war British and French soldiers, including officers, maintained good relations when not required to kill each other. Sentries were not fired on, enemy wounded were cared for, prisoners were not mis-treated and sources of food and water in no man’s land were shared.

The French attacks failed, but British casualties were high, 5,365 dead, wounded and captured out of 20,000 according to Jac Weller.[2]  French casualties were 7,268, but there were 46,000 French troops present. Spanish casualties were light, since the French attacked only the British.

The battle prejudiced Wellington against Spanish troops, whose commanders were slow to move, and against his own cavalry, which performed poorly. Ian Fletcher argues that the cavalry did well elsewhere in the war, but usually when Wellington was not present.

Until he was appointed to command the Spanish Army in 1813, Wellington commanded an Anglo-Portuguese army, including a contingent of Germans, that was about 50,000 strong. It normally faced similar sized French forces, although there were up to 300,000 French troops in Spain. The others were tied down by the Spanish Army, Spanish guerillas, and the threat of a popular uprising. Most of the battles of the Peninsular War were won by the Anglo-Portuguese army, but the Spanish played a significant role in the war.

Napoleon had left Spain in January 1809; he believed that the campaign was won and was concerned that Austria was planning to re-enter the war. His 1809 campaign against Austria began when he arrived in Germany on 16 April, a week after the Austrians invaded Bavaria. On 21 May at Aspern-Essling the Archduke Karl became the first general to defeat Napoleon. The Emperor re-grouped and avenged this loss at Wagram on 5-6 July, but suffered heavier casualties than in his previous victories. He imposed harsh terms on Austria and was able to send reinforcements to Spain.

Wellington was not able to follow up his success at Talavera. Another 50,000 French troops under Marshal Soult were advancing and threatened to cut Wellington’s communications with Portugal. He therefore withdrew south, halting in Badajoz in September 1809 for a period before moving the bulk of his army to Almeida. He used the subsequent period of inactivity to begin construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras. British and Portuguese engineers constructed a formidable defensive barrier in the hills north of Lisbon.

There were then two main routes between Spain and Portugal, each protected by a fortress on either side of the border. In the north these were Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain and Almeida in Portugal. The southern route was covered by Badajoz in Spain and Elvas in Portugal. The terrain in between was unsuitable for artillery and supply wagons, as the French had found in 1807 when Junot invaded Portugal through this route.

An army crossing the frontier between Spain or Portugal had to take all four of these fortresses in order to protect its lines of communication. Elvas, weaker than the others, was returned to Portugal by France in 1808 under the terms of the Convention of Cintra and remained in Portuguese hands for the rest of the war.

Marshal Massena now commanded the French troops in the Peninsula, who were reinforced after the end of the war with Austria. He began his campaign by laying siege to Ciudad Rodrigo in May 1810.  A gallant defence by the Spanish under General Herrasti lasted until 10 July. Wellington refused to march to their aid because he could not risk facing Massena in the open. Massena had less difficulty in taking Almeida, which had to surrender on 26 August after its magazine accidentally blew up.

Massena then advanced on the Busaco Ridge, a move that played into Wellington’s hands as it was a strong defensive position.  Massena had 65,000 men, but his attacks on 27 September were beaten off by the 52,000 strong  Anglo-Portuguese army. Wellington declined to follow up, instead withdrawing to the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras. Massena realised that he had no chance of successfully assaulting these and withdrew to Santarem, suffering significant losses to starvation and disease because of Wellington’s scorched earth policy.

The next post in this series will cover Wellington’s 1811 campaign, including the battles of Fuentes de Oñoro and Albuera.


[1] Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 201.

[2] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsular (London: Greenhill Books, 1992), p. 104.


1 Comment

Filed under War History

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes: Channel 4

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes is a TV documentary that was broadcast in the UK by Channel 4 on Thursday 26 April. For UK viewers it can be viewed online from the 4OD service until 26 May. It appears to also be available from  National Geographic’s website; no geographical or time restrictions are mentioned.

Channel 4’s website (link in previous paragraph) describes the programme as follows:

The Plot to Bring Down Britain’s Planes examines in minute detail an invidious home-grown terrorist plot to blow up airplanes flying out of Heathrow Airport, and reconstructs in candid, gripping detail the inside story of the UK’s largest and most dangerous surveillance operation.

British airport security has been rigorously tightened and increasingly stringent restrictions have been imposed on what we can carry onto airliners. Anyone who travels by plane is well aware of the ban on drinks bottles in hand luggage; but few people know exactly why.

The reason dates back to 2006 when a group of young British men from Walthamstow, East London, planned to blow up multiple airliners, departing from Heathrow, simultaneously in mid-flight, with explosives disguised as soft drinks.

If successful, it would have potentially killed over 2000 people and crippled the world aviation industry. But, unbeknown to the terrorists, MI5 was watching.

Over the summer of 2006, with the investigation spreading from the streets of East London to al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan, the British authorities faced a nerve-shredding race trying to gather enough evidence to make arrests before the terrorists could launch their devastating attacks.

The film reveals the behind-the-scenes friction between the US and UK authorities and how American intervention forced the hand of their British partners into making premature arrests, which threw the planned operation into jeopardy.

The programme features unprecedented access to members of Counter Terror Command involved in the biggest surveillance operation since the Second World War, who have given interviews and forensic detail about the planned terror attack, plus members of the British government, including the then Home Secretary Lord Reid, Andy Hayman (Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police Service 2005 to 2008) and Peter Clarke (National Co-ordinator of Terrorist Investigations, Metropolitan Police Service 2002 to 2008), as well as Michael Chertoff, former US Homeland Security Secretary and General Michael Hayden, ex-CIA Head.

This is a comprehensive and riveting account of a race-against-time investigation to stop a major terrorist attack on Britain.

This was the biggest terror plot since 9/11 and was planned to take place just over a year after the 7/7 attacks on public transport in London, which killed 52 people, not including the four suicide bombers, and injured 770. Although the comment above mentions MI5, the British security personnel interviewed were all counter-terrorism police officers. The identities of all but the most senior were concealed.

Ahmed Ali Khan, also known as Abdullah Ahmed Ali, the leader of the plot to destroy airliners, was well educated. He was already known to the security services as a fund raiser for extremist groups. He made one of several visits to Pakistan in May 2006, where he was believed to have attended a terrorist training camp and met Rashid Rauf,  a suspected member of Al-Qaeda. Rauf had dual British-Pakistani nationality; he fled Britain for Pakistan in 2002 after police wanted to question him about the murder of his uncle.

Ali was put under 24/7 surveillance. A surveillance team requires 8-14 people, who must be able to mix into the general community. Re-enactments of the surveillance showed a young woman, talking constantly into her mobile phone, who actually had the police control room rather than her boyfriend on the other end of her lengthy call.

The selection of the terror cell was described as being ‘scientific.’ Tanvir Hussain was Ali’s deputy and another member was Umar Islam, who was 28, a little older than the others, and a convert to Islam. Assad Sarwar was described as being the quartermaster. They were ordinary with families and responsibilities and did not have criminal records. Ali and Sarwar had clearly had counter-surveillance training. Rauf was their middleman from Al-Qaeda.

Sarwar purchased large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, mostly used by hairdressers, but also a potential part of an improvised explosive device.

General Hayden, head of the CIA at the time, stated that the US regarded a domestic terror threat in the UK as being as serious as one in the USA because of the close links between the countries.

Members of the cell were observed visiting shops and paying close attention to the seals of soft drink bottles. They made numerous visits to pharmacists, buying citric acids and large syringes. They rented a flat in the Walthamstow district of London and were observed taking their rubbish some distance to dispose of it in a bin in a park rather than putting it out normally for collection. The rubbish was retrieved and it showed that the flat was a bomb factory.

This led the security services to covertly enter the flat and install cameras and listening devices. The terrorists were using the syringes to extract the contents of soft drink bottles and replace them with liquid explosives without tampering with the seals of the bottles. This indicated that their target was either a well guarded building or aircraft.

The terrorists were heard talking about the most common US holiday destinations for UK tourists. The bombs were small but would be devastating in the pressurised cabin of an aircraft. They talked of having 19 bombers, the same number as on 9/11. This meant that most had not been identified.

The police now had a dilemma: if they arrested the suspects now, the evidence might not be enough to convict them and they could be released and re-start their plot. If they were not arrested, then they might carry out their attack. There was a dispute between the UK and the USA about how long to let the plot run.

The largest and one of the most difficult surveillance operations ever mounted in the UK was undertaken, using 28 teams. One of the conspirators was followed to an internet cafe on, where he carried out a web search for seven UK to North America flights, all of which would be over the Atlantic at the same time. The plotters were overheard talking of taking their wives and children on the flights, and were making suicide videos. The Americans regarded this as an intention to carry out an act of war against them.

It was now Sunday 6 August 2006. The bombers had not yet been given the go-ahead from Pakistan to launch their operation, so the British police believed that they could wait until Friday 11 August before making their arrests.

General Hayden then paid a visit to Pakistan, which the British did not know about. On Wednesday 9 August Rauf was arrested. Hayden denied in the programme that this was an attempt to blackmail Britain into arresting the suspects but said that he ‘wasn’t unhappy at the arrest.’ Andy Hayman of the Metropolitan Police described this as a ‘breaking of trust.’

The British now feared that the conspirators could flee, explode their bombs in crowded places or attempt to board flights. There was a fear that they might have an insider at a UK airport. This led to a ban on liquids being taken on board airliners.

The police prepared to act, calling in 300 officers. Sarwar travelled to Walthamstow to meet Ali. It was decided that they had to be arrested immediately, meaning that the surveillance team had to make the arrests, something that is not normally done. The arrest team arrived shortly afterwards. None of the police officers were armed.

All the suspects were arrested. Significant evidence was found, including suicide videos. The programme stated that 12 men were convicted of terror related offences, eight of whom were directly linked to the liquid bomb plot. The main culprits received life sentences, with the minimum periods served to be 22 years for Umar Islam, 32 years for Tanvir Hussain, 36 years for Assad Sarwar and 40 years for Ahmed Ali Khan.

It didn’t mention that two trials were required; the first jury convicted them of conspiracy to murder but could not reach a verdict on the charge of conspiring to blow up aircraft. Umar Islam was convicted of only conspiracy to murder. Some other defendants were acquitted. See the websites of the Daily Telegraph (Conservative broadsheet), Guardian (Labour broadsheet), Daily Mail (Conservative tabloid), Daily Mirror (Labour tabloid) and BBC (accused by both sides of being biased towards the other).

Rauf escaped in circumstances that suggested either collusion or incompetence by the Pakistani police. The US believe that he was allowed to escape. He returned to the tribal areas, where he was reportedly killed in a drone strike. Andy Hayman suggested that he night be alive and being tortured.

A very interesting programme about the threat of this plot and the techniques of both the terrorists and the security services. There was tension between the Americans and the British over how early to make arrests. The British were annoyed that the arrest of Rauf forced them to move a little more quickly than they wanted to, but they ultimately proved to have enough evidence to convict. As usual for this type of programme, the caveat is that we are told what the security services want to tell us.

Some further information on this subject comes from CNN, which has obtained an Al-Qaeda document, thought to have been written by Rashid Rauf showing the origins of the plot. It is one of over 100 documents discovered by German cryptologists embedded inside a pornographic movie on a memory disk belonging to a suspected al Qaeda operative arrested in Berlin last year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Current affairs, Reviews