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.


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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 and Siege Warfare

  1. Pingback: The Battle of Salamanca, 1812 | War and Security

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  3. Pingback: The Siege of San Sebastian 1813 | War and Security

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