Tag Archives: British Army

The Siege of Burgos and Wellington’s Retreat, 1812.

This post leads on from previous ones on the Battles of Salamanca and Garcia Hernandez.

Wellington was faced with a dilemma after his army liberated Madrid. Politically he could not fall back to Salamanca, but he faced the risk of being counter-attacked by a larger French forces from more than one direction.

The French had withdrawn their garrisons to Burgos and Valencia. According to Charles Esdaile they could field at least 100,000 men against the 60,000 of Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army, which might be increased to 70,000 by the addition of Spanish regulars. The guerrillas were good at harassing the enemy, but they could not resist a French counter-offensive.[1]

In late August General Bertrand Clausel advanced on Valladolid, north of Madrid, intending to relieve the isolated French garrisons of Astorga, Toro and Zamora. Wellington, seeing a chance to defeat part of the French army before it concentrated against him, moved north with 21,000 men.

Wellington had taken what Esdaile describes as ‘a serious risk’[2] by moving with such a small force, but it was politically impossible for him to take more troops from Madrid. He hoped to receive support from General Fransisco Castaños’s Spanish 6th Army, which had just taken Astorgas.

In the event, the Spanish, who were short of supplies and artillery, moved slowly, and Clausel was able to retreat, taking the garrisons of Toro and Zamora with him.

Esdaile argues that Wellington should then have gone back to Madrid. He faced two French armies, and have could looked for an opportunity to win a major victory by concentrating against one of them.[3] Instead, he decided to advance on Burgos.

Click here for a link to map of Burgos in 1812.

The city was being pillaged by guerrillas, but a well supplied French garrison of veterans occupied a strong position in Burgos Castle. Esdaile compares General Jean-Louis Dubreton, its commander, to General Armand Phillipon, who had successfully defended Badajoz in 1811 and inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers before being forced to surrender the city in April 1812.[4]

Burgos had nine heavy guns, 11 field guns and six howitzers. The garrison of 2,000 men had no permanent shelter. Frederick Myatt argues that the fortress could resist guerrillas or an army without siege guns but not an army well equipped with a siege train and engineers. [5]

However, Wellington had only three 18 pounder guns, five 24 pounder howitzers, five engineer officers, eight Royal Military Artificers, 10 assistant engineers and 81 tradesmen. His army was short of tools, although it found some French ones in the town.

Burgos was invested by the British 1st and 6th Divisions and two Portuguese brigades on 19 September. The 5th and 7th Divisions were positioned to the north-east to guard against a French attempt to lift the siege.

Wellington’s shortage of artillery meant that he had to concentrate on digging and mining, with his guns being used mainly to support assaults. An outer works, the Hornwork, was captured on the first evening of the siege, but at the cost of heavy casualties; 421 Allied compared with 198 French dead, wounded and captured according to Jac Weller.[6] Seven French field guns were taken as well as 60 prisoners.[7]

An attack on the castle’s outer wall on 22 September failed, and Wellington then concentrated on mining. The miners had to operate under fire from the castle, with little support from their own guns, and it often rained.

By 29 September the miners believed that they had reached the scarp wall and a mine was detonated that evening. The subsequent attack failed after troops became lost and failed to find the breach. In the morning it was revealed that it was not a good one, and that the French were working at shoring up their defences. The mine had been detonated too far forward, as the foundations that the miners had met were ancient ones rather than the those of the wall.

The failure damaged Allied morale; Myatt points out that the French had:

‘the reasonable hope that relief would arrive. The British…[were] feeling (perhaps rightly) that they were attempting a hopeless task with quite inadequate support’[8]

The British worked on a second mine. They also set up a battery 60 yards from the outer wall, which was ready by 1 October. The French moved their guns to deal with this new threat and destroyed the battery the same day. The damaged guns were withdrawn and a new position prepared that night. The French artillery destroyed it before the guns could be moved into it.

It was intended to detonate the second mine on 3 October, but problems with the rocky ground meant that it was not ready until the next day. British guns made a breach 60 feet wide in the wall, which was extended to 100 feet when the mine detonated. The British attack succeeded in taking the breach with relatively light casualties.

Preparations now began for an assault on the second wall, but these were hampered by French sorties and poor weather. The attack was planned for 17 October, but Wellington delayed it for a day as he thought that the breach made in the second wall was inadequate. A third mine was detonated  underneath the church of San Roman.

The French beat off the attack on 18 October. Wellington had, according to Jac Weller, 24,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops and 10,000 Spaniards around Burgos. He was now faced with 53,000 French soldiers commanded by General Joseph Souham, who had replaced Clausel. Another French army was advancing on Madrid from Valencia.

Wellington therefore called off the siege and withdrew on the night of 21 October. The French suffered 623 dead, wounded and captured during the siege, but inflicted 2,059 casualties on the besiegers.[9]

Wellington’s rearguard fought an action against French cavalry at Venta del Pozo on 23 October. He initially hoped to make a stand along the River Carrión forty miles to the north-east of Valladolid and to join up with General Sir Rowland Hill’s corps from Madrid.

A series of engagements took place between 25 and 29 October, known collectively as the Battle of Tordesillas. The French captured the bridge over the Carrión at Palencia on 25 October and the bridge over the Duero at Tordesillas on 29 October. Wellington was therefore forced to retreat and ordered Hill to do the same

Hill had been preparing to fight a battle against the advancing French, commanded by Marshal Nicholas Soult. Instead, his rearguard fought an action against the French at Aranjuez on 30 October and he abandoned Madrid the next day. Wellington and Hill combined near Salamanca on 8 November and took up a strong defensive position. The French arrived six days later.

Soult moved to the west to threaten Wellington’s communications with Ciudad Rodrigo. Marshal Auguste Marmont had tried a similar manoeuvre in June and had been defeated after being caught on the march. Soult avoided this by staying further away from Wellington.

This left Wellington with the options of attacking a force that outnumbered him 95,000 to 70,000 or retreating. He chose to retire to Ciudad Rodrigo; it started to rain heavily just after the withdrawal began.

Esdaile says that ‘the French pursuit was none too vigorous.’[10] However, the Allies still lost 6,000 killed, wounded and missing. They included Sir Edward Paget, Wellington’s newly arrived second-in-command, who was captured on 17 November. Discipline and morale broke down as the troops retreated in bad weather, echoing the retreat to Coruña in 1809.

Wellington had lost much of the ground that he had won earlier in the year. However, the Allies still held the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, known as the keys to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold these, so Wellington had a better starting point for his 1813 offensive than he had possessed in 1812.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 409.

[2] Ibid., p. 410.

[3] Ibid., p. 411.

[4] Ibid.

[5] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), p. 134.

[6] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 236.

[7] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 136-37.

[8] Ibid., p. 142.

[9] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 237-38.

[10] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 418.

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Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.

In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.

The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.

The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.

General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained.[1] He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.

Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.

Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’[2]

Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.

The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.

The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.

Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.[3]

Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.

Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.

On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.

Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.

Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon,  and also had  the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.

Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’[4]

Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.

Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.

Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.

On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.

Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.

According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere.[5] Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [p. 79]

The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.

At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.

Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.

At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.

Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.

Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.

The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.

Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:

Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’[8]

The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.

Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’[9]

Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.

The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful.[10] Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.


[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.

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Allied Liberation of Madrid, 12 August 1812.

As described in this post, on 22 July 1812 Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army defeated the French at the battle of Salamanca. On 6 August Wellington moved towards Madrid with about 60,000 men.The French and their Spanish allies had 210,000 troops in Spain, but many of these were spread around the country in garrisons. Others were in Andalusia in the south under the command of Marshal Nicolas Soult

King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean Jourdan had only 22,000 men with which to oppose Wellington. On 10 August Joseph and his royal household left Madrid for Valencia, accompanied by 15,000 civilians in a convoy of 2,000 wagons. Only a small garrison was left behind.

The poor communications between Andalusia and Madrid meant Soult did not learn of the French defeat at Salamanca until 12 August. He was forced to withdraw. He ended his siege of Cadiz on 25 August and evacuated Seville two days later, apart from a small rearguard that was quickly defeated by an Anglo-Spanish force. Soult joined with other French forces from Extremadura at Cordoba and withdrew to Granada. On 16 September he retreated to Valencia.

Wellington’s army entered Madrid on 12 August 1812 to the cheers of the population. The French had lost half the territory that they had gained in Spain since 1808 in eight months.

The Spanish could theoretically put 100,000 troops in the field, and more could be raised from the liberated territories. The British hoped for a general Spanish mobilisation against the French, but this did not happen. Charles Esdaile says that the British attributed this to ‘Spanish laziness and incompetence’[1] but argues that this view ignored the true situation in Spain and the ineffectiveness of the government.

The 1811 harvest was disastrous, and the countryside had been pillaged by a series of armies. The crowds that cheered Wellington’s armies wanted bread rather than a chance to fight the French.

Police controls imposed by the French were little relaxed. Feudalism was theoretically abolished, but landowners simply replaced feudal levies with rents. Some guerillas preferred banditry to pursuing the French or joining the regular army. There was consequently anarchy in much of the country.

The country was also in a dire financial state. The French invasion and troubles in the Spanish American colonies reduced revenue from 407.7 million reales in 1810 to 210.6 million in 1811 and 138 million in 1812. Esdaile argues that Spain was bankrupt unless it could stabilise the situation in its American colonies. Only British subsidies allowed it to continue the war.[2]

Despite the liberation of the capital of Spain and half the country, the Peninsular War was a long way from being over.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 403.

[2] Ibid., pp. 406-7.

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The Battle of Garcia Hernandez, 1812

This action took place on 23 July 1812, the day after Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army defeated Marmont‘s French at Salamanca.  A brigade of 770 heavy cavalry of the 1st and 2nd Dragoons of the King’s German Legion, commanded by General Georg Bock, supported by the 1,000 British light cavalry of General George Anson’s brigade encountered a French division of 4,000 infantry commanded by General Maximilian Foy.

The British monarch, King George III,  was also Elector of Hannover. A large part of the Hanoverian Army escaped to Britain when the French invaded their country in 1803 and formed the KGL, which was part of the British Army.

Foy’s division had not been engaged at Salamanca, and it was acting as the rearguard for the retreating French army. His cavalry fled as the KGL advanced, so he formed his infantry into squares.

A square was a square or rectangular formation, at this time normally formed by a single battalion. Infantry caught in line or column by cavalry would be massacred, but were generally safe in a square. The British, whose lines were two men deep, formed squares that were four deep. The French, whose lines were three deep, formed squares that were either three or six deep. Squares were usually hollow, but solid ones could be formed to rally troops in an emergency.

Horses would not attack the rows of bayonets offered by a square, so disciplined infantry in a square were safe from unsupported cavalry. Cavalry could defeat squares by bringing up their supporting horse artillery, which would destroy the squares by firepower. All artillery was pulled by horses. The gunners of horse artillery, which had light guns, rode on the horses or limbers, so could move faster than the heavier foot artillery, whose gunners marched.

Infantry caught in the wrong formation because of errors by commanders or because the attacking enemy was concealed by terrain or poor visibility could be massacred. This happened to British infantry that was caught in line by French and Polish cavalry coming out of the mist at Albuera in 1811. The day before at Salamanca General Maucanne observed British cavalry advancing and formed his division into squares, only to be surprised by British infantry that attacked over the crest of a ridge.

Garcia Hernandez was a small action, but it is famous because it was the only battle of the Napoleonic Wars involving the British Army in which a formed square, of either side, was broken exclusively by cavalry.

File:Garcia Hernandez.svg

Battle of Garcia Hernandez. Source: //upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e3/Garcia_Hernandez.svg

Battlefield of Garcia Hernandez today.

The KGL charged a square of the French 6th Light Infantry Regiment. It allowed the cavalry to get too close before firing, and a mortally wounded horse fell into the side of the square, creating enough of a gap for other cavalry toget inside the square. The square broke, with most of its members surrendering.

A second French square was shaken by this, and its men fled or surrendered when the German dragoons attacked it. Foy withdrew the rest of his division. According to Sir Charles Oman 200 Frenchmen were killed and 1,400 captured. The KGL lost 54 killed and 62 wounded. The reason for the high ratio of dead to wounded was the deadly effect of very short-range musket fire.[1]

The map in this post is from Wikipedia; link given in the caption. The photo was 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.


[1] C. Oman, Wellington’s Army, 1809-1814 (London: Edward Arnold, 1912), pp. 101-2.

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The Battle of Salamanca, 1812

Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army captured the French held fortress of Badajoz in April 1812 and then moved north to deal with the threat offered by Marshal Auguste Marmont‘s French army to Ciudad Rodrigo, which Wellington had taken in January. Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz  covered the northern and southern routes respectively from Portugal to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold both in order to protect its lines of communication back to Portugal.

River Tagus from the repaired stone bridge towards the position of the French wooden pontoon bridge.

On 12 May 1812 three brigades under General Sir Rowland Hill attacked and destroyed the wooden pontoon bridge that the French had built across the River Tagus at Almaraz. It replaced a stone bridge that had been destroyed during the Talavera campaign in 1809. The loss of the Almaraz bridge greatly lengthened the lines of communication between Marmont’s army in northern Spain and Marshal Nicolas Soult‘s force in the south.

The French had significantly more troops than Wellington in Spain.  According to Jac Weller, he had just over 60,000 men whilst there were over 230,000 French soldiers in Spain. However, the French forces were divided into five armies; Marmont  had 52,000 troops and Soult 54,000.[1]

Wellington had sole command and his superior supply and intelligence systems, British control of the seas and the Spanish guerrillas meant that he could manoeuvre against  either Marmont or Soult. The latter could more easily evade and join up with other French forces, such as the 60,000 men under Marshal Louis Suchet that had just taken Valencia.

Charles Esdaile notes that the defeat of Soult would result in the liberation of Andalusia, but that this would have no impact on the north. Defeat of Marmont in the north would force the French to withdraw from Andalusia.[2]

Wellington therefore determined to attack Marmont. He did not have control over Spanish troops at this stage,, but his prestige gave him enough influence to persuade the Spanish to undertake operations aimed at tying down the rest of the French forces in Spain.

An Anglo-Portuguese division under Hill was sent south to help General Ballesteros’s army in the south. The threat of invasion of from Naples by from Lord William Bentinck’s British, Neapolitan and Spanish force kept French troops in Catalonia.

Wellington advanced  on Salamanca on 13 June with 48,000 men and 54 guns. Marmont withdrew behind the River Duero, leaving behind a small force, based in three fortified convents. Wellington entered the city on 17 June but took 10 days to subdue the garrison.

Wellington then advanced on the Duero, hoping that Marmont would attack him, and waiting for the Spanish 6th Army to arrive in the French rear.  The 6th did not appear, as its siege of Astorga took longer than expected.

Marmont had only 44,000 men, but Wellington’s inaction convinced him that he could afford the take the initiative despite being slightly outnumbered.  He crossed the Duero on 15 July and forced Wellington back towards Salamanca by trying to outflank him and thus threaten his lines of communication.

Map of the Battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Salamanca_map.jpg

On 22 July the Anglo-Portuguese army was positioned along a line of low hills, the southern end of which was a hill called the Lesser Arapile. Marmont seized the Greater Arapile, a larger hill a few hundred yards to its south, and attempted to move round Wellington’s left flank. Wellington saw what was happening and re-positioned his army to avoid this.

Marmont now made a mistake. He was convinced that Wellington was too cautious and mistook these movements for a preparation to retreat. Marmont therefore ordered his army to move westwards. Wellington, who had been considering an attack, observed the French becoming strung out threw away a chicken leg that he had been eating and ordered an attack, announcing ‘By God that will do.’[3]

Thomières’s division, leading the French advance, was attacked by Pakenham’s Third Division, which appeared over the crest of a ridge. The French fell back with heavy losses, and Pakenham then advanced on the next French division, that of Maucune. It had formed itself into squares because of the threat from a British cavalry brigade under General John Le Marchant, but had then been attacked by the infantry of  Leith’s Fifth Division, Well disciplined infantry in square were secure against cavalry but had no chance in a firefight with infantry in line.

The Lesser Arapile from the Greater Arapile.

Le Marchant’s cavalry charged into Maucune’s troops as they retreated, and then attacked the third French division, commanded by Taupin. It was also routed. Three out of eight French divisions had now been destroyed.

Thomières and Le Marchant were amongst the dead, whilst Marmont and his second-in-command, General Bonnet, had both been wounded. There is some doubt over the timing of Marmont’s wound; he claimed that it was before Wellington counter-attacked, preventing him responding, whilst his enemies said that it was later.

An attack by Cole’s Fourth Division and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade on the Greater Arapile was repulsed. General Bertrand Clausel, now commanding the French army, thought that this came him an opportunity to counter-attack. Wellington saw the danger and had plenty of reserves, which he moved into position to cover the danger.

Esdaile says that the battle is ‘Known, and for good reason, as “Wellington’s Masterpiece”.’[4] He surprised Thomières and then destroyed Maucune and Brennier’s divisions with an attack in echelon. Wellington was able to mas superior numbers at the decisive point.

Weller argues that Clausel’s counter-attack in ‘conception was brilliant; it was flawlessly executed. Against any other contemporary commanders, excepting only Napoleon and Wellington, Clausel would probably have succeeded in making it a drawn battle.’[5]

The French casualties were 12,000, compared with 5,000 for the Anglo-Portuguese. the French also lost 12 guns and two eagles. Their losses might have been higher had the pursuit been more vigorous, but the pursuers lost cohesion in the night and were exhausted after days of marching and a battle on a very hot day. Some, including Weller, blame the Spanish General de España  for not garrisoning the bridge at Alba de Tormes, but Esdaile says that this had little effect.[6]

Casualties amongst senior officers were high in this battle. The deaths of Thomières and Le Marchant and the wounds suffered by Marmont and Bonnet have already been mentioned. On the French side, General Ferrey was also killed and Clausel was wounded, meaning that the three most senior French officers were wounded. The British General Lord William Beresford was badly wounded and Wellington was badly bruised by a bullet that struck his saddle holster.

The loss of Le Marchant was a particular blow to the British. He had improved the training and tactics of the British cavalry, which was prone to getting out of control when charging. The only British cavalry general of comparable skill was Henry Paget, then Lord Uxbridge and later Lord Anglesey; he had eloped with Wellington’s brother’s wife and the two consequently did not serve together until Waterloo in 1815.

The map in this post is from Wikipedia; link given in the caption. The two photos 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.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 207.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 390.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 395.

[4] Ibid., p. 397.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 223.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 397; Weller, Peninsula, p. 225.

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United States Declares War on Britain – in 1812

On 18 June 1812 US President James Madison signed a declaration of war on Britain. Madison had made a speech to Congress on 1 June, listing a series of American objections to British policy. This was followed by votes for war of 79 to 49 in the House of Representatives and 19 to 13 in the Senate.

The Americans had grievances against Britain because of the impact of Britain’s economic warfare against France on American commerce and because the Royal Navy impressed [often shortened to press] US sailors into service. Under British law, the RN was entitle to impress , or conscript, British merchant sailors. These included men who it considered to be British, but who were US citizens in American eyes.

According to N. A. M. Rodger, the problem was that most countries then defined nationality by birth, but the USA allowed it to be earned by residence. He notes that Albert Gallatin, the US Treasury Secretary, estimated that half of the 18,000 seamen serving on the deep sea US merchant fleet were British subjects. The US government did not issue official documents of citizenship. US Consuls issued unofficial ones, but they had to depend on a man’s word that he was a US citizens, and there was scope for corruption. This gave the British, short of seamen, an excuse to ignore these documents. Rodger says that recent research shows that about 6,500 US citizens were pressed into the RN, with around 3,800 of them being released. Older sources give higher numbers.[1]

France had introduced  the Continental System in November 1806, banning its allies and conquests from trading with Britain. The flaw in this strategy was that Britain controlled the seas, so British goods could be smuggled onto the Continent. Britain responded with Orders in Council in 1807, which imposed a blockade on France. Click here for copies of the documents that established these two systems.

Ironically, the British government under Lord Liverpool abolished the Orders in Council on 23 June 1812. Because of the slow speed of communication, it did not know that the USA had declared war on Britain five days earlier. Liverpool had become Prime Minister after the assassination of Spencer Perceval a month previously.

Charles Esdaile says that US exports declined by 40% between 1808 and 1812. This reduced the prices of cotton, tobacco and land. The USA had fought the undeclared Quasi-War at sea with France in 1798-1800 over the actions of French privateers. Problems returned under Napoleon’s rule, but British control of the seas meant that the British Orders in Council had far more impact on the USA than the French Continental System.

In 1807, the Americans attempted to retaliate with a trade embargo on Britain. This was replaced in 1809 with a Non-Intercourse Act that effectively allowed trade with Britain and France via third parties. Thomas Jefferson, Madison’s predecessor as President, had hoped to force British concessions by economic means. The failure of this policy led to the election of many proponents of war to Congress in 1811.

As well as the US grievances with Britain, many wanted to expand into Canada, Florida, which was controlled by Britain’s ally Spain and the Indian territories to the West. Tecumseh, the American Indian leader, was allied to Britain.

The US Army had fallen to 3,000 men in 1807, but 13 new regiments were authorised in January 1812, along with 12 ships of the line and 24 frigates for the USN. In February, State militias of 50,000 men were authorised; the number was increased to 100,000 in April. However, the US Army still had, according to Esdaile, only 7,000 men at the outbreak of war. [2]

Britain was now at war with France and the USA, but the two wars were separate conflicts. The only impact of each on the other was that British soldiers and ships could be in only one place at a time.

Russell Weigley points out that there were just 7,000 British and Canadian regulars guarding a 900 mile frontier. Reinforcements could not be sent because the Peninsular War with Napoleon was more important to Britain. The USN had only 16 ships, excluding gunboats. US defence against seaborne invasion depended on harbour fortifications and gunboats. The RN had over 600 warships, including 120 ships of the line and 100 frigates, in 1812. Around 100 were in the western Atlantic, but only one ship of the line and seven frigates were in US  .[3]


[1] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), pp. 565-66 and note 9 on p. 743.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), pp. 480-85.

[3] R. F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy (New York: Macmillan, 1973), p. 46-49.

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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.

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