Tag Archives: siege

Charles Cowley and Humphrey Firman VC

Major-General Charles Townshend’s 6th (Poona) Division, comprised of British and Indian troops, captured Kut-al-Amara on 28 September 1915. Townshend was then ordered to press on to Baghdad. He argued that he needed two divisions to do so but obeyed his orders when his protests were overruled.[1]

The British command structure was confused because of the way in which the British ruled India. Townshend’s immediate superior, General Sir John Nixon, answered to the Indian government, comprised of British officials, in Delhi rather than to the War Office in London. Austen Chamberlain, the London based Secretary of State for India, was concerned about the lengthening lines of communication and lack of river transport in a region with poor roads and no  railways. Townshend wrote in his diary that Nixon ‘does not seem to realise the weakness and danger of his lines of communication…the consequences of a retreat are not to be imagined.’[2]

Nixon, however, claimed that marching the troops with land transport and lightening the river boats would avoid any ‘navigation difficulties.’[3] His view was accepted and the advance continued.

On 22 November Townshend’s troops encountered the Ottomans at the ruined ancient city of Ctesiphon, 22 miles from Baghdad. He believed that the enemy had 11,000 men and 40 guns but they actually had 18,000 men and 52 guns.[4] He had 13,756 men, 30 guns and 46 machine guns, not counting those on the gunboats Firefly and Comet, the armed launches Shaitan and Sumana or the four 4.7 inch guns on horse boats towed by the armed stern wheelers Sushan and Messoudieh.[5]

Townshend was forced to break off the action on 24 November. The next day his force started to retreat towards Kut, which was reached on 3 December. The lack of transport meant that the wounded, who continued to Basra suffered greatly, first travelling on unsprung 2 wheeled ox carts and then on over-crowded boats with inadequate medical facilities.[6] A. J. Barker argues in his authoritative history of the Mesopotamian Campaign that Nixon was not ‘entirely blameless’ but the [British] Indian government must be regarded as primarily responsible’ for the dreadful medical facilities.[7]

British casualties at Ctesiphon, the retreat and a further action at Umm-at-Tubal totalled 4,970: 711 killed, 3,890 wounded and 369 missing. A Turkish account says that the Ottomans lost over 9,500 men including deserters at Ctesiphon, with another giving their casualties excluding deserters as being 6,188. Their casualties at Umm-at-Tubal were 748.[8]

The British also lost the new gunboat Firefly, which was disabled when a shell hit her boiler and the old gunboat Comet, which ran aground when trying to help her. Sumana managed to rescue their crews with Ottoman soldiers already boarding the two stranded gunboats.[9]

Townshend reported initially that his division could hold out in Kut for two months, which was ‘a somewhat conservative estimate.’[10] By seizing local food supplies, putting his men on short rations and killing his animals for meat Townshend was ultimately able to hold out for nearly five months. His initial estimate forced the relief force to move before it was ready. It is strange that an officer who had made his name in a siege, that of Chitral on the North West Frontier of India in 1895, should make such a mistake.

By 24 April the situation in Kut was so desperate that a highly risky resupply mission had to be mounted. The river steamer Julnar was stripped of all unnecessary woodwork and armoured with protective plating. Manned by an all volunteer crew of Lieutenant Humphrey Firman RN, Lieutenant-Commander Charles Cowley RNVR, Engineer Sub-Lieutenant W. L. Reed RNR and 12 ratings she was to carry 270 tons of supplies to Kut.[11]

Cowley had a great knowledge of the River Tigris, having been employed by the Euphrates and Tigris Navigation Company. He had been born in Baghdad, was regarded by the Ottomans as being an Ottoman subject, so was likely to be executed if captured.[12] He had been born in Baghdad. He acted as pilot, with Firman captaining the Julnar.

She set off at 8 pm on 24 April, a dark, overcast and moonless night. Heavy artillery and machine gun fire tried to drown out the sound of her engines, but the Ottomans knew that she was coming. She soon came under rifle fire and could make no more than six knots because of a strong current. Ten miles from Kut she came under artillery fire. Two miles later a shell hit her, killing Firman and wounding Cowley, who took command. A few minutes later she struck a cable and drifted onto the right bank of the river. She was stuck, giving Cowley no choice but to surrender.[13]

Cowley was quickly separated from the rest of the crew. The Ottomans claimed first that he was found dead when the Julnar surrendered, then that he was shot whilst trying to escape. It is most likely that he was executed. He was a British subject, but he was aware that the Ottomans would execute him if he was captured.[14]

Cowley and Firman were both awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. The citation, from naval-history.net, states that:

Admiralty, 31st January, 1917.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the posthumous grant of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned officers in recognition of their conspicuous gallantry in an attempt to re-provision the force besieged in Kut-el-Amara.:

Lieutenant Humphry Osbaldeston Brooke Firman, R.N.

Lieutenant-Commander Charles Henry Cowley, R.N.V.R.

The General Officer Commanding, Indian Expeditionary Force “D,” reported on this attempt in the following words:

“At 8 p.m. on April 24th, 1916, with a crew from the Royal Navy under Lieutenant Firman, R.N., assisted by Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, R.N.V.R., the ‘Julnar,’ carrying 270 tons of supplies, left Falahiyah in an attempt to reach Kut.

Her departure was covered by all Artillery and machine gun fire that could be brought to bear, in the hope of distracting the enemy’s attention. She was, however, discovered and shelled on her passage up the river. At 1 a.m. on the 25th General Townshend reported that she had not arrived, and that at midnight a burst of heavy firing had been heard at Magasis, some 8 1/2 miles from Kut by river, which had suddenly ceased. There could be but little doubt that the enterprise had failed, and the next day the Air Service reported the ‘ Julnar ‘ in the hands of the Turks at Magasis.

“The leaders of this brave attempt, Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and his assistant – Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R. – the latter of whom throughout the campaign in Mesopotamia performed magnificent service in command of the ‘Mejidieh’ – have been reported by the Turks to have been killed; the remainder of the gallant crew, including five wounded, are prisoners of war.

“Knowing well the chances against them, all the gallant officers and men who manned the ‘ Julnar’ for the occasion were volunteers. I trust that.the services in this connection of Lieutenant H. O. B. Firman, R.N., and Lieutenant-Commander C. H. Cowley, R.N.V.R., his assistant, both of whom were unfortunately killed, may be recognised by the posthumous grant of some suitable honour.”

The British Official History of Naval Operations states that all ‘the crew were decorated.[15] The awards of the Distinguished Service Order and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal to other members of the crew  were announced on 11 November 1919.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.

Eng. Sub-Lieut. William. Louis Reed, R.N.R. For gallant and distinguished services as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

To receive the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal.

E.R.A., 2nd Cl., Alexander Murphy, R.N.V.R., O.N. (Mersey) Z3/182. For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

P.O., 1st Cl., William Rowbottom, O.N. J2953 (Ch.). For most conspicuous gallantry as a volunteer in H.M.S. “Julnar” on the 24th April, 1916, when that vessel attempted to reach Kut-El-Amarah with stores for the besieged garrison.

The award of the Distinguished Service Medal to a group of ten ratings, listed on Naval-History.net, was announced the same day. It is likely that they were the other members of the crew, but the citations for the award of the DSM are not available.

Honours for Miscellaneous Services.

To receive the Distinguished Service Medal.

A.B. Herbert Blanchard, O.N. J13427 (Po.).

A.B. William Bond, O.N. J8490 (Dev.).

Ldg. Sto. Herbert Cooke, O.N. K6470 (Ch.).

Sea. John Featherbe, R.N.R., O.N. 6973A.

Sto., Ist.Cl., George William Forshaw, O.N. K18513 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Samuel Fox, O.N. S.S.110714 (Po.).

A.B. Harry Ledger, O.N. J9539 (Dev.).

Sto., 1st Cl., Charles Thirkill, O.N. S.S. 115464 (Dev.).

A.B. Alfred Loveridge Veale, O.N. 215734 (R.F.R. Dev./B5936).

A.B. Montagu Williams, O.N. J44546 (Ch.).

The failure of Julnar’s mission meant that the only supplies available to the garrison of Kut were the tiny amounts that could be dropped by the small number of low performance aircraft available. Attempts were made to negotiate an end to the siege, but the Ottomans were not interested in British offers of gold or guns or prisoner exchanges in return for allowing the garrison of Kut to return to India or the fact that they would have to care for a large number of sick prisoners if the garrison surrendered. Townshend therefore surrendered Kut on 29 April.[16]

The Ottomans treated Townshend very well, his officers reasonably and his men very badly in captivity. During the siege 1,025 men were killed, 721 died of disease, 2,446 were wounded and 72 went missing. 247 civilians were killed and 663 wounded. Nearly 12,000 men went into captivity, of whom over 4,000 died. Their treatment eventually improved after representations from the US and Dutch Ambassadors.[17] Townshend’s reputation never recovered from his failure to inquire into the fate of his men whilst he lived in luxury in Istanbul. His performance in the campaign until Ctesiphon had actually been good: see this post.

 

 

[1] A. J. Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign (New York, NY: Enigma, 2009), pp. 91-92.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 89.

[3] Quoted in Ibid.

[4] Ibid., pp. 97-98.

[5] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). vol. iii, p. 227; F. J. Moberly, The Campaign in Mesopotamia, 1914-1918, 4 vols. (London: HMSO, 1923). vol. ii, p. 71.

[6] See D. Gunn, Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, Dsm, Rn in the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1915 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013). for the experiences of a Royal Navy seaman in Mesopotamia. Chapter 48 describes the battle and Chapters 49-60 his evacuation after being wounded.

[7] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 106.

[8] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iii, p. 229.

[9] Ibid. vol. iii, pp. 228-29.

[10] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 228.

[11] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 90.

[12] Barker, The First Iraq War, 1914-1918: Britain’s Mesopotamian Campaign, p. 212.

[13] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, pp. 90-91.

[14] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, p. 435, footnote.

[15] Corbett, Newbolt, Naval. vol. iv, p. 91, footnote 1.

[16] Moberly, Mesopotamia. vol. ii, pp. 452-57.

[17] Ibid. vol. ii, pp. 459-466.

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Lundy’s Lane and the Niagara Front in 1814

Major General Jacob Brown, commanding the US Left Division, failed to follow up the US victory at Chippawa on 5 July

1812. He allowed the defeated British, commanded by Major General Phineas Riall, to retreat to Fort George near the mouth of the River Niagara on Lake Ontario.

Brown advanced to Queenston, a few miles south of Fort George, but his force, whose largest guns were 18 pounders, was too weak to assault it. He hoped that 24 pounders might be brought from Sacket’s Harbor, but British control of the lake made this impossible. On 24 July the Americans withdrew behind the River Chippawa in order to re-supply before moving on the Burlington Heights.

Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, ordered a British force under Lieutenant Colonel John Tucker to advance from Fort Niagara along the east bank of the Niagara with the intention of threatening Brown’s lines of communication. Riall was to demonstrate on the west bank

Drummond left York for Fort George on the evening of 24 July, arriving at before daybreak the next day. He had intended to remain there for a day, but on arriving learnt that the Americans had withdrawn and that Riall had advanced after them. He therefore decided to follow with reinforcements.

Brown became aware of Tucker’s advance and decided that his best course of action was to move towards Queenston in order to force Tucker to return to Fort George. His leading unit was the 1st Brigade under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott.

The two armies met at Lundy’s Lane on the evening of 25 July. Both sides aimed to defeat the enemy, rather than to capture territory, but tactically it was a battle for the hill on which the British artillery was positioned. The action is sometimes called the Battle of Niagara Falls.

The position of the guns was crucial and the British ones inflicted heavier casualties because of their higher position. The Americans eventually took the hill and beat off a series of British counter-attacks, but were forced to withdraw overnight because of shortages of ammunition and water.

Donald Graves gives the following figures for troop strengths:

US: 2,508 infantry, 200 artillerymen and 70 cavalry totalling 2,778 men. The Left Division had 14 guns: five 18 pounders, three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. However, probably only nine were present: three 12 pounders, four 6 pounders and two 5.5″ howitzers. On 23 July the Left Division had 5,009 men, but many were in garrisons and some were guarding the camp.[1]

Anglo-Canadian: 2,226 British regulars, 852 Canadian regulars and 550 Militia totalling 3,638 men Probable artillery strength was a rocket section and eight guns: two 24 pounders, five 6 pounders and one 5.5″ howitzer.[2] Many accounts of the battle mention the rockets, but Graves says that ‘there is little evidence that these dramatic projectiles caused much damage.’[3]

Drummond had 2,200 men on the field at the start of the battle, and thought wrongly that he faced 4-5,000 Americans.[4]

Official US casualties totalled 860: 173 dead, 571 wounded and 117 missing. Graves notes that many British and Canadian historians think that the true US casualties were higher.[5] However, he argues ‘that Brown’s return was probably as accurate as it could be.’[6]

Official British casualties totalled 878: 84 dead, 559 wounded, 193 missing and 42 captured. This return includes 142 casualties for the Militia, 75 of which were missing. A later return for the Militia one gives 97 casualties, including 36 missing, so some missing may have returned to the ranks. The US claimed 169 prisoners. Graves thinks actual British casualties were probably about 800.[7]

The wounded included Brown, Scott, Drummond and Riall. Riall was captured, lost his left arm and recuperated alongside Scott, who did not serve again in the war.

Jeremy Black notes that ‘both sides claimed victory and produced conflicting contemporary accounts.’[8] Casualties were similar on both sides, but the British were entitled to claim victory on the basis of possession of the ground after the battle.

Brigadier-General Eleazer Ripley, the surviving senior US officer, did not attack again the next morning, but retreated to Fort Erie. The US no longer threatened Canada and had lost the initiative.

The British besieged Fort Erie, but an attack by Drummond on the night of 15 August was defeated: casualties were about 900 attackers and 90 defenders. Brown launched a sortie on the night of 17 September. His men were outnumbered 3,000 to 4,000, but inflicted casualties of about 600 men for the loss of 500 of their own and captured or destroyed much of the British artillery.[9] This American victory forced the British to end the siege.

4,000 US troops under Major General George Izard were moved from Plattsburg to the Niagara front, arriving on 12 October. Izard had 7,000 men, but was reluctant to attack Drummond’s defensive position. The US won a small engagement at Cook’s Mill on 18-19 October, but Drummond did not react; Izard then withdrew to the US shore of the Niagara.

On 5 November Fort Erie was abandoned and destroyed. This largely ended operations on the Niagara Front and the US threat to Canada. However, the performance of Brown’s Left Division was important for American morale and the future of the US Army. It would, according to Alfred Mahan, ‘have been a calamity…had the record for that generation closed with the showing of 1812 and 1813.’[10]

Graves describes the Left Division as being the ‘best led, best trained and most experienced military force [the USA] was to field during the war…With some truth it can be said that the birth of the modern US army occurred not at Valley Forge in 1777-1778 but along the Niagara in 1814.’[11]

[1] D. E. Graves, Where Right and Glory Lead!: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814, Rev. ed. (Toronto: Robin Brass, 1997), pp. 257-58.

[2] Ibid., pp. 261-63.

[3] Ibid., p. 131.

[4] Ibid., p. 121.

[5] Ibid., p. 196.

[6] Ibid., p. 271.

[7] Ibid., p. 195.

[8] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 156.

[9] Troop strengths and casualties in this paragraph are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, p. xxi

[10] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905), p. 169. vol. ii,

[11] Graves, Where, p. ix.

 

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The Siege of San Sebastian 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops began the siege of San Sebastian on 7 July 1813, with Sir Thomas Graham in command. The Allied army was in a position to assault the fortress by 22 July, but Graham delayed for three days, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences; the attack failed.

Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He rallied, reorganised  and reinforced the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, and launched a counter-attack. He forced the Allies to retreat after the battles of Maya and Roncesvalles on 25 July, but was defeated by Wellington in two battles at Sorauren on 28 and 30 July.

Wellington was therefore able to resume the siege of San Sebastian. Extra guns were unloaded from ships on 6 August. More arrived in three convoys between 19 and 23 August, along with 92 members of the newly formed Corps of Sappers and Miners. Previously Wellington’s only engineers had been officers, with the manual work being done by infantrymen. He now had specialist troops with which to conduct the siege.

The bombardment began on 26 August, employing the following guns:

6 x 18 pounders

24 x 24 pounders

4 x 68 pound carronades

9 x 8 inch howitzers

9 x 10 inch mortars with 6 more still to be landed

1 x 12 inch mortar

A further 15 x 24 pounders, 8 x 18 pounders and 4 x 10 inch mortars had been delivered, but they were on traversing platforms intended to be secured to a fortress. The recoil effect meant that guns being fired from temporary emplacements in a siege needed wheeled carriages. However, they had come with a supply of ammunition, and their barrels could be used to replace those of any that were damaged in the siege.[1]

A decoy attack was made on 29 August in an attempt to trick the garrison into prematurely detonating mines placed to defend the breach in the wall, but they were not fooled. The engineer officers stated on 30 August that the breach was practicable for an assault, but others feared that the wall had fallen in a manner that created many obstacles for an attacker.

Wellington decided to launch the attack at 11am on 31 August at low tide: the fortress was on the coast. The breach was, as many had thought, difficult, and the attackers struggled at first.

Graham, probably after consulting Colonel Alexander Dickson, his artillery commander, ordered the siege guns to fire in support of the attacking infantry. This was a very unusual tactic for the period, because of the risk of hitting the attackers, but it worked. The town was taken by 2pm, but the French still held the castle.

As had happened in Wellington’s previous successful sieges, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, British discipline held during the attack, but broke down afterwards. Soldiers went on drunken pillages of rape, theft and murder. The town caught fire. Some Spaniards accused Wellington of deliberately setting it alight, but Jac Weller claims that, if he had wanted to do so, he could have done so as part of the initial bombardment, resulting in fewer casualties to the attackers.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that some, including Wellington, justified the sack on the grounds that the population of San Sebastian were pro-French and had fought for the defenders.[3] However, Esdaile goes on to argue that it was ‘a disgrace – a war crime, indeed. And in political terms, of course, it was a disaster.’[4]

See this blog for accounts of the sack of San Sebastian, some in English, some Spanish.

The castle surrendered on 8 September after an artillery bombardment. Casualties in the siege were 3,700 Allied and 2,500 French killed and wounded and 1,000 French captured.[5] Sir Richard Fletcher, Wellington’s engineer commander, was amongst the dead.

Wellington was not at San Sebastian on 31 August, as he had received intelligence that Soult was planning an attack to relieve the siege. Three French divisions attacked the same number of Spanish ones defending a ridge at San Marcial, overlooking the River Bidassoa.

The first two French attacks were beaten off. The third managed to get a foothold on the ridge, but the Spanish brought up another division and forced the French back. The Spanish proved to be the equal to the French in individual combat. Casualties were 2,500 French and 1,700 Spanish. Another French attempt to cross the Bidassoa, at Vera, was also defeated, with 1,300 French and 850 Allied casualties.

Any French threat to Spain was now ended. Pamplona was still in French hands, but was starved into submission by 30 October.

Much of this account is based on Frederick Myatt’s British Sieges of the Peninsular War, which itself relies heavily on the letters of Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Frazer of the Royal Artillery.[6] They are available online at archive.org.


[1] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp. 168-69.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 307.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 469.

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 307-11.

[6] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 167-90.


[1] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp. 168-69.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 307.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 469.

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 307-11.

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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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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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