The Siege of Badajoz 1812

On March 16th 1812 a British Force some 15,000 strong with a battering train of 52 guns reached Badajoz, a strongly fortified Spanish town near the frontier with Portugal.

General of Brigade Philippon commanded in Badajoz with a force of 4,742 men and although short of powder and shell, still presented a formidable task to a besieging army. He had taken every means possible to strengthen his post: mines were laid, the arch of a bridge built up to form a dam, ditches cut and filled with water, fortifications constructed, ramparts repaired and that he should have no useless mouths to feed, the inhabitants were ordered to lay up 3 months’ provisions or leave the town. Badajoz was also protected on one side by a river, 500 yards wide in places and having several outworks, notably one called the Picurina on a hill to the South East.

Such was Badajoz when Picton’s 3rd Division (which included the 45th of Foot (1st Nottinghamshire Regiment)), Lowry Cole’s 4th Division and the Light Division invested it. The rest of the army covered the siege and the 5th Division was on its way from Beira

On the night of 17th March; 2,000 men moved silently forward to guard the working parties who began to break ground 160 yards from the Picurina. The sentinels on the ramparts heard nothing in the howling wind and at daylight, so well had the volunteers from the 3rd Division laboured, 3,000 yards of communication and a parallel 600 yards long were revealed.

The next night, it was prolonged to the right and left and two batteries traced out. Wet and stormy weather harassed the workmen and flooded the trenches, but in spite of this the parallel was extended across the Seville Road, towards the river by the 21st March and three counter-batteries were commenced between Picurina and the river in order to open on San Roque, which covered the bridge and dam across the Rivillas as well as the Castle and the ground on the left of it.

On the 23rd March the floods in the trenches suspended all work, but on the 24th the 5th Division invested the place on the right bank of the river and, the weather having cleared the batteries were armed with ten 24 pounders, eleven 18 pounders and seven 5 and a quarter inch howitzers, all of which opened fire on the following day. They were replied to vigorously, but in spite of this the San Roque was silenced and the Picurina garrison so galled by the fire of the marksmen that no one dared to look over the parapet. The outward appearance of the fort showed no signs of great strength and the order was given to assault.

The ‘Fighting Third’ were, as usual, to the fore and five hundred men of that Division were assembled for the attack on the evening of the 25th. At nine o’clock, the evening being fine, flanking columns, each composed of two hundred men moved out to the right and left, while one hundred men remained in reserve in the trenches. The two flanking columns advanced simultaneously against the palisades but were held in check until the reserves were sent forward, when, in spite of a fearful fire, the stormers scrambled over the palisades and up to the ramparts. Here a desperate hand-to-hand fight raged; nearly all the officers fell and half the garrison were killed or wounded before they surrendered with the remainder. Thus the first phase of the attack was completed and the Picurina won. Three battalions were at once advanced to secure the work and the second parallel was begun.

The breaching batteries opened on the 30th March and by 6th April three breaches had been made, all of which were considered practicable. The main breach was on the right flank of La Trinidad Bastion, another in the curtain of La Trinidad and the third in the left flank of the Santa Maria Bastion. The four divisions were employed in the assault. The Light Division to attack the main breach, the fifth division to make a false attack on Pardaleras and a real attack on San Vincente, the fourth division to attack the two smaller breaches in the bastions of La Trinidad and Santa Maria and the ‘Fighting Third’ was ordered to escalade the castle.

The night of the 6th April was cloudy but fine and the assault was ordered for ten o’clock, but just before the appointed hour, a carcase fired from the town disclosed the position of the third division and drew fire upon it. It was useless to wait – and the ‘Fighting Third’ rushed forward. The troops, headed by their ladder men, crossed the bridge over the Rivillas in single file under a terrible fire and advanced up the rugged and broken ground, which led to the foot of the Castle walls. In the advance, Kempt’s Brigade formed the right and Campbell’s the left, while the 45th led the whole column.

 The light-balls (carcases) of the enemy completely exposed the position of the 3rd Division and the loss as the men swarmed up to the walls was terrible. The ladders, which proved too short, were thrown down as soon as they were raised, while stones, logs of wood and all sort of missiles made terrible havoc among the men. At length, three ladders were fairly well placed and up the first of them climbed Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. He arrived at the top before he discovered that the ladder was too short by some three feet, so pushing the head of it from the wall he called to upon his comrades to hoist him, ladder and all, upwards. Thrown up thus above the rampart he was shot by a French soldier before he had time to collect himself, two of his ribs were broken and he was unable to move either way. The next minute the ladder gave way and Macpherson fell insensible in the ditch.

Lieutenant James Macpherson of the 45th. From a print in the museum collection

Meanwhile, Ridge of the 5th managed to place a ladder where the wall was lower and an embrasure offered a chance of entry and a second ladder being placed by Cranch of the 88th the two swarmed up over the parapet followed by their men. The first man who sprang down from the ramparts into the Castle was Corporal Kelly of the 45th who killed a French Colonel as he did so. The Castle was won and the troops crowding in, in increasing numbers, speedily drove the French in desperate hand-to-hand fighting through the double gates into the town.

Macpherson, recovering and despite being wounded and bleeding, re-climbed one of the ladders into the Castle and made his way to the Keep where the French flag was flying. He seized the sentry and making his way to the flagstaff hauled down the flag and hoisted his own jacket in its place, which, bravely fluttering in the breeze at daylight testified to the gallant part the 45th had taken in the assault.

Meanwhile, the attack on the main breaches was going on with desperation, but with little success. For upwards of two hours a fearful fire of musketry and grape, together with hand grenades, bags filled with powder and every conceivable form of destructive missile had been poured over the heads of the attackers. Soon after midnight, when over 2,000 men had fallen Wellington ordered the remainder to retire and re-form for a second assault. To the South and West of the town the 5th division had been more successful having carried San Vincente by escalade and moved across the town towards the great breach.

As soon as he was sure of the Castle, Picton sent his aide-de-camp, Tyler to Wellington to report, who sent him back with orders to hold the Castle at all hazards. Feeling himself secure, Picton then sent parties to the left along the ramparts to fall on the rear of those defending the great breach and to communicate with the right attack on the bastion of La Trinidad. But the French, on retreating from the Castle had closed and strongly barricaded the gates communicating with the ramparts and to force these barriers was a work of considerable time and difficulty.

The capture of the Castle, however, coupled with the advance of the 5th Division through the streets soon convinced the French that it was useless to continue the struggle at the main breach; they gallantly rallied for some time and faced the troops taking them in the rear before breaking and fleeing by the bridge and covered way into Fort San Christoval. When the stormers mounted the great breach for the second time they accordingly found the ramparts abandoned; and the troops pouring into the unfortunate town from the three entries they had gained were quickly masters of the place. “Then followed a scene of riot and debauch unequalled in the annals of the British Army; the chains of discipline were thrown off and the whole force gave themselves up to pillage, intoxication and wanton destruction of life and property”.

Philippon, with the remnants of his brave companies, surrendered Fort San Christoval on the following morning and BADAJOZ was fully won, but at the fearful cost of 5,000 men of whom 3,500 fell in the assault.