Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz: A tale of two sieges, January-April 1812

Graham Goodlad describes the capture of two key frontier fortresses, whose fall opened Spain to the advance of Wellington’s army. 


Vimeiro, Talavera, Salamanca, Vitoria: Wellington’s Peninsular War campaigns are best known for the victories he gained in battles with the armies of Napoleonic France. Much less has been written about the assaults on cities that punctuated his progress across Spain. Siege warfare, it is fair to say, was not the area of his craft in which Wellington excelled. Yet two such actions, the taking of the Spanish border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz in 1812, played a critical role in the war.  

By taking these frontier towns before the scattered French armies could unite against him, Wellington gained a vital advantage over his opponents. The two main routes from Portugal into Spain were now open, heralding a new phase in the allied offensive. The sieges were also events of exceptional savagery, which have left a sombre record in British military history. Readers of Bernard Cornwell’s series of Peninsular War novels, or viewers of their acclaimed TV dramatisation, will remember the violent scenes that follow the fall of Badajoz in Sharpe’s Company. 

Wellington on the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo, after his army took the city on 20 January 1812. To Wellington’s right, General Sir William Carr Beresford holds the articles of the French surrender. 

Barring the way 

Ciudad Rodrigo is a small hilltop town overlooking the Águeda River. Just a few miles from the border with Portugal, and around 55 miles south-west of Salamanca, it barred the northern road that an invading army would have to take, having fallen to the French in July 1810. Badajoz is 140 miles further south. It guarded the southern route, and had been captured by Marshal Soult in March 1811. Wellington could not allow these two heavily fortified positions to remain in French hands: as long as they did, they could provide a launch pad for a renewed French invasion of Portugal. Nor could he advance into Spain without winning control of them both. 

With sizeable French armies close to both towns, Wellington had to postpone a move against them. But the situation began to shift in his favour towards the end of 1811. He learned that Marshal Marmont, the general best placed to relieve Ciudad Rodrigo, had been ordered to send 10,000 of his troops eastwards to support an operation in Valencia. Napoleon was also beginning to withdraw forces from Spain for his planned invasion of Russia. This is why – to the surprise of the garrison – Wellington decided to launch his assault in the harsh conditions of midwinter. 

Ciudad Rodrigo’s elevated position had been an obvious asset in the medieval period, with its Moorish castle perched on a high precipice. But in the age of artillery, it was far less secure. Its 32ft-high walls had been repaired after the French took the town, but they were unlikely to be proof against a determined assault. No real attempt had been made to improve them since the invention of gunpowder had revolutionised warfare. The main asset that the town – and similar fortresses in the peninsula – possessed was a deep ditch around the walls.  

The standard procedure for a besieging army was to dig a trench, known as the first parallel, to a point where emplacements for gun batteries could be excavated, some 500 yards from the walls. A further trench or sap would provide a channel for moving guns up to another parallel, dug to approximately 150 yards from the walls. The siege guns had to be dragged forward and positioned on wooden platforms. The object was to deliver a prolonged bombardment that would create breaches or openings in the base of the walls.  

Once a breach had been made, the only course of action was to take the town by means of a frontal assault. Troops approached across the glacis, an area of sloping ground, then dropped down into the ditch, before tackling the walls themselves. The rubble from the collapsed wall would form a ramp, up which the attackers would scramble to fight their way into the town. 

Wellington made up his mind to move rapidly on Ciudad Rodrigo before Marmont could bring his depleted forces to the assistance of the garrison. On 8 January 1812, the Light Division captured a redoubt built by the French on the Greater Teson, a 600ft hill overlooking the town’s northern side. Wellington had an adequate siege train consisting of thirty-four 24-pounder and four 18-pounder guns. But he lacked a specialist engineering corps, so the excavation work had to be performed by regular infantry. This was carried out by working parties in shifts. It was arduous work in the depth of winter, with frozen ground and the men constantly under fire from the fort’s guns. 

Without quarter 

Convention dictated that a garrison could surrender with no loss of honour after a ‘practicable breach’ – one that could be stormed – had been made. If they then chose to defy the besiegers, they could expect no quarter if the fortress fell. With dire consequences for his Spanish garrisons, Napoleon had, however, instructed them not to yield without enduring at least one assault. 

The onslaught was likely to be extremely costly for the besieging party. The defenders knew where the attack was coming from and would lay down a lethal obstacle course to greet the oncoming assault party. To take part in the first wave was generally regarded as suicidal, and so it was customary to call for volunteers – the so-called ‘forlorn hope’ – to undertake the task. Officers who survived could expect to be promoted.  

Above: The storming of Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington had made up his mind to move rapidly before the French commander, Marshal Auguste de Marmont (below), could bring his depleted forces to the assistance of the garrison.

Despite the extreme danger, large numbers of volunteers usually came forward to earn the honour of taking part. When the attack began, they would be preceded by a small number of engineers carrying ladders and sacks of hay, which they would drop into the ditch below the walls. This was to cushion the landing of the soldiers when they jumped down. 

Wellington’s guns battered away at the walls for six days before two breaches were made. The assault began after nightfall on 19 January in freezing conditions, the 3rd and the Light Division bearing the brunt, while subsidiary attacks distracted the defenders on the other side. The French put up a determined resistance, exploding a mine under one of the breaches, which caused heavy casualties on both sides. Heavy musket-fire was directed from all angles on to the struggling mass of soldiers below. 

The Light Division scrambled over the fallen masonry from the breach, using their bayonets against the defenders in intense hand-to-hand combat. Realising the hopelessness of their position, the garrison soon surrendered. In the aftermath, there was an orgy of looting. The following morning, drunken men were seen staggering through the streets, wearing French uniforms and carrying food and property stolen from the homes of hapless civilians. In his memoir of the campaign, Lieutenant John Kincaid of the 95th Rifles described the behaviour of the soldiers who had taken the town, and who cared little for the fact that the Spanish inhabitants were mostly opposed to the French occupiers. They ‘no sooner obtain possession,’ he wrote, ‘than they think themselves at liberty to do what they please… without considering that the poor inhabitants may nevertheless be friends and allies.’ To restore order required ‘the most extraordinary exertions on the part of the officers’. 

Ciudad Rodrigo cost the British some 1,100 casualties. The French garrison of 1,800 men was taken prisoner, with perhaps 500 killed or wounded. Also taken were 153 cannons. Marmont had expected the siege to take three weeks; in fact, it took less than two.  

A vintage plan of the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo, showing the Little Teson, where the British batteries were placed, as well as the places where the little breach (centre of northern face) and great breach (north-west corner) were made.

Into the breach 

With Ciudad Rodrigo secured, Wellington – now granted an earldom by a grateful British government – turned his attention to Badajoz. This fortress presented a more formidable obstacle. Its walls varied from 20 to 46 feet in height and were 15 feet thick. They had already withstood an earlier attempt by Wellington in May-June 1811. Badajoz was protected by the River Guadiana on its northern side and at intervals, on the high ground, by a series of small but robust forts. The garrison of 4,000 men was twice the size of the one stationed at Ciudad Rodrigo and was led by the capable and determined Major General Armand Philippon. 

Wellington did, however, receive some unintentional assistance from Napoleon, who was directing his marshals from a distance. The one thing that could have seriously disrupted Wellington’s plans would have been for Marmont and Soult to combine their forces. But, instead, the emperor ordered Marmont to threaten Ciudad Rodrigo and the Portuguese border fortress of Almeida, which had been evacuated by the French in May 1811. This enabled Wellington to proceed with the siege.  

Wellington’s men began digging their trenches on 16 March, on the south-east side of the town. They came under vigor- ous fire from the defenders’ artillery and, when they came within range, from their muskets. At one point, a French raiding party caused extensive damage to the works and seized hundreds of entrenching tools. Colonel Richard Fletcher, Wellington’s chief engineer, was wounded. Heavy rain further hampered operations. Nonetheless, on 25 March, the outlying Fort Picurina fell, enabling breaching batteries to move closer and concentrate their fire on the weakest section of the walls, between the Santa Maria and Trinidad bastions.  

An intensive effort was required from the 1,800 soldiers available for the task. Wellington’s guns poured in more than 35,000 rounds in total. By 6 April, three practicable breaches had been made. Wellington decided to launch the attack that same evening. It may be that the ensuing battle would have been less bloody if he had spent longer breaking down the town’s defences. But he believed that Soult’s army was heading to relieve the beleaguered garrison, so he could not afford to delay. 

The 4th and Light Divisions were delegated to storm the Trinidad and Santa Maria breaches, while the 5th Division was to attack the San Vincente bastion on the north-west side. Several diversionary attacks were planned, including one by General Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division, who were to scale the castle walls with ladders. The advantage of this method was the element of surprise, as ladders could be set up at any point. But they were heavy, requiring six men to carry each one, and there was a risk that they would not be long enough to reach the top of the walls. Climbing was a perilous undertaking, with the defenders hurling down heavy objects or trying to push the ladders over. 

At Badajoz the attackers faced a formidable array of improvised defences. The garrison had filled the ditches below the walls with spikes and beams studded with nails. At the top of the rubble-strewn slopes leading up to the breaches, sword blades had been hammered into logs to create a daunting last line of defence. Many of the ditches were filled with water deep enough to drown men who fell from the scaling ladders. 

Badajoz was the scene of no fewer than three sieges during the Peninsular War.

The mouth of hell 

The attack, originally planned for 7pm, was delayed for three hours. This was unfortunate, as it gave the defenders more time to prepare. Wellington’s soldiers came under intense fire from above as they made their way towards the breaches. Firebombs landed in the ditches, lighting up the night and illuminating the attackers as they surged forward. Survivors frequently made references to hell when they recalled the storming. Private Edward Costello of the 95th Rifles recalled that it was ‘as if the mouth of the infernal regions had opened to vomit forth destruction’. Over the next two hours, more than 40 attacks were made. Fresh casualties filled the ditches as the night resounded to the noise of gunfire and the cries of the wounded and dying. 

Above: Between 16 March and 6 April 1812, the third siege saw some of the conflict’s fiercest fighting, as Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army sought to capture the fortified frontier city, which had been taken in May 1811 by Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult (below)

The 3rd Division had to place their ladders against the walls while the defenders rained down shells and blazing rubbish on their heads. George Hennell, a gentleman volunteer serving with the infantry, later wrote home that at the foot of the wall, ‘the dead and wounded lay so thick that we were continually treading on them’ and many of the men were understandably reluctant to take to the ladders. But eventually some of the force managed to climb the walls and establish a foothold. Picton continued to lead despite having been shot in the groin. After a final attempt to organise a counterattack, the governor retreated to the citadel of San Cristobal where he surrendered the following morning. 

Badajoz had been taken at a cost of almost 5,000 allied casualties, 3,000 of them in the actual assault – a figure higher than in any action of the war up to this point. But these losses, heavy though they were, cannot excuse the violent events that followed. For the next two days, there was an outbreak of looting, rape, and murder on an appalling scale. Officers who tried to intervene were not merely defied but, in some cases, attacked or even killed by their own men. Eventually Wellington managed to bring the disorder under control. A gallows was erected in the cathedral square to reinforce the commander’s authority, though it was not actually used. It may be that the looters ceased their depredations out of sheer exhaustion. 

The level of brutality has been explained in different ways – as a desire for revenge after the horrors of the assault, as the result of the soldiers imbibing great quantities of stolen drink, or as the work of bad characters, who were to be found in every military unit. None of these explanations adequately accounts for the wild abandon or the extreme cruelty meted out to defenceless civilians. Some soldiers were deeply ashamed. Edward Costello vividly described the shouting of soldiers in search of liquor, the crashing in of doors and shrieks of women – sounds which ‘might have induced anyone to believe himself in the regions of the damned’. 


Wellington himself was deeply affected by the price paid by his army. Picton related that the morning after the fall of Badajoz, his normally undemonstrative chief ‘shed as copious a torrent of tears as any woman could have done on the occasion and appeared most profoundly affected by our loss’. One consequence was that the government finally consented to the creation of a professional corps of sappers and miners, so that the taking of strongpoints in future would rely less on brute force and courage and more on technical expertise. 

Although purchased at a tremendous human price, the road to Spain had been opened. Wellington’s priorities now were to ensure that the armies of Soult and Marmont did not combine, and to push on into enemy-held territory. The taking of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz made possible his advance on Salamanca, leading in July 1812 to one of the greatest battles of the war. Although final victory remained elusive, for the first time Wellington was able to threaten Napoleon’s control of Spain.

Further reading: Ian Fletcher (2003) Fortresses of the Peninsular War 1808-14 (Osprey). 

All images: Alamy