The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1812 Cuidad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Salamanca, Burgos, Tordesillas

At the end of 1811 Napoleon was starting to withdraw troops from Spain, mainly from his Army of the North at Valladolid, in preparation for his invasion of Russia. Marmont had to send 10,000 men from his Army of Portugal, based at Almarez, to support Marshal Louis Suchet’s assault against Valencia which was held by Spanish forces. These re-deployments enabled Wellington to prepare to assault the two fortress towns guarding the main routes from Portugal into Spain. These were Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south and on 8th January 1812 he advanced into Spain to invest the first fortress.

City walls and fortress of Cuidad Rodrigo - the castle is now a Parador

Wellington decided against the usual methodical but slow siege tactics as he had to take these strong points before Marmont recalled the troops which were marching to assist Suchet. Although he issued orders to recall his men Marmont was not quick enough and two breaches were made in Ciudad Rodrigo's city walls by the morning of 19th January. The attack went in that evening before the French could block the breaches and the fortress was taken together with the entire siege train of the French Army of Portugal which had been inside it.


At night on 8th January the Light Division captured the Reynaud Redoubt on the Greater Teson, a flat hill facing the fortress. Despite heavy fire from French troops on the town's walls work was started immediately on the first siege-trench. Construction of a second siege-trench leading on to the next hill, the Lesser Teson, began on the night of the 13th. Digging was conducted by all divisions under enemy fire, it was hard, the weather was bad and the river was icy. The French tried to stop the work one night with a raid to fill in some trenches and take tools but were driven back. On the 14th three batteries opened fire from the Greater Teson against the northern angle of the town's walls, the Convent of San Francisco was captured and on the 18th a fourth battery opened up. Two breaches had been achieved by the 19th (the Great and the Lesser) and although they were steep, they were usable. Time being at a premium Wellington ordered the assault to be made that evening.

From the city walls the Greater Teson is the lower horizon with the nearer Lesser Teson forward of it

Convent of San Francisco

The difficult approach to the Great Breach

Flats on the Lesser Teson

Location of the Great Breach - the repairs can be seen

The area of the Lesser Breach

3 Division under Picton assaulted the Great Breach and Craufurd's Light Division attacked the Lesser Breach. Each was led by a storming party of 300 men preceded by their Forlorn Hopes of an officer and 25 men. The two main assaults followed two diversionary attacks. Lieutenant Colonel O’Toole led the 2nd Caçadores and the Light Company 2/83rd Foot (Prince of Wales Volunteers) across the River Agueda by the Roman bridge. He attacked the outer works in front of the castle and captured some of the guns. The second diversionary attack was made by some of Brigadier General Dennis Pack’s Portuguese brigade which entered the main ditch on the east side and cleared the outer defences as far as the main breach.


The 94th Foot (Connaught Rangers) led the assault on the main breach and after reaching the top under a hail of fire they faced a 16 foot drop onto sharp entanglements. At the same time they were raked by grapeshot from two guns mounted on either side of the breach. It was imperative to deal with the guns immediately which the 1/88th Foot (Connaught Rangers) on the left did at bayonet-point as the 1/45th Foot (Nottinghamshire) got across the ditch and captured the second gun whilst under intense fire. Passing through them the 2/5th Foot (Northumberland) gained a foothold on the ramparts despite the French detonating a large mine directly under the main breach as they did so.

The Roman bridge and route used by Colonel O'Toole for his diversionary assault

The position where O'Toole silenced two enemy cannons which were raking the assault troops

At the Lesser Breach the Light Division broke through in a bayonet assault but Craufurd was fatally wounded at the top of the breach with a shot through his lungs. Elsewhere, the town's defences were penetrated by the troops under O'Toole and Pack. Resistance crumbled rapidly and the town fell. Serious plundering and destruction followed but it was largely halted long before dawn.

Collateral damage to the cathedral from round shot

Memorial to Guerrilla leader Julian Sanchez

Memorial to Governor Herrasti

Memorial plaque to Major General Craufurd placed by The Royal Green Jackets

British and Portuguese casualties from the start of the siege were over 1,100 killed, wounded and missing of which about half occurred during the storming. French casualties totalled around 530 killed or wounded, mostly in the assault, with a further 1,360 taken prisoner.

Wellington's billet in Cuidad Rodrigo

Cuidad Rodrigo from the south across the River Agueda


Ciudad Rodrigo was a second class fort, now it was time to move on to Badajoz. 15,000 men and a battering train of 52 guns arrived there on 16th March and the fourth Allied siege started.

Badajoz ramparts and the Citadel

Map by Jakednb

Badajoz - site of the breach at the Trinidad bastion

The investing troops comprised 3rd Division, 4th Division and the Light Division with the rest of the army covering the siege. The 5th Division was on its way from Beira. From 19th March the French made several sorties damaging the works, taking entrenching tools and causing some casualties. The siege batteries opened fire from 25th March.


The fortifications comprised eight bastions linked with 20-46 foot high walls enclosing an old castle and the town. It rose about 300 feet above a marshy plain. There were several strong defensive outposts and the French garrison comprised 5,000 troops under command of General Armand Philippon. They were helped by many citizens.


Wellington’s concern was whether he would capture Badajoz before the armies of Soult and Marmont could relieve it. They were just a few days away by 5th April when three breaches in the walls were considered practicable for storming. Wellington waited another day to reduce the ramparts further but the defenders used the time to flood the ditches, stud the slopes with blades and spikes, and lay small mines. Gaps in the ramparts were blocked and hundreds of bombs prepared.

Formidable walls

The attack went in late at night on 6th April, Easter Sunday. The Light Division was given the main breach and 4th Division the two smaller breaches. At the same time, and partly as diversions, 3rd Division was to cross the River Rivellas, and the lake created by French actions to flood its course, and take the castle by escalade (ladders). 5th Division was to take an outlying fortification and then storm another bastion by escalade whilst a small force was to take another outlying small fort. This detachment was first into action and took the post with little resistance before the main attack started with the Forlorn Hope leading the storming parties. They descended into the ditch followed by more men from the Light Division when the defenders detonated a large mine and raked the area with grapeshot and musket fire. Hundreds were killed.


4th Division also met with disaster at the ditch which was found to be flooded and many drowned as the troops pressed forward and came under withering fire. Under French taunts 40 charges were made to get through the breaches but all were unsuccessful. Nearly 2,000 men were dead, wounded or otherwise unable to fight. The dead lay in burning mounds and chaos reigned everywhere in the area of the main assault.

The walls which 3 Division scaled are to the right behind the trees

Whilst 3 Division’s attack on the castle raged Picton was wounded and command passed to Major General James Kempt. Many men drowned when crossing the flooded Rivellas and at the castle the French fought hard to prevent the escalade by dropping grenades with other explosives and rocks on the attackers. Many who fell from the ladders impaled themselves on the bayonets of their waiting comrades. After an hour or so Lieutenant Colonel Ridge, 5th Foot (Northumberland) succeeded in getting a ladder placed and his men up and over the wall. More men followed and the castle was captured but Ridge was shot as he led the way to clear the castle.

5th Division troops were also successful in the escalade at their bastion despite a similarly determined defence. Once over the wall they made for the breaches and their bugle calls of success were answered by those of 3rd Division. As these two divisions cleared the defences French morale plummeted and panic and disorder ensued.


Soon after midnight Wellington ordered the surviving troops in the main assault to re-form for a second assault. When he heard that the flanking divisions had been successful he ordered the 4th and Light Divisions back into the breaches where they now met only light resistance. By 0200 hours Badajoz was captured and Philippon with his staff surrendered the next day having fled via Las Palmas Gate across the river to Fort San Christobal.

Las Palmas gate

Roman bridge over River Guadiana

3 Division fought their way through a gate out of the castle area and into the town where they were soon joined by victorious troops fired up from their immediate ordeal. The subsequent sacking of Badajoz became infamous. By the rules of war of the time a city which supported the defenders and refused to surrender was liable to be sacked. The soldiers knew this and it took two days to bring the troops under control.

Puerta del Capitel - the gate which 3rd Division fought through to enter the city

Over 3,000 men were lost during the assault and 5,000 altogether throughout the siege. 4th Division and the Light Division had 1,000 casualties in the space of 100 yards before the breaches. Five generals were wounded and in 3rd Division 600 officers and men were placed hors-de-combat.


As officers attempted to regain order in the city a girl of 14, Juana Maria del los Dolores de Leon, and her sister from one of the better Spanish families fled to the British lines. All the bachelor officers wanted to marry her and Captain Harry Smith was successful. He went on to become knighted and appointed the Governor of Cape of Good Hope. The town of Ladysmith was named after his wife.


After these battles and sieges many of the wounded were treated at Almeida and Elvas and some who died of wounds were buried in these Portuguese fortresses. Many who died at Badajoz were buried where they fell under the city walls when they were rebuilt.

Grave of Lt John Beresford at Almeida

The British cemetery, Elvas

Memorial tablets in Elvas remembering Badajoz - "IN HELL BEFORE DAYLIGHT"

Salamanca 22nd July

After the successes at Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz Wellington was able to advance into Spain to attack French forces piecemeal. His immediate challenge was Marshal Marmont’s Army of Portugal which he aimed to prevent from being reinforced so the Allies marched from Ciudad Rodrigo on 13th June, 48,000 strong with 54 guns. They entered Salamanca on 17th June and within 10 days captured three small forts (fortified convents) in the western suburbs which Marmont had garrisoned to guard the bridge across the River Tormes.

The bridge over the River Tormes to Salamanca

Wellington hoped to fight a defensive battle from a strong covering position he had taken north of Salamanca but after a week of skirmishing Marmont withdrew to a line on the River Douro north-east of Salamanca. Wellington followed but avoided putting the Allies at a disadvantage.


Marmont was now joined by General Jean Bonnet’s division which brought his army’s strength up to 52,000. He came under pressure from King Joseph to go on the offensive which he did on 15th July. He feinted at Toro and attacked at Tordesillas so Wellington withdrew towards his defensive position at Salamanca. Allied intelligence then revealed that Marmont was being reinforced with another 13,000 men which would make the French too strong for them. Both armies marched a few hundred yards apart towards Salamanca and on 21st July they camped within a few hundred yards of each other. Wellington wanted to ensure he maintained his line of communications to Cuidad Rodrigo and only fight under advantageous conditions. Marmont was prepared to fight an engagement but not a full battle.

Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

Both armies continued marching south on 22nd July, parallel to each other. They crossed open, rolling countryside, featureless except for two strange distinctive hills in the middle of an undulating plain about nine miles long, stretching from the small village of Calvarasa de Arriba in the east, to Miranda de Azan in the west. The northern, rounded ridge is the Lesser Arapil, and the second, the Greater Arapil, is a box-shaped hill some 100 feet high about half a mile to the south of the Lesser Arapil.

Los Arapiles from the east

Marmont was trying to outstrip Wellington to be able to turn west and cut off him off from the road to Cuidad Rodrigo. At about 0800 hours Marmont’s troops clashed with a Portuguese brigade but seized the Greater Arapil. In the meantime Wellington occupied the Lesser Arapil and as both armies continued marching south-west he had the advantage of observing the French movements whilst his own dispositions were concealed.

The Lesser Arapil from the Greater Arapil with Salamanca to the north, the road to Cuidad Rodrigo runs west from the city

Marmont mistakenly thought the Allies were withdrawing towards Portugal when he saw a cloud of dust rising behind the Lesser Arapil in the direction towards Cuidad Rodrigo. In reality it was 3 Division moving forward to protect the right flank and ready to act independently if necessary. Wellington’s force halted at Los Arapiles whilst the French, marching faster, continued towards the Rodrigo road believing they would cut off the Allies. As their divisions became strung out in a 4 mile line the lead division opened up a large gap which Wellington spotted. Seizing the opportunity he galloped back to order 3 Division to attack immediately.


6000 British and Portuguese infantry with 1,100 Portuguese cavalry hit the leading French division hard and killed hundreds as the remainder scattered. The two leading French battalions lost about 1,900 men.


After issuing 3 Division’s orders Wellington galloped back over the hills to order 4 and 5 Divisions into action. The battle continued under his close control and the French divisions were dealt with despite a well executed counter attack. Marmont was wounded early in the battle, his relief was killed and General Bernard Clausel took command. Nevertheless 40,000 Frenchmen were defeated in 40 minutes and Wellington's reputation was enhanced by his skills in handling this opportunist manoeuvre battle.

Looking west from the Greater Arapil to the area of 3rd Division's attack

Marmont's initial headquarters

Area of Clausel's counter-attack from the Gretaer Arapil

Summit of the Greater Arapil

A plaque commemorates Wellington alongside other respected dignitaries in the Plaza Mayor in Salamanca. He was raised from Viscount to Earl after Cuidad Rodrigo and then to Marquess after Salamanca.


After Salamanca the city of Madrid was liberated on 12th August and the French forces driven back. The siege of the castle at the northern communication centre of Burgos began on 19th September despite having inadequate siege equipment. Meanwhile Soult and Joseph were regrouping with their forces and closing in on the allies.


Four assaults were made on the castle which failed whilst the garrison commander, General Jean-Louis Dubreton, had greater success with a number of sorties. There were 2,064 British casualties against 623 French when Wellington decided to withdraw. He abandoned the siege and withdrew quietly on the 22nd October but the French were hot on the pursuit with cavalry attacks until the Allies reached Valladolid where a stand was intended on the Douro.

Burgos Castle overlooks the city from its high vantage point

Defence works to the north are now heavily wooded


Whilst withdrawing and during a stand at Tordesillas the Allies' flank was turned when troops guarding the bridge were surprised by the French. An officer and about 55 men from the French 6th Light Infantry Regiment swam the river naked to attack the bridge guard. It must have been an awesome sight as the bridge was rapidly abandoned and the French seized it. Their brief bridgehead was thwarted when Wellington brought up reinforcements to contain it.


Remains of the old bridge

The French called the pursuit off on 6th November but now had 60,000 men along the Douro and Wellington was gradually being pressed back. He hoped to find a defensive position he could hold before resuming the offensive in 1813 but he was forced further back until he linked up with General Hill south of Madrid on the River Tagus.


There then followed a hard march back to the frontier fortresses in atrocious weather and on minimal rations. 2,000 men died en route and 1,000 were taken prisoner. Once back in Portugal preparations began for a Spring offensive.