The Darkest Day – How Not to Besiege a Fortified Town ?

I apologize about my long absence but I have been doing some research and work on my upcoming paper on the social side of the British army during the Napoleonic era. I though I would share this first part of a middle chapter with you guys here at Think Defence. Why may you ask well it talks about besieging and taking a city, which is something we have not seen in the modern period, and I hope we don’t.

Let any man consider this and he must admit that a British Army  bears with it an awful power. [1]


Robert Knowles would use this term in his memoirs. This quote is specifically related to the siege of Badajoz and its sacking. What happened during those few days would become one of the most infamous events in the history of the British Army.

Badajoz map


The Siege of 1812 was not the first attempt at taking Badajoz.

Two previous attempts were made in 1809 and then in 1811, both were called off due to French reinforcement column approaching from the Madrid Garrison. What we gather from accounts at the time is an interesting letter from Lord Wellington  to Colonel Beresford stating “of the difficulty of breaching”[3] This letter signifies the real difficulty of taking Badajoz.

The reason why this is stated is due to the defence nature of the fortress.

It is not simply a wall as some might think. The nature of the construction of the outer star fort provides a real challenge for any potential assailant. Nine Bastions  made up the defences of the star fort; each segment consisted of five to six and a half foot ditch between a scarp and counter scarp .

So in effect the glacis which is the slope towards the wall would obscure the ditch. In reality this type of defensive styling had not changed since the sixteenth century.



These defences consisted of cannon, musket and occasionally a primitive form of anti-personnel mine. Especially when the breach was made, French garrison Commander General Armand Phillipon would utilise Chevaux-de-Frises and planks of wood along the breaches with twelve inch spikes and cannon covering the breach exits, which would provide devastating grapeshot. The most interesting of all would be the decision to fill the ditch with water, which would be a strange throw back towards medieval fortifications.[5]  With this we can see that the original letter could foresee the sheer scale and potential casualty list that could accumulate if an assault was to take place.

The offensive nature of the British offensive in 1812 made it crucial for Badajoz to fall. Even though some historians argue that the siege may not have been necessary; it has to be recognized that this is with the benefit of hindsight.  We need to look at the British assault plan to get some context towards the movement of the siege. The plan was to construct the trench system near the St Rouge Road along to the River Guadiana. This would allow the Batteries of the Royal Horse Artillery , to attempt to form a practical breach in the fortresses defences. On the issue of defence it was not simply the French confined to the fortress itself. The British forces  had to assault fort San Christobal, Tete de Pont, Fort Pardeleras and Fort Picurina. These were commonly held by a small French force of cannon and French Voltigeur’s.

These were taken very quickly and the initial barrage on Badajozs walls began on the 25th May and it would fall to the night of the 6th of April to actually begin an effective assault on the fortress.

The assault would be made on three sections of the Fortress .

The main British assault force would assault the greater breach at the Saint Maria bastion, which consisted of the Light Division  and the 4th Division under Wellington’s direct command. Picton’s 3rd Division would use ladders to scale the Castle and create a secondary attack on the St Vincent bastion.  At the breaches we can start to see the state of mind that would affect the besiegers once inside the fortress.

A Times newspaper reporter who was embedded with the army, this was surprisingly quite common at the time, stated that: “Of all the awful sights I have ever beheld, the attack on Badajoz was the most so. It began at ten at night, when the enemy threw up a racket, and afterwards several fire-balls. As soon as our troops approached the breaches, tremendous explosions took place; and as the night was very dark, you may form to yourself some idea how great and awful was the effect.”[6]

You can begin to see the effect that the initial assault would have on the troops at the breaches due to the defensive setup that General Phillipon had constructed. It became hard for the army to effective get a lodgement within its walls and the casualties would begin to mount. “Let any man picture to himself this frightful carnage taking place in a space less than one hundred square yards.

Let him consider that the slain died not all suddenly, nor by one manner of death; that some perished by steel, some shot, some by water, that some crushed and mangled by heavy weights, some trampled upon, some dashed to pieces by the fiery explosions.” Sir William Naiper’s words sum up the mounting dead and injured at the breaches, and when you add in the French taunting: “Come into Badajoz”[7], it is initially reasonable to understand a sense of frustration and anger among the besieging troops that no progress was being made. The best way to describe this is from a Sergeant in the Forty Third light infantry division assaulting the St Maria breach. “As the battle grew hot, I caught the contagion that burned all around, and in this desperate and murderous mood advanced to the breach of Trinidad.”[8]

George Simmons would go onto show the ferocity of the French defence . “The French cannon sweeping the breaches with a most destructive fire. Lights were thrown among us….that burned most brilliantly, and made us easier to be shot at…I had seen some fighting, but nothing like this”[9] . The fighting and its aftermath would be ‘nothing likes this’.

It is common knowledge, even to the modern day period, that anger needs to be vented for psychological well being. This helps us to understand the anger of so many fallen and injured at the breach would have a huge physiological impact on the army.

Ian Fletcher agrees with my hypothesis with regards to the detrimental value of anger  but also on the combined issue of the presence of alcohol. “They had endured a miserable last 21 days in the trenches and had suffered terribly getting inside the town. Once there, however, their anger found vent and they dissolved into a dangerous mob of drunken disorderly soldiers.”[10]

Ironically it was General Picton’s troops that managed to take the castle rather than the troops at the greater and lesser breach. What is also interesting to note is that the ladders used for the siege were too small and a lot of troops had to assault by scaling the last part of the wall.

When an effective lodgement had been made, the French General Phillipon promptly surrendered once the castle was captured. The French garrison was allowed to leave un- molested. What followed became a venting of anger as described by the anonymous sergeant who said that there was “desperate and murderous mood”[11] That really described the atmosphere of the men that assaulted the breaches and the castle, and really begins to explain the reasoning for the out-pour of anger and violence.

What we can clearly see is a disproportion of violence dependent on rank and class. It may seem clichéd that people from different classes act differently in certain situations, and we can see this through firsthand accounts at the time. This point is best described is Robert Blakeney who arrived in the town in the second wave at the Saint Vincent breach.

“When the savages came to a door which had been locked or barricaded, they applied the muzzles of a dozen firelocks against the part of the door where the lock was fastened, and fired off together into a house and rooms, regardless of those inside Men, Women and children were shot for no other reason than pastime; every species of outrage was publically committed and in a manner so brutal that a faithful recital would be shocking to humanity.”[12]

The account describes the situation that he found himself in. Ironically though it was his role to actually maintain discipline and order, but if we look at the town planning map[13] the maze of streets and alley ways shows how hard it was for officers and Non- Commissioned officers to regain control as there was no central town square to funnel the troops into. This allowed basic command and control to break down.

We do have one piece of evidence from a soldier who took part in the sacking, that of Edward Costello who even admits the mistakes he made during events that night. “I must confess that I participated in the plunder, and received about 26 dollars for my share.”[14]

The money he did obtain was ironically by accident as he was injured after the assault, he describes how he became involved in the sacking. “We then turned down a street which was opposite the foregoing scene, and entered a house which was occupied by a number of men of the Third Division. One of them immediately, on perceiving me wounded, struck off the neck of a bottle of wine with his bayonet, and presented it to me, which relieved me for a time form the faintness I had previously felt.”[15]

The extract goes onto the next day but we can see that Edward Costello’s actions are credited to alcohol, which in turn attributed to his actions that night.

The sacking went on for many a few days, and this is known through the private correspondence of Captain JL Blackmen of the Coldstream Guards in letters to his parents dated the 8th April 1812.

“Should the advance we our found for him- Lord Wellington is still at Badajoz.”[16]

We begin to see the sheer scale of the problem that was created by the sacking. At the time this letter was written the main body of the army was still at Badajoz trying to stop the sacking, which was proving to be more difficult than at Ciudad Rodrigo due to the town’s natural make up. When order was eventually restored no punishments were given out, only the threat of punishment, and this is where I think the problem lies.

William Grattan would agree with my statement as he openly states his disgust. “Many men were flogged, but although the contrary has been said, none were hanged-yet hundreds deserved it.”[17] It is crucial to understand that the lack of punishment at Ciudad Rodrigo caused this problem and I suspect that William Grattan was contemplating this at the time, however  it may be the fear of  death that brought the men out of the city after they have ‘let off steam’.

This did not end the darkest day of the British army; the camp women had their part to play as well. “An officer of the king Germans Legion observed around 200 women pouring into the town when it was barley taken to have their share of the plunder and was ‘sickened when saw them coolly step over the dying, indifferent to their cries for a drop of water, and deliberately search the pockets of the dead for money, or even divest them of their bloody coats’.”[18]

The women were feared by the Spanish locals more so than the men. Mainly due to the conditions that the women faced and the possibility of becoming a widow very quickly after becoming married it was not common for women to cover the battlefield in search of loot, clothing and food to help support them-selves before they had a chance to re-marry.

So in that sense it was not just the men that took part in the sacking the armies’ women had their part to play too



[1] Lieutenant Knowles Robert. The War in the Peninsula (Stroud: Spellmount Military Memoris 2001).,pg87

[2] The Times, Monday, Apr 27, 1812; pg. 3; Issue 8588; col B

[3] Letter From Wellington to Colonel Beresford 1809

[4] Profile of the European fortress wall from the 16th century.

[5] Fletcher Ian. In the Hell Before Daylight the Siege and Storming of the Fortress of Badajoz 16thMarch- 6 April 1812 ( Gloucestershire: Spellmount Military 2008).,pg62

[6] Capture of Badajoz.The Times Saturday, Apr 25, 1812; pg. 4; Issue 8587; col D

[7] Fletcher Ian. Wellington’s Regiments: The Men and their Battles from Rolica to Waterloo 1808-1815 ( Staplehurst: Spellmount Military 1994).,pg67

[8] Anon., Memoirs of a Sergeant late in the Forty-Third Light Infantry Regiment (Kessinger Publishing 2010) .,pg168

[9] Esdaile J Charles. Peninsular Eyewitness The Experience of War in Spain and Portugal 1808-1813(Barnsley: Pen and Sword 2008) .,pg208

[10] Fletcher Ian.  Wellington’s Regiments: The Men and their Battles from Rolica to Waterloo 1808-1815 ( Staplehurst: Spellmount Military 1994).,pg69

[11] Anon., Memoirs of a Sergeant late in the Forty-Third Light Infantry Regiment (Kessinger Publishing 2010) .,pg168

[12] Boy in the Peninsular War. The services, adventures, and experiences of Robert Blakeney, subaltern in the 28th .,pg273

[13] Spanish Planning Office Town Map of Badajoz

[14] ^IBID.,pg274

[15] Rifleman Costello. The Adventures of a Soldier of the 95th (Rifles) in the Peninsular & Waterloo Campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars (Great Britain: Leonaur 2005 ).,pg273

[16] Personal Letters of Cpt JL Blackman Coldstream Guards, April 8th 1812

[17]Holmes Richard. Wellington the Iron Duke (London: Harper Collins 2003).,pg161

[18] Venning Annabel. Following the Drum, The lives of Army Wives and Daughters (London: Review 2006).,pg160


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December 17, 2013 11:54 am

Very interesting article, would be interested in reading the whole paper.

December 17, 2013 11:56 am

Very interesting article. Would be interested in reading the whole paper.

El Sid
El Sid
December 17, 2013 12:42 pm

You might want to check for typos before sending this for publication – I noticed “25th May” (March?) and “Naiper” (Napier?) among others

December 17, 2013 1:08 pm

I can’t quite see why the Badjoz should be described as the “Blackest Day” or indeed particularly infamous in the history of the British Army – we did worse in other places. Furthermore the rules of siege warfare had been known for centuries, if a town forced an assault to be made then it and its defenders could expect no quarter. That the garrison was allowed to leave and attempts were made to control the sack seem quite enlightened for the time.

Somewhere on my shelves I have an account of a fight in France in 1944. The German defenders fought hard and dirty up to the point where it was clear they would be over run and they then attempted to surrender – they were all killed by the enraged attacking infantry (whose regiment had also been at Badajoz). So on form Gen. Phillipon and his troops got off lightly.

December 17, 2013 4:22 pm

If it’s an academic paper be careful if you submit it through turnitin or another system! It might well ping this article!

December 18, 2013 8:55 am

I agree with HL, the siege was conducted in accordance with the rules of war at the time. If you decided not to surrender when it was an option, what happened next was entirely down to you.

Some would argue that the capture of Delhi in the muiny was far more ‘ruthless’, the British soldiers being a tad upset at the mutineers.

December 18, 2013 10:17 am

Obsvr one difference. It was the military that resisted, but got away scot free while the civilians that did not participate in the fighting paid.

Even then, the conduct of the soldiers was seen as unacceptable by the comments made about the sacking, so it was less a “rules of war at that time” as we can clearly see that even then the actions were looked upon less than approvingly, but more of a loss of command and control. Hindsight is always 20/20.

And Llama has a point, there were much worse incidents.

December 18, 2013 10:33 am


Off piste but

Would it be possible to number comments.

Make second (or third look) much easier

December 22, 2013 4:58 am

I agree with observer.

This seems even worse than the behavior of Soviets in Berlim. Ok that was 2 centuries later but still.

The British Army let the Enemy the French got away – not for the first time – , but the Spanish population suffered…

December 22, 2013 12:30 pm

The laws and customs of warfare from then did state that a garrison should surrender when there was a “practicable breach” in their defences or else face the city being sacked.

I am of two minds about why it stated this. First of all there is an obvious attempt to spare lives by not having to make expensive assaults on defended positions, however I think there is an important second point that we miss today; that being the social composition of the army.

Lord Wellington can be a good character reference for this to which you can look up a couple of quotes:-

1) “Our army is composed of the scum of the earth – the mere scum of the earth.”

2) “A French army is composed very differently from ours. The conscription calls out a share of every class — no matter whether your son or my son — all must march; but our friends — I may say it in this room — are the very scum of the earth. People talk of their enlisting from their fine military feeling — all stuff — no such thing. Some of our men enlist from having got bastard children — some for minor offences — many more for drink; but you can hardly conceive such a set brought together, and it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are. ”

Now consider this. The army parade formation hasn’t changed since those days, and for the general information of those who may know the NCO’s are positioned behind the troops on parade because the manual has changed little from the battle formations used 300 years ago. It was done that way so the NCO’s could shoot anybody trying to depart from the formation.

This is not the army of today. If the threat (and use) of lethal force was the required control measure for troops of the day how could you possibly expect to impose discipline when the formation is broken and troops are pouring through a breach in a wall in a killing rage with friends being shot around them? I’m pretty certain that most military figures of the time know full well that the troops would not stop when they’d killed the enemy and then found themselves in the middle of a nice town with lots to steal and drink. How could you stop them short of lethal force? And who’s going to provide that, the officers and NCO’s?

At Badajoz the officers/NCO’s tried, and several were shot by their own drunk, out of control troops. If I remember correctly at least one group ended up gathering as many women as they could under their protection and blocking the entrances to the house- for which trouble they ended up having to fight their own troops off with their pistols, fire which was returned with musket shots as the troops tried to force their way in.

Quite frankly, I think it was universally inevitable after a breach, It wasn’t just the British army that acted thus, every army did and I’m pretty certain that everybody knew full well that there was no earthly way of stopping it and I think this is why the laws of war stated that when there was a practicable breach a garrison should honourably surrender and be allowed to depart with their small arms (for their own protection?).

December 22, 2013 1:08 pm

” It was done that way so the NCO’s could shoot anybody trying to depart from the formation.”

No it wasn’t. Sergeants, as a rule, did not even carry firearms (they had a half-pike, used more as a pace stick except in extremis). Their job, in combat was to maintain the integrity of the line (or square) which meant getting people into positions to fill gaps caused by casualties and that can only be done if one can see where the gaps are and where men might be moved from – i.e. from behind the line. More Junior Sergeants would be on the flank to ensure the dressing and to call the time (for marching and reloading).

The British Infantry has always, and especially in the Napoleonic wars, been known for its steadfastness. It stood in circumstances where the infantry of all the other major powers would have broken; something Napoleon never believed until they did it to him at Waterloo. The idea that one can get that performance because there was an NCO with a single shot weapon standing behind you is fanciful. We see the same nonsense spoken about the RN in Nelson’s time, the threat of the lash would not have motivated sailors to fire three or even four shots for every two of the enemies – leadership, professionalism and pride could and did.

Note well that quote of Wellington’s, “… it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are ”. Wellington knew his troops. They were, in the main, the scrapings from the early 19th century sink estates who had joined to escape the shitty state of their lives. Drunkards and thieves they most certainly were but with good leadership and training (and Wellington was red hot on training) they became the best infantry on the planet. Not much has changed in the years since.

Peter Elliott
December 22, 2013 8:29 pm

In his private letter home after the battle Wellington emphasised how much the seige works had been hampered by the lack of a dedicated corps of sappers and miners. While he had a handful of Royal Engineer officers all the digging had to be done, in appalling wet conditions and without enough or suitable tools, by the infantry.

Following the two previous failed seiges which approached the city from the river side Wellington had determined ‘to be his own engineer’ and overuled the professional advice to (a) attack from the opposite side and (b) to press home the assault at the earliest possible date, relying on attacks at mulitple points to overhelm the defenders and compensate for the inadequate level of ‘practicability’ at the main breach.

The combination of both these factors exposed the storming troops to artillery fire on the approach to the breaches, when ideally they should have been protected by approach trenches, and the defending artillary had not been fully suppressed in and around the breaches as conventional seige warfare required.

Both these factors along with the foul waether undoubtedly contributed to the high level of casualties and the angry mood of the storming troops.

Was he wrong to do it? Maybe or maybe not. The fact is that it was a strategic location and it did fall to the assualt, which it hadn’t on the two previous occasions when he followed the professional advice of his engineers. The decision to use 4 Divisions in the assualt, (4th and Light in the main breaches and 3rd and 5th escalading different points) could only be taken becuase most of the army was present. If the seige had been allowed to go on longer a releiving force would have approached and half the army would have been detached to form a covering force. In that situation only the breach could have been stormed, and the decisive escalades by the 3rd and 5th divisions would not have happened.

Wellington was personally shattered by the effect of the storm in terms of casualties, which at over 5,000 killed were comperable to the bloodiest pitched battles of the Peninsualr War. He wrote that he hoped never again to to be the instrument of putting his men to such a test.

I can recommend Julian Rathbone’s edition of Wellington’s Peninsular Dispatches to anyone seeking an accessible isight into these issues.

Murray Paterson
Murray Paterson
January 14, 2014 9:13 am

@ Peter Elliott

Concur – exactly.

In that respect I disagree with the tone of the article. It is applying 21st Century mind set to what was an 18th Century world (albeit, early 19th – but the men were brought up in the 18th). I think that it is valuable as an over-sight – but fails in the respect as above.

Since “for ever” – the assaulting force sacked the fortress – a recompense for the death and danger. Not for the first time was an “English” army so disposed – there are many examples. This had lessened during the 18th Century – but was still an accepted “fact of warfare”, acknowledging the human frailty. I doubt that it has altered greatly … a mere 100 years ago with the assaults on the Front Lines (if every respect, identical to an assault on a fortress), atavistic ferocity was displayed by the assault parties – indeed medieval weapons were those of choice.

Wellington’s comment on the “scum” must also be seen in concept – even the well educated “middle-classes” were barely human, to his milieu – let alone the great unwashed – from the rural “sinks” ( of the yet ‘un-enclosed’ Commons), or the urban “stews”. The anomaly is illustrated best by the qualities of the soldiers of the Rifle Regiments (and Light) Companies), where these same “scum” were given a great deal more latitude for their “native” intelligence (John Moore’s precepts of training), with signal success.

Peter Elliott
January 14, 2014 10:14 am

The other telling comparison with recent events is the aspect of British Infantry paying the price with their lives for the government’s failure to provide the general in the field with adequate support arms.

This is the flip side of prioritising cap badge retention in Defence Reviews.

We rely on the improvisation and agression of our fighting soldiers to carry us through shortages in areas such as logistics, enigneering and fire support. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the required resources do evenutally appear as a UOR. Always it costs lives early in the piece.

Murray Paterson
Murray Paterson
January 14, 2014 7:28 pm

Ah – but you raise contentious subjects! I think it pays to keep in mind that the British Army of, say, 1890 was only 80,000 – yet it spanned an Empire. The BEF in 1914, all arms, was 75,000.

That said, I regret the passing of my great, great, grandfather’s regiment ( the 91st Foot, 1793), but its amalgamation is nothing new – amalgamating with the even more famous 93rd in 1880. These issues are nothing new, always accompanying a contraction after a period of war – whether that is 1815, 1860, 1919, or 1946. Indeed, the standing army (and of course, legally, there is NO standing army, it is an annual vote by Parliament), subsequently to WW2, has consistently been larger than at, historically, any peacetime period for over 200 years. The Childers’ reforms, Haldane’s reforms and all subsequent changes, all really just repeats of the same thing.

UORs are nothing new either – think of the original tank, or the Stokes mortar, or later, the “gun/how”, replacing the 75mm field gun.

The difference between the Napoleonic Wars and all those subsequent wars (even including the Great War), is that today there is an inclination to forget the PBI. Politicians and sundry experts are attracted to the big-ticket items for they can then proudly claim these as their monuments. Yet, as the West has found, it is the lack of infantry that has always tripped the plans of the politicians up, whether that is Iraq (1 & 2), or Afghanistan. All those sophisticated tanks cannot fight house to house; cannot run up the side of a mountain in 40 deg and 7,000 ft; cannot hold ground.

The greatest issue being that though the infantry weapon (is now), adequate, the calibre has proven (for forty + years), to be inadequate, yet still, nothing is done about it. To re-equip every regiment with a new weapon would cost less than one F35 – and every man in the army for less than two. Not that every man requires such.

It is “cost”.

To put this in perspective – in my day The Service operated Type 12s – at about 2 million quid apiece. Should six Type 12s in flotilla be steaming along and contact ONE modern frigate, ALL OF THEM would be sunk before they could get within gun range! The hull is the cheap part – it is the electronics that cost so much. This then applies across all services, even allowing for the increased sophistication of the base machine – electronic cost so much.

We have drifted off thread. My contention with the author is that there is only a nod to the human factor of an assault on a fortified position – whether that be medieval or Flanders’ Fields.

dave haine
dave haine
January 14, 2014 9:30 pm

The old truism:

‘In war, possession is nine-tenths of the law and the Infantry the bailiffs men.’