The Keys of SpainPosted on Wednesday 16th March 2016
From the middle of March until mid-April 1812 Arthur Wellesley, the newly appointed Earl of Wellington, and his Anglo Portuguese army besieged the formidable fortress of Badajoz. This was the second siege of the new year in what was at the time referred to as struggle for ‘The Keys of Spain’.
The relatively few good routes from Portugal into Spain through the mountain barriers, which formed the natural and defensible frontier, were guarded by great fortresses on their respective sides of the border. For example, Ciudad Rodrigo, which had fallen in a very short time to the British in January 1812, was already weakened, held by the French and shadowed on the Portuguese side of the border by Almeida.
With news reaching Wellington over winter that French troops were being withdrawn from the Peninsular to reinforce the Grand Armee and his own growing strength meant that the time was ripe to leave the safety of the Portuguese border for an invasion of Spain. The chosen axis of advance was from the border area around Almeida, was via Ciudad Rodrigo to Salamanca. To ensure that, while Wellington’s Army was concentrated and advancing in the north against Marshal Marmont’s Army of Portugal, another French Army further south couldn’t invade Portugal, both the Portuguese fortress of Elvas and its Spanish equivalent, Badajoz, were firmly in Allied hands. Thus this potential avenue of advance could be watched over by the relatively small force Wellington could afford to cover his flank.
After the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo the 27,000 strong allied army marched south, and on 17 March blockaded Badajoz and started the work of digging the First Parallel. These trenches dug in torrential rain were to accommodate the siege guns, which opened fire on the city’s defences. As the trenches were gradually extended towards the walls, the heavy guns were brought closer and closer to the section chosen to be breached.
Commanded by a very active officer, General Armand Philippon, the French were not content to let the siege progress unhindered. Following the previous failed siege, they worked hard to repair and improve the Badajoz’s defences by laying explosive charges and, where possible, flooding the approaches to the walls. On 19 March Philippon mounted a major raid on the allied trenches, sallying forth with 1,500 men to fill in trenches and remove the vital digging tools, all designed to set the progress of the siege back.
With the bombardment of Badajoz underway, Wellington ordered Picton’s 3rd Division to capture one of the outer defensive works, Fort Picurina. In a bloody night assault, it was captured, which in turn allowed the infantry to continue digging trenches and site batteries closer to the main walls.
Progress of the siege was, however, hampered by two factors: firstly, Wellington’s proper siege train of heavy 24-pounder guns that had been used so effectively at Ciudad Rodrigo could not be brought south across the mountains at the pace required. Consequently, older and lighter guns of lesser quality had to be relied upon. The second factor was a continuing paucity of expertise in siege works in the army, with such knowledge being confined to a handful of Engineer officers and a few Military Artificers. This led to the reorganisation and expansion of the Army’s engineering effort into the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners, fore-runners of today’s Royal Engineers.
By 5 April the gunners had battered the walls with shot and shell and created two steep ramps of rubble; these were the breaches in the defences of Badajoz and despite their steepness were declared as practicable. However, it was decided to rapidly create a third Central breach but with Marshal Soult marching to the relief of the fortress, Wellington was under pressure to have Badajoz in his hands. He could only delay twenty-four hours and the decision to mount the assault that night was made on 6 April.
Led by the forlorn Hopes of the 4th and Light Divisions, the breaches were attacked but they were time after time bloodily repulsed by the French and Wellington called them off. It must have seemed that once again the defences of Badajoz had denied the British Army success. However, ubsidiary escalade attacks by Leith’s and Picton’s Divisions succeeded in getting over the city walls and into the Castle respectively. Consequently, with the enemy behind them the French defenders at the breaches simply melted away.
In terms of dead and wounded, the Allies suffered nearly 5,000 casualties and French losses were similar but of their total a sum of 3,500 became prisoners. It had been a costly affair for both sides.
The aftermath of the siege was equally bloody and to this day remains a stain on the reputation of Wellington’s Peninsular Army. During seventy-two hours a large portion of the Army was out of control drunkenly raping and looting. A gallows had to be set up to bring the worst offenders back to their battalions but the Keys of Spain were in the hands of the Anglo Portuguese Army and the Campaign that would culminate in the great battle of Battle of Salamanca could begin.
The Keys of Spain, shot on location in the Peninsular at Almeida, where BHTV’s team of historians and members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides undertake a complete exploration of the techniques of defending fortresses and how an attacker would attempt to overcome them. This is followed by a detailed look at these techniques in practice at the two great 1812 sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz.
To commemorate the Siege of Badajoz, an event that Battlefield History TV will be filming, Napoleonic living historians will be re-enacting aspects of the great peninsular siege at Whittington Castle, near Oswestry over the Easter Bank Holiday.
Taking it Further
The Peninsular Collection - The Keys of Spain
Only £12.99 RRP £16.99
The Keys of Spain – Siege Warfare is the next DVD in The Peninsular Collection from BHTV and Pen and Sword Digital. Building on events described in the Salamanca DVD, the BHTV team explain the siege warfare tactics of the British and the French during the period and explore the build up and epic battles fought in Spain before the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812.
At the end of 1810, the defensive lines that Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, had built with great secrecy…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...
Of further interest...
95th Rifles 1812 to the PyreneesThu 25th February
Tim Saunders of Battlefield History TV argues that Britain's part in the Peninsular War is a classic example of this strategy at work. Read article...
Salamanca - The Peninsula SeriesTue 24th July
Marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Salamanca during the Peninsular War, 22 July 1812. A look at the bestselling DVD from Pen & Sword Digital and BHTV. Read article...
Unwelcome Guests in PortugalThu 9th June
David Buttery writes for Warfare Magazine about his 'Wellington Against' series. Read article...
Retreat and Rearguard Dunkirk 1940Thu 26th May
Retreat and Rearguard Dunkirk 1940, written by Jerry Murland Read article...