This book deals with an epic action of the Peninsular War, which involved Wellington's infantry in some of the most savage hand-to-hand fighting of the whole Peninsular period. At appalling cost, in a nightmare battle which lasted throughout the night of the 6th April, they hacked their way over the bodies of their dead and through the forbidding medieval walls, which were held with great courage and skill by a brave French and German garrison. Loaded with illustrations and first hand accounts Ian Fletcher does a masterful job of conveying the heroism and horror of the siege. Wellington said "The capture of Badajoz affords as strong an instance of the gallantry of our troops as has ever been displayed. But I hope that I shall never again be the instrument of putting them to such a test..." If you have never read about siege warfare during the Napoleonic period than this book is a great place to start.
Siege work was loathed by the soldiers who regarded entrenching as 'navy's work'. The discomfort in hiding from the French artillery and musket fire in cramped positions was looked upon as skulking, even though it was necessary. And not only were the rank and file forced to do a task which they hated but they were expected to do it without the aid of proper engineer's tools. The spade was rendered useless by the cold rain which turned the soil into a liquid mud which ran away in streams as it was shoveled up onto the parapets. It refused to pile up and consequently gave little or no cover at all and the slime offered little resistance to the musket fire from the garrison.
The atmosphere in the trenches soon became depressive and the British troops, in trying to add a touch of bravado to the proceedings, often exposed themselves more than was necessary. After spending his first morning in the camp James McGrigor wanted to see what the men were doing in the trenches and after breakfasting with Captain Thompson of the 88th, he went to visit the trenches.
'We were soon obliged to creep on all fours as we advanced, for there were sharpshooters on the lookout who popped at every head that appeared and who, as it seems, were good marksmen, for they had killed many of our men in this way. Under the care of my friend Thompson, we returned in safety; but what was my horror when less than two hours after this, an officer of the 88th came to me with the information that our poor friend Thompson had been shot through the head while engaged with a friend in the same manner as he had but so lately been with me. An officer of another regiment had called upon him immediately after his return from the trenches with me, and had also expressed a wish to see the state of the trenches; Thompson offered to accompany him, and they proceeded but a short way, when Thompson, in bravado, stood up, looking directly at the spot from whence the shot came every now and then, believing he was out of reach, when he was struck on the head by a bullet, and fell dead.'
The sporting instinct of the British officer still found vent however; indeed a Captain in the Engineers challenged the French to prove their marksmanship whilst marking out ground for no. 7 battery. The battery was situated near a wall which was always lined with French soldiers waiting for someone to shoot at.
'He used to challenge them to prove the perfection of their marksmanship,' wrote James MacCarthy, 'by lifting up the skirts of his coat in defiance, several times in the course of his survey; and then deliberately measuring the ground by prescribed paces, driving stakes, setting spades etc.; and when he finished his task, make his conge, by again lifting the skirts of his coats and taking off his hat, amidst their ineffectual firing at him, although a soldier of our working party close to the captain was struck in the act of stooping, by a ball on the pouch belt where it crosses the bayonet belt behind. The man screamed with agony and the French laughed; but on examining him, he was found only to have been hurt by the concussion, both belts and the coat having been cut through as if with a penknife, without touching his skin.'
The attacks continued, however. Costello had just climbed from the water in the ditch and he approached one of the chevaux-de-frise:
'. . . but before reaching it I received a stroke on the breast, whether from a grenade or a stone I cannot say, but down I rolled senseless, and drenched with water, and human gore . . . I endeavored, among the dead bodies around me, to screen myself from the enemy's shot; but while I lay in this position, the fire still continued blazing over me in all its horrors, accompanied by screams, groans and shouts, and the crashing of stones and falling of timbers. I now, for the first time in many years, uttered something like a prayer.'
Young Colonel Macleod, of the 43rd, had led his men up the ruins in repeated attacks, even after one of his own men had plunged their bayonet into his back whilst falling wounded. Despite this, Macleod continued forward but was shot within a yard of the sword blades.
'Again did they attempt to pass this terrible gulf of steel and flame,' wrote Gratten, 'and again were driven back, cut down, annihilated. Hundreds of brave soldiers lay in piles upon each other, weltering in blood, and trodden down by their own comrades. The 43rd left twenty-two officers and three hundred men on the breach; two companies of the 52nd were blown to atoms by an explosion; and the 95th, as indeed every other regiment engaged, suffered in proportion.'
BRITISH SIEGES OF THE
PENINSULAR - Covers the theory behind siege warfare and includes
chapters to some of the more important sieges. Well illustrated. A
great glossary helps with the terminology unique to siege
A BOY IN THE PENINSULAR WAR - Memoirs of Robert Blakeney, a Subaltern in the 28th Regiment.
DORSETT SOLDIER - Memoirs of Sergeant William Lawrence.