Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz – an Excerpt from A Redoubtable Citadel

The storming of the two great Spanish border citadels of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz were the first step in Wellington’s campaign of 1812.  It was essential for him to hold these fortresses, known as the keys to Spain and he pushed his army to it’s limits in order to capture them, with huge loss of life and appalling loss of discipline.

 

This is not good for the men of the third brigade of the light division because if there is one thing their unpredictable Colonel hates the most it’s storming a fortress and he is very prepared to let everybody know about it…

A Redoubtable Citadel is the fourth book in the popular Peninsular War Saga, telling the story of Paul and Anne van Daan and the officers and men of the 110th light infantry through the bloody campaigns of 1812.

It was early evening and already the skies were growing darker. All day the guns had fired, a deafening bombardment of the city walls which left men with their ears ringing even after the noise had stopped but it was becoming quieter now, with longer gaps between shots and the volunteers of the 88th Connaught Rangers stood immobile, so quiet that it was possible to hear the breathing of the next man as they waited for the order to begin the assault. They were all volunteers, this band of men, forming the Forlorn Hope, the first men over the breaches. Survival would bring glory and in some cases promotion but survival was very unlikely.
Sergeant Nathaniel Higgins was not one of the volunteers but they were his men and he ran an experienced eye over them and approved their steadiness. At the front of the line were two officers, also volunteers and neither of them from the 88th. The older of the two was a dark eyed captain of thirty-five and Higgins had been told that he was up on a charge of killing a fellow officer on a duel. Disgrace was his only future and he was probably lucky to have been offered this chance to lead these men to death or glory. The younger was no more than a lad, probably twenty, an ensign and too young for this. He was pale and sweating, but seemed calmer than Higgins would have expected, and he wondered what had driven the lad to this desperate end. Debt or a woman, Higgins supposed. Sometimes the young fools did not seem to realise what they were doing when they volunteered for this or how unlikely they were to survive. They saw it as the road to glory and quick promotion. Looking at this boy, Higgins was fairly sure he knew exactly what he was doing. Intelligent grey eyes were studying the walls.
Reaching into his coat Higgins took out his battered flask and drank, then touched the boy on the arm and offered him the rum. The young officer took it and drank with an attempt at a smile, handed it back.
“You all right, sir?” Higgins said, and the boy nodded, his eyes still on the fading bulk of the citadel of Ciudad Rodrigo, looming up in the falling darkness.
A sound broke through the silence and Higgins jumped. It was a shout, a bellow so loud that every man of the Forlorn Hope also jumped and turned, peering through the darkness. A tall figure was striding from the waiting lines towards them and he did not appear to be in the least concerned at the stir he was causing.
“Oh bloody hell,” the young ensign said, and he sounded, Higgins thought, suddenly more terrified than he had seemed to be of going over the wall.
“Mr Jackman. Am I seeing things or are you actually standing there with the Connaught Rangers when you should be back in line with your men?”
The tall figure resolved itself into an officer, fair haired and hatless with a long legged stride. Close up Higgins was aware of a pair of startling deep blue eyes which were fixed with ominous intensity on the young ensign. Jackman snapped to attention and saluted, and Higgins did the same realising that the man wore a colonel’s insignia on his red coat.
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
“Don’t give me ‘yes, sir’ you bloody idiot! What the hell are you doing here?”
“Volunteered, sir. Sorry, thought you’d know. Sergeant said commanding officers would be informed…”
“I was informed, that’s why I’m bloody well here chasing after you when I ought to be back there putting the fear of God into my lads! What made you think you had the right to volunteer for this suicidal piece of lunacy without my permission? Get your kit and get your arse back to your company before I kick you so hard you’ll scale that breach without your feet touching the ground!”
Higgins cleared his throat. “Excuse me, Colonel. But the lad is right. He’s entitled…”
“Not when he’s nineteen and being a bloody imbecile he isn’t!” the colonel said. He looked at Higgins. “You going over there, Sergeant?”
“Not with this lot, sir. With my men afterwards.”
“Good man.” Suddenly the colonel smiled. “Sorry, I should have introduced myself before, we’ve not met. Colonel Paul van Daan, 110th.”
Higgins stood to attention and saluted. The extraordinary scene was suddenly much clearer; he had heard of Colonel van Daan who had been given command of the newly formed third brigade of the light division. There were many legends in the army, most of whom, in Higgins opinion, fell woefully short of their reputations but he was already beginning to see why men spoke of Paul van Daan with something bordering on awe. The colonel looked at the captain commanding the troop.
“Name and regiment?”
“Captain James Harker, sir, of the 9th.”
“Ah. I rather see why you’re here.” Van Daan studied him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t on that disciplinary board. I hope you make it, Captain. If you do, come and see me, would you? I’ve heard good things about you and you might feel that a change of scene would do you good if you get to carry on in the army. I’m always short of good officers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Van Daan’s blue eyes shifted back to Ensign Jackman. “Captain Manson has informed me that you are in debt, Mr Jackman.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Cards?”
“Yes, sir. In pretty deep. Can’t pay. Debts of honour, sir.”
Paul van Daan studied him. “To whom? Don’t tell me any of my officers are fleecing their juniors, I’ll skin them alive!”
“No, sir. I owe most of it to an officer of the Highlanders, a major. Got into a game up at the headquarters mess…”
“Mr Jackman, when you were offered the chance to serve in my regiment, did anybody give you any information about my rules on gambling?”
Jackman’s face was visibly scarlet even through the darkness. “Yes, sir. Not to gamble above our means and never with a senior officer. Sorry, sir. But it’s not in the army regulations.”
“Fuck the army regulations, most of them are bollocks anyway, you’re in the 110th and the only regulations that matter are the ones I tell you matter! And it serves you right for going to the headquarters mess anyway, the food’s dreadful and the wine is worse. No wonder Wellington never goes near it. I will deal with the major who thinks it is a good idea to flout my rules and gamble with my juniors at a later date. If he is extremely lucky he’ll get his head blown off before I catch up with him!”
Higgins gave a choke of laughter. “They’re in reserve sir, won’t be engaged today.”
“He bloody will when I get hold of him! Captain Harker, can you manage without this young fool? Despite his evident idiocy in matters of finance, he’s a surprisingly useful officer and I’d like him to go over with his men.”
Harker was smiling. “Gladly, sir.”
“Good. Jackman, if it becomes necessary I will settle your blasted debts of honour myself and you can pay me back gradually. And if I ever see you near a card table for anything greater than a penny a point I am going to shoot you in the head and display your bloody body as a warning to others. Now piss off back to your company and be thankful that I don’t have time to kick the shit out of you as you richly deserve! Move!”

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant)

Badajoz – the last stop in our Peninsular War saga tour

Storming of Badajoz

The final day of our trip was spent in the fortress town of Badajoz, which finally fell to Wellington on 6th April 1812 after previous attempts had failed.

Walls of Badajoz

With the sounds of battle filling the air Paul looked over at Wheeler and nodded.  “All right, we’re going in.  Carter, pass the orders back quietly.  No sign of life over here, I’m hoping they’re looking the other way but they’re up there, trust me.  Let’s get those ladders to the front.”

Following their officers, the third brigade moved quickly and quietly over the ground.  At their head were the ladder parties.  Each group had been given very specific instructions about the placement of the ladders and Paul watched approvingly as they ran down towards the ditch.

He had given orders for them to pause at the edge and the men of the 110th and 112th light companies moved ahead throwing lighted bales of hay into the darkness.  The flames lit up the ditch garishly and Paul’s sharpshooters dropped into position, rifles pointed at the battlements.  There were shouts in French from the ramparts as the French realised that their section of the wall was under attack and Paul surveyed the ditches in the flare of the bales.

“Chevaux de frise,” he said in matter of fact tones.  “All right, Carl, keep up that fire.  Get the lads to take down as many as you can while we’re hanging around.  Skirmish formation – one fires and when the French fire back the other shoots at the flash.  Ten minutes of that should keep them busy.  Hammond, get me some volunteers to go down and haul those bloody things out of the way the minute the flares go out.  Preferably men who can see in the dark and have a brain.”

Above in the darkness the fire from the defenders was increasing and Paul kept a wary eye on the range as a dozen men scrambled quietly down into the blackness of the ditch armed with ropes to drag the chevaux de frise out of the way.  In the distance the noise of battle had grown louder and Paul wondered how the rest of the division was doing in the breaches.

There was a sudden explosion of light and sound and screams of pain from a section of his men and he swore softly.

“They’re onto us,” he said, and raised his voice.  “Hammond, how’s it going?”

“Nearly there, sir, three men down but they’re too late.”

“Good news!”  Paul turned to yell orders and his brigade, silent and still in the night, exploded into sudden action.  More hay bales were lit and in the flare of their light he looked down and saw the path through the ditch was clear.

“Advance!” he yelled, and the ladder parties scooped up their burdens again and continued their run under covering fire from the rifles of his sharpshooters.

He had known that the chances were high that the ladders would be too short to reach the top of the wall for most of it’s length but there was one stretch of the curtain wall which was much lower, having been previously damaged and not built up to it’s full height.  It was to the right of his position and the risk of mining was higher, but if he could get a small force up onto the ramparts there, they could hit the defenders in the flank and distract them for long enough to allow the ladder parties to scramble up.

On his orders, his men advanced in immaculate order.  The main ladders were swung up to the walls with men below steadying them to give maximum height and support, and his men swarmed up at speed.  Above him, Paul heard cries in both English and French as the first men reached the top and he realised with a spurt of triumph that the ladders had reached and that his men were fighting at the top.  Already bodies were falling and he knew some of them would be English.  With the defenders busy he turned and called out to Carl, who began his run towards the lowered section of the wall with his chosen companies.

It was going well.  Paul had the sense that his men were following orders and although many of them were coming down off the ladders, they were replaced immediately by more scrambling up.  The sounds from the breaches had faded from his consciousness now that his brigade were engaged and he waited for another ten minutes and then moved forward.

“All right lads, I’m going up.”

“Not yet, sir…”

“Out of the way, Mr Heron before I kick you.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to stand at the top waving a flag.”

There was laughter amidst the blood and fire and slaughter and he set his foot on the ladder and began to climb.  Shot rained around him but he kept his body close in and was making good progress when his foot encountered a rung which felt unexpectedly shaky and he heard, from above, a yell of warning and then cries of fear.

“It’s breaking up!”

Paul swore.  He could feel the wood giving way under the weight of men.  It often happened and he knew the danger of falling onto the bayonets of the men below him.  Pushing himself back he jumped into thin air and braced himself.  The leap took him over the heads of the men below him and back to the edge of the ditch.  He felt the impact jar through his body and he rolled over and slid back down into the ditch, feeling the bodies of injured and dead men crashing around him.  As he came to a halt something ripped into his hip and he dug his heels into the ground hard to stop his slide and found himself crushed by a press of fallen men into the edge of one of the chevaux de frise which had been dragged out of the way earlier. 

(From A Redoubtable Citadel by Lynn Bryant, Book 4 of the Peninsular War Saga)

At Badajoz, I finally felt it.  After over a week of travelling around Portugal and Spain visiting locations and potential locations for scenes in my books, I’ve seen some beautiful and amazing places and I’ve felt at times as though I could imagine my characters being there, living their lives in the shadow of death.

Badajoz is not beautiful.  It is certainly in a beautiful setting and there are quiet spots in the town where you can get the sense of the old walled fortress town which existed in 1812 when Wellington’s army, on it’s third attempt, managed to batter down the walls and fight their way in.  Badajoz is a modern town.  There isn’t the sense of history, the sense of the past preserved that you get in Ciudad Rodrigo or Elvas.  There is the sense of people going to work and having lunch and living their lives.  Badajoz is just an ordinary town in Spain with an interesting history.

Walls of Badajoz

Maybe that’s why it worked for me.  Standing beside the walls, reading the guide which explained in matter of fact words that the road I was looking at went through the breach and that during the storming it would have been piled high with rubble and with thousands of dead and wounded Allied soldiers, I felt a genuine sense of horror.  It doesn’t seem possible now that those men on both sides of the wall, fought and bled and died on ground which is now just a road going into town.

Badajoz

The horror didn’t end there.  When the Allies finally broke in leaving over a thousand dead and another three thousand wounded, heaped on top of each other in the breaches or below the walls, the English army went mad.  It was an accepted custom of war that if a citadel under siege fails to surrender and has to be taken by storming, the troops were allowed to sack the town.  This is horrific enough under any circumstances, but in 1812 the Spanish population of the town, although some were pro-French, were for the most part innocent civilians of a country allied to Britain in the fight against Napoleon.

It didn’t save them.  For almost three days the men of the British army ran riot in the town.  Murder, theft and rape were committed openly and anybody who stood in their way, including some of their own officers, was at risk of being shot down.  Eventually Wellington, appalled at the destruction and violence, set up a gallows in the square as a threat to the drunken men and the chaos died down.  But during those days it must have been hard for the Spanish to feel a sense of gratitude that their city had been liberated from the French.

I felt it more strongly in this noisy, modern town than anywhere else.  I felt sad for those men coming down off the formidable ramparts to add to the piles of dead below.  I felt a sense of the waste and the agony and the bloodshed.  Perhaps it’s because so little actually remains, it’s as if they’ve been forgotten.  Perhaps it’s because it was our last day and then I was going home and back to reality.

It took a while to pull myself out of nineteenth century Spain and Portugal on the journey home.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work and write the next book.  And of all the places I’ve visited I’m not sure I’d go back to Badajoz.  Not because it was a noisy modern town where history has vanished in places.  But because in the places where it remains, I felt indescribably sad.

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