March–April 1812

The French gun captain peering down the barrel of his great beast of a cannon could see enemy soldiers running across a trench, on the ridge five hundred yards or so from his position. Several nights before, the enemy had thrown up this earthen defence on the gentle rise overlooking Badajoz’s eastern wall. It was the first parallel of their siege works. Every day the gun captain and his company had been hurling heavy shot at it, trying from their platform on the city’s massive walls to flatten the insolent work of men with shovels. He watched the running figures, three of them. You could not lead running soldiers with a massive great gun in the way you did with a rifle. Instead you aimed for your target – the trench – and if you caught some member of the working parties in the process, then ça ira! But an experienced gun captain using the mental mechanism honed by years of practice and thousands of shots could judge very precisely the time required for the flight of his ball to a known range, add to it the moment’s delay of the powder burning from the touch hole through to the main charge and subtract from this the instant it would take running men to cover a given distance. The gun went off with an almighty thump.

Private Costello was aware of the whoosh of air just behind him and the splash of something on his jacket. He jumped down into the trench and turned around, ‘and beheld the body of Brooks, headless, but quivering with life for a few seconds before it fell … the shot had smashed and carried away the whole of his head. My jacket was bespattered with the brains.’ Costello and Tom Treacy had made it, James Brooks had not. Another man who had sailed in May 1809 with the 3rd Company was dead. Brooks was one of the many captured on the Coa in July 1810, but he had managed to escape the French. In the days before his death, he had told Costello several times that he had dreamt of a headless corpse.

The siege of Badajoz was already proving something harder fought and more desperate for the Rifles than their action at Rodrigo three months earlier. There were three times the number of French in Badajoz for one thing – and it was thrice the fortress for another, having thicker walls, deeper ditches, the works.

On 22 March, the day after Brooks was killed, another party of riflemen was sent forward on a hazardous duty. Some French guns across the Guadiana River to their north had been playing havoc on Wellington’s first parallel. That trench ran atop the San Miguel ridge from north to south and the French on the other side of the river were able to send flanking shots right along it. The riflemen got themselves settled and waited in cover for daybreak.

As it became lighter, they chose their targets. The sentry walking along the walls, appearing now and then in the gun embrasures. The gunner preparing one of the twenty-four-pounders for the day’s work ahead. Once the word was given, the 95th began picking off anyone who showed himself near the guns. It was long-range shooting – two hundred or more yards – much further than Gairdner and his party had been firing at Rodrigo. But with careful adjustment for distance, they soon began claiming victims, one officer noting, ‘This had the desired effect; and the field pieces were withdrawn into the fort, after some of the gunners had bitten the dust.’

There were several more missions like this in the following days. Moving close to the city’s walls under cover of darkness, riflemen would dig pits for themselves and wait for dawn when any Frenchman on the ramparts was fair game. They tried to concentrate on the gun crews and this led the enemy to close up the embrasures in front of the cannon with planks or gabbions until just before the moment of firing. One French officer tried to counter the sniping by waving his hat on a stick to draw British fire and then having a party of picked shots try to kill the marksmen. This contest went on for a whole day before the French officer himself dropped, believed to be killed by a ball from the 95th. Lieutenant Simmons, who commanded such a party, wrote in his journal, ‘I was so delighted with the good practice I was making against Johnny that I kept it up from daylight till dark with forty as prime fellows who ever pulled a trigger.’

There was another obstacle to the British plans: a strong redoubt on the San Miguel ridge called La Picurina. The task of storming it was set for the evening of 25 March and given to a brigade of the 3rd Division, but all manner of volunteers went along.

Robert Fairfoot was one of them. He’d developed a thirst for action that, on that very day, got him promoted to sergeant. Evidently there was no need for him to go. If Fairfoot kept volunteering, he’d soon be a dead sergeant. But why should a man who’d just been made up hold back and let others take the risk? That was the way they saw it. William Brotherwood, Kincaid’s old confederate in the bating of Tommy Sarsfield, went too. Four months before, he’d been promoted to corporal and, like Fairfoot, he was not a man to rest on his laurels.

The storm of the Picurina was a desperate business – much less easy than the San Francisco redoubt on 8 January – for the defenders had been able to pour fire on the British as they struggled to break in to the fort, killing or wounding half of the five hundred attackers. The surviving stormers returned to their camps in the early hours to regale their expectant messmates with the horrific tale of that night’s storm.

Sergeant Fairfoot and Corporal Brotherwood both survived. The latter, already well known to his fellow riflemen as a wag, furnished those who had not been there with a good yarn about how the Green Jacket put the redcoat in his place. Some of the 3rd Division stormers, knowing the Picurina business to be theirs, were evidently furious at the arrival of the Rifles ‘volunteers’. One of them had shouted at the riflemen to place their ladders and get out of the way. ‘Damn your eyes!’ Brotherwood had bellowed back above the din. ‘Do you think we Light Division fetch ladders for such chaps as you to climb up? Follow us.’ That was putting the lobsters down, and it was repeated among many of the 95th.

The desperate business of grinding down the city’s defences continued from one day to the next, the incessant banging of cannon filling the waking hours, giving way at night to mortars with their distinctive double bangs. There was an almost febrile air of anticipation among the British troops. Some regretted holding back at Rodrigo; the losses had not been so great and the stormers got drunk for a month on the proceeds. Others wanted to get Badajoz over with. Some officers may have thought a coming war with Russia might shorten the Iberian conflict. Alexander Cameron read in a letter from a friend in England that ‘the Russian army is 400 thousand strong on the frontiers … war commences, Boney will have too much to do to think of the Peninsula.’

It was in this atmosphere that a party of hospital convalescents marched up to the 95th’s bivouac one morning. Major O’Hare, back in good health, was in acting command of the battalion and greeted the returnees, including Sergeant Esau Jackson, who’d spent almost two years as an orderly at Belem. ‘We anticipated a scene,’ said Costello, ‘we were not deceived.’

O’Hare spotted his man: ‘Is that you, Mr Sergeant Jackson? And pray where, in God’s name, have you been for the past two years? The company have seen a little fighting during that period.’

Jackson, aware no doubt that the eyes of all were now trained on him, replied, ‘The doctors wouldn’t allow me to leave the hospital, sir.’

O’Hare looked hard at him, ‘I’m sorry for that, because all I can do is give you the choice of a court martial for absenting yourself from duty without leave, or I can have your stripes taken off.’

Jackson knew he had no choice but to surrender the sash around his waist and the stripes on his shoulder, the symbols of his rank. O’Hare turned and said loud enough for all his soldiers to hear, ‘By God, I will not have these brave fellows commanded by skulkers.’ Corporal George Ballard, another 3rd Company man, was promoted in his stead.

Had Jackson’s desire for redemption exceeded his zeal for selfpreservation, he could have volunteered for the storming party. Many of those who went were soldiers who chanced their lives because they were desperate to gain resurrection in the eyes of their comrades. Private Thomas Mayberry was one of those readying himself for the moment when men were called to assault Badajoz. Mayberry, too, had been a sergeant once, but he had been broken and flogged back in England for defrauding his company’s paybooks in order to pay off gambling debts. ‘Mayberry was held in contempt by his fellow soldiers, and ill thought of by the officers,’ according to one private. He was fed up with the taunts and abuse of messmates and superiors alike – it was not a life he wanted to carry on living.

Private James Burke was another determined to volunteer. He had been on the Forlorn Hope at Rodrigo with Fairfoot, but had neither that man’s intellect nor Mayberry’s contrition. Burke, an illiterate labourer from Kilkenny, personified the hard-fighting, fatalistic Irish in the 95th’s ranks. He was, in the damning words of one of his officers, ‘one of those wild untamable animals that, the moment the place was carried, would run to every species of excess’. In short, Burke was bound to volunteer because he had learned it was the best way to get the fight of his life, with a fuck and the devil of a good drink at the end of it.

Among the officers, too, there were many who wanted to put themselves forward. The chances of promotion were one factor, but like the men, many of them had become convinced of the doctrine, ‘The more the danger, the more the honour.’

All of this meant that when the volunteers were finally called for, ‘so great was the rage for passports to eternity in our battalion, on that occasion, that even the officers’ servants insisted on taking their place in the ranks; and I was obliged to leave my baggage in charge of a man who had been wounded some days before.’

On 5 April, Wellington’s engineers told him that their battering of the two bastions at the south-east corner of the defences, Santa Maria and La Trinidad, had shattered them to the point where they were vulnerable to assault. Fearing the approach of a relieving French column, he gave orders for the attack, but at the last minute, concerned about the height of the rampart in front of those broken works, he postponed it for twenty-four hours. The extra time would allow the gunners to pound away, to see if they could do anything to blow away this rampart in order to make the job a little easier.

The postponement of the assault meant that the picked men waited throughout 6 April, knowing their trial would come that night. Sergeant Fairfoot, having volunteered for his fourth storm in as many months, would be part of the Forlorn Hope – so would Private Burke and Ned Costello. Major O’Hare had been given the command of the storming party, to be made up of three hundred men. Esau Jackson was not among the volunteers.

Such was the zeal to take part that some curious deals had been done between Colonel Barnard and the officers of his division. Lieutenant Willie Johnston would not be put off, so a task had been invented for him, in command of a ‘rope party’ to advance with the Forlorn Hope and pull down some defences the French had erected on top of the breach. The command of that Forlorn Hope was ultimately given to Lieutenant Horatio Harvest of the 43rd on the basis of seniority alone – precisely the nonsensical solution rejected by Craufurd in January. ‘He insisted on his right as going as senior lieutenant; so over-scrupulous was he that his permitting a junior officer to occupy this post might be construed to the detriment of his honour,’ one officer of the 95th wrote years later, evidently still angry. ‘He went, and … by his too refined sense of honour deprived another officer, probably, of that promotion which would have been the consequence of going on this duty had he survived.’

The volunteers were excused normal duties on the 6th. ‘I went to the river and had a good bathe,’ wrote Bugler Green, who joined Fairfoot in the Forlorn Hope. ‘I thought I would have a clean skin whether killed or wounded.’ It was a sunny day, one in which the soldiers were able to lie about and reflect on the trials ahead. One subaltern of the 43rd chanced upon Horatio Harvest, sitting on a bank, sucking an orange. ‘My mind is made up. I am sure to be killed,’ said Harvest, without apparent emotion.

This lull before the storm played very badly with Lieutenant Thomas Bell. He had joined the 1st/95th in February, just after Rodrigo, with two other subalterns sent out from England to replace casualties. Bell was an old acquaintance of George Simmons, having served with him in the Lincolnshire Militia – they volunteered into the 95th on the same day back in April 1809. Bell had sat the war out in Shorncliffe so far. Although he had no experience of fighting whatsoever, he arrived in the regiment with a more senior rank than a hardened warrior like John Kincaid.

Sympathetic voices would have told Bell that he would have every chance to prove himself soon, just as Gairdner had quickly shown his mettle at Rodrigo. But the gallows humour and fatalistic resignation of the 95th’s soldiers only made Bell more anxious. As the siege of Badajoz wore on, Bell’s feelings of turmoil grew unbearable.

The day also gave way to some uncomfortable meditations for O’Hare. He had been wounded before, in south America, but had somehow gone through the current Peninsular campaign with only one slight wound (at Fuentes). Did that give him the mysterious aura of a survivor, or had he already pushed his luck too far?

At around 8 p.m. the stormers fell in, prior to being given a last-minute pep talk by their officers. Lieutenant Bell chose this moment to complain of feeling sick, and to abandon his men, heading back towards his tent. A double allowance of grog was doled out to each soldier, to numb them for the business ahead. O’Hare was ill at ease. Captain Jones, of the 52nd, asked him, ‘Well O’Hare what do you think of tonight’s work?’

‘I don’t know, tonight, I think, will be my last,’ said O’Hare.

‘Tut tut man! I have the same sort of feeling, but I keep it down with a drop of this.’ Jones handed O’Hare his calabash and the old Irish major took a good draught of brandy. The Light Division stormers had formed up in some quarries about a third of a mile from the Santa Maria breach. They waited a while longer, for they were not due to move forward until 10 p.m. One more chance to peer into the gloom and talk over the objective.

The Santa Maria and Trinidad bastions had their tops shattered by the incessant artillery fire. The sloped stonework bases remained intact, having been protected – such was the design of a fortress – by the earthen rampart around it. Heavy damage to the bastions, though, meant that the batteries located in them at the start of the siege had been largely disabled. Great chunks of the wall stretching about 150 yards between these two targets had also collapsed under the bombardment, being only partially screened by the ravelin that sat between the two bastions and the edge of the great ditch in front of them.

For the stormers, the line of assault would take them almost due north from the quarry for about four hundred yards until the gentle rise of the surrounding escarpment began. Another fifty or sixty yards would bring them to the top of that feature, where the ground fell away vertically in front of them, dropping about twenty feet to the floor of the ditch. There was every chance that a man jumping down into it would break his legs, so ladders and haybags would be used to help them down. The Light Division men would then have to bear slightly left and travel another ten or twenty yards, circumventing the ravelin (lest they assault it by mistake in the chaos, as Kincaid had at Rodrigo) in order to get their ladders onto the wall of the Santa Maria bastion itself. The Trinidad bastion would be attacked by stormers from the 4th Division. Simultaneously, Picton’s 3rd Division would approach the medieval castle walls at Badajoz’s north-east corner and escalade them with long ladders. The 5th Division would make a diversionary attack on the western side of the town.

General Phillipon, the governor, had made elaborate precautions to turn Wellington’s planned attacks into a bloody fiasco. Where sections of the main enciente or wall had collapsed between the bastions, a retrenchment had been thrown up, a makeshift wall made from piled-up debris to form a new obstacle right behind the old one. Along this breach and on the bastions, chevaux de frises – wooden frames with sword blades and bayonets attached – formed a prickly last line of defence. The engineers had partly flooded the ditch between the wall and outer rampart; calculating where the troops would have to go to avoid the water, they placed mines and planks with nails driven through. The men atop the ramparts would have piles of loaded muskets, grenades and stones to throw down.

The stormers moved up, with a couple of hundred riflemen of Right Wing who would provide a covering fire. O’Hare caught sight of George Simmons, the subaltern he had tutored, now one of the battalion’s most experienced officers. The men shook hands, and as he turned to part, the major told Simmons: ‘A lieutenant colonel or cold meat in a few hours.’

Shortly before 10 p.m., the four companies of the 95th’s Right Wing, under the commandof Major Alexander Cameron, began trotting forward. They were going to line the protective slope around the walls, to provide a covering fire for the stormers. Some British cannon had kept up a fire of blanks in order to deceive the garrison, but as the riflemen crawled into position on top of the escarpment, many felt sure they could see the defenders watching them and doing nothing. Both sides were holding their fire.

The rope party and Forlorn Hope came forward too now, dozens of men trotting up the incline, many carrying ladders or haybags in order to break the fall into the ditch ahead. As they came to the top of the slope, silhouetted against the sky, a couple of carcasses were thrown down by the defenders, burning with a furious intensity and illuminating walls and men alike with an unearthly flickering pink light.

‘Instantly a volley of grape-shot, canister, and small arms poured in among us as we stood on the glacis about thirty yards from the walls,’ one officer recalled. Men dropped all around as Cameron’s riflemen tried to answer the French fire. ‘What a sight! The enemy crowding the ramparts, with the French soldiers standing on the parapets … a tremendous firing now opened on us and for a moment we were stationary.’

‘I was in the act of throwing my bag when a ball went through the thick part of my thigh, and having my bugle in my left hand, it entered my left wrist and I dropped,’ wrote William Green. ‘When it entered my wrist, it was more like a six-pounder than a musket ball! It smashed the bone and cut the guides, and the blood was pouring from both wounds, I began to feel very faint.’

Sergeant Fairfoot heard Green’s cries and asked him, ‘Bill, are you wounded?’ He gave Green his flask, which still held some rum, and bid him, ‘Drink it, but I cannot assist to carry you out of the reach of shot.’ Fairfoot knew the attack would instantly falter if they stopped to help the wounded.

Some men endured the first moments of this hail of fire lying flat, and as it slackened a little, the first ladders were tipped down into the ditch where some intrepid stormers, including Ned Costello, climbed onto them. Almost as soon as he was down, Costello was flattened by the body of another who’d been shot on the ladder behind him. The group in the ditch built to a few score. They were floundering about, discovering the water, several feet deep in places they had not expected, treading on rusty nails, flinching with the impact of splinters and mines that lacerated their flesh.

Many men were falling among the covering party and reserves gathered on the rampart, even though they had not been designated for the initial assault. Second Lieutenant James Gairdner fell on this slope, pierced in a breath by musket or canister balls in his right leg, left arm and through his chin.

Those in the ditch were looking about, confused, unable to gain their bearings or see the way ahead clearly. The Forlorn Hope commander, Lieutenant Harvest, was dead. Willie Johnston, the rope party commander, had fallen seriously wounded. It was down to the NCOs or anyone with a commanding manner to try to organise the men. Sergeant Fairfoot went forward and there was a sickening crack as the musket ball hit the peak of his cap, going through it into his left temple. He dropped like a felled tree. In this hellish chaos, just like at Rodrigo, some men assaulted the ravelin in error.

Seeing Private Mayberry had already taken several wounds, one of the officers told him to go back and find himself the dressing station. ‘No going to the rear for me,’ Mayberry shouted back, ‘I’ll restore myself to my comrades’ opinion or make a finish of myself altogether.’ He fell dead moments later.

Some time had passed, perhaps as much as forty minutes, before Major O’Hare and one or two other officers got enough men together in the ditch to place ladders against the correct walls and prosecute the final phase of the assault. O’Hare got onto one of the ladders and began to climb. A musket shot to the chest stopped him, and he dropped back to the ground. Costello went up the ladders too, only to get a blow from a musket butt or some such that sent him crashing down to the bottom again. Cooke of the 43rd tried his chances: ‘Within a yard of the top, a blow deprived me of sensation and I fell. I recollect a soldier pulling me out of the water, where so many men had drowned.’

One solitary rifleman managed to get to the top of the ladders and was trying to get under the chevaux de frises, when several Frenchmen set about him: ‘Another man of ours (resolved to win or die) thrust himself beneath the chained sword blades, and there suffered the enemy to dash his brains out with the ends of their muskets.’

Those who had fallen, winded or wounded, like Costello and Cooke, now lay among piles of bodies, beaten. ‘I had lost all the frenzy of courage that had first possessed me and felt weak, my spirit prostrate,’ wrote Costello.

Among the dead and wounded bodies around me, I endeavoured to screen myself from the enemy’s shot. While I lay in this position, the fire continued to blaze over me in all its horrors, accompanied by screams, groans and shouts, the crashing of stones and the falling of timbers. For the first time in many years, I uttered something like a prayer.

Many of them, looking up at the flashes of musketry or grenades briefly lighting the dark walls and the devils who stood on top of them, recorded these grim sights and sounds as their last, as their blood pumped away into this filthy ditch and they drifted into their last sleep.

In that desperate battle of wills that was a storm, the defenders knew they were winning. ‘French troops were standing upon the walls taunting and inviting our men to come up and try again,’ wrote one British officer. The French called down in their broken English, ‘Why don’t you come into Badajoz?’ They were not just savouring their triumph; it was also a way to persuade the British with any fight left in them to get up off the ground and show themselves, so they could pour another volley onto them.

At the rear of the division, down near the quarries, a handful of bandsmen were collecting the wounded and helping them back to a dressing station, where the surgeons laboured in a candlelit tent. Bugler Green peered in to find a terrifying scene of bones being sawed, discarded limbs and anguished screaming.

I stepped up to the doctor; he saw the blood trickling down my leg, and tore off a piece of my trousers to get at the wound, which left my leg and part of my thigh bare. He then made his finger and thumb meet in the hole the ball had made, and said, ‘The ball is out, my lad!’ He put in some lint and covered the wound with some strapping.

Two or three hours after the initial attack, successive waves were still moving forward. All sense of the original grouping of storming party, reserve, and so on had been lost now, and it was just a matter of some intrepid or indeed foolish officer putting himself at the head of whoever wanted to follow. These men dropped down into the ditch, where they found hundreds of dead or dying comrades:

In the awful charnel pit we were then traversing to reach the foot of the breach, the only sounds that disturbed the night were the moans of the dying with the occasional screech from others suffering under acute agony … it was a heart-rending moment to be obliged to leave such appeals unheeded.

Half a mile away, near the city’s castle, men of the 3rd Division had moved up to the walls. They faced a forty-foot climb, as these were far higher than those of the more modern defences on the Light Division’s side. Here too men of different regiments became mingled and confused as the defenders poured fire on them. One gentleman volunteer noted in a letter home:

The men were not so eager to go up the ladders as I expected them to be … I went up the ladder and half way up I called out ‘Here is the 94th!’ and was glad to see the men begin to mount. In a short time they were all up and formed on a road just over the wall.

Picton’s attack was succeeding.

The small group of officers that marked the Light Division’s makeshift HQ stood disconsolately near the outer defensive rampart. The slaughter had gone on a good four hours before they had broken off their attack. Just then, Major FitzRoy Somerset, Wellington’s military secretary, popped out of the darkness and accosted Captain Harry Smith. Where was Colonel Barnard? Lord Wellington wanted the Light and 4th Divisions to resume their attack. ‘The devil!’ said Smith in reply. ‘Why, we have had enough; we are all knocked to pieces.’ Somerset was adamant: ‘I dare say, but you must try again.’ Smith smiled and replied, ‘If we could not succeed with two whole fresh and unscathed Divisions, we are likely to make a poor show of it now. But we will try again with all our might.’

Before the order could be passed, a ripple of shouts began spreading through the British ranks – ‘Blood and Wounds! the 3rd Division are in!’ – and as the rumour strengthened, the French fire slackened, for the defenders knew their enemies were now behind them and it was time to sauve qui peut. Badajoz had fallen.

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