The Storm of Ciudad Rodrigo

January 1812

Not long after dark, Lieutenant Colonel Colborne led his column forward. They had spent the afternoon of that 8 January hidden from view behind a hill called the Greater Teson. It was a miserable business having to hang around in this piercing wind, shuffling feet in the snow, trying to keep warm, but this band of killers could not go to work until after sunset. The Teson mount shielded them from Ciudad Rodrigo, which it also overlooked, making it the most obvious place from which to batter the walls. There was an obstacle, though, to digging trenches on this ground, and Colborne had been sent to deal with it. The French, having approached by this same angle when they took Rodrigo in 1810, did not intend to lose the city through the same weakness in its defences. They had created the Redoubt of San Francisco, a makeshift fort outside the city’s formal defences, near the summit of the ridge that could sweep the Teson with fire. Three pieces of artillery had been placed in the redoubt for this purpose. Colborne had been given the mission of storming San Francisco so that regular approaches might begin.

A night attack was often a risky business, so Colborne tried to prepare it as carefully as he could. Just before dusk, an officer of the 95th had been sent to lie on the crown of the Teson ridge and to remain there as a guide to the stormers, so they did not lose their way. He had also prearranged signals for the assault. Just under four hundred men had been assigned to the task – two companies each from the 43rd, 52nd and 95th. They had marched several hours before resting up, about noon, obscured by the hill from the gaze of the French garrison. It had been bitterly cold during the hours that they waited, the men crouching under their greatcoats, gnawing on a biscuit or smoking pipes. Now that the attack was being launched, they had a further nine hundred yards or so to make their approach.

Corporal Robert Fairfoot had joined the party. His company was not one of those told off for the task, but somehow he had managed to get himself along. Like many of the others, he had grown bored in winter quarters and was anxious for a fight. Captain Crampton and his 8th Company of the 1st/95th were in the lead, his riflemen walking briskly behind him, the breath from their mouths billowing in the cold night air. Coming onto the flat top of the Teson, ahead and slightly to their right they could see Rodrigo silhouetted in the dark, the spire of its cathedral towering over the defences of the city itself. Directly ahead, the San Francisco – a glacis or earthen rampart had been thrown up around the stone-faced gun emplacements and firing points. The cries of the townsfolk, barking of dogs and thumping of feet filled their straining ears.

Closer now – not much more than fifty yards – and Colborne said to Crampton, ‘Double-quick!’ Word was passed and the men began jogging along. The footfalls became louder, as did the rattling of canteens, rifle slings and pouches. The shout of ‘Qui vive?’ came soon enough from one of the French sentries, but in the seconds that it took between the call and some shots ringing out, four of Colborne’s companies had thrown themselves up against the glacis. They presented their weapons, and an awesome fire of almost three hundred British firelocks erupted, sweeping the redoubt’s roof just twenty or thirty yards away. Fairfoot and the others reloaded, firing repeatedly.

Most of the seventy or eighty men inside kept their heads down, knowing they would soon be taken off by the hail of bullets ripping the night air. On a prearranged signal – a shout of ‘England and Saint George!’ – two companies carrying ladders, one each from the 43rd and 52nd, rushed forward, placed them up against the redoubt’s walls and began climbing. One or two grenades were lobbed over the walls by the terrified defenders, but most fled to the guard house, where they surrendered a little later. A good few French stragglers were bayoneted. The storm had been a complete success.

Craufurd and some other officers were watching from elsewhere on the ridge. Lieutenant Colonel Barnard, standing a little distance away, was so thrilled that he started jumping up and down, cheering. The general, not quite seeing who it was, snapped, ‘What’s that drunken man doing?’ Moments later the first French prisoners were brought back to the Light Division’s main position. They had been comprehensively robbed – even of their clothing – and a naked French colonel was presented to Craufurd. ‘Yer honour, I’ll lend him my greatcoat if ye’ll allow me,’ said Tom Crawley. Craufurd thanked him: ‘You are a very good rifleman, let him have it.’ Colborne, a relative newcomer to the 52nd, had made a brilliant debut as commanding officer. The 95th had been infused with some fresh blood too and they were keen to make their mark in the siege operations which would now begin in earnest.

Fairfoot returned to his company, as the digging of siege trenches began in earnest, right on top of the Teson ridge. This drew fire from the garrison’s heavy guns and each day now became a slugging match between the two sides’ gunners, the working parties of infantry toiling away at night to shore up or advance the trenches. The eventual aim would be to progress them down the forward slope of the Greater Teson and onto the Little Teson, a smaller feature between it and the walls. Here the Royal Artillery would be able to blast away at the town’s walls from little more than two hundred yards, hammering them down bit by bit with twenty-four-pound and eighteen-pound shot. Once breached, storming parties would be formed to rush through the openings and take Rodrigo.

All of this lay ahead of the riflemen, though, as they congregated about their tin pots brewing up some hot tea on the morning of 9 January. O’Hare’s old company, the 3rd, in which Fairfoot and Costello still served, had been placed under the command of Captain John Uniacke. Like O’Hare, Uniacke was an Irishman, but while O’Hare was famed for ugliness and ripe age, Uniacke enjoyed his men’s renown for his handsome looks and athletic prowess. He was no son of the Ascendancy gentry, though – on the contrary, his family circumstances were among the most desperate of any officer in the regiment. A Catholic from Cloyne in County Cork, Uniacke carried the hopes of his entire family on his broad shoulders. His mother had long been a widow, and her survival and that of John’s eight siblings depended on his remittances from the Peninsula. He had sailed with the others in May 1809. After a turn with the 3rd Battalion he was promoted to captain back in the 1st – the extra pay allowed him to send home anything up to £100 each year. If Uniacke thirsted for advancement, it was only so that his mother might have food on the table and his brothers and sisters some sort of education.

The contrast between Uniacke and Second Lieutenant James Gairdner was also pronounced. When that young subaltern eventually reached the battalion, on 13 January, he exhibited the whey face, soft hands and general demeanour of a know-nothing. Uniacke had been serving in the Peninsula for two and a half years, but his new second lieutenant – for it was to the 3rd Company that the Johnny Newcome was sent – had joined the 95th in August 1810 and spent the next eighteen months sitting it out in Shorncliffe, polishing up his dancing, drawing and mathematics. Gairdner was wealthy, too, if not fabulously so: his family enjoyed considerable material success in Atlanta, Georgia. They straddled the Atlantic: while James’s aunt and her branch remained in England, his father carried on his business in America without difficulty. Georgia was one of the states least enthused by the Revolution of 1775; the family politics were liberal and generally supportive of reconciliation between the brother peoples.

Each night working parties had to dig away in the shallow topsoil of the Teson, completing the first parallel in the days following the capture of the San Francisco redoubt. The defenders used many cannon to fire on these working parties, so the whole business was conducted at night: the clanking of picks and shovels was interrupted by the cracks of the heavy guns and the whump of the heavy mortars, lofting explosive shells into the air over the British excavators. Having established their own batteries on the Teson, Wellington’s gunners would fire back by day, trying to aim their shells through the narrow embrasures in the walls used by the enemy for firing. A bull’s eye was a shot that smacked the French cannon right on the mouth, hurling it from its carriage or rendering it useless in some other way; less fortunate hits would eliminate some of the gunners serving these pieces.

For the French garrison of about two thousand men, any initial confidence about the outcome of the siege began to falter. Their engineers knew that Rodrigo was not nearly as strong as Almeida, just across the border, or many of the other fortresses in Spain. Its walls were not thick enough and their layout was poorly thought out. At the corner nearest the Teson ridges, the walls curved virtually through a right angle, leaving it vulnerable to assault: this arrangement made it harder for them to concentrate their fire in its defence, but easier for the enemy. A purpose-built place of war laid out during the eighteenth century would be hexagonal or even octagonal, with bastions on each of the points, allowing each stretch of wall to be swept by flanking fire from two such strongpoints. Often a further element of defence was added in front of the enciente or main wall, particularly if the bastions were far enough apart for any firing by the defenders to become less effective at the mid-point between them. In such instances, a triangular strongpoint called a ravelin was added in front of the main wall. It stood like a little island in the ditch around the fortress, giving more opportunities to fire at any attacker, creating yet more lethal intersections with the bastions’ fields of fire. The walls and strongpoints were all surrounded by a great embankment. Anyone approaching such a place would walk up a grassy slope which fell away vertically in front of them, about fifty or sixty feet before the main wall. This outer defensive skin both protected the base of the fortress’s wall from besiegers’ artillery batteries, and created a deep ditch or obstacle for any storming parties trying to rush in.

The men defending Ciudad Rodrigo were a mixed bunch – one battalion each of the 34ème Léger and 113ème Régiment. Their officers were generally professional, as throughout the French service, but the men were a combination of conscripts from France, Italy and Holland. Their world had shrunk in the preceding months because the approach of the Allied armies, and patrols of an Allied hireling, local guerrilla leader Don Julian Sanchez, meant they could hardly wander beyond the walls without fear of capture. Falling into the hands of the Spanish irregulars could mean a slow, ghastly end. A couple of months before, the French governor of Rodrigo had been carried off by one of Don Julian’s parties and presented as a prisoner at Wellington’s dinner table. This close blockade meant it was difficult to get supplies in and people out. So it was that Joseph Almond and the other British deserters had ended up inside the fortress.

Almond, Mills and Hodgson had all been inducted into the French Army. It would evidently have made sense to move them on to some place further away from their former comrades, for everyone could imagine what might happen to them if they were captured – but it had not been possible. In all likelihood their commander was reluctant to let any man go once he had clapped hands on him, such were the vagaries of getting new drafts from France. Almond had traded his old life in the 95th for one in the French Army: reveille became the diane; grog gave way to brandy; and the Baker rifle once in his hands was replaced by the fusil de dragon.

Outside, the Light Division took its turn with the working parties again on 12 and 13 January, returning to camp to lie up after their dangerous task. Wellington and his chief engineer resolved to advance a communication trench down the forward slope of the Greater Teson and establish a second parallel, or attack trench, on the Little Teson, much closer to the walls.

In his race to take the town before the enemy could concentrate against him, Wellington needed to batter breaches in the walls closest to the Teson ridges as quickly as possible. This had started from the higher feature, although it was obvious that the British guns would do much greater damage if they battered from just 200 or 250 yards. There were some difficulties too: as the breaching progressed, with great slabs of wall being undermined by shot and crumbling away, the French engineers started to send out parties each night to repair the damage a little.

It was decided to order some riflemen down one night to see if they could answer fire with fire, picking off the French gunners with carefully aimed shots and stopping the engineers repairing the breaches. It would be a dangerous task, for the shooters would be lying on the rampart that partly protected the wall itself from fire and created a great ditch twenty or so feet deep between the two verticals, which any stormers would have to negotiate before trying to enter the gaps made in the walls. Lying here would be dangerous work, for the riflemen would be only thirty or forty feet away from the French, who would be bound to hurl all manner of fire against them.

The task of furnishing this sniping party fell to Captain Uniacke, and he decided to expose his new second lieutenant to a whiff of powder. Gairdner, another officer and thirty men were sent down to their position at about 8 p.m. They lay on the glacis or sloping rampart surrounding the fort on a freezing January night, waiting for French spotters or engineers to show themselves, each firing of rifles being answered with musketry, grapeshot and hand grenades. At all times the riflemen had to keep their wits about them, for the defenders might sally out and try to catch them with the bayonet.

After several hours of this duty, with the edge of the sky showing its first glimmer of dawn off behind Rodrigo, over the Sierra de Gata, the riflemen scurried away, defying the French to give them a few parting shots as they worked their stiff legs for the trot back over the Teson to safety.

Gairdner’s baptism of fire had been a success, and a shrewd experiment on Uniacke’s part. The young subaltern wrote proudly to his father: ‘This was the first time I ever was in action, it was a responsible situation and a dangerous one, however we got off very well for I had only three of my picquet wounded.’ The injuries attested to the seriousness of the business, and the veterans of 3rd Company returned that dawn with the knowledge that their new officer could be relied upon in action. It would seem that he passed a second trial when Captain Jonathan Leach tested the new boy’s gullibility by telling him – confidentially, of course – that the city was going to be stormed by troops of the Royal Wagon Train supported by the mounted 14th Light Dragoons. This outrageously silly report did not travel far: Gairdner thus established himself as brave and no dupe, in contrast to Sarsfield.

The British batteries fired with great effect from the new positions on 18 and 19 January, and this, combined with the continuous barrage over several days from the Greater Teson behind, was sufficient to produce two breaches in the wall that were considered practicable for an assault, on the evening of 19 January.

Wellington wanted to ensure success by using picked troops to mount the attacks. General Picton’s 3rd Division would be given the task of storming the main breach and Craufurd’s men the lesser one, both of the targets being on the north-eastern side of the defences, about two hundred yards apart.

Everything was prepared for that night’s desperate service. When expecting a storm, the defenders would pile loaded muskets and bombs so that one man might fire with the effect of many in those crucial moments as the enemy came into view. The batteries would then open up too, spewing grapeshot into the ditch before the walls, as the attackers tried to put their ladders up to the breaches and get through. There would be some other surprises too, for the defenders often set mines in the places where they thought stormers might gather. The defenders in such cases had many advantages, for after days of breaching fire, there could be no mystery about where the main attack would come. The French had discovered during their many sieges in Spain that such attacks were often a desperate business. It was a matter of nerve, and whose broke first. The attackers had to keep going somehow, with death all around, and scale ladders while they were fired at, bayoneted and bludgeoned. If the assault looked as if it might succeed, however, the defenders’ spirit often faltered, for they knew that the chances of being taken prisoner by the maddened survivors of a storming party were slim.

Craufurd and Picton did not intend to throw their divisions forwards in the usual order of companies and battalions or the customary lines or columns. Instead, Major General John Vandeleur, recently appointed as a brigade commander under Craufurd, would prosecute the initial assault: a covering party of four companies of riflemen would line the rampart near the walls to keep down the defenders’ heads; 160 Portuguese Cacadores would go forward with ladders and hay bags to throw in the ditch; a Forlorn Hope (as the leading party, commonly considered the most dangerous task, was known), under a subaltern, would then enter the ditch, placing the ladders that would allow others down into it and up the breaches on the other side; the storming party of three hundred volunteers under a major would then attempt to take the breaches. Throughout these proceedings, Craufurd would hold some companies of the 52nd and the 95th under his own hand as a sort of immediate reserve, and Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Barnard (of the 95th) would keep a further back-up, of the 43rd, 95th and 1st Cacadores. All of this, of course, would happen under cover of darkness.

The heroism required to prosecute this business meant that in any successful assault, the commanders of the Forlorn Hope and storming party expected promotion. There were many volunteers for these posts in the Light Division. Even officers who were next in line for promotion often volunteered, for fear of being seen as presumptuous or complacent in the eyes of their peers. In this spirit Lieutenant Harry Smith of the 95th went to Craufurd and asked his permission to lead the Forlorn Hope. Craufurd, wisely, would not hear of it, telling him, ‘Why, you cannot go; you, a Major of Brigade, a senior Lieutenant, you are sure to get a Company. No, I must give it to a younger officer.’ He chose instead Gurwood of the 52nd for this task, and Major George Napier, of the same regiment, to command the storming party. Other officers would accompany them as volunteers, one commenting, ‘While the subaltern commanding the forlorn hope may look for death or a company, and the field officer commanding the stormers an additional step by brevet, to the other officers who volunteer on that desperate service, no hope is held out – no reward given.’

For the rank and file the same applied, but when Gurwood and Napier came to the Light Division’s camp looking for volunteers, they were overwhelmed. Corporal Fairfoot stepped forward for the Forlorn Hope. Having been in action at the San Francisco redoubt eleven days before, he had no need to prove himself. Costello, the Irish private of the 3rd Company, was another volunteer, bound for the storming party. The 95th’s detachment in that latter group would be led by Captain Mitchell, accompanied by Lieutenants Johnston and Kincaid – all three of them Scotsmen with fierce fighting reputations. ‘The advantage of being on a storming party’, Kincaid opined later with his trademark irony, ‘is generally considered as giving prior claim to be put out of pain, for they receive the first fire, which is generally the best.’ Kincaid had recently taken over the command of the 7th or Highland Company, its long-time chief Alexander Cameron having been promoted to major at last, in command of the Right Wing of the 1st Battalion, who would provide the covering fire for the assault.

The rank and file knew that joining would earn the respect of their comrades – and the chance of plunder. ‘This was a momentous occasion in the life of a soldier, and so we considered it,’ Costello recorded. ‘The entire company gathered round our little party, each pressing us to have a sup from his canteen. We shook hands with friendly sincerity, and speculated on whether we would outlive the assault. If truth must be told, we also speculated on the chances of plunder in the town.’

At 7 p.m. the storming columns moved down through one of the city’s suburbs to a point about three hundred yards from the lesser breach. They would wait there until a rocket was fired, giving them and Picton’s boys the signal. Their advance had almost certainly been spotted by the French officer who served high up in the cathedral tower as a lookout. Riflemen in the covering party were leading the way. Craufurd came up with them, annoyed that they were not moving faster, and accused them of lacking courage – ‘Move on, will you, 95th? or we will get some who will!’

The sense of anticipation had reached a high pitch among the stormers, some trying to dissipate it with a last-minute bout of activity and chatter. Harry Smith sent Lieutenant George Simmons to bring up some ladders. Making his way through the darkness to bring them, Simmons was intercepted by Craufurd. The general asked the young lieutenant why he had brought short ladders rather than long ones, Simmons replying that he had only done what the engineers had told him to do. Craufurd told him, ‘Go back, sir, and get others; I am astonished at such stupidity.’

Captain Uniacke and Lieutenant John FitzMaurice looked up at the defences, looming ahead of them in the darkness. They were meant to be part of the covering party, but like many of the Light Division officers, both could barely wait to rush in and get the business over with. The two Irishmen shared the loss of a father young in life. Uniacke turned to his lieutenant, ‘Look there, Fitz, what would our mothers say, if they saw what was preparing for us?’ FitzMaurice replied, ‘Far better they should not,’ before pointing out that Uniacke had put on an expensive new jacket – ‘But what extravagance to put on a new pelisse for a night such as this!’ The captain replied, ‘I shall be all the better worth taking.’ He had a point, for every man – defender or stormer – imagined what he might gain on a night like this: plunder; a handsome new pelisse; a glorious reputation; or just the chance to avoid an ignominious death.

Craufurd pushed his way through to the head of the column, and on finding a little higher ground he called out to his division: ‘Soldiers! the eyes of your country are upon you. Be steady, be cool, be firm in the assault. The town must be yours this night.’ The rocket was up, the leading parties began trotting forward.

Whatever the garrison may or may not have seen, most of the approach was made before the eruption of fire that they all dreaded. At last, with the column moving up the first obstacle, less than fifty feet from the walls themselves, a French sentry called out and then the cacophony began. Hundreds of muskets opened up from the walls, and cannon too. Riflemen from the covering party were firing back from the embankment surrounding the walls as the stormers moved up to the lip of this great rampart. The first men began dropping down into the ditch.

Craufurd, who was standing atop the feature, was hit by a bullet which went through his arm and one of his lungs, then lodged in his spine. The general was hurled over by the force of the impact and rolled down into the darkness. Believing the wound to be mortal, Craufurd asked the captain to tell his beloved wife he was ‘quite sure they would meet in heaven’.

Down in the ditch in front of the breaches there was a mayhem of wounded men, screaming out in pain, officers calling on others to follow them and soldiers taking potshots at the French above them. Lieutenant Kincaid got himself to the foot of a ladder: ‘I mounted with a ferocious intent, carrying a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other; but, when I got up, I found nobody to fight except two of our own men, who were already laid dead across the top of the ladder.’ In the confusion he had stormed not the main wall, but an outlying ravelin unconnected to it.

At the breach itself Gurwood was making his way up one of the ladders when he was either thrown or knocked off by one of the defenders, falling back to the ground with a thump, winded. Lieutenant Willie Johnston of the Rifles was soon up in his stead and so, as if from nowhere, was Captain Uniacke, who had rushed forward of his own accord and joined the stormers. Some cheers had gone up in the Great Breach and the Light Division men feared Picton’s were beating them to it.

Looking up in the murk, they could see the mouth of a cannon facing down and across the breach. Doubtless it was double-charged with canister and the French were just waiting their moment to cut down the storming party. But some soldiers scrambled up the jagged rocks at the edge of the breach and emerged in the top of the wall just beside the cannon’s mouth. One of the 95th brought the butt of his rifle down like an axe across the head of the French gunner and the danger to the men on the ladders was removed. Men now quickly fanned out along the walls and the defence began to crumble.

In this chaos of shouting and shooting, one of the French engineers touched a match to the fuse on a mine. As Harry Smith and John Uniacke ran along the ramparts with soldiers not far behind, it blew up with massive force. ‘I shall never forget the concussion when it struck me, throwing me back many feet into a lot of charged fuses of shells,’ wrote Smith. ‘My cocked hat was blown away, my clothes all singed.’ Uniacke was not so fortunate: he staggered back, charred black, with one of his arms hanging only by threads of skin. As he was led away by comrades, Uniacke murmured, ‘Remember, I was the first.’

Soldiers poured into the town, often refusing quarter. Some of the ‘French’, throwing down their muskets, called out that they were only poor Italians. But according to Kincaid, ‘Our men had, somehow, imbibed a horrible antipathy to the Italians, and every appeal they made in that name was instantly answered with “You’re Italians are you? then, damn you, here’s a shot for you”; and the action instantly followed the word.’

Those who had survived the breaches were flushed with the joy of being alive: ‘When the battle is over, and crowned with victory, he finds himself elevated for a while into the regions of absolute bliss.’ The Forlorn Hope and storming party volunteers ‘broke into different squads, which went in different directions and entered different streets according to the fancy of their leaders.’

Costello stripped some French soldiers of their money and an officer of his watch. He and his party then found their way into the house of a Spanish doctor, who was hiding with his pretty young niece, fully expecting the sack of Rodrigo to conform to all the horrors of medieval warfare, whereby those inside a stormed town forfeited their lives and property. ‘Like himself, she was shivering with fear,’ according to Costello. ‘This we soon dispelled, and were rewarded with a good supper crowned by a bowl of excellent punch which, at the time, seemed to compensate us for all the sufferings we had endured in the trenches during the siege.’ Elsewhere, the sources of liquor were soon discovered and gallons of the stuff rapidly thrown down the stormers’ necks.

In Rodrigo’s ancient plaza, the jubilant soldiery gathered in mobs, cheering and firing into windows. The alcohol was taking its effect now, and a general riot seemed imminent. ‘If I had not seen it, I never could have supposed that British soldiers would become so wild and furious,’ wrote a young officer of the 43rd. As the firing at nothing in particular built up, one private of the 43rd dropped dead, a bullet through his head.

Major Alexander Cameron, who’d been commanding the covering party of riflemen, arrived with Lieutenant Colonel Barnard and tried to check the collapse in order. ‘What, sir, are you firing at?’ Cameron bellowed at one rifleman, who shouted back at him, ‘I don’t know sir! I am firing because everybody else is.’ Cameron and Barnard looked about them at the debris on the streets, each seizing a broken musket which they used to beat their soldiers into some kind of order.

The search for plunder was not confined to the soldiery. Lieutenant FitzMaurice helped himself to the governor’s silver snuffbox. Lieutenant Gurwood, having been overtaken by keener men in the breach, was determined to recover the situation. ‘Gurwood’s a sharp fellow,’ noted Harry Smith in admiration of a glory seeker equal to himself, ‘and he cut off in search of the Governor, and brought his sword to the Duke, and Lord Fitzroy Somerset buckled it on him in the breach. Gurwood made the most of it.’

Some 1,360 unwounded French troops were taken prisoner, along with 500 or so injured men. A little over 1,100 British and Portuguese troops were casualties during the entire siege, about one-fifth of the total being killed.

It did not take much time for the parties of stormers to recognise one or two familiar faces skulking in the dark alleys of Rodrigo that night. A Cummins or a Hodgson was soon spotted by his messmates, no matter the French uniforms that they wore as disguise – or doffed, depending on what they thought offered the better hope of escape. Lucky not to get a ball on the spot, these men were quickly clapped under arrest and into the hands of the provost marshal.

There was one exception, though. Joseph Almond had managed to slip out in the chaos following the storm. He scrambled down the steep slope leading away from Rodrigo. Hurling himself headlong into the black night, he tried to get his bearings for Salamanca, from whence the French reinforcing column would arrive. He ran and ran, puffing and panting, knowing that he could expect little mercy if he fell into the hands of his old comrades.

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