The Disgrace

April 1812

Major Cameron walked slowly and deliberately up and down the ranks of riflemen. The four companies under his command had been formed up on top of Badajoz’s defensive rampart once the French firing stopped. It was about 4 a.m., and the men could hear gunshots and women’s screams occasionally rising above the constant moaning of the hundreds of wounded still lying just below them in the ditch. Cameron fixed them with his grey eyes; the flashes of gunfire and flames licking around buildings behind them occasionally lit up the Celtic pallor of his countenance. He knew they were itching to join the plunder. ‘If any man leaves the ranks,’ he shouted, ‘I shall have him put to death on the spot.’

Down inside the town’s streets, the cement that held discipline together in Wellington’s Army was crumbling. Ned Costello, wounded, had dragged himself in once he heard the town had fallen. In the streets mobs of stormers mixed together, shooting locks open with their rifles and breaking into houses to see what they might find.

Some soldiers came running down the street, manhandling a French prisoner. Costello stopped them. The rifleman, caked with blood, powder and filth, stared into the Frenchman’s eyes, snapped back the hammer on his weapon and levelled it at the prisoner’s head. None of the other lads was going to stop him. The prisoner dropped to the ground, sobbing and pleading for mercy: ‘The rifle dropped from my hand. I felt ashamed.’

The Frenchman joined his new-found saviour as he prowled about. ‘We now looked around for a house where we could obtain refreshment and, if truth must be told, a little money, for wounded though I was, I had made up my mind to gain by our victory,’ Costello later wrote.

A small gang, ‘who by this time were tolerably drunk’, broke into a prosperous-looking home to find the patrone quivering with fear. After threatening him, he revealed something up to 150 dollars which the men divided, and answered their demands for more drink. Costello and the others had found their spot for the night, but were soon obliged to defend it at the point of the bayonet against some Portuguese troops who tried to evict them. Eventually the prowling soldiers discovered their terrified host’s greatest hidden treasure, his two young daughters and wife. Costello alluded later to the ‘frightful scenes that followed’.

Two or three hours into the sack and the mob had consumed enough alcohol to be well and truly steaming. The rapes began, some women violated repeatedly to the point of insensibility. And there were Spanish inhabitants murdered when the soldiers thought they were not handing over their money, their booze or their women.

Elsewhere in the town, the stormers of the 94th stood in ranks, still in perfect order. ‘I hear our soldiers in some instances behaved very ill – I only saw two and stopped them both,’ George Hennell, the volunteer who had led them up the ladders, wrote home. Had the officers marched their men out of the city at that moment, as the sun’s first rays broke into the dull Estremaduran sky over the San Miguel ridge, it is possible that all manner of catastrophes might have been averted. But the officers understood something very well: their men had laboured under shot and shell for two weeks and run the most terrible risks in the storm. A few kind mentions of the regiment in His Lordship’s dispatch weren’t worth a damn to them. They expected a reward. They had earned a reward. The officers commanding the 94th called out to their soldiers that they were free to fall out for two hours’ plunder.

Over on the escarpment in front of the Santa Marta breach, four companies of the 95th were still standing under arms. No man had dared risk death by moving during the hours they had stayed there. Was Cameron determined to protect the regiment’s good name at any cost? Or was he simply trying to ensure that the bravest men, those selected for the storming parties, got what they deserved: the right to a few hours’ plunder on their own? Cameron looked at his watch. It was getting light. He called out to his soldiers: ‘Now, my men, you may fall out and enjoy yourselves for the remainder of the day, but I expect to see you all in camp at the usual roll-call in the evening!’

During the daylight hours of 7 April thousands more troops flooded into Badajoz. In places, officers were knocked to the ground when they tried to stop the outrages. For the most part, though, they did not try. Some, among them Captain Harry Smith, attempted to rescue women from the mayhem. Smith emerged with two young ladies from one of the city’s better families. One of them, Juana Dolores de Leon, was fourteen years old. The rescue changed Smith’s life for ever. He later wrote:

Never was one so honoured and distinguished as I have been by the possession of this dear child (for she was little more than a child at this moment), one with a sense of honour no knight ever exceeded in the most romantic days of chivalry, an understanding superior to her years, a masculine mind with a force of character no consideration could turn from her own just sense of rectitude, and all encased in a frame of Nature’s fairest and most delicate moulding, the figure of an angel, with an eye of light and an expression which then inspired me with a maddening love.

Juana remained under Smith’s protection in the months after the siege and they eventually married.

Another young officer who went to gaze at Badajoz that afternoon came away only with bitter reflections: ‘Every atom of furniture was broken and mattresses ripped open in search of treasure. One street was strewed with articles, knee deep. A convent was in flames and the poor nuns in dishabille, striving to burrow themselves into some place of security.’

Elsewhere some of the surviving Light Division officers were hurrying desperately to save the lives of their friends lying strewn across the area before the breaches where their men had struggled vainly for hours to break in to the fortress. Daylight had revealed several hundred bodies packing the area immediately in front of the two demolished bastions. Some of these men, drained of blood, were just clinging to life. Scavengers were already flitting amongst them, taking their boots or trousers, rifling pockets.

Lieutenant Colonel Barnard and several other officers went about, trying to find those with a beating heart and then organise their evacuation to the surgeons’ tents. Quarter Master Surtees found his friend Lieutenant Cary with a bullet wound to the head,

stripped completely naked, save a flannel waistcoat which he bore next to his skin. I had him taken up and placed upon a shutter, (he still breathed a little, though was quite insensible) and carried him to the camp. A sergeant and some men, whom we had pressed to carry him, were so drunk that they let him fall from their shoulders, and his body fell with great force to the ground.

Cary did not survive his wound. Amazingly, Sergeant Fairfoot, who had a bullet lodged in his forehead, came through the surgery to extract it. He was taken to a makeshift hospital, as were young officers like James Gairdner and John FitzMaurice, who had also survived their wounds.

Among those dead in the breach was Peter O’Hare. He’d been stripped and his naked torso showed the holes made by several musket balls. When his personal effects were, by the usual custom, sold off to his brother officers, they amounted to a little over twenty pounds and five shillings. O’Hare’s property at home was more substantial, some six hundred pounds’ worth, which was duly passed on to his widow Mary and daughter Marianne. His rise in the Army had been remarkable for a man of such humble origins, but in the end it relied upon incessant campaigning, the very thing that finally did for him.

Captain Jeremiah Crampton of the 8th Company had joined O’Hare’s storming party, just as he had put himself forward at Rodrigo, and was taken away on 7 April severely wounded. He would probably have preferred O’Hare’s end at the foot of the breach, for poor Crampton was to suffer a lingering agony of several months in dark hospital quarters before succumbing to an infection.

In an army with so many brothers serving, it was inevitable that the breach would produce some heart-rending scenes. One Rifles officer was asked by a distraught Guards major to take a lock of hair from his dead brother who lay before them so that he might send it to their mother. Having kept himself composed in the heat of battle, this exhausted man was unable to contain his emotions any longer.

Lieutenant Maud Simmons, hearing of the carnage, came to search for his brother. It was quite common for false reports to fly about after a battle and Maud was distraught when one rifleman told him that his brother had been mortally wounded in the breach before expiring in his tent. Rushing to find the corpse, Maud discovered George lying on his blanket, deep in sleep. Such was his relief, that Maud slumped to the ground, sobbing. George took his brother in his arms and told him, ‘My brave fellow, you ought to laugh. I am sound and untouched.’

George Hennell, the young volunteer, took a walk across the battlefield to the surgeons’ tents. There they were working like possessed men to save life, while much of the Army carried on with the sack of the city. ‘I have seen limbs amputated on the field, the dead lying in heaps like rats after a hunt, some thrown in a ditch,’ Hennell wrote home. ‘I have seen them afterwards putrid. This horrible scene I have contemplated over and over again.’

He went back towards the town, to see drunken soldiers emerging from the city to talk over their experiences and compare plunder, just feet away from their comrades in the breaches. Hennell was perplexed: ‘The want of reflection in numbers of the men surprised me. They were singing and swearing and talking of having a damned narrow escape while their comrades lay around them in heaps dead.’ Hennell’s bewilderment at the lack of compassion among the soldiers was that of the ingénue, for it was his first time in action, just as Rodrigo had been Gairdner’s. But veterans too had been shocked by the soldiers’ behaviour after Badajoz. Quarter Master Surtees believed many of the riflemen had been brutalised by their three years of campaigning: ‘They had … become quite reckless about life from so long an exposure to death.’

Hearing the commotion, Wellington had gone into the town himself on the afternoon of 7 April. Some drunken soldiers, seeing him, raised a glass, calling out, ‘Old Boy! will you drink!’ Returning to his bivouac, the general penned a furious General Order: ‘It is now full time that the plunder of Badajoz should cease … the Commander of Forces has ordered the Provost Marshal into the town, and he has orders to execute any men he may find in the act of plunder, after he shall arrive there.’ He ordered Brigadier Powers and his Portuguese in with fixed bayonets to reassert order. Major Cameron’s hope that the 95th would return in time for the evening roll-call on 7 April had proved a pious one: ‘in place of the usual tattoo report of all present, it was all absent’.

Some men quit the town that night – there was little left worth stealing in any case. They set about plundering the baggage of their own Army, a disciplinary nadir for the British in the Peninsula. Quarter Master Surtees awoke on the 8th to find that ‘they stole no less than eight horses and mules belonging to my battalion, and took them to the other divisions, where they sold them as animals captured from the enemy. I lost on this occasion an excellent little mule, worth at least £20, and for which of course I never obtained a farthing.’

By that morning, Wellington was in a cold rage. Powers’ Portuguese were joining the plunder instead of stopping it. It was time to start hanging the scum. ‘The provost marshal erected a gallows, and proceeded to suspend a few of the delinquents, which very quickly cleared the town of the remainder,’ wrote Kincaid. A further General Order was circulated to the Army, commanding that the muster rolls be read every hour as the marauders came in – for with each missed roll their crime of absence was compounded.

Those few officers of the 95th, like George Simmons, who had emerged from the proceedings without a scratch, now gathered some reliable NCOs and soldiers around them and proceeded to round up their companies. ‘Coercion was necessary on many occasions (with men who had never behaved ill before) and obliged to be resorted to,’ wrote Simmons. ‘The men were made to throw away a quantity of things, and to prevent them secreting any of the articles, their packs were examined, and the plunder that had not been made away with was collected into heaps and burnt.’

Overall, the Light Division had 919 men killed or wounded in the storm of Badajoz, out of total Allied casualties that night of 3,713. The losses for the siege as a whole brought that to more than 4,600.

There was a good deal of anger among the surviving Light Division officers who felt that hundreds of lives had been thrown away on an ill-considered venture. They did not believe it humanly possible for men to have conquered the obstacles set in their way by the French. ‘The defences on the tops of the breaches ought to have been cleared away by our batteries before the assault commenced,’ according to one. They blamed Wellington and his engineers for the failure to think through their plan, or to order light guns to be wheeled forward with the stormers to blast the blades of the chevaux de frises out of the way.

For officers of the Rifles, the anger at the slaughter and the sorrow of loss soon turned to consideration of the vacancies that had opened as a result. Gairdner wrote from his sickbed to his father: ‘I was before this last action sixth from the top of the Second Lieutenants, and there being seven vacancies by deaths I shall of course get my first lieutenancy.’ Another officer put it even more crudely: ‘This regimental havoc will give me promotion.’

There would be one more vacant lieutenancy arising in the regiment from the horrific night of 6 April. It belonged to Thomas Bell. Major Cameron discovered him skulking in his tent the day after the storm. James Gairdner told his father what happened:

One Thomas B– has been kicked out of the regiment for cowardice. On the evening of the sixth when the regiment fell in to march to the attack, this said gentleman, who was moments before skipping about very merrily, pretended to be very ill and he actually lay in his tent the whole night. The next morning Major Cameron, the commanding officer, sent word to him that he might either resign his commission or stand an inquiry into his conduct, he chose the former, and was I think let off a great deal too easily. Such pitiful scoundrels ought to be shot, and ought not to disgrace the army by entering it.

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