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The Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo

Spain (January 8 -19, 1812)

By Robert Burnham

Ciudad Rodrigo was a fortified city that protected the Spanish frontier with Portugal and overlooked the main crossing site of the Agueda River, an old Roman bridge. The Agueda River was the last major natural obstacle before the border. The city walls were approximately 1500 meters long and built of cut stone. (Plan #1) In general, the fortifications consisted of a main wall and an outer wall. The main wall was approximately 10 meters high and 9 meters wide. (Photo #1) At the bottom of the wall was a dry ditch about 7 meters wide. On the other side of the ditch was a faussebraie, a wall about 6 meters high. This wall was designed to protect the main wall from artillery fire. In front of the faussebraie was another ditch that was about 7 meters wide and 3 meters high on the glacis side of the fortification. This ditch was interconnected with the ditch in front of the main wall. (Photo #13 shows this connecting ditch. The main wall is directly ahead and the faussebraie is on both sides of the photo.) The glacis was a long dirt slope that was design to cause cannonballs to ricochet over the fortifications. It was wide open and provided no cover for an assaulting force.

The Ciudad Rodrigo's fortifications had several weaknesses. In theory, the glacis is supposed to protect the faussebraie from artillery fire. To do so, however, they both must be of the same height. In Ciudad the glacis was 3 meters shorter, thus allowing the enemy artillery to fire directly on to the faussebraie. Furthermore, the height of the faussebraie was too short. It should have been as high as the main wall, but in fact was 4 meters shorter, giving the enemy a clean shot on the main wall. (Photo #2 is a view of the fortifications from the glacis and clearly shows this weakness. The bushes at the base of the wall are actually on the faussebraie, while the ditches are not visible.) Compounding these problems were two ridges to the north of the city: the Little Teson and the Grand Teson. The Little Teson was about 200 meters from the walls and was about the same height as the faussebraie, while the Grand Teson was about 700 meters from the walls and 4 meters higher than the main wall. This placed the defender at a major disadvantage for it allowed enemy artillery to fire directly onto the main walls. (Photo #3 was taken from the British 1st Parallel on the Great Teson and shows how it commands the main wall.) To counteract these weaknesses, the French commander built a redoubt on the Grand Teson and fortified the Convents of Santa Cruz and San Francisco. Another weakness was the thickness of the parapet on top of the walls. An infantryman could not see over the walls into the ditch at its base, even when looking through a cannon embrasure. (The fortress at Almeida and Fort Concepcion were designed to allow infantry to fire into the ditch and onto the faussebraie.)

The Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo began on the night of 8 January 1812, when 450 men from the Light Division seized the French redoubt on the Grand Teson. This assault caught the French by surprised, for they were expecting the British to besiege it before they attacked. Taking the redoubt allowed the British to begin building siege works on the Grand Teson the next day. By the 13th the first parallel had been finish and the siege guns were moved up to begin battering the walls. A second parallel was started on the Little Teson, however it was so close to the Convent of Santa Cruz, Wellington ordered a King's German Legion brigade to take the French outpost there. The French commander of Ciudad Rodrigo ordered a counterattack on the same day. Five hundred of the garrison swept out of city, recapturing the convent, destroying much of the work that had begun on the 2nd parallel and almost made it into the 1st parallel before the British could rally their forces. The French retired with little loss. That night the British attacked and captured the Convent of San Francisco. By the 18th the British had erected four batteries and could bring to bear twenty-two 24-pound guns and one 18-pound gun against the main breach and seven 24-pound guns against the lesser breach. By the 19th the British had fired over 9550 shells against the city and had created two breaches about 200 meters apart. The main breach was 30 meters wide and the lesser breach about 10 meters.

To strengthen their defenses, the French fortified the top of the main breach with chevaux-de-frise and mined the slopes leading up. Additionally, they cut trenches 5 meters deep and three meters wide on both sides of the terreplein, effectively cutting off any assault force that might penetrate that far. A 24-pound cannon were placed on both sides of these cuts, which gave the gunners clear fields of fire onto the top of the breaches. At the bottom of the trenches were placed iron pikes, crowfeet, and more chevaux-de-frise should anyone attempt to jump down into the town. The crowning touch was piles of combustibles that were to be set afire as a last defense.

The French had little time to fortify the lesser breach, since it was made almost at the last minute. No trenches or chevaux-de-frise were built and the only obstacle was a disabled gun placed across the top. At least one gun however, could hit the slope from the flanks.

The assault was planned for the night of the 19th. The 3rd Division was assigned the main breach, while the Light Division was given the lesser breach. Three diversionary attacks also were planned: a battalion of Cacadores were to sweep across the bridge and take some outworks, near the main gate, that protected the faussebraie in front of the main breach; the 5th Regiment was to attack from the Santa Cruz Convent and clear this faussebraie of any French; and the 94th Regiment was to clear the ditch in front of the faussebraie.

At 7 p.m. the attack began with the Cacadores rushing across the bridge and capturing the outpost. The two other regiments quickly accomplished their mission and the way was clear for the main attack. The main assault consisted of Major General McKinnon's brigade which was preceded by 150 men carrying bags of hay that were to be thrown into the ditch. There they were met by heavy defensive fire that stunned the assaulting force. About this time, the 5th and 95th Regiments had just finished their mission of clearing the faussebraie and in their enthusiasm continued onto the main breach. They actually reached it before the main assault force! McKinnon's Brigade followed closely behind them and all were stopped by the cuts made at the top of the breach. There they were came under a devastating fire from the two guns that swept the breach with canister at close range. As the British reeled in confusion, the French fired a mine buried in the breach! This massive explosion stunned the attackers for a moment and caused heavy casualties among their leaders. The British soon rallied and through heroic efforts, succeeded in silencing the two guns and capturing the breach. The way was open into the town!

The Light Division staged itself behind the Convent of San Francisco prior to its assault on the lesser breach. Despite the large number of senior officers directing it, this attack was mismanaged from the very beginning. The force carrying the bags of hay got lost and the forlorn hope attacked the faussebraie thinking it was the main wall. Once the breach was located, the main assault force quickly made its way up it with little resistance. The French defenders retreated to the town square and soon surrendered.

Ciudad Rodrigo was now in the British hands and nothing could stop the victorious troops. The next 12 hours was a wild orgy of looting, raping, drinking, and pillaging. Vast fortunes were made overnight by the plundering soldiers (who quickly spent it on liquor) and no one was safe, including their own officers. By the next morning the soldiers were brought under control and the task of repairing the damage was begun.

The British had about 1100 killed and wounded during the siege. In the assault itself, casualties among the British forces was not particularly heavy among the enlisted soldiers with about 100 killed and another 400 wounded. Officer casualties were high though, with 59 of them being killed or wounded. Casualties among the senior officers were especially high. General Craufurd, commander of the Light Division, was mortally wounded, while General McKinnon, commander of the assault force, was killed in the explosion that rocked the main breach. General Vandeleur, commander of the brigade making the assault on the lesser breach also was wounded seriously. Of the 1900 men in the French garrison, about 600 were casualties during the siege.

Ciudad Rodrigo Today

Little has changed in Ciudad Rodrigo in the past 185 years. Its walls and fortifications are still intact and the city is a maze of narrow winding streets that would be familiar to the soldiers of the Light Division. The walls can be walked on or if one wishes, the ditches and faussebraies are easily accessible. A good place to begin a tour of the city is at the Tourist Information Office located across from the Place de Amayuelas near the western sallyport. (A free map of the city is available and the ladies there cheerfully gave me a poster showing an aerial view of the fortifications!) Across the street in the Place de Amayuelas, is a commemorative plaque to General Craufurd who died leading the Light Division in the assault. (Photo #4). Climb the walls here and you will see the lesser breach. (Photo #5) As you walk west, soon you will come upon the cathedral and a close examination of its front will reveal numerous cannonball strikes and other damage sustained during the siege. (Photo #6). Here there is also a plaque to the Spanish guerrilla leader Julian Sanchez, who captured the French governor the previous year. The wall directly north of the cathedral is the site of the greater breach. (Photo #7). As you look out over the walls towards the north, you can see the Great Teson and the Little Teson, which is covered by the modern suburbs of San Francisco. If you look closely you can see the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco. (Photo #8). If you continue along the wall you will come to the castle gate near where O'Toole's Portuguese Cacadores troops assaulted the outworks (Photo #9) and the Castle, which served as the headquarters for the French commander. (Photo #10). The castle is now a four-star hotel run by the State. It is filled with antiques and has beautiful gardens overlooking the Roman bridge over the Agueda. (Photo #11) The steps leading to the castle tower were recently damage during a storm and now the tower is closed. If you exit the city by the Castle Gate and walk north along the base of the walls you come to site of where the 5th and 94th Regiments entered the ditch (Photo #12) to clear the faussebraie and the main ditch. As you walk along the ditch or the faussebraie, soon you will come upon the site of the great breach. (Photo #13) The walls are about 8 meters (30 feet) high at this point and the repair done to the wall can still be seen. In the photo is noted wargamer Kevin Kelley, who is 165 cm tall (5' 6''). His height was about the average height for a soldier of that time and he provides a good perspective of how high the walls actually were. (Photo #14) Walking east in the ditch between the faussebraie and the wall, towards the lesser breach, it is easy to see why this ditch was such a formidable obstacle, (Photo #15) especially at night. (Photo #16) When you enter the city by the western sallyport, you soon will be in a maze of twisting, narrow streets and soon you will reach the main square, where the French garrison surrendered. (Photo #17)

A bullring has replaced the Convent of Santa Cruz. The Little Teson, site of the British second parallel, is now covered with a modern suburb, which engulfs the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco, where the Light Division waited before they began their assault. (Photo #18) The convent is about 15 meters high (50 feet) and only the main building is left. The inside is in poor condition and has been vandalized. Access to the interior is prohibited. If you continue up the Avenue Espana for about 400 meters you will go past a large, two tower grain elevator that vaguely resembles a baroque church. This elevator is at the base of the Great Teson. Walk 300 meters west along the fence and soon you will be at the site of the British 1st Parallel, which provides an excellent view of the city. (Photo #19)

Photographs:

#1. View of the main wall from the faussebraie.

#2. View of the fortifications from the glacis.

#3. View of Ciudad Rodrigo from the British 1st Parallel.

#4. Plaque to General Craufurd.

#5. The lesser breach.

#6. Damage done by cannon fire to the Cathedral.

#7. The great breach.

#8. The suburbs of San Francisco with the ruins of the Convent of San Francisco.

#9. Castle gate close to where O'Toole's Cacadores assaulted.

#10. Castle.

#11. Roman Bridge over the Agueda.

#12. Ditch north of the Castle Gate where the 5th Regiment attacked.

#13. The great breach from the ditch.

#14. Repair done to the wall where the great breach was.

#15. Ditch between the great and lesser breaches, facing west.

#16. View of the lesser breach from the faussebraie. (Same as #1)

#17. Main square, where the French garrison surrendered.

#18. Convent of San Francisco

#19. View of Ciudad Rodrigo from the British 1st Parallel. (Same as #3)

 

Map of Ciudad Rodrigo

Plan Showing a Cross Section of the Fortifications

Further Reading:

Costello, Edward: The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns. Costello was one of the few enlisted soldiers who participated in the attack and left an account.

Grattan, William: Adventures with the Connaught Rangers, 1809-1814. Grattan was an officer who was part of the force that assaulted the greater breach.

Horward, Donald: Napoleon and Iberia: the Twin Sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, 1810. This account provides information on the background of the events leading up to the action, and the best overall description of the action using both British and French sources.

Jones, John: Journal of Sieges Carried on by the Army under the Duke of Wellington in Spain. This book provides the "official" engineer perspective on the siege and is the best source on how the trenches were dug, the batteries built, and the amount of artillery fired.

Myatt, Frederick: British Sieges of the Peninsular War. Myatt provides an excellent overview of all of the sieges conducted during the war. Particularly valuable are his chapter on siege craft and the glossary of arcane military terms relating to 19th Century siege warfare.

Napier, George: The Early Military Life of General Sir George T. Napier. Napier was in the 52nd Regiment and commanded the main assault force that followed the forlorn hope into the lesser breach.

Simmons, George: A British Rifleman. Was part of the assault on the lesser breach and also writes a superb account.

Smith, G.C.: The Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith: 1787-1819

Wrottesley, George: Life and Correspondence of Field Marshal Sir John Burgoyne, Bart. Burgoyne was director of the engineer works during the siege.

 

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