The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau: Chapter VII – 1812
Translated by Greg Gorsuch
The Darmstadt contingent defending Badajoz. Loss of the place. The Hessians are taken as prisoners to England.
The campaign against Wellington was not successful for Marshal Masséna; Soult, for his part, remained in Andalusia without having supported the efforts of the Army of Portugal: the English also remained masters of the lower Tagus. To support their position, they resolved to seize Ciudad-Rodrigo and Badajoz.
This last place was taken by the French in February 1811; vainly besieged the following month by an English army commanded by Beresford, it was rescued in May by Marshal Soult who killed 6,000 enemy men. A second attempt to capture the fortress, carried out in June by Wellington himself, did not have a better result for the British army: despite the opening of a breach in the castle wall, the garrison pushed back three assaults and the English had to lift the siege.
In 1812, Wellington captured Ciudad-Rodrigo (22 January): he then decided to attack Badajoz once again, in order to have a solid base for the offensive campaign he proposed to lead in the very heart of Spain.
He arrived in front of Badajoz on 16 March, at the head of an army of 26,000 men: 3 English divisions, 1 Portuguese brigade and a siege artillery composed of 52 large caliber pieces, with 20 officers of the Royal Corps of Engineers under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Flechter.
The two previous attempts by the English had induced the French to reinforce the garrison of the place by sending there the entire Hessian regiment (32 officers and 910 men), and to improve the defense works: the breach made during the last siege was completely repaired, the escarpment of the surrounding walls increased; Fort San-Christobal reinforced, the gorge of Fort Pardaleras well closed; a lunette, known as Picurina, was built on the site of the last breach battery; finally, an impassable flooding extended in front of a part of the enclosure, on the Rivilla side.
General Philippon, governor of the place, had at the time of the investment 4,500 men:
|5||battalions||French (of the 9th and 25th Light and of the 58th and 103rd Line Regiments),|
|2||—||Hessian (Crown Prince Regiment),|
|1||company||of Spanish Juramentados.|
|350 artillerymen (including 40 Hessians).|
|50 cavalrymen, — finally about forty invalids.|
He entrusted the defense of the fronts to the infantry corps according to their battle rank: the Darmstadt regiment holding the left of the French troops consequently received the mission of defending the bastions 7 (the Trinity), 8 (San-Pedro), 9 (San-Antonio) and the Castle, of which the Hessian Colonel von Kohler had the command. The artillerymen were distributed on the enclosure and in the external works; infantry soldiers were added to them for the parts service. Pardaleras and Picurina were held by mixed detachments: there were 50 Hessians in each of these works.
The assailant opened the first parallel on the night of 17 to 18 March, 400 paces from Picurina; it employed 1,600 workers and began two batteries intended to fire against Picurina.
Badajoz (Military France)
On the 19th, the garrison made a vigorous sortie between Picurina and Saint-Roque: 1,500 infantrymen threw themselves into the enemy parallel which they partially destroyed, after having driven out the guard and the workers, while 40 cavalrymen, turning at a gallop the right flank of the English works, would bring confusion among the unarmed men occupied in the trench depots. The besieger, in this affair, suffered considerable losses; for its part, the garrison had 30 killed, and 274 wounded, including 7 officers; of the 200 Hessians who took part in the engagement, 97 were hors de combat.
After three days of fire, the Picurina lunette was captured by the English during the night of 25 to 26 March; part of the defenders of the work fell into the hands of the enemy, the rest emerged and returned to the town; among these were 30 Hessians with Captain Kulmann.
On the 25th, 4 new English batteries opened fire against the bastions of the Trinity, of San-Pedro and against the Saint-Roque lunette: but the plunging fire of the Castle considerably thwarted the service of these batteries, causing great devastation there, dismounting several pieces and silencing several of the enemy batteries, in one of which a bomb blew up a powder magazine.
Two other batteries, armed on the 30th, fired against Santa-Maria and the Trinity; they were supported the next day by the entry in action of 12 pieces of 24 and 8 pieces of 18 which all breached the bastion of the Trinity.
The besieged, fixed on the point of attack, built an internal entrenchment behind the curtain that separated the bastions of Trinity and Santa-Maria: these bastions were now defeated by 30 large caliber cannons. Despite the concern caused in the place by the scarcity of gunpowder and the decrease in ammunition, enthusiasm remained considerable, and the garrison was preparing to receive the assault.
On 5 April, 3 breaches are opened, the first at the Santa-Maria bastion, the second at the bastion of the Trinity and the third at the curtain which connected them; a company of Hessian grenadiers, drawn to the Castle – where it would be missing shortly – was charged with defending this third breach; it came to settle behind, in an entrenchment built with sacks of earth; it was Captain Count von Lehrbach who commanded these grenadiers: he was seriously wounded during the assault. The defenders established a strong battery in the Castle, the rise of which made it possible to hit the main breach and to strafe the attackers; the latter were preparing for a supreme effort the approach of Marshal Soult’s army, persuading Wellington not to postpone the assault.
ASSAULT OF BADAJOZ
On the night of 6 to 7 April, at nine o’clock in the evening, the English Third Division led by General-Major Picton approached the Rivilla, attacked the Saint-Roque lunette which it seized and raised its scaling against the escarp of the San-Antonio bastion.
This attack on the heart of the town was brilliantly repulsed by Major Weber and the 300 Hessians charged on this point with guarding the enclosure: the attackers, driven back, were forced to retreat, leaving a mass of dead and wounded people in the ditch.
This first combat was hardly finished when the breaches were assailed by two other columns, formed of the English 4th Division and the Light Division under the orders of the Major General Colville and of the Lieutenant Colonel Barnard: a terrible fire received them; 700 elite men, each armed with three fusils, made on the English, from the top of the embankments and at short distance, the most deadly fusillade, while the strings of bombs placed beforehand at the foot of the breaches burst under the footsteps of the assailants and that the battery of the Castle dug bloody furrows in the English columns massed in the ditch and on its surroundings. Three times, with admirable courage, the British officers tried to remove their troops and drag them behind them into the breaches: three times these heroic attempts remained fruitless and were paid for by the death of a crowd of brave men: the colonel of the English 42nd fell at the head of his regiment… of the 20 officers of the Corps of Engineers responsible for leading the assault columns, 13 were put out of action… The massacre was dreadful, and the English had to withdraw, leaving 3,600 men in the breaches, in the ditch and on the glacis killed or injured…
Defence of Badajoz (Military France)
During this main attack, the fort of Pardaleras repelled the assault of the Portuguese Brigade; on the other hand, an English detachment of the Light Division which had succeeded in scaling the Saint Vincent bastion on the banks of the Guadiana, suddenly seized with panic-terror, had retreated, and was quickly thrown out of control from the enclosure.
Wellington, informed of the failure of his divisions, had just given the order to withdraw them back and reform them before daybreak to attempt a new assault, when he was informed that General Picton had seized the Castle with the troops of the 3rd Division …
The garrison of the Castle, commanded by Colonel von Kohler, included 100 Hessians (including 23 musicians), 25 French and some artillerymen; it had been badly distributed, and the accessible points from which the approach of the enemy could have been placed in fusillade were not occupied in force. When the English 3rd Division, repulsed in its attack on the Saint-Antonio bastion, withdrew by following the walls, a few bold soldiers applied a ladder against a gateway of the Castle raised more than twenty feet above the ground and entered through there, into the place, without obstacle; they were quickly followed, other ladders gave passage to other assailants, and soon the Castle, thus climbed, was invaded: its defenders, surprised, were slaughtered; Captain Schulz, adjutant-major of the Hessian regiment, the French artillery Captain d’André de Saint-Victor lost their lives… As for Colonel von Kohler, he was wounded in the head, and an English officer gave him the sword on his throat threatening to kill him if he did not show him the gate of the Castle opening onto the city …
“The Hessian colonel had the weakness to indicate it to him, and in this circumstance did not follow the example of the Chevalier d’Assas, easier to admire than to imitate.”
General Philippon, to whom one came to announce the capture of the Castle by the enemy, could not initially believe in the reality of this news; time was lost before the dispatch of 4 reinforcement companies: Major Schmalkalder, Lieutenant Scheidt rushed from the San-Antonio bastion at the head of all available Hessians; their efforts were useless, they were both killed in this combat, and, at midnight, the English remained masters of their conquest.
The English detachment of the light division, driven back for the first time from the Saint-Vincent bastion, regained its foothold on the rampart and came to assault the defenders of the breaches in the rear: Captain Scheffer, of the voltigeurs from Darmstadt, was killed; Captain Klingelmann, Lieutenant Besserer were wounded … Elsewhere, the arsenal, the gate of Las Palmas also fell into the hands of the enemy.
Resistance was no longer possible; the governor withdrew with some officers into the fort of San-Christobal where he capitulated the next day, 7 April: 2,700 soldiers — including 444 Hessians, were taken prisoner; this is what remains of the Badajoz garrison, whose losses during the assault amounted to 1,800 men. — The Crown Prince Regiment, for its part, had 466 men hors de combat; the artillery of Darmstadt had 4 killed and 5 wounded.
The English, masters of the place against which they fired 35,346 cannon shots, led their prisoners to Lisbon; the road was a long martyrdom for these brave men, to whom the victors, exasperated by their own losses, inflicted the most inhuman treatment; after having stripped them even of essential clothes, they let them be stoned by the Portuguese peasants …
In Lisbon, French and Hessians embarked for England and were directed to Dartmoor, then to Plymouth. Of all the Darmstadt contingent which had taken part in the defense of Badajoz, only 168 soldiers of the Crown Prince Regiment and 14 artillerymen returned to their homeland in the spring of 1814.
The capture by the English of the Castle of Badajoz aroused the most lively controversies among military historians; in his Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire, M. Thiers, without explicitly saying that the Hessians have handed over to the enemy the post entrusted to them, leaves a doubt as to their loyalty in this serious circumstance:
“The Hessians” he said “were in charge of the Castle’s guard: whether surprise, whether trouble or infidelity, they allowed the invasion of the precious little redoubt entrusted to their courage and loyalty.”
However, nothing seems to prove, on the part of our allies in Darmstadt, this dishonorable accusation. Costa de Serda has gathered on this subject the opinion of several historians, and none testifies against the fidelity of the Hessians.
If General Philippon, governor of Badajoz, in a fairly post-event report, accused Colonel Kohler of pusillanimity, of infidelity and treason, perhaps to alleviate the impression produced in the army and in the country by the place he was responsible for defending, we cannot forget that on 9 April 1812, that is to say, twelve days after the event, he gave in Lisbon the following certificate to the Crown Prince Regiment:
“We, Major General, Baron of the Empire, Governor of Badajoz, certify that from the command of the siege of this place until its end, the regiment of Hesse-Darmstadt which was part of the garrison has always behaved in the most honorable way; it, like all the other battalions, showed courage and bravery; one can only praise the conduct of this regiment.”
The Hessians, for their part, defended themselves from having faltered in the defense of the Castle where they had to fight with 100 soldiers against an entire English division: they blame the defeat on the Governor himself, who had attributed to this capital post a garrison of too small a staff – a strength which was further reduced before the assault by sending a company of grenadiers to defend the breaches.
General Lamarre commanded the engineers of the place; he left a Relation of the Sieges and Defenses of Badajoz in 1811-1812; in this work, of great interest, he does not admit the idea that our allies surrendered voluntarily and pays homage to their bravery.
On the other hand, again,
“a report from the Battalion Chief Lespagnol, deputy director of the artillery at Badajoz, and from the engineer Captain Lefaivre, — a report signed by all the officers and sent on 5 August 1812 to the Minister of War — establishes that the they had made the mistake of stripping the Castle which was supposed to be unassailable, and also noted the good defense of the Hessians, several of whose officers, after a long resistance, were put out of action.”
In a letter addressed in 1858 to the Military Spectator in response to the allegation of Mr. Thiers which we have quoted above, Mr. Westerwetter d’Anthony, lieutenant of infantry in the service of Hesse-Darmstadt, writes as follows:
“If Mr. Thiers wanted to express suspicions about the loyalty of the Hessians, he had probably forgotten that these brave soldiers lived on the banks of the Mein and the Rhine, that they had left their homeland in 1808 to follow their allies, the French in Spain, and to give, as everywhere, for four years, glorious proofs of their bravery, their devotion and their discipline. It is to abuse the credulity of the reader to try to make believe that 100 men of this Hessian regiment, after having fought so valiantly and having killed a good number of English, became traitors to be taken as prisoners to the English pontoons.”
Costa de Serda rightly says that the logic of this article does not seem irrefutable; but, without questioning the loyal defense of the Hessians, he observed that in 1813 other German contingents, after having also shown themselves to be disciplined, devoted and brave for five years in Spain, abandoned our ranks with arms and baggage and passed to the enemy… The battalion of Frankfurt, the 2nd Regiment of Nassau (commanded by Colonel von Kruse whose military praise is well established), gave this saddening spectacle… But if the history records this act with a fair severity, it should not, it seems, be rigorous against the Hessians of Badajoz who succumbed in front of valiant adversaries and very superior in number; they affirmed by their losses in the defense of this place, their energy, their devotion and their loyalty towards France.
The small Hessian detachments remaining in Seville and Toledo, depots, convalescent men or in hospitals, numbered 4 officers and 216 soldiers, including 25 artillerymen; they were sent off for Darmstadt in the course of 1812 and arrived there in October after having delivered during the road, on 6 August, in Pancorbo, near Burgos, a last fight with the guerrillas.
Since its arrival in Spain in 1808, until 1812, the Regiment Crown Prince had in 9 officers killed or died of their wounds, 4 officers died of disease, 25 officers wounded, and more than 1,300 men hors de combat, killed on the battlefield or dead in hospitals. During this period, 8 Hessian officers received the cross of the Legion of Honor.
After the loss of Badajoz, there are no more Hessian troops in Spain; from that moment on, we will only have to follow the operations of the Nassau contingent.
Defence of Badajoz (Mar-Apr 1812) (After Costa de Serta)
(cut off after Picurina batteries armée le 23 mars.)
(cut off after Saint-Roque batteries armée le 30 mars.)
 The details of the losses of the English in the assault on Badajoz were as follows:
(John T. Jones, p. 179).
 Costa de Serda, p. 103.
 Costa de Serda, p. 104.