Richard Caton Woodville
Hell on Earth
By Adam Barnes and Gareth Virr
On the 17th March 1812, the 95th Rifles received its orders to advance to take up its positions before the fortress of Badajoz. Despite being one of the elite units in the British Army, the 95th was not spared any form of manual labour, being assigned to begin to break the ground required for the siege guns. The physical nature of the job, coupled with the small force able to undertake the job and the weather made this effort incredibly difficult for riflemen and officers alike.
The sortie of the French on the 19th March saw the first rifles casualties taken. However before the French sortie was defeated the French Cavalry force made its way through to the Light Division camp, having been incorrectly identified as Portuguese cavalry, before being driven back by the men of the Rifles. During this repulsion, Lieutenant Richard Freer was wounded, although his injuries were not life threatening.
March 22nd saw the men of the Rifles ordered to take out a battery of guns which the French had bought out of San Cristobal, and into a position that enfiladed the Allied Trenches. The advantage held by the Rifles, over their musket armed comrades was clear here. Firing across the river towards the guns, the Rifles were able to kill or wound many of the gunners, resulting in the withdrawal of the guns back into the Fort.
The first major action by the British Army came on the 26th of March with the capture of another of the outlying forts, this time Fort Picurina. The 95th played a major role in this engagement, with a party of Riflemen being tasked with carrying the ladders to be used in the escalade. Lieutenant James Stokes was given the honour of being the first British soldier to enter the fort. The capture of the fort meant that by the next morning, despite French efforts to try and drive the British out, sufficient cover had been made to leave the British largely unscathed.
Map of the Siege of Badajoz
The 95th were selected to occupy special Rifle Pits, dug to offer some protection for its occupants. It was from these pits that the Rifles were able to snipe at the French gunners who would briefly appear between the city’s gun embrasures as they fired towards the British Siege lines. Lieutenant George Simmons was present during one such escapade, during which the Rifles were subject to fire from a French sharpshooter. He describes it thus:
“A French officer (I suppose a Marksman), who hid himself in some long grass, first placed his cocked hat some little distance from him for us to fire at. Several of his men handed him loaded muskets in order that he might fire more frequently. I was leaning half over the trench watching his movements. I observed his head, and being exceedingly anxious that the man who was going to fire should see him, I directed him to lay his rifle over my left shoulder as a more elevated rest for him. He fired. Through my eagerness, I had entirely overlooked his pan, so that it was in close contact with my left ear; and a pretty good example it made of it and the side of my head, which was singed and the ear cut and burnt. The poor fellow was very sorry for the accident. We soon put the Frenchman out of that. He left his cocked hat, which remained until dark, so that we had either killed or wounded him.”
Life in the rifle pits was incredibly dangerous, as the proximity to the city walls meant that the inhabitants were not afforded the greatest cover when advancing to and from those positions. The resulting fire meant that by the casualty rate from the rifle pits had the potential to be high. No matter where the inhabitant would be killed or wounded, another rifleman would have to put himself out into the deadly fire coming from the guns to retrieve his comrade.
Light Division Storming the Breach at Badajoz
William Barnes Wollen
The Light Division was selected to assault the breach at the Santa Maria Bastion. At 8pm the division formed ready for the attack, under the command of Barnard, in temporary command after Craufurd's death at Ciudad Rodrigo. Prior to the attack, four companies of the 1st Battalion 95th were ordered forward to extend to provide a suppressing fire onto the ramparts whilst six volunteers of the same battalion went forward, under the command of Lieutenant William Johnston to remove the cheveaux de frise around the breaches. Finally the forlorn hope and storming party followed, consisting of 100 men from each regiment of the Light Division.
The four companies held their fire for about ten minutes, having arrived virtually undetected, until the forlorn hope approached the city. The initial attack was repulsed as forlorn hope and assault parties alike were driven back, and in the confusion those riflemen providing covering fire found themselves joining the assault. After two hours of failed attacks after failed attacks, the Duke of Wellington gave the order for the Light Division to withdraw. With all the confusion, this order was misconstrued and many officers tried to stop the men from retiring.
At around 1am, the regiment was reformed, and greeted by Quartermaster Surtees who bought the news that the 3rd division had successfully stormed the castle. However this news was hardly believed throughout the regiment, as the men and officers sat and reflected on what they had already been through.
The news was later backed up by a Staff officer, riding up with fresh orders from Wellington to attack. Despite having been repulsed multiple times, the men of the Rifles formed up eagerly ready to face what they thought would be an onslaught. However, owing to the efforts of the 3rd Division at the Castle, the Light Division met little resistance, and the breach was quickly taken.
Unlike the redcoated soldiers, the 95th remained formed up and ready for any fresh resistance from the garrison until the next morning when it was clear that all the enemy were prisoners. It was only then, that the Riflemen were cleared to go and reap the bounty of their efforts within the town.
The French Garrison Surrenders to the British
William Barnes Wollen
However, not all hope was lost with the chivalry of the British Army. Adjutant John Kincaid and Harry Smith happened upon two young women who risked becoming little more than the spoils of war, and placed them under their protection. The beauty of one of the women, Donna Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon, was evident, as both Kincaid and Smith became infatuated with her. What happened next does not need much description. Smith won the girls heart and would later marry her, and would later become known as Lady Smith, the wife of the conqueror of Aliwal, and would eventually have a city in South Africa named after her.
The actions of the regiment during the siege saw a huge number of casualties. Twenty three officers and 292 Non-commissioned officers and riflemen were either killed or wounded during the action on April 6th.
Captain C. Gray
Lieutenant W. Johnston
Lieutenant D. Stewart
“Who shall measure out the glory of… O’Hare of the ninety-fifth, who perished on the breach at the head of the stormers, and with him nearly all the volunteers for that desperate service? Who shall describe… the martial fury of that desperate soldier of the ninety-fifth who, in his resolution to win, thrust himself beneath the chained sword blades, and there suffered the enemy to dash his head to pieces with the ends of their muskets?”
The Devil's Own" 88th Regiment at the Siege of Badajoz
Richard Caton Woodville Jr.