Wellington and Siege Warfare in 1812
By Bruce Collins (Sheffield Hallam University)
Paper given at the British Commission for Military History Spring Conference 2012
Introduction: From May 1811 to September 1813, Wellington’s forces engaged in four major sieges – of Badajoz, Ciudad Rodrigo, Burgos and San Sebastian – which resulted cumulatively in more casualties than any single battle Wellington fought in the Peninsula. Two of the sieges – at San Sebastian and Badajoz – were in two and three distinct phases respectively, so that in organisational terms there were more like seven operations.
There are a number of reasons for being sceptical about the need to consider these sieges as a distinctive phase of Wellington’s campaigning. The towns besieged were not in themselves important, in the way that Valencia, which the French besieged in 1811-12, was heavily populated, commercially wealthy and strategically significant as a port commanding a hinterland. Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz lay across key routes between Portugal and Spain and were therefore prominent, but not large, frontier towns. Only Badajoz had extensive and reasonably modern fortifications. Burgos had been built up by the French after 1808 and acted as a depot for the French army, but the town of about 8,000-9,000 inhabitants was not militarily protected. The British objective was the castle, well defended by the French. It became important when the French armies retreating from Madrid halted in September 1812 to the east of the town, stood their ground and began to receive reinforcements. Wellington had no intention of attacking them, but was disappointed that they had not fled beyond the Ebro River. Taking Burgos would have rounded off his offensive of 1812 and deprived the French of munitions and stores which became an objective for a counter-march in October from their position to the east. The final besieged town, San Sebastian, was a locally significant port but was home to only about 10,000 people.