Monday, November 22, 2010

The Killing Fields

The battle of Albuera in 1811 and the storming of Badajoz in 1812 were among the bloodiest engagements of the Peninsular War. Recently, I visited both sites on a Peninsular War tour.

In 1811, Badajoz was in French hands and, crucially, on the major southern route to Lisbon, essential for Wellington’s supplies and ammunition. He had failed to take it twice before. Then he learnt that MarĂ©chal Soult was marching towards Badajoz with 24,000 men. It was a potential disaster. General Beresford was ordered to stop him at the village of Albuera.

Unfortunately, Beresford miscalculated Soult’s probable route and the British and Portuguese forces were taken by surprise. The carnage was appalling: 4000 Allied soldiers and 7000 French were killed. In places, the British forces were outnumbered three to one. Nevertheless, they held their nerve and, after a four hour blood-bath, the French retreated. The battlefield was christened the Fatal Hill. Later, Soult told Napoleon, ‘The day was mine yet they did not know it and would not run.’ A tribute indeed.

When Wellington arrived five days later, it was to find one famous regiment ‘literally lying dead in their ranks as they had stood’. The regiment did not have enough living men to bury the dead.

So, what happened to the wounded? The nearest military hospital was the tiny chapel of S. Joao in the strategically important fortress of Elvas over twenty miles away which Wellington used as a base. The hospital was woefully inadequate. The doctors did what they could but there were few means of getting the wounded there and scanty medical supplies. If their wounds did not kill them, then gangrene, dysentery and enteric fever probably would.

And the dead? We are used to seeing neat rows of military graves. In the 19th century, the war dead were stripped naked and buried in huge pits on the battlefield (their clothes were auctioned off). At Albuera, the pits were not always deep enough. A year later, Lieut. William Bragge visited the battle site and saw the ground white bones – the wolves and kites had had their fill.

The situation after the final successful storming of Badajoz in 1812 was even worse. A surgeon, visiting the main breach the following day, reported: ‘There lay a frightful heap of thirteen to fifteen hundred British soldiers, many dead but still warm, mixed with the desperately wounded, to whom no assistance could yet be given. There lay the burned and blackened corpses of those who had perished by the explosions, stiffening in the gore, body piled upon body…’

Rifleman John Kincaid has another haunting tale from Badajoz . He came across a young officer digging a grave for four of his fallen comrades when ‘an officer of the guards arrived on the spot from a distant division of the army, and demanded tidings of his brother, who was at that moment lying a naked lifeless corpse under his very eyes. The officer had the presence of mind to see that the corpse was not recognized, and, wishing to spare the other’s feelings, told him that his brother was dangerously wounded…’

In 2000, the Friends of the British Cemetery in Elvas was set up to repair the small neglected war cemetery in a bastion of the fort, together with the adjacent chapel, once the military hospital. Their excellent website explains the history. There are just five graves, three from the Peninsular War. Nobody knows where the thousands who died at Albuera and Badajoz are actually buried, but this quiet little cemetery has memorials to all the regiments that fought there. It is a peaceful and moving place.

Photographs: Top: Fatal Hill Albuera; centre: Badajoz, both taken by author; bottom: British war cemetery, Elvas, courtesy of

Elizabeth Hawksley


Sarah Mallory said...

A very thoughtful post, Elizabeth, thank you. Sometimes we forget how grim it must have been for the soldiers and see only the brightly coloured uniforms and waving flags.

I believe on occasion Wellington was moved to tears by the sight of the fallen.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree, Sarah. During the trip, which was led by Col. Peter Knox, ex Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was brilliant at explaining battle tactics, we visited half a dozen battlefields and examined the terrain for ourselves.

His account of the ordinary soldiers' bravery and stubbornness in the face of appalling enemy fire, was both sobering and awe-inspiring. I wanted to do a piece in tribute to their courage.

Lori said...

A very moving post.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thanks, Lori. It wasn't an easy post to write and your comment is much appreciated.