Tuesday, 30 June 2009


After an uneventful evening in Badajoz we were excited at the prospect of visiting Albuera. I would have welcomed a guided tour of Badajoz but this was not to be. The battle of Albuera which was fought on 5 May 1811 is not one I had studied in any great detaill. I was aware that it had been fought on the same day as Fuentes de Orono. But I knew more about the latter battle, because Wellington had been in command. I should explain that I had read quite a few books about the Peninsular campaign, but I was at the stage where it was all a little confused in my mind. I was hoping that this tour would help to keep the different battles and campaigns in some sort of order.

It is a short drive from Badajoz to Albuera, about 15 miles. So soon after leaving the city we were in the unimpressive town. Our first stop was the town square.

Albuera is situated west of the river of the same name, which flows north from south. The French approached along the main road, which crossed the river by a bridge and then passed through the town. The French had come north to raise the siege of Badajoz.

Beresford deployed his British, Portuguese and Spanish troops in the expectation that Soult would attack over river, using the bridge. The Spanish formed the allied right, or south, flank. They were still deploying as the French attack on the town commenced.

Our first stop was in the town square, with its memorial to the battle. The town was pretty unimpressive, and as I had not read up on the battle in any great detail not particularly interesting. I knew that the town was held by a KGL brigade, but that was about the extent of my knowledge.

We were however able to obtain an excellent view of the area of the French approach. The first attack was on the town and the nearby bridge. There was an area of trees to the right of the photograph, on the far side of the river. So Beresford could not see what the French reserves were doing. In fact they were crossing the river further to the right and were about to attack his flank - currently held by the Spanish.

This is the bridge over the river Albuera, and the scene of much fighting. The first French attack was over this bridge, and across the river either side of it. This is apparently the original bridge and not a later replacement.

The area of fighting on the allied right flank is an easy walk from the town, but you don't have to walk with Holts Tours. We trooped back onto the coach, and it took us across the fields to a spot, which we were assured, was the centre of the main fighting. Above Captain P and Julia explain the battle and point out the relevant points.

The main French attack was against the weakly held allied right flank. Beresford did not spot the French crossing the river, and the Spanish troops were to bear the brunt of the initial attack unsupported. The Spanish holding this area held their ground until supported by the British infantry. The firefight turned into a real "slogging match". The French were fought to a stand still, and eventually retreated south. However the allied casualties were very high. Many of the English troops involved were convinced that it would not have happened had Wellington himself been in command. However he never blamed Beresford, and indeed always supported him in his handling of the battle.

As you can see, the ground is flat and featureless. There is no sign of the "hill" where the firefight took place, but we were told that this is the area where the Spanish, and later British, troops exchanged fire with the French, who approached over this arable land. I have since read that there is some debate about the exact dispositions, but I have no reason to doubt what we were told.

Another view of the main fighting area. Left centre background is the town church, and in the centre the bridge.

I guess that we spent about one hour in the town, and another on the battlefield. As we were briefed on the battle, the coach driver washed the coach after its cross country drive! This visit was typical of the whole tour. You were driven to the exact spot where you would view the battle, which was explained in sweeping detail. You took your photographs, and you got back on the coach again - which had been washed while you were being briefed. Nothing wrong with that, and indeed it seemed to be just what my fellow travellers wanted. Indeed it might even be true that there was not much more to see no matter how much time you allowed for the visit. However I was left wishing I could have got my shoes just a little muddy and been allowed to explore the area more.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


Map of the city and the outworks

We arrived in Badajoz late in the afternoon, and drove straight to the area of the main breach, which is now a pretty little park. As we left the coach it was quite hard to realise that this was the site of the horrific storming on 6 April 1812.

We gathered at the foot of the breach, and Julia (our guest speaker) outlined the events of that fateful night. The walls are certainly impressive, indeed quite overpowering as you stand below and strain your neck to gaze up at them.

Badajoz from across the river

Julia (right in blue trousers) briefs the tour in the park at the foot of the walls

The attractive park built at the site of the storming

Up close to these massive city walls it was hard to imagine how anyone could climb them, let alone fight their way through in the face of a determined defence.

My favourite painting of the storm, despite the obvious attempt to add glamour for me it captures the strength of the defences and the determination to overcome them.

The castle from the garden. These walls were scaled and the castle taken by force

After a short time spent inspecting the walls, it was back to the coach and we drove into the city and parked near the same spot, but inside the city. Huge stone steps led up to the ramparts. We were impressed by how wide they were, you could easily drive a car along them. They are now covered in rubbish, and even used needles left by the local junkies. Very, very sad and really depressing to see such disregard for such an important site.

Not a very good photograph of the walls, but it was the only one I took standing below, and it has special memories for me.

The northwest wall of Badajoz looking east towards the castle. The road has been built between the town and the river Guadianna.

The ramparts of the walls, now very overgrown and covered with rubbish and even discarded syringes. Not a place you would want to visit on your own after dark

I felt that our visit to Badajoz was cut short, and I suspect that it was because we were running late. On the other hand, I might be wrong. Perhaps Captain P had covered all the ground intended, and just wanted to get his tour to the hotel. Its one of the big disadvantages of any, even the best, coach tour that your time at each location is governed by the requirements of the tour rather than your own inclination to remain and look around more. It was a feeling which I had more than once during this tour.

It was getting dark as we arrived at the hotel. Holts only use the better hotels and arrival and departure is usually a very smooth operation - but not this time. It appears that the hotel was in the process of closing down at the end of their tourist season. The hotel felt very cold and there were long delays at the reception. There were also soon complaints about lack of hot water. I have to admit that these problems were quickly overcome by Captain P. It was a small thing, and highlights how well the administration of the whole tour was handled that this is the only example I can remember.

Despite these delays booking in, we had two hours before our evening meal. My fellow tourists were more interested in baths, dinner and getting the heating sorted out than they were in exploring Badajoz. Indeed even Jan seemed more interested in creature comforts. However knowing that we were to leave first thing next morning, I wanted to explore Badajoz a little more.

Leaving Jan to enjoy the comforts of the hotel, I walked the short distance to the city. The hotel was on the other side of the river, and it was dark as I crossed the wide bridge overlooked by the castle and city walls.

I had heard that Badajoz had a reputation as a sad and depressing place. I am not usually receptive to such feelings, but I must admit that it was depressing as I walked the dark and almost empty streets. I made my way to the main plaza and the cathedral, glad to find bright lights and crowds of people. I explored some of the narrow dark streets, and made my way towards the greater darkness near the city walls. It was very easy to imagine what tit must have been like when the town was sacked after the siege. However remembering the discarded syringes on the ramparts I felt quite uncomfortable, even threatened, and made my way back to the hotel - a little sheepishly!

The road bridge over the river Guadiana looking bright and pretty, not at all like it was when I crossed it that evening in 1971

The same bridge during the siege in 1812

This photographs perfectly captures the mean streets of Badajoz near the city walls. You can imagine what it was like exploring along on a dark night!

I have since read that Badajoz is a depressing place where memories of the tragedies of a century and a half ago seem to linger in the old streets. And of course there were more tragedies to follow during the Spanish Civil War. I can only agree with this description, though whether it was due to my being tired after a busy day or not I am not really sure.

I feel quite sad that this is my lasting memory of Badajoz. I would not wish to put anyone off visiting the town, for it is well worth a visit. And indeed I actually feel that this type of memory is perfectly right for the scene of such horror and destruction, both in the Napoleonic Wars and later in the Spanish Civil War.

It is also true that of all the battlefields I have visited, this is one that I have never had any inclination to return to. I feel that Holts were probably right in the short amount of time they allocated to view the walls, and that there was not much more to see which would make a longer visit worth while.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Elvas and Fort Christoval

Tuesday morning we were up bright and early, excited to be on the road to Badajoz. We had a pleasant breakfast, but soon realised our fellow travellers were not to be seen. Worried that we might miss the coach we returned to our room for our suitcases and booked out. Then we learned our first lesson in coach tours - always be early on the first day. Most of the seats were already taken, certainly all of the best ones. What we had not realised is that with Holts you keep your seat for the whole t0ur, so the more experienced travellers had made sure that they had the best ones!

But all of this was pretty "small beer" as we settled down for the journey. Captain P explained the administration of the holiday as we left Lisbon. After each stop you had to check that the passengers in the seat in front of you had caught the coach. Also the time table for the day, which started with a short stop at Elvas on the Spanish border

Elvas played an important role in the Peninsular Wars, because it controlled the southern route from Spain to Portugal. This was also the direct road to Lisbon. It is situated a few miles from its more famous neighbour - Badajoz. For much of the war Badajoz was held by the French, so it was vital to hold Elvas. Despite this I could not find any record of a serious attempt by the French to take it.

We had gets her first sight of Badajoz from the walls of Elvas. We only stopped here for half an hour, not nearly long enough to explore all that we would have liked to.

Next stop was Fort Christoval. This fort played a vital role in both the first and second sieges of Badajoz in 1811. The old photograph above of Fort Christoval was taken from the walls of Badajoz.

It is obvious from the above photograph and the diagram why possession of the fort was so important. Guns places on this high hill overlooking the city walls would cause havoc to the city and its garrison.

I took this photographs from the walls of Fort Christoval looking down on Badajoz across the river.

There is no restriction on access to Fort Christoval. We were able to walk around as we wished, and it is clear that the Fort has changed little, if at all, since 1811.

Julia Page was the guest speaker, and the expert on the period. Standing in front of Fort Christoval she told us the history of the two sieges. How the ground consisted of hard rock and little earth, so the British were unable to construct trenches to shelter their approach to the walls.

This diagram shows the position of the batteries during the first and second sieges.

Julia also told us the story of the assault on the fort. How the scaling ladders were made of unseasoned wood, which broke when the assault went in. The attackers were caught in this deep trench with the defenders firing down on them at very short ranges. It was quite an experience to walk around the walls having heard such a vivid description of the assault, and to see how impossible it would have been to climb the walls to get at the defenders.

Just where I am standing, on 6 June 1811 "....the main body of the storming party leapt down into the ditch, where they came to a halt. They could see there were seven feet of sheer ascent to the lowest point of the lip of the breach, and they saw that the gap itself has been stopped with carts and other obstacles. The French garrison plied them with musketry, and kept rolling down among them live shells that they had prepared for the occasion. " Out of 180 men there were 12 dead and 80 wounded. The French lost 1 dead and 5 wounded.

We were allowed about two hours a to explore Fort Christoval. I would have liked even longer, but it was getting dark and dinner awaited in Badajoz.