‘There was but one officer alive’ – The Storming of Ciudad Rodrigo (Part Two)


The Assault

Immediately after General Picton’s stirring address to the men of the Connaught Rangers the signal gun was fired, indicating the commencement of the assault. The men began to filter in to the intricate network of trenches and advance toward the breach, led by the young Lieutenant Mackie and his twenty volunteers of the Forlorn Hope. Once all of the troop dispositions were complete…

‘the moon occasionally, as the clouds which over-cast it passed, shed a faint ray of light upon the battlements of the fortress, and presented to our view the glittering of the enemy’s bayonets as their soldiers stood arrayed upon the ramparts and breach, awaiting our attack: yet, nevertheless, their batteries (artillery) was silent, and might warrant the supposition to an unobservant spectator that the defence would be but feeble.’


The 3rd Division, of which Grattan’s Connaught Rangers were a part, were to assault the main breach whilst the Light Division would storm the lesser breach. Both formations cleared the trenches at the same moment and…

‘each advanced to the attack of their respective points with the utmost regularity. The obstacles which presented themselves to both were nearly the same, but every difficulty, no matter how great, merged into insignificance when placed in the scale of the prize about to be contested. The soldiers were full of ardour, but altogether devoid of that blustering and brovadoing which is truly unworthy of men at such a moment: and it would be difficult to convey an adequate idea of the enthusiastic bravery which animated the troops… The countenances of the soldiers were for the first time, since Picton addressed them, visible – They presented a material change. In place of that joyous animation which his fervid and impressive address called forth, a look of severity, bordering on ferocity, had taken its place: and though ferocity is by no means one of the characteristics of the British soldier, there was, most unquestionably, a savage expression In the faces of the men that I had never before witnessed.’

Once clear of the trenches the French defenders had a clear view of the approaching redcoats. With cannons loaded to the muzzle with case shot (an anti-personnel projectile which included many small iron round shot or musket balls) they opened a murderous fire upon the British columns. The Light Division soon reached and gained the top of the narrow and steep sided breach, but not without a violent and ferocious struggle with the defenders which cost the life of the Commanding General Craufurd.


‘These losses, trying as they were to the feelings of the soldiers, in no way damped their ardour, and the brave Light Division carried the left breach at the point of the bayonet. Once established upon the ramparts, they made all the dispositions necessary to ensure their own conquest, as also to render every assistance in their power to the 3rd Division in their attack. They cleared the ramparts which separated the lesser from the grand breach, and relieved Picton’s division from any anxiety it might have as to its safety on his left flank.’

As the vanguard of the 3rd Division approached the grand breach they found two officers at the head of the 5th and 94th Regiments mounting the Fausse Braye (lower wall outside the main wall). These two Regiments were tasked with silencing the fire from French troops upon the ramparts, and once this was adequately achieved, ‘with a noble emulation’ determined to join the assault on the grand breach. Meeting below the breach both parties ‘greeted each other with a cheer, only to be understood by those who have been placed in a similar situation.’ Undaunted, the French soldiers crowded the breach…

‘and defended it with a bravery that would have made any but troops accustomed to conquer, waver. But the “fighting division” were not the men to be easily turned from their purpose: the breach was speedily mounted, yet, nevertheless, a serious affray took place ere it was gained. A considerable mass of infantry crowned its summit, while in the rear and at each side were stationed men, so placed that they could render every assistance to their comrades at the breach without any great risk to themselves; besides this, two guns of heavy calibre, separated by a ditch of considerable depth and width, enfiladed it, and as soon as the French infantry were forced from the summit, these guns opened their fire on our troops.’


So the redcoats had managed to gain control of the breach, but awaiting them within the walls were two huge cannons charged with case shot ready to pour a devastating fire upon the assailants.

‘The head of the column had scarcely gained the top, when a discharge of grape (similar to case/canister) cleared the ranks of the three leading battalions, and caused a momentary wavering: at the same instant a frightful explosion near the gun to the left of the breach, which shook the bastion to its foundation, completed the disorder…every man on the breach at the moment of the explosion perished… The blaze of light caused by the explosion…presented to our sight the havoc which the enemy’s fire had caused in our ranks, while from afar the astonished Spaniard viewed for an instant, with horror and dismay, the soldiers of the two nations grappling with each other at the top of the rugged breach… The fire of the French artillery played upon our columns with irresistible fury, sweeping from the spot the living and the dead.’

Being caught close to the explosion, Grattan found himself lying on the ground, insensible to his situation and being trampled by the on-rush of soldiers from the rear. He owed his life to Sergeant Major Thorpe who dragged him clear which allowed him time to gather his senses. The French rallied and charged the breach, but were met by more redcoats who had likewise rallied and successfully regained the summit. By now the dead and dying littered the surrounding area and it was impossible to advance but over the bodies of their comrades.  A second discharge from the flanking guns swept away the leading battalions.


‘There was but one officer alive upon the breach (Major Thompson, of the 74th, acting engineer); he called out to those next to him to seize the gun to the left, which had been so fatal to his companions – but this was a desperate service. The gun was completely cut off from the breach by a deep trench, and soldiers, encumbered with their firelocks (muskets), could not pass it in sufficient time to anticipate the next discharge – yet to deliberate was certain death. The French cannoniers, five in number, stood to, and served their gun with as much sang froid (composure/coolness) as if on a parade. Men going to storm a breach generally make up their minds that there is no great probability of their ever returning from it to tell their adventures to their friends, and whether they die at the bottom or top of it, or at the muzzle, or upon the breach of a cannon, it is to them pretty nearly the same!’

Eventually three men of the 88th, Sgt Pat Brazil and his companions Swan and Kelly, reached the gun. Calling to his comrades Sgt Brazil told them to unscrew their bayonets and follow him. They crossed the ditch quickly and engaged the French gunners in hand to hand combat. Grattan describes this ferocious engagement;

‘Swan was the first, and was met by the two gunners on the right of the gun, but, no way daunted, he engaged them, and plunged his bayonet into the breast of one: he was about to repeat the blow upon the other, but before he could disentangle the weapon from his bleeding adversary, the second Frenchman closed upon him, and by a coup de sabre severed his left arm from his body a little above the elbow; he fell from the shock, and was on the eve of being massacred, when Kelly, after having scrambled under the gun, rushed onward to succour his comrade. He bayoneted two Frenchmen on the spot, and at this instant Brazil came up; three of the five gunners lay lifeless, while Swan, resting against an ammunition chest, was bleeding to death. It was now equal numbers; two against two, but Brazil in his over-anxiety to engage was near losing his life at the onset; in making a lunge at the man next to him, his foot slipped upon the bloody platform, and he fell forwards against his antagonist, but as both rolled under the gun, Brazil felt the socket of his bayonet strike hard against the buttons of the Frenchman’s coat. The remaining gunner, in attempting to escape under the carriage from Kelly, was killed by some soldiers of the 5th, who just now reached the top of the breech, and seeing the serious dispute at the gun, pressed forward to the assistance of the three men of the Connaught Rangers.’

Having silenced one of the two flanking guns, reinforcements were able to secure the breach and British soldiers poured into the town. Still the French mounted a heroic defence, fighting street by street until the muskets of the Light Division could be heard in their rear, at which point they knew the game was up. At the cost of roughly two thousand killed or wounded, the town of Ciudad Rodrigo was now in British hands. A further two thousand Frenchmen became casualties during the engagement. What makes these figures truly haunting is that the engagement lasted a matter of hours.

Your British ‘Redcoat’

So that’s Lieutenant William Grattan’s account of the storming of Ciudad Rodrigo. I think it’s a fantastic example of the bravery, courage, comradeship and selfless commitment to duty that is typical of the British soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Grattan’s description of the assault on the cannon demonstrates this perfectly well. For more first-hand accounts I would really recommend the book from which I took this titled The Autobiography of The British Soldier, From Agincourt to Basra, In his Own Words.

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