By Janet Reynolds
The Association of the Friends of the English Cemetery in Elvas has since its inception in October 2003 honoured both the military and civilian dead during the 1812 siege of Badajoz in their yearly commemorations, and a memorial plaque was placed on the “Badajoz Wall” of the cemetery, on the occasion of the bi-centenary of the Battle of La Albuera in May of last year.
200 years have passed since the last and most famous of the Sieges of the Spanish frontier town of Badajoz, which took place on April 6th, 1811 during the war the British know as the Peninsular War, and the Portuguese and Spanish as the War of Independence.
British historians, writing of the famous campaigns of the Duke of Wellington in Portugal and Spain between 1808 and 1812, agree that the Battle of La Albuera, which preceded the third and finally victorious 1812 siege of Badajoz, and the siege itself, were the most fiercely fought and bloody combats of the long war waged to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte, an epic struggle which would only end in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo.
Most Portuguese historians give the British army of the Peninsula, and its generals, full recognition of the part they played in the defeat of the French and the survival of Portugal as an independent nation, expressing pride in the recognition Wellington gave to the bravery and fighting spirit of the Portuguese troops under his command.
Spanish history has so far lagged behind in publicly recognising the role of the British Army in freeing Spain from French domination. The last siege of Badajoz, written indelibly in the memory of the town, was one of the most terrible of the entire campaign.
Apart from the death toll of the soldiers who fought and died in their thousands attempting to breach the almost impregnable bastions which surrounded the fortress town, the behaviour of the soldiers who eventually broke through the defences and entered the town resulted in a terrible sack, during which theft, rape, drunkenness and murder continued unabated for three days.
The town of Badajoz, until recently, had not allowed any British memorial to be raised to honour any of the soldiers of Wellington’s army who died on that dreadful day.
An impressive ceremony held in Badajoz in April was a generous and moving testimony to the changed attitudes of modern Spain towards past conflicts. An obelisk was unveiled in what is now called the Gardens of the Sieges of Badajoz, in the course of an inspiring ceremony, as a memorial to all those Spaniards, their allies and their enemies, who fell during those sieges.
The ceremony was watched by a large crowd of residents of the town, who heard stirring speeches recalling the sacrifices made by the inhabitants of Badajoz through centuries of conflict. Britain, Portugal and also France were invited to attend and lay wreaths at the foot of the obelisk. The siege of 1812, the last, was given a special mention, the speaker (a Spanish historian) giving an impartial account of the horrors, stressing that both the French and the Allied commanders had entreated the remaining inhabitants to flee, and that the officers of the regiments who laid sack to the town had tried in vain to control their men. He also repeated the story of Lady Smith, the beautiful Spanish Juana, rescued from the rude soldiery and promptly married by one of Wellington’s officers, Rifleman Harry Smith, a perfect example of love arising from war.
A detachment of troops from the Regimento Saboya VI, executing a slow march to the accompaniment of music, presented the wreaths to the representatives of the nations involved and invited to take part. Colonel Nick Lipscombe, representing Her Majesty’s Army, laid the British wreath; the Portuguese wreath was laid by Brigadier-General de Maria of the Portuguese Air Force, and the French wreath by the Spanish soldiers who carried it in the absence of a French representative.
The Spanish wreath, representing all those who had died in the war from which Spain took a century to recover from, was laid by General Gutierrez de Otazu.
The flag of the Regimento Saboya VI was venerated as representing the flag of Spain, the Spanish National Anthem was played and the crowd rose to its feet and shouted hearty Viva Espana, Viva el Rey, and Viva Badajoz. The ceremony ended with a march past, a military band, and more cheers and applause from the crowd.