Sunday, October 28, 2007


When I was writing about Lucknow, I contrasted the slaughter of British (and Indian Christian) women and children by the rebels with the conduct of the British troops.

"... no prisoners were to be made, as we had no one to guard them, and care was to be taken that no women or children were injured. To this the men answered at once, by 'No fear, Sir'. The officers now pledged their honours on their swords to abide by these orders and the men then promised to follow their example."

I tried to think of when British troops last deliberately slaughtered innocent women and children, and could only think of Cromwell's men slaughtering the female camp-followers at Naseby. Even the Bolton Massacre seems to have been of the males of the town. Before that you'd be going back to the Harrying of the North or the St Brice's Day Massacre.

I'd forgotten Badajoz in 1812. The Spanish city was held by French occupation troops - but after taking massive casualties as they scaled the walls, the surviving soldiers found the drink then ran amok in the town for three days before order was restored. Several officers who tried to intervene were shot.

"Men, women and children were shot in the streets for no other apparent reason than pastime; every species of outrage was publicly committed in the houses, churches and streets, and in a manner so brutal that a faithful recital would be too indecent and too shocking for humanity. Not the slightest shadow of order or discipline was maintained; the officers durst not interfere. The infuriated soldiery resembled rather a pack of hell-hounds vomited up from the infernal regions for the extirpation of mankind than what they were twelve short hours previously - a well-organised, brave, disciplined and obedient British army, and burning only with impatience for what is called glory."

Thus the young British subaltern Robert Blakeney.

Captain Harry Smith :

"Now comes a scene of horror I would willingly bury in oblivion. The atrocities committed by our soldiers on the poor innocent and defenceless inhabitants of the city, no words suffice to depict. Civilized man, when let loose and the bonds of morality relaxed, is a far greater beast than the savage, more refined in his cruelty, more fiend-like in every act; and oh, too truly did our heretofore noble soldiers disgrace themselves, though the officers exerted themselves to the utmost to repress it, many who had escaped the enemy being wounded in their merciful attempts!"

And the Spanish citizens of Badajoz were our allies ! You can see why it still rankles.

Buried in an unmarked ditch at the foot of the fortified walls of Badajoz lie the remains of thousands of British soldiers. They died during the Duke of Wellington's campaign, with Spanish and Portuguese help, to drive Napoleon's forces back into France.

But the absence of a memorial marking their sacrifice is no accident. "It does not seem such a good idea to erect a memorial for a horde of devils and savages that raped women and profaned our churches," said one townsman, Juan Maria Cervera. Mr Cervera is part of a group of locals that has mounted fierce opposition to successive petitions to honour the British dead.

It all turned out rather well for Captain Smith, though :

"We observed two ladies coming from the city, who made directly towards us; they seemed both young, and when they came near, the elder of the two threw back her mantilla to address us, showing a remarkably handsome figure, with fine features; but her sallow, sun-burnt, and careworn, though still youthful, countenance showed that in her 'the time for tender thoughts and soft endearments had fled away and gone.'

"She at once addressed us in that confident, heroic manner so characteristic of the high-bred Spanish maiden, told us who they were–the last of an ancient and honourable house–and referred to an officer high in rank in our army, who had been quartered there in the days of her prosperity, for the truth of her tale.

"Her husband, she said, was a Spanish officer in a distant part of the kingdom; he might, or he might not, still be living. But yesterday she and this her young sister were able to live in affluence and in a handsome house; to-day they knew not where to lay their heads, where to get a change of raiment or a morsel of bread. Her house, she said, was a wreck; and, to show the indignities to which they had been subjected, she pointed to where the blood was still trickling down their necks, caused by the wrenching of their ear-rings through the flesh by the hands of worse than savages, who would not take the trouble to unclasp them!

"For herself, she said, she cared not; but for the agitated and almost unconscious maiden by her side, whom she had but lately received over from the hands of her conventual instructresses, she was in despair, and knew not what to do; and that, in the rapine and ruin which was at that moment desolating the city, she saw no security for her but the seemingly indelicate one she had adopted–of coming to the camp and throwing themselves upon the protection of any British officer who would afford it; and so great, she said, was her faith in our national character, that she knew the appeal would not be made in vain, nor the confidence abused. Nor was it made in vain! Nor could it be abused, for she stood by the side of an angel! A being more transcendingly lovely I had never before seen–one more amiable I have never yet known!

"Fourteen summers had not yet passed over her youthful countenance, which was of a delicate freshness–more English than Spanish; her face, though not perhaps rigidly beautiful, was nevertheless so remarkably handsome, and so irresistibly attractive, surmounting a figure cast in nature's fairest mould, that to look at her was to love her; and I did love her, but I never told my love, and in the mean time another and a more impudent fellow stepped in and won her! But yet I was happy, for in him she found such a one as her loveliness and her misfortunes claimed–a man of honour, and a husband in every way worthy of her!"

Just fourteen she might have been, but the "impudent fellow", 22-year old Captain Smith, married her, became General Sir Harry Smith, and Lady Juana Maria de los Delores de Leon Smith gave her name to the South African town, the scene of another famous siege nearly a century later.