Friday, 30 March 2012

Event - Red jacket up a flagpole recalls heroism and horror of Badajoz 200 years on (Nottingham)

VISIT the Spanish town of Badajoz today and you can still walk the ramparts where a pivotal battle of the Peninsular War raged exactly 200 years ago.

On an April day in 1812, an army of 27,000 soldiers, led by the Earl of Wellington, ended their three-week siege of the town.

More than 5,000 French troops had been trapped behind its solid, imposing walls but reinforcements were on the way and Wellington could wait no longer.

In the worst spring weather Spain could throw at them, the British-led force had dug trenches and built gun emplacements.

Howitzers blasted away at the walls, attempting to force a breach through which Wellington's infantry could attack the town.

After three weeks of attrition, Wellington ordered his troops to attack.

With the so-called Forlorn Hope at the front – volunteers who knew their chances of survival were slim – Wellington's men charged into a maelstrom of French cannon and musket fire, grenade and shell.

Hundreds were cut down but the attack pressed on.

In just under two hours, some 2,000 men had been killed or badly wounded at the main breach, while countless more men of the 3rd Division were shot down as they made a diversionary assault.

But the tidal wave of bayonet-thrusting soldiers could not be halted.

The 45th Regiment of Foot (1st Nottinghamshire), which later combined with the 95th Derbyshire Regiment to form the Sherwood Foresters, was in the thick of the action, attempting to find a way on to the ramparts by using scaling ladders.

First up was Lieutenant James Macpherson – but his ladder was three feet too short.

He urged the men below to lift him to the parapet but he was shot by a French soldier and suffered two broken ribs as he fell into the ditch below.

The attack pressed on and the first man who sprang down from the ramparts into the castle was Corporal Kelly, of the fighting 45th.

The castle was won and Macpherson, despite being wounded and bleeding, re-climbed one of the ladders into the castle and made his way to the keep where the French flag was flying.

He seized the sentry and, making his way to the flagstaff, hauled down the flag and hoisted his own jacket in its place, which, fluttering in the breeze at daylight, testified to the gallant part the 45th had taken in the assault.

Every year, on April 6, a simple ceremony is held on Nottingham Castle Green, commemorating Macpherson's symbolic act.

This year, because it is the 200th anniversary, a full military turn-out will support Lord Mayor Michael Wildgust when, at 11am, he raises a red jacket up the flagpole.

At the same time, a party representing the Sherwood Foresters Association will be in Badajoz to pay their respects at the site of the victory.

It had been a brave and costly triumph but what followed cast a stain on the history of the British army as Wellington's men took the old adage of 'to the victor the spoils' beyond civilised limits. For two days, lawlessness and anarchy ruled the streets of Badajoz as Wellington's soldiers went on an orgy of drunkenness, looting, rape and murder.

History was to repeat itself in 1936, when Badajoz was again at the centre of battle, during the Spanish Civil War.

The town fell to the Nationalists and once again the civilian population paid a heavy price. In a four-day rampage of rape and executions, it was estimated that between 1,800 and 4,000 civilians were massacred by Nationalist forces.

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