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During the Peninsular War, Wellington’s army stormed and sacked the towns of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian. The French garrisons were spared but British troops notoriously plundered the towns and committed atrocities against the Spanish inhabitants. Military historians have traditionally focused on the operational side of these sieges; only very recently has there emerged an interest in the sacks themselves. This long-standing neglect of the sacks is symptomatic of a broader neglect of the history of sieges in the Napoleonic era, and of the study of sack itself within early modern European warfare. This paper presents some of the key findings of my recent book, Storm and Sack: British Sieges, Violence and the Laws of War in the Napoleonic Era, 1799–1815 (CUP, 2022). It explores British military practices and mentalities across a series of siege and sack case-studies spanning three continents, from Spain to India and South America. It uncovers the interconnected military, legal, cultural and emotional history of the storm and sack of besieged towns, as recorded in the letters, diaries and memoirs of British soldiers, the very forces responsible for the violence. Yet this is a multifaceted story of both violence and restraint, encompassing not only rage, enmity, plunder and atrocity, but also mercy, honour, humanity and moral outrage. In so doing, this paper highlights the siege in the Napoleonic era as an important but overlooked space for examining changes and continuities in customary laws of war, cultures of war, and the strengths, limitations and paradoxes of enlightened civility and humanitarian discourses over the long eighteenth century.

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This will be a ‘hybrid’ seminar with a limited number of places available in person and a larger number of bookings for online attendance via Zoom. Those attending in person are asked to bring a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, tablet or phone.