Europe in 1808
By the year 1808 France had achieved domination over the great majority of continental Europe. Through victories at Ulm (1805), Austerlitz (1805), Jena-Auerstädt (1806) and Friedland (1807) her armies had successively eliminated Austria, Prussia and Russia as military opponents. Britain alone had withstood the power of France, achieving security against invasion through Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar (1805).
The tide began to turn in 1808 when Napoleon created a new enemy by usurping the Spanish throne in favour of his brother Joseph. The Spanish uprising that followed encouraged Britain to send an expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula. The ensuing war was to play a major part in Napoleon's downfall.
The War: Consolidation, 1808-1811
The road to war began in the autumn of 1807 when Napoleon moved French troops through Spain to invade Portugal. After feeding more than 100,000 troops into Spain under the pretext of supporting the invasion, Napoleon deposed the existing Spanish monarch in April 1808 in order to place his own brother Joseph on the throne. Although the ensuing Spanish uprising can hardly have come as a surprise to Napoleon, he failed to see that the revolt could never be completely suppressed.
Britain now had a new ally in Spain and in August 1808 landed an expeditionary force under the command of Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Wellesley at the mouth of the Mondego river in Portugal. Moving south towards Lisbon, Wellesley defeated Delaborde at Roliça on 17th August before turning to the mouth of the Maceira river to protect the landing of reinforcements. On 21st August, Wellesley's position around Vimeiro Hill was attacked from the east by Junot. The Battle of Vimeiro was the first occasion on which Napoleonic offensive tactics combining skirmishers, columns and supporting artillery fire failed against the British infantry line and Wellesley's defensive skills. Junot was defeated, though an opportunity to inflict further damage on the French was lost as the out-ranked Wellesley was replaced first by Burrard and then by Dalrymple. Wellesley's victory was still sufficient to persuade the French to evacuate Portugal as part of a controversial agreement which became known as the Convention of Sintra.
The departure of Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley to face criticism of the Convention in Britain left Sir John Moore in command of a British army of 30,000 in Portugal. The scale of the war in the Peninsula escalated as a Spanish victory over Dupont at Bailén in July was answered by Napoleon's arrival in Spain at the head of 200,000 veteran troops. Moore struck towards Burgos and the northern flank of Napoleon's army, succeeding in drawing French forces away from southern Spain before being forced to retreat westwards. The retreat ended in the evacuation by sea of Moore's army at La Coruña in January 1809, and in the loss of Moore's own life. Napoleon meanwhile had transferred command of the pursuit to Soult and returned to Paris, never again to lead an army in the Peninsula.
In April 1809 Wellesley, freed from criticism over the Convention of Sintra, returned to Portugal and assumed command of all British-Portuguese forces. Immediately, he implemented three innovations in army organization: the infantry were for the first time divided into autonomous divisions, each infantry brigade was provided with at least one company of riflemen, and - to mutual benefit - one battalion of Portuguese infantry was placed in each of five British brigades.
After defeating Soult at Porto on 12th May, Wellesley crossed the border into Spain, joined forces with the Spanish general Cuesta, and marched eastwards. On 27th-28th July, French armies under Joseph attacked the allies north of Talavera. The British-Portuguese lines held throughout the Battle of Talavera, finally compelling Joseph to abandon the battlefield. The victory had, however, been costly and, with Soult threatening to cut the road to Portugal, Wellesley was forced to fall back.
The latter months of 1809 saw Spanish armies crushed first at Ocaña and then at Alba de Tormes, while Wellesley, now Viscount Wellington of Talavera, concentrated on building defences astride the roads into Portugal and began construction work on the Lines of Torres Vedras, a deep defensive system protecting Lisbon.
The value of Wellington's preparations was proved in the following year when Masséna led a French army through Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida in a fresh attempt to re-take Portugal. Despite being repulsed on 27th September 1810 in his attacks against Wellington's position on the ridge at Buçaco, Masséna was able to force Wellington to seek safety behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. Masséna had no chance of breaking through with the forces at his disposal, and a stand-off ensued until a lack of supplies and the imminent arrival of British reinforcements in the spring of 1811 led Masséna to fall back.
With one French army under Soult checked by Graham's victory at Barrosa on 5th March 1811, Wellington was able to push Masséna out of Portugal. Counter-attacks at Fuentes de Oñoro on 3rd and 5th May 1811 were repulsed after desperate struggles in the streets of the village. Masséna, having failed to re-take Portugal, was replaced by Marmont. A further bloody battle took place at Albuera on 16th May as Soult's move north was intercepted by a combined British-Portuguese-Spanish force under Beresford. Although Beresford's handling of the battle - in which the French made the largest single infantry attack of the War - attracted much criticism, Soult was finally forced to retreat. French armies continued to threaten Wellington throughout the latter months of 1811, but at no time were able to catch him at a disadvantage. The turning point of the war had been reached.
The War: Attack, 1812-1814
On 8th January 1812 Wellington began to advance through Spain. Ciudad Rodrigo fell on 19th January followed, after a costly assault, by Badajoz on 6th April. Wellington's ability to push on eastwards in the face of an enemy that was numerically far superior was made possible by Spanish regular and guerrilla forces pinning down French armies elsewhere in Spain. On 17th June, Wellington entered Salamanca with only Marmont's army in the vicinity.
The two armies shadowed each other over the next few weeks until Marmont attempted to out-flank Wellington on 22nd July. Wellington seized the opportunity to attack and in the ensuing Battle of Salamanca won a crushing victory. Wellington entered Madrid on 6th August and penetrated as far as Burgos before being forced to withdraw to Salamanca and then to Ciudad Rodrigo when threatened by a combined French force under Soult, Joseph and Suchet.
Over the winter of 1812/1813 events moved further in Wellington's favour. Napoleon's invasion of Russia in June 1812 had ended in disaster, and by March 1813 French armies in east Europe were falling back to the Elbe river. With Prussia re-entering the war against France on 16th March, Napoleon was unable to spare fresh troops for the Peninsula as he prepared to counter-attack in the east. At the same time reinforcements continued to be fed into Wellington's army.
The difficulties facing the French commanders, Joseph and Jourdan, mounted as their armies became increasingly pinned down by allied regular and guerrilla forces. In May 1813 Wellington returned to the offensive, striking northwards towards Burgos without allowing the French armies the chance to concentrate. From Burgos, Wellington outflanked Joseph by wheeling through the mountains to the north. Joseph finally took up a defensive position in the valley of the Zadorra river, only to see his forces routed on 21st June in the Battle of Vitoria.
Vitoria essentially sealed Napoleon's fate. News of Wellington's victory not only rallied the Prussian-Russian alliance after defeats by Napoleon at Lützen and Bautzen, but contributed towards Austria's decision in August to re-enter the war against France.
By mid-July, Wellington had reached the Pyrenees while Joseph and Jourdan had been replaced by Soult. Although a counter-offensive by Soult was briefly successful at Maya and Roncesvalles, Wellington's victory at Sorauren on 28th July restored the initiative to the allies.
On 7th October Wellington crossed the Bidassoa into France; on 10th November the French defences along the line of the Nivelle were broken. Soult counter-attacked again on 10th December after Wellington had crossed the Nive. Fighting continued over four days before the allied army under Hill's command forced Soult back to the outskirts of Bayonne. In the meantime, the continental allies were closing in on the French border from the east following victories at Dennewitz in September and Leipzig in October.
On 27th February 1814, having succeeded in drawing Soult away from Bayonne, Wellington attacked and defeated the French Marshal at Orthez. Although the resolve of the continental allies was again tested by Napoleon's vigorous defence of France, Paris was entered by the allies on 31st March. The last battle of the Peninsular War was fought on 10th April as Wellington cleared the French from the Calvinet Ridge overlooking the city of Toulouse. On 12th April, news reached Wellington of Napoleon's abdication. After six years, the Peninsular War was over.
It can well be argued that the seeds of Napoleon's defeat and abdication in 1814 were sown by the Emperor himself six years earlier when he usurped the Spanish throne for his brother Joseph and, in so doing, alienated the Spanish nation.
The myth of French invincibility in battle was soon exposed by the defeats of Dupont and Junot at Bailén and Vimeiro in 1808. Despite the withdrawal from La Coruña, Britain - through her navy's domination of the seas - was able to take advantage of an alliance with Portugal and Spain to gain a foothold on Continental Europe. By 1810-1811, 300,000 French troops had been sucked into the Peninsula, and yet only 70,000 could be spared to confront Wellington; the remainder were pinned down elsewhere by the threat of local insurrections and the actions of guerrillas. With the French unable to concentrate their forces against the British-Portuguese army, Wellington was able to move on to the offensive.
Although the outcome of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia may not have been decided by events in the Peninsula, the course of the 1813 German campaign almost certainly was. Not only was the absence of some 200,000 French troops still locked into the Peninsula pivotal, but also Wellington's crushing victory at Vitoria served to rally the Prussian-Russian alliance that was wavering after setbacks at Lützen and Bautzen.
Napoleon is said to have exclaimed that it was absurd "que quarante mille Anglais gâtent toutes les affaires d'Espagne." Alongside their Portuguese and Spanish allies they surely accomplished considerably more.
"Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814" by Jac Weller, published by Greenhill Books 1999, ISBN 1853673811. Highly recommended.
"A History of the Peninsular War, Volumes I-VII" by Sir Charles Oman, published by Greenhill Books 1995-1997. The definitive history of the War.
"Wellington's Peninsular War" by Julian Paget, published by Pen & Sword 1992, ISBN 0850526035. Less substantial than Weller, though useful for its notes on the battle sites as they exist today.
"The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War" by David Gates, published by Pimlico 2002, ISBN 0712697306. Recently reprinted, this book gives a more complete account of the War than most.
"The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes" by Mark Urban, published by Faber and Faber 2001, ISBN 0571205380. A very readable book which gives a critical overview of Wellington's campaigns in the Peninsula as well as an account of George Scovell's deciphering of the grand chiffre.
Prospective travellers to Spain might like to read our Travel Journal.
© Andrew C Jackson 1997-2004