Peninsular War 1808-1814

Battles fought in Peninsular War, Napoleon’s French army opposed by Britain, Spain and Portugal commanded by the Duke of Wellington.

It was at this point that the government turned to Sir Arthur Wellesley for advice for the Peninsular War. Recognising that he had not been to blame for the humiliation of the Convention of Cintra and had in fact, conducted the short campaign of August 1808 with remarkable success.

7th March 1809, he submitted a memorandum to Viscount Castleragh, the secretary of state for war. He argued that Portugal could be defended regardless of events in Spain. As long as an adequate army under strong command were to be despatched to Lisbon for the Peninsular War. It was to reinforce the 10,000 men left there by Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore five months earlier.

sir arthur wellesley landing at lisbon in 1809
Sir Arthur Wellesley landing at Lisbon in 1809.

22nd April 1809, Wellesley landed at Lisbon to command a force of 20,000 British troops. 3,000 members of the King’s German legion and an estimated 16,000 Portuguese. He faced a daunting task. Ranged against him were three French armies at Oporto to the North, Ciudad Rodrigo to the North-East and Badajoz to the East. Each of which was capable of matching the numbers under his command. Altogether the French had nearly 200,000 troops in the Iberian Peninsula.

Wellesley could only aim to defeat each army in turn, retreating into Portugal whenever he felt threatened by overwhelming numbers. It was this factor that made the Peninsular war campaign, conducted between 1809 and 1814, such a see-saw affair of advance and withdrawal. A clear measure of the brilliance of Wellesley, that he had become prepared to fight in such a way. In the process, his army gained the experience and expertise to achieve some memorable victories.

7th May 1809, Wellesley’s first objective was Oporto, defended by 20,000 French soldiers under Marshal Soult. The main British force of 18,000 men advanced from Coimbra, with the Portuguese providing flank protection. Four days later Wellesley crossed the River Douro to catch Soult by surprise.

The French withdrew with cavalry at their heels, retiring North to Galicia across mountainous terrain. By early June Portugal had become cleared of enemy troops, enabling Wellesley to turn his attention to Spain. His aim was to make contact with a Spanish army of 30,000 men under General Cuesta before marching against Marshal Victor at Talavera.

the battle of talavera de la reina, 1809
The battle of Talavera de la Reina, 1809 – painted by William Heath

27th July 1809, Despite problems caused by the indiscipline of Cuesta’s men, who raced towards Madrid only to encounter an enemy army of 46,000 well-trained soldiers. The British force of 20,000 took up strong positions at Talavera, where they had become attacked by the French.

The battle during the Peninsular War which earned Wellesley his more familiar title of Duke of Wellington, was won primarily by the discipline of the British infantry. They laid behind the crest of a ridge to escape French fire. They would then stand and fire volleys into the enemy, then charge with the bayonet.

The French faltered and under pressure from Allied cavalry, withdrew having suffered 7,000 casualties. By comparison, the British lost 5,000 men and gained the field.

2nd August 1809, Wellington received reports that a new French army of 20,000 men had advanced across his rear. This was to take Plasencia, threatening his links with Portugal. He therefore moved his army back to Almaraz on the River Tagus before withdrawing towards Badajoz in the South-West.

The French followed, although when it had become apparent to them that Wellington had no intention of giving battle. They marched North again to deal with yet another Spanish uprising. Wellington took to opportunity to travel to Lisbon to supervise the construction of defences around the city (the ‘Lines of the Torres Vedras’). His army occupied winter quarters around Abrantes and along the River Mondego. A French attack was unlikely once the weather worsened.

Both sides prepared for a fresh Peninsular War campaign in 1810. Wellington, having vowed never to attempt another operation in conjunction with the ill-disciplined Spanish, concentrated on the defence of Portugal. The Portuguese militia of 45,000 had become called out. Arrangements were made for the evacuation of the entire area. The French were dependent for supplies on what they captured, and might advance.

In addition, the lines of the Torres Vedras, comprising fixed defences to the North of Lisbon, were completed. It gave the Anglo-Portuguese forces a secure base to which they might withdraw. Meanwhile, Wellington’s main army of 60,000 men, half of whom were British, guarded the likely French approach routes in the Mondego and Tagus valleys. They did not have long to wait.

June 1810 Marshal Massena, one of Napoleon’s more experienced generals, had gathered 86,000 men of Portugal. He was ready to advance.

storming of ciudad rodrigo, 1812
Storming of Ciudad Rodrigo, 1812 – coloured aquatint by T Sutherland after William Heath

Massena began his campaign by laying siege to and capturing Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida. Although in the process he gave clear warning that his main line of advance would be along the River Mondego.

Wellington reacted by concentrating his army along a 10-mile ridge at Busaco, on the road from Almeida to Coimbra.

27th September 1810, when the French attacked the ridge, they suffered a costly defeat. This was no more than a delaying action. As soon as it was over, Wellington pulled back towards his prepared defences outside Lisbon.

The French were left to march across land deliberately laid bare of supplies. They then encountered the elaborate earthworks and trenches which made up the lines of the Torres Vedras. Although Masena held on throughout the winter, his army rapidly lost cohesion.

In March 1811, Masena had no choice but to order a retreat into Spain. His soldiers struggled over the mountains of central Portugal. They were harried mercilessly by guerrillas and kept on the move by the advance guard of Wellington’s army. The French fell back to Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo. They left 25,000 of their comrades behind.

Wellington’s next task was to capture the frontier forts at Almeida and further South at Badajoz, preparatory to an invasion of Spain. It proved to be a difficult task.

11th May 1811, as British troops laid siege to Almeida a reorganised French army under Massena suddenly attacked them at Fuentes d’onoro. The fighting became desperate. Wellington later admitted that it was the closest he came to defeat during the Peninsula War. The stubborn resolve of the redcoats forced the enemy back.

the 30th foot at the storming of badajoz, 1812
The 30th Foot at the Storming of Badajoz, 1812 – painted by Richard Simkin

Five days later the Anglo-Portuguese army besieging Badajoz were attacked by Soult at Albuera. In the aftermath of a brutal and bloody engagement, characterised by orders to the 57th Foot (1st Battalion, Middlesex Regiment) to ‘die hard’ in the battle. Neither side claimed victory, although it soon became apparent that the French had withdrawn.

Even so, Wellington’s plans for an offensive into Spain had to be postponed until his shattered battalions could be reinforced. Almeida was taken, but as the winter closed in, the siege of Badajoz had to be abandoned. The French, now under the command of Marshal Marmont, were content to suspend operations until spring, This proved to be a mistake.

1st January 1812, Wellington resumed the offensive despite the intense cold, aiming to lay siege to Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz before marching into central Spain. By early April, both forts had been taken. Two months later, Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army crossed the River Agueda and advanced towards Salamanca, capturing the town on 17th June.

Marmont deliberately drew Wellington deeper into Spain along stretched supply lines, refusing to give battle, and on 16th July threatened to outflank his opponent on the River Douro. Wellington pulled back towards Salamanca, tempting Marmont to over-extend his advance.

22nd July 1812, on a plain beneath the Arapiles Heights to the South-East of Salamanca, the French spearhead were suddenly attacked in the flank by the British 3rd and 5th Divisions. The British had been hidden from Marmont’s view by folds in the ground. As the French infantry reeled from the shock they were hit by a stunning cavalry charge carried out by the British Heavy Brigade. It had ben commanded by General Le Marchant, who was mortally wounded in the process.

By nightfall, Marmont’s army of Portugal had collapsed, losing an estimated 14,000 men and 20 guns. Marmont himself, wounded in the early stages of the engagement, was on his way back to France. It was Wellington’s most impressive victory to date.

the 88th foot at the battle of salamanca, 1812
The 88th Foot at the Battle of Salamanca, 1812 – painted by Christopher Clark

12th August 1812, An immediate consequence was the liberation of Madrid, effected by Wellington’s troops, but the French were by no means finished. The British and Portuguese marched North to lay siege to Burgos. General Clausel (Marmont’s successor) rallied his forces and moved against Wellington, while further South an army of 60,000 Frenchman advanced towards the Spanish Capital.

Faced with possible encirclement, Wellington pulled back to Salamanca and then to Ciudad Rodrigo, abandoning all his territorial gains of the year, including Madrid. By October, his troops were dispersed in winter quarters in central Portugal.

Despite the apparently indecisive nature of operations in 1812 during the Peninsular War, the French hold on Spain had been weakened. The defeat at Salamanca undermined French morale and gave renewed hope to the people of Spain, a significant proportion of whom engaged in, or actively supported, guerrilla attacks that diverted substantial numbers of French soldiers from the front line.

When Wellington began his next campaign in May 1813, his chances of success were higher than ever before. He now had over 80,000 Allied troops under his command, half of whom he sent to Salamanca and half along the River Esla with the intention of encircling the enemy army in Castile.

The French withdrew through Valladolid, Palencia and Burgos. On 21st June the French were forced to make a stand at Vitoria to protect their retreating columns. The ensuing battle, although a victory for Wellington, became marred by a failure to pursue the broken enemy (British soldiers seemed far more interested in looting the French baggage train) but the results were impressive.

By the end of the month northern and central Spain had been cleared except for small garrisons in San Sebastian and Pamplona (which Wellington proceeded to besiege) and the French had withdrawn into the Pyrenees. Operations in eastern Spain, carried out by a British force of 80,000 men that had landed at Alicante in 1812, were less successful, but to all intents and purposes the Iberian Peninsula was now in Allied hands.

1st life guards at the battle of vitoria, 1813
1st Life Guards at the Battle of Vitoria, 1813

After 20 years of war, the British army was at last achieving decisive results. This trend continued during the final months of the Peninsular War. Despite French counter-attacks in July 1813, delivered around Roncesvalles and the Maya pass, Wellington succeeded in taking both Pamplona and San Sebastian by October.

He then moved against enemy positions along the River Bidassoa with the intention of invading France, winning the battle of the Nivelle in November and approaching the city of Bayonne on either side of the River Nive a month later.

At the same time, British forces in eastern Spain advanced as far as Gerona, putting additional pressure on the French, who were also having to contend with Austrian, Russian and Prussian attacks from the East. Thus when Wellington resumed his offensive in January 1814, he did so against weakened opposition.

27th February 1814, he won the Battle of Orthez, to the East of Bayonne. Within weeks he had captured Bordeaux and pushed forward as far as Toulouse, where the final battle of the war took place on 10th April. Paris had fallen to the Eastern allies, Napoleon had abdicated. French resistance had crumbled, bringing end to the Peninsular War.