Peninsular War (1807–1809)


The Spanish Army’s triumph at Bailén was the French Empire’s first defeat. Painting by José Casado del Alisal.


The Spanish Division of the North sent to fight the British in Denmark pledging to turn against France and side with the British.


A bloodbath that might have cost the lives of a million people, the Peninsular War was the fruit of overconfidence, folie de grandeur, and miscalculation. In October 1807 with the permission and assistance of the Spanish government, Napoleon sent French troops to occupy Portugal in order to close it off to British trade. The royal family escaped to Brazil, but resistance was nonexistent, and there seems little reason to believe that the French would have experienced more than minor local difficulties in the ordinary course of events. However, impelled by little more than opportunism, as autumn turned to winter Napoleon resolved on intervention in the complicated politics of the Spanish court, his aim being to make Spain a more effective ally.

This proved a disastrous mistake. In March 1808 a palace coup had replaced King Charles IV with the heir to the throne, Ferdinand VII. Thanks to the propaganda of powerful elements of the Church and aristocracy bent on opposing (Spanish) Bourbon reformism, who had seized on the vacuous and malleable Ferdinand as a useful tool, the new king had come to be seen as a “Prince Charming,” who would put all Spain’s many ills to rights. French intervention, and, more specifically, the invitation of the entire royal family to a “conference” with Napoleon in Bayonne, therefore provoked unrest: There was, for example, a serious uprising in Madrid on 2 May. In consequence, news that Ferdinand had been forced to abdicate in favor of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, was the catalyst for a series of revolts in the many parts of the country that had remained unoccupied by the French, a similar wave of rebellion soon gripping Portugal.

The nature of this revolt has been widely misunderstood. The subject is a complex one, but in short it was not the unanimous uprising for God, king, and fatherland of legend. Popular concern was not for the Bourbons or the Braganças, but rather land, bread, and revenge on the propertied classes, while the leaders of the insurrection entertained a variety of conflicting interests, which they sought to pursue at the same time as channeling the people’s energies into fighting the French. In consequence, the political history of the war is one of great complexity-its chief feature is the elaboration of a liberal constitution in Spain in 1812-while the background to the struggle was everywhere one of desertion, banditry, agrarian unrest, and resistance to conscription. In those areas actually occupied by the French, the invaders were inconvenienced by much irregular resistance, but close analysis of this phenomenon has suggested that in most cases it bore little resemblance to the legend so beloved of the traditional historiography.

On close inspection, indeed, much of the “little war” proves to have been the work of forces of regular troops or local militias raised and controlled by representatives of the Patriot government operating in the king’s absence. At the same time, such irregular bands as were formed were drawn in large part from men who had either already been bandits in 1808 or had been drawn into banditry since the start of the war (a prime example here is constituted by the many men who fled to the hills to avoid conscription to the Spanish Army, or who had deserted after being called up).With other men brought in by impressment of one sort or another, it is therefore hard to see how the Spanish struggle against Napoleon can really merit the description of a “people’s war.” All the more is this the case, given the fact that those guerrilla bands that were not militarized in the style of such forces commanded by Juan Martin Diez and Francisco Espoz y Mina did not follow the French as they evacuated their areas of operation in the latter part of the war, but rather battened upon the civilian inhabitants and the baggage trains of the Allied armies.

Militarily speaking, the history of the war is much simpler. Initially, the French armies were roughly handled, the forces sent to Portugal being expelled by a British expeditionary force under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) after the Battle of Vimeiro (21 August 1808) and another contingent forced to surrender at Bailén by the Spaniards. Other forces, meanwhile, were repulsed from Valencia and Gerona, while Saragossa (Zaragoza) beat off a full-scale siege despite the fact that it was devoid of regular fortifications. Forced to draw back beyond the river Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements, while Napoleon himself came to Spain to take charge of operations.

There followed a whirlwind campaign, which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros (10 November), Gamonal (10 November), Tudela (23 November), and Somosierra (29-30 November). With the Spanish armies in tatters, on 4 December the Emperor recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona, the Spaniards having been routed by fresh forces dispatched from France at Cardedeu (16 December) and Molins de Rei (21 December).With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to overrun the entire Peninsula and end the war at a stroke.

All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Lieutenant General Sir John Moore. For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to prepare for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French communications in Old Castile. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy, but so many troops were sent after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at Corunna (La Coruña) on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannonball at the moment of victory.

The campaign of November 1808-January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. In brief, the French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, while Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levante, Andalusia (Andalucia), and Extremadura. As for Portugal, it, too, was in Allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese themselves could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida, and Oporto. Called away from Spain by growing fears of a new war with Austria in 1809, Napoleon had left instructions for the various commanders he had left in Spain-most notably, marshals Nicolas Soult, Michel Ney, and Claude Perrin Victor- to crush Allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered: The Spanish armies defending Andalusia proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence in Portugal and, now commanded once again by Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Saragossa and Gerona both put up desperate resistance (Gerona, indeed, did not fall until December).

Leave a Reply