Peninsular War (1807-1814) II


Second of May 1808: the defenders of Monteleón make their last stand.


Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest, and much the same was true of the Spanish guerrillas, who at the same time were coming under more and more pressure. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon’s commanders could have crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, in 1812 the supply of men dried up, the Armée d’Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As was only to be expected, the result was that the French forces suddenly found themselves badly overextended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia, which they had begun in the autumn of 1811.

What saved the Allied cause in the Peninsula was therefore not Wellington’s genius but rather Napoleon’s errors. This, however, is not to decry the British commander’s very real contribution to the Allied cause. Particular attention should be paid here to his defense of Portugal in 1810-1811. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in 1810, the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal André Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly, thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine and the consequent destruction of much of the town, and the French moved on toward Lisbon.

Wellington, however, had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan for the defense of Portugal. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated-livestock slaughtered or driven off, crops burned, supplies removed or destroyed, and villages abandoned-and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese Army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes toward Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, however, the countryside would continue to be devastated, while the Anglo-Portuguese army would continue to fall back on Lisbon, along, or so it was hoped, with the bulk of the civilian population.

Waiting for the French would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era, in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras-an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear- Wellington, for one, certainly had his doubts-but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Busaco (Buçaco) on 27 September 1810 failed because of the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track around Wellington’s northern front, but when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no farther. In this situation Masséna did his best, but, deprived of adequate supplies, he could not continue to blockade the lines forever, and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier.

However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorized by the British government to enter Spain once more, Wellington soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French, while every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counteroffensives, as at Albuera (16 May) and Fuentes de Oñoro (3-5 May). Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, and progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by the fact that the Anglo- Portuguese army lacked an adequate siege train. Of course, the French were in no better state: Twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack him in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, and an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in Allied hands again) would have been out of the question. But that is not the point. What matters is the simple fact that for the whole of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain.

In the autumn of 1811, however, the situation changed dramatically. In the first place, Wellington took delivery of a powerful siege train. And in the second the effect of Napoleon insisting that the French commanders in Spain should continue to expand the territory under their control-and, in particular, to continue with the offensive they had launched against Valencia-at the very time that he was pulling men out of Spain and cutting the supply of reinforcements, completely destabilized the position on the Portuguese frontier: In brief, the French no longer had the men they needed to contain Wellington. What followed was all too predictable. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo (20 January 1812) and Badajoz (7 April), win a major victory at Salamanca, and liberate Madrid. Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal, but the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813. Aided by the continued attempts of the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph’s main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June, after which, Catalonia and a few scattered garrisons aside, most of what remained of his domains had to be evacuated. Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren (28-30 July) and San Marcial (31 August), while in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over, the battles that Wellington went on to fight at Orthez (27 February) and Toulouse (10 April) really belonging more to the campaign of 1814. The significance of the Peninsular War was considerable. British historians have, for obvious reasons, been inclined to emphasize the part that their country played in the downfall of Napoleon, while the Emperor also assigned it much importance, famously calling it his “Spanish ulcer.” But in this respect its effects have probably been exaggerated. Although it inspired many German nationalists, for example, it did not inspire much popular participation in the campaigns of 1813 and 1814, nor still less persuade the people of Germany to heed the various attempts to spur them to rise against Napoleon that were made in the course of 1809. Nor did it do much to erode the Emperor’s war-making capacity: It is hard, for instance, to see how the forces caught up in the Peninsular War would have made much difference in Russia in 1812. Nevertheless, the continued struggle in the Peninsula undoubtedly strengthened the credibility of British diplomacy in the period 1812-1814, while the heavy losses suffered in Spain and Portugal certainly played their part in eroding support for the French ruler in the final crisis of the Empire. In Spain and Portugal, by contrast, no one can doubt the war’s importance. In both countries it was the key to liberal revolution, loss of empire, and a series of civil wars, while in Spain in particular it gave birth to a long tradition of military intervention in politics that culminated in the bloody conflict of 1936-1939 and the eventual dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

References and further reading Esdaile, Charles. 2002. The Peninsular War: A New History. London: Penguin. Fletcher, Ian. 2001. Voices from the Peninsula: Eyewitness Accounts by Soldiers ofWellington’s Army, 1808-1814. London: Greenhill. Fremont-Barnes, Gregory. 2002. The Napoleonic Wars: The Peninsular War, 1807-1814. Oxford: Osprey. Gates, David. 2002. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. London: Pimlico. Glover, Michael. 2001. The Peninsular War, 1807-1814: A Concise Military History. London: Penguin. Lachouque, Henry, Jean Tranie, and J.-C. Carmigniani. 1982. Napoleon’s War in Spain: The French Peninsular Campaigns, 1807-1814. London: Arms and Armour. Napier, W. F. P. 1992. A History of the War in the Peninsula. 6 vols. London: Constable. (Orig. pub. 1828.) Oman, Sir Charles. 2005. A History of the Peninsular War. 7 vols. London: Greenhill. (Orig. pub. 1902-1930.) Paget, Julian. 1992. Wellington’s Peninsular War: Battles and Battlefields. London: Leo Cooper. Robertson, Ian. 2000. Wellington at War in the Peninsula, 1808-1814: An Overview and Guide. London: Pen and Sword. Weller, Jac. 1999. Wellington in the Peninsula. London: Greenhill.

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