12 May 1809

Sir Arthur Wellesley was a distinctly odd man; fastidious, snooty and intelligent all at once. He was also deeply ambitious and powered by intolerance towards others. He could hardly have been more different temperamentally in his buttoned-up style, to the mercurial, emotional Nelson or to the excitable, angry Napoleon. Undemonstrative, except in private to his officers and girlfriends, he was clipped and economical with words, but cultivated soundbites with the care of a modern politician. They resonate to this day.

There were three features of genius to his personality: a brilliant eye for a battlefield and the disposition of forces to give him maximum advantage, particularly in defence, which was on a par with Napoleon’s skill in strong offensive deployments; strategic caution allied to an ability to strike lethally at the enemy’s weakest point at exactly the right time that surpassed even Napoleon; and an awesome dedication to the minutiae of military life – supplies, feeding his soldiers, preparing the ground and reconnaissance. Finally there was his remarkable ability to co-operate with the insurgent forces on the Peninsula, both Spanish and Portuguese. In addition, his cool and detached demeanour under fire was awe-inspiring, and inspirational to his men. Like the best generals, he seemed to think better and more calmly the hotter the action around him.

In spite of his semi-privileged background Wellesley was one of Britain’s first truly professional soldiers. The military commander he most resembled was not Napoleon, with his instinct for aggression in all circumstances, but the American George Washington. His skill in being patient in the face of intense provocation was of the same order. Like Washington he would retire to secure winter quarters, bide his time, and then suddenly strike a decisive blow. Like Washington he could provision and march his men for weeks at a time to preserve his forces. Like Washington he had an eye for the jugular, after years of inertia – suddenly spotting the enemy’s weaknesses and inflicting a decisive defeat.

Wellington was also unflappable and almost inhumanly courageous, a born leader of men in battle. It is from him that the tradition of the cold, aloof British military commander descends. While Britain’s foremost naval commanders were often primadonnas, no one could ever accuse Wellesley of being hysterical. But his contempt for the lower classes, his sharp tongue towards his less gifted subordinates, his insensitivity even towards his own veterans, and his addiction to discipline make him a deeply unattractive personality, as did his private behaviour. While the childishly infatuated Nelson was unintentionally cruel to his wife, Wellington was coldly, calculatingly so. Yet as a military professional, he had the forensic mind of a Sherlock Holmes – a fictional character whose personality might have been modelled on him.

On 27 April 1809 he landed at Lisbon with 23,000 men – including 3,000 Hanoverians. Some 6,000 men had already arrived under Sir Rowland Hill, an amiable, outgoing personality who was beloved of his men. These liaised with General William Beresford who had been placed in command of a considerable force of 16,000 Portuguese troops, with Captain Robert Harvey as his chief aide. Wellesley did not waste time: the plight of his army was precarious. In the north Marshal Soult had occupied Oporto, Portugal’s second city, with 23,000 men, while Marshal Victor, to the east was approaching the frontier with Spain with 25,000 men; between these two was a small army under General Lapisse. There were a staggering 250,000 French troops altogether in the Iberian Peninsula.

The British had just one advantage. The incredible brutality of the French, combined with their unpopularity as invaders, meant that the Spanish and Portuguese were united in their hatred of them. But they were almost equally suspicious of the British, whose motives they suspected and whom they regarded as mere allies of convenience. This led in turn to considerable British distrust, mingled with contempt, for their Iberian allies.

The Peninsular War was to become a three-way conflict in which the bitter and continuing resistance of the Spanish and Portuguese against the invaders, usually involving small-scale attacks, was supplemented by a disciplined regular British force. The British would not have prevailed without the local resistance, which was widespread and which tied down enormous number of French troops. Equally the partisans would eventually have been crushed without the British, who posed the greater military threat. The British regarded the Spanish and Portuguese with distaste and the latter responded with deep suspicion and sometimes non-co-operation. The Spanish armies in particular were poorly commanded and ill-disciplined. Spaniards often showed a small-minded parochialism that led them to fight in their own immediate neighbourhoods, not co-ordinate with the wider national effort, but their fighters could also be incredibly daring and brave – and cruel.

Wellesley moved with the speed he had learnt in India. The country in Portugal was somewhat different – a rugged one of hills, woods and ravines, all of which grew more impassable the further north he travelled. That did not delay him: he was no Chatham. He assembled nearly 18,000 men at Coimbra on the way to Oporto, reasoning that if he immediately defeated Soult, he would prevent a junction of French armies that would otherwise be larger than his own. It was his fortieth birthday.

Beresford led some 6,000 Portuguese militia on the army’s right flank to try to check the enemy’s expansion eastwards into Spain. Some 12,000 troops were left to guard Lisbon and central Portugal. Wellesley marched northwards, routing a small French force of around 4,500 men above Grija, reaching the town of Vila Nova along the upper bends of that wide and beautiful river, the Douro. He was now overlooking Oporto, an ancient and picturesque city crammed down the opposite slope, the trading entrepot of the area with its access along the river to the sea. It was also the great wine-producing centre of the region, traditionally supplying the British with enormous quantities, particularly now that trade with the rest of the continent had been blocked off. To make the shipping of this wine on the long journey back to Britain possible, the wine was fortified with brandy, which created that unique beverage, port, named after Oporto itself.

Soult had little warning of Wellesley’s arrival. He promptly destroyed the single bridge across the Douro and ensured that all river craft were on his side. If an attack came, he thought it would be from the west, using fishing boats brought up by the British from the sea. Wellesley instead turned his attention eastwards, upstream along the river, where he found several unguarded boats, mostly for carrying wine. Wellesley is usually considered a defensive general, but he was capable of offensive boldness when necessary.

He sent across a small force to seize a large enemy-held seminary on the opposite bank. General Paget, leading the raid, was badly wounded; but Hill, along with an infantry brigade, held the seminary against repeated attack. By that time Portuguese boats were ferrying the British across in increasing numbers. The French, fearful of being attacked by the vengeful Portuguese in the steep, narrow streets of the riverside town, ordered a retreat to the east. The British captured nearly 1,300 prisoners and some sixty guns. Some 500 Frenchmen were killed, for a loss of just twenty-three Britons.

To the east Beresford had repulsed another French force and occupied the town of Amarante on the old road from northern Portugal into Spain, thus cutting off Soult’s retreat. Blocked off to the east, the French army swung north into the hilly and wooded country towards Galicia abandoning their guns and provisions in a desperate attempt to get away. They had several thousand troops in their way, many of them Portuguese insurgents who responded to the routine raping of their womenfolk by castrating French soldiers and stuffing their genitals into their mouths or nailing them alive to trees and doorways.

Soult’s retreating army had circled toward the Tagus valley. The twenty-four-year-old Captain Harvey had linguistic skills which made him a natural scout and spy, travelling undercover, stirring up the Portuguese resistance and liaising with anti-French clerics and Portuguese irregulars. On reconnaissance, he saw Soult’s movement and reported it to the Duque del Parque, the Spanish general with whom he was liaising, enabling his army to draw up into defensive lines at Tamames in the north and there block a junction between Soult’s and Victor’s forces.

The British were unable to follow. Wellesley remarked: ‘If an army throws away all its cannon, equipment and baggage and everything which can strengthen it and enable it to act together as a body, and abandons all those who are entitled to its protection but add to its weight and impede its progress, it must be able to march by roads through which it cannot be followed by any army that has not made the same sacrifices.’

The British instead proceeded to march from Abrantes into Spain to take the battle to the enemy. Their intention was to liaise with the 30,000-strong Spanish army of General Don Gregorio de la Cuesta, a sixty-nine-year-old Spanish caudillo – top general – bedecked with medals, who trundled about in a huge coach drawn by mules. De la Cuesta, who treated Wellesley as a subordinate and the British as junior partners, proposed encircling Marshal Victor’s 23,000-strong army across the border. As Wellesley descended from Portugal with his 21,000 men, leaving Beresford and 4,000 to defend Portugal, they found that Victor had withdrawn towards Talavera to the south-east.

Wellesley followed Victor to Plasencia, the local capital, early in July, where he was now just a hundred miles from Madrid. While Soult’s forces held back for the moment, it was planned that the Spanish army should cross the Tagus to the northern bank and march eastwards to join up with the British at Talavera. To the south another 23,000-strong Spanish army under General Venegas was to engage the French forces in Madrid and stop them reinforcing Victor.