War of the Spanish Succession in Spain


Battle of Almenar (27-July-1710)

British troops were also engaged in Iberia, supporting opposition to Philip V. By 1707 there were nearly 29,000 subject troops in Iberia: initial success had led to an increase in the British commitment. However, despite the intervention of British troops and warships and of German and Portuguese troops, and the support of Catalonia and Valencia, the attempt to establish Archduke Charles as Charles III failed. It proved far easier to intervene on the littoral than to control the interior. Amphibious forces failed at Cadiz in 1702, but captured Gibraltar in 1704, Barcelona in 1705, and Minorca in 1708, and the British navy helped to raise the French siege of Barcelona in 1706.

Nevertheless, Castile was the key. Madrid was occupied briefly in 1706 and 1710, but Castilian loyalty to Philip V, and Louis XIV’s support for his neighbouring grandson, proved too strong. Philip’s cause became identified with national independence, despite his heavy reliance on French troops who badly defeated the Allies under Henry, Earl of Galway at Almanza (15 April 1707). The Portuguese cavalry and infantry fought poorly and were driven from the field, leaving the British and Dutch infantry to be defeated by Marshal Berwick’s far more numerous Franco-Spanish forces.

In 1710 James Stanhope defeated Philip at Almenara (28 July) and Saragossa (19 August), before occupying Madrid, but few Castilians rallied to Charles III, and his communications became hazardous. As a result, he withdrew from Madrid. At Brihuega (9 December), part of his retreating army, commanded by Stanhope, was attacked by a larger army under Vendome and forced to surrender. On the following day, another section of the retreating force, under Guido von Starhemberg, fought off a French attack at Villaviciosa, but Charles had now lost Castile and his forces retreated into Catalonia. The British and Dutch withdrew their fleets from the Mediterranean in December 1712 and Charles left Spain the following December.

The Spanish Succession War was one of several conflicts in the period 1688-1815 in which the British fought in Iberia, and the least successful. It is important to consider why, not least for the light that it throws on success in the Peninsula War. In 1762, when the Portuguese were helped to repel a French-supported Spanish invasion, and 1808-13, the British enjoyed the majority of local support in the areas within which they campaigned, not least because in 1762 there was no advance into Spain. Thus, the obvious contrast is provided by Castilian hostility during the War of the Spanish Succession. Catalan support in that conflict was insufficient, because Catalonia could not be protected effectively from Castile, as had been earlier demonstrated in 1648-52 when French support for Catalonia had proved inadequate to preserve its independence from Castile.

Yet, local opinion was not everything. The course of the conflict was itself important and, in that, the Allies lost a number of major battles, in part due to French intervention. Partly thanks to the ability of James, Duke of Berwick, illegitimate son of James II and Arabella Churchill, and therefore Marlborough’s nephew, the French benefited from a level of generalship higher than that they had shown in the Low Countries, Germany and Italy. Berwick was especially effective in manoeuvre and had a fine grasp of logistics.


James FitzStuart, Duke of Berwick

Furthermore, none of the British generals were as able as Marlborough, although the difficulties they faced with both logistics and obtaining cooperation between the Allies were greater than those he encountered. Claiming his opponent’s army “much superior and in better condition than ours”, Galway was manoeuvred out of Madrid by Berwick in 1706 and defeated a year later at Almanza. Complaints about allies, especially the Portuguese, were frequent. Their artillery was seen as terrible, but there was also a serious problem of trust. There was concern that the Portuguese would simply use British units as garrisons. Wightman, then a colonel, wrote in 1704,

We have but an ill prospect of affairs. Our generals disagreeing, the army mouldering away and having to do with a proud, senseless sort of people which have depended upon the revolt of the Spaniards without making any reasonable preparations against any accident that might happen to the contrary.

In June 1711, with allied Spanish troops mutinying for lack of pay and his own forces short of cannon and powder, the Duke of Argyll, who four years later was to face Mar at Sheriffmuir, was obliged to write from Barcelona:

having with greater difficulty than can be expressed found credit to keep the troops from starving in their quarters all this while, which for my part I do not see how we shall be able to do any longer, for the not paying the bills that were drawn from hence the last year, has entirely destroyed her Majesty’s15 credit in this place; but though the troops could be supplied in quarters, that will not now do the business, for the enemy is already in motion. so that if we remain in quarters, we shall be destroyed en detaille, and to get together is not in nature till we have money, for the whole body of troops that were here last year are without all manner of necessarys, having both officers and soldiers lost all their tents, baggage and equipage at the battle of Villa Viciosa, besides that the contractors for the mules to draw the artillery and ammunition and carry the bread will by no means be persuaded to serve any more till we have money to pay them.

Such problems underlined Wellington’s achievement a century later. He was more successful in maintaining cohesion among the allies, supplying the army and winning battles. Finance posed problems even for as wealthy a state as Britain and this was far more serious in Spain than in the Low Countries, not only because of the relative poverty and shortage of food of Spain, but also because the British ally in the Low Countries (the Dutch) was far better able to support its own forces and to pay a portion of the cost of financing allied troops.


The Battle of Cape Passaro (or Passero) was the defeat of a Spanish fleet under Admirals Antonio de Gaztañeta and Fernando Chacón by a British fleet under Admiral George Byng, near Cape Passero, Sicily, on 11 August 1718, four months before the War of the Quadruple Alliance was formally declared.

Forgotten War, 1718-20

Britain was at war again before the decade was over. Opposition to Philip V’s Italian ambitions led to an attack on the Spanish fleet off Sicily in 1718, and, the following year, Britain and France, now allies, attacked Spain. The bulk of the fighting was done by France. However, the British followed the pattern set in the War of the Spanish Succession by launching an amphibious attack on Spain. An expedition under Lieutenant-General Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, who had served under Marlborough, was ordered to attack Corunna. Judging it too strong, Cobham, instead, attacked and captured Vigo without opposition on 29 September, destroying the shipping and military stores that had been accumulated there. Two Spanish warships at Ribadeo were destroyed and the shore batteries dismounted. On 12 October a force of 1,000 men from Vigo under Major-General George Wade captured Pontevedra. The garrison abandoned the position and the British destroyed the arsenal, barracks and stores, as well as blowing up a nearby castle at Marin. On 24 October Wade evacuated Pontevedra, the following day the cistern in Vigo Castle was destroyed and the British re-embarked, and on the 27th the fleet sailed. 18 This expedition was a clear response to Spanish support for the Jacobites. In 1720, a Spanish invasion of the Bahamas was beaten off and peace was negotiated.

British naval power had played a major role in the conflict, but it was a French army, under Berwick, that had invaded the Basque country and captured Fuentarabia and San Sebastian. The British army was simply too small for the task. It could play a role in amphibious operations, but the peacetime army was too small for campaigning on the Continent.

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