The Age of George III

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The Peninsular Campaigns

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One part of the European coastline over which Napoleon had no control was that of Portugal. By 1807, Napoleon had become determined to crush Britain and to make his Continental System effective. Consequently, he set out to conquer Portugal: this nation was Britain's oldest ally and trading partner. As soon as he returned from Tilsit, Napoleon demanded that the Prince Regent of Portugal should stop trading with Britain and confiscate all British goods. By the Convention of Fontainbleu in November 1807, the Spanish government agreed to allow a French army to pass through Spain to attack Portugal; in return, most of the conquered Portugal would become Spanish territory. Marshall Junot and 20,000 troops were sent to capture Lisbon.

The Portuguese royal family decided not to stay in their country and left immediately for their colony of Brazil the day before the French arrived in Lisbon. It took only the 1,500 French soldiers that were left of Junot's force (after they had marched 600 miles in 30 days) to accept the surrender of Portugal..

It was unlikely that the Spanish would implement the Continental System effectively. Charles IV was aging and ineffectual; his wife, Queen Maria Luisa was a vicious adulteress with the First Minister, Godoy. Most Spaniards hated these three; Prince Ferdinand was an unknown quantity at this point. Napoleon decided that it was unlikely that Spain would be able to complete its agreement and sent in French armies to conquer the country. Napoleon summoned the Royal Family to meet him in Bayonne where he persuaded them to hand over their claim to the Spanish crown. Napoleon then installed his brother Joseph as King of Spain. The result of this action was riots in Madrid and risings in each of the Spanish provinces that were led by the landed magnates and local clergy. Companies of Spanish volunteers were formed and any Frenchmen and/or supporters of the French régime were massacred.

Napoleon had a poor opinion of the fighting capacity of Spaniards and also he believed that a "whiff of grape-shot" would quell the fiercest of rioters when opposed by disciplined soldiery. Consequently he underestimated the seriousness of the Spanish revolt. His troops were already stationed in the north-east and around Madrid, and he contented himself with sending an army under General Dupont to deal with the disturbances in the west and south. Dupont soon found himself in difficulties, short of food amid a hostile population, with enemy forces gathering in ever increasing numbers. Afraid to admit his difficulties to Napoleon, he delayed his retreat until he was surrounded and forced to surrender with 20,000 men at Baylen in July 1808.

This event showed that the Imperial armies were not invincible and that they would capitulated like troops of other nations. Hard upon this came another set-back. A small British force had landed in Portugal under Sir Arthur Wellesley, a young officer who had recently made a name in India. Marching southwards on Lisbon he had defeated Junot at the Battle of Vimiero in August 1808. He was superseded by senior officers who refused to follow up the victory, but the best that Junot could get at the Convention of Cintra was per mission to evacuate Portugal unmolested.

Napoleon was furious at the news of Baylen but he still failed to grasp its importance and postponed dealing with it personally until he had attended to what seemed to be more urgent matters. The Czar had begun to regret agreeing to the Treaty of Tilsit almost as soon as he got back to St. Petersburg. His mother loathed Bonaparte and hated to see her son in alliance with such a low-born adventurer. The commercial classes of Russia, from whom he drew a considerable part of his revenue, were ruined by the stoppage of trade with England; and he was more and more worried about the revival of Poland. Napoleon, on the other hand, was more anxious than ever to maintain the alliance. There were ominous signs of a revival in Austria; the national rising in Spain was encouraging similar passions in Prussia; co-operation with Russia was necessary to his plans for conquests in the East. Napoleon persuaded Alexander to come to a conference at Erfurt in October 1808. Alexander was only half convinced; and his doubts were secretly encouraged by Talleyrand, who already foresaw that the Napoleonic régime was not destined to last for ever. "You are civilised, Sire, but your people are not; the French people are civilised, but their ruler is not; therefore they need you", he is reported to have said, . In the end, Napoleon had to be content with the Czar's undertaking to support him if Austria made war on France, and his recognition of Joseph as King of Spain.

Then Napoleon hastened back to crush the "rebellion" in Spain. Since Baylen the Spaniards had set up some sort of a central "junta" (governing committee), but the members did little beyond voting themselves salaries, appealing to Britain for help and re-establishing the Inquisition. In some provinces the French armies had quickly dispersed the insurgents, though their control seldom extended much beyond the range of their muskets; but elsewhere they had the utmost difficulty in holding their own. The Emperor now came with a fresh army, 150,000 strong, to stamp out resistance once for all. This irresistible force crashed its way through to Madrid, where King Joseph was once more reinstated; and Napoleon was setting forth to smash the movement in the south when a fresh enemy appeared on the scene. The English generals concerned in the unsatisfactory Convention of Cintra had all gone home for an enquiry, and the command of the British troops had been taken over by Sir John Moore in October 1808.

In response to appeals from several of the provinces, Moore now made a dash at the Emperor's communications with his little force of 20,000 men. As he expected, the proximity of British troops drove everything else out of Napoleon's head; he turned to "drive the leopards into the sea." Moore could not fight him at such odds; he turned and made for Corunna where his transports lay, with the French in hot pursuit. In the course of a fortnight of forced marches through a mountainous wilderness in the depths of winter, Moore lost 6,000 men without firing a shot. When the French reached Astorga, still a day behind, the Emperor went back to France, leaving Marshal Soult to finish off the business. At Corunna the British were safely embarked after a rearguard action which cost Moore his life in January 1809.

After the return of the troops from Corunna, the British Government had taken an important decision. So far, Britain had contented herself with defensive forms of warfare; for the French could not challenge the Royal Navy, and the British army was too small to be sent against their huge land forces. It seemed, however, that the Iberian peninsula might be a theatre of war in which British soldiers could be used to advantage:

After much hesitation Sir Arthur Wellesley was sent back to Portugal in April 1809 with 20,000 fresh troops to join the 9,000 left behind at Lisbon by Moore and the Portuguese regiments which had been trained by British officers under Marshal Beresford. The month before Wellesley's arrival, Marshal Victor had defeated the main Spanish army under Cuesta, while Soult had established himself at Oporto. It was Soult that Wellesley decided to attack first. Crossing the Douro by a masterly manoeuvre, he caught the Marshal with his forces dispersed trying to hold down the Portuguese irregulars in the mountains, and drove him back into northern Spain. Then, learning that Victor had taken up a position on the upper Tagus covering Madrid, Wellesley set off up the river from Lisbon, accompanied by Cuesta and the Spanish army, and defeated the French at Talavera in July 1809. This success reassured the Government at home, and gained Wellesley the title of Viscount Wellington; it also revealed that the Spaniards were unreliable allies in pitched battles. When Wellington learned that Soult was coming to cut his communications with Lisbon he got on the safe side of the Tagus and retired into Portugal with all convenient speed.

Foreseeing that the Emperor would now send much greater forces against him, Wellington determined to provide himself with a defensive position behind which he could retire until the enemy had been weakened by difficulties of supply. He therefore prepared the elaborate fortifications of Torres Vedras across the mountainous isthmus between the Tagus estuary and the sea. The outermost line was twenty miles long, bristling with redoubts and artfully placed guns; the second was rather shorter but even more strongly defended; while the third was a mere line of earthworks designed to cover an embarkation if the worst came to the worst.

In March 1810 the expected news came that 130,000 of the finest troops in the French army, released by the victory of Wagram, were coming under Masséna. Masséna had to wait for his forces to concentrate and to capture the border fortresses of Almeida and Ciudad Rodrigo - another precious month, which Wellington used to complete the laying waste of the country outside his fortifications. When the French finally entered Portugal, Wellington checked them at Busaco in August and then retired within his Lines. The secret been kept so well that Masséna was quite taken aback at the sight of them. They were too strong to be stormed and the sea prevented any outflanking movement, while the Portuguese hemmed him in, cut his communications and destroyed his foraging parties. Soon his army was starving, while the enemy he was "besieging" was so well supplied from overseas that the officers actually amused themselves by fox-hunting. He called for help to Soult and Victor, but they were jealous of him and did nothing to help. For six months he hung on obstinately, but was then forced to withdraw his wasted forces in March 1811. Wellington came out after him, and at the battle of Fuentes d'Onoro compelled him to abandon the fortress of Almeida. That was the end of Masséna's career. The Emperor refused to listen to excuses: success was what he required from all who served him. In May the command was taken over by Marmont, a younger and more ambitious man, but a much less capable commander.

By this time several important features of the war had emerged. At its outset Napoleon had said: "If I thought it would need 80,000 men to master the Peninsula, I would not undertake it; but 30,000 will suffice." By 1811 he had ten times that number grappling with the task. He had felt the strain on his resources in the Wagram campaign, and it became more and more embarrassing every year. There was an old saying that "in Spain, small armies are cut up and big armies starve"; and that was still true. Among the barren rocky mountains of the interior it was difficult to move an army and impossible to feed one. All the skill and experience which the French had acquired in the arts of "living on the country" failed them here. Also, although the Spanish did not set up a strong government or place an efficient army in the field, they proved themselves supreme in guerrilla warfare, cutting off stragglers, destroying foraging parties, waylaying messengers. Another factor was the lack of co-ordination between the French marshals. This would have been put right if the Emperor had taken command in person, but he never did. He was preoccupied with the details of the Continental System and his easy victories in 1808 made him underestimate the difficulties of campaigning in Spain.

On the British side Wellington proved himself to be the man for the job: he was master of the business of soldiering, especially of such essential matters as commissariat and transport. He had a keen eye for the lie of the land, austere self-control, and the nerve to strike hard when the moment came. He always knew that any serious reverse might frighten the Government into withdrawing from the enterprise; his Spanish allies proved unreliable, factious and touchy; and he often had difficulty in getting artillery, reinforcements or even pay for his men; but he overcame all these difficulties by dogged tenacity and imperturbable common sense - qualities which we like to consider typically British.

After Fuentes he decided to capture the great border fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo in order to clear the way for an advance on Madrid. The French could outnumber him by three to one, but were hampered by the fact that because of the disturbed state of the country they could not concentrate their forces for more than a few weeks at a time. His problem, therefore, was one of time. He seized fortunate moments to attack Rodrigo in January and Badajoz in April 1812. In each case he had to make his assault before his guns had made a proper breach in the walls; in each case the assault was successful after murderous losses; and in each case relieving forces retired when they found themselves too late.

He now felt himself strong enough to challenge Marmont in the field. When the armies came into contact near Salamanca in August 1812, Wellington pulverised the enemy by a well timed infantry attack, Marmont himself being severely wounded. The effects were felt in the farthest corners of the peninsula. "King" Joseph fled from Madrid, and Soult had to abandon Andalusia but this concentration of the French forces placed Wellington in danger once more; he had to leave Burgos, which he had been besieging for a month, and retire to winter quarters near the Portuguese border. However, 1812 had been the turning point of the war and the French never recovered. For the rest of the war, they were on the defensive.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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