Peninsular War

Peninsular War

Peninsular War, 1808-14, fought by France against Great Britain, Portugal, Spanish regulars, and Spanish guerrillas in the Iberian Peninsula.

Origin and Occupation

The conflict was precipitated when Portugal refused to comply with Napoleon's Continental System. By a secret convention reached at Fontainebleau (Oct., 1807) Spain agreed to support France against Portugal. A French army under Andoche Junot occupied (Nov., 1807) Portugal, and King John VI and his family fled to Brazil without resisting. Napoleon then began a series of maneuvers to secure Spain for France. On the pretext that they were reinforcements for Junot, large numbers of French troops entered Spain and seized Pamplona and Barcelona (Feb., 1808). On Mar. 23 French marshal Joachim Murat entered Madrid.

Meanwhile, a palace revolution (Mar. 19) had deposed King Charles IV and his favorite, Godoy, and had placed Ferdinand VII on the throne. However, Charles and Ferdinand were called to Bayonne by Napoleon, and coerced to abdicate (May 5-6) in favor of Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte. A bloody uprising in Madrid (May 2)—immortalized in Francisco de Goya's paintings—was put down by Murat and on June 15 Joseph was proclaimed king of Spain.

The War Continues

The Spanish rose in revolt throughout the country. When the insurrectionists captured (July 23) a French force dispatched to seize Seville, King Joseph evacuated Madrid (Aug. 1) and withdrew beyond the Ebro. Another French force was repelled by José de Palafox in his heroic defense of Zaragoza (June-Aug.). In Portugal, where revolt had also broken out, a British expeditionary force under Arthur Wellesley (later duke of Wellington) landed in Aug., 1808, and defeated Junot at Vimeiro (Aug. 21). Cut off from Joseph's army, Junot negotiated a convention at Cintra (Aug. 30), surrendering Lisbon in return for repatriation of his troops by British ships.

With Sir John Moore as commander in chief, the British invaded Spain, thus beginning a long series of seesaw campaigns. Napoleon hastened to Spain, stormed Madrid (Dec. 3, 1808), had Marshal Lannes lay siege to Zaragoza, and ordered Marshal Soult to pursue Moore, who had retreated into Galicia. Soult was stalled long enough at A Coruña (Jan. 16, 1809) to permit the British to embark. Zaragoza, which Palafox had held for two months at a huge cost in lives, fell in Feb., 1809. In April, Wellesley arrived in Lisbon to take charge of the British and Portuguese forces there. He drove the French out of Portugal, invaded Spain, and with the help of a Spanish army defeated the French under Joseph at Talavera (July 27-28).

Driven back into Portugal by André Masséna at Bussaco (Sept., 1810), Wellesley retired behind a strong fortified line centered at Torres Vedras, which Masséna's forces attempted to penetrate (Oct.-Mar., 1811). Lacking supplies, Masséna retreated into Spain (Mar.-Apr., 1811); meanwhile Soult had marched north from Cádiz to join Masséna, but their junction was prevented by Wellesley and William Carr Beresford at Fuentes de Oñoro and at Albuera (May, 1811). Nevertheless, the French controlled all of Spain in 1811, with the exception of the numerous guerrilla bands operating out of the mountains, which continuously sapped French forces. There were atrocities on both sides.

Wellesley's Victories and War's End

Early in 1812 Wellesley attacked once more, and on July 22 he defeated the French under Marmont at Salamanca. He briefly occupied Madrid (Aug.-Oct., 1812), but retreated to Ciudad Rodrigo when the French, who had time to consolidate their armies, counterattacked from three directions. Placed in command of all the allied forces in the peninsula, Wellesley took the offensive in May, 1813, routed the French under Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jourdan at Vitoria (June 21), and pushed them back into France. In October Wellesley invaded France. He laid siege to Bayonne, heroically defended by Soult, and had reached Toulouse when, on Apr. 12, 1814, news of Napoleon's abdication arrived; the Peninsular War was ended.

Results of the War

The Peninsular War immeasurably raised Britain's military prestige and contributed heavily to Napoleon's downfall. The "guerrilla" warfare carried out by irregular Spanish forces added a new term to the military vocabulary and served as a model for future insurgencies. In Latin America the war served as detonator for the independence revolutions of the Spanish colonies.


There are histories of the Peninsular War by W. F. P. Napier (rev. ed. 1856, repr. 1970), H. R. Clinton (3d ed. 1890), C. W. C. Oman (7 vol., 1902-30), M. Glover (1974).

The Peninsular War or Spanish War of Independence pitted an alliance of Spain, the United Kingdom, and Portugal against France on the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when French armies occupied Portugal in 1807 and Spain in 1808 and lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814.

Spain's liberation struggle marked one of the first national wars and large-scale guerrilla conflicts, from which the English language borrowed the word. Its success was in part decided by the exploits of Spanish guerrilleros and the inability of Napoleon Bonaparte's large armies to pacify the people of Spain.

Throughout the war, British and Portuguese armies defended Portugal and staged diversionary campaigns against French forces while guerrillas bled the occupiers. Together, the regular and irregular allied forces prevented Napoleon's marshals from subduing the rebellious Spanish provinces. French units in Spain, forced to guard their vulnerable supply lines, were always in danger of being cut off and overwhelmed by the partisans, and proved unable to stamp out the Spanish army. In the final years of war, with France gravely weakened following Napoleon's invasion of Russia, Wellington's allied army pushed across Spain from Portugal, pursuing offensives that brought it past the Pyrenees and liberated the country.

War and revolution against Napoleon's occupation led to the Spanish Constitution of 1812, later a cornerstone of European liberalism. The burden of war destroyed the social and economic fabric of Portugal and Spain and ushered in an era of turbulence, instability, and economic crisis. Devastating civil wars between liberal and absolutist factions, led by officers trained in the Peninsular War, persisted in Iberia until 1850. The cumulative crises and disruptions of invasion, revolution, and restoration led to the independence of Spain's American colonies and the independence of Brazil from Portugal.


In 1806, while in Berlin, Napoleon declared the Continental Blockade, forbidding British imports into continental Europe. Of the two remaining neutral countriesSweden and Portugal – the latter tried in vain to avoid Napoleon's ultimatum (since 1373 it had had a treaty of alliance with the English which became an alliance with the United Kingdom). After the Treaty of Tilsit in 1807, now free from obligations in the east, Napoleon decided to capture the Iberian ports.

On October 27, 1807, Spain and France signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, splitting Portugal into three kingdoms: the new Kingdom of Northern Lusitania, the Algarve (expanded to include Alentejo), and a rump Kingdom of Portugal. In November 1807, after the refusal of Prince Regent John of Portugal to join the Continental System, Napoleon sent an army into Spain under General Jean-Andoche Junot with the task of invading Portugal. At the same time, General Dupont was sent in the direction of Cádiz and Marshal Soult towards Corunna.

Spain initially requested Portugal's alliance against the incoming French armies, but later secretly agreed with France that, in return for its cooperation, it would receive Portugal's territories. Spain's main ambition was the seizure of the Portuguese fleet, and sent two divisions to help French troops occupy Portugal.

The Portuguese army was positioned to defend the ports and the coast from a French attack, and on December 1 Lisbon was captured with no military opposition. The escape on November 29 of the Portuguese Queen Maria I and Prince Regent John together with the Administration and the Court (around 10,000 people and 9,000 sailors aboard 23 Portuguese war ships and 31 merchant ships), enabled John VI to continue to rule over his overseas possessions, including Brazil. This was a major setback for Napoleon, who wrote, C'est ça qui m'a perdu ("This was what defeated me.").

Invasion by stealth (February–July 1808)

Under the pretext of reinforcing the Franco-Spanish army occupying Portugal, French Imperial troops began filing into Spain, where the populace greeted them with enthusiasm in spite of growing diplomatic unease. In February 1808, Napoleon ordered the French commanders to seize key Spanish fortresses, and in doing so he had officially turned on his ally. A French column, disguised as a convoy of wounded, took Barcelona on February 29 by persuading the authorities to open the city's gates. Many commanders were not particularly concerned about the fate of the ruling regime, nor were they in any position to fight. (When Brigadier Alvarez garrisoned the Barcelona citadel against the French, his own superiors ordered him to stand down.)

The Spanish Royal Army of 100,000 men found itself paralysed: under-equipped, frequently leaderless, confused by the turmoil in Madrid, and scattered from Portugal to the Balearic Islands. Fifteen thousand of its finest troops, (General La Romana's "Division of the North") had been lent to Napoleon in 1807 and remained stationed in Denmark under French command. Only the peripheries contained armies of any strength: Galicia, with Blake's troops, and Andalusia, under Castaños. The French were consequently able to seize much of north-eastern Spain by coups de main, and any hope of turning back the invasion was stillborn.

To secure his gains, Napoleon pursued a series of intrigues against the Spanish royal family. A coup d'état instigated by the Spanish aristocrats forced Charles IV from his throne and replaced him with his son Ferdinand. Napoleon removed the royals to Bayonne and forced them both to abdicate on May 5, handing the throne to his brother Joseph. A puppet Spanish council approved the new king, but the usurpation provoked a popular uprising that eventually spread throughout the country. Citizens of Madrid rose up in rebellion against the French occupation on May 2, slew 150 French soldiers, and were not put down until Murat's elite Guard and mameluk cavalry crashed into the city and trampled the crowds.

The next day, immortalized by Goya in his painting, The Third of May 1808, the French army shot hundreds of Madrid citizens in retaliation. Similar reprisals were repeated in other cities and continued for days, with no military effect but to strengthen the resistance; soon afterwards, bloody, spontaneous fighting known as guerrilla ("little war") erupted in much of Spain; the term "guerrilla" has been used ever since to describe such combat. The tiny province of Asturias rose up in arms, cast out its French governor on May 25 and "declared war on Napoleon at the height of his greatness. Within weeks, all the Spanish provinces had followed its example. Mobs butchered 338 French citizens in Valencia. Every French ship of the line anchored at Cádiz was bombarded and captured. Napoleon had unwittingly provoked a total war against the Spaniards, a mistake from which the French Empire would never truly recover.

The deteriorating strategic situation forced France to increase its military commitments – in February, Napoleon had boasted that 12,000 men could conquer Spain; by June, 165,120 troops were rushing into the country in an effort to control the crisis. The main French army of 80,000 men held only a narrow strip of central Spain stretching from Pamplona and San Sebastián in the north through to Madrid and Toledo to the south. The French in Madrid took shelter behind an additional 30,000 troops under Moncey. Junot, meanwhile, stood stranded in Portugal, cut off by of hostile territory.

From Murat's optimistic reports, Napoleon believed the uprisings would die down and the country settle into order if his brother held on to the throne in Madrid while French flying columns seized and pacified Spain's major cities. To this end, General Dupont led 24,430 men south toward Seville and Cádiz; Marshal Bessières moved into Aragón and Old Castile with 25,000 men, aiming to capture Santander with one hand and Saragossa with the other; General Moncey marched toward Valencia with 29,350 men; and General Duhesme marshalled 12,710 troops in Catalonia and put Gerona under siege. Historians have concluded that Napoleon, having no respect for the "insolent" Spanish militias which everywhere opposed him, tried to do too much with too little.

The signs of trouble came quickly: Catalan militia (somatén) virtually overran Barcelona, and French units attempting to break the ring were turned back at the Bruc with heavy casualties. Gerona twice resisted all efforts to conquer it. At Saragossa, French overtures for an honorable capitulation met with the laconic reply, "War to the knife. General Palafox and the Spaniards defied the French for three months, fighting inch by inch, corp à corp in the streets, and finally forcing Lefebvre to lift the siege in August and limp away in defeat. Moncey's push toward the coast ended in defeat outside the walls of Valencia, where 1,000 French recruits fell trying to storm a city whipped into a frenzy by the clergy. Making short work of Spanish counterattacks, Moncey began a long retreat, harried at every step. After storming and sacking Cordoba, Dupont, cowed by the mass hostility of the Andalusians, broke off his offensive and retired to Andujar.

Only in the north did the French find a measure of success. In June, General Lasalle's cavalry trampled General Cuesta's small, improvised army at Cabezón and unbarred the road to Valladolid. When Bessières' march on Santander was checked by a string of partisan attacks in July, the French turned back and found Blake and Cuesta with their combined army atop Medina del Rio Seco. The Spanish generals, at Cuesta's insistence, were making a dash towards the vulnerable French supply lines at Valladolid. The two armies deployed on July 14, Cuesta unwisely leaving a gap between his troops and Blake's. The French poured into the hole and, after a sharp fight against Blake, swept the motley Spanish army from the field, putting Old Castile firmly back in Napoleon's hands.

At a stroke, Bessières' victory salvaged the strategic position of the French army in northern Spain. The road to Madrid lay open to Joseph, and the failures at Girona, Valencia, and Saragossa were forgotten; all that remained was to reinforce Dupont and allow him to force his way south through Andalusia. A delighted Napoleon asserted that "if Marshal Bessières has been able to beat the Army of Galicia with few casualties and small effort, General Dupont will be able to overthrow everybody he meets. Just a few days later however, Dupont was sorely defeated at Bailén and had to surrender his entire Army Corps to General Castaños.

The catastrophe was total. With the loss of 24,000 troops, Napoleon's military machine in Spain abruptly collapsed. Joseph and the French command panicked and ordered a general retreat to the Ebro, abandoning Madrid and undoing all of Bessières' hard-fought gains. Europe trembled at this first check to the hitherto unbeatable Imperial armies – a Bonaparte had been chased from his throne; tales of Spanish heroism inspired Austria and showed the force of national resistance. Bailén set in motion the rise of the Fifth Coalition against Napoleon.

British intervention (August 1808)

Before the Peninsular War, British military operations on mainland Europe had been marked by bungling half-measures and a series of failures (the 1809 Walcheren expedition being the last of these). The British Army was not large enough to operate on its own against the French, and without strong allies, Britain had been forced to withdraw from Europe. On 18 June, the Portuguese uprising broke out. The popular uprisings in Portugal and Spain encouraged the British to commit substantial forces once again and British propaganda was quick to capture the novelty of the situation; for the first time, peoples, not princes, were in rebellion against the "Great Disturber".

In August 1808, British forces (including the King's German Legion) landed in Portugal under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington. Wellesley checked Delaborde's forces at Roliça on August 17, while the Portuguese Observation Army of Bernardino Freire contained Loison. On August 20, the Anglo–Portuguese held their line at the Vimeiro and repulsed Junot. Wellesley, however, was considered too junior an officer to command the newly-reinforced expedition to Portugal and was replaced by Harry Burrard, who proceeded to grant Junot very favourable armistice terms, allowing for his unmolested evacuation from Portugal – courtesy of the Royal Navy – under the controversial Convention of Sintra in August. The British commanders were ordered back to England for an inquiry into Sintra, leaving Sir John Moore to head the 30,000-strong British force.

The role of the Royal Navy in supply, convoy protection, and intelligence-gathering around the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 was vital to eventual allied success. Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood's Mediterranean Fleet bottled up the remaining French fleet, stationed at Toulon since the disaster of Trafalgar. In June, General La Romana orchestrated a remarkable escape from Denmark, via Gothenburg, by slipping the better part of his Division of the North aboard a British squadron, which set sail for Santander. The presence of the Royal Navy along the coast of France and Spain slowed the French entry into eastern and southern Spain and drained their military resources in the area. Frigates commanded the strategic Gulf of Roses north of Barcelona, close to the French border, and were conspicuously involved in the defence of Rosas; Lord Cochrane held a cliff-top fortress against the French for nearly a month, destroying it when the main citadel capitulated to a superior French force.

Napoleon's campaign (October 1808–January 1809)

Bailén and the loss of Portugal convinced Napoleon of the peril he faced in Spain. Deeply disturbed by news of Sintra, the Emperor remarked, "I see that everybody has lost their head since the infamous capitulation of Bailén. I realise that I must go there myself to get the machine working again. The French, all but masters of Spain in June, stood with their backs to the Pyrenees, clutching at Navarre and Catalonia. It was not known if even these two footholds could be maintained in the face of a Spanish attack.

However, no attack was forthcoming. The Spanish social fabric, shaken by the shock of rebellion, gave way to its crippling social and political tensions; the patriots stood divided on every question and their nascent war effort suffered accordingly. With the fall of the monarchy, constitutional power devolved to local juntas. These institutions interfered with the army and the business of war, undermined the tentative central government taking shape in Madrid, and in some cases proved almost as dangerous to each other as to the French. The British army in Portugal, meanwhile, was itself immobilized by logistical problems and bogged down in administrative disputes, and did not budge.

Consequently, months of inaction passed at the front, the revolution having "temporarily crippled Patriot Spain at the very moment when decisive action could have changed the whole course of the war. While the allies inched forward, a vast consolidation of bodies and bayonets from the far reaches of the French Empire brought 100,000 veterans of the Grande Armée into Spain, led in person by Napoleon and his Marshals. With his Armée d'Espagne of 278,670 men drawn up on the Ebro, facing a scant 80,000 raw, disorganized Spanish troops, the Emperor announced to the Spanish deputies:

I am here with the soldiers who conquered at Austerlitz, at Jena, at Eylau. Who can withstand them? Certainly not your wretched Spanish troops who do not know how to fight. I shall conquer Spain in two months and acquire the rights of a conqueror.|20|20|Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon led the French on a "brilliant offensive involving a massive double envelopment of the Spanish lines. The attack began in November and has been described as "an avalanche of fire and steel.

In the west, however, one Spanish wing slipped the noose when Marshal Lefebvre failed to encircle the Army of Galicia after a premature and indecisive attack at Pancorbo; General Blake drew his artillery back to safety and the bloodied Spanish infantry followed in good order. Lefebvre and Victor offered a careless chase that ended in humiliation at Valmaseda where their scattered troops were roughly handled by La Romana's newly repatriated Spanish veterans and narrowly escaped to safety.

The campaign raced to a swift conclusion in the south, where Napoleon's main army overran the unprotected Spanish centre in a devastating attack near Burgos. The Spanish militias, untrained and unable to form infantry squares, scattered in the face of massed French cavalry, while the stubborn Spanish and Walloon Guards stood their ground in vain and were chewed up by Lasalle and his sabreurs. Marshal Lannes with a powerful force then smashed through the tottering Spanish right wing at Tudela on November 23, routing Castaños and adding a new inscription to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Finally, Blake's isolated army did an about-face on November 17 and dug in at Espinosa. His lines shook off French attacks for a day and night of vicious fighting before cracking the next day. Blake again outmarched Soult and escaped with a rump of the army to Santander, but the Spanish front had been torn apart and the Imperial armies raced forward over undefended provinces. Napoleon flung 45,000 men south into the Sierra de Guadarrama which shielded Madrid and what little remained of Spain's armies.

The mountains hardly slowed Napoleon at all: at Somosierra pass on November 30, his Polish and Guard cavalry squadrons made an heroic charge through raking fire to overrun General San Juan's artillery emplacements. Within hours, the Emperor had forced the pass: San Juan's militias gave way before the relentless French infantry, while the Spanish royal artillerymen stuck by their guns and fought to the last. French patrols reached Madrid on December 1 and entered the city in triumph on December 4. Joseph Bonaparte was restored to his throne. San Juan retreated west to Talavera, where his mutinous conscripts shot him before dispersing.

General John Moore's small British army appeared on the scene, surprising a body of French cavalry at Sahagun in a confused attempt to save Madrid. Alerted to his whereabouts, the Imperial army forced Moore into a precipitate, disorderly retreat punctuated by stubborn rearguard actions at Benavente and Cacabelos. La Romana dutifully marched his tattered army to help his ally, but when British troops evacuated from Corunna in January 1809, the Spaniard had no escape and was defeated by Soult. Moore was killed while directing the successful defence of the town in the Battle of Corunna. Some 26,000 sickly troops eventually reached Britain, 7,000 men having been lost over the course of the expedition.

In Catalonia, Napoleon fed his faltering army strong reinforcements as early as October 1808, ordering Marshal St. Cyr with 17,000 men to the relief of Duhesme in Barcelona. Rosas fell to the French at the end of November, opening the path south for St. Cyr, who bypassed Girona and, after a remarkable forced march, fell upon and destroyed part of the Spanish army at Cardedeu, near Barcelona (December 18). St. Cyr and Duhesme chased the retreating Spaniards under General Reding, capturing 1,200 men at Molins de Rey. In February 1809, Reding led a reconstituted army against the French right wing and, after vigorous marching and countermarching, took a stand at Valls only to be ridden down and killed by French cavalry.

Only at Saragossa, still scarred from Lefebvre's bombardments that summer, was the Imperial charge halted once again, but only for a time. The French invested the city on December 20. Lannes and Moncey committed two army corps (45,000 men) and considerable materiel to a second siege of the city, but their numbers and guns made no impression on the Spanish citizen-soldiers who, behind the walls of Saragossa, proved unmovable.

Palafox's second epic defence brought the city enduring national and international fame. The Spaniards fought with a determination which never faltered; street by street, building by building, through pestilence and starvation; at times entrenching themselves in convents, at others putting their own homes to the torch. Nearly all who stood with Palafox met their deaths, but for two months, the Grande Armée did not set foot beyond the Ebro's shore. On February 20, 1809, the French left behind burnt-out ruins filled with 64,000 corpses. After only a little more than two months in Spain, Napoleon returned command to his marshals and went back to France, fairly satisfied with what he had accomplished.

British in Portugal (1809)

In March, Marshal Soult initiated the second invasion of Portugal through the northern corridor. Initially repulsed in the Minho river by Portuguese militias, he then captured Chaves, Braga and, on March 29, 1809, Porto. However, the resistance of Silveira in Amarante and other northern cities isolated Soult in Porto and he embarked upon a gamble to become king of North Portugal.

In Portugal, Miguel Pereira Forjaz, the Secretary of War, had rebuilt the Portuguese army with money and arms received from the British. The Reform of the army, held up since 1806, was implemented. In a first phase some 20,000 were called to the regular army and 30,000 to militias. Later on, this number would grow to 50,000 in the army and another 50,000 in militias, in addition to 120,000 Ordenanças and voluntary units.

Wellesley returned to Portugal in April 1809 to command the Anglo–Portuguese forces. He strengthened the British army with the recently formed Portuguese regiments organized by Forjaz and the Governors of the realm and adapted by General Beresford to the British way of campaigning. These new forces defeated Soult at the Battle of Grijo (May 10May 11) and then the Second Battle of Porto (May 12). All other northern cities were captured by Silveira.

Leaving the Portuguese to take care of their newly-won territory, Wellesley advanced into Spain to join up with the Spanish army of Gregorio de la Cuesta. The combined allied force had a good opportunity to defeat Victor's I Corps at Talavera, and Wellington prepared for an assault on July 23. Cuesta, however, was reluctant to agree, and was only persuaded to advance on the following day, July 24. The delay provided the French the chance withdraw, but Cuesta sent his army headlong after Victor, and found himself faced by almost the entire French army in New Castile – Victor had been reinforced by the Toledo and Madrid garrisons. The Spanish retreated precipitously, necessitating two British divisions advancing to cover their retreat.

The next day, July 27, the French advanced in three columns and were repulsed several times throughout the day by British infantry in line, forcing the French to withdraw. The Battle of Talavera was a costly victory that left the allies precariously exposed, so they retreated westwards, abandoned several thousand of their own wounded to the Spanish who transferred them in turn to the French. Although the Spanish had promised food to the British if they advanced into Spain, not only was no food forthcoming, but Spanish troops threatened to pillage any town that sold food to their 'allies', forcing the British to continue retreating back to Portugal. The British in the peninsula never completely trusted the Spanish again. Wellesley was made Viscount Wellington for his victory at Talavera. Later that year, however, Spanish armies were badly mauled at the Battle of Ocana and the Battle of Alba de Tormes.

After his disappointing experience with the Spaniards, and fearing a new French attack, Wellesley made the decision to strengthen Portugal's defences. To protect Lisbon, he took a plan from Major Neves Costa and ordered the construction of a strong line of 162 forts along key roads and entrenchements and earthworks, the Lines of Torres Vedras.

Stalemate (1810–1811)

The French reinvaded Portugal in July 1810 with an army of around 60,000 led by Marshal Masséna. The first significant clash was at the Battle of Coa. Later on, Masséna took "the worst route in Portugal." At the Battle of Buçaco on September 27, he suffered a tactical defeat with a careless attack on a strong position, but he soon forced the allies to retreat to the Lines. The fortifications were so impressive that, after a small attack at Sobral on October 14, a stalemate ensued. As Charles Oman wrote, "On that misty October 14th morning, at Sobral, the Napoleonic tide attained its highest watermark, then it ebbed." The Portuguese population had subjected the area in front of the lines to a scorched earth policy and the French were eventually forced to withdraw due to disease and a lack of food and other supplies. The British suffered a setback just the next day in the battle of Fuengirola. On October 15 a much smaller Polish garrison held off British troops under Lord Blayney, who was subsequently taken captive and held by the French until 1814.

The allies were reinforced by the arrival of fresh British troops in early 1811 and began an offensive. A French force was beaten at Barrosa on March 5 as part of an unsuccessful manoeuvre to break up the siege of Cádiz, and Masséna was forced to withdraw from Portugal after an allied victory at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro (May 3–5). Masséna had lost 25,000 men in the fighting in Portugal and was replaced by Auguste Marmont. Soult came from the South to threaten Extremadura, and captured the fortress town of Badajoz before returning to Andalusia with most of his army. An Anglo–Portuguese and Spanish army led by Marshal William Beresford marched to try and retake the town; they laid siege to the French garrison Soult had left behind, but Soult regathered his army and marched to relieve the siege. Beresford moved his besieging army from Badajoz to intercept the marching French, and after the Battle of Albuera on May 16, Soult was forced to retreat back to Seville.

The war now fell into a temporary lull, the numerically superior French being unable to find an advantage and coming under increasing pressure from Spanish guerrilla activity. The French had upwards of 350,000 soldiers in L'Armée de l'Espagne, but the vast majority, over 200,000, was deployed to protect the French lines of supply, rather than as substantial fighting units. Meanwhile, the Spaniards drafted the liberal 1812 Constitution of Cádiz.

Turning of the tide (1812)

The emperor wants me to take the offensive...but his Majesty does not realize that the smallest movement in these parts expends great quantities of resources, especially of horses... To make a requisition on even the poorest village we have to send a detachment of 200 men and, to be able to live, we have to scatter over great distances.|20|20|Marshall August Marmount

In January 1812, Napoleon approved the full annexation of Catalonia into the French Empire. Its territory was divided in départements (Ter, Sègre, Montserrat and Bouches-de-l'Èbre). Looking for the approval of the local population, Catalan was declared the official language in those departments together with French. However, it did not succeed because of the historical aversion that the Catalans had against the French, and guerrilla activity continued in Catalonia.

Wellington renewed the allied advance into Spain just after New Year in 1812, besieging and capturing the fortified towns of Ciudad Rodrigo on January 19 and Badajoz, after a costly assault, on April 6. Both towns were pillaged by the troops. The allied army took Salamanca on June 17, just as Marmont approached – the two forces finally met on July 22. The Battle of Salamanca was a damaging defeat to the French, and Marshal Marmont was severely wounded. As the French regrouped, the Anglo–Portuguese entered Madrid on August 6 and advanced towards Burgos, before retreating all the way back to Portugal when renewed French concentrations threatened to trap them. As a consequence of the Salamanca campaign the French were forced to end their long siege of Cadiz and to permanently evacuate the provinces of Andalusia and Asturias.

Allied victory (1813–1814)

French hopes of recovery were stricken by Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He had taken 30,000 soldiers from the hard-pressed Armée de l'Espagne, and, starved of reinforcements and replacements, the French position became increasingly unsustainable as the allies renewed the offensive in May 1813.

In a strategic move, Wellington planned to move his supply base from Lisbon to Santander. The Anglo–Portuguese forces swept northwards in late May and seized Burgos; they then outflanked the French army, forcing Joseph Bonaparte into the valley of the River Zadorra. At the Battle of Vitoria, on June 21, the 65,000 men of Joseph were routed by 53,000 British, 27,000 Portuguese and 19,000 Spaniards. Wellesley pursued and dislodged the French from San Sebastián, which was sacked and burnt.

The allies chased the retreating French, reaching the Pyrenees in early July. Soult was given command of the French forces and began a counter-offensive, dealing the allied generals two sharp defeats at the Battle of Maya and the Battle of Roncesvalles. Yet, he was severely repulsed by the Anglo–Portuguese, lost momentum, and finally fled after the allied victory at the Battle of Sorauren (July 28 and July 30).

On October 7, after Wellington received news of the reopening of hostilities in Germany, the allies finally crossed into France, fording the Bidasoa river. On December 11, a beleaguered and desperate Napoleon agreed to a separate peace with Spain under the Treaty of Valençay, under which he would release and recognize Ferdinand in exchange for a complete cessation of hostilities. But the Spanish had no intention of trusting Napoleon, and the fighting continued.

The Peninsular War went on through the allied victories of Bera pass, the Battle of Nivelle, and the Battle of Nive near Bayonne (December 10–14 1813), the Battle of Orthez (February 27 1814) and the Battle of Bayonne (April 14), the latter occurring after Napoleon's abdication.

Guerrilla war

During the war, the British gave aid to Portuguese militia levies and Spanish guerrillas, who tied down thousands of French troops. The British gave this aid because it cost them much less than it would have to equip British soldiers to face the French in conventional warfare. This was one of the most successful partisan wars in history and is the origin of the word guerrilla in the English language (from Spanish Guerra de guerrillas or "War of little wars"). However, this guerrilla warfare was costly to both sides. Not only did the 'patriotic' Spaniards trouble the French troops, they also petrified their countrymen with a combination of forced conscription and looting of towns. Many of the partisans were, in fact, either fleeing the law or trying to get rich, although later in the war the authorities tried to make the guerrillas militarily reliable, and many of them formed regular army units, like Espoz y Mina's "Cazadores de Navarra", among others.

The idea of forming the guerrillas into an armed force had positive and negative effects. On the one hand, uniform and stronger military discipline would stop men from running off into the streets and disappearing from the band. However, the more disciplined the unit was, the easier it was for the French troops to catch them when they sprang an ambush. Only a few partisan leaders formed up with the authorities; most did so just to lay off criminal charges and to retain the effective status of an officer in the Spanish army, so their weaponry, clothes and food would be paid for.

The guerrilla style of fighting was the Spanish military's single most effective application. Most organized attempts on the part of regular Spanish forces to take on the French led to their defeat. However, once the battle was lost and the soldiers reverted to their guerrilla roles, they effectively tied down greater numbers of French troops over a wider area with much less expenditure of men, energy, and supplies. Wellington's final success in the peninsula is often said to be largely due to the collapse and demoralization of the French military structure in Spain caused by the guerrillas.

Role of intelligence

Intelligence played a crucial role in the successful prosecution of the war by the British after 1810. Spanish and Portuguese guerrillas were asked to capture messages from French couriers. From 1811 onwards, these dispatches were often either partially or wholly enciphered.

George Scovell of Wellington's General Staff was given the job of deciphering them. At first, the ciphers used were fairly simple and he received help from other members of the General Staff. However, beginning in 1812, a much stronger cipher, originally devised for diplomatic messages, came into use and Scovell was left to work on this himself. He steadily broke it, and the knowledge of French troop movements and deployments was used to great effect in most of the engagements described above. The French never realised that the code had been broken and continued to use it until their code tables were captured at the Battle of Vitoria.



King Joseph was cheered initially by Spanish afrancesados ("Frenchified"), who believed that collaboration with France would bring modernisation and liberty. An example was the abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. However, priesthood and patriots stirred up agitation among the populace, which became widespread after the French army's first examples of repression (Madrid, 1808) were presented as fact to unite and enrage the people. The remaining afrancesados were exiled to France following the departure of French troops. The painter Francisco Goya was one of these afrancesados, and after the war he had to exile himself to France to avoid being prosecuted and perhaps lynched.

The pro-independence side included both traditionalists and liberals. After the war, they would clash in the Carlist Wars, as new king Ferdinand VII, "the Desired One" (later "the Traitor king"), revoked all the changes made by the independent Cortes, which were summoned in Cádiz acting on his behalf to coordinate the provincial Juntas and resist the French. He restored absolute monarchy, prosecuted and put to death everyone suspected of liberalism, and altered the laws of royal succession in favour of his daughter Isabella II, thus starting a century of civil wars against the supporters of the former legal heir to the throne.

The liberal Cortes had approved the first Spanish Constitution on 19 March 1812, which was later nullified by the king. In Spanish America, the Spanish and Criollo officials formed Juntas that swore allegiance to King Ferdinand. This experience of self-government led the later Libertadores (Liberators) to promote the independence of the Spanish–American colonies.

French troops seized many of the extensive properties of the Catholic Church. Churches and convents were used as stables and barracks, and artworks were sent to France, leading to an impoverished Spanish cultural heritage. Allied armies also plundered Spanish towns and the countryside. Wellington recovered some of the artwork and offered to return it, but King Ferdinand gave them to him. These pieces can be viewed at the Duke's London home, Apsley House, and at his country estate, Stratfield Saye House.

Another notable effect of the war was the severe damage incurred by Spain's economy; devastated by the war, it continued to suffer in the political turbulence that followed.


The Peninsular War signified the traumatic entry of Portugal into the modern age. The Court's movement to Rio de Janeiro initiated the process of Brazil's state-building that eventually produced its independence. The skilful evacuation by the Portuguese Navy of more than 15,000 people from the Court, Administration, and Army was a bonus for Brazil and a blessing in disguise for Portugal, as it liberated the energies of the country. The Governors of Portugal nominated by the absent king had a scant impact because of the successive French invasions and British occupation.

The role of the War Minister Miguel Pereira Forjaz was unique. Wellington held him as the ablest man in Portugal. With the Portuguese Staff, he managed to build a regular army of 55,000 men and a further 50,000 as national guard milicias and a variable number of home guard ordenanças, perhaps totalling more than 100,000. In an 1812 letter to Baron Stein, the Russian Court Minister, Forjaz recommended a "scorched earth" policy and the trading of space for time as the only way to defeat a French invasion. Alexander I, Tsar of Russia, ordered his generals to use Wellington's Portuguese strategy and avoid battles to starve Napoleon's Grande Armée.

The nation at arms had a similar impact on Portugal as the French Revolution on France. A new class, tried, disciplined, and experienced by war against the French Empire, would assert Portuguese independence. Marshal Beresford and 160 officers were retained after 1814 to lead Portugal's Army while the King was still in Brazil. Portuguese politics hinged on the project of a Luso–Brazilian United Kingdom, with the African colonies supplying slaves, Brazil manufacturing and Portugal the trade. By 1820, this became untenable: Portuguese Peninsular War officers expelled the British and began the liberal revolution at Porto on August 24. Liberal institutions were only consolidated after a civil war in 1832–34.


Prosper Mérimée's Carmen, on which Bizet's opera Carmen was based, is set during the war.

Curro Jiménez was a very successful Spanish TV series about a generous bandit fighting against the French in Sierra Morena.

The British Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell were a series of novels following the adventures of a British Army officer and were set, partly, during the Peninsular War. They were later made into a series of television movies featuring actor Sean Bean as Sharpe (see Sharpe (TV Series)).

The C. S. Forester novel Death to the French is set in the Peninsular War. It concerns a private in a British Rifle Regiment who is cut off from his unit and joins a group of Portuguese guerrillas. The 1957 motion picture "The Pride and the Passion", also set during the Peninsular War, was based on Forester's novel "The Gun".

A board wargame called Wellington — The Peninsular War 1812-1814 was produced by GMT Games in 2005.

A short, but dramatic account of the Peninsular War is told by the fictional book Aztec Rage, by Gary Jennings.

The Peninsular War saw the first use of "devices," or clasp bars, on medals. The Peninsular Medal was issued to soldiers in Wellington's army, with a clasp for each major battle in which they participated. When four were issued, a Peninsular Cross was given, with each arm inscribed with the battle's name. Subsequent clasps were then added to the ribbon. Wellington's Peninsular Cross, featuring a unique nine clasps, can be seen on his uniform in the basement at Apsley House.



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            • Laqueur, Walter (1975). "The Origins of Guerrilla Doctrine". Journal of Contemporary History 10 341–382. ;
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              Further reading

              • Esdaile, Charles J. Fighting Napoleon Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN 0300101120.
              • Esdaile, Charles J. The Spanish Army in the Peninsular War Manchester University Press, 1988, ISBN 0719025389.
              • Fletcher, Ian Peninsular War; Aspects of the Struggle for the Iberian Peninsula Spellmount Publishers, 2003, ISBN 1873376820.
              • Fletcher, Ian (ed.) The Campaigns of Wellington, (3 vols), Vol 1. The Peninsular War 1808–1811; Vol. 2. The Peninsular War 1812–1814, The Folio Society, 2007.
              • Goya, Francisco The Disasters of War Dover Publications, 1967, ISBN 0486218724.
              • Griffith, Paddy A History of the Peninsular War: Modern Studies of the War in Spain and Portugal, 1808-14 v. 9 Greenhill Books, 1999, ISBN 185367348X.
              • Lovett, Gabriel H. Napoleon and the Birth of Modern Spain New York UP, 1965, ISBN 0814702678.
              • Napier, William. The War in the Peninsula (6 vols), London: John Murray (Vol 1), and private (Vols 2-6), 1828-40.
              • Oman, Charles. The History of the Peninsular War (7 vols), Oxford, 1903-30.
              • Rathbone, Julian Wellington's War, Michael Joseph, 1984, ISBN 0718123964
              • Suchet, Marshal Duke D'Albufera Memoirs of the War in Spain Pete Kautz, 2007, 2 volumes: ISBN 1858184770 & ISBN 1858184762.
              • Urban, Mark. Rifles: Six years with Wellington's legendary sharpshooters Pub Faber & Faber, 2003. ISBN 0-571-21681-1
              • Urban, Mark. The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes. Faber and Faber Ltd, London 2001. ISBN 0-571-20513-5,

              External links

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