The Battle of Salamanca saw an Anglo-Portuguese army under General Arthur Wellesley defeat Marshal Auguste Marmont's French forces among the hills around Arapiles south of Salamanca, Spain on July 22 1812 during the Peninsular War.
The battle was a succession of strokes in oblique order, initiated by the Portuguese cavalry brigade and Pakenham's 3rd division, and continued by the British heavy cavalry and the 4th, 5th and 6th divisions. The French left wing was routed.
By chance, both Marmont and his deputy commander General Bonet were wounded by shrapnel in the first few minutes of firing. The French command confusion may have been decisive in creating the opportunity, which Wellington successfully seized and exploited.
Clausel, third in seniority, asserted command and ordered a counterattack by the French reserve toward the depleted Allied center. It had some success but Wellington had sent his reinforcements to the centre, and they decided the fight in his favour.
The losses were 3,129 British and 2,038 Portuguese against about 13,000 French. As a consequence, his army was able to advance to and liberate Madrid for two months, but then retreated back to Portugal. The French were forced to permanently abandon Andalusia, and the loss of Madrid irreparably damaged King Joseph's pro-French government.
Wellington's 48,500-man army included 8 infantry divisions and 2 independent brigades, 5 cavalry brigades and 54 cannons. The infantry divisions were Henry Campbell's 1st (6,200), Edward Pakenham's 3rd (5,800), Lowry Cole's 4th (5,191), James Leith's 5th (6,700), Henry Clinton's 6th (5,500), John Hope's 7th (5,100) and Charles Alten's Light (3,500). Carlos D'España commanded a 3,400-man Spanish division, while Denis Pack (2,600) and Thomas Bradford (1,900) led Portuguese brigades.
Stapleton Cotton supervised the cavalry brigades. These included 1,000 British heavy dragoons led by John Le Marchant, 1,000 British light dragoons under George Anson, 700 Anglo-German light horse under Victor Alten, 800 King's German Legion (KGL) heavy dragoons led by George Bock and 500 Portuguese dragoons under Benjamin D'Urban. Hoylet Framingham commanded eight British (RHA: Ross, Bull, Macdonald; RA: Lawson, Gardiner, Greene, Douglas, May) and one Portuguese (Arriaga) six-gun artillery batteries.
Marmont was mistaken. Wellington actually had most of his divisions hidden behind the ridge. His 3rd and 5th Divisions would soon arrive from Salamanca. Wellington had planned to retreat if outflanked, but he was watching warily to see if Marmont made a blunder.
Marmont planned to move along an L-shaped ridge, with its angle near a steep height known as the Greater Arapile. That morning, the French occupied only the short, north-pointing part of the L. For his flanking move, Marmont sent his divisions marching west along the long side of the L. The Anglo-Allied army lay behind another L-shaped ridge, inside and parallel to the French L, and separated from it by a valley. Unseen by the French, Wellington assembled a powerful striking force along the long side of the British L.
As Marmont reached to the west, the French became strung out along the long side of the L. Thomières's division led the way, supported by Curto's cavalry. After that came Maucune, Brenier and Clausel. Bonet, Sarrut and Boyer were near the Greater Arapile. Foy and Ferey still held the short side of the L.
The 3rd Division came at the head of Thomières's division in two-deep line. Formed in columns, the French charged and were routed by superior British tactics and firepower. Thomières was killed. Seeing British cavalry in the area, Maucune formed his division into squares. This was the standard formation to receive a mounted attack, but a poor one to defend against infantry. Deployed in two-deep line, Leith's 5th Division easily defeated Maucune in a musketry duel. As the French foot soldiers began falling back, Cotton hurled Le Marchant's brigade (5th Dragoon Guards, 3rd and 4th Dragoons) at them. Maucune's men were cut to pieces by the heavy cavalrymen's sabres. Many of the survivors surrendered.
Le Marchant hurriedly reformed his troopers and sent them at the next French division, which was winded from a rapid march. The heavy dragoons mauled Brenier's hastily-formed first line, but Le Marchant pressed his luck too far. He was killed trying to break a French square in Brenier's second line. William Ponsonby succeeded to command of the brigade.
During this crisis, the French army lost its commander. As Pakenham's 3rd Division prepared to attack Thomières, Marmont finally woke up to his army's peril. He dashed for his horse, but was caught in a British shellburst which broke his arm and two ribs. His second-in-command, Bonet was wounded very soon after. Marmont claimed he was wounded as his wing became overextended, and his incapacitation led to the error not being corrected before Wellington attacked. His enemies placed his wounding during Wellington's attack. Records conflict. For somewhere between 20 minutes and over an hour, the Army of Portugal remained leaderless.
Cole's 4th Division attacked Bonet's division and Pack's Portuguese assaulted the Greater Arapile. With the help of a 40-gun battery firing from the Greater Arapile, both attacks were repulsed by the French.
When the third-in-command, Clausel was finally located, he did his best to salvage a bad situation. He committed Sarrut's division to shore up the wrecked left flank. Clausel then launched a dangerous counterattack at Cole's 4th Division using his own and Bonet's divisions, supported by Boyer's dragoons. This attack brushed aside Cole's survivors and struck the 6th Division in Wellington's second line. Marshal William Beresford reacted promptly to this developing threat and immediately sent William Spry's Portuguese brigade of the 5th Division to engage the French infantry, while Wellington moved the 1st and 7th Divisions to assist. After bitter resistance, the divisions of Clausel and Bonet were defeated. A general retreat began.
As the rest of the French army streamed away, Ferey formed his division in a single three-deep line, with each flank covered by a battalion in square. Led by Clinton's victorious 6th Division, the British came up to this formation and were initially repulsed. After ordering his artillery to crossfire through the centre of the French line, Wellington ordered a second assault. This attack broke Ferey's division and killed its commander.
Foy's division covered the French retreat toward Alba de Tormes where there was a bridge they could use to escape. Wellington, believing that the Alba de Tormes crossing was blocked by a Spanish battalion in a fortified castle, directed his pursuit along a different road. However, Maj-Gen D'Espana had withdrawn the unit without informing Wellington, so the French got away. The Army of Portugal suffered 7,000 killed and wounded and 7,000 captured. Besides Marmont's severe wounding, two divisional commanders were killed and another wounded. Half of the 5,214 Anglo-Allied losses came from the 4th and 6th Divisions. Cotton, Cole and Leith were wounded.
This battle is the most cleverly fought, the largest in scale, the most important in results, of any that the English have won in recent times. It brings up Lord Wellington's reputation almost to the level of that of Marlborough. Up to this day we knew his prudence, his eye for choosing good positions, and the skill with which he used them. But at Salamanca he has shown himself a great and able master of manoeuvring. He kept his dispositions hidden nearly the whole day: he allowed us to develop our movement before he pronounced his own: he played a close game; he utilised the oblique order in the style of Frederick the Great.
The Battle of Salamanca was a damaging defeat to the French. As the French regrouped, the Anglo-Portuguese entered Madrid on August 6 and attempted the Siege of Burgos, before retreating all the way back to Portugal in the autumn when renewed French concentrations threatened to trap them.
The victory was flawed by the failure of Spanish troops to guard a crucial escape route over the bridge at Alba de Tormes, possibly by a misunderstanding between Spanish and British commanders. The pursuit was ineffective at capturing the fleeing French.