Spain: The Lightning Rod that Attracted the Thunderbolt II

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The Surrender at Bailén by José Casado del Alisal. Oil on canvas. Museo del Prado.

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The Madrid Trap

That day, news reached Bayonne of a bloody riot on May 2 in Madrid, the famous “Dos de Mayo” made notorious by Goya. Napoleon’s critics characterize his interview with the Spanish royal family as “the Bayonne Trap.” What a false judgment! In reality, the trap was for Napoleon in Madrid.

Agitators had presented the announcement of the departure of the princes from the capital, summoned to their father, as if it were a kidnapping by the French army. Madrid became inflamed by the news. Those French soldiers who were caught off guard were massacred with stupefying savagery. The Spanish army joined the rioters. The next day, Murat struck back hard at the insurrection. Thousands of deaths occurred.

This bloody event caused Napoleon to commit the greatest error of judgment of his entire reign. Everything suggested that Ferdinand’s partisans had organized the uprising. Brought into the emperor’s presence, the queen went so far as to strike her son in the face, daring to call him a bastard and to speak of sending him to the scaffold.

In this tragic setting, Napoleon also lost his temper. He sternly ordered Ferdinand to recognize his father as the legitimate king by midnight and to let this recognition be known in Madrid. If not, he would be treated as a rebel. Ferdinand did not resist, but accepted the proposition and agreed to retreat in comfort to the chateau of Valencay, offered by Talleyrand.

That same day, Charles IV formally fulfilled his promise to cede to the emperor all his rights to the throne of Spain, in exchange for the chateaux of Compiegne and Chambord and a very comfortable stipend. Thus, on May 5, 1808, the Bourbons of Spain voluntarily renounced their throne.

When Joseph succeeded him a few days later, Ferdinand found everything acceptable and promised “the allegiance that I owe to you, just as do all the Spaniards who are with me.” This was the individual to whom Napoleon was supposed to entrust the security of France!

Instead of calming the situation, Ferdinand’s impulsive decision actually aggravated matters. Neither his proclamation to the Spaniards nor Joseph’s recognition by a committee of Spanish notables changed the spreading agitation. Soon, with the support of the Spanish army, this agitation became a general partisan war, from which the term “guerrilla” took its name.

A spiral of failure began. On June 14, Admiral Rosily surrendered to the Spanish at Cadiz. Two days after Joseph’s entry into Madrid, on July 22, General Dupont surrendered in open country at Bailen. Almost 20,000 French soldiers capitulated to General Castanos without a fight. Joseph had to flee ignominiously from his capital.

The dishonorable surrender at Bailen resounded across Europe. It struck a serious blow to the Grand Armeé’s reputation of invincibility, thereby encouraging France’s enemies who were lying in wait.

Obviously, the British did not delay in sticking their noses in. On August 30, the mediocre Junot capitulated at Cintra to Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, quickly exploiting France’s difficulties. The fatal war in Spain had begun.

One cannot ignore Napoleon’s own responsibility in the Spanish affair. The considerations discussed here are intended only to clarify certain matters.

On that fateful May 5, Napoleon had committed the capital mistake of demanding that Ferdinand renounce the Spanish throne so as to pass it to a member of the Bonaparte house. The thirst for vengeance for the French blood shed on May 2 and the absolute lack of confidence that the Bourbons of Madrid inspired in him might explain a human reaction, but not justify the decision of a head of state, who must never give way to anger.

If the riots of May 2 had not occurred, would matters have turned out differently? It was not impossible that Escoïquiz could be brought to offer convincing guarantees. The negotiations were moving in that direct prior to May 5. Would such guarantees have been reliable? That is impossible to determine, but the outcome could hardly have been worse than the revolt of all of Spain.

The riot of May 2 had become the detonator of the Spanish tragedy. Who had instigated it? The rioters of Madrid had attacked the French soldiers while shouting “death to the infidels!” The monks and priests had preached revolt against Napoleon, “the antichrist.” The soldiers were called “servants of the devil” or “troops of Voltaire.” At Oviedo, the furor of Canon Llano Ponte was striking. At the head of a mob that slaughtered 38 soldiers of the garrison of Valencia was the Canon Calvo, etc.

Those notables who favored France, and there were many such, were not spared. At Badajoz, the Count of Torre was torn to pieces. At Seville, the Count of Aguila was shot while hanging from a balcony. At Cadiz, General Solano was stabbed and decapitated. At Malaga, General Trujillo was burned alive.

Everything pointed to a fanatical local clergy, opposed to progress and leading the people under their influence in a vengeful crusade against the anti-clericism of the Revolution. The hypersensitive Spanish nationalism provided fertile ground for—but not the cause of—this uprising. To give an example, here is an extract from a Spanish catechism of that era:

From whence did Napoleon come? From the inferno and from sin! What are his principal methods? To deceive, to steal, to assassinate, and to oppress. Is it a sin to kill Frenchmen? On the contrary, that action is worthy of merit from the country if, by this means, we are delivered from insults, from theft, and from trickery!

This was a true incitement to murder, a blend of religious fundamentalism and nationalistic fanaticism.

Yet, the local clergy would not have acted in such an extreme manner if they had not been encouraged to do so by the Roman Curia. Certain high prelates had never accepted the Concordat that had trimmed the power of the Church in France. In their eyes, Napoleon’s greatest crime was to have established the principle of laicism. His recent quarrels with the Pope had not improved his image among Catholics. On May 12, Pius VII decided to refuse investiture to bishops nominated by the emperor, contrary to what had been agreed. Ten days later, he forbad his subjects to swear allegiance to the French government. To top it off, the Pope asked all Spanish bishops not to recognize Joseph, “this freemason king, heretic and Lutheran as are all the Bonapartes and the French nation.”

In reality, Napoleon had accorded great religious tolerance to Spain, especially with regard to the status of Jews, to whom he had just granted freedom of religion in France. In attempting to avoid the English plague and the Bourbon cholera, Napoleon had contracted the Roman rabies. He would now deal with a holy war as well as a nationalist uprising. If one concedes that this war of atrocities was the grave of the Empire, it is no exaggeration to assert that the papacy had dug that grave.

As for military operations, under the circumstances Napoleon had no choice. He had to reestablish order in Spain as quickly as possible.

Ephemeral Reestablishment of the Situation

For Napoleon, the ideal would have been to intervene immediately and in person. A fire is most easily brought under control if it is dealt with quickly. But the emperor’s first duty was to prevent the opening of a second front in Germany. That was the purpose of the Congress of Erfurt in September-October 1808. While this was going on, Napoleon used the time to bring the army in Spain up to a strength of 150,000 excellent soldiers, many of them veterans of Austerlitz, Jena, and Friedland.

As usual, Napoleon’s campaign plan was simple. Starting from the northern bank of the Ebro River, he would defeat the Spanish army then reinstall King Joseph on his throne in Madrid. This first action should entice Moore’s 40,000 British troops from Portugal to the interior of Spain so as to assist the Spanish army. The French army would then attack by surprise, annihilating the British before they had time to react. This plan would be executed almost perfectly. Only appalling weather conditions enabled the British to avoid total destruction.

Napoleon began the campaign on November 4. He struck first at the Anglo-Spanish left under Blake, destroyed the right under Palafox, and then dashed in the center toward Burgos. Fine victories were won by Soult at Reinosa, Victor at Espinoza, and Lannes at Tudela over Castanos. Saragossa was besieged.

At Burgos, the emperor witnessed dreadful excesses of this atrocious war. Although unbearable, these practices of incredible cruelty illustrate the fanatical brutality of the war in Spain. Let us consider a few horrible scenes extracted from an official report:

Captured soldiers were tortured and emasculated, with their private parts placed in their mouths… others were sawn in half between two boards… still others were buried alive or hung by their feet in lit fireplaces…. This unfortunate hussar captain was crucified on a door with his head down over a fire… and again the brave General René, captured with his wife and child, cut in half before his wife after watching her be dishonored… then the child was cut in half in front of the mother who in turn was also cut in half…. At Manzanares the inhabitants cut the throats of 1,200 sick or wounded soldiers in a hospital. A captain was cut up into little pieces and fed to the pigs….

In reprisal, the French army indulged in horrible excesses and had to be taken firmly in hand.

After the capture of Burgos and Santander, Napoleon pursued the enemy toward Madrid. On November 30, the Polish lancers seized the pass of Somosierra after a memorably heroic charge. Madrid capitulated on December 3. Joseph resumed his throne and Napoleon gave Spain a liberal constitution.

As expected, Moore moved from Portugal into Spain with 35,000 men who came to reinforce 5,000 others who had been disembarked at Coruña. Moore linked up with La Romana’s Spanish army. Napoleon’s apprehension of a British intervention in force in Spain was well founded, justifying his preventive action in the peninsula.

The emperor next put the second phase of his plan into operation. On December 22, 1808, he marched north. He planned to destroy Moore in the region of Valladolid.

However, the cold, the snow, and the mud slowed him down considerably, giving him a foretaste of the retreat from Moscow. Moore thus escaped destruction. In his headlong retreat, the British general abandoned to this “henchman of the devil,” Napoleon, a thousand British women and children, found on January 2, 1809, in a large shed at Astorga. They were starving, shivering with cold, and trembling with fear. The mothers threw themselves at the emperor’s feet and begged him to preserve the lives of their children. He made all arrangements to reassure, lodge, warm, and feed these unfortunates before returning them in good health to the British army several days later.

At Astorga, Napoleon received alarming dispatches concerning the situation inside and outside of France. He decided on January 17 to return to Paris at full speed, assigning Soult the task of completing the campaign. Too slow, Soult allowed a major portion of the British forces to reembark at Corona on the 19th. Moore, however, found his death in this affair.

The military situation in Spain was temporarily reestablished. Yet, this was only a remission of the cancer in Spain, a cancer that would never heal. Napoleon never again commanded personally in Spain, an error for which some have criticized him. Too absorbed in other, more menacing wars, he had to dedicate his remaining time to the government of France. In any event, the nature of the war in Spain, which was more a matter of guerrillas than of great battles, demanded decentralization of command. Moreover, how can those who criticize Napoleon for being bellicose also censure him for “deserting” this war?

The Spanish Cancer

After the emperor’s departure, mopping-up operations continued. On March 28, Victor and Sébastiani defeated the Spaniards at Medellin and Ciudad Real, respectively. Soult seized Porto in northern Portugal but did not exploit his success toward Lisbon.

After the indecisive battle of Talavera on July 28, 1809, Arthur Wellesley, the new commander of the British expeditionary force, was made Viscount Wellington and retired toward Portugal. This permitted several French successes. On November 19, Soult won a victory at Ocana and opened Andalusia. In December, Gouvion Saint-Cyr took Gerone in Catalonia while Soult pacified Aragon. In January 1810, Soult and Victor launched an offensive toward Seville and retook control of the south. Yet, they failed before Cadiz.

In May 1810, Suchet seized Lerida and Soult took Badajoz while Massena was the victor at Ciudad Rodrigo in June and at Almeida in August. On September 27, Massena missed a good opportunity to finish Wellington at Busaco.

The victim of misunderstandings with the other generals and of difficulties in resupply, Massena abandoned Portugal in March 1811. For this entire year, the fighting would focus around the fortresses on the Spanish-Portuguese border at Almeida, Ciudad Rodrigo, and Badajoz.

On May 3, 1811, Massena inflicted a serious reverse on Wellington at Fuentes de Onoro. Bessieres’ indiscipline hampered the effort to crush the British. A decisive victory faded away. On May 10, Marmont assumed command of the army in Spain from Massena, who was at the end of his tether.

On the 16th, Soult achieved a significant victory at Albuféra, but again he failed to pursue, instead retiring on Seville. In Catalonia, Suchet took Tarragon by surprise.

Throughout the remainder of 1811, Wellington tried in vain to seize Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo. As winter approached, he again retreated on Portugal, waiting for a shift in the balance of forces.

This shift occurred at the beginning of 1812, when Napoleon was constrained to withdraw some units from Spain to deal with threats from the east. Wellington profited immediately. On January 18, he inflicted a major reverse on poor Marmont before Ciudad Rodrigo. The city suffered unparalleled atrocities. At the same time, the brave Suchet occupied Valencia, permitting the annexation of Catalonia to the Empire on January 26. On April 6, 1812, Badajoz suffered the same fate as Ciudad Rodrigo. Portugal was definitively lost.

In June, battles occurred around Salamanca. Despite a numerical equality of forces, on July 22, 1812, Marmont was severely defeated at Salamanca in the Arapiles Mountains, losing 14,000 out of 50,000 engaged. Wellington entered Madrid on August 1 after it was again abandoned by King Joseph. Clausel replaced Marmont, who had been wounded.

Between September 9 and October 18, Wellington failed to take Burgos, heroically defended by General Dubreton. Threatened by a French counter-attack, the British commander prudently avoided a major battle. Lifting the siege of Burgos and abandoning Madrid, he took up winter quarters in the shelter of the ramparts of Ciudad Rodrigo. In the course of a second retreat, he was severely handled by Soult in a second battle of the Arapiles. Yet again, Soult did not exploit his success.

Still, the prize was already, definitively, lost. The disastrous defeat of the campaign in Russia that had just occurred obliged Napoleon to progressively withdraw more and more forces from Spain, whereas on his side Wellington received a steady stream of reinforcements.

The exiled government of Spain put 21,000 soldiers at the disposition of Wellington, who was named commander-in-chief after his victory at Salamanca. Henceforth, he was able to coordinate the activities of guerrilla bands with his conventional offensive. In addition, he established a new base for maritime resupply at Santander.

Regrettably, the French army could no longer hold Spain, but had to focus on defending the frontier of the Pyrenees.

The emperor instructed Joseph to regroup his reduced armies on a defensive line anchored by the Ebro. Wellington did not allow Joseph time to do this. Overcome by superior numbers on June 21, 1813, after a spirited defense Joseph was knocked flat at Vittoria. The remnants of his army withdrew in disorder toward the frontier.

Soult assumed command of what remained of the French army, with the exception of Suchet’s force in Aragon and Catalonia. After regrouping his meager forces behind the frontier, Soult attempted to relieve the besieged garrisons of Pamplona and San Sebastian. He was able to delay the capitulation of San Sebastian until August 31, after 69 days of siege, and that of Pamplona until the end of October.

On November 8, 1813, Wellington crossed the Bidossa and attacked Soult’s positions behind the Nivelle. Condemned to a hopeless delaying defensive, Soult conducted the retreat brilliantly. His resistance was only part of the general rush to French collapse. The last position in Spain, Lerida, fell on January 25, 1814. On the 17th, Soult was defeated at Orthez. The British entered Bordeaux on March 12. The final battle between Soult and Wellington took place before Toulouse on April 10, 1814.

On December 11, 1813, a treaty signed at Valencay had reestablished Ferdinand VII on his throne, for which the Spaniards would have little to congratulate themselves.

What overall judgment can be made on the conclusion of the disastrous war in Spain? To sum it up in a single word, the most appropriate would be fate. In Spain, Napoleon suffered the longest and most murderous of wars, the war he had intervened in order to avoid. Paradoxically, the lightning rod had brought down the thunderbolt.

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