Spain 1808

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Spain 1808

Madrid surrenders to Napoleon.

In May 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte was truly at the pinnacle of his power. From September 1805 until June 1807 his forces had fanned out across the Continent driving all before them. But in the early months of 1808 the tempo of French aggression was raised to fresh levels. Two dynasties – the Bourbons of Naples and the Braganças – had already been driven from their thrones and a third had now been physically sequestered and forced to give up its rights. Not for nothing, then, did the Ottomans accord Napoleon the title of padishah – ‘King of kings’. Inherent in this situation, however, was an obvious danger. At Tilsit Napoleon had, or so it seemed on the surface, for a brief moment come to terms with reality. Driven by the dictates of the war against Britain, he had established a partnership with Russia. Part and parcel of this was an agreement in effect to share the domination of continental Europe between two ‘superpowers’, and this in turn offered France her only way forward. Allied with Russia, she could genuinely hope for a successful end to the war against Britain, while Russian cooperation also set clear limits to her war effort and removed the very real danger that she would end up having to force the blockade single-handed on the whole of an unwilling Continent. At the same time, caught between the mill-stones of France and Russia, Austria and Prussia would of necessity have to choose the path of submission. But in reality Tilsit was not all it seemed. Far from being an act of policy, it had simply been a useful shift that put an end to a campaign Napoleon had found very difficult to sustain and which had involved some of the worst fighting of his career. What it did not amount to was a recognition that there were limits beyond which the French ruler could not go. In the first place, the concept of sharing power was not one which the emperor accepted. As a master of manipulation, Napoleon had gulled Alexander by adopting the guise of friend and ally, but as a human being he was completely incapable of translating this play-acting into reality in the way that the settlement required. There was little prospect that the mixture of adulation and flattery that had brought emperor and tsar together at Tilsit would lead to a genuine partnership. Whether it was the treaty of Amiens or the treaty of Lunéville, settlements with France had always sooner or later foundered on the rock of Napoleon’s ambition, and now that ambition had been inflated to fresh heights. Tilsit was doomed, the only question being how long it would take for the breach with Russia to become manifest.

According to traditional British accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, if the French hegemony that had been established at Tilsit was eventually challenged, it was in large part because of the events that the overthrow of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII unleashed in Spain and Portugal. If Napoleon had believed that the Bourbons could be removed quietly, then he was sorely mistaken. On the contrary, sporadic disturbances in Spain, most notably a serious rising in Madrid on 2 May, forever after remembered as the Dos de Mayo, had by the beginning of June become a full-scale national uprising that was quickly seconded by a further revolt in Portugal. Of all the events of the French Wars, there is probably none that has been more misunderstood. Generally the revolts have been portrayed as the product of outraged patriotism, but this view is difficult to sustain. In both Spain and Portugal the risings were actually very murky affairs that reflected many of the tensions besetting the body politic. The various provincial risings – for there was no concerted national uprising as such – were engineered by a variety of dissident groups for their own purposes. In Spain, in particular, the insurrection’s leaders included disgruntled office-seekers, radicals eager to make a political revolution, prominent civilians resentful of the privileges of the military estate, discontented subaltern officers eager for promotion, conservative clerics horrified by Bourbon anti-clericalism, and members of the aristocracy opposed to the creeping advance of royal authority. As for the crowd, its motivation was as much material as it was ideological. There was intense loyalty to Ferdinand VII, but this stemmed not so much from who he was as from what he represented. As Godoy’s enemies had deliberately represented Ferdinand as a ruler who would as if by magic right all Spain’s ills, the populace believed he would rescue them from the terrible conditions that they were enduring. With the vast majority of those in political and military authority men who owed their prominence to Godoy, this persuaded the populace that Napoleon’s intervention was somehow the work of the favourite. Added to this was a general belief that the French were bent on killing the entire population: the Dos de Mayo, for example, was commonly believed to have been an unprovoked attack on the people of Madrid. From here it was but a short step to a great social convulsion. Those in authority were seen as traitors: it hardly assisted their cause that in most cases they had been urging the people to remain quiet and accept whatever Napoleon might decree. But they were also men of property and privilege, and this made the rising as much a jacquerie as a movement against the French.

The social and political background to the Peninsular War is a subject that the current author has pursued in depth elsewhere, so here we will confine ourselves to the military history of the conflict. The forces sent to Portugal were expelled by a British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley after a battle at Vimeiro (21 August 1808) and another contingent of almost 20,000 men commanded by General Dupont were forced to surrender at Bailén by a Spanish regular army commanded by Francisco Javier Castaños. Forced to draw back beyond the river Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements and Napoleon came to Spain to take charge of operations. The emperor, indeed, was furious: Bailén was an unparalleled blow to his prestige. What made the humiliation still greater was, first, that Dupont was a highly experienced commander who had won much acclaim in the campaign of 1805, and, second, that it came in the wake of a serious Spanish defeat at Medina de Río Seco in Old Castile that had encouraged hopes of an early end to the war. The very day Bailén was fought Napoleon was writing to Joseph, ‘There is nothing so extraordinary in you having to conquer your kingdom. Phillip V and Henry IV were obliged to conquer theirs, too. Be gay; do not let anything get you down; and do not doubt for an instant that things will work out better and be concluded more promptly than you think.’ A few days later, we find that the tone of his correspondence is very different: ‘Dupont has sullied our banners. What ineptitude! What baseness!’2 Needless to say, such a defeat could not go unavenged, and by the beginning of November a much reinforced Armée d’Espagne was poised to deal out brutal retribution under the leadership of Napoleon himself. There followed a whirlwind campaign which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros, Gamonal, Tudela and Somosierra. With the Spanish armies in tatters, and the provisional government known as the Junta Central, that had been formed in the wake of the battle of Bailén, in flight for Seville, on 4 December the emperor recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona.

With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to overrun the entire Peninsula and end the war. All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Sir John Moore (Wellesley had returned to England following a furious controversy over the surrender terms agreed in the wake of Vimeiro). For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to get ready for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French forces guarding Napoleon’s communications in Old Castile under the command of Marshal Soult. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy. But so many troops were pulled after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the moment of victory. Though his conduct of the campaign is open to much criticism, his sacrifice was not in vain. As an early French chronicler of the conflict admitted, ‘The movement against Soult . . . forced Bonaparte to delay the execution of his designs against Andalucía and Portugal. There was not a soldier to defend the passes of the Sierra Morena, and there were but few English left in Portugal.’

For the student of Napoleon, there is much to ponder in these events. The fact that many of the French troops sent to Spain in the course of the winter of 1807 were second-line units of the poorest quality speaks volumes for the extraordinary overconfidence with which the emperor embarked on the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons. At the same time his decision to throw almost every man he had into the pursuit of Sir John Moore suggests a want of judgement of another sort: the British forces were so far from Madrid that to have caught them was almost impossible, particularly in the depths of an icy Castilian winter.

Whatever the implications of Napoleon’s conduct, the campaign of November 1808 to January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. The French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, while Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levante, Andalucía and Extremadura. As for Portugal, she too was in allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida and Oporto. Called away from Spain by the growing fears of the new war with Austria, Napoleon had left instructions for his commanders – most notably, Soult, Ney and Victor – to crush allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered. The Spanish armies defending Andalucía proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence in Portugal and, once again commanded by a rehabilitated Sir Arthur Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Zaragoza and Gerona both put up desperate resistance when they were attacked. By the summer the initiative had passed to the Allies, and the rest of the year was dominated by two major attempts to recover Madrid. Of these, the first – an Anglo-Spanish offensive from the west and south – led merely to stalemate, a major triumph at Talavera on 28 July being deprived of all effect by serious divisions in the allied command and the fortuitous arrival of massive French reinforcements. The second offensive, however, led to disaster. In the wake of Talavera, Wellesley – now Lord Wellington – refused to engage in any further operations in Spain, and pulled his men back to the Portuguese frontier. In consequence, the offensive was the work of the Spaniards alone. Operating on exterior lines from the north-west, the west and the south in terrain that greatly favoured the vastly superior French cavalry, they had no chance, and were routed at the battles of Ocaña and Alba de Tormes with terrible losses. For the French it was a moment of triumph.

The defeat of the main Spanish field armies and the British decision to concentrate on the defence of Portugal opened a new phase in the conflict. So serious had been the Spanish losses in the campaigns of 1809 that there was little left to put into the line. Nor could these losses be made up: though generous, British supplies of arms and uniforms were insufficient to the task of equipping whole new armies from scratch while resistance to conscription among the populace had reached enormous heights, the war never having been the popular crusade of legend. Meanwhile, with the new Austrian war fought and won (see below), Napoleon was pouring large numbers of fresh troops into Spain, and so the initiative passed back to the French. With the Spaniards further emasculated by the outbreak of revolution in Latin America – by now their chief source of revenue – the next two years saw constant French advances. City after city fell into the invaders’ hands while the Spaniards lost more and more of such troops and resources as remained to them. By late 1811 all that was left of Patriot Spain was Galicia, the Levante and the blockaded island city of Cádiz, which had in 1810 become the new capital. Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon’s commanders could have completely crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them, despite the masterly defensive strategy whose details we shall examine shortly. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, the supply of men dried up in 1812, the Armée d’Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As could be expected, the French forces suddenly found themselves badly over-extended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia launched in the autumn of 1811. As General Suchet, the commander of the French forces in Aragón and Catalonia, put it, ‘The emperor was all impatience at Paris.’

The events of the autumn of 1811 are worth a moment of extra consideration in the context of a discussion of the international relations of Napoleonic Europe. At this point it is clear the French were winning the war in Spain and Portugal. As fortress after fortress was taken and army after army shattered, it became ever more clear that sooner or later Spanish resistance was likely to collapse altogether. In large parts of the country, the famous guerrillas – in reality a mixture of bandit gangs; bands of levies, volunteers, deserters and liberated prisoners of war organized into semi-regular fighting forces by a variety of army officers and charismatic civilian adventurers; and flying columns of regular troops – continued to plague the French, but it is by no means clear that they could have survived indefinitely. In 1811 and 1812 successive British thrusts across the Portuguese frontier forced the French to concentrate their forces and allowed the guerrillas to run amok, but for the whole of 1811 Wellington was never able to advance very far into Spain. With the battered Spanish armies also incapable of any great feat of arms, the invaders put considerable resources into the war in the interior, while the experience of southern Italy suggested that they were entirely capable of dealing with popular insurrection. As we have already seen, in the wake of the French invasion of Naples in 1806 a serious revolt had broken out in the province of Calabria. Under the leadership of a variety of local chieftains, bands of irregulars had taken to the hills. What followed was a bloody and savage war, but the Calabrian insurgents were even less engaged by issues of ideology or nationalism than the Spaniards, while they also did not enjoy the same degree of regular assistance: occasional descents on the coast à la Maida were no substitute for the support afforded by the presence in Spain of substantial allied field armies. It is, then, no surprise that by 1810 the war in Calabria had been put down, thereby establishing beyond doubt the French army’s ability to develop effective anti-guerrilla strategies.

Victory in the Iberian Peninsula, then, was by no means an impossibility for Napoleon. The last Spanish forces could be subdued; the last Spanish fortresses beaten; and the last Spanish guerrillas hunted down. After that, there would remain Portugal, but it was doubtful whether Wellington would be able to hold out alone, and even if he could there was always the issue of support for the war in Britain. It was perhaps inevitable that the retreat of Sir John Moore, the inability to translate victory at Talavera into further advances and the withdrawal into Portugal produced outbreaks of what Wellington referred to as ‘croaking’ among the Whigs. For a long time figures such as Grey and Grenville refused point-blank to accept there was any chance of victory in the Peninsula and condemned it as a futile struggle. In addition, the more radical of the so-called ‘friends of peace’ were furious at what they perceived as Spain’s continued domination by the Church and the aristocracy. To them, indeed, the war was not only futile but indefensible: to resist Napoleon when he was seeking to invade Britain was one thing, but Copenhagen and the British expeditions to Latin America suggested that the struggle had become one of aggression and even expansion. So long as things went relatively well, the opposition leaders had little hope of winning the support of the independent MPs who were the key to gaining victory in the House of Commons. In the first half of 1810, in fact, repeated attempts to defeat the government were all firmly quashed. Nor is this surprising, for the Whigs had nothing credible to offer in their criticism of the war. In 1808 he Whigs had temporarily rallied to the cause of resistance as Britain was seemingly no longer fighting as the ally of despotism, but rather of a people united in its determination to defend its independence abroad and secure its liberty at home. Yet in Spain even British commanders who were favourable to the Whigs like Sir John Moore discovered that the crusade in which observers like Sheridan or Lord Holland took such a delight was a chimera, while every attempt to criticize Wellington foundered on the unpalatable fact that the Spaniards could not be relied upon. But unable in practice to come up with any alternative scheme for the prosecution of the war, in almost every Commons debate on the subject the Whigs ended up humiliated and discredited.

Yet the collapse of the Spanish cause would almost certainly have changed matters in this respect. Not only would it have spurred the opponents of the war to fresh efforts, but there were limits even to what the government, now headed by Spencer Perceval, could accept. By the end of 1810 Britain’s ability to bear the cost of the war was clearly faltering, and it was only with some difficulty that Wellington had persuaded the Cabinet to give him the resources he required to take the offensive in the spring of 1811. Indeed, such were London’s financial worries that there were serious proposals for his forces to be reduced. With the hope of victory gone – the Anglo-Portuguese army could not have fought the war single-handed – the Perceval administration would have quite probably given up even its commitment to the defence of Portugal.

Setting aside the government’s deficiencies – on the surface it was hardly an impressive body – what makes this even more likely is the economic context. After two years of renewed confidence and growth in part brought about by the greatly improved access Britain now enjoyed to the Latin American market, in 1811 there was a serious economic slump. The causes were complex, but essentially a poor harvest coincided with a change in Napoleon’s operation of the Continental Blockade: that in effect legalized the importation of British goods and badly hit the many speculators who had been profiting from the wholesale smuggling trade that had grown up since 1806. With this, in turn, came a great wave of bankruptcies and a significant upturn in unemployment. It may also be significant that 1811 saw the peak of the enclosure movement in the countryside and, by extension, an increase in migration to the towns, just at a moment when house-building – one of the trades most suited to absorb large numbers of unskilled labourers – was at a low ebb through the cumulative effect of years of high taxation. Distress was acute, and its expression assumed forms that were much more frightening than the ‘peace petitioning’ of 1807. General unrest and rioting spread across key industrial areas of the country, and this was underpinned by much criticism of the war, and, in particular, the Orders-in-Council, which were, entirely wrongly, held responsible for the slump in trade. Nor were these measures just hated by the handloom weavers and framework knitters who were at the heart of the unrest. On the contrary, by 1811 the Orders-in-Council were the subject of an extremely vociferous campaign on the part of the many commercial interests who also felt that they stood in their way. So great was the pressure that in June 1812 the government, which had the previous month been taken over by Lord Liverpool, was forced to capitulate, while 1813 saw a further move towards free trade with the publication of revisions to the East India Company’s charter. And, finally, there was the issue of political reform. Stimulated first by the major scandal that broke in 1809 concerning allegations that the Duke of York’s mistress had intervened in army promotions in return for bribes and then by the government’s foolish attempt to quash discussion of the abortive expedition sent to Holland in 1809, several motions were introduced in the House of Commons calling for the reform of parliament, and, while these were defeated, the number of votes they received was by no means inconsiderable. Even put together, all this did not amount to a revolutionary crisis, but the collapse of resistance in Spain would have provoked a storm that neither Perceval nor Liverpool would have found it easy to ride out. Would they, indeed, have been willing even to make the attempt? The chief enthusiast for the continuation of the Peninsular War at all costs was Wellington’s brother, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Wellesley, but he was both notoriously lazy and extremely arrogant and could therefore hardly be said to have had the confidence of his colleagues.

British commitment to the Peninsula was not a given, therefore, but for the time being Wellington’s army fought on. Indeed, its achievements were considerable. Particular attention should be paid here to Wellington’s defence of Portugal in 1810-11. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in , the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine, and the French moved on towards Lisbon. Wellington had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan of defence. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes towards Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, the countryside would continue to be devastated, while the Anglo-Portuguese army fell back on Lisbon, along with the bulk of the civilian population. Waiting for them would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras, an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear – Wellington certainly had his doubts – but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite the defenders achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Buçaco failed due to the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track around Wellington’s northern front. But when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no further. In this situation Masséna did his best, but through Wellington’s scorched earth policy his supplies collapsed and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier.

However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorized by the British government to enter Spain once more, Wellington soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French and every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counteroffensives, as at Albuera and Fuentes de Oñoro. Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, while progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by a lack of adequate siege cannon. Of course, the French were in no better state. Twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack Wellington in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, while an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in allied hands again) would have been out of the question. Yet until the end of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain, the only thing that changed this situation being Napoleon’s insistence on continual attacks in the Peninsula at the same time as he was massing his armies for the invasion of Russia. By stripping its defenders of troops, this completely destabilized the position on the Portuguese frontier. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, win a major victory at Salamanca and liberate Madrid. Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal. But the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813. Aided by the continued attempts of 1813 the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph’s main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June. Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastián and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren and San Marcial, while in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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