Badajoz and its Citadel from the north bank of the River Guadiana
Badajoz and its Citadel from the north bank of the River Guadiana

At the end of this year [1809] the Duke of Portland, the titular head of the ministry, resigned, and shortly afterwards died. His resignation had been preceded by those of George Canning and Castlereagh, who had quarrelled so bitterly over a misunderstanding that they fought a duel, after which it was practically impossible for either of them to remain in office. Canning's place in the new ministry headed by Perceval was taken by the Marquess Wellesley, and young Lord Palmerston joined the government as Secretary at War, though without 'a seat in the Cabinet - an office which he retained for the next eighteen years.

The changes involved no alteration of policy; even Wellesley's presence in the Cabinet was hardly a stronger guarantee of support for his brother at the seat of war than Canning's had been. At the end of 1810 the king's brain-malady returned, and consequently a Regency Bill appointing the Prince of Wales regent with un­limited powers was passed in the following year. The situation was practically unaffected thereby, for the heir-apparent was no longer, as in 1788, intimately associated with the leaders of the Whig party, which was now in a hopeless minority.

In 1810 Napoleon, annoyed by the continuation of the Peninsula War, resolved to sweep away the obstructing British, and sent Massena with a Grand Army to carry out the task. Soult mastered the whole of the southern province of Spain, Andalusia, with the exception of Cadiz, which defied him. Suchet mastered Aragon, and Wellington, with some thirty thousand British troops, was intended to be the prey of perhaps the ablest of the French marshals with seventy thousand men.

Inadequately supported with men and money from home in consequence of the Walcheren fiasco, the British general could only stand on the defensive, with the additional danger before him that Soult from the South might co-operate with Massena. From this the jealousies of the French marshals delivered him. Massena's advance at first was unchecked. He secured Ciudad Rodrigo and Almeida, a strong fortress within the Portuguese frontier. He intended to sweep the British into the sea, but Wellington had perfected his defensive preparations. At the end of September he met and repulsed at Busaco the attack of Massena, who was disappointed by finding that the Portuguese troops with his adversary were by no means to be despised. But Busaco was merely a check. Wellington fell back into the peninsula whereon Lisbon stands.

Then Massena suddenly found himself confronted by the lines of Torres Vedras, and realised that Wellington's engineers had made them completely impregnable. Also he found that Wellington had very carefully denuded the whole surrounding country of supplies which, with the rural population, had' been collected within his lines. For nearly five months, from the middle of November, Massena lay powerless to strike, with an army gradually famishing and perpetually harassed by the Portuguese guerillas. In March he began his retreat, while Soult confined himself to capturing Badajoz on the south, Wellington followed and laid siege to Almeida. Masstoa, with his weakened army, attempted a relief, but was beaten after two days of critical fighting at Fuentes d'Onoro, and Almeida was taken, though the garrison broke its way out.

Within a fortnight Beresford had fought and won the sanguinary battle of Albuera in the south. He was attempting to recover Badajoz, when Soult attacked him with twenty-three thousand men. Of Beresford's force only some ten thousand were British troops, and upon them fell nearly the whole of the fighting. More than a third of their number fell, but. Soult was driven off with a loss of six thousand. Wellington, having cleared the North, hastened to join Beresford; but Marmont, who had taken Massena's place, combined forces with Soult, and the siege of Badajoz had to be abandoned. Wellington made a dash upon Ciudad Rodrigo, but Marmont foiled the movement and he had to fall back again into Portttgal.

Apparently he had achieved little enough; it was still only within Portugal that he was master. Nevertheless his operations had served perpetually to relieve the pressure upon the Spanish guerillas, who, throughout the war, showed a resourcefulness and a fighting capacity in marked contrast to that of the official Spanish troops; while their activities at the same time helped the jealousies of the French marshals to prevent the overwhelming concentrations of French troops which might have pinned Wellington to Torres Vedras.

So, at the end of 1811, Wellington had not been driven into the sea though it was still possible to argue with honest conviction that the war in the Peninsula was producing no results commensurate with the heavy expenditure of blood and treasure. But its justification was near at hand. Napoleon was planning his Russian expedition, and, instead of reinforcing the army in the Peninsula, he was reducing its numbers in the winter and spring in order to strengthen his Grand Army for Moscow. He may have been misled too by the successful operations of Suchet in the east of Spain.

Ciudad Rodrigo
Thus at last the time was ripe for Wellington to begin a series of more actively offensive operations. Suddenly in January he sprang upon Ciudad Rodrigo; Marmont began a movement for its rescue, but not in time to prevent Wellington from carrying it by assault. Unsuspicious of Wellington's designs, Marmont again retired to winter quarters. Again, the British general struck and struck hard, this time to the southward, falling upon Badajoz, which was carried by escalade after furious fighting, in which the most desperate courage and determination were displayed both by defenders and assailants; although both here and at Ciudad Rodrigo the splendid valour of the British soldiery was marred by the brutal excesses in which the troops, which got utterly out of hand, indulged after the victory.

Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz were the gates of Spain, Badajoz fell in April. Wellington would probably have been glad to tempt Soult into an immediate engagement while his own men were in the full tide of confidence gained by their last triumph. But Soult was not to be tempted, and Wellington could not leave Badajoz till the fortifications had been reinstated. By that time it was becoming imperative that he should deal with Marmont in the North, for the Spaniards had failed to carry out the advice given them by the British commander and the country was still open. Northward, therefore, he turned, despatching General Hill to secure the passage of the Tagus at Almarez - the only line by which it was possible to effect a junction with the Northern army. Hill's work was admirably done. The position was strongly held by the French, but the movement for its capture was skilfully concealed; it was rushed by a brilliant attack, the pontoon bridge was demolished, the magazine and stores were destroyed, and the communications between Soult and Marmont were completely severed.

In June the Salamanca campaign opened. The combatants were not unequally matched in point either of numbers or of the military genius of the commanders. Neither was willing to fight an indecisive battle. It was not till the middle of July that the movements of the two armies, each endeavouring to secure a decisively superior position in which it could compel the other to fight on its own terms, brought on the crisis and the actual battle of Salamanca, which was fought on July 22nd. The decisive moment came when Marmont attempted to carry out an enveloping movement on Wellington's flank, which, if it had been accomplished successfully, would have given him a decisive victory. But there was a moment when the extending of Marmont's lines opened a gap, and the moment was seized by his adversary.

Wellington broke the line, cut off the centre and the left from the right wing, and rolled them up. Fifteen thousand of the French army were killed, wounded, or prisoners. Three weeks later Wellington was in Madrid, hailed with frantic joy as their saviour by the enthusiastic populace. But even Salamanca did not mean that Spain was won; a concentration of the French armies would still bring a greatly superior force against the British. Before the end of the year Wellington was once more behind the Portuguese frontier. The decisive blow was still deferred.

Napoleon in Russia
Meanwhile, the ministry at home had again been modified. Early in the year Wellesley, dissatisfied with the treatment meted out both to himself and to his brother, resigned, and Castlereagh took his place as Foreign Secretary. Then in May the Prime Minister Perceval was assassinated by a lunatic, and his place at the head of the ministry was taken by Lord Liverpool, a man somewhat of the Pelham type, not a distinguished statesman but endowed with an abnormal capacity for reconciling hostile elements.

Wellesley would not return to the ministry, and there was not room in one Cabinet for George Canning as well as Castlereagh. Castlereagh, however, was no less determined than Wellesley himself to carry the struggle with Napoleon in general, and in the Peninsula in particular, to a decisive conclusion. While Wellington and Marmont were manoeuvring for the mastery before Salamanca, Napoleon was launching his expedition against Russia. Both Prussia and Austria found discretion the better part of valour and stood nominally as his allies, his troops being given free passage through the Prussian territories.

At the end of June the Grand Army Russian Poland, where it was generally welcomed by the Poles But the Russians played the Fabian game, retreating before the half million men whom Napoleon was leading. Not till September did they stay to give battle, when they faced the Emperor at Borodino. The slaughter on both sides was terrific, but, though the Russians left the French masters of the field, they were not routed but continued their retreat.

On the 14th, a week after Borodino, Napoleon reached Moscow. He found the city deserted and empty; the next day it was in flames. For five weeks the Emperor remained at Moscow - though half the town was a charred ruin - vainly hoping that the Tsar would come to terms. Then he began his retreat by a different route, for on the line of his advance his army must have perished of sheer starvation. The Russians gave him one fierce battle, in which the victory lay with the French, but by this time the Grand Army was already shattered. It was not worth while for the Russians to accept another general engagement; they were content to cut off supplies and perpetually harass the retreat of the starving army.

The Russian winter
Then the severities of a Russian winter came to their aid. At the crossing of the Beresina the French escaped annihilation and no more. Napoleon deserted his force, leaving Murat to conduct the retreat; it was a mere remnant of the Grand Army that re-entered Prussia in December. The effect of the disaster was tremendous. Within three months the King of Prussia, swept away by the uprising of the national spirit, formally allied himself with Russia, declared war against France,, and issued an appeal to all Germany to join in a war of liberation. Austria for the time held aloof. But meanwhile the amazing energy of Napoleon had produced a new army with which he twice defeated the allies before the end of May.

Then an armistice proved fatal, for it enabled the allies to improve their organisation and to bring Austria into the coalition. Even then Napoleon won a great battle at Dresden in August, but in the middle of October the gathered nations overwhelmed him at Leipzig. Napoleon was no longer fighting to dominate Europe, The question now was whether Europe would crush Napoleon. And Europe was only just beginning to believe that in fighting against Napoleon it was not fighting against Fate.

The Abdication of Napoleon
But Britain's particular concern was with the Peninsula. The Moscow disaster compelled Napoleon to withdraw more troops from Spain, and Wellington prepared for a decisive campaign. In May he crossed the Portuguese frontier, and on June 21st he met Marshal Jourdan and King Joseph at Vittoria. The French army was shattered, and fled in rout to the Pyrenees, leaving behind the whole of its artillery and stores a million of money, and the accumulated spoils of many years. Except in the extreme north, the Peninsula was practically clear of the enemy by the end of June. The British army in Spain was now to become the invader of France. Nevertheless, it was only after a long series of stubborn engagements with Soult that Wellington made good a footing on French soil.

The last fierce battle, itself a decisive one, was fought at Toulouse on April 10, 1814. And that battle itself was a sheer waste of life; for the allies had taken heart of grace, poured into France, and taken possession of Paris; and on April 6th Napoleon had abdicated. Louis XVIII was proclaimed King of France, and Europe permitted Napoleon to retire to the principality of the island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's point of view may not be currently accepted by modern historians, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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