The Peninsular War
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[Ed. Throughout this section the author calls the conflict in Span and Portugal the 'Peninsula War', rather than the more common term, the 'Peninsular War'. A small difference, I admit, but worth pointing out that it is the same war]
Portugal had palpably and unmistakably been coerced [into accepting French rule]; the national government had in no sense accepted the French supremacy, it had merely submitted to irresistibly superior force. As Portugal's ally, Britain had full warrant for intervening. Technically the case was different with Spain. Formally the Bourbon dynasty had abdicated of its own free win and the new king had been elected by a body masquerading as a national assembly. Technically therefore the Spanish insurgents were rebels. But this did not prevent the British Government from recognising its opportunity and espousing their cause. The capitulation of Baylen gave promise that the Spaniards would not collapse, that they were embarking on an adventure which was not altogether desperate; and the rising of the Spaniards encouraged the idea of helping Portugal to break from the bonds which had just been imposed upon her. The country would be entirely friendly, and the British command of the sea secured free entry and uninterrupted communication, whereas French armies could only get to Portugal through hostile Spanish territory. If Portugal were secured it would become a base whence the Spanish insurgents could be supported and helped to eject the French.
The Peninsular War begins
The Peninsula War, which began with the landing of British troops in Portugal on August 13, 1808, was a new departure. For the first time a British army under a British general was about to take the lead in a land war against a European power. Even in Marlborough's day that great general's achievements were only in part due to the British army. The British did not fight their battles single-handed; but in the Peninsula, although invaluable service was rendered in the war by the Spanish guerillas, Wellington's own battles were fought and won by British troops who received practically no assistance from the Spanish regulars who were acting with them. Hitherto throughout the great struggle with France, at any rate for a hundred years, nearly all the British honours had fallen to British seamen. Now that there were no honours left for British seamen to win, British soldiers took their share, not in India and America only but in Europe.
Wellesley in command
The British force of twelve thousand men was under the immediate command of Sir Arthur Wellesley [Ed. better known to history by his later title, the Duke of Wellington], as yet known only as a "sepoy general” on account of his brilliant services in India during his brother's Governor-Generalship, to which we shall presently revert. Reinforcements were following under Sir John Moore, but the two commanders were to be subordinate to two senior officers, Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple, when they should arrive in the Peninsula. Wellesley landed at the mouth of the Mondego, marched towards Lisbon, and was met by Junot at Vimiero.
Juno attacked and was repulsed. Wellesley was confident that, left to himself he could have crushed him. But the pursuit was stopped by the arrival of Burrard and Dalrymple in succession. Reinforced by Moore, the army continued its march upon Lisbon, and the senior generals agreed to the Convention of Cintra, which permitted the whole French force to evacuate Portugal and to be simply carried back by sea to France in British ships; at the same time a Russian fleet, blockaded in the Tagus, was compelled to surrender. British public opinion was enraged at tne easy terms granted to the French. Dalrymple, Burrard, and Wellesley were all recalled for an enquiry, and the command in Portugal, now clear of the French, was left to Sir John Moore.
Happily the enquiry completely cleared Wellesley of responsibility for the convention itself and for the failure to make the victory of Vimiero complete, and he returned to take up the command again in the following spring. Meanwhile Napoleon, who was as angry with Junot as the British were with their generals, resolved to carry out the conquest of Spain in person. The trouble in Spain, in his eyes, was merely an interruption to his scheme for dominating the rest of Europe, for which one decisive campaign would set him free. He seemed likely to carry out his programme, for the armies of the Spanish insurgents were quickly scattered, and by the end of November Joseph Bonaparte was restored to the throne in Madrid.
But the Emperor's apparently easy triumph was made vain by Sir John Moore's brilliant diversion in the North. Marching with twenty thousand men from Portugal, he struck at the French line of communication with the Pyrenees. Napoleon would not himself wait to crush the audacious Scot, but hurried back to France, leaving the operations in Spain to Soult.
As Soult advanced, Moore retreated. His one object had been to draw off a large French army in pursuit, whereby it would become impossible for the French to secure their mastery in the South. The move was entirely successful. The retreat to the coast, where a British flotilla was to take off the army at Corunna, was an operation of extreme difficulty and danger carried out with great skill. At the last moment Sir John had to turn at bay at Corunna, where Soult was decisively beaten off, and the embarkation was effected. But the battle cost England the life of the great soldier, who was buried on the field of victory.
The Treaty of Vienna
Moore's diversion had made it necessary for the French to do the business of suppressing Spain all over again. Sundry of Napoleon's marshals and a quarter of a million soldiers were left in the Peninsula, but Napoleon himself was taken up with other affairs. Austria, calculating that any successes would lead to a general German uprising, declared war, and the first movements seemed to promise well. But before the anticipated uprising took place Napoleon himself was in the field. By the middle of May he was in Vienna, and in the first week of July his victory at Wagram, although very far from being a crushing one, induced Austria to change her policy and in effect to submit. The Treaty of Vienna in October deprived her of extensive districts, cutting her off completely from the sea, and rewarding Bavaria at her expense. It was followed by a further humiliation, since Napoleon demanded and obtained the hand of an Austrian princess, Marie Louise, in marriage, divorcing his wife Josephine for that purpose.
Napoleon also in this year, 1810, deposed his brother Louis from the throne of Holland, chiefly for resisting the order to exclude British commerce, whereby Holland was being ruined. Holland itself and with it or after it all the coastal districts of North Germany were incorporated with France. But this involved the annexation of Oldenburg, which, for personal reasons, deeply offended the Russian Tsar, who had for some time past been increasingly irritated by Napoleon's proceedings. In December 1810 the Tsar expressed his displeasure by withdrawing from the Continental System and opening his ports to British commerce.
From that time the coercion of Russia became Napoleon's great object, because his whole policy for the destruction of England depended upon making the Continental System complete. The coercion of Russia took final shape in that terrible Moscow expedition of 1812, which was the beginning of the end of Napoleon's power. This sketch has been necessary, in order to explain why Napoleon never himself took in hand the business of annihilating the British in the Peninsula, but left the work to his marshals - every one of whom found Wellington fully his match - while, on the other hand, the fact that a quarter of a million men were permanently locked up in Spain enormously increased his difficulties when he found himself fighting for life after the Moscow disaster. We may now turn to the continuous history of the Peninsula War.
Sir Arthur Wellesley, whom we may for the future refer to by the familiar title of Wellington, since, he was made Viscount Wellington after the battle of Talavera in July of this year, 1809, returned to take the supreme command in Portugal in April. He was satisfied that Portugal with her mountainous borders could be defended against invaders, while his own communications with England were assured by sea. Portugal was to be made the base for invading Spain and co-operating with the insurgent armies. The northern line for invasion was commanded on the Spanish frontier by the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo, the southern by that of Badajoz.
The first business was to drive Soult with his army out of Northern Portugal, and this was effected in May. The next was to cooperate with the Spaniards by invading Spain and marching upon Madrid, The Spanish forces were badly directed and badly handled. The Britiah general met the French under the command of the Marshals Jourdan and Victor at Talavera, and routed them after a hot engagement. The victory won Wellington his peerage; defeat might have wrought the annihilation of the British army, as Soult had already reorganised the northern force and was threatening the communications with Portugal. But even this victory proved only the immense danger of a further advance, and the inefficiency of the Spanish troops. Wellington fell back into Portugal, where he spent his time for the next year in organising his army and the great system of defence against which the French legions were to be rolled in vain. For Wagram set Napoleon free to flood Spain with additional troops, and offensive operations were out of the question for Wellington.
In the eyes of the public, Talavera was the one redeeming feature among the events of the year, and that appeared small enough. A great battle and a glorious victory are not expected to be the prelude to a re- treat, and there were not wanting those who clamoured against the whole idea of the Peninsula campaign. Men were inclined to believe that on and Napoleon was invincible, and hitherto the British record had not suggested that British armies and British generals were capable of defying him. It was to the credit of the strongest members of the Government, and of some of the Whigs who were by no means friendly to the Govern. ment, that they held doggedly to the war and to the support of Wellington, the Whigs being actuated mainly by the principle that we were fighting in the Peninsula for the liberty of a nation rightly struggling to be free.
Public uneasiness too was intensified by the mismanagement in other fields. The Government having taken upon itself the heroic burden of Portugal also took upon itself to attack France in Holland. The idea in itself was perhaps not unsound. The Walcheren expedition, if despatched in time, ought to have created a diversion which would have seriously complicated the Wagram campaign for Napoleon. But it was hopelessly mismanaged. It ought to have been a sudden stroke at Antwerp, but its start was delayed, so that the French had time to prepare. The army was placed under the incompetent Earl of Chatham, the elder brother of William Pitt. The naval force was under Sir Richard Strachan. More time was wasted on the quite unnecessary capture of Flushing; the commanders failed to co-operate, and their blundering is commemorated in the popular rhyme:
"Lord Chatham with his sword drawn
Was waiting for Sir Richard Strachan.
Sir Richard, longing to be at 'em
Was waiting for the Earl of Chatham."
Having captured Flushing the force found that Antwerp had been made impregnable. It settled down in the Isle of Walcheren without medical supplies, and there fell a prey to malaria. The men died like flies, and before the end of the year the shattered remnant of a much vaunted expedition had to be brought home again.