Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

From Lisbon to the Pyrenees

On April 22, 1809, Wellington landed at Lisbon. The object which he set before himself was to defend Portugal from the French, and possibly to deliver Spain from them. We shall see with what wonderful skill he carried it out.

This was not the first time that England had tried to strike at Napoleon's power by attacking him in the Peninsula, of which he had gained possession in a very shameful way, and where he was greatly hated by the people. In the year before, Wellington himself had defeated the French at Vimiera, and had made an agreement with them by which they engaged to leave Portugal. Later, in 1808, Sir John Moore had marched into Spain, where, according to agreement, large Spanish forces were to meet him. The promise was not kept. Sir John Moore found no one; the only Spanish army that could have come to his help was defeated, and having but 27,000 men to oppose to 70,000 of the enemy, he could do nothing but retreat. This he did, closely followed by the French. At Corunna, he turned upon his pursuers and inflicted a heavy defeat upon them, dying in the moment of victory. This then was the work which Wellington now took up. Accordingly he proceeded to make sure that Lisbon should be safe from the enemy; and that his own army should have a place to which it could retreat. Lisbon stands at the sea or south end of a peninsula some thirty miles long, which has the sea on one side and the estuary of the Tagus on the other. Twenty-five miles to the north are some hills, called Torres Vedras. Here Wellington made a line of forts, and another, yet stronger, ten miles nearer Lisbon. Here was to be the refuge of his army if ever he should be compelled to fall back before superior forces.

There is no need to describe his movements during the next few months. They were very bold and skilful, and, as for a time it seemed, very successful. By May 19, not quite four weeks from the time he landed, there was not a single French soldier in Portugal. He then marched into Spain. He relied on being helped by the Spanish troops, for he had not yet found out how little they could be trusted. They made him lose more than one chance of beating the enemy. Nevertheless, he won a great victory at Talavera (July 27-28), though he got very little help from his allies. But his experiences in Spain taught him that the work before him was one of great difficulty, and that he must be prepared for the worst.

In the next year (1810) came the time for using the shelter provided. Napoleon, who had been greatly vexed at the defeats suffered by his troops, sent a great number of troops into Spain, and with them the best of his generals—"marshals" they were called—Massena. Wellington might have got back to his shelter without fighting; but he chose to stop and give the French the chance of attacking him. He felt sure that his army would be able to hold its own, and a victory gained at this particular time would be worth so much that he was ready to risk something for it. It would put his own men in good spirits; it would strengthen the Government at home, and would make the Portuguese more willing to exert themselves. The spot where he halted was Busaco, a place about one hundred and thirty miles north of Lisbon, for the French were in Portugal again. It is a ridge on a line of hills, and about eight miles long. Two French columns attacked the position. The left column got up to the crest of the hill, and held it for a time. Our troops were not numerous enough to occupy the whole length of the ridge, and this particular spot was not defended. The French were soon driven down the slope. The column on the right did not do even so much, for they never quite reached the top. Wellington's army lost about 1300 in killed and wounded; the French more than three times as many.

The battle of Busaco was fought on September 27. About a fortnight later, Wellington was behind the lines of Torres Vedras. It is a curious thing that till then no one, neither the Portuguese Government nor his own army, knew for what these lines were meant. As for Massena, he had not so much as heard of them. He surveyed them, hoping to find a weak spot in them, but could not. He never ventured to attack them, though he remained in Portugal all the winter. His army fared badly during that time; but if Wellington's plan of laying all the country waste had been carried out, he would have fared much worse. As it was, he lost great numbers of men from disease and want, and when he made up his mind to retreat, had only 50,000 left out of 70,000.

French Camp


Massena began his retreat on March 2, and contrived it so cleverly that it was not known for some time. But on the 7th Wellington was pursuing him; and less than a month later crossed the Spanish frontier. Portugal was again free from the enemy. By this time, it should be said, he had a much stronger army, more British troops and some good Portuguese regiments. These latter had been drilled during the winter, and could be trusted to stand fire and do good service generally. On May 3-4 he fought a doubtful battle at Fuentes d'Onoro. The loss on both sides was much the same, but the English took possession of a strong fortress, Almeida, which would be useful if Portugal were to be again invaded. This was Massena's last battle; Marmont had been sent by Napoleon to take his place. A few days later (May 16) a fierce battle was fought at Albuera, not by Wellington but by Beresford, one of his lieutenants, who was scarcely as able as he was brave. It was a victory, but very dearly bought, for our loss was 7000 to 8000 on the side of the French. Out of 6000 British troops, only 1500 were left unwounded. Later in the year, Wellington tried to take two great fortresses of which the French had gained possession, Badajos and Ciudad Rodrigo, but was obliged to retire from both, the French bringing up against him superior forces. This was the end of the third  campaign. The winter before he had spent behind the lines of Torres Vedras, all the country that he could command being the Lisbon Peninsula. Now he was in Spain, and so secure that a pack of hounds was kept in the camp, and the country was regularly hunted.

The fourth campaign (1812) was begun very early, and with a great surprise. On January 12 Wellington took the fortress of Ciudad Rodrigo by storm, and not quite three months later (April 6) he got possession of Badajos in the same way. Both were terrible fights, Wellington losing about 1300 men in the first and more than 5000 in the second; but they were great blows to the enemy.

Wellington was now free to begin the second part of his task. He had driven the French out of Portugal; he was now to drive them out of Spain. It was a wonderful thing to do, but you must not forget that he was greatly helped by what Napoleon was now doing. The French Emperor had been preparing for some time to invade Russia. In June he started. If he had sent into Spain but a half of the enormous army which he took with him on this fatal expedition, Wellington could not possibly have done what he did.

After various movements, which I have not space to describe, but in which it may be said that the very skilful French general, Marmont, had slightly the advantage, the two armies met at Salamanca (July 22). Marmont made the mistake of leaving a great gap between two parts of his army. Wellington saw it in a moment and attacked, and in an hour's fighting the French line was finally broken. Marmont, who had ridden forward to do what he could to repair his blunder, was severely wounded and carried off the field. The same thing happened to his second in command. The third made a skilful retreat, which would, however, have been cut off if the Spaniards had done their proper part in the day's work. But they had left their post and the French escaped. As it was, they lost 12,000 out of 42,000 men, Wellington's being about half as much out of 46,000. It should be noted that, for the first time, the British army was superior in numbers. On August 12 Wellington entered Madrid, from which Joseph Bonaparte, to whom the Emperor had given the empty title of King of Spain, had fled a few days before. But he was not strong enough to hold the place. He had to leave it and to retreat. This he did, not without some loss, but on the whole with success. The fourth campaign of the war was now at an end. Wellington thus sums it up in a letter written to a friend on November 30: "Although we have not been able to hold the two Castilles, our campaign has not been a bad one, and we are in a position to make a good one next year."

The campaign of 1813 began with a forward movement into Spain. It was delayed for some time while Wellington made his arrangements, for it was not till May 22 that he himself passed the Spanish frontier. On that day, when crossing the Agueda, a river which flows into the Douro, he rose in his stirrups and cried, "Farewell, Portugal!" And indeed he never saw the country again, for when the campaign was over, he sailed directly for England.

And now the French were retreating, taking with them all that they could carry of the vast plunder which they gathered together in Spain. King Joseph was nominally in command, with Marshal Jourdan to help him. The two could not agree; the troops, too, were disappointed; they were in retreat, and retreat never suits the French soldier, who is very apt to lose heart, and, unlike the Englishman, knows only too soon when he is beaten. At Vittoria, a valley near the mountains of Biscay, Joseph found himself compelled to make a stand.

Through this valley of Vittoria there runs a river named the Zamorra, and by the river the high-road to Bayonne, along which the French were marching, with a vast train of baggage. At either end there are hills. It was at these two ends, as well as in the middle, where there are several bridges over the river, that Wellington made his attack. General Graham was on the left or west, General Hill on the right, Wellington in the centre. There was much fierce fighting everywhere, but especially on the left. If the French could have been beaten here, their whole army would have been destroyed. But their commander here held his own bravely, and though the road to Bayonne was seized by the English, another, namely to Pampeluna, was left open. By this the French army was able to retreat. The losses in killed and wounded were much the same on either side—between five and six thousand; but the French lost everything but their lives and arms, one hundred and fifty out of one hundred and fifty-two guns, all their stores of ammunition and food, all their baggage, in fact everything that belonged to themselves or that they were carrying away out of Spain.

The battle of Vittoria was fought on June 21. For more than a year afterwards the war went on, first in Spain before San Sebastian, which was besieged on July 10 and taken by storm three weeks later, and among the valleys and heights of the Pyrenees; and afterwards in France itself, which Wellington entered on October 7. The last battle was fought at Toulouse on April 10, 1814, and fought to no purpose, because Napoleon had abdicated six days before.