Hanoverians - C. J. B. Gaskoin

The Peninsular War



1. The First Stage

Meanwhile a far greater and more fruitful war had been fought by English troops in Spain and Portugal under one of the greatest generals in English history, Arthur Wellesley, the famous Duke of Wellington.

When Pitt died, Fox, as Foreign Minister in a Cabinet nicknamed "All the Talents," because it contained the best men of every party, tried to make the peace with Napoleon which he had always urged on Pitt. But within the year he died a disappointed man, acknowledging that no satisfactory peace was possible.

Yet, if England did not make peace, she now altered her mode of making war. She ceased to be the paymaster of Coalitions, which were formed only with the greatest difficulty, but fell to pieces with the greatest ease, and which aimed at attacking and despoiling France. Instead, she simply held herself ready to help any nation which would struggle, not to attack France, but to defend itself from French attack.

Thus England allied herself with the one force which really threatened Napoleon's power—the force of national feeling. In 1792 France had fought for her own right to overthrow a despotic government at home. Now she was fighting to make her Emperor a despotic ruler abroad. And England was ready to uphold against her the right of other nations to cast off her foreign yoke.

The chance came in 1808. A year before, the weak King of Spain had allied with Napoleon to seize and divide Portugal, which was done with success, except that, thanks to the English fleet, the King of Portugal retained his colonies. Now, Napoleon forced first the Spanish king himself and then his worthless son to abdicate, and set on their throne his own brother Joseph, who was replaced as King of Naples by his brother-in-law Murat.

Thus far all seemed well. But Napoleon had forgotten the haughty patriotism of the Spanish nation. Little though the Spanish kings deserved the love of their people, their replacement by Joseph provoked popular insurrections throughout the country. Forthwith an English fleet and army aided the insurgents, and Wellesley—famous already for successes in India—won his first victory over the French on Portuguese soil.

The French army in Portugal was roughly handled, and might have been utterly routed had not Wellesley, unfortunately, been superseded by elderly and over-cautious officers, who agreed, by the Convention of Cintra, to let the British fleet transport it safely to France.

Now, however, Napoleon appeared in Spain, carried all before him as far as Madrid, and seemed to make his brother's throne secure. But Sir John Moore, commanding for England in the far north-west, devised a daring plan. Small though his army was, he threw himself on Napoleon's communications with France, so forcing him to abandon his Spanish campaign in order to save them.

The plan succeeded brilliantly. Napoleon was drawn away from Madrid to a swift pursuit of Moore, who thereupon retreated. Through bitter wintry weather pursuer and pursued pressed on by forced marches towards the coast. But the first French attack was foiled; Napoleon, foreseeing Moore's escape, returned to France, leaving a marshal in command; and in January, at the port of Corunna, Moore turned to bay, and in the very hour of his death secured by victory the safe embarkation of his men.

2. The Lines of Torres Vedras

Sir Thomas Picton


Then for four years (1809 to 1813) Wellesley once more held the chief command. Troops of three nations obeyed his orders. First came his own English army—small, indeed, but of first-class fighting quality, and gradually trained by its severe commander to the highest pitch of excellence. Next came Portuguese troops, under another English general, Beresford, which proved of unexpected value. Last were the Spaniards themselves. They were of little use, especially at first, for pitched battles. But for guerilla warfare they were invaluable. Fighting in small bodies, quickly scattering and as quickly reassembling, they kept the French in constant alarm. They threatened communications; they cut off supplies; they harassed every army on the march, killing stragglers and destroying isolated troops.

Wellesley's main idea was simple. He meant to establish a secure base in Portugal, and thence to push on gradually till every Frenchman was expelled from Spain. He took four years to do this, but in those four years he did much to determine the fate not only of England but of Europe.

The Peninsular War sapped the strength of France. It kept French generals and soldiers of the finest quality away from Napoleon's other campaigns. And it proved that French generals and soldiers were not invincible. For Wellesley never lost a battle: not one of Napoleon's marshals could ever beat him.

In 1809, marching into Spain, Wellesley won the decisive though costly victory of Talavera over Joseph and his generals, but had to fall back again to Portugal.

The year 1809 was, indeed, a disappointing one. First Austria fought single-handed against Napoleon, and was driven to accept a treaty which made him the son-in-law of the Austrian Emperor. Then England came too late to her aid, and in the famous expedition to Walcheren lost thousands of men through disease in a swampy, fever-haunted island. Lastly, Napoleon poured into Spain a stream of fresh troops, which overran all the south except Cadiz.

It remained only to clear the east coast of Spanish patriots, and then drive the English in Portugal into the sea. But, while Napoleon's generals triumphed in the south, Wellesley (now Viscount Wellington) was undermining all their plans for his destruction. Lisbon—the Portuguese capital—lies at the end of a peninsula; and here for many months thousands of labourers, directed by skilled engineers, had been making the famous "lines of Torres Vedras "—three huge earthworks stretching from sea to sea across the neck of the peninsula. The first was twenty-nine miles long, the second twenty-two, and each was strengthened by many forts and amply furnished with heavy guns. The third sheltered the mouth of the River Tagus, to cover the embarkation of Wellington's troops if they were forced to retire. But this was scarcely likely, since the lines were immensely strong and held by something like a hundred thousand men.

Moreover, Wellington arranged that, when the French approached, the Portuguese should abandon their homes, retiring to the great cities or the mountains, but first destroying all provisions, that the enemy might find only a desolated land.

So when the French marched triumphantly westward in the summer of 1810, capturing one strong place after another, they presently received a surprising shock. Wellington, it is true, fell back before them, halting only once to receive and defeat an attack; but in November, having reached the first line, the French could advance no farther. Throughout the winter of 1810—11 they remained helpless in a wasted country, harassed by the Portuguese, dying in numbers of hunger and disease. And in the spring they retreated, pursued by Wellington, and suffered a severe defeat.

3. Advance and Victory

Lord Beresord


Wellington now attempted to capture the two great fortresses, Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, which barred the main roads into Spain. He failed, but took Almeida, another important place, and won the costly two days' battle of Fuentes d'Onoro, while Beresford triumphed at Albuera in one of the fiercest struggles of the war.

In 1812 Wellington stormed both the coveted fortresses, won the great victory of Salamanca, and occupied Madrid. Opposed by three French armies, he did, indeed, retire once more to Portugal, but for the last time. Portugal itself was now safe, southern Spain was cleared of the French, and in 1813 Wellington began his last campaign.

In this year, too, Napoleon was once again faced by a Coalition. Russia had foiled his great invasion; Prussia had risen at last against his tyranny; England once more had promised money and men. Presently Austria joined the league, with other, smaller Powers; and at last, in the three days' battle of Leipzig, Napoleon was utterly defeated. Henceforward his Empire was doomed, for he could not resist the huge forces of his enemies, and even the best terms that they offered him would deprive France of almost all her conquests.

No English troops fought at Leipzig; yet it was largely due to English troops that the battle was fought and won; for Austria made her all-important decision to join the Allies partly because, just in time, news came of a splendid English victory over the French in Spain.

Crossing the Portuguese frontier in the spring for the last time, Wellington had marched straight for the Pyrenees. Three times he pushed his left wing forward to overlap the right wing of the enemy, and three times the French fell back before him. Then at last, on June 21, they faced him at Vittoria; and here Wellington gained his last great Spanish triumph. Both armies suffered heavily, but the French lost not only more men than the English, but also all their guns and stores, all the plunder they had snatched from Spain, and a treasure of a million pounds.

In hasty disorder they pressed on towards France. Wellington besieged and finally captured the great frontier fortresses of Pampeluna and San Sebastian, defeating the splendid French attempt to save them in the desperate "Battles of the Pyrenees." He forced the foe back, still fighting hard at every step, through southern France, and at Toulouse, on April 10, 1814, he won the last great battle of the war.

That battle, though he did not know it, was unnecessary, for eight days earlier Napoleon had resigned his crown. During the early months of 1814 the vast armies of the Allies, advancing westwards, had pushed him slowly back towards Paris. In spite of one or two successes, his bold attempt to thwart them by cutting off their communications with Germany had broken down. His own marshals had begun to turn against him. And even the hope that by abdicating he might secure the throne for his little son had come to nothing. So now the Allies occupied Paris; Napoleon—deserted by his wife—retired, with the worthless title of "Emperor," to the little Isle of Elba, in the Mediterranean; and Louis XVIII, brother of the king executed twenty-one years before, ruled in France.

Castle of Fontainbleau