PENINSULAR WARprecipitating events
the course of the war
the war's impact
The Peninsular War is the name that is traditionally given to the long struggle that raged in Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814. The origins of this conflict are to be found in Napoleon's decision to occupy Portugal in 1807 in order to seize that nation's fleet and subject it to his Continental System (also called the Continental Blockade). Thus, this move saw troops dispatched not just to Lisbon (from whence the Portuguese royal family and much of the governing elite were evacuated to Brazil by Britain's Royal Navy) but also to significant areas of northern Spain. Initially, the reason for this additional deployment was purely strategic in that Napoleon simply wanted to protect the communications of the troops sent to Portugal with France. At the same time he was acting with the full agreement of the Spanish government, which had been promised territorial acquisitions in Portugal in exchange for its cooperation; indeed, Spain was France's ally and had been fighting on France's side against Britain ever since 1796. Very soon, however, matters grew more complicated.
From the early 1790s onward, the Spanish court had been gripped by bitter factionalism that saw the king and queen, Charles IV and María Luisa, and their favorite, Manuel de Godoy, ranged against the heir to the throne, Ferdinand, and a clique of discontented aristocrats. Just as the French forces entered Spain, moreover, matters reached crisis point: in brief, Godoy accused Ferdinand of plotting the overthrow of Charles IV and seeking the support of Napoleon to secure this goal. This brought a major change in the emperor's policy. Hitherto there had been no question in his mind of intervening at Madrid, but the chaos in the Spanish court caused him to fear that the British might somehow take advantage of the situation to get Charles IV to change sides (something that had already almost happened in 1806). Even as it was, Spain had proved less than satisfactory as an ally: with Spain gripped by a terrible social and economic crisis that was in part the result of war against Britain, neither the Spanish navy—in 1789 the third strongest in Europe—nor the Spanish army had made much of a showing. All this, Napoleon, believed, was the fruit either of back-sliding and incompetence on the part of the regime or of the backwardness brought by the centuries-old dominance of the Catholic Church, and he therefore decided to take action. Exactly what this meant was initially unclear even to him, and he seems to have toyed with various alternatives: bringing in one of his brothers was certainly one option, but he also seriously considered the idea of putting Ferdinand on the throne as a puppet monarch. But whatever course he chose, one thing was clear: the Spanish government would have to be deprived of all capacity for independent action, and to this end late February 1808 saw the French forces in northern Spain—now heavily reinforced—ordered to seize all the Spanish border fortresses and march on Madrid.
The trickery and utter lack of integrity evinced in, his dealings with the King of Spain and his sons may be regarded as the most obvious cause of Bonaparte's ruin. From the moment when Savary, his faithful henchman and aide-de-camp, had deceived these princes by bringing them from Madrid to Bayonne under various specious pretexts…no-one in Europe ever again placed any confidence either in the emperor's word or his treaties….In the eyes of political observers, it was with the impious war against Spain that the fall of Bonaparte's colossal empire commenced.
Bertrand Barère. Memoirs of Bertrand Barère, Chairman of the Committee of Public Safety during the Revolution. Translated by De V. Payen-Payne. London, 1896. Vol. 3, pp. 142–143.
As can be imagined, the sudden change in Napoleon's policy led to a renewed crisis in the Spanish capital. Unwilling to see Spain lose its independence and, still less, to accept his own downfall, Godoy desperately tried to organize resistance and secure the evacuation of the royal family to South America. But for Ferdinand and his supporters war with France was anathema, because in their view Napoleon was on their side. Aided by the fact that the royal guard hated Godoy on account of a series of reforms he had made to its structure, they therefore hastily organized a military coup. With the favorite under arrest, the king and queen were forced to abdicate and on 19 March 1808 Ferdinand took their place as Ferdinand VII. Over the next few weeks, the new monarch and his advisers spared no effort to win Napoleon's support, but it was not forthcoming. On the contrary, the emperor was now set on getting rid of the Spanish Bourbons, and he therefore summoned the entire royal family to a conference at Bayonne, at which both Charles IV and Ferdinand VII abdicated their claim to the throne into the hands of Napoleon.
In many other states this démarche might have passed unremarked, but Spain was very much a special case. Long years of economic chaos had engendered a mood of bitter anger among the populace, and in recent years Ferdinand's supporters had been playing upon this in order to undermine Godoy. In a sustained propaganda campaign, then, they portrayed the crown prince as a savior who would set all to right and usher in a new golden age; as for the favorite, he was painted, almost literally, as a fiend in human shape. In consequence, the news that Ferdinand was not going to be king after all came as a bitter blow. Still worse, meanwhile, France's intervention was interpreted as the fruit of a devious plot on the part of Godoy, it being assumed that he had put himself forward as Napoleon's man in Spain. With the resultant air of crisis whipped up by misfortune—above all, a spontaneous riot in Madrid on 2 May that turned into a full-scale battle in which some four hundred Spaniards were killed—and the desire of a number of "out" groups to turn the situation to their own advantage, the result was that in the last week of May the whole of Spain rose in revolt, in which respect it was followed shortly afterward by Portugal. Unperturbed by this development, however, Napoleon proclaimed his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte, to be king of Spain.
Thus began the Peninsular War. So far as the military history of this conflict is concerned, it began with a great French offensive. Although they had been taken by surprise, the invaders struck out in all directions from the bases that they had occupied—Madrid, Barcelona, and a few garrisons along the roads that linked these two cities with the French frontier. Many victories were obtained, but attacks on the cities of Valencia, Zaragoza (Saragossa), and Gerona were all turned back, while an entire French army was surrounded and forced to surrender at Bailén. As a result, the imperial forces in central Spain were all withdrawn to Navarre and the Basque provinces, while the garrison of Barcelona was left with no option but to barricade itself in the city and await relief. In Portugal, meanwhile, a British expeditionary force commanded, initially at least, by Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French garrison at Vimeiro and forced it to surrender, albeit on very generous terms. Under a new commander, Sir John Moore, the British then advanced into Spain to reinforce the Spaniards. Needless to say, Napoleon was unwilling to take all this lying down, and there now began the next phase of the war. Pouring reinforcements into Spain, the emperor came to take charge of operations in person, and in a brilliant campaign that lasted less than one month defeated the Spanish forces on the Ebro River and reoccupied Madrid. Elsewhere, meanwhile, Zaragoza was besieged once more, and the blockade of Barcelona broken. As for the British army, after a short-lived offensive in Old Castile, it was forced to cut and run. Pursued every step of the way by the French, Moore led his men to the sea at La Coruña. On 16 January 1809 there followed a sharp rearguard action in which Moore himself was killed, but the French were beaten off and the battered British forces got away by sea.
Less than a year after the peace of Tilsit, the armies of Napoleon were sent to invade Portugal, and the house of Bragança was reduced to seeking a refuge in its American dominions. The throne of Spain was given by him to one of his brothers, and the Spanish branch of the house of Bourbon was imprisoned in France….The consequences did not delay in making themselves felt most heavily.
Duc d'Audiffret-Pasquier, ed. Mémoires du Chancelier Pasquier. Paris, 1914. Vol. 1, p. 325.
By the beginning of 1809, then, the military situation had more or less been restored to the position in which the fighting had started six months earlier: if the French had lost Portugal, they had gained Galicia in recompense. With matters in this state, there began the next phase in operations. Napoleon himself returned to France, but left his commanders in Spain with orders, as he saw it, to mop up Spanish and Portuguese resistance. This was easier said than done, but the next three years saw the French forces gradually gain the upper hand over the Allies. Two further invasions of Portugal were repelled by the Anglo-Portuguese forces of Wellesley (from August 1809 Lord Wellington), who, particularly through his construction of the "lines of Torres Vedras," showed himself to be a defensive strategist of the highest order. (Wellington is often referred to as Duke of Wellington, but this title was not awarded him until 1814, the title that he received in 1809 being that of Viscount.) But, even with British support, successive Allied counteroffensives in Spain were repelled, and the Spanish forces suffered very heavy losses. In the famous "little war," or guerrilla, a combination of "flying columns" of regular troops and bands of irregular volunteers, many of which steadily assumed a character that was ever more military, harassed the invaders incessantly, but their heroics made little difference to the overall picture, and, although the French were forced to evacuate Galicia in the summer of 1809, everywhere else they continued to advance. By the beginning of 1812, indeed, the only Spanish territory that remained unoccupied was Galicia, a small part of Catalonia, the area around Alicante, and the island city of Cádiz, which as the temporary capital had become the headquarters of a political revolution that in March 1812 gave Spain its first modern constitution.
With matters in this state, the war was very much poised in the balance, and it is highly probable that the French would have won the war if they had continued to receive the constant stream of reinforcements that had poured across the Pyrenees between 1808 and 1811. At the end of 1811, Napoleon decided on the invasion of Russia. Surprisingly few troops were withdrawn from the Iberian Peninsula, but no more fresh troops were forthcoming. As the emperor insisted that offensive operations continue in Spain, the result was the French position there was completely destabilized. Taking advantage of the situation, Wellington once more advanced across the Portuguese frontier, and this time achieved much greater success, most notably at the Battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812). In the autumn a French counteroffensive forced him back once more, but the campaign of 1812 had still cost the French fully half their Spanish conquests. In the course of the winter, Wellington was heavily reinforced, moreover, and in May 1813 he struck deep into northern Spain. Outguessed and outmaneuvered, the French were heavily defeated at Vitoria on 21 June. Forced to retreat to the Pyrenees, they launched a series of fierce counter-attacks in July and August, but these were repelled with heavy losses. In October there came the coup de grâce: Wellington invaded France and inflicted several more defeats on the French. At the other end of the Pyrenees a few imperial troops still clung onto Barcelona and a number of other towns, but the Spaniards had them under close blockade. The Catalan capital was still holding out when Napoleon abdicated in April 1814, but to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over.
The long struggle that raged in Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1814 is often argued to have been one of the chief factors in the defeat of Napoleon. As the Napoleonic Wars drew to their climax, with Napoleon's men caught up in a long war they could not win, the emperor found himself deprived of perhaps 250,000 veteran troops who might have tipped the balance in Russia and Germany. With French casualties mounting steadily, morale slumped both on the home front, which was assailed by ever-higher levels of conscription, and in the army. With the empire's prestige tarnished by a series of dramatic defeats, the powers of Europe were encouraged to resume a struggle that they might otherwise have abandoned. With the ports of Portugal, Spain, and Latin America open to British trade, the Continental System was outflanked. With the people of Portugal and Spain engaged in a heroic war of national resistance, the peoples of Russia, Germany, and Italy were galvanized to take up arms in turn, thereby confronting Napoleon with a force that even he could never have overcome. With its soldiers fighting heroically in the Peninsula—practically the only place where it had some hope of maintaining a permanent toehold on the Continent—Britain could no longer be accused of fighting to the last Austrian. And, finally, with the Pyrenees in the hands of a victorious enemy, in 1814 Napoleon's Grand Army found itself not just outnumbered but surrounded.
To reinforce the point, one can contrast all this with an imagined view of what might have happened had Napoleon not taken the disastrous step of overthrowing the ruling dynasty in Spain in 1808. Given that Spain's new king, Ferdinand VII, was the darling of the Spanish masses, there would have been no Spanish insurrection. Without a Spanish insurrection, there would have been either no Portuguese insurrection at all, or a rapid French victory that would simply have swelled Napoleon's prestige still further. With Lisbon in French hands, British control of the seas would have been gravely jeopardized (for the Portuguese capital played a massive part in Britain's naval calculations). With Spain a loyal ally, the wealth of the Americas would have started to flow into French coffers and thereby to have both boosted the French economy and reduced the pressure of taxation on the home front. With no soldiers needed in Spain, far fewer young Frenchmen would have had to be conscripted, thereby further consolidating the popularity of the empire. With no means of securing new markets or intervening on the Continent, Britain would have been bankrupted and left without the Continental allies that were its only hope of winning the war. And, finally, with a bigger and better Grand Army, Napoleon would have swept to victory in Russia in 1812, thereby forcing Britain to drop out of the war and enshrining the French imperium for good. Not for nothing, then, did a defeated emperor admit on St. Helena that the Peninsular War was his "Spanish ulcer" and, more than that, the central cause of his overthrow.
This is, however, an extremely problematic view of the events of 1808 to 1814. Flying in the face of a variety of historical realities as it does, it would not be going too far to say that it has obtained the popularity that it enjoys only because it has suited a wide variety of commentators and historians to take this view. Thus, for British scholars such as Sir Charles Oman (1860–1946) it was a useful means of both gilding the already legendary figure of the Duke of Wellington and maximizing the role Britain had played in saving Europe from the emperor, while for both Napoleon himself and the legions of his apologists and admirers it was a subtle way of reinforcing the link between the emperor and the cause of liberation and modernity. To elaborate, the Bonaparte kingdom of Spain stood for an assault upon the privileges of the Catholic Church and the nobility and for the abolition of the Inquisition; indeed, the Bonapartist line has even on occasion been to argue that it was precisely to secure these objectives that France intervened in the Iberian Peninsula in the first place—that the overthrow of the Braganças (the Portuguese ruling family) and the Bourbons, in short, was the fruit of generous and altruistic missionary zeal. In Spain and Portugal, however, the ideas of the French Revolution met their match in the form of the Catholic Church. Determined to defend their status, the argument continues, the clergy whipped up a holy war by exploiting their hold over a superstitious and ignorant populace, and in the end not even Napoleon could prevail against them. What defeated Napoleon, then, was not just Spain and Portugal, but rather a combination of black reaction and his own warmth, benevolence, and love of liberty. To return to the impact of the Peninsular War, however, the fact that it suited a variety of interest groups to stress its role in Napoleon's downfall is neither here nor there. Strip away the political proclivities that have tended to dominate debate, and it is a very different story.
On many counts, the evidence against the traditional view is overwhelming. First, there is the issue of the veteran French troops tied up in Spain. Assume either that they had been used to augment the very large army that was deployed against Russia in 1812, or that they had taken the place of the roughly equivalent numbers of Germans, Italians, Dutchmen, Poles, and others whom the emperor was forced to employ in their stead. Fair enough, but how would they have helped? To have employed still more troops on the Russian front simply would have increased the scale of the logistical chaos that marked the French invasion—the fact was that the French war machine could barely sustain and make use of the troops that it did deploy against Russia—while there is little real evidence Napoleon's foreign auxiliaries fought any worse than their French counterparts.
In Russia, then, they would have made little difference, but what about in Germany in 1813 or France in 1814? Clearly, negotiating an end to the Peninsular War and bringing his forces back to France (as he in fact tried to do) would have greatly boosted Napoleon's position in the short term. But to what end? With ever increasing numbers of opponents arrayed against him, the French ruler's only real chance of survival was negotiating a compromise peace that would have secured him the throne and France its natural frontiers. Yet giving him more troops would not have helped at all in this respect, everything that is known about Napoleon suggesting that he would simply have been encouraged to pursue the futile and ultimately self-defeating chimera of total victory. And what of the impact on French morale? Certainly, the Peninsular War caused more men to be conscripted than would otherwise have been the case, but, apart from the crisis years of 1812 to 1814, the incidence of desertion and draft evasion was actually at its highest in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars. Equally, the fact that French soldiers suffered repeated defeats and heavy losses in Spain and Portugal seems to have had little impact on their willingness to sacrifice themselves on the battlefield in those countries, let alone anywhere else. And what, meanwhile, of the wider war? Here, too, there are problems. Except in the case of Austria (but even then only in 1809 rather than the more interesting case of 1813), Napoleon's problems in Iberia did not persuade any of the powers to fight France, while of national insurrections there appear nothing of the sort. Discounting the so-called revolts that took place in 1813 and 1814 in cities such as Hamburg and Milan that had temporarily or otherwise been evacuated by the French, and the wave of village riots that gripped northern Italy in 1809, the only serious popular insurrection that took place in Europe in the period from 1808 to 1814—the Tyrolean rebellion of 1809—was only marginally influenced by the Spanish example. And, last but not least, the Peninsular War did not make much difference to Britain even in economic terms: Britain may have gained direct access to the markets of Spain and Portugal, but in the circumstances that did not mean very much, while such was its control of the seas and the success its merchants enjoyed in smuggling their goods past Napoleon's Continental System, it is hard to believe that Britain would not have made up the same ground come what may. In the end, then, one must look elsewhere for an explanation of the defeat of Napoleon: to say that the Peninsular War played no part in Allied victory would be risible—it was, beyond doubt, a contributory factor in the collapse of the imperial regime in 1814—but this is not to say that the traditional view can be accepted at face value.
Esdaile, Charles. The French Wars, 1792–1815. London, 2001.
——. The Peninsular War: A New History. London, 2002.
Gates, David. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. London, 1986.
——. The Napoleonic Wars, 1803–1815. London, 1997.
Riley, J. P. Napoleon and the World War of 1813: Lessons in Coalition Warfighting. London, 2000.
Charles J. Esdaile
John W. Derry