Victory in Iberia: The Peninsular War, 1808-1814

Graham Goodlad assesses the events that led to the defeat of Napoleonic France in the Peninsular War.


It was the conflict that made the reputation of perhaps the greatest of all British generals. Born in Ireland in 1769, Arthur Wellesley was 39 when he arrived in the Iberian peninsula — a lieutenant general and already the veteran of campaigning in India, but a commander without great experience on the hard-fought battlegrounds of Europe. Six years later, he would return from Portugal and Spain a national hero, and be created a duke in recognition of his achievements.

When the Peninsular War began, Napoleon was at the height of his powers. Following victory in 1805 over Austria and Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz, the French emperor had achieved dominance in mainland Europe. In 1807, he moved to open a new front in his continuing struggle with Perfidious Albion, joining forces with Spain to occupy Portugal — Britain’s oldest ally — in an attempt to control maritime trade routes to the Continent. The following year, he went further still: he occupied northern Spain; appointed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as that country’s king; and thereby provoked thousands of guerrillas (Spanish for ‘little war’, a term first used for irregular forces during the Peninsular War) to take up arms in defence of their homeland. By August 1808, when Wellesley landed near Lisbon at the head of 10,000-strong army, the stage was set for an epic struggle.

Victory at the Battle of Talavera, nearly 80 miles south-west of Madrid, in July 1809 was earned at a high cost in terms of casualties – some 5,000 allied losses for 7,000 French. Images: Wikimedia Commons

Victory in July 1809 at the Battle of Talavera would see Wellesley ennobled as Viscount Wellington — but, over the years, the conflict would ebb and flow, necessitating no fewer than five separate British invasions of Spain using Portugal as a base. As we will see, the fighting would at times be brutal; incidences would also be recorded of looting, rape, and murder on an appalling scale, tarnishing the reputation of British troops. But, for all the ups and downs, the eventual victory of Wellington’s allied forces in the Iberian peninsula would play a pivotal role in the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars.

In our special for this issue, Graham Goodlad looks first at the events that led to France’s defeat in the Peninsular War; and then analyses in detail the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, whose fall opened Spain to the advance of Wellington’s army.

Wellington in Field Marshal’s uniform, wearing his Spanish honour, the Golden Fleece, as depicted in 1817 by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Images: Wikimedia Commons

Wellington at war

The six-year conflict known  in Britain as the Peninsular  War, and in Spain as the War  of Independence, was the arena in which Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, made his name as an outstanding commander. This drawn-out contest with France, fought in the unforgiving environment of the Iberian Peninsula, also played a vital part in terminating Napoleon Bonaparte’s decade-long continental ascendancy.

At 39, Wellesley was no untried novice when he first arrived in Portugal at the head  of just under 10,000 British troops in August 1808. Although he had limited experience  of European warfare, he had acquired  invaluable leadership skills on campaign  in India at the turn of the century. Napoleon’s sneering description of him as  a mere ‘sepoy general’ – a leader of Indian infantrymen – was a serious underestimation  of Wellesley’s abilities when transferred to  the wider canvas of Spain and Portugal.

There was not to be an even, unbroken path to victory. Periodic reverses severely tested Wellesley’s resilience. He had to  employ defensive as well as offensive methods, retreating more than once behind fortified lines in face of a numerically superior opponent. But he was the indispensable factor in Britain’s ultimate success in the theatre. Wellesley combined a mastery of battlefield tactics with an acute grasp of the wider strategic picture. He possessed a remarkable ability to learn from intelligence, to get the best out of his own troops, and – with some difficulties – to work productively with his Spanish and Portuguese partners. He also appreciated the importance of logistics and the role of British naval power in supporting the land campaign. 

Victory at Salamanca in July 1812 demonstrated Wellington’s gift for manoeuvre.

Opening moves

French involvement in the peninsula was a classic case of imperial overreach. Napoleon invaded Portugal in late 1807 after it failed to cooperate with the so-called ‘continental system’: his plan to close European ports to trade with Britain. The following year this broadened into an occupation of northern Spain and the opportunistic installation of the emperor’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king in place of the ruling Bourbon royal house. By May 1808, this had triggered a popular revolt, entailing widespread guerrilla resistance, which the French struggled to suppress.

Wellesley stood out for the confidence and clarity with which he viewed the situation in the peninsula. If given the backing of British military power, he believed that the Spanish uprising had the potential to destabilise Napoleon’s wider empire. He found a sympathetic hearing from government ministers when he recommended armed intervention ‘to alarm Bonaparte in France’ since his armies were ‘spread in all parts of Europe’. 

The battle would prove a major blow to the government of Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who had been installed as King of Spain in place of the ruling Bourbon dynasty. 

Nor was Wellesley daunted by the challenge posed by Napoleon’s battle-hardened troops: ‘though they may overwhelm me, I don’t think they will outmanoeuvre me… I am not afraid of them.’ He was famously scornful of his rank-and-file soldiers, whom he labelled ‘the very scum of the earth’, claiming that many enlisted after fathering illegitimate children or for alcohol. Yet he knew that he could rely on the quality of the army that he would later describe as ‘probably the most complete machine for its numbers now existing in Europe’. This was due in large part to the rigorous training and often brutal discipline that he imposed on them. His track record  of success in the field helped to keep morale high: men more readily followed a general who so evidently knew his craft.

Arriving on the Portuguese coast, Wellesley from the start demonstrated the qualities  that would eventually bring success. He was determined to take the offensive, yet careful  in laying his plans and determined not to place his forces in unnecessary jeopardy. Learning that a larger French army was massing near Lisbon, he landed some distance from the capital. He had been thorough in assembling adequate supplies of food, fodder, and medical supplies. As Wellesley’s army disembarked and began to advance, he maintained contact with his supply ships sailing along the coast. He also showed a capacity for coalition management, linking up with Portuguese forces as he moved to engage French troops headed by General Jean-Andoche Junot, 1st Duke of Abrantes.

The Battle of Vimeiro, fought in late August 1808, showed Wellesley’s grasp of topography. Making full use of ridges, trees, and other natural cover, he scattered Junot’s army. If there had ever been any doubt of it, Wellesley showed the coolness under fire that was essential for effective leadership in battle. In a letter home, 16-year-old Roderick Murchison, carrying the colours of the 36th Regiment of Foot, recalled ‘Sir Arthur’s bright and confident face’ as he appeared on horseback to encourage his men. Wellesley’s success was, however, soon to be undermined when he was superseded by two lacklustre generals, Harry Burrard and Hew Dalrymple. They concluded the Convention of Cintra, signed on 30 August 1808, an armistice whose astonishingly generous terms included a commitment to return the defeated troops and their baggage to France aboard British ships.

Wellesley was tainted by association and, along with his two colleagues, was recalled to London to answer questions about the agreement. Meanwhile, taking advantage of his unexpected good fortune, Napoleon personally intervened in north-west Spain. He pursued the British army across the mountains to the Galician port of Corunna, where a courageous rearguard action by its new commander, Sir John Moore, served to cover a humiliating evacuation early  in 1809. Moore’s death in the engagement was  a further blow to British prospects.

The death of Sir John Moore, on 16 January 1809 at the Battle of Corunna, where a courageous British rearguard action served to cover a humiliating evacuation.

In overall command

The disaster marked a turning point in Wellesley’s fortunes. Exonerated by the  inquiry into Cintra, he was assigned to turn around the deteriorating situation in the peninsula. This time, he held a stronger hand of cards. He was given sole responsibility for leading the British expeditionary force – he dismissed as useless the concept of a second-in-command, stating that such a role ‘gives  the holder pretensions which cannot be gratified except at the public inconvenience’. A network of spies supplied him with a flow of information on French troop movements across the Pyrenees, enabling him to supplement his own intuition with hard evidence. 

Wellesley had brought with him an army of 27,000 men and a commitment from his government to finance his Portuguese ally. Yet, even with the addition of some 16,000 Portuguese troops – about whose quality Wellesley was sceptical – he was vastly  outnumbered. Certainly, the 280,000-strong French occupying force was divided between five separate armies, and much of its manpower was tied up in maintaining garrisons and lines of communication, and combating guerrilla resistance. Nonetheless, the odds were stacked against the British commander.

It was on Wellesley’s insistence that the defence of Portugal was to form the lynchpin of British strategy. Rejecting appeals to move into southern Spain, he concentrated his forces on a northward thrust, aimed at securing Lisbon and Oporto, and liberating Portugal from French occupation. The seizure of Oporto in May 1809 vindicated Wellesley’s boldness. Taking advantage of Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s failure  to cover the northern approach to Oporto,  he moved his army across the River Douro  by barge, retook the city, and pursued the retreating French across the Spanish frontier.

The ensuing operations, however, showed how hard it was to maintain an effective coalition. The Spanish commander, General Gregorio Cuesta, combined poor judgement with a reputation for unreliability. In July, the combined Anglo-Spanish force won the Battle of Talavera, a victory that earned Wellesley the title of Viscount Wellington. Its high cost in terms of casualties – some 5,000 allied losses for 7,000 French – made the newly ennobled commander more cautious in future. In the aftermath of the battle, he fell out with Cuesta, blaming the Spanish for failing to provide his troops with food and supplies. He was also angry that they allowed wounded soldiers, left  in their care, to fall into French hands. 

Exasperated by his allies, Wellington fell back on a defensive posture in the autumn of 1809. Protecting access to the River Tagus, which reaches the Atlantic at Lisbon, was critical to his prospects of launching any future offensive. The Royal Navy brought a constant stream of reinforcements and supplies, while  its warships patrolled the lower reaches of  the river. And, if the worst happened, British forces would need to hold Lisbon as their point of embarkation for home. 

This was the background to the construction of the Lines of Torres Vedras (see box on p.24), a concentric series of fortifications designed to protect the Portuguese capital. The longest of these extended almost 30 miles, northwards across the Lisbon peninsula from the Tagus to the Atlantic. Secure behind these impressive defences, Wellington confided that ‘I could lick those fellows any day, but it would cost me ten thousand men and, as this is the last army England has, we must take care of it.’ He also involved the Portuguese government in an extensive upgrading of the country’s frontier defences, while destroying anything that might be of use to an invader. 

Meanwhile Wellington’s able subordinate, General Sir William Carr Beresford, oversaw the reorganisation and improved training of the Portuguese army. Financed by a combination of British subsidies and tax reform – imposed by Wellington on a reluctant Lisbon government – it was able to field some 30,000 troops. The mobilisation of the ordenanza – a kind of home guard – saw able-bodied men conscripted to wage guerrilla warfare against the occupiers. These policies, reluctantly accepted by the Portuguese government and people, proved their worth when a 65,000-strong French army under Marshal André Masséna launched a new assault in September 1810.

Resuming the offensive

The ensuing battle, at Bussaco, in the mountains some 140 miles north of Lisbon, saw Wellington at his tactically most astute. He chose an elevated position where his troops, drawn up on the reverse slope of the ridge, were partially concealed from the enemy. The French were driven off after taking heavy casualties. 

Masséna succeeded in turning Wellington’s flank, forcing the Anglo-Portuguese army to retreat towards Lisbon, but was halted by the Lines of Torres Vedras. Realising that the city’s defences were all but impregnable, and unable to feed his troops in a landscape stripped of resources, the French commander withdrew some 30 miles to wait for reinforcements that never materialised. In March 1811, his strength drastically reduced to 42,000 troops, Masséna abandoned the region. Portugal had been made secure, even if final allied victory in the peninsula was still a distant prospect. 

French foot artillery on campaign in 1809. Wellesley said of Napoleon’s battle-hardened troops: ‘though they may overwhelm me, I don’t think they will outmanoeuvre me… I am not afraid of them.’

In the following year, Wellington resumed the offensive in a bid to drive the French from Spain. The opening months of 1812 saw the capture of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, on the border between Portugal and Spain, opening the main routes into French-held Spanish territory. These two savage sieges are discussed in depth in a companion piece (see p.28). Wellington now had a choice of two opponents: an army led by Marshal Auguste de Marmont in the north, and one under Soult to the south. His decision to go northwards led to one of his most brilliant victories, at Salamanca in late July.

Although sometimes seen primarily as a defensive general, in this case Wellington actively sought battle. Having sent General Rowland Hill to cut Marmont’s communications to the south, he entered Salamanca. He then moved west of the city with the intention of forcing his adversary to fight before reinforcements arrived. For several days, the two evenly matched armies moved in parallel in the open country, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Marmont’s aim was to block Wellington’s route back to Portugal. Characteristically, the latter had chosen to mask his forces behind a ridge and, when dust clouds arose from his baggage train, Marmont assumed that he was in full retreat and sent three divisions to cut off his escape. 

The marshal had in fact overextended his forces, enabling Wellington to launch a devastating series of assaults on the French flanks, denying them the chance to concentrate their strength. The French attempted a counterattack against the British centre, but Wellington rapidly reinforced his position. Marmont lost 14,000 men, together with 20 guns, against just 5,000 Anglo-Portuguese casualties. The victory demonstrated Wellington’s gift for manoeuvre. It was a major blow to Joseph Bonaparte’s government, opening the way to the seizure of Madrid. 

Wellington’s gains in the aftermath of Salamanca were remarkable but short-lived. In October, facing a shortage of supplies, he had to abandon the siege of Burgos in northern Spain. In a familiar pattern, he spent the winter in Portugal. It was an inconclusive end to the year, and spirits in the allied camp were low.

The decisive campaign

Wellington did not, however, waste time. In readiness for the 1813 campaign, he improved drill and discipline, and issued new, morale-boosting equipment, replacing unwieldy iron cauldrons with lighter tin kettles and providing more tents. He also travelled to Cadiz to conclude an agreement with his Spanish allies, over whom he had now been appointed commander-in-chief. Wellington’s well-developed intelligence network played an important part in his preparations, supplying him with information on the poorly mapped terrain through which he would be moving.

Wellington at Salamanca, 22 July 1812. During the battle, the French lost 14,000 men, together with 20 guns, against just 5,000 Anglo- Portuguese casualties.

In May, Wellington opened what was to be the decisive campaign of the war. His intelligence network had informed him that Joseph Bonaparte’s army was heading to join with General Bertrand Clauzel’s force in north-west Spain. Wellington was determined to prevent them combining. As he advanced across northern Spain, he was aided by the outbreak of a full-scale insurrection, which demonstrated the depth of popular hostility to the French occupation.

The allied army came upon the French assembled in a valley surrounded on three sides by mountains, with the city of Vitoria at its eastern end. Wellington had a clear advantage, outnumbering Joseph’s army by 75,000 to 57,000. The French had miscalculated. Expecting Wellington to approach from the west, they had failed to cover their northern flank. They had also neglected to destroy the bridges across the Zadorra River, which flowed north of Vitoria, allowing the British to cross in several places. 

At the Battle of Vitoria, on 21 June 1813, Wellington made the bold decision to strike from different directions, catching the French by surprise. However, the victory was marred by looting. 
British troops auction off items taken from abandoned French wagons after the battle.

In a remarkably bold manoeuvre, Wellington decided to strike from different directions, his army arriving on the battlefield in four columns. The French were caught in an enveloping attack. They resisted bravely but, their flanks turned, they began to crumble and flee, leaving their artillery and Joseph’s baggage train behind. The victory would have been even more complete had many of Wellington’s troops not been diverted by the lure of plunder. In the aftermath of the battle, there were chaotic scenes, as soldiers fought over the spoils. Arguably, an opportunity was missed to take the strategically important French border city of Bayonne. By postponing the siege, Wellington gave the French time to strengthen its defences.

As the war moved into its endgame, and Wellington pushed on towards the Pyrenees, Soult mounted a determined counter- offensive. San Sebastián, gateway to the frontier, fell after a two-month siege, followed by Pamplona. By the late autumn, Soult’s exhausted, demoralised forces were withdrawing into France. Napoleon, who was being pushed back in central Europe by a coalition of Austria, Prussia, and Russia, was in no position to assist. On the contrary, early in 1814 he withdrew a proportion of Soult’s troops for the defence of Paris. Combined with losses in action and desertions, this reduced the size of his army by roughly a third. 

The matériel balance had decisively shifted in Wellington’s favour. Sailing along Spain’s northern coastline, the navy delivered a steady flow of supplies. Nonetheless, another winter of hard fighting lay ahead. Wellington could not be sure that Napoleon would fail to overcome his combined enemies in Germany. After all, anti-French coalitions had collapsed before. Were Napoleon to turn the tables, Wellington might find himself fighting the emperor on his home territory. Doggedly, Wellington pursued the retreating French, outflanking and defeating Soult at Orthez in February, and finally capturing Toulouse in April. Shortly afterwards, news of Napoleon’s abdication came through, though it was too late to avert a final bloody clash between the Anglo-Portuguese force besieging Bayonne and its garrison. The following month, the war officially came to an end.

The keys to victory

How are we to explain Wellington’s success? To some extent, he was fortunate in the situation that he faced in the peninsula. Napoleon himself never returned to Spain after his brief 1808-1809 intervention. Famously, Wellington paid him the tribute of stating that his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 men. Instead, the emperor left the French war effort in the hands of his marshals. They made little attempt to work together against Wellington’s army, and in any case their emperor never required them to do so. 

At a deeper level, the French defeat can be traced to the recklessness of Napoleon’s initial decision to intervene in the region, and the harshness of the demands that his regime made on the civilian population. This meant that the occupiers were always struggling to control popular unrest. Portugal provided an indispensable base for Wellington’s operations further afield, while guerrilla resistance wore away at the cohesion of the French army. In addition, from mid-1812, French forces were increasingly diverted to take part in Napoleon’s ill-fated Russian campaign, and later to the defence of France.

Wellington was not infallible. Victories such as Talavera and Salamanca proved hollow as the allied army lost momentum. Despite the ferocious discipline that he imposed on his troops, there were times when Wellington lost control. In Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, soldiers subjected the civilian population to orgies of looting after the towns were taken. After Vitoria, British troops could not be restrained from plundering abandoned French property, when they should have pursued their fleeing opponents. 

None of this should detract, however, from the scale of Wellington’s achievement. Some of the marshals he faced in the peninsula, notably Soult and Masséna, were undoubtedly able generals, leading experienced troops. Almost alone among senior figures on the British side, Wellington remained undaunted by the challenges that he faced. He worked unceasingly to give his army confidence, to improve the quality of its performance, and to do all he could to win the cooperation of the local population. 

Wellington exercised considerable diplomatic skill in building an alliance with the Portuguese, enabling the creation and training of an army which played a critical role in his campaigns. Although he sometimes tested British government ministers’ patience to the limit, he used his influence with them to ensure a flow of money and supplies for his army. In the field, he was without equal in his ability to manoeuvre for advantage and adapt his tactics to changing conditions. He had an eye for terrain – for example at Bussaco, where he chose the most favourable position from which to start the battle. Few could match his ability to sum up a situation and take appropriate action, as at Salamanca, where he seized the right moment to launch his attack.

Wellington deserved the hero’s welcome that he received on returning to England in June 1814. Far from being an unimportant sideshow, the war played a direct role in ending Napoleon’s domination of Europe. By invading Russia without first subduing Portugal and Spain, he had committed himself to an ultimately unwinnable two-front war. The Iberian campaign tied down large numbers of French troops who could have been used in central Europe as the net closed on the emperor. More than that, victory gave a lift to British morale after years of warfare, and showed that the country could play a more active role than merely subsidising its Continental partners at a distance. Of course, Napoleon was not finished until the Waterloo campaign a year later. But the lessons learned in the Peninsular War would provide valuable experience for the final showdown. To all of this, Wellington had made a vital contribution.

Thomas Sutherland’s painting The Sortie from Bayonne, at 3 in the Morning, on the 14th April 1814 depicts a moment during the last major battle of the Peninsular War, when the French garrison of Bayonne launched a sortie against the besieging force of British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops.

Further Reading:

• Rory Muir (2015) Wellington: the Path to Victory, 1769-1814 (Yale).
• Peter Snow (2010) To War with Wellington: from the Peninsula to Waterloo (John Murray).

All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated
You can read the second part, Graham Goodlad's analysis of the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, here.