The Peninsular War of 1808-14 looms large in British history for two reasons: it is the only significant involvement of British troops on land in the Napoleonic wars until the final campaign of 1815; and it is the stage on which the duke of Wellington rises to prominence as a national figure. Nevertheless in the broader picture of the European war it is little more than a sideshow, affecting the final result only because it ties up French troops whom Napoleon would dearly like to use elsewhere.
The war is provoked by Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 and by the subsequent French capture of Madrid in March 1808.
A British army lands in Portugal on 1 August 1808 under the command of Wellington (at the time plain Sir Arthur Wellesley), who wins a decisive victory over the French at Vimeiro, near Lisbon. Wellington is prevented from pursuing and further damaging the French army on the command of Hew Dalrymple, an officer senior to him who arrives just after the battle to take charge of the campaign.
By an agreement made at Sintra on August 31, Dalrymple allows the French army to withdraw from Portugal. The advantage is that the British can liberate Lisbon without further conflict. But an affronted Wellington returns home to resume a career in British politics.
Meanwhile Spanish forces are engaging the French in northern Spain. In October John Moore, newly in command of the British army in Portugal, marches north to assist them. The French situation in Spain appears so critical that Napoleon himself arrives (on November 6) to take charge of the campaign.
By late December Moore’s army, near Burgos, is in danger of being surrounded. Moore beats a hasty retreat of some 250 miles through snowclad mountains to Corunna (or La CoruÑa). A French army arrives there shortly before the British fleet sent to evacuate the troops. Moore himself dies in January 1809 in the rearguard action to cover the embarkation, but his army escapes safely back to England.
Wellington in the ascendant: AD 1809-1814
In spite of the reverse suffered at Corunna, the British government undertakes a new campaign in Portugal. Wellington, who has won the only victory there so far, is returned to his command. He reaches Lisbon in April 1809 to find that the French have again pressed south into Portugal, against dwindling Portuguese and Spanish opposition, and have captured Oporto.
Wellington’s campaign of 1809 includes successful sorties northwards in Portugal and an ambitious march to the east against Madrid. This ends with a hard fought battle on July 27 at Talavera, where Wellington holds off strong French assaults and is able to withdraw, relatively undamaged, to Portugal.
It is clear that the British position in the peninsula is tenuous. Wellington’s response to this fact is the most imaginative strategic move of the Peninsular War. He turns the region north of Lisbon into a gigantic fortress by building the lines of Torres Vedras – a continuous fortification stretching twenty-five miles from the Atlantic coast tbrough Torres Vedras to the broad Tagus river.
With British naval power protecting the port of Lisbon, there is now a large territory behind these impenetrable lines in which Wellington’s army has a secure base in which it can be reliably supplied from the sea.
Campaigns in subsequent years involve prolonged fighting over the fortified towns between Portugal and Madrid; both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz are eventually taken by Wellington in 1812. Later in that year he wins a significant victory at Salamanca and briefly occupies Madrid.
The decisive campaign comes in 1813, when Wellington moves north from Portugal and meets the army of Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte (technically at this stage king of Spain) at Vitoria on June 21. Wellington captures the entire French artillery train, of some 150 guns, and all the baggage – including Joseph’s impressive collection of art, which now graces Apsley House (Wellington’s residence in London).
Further successful operations in northern Spain allow Wellington to cross the border into France in October – the first enemy army on French soil since the campaign of 1792-3.
Wellington’s succession of titles, acquired during the Peninsular War, provide an intriguing vignette of how to progress through the English peerage. After Talavera in 1809 Sir Arthur Wellesley is made Viscount Wellington; after the fall of Ciudad Rodgrio in 1812 he becomes an earl and later that year, after Salamanca, a marquess. When peace is agreed, in May 1814, the final rung is achieved. It is the duke of Wellington who attends the congress of Vienna as Britain’s representative, and returns in a hurry for Waterloo.