Perhaps the most successful General in British history, Arthur Wellesley -the Duke of Wellington – enjoyed his greatest tactical triumph on a dusty Spanish field at Salamanca in 1812. There, as one eyewitness wrote, he “defeated an army of 40,000 men in 40 minutes” and opened the road towards the liberation of Madrid in a victory that helped turn the tide of the war against Napoleon.
Set against the extraordinary drama of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, which ran parallel to Wellington’s advances in 1812, the latter can often be overlooked. The British, Portuguese and Spanish resistance in Spain, however, would prove to be just as crucial as Russia in bringing down a man and an empire that had seemed invincible in 1807. At that time, after a series of stunning victories, only Britain had remained to fight the French, protected for the time being by their vital naval victory at Trafalgar in 1807. Meanwhile, Napoleon’s empire covered most of Europe, and the British army – which was largely composed of drunks thieves and the unemployed – was considered far too small to make much of a difference, just as it would be in 1914. There was one part of the world, however, where the British high command reckoned that the unloved and unfashionable army could be put to some use.
Portugal had been a long-standing ally of Britain, and was not compliant when Napoleon tried to force it into joining the continental blockade, which was an attempt to strangle Britain by denying it trade from Europe and its colonies. Faced with this resistance, the Emperor invaded in 1807, and then turned on the neighbouring country (and former ally), Spain, which fell in 1808, allowing him to place his elder brother Joseph on the throne. The struggle for Portugal was not yet done, however, and the young but ambitious General Sir Arthur Wellesley was landed on its shores with a small army in 1808, before winning two minor but morale-boosting victories against the invaders. There was little the British could do to halt the Emperor’s response, however, and in one of his most brutally efficient campaigns, Napoleon arrived in Spain with his veteran army and crushed Spanish resistance before forcing the British – now commanded by Sir John Moore – to the sea. Only a heroic rearguard action – which cost Moore his life – stopped their complete annihilation at La Coruna, but the watching eyes of Europe concluded that Britain’s brief foray into a land war was over. The Emperor clearly thought the same, for he returned to Paris, considering the job to be done.
It was not done, however, for though the central governments of Spain and Portugal were scattered and defeated, the people refused to be beaten, and rose up against their occupiers. It is from this “people’s war” that we get the term guerilla. With Napoleon once-again occupied in the east, it was time for a British return to assist the rebels, once again commanded by Wellesley, who continued his immaculate winning record at the battles of Porto and Talavera in 1809, which saved Portugal from imminent defeat. This time, the British were there to stay. Over the next three years, the two forces see-sawed over the Portuguese border, as Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington after his 1809 victories) won battle after battle, but lacked the numbers to press his advantage against the enormous forces of the multi-national French Empire. Meanwhile, the guerillas conducted a thousand small actions, which along with Wellington’s victories, began to bleed the French army of its best men – leading the Emperor to christen the campaign “the Spanish ulcer.”
In 1812, the situation was beginning to look more promising for Wellington. After years of defensive warfare, it was time to attack deep into occupied Spain. Napoleon had withdrawn many of his best men for his looming Russian campaign, and Wellington’s extensive reforms of the Portuguese army meant that the disparity of numbers was smaller than before. In the early months of that year, the British General assaulted the twin fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which opened the way into the heart of Spain. Both had fallen by April, though at a terrible cost of Allied lives. Now the road to Madrid was finally open. In the way, however, stood a French army commanded by Marshal Marmont, a hero of Napoleon’s Austrian campaign of 1809. The two forces were evenly matched – both standing at around 50,000 strong, and after Wellington captured the university city of Salamanca, he found his way north towards Madrid blocked by the French army, which was constantly swelled by reinforcements.
Over the next few weeks of high summer, the two armies tried to tilt the odds in their favour in a series of complex manouvres, both hoping to outflank the other, or seize their rival’s supply train. Marmont’s canny performance here showed that he was Wellington’s equal, and his men were having the better of the war of manouvres to an extent where Wellington was considering returning to Portugal by the morning of the 22nd July. That same day, however, he realised that the Frenchman had made a rare mistake, by allowing the left flank of his army to march too far ahead of the rest. Seeing an opportunity at last for an offensive battle, the British commander then ordered a full-out assault on the isolated French left.
Quickly, the experienced British infantry closed with their French counterparts and began a ferocious musketry duel. Aware of the threat of cavalry, the local French commander Maucune formed his infantry into squares, but this meant that his men were easy targets for the British guns. As the formations began to unravel, the British heavy horse charged, in what is considered the single most destructive cavalry charge of the entire Napoleonic wars, utterly destroying the French left with their swords to an extent where the few survivors took advantage of the only possible escape route on the open plain, by taking refuge with the red-coated British infantry and pleading for their lives.
The French centre, meanwhile, was all confusion, as Marmont and his second-in-command had been wounded by shrapnel fire in the opening minutes of the battle. Another General, Clausel, took up the baton of command, however, and directed his own division in a courageous counter-attack at General Cole’s division that almost rescued the day for the British. Just as the red-coated centre began to crumble under the pressure, Wellington reinforced it with Portuguese infantry and saved the day, despite the bitter and unyielding resistance of Clausel’s brave men. With this, the battered remnants of the French army began to retreat, taking more casualties as they went. Wellington had blocked their only escape route, across a narrow bridge, with an army of his Spanish allies, but their commander inexplicably left his position, allowing them to escape and fight another day,
Despite this disappointing ending, the battle had been a crushing victory for the British, which had taken little more than two hours and been really decided in less than one. Often derided as a defensive commander by his critics, Wellington showed his genius at a completely different type of battle, where the fast movement of cavalry and quick-witted decisions had bewildered the enemy. A few days later, the French General Foy would write in his diary that “up to this day we knew his prudence, his eye for choosing good positions, and the skill with which he used them. But at Salamanca he has shown himself a great and able master of manoeuvring.” 7000 Frenchman lay dead, as well as 7000 captured, compared to 5000 Allied casualties, and the road to Madrid was now truly open.
The liberation of the Spanish capital in August promised that the war had entered a new phase. Though the British wintered back in Portugal, the regime of Joseph Bonaparte had suffered a fatal blow, and the efforts of the Spanish guerillas intensified. Far far away, on the Russian steppes, Napoleon saw to it that all mention of Salamanca was prohibited. Wellington, meanwhile, continued his track record of never losing a major battle, and by the time Napoleon surrendered in 1814 his men – along with their Iberian allies – had crossed the Pyrenees and were deep into southern France, where the British General’s scrupulous treatment of civilians ensured that they did not face the kind of uprisings which would characterize the war in Spain. Even then, however, his struggles were not quite over. Napoleon’s final gamble in 1815 would, at last, bring these two great generals face to face on the battlefield.