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 Bonaparte‘s French Empire.
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.
Pride before a fall
Following a series of stunning victories for Napoleon, only Britain remained in the fight against the French in 1807, protected – at least temporarily – by its vital naval victory at Trafalgar two years before.
At that time, Napoleon’s empire covered most of Europe, and the British army – then largely composed of drunks, thieves and the unemployed – was considered far too small to pose much of a threat. But despite this, there was one part of the world where the British high command reckoned that its 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 – an attempt to strangle Britain by denying it trade from Europe and its colonies. Faced with this resistance, Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807 and then turned on its neighbour and former ally, Spain.
When Spain fell in 1808, Napoleon placed his elder brother Joseph on the throne. But the struggle for Portugal was not yet done, and the young but ambitious General Arthur Wellesley was landed on its shores with a small army, going on to win 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 the Brits’ complete annihilation at La Coruna, and 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.
The “people’s war”
But the job was not done, 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. Interestingly, it is from this so-called “people’s war” that we got the term guerilla.
With Napoleon once again occupied in the east, it was time for a British return to assist the rebels. These British forces were once again commanded by Wellesley, who continued his immaculate winning record at the battles of Porto and Talavera in 1809, saving 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 (who was made 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”.
Things look up
In 1812, the situation was beginning to look more promising for Wellington: after years of defensive warfare, it was finally time to attack deep into occupied Spain. Napoleon had withdrawn many of his best men for his looming Russian campaign, while 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 and, by April, both had fallen. Although this victory came at a terrible cost of Allied lives, it meant that the road to Madrid was finally open.
Standing in the way, however, was a French army commanded by Marshal Marmont, a hero of Napoleon’s 1809 Austrian campaign. 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 further north blocked by the French army, which was constantly being 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 manoeuvres, 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; his men were having the better of the war of manoeuvres to the extent that the British general was considering returning to Portugal by the morning of the 22 July.
The tide turns
That same day, however, Wellington realised that the Frenchman had made a rare mistake, 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 in on 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 only 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 era, utterly destroying the French left with their swords. The destruction was so great that the few survivors resorted to 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 French general named Clausel took up the baton of command, however, and directed his own division in a courageous counter-attack at General Cole’s division.
But, just as the Brits’ red-coated centre began to crumble under the pressure, Wellington reinforced it with Portuguese infantry and saved the day – even in the face of 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. Though Wellington had blocked their only escape route – across a narrow bridge – with an army of his Spanish allies, this army’s commander inexplicably left his position, allowing the French remnants to escape and fight another day.
The road to Madrid
Despite this disappointing ending, the battle had been a victory for the British, which had taken little more than two hours and really been 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”.
7,000 Frenchmen lay dead, as well as 7,000 captured, compared to only 5,000 total Allied casualties. Now, the road to Madrid was truly open.
The eventual 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, the British general’s men – along with their Iberian allies – had crossed the Pyrenees and were deep into southern France.
There, Wellington’s scrupulous treatment of civilians ensured that Britain did not face the kind of uprisings that had characterised France’s war in Spain. But his struggles were not quite over. He still had to face Napoleon’s final gamble in 1815 which would, at last, bring these two great generals face-to-face on the battlefield.