British Bridgehead in Portugal

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© Bob Denton 2014

British Bridgehead in Portugal, 1809-1814

Some 30,000 French troops had become rather isolated in Portugal, blockaded seaward by the British navy, facing guerilla action landward between it and Madrid. The Portuguese people rose up in the same manner as the Spanish.

British General Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal in 1808 but was aware that further troops would be sent soon and that he would be junior to a number of the incoming officers. So he was very keen to make early progress before they arrived. He landed at Mondego Bay rather than try for Lisbon directly. He had 9,000 troops and was joined by 6,000 from Portugal.

Junot sent a force of 4,000 to harass the British while he gathered together a larger force. At the battle of Roliça both sides took similar losses but the British eventually prevailed. The French decided on an orderly retreat, but this soon fell in to chaos. Wellesley had no cavalry to pursue them and allowed them to get away while he moved off to safeguard the disembarkation of a further 4,000 troops.

Marshall Junot’s force faced Wellesley again at the battle of Vimeiro. Wellesley’s tactics again won the day, with the Anglo-Portuguese forces losing just 700 men, the French lost over 2,000 plus half of its artillery pieces. Junot’s retreat was again not pursued, this time because by then officers senior to Wellesley had arrived in Portugal and ordered he should not do so.

General Sir Hew Whitefoord Dalrymple had arrived and took over as Commander of the Portuguese Expedition; it was he that refused to allow Wellesley to pursue the retreat. For his part Junot was prepared to offer a complete surrender but instead Dalrymple agreed a truce that included an arrangement for the British navy to transport the troops and their guns back to France. Incredibly they also transported the French loot from Portugal too. Naturally when this became known it led to an absolute furore in Britain and Portugal.

Dalrymple and Wellesley were sent back to Britain to face an enquiry. Dalrymple was never given a field command again. However Wellesley survived because he had been shown to have argued against the truce.

The British navy managed to embark 9,000 of the Spanish Army of the North that had been billeted in Denmark and ferried them to Santander. This was a double blow, putting more Spanish troops back in to the peninsula while denuding Napoleon’s army in the north.

Making little progress in subjugating the locals, late in 1808 Napoleon decided that he needed to step up and handle the situation personally. With an army numbering over 275,000 experienced troops he boasted that he would resolve the matter in just two months.

The plans for his original offensive have been much admired. He sought to doubly envelop the Spanish force, but the Army of Galicia managed to slip away from his encircling movement. Pursuing their retreat the French forces were attacked by the freshly returned Army of the North and then had to retreat themselves.

While this was happening the main Spanish force, untrained in handling cavalry charges, were slaughtered at the battle of Tudela. Napoleon’s troops reached Madrid and Joseph was reaffirmed as the king of Spain. The French soon occupied the key cities in the north, north-east and centre of the peninsula.

Meanwhile General Sir John Moore had taken over the British troops in Portugal and had moved them into Spain to engage the French taking León for a period. After holding off the French in the Battle of Coruňa, some 26,000 were then embarked at La Coruňa and transported back to Britain. Moore himself was killed in the battle.

A French relief troop was sent to assist in Catalonia and the battles of Cardadeu, of Molins de Rey and of Valls were successive defeats for the Spanish forces. Zaragoza managed to withstand its siege.

In 1809, having not achieved his forecast of two months to ‘resolve’ Spain, Napoleon left his marshals to continue the war for him and returned to France.

Napoleon’s departure presaged a period when the Spanish forces began to record successes at Vigo, Marín and Pontevedra, pushing the French back towards Santiago de Compostela.

The French Marshal Soult set out to retake Portugal. He was initially held up but pressed on to take Braga, Chaves and Porto; but local resistance meant that Soult became progressively isolated in Porto.

Back in Britain Wellesley wrote to the prime minister, Castlereagh, with a proposal of how best to protect and hold Portugal as a bulwark against France. Given approval he returned to Portugal in 1809 and took over a combined Anglo-Portuguese force; the Portuguese army had been radically updated and retrained. Britain provided supplies and finance from here for Portugal and Spain.

With a daring raid, across the Duero river, Wellesley defeated and pushed Soult out of Porto and from Portugal. He then advanced into Spain to join up with General Ceuta’s Spanish forces at Talavera where they confronted Marshal Victor’s force.

Ceuta proved uncooperative delaying things long enough for Victor to withdraw, then unwisely chasing him to find Victor had been reinforced from Toledo and Madrid. The battle of Talavera was therefore not proactive on Wellesley’s part, it became more about providing support for Ceuta’s fighting retreat.

When he learned that Soult’s army was trying to flank him and block his route back to Portugal, Wellesley broke off and secured his return route. Ceuta proved again to be uncooperative with providing supplies, so Wellesley moved back to Portugal.

In Spain these great armies manoeuvring across the peninsula were not in fact the major issue of the war. Local villages created partisan groups, guerra de partidos, which carried the guerilla war to the French. The French controlled the major cities but if they sallied forth out of these then they were at the mercy of the guerillas. When they did venture outside of the cities they had to commit large numbers to the simplest of tasks, their communications and logistics routinely impaired.

As a result the French army became brutal in their reprisals for these guerilla acts. Yet, some authorities suggest that during five years of the war some 180,000 French casualties were inflicted by guerilla action, the guerillas losing fewer than 25,000 of their number.

The success of these operations can be shown to have inspired other peoples under Napoleon’s rule, in particular this proved to be the case in Germany.

Wellesley has been criticised by historians for being too cautious in the early stages of this war, but finally his caution was to be rewarded.

As part of his plan in Portugal Wellesley had created massive earthworks, the Lines of Torres Vedras, linking a series of fortresses, the navy securing its flanks. When the French mounted a new campaign in 1810 under Marshal André Masséna they were halted by this defensive structure for six months. The French retreated, though Wellesley’s pursuit of them was foiled by the clever tactics applied by Marshall Ney.

In 1811 Masséna and Soult marched on Portugal again but were halted once more. However along the way they had taken the two Spanish fortresses at Rodrigo and Badajoz and this gave them effective control of the mountain routes into and out of Portugal.

In 1812 Wellesley successfully seized the fort at Rodrigo, but the subsequent siege of Badajoz proved to be extremely bloody, although ultimately successful. Wellesley, now promoted to general, moved into Spain with Portuguese reinforcements and fought the battle of Salamanca that led to the liberation of Madrid. He was awarded an Earldom for this action.

A subsequent flawed siege of Burgos, for lack of siege guns, was a major setback, then the news that the French troops were moving against him from Andalusia saw him retreat back to Portugal.

At this stage the French attention in the peninsula began to waver as it concentrated more to the east and north of Europe. Under constant attrition the French had become more cautious, their numbers in Spain were reduced to respond to the demands for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

In 1813 Wellesley changed his approach and travelled north so that he could be supplied from Santander rather than Portugal. His actions saw the French abandon Madrid and Burgos, Wellesley managed to catch and defeat Joseph Bonaparte’s army at the battle of Vitoria.

The Allies fielded 82,000 troops (57,000 British, 16,000 Portuguese and 8.000 Spanish) facing 60,00 French.  The French lost 8,000 dead, wounded or captures, the Allies more than 5,000 dead or wounded. French losses were not greater because they abandoned their loot amassed in Spain and the British soldiers were diverted by liberating this – said to have a value of £1,000,000 – this needs to be multiplied 100 times to estimate its worth today.

This was the decisive battle that augured the end of the Peninsular War. It also inspired Beethoven to write his Opus 91, aka Wellington’s Victory.

Wellington quickly took Pamplona, but San Sebastián proved a much tougher nut to crack. The Spanish Army of Galicia saw off Soult as he tried to relieve the siege of this city. This bought them more time and a second siege did succeed.

Through the winter of 1813-4 Wellesley pursued Soult and his forces all the way back to Toulouse. He was awarded with the title the Duke of Wellington for this engagement.

Napoleon sued for peace with Spain and signed the treaty of Valençay, in which he agreed to release King Ferdinand VII provided that hostilities were halted.

Forward to Invasion of Russia, Sixth Coalition – Back to Fifth Coalition
Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014