Peninsular War

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© Bob Denton 2014

Peninsular War, 1808-1814

Rather belatedly Godoy realised that his decisions had put Madrid at risk from the French and so he and the Spanish royal family moved out to Aranjuez, a town 50 kms south of Madrid, where they believed they would be able to flee to Seville and from there on to America if this should become necessary.

The Motín de Aranjuez, or Mutiny of Aranjuez, broke out and the mob captured Godoy and insisted that the king sack him from his role. It then forced Charles IV to abdicate in favour of his son, Ferdinand.

This was to some extent odd because there were severe doubts as to whether Ferdinand was in fact the son of Charles, the rumours were that his mother had him from an affair with Godoy! Nonetheless he was hailed as Ferdinand VII, but this lasted just 48 days.

Ferdinand made the mistake of seeking help from Napoleon, the revolt and Ferdinand’s request was sufficient cause for Bonaparte to move his troops into Madrid. Napoleon then suggested that he would act as mediator and summoned both Charles and Ferdinand to meet with him in Bayonne.

Napoleon first had Charles sign over all interests in the crown to him, then the next day he had Ferdinand abdicate his position too. Both were effectively imprisoned at the Château de Valençay, Ferdinand would be held there for six years.

Napoleon then ordered the rest of the Spanish royal family to go to France and announced that his brother Joseph Bonaparte would become the King of Spain and the Indies.

With its royal family moving off to exile in France, on the 2nd of May 1808 the Spanish people rose up against the French in Madrid and gathered outside the Palacio Real. There were 3,000 Spanish troops in the city, but they received no orders as to how they should respond, though several dissidents did leave their ranks to assist in the protest.

The French committed 30,000 troops led by Marshal Murat. His forces included some pretty formidable and bloodthirsty mercenaries; the Egyptian Mameluk cavalry and the Polish Lancers. The fighting was hard but it took only three hours for the French to prevail against what was more a group of the general populace rather than an army.

The Spanish lost 200 in the fighting, the French 1,000 dead or injured. Any Spaniard arrested with a weapon was marked for death and some 200 were duly executed. Those of the Madrid inhabitants (Madrileños) who escaped spread the word of the French actions and the uprising spread nationally.

Francisco Goya’s ‘Dos de Mayo 1808’ and ‘Tres de Mayo 1808’ evocatively depicts the charge of the Mameluks and the next day’s executions. It was this incident that sparked the Peninsular War.

The Spanish army was leaderless and did not engage with the French as all of this unfolded. Many decamped to Portugal or the Balearics awaiting any developments. A sizeable part of its force, the 15,000-strong Army of the North, had been loaned to the French in 1807 and they were garrisoned in Denmark under French orders and well away from the action. The remaining Spanish forces were in remote locations, the Army of Andalusia and the Army of Galicia; so the original invasion and occupation of Spain was not challenged.

Joseph Bonaparte arrived in Madrid in the summer of 1808 and took control of his realm. He moved quickly to create his government on the principles that his brother had evolved in France from 1804. This was to be a senate and a three-estate assembly (nobility, clergy and commoners), these were either chosen by the king, some by election and some by town council appointment.

The Church was subjected to tighter controls, the Inquisition was abolished and most of the monasteries closed and their property seized. The legal and administrative systems were completely reorganised to reflect what became known as the Napoleonic Code.

Joseph was never popular with the Spanish who named him Pepe BotellasPepe being their contraction for Joseph and Botellas because of his enthusiastic pursuit of alcohol. Those who supported him and his brother were in an absolute minority in Spain.

A Regency Council had been left behind in Spain by Charles and Ferdinand to manage the realm, and it decided to refuse to acknowledge or recognise the abdications. But they proved toothless when officials in the capitals of the old kingdoms formed ‘Supreme Juntas’ to replace the administration that had been scrapped by the French. These juntas tended to be based around the existing municipal authority, the ayuntamiento, and inflated by the addition of the local great and good.

The early success of the juntas led to the formation in 1808 of a Central Junta at Aranjuez to coordinate the nationwide struggle against the French. However the Central Junta soon retreated south to Cádiz to avoid the French advance and found it difficult to impose its will from there.

José Moñino y Redondo, 1st Count of Floridablanca was notionally appointed as the President of this Supreme Central and Governmental Junta, though at eighty years old he was none too nimble in his decisions and actions; he died later that year.

This Napoleonic occupation of the homeland and the naval blockade by Britain saw many of the Spanish colonies form juntas of their own. Virtually abandoned by Spain, these colonies soon began to consider establishing their independence.

As in the Spanish Reconquista it was the province of Asturias that stepped up and was early in attacking its occupiers and declaring war upon France. Others followed their lead – in Valencia over 300 Frenchmen were slaughtered, in Cádiz the French fleet was seized.

Guerilla action – The Spanish people in combating the French chose not to meet in set-piece battles but instead used harrying attacks that they called the little war, or guerilla, the term had entered the English language by 1809 and it soon became a regularly-used global term – and tactic.

The French having assumed that the taking of Spain was going to be a simple matter soon found that it was required to draw in ever more of its troops. To seek to minimise this, Napoleon organised a series of fast-response flying columns that could act against centres of Spanish resistance.

Marshal Bessières moved with 25,000 troops to capture Santander and Zaragoza. Bessières marched on Santander but was repelled by guerillas being supported and resupplied by the British navy. Zaragoza withstood their attacks, its citizens having vowed to fight to the death.

Chivvied and resupplied Bessières marched west again where he met the 25,000-strong Army of Galicia. The battle of Medina de Rioseco inflicted heavy casualties on the Spanish, but its leaders and many of its troops were allowed to withdraw. This victory served to give France more confidence of its status in the north of the peninsula.

General Moncey led 30,000 in a march on Valencia. He had successes on the way to the city but he attacked the walls without success losing 1,000 of his troops in the effort. He then had to fight a long retreat.

General Duhesme took 13,000 troops into Catalonia, with his early priority being to siege Girona; in this he failed. But Duhesme was a veteran of battles in the Low Countries and in Italy and managed to take Barcelona by subterfuge. He got permission from the local governor to admit a convoy of injured men to enter the walls, once there they leapt from their stretchers and took control of the city. By 1812 Barcelona was declared part of the French Empire, as the département of Montserrat.

In 1808 General Pierre Dupont de l’Étang led 13,000 ‘untried’ troops to try to break past Seville through Andalusia and reach Cádiz. Dupont approached Córdoba and despite his force consisting mostly of second-tier troops he defeated the Spanish militia that was there to defend it; his troops looted the city for four days. Hostility from the local Spanish populace then forced a retreat, but trying to haul away 500 wagons loaded with plunder made the retreat ponderous and high risk; it was further hampered by illness.

Some reinforcements were sent south from Toledo with new orders that advised Dupont to wait before pressing forward. Napoleon believed that Valencia or Zaragoza would fall and then reinforcements could be sent to strengthen Dupont’s column.

Dupont camped along the Guadalquivir River and dithered while awaiting his new orders. The river was fordable in many locations and was surrounded by hills and this allowed guerilla warfare to be effectively waged on his positions. An attempt to attack the guerillas proved expensive in terms of casualties and delivered little of benefit. Worse they learned that the guerillas had destroyed all the provisions from surrounding towns and fields.

In the meantime a Spanish force led by General Castaños from Granada was able to cut off Dupont’s route across the sierras to Madrid. The Army of Andalusia was assembled to attack the French, a series of tactical errors on the French side led to their defeat at the Battle of Bailén. Dupont negotiated a truce, his troops laying down their arms, handing over artillery and three Imperial Eagles. The Spanish relented on a promise to repatriate and imprisoned almost 18,000 troops.

Imperial Eagles – The ‘Aigle de drapeau’ had been copied by Napoleon from an earlier Roman approach. He awarded his regiments a brass-cast eagle to be carried at the head of the troops and held on a blue regimental pole. These had the same significance to the French regiments as did the British regimental colours. One key principle was that they should never be lost to the enemy!

The first French eagle was lost in the battle of Austerlitz in 1805 to a Russian cavalry charge. Though Napoleon still won that battle the loss of the eagle was felt keenly as a major blow. Two more were lost to the Russians in 1807.

But the battle of Bailén was the first time that Eagles had been surrendered rather than lost in battle.

It took the British until 1811 to capture one at the battle of Barrosa. The first man to handle it was shot as he touched it, his sergeant, Patrick Masterson, from the Royal Irish Fusiliers is said to have shouted, ‘Be Jaysus boys, I have the cuckoo!’ Subsequently the taking of an Eagle was usually followed by that British regiment being allowed to include an eagle on their regimental colours and/or their uniforms.

Dupont is said to have stated, ‘You may well, General, be proud of this day. It is remarkable because I have never lost a pitched battle until now—I who have been in more than twenty.’ Castaños replied sardonically, ‘It is the more remarkable because I was never in one before in my life!’

While this was not that much of a pitch battle it did dent the beliefs of French invincibility in the field and of course as the news spread around Spain it became ever more exaggerated in terms of its significance. The positive reaction led to other flying columns being pushed back towards France.

Confidence grew as across the first twelve occasions that the Spanish formally met the French in battle they had won seven of them. But the Spanish administration was in so much disarray that they failed to press home their advantage and push the French troops completely from the peninsula. But their success did encourage the Austrians to join the Fifth Coalition of nations against France.

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Back to 1789 and all that!
© Bob Denton 2014