The Peninsular War
Corunna & Napoleon’s Spanish Campaign
Within four months of forcing the French out of Portugal, the British themselves were being forced out of the Peninsula altogether. In the autumn of 1808 Napoleon poured reinforcements south into Northern Spain, as part of his preparations for a devasting re-conquest of the country. By November 250,000 French veterans were poised to cross the River Ebro.
In November 1808, Napoleon arrived to take personal command of the operation. Realising that there was a gap in the Spanish forces lined along the Ebro, he threw his force through this gap towards Burgos. Once established there, his forces were able to strike the flanks of the Spanish armies, throwing them into disarray. By early December Napoleon was in Madrid, with the majority of northern Spain under his control, and the Spanish armies all having been defeated and in full retreat.
Meanwhile, the British had been slow to advance from Portugal and were therefore not caught up in Napoleon’s devastating attack. The command of the British army had passed to Sir John Moore, who had been responsible for the training of Britain’s light infantry regiments. Moore had aimed to concentrate his army on Salamanca, but had sent different parts of his force along different roads as poor intelligence had led him to believe that only one road was passable for artillery. As his artillery was delayed in arriving, he was unable to move from Salamanca until 23rd November, by which time the strategic situation had completely transformed.
In This Section
Sir John Moore
by Sir Thomas Lawrence
Moore was receiving reinforcements as Britain sent more troops out in the wake of the early successes of the war, meaning that by early December he had 20,000 men under his command. He began a bold plan to strike at the line of communication of the French army, occupying Sahagun in late December. His movement seriously threatened Soult’s army in Northern Spain, yet as Moore’s troops were ordered north to attack the French on 23rd December, news arrived that Napoleon had learnt of the British force threatening his rear and was marching from Madrid with 80,000 men. Much to the astonishment of the troops, they were left with no choice but to turn around and march for Corunna on the North-western tip of Spain. It was a gruelling retreat over the Galician mountains in the depth of winter. Disheartened at being forced to withdraw without having been beaten, the troops’ discipline (which had already been slipping) disintegrated, straggling was widespread, and many collapsed in the snow by the roadside due to exhaustion. The only troops which were kept in line were those subjected to savage discipline from their officers.
After a few days, Napoleon returned to Madrid, dispatching Marshal Soult to chase the British into the sea. Moore’s army arrived at Corunna on the 12th January 1809 to find that the transport ships had not yet arrived. When these materialised on the 14th, time was needed both to embark the troops and destroy the stores collected in the harbour. Amazingly, the prospect of fighting the French seemed to restore order, and 15,000 men held off Soult’s bold frontal attacks on the 16th January.
This was a small crumb of comfort, but the battle cost Moore his life. He was hit by a cannon ball, and died late in the day after hearing that the French had been kept at bay. He was buried in the town.
The Corunna campaign was at an end, and with it the best hopes of a swift conclusion to the Peninsular War. The British were evacuated back to Britain over the following days, with just a few thousand men remaining in Portugal. King Joseph was reinstated in Madrid, and with Northern Spain back under their control, the French were faced with a number of options for bringing the remainder of the Iberian Peninsula under their control. The war wasn’t over, but its outcome didn’t look to be in doubt.
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Interested in Learning More?
Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)
Christopher Hibbert, Corunna (Gloucestershire: The Windrush Press, 1961)