The Peninsular War
The Battle of Vimeiro & Britain's entry into the war
News of the uprising in Spain electrified British public opinion. In the immediate aftermath of the news, caricatures rapidly appeared such as Spanish Patriots attacking French Banditti – loyal Britons lending a lift, which depicted the France’s ‘invincible legions’ being overwhelmed by vengeful Spaniards, whilst a highly masculine British grenadier scythed through their ranks. For the first time in years, Britain truly believed that an opportunity had arisen to turn the tide of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe.
When delegates of the Spanish government arrived to request assistance from the British government, their former enemy, in June 1808, Britain immediately responded, agreeing to send money, weapons and troops to aid the Spanish. The philosophy of ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ was underlined by the decision to send troops gathering in Ireland under Sir Arthur Wellesley to Spain, whose troops had been preparing for an attack on the Spanish colonies in South America!
By Francisco Goya
Wellesley himself, who would go on to become the famous Duke of Wellington over the course of the war, was far from being a household name in 1808. He had experienced considerable success in India, and had contributed to the British expedition to Copenhagen in 1806. He had also served as an MP, but he by no means had a reputation as Britain’s best, or most senior general.
Nonetheless, on 12th July 1808 Wellesley’s force of around 9,000 men set sail from Cork. Wellesley was offered a choice, depending on the situation that he found on his arrival in the Iberian Peninsula. He could either land in Spain and assist in operations there, or land further south in Portugal and facilitate its liberation. Sailing ahead of the convoy, Wellesley reach Corunna on 20th July, and quickly established that the local Spaniards in Galicia (north-western Spain) did not want or need his help.
As a result, the British sailed south, landing at Mondego Bay, roughly 150 miles north of Lisbon on 1st August. The force was reinforced by troops under General Spencer on 5th August, and Wellesley’s 15,000 strong army immediately began marching south along the cost, using the British convoy to keep supplied. Joined by around 2,000 Portuguese soldiers, they engaged the French in a fairly minor action at Rolica, on 17th August. The action was not the British Army’s finest hour – the force which was sent to outflank the French position failed to arrive, whilst another part of the army attacked the wrong part of the French line and experienced considerable losses. Nonetheless, the French were pushed back, suffering around 600 casualties to 479 British casualties.
The French commander in Portugal, Junot, now moved his army of around 13,000 men north to counter the British threat, attacking the British on ground which Wellesely had chosen on 20th August. The French attacked the left and centre of the British position in succession, but made little progress. The French columns were designed for ‘shock and awe’, aiming to hammer through their enemy’s lines, but when faced with calm British regiments arrayed in two ranks, they suffered hugely from firepower – all the British soldiers could fire on the advancing column, yet only the front two ranks of the dense French formation could return fire, leading to a very uneven firefight. The British suffered 720 killed and wounded, but French losses were far worse: 2,200 in total.
The Battle of Vimeiro
As the French were comprehensively pushed back, Wellington hoped to transform the French withdrawal into a rout. However, in the moment of victory, he was superseded by Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple, more senior generals who had been sent out from Britain with reinforcements. However Burrard, worried by the strength of the French cavalry refused to pursue. The opportunity was squandered, and at the end of the month Dalyrmple signed the Convention of Cintra. This extremely controversial document agreed to evacuate the French army, with their weapons and all their possession from Portugal and repatriate them. The French promptly took this opportunity to take their plunder with them, and the Convention was criticised for its leniency considering that Junot’s army was effectively marooned around Lisbon with no hope of escape.
In reality Cintra saved the British, and Lisbon, from a costly siege, but the public and Parliament would not be appeased. An enquiry was held, in which Wellesley was exonerated of all blame, but he was obliged to sail home, partly to defend his reputation.
Nonetheless, Portugal had been liberated, thanks in large part of the decisive victory that Wellesley had gained at Vimeiro. The Peninsular War appeared to have rapidly and emphatically turned against the French. In reality, disaster was just around the corner.
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Interest in learning more?
Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)
Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War: Volume 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902)
Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)