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The Peninsular War


1813: Breakout

After the disappointment of the autumn of 1812, Wellington’s army recovered swiftly. News of Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia quickly boosted Allied morale, and the Emperor’s need to build a new army forced him to pull more troops out of Spain to build a fresh army for 1813 campaign. The French had also abandoned their hold on Southern Spain, and only briefly re-occupied Madrid. Meanwhile the North of Spain had risen in revolt against the French, meaning that a large portion of their forces had to be detached to bring the region back under control.

Wellington did not move his army until May 1813, but used the time effectively training his men thoroughly, and planning for the next campaign. The majority of the French forces were in central and northern Spain. He therefore knew that a repeat of his move the previous year towards Madrid was not likely to produce success.

Spain map colour.jpg

Map of Spain and Portugal

(Author's Collection)

Instead, Wellington split his forces, sending the majority of his force north of the River Douro which he advanced with a smaller force towards Salamanca. As the French assumed that Wellington would place himself wherever the fighting was going to take place, ignored reports of these movements to the north, which were outflanking their position, until it was too late.

Wellington’s move caught the French by surprise. His army was now considerably stronger, amounting to around 75,000 men, and although the French had more than double that number in Spain, they needed time to assemble. King Joseph was therefore forced to retreat as slowly as he dared, trying to buy time to group together enough troops to fight off Wellington.

Wellington, meanwhile, kept up the pressure, repeatedly sending his men on outflanking marches on narrow mountain tracks. The French had initially planned to make a stand at Valladolid, but were forced to abandon this position due to a lack of numbers and being outflanked. Their next point of defence was potentially Burgos, which had stalled Wellington’s army the previous year. However, the repairs to the castle were incomplete, and still the French did not have enough troops to outnumber Wellington. Burgos was therefore abandoned without a fight, and Joseph pulled the French armies back to the River Ebro. Even here however, Wellington was able to outmanoeuvre the French, sending sections of his army down tracks which the French had assumed were impassable for an army, and which they had therefore left undefended.

By 20th June, the French had been forced back to the town of Vittoria, having evacuated the vast majority of Spain with scarcely any fighting taking place. With the vast majority of the baggage and plunder of all the French armies in Spain collected around the town, and with few other positions to fight on before reaching the French border, Joseph had little choice but to fight. The Battle of Vittoria was about to begin.


Up Next: The Battle of Vittoria


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Interested in Learning More?

Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)

Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)


Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923)

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