The Peninsular War
The Salamanca Campaign
Once he had captured the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, Wellington attacked Marshall Marmont’s Army of Portugal, based around Salamanca, as he knew that General Soult’s Army of the South in Andalusia would be unable to help Marmont, as it was besieging Cadiz.
To ensure that Marmont would not receive any other help, Wellington organised diversions to keep the other French armies in Spain occupied. In Northern Spain, the Spanish Army of Galicia besieged Astorga, whilst a fleet of Royal Navy frigates under Commodore Popham sailed along the north coast, besieging towns and ports with the help of local guerrillas before sailing off in search of another target when the French approached. This worked perfectly, and the 48,000 strong French Army of the North spent the summer trying to march faster than a ship could sail.
General Suchet’s 60,000 men on the east coast of Spain were contained by an expedition under General Maitland which landed at Catalonia. However, Lord Bentick attempted to use the force to launch a campaign in Italy, and as a result, Maitland’s men did not land until early July. Nonetheless, the build up of troops in Majorca alarmed Suchet enough to stop him helping Marmont.
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Spain in 1812
Finally, Wellington used 18,000 men under Lieutenant-General Hill to contain 24,000 men of Soult’s Army of the South, whilst Soult’s remaining 30,000 men were occupied with the siege of Cadiz or garrisoned around Grenada. In addition, a Spanish army under General Ballasteros marched across Andalusia trying to avoid battle. This plan worked so well that Soult wrote to King Joseph claiming that he was being attacked by ‘60,000 of the Allies’.
Once these measures were in place, Wellington’s army crossed the River Agueda on 13th June with 45,400 Anglo-Portuguese infantry, 5,000 cavalry and sixty-two cannons. The Allied army caught the French army dispersed, and forced Marshall Marmont to abandon Salamanca. The Allied army entered the city on 17th June and started besieging the fortified convents San Vincente, San Cayetano and La Merced which Marmont had garrisoned with 800 men.
The Allied Sixth Division under Major-General Clinton carried out the siege, although since Wellington had underestimated the strength of these forts, the army did not have siege guns or ammunition for the task. An attack on Fort Cayetano on 23rd June failed, but the garrisons surrendered on 27th June after heated shot fired by the allies set the largest fort, San Vincente, on fire.
Meanwhile, Marmont had collected his army and marched towards Salamanca hoping to relieve the forts. Wellington left the Sixth Division in Salamanca and marched to San Christobal to block Marmont’s path. Two days late, after some skirmishing, Marmont withdrew and was chased by the allies to the River Duero, although Wellington was criticised for not attacking his opponent and for hoping to win the campaign by fighting a defensive battle.
Marmont’s retreat behind the Duero cut his line of communication with Joseph, allowing guerrillas to intercept his letters and pass them to the British. However, the information gained from these, combined with Marmont’s strong new position, undermined Wellington’s confidence, as Marmont’s army was stronger than he had thought. A deadlock developed until the 15th July when Marmont sent two divisions across the Duero at Toro in a feint to draw the allies westward. Whilst Wellington moved the bulk of his army towards Toro to deal with this threat, Marmont sent the remainder of his army across the Duero at Tordesillas. At the same time, the two divisions at Toro re-crossed the river and marched to rejoin Marmont via the fords of Pollos.
Map of the Salamanca Campaign
Marmont’s manoeuvre had caught Wellington completely by surprise. His Fourth Division, under Major-General Cole, and the Light Division, under Major-General von Alten, were now dangerously close to the French army as it approached Castrejon. Wellington narrowly avoided capture as he spent the 17th July rescuing his two divisions and creating a new defensive line behind the River Guarena. Although Marmont decided not to attack this position, General Clausel began an attack across the river north of Cañizal before Marmont’s orders arrived, but was pushed back by two brigades from the recently rescued Fourth Division.
Marmont was disappointed with the results of his daring move, having hoped to catch Wellington’s army dispersed, so that he could destroy it in sections. However, he still held the initiative and began marching south-west towards Salamanca, aiming to cut the Allied army off from its supply lines.
Wellington was forced to copy Marmont’s movements, and over the next four days the two armies marched in parallel, often within cannon shot of each other. Many soldiers later reminisced about this surreal stage of the campaign. Jonathan Leach, an officer of the 95th Rifles, described it as a game of chess between the two manoeuvring armies.
By 20th July the Allies had returned to San Christobal, but Marmont pushed his men further south and began crossing the River Tormes through the fords at Huerta. By the evening of the 21st July, both armies had almost completed crossing the river and camped south of Salamanca, near Santa Marta. Although neither side realised it, the next day would bring one of the greatest battles of Wellington’s career.
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Rory Muir, Salamanca 1812, (Yale University Press, 2001)
Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsula War, Volume V, (Clarendon Press, 1914)
Lt. Colonel John Leach, Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier, (Ken Trotman, 1986)