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The Peninsular War


The Aftermath of Salamanca 

Although Wellington had inflicted a huge defeat on the French at Salamanca on 22nd July, fighting continued on the 23rd as the combined British, Spanish and Portuguese army pursued the retreating French. On the morning of 23rd July, the British cavalry attacked the French near the town of Garcia Hernandez, about 15 kilometres (10 miles) south-east of Salamanca.


The French cavalry fled as the British advanced, leaving the division of General Foy isolated as it tried to cover the retreat of the French army. Although Foy’s men formed into squares, the safest formation against attacking cavalry, the Allied cavalrymen decided to attack. In the fight that followed, the British broke two squares, when horses and riders that had been shot by the French fell on top of one square’s side. The British exploited this gap to attack the French inside their own formation, and destroyed two French battalions. This achievement was extremely rare, costing the French around 1,100 men compared to an allied loss of 127 men.

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However, as the French continued to withdraw towards Valladolid, Wellington halted his exhausted army, and considered his options. He could continue to pursue the Army of Portugal in the hope of inflicting another defeat on them. Alternatively he could march south and attack Marshal Soult’s 50,000 strong Army of the South in Andalusia. Finally, he could take advantage of the fact that Joseph Bonaparte, who Napoleon had made King of Spain in 1808, had only 18,500 men to block his path to Madrid, and was therefore incapable of defending the capital if he was attacked. After marching to Valladolid to secure his position in the centre of Spain, Wellington took the last option. This forced Joseph and a large number of Afrancesados (French sympathisers) to abandon the city. These refugees were attacked by guerrillas as they fled towards Valencia, arriving in the city on 31st August.


Meanwhile, Wellington entered Madrid on 12th August, to the joy of the Spanish residents. Jonathan Leach, an officer of the 95th Rifles remembered the response of the locals as the British marched into the city: ‘Few of us were ever so caressed before, and most undoubtedly never will be again.’ Wellington’s victory appeared complete by forcing Joseph to abandon his seat of power. However, Wellington’s success was beginning to work against him, alarming the other French commanders in Spain into action.

General Clausel had managed to rally the Army of Portugal despite telling the French Minister of War on the 6th August that: ‘it would be impossible to find an army whose discouragement is greater than this’. By 13th August he was able to send Foy down the Duero to rescue the French garrison at Toro, before chasing Spanish General Santoclides to Zamora and mauling his rearguard. Wellington was alarmed to discover that the French were so close to Salamanca and therefore threatening his supply lines with Portugal. After moving Hill’s men from the Portuguese border to Madrid, he turned to deal with this threat, pursuing Clausel’s army towards Burgos, and laying siege to the garrison inside the fortress city.


Although Wellington confidently predicted in his letters that capturing Burgos would not take long, the siege was almost a shambolic failure. Carried out with just three siege guns, one attack was supposed to be carried out after a mine blew up a section of the city’s outer-wall. In reality, the mine had been badly placed and did limited damage to the defences. Nonetheless, the British troops fought bravely in multiple assaults on the castle, and although they made some progress, capturing the outer wall, they lost 2,000 in a month. Eventually though, developments elsewhere in the Peninsula forced Wellington to abandon the siege.

Spain map colour.jpg

Map of the Spain in 1812

(Author's Collection)

Other French commanders were gathering to face the renewed threat posed by Wellington’s position in central Spain. By 26th August Soult’s army started to move north, abandoning its siege of Cadiz on 24th August in the process. After evacuating Andalusia, he combined with King Joseph and marched towards Madrid with 60,000 men. On the northern coast, French General Caffarelli, having finally contained Sir Home Popham who had captured the port of Santander, brought 12,000 men to reinforce the French Army of Portugal, bringing their strength up to 53,000 men.

On 22nd October Wellington began to retreat towards Salamanca. Meanwhile Hill’s men abandoned Madrid, to the fury of the Spaniards who had greeted them so enthusiastically months earlier, and re-joined the Allied army on 8th November. Although Wellington offered the French a battle on the same site near Salamanca as he had in July, the French, commanded by Soult, refused to attack him, despite numbering 100,000 men. Wellington was forced to withdraw his army, now suffering from a lack of supplies, towards Ciudad Rodrigo through appalling weather. Issues with the morale of the troops had begun to emerge as early as the siege of Burgos, but in these conditions discipline collapsed, provoking a furious outburst from Wellington. The allies were relatively fortunate, however, as the French decision not to pursue allowed the allied army to reach the fortress safely on 19th November.


Although the Salamanca campaign appeared to have accomplished nothing, the Allies’ lack of territorial gains masked the scale of the strategic gains that the victory enabled. By December 1812 the French had abandoned their hold on southern Spain and Madrid, never to return. Wellington’s campaign had also cost the French a huge number of causalities, which were hard to replace due to Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. Although Wellington had not reached the French border by December 1812 as some in France had feared, his victory shook the French hold on Spain so violently that he could advance to the French border within two months of starting his campaign in 1813. 1812 did not see the Allies win the Peninsular War, but it helped to bring it to a swifter conclusion than anyone had dared hope at the start of the year.


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Interested in Learning More?

David Gates. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War, (George Allen and Urwin, 1986)

James Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula, (Kaye & Ward, 1969)

Michael Glover, Wellington’s Peninsular Victories, (Batsford, 1963)

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