The Peninsular War
The Battle of Salamanca
On the morning of the 22nd July neither the Allied or the French army expected to fight a large battle. Wellington and Marmont continued their manoeuvring from the previous day. Wellington sent the Fourth Division to the heights above the village of Los Arapiles and occupied Lesser Arapile, mistakenly believing that the Greater Arapile further south was less important. Once Wellington realised that Marmont was sending forces to the Greater Arapile, he ordered a Portuguese battalion to race the French to it. However, the Portuguese arrived too late and were beaten back by the French. Wellington resigned himself to the possibility of retreating towards Ciudad Rodrigo and posted the Third Division and D’Urban’s cavalry brigade at Aldea Tejada to cover the possible retreat.
Marmont continued with his aim of outflanking the British, using the Greater Arapile as a pivot behind which he could move his army. His confidence was increased when he witnessed Wellington move the First Division forward to attack the Greater Arapile, only to cancel the order before the attack began.
In This Section
The Battle of Salamanca
Le Marchant’s men still had not finished their deadly work though, attacking the first battalion of Tuapin’s division as it tried to move to support Maucune. The rest of the division withdrew and played no further part in the battle. Le Marchant’s charge now lost its momentum. Le Marchant had been killed by a bullet which broke his spine, but the charge had destroyed the left flank of the French army.
Throughout this time, the French army had effectively been leaderless. Marmont was wounded at around 3:00pm by an exploding shell. He later claimed that he had planned to ride to tell Maucune and Thomières to halt closer to the Greater Arapile, but this seems unrealistic, as the orders could have been carried by an aide. General Clausel should have taken over, but he had been wounded, and could not be found. General Bonnet therefore took command, but was soon wounded himself. Clausel returned to the field to take control, but the French army had little guidance for a crucial hour.
The British attacks in the centre of the battlefield were less successful. Wellington chose the Fourth division, the weakest unit of the Allied army, to attack Clausel, and used a brigade under Brigadier Pack to attack the Greater Arapile. Both attacks failed however, as the outnumbered Fourth division found themselves fighting the divisions of Bonnet and Clausel, whilst the terrain of the Greater Arapile caused Pack’s attack to stall, and was driven back.
Marmont’s plan began to collapse as the divisions of Thomières and Maucune marched too far along the Monte de Azan and became isolated from Bonnet’s division at the Greater Arapile. Wellington seized this opportunity, and used the Third Division to attack Thomières and the Fifth Division to attack Maucune. The attack by the Third Division was a complete success, and the French division was broken by a single British bayonet charge. Although French cavalry under General Curto attempted to attack the Third division, they were driven off by D’Urban’s Portuguese Dragoons. Just as the Third Division broke Thomières’s men, Le Marchant’s Heavy Dragoon brigade arrived and charged the fleeing French, completing the rout. Thomières’s division lost 2,884 officers and men killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The Fifth Division’s attack against Maucune, 40 minutes later, was just as successful. Maucune’s men had formed into square and column formations to deal with the threat of Le Marchant’s cavalry. However, these formations were extremely vulnerable to infantry attack and the Fifth division broke the French with a single volley of musket fire and a bayonet charge. Once again, Le Marchant’s men exploited this chance and destroyed another French division, killing wounding or capturing 1,737 men.
This set-back created a two mile gap in the Allied line. Clausel seized the opportunity to make a counter-attack, and Bonnet’s men pursued the fleeing Fourth division. However, this exposed them to an attack by the Sixth Division, part of Wellington’s reserve forces, which in turn forced them back. Meanwhile, the Fourth division reformed and attacked Clausel, with the help of the Sixth and Third Divisions, successfully breaking the French.
As the left and centre of the French army fled the battlefield, the French on the Greater Arapile were forced to abandon their position, deserting their cannons in the process. Clausel chose Ferey’s division, which had seen little fighting all day, to cover the French retreat. Ferey made a heroic stand against the Allied Sixth, Third, and First Divisions at El Sierro. This bought the French a crucial hour until darkness fell and they were able to withdraw, but they lost 1,001 men in the process, including Ferey himself.
As the French withdrew towards Alba de Tormes, Wellington halted his tired army. He was later frustrated to learn that the Spanish garrison he had posted in the castle of Alba de Tormes had abandoned its post two days earlier as the French moved into the area. Although he blamed the Spanish for this, using it to explain his failure to completely destroy the French, in reality their evacuation was sensible, as no-one had expected a battle to be fought on the 22nd July. The Allies had suffered 4,809 men killed or wounded, however the French had lost of 12,435 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Allies had also captured 20 French guns, 6 battalion flags, and two Eagles, the most prized standard that a French regiment carried into battle.
The Battle of Salamanca was one of Wellington’s most overwhelming victories. One of the greatest tributes for Wellington’s success was written by the French General Foy a few days after Salamanca: ‘This victory raises Wellington almost to the level of Marlborough [...] It was a battle in the style of Frederick the Great.’
Up Next: The Aftermath of Salamanca
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Rory Muir, Salamanca 1812, (Yale University Press, 2001)
Ian Fletcher, Salamanca 1812: Wellington Crushes Marmont (Osprey Publishing, 1997)
Peter Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (John Murray Publishers, 2010)