The Peninsular War
1809-1810: Weathering the French storm
1809 started badly for the British. Just days before the New Year, Sir John Moore, in command of Britain’s army in the Iberian Peninsula, had been forced to withdraw his army from Spain, evacuating it back to England via the town of Corunna. In order to buy his army time to embark, he had fought and beaten the pursing French force at the Battle of Corunna, but had been killed in the process.
However, the British government remained committed to the struggle in Spain and Portugal. Reinforcements were sent out in May, along with a fresh commander, Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had recently been exonerated of plan for the Convention of Cintra by an enquiry.
Wellesley’s return brought rapid change to the region. Within weeks he had defeated a French force which had occupied northern Portugal, liberating the country once more. Turning his attention to Spain, he sought to cooperate with a Spanish force under General Cuesta. However, the Spanish failed to provide the supplies that they had promised, rapidly creating a problem for the British troops. Although they defeated a large French force at the Battle of Talavera, the bulk of the fighting was done by Wellington’s troops, with some of Cuesta’s abandoning their positions despite never being under any serious threat from the French.
As other French forces moved to cut him off from his base in Portugal, Wellesley, who was promoted to the peerage and became ‘Viscount Wellington’ as a reward for his victory at Talavera, was forced to pull back into Portugal, where disease took its toll on his army. Wellington vowed never to return to Spain until he was sure he could supply his army by himself, and made preparations for a French invasion of Portugal which he knew would come.
For much of 1810, the British therefore did little fighting, whilst the French consolidated their position in the country. Frustration mounted as the French gradually defeated the Spanish armies, and crept towards the Portuguese border, taking the border fortresses of Ciudad Rodigo and Badajoz. In July the French, now commanded by Marshal Massena, invaded Portugal, taking the fortress of Almeida, and advancing to Bussaco, which Wellington had fallen back to.
Marshal Andre Massena
By Ferdinand Wachsmuth
Although the French were defeated at Bussaco, they were able to outflank the position relatively easily the following, and Wellington’s army withdrew to Torres Vedras, north of Lisbon. It was there that the French realised that Wellington had not been idle since Talavera.
Wellington had used the intervening time to do two things: retrain the Portuguese army, which had played an important role in defeating the French at Bussaco, and would go on to be a vital part of his force throughout the Peninsular War, and build a network of near impenetrable defence called the Lines of Torres Vedras. Here the French invasion ground to a halt, with the French commander, Marshall Massena not even attempting to break through this string of hilltop forts, and valleys which Wellington’s engineers had deliberately flooded.
By the start of 1811, Massena accepted the inevitable, pulling back to the Spanish border, and abandoning his invasion of Portugal. The Allies were by no means winning the Peninsular War, but neither were the French!
This section has been split into a series of different pages so that you can explore the campaign of 1809-10 in greater depth. Click the links to find out more.