The Peninsular War
The Aftermath of Talavera
News of the allied victory at Talavera was greeted with joy in London, and the government promptly rewarded Wellington by making him Viscount Wellington on 4th September. However, Talavera proved to be a barren victory. By luck the French commander was heavily reinforced a few days later, whilst the lack of supplies and an attempt by Marshal Soult’s army to cut the British off from Portugal forced Wellington to retreat back to the Portuguese border.
After this disappointing end to the campaign, Wellington was determined not to repeat the mistake. He vowed not to move back into Spain until he knew that he could meet his army’s needs with his own supplies, and therefore refused to take part in the Spanish campaigns for the rest of the year. Wellesley used the time to prepare for the invasion of Portugal which he knew would inevitably come, ordering the creation of a top secret line of impregnable defences north of Lisbon called the Lines of Torres Vedras. In the meantime, he continued with the British government’s policy of retraining the Portuguese army using the methods adopted by the British army.
General Robert Craufurd
Anonymous - wikimediacommons
For the Spanish, however, disaster loomed. Two Spanish armies advanced into central Spain in late autumn with the aim of liberating Madrid. After some initial successes, one army was routed at the Battle of Ocaña on the 19th November, whilst the other was badly mauled by French cavalry as it withdrew after learning about the result at Ocaña.
As French success transformed the situation in Spain, making it clear that a French invasion of Portugal would come. Events elsewhere in Europe allowed Napoleon to move reinforcements south into Spain, leading to the creation of the French ‘Army of Portugal’ under the command of Marshal Massena. In early 1810, the French consolidated their position on the Spanish-Portuguese border. Ciudad Rodrigo fell in July 1810, and the French moved on towards Almeida, just inside the Portuguese border.
A botched withdrawal by General Craufurd in the face of an overwhelming attack by French Marshal Ney near Almedia resulted in what is known as the Action on the Coa on 24th July 1810. Wellington was not happy about the incident. When he saw Craufurd he said that he was relieved to see him. Craufurd’s reply that he had been in no danger drew a frosty response: ‘maybe not, but I was!’ Craufurd famously remarked to a colleague ‘he’s damned crusty today!’
Wellington had hoped the siege of Almeida would delay the French, but a lucky shot early on in the siege ignited one of the magazines, causing a huge explosion which devastated the town and killed 500 of the 4,000 defenders. With further defence impossible, governor surrendered the fortress on 27th August. The way into Portugal now seemed to be clear for Massena’s army, who hoped that he might push the British ‘leopard’ into the sea. He had no idea of the surprise that Wellington had prepared north of Lisbon at Torres Vedras.
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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)
Ian Robertson, A Commanding Presence: Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814 (Chalford: Spellmount, 2008)