The Peninsular War, 1808-1814
It was the conflict that made the reputation of perhaps the greatest of all British generals. Born in Ireland in 1769, Arthur Wellesley was 39 when he arrived in the Iberian peninsula — a lieutenant general and already the veteran of campaigning in India, but a commander without great experience on the hard fought battlegrounds of Europe. Six years later, he would return from Portugal and Spain a national hero, and be created a duke in recognition of his achievements.
When the Peninsular War began, Napoleon was at the height of his powers. Following victory in 1805 over Austria and Russia at the Battle of Austerlitz, the French emperor had achieved dominance in mainland Europe. In 1807, he moved to open a new front in his continuing struggle with Perfidious Albion, joining forces with Spain to occupy Portugal — Britain’s oldest ally — in an attempt to control maritime trade routes to the Continent.
The following year, he went further still: he occupied northern Spain; appointed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as that country’s king; and thereby provoked thousands of guerrillas (Spanish for ‘little war’, a term first used for irregular forces during the Peninsular War) to take up arms in defence of their homeland. By August 1808, when Wellesley landed near Lisbon at the head of 10,000-strong army, the stage was set for an epic struggle.
Victory in July 1809 at the Battle of Talavera would see Wellesley ennobled as Viscount Wellington — but, over the years, the conflict would ebb and flow, necessitating no fewer than five separate British invasions of Spain using Portugal as a base. As we will see, the fighting would at times be brutal; incidences would also be recorded of looting, rape, and murder on an appalling scale, tarnishing the reputation of British troops. But, for all the ups and downs, the eventual victory of Wellington’s allied forces in the Iberian peninsula would play a pivotal role in the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars.
In our special for this issue, Graham Goodlad looks first at the events that led to France’s defeat in the Peninsular War; and then analyses in detail the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, whose fall opened Spain to the advance of Wellington’s army.
This is an extract from a special feature on Wellington At War from the October/November 2023 issue of Military History Matters magazine.