This timeline covers the Peninsular War, 1807 to 1814, providing an appreciation of the events preceding the Battle of Waterloo.
It was during this period that Wellington’s reputation as a soldier made the transition from “the Sepoy General” to a that of military mind to be reckoned with. Further material on the Peninsular War is to be found at: www.peninsularwar200.org. Additional material is at: www.historyofwar.org, www.peninsularwar.
Britain’s major contribution to the Napoleonic War effort during the period 1808 to 1814 was, almost exclusively, in the Iberian Peninsula in what has been called (by the British) the Peninsular War. It was a long war and a truly joint and multinational effort; many of Wellington’s Army commanders and men, who subsequently fought at Waterloo, learned their trade or cut their teeth during these enduring campaigns. The full details of the war, and of the bicentenary commemorative events, can be found at www.peninsularwar200.org
Unable to subdue Britain, the paymaster of Napoleon’s continental enemies, because of her mighty navy, Napoleon attempted to strangle her economically through the blockade known as the Continental System. To be effective it had to be applied across the whole of the continent. Thus in 1807, Napoleon joined with his ally Spain (greedy for territorial gains) in occupying the defenceless kingdom of Portugal, the Portuguese royal family being evacuated to Brazil, escorted by British warships. But Napoleon overplayed his hand.
Thinking that the Spanish would not object to the removal of their weak, corrupt Bourbon court, he swelled his garrisons until he was ready to pounce. In February 1808 these soldiers grabbed vital towns and forts from the unsuspecting Spanish. The Bourbons tried to escape to America but soldiers and a mob prevented their escape; Charles IV abdicated in favour of his son, Ferdinand. Napoleon was unnerved by this revolution and decided to rid himself of the tiresome royal family altogether. He lured them to Bayonne where Charles repudiated his abdication. The crown was forcibly returned to Charles who immediately offered it to Napoleon. Napoleon promptly put his brother Joseph on the throne.
But on May 2 Madrid rose against the French – in support of the captive Ferdinand, faith and fatherland. It was put down ferociously, and news of the barbarity spread. Despite qualms by conservative Spaniards, the uprising rampaged across the country, and to Portugal. Britain saw an opportunity of establishing a presence in the Iberian peninsula, landing a force in August 1808, which beat the French at Vimeiro on August 21. The Cintra Convention unwisely allowed the vanquished French to return home in British ships with their booty. But the British controlled Portugal. And the French suffered an even more humiliating reverse when they were beaten by Spanish regulars and forced to withdraw to the Ebro. The French were not invincible after all.
Napoleon was incensed. He threw fresh divisions from Germany across the Pyrenees and by the end of 1808 had re-conquered the heart of Spain, and would have taken Portugal had he not been baulked by Austria’s plans to renew the war – which diverted vital troops – and by Sir John Moore’s advance. Although Moore was forced to retreat to Corunna (and Moore killed), his army was evacuated, not annihilated, and time was on Britain’s side.
The new British commander in Portugal, Arthur Wellesley, realised that Napoleon was unlikely to have sufficient forces to over-run Portugal and fight in Germany. The future Duke of Wellington swept across the border towards Madrid, and, together with Spanish regulars, resisted a counter-attack at Talavera (July 1809), but then had to retreat back to Portugal when his rear was threatened by Soult. The Spanish were beaten badly. The campaign highlighted the importance of logistics and supply in this barren landscape – the Catch 22 of Peninsula fighting; large armies starved, small ones risked defeat.
Wellington, as he now was, ensured that Portugal was defended by scorched earth and a well-nigh impregnable series of concentric defences before Lisbon – the Lines of Torres Vedras. The French erred in splitting their forces. Joseph took Andalucía with 300,000 troops who should more profitably have combined with Masséna to eject the British. Meanwhile Masséna managed to reach the Lines but halted…and starved. The Marshal retired, eventually losing the crucial fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, commanding the routes to southern and northern Spain respectively.
There followed a series of advances and reversals – Wellington defeated Marmont at Salamanca (Marmont paying the price for thinking Wellington a cautious general), then captured Madrid and besieged Burgos. But Soult’s eventual arrival relieved Burgos and Wellington retreated beyond the Huebra. In May 1813 Wellington returned in strength, took Burgos and decisively beat Joseph at Vitoria. Demoralising French evacuations of Valencia and Aragon, futile counter-attacks by Soult to relieve San Sabastian and Pamplona, led to withdrawal back across the Pyrenees to Toulouse and defeat (April 10, 1814). Wellington had won the Peninsular War, the campaign was over.
Peninsular War Chronology
French troops cross the Spanish frontier.
Junot, commanding the invasion of Portugal, occupies Lisbon after setting out in early November from Salamanca. He is made Governor of Portugal.
The French occupy Madrid.
Uprising in Madrid prompted by [Madrid commander] Marshal Murat’s attempt to send Charles IV’s daughter to Bayonne. A crowd breaks into the royal palace to prevent her removal but is fired upon. The rebellion begins to spread to other parts of the city. Spanish troops are confined to barracks although some artillery units join the street fighting but are mostly killed. The uprising is brutally suppressed. Hundreds of prisoners are executed. Murat’s revenge provokes wider revolution. Goya commemorates the bloody reprisals in his famous, and revolutionary painting [‘revolutionary in every sense… in style, in subject, and in intention’ – Kenneth Clark] – Los fusilamientos del tres de mayo [The shootings of the third of May]
Capture of the Rosily Squadron. In Cadiz, a squadron of five French ships of the line and a frigate are surrendered to the Spanish by Admiral Rosily, after a five-day engagement. Rosily had been expecting Dupont’s flying column of 25,000 men to save him but they could not get through. The Spanish Supreme Junta asks the English Admiral blockading Cadiz [Collingwood] to speed their envoys to Britain to negotiate an alliance against Napoleon.
The British government declares that all previous hostilities between Great Britain and Spain would cease immediately. Foreign Secretary Canning, in accepting the Spanish offer of an alliance, states – ‘Every nation which resists the exorbitant power of France becomes immediately…the natural ally of Great Britain’
The French, under Bessières, defeat the Spanish, under Cuesta and Blake, at the Battle of Medina de Rioseco. Bessières defeats the only Spanish army capable of stopping the French advance into Castilla la Vieja.
The French flying column [25,000 men], under Dupont, are comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Bailén, in Southern Spain, by the Spanish Army [30,000] of Andalusia under Generals Castaños and von Reding. After losing 2200 killed Dupont surrendered almost his entire army, whose two wings had been fatally split in the battle. The French had been ordered to break through to Cadiz to relieve the Rosily Squadron. Spanish casualties are negligible. It is the first major defeat of Napoleon’s Grande Armée and encourages France’s enemies everywhere, leading to the Fifth Coalition against France. French commanders in Madrid order a precipitate retreat to the Ebro, abandoning much of central Spain.
A British force under Sir Arthur Wellesley lands at the mouth of the Mondego River, Portugal, with 9,000 troops.
Battle of Rolica where Wellesley defeats Delaborde, the first battle between the French and the British armies. The British Army lands in Portugal at Mondego Bay and attacks a French force coming out from Lisbon. After a battle in which Wellesley’s troops show great ‘enthusiasm’, the French retreat towards their reinforcements.
Battle of Vimiero. Wellesley defeats Junot. Covering a landing from the sea by the rest of his troops, the British army posted on two hills is attacked by the French army under Marshal Junot. The French are routed by steady, determined British musketry and Wellesley’s firm leadership. The French sue for peace and leave the Peninsula, but Wellesley is recalled home. First Burrard then Dalrymple replace Wellesley.
Convention of Cintra whereby the vanquished French were (controversially) allowed to return home in British ships with their booty.
The French evacuate Portugal.
Napoleon enters Spain with 200,000 men.
Napoleon occupies Madrid.
Moore advances from Salamanca.
British cavalry victory at Sahagun. Leading Moore’s cavalry vanguard towards Burgos, Lord Uxbridge decided to deal with a French cavalry force under General Debelle based at Sahagun. The crucial moment came when the French cavalry mistook Uxbridge’s 15th Hussars for less formidable Spanish horsemen and attacked, only to be routed by a charge from the 400 Hussars. Debelle escaped but he lost 120 men killed and about 160 captured. Uxbridge lost just two dead and 20 injured.
Sir John Moore killed at the Battle of Corunna. Moore takes the small British army through Portugal and into Spain to support a supposed Spanish uprising and relieve Madrid. When rumours of the uprising prove false, Moore has to retreat over the snow-covered mountains of Galacia pursued by Bonaparte and his army. Though saving Spain from full occupation and conquest by the French, he partially loses control of his army and some drunkenness ensues. At Corunna harbour he stops the French, now under Marshal Soult, but is killed at the moment of victory.
Moore’s army evacuated. Napoleon leaves the Peninsula and does not return, leaving his brother Joseph and the marshals in charge. Their four separate armies never manage effective co-ordination.
First Battle of Oporto. The French under Soult rout the Portuguese under Generals Lima Barreto and Parreiras outside the city of Porto [called Oporto by the British]. Soult storms the city and slaughters the inhabitants.
Wellesley returns to Portugal to take command of British troops, confident he can hold Portugal against the French.
Battle of Grijó. Fought by Wellesley’s Anglo-Portuguese army and the French under Soult. Soult’s divisional commander Mermet, faced with being outflanked by the KGL and 15th Portuguese – and pressed in his centre – withdrew and handed victory to Wellesley.
Second Battle of Oporto. Wellesley makes a surprise crossing of the Douro at night and captures Oporto, defeating Soult, who retreats after heavy losses.
Battle of Talavera, fought some 120k SW of Madrid. An Anglo-Portuguese army under Wellesley combined with a Spanish army under General Cuesta in an operation against French-occupied Madrid. The Allies intended to isolate and attack Marshal Victor, but King Joseph Bonaparte reinforced him and blunted the Allied offensive. After fierce fighting, in which the British bore the brunt of the French attacks (the Spanish were untrained for set-piece battle), the French army withdrew from the field, but the strategic advantage lay with the French; Talavera removed all threat to the capital and bought time for the arrival of French reinforcements to the theatre. Casualties were high on both sides – about 7000. Underestimating Soult’s strength, Wellington marched towards the French until Cuesta forwarded intelligence obtained by Spanish guerrillas, which prompted Wellesley to turn around and retreat to Portugal. Cuesta soon followed. The performance of the Spanish strained the Anglo-Spanish alliance.
Wellesley created Viscount Wellington
Wellington starts building the defensive fortifications, the Lines of Torres Vedras. After Talavera, Wellington decided to strengthen Portugal, inspired in part by the Martello Towers along the English Channel. The Lines use blockhouses, redoubts, ravelins etc. The first line was finished in Autumn 1810. In 1812, 34,000 men were still working on them. The cost was around £100,000, money well spent.
26 April – 9 July 1810
First siege and capture of Ciudad Rodrigo by Marshal Ney’s VI Corps. The Spanish FM Herrasti’s 5500-man garrison surrender after Ney’s artillery breached the walls. The French pillage the city. The siege delayed Army Commander Masséna’s invasion of Portugal by over a month.
Battle of the River Côa. Gen. Craufurd, commanding the Light Div. of 4000 Anglo-Portuguese, errs by choosing to fight Ney’s force of 20,000 (although only 6000 actually attacked) with the unfordable Côa and a single bridge at his back, despite Wellington’s orders to fall back across the river. He is beaten. The French succeed in their objective of forcing the Light Division across the Côa in order to besiege Almeida, but Ney’s repeated assaults over the bridge prove costly.
Siege of Almeida: Masséna, commanding 14,000 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 1000 gunners of Ney’s VI Corps, begins digging siege-trenches in front of Almeida on the arrival of the siege-train and ammunition from Ciudad Rodrigo and Salamanca. By the 24th, more than 100 guns are in position and on the 26th the batteries open fire on General Cox and his 5000-man Portuguese garrison. A shell makes a freak hit, igniting a gunpowder trail that reaches into the main ammunition magazine. The resulting explosion destroys the castle, kills 600 defenders and wounds a further 300. Without gunpowder for his 100 cannon, Cox is forced to surrender.
Wellington (now Viscount Wellington, after Talavera) occupies the heights of Buçaco, a 10-mile long ridge, with 50,000 men, half British, half Portuguese. Masséna, with 65,000 French troops, attacks five times but does not know the disposition and strength of his enemy because Wellington deploys his men on the reverse slope, where they are protected from artillery, and from view. The attacks, poorly co-ordinated and lacking reconnaissance, are delivered by Marshal Ney’s corps and fail after fierce fighting. French losses are 4,500 against 1,250 Anglo-Portuguese casualties. The Portuguese army’s performance is much improved since English C-in-C Marshal Bereford’s reforms. Wellington continues his retreat. Masséna assumes he will take Lisbon, but the Lines of Torres Vedras are insurmountable.
Wellington enters the Lines of Torres Vedras.
14 October Masséna discovers Lines and halts.
Masséna withdraws to Santarem.
Lieut-Gen Graham, commanding the British and Portuguese garrison in Cádiz, prevails at the Battle of Barrosa, fought to relieve the siege of Cadiz, Britain’s last stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Graham planned to raise the siege by attacking the rear of the besieging French (under Victor) with 11,000 men, which included 7000 Spanish under the incompetent General La Peña who was, for political reasons, in overall command. La Peña was subsequently court-martialed, mainly for his refusal to pursue the beaten French (he was acquitted but sacked), who were in disarray and about to destroy their stores. Graham’s unrestrained criticism of his Spanish allies led to his transfer to Wellington’s main army. Tactically, the battle was a British victory and casualties were less than half the French (Victor lost 2500). Graham’s troops beat a French force twice their size despite a forced march. The Spanish lost 400 casualties. Strategically the Spanish failure to follow up the victory allows Victor to reoccupy his siege lines, where the French remain for another 18 months, until Soult orders a general retreat following the Allied victory at Salamanca in June 1812.
Soult takes Badajoz (unsuccessfully attacked by the French in 1808 and 1809). The Spanish commander, José Imaz, is bribed into surrendering. Badajoz, on the southern invasion route between Portugal and Spain and one of the strongest fortified positions in Spain, is protected by a ring of fortifications, 8 bastions, 5 outlying forts, with two on the northern bank of the Guadiana River.
Wellington defeats Masséna at Fuentes de Onoro. A 3-day fight as the French try to relieve Almeida from Wellington’s siege. Heavily outnumbered in the street fighting and on the plains, Wellington’s army finally wins but he later states: ‘If Boney had been there I would been beat.’ The French blow up Almeida and leave.
First British siege of Badajoz. Marshal Beresford commanding.
Brennier abandons Almeida to Wellington.
Beresford defeats Soult at Albuera. Beresford lifts the siege of Badajoz when he receives notice that Soult is approaching, and posts his army 20k SE on the Albuera ridge in a defensive position [Wellington had ordered such a deployment if Soult advanced, when inspecting operations at Badajoz on April 23]. When Soult attacks, the Spanish and Portuguese flee and only the steadfastness of the British – especially the Fusiliers – saves the day. The French are driven from the field and lose 8000 including 5 generals; but the British lose 3930 out of the 7640 fighting.
19 May-17 June
Second British siege of Badajoz, abandoned after futile costly attacks against stout defence. The British lacked a proper siege train, engineers, and heavy cannon which were in use at Torres Vedras.
Second siege of Ciudad Rodrigo which ends when Wellington takes advantage of French disorganization and attacks after a short bombardment. The fortress is taken with light losses.
16 March-7 April
Siege of Badajoz, finally taken on April 7. Wellington moves his Anglo-Portuguese army (27,000) south and begins the siege of the well-fortified Badajoz, garrisoned by 5,000 French soldiers under General Philippon, in order to secure the lines of communication back to Lisbon. After a month of foul weather, at 22.00 on April 6 he orders the assault on the formidable walls of the fort, before the bombardment is complete, hearing that French forces under Soult are coming from the south. In a night of destruction, British troops finally break into the city and wreak havoc but 5000 of Wellington’s soldiers are dead, though Spain now lies open. British troops indulged a lust for revenge by raping and murdering the very people they were meant to liberate. Wellington writes to Lord Liverpool: ‘I anxiously hope that I shall never again be the instrument of putting them to such a test as that to which they were put last night.’ I anxiously hope that I shall never again be the instrument of putting them to such a test as that to which they were put last night. But he does – at San Sebastián in 1813.
Wellington crosses the Agueda and begins the march on Salamanca. His army of about 48,000 men (28,000 British, 17,000 Portuguese and 3000 Spanish) march in three parallel columns covering a front of some ten miles. The left is commanded by Picton, the centre by Beresford and the right by Graham. There are 3500 cavalry but Wellington is short of artillery – he has only eight British and one Portuguese battery (some 54 guns). The army starts the campaign almost bankrupt. The troops’ pay is 5 months in arrears, and the muleteers have not been paid since June 1811. Despite this they began on a high note; this was the first offensive into the heart of Spain since 1809, and intelligence gives Wellington confidence in victory.
Wellington defeats Marmont, with 50,000 troops and 78 guns, at Salamanca. Thinking that Wellington, whose army was mostly out of sight, was retreating, Marmont sent his leading division on the left ahead to outflank Wellington’s right, but when it was a mile ahead of the main force Wellington attacked with his 3rd Div. and overwhelmed the isolated French. He attacked Marmont’s centre with the 4th and 5th Divisions, and cavalry. A bayonet charge, and Dragoons, routed the French and although a Portuguese retreat briefly exposed 4th Div.’s flank, 3 reserve British divisions were hurried forward to repulse the advancing French. The day was won. But the victory was tempered by the failure of Spanish troops under Maj-Gen D’Espana to block the French retreat over the only bridge at Alba de Tormes. D’Espana had withdrawn from the commanding fortress without informing Wellington, so the French escaped. Casualties were 13,000 French to the Allies’ 5000.
Wellington enters Madrid.
Wellington begins siege of Burgos.
Wellington abandons siege of Burgos.
22 Oct-19 Nov
Allied retreat to Portugal
Allied army arrives at Ciudad Rodrigo.
Wellington defeats Joseph at Vitoria. Wellington spent the winter of 1812/13 strengthening his forces, while Napoleon withdrew 15,000 veteran troops from Spain to rebuild his main army after the fiasco of the Russian invasion. Wellington marched 121,000 men (50,000 British, 40,000 Spanish, and 30,000 Portuguese) from northern Portugal across the mountains of northern Spain and the Esla River, and by May 20, 1813, had outflanked Marshal Jourdan’s army of 68,000. The French retreated to Burgos, with Wellington hastening to block their route to France. Wellington himself commanded the centre force in a strategic feint, while Graham led the main force around the French right flank over terrain the French thought impassable. After hard fighting, Picton’s 3rd Div. broke the enemy’s centre and soon the French defence crumbled. About 5000 French soldiers were killed or wounded and 3000 taken prisoner, while Wellington lost around 5000 killed or wounded. 152 cannons were captured, but King Joseph escaped – just, fleeing so hurriedly that he left behind all his personal baggage, including his chamber pot. The court escaped with him, but their 12 miles of carriages and treasure were plundered by looting British troops [‘scum of the earth’ as Wellington wrote Earl Bathurst]. The battle signalled the collapse of Napoleonic rule in Spain, and ultimately in France.
Wellington Created Field Marshal,
Soult counterattacks in the Pyrenees. Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles.
Wellington defeats Soult at Sorauren.
Graham takes San Sebastian.
Soult repulsed at San Marciai.
Wellington crosses into France over the river Bidassoa, using secret fords, and surprises the French.
Wellington defeats Soult at the Battle of the Nivelle. Wellington’s 80,000 British, Portuguese and mostly raw Spanish troops drove Soult, with only 60,000 men, across the Nivelle. The Light Div. surprised the French and took their defensive redoubts allowing the 3rd Div. to split Soult’s army into two. By 2 o’clock Soult was in retreat. He had lost about 4,500 men to Wellington’s 2,500. Wellington, ever wary of night attacks, did not pursue or he might have cut off the French right. This victory allowed the Allies to penetrate deep inside France, where the Basques and even French peasants cooperated, because unlike the French army (notorious looters) the British paid for their provisions. Spanish troops however looked to revenge the desecration of their land by France and Wellington sent most back to Spain.
Wellington defeats Soult at the Battles of the Nive, a series of engagements near Bayonne, in which – unusually – Wellington remained mostly with the Reserve, delegating command to Lieutenant-Generals Rowland Hill and John Hope. Wellington’s army was squashed between the Bay of Biscay and the Nive and to manoeuvre he needed to cross to the east bank of the Nive, but in so doing he risked being defeated in detail. A crisis on the west bank was averted when Hope’s forces just held on (despite Portuguese units breaking), aided by Soult’s German troops changing sides when they heard the result of the Battle of Leipzig. At the climax, French troops – despite their 3 to 1 advantage – refused to continue attacks on Hill’s forces on the east bank, demoralised by Hill’s superb, robust defence. Soult reluctantly retreated into Bayonne, having lost 3000 men against Anglo-Portuguese losses of 1750.
Wellington (37,000 men) defeats Soult (35,000) at the Battle of Orthes. Soult had tried to confine Wellington to the SW corner of France but was out-manoeuvred. The battle opened with Soult successfully counter-attacking an enemy advance, but Wellington changed his plans and converted a holding attack by 2 divisions into a frontal assault, and released his Light Division to drive a wedge between Reille’s right wing and D’Erlon’s two centre divisions – both generals feature at Waterloo. Wellington nearly didn’t – he was unhorsed and hurt when a canister shot hit his sword hilt. Soult was forced to retreat, which became increasing disorganised. French casualties at 4000 were twice those of the Anglo-Portuguese.
Napoleon abdicates in favour of his son, which the Allies refuse to accept, forcing him to abdicate unconditionally on 11 April. He declares – with a grandiose, if mendacious flourish – ‘The Allied Powers, having stated that Emperor Napoleon was the sole obstacle to the restoration of peace in Europe, Emperor Napoleon, faithful to his oath, renounces, for himself and his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy, and that there is no personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to do in the interests of France.’
Wellington defeats Soult at Toulouse, a somewhat pointless battle given Napoleon’s abdication on April 6 but the news did not reach the combatants in time.
French sortie from Bayonne.
Treaty of Paris ends the war between France and the Sixth Coalition. Bourbons restored.