Friday, 22 May 2009

The War of Independence

The King's Shropshire Light Infantry were here in town last month to lay a wreath at the tomb of Major General Robert Craufurd. He died, leading from the front, when Wellington's troops stormed Ciudad Rodrigo on 19 January 1812.

When Alan Crawford was here earlier this week we went to the Portuguese town of Almeida which, like Ciudad Rodrigo, has substantial fortifications. Almeida was besieged, and taken, by the French in 1810 as they chased the British back to Torres Vedras near Lisbon.

In Fuentes de Oñoro, we tried to buy bread, but in May 1811 nearly 4,000 troops died there as the French attempted to advance back into Portugal from their base in Ciudad Rodrigo. They had been back in Spain sprucing themselves up after taking a bit of a pasting flinging themselves against those defences at Torres Vedras.

These various jaunts made me realise that I didn't really know much about the Peninsular War, as we Brits call it, or the War of Independence as the Spanish call it. So here is my cut down version for anyone who is interested.

In 1808 Napoleon was master of Europe. Well most of it. A shortish, sea going chap with multiple disabilities called Nelson had rather upset the Little Corporal's ambitions to conquer Britain by obliterating the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. Napoleon, peeved I suppose, tried to stop British goods from entering Europe but with the Portuguese ports still open that plan wasn't going well either. Taking advantage of a power struggle within the Spanish Royal Family Napoleon moved 100,000 French Troops into Spain on the pretext of invading Portugal. He used the leverage an army gives you to install his brother on the Spanish throne. The Spanish didn't like this much and they revolted.

The British had been biding their time but with a new Spanish ally and with commitments to the Portuguese they now sent Sir Arthur Wellesley to Portugal. After a couple of opening battles Wellesley dug in at Vimeiro Hill. The French attacked but the British infantry line held. It was the first time that the French tactics had failed. It was enough to persuade the French to evacuate Portugal as part of a controversial agreement that saw Wellesley have to return to England to clear his name. This left Sir John Moore in command of 30,000 British troops in Portugal.

When the Spanish army had an unexpected and remarkable victory over the French at Bailén Napoleon decided it was time to get involved personally. He brought 200,000 battle hardened veterans with him. Moore slipped over the border into Spain to engage Napoleon's army near Burgos. Moore bolted for La Coruña when the French turned to fight. He lost a lot of men on the way but the Royal Navy was there to pull them out when they reached the coast. Moore was killed in the evacuation. Napoleon left Spain.

Wellesley was now back in Portugal. He beat the French at Porto and headed for Spain where he joined up with Spanish troops. The French attacked the allied force at Talavera but the British-Portuguese-Spanish lines held. With French reinforcements on the way Wellesley decided to fall back. He hurried all the way to Lisbon where he dug in so deep at Torres Vedras that when the French finally got there, having smashed a couple of Spanish armies on the way, they couldn't get to him. Wellesley was doing well and was now Viscount Wellington of Talavera.

In 1811 the war ebbed and flowed but it was the French who were on the defensive now though Wellington did not advance into Spain until the beginning of 1812. His first target was Ciudad Rodrigo which he took in just two days. He moved on to Badajoz and took that too. In both towns the British troops went beserk for a few days in an orgy of killing, raping and looting.

Wellington's work was made easier because the French were having a lot of trouble with the Spanish who would not fight fair. They were shadowing French forces all over the country taking pot shots and then running away, poisoning water supplies and generally being a nuisance. It was a little war – guerrilla - in Spanish.

Wellington took Salamanca, then Madrid but he backtracked as the French massed a large army against him. Meanwhile things weren't going well for Napleon in Russia. As his broken army retreated old enemies rose against him. Napoleon couldn't spare extra troops for Spain.

By May 1813,Wellington was on the move and heading towards Burgos. When the French dug in near the Zadorra River they were soundly thrashed at the battle of Vitoria.

And that was more or less it. The victory at Vitoria rallied the anti Napoleon forces in the East. By July Wellington was at the Pyrenees, by October he was in France and in March 1814 Paris fell. In April Napoleon abdicated and the Penninsular War was over.

1 comment:

isabel said...

And that is why more or less you got Gibraltar.
Nice summary.