The Peninsula War (1807-14)

Joseph, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte /

Joseph, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte /

Napoleon Bonaparte decided he would imitate the Roman emperors. Instead of listening to his better senses, he invaded the Peninsula of Spain and Portugal, causing one of the Napoleonic Wars, and a very great deal of unnecessary bloodshed. Spain is included in the very short list of nations it is unwise to invade or attempt to occupy.

The reason was that Spain had refused to join with Bonaparte in his Continental System, the ‘economic strategy for Europe’, designed to cripple Britain’s economy. The System was based on the Berlin and Milan Decrees which said that Britain was to be blockaded and tried to prevent any other countries (not just French possessions) from trading with Britain or her colonies. Russia agreed with the system in 1807, and in 1808 Spain was obliged to. Spain’s king Charles IV was forced to abdicate, and Joseph Bonaparte was placed on the Spanish throne, which did little to amuse the Spaniards, except that they immediately decided to designate a nickname for the French king of Spain – Pepe Botella. Incidentally Joseph was not a heavy drinker, so the nickname was not apt.

In June of 1808 the Spanish revolted against France, and defeated the French at Baylen. Joseph rushed away from Madrid. In August British forces landed in Portugal under Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) and smashed up the French at the Battle of Vimeiro, effectively expelling the French from Portugal.

In November of that year Napoleon himself entered the fray, and won a series of battles against the Spanish, including the Battle of Burgos. Having done so, he restored his brother, Botella and all to the Spanish throne. Again the Spanish people were not amused. He then chased Sir John Moore to La Coruña, Galicia, where Moore was killed. Napoleon was getting his own way as usual.

Wellesley (as he still was) won an undecisive battle at Talavera and then withdrew to Portugal where he built a strong defensive line centres at Torrres Vedras. Spanish historians insist that Wellesley wanted to hide behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. British historians disagree. Present day Wellesleys disagree too.

Stalemate seemed to set in until 1810, when Bonaparte sent not one but two of his most successful Marshals to drive Wellesley into the sea. Massena laid siege to Torres Vedras, but after four or five months of failure to break the Lines, his demoralized armies were forced to withdraw. Marshal Soult thought Massena ineffectual and captured Badajoz in Extremadura.

Wellesley was by this time ‘the Iron Duke’ of Wellington; he pursued Massena and after defeating him at Almeida turned to meet his hasty replacement – Marmont – and thrashed him at the Battle of Salamanca, probably the most important battle in the Peninsular campaign.

The Duke then entered Madrid and beat up poor Joseph at the equally important Battle of Vitoria. Soult was left alone to try his luck against the Duke and his irregular Spanish, as Napoleon had already started on his disastrous invasion of Russia, ending with the humiliating Retreat from Moscow. Soult was defeated by Wellington, very much helped by  Irregulars who were difficult to discipline but quite fearless and not afraid of slaughter. The two decisive battles in this period were Orthez and Toulouse (1814). The French were driven out of Spain. Napoleon was defeated again at Leipzig and abdicated as Emperor. After a brief period of semi-imprisonment on the island of Elba, he escaped without difficulty, much to the joy of the French. But then he was trounced by Blücher and Wellington at Waterloo, and spent the rest of his life in safe exile on St. Helena, dying (he was possibly poisoned) in 1821. The Allies, led by Talleyrand, were by this time fed up with Napoleon Bonaparte.

Poor Spain was forced to accept probably her worst king in the portly form of not very impressive Fernando VII, son of Charles IV.

Fernando was king of France from 1808 to 1833. The country would have to wait a long time to have another ‘leader’ as inept, illogical, self-loving and absolutist as Fernando VII. He would be a ‘president of the government’, not a monarch, but there were marked resemblances between the shoemaker and the king.

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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