Napoleonic History

Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War

What Napoleon planned to be a minor campaign resulted in one of the key areas of conflict in the Napoleonic Wars. After a few unsuccessful attempts to bring the war to Napoleon on mainland Europe, the Peninsular was to prove the forging ground for the British Army and after a mixed start, the one area in which the allies represented by Britain could win victories against Imperial France. For the French it became the 'Spanish ulcer' as Napoleon called it, draining resources both in troops and money but also in Napoleon's time, for at the end of the day no matter how great a general Napoleon was, he could not be everywhere at once.

The war originated from Napoleon's wish to extend the Continental system throughout Europe. Apart from smuggling, which was rife, Portugal remained the only country that would still openly accept British imports. To prevent this Napoleon planned to invade Portugal by first taking control of Spain and then controlling the whole of the Iberian Peninsular. In November 1807 General Junot led a French army through Spain and into Portugal occupying Lisbon on 1st December 1807. The Portuguese Royal family fled to Brazil, at that time a Portuguese colony and appealed to Britain for help. Napoleon then over played his hand, as he was to do often in the future, sending Marshal Murat into Spain with a large French army in March 1808. Following Napoleon's wishes the weak Spanish King Charles IV and his son were deposed and Napoleon's brother Joseph was 'elected' to the Spanish throne. By May many insurrections had broken out against French Rule. These were Guerrilla or small wars and although this form of warfare has existed for thousands of years it is from this period that we get the term Guerrilla warfare. With the regular Spanish forces largely ineffective this became the only form of warfare left to the Spanish people, it was characterized by acts of brutality by both sides, but was to create the conditions for future British victories and finally led to the liberation of Spain many years later.

Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War In June/August 1808 the Spanish city of Saragossa held out against French attempts to recapture it after a local uprising. This was quickly followed by the surrender of Gen Dupont's French army at Baylen. For the time being Junot was cut off in Portugal and to make matters worse for the French a British expeditionary force under the temporary command of Sir Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) landed in Portugal on 1st August 1808. Wellesley quickly gained two victories, first at Rolica on 17 August 1808 and then at Vimerio (or Vimiero) on 21st August 1808, but these gains were reversed when his superiors arrived (the inept Hew Dalrymple and Harry Burrard). Still believing in war as the sport of nobility these two foolishly signed the Convention of Cintra which by allowing Junot's army home in British ships caused an outrage back home. All three British Generals were recalled home but only Wellesley was cleared.

While this was taking place Sir John Moore had taken command of the British Army in Portugal and started working much more closely with the Spanish. The Spanish were not yet ready to move from insurgency to conventional war and when Moore advanced into Spain he found himself facing the French alone. To make matters worse Napoleon himself led the French armies. Napoleon quickly retook Madrid and forced the British into a terrible retreat through the Spanish mountains. Convinced the war in the Peninsula was over, Napoleon left Marshall Soult to finish Moore off and returned to France as 1809 began to prepare for war against Austria. Moore was far from finished and he made a stand at Corunna defeating Soult on 16th January although Moore died during the battle the remains of the British Army were able to escape by sea.

Lisbon was still free from French control and became the base of British operations when Wellesley returned, now with Portuguese allies under the command of William Beresford. Soult crossed into Portugal in the spring of 1809 but was defeated again by Wellesley at Oporto on 12th May. Wellesley now advanced into Spain with Spanish allies who proved unreliable. When Marshal Victor and Joseph Bonaparte attacked at Talavera on 28th July 1809 they took no active part in the battle at all. Despite this Wellesley defeated the French but determined not to make Moore's mistake retreated back into Portugal until he could be sure of his Spanish allies and was better prepared. For Talavera Wellesley became known as Wellington as his reward, but would not become a Duke until 1814. The remains of the Spanish army were forced back to defend Cadiz as the free capital of Spain while Wellington prepared defences in Portugal for the expected French invasion. These became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras.

By early 1810 two French armies were on the border, the Army of Portugal under Marshall Andre Massena and the Army of Andalusia under Marshall Soult. The personal dislike both men had for each other was to prevent any coordinated action. In July 1810 Massena advanced and was defeated by Wellington at Buscao on 27th September. Wellington refused to be draw out from his defences by this victory and Massena's forces spent a long harsh winter starving outside the British and Portuguese lines. Despite unsuccessful French attempts to retake Cadiz by 1811 the situation in the Peninsular had changed very little. Wellington defeated Massena again at Fuentes de Onoro in May 1811 and the Allied army under Beresford attacked the border fortress of Badajoz with little success and much butchery. Elsewhere Spanish regulars and irregulars suffered set backs at the hands of the French including their defeat at Valencia on 9th January 1812, proving once again that insurgents have little chance of repelling invaders until they are able to fight and win a conventional war.

In January of 1812 Wellington decided that it was the right time to go on the offensive. First he took the two border forts which were the gateway to Spain, Ciudad Rodrigo (19th Jan) and Badajoz (19th April). Lacking any real siege train, or the time to reduce the fortresses through starvation these were taken by bloody assaults. Wellington continued to make his name defeating Massena's replacement Marshall Marmont at Salamanca on 22 July. Madrid was briefly liberated but the lack of siege train this time made taking Burgos impossible and Wellington retreated back to Portugal rather than risk being cut off by superior French forces. Although forced back into Portugal the Peninsular war had turned in favour of the British. Wellington had made his reputation, smashing all the French Marshals and armies sent against him and just as importantly Napoleon had drained Spain of the best of the French forces for the invasion of Russia. Napoleon had expected to return to Spain after the Russians had been dealt with and crush the British forces but of course few of his troops returned from the lethal 1812 campaign.

In 1813 Wellington led a much more confident Allied army into Spain, once again facing Joseph Bonaparte and once again smashing the French army, this time at the battle of Vittoria on 21st June 1813. Marshal Suchet tried to hold the mountain passes but after several hard fought engagements Wellington's army entered France. Wellington's army drove northwards, defeating Soult at Orthez in February 1814 and capturing Bordeaux. The last battle of the Peninsular war was fought at Toulose on 10th April 1814 where Soult was once again defeated. Sadly this was a pointless battle and wasted many lives needlessly as Napoleon had abdicated on 6th April 1814, but the news had yet to reach the combatants in the south. The Peninsular war proved a fatal drain to Napoleon's resources both in his time and in men and materials. It also helped forge a British army capable of beating the French and proved British commitment to the war against Napoleon to the European Allies throughout this turbulent period. Most importantly it brought to the fore one of the great Generals of the period, the duke of Wellington, although it is important to note that Wellington and Napoleon never fought against each other during this campaign - that would have to wait until the Hundred Days campaign and Napoleon's last desperate gamble.

Napoleonic Weapons: The Rifle

The Napoleonic wars saw the start of the rifle becoming the main weapon of infantry. That is not to say that the rifle was the standard weapon by the end of the period, that was still a long way off. The rifles of the Napoleonic wars were still fairly rare and operated on the same principles as the smooth bore musket, but had a spiral groove or rifling inside the barrel so that the ball spun as it left the muzzle giving greater accuracy. This allowed specific officers to be targeted for the first time and fire against the crew of artillery batteries as at Badajoz. Stories abound of the accuracy of the rifles and data seems to support claims as shown by the famous British gunsmith Ezekiel Baker who fired 34 shots at 100yds and 24 at 200 yds and hit a man sized target every time. The Rifle was most popular in the German armies such as Prussian and Brunswick forces and these armies lead the way in rifle tactics with their 'Jager' or hunter units. In other armies the rifle was used by specialist troops or in the case of the French not used at all. This was because the rifle of the time had several disadvantages the main one being it was much slower than a musket to reload due to the tight fit of the ball in the barrel, also a good rifleman required considerable training. With German, Portuguese and British forces specific rifle units were created (95th and 60th rifles in British service) but in other armies such as the Russians the best shots in a unit were issued the new weapon. The few rifled muskets issued in French service were withdrawn in 1807, not surprising in an army based on quick training and mass formations. The rifles shorter barrel allowed riflemen to make use of natural cover and even prone firing positions and here we see the birth of what was to become the modern sniper. The most famous rifle of the period, the 'Baker, rifle was used by British riflemen and Portuguese Cacadores and by the end of the Napoleonic wars over 30,000 had been produced.

Napoleonic Weapons: The Musket

Muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets were the weapon carried by most Infantry during the Napoleonic Wars. Infantry would do well to fire three volleys in a minute and it is fair to say that muskets were very inaccurate weapons and it was only the discipline of steady lines firing them shoulder to shoulder that made the musket useful at anything over 100 metres.

The cavalry target range for regular troops would have been 53% at 90 metres, 30% at 180 metres and 23% at 270 metres, whilst for green (untrained) troops the cavalry target range would have been 40% at 90 metres, 18% at 180 metres and 15% at 270 metres.

In the 19th century a new tactic was devised by the French in the Napoleonic Wars. This was the colonne d'attaque, or attack column. This tactic involved a large number of troops, from one regiment up to two brigades of infantry. These men packed close together in a tight column which, encouraged by the drums, marched slowly forward. The French Army at the time mostly consisted of conscript troops, who were not heavily trained. The column gave them confidence and a feeling of safety due to the huge number of men in the column. The amount of men in the column also made it more capable of sustaining enemy fire as well. The sight of a huge column slowly and inevitably making its way towards its enemy was often enough to make the enemy break and run. Disciplined troops who could fire fast enough into the column, however, could stop the column with its own fallen soldiers. Another flaw with this formation was the devastation that could be inflicted upon it by an opponent firing into the side(s) of the column.

The British Army was famous for being the first army that fought in two ranks rather than three. This allowed every single man to fire his musket without the need for the front rank to kneel.

The Austrian Imperial-Royal Army (Kaiserliche-Königliche Heer)

"The name "Imperial and Royal Army" was born in 1745 and the "royal" part referred to the Apostolic Kingdom of Hungary. The key feature of the army of the Austrian Empire during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) was that, due to the multi-national nature of the territories, regiments were split into Germans units (which included Czech-troops recruited from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, Polish and Ukrainian units recruited from the territory of Galicia, Flemings and Walloons territory of the former Austrian Netherlands, and Italians) and Hungarian units (which included troops from Croatia and Transylvania).

Wartime conscription resulted in elements of untrained men in every battalion, a problem exacerbated by incoherent training across the regions. The army was beset by constant government frugality and a plethora of confusing orders and reorganisations. Although some regiments were disbanded in 1809 following the loss of their recruiting-grounds, others were allocated new areas yet kept their old designations; for example, the Walloon regiments whose recruiting areas were transferred to Bohemia.

The most powerful individual in the Army of the Austrian Empire during the period was Archduke Charles, who implemented wide-ranging and modernising reforms, particularly following the crushing defeat at Austerlitz. Charles was responsible for the severe check Napoleon suffered at the battle of Aspern-Essling, but after the subsequent defeat at Wagram retired from active command.

At the outset of war in 1793, the army numbered fifty-seven line regiments, including grenadier and light infantry companies. Eighteen Grenzer light infantry regiments, three garrison regiments and the Stabs Infanterie Regiment for HQ duties. In addition, an irregular Frei-Corps light infantry was raised in wartime.

An Austrian line regiment typically consisted of two field battalions - Leib- and Oberst- battalions - each of six fusilier companies; also, a grenadier division of two companies, which were normally detached to form composite grenadier battalions with those of two other regiments. In addition, it included one garrison battalion (Oberstleutnant - Battalion) compirsing of four companies which served as a source for reserves at the regiment depot. The established strength of a 'German' line regiment would be in theory was 4,575 men, though in peacetime especially this number was rarely above 2-3,000. With three battalions, 'Hungarian' regiments had a nominal strength of 5,508".


"The Austrian cavalry consisted of cuirassiers, dragoons, chevaulegeres (light dragoons), hussars and uhlans. They were excellent swordsman and horsemen, well-trained and well-mounted and enjoyed great reputation in Europe.

For French cavalry officer, de Brack, the Hungarian hussars were some of "the best European cavalry." Sir Wilson wrote about the Austrian cavalry: "... both cuirassiers and hussars are superb". Anoher British observer described their cuirassiers in 1814 in Paris as "outstanding". According to "The Armies of Europe": "The [Austrian] cavalry is excellent. The heavy or "German" cavalry, consisting of Germans and Bohemians is well horsed, well armed, and always efficient. The light cavalry has, perhaps, lost by mixing up the German chevau-légers with the Polish lancers, but its Hungarian hussars will always remain the models of all light cavalry." ("The Armies of Europe" in Putnam's Monthly, No. XXXII, published in 1855)

The Austrian army was multi-national, one could find not only Austrians but also Swedes, Englishmen, Scots, Irishmen, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Prussians, Croats, Serbs, and even French royalists.

The hussars were almost all Hungarians (the 11th was made of Transylvanians).
The uhlans were mainly Poles and Ukrainians from Galicia.
The dragoons in 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Regiment were Moravians (Czechs), in 1st and 2nd Dragoon Regiment were Austrians.
The chevaulegers in 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th Regiment were Bohemians (Czechs), while in 3rd were Poles from Galicia, in 7th were Italians, in 1st Regiment served Austrians.
The cuirassiers in 1st Kaiser, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th Regiment were Bohemians and Moravians (Czechs), while in 4th and 5th were Austrians".

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