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  • James Houser

July 22, 1812 - The Battle of Salamanca

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 22, 1812. After two months of maneuver and jousting, the British and French armies finally collide in the decisive battle for Spain. The Duke of Wellington’s Redcoats and Portuguese regulars have been on the defense for four years; today they have their revenge. Napoleon’s empire shows its first true cracks at the Battle of Salamanca.

Success makes you stupid. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for why Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, decided to remove the King of Spain and replace him with his own brother Joseph Bonaparte. At the height of his power, controlling a French Empire that dominated Europe, Napoleon threw a major wrench into his own plans. By quietly kidnapping the King of Spain and nominating Joseph to be the new King in 1808, Napoleon laid some of the first seeds for his own downfall.

At first it seemed to work well, but by May 1808 the Spanish people were in revolt and had thrown most of the French troops out of the country. This sudden cataclysm required major French armies to be sent and put down the revolts, even as Napoleon was looking over his shoulder for his enemies to take advantage. Starting in late 1808, Napoleon himself led a large army into Spanish territory, defeated the main enemy armies, and occupied Madrid. It didn’t help; there were still enemy forces active all over the country, and one army would not be enough to stop them. Soon hundreds of thousands of French troops were flooding Spain, but it wasn’t enough. In fact, it would never be enough.

The period 1808-1814 saw what is known to history as the “Peninsular War.” Throughout all the rest of Napoleon’s wars, the war in Spain posed a significant military and economic drain on his resources. The more troops he sank into the enormous, bitter war, the fewer he had to hold off countries like Austria and Russia. Even when the Spanish armies were out of reach, the occupying French were plagued by hordes of partisan warriors fighting from Spain’s many hills and mountains. These insurgents presented Napoleon with his first taste of “small war.” It was the Peninsular War that brought a whole new term into military usage, based on the Spanish translation – “guerrilla,” literally meaning “small war.” The Spanish waged their small war all over their country against the French invader, and soon a huge portion of Napoleon’s army was tied down across the land.

The Spanish guerrillas were enough of a problem on their own. The real threat came from someone else. Ever since the French Revolution had started, Great Britain had been the most determined and most untouchable enemy of any French government. Napoleon hated Britain, which he called ‘perfidious Albion,’ and tried multiple times to invade her or destroy her army – but to no avail. The British government saw a major opportunity in Napoleon’s frustrating war in Spain, and decided that this would be an excellent way to strike back at their long-term foe. They allied with Portugal, a country vulnerable to French invasion, and sent an army to operate out of Lisbon. This British army would try and take advantage of the developing chaos in Spain, and hopefully provide the kernel of resistance that could help bring Napoleon’s Empire down.

After some initial missteps and controversies, the British army operating in the Peninsular War came under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington. Wellington was like the third or fourth choice to lead the British army in Spain, but ended up being one of the two or three best generals Britain has ever produced. He was cold but brilliant, brave and unbreakable in defense, patient and meticulous in attack. On the Peninsula, leading Britain’s only army against the French, Wellington had to placate his allies Spain and Portugal while also taking the fight to the enemy. In this precarious and difficult position, he did extremely well. Wellington built a solid reputation during the years 1808 to 1814, and only capped it in 1815 when he defeated Napoleon himself at Waterloo.

For now, though, Waterloo was in the future. Wellington and his combined British-Portuguese army spent most of 1810 and 1811 on the ropes, desperately defending Portugal from a French invasion. Wellington faced a great challenge here, since Lisbon in Portugal was his entire base of supply and communication with London. Losing Portugal meant losing the whole army. Wellington was most dangerous on the defensive, though, and his army managed to hold off much larger French forces in the mountains and passes of Portugal. They even regained some ground.

1812 was the critical year for both Britain and France. The Emperor Napoleon was preparing for an invasion of Russia, which caused him to withdraw many troops from the Spanish occupying force to add to his enormous army. This presented an opportunity to Wellington’s force and to the Spanish, who had been clinging on for dear life to a couple of cities on the southern coast of their country. Defeating the French would be no easy task, though, since they still had thousands of troops in Spain. Moreover, the Spanish Army had proven to be next to useless in open battle and were far better suited for guard duty or holding fortresses in the rear. Whatever fighting needed to be done to drive the French out of Spain, it would have to be done by Wellington.

The Duke of Wellington and his army were one of the great combinations of military history. He and his generals had carefully turned their Portuguese allies from a poor country with a rabble of an army into able troops that could stand up to the French. The British forces were amalgated with the Portuguese, with one Portuguese brigade in every British division; they stood side-by-side when battle came, and both performed admirably. The Duke was always conscious, though, of the risks he took. Under his command was virtually the whole British army. If it was wiped out, there was no replacement. Dunkirk wouldn’t be for another 130 years, but every Englishman was very conscious of the possibility that a British army could be pinned with their back to the ocean and no way home. Wellington had to be cautious, be patient, and only strike when the moment was right.

After the capture of the key fortress of Badajoz in April 1812 (see my post for April 6, POST LINK), Wellington led his army into the interior of Spain to confront the French. He only had 48,000 men in his entire force, while the French had 230,000 in Spain. However, the constant guerrilla war and the continuing Spanish resistance in the south and east forced the French to spread their troops everywhere. Out of all their men, they could only drum up 50,000 to fight Wellington. Napoleon was already on his way into Russia by July 1812, but had placed his personal friend and general, Marshal Auguste de Marmont, in command of the forces on the Portuguese border. Marmont was a veteran of many campaigns, and he was confident of his ability to fight the rotten English.

On June 27, as the two armies jockeyed for position, Wellington managed to occupy the university town of Salamanca in western Spain. Over the next month, the two armies danced across the Portuguese-Spanish border for a chance to strike at each other. Almost like two boxers squaring off but not throwing a punch, Wellington’s British-Portuguese army and Marmont’s French marched back and forth trying to gain the advantage. A bunch of near misses, cancelled attacks, and close calls dotted the campaign. On numerous occasions, the opposing armies could look across the open plains of lower Spain and see the enemy, out of range but not out of sight, marching parallel to their own troops. This little fencing match could only last so long.

Wellington could have forced a battle, but was extremely cautious. The young Irishman was the kind of general who wanted to have the battle won before it began; he was not a risk-taker, since taking risks with the only army his country had was just not an option. Marmont was cautious, too, and realized that any defeat would destroy the French position in Spain. If his army was off the board, the other French forces were too scattered to put up much resistance.

Still, these calculations and strategies were not much comfort to the poor infantry, artillery and cavalry of the two generals’ armies, who staggered along in the July heat hoping that eventually this jockeying would end. Day after day, the two armies kicked up clouds of dust in their long-distance grappling match, never actually coming to blows but always threatening to.

On July 22, 1812, Marmont’s army was moving south along the road near the British-held town of Salamanca. To the west, he spotted a small British force posted on a ridge. Beyond them, the Marshal could see a dust cloud in the distance. He assumed that this meant the British were retreating into Portugal, and that the small force he saw was a rearguard. Marmont immediately ordered his whole army in pursuit down the westward road, anxious to catch and destroy the British army before they could escape.

Wellington, though, was not retreating. In fact, Marmont was doing exactly what he wanted. As Marmont and his French forces marched west with all speed, hoping to catch the “retreating” British, Wellington’s army was hiding behind a ridge to the north. Unbeknownst to the French Marshal, Wellington was atop a hill, watching the French movements with a spyglass while eating a chicken leg. As Wellington looked, he saw that a gap was growing between two of the French units. In an unusual show of emotion (Wellington almost never showed emotion in public), he tossed his lunch into the air and shouted “The French are ours!”

After a month of fakeouts and maneuvering, Wellington had finally gotten the upper hand on Marmont. His entire army was concealed behind ridges and forests, formed up in attack formation to face the French. As they emerged from hiding at 3:30pm, the British and Portuguese units veered in on their targets. Sir Thomas Picton’s division, spurred on by the profanity and screaming of its commander, smashed right into the unsuspecting head of the French column. As British infantry pinned down the forward elements of their foe, the British heavy cavalry brigade charged from the concealed position. They split the French in two like a tractor trailer hitting a guardrail.

The French confusion was amplified by the loss of their commander. As soon as he heard the first shots fired, Marmont realized what was happening like a light bulb had turned on over his fancy head. As he made to ride off and alert his generals, a British shell burst nearby, breaking his arm and two ribs. His second-in-command was also wounded. For about an hour, the French Army of Portugal was headless, and this hour was critical as Wellington’s men pitched in from every angle.

Eventually, General Bertrand de Clausel learned that he was in command. He quickly demonstrated why Napoleon’s French army was so feared and respected in this age. He gathered whatever units he could find and launched an immediate counterattack, brushing aside a British force and soon threatening to split the British army apart. This dangerous attack nearly turned the tide of the battle, but Wellington reacted quickly, pulling units from his left and right to shore up the broken portions of his line. Cavalry charged with trumpets blaring and banners flying, infantry delivered musket volleys one after another, and the air was filled with cannon blast and thick smoke. Slowly, agonizingly, the French were driven back.

As the Army of Portugal disintegrated, Clausel designated one division to hold off the whole Allied army while the rest of the French got away. The British commanders hammered away at this valiant rearguard, and some of the most desperate fighting of the battle took place in the fading twilight peering over the Spanish mountains. The end result was inevitable, though, and soon the rearguard finally melted away into the forest. The Battle of Salamanca was finally over.

At the end of the day, the British and their allies had won the decisive battle of the Peninsular War. For the price of 5,000 casualties, they had inflicted 14,000 on the French, including 7,000 captured. The battle was far more than numbers, though. Wellington had defeated the only French army between him and the rest of Spain. He had defeated an army of 40,000 in 40 minutes.

Salamanca was a turning point for the French in Spain. On August 6, Wellington and his victorious army entered Madrid. While they could not hold it, they had totally unhinged the French positions in the south. To make up for the loss at Salamanca, the French had to withdraw troops from all other areas of Spain. They were unable to fight Wellington’s increasingly dangerous army AND maintain full occupation forces across the country at the same time. The guerrilla movement alone never could have beaten the French, or Wellington’s army on its own – but the two of them together proved more than the occupiers could handle.

Napoleon, in the middle of his invasion of Russia, received the news of Salamanca with scorn and sarcasm, but privately admitted that his position in Spain had finally begun to unravel. In just over a year, Wellington would win his second great victory at Vitoria and drive the French from Spain forever, but the foundations of that battle had been laid at Salamanca.

Even as Napoleon was bringing his empire to its demise on one end of Europe in Russia, Wellington was starting its fall on another end at Salamanca.

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