Peninsular War

The Peninsular War (18081814) was a major conflict during the Napoleonic Wars, fought in the Iberian Peninsula with Spanish, Portuguese, and the British forces fighting against the French. It has been described as "a hammer and anvil" campaign, the hammer being the Anglo-Portuguese Army, commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, with 40,000 to 80,000 men, and the anvil being the Spanish armies, the Spanish guerillas and the Portuguese militia.

The nature of the war was largely dictated by the poverty and conservatism of much of the Iberian Peninsula. Large armies could not live off the land, so although the French had almost 300,000 soldiers at their peak they were never able to concentrate them. Small ones could only do so for a limited period in any area, and were unlikely to achieve decisive results .

The war destroyed the social and economic fabric of Portugal and Spain and ushered an era of turbulent Liberalism, with major civil wars until 1850, led by officers trained in the Peninsular War.


Progress of the war

In November 1807 the Emperor Napoleon sent an army into Spain under Marshal Junot tasked with invading Portugal, after they had refused to join the Continental System. Lisbon was captured on December 1. The escape on November 29, 1807 of the Portuguese Queen and Prince regent and 15,000 people from the Administration and the Court carried by the Fleet enabled John VI to continue to rule over its overseas possessions, including Brazil.

On the pretext of reinforcing the French Army occupying Portugal, Napoleon then began sending troops into key towns in Spain; Pamplona and Barcelona were seized in February 1808. A Spanish coup forced Charles IV from his throne and replaced him with his son Ferdinand VII. Napoleon removed the royals to Bayonne and forced them to abdicate May 5, giving the throne to his brother Joseph. When Joseph tried to enforce his rule in Spain he provoked a popular uprising. Citizens of Madrid rose up in rebellion against French occupation on May 2, 1808 but the revolt was crushed.

Until this time, British military operations on mainland Europe had been marked by bungling half-measures and a series of humiliating defeats. The British Army was not large enough to operate on its own against the French, and without strong allies, Britain had been forced to withdraw from Europe. But with the rising in Portugal and Spain the British were prepared to commit substantial forces once again. In August, 1808 the first British forces landed in Portugal under the command of then Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley.

The Spanish army had won a surprising victory over the army of Pierre Dupont at the Battle of Bailen (May 19May 21). Wellesley defeated forces under the command of Delaborde at Rolica on August 17 while the Portuguese Observation Army of Bernardim contained Loison. On August 21 the Anglo-Portuguese were strongly engaged at the Battle of Vimeiro by French forces under the command of Junot. Wellesley's careful management, strong leadership and sound tactics repulsed the dynamic French and the Allies held their line. Despite his victory, Wellesley was replaced as commander by Harry Burrard and Hew Dalrymple. These victories led to the French withdrawing from Portugal under the controversial Convention of Sintra in August, 1808. The British commanders were ordered back to England for the inquiry into Sintra leaving Sir John Moore to head the 30,000 strong British force.

The Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish victories combined to provoke Napoleon himself to lead 200,000 men into the Peninsula. The British attacked near Burgos but were soon forced into a long retreat chased by the French and punctuated by battles at Sahagun, Benavente and Cacobelos, ending in an evacuation from Coruña in January, 1809, Moore being killed while directing the defence of the town in an action known as the Battle of Corunna. Satisfied and after only little more than two months in Spain, Napoleon handed command over to Marshal Soult and returned to France.

In March, Soult initiated the second invasion of Portugal, through the northern corridor. Repulsed in the Minho river by Portuguese militias, he captured successively Chaves, Braga and, on March 29, 1809, Porto. Yet, the resistance of Silveira in Amarante and other northern cities isolated Soult in Oporto and he embarked upon a gamble of becoming king of North Portugal or evacuate the country.

Meanwhile, Napoleon's victories had broken the Spanish armies, but had also forced the Spanish to begin the guerilla warfare than would lead to the downfall of the French in Spain.

Wellesley returned to Portugal in April 1809 to command the Anglo-Portuguese forces. He strengthened his British army with Portuguese regiments - meanwhile organized by the Governors of the realm and adapted by Beresford to the British way of campaigning - and defeated Soult at the Battle of Grijo (May 10May 11) and then the Battle of Oporto (May 12). All other northern cities were captured by Silveira.

Leaving the Portuguese to take care of their newly-won territory, Wellesley advanced into Spain to join up with the Spanish army of Gregorio de la Cuesta. The combined Allied force clashed with an army led by King Joseph at the Battle of Talavera (July 27July 28), the Allies won a costly victory which left them precariously exposed and soon they had to retreat westwards. Wellesley was made Viscount Wellington for his victory at Talavera. Later that year Spanish armies were badly mauled at the Battle of Ocana and the Battle of Alba de Tormes.

After his most distressing experience of collaboration with the Spaniards, and fearing a new French attack, Wellesley took the decision to strengthen Portugal's defences. He took a plan from Major Neves Costa and ordered the construction of a strong military wall, along key roads and of a series of trenches and earthworks (the Lines of Torres Vedras) to protect Lisbon.

The French reinvaded Portugal in July 1810 with an army of around 60,000 led by Marshal Masséna. The first significant clash was at the Battle of Coa. Later on, Masséna's advance took "the worst route in Portugal" ; at the Battle of Busaco on September 27 he suffered a tactical defeat in an unwary attack on a strong position , but the Allies were soon forced to retreat to the Lines. The fortifications were so impressive that after a small attack at Sobral on October 14 the conflict fell into stalemate. As Charles Oman wrote, "on that misty October 14th morning, at Sobral, the Napoleonic empire attained its highest watermark", then it ebbed. The Allies had subjected the area in front of the lines to a scorched earth policy as they retreated. Indeed the willingness of the Portuguese civilian population to co-operate in this policy is proof that the people of Portugal supported the war aims of the Alliance. ((Alternatively it could be argued that by this stage nobody was under any illusions that French proficiency at requisitioning paid any attention to the wants of the locals)). The French were eventually forced to withdraw due to a lack of supplies and disease.

The Allies were reinforced by the arrival of fresh British troops in early 1811 and began a new offensive. A French force was beaten at Barrosa on March 5 as part of an unsuccessful manoeuvre to break up the siege of Cadiz, and Massena was forced to withdraw from Portugal after a stalemate at the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro (May 3 - May 5). Massena had lost 25,000 men in the fighting in Portugal and he was replaced by Auguste Marmont. The new commander directed Soult to the north to protect Badajoz. Soult's force was intercepted by an Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish army led by the Portuguese Army marshal William Beresford at the Battle of Albuera on May 16, and after a bloody battle the French were forced to retreat.

The war then fell into a temporary lull, the numerically superior French unable to find an advantage and under increasing pressure from Spanish guerilla activity. The French had upwards of 350,000 soldiers in L'Armée de l'Espagne, but the vast majority, over 200,000, were deployed to protect the French lines of supply, rather than as substantial fighting units. The Spaniards managed to draft the 1812 liberal Constitution of Cadiz.

Wellesley renewed the Allied advance into Spain just after New Year in 1812, besieging and capturing the fortified towns of Ciudad Rodrigo on January 19 and Badajoz, after a costly assault, on April 6. Both towns were pillaged by the troops. The Allied army took Salamanca on June 17, as Marmont approached. The two forces finally met on July 22, and the Battle of Salamanca was a damaging defeat to the French. Marshall Beresford was severely wounded. As the French regrouped, the Anglo-Portuguese entered Madrid on August 6, and advanced onwards towards Burgos before retreating all the way back to Portugal.

The French hopes of recovery were stricken by Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He had taken 30,000 soldiers from the hard-pressed Armée de l'Espagne. But starved of reinforcements and replacements the French position became increasingly unsustainable as the Allies renewed the offensive in May, 1813.

It was grand strategy, as Wellesley planned to move his supply base from Lisboa to Santander.

The Anglo-Portuguese forces swept northwards in late May and seized Burgos; then they outflanked the French army forcing Joseph Bonaparte into the Zadorra river valley. At the Battle of Vitoria June 21, the 65,000 men of Joseph were routed by 53,000 British, 27,000 Portuguese and 19,000 Spaniards. Wellesley pursued and dislodged the French from San Sebastian, which was sacked and burn by the British troops after being received by its inhabitants as liberators.

The Allies chased the retreating French, reaching the Pyrenees in early July. Soult was given command of the French forces and began a counter-offensive, dealing the Allied generals two sharp defeats at the Battle of Maya and the Battle of Roncesvalles. Yet, he was severely repulsed by the Anglo-Portuguese, lost momentum and finally fled after the Allied victory at the Battle of Sorauren (July 28 and July 30). On October 7, after Wellington received news from the reopening of hostilities in Germany, the Allies finally crossed into France, fording the Bidassoa river.

The Peninsular war went on through the Allied victories of Vera pass, Battle of Nivelle, and the Battle of Nive near Bayonne (December 10December 14 1813), the Battle of Orthez (February 27 1814) and the Battle of Toulouse (April 10). This last one was after Napoleon's abdication.

The guerrilla war

During the war the British gave aid to Portuguese Militia Levies and Spanish guerrillas who tied down thousands of French troops. The British gave this aid because it cost them much less than it would have done to equip British soldiers to face the French troops in conventional warfare. This was one of the most successful partisan wars in history and is the origin of the word guerrilla in the English language.

Consequences in Portugal

The Peninsular War signified the traumatic entry of Portugal into contemporary age. The transference of the Royal Court to Rio de Janeiro, initiated the process of Brasil's state-buiding which, in due time became independent. The skilful evacuation by the Portuguese Fleet of more than 15,000 people from the Court, Administration and Army was a bonus for Brasil and a blessing in disguise for Portugal. It liberated the energies of the country. The Governors of Portugal nominated by the absent king had a scant impact on account of successive French invasions and British occupation. Yet, the role of the War Minister Miguel Pereira Forjaz was unique. With the Portuguese Staff, he managed to build a regular army of 55,000 men and a further 50,000 as national guard - "milicias" - and a variable number of home guard -"ordenanças" - perhaps totalling more than 100,000. The impact of being a nation at arms was the equivalent of the French revolution as a new class tried, disciplined and experienced by war against the French Empire, was enabled to rebuild the Portuguese liberal institutions from 1820 onwards.

Consequences in Spain

The new King was cheered initially by Spanish afrancesados ("Frenchified"), who believed that collaborating with France would bring modernization and liberty. An example was the abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. However, church priesthood and patriotical traditionalists began an agitation amongst the populace, which rapidly became widespread after the French army's first examples of repression (Madrid, 1808) were presented, as fact, to unite and enrage the people against the invaders. The remaining ones exiled to France following French troops. The painter Francisco de Goya was one of these afrancesados, and after the war he had to exile himself to France to avoid being prosecuted and perhaps lynched.

In the independence side, both traditionalists and liberals were found. After the war, they would clash in the Carlist Wars, as the new king Ferdinand VII "the Desired one" (and after "the Traitor king"), revoked all the social advances made by the independent Cortes, which were summoned in Cádiz acting on his behalf to coordinate the provincial Juntas and resist the French. He reinstored the absolutism, prosecuted and put to death every one suspected of liberalism, and as his last misdeed, altered the Succession Laws in favour of his daughter Isabella II, so starting a century of civil wars against the supporters of the former legal heir to the throne.

The liberal Cortes had approved the first Spanish Constitution on March 19th 1812, which was later nullified by the king.

In Spanish America, the Spanish and Creoles officials formed Juntas which swore allegiance to the king Ferdinand. This experience of self-government led the later Libertadores to promote the independence of the Spanish American colonies.

The French troops seized many of the extensive properties of the Catholic Church. Churches and convents were used as stables, or barracks, and artworks were sent to France. The Spanish cultural heritage took a serious hit, but this was not as bad though, for Spain, as the actions of the other side.

The British troops, under Wellesley's special orders, destroyed every industrial and manufacturing centre in Spain they could reach, in order to suppress future competition to British exports. The affect of this was to severely impoverish Spain's economy, which would be catastrophic over the rest of the century.

Engagements during the war

Major battles and sieges

Missing image
Battle of Somosierra, one of greatest successes of 19th century Polish cavalry
  • Battle of Bailén 19 July 1808. French forces of 23,000 men under the overall command of General Dupont had been trapped by 30,000 Spaniards led by Castaños in Bailén in Jaén province (Andalusia). After five unsuccessful sorties the French surrendered.
  • Battle of Roliça (formerly spelt as Roleia in English) 17 Aug 1808. Wellesley had landed at Mondego Bay with 15,000 British troops and was heading south towards Lisbon. A French force under General Henri Delaborde tried to delay Wellesley's advance while awaiting reinforcements. A premature assault by the 29th Regiment forced Wellesley to order a general attack which succeeded and caused the French to withdraw. Though a small action in itself, it was the first British engagement in the Peninsular war and the first time that Col Henry Shrapnel's Spherical bullets were used.
  • Battle of Vimeiro 21 August 1808. Four days after Roliça, Wellesley's force, now comprising 17,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops, was attacked by General Junot and his Army. The attack was repulsed with the French taking 2,000 casualties, and Junot retreated to the nearby Torres Vedreas.
  • Battle of La Coruña 16 January 1809
  • Battle of Talavera de la Reina 27 July-28 July 1809. Wellesley's 55,000 Anglo-Spanish troops were opposed by the 46,000 French of King Joseph Bonaparte, Marshal Jourdan and Marshal Victor near Talavera de la Reina, a town 110 km (70 miles) southwest of Madrid. Despite being handicapped by the fact that his forces consisted of 35,000 Spaniards led by the uncooperative General Cuesta, Wellesley succeeded in winning the battle. Casualties amounted to 5,500 British, 1,000 Spaniards and 7,200 French.
  • Battle of Buçaco 27 September 1810
  • Battle of Albuera 16 May 1811. An Anglo-Spanish force of 35,000 under Sir William Beresford had moved south from Badajoz to block Marshall Soult's attempt to relieve the siege with 24,000 French. The French attack eventually failed. Most of the Spanish troops led by General Joachim Blake fought bravely, although the failure of General d'Espana's brigade to reinforce the British line at a critical moment, almost lost the battle.
  • Storming of Badajoz 6 April 1812. The fortress at Badajoz with 5,000 French under General Phillipon, had been under siege by Wellesley's 30,000 Anglo-Portuguese troops since 16 March. On the night of 6th April a series of assaults succeeded in breaching the defenses and the French surrendered. Losses amounted to 1,500 French and 5,000 Anglo-Portguese.
  • Battle of Salamanca (also known as Arapiles) 22 July 1812. While retreating towards Portugal, Wellesley's Anglo-Portuguese force of 48,000 men was attacked by near Salamanca by 50,000 French under Marshal Marmont. The British had almost won the battle in less than an hour thanks to Marmont's ill-conceived attack, when General Bertrand Clausel stabilised the situation for the French and then launched an assault. After halting the French attack, Wellesley ordered a counter-attack which routed the French. Only the failure of a Spanish force to block an escape route, prevented Clausel's entire force from being captured. Nevertheless, the French had lost 7,000 casualties with a further 7,000 men captured.
  • Battle of Vitoria 21 June 1813

Other engagements

Besides the major battles and sieges listed above, there were numerous smaller engagements during the course of the war. While the majority of these were of little strategic significance, many of them were interesting episodes.

  • Battle of Somosierra 30 November 1808. During his advance on Madrid, Napoleon was blocked by 9,000 Spaniards under General San Juan in the valley of Somosierra in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Because the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked, and impatient to proceed, Napoleon ordered his Polish light cavalry escort of some 87 troops, led by Jan Kozietulski, to charge the Spaniards. Despite losing two thirds of their numbers, the Poles succeeded in forcing the defenders to abandon their position.
  • Battle of Fuengirola 15 October 1810. The mediæval fortress of Fuengirola near Malaga was defended by 200 Polish soldiers of the Duchy of Warsaw against approximately 2,500 British and 500 Spaniards under Lord Blayney. Although the British broke through the following morning, an attack by 200 fresh Polish troops from another garrison supported by 30 French cavalry led to the capture of Blayney and the retreat of his troops to their ships.



  • Sir Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852) Anglo-Irish soldier and statesmen. Wellesley's successful command of the Allied forces during the Peninsular War earned him promotion from Lieutenant General to Field Marshal and elevation into the peerage as Viscount Wellington and later, Earl of Wellington. He was created Duke of Wellington in 1814.
  • Sir John Moore (1761-1809) Lieutenant General who took command of the British forces in the Peninsula following the Convention of Cintra until his death at the battle of La Coruña.
  • William Beresford (1768-1854) general in the British army who was promoted in 1809 to Field Marshal of the Portuguese army and given the task of organising it into an efficient and disciplined fighting force. He was knighted after the battle of Bussaco.
  • Sir Rowland Hill (1772-1842) was one of the few officers who Wellesley trusted with independent command. After playing a key role in a number battles, he was promoted to Lieutenant General in 1812.
  • Robert Craufurd (1764-1812) began the war as a brigade commander under Sir John Moore, and fell in the storming of Cuidad Rodrigo a little after obtaining the rank of Major General.
  • Thomas Picton (1758-1815) Major General in charge of the 3rd Division, he was one of the most competent of Wellesley's senior officers. He was knighted and promoted to Lieutenant General in 1813.


  • Bernardim Freire A general who led the Portuguese revolt against the French invaders. He assisted Wellington at Vimeiro: He was assassinated by the mob at Braga on March 27th 1809
  • Francisco da Silveira General, commander of a Militia and Army Division in the North of Portugal from 1808 to 1813. Divisional Commander at Vitoria and Pirineus.
  • Miguel Pereira Forjaz General and Secretary of State of War. He was the reformer of the Portuguese Army from 1806 onwards and helped to make it an efficient war machine.
  • Manuel de Brito Mozinho The most successful Adjutant-General of the Portuguese Army since 1809. He helped Forjaz and Beresford to build an efficient machine of war with around 50.000 men
  • Tomás Guilherme Stubbs A Regiment and Brigade Commander during the Peninsular war, he distinguished himself and the 11/23rd Brigade at Salamanca, Vitoria and Pyrenees
  • Carlos Frederico Lecor. Military organizer of the Leal Legião Lusitana, in England, in 1808. Comanded the 7th Division of Wellington's Army, the only foreigner in charge of British troops.
  • Luís do Rego Barreto A colonel and later Brigadier, he fought at the main Peninsular battles, being cited in Wellington's dispatches as the "brave Luís do Rego".


  • Miguel de Alava a Spanish general, the only individual present both at Trafalgar and Waterloo
  • Palafox, José de (1776?-1847) Spanish General in the Peninsular War, celebrated for his heroic defense of Zaragoza. Elected Captain General of Aragón.
  • Tomás de Zumalacárregui (1788-1835) Spanish Carlist General. A professional soldier, he fought against the French in the Peninsular War (1808-14) and supported the absolutist cause during the disturbances of 1820-23.
  • José de San Martín, (1778-1850) South American revolutionary leader. He served in the Spanish army during the Peninsular War, at Bailén, Albuera and Torres Vedras. After 1812 he devoted himself to the South American struggle for independence, playing a large part in the liberation of Argentina.
  • Agustina de Aragón was a heroine during the Zaragoza siege.
  • Daoíz and Velarde were two military officials that led the Madrid revolt on May 2nd 1808. After their execution, they became national heroes.


  • Joseph Bonaparte, (1768-1844), King of Spain. The elder brother of Napoleon, who made him first King of Naples (1806-1808), and then King of Spain following his deposition of the Bourbons (1808-1813)
  • Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, (1762-1833), Marshal of France
  • Andoche Junot, (1771-1813) French General and diplomatist.
  • Auguste Marmont, (1774-1852) Marshal of France.
  • André Masséna, (1758-1817) Marshal of France.
  • Joachim Murat, (1767-1815) King of Naples, Marshal of France. Napoleon's brother-in-law, he was made Grand Duke of Berg (1806-1808). He led the initial French invasion of Spain, and hoped to be made King until this position was given to Napoleon's brother Joseph. Murat was given Joseph's Kingdom of Naples as a consolation prize.
  • Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, (1769-1851) Marshal of France. He held commands in Spain in the Peninsular War. He invaded Portugal in 1809 but was repelled by the combined armies of Wellesley and Silveira. He was Chief of Staff at the Battle of Waterloo. He was war minister 1830-40.

Role of intelligence

Intelligence played a large part in the successful prosecution of the war by the British after 1810. Spanish and Portuguese guerrillas were asked to capture messages from French couriers. From 1811 onwards, these dispatches were often either partially or wholly enciphered. George Scovell of Wellington's General Staff was given the job of deciphering them. At first the ciphers used were fairly simple and he received help from other members of the General Staff. However beginning in 1812, a much stronger cipher originally devised for diplomatic messages, came into use and Scovell was left to work on this himself. He steadily broke it, with the result that knowledge of French troop movements and deployments was used to great effect in most of the engagements described above. The French never realised that the code had been broken and continued to use it until their code tables were captured at the battle of Vitoria.

Media influence

Prosper Mérimée's Carmen, on which Bizet's opera Carmen was based, is set during the war.

Curro Jiménez was a very successful Spanish TV series about Sierra Morena, a generous bandit fighting against the French.

The British Sharpe, featuring actor Sean Bean, series of television movies followed the adventures of a British Army officer during the Peninsular War.

See also

Further reading

  • Wellington's dispatches from the Peninsular War and Waterloo: 1808 - 1815 ( These British Army dispatches give a fascinating insight into the nature of operations in the Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns during the Napoleonic Wars.
  • ISBN 0-571-20513-5, The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes: Mark Urban, Faber and Faber Ltd, London 2001.
  • The History of the Peninsular War (5 vols), Charles Oman, London and Mechanicsburg 1995
  • ISBN 972-8563-80-9, "Salamanca", Mendo Henriques, Lisbon, 2002
  • ISBN 0952293072, The Fatal Hill: The Allied Campaign under Beresford in Southern Spain in 1811, Mark Sunderland, Thompson Publishing, London 2002, Long Review (
  • ISBN 0-571-21681-1 Rifles: Six years with Wellington's legendary sharpshooters by Mark Urban, Pub Faber & Faber, 2003

External links

de:Krieg auf der Halbinsel


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