On July 22, 1812, a combined British-Portuguese-Spanish army under the command of Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, defeated the French forces of Auguste de Marmont at Salamanca, Spain. The battle cleared western Spain of French forces and allowed the British to occupy the Spanish capital, Madrid, a few days later.
In 1807, France and Spain invaded Portugal, which had long held a military alliance with their common enemy, Great Britain. By early 1808, however, Napoleon Bonaparte had grown impatient with Spain's sluggish attempts to conquer the smaller kingdom. Turning on Spain, which was ripe with revolt against its own regime and political chaos, Napoleon ordered the French army to invade. He soon set his brother Joseph upon the throne of Spain with the designation Joseph I. The new Spanish monarch made his capital in Madrid.
The French occupation of Spain proved over time to be one of Napoleon's greatest mistakes. Far from being a submissive population, much of Spain revolted against his authority, requiring him to send more and more forces to pacify the region, even as he waged a war against a growing number of enemies inside the Iberian peninsula and out.
In many ways, the Napoleonic experience in Spain was not unlike Adolf Hitler's experience in the Soviet Union more than 100 years later. Napoleon had to continue investing men and material in the peninsula while getting virtually nothing in return and fighting a determined guerrilla war. Because of this drain on resources, some have referred to the situation as “The Spanish ulcer.”
Madame de Rémusat, an intimate of the imperial family in Paris, wrote: “The emperor did not like the Spanish affair; in fact, it bored him. Recognizing that he had commenced it badly, conducted it in a most feeble manner, and greatly underestimated its difficulty and importance, he affected to set little store by it so as not to let it humiliate him. Always an improviser, it was more to his taste to draw a veil over all that displeased him, and renew his fortune and reputation from scratch.”
The year 1808 also saw the intervention of British forces in the Iberian peninsula. For the next few years, the British and Portuguese, as well as Spanish units who refused to recognize Joseph I's regime, fought to defend Portugal from the French. Under the command of Wellington, in 1809-1810 this allied force constructed the defensive line at Torres Vedras, a system of fortifications that successfully defended Lisbon against a French force led by Marshal André Masséna, who was expected to capture the city easily.
A stalemate settled upon the peninsula for much of 1811, but the following year Wellington went on the offensive. In early 1812, Wellington captured two key French-held forts along the border between Portugal and Spain, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. Wellington could not yet advance too far into Spain, however, since a large French force under Marmont still dominated the area. The fear was that the French army could maneuver itself around the allied army and threaten Portugal once again.
In mid-June, with the French forces surrendering the forts in the city, the allied army took the city of Salamanca. Marmont appeared shortly after, and again the two armies maneuvered for position around the city. Wellington kept a wary eye on the opposing army, and it became clear that Marmont was maneuvering to occupy the road behind the city. Holding it, he could then indeed march toward Portugal. The French army, extending its line to take the road while covering the allied army, moved through the small village of Arapiles, just outside of Salamanca, to the south of the allied army.
From a village farmyard, Wellington observed the movements of the French as he ate a chicken leg. Then suddenly he exclaimed to his staff, “That will do!”
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