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!”
Wellington believed that Marmont had extended his line too far, meaning that if a strong blow landed at a specific point on the French line, the French would not be able to hold it or support it from other units that were too far away. Wellington rode quickly to the commander of the 3rd Division, Edward Pakenham, who had replaced once of Wellington's most able commanders, Thomas Picton, who had been wounded at Badajoz.
Pakenham's sister Catherine was Wellington's wife, and three years later the general would die as he assaulted American Gen. Andrew Jackson's position during the Battle of New Orleans. Finding Pakenham, Wellington said to him, “Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill? Throw your division into column and have at them. Drive everything before you.” Pakenham responded, “I will, my Lord, if you will give me your hand.”
Wellington shook his brother-in-law's hand, though he remained careful to maintain his stoic appearance. As Pakenham moved to organize his division's attack, Wellington noted to officers, “Did you ever see a man who understood so clearly what he had to do?”
Both sides went into the battle with approximately 50,000 men. As Pakenham's 3rd Division advanced, it was followed by more elements of the allied army. As the infantry engagement raged, and, after a time, the French began to fall back, Wellington ordered his cavalry commander, Sir Stapleton Cotton, into the fight. The French, aware of the British cavalry, began to form squares, which was the proper defense against cavalry, but it left them vulnerable to the advancing enemy infantry. A unit in square formation can only field a quarter of its muskets against the enemy.
In any case, Cotton's heavy cavalry tore the desperate French infantry apart, already marred from its battle against the allied infantry. At one point, Wellington called out to his cavalry commander, “Cotton! I never saw anything so beautiful in my life! The day is yours!”
In “Wellington: A Personal History,” biographer Christopher Hibbert wrote, “It was a fierce engagement; but Wellington seemed never to be in doubt of the result. He was seen all over the field that day, a surprisingly cool day for July ... galloping about from one scene of action to another, apparently oblivious to the enemy's fire, anxious to give orders personally, now with the infantry, now with the cavalry.”
During the fighting, Marmont was wounded, and command of the French army devolved upon Bertrand Clauzel. By the time he inherited command of the French army, Clauzel could see that it was clearly in dire straits, but not yet beaten. He ordered a counterattack that met with early success against the British lines but ultimately was beaten back. The French began to fall back. Though Wellington had hoped to block the French retreat with carefully placed Spanish troops, the Spanish commanders had changed position without Wellington's knowledge, and the bulk of the French forces got away.
The next day, another battle occurred at Garcia Hernandez, as the French attempted their escape. Members of the king's German Legion, a British dragoon unit, attacked the French infantry. It was the only instance in the Napoleonic wars that cavalry alone, without supporting infantry, was able to break enemy infantry squares. The French suffered nearly 10 times the British/German casualties during the engagement.
In the historical note to his novel “Sharpe's Sword,” author Bernard Cornwell wrote, “Salamanca was a great victory. Wellington suffered close to five thousand casualties (of whom about one thousand were killed outright on the field and no one knows how many dying later of their wounds). Marmont, fearful of Napoleon's wrath, tried to hide his casualties. He told the Emperor he had lost about six thousand men. In fact, he lost 14 thousand, one Eagle standard, six other standards, and 20 guns. It was a shattering defeat that told the world that a French army could be utterly beaten.”
The French could no longer hold their position in western Spain and began to move eastward. Joseph I, understanding that his position in Madrid had become untenable, withdrew from his capital. A few days after the battle Wellington's forces entered the city. A continent away, the emperor was engaged in his grandest campaign of the wars, the invasion of Russia. In his book “Napoleon's War: An International History,” historian Charles Esdaile wrote:
“The news of Salamanca, which (Napoleon) received in the depths of Russia on the very eve of the battle of Borodino, therefore came as a severe shock, but still he made light of the situation. 'The English have their hands full there: they cannot leave Spain to go and make trouble for me in France or Germany,' he told General Caulaincourt. 'That is all that matters.'”
In fact, the British war against the French had entered an important phase, one in which Wellington continually defeated French armies and eventually crossed the Pyrenees into France itself.