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Peninsular War

The Peninsula War (1808-1814) was a major conflict during the Napoleonic Wars. The war was fought in the Iberian Peninsula between Spain, Portugal and the British against the French. It has been described as "a hammer and anvil" campaign, the hammer being the Anglo-Portuguese Army, commanded by Wellington, with 40.000 to 80.000 men, and the anvil being the Spanish armies and the Portuguese militia. The vanquished French had almost 300.000 soldiers at their peak but they never managed to concentrate them. The war destroyed the social and economic tissues 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 that country had refused to join the Continental System; Lisbon was captured on December 1. The skilful escape in 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 João VI to continue to rule over its overseas possessions, including Brazil.

Napoleon then began sending troops into the Peninsula; 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. 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 General Sir Arthur Wellesley.

The Spanish army had won a surprising victory over the army of Pierre Dupont at Bailén (May 19-May 21). Wellesley defeated forces under the command of Delaborde at Roliça 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 La Coruña in January, 1809, Moore being killed while directing the defence of the town. Satisfied and after only little more than two months in Spain, Napoleon handed command over to Marshal Soult and returned to France.

On March Soult initiated the second invasion of Portugal, through the northern corridor. Repulsed in the Minho river by Portuguese milicias, he captured successively Chaves, Braga and, on 29 March 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 strenghtened 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 Grijo and then at 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 a army led by King Joseph at Talavera (July 27-July 28), the Allies won a costly victory which left them precariously exposed and soon they had to retreat westwards. Wellesley was made a Viscount for his victory at Talavera. Later that year Spanish armies were badly mauled at Ocaña and at 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 Coa. Later on, Masséna took "the worst route in Portugal" and at Buçaco on September 27, suffered a big check 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, "in that misty October 14 morning, at Sobral, the Napoleonic empire attained its highest watermark"1 Then it ebbed. The French withdrew from the Lines and were forced to await reinforcements.

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 to relieve Cadiz, and Massena was forced to withdraw from Portugal after a stalemate at Fuentes de Oñoro (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. The force of Soult was intercepted by an Anglo-Portuese and Spanish arny led by the Portuguese Army marshal William Beresford at Albuera (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 Wellington 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.

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 Maya and at Roncesvalles . Yet, he was severely repulsed by the Anglo-Portuguese and lost momentum and finally fled after the Allied victory at Sorauren (July 28 and 30). On October 7, after Wellington received news from the reopening of hostilities em Germany, the Allies finally crossed into France, fording the Bidassoa river.

The Peninsula war went on through the Allied victories of Vera, Nivelle, near Bayonne (December 10-14), Orthez (February 27, 1814) and Toulouse (April 10). This last one was after NApoleon's abdication.

The Guerrilla War

During the war the British gave aid to Portuguese Milicia 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, some more 50,000 national guard - "milicias" - and a variable number of home guard -"ordenanças" - perhaps more than 100,000. The impact of a nation at arms was the equivalent of French revolution as a new class, tried, disciplined and informed by the experience of 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 afrancesado s ("Frenchified"), who believed that collaborating with France would bring modernization and liberty. An example was the abolition of the Spanish Inquisition. However, the conduct of the French army led many to disappointment. The remaining ones exiled to France following French troops. The painter Francisco de Goya was one of these afrancesados, but soon changed his mind and created somber pictures of the disasters of war.

In the independence side, both traditionalists and liberals were found. After the war, they would clash in the Carlist Wars. Independent Cortes were summoned in Cádiz acting on behalf of king Ferdinand, "the Desired one", and coordinating the provincial Juntas. The liberal Cortes approved the first Spanish Constitution on March 19, 1812. In Spanish America, the Juntas were formed by Creoles, instead of the Spain-born public officers. This experience of self-government led the later Libertadores to promote the independence of the 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.

Major Battles

Battle of ALBUERA A village some 21 km/13 mi southeast of Badajoz, Spain. An Allied victory over the French of Marshall Soult in 16 May 1811 by the British, Portuguese and Spanish armies, under the orders of William Beresford, Marshall and commander of the Portuguese Army.

BAILÉN a city, Jaén prov., S Spain, in Andalusia. In 1808, early in the Peninsular War, a French army was surrounded and forced to surrender near Bailén by the Spanish under Castaños, who was made duke of Bailén.

BADAJOZ: Spanish city some 400 km/250 mi southwest of Madrid, was an important fortress on the border with Portugal. Siege of Costly Anglo-Portuguese victory over Napoleonic forces in the Peninsular War March-April 1812.

ROLIÇA (ill-spelt as ROLEIA) A French defeat of general Delaborde by 17 Aug 1808 by General Wellesley, helped by a Portuguese corps. 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.

SALAMANCA ( also known as Arapiles) A major victory in 22 July 1812 of the Anglo-Portuguese army led by the Duke of Wellington over the French under Marshal Auguste Marmont. The 18.000 Portuguese engaged suffered around 2500 losses.

TALAVERA British and Spanish victory over the French 27-28 July 1809 near Talavera de la Reina, a Spanish town 110 km/70 mi southwest of Madrid.

VIMEIRO, A small town near Torres Vedras . A French defeat of general Junot by General Wellesley in 21 Aug 1808, helped by General Freire keeping General Loison at a distance. Under the terms of the Convention of Cintra, the Frech army went out of Portugal.



  • Miguel de Alava a Spanish general, surely 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 2, 1808. After their execution, they became national heroes.


  • 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 in March, 27,1809
  • 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 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.
  • Joao Mozinho As a colonel he deserted from the Napoleonic Portuguese Legion in 1808 to become a most successful Adjudant-General of the Portuguese Army.

FRENCH 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

Carmen is set during the war. Curro Jiménez was a very successful Spanish TV series about a Sierra Morena generous bandit, carrying guerrilla against the French. Sharpe features the adventures of a British Army officer during the Peninsula War.

See also

Further Reading

  • 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
Last updated: 02-09-2005 09:50:43
Last updated: 02-26-2005 20:49:46