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1808-1814 - Peninsula War

Though England, under the Ministry of All the Talents, had behaved very badly towards Prussia and Russia, she remained the one steadfast foe of the French Emperor, and pursued without wavering her policy of opposition to Napoleon. At Tilsit Napoleon bound the Czar to enforce the Continental System against England, and then began the task of compelling all the lesser Powers to adhere to the system. There were to be no neutrals.

Portugal, the constant ally of England, was the first victim. After the Treaty of Tilsit Napoleon resolved to seize Portugal in order more perfectly to enforce his Continental System against England. By the Treaty of Fontainebleau Napoleon joined with Spain to dismember that Kingdom. With the connivance of Spain, a French army under Junot invaded Portugal and occupied Lisbon on November 30, 1807 with little trouble. The flight of the royal family to Brazil to establish a temporary capital at Rio de Janeiro left the Portuguese for the moment leaderless, but the English soon came to their assistance and, under the command of Sir Arthur 'Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, defeated Junot at Vimeiro on August 21, 1808, and by the Convention of Cintra, nine days later, forced him to evacuate Portugal.

The year 1808 witnessed the unfolding of Napoleon's designs against Spain. The family affairs of Spanish royalty gave Napoleon a pretext for interfering in Spain. Gradually, in spite of all treaties, French troops were sent across the Pyrenees, where they quietly took possession of various fortresses. Spain was suffering from the family troubles of the Bourbon monarch, and it suited Napoleon's purpose to make use of them and to order the advance of a French army under Murat towards Madrid.

This movement precipitated the fall of the Bourbons. Charles IV was compelled by a popular uprising to abdicate in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII (March), and a little later father and son, at a meeting with Napoleon at Bayonne, were forced to renounce the Spanish throne. Armies under the direction of Murat occupied the country and on June 6, 1808, Joseph Bonaparte was proclaimed King of Spain. One of the divisions of the French army of occupation was trapped by the Spaniards and forced to surrender at Bailen on July 20, 1808.

This disaster so startled Napoleon that immediately after the Congress of Erfurt he in person undertook a campaign in Spain with three large armies and occupied Madrid on December 4, 1808. His army was lured away from Madrid by an English army under Sir John Moore, who invaded Spain from Portugal and then conducted a skillful retreat to Corufia. During the pursuit Napoleon turned over the command to Soult and hurried away to prepare for the campaign against Austria.

The English generals were in the highest degree dissatisfied with Castlereagh's administration of the war, and Napier, in his "History of the Peninsular War," as well as all other writers who give an account of other undertakings of his, bitterly complain of his incapacity. Fortune, however, favored him from the year 1808, as it had favoured the French Directory in 1796. Sir Arthur Wellesley, afterwards Duke of Wellington, showed the same talent which was conspicuous in Bonaparte. -He was equal to him as a general — in one respect even superior — and in administration he was not his inferior. He repaired what the ministers destroyed.

While Napoleon’s marshals were busy completing the conquest of the Peninsula, an English army under Wellesley landed at Lisbon on April 22, 1809. Having taken Oporto from Soult, Wellesley invaded Spain and fought a drawn battle with King Joseph and Marshal Victor at Talavera de la Reina on July 27th-28th. This battle saved Portugal from further harrying by the French, who, however, won a series of successes in Spain, including the victories of Almonacid on August 11th and Ocana on November 18th.

By the beginning of the summer of 1810, the French had subjugated practically the whole of Spain. The Province of Galicia and the fortified towns of Cadiz, Valencia, Badajoz, and Ciudad Rodrigo were the only important places still held by the Spaniards. During 1810 Napoleon hoped to take these places and to drive the English out of Portugal. l/Vith this purpose, a large army under Masséna laid siege to Ciudad Rodrigo, which was captured on July 19th. Invading Portugal, Masséna captured Almeida on August 26th, and after a repulse by Wellington at Busaco on September 27th, continued the pursuit of that general, who retired behind the well-fortified lines of Torres Vedras.

The devastation of the country by the Portuguese, the incessant guerrilla warfare waged by the Spaniards, and the jealousies of the French marshals spoiled the plan of campaign. Soult captured Badajoz on March 11, 1811, but failed to cooperate with Masséna, who was forced to abandon the attempt to carry the lines of Torres Vedras in order to prevent the recapture of Almeida. Wellington defeated Masséna at Fuentes de Onoro on May 5th and the English reoccupied Almeida. During the year the French, under Soult, were defeated at Albuera on May 16th, and under Gérard at Arroyo Molinos on October 26th, and their only success was in Aragon and Valencia under Suchet, who captured the city of Valencia on January 10, 1812.

In the same month Wellington took the offensive, captured Ciudad Rodrigo on January 19th, and Badajoz on April 6th, and defeated Marmont at Salamanca on July 22d, but failed to capture Burgos and retired into winter quarters in Portugal. Elsewhere in Spain the French held their own until the withdrawal of troops from the Peninsula for the campaign of 1813 in Germany. The resumption of hostilities by Wellington forced King Joseph to abandon his capital and retreat toward the northern mountains. Wellington pushed the campaign with vigor, defeating Joseph and Jourdan at Vitoria on June 21, 1813, capturing San Sebastian on August 31st, and invading France.

Soult failed in successive attempts to check VVellington’s victorious advance in Southern France in the battles on the Nivelle, on the Nive, at Orthez on February 27, 1814, and at Toulouse on April 10th. Suchet succeeded in withdrawing his army from Aragon without loss and was marching to the assistance of Soult when the news of Napoleon’s abdication arrived. The termination of the war at this moment enabled the English to transport many of Wellington’s veterans to America to take part in the campaign of 1814 against the United States.

Politically the invasion of the Peninsula was the most costly error in Napoleon’s career, for there he first aroused that spirit of nationality which was destined to bring disaster on him not only in Spain, but in Germany as well. From a military point of view the war in the Peninsula was a stupendous blunder for Napoleon, for it made a wanton increase in the number of his foes, it gave England her longed for opportunityof fightihg him on land, while its campaigns and its guerrilla warfare cost Napoleon thousands of men and proved demoralizing to the efficiency of his army, and in his final campaigns he found himself with a formidable foe at his rear and was therefore unable to put in the field against his great Continental enemies, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, the full military power of the French nation.

Napier, in his " Peninsular War," described in strong colors the nepotism of the English oligarchs, the disputes which existed before the appearance of Wellington between the government and the generals, the squandering of money and stores on the treacherous Spaniards, and the absurdity [of the instructions and arrangements of the minister. Notwithstanding all this, the English generals and armies, even before Sir John Moore's expedition, which ended with his heroic death, presented a very different appearance in relation to the French, from that of all the Austrian generals till 1809, the Russians and Prussians in 1806 and 1807, or that of the Spanish armies and generals during the whole war.

This is explained as in life and outward affairs, strength, perseverance, and daring always obtain the victory; and morality and greatness of soul often operate as a means of hindrance. The three first qualities were and are as characteristic of the English as of the Napoleon aristocracy. As to the morality of the orthodox and Sabbatarian leading men of the English government of this time, including their chief and master the Prince of Wales, and the Duke of Wellington, the best accounts are furnished by the chronicles of scandal of the day; by the shameful prosecution instituted and carried on by George IV. after his father's death against his wife, and chiefly by the political and divorce suits of the ruling oligarchs of the time, of which the newspapers were full. Every one, besides, is acquainted with the stories of the notorious gambling-houses of the high aristocracy, which every now and then were exhibited before the public tribunals.

The fruitless prosecution of the Marquis of Wellesley, governor-general of India, and his brother Henry, who, together with their relations and acquaintances, practised every species of insolence, despotism, and extortion, constitutes one of the most scandalous events in English public life, whose clamour was satisfied by a pretended impartial tribunal; and the people, fed with the solemnities of justice, forms, and long speeches of counsel, were proud of the vapour of freedom and justice which arose before them. In the same category may be classed the trials on account of the unexampled abuses which had long been carried on by Trotter, paymaster-general of the forces, in connexion with Henry Dundas, who, under the name of Lord Melville, was at the head of the Admiralty.

The ministers procured their acquittal, and their judges in the House of Lords, who might be in the same plight in their turn, regarded the abuses which were proved as merely such as were usual and innocent. This took place under Mr. Fox's administration, whose talents, mode of life, and morality, made him an English Mirabeau. Not until January, 1809, came the turn of the Duke of York, the prince regent's brother, who had numerous and powerful partisans in consequence of the many improvements effected in military administration under his direction, but especially of his care to give preferment occasionally to merit.

Letters and documents were constantly appearing in all the newspapers, from which it appeared that the duke, as commander-in-chief of the army, was guilty of greater abuses in the disposal of places in the army than had ever been perpetrated by Trotter and Lord Melville in the navy, and that he was shameless enough to favour those recommended to him by his mistresses, and to sell wholesale everything which could be sold. The government was at length compelled by the strength of public opinion to bring the duke's conduct before parliament. Being addicted to every species of dissoluteness, and immensely extravagant, he soon became overwhelmed with debts, and was completely under the dominion of a woman destitute of all shame. These scandalous stories, and a variety of scenes between a prince who was called Bishop of Osnaburg and a Mrs. Clarke, were not only brought before a secret committee, but before a general committee of the whole house. By their details of the duke's course of life the English newspapers became very indecent reading, and we cannot but wonder that prudish English ladies, who are so zealous concerning the proprieties of life and euphemestic expressions, should have so diligently read these long columns of vulgar dissoluteness.

When the prince regent succeeded his father in 1812, and became George IV., he brought public charges of infidelity against his wife. She retorted upon him in kind, and the trial and hearing of witnesses lasted for weeks; the scandal became still worse than before. The whole, however, was a mere empty comedy. The king and queen lived after the trial as they had done before; the Duke of York was at first obliged to resign; the affair, however, was soon forgotten; he was again reinstated, and revelled as before, so that many of his creditors still remain unpaid.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2012 19:13:17 ZULU