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Peninsular War
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Peninsular War

The Peninsular 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.

Table of contents
1 Progress of the War
2 Role of Intelligence
3 See also
4 Further Reading

Progress of the War

In November 1807 the Emperor Napoleon sent an army into Spain under Marshal Junot tasked with invading Portugal, after Portugal had refused to join the Continental System; Lisbon was captured on December 1. From 1 February, 1808 the Portugese dynasty were deposed (but continued to rule over its overseas possessions, including Brazil.
Napoleon then began sending troops into Spain; Pamplona and Barcelona were seized in February. A Spanish coup forced Charles IV from his throne and replaced him with 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 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). The British defeated forces under the command of Delaborde at Roliça on August 17. On August 21 the British 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 British held their line. Despite his victory, Wellesley was replaced as commander by Harry Burrard and Hew Dalrymple. The British victories led to the French withdrawing from Portugal under the controversial Convention of Sintrain 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 British and Spanish victories combined to provoke Napoleon himself to lead 200,000 men into Spain. 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 a British 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 29 March, 1809 Soult occupied Portoand nothern Portugal. 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 Apil 1809 to command the Anglo-Portuguese forces. The re-organised force defeated Soult at Oporto (May 12) and advanced into Spain to join up with the 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. Fearing a French attack, Wellesley ordered the construction of defences along key roads and of a series of trenches and earthworks (the Lines of Torres Vedras) to protect Lisbon.

The French reinvaded Portugal in late 1810 with an army of around 60,000 led by Marshal Masséna. The first significant clash was at Buçaco on September 27, the French were held 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. The French withdrew from close to the Lines and were forced to wait.

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 the 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 a mixed Allied force led by 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.

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 British 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. As the French regrouped, Wellesley's men entered Madrid on August 6 and advanced onwards towards Burgos before retreating all the way back to Ciudad Rodrigo.

The French hopes of recovery were stricken by Napoleon's disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812. He had taken just 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.

The Allied forces swept northwards in June and seized Burgos, then they outflanked the army commanded by Joseph forcing him into the Zadorra river valley. At the Battle of Vitoria (June 21) the army of Joseph was routed. 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 Allies two sharp defeats at Maya and at Roncesvalles but losing momentum after the Allied victory at Sorauren (July 28). On October 7 the Allies finally crossed into France, fording the Bidossa river.

The war in the Iberian Peninsula was geographically over, although the Allied victories at Bayonne (December 10-14), Orthez (February 27, 1814) and Toulouse (April 10) are generally included in the campaign.

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.

See also

Further Reading