Historical Article: The Battle of Salamanca - 22 July 1812
In remembrance of the pivotal battle and in celebration of its bicentennial, Martin Lampon takes us back in time to show us what took place around those hills near Salamanca.
The Salamanca campaign of 1812 signaled a change in the Spanish Peninsular War (1807-1814). From the start of the war in 1807, the allied forces of Britain, Spain and Portugal had mostly fought on the defensive, consolidating positions; only striking at the French when the situation allowed. (bos-2) But in 1812, with larger and better equipped armies and, most importantly, with better coordination and cooperation, the allies hoped to at last take the war to the French. Here we examine the campaign and Battle of Salamanca to coincide with its bicentennial on 22 July.
The French Occupation of Spain and Portugal
By 1807 Napoleon was the master of Europe. His successful campaign against Russia and Prussia was concluded at the Battle of Friedland, and the Treaty of Tilsit was signed. This brought peace to Europe. The only power still at war with France was Britain. With no way to force her to the bargaining table, Napoleon devised the Continental System. This system was designed to hit at Britain's ability to trade, supposedly closing all ports to her shipping. In reality, this was almost impossible to enforce since Britain's navy could still sail the oceans virtually unhindered after the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Many nations did not enforce the system fully, and some, like Portugal, openly resisted it.
Treaty of Tilsit signed in 1807.
At this time, unrest in Spain between King Charles IV and his son Prince Ferdinand gave Napoleon the opportunity to strike at Portugal. He ordered General Junot to enter Spain with 28,000 men. In 1807 the Treaty of Fontainbleu was signed between France and Spain; an agreement to occupy and divide Portugal. The subsequent invasion was a success and Lisbon was occupied by the French, all while the Portuguese government fled to Brazil.
During the first months of 1808 the French presence in Spain began to increase, with Marshal Murat occupying Madrid in March. Napoleon then summoned the Spanish royal family to Bayonne, forcing King Charles to abdicate and leaving the way clear for Napoleon to install his brother Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. (bos-9) This sparked a series of uprisings in Portugal and Spain, with the Spanish Junta officially declaring war on France. This would be the beginning of what would become known as Napoleon's 'Spanish Ulcer'. The French were able to overwhelm the regular Spanish armies, scoring numerous victories and occupying most major towns and cities, but were not able to conquer the people or the country itself. (bos-11)This started a new form of fighting called 'guerrilla warfare', with large numbers of the population in open revolt of the French occupation.
The British Arrival in Portugal
In August 1808, Lieutenant-General Wellesley landed at Mondego Bay with 14,000 men and was able to score two victories over the French commanded by General Junot at the Battles of Rolica and Vimiero; before Generals Burrard and Dalrymple arrive to take over command. (bos-16) The French position in Portugal being untenable, they are transported (complete with arms and loot) back to France by the Royal Navy under the terms of the controversial Convention of Cintra. The British commanders were then recalled to England for an inquiry as to how this was allowed to happen, and the leadership of the army is turned over to General Sir John Moore.
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington.
(bos-12) With the French now under direct command of Napoleon and successfully defeating the Spanish armies in detail, the British invade Spain in November 1808. But with poor communication and cooperation with their Spanish allies, they are forced to retreat to Corunna in north-western Spain, where Moore is killed in battle. The British are then evacuated by the Royal Navy.
In early 1809, Marshal Soult leads the invasion of Portugal for the second time but is repulsed by the British and newly trained Portuguese armies under the command of Wellesley: who has returned to Portugal, absolved of any blame after the Convention of Cintra inquiry. Pushing the French back into Spain, Wellesley unites with the Spanish and launches an offensive into Spain, winning a notable victory at Talavera in July: It was because of his actions at this battle that Wellesley would later be given the title “Duke of Wellington.” But again, through lack of supply and the threat of French reinforcements, the allies are forced once again to retire to Lisbon. To maintain a foothold in Portugal, Wellington orders the construction of the defensive Lines of Torres Vedras.
The years of 1810 and 1811 are largely years of stalemate on the peninsula, with neither side being able to defeat the other comprehensively. In July 1810 Marshal Massena invaded Portugal again, but the Lines of Torres Vedras forced him back to the Spanish frontier. With fresh reinforcements, the British and Portuguese attempt an offensive into Spain, but French reinforcements, in turn, force them back to Portugal. The main drawback for the French was that the continued British presence on the peninsula, with the Spanish guerrilla war, was tying down nearly 350,000 French troops who could have been used in other theatres of war.
French uniforms of the Peninsular war 1807-14.
Spanish infantry uniforms of the Peninsular War 1807-14.
The campaign season of 1812 started promisingly for the allies. It was known that Napoleon was withdrawing his best troops from Spain for the imminent invasion of Russia. With feign attacks by the Royal Navy, and Spanish armies and “guerrillas” keeping French forces tied down in other territories, the important Spanish frontier fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz were eventually secured; but with very heavy losses for the allies. Wellington targeted Marshal Marmont's Army of Portugal and began a further advance into Spain in the spring. As French reinforcements arrived and threatened allied supply lines from Portugal, Wellington was obliged once again to begin retreating back towards the frontier fortifications at Ciudad Rodrigo. Halting his forces at Salamanca on the 22nd of July, Wellington observed that the pursuing French forces under Marmont had over-extended the left wing of his army and become detached from the main body. Quickly realising that an opportunity had presented itself, Wellington ordered the concentration of the army to attack.
Both armies at Salamanca were relatively even, with the French army of 50,000 men and 78 artillery pieces against Wellington's 49,000 men and 54 cannons. Moving south-east of Salamanca, the French Marshal could see dust to the west, which he assumed was the allied army retreating. Thinking he only faced a rearguard, Marmont's plan was to outflank Wellington. It was at this moment, as he moved westwards, that his left flank became overextended while, unseen by the French, Wellington gathered a strong force hidden behind a series of ridges called the Arapiles—in preparation of attack. Now Wellington declared, “That will do!” as the allied army moved forward.
British troops assaulting the French positions.
The French disposition was in the shape of a letter “L”: the Thormieres division with cavalry support, followed by the divisions of Maucune, Brennier, Clausel, Sarrut and Bonnet in a long line west-to-east, and the divisions of Ferrey and Foy at an angle north at the far east end of the line. Wellington's attack came all along the length of the French L. His 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions were commanded by Pakenham, Cole and Leith respectively, and supported by the 6th and 7th divisions, commanded by Clinton and Hope and the Light division under Alten.
The Battle of Salamanca. Troop dispositions and main attacks.
The British 3rd Division attacked the lead French division of Thormieres in line two-deep. Although the French deployed in dense columns, they were routed by superior British musket fire followed by bayonet charges, the French divisional commander being killed in the action. The next French division along the line (Maucune's), seeing British cavalry supporting the initial allied attack, formed his men into squares. The British 5th Division, attacking Maucune’s, was then able to defeat the French in an uneven musket duel. As the French troops retreated in disorder they were attacked by the British cavalry, who cut them to pieces. The British then turned east and attacked the next French formation under Brennier. Sometime during the initial attack Marshal Marmont was struck by a British artillery shellburst, which wounded him severely and, with his second in command also wounded, this left the French army leaderless during a critical time.
Wellington on horseback during the battle.
The British 4th Division, supported by Portuguese contingents, now attacked Bonnet's division at the angle of the French L deployment; but they were beaten off by stiff French resistance assisted by a strong battery of artillery. The French divisional commander Clausel now assumed command of the army. He immediately sent the French division of Sarrut to help stabilise the left flank, which was under heavy attack, and launched a counter attack with Bonnet's and his own divisions against the British 4th Division—that had been pushed back. The attack was partially successful, brushing aside the 4th Division and engaging the British 6th Division that was supporting it. Wellington had to immediately throw in the British 1st (Campbell) and 7th divisions, and Portuguese troops to stop the advancing French; and, after bitter fighting, both French divisions broke, causing the French line to collapse.
French divisional commander Ferrey had deployed his troops to resist the attack of the British 6th and Light divisions on the French right wing. He managed to hold up the allied advance until he was killed during the second assault by the British, which had been supported by massed artillery, causing his division to retreat. The last remaining French division of Foy acted as a rearguard for the retreating French army. The French managed to escape over a bridge at Alba de Tormes. Wellington had initially ordered this bridge to be blocked by Spanish troops. Unfortunately, the Spanish commander had moved the men without telling Wellington: a miscommunication between allied commanders? This undoubtedly denied the allies an even greater victory, as they were not able to destroy or capture the retreating French; Wellington, thinking the bridge blocked, had started his pursuit in the wrong direction.
Aftermath and Conclusion
The Battle of Salamanca of 1812 was a humiliating defeat for the French, with over 13,000 men killed, wounded or captured against nearly 5,000 dead or wounded for the allies. It allowed the allies, if only briefly, to occupy the Spanish capital city of Madrid in August of that year. (bos-13) Wellington also unsuccessfully laid siege to the fortress town, and main supply route from France to Spain, of Burgos later; before retreating once again to Portugal under the threat of entrapment by French reinforcements. Portugal had, however, become free of occupying French troops. The battle did establish Wellington's reputation as an attacking general, rather than a purely defensive one, in the eyes of his enemies. Even though the Salamanca campaign of 1812 was not a complete success, it did teach Wellington valuable lessons in laying the foundations for the victorious allied offensive of 1813.
Monument on the battlefield of Salamanca: the present day.
From left-to-right, top-to-bottom: (1) British dragoons attacking French squares; (2) French and British dragoons in close combat; (3) Charles IV, King of Spain; (4) Prince Ferdinand of Spain; (5) British troops assaulting the walls at Badajoz; (6) Spanish resistance, executed by the French; (7) Wellington unsuccessfully lays siege to Burgos; (8) Map showing Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War.
Article written by: Martin Lampon
Martin Lampon is a graphic designer who has been a wargamer, board gamer and PC gamer for nearly 40 years.
Martin's forum username: MartNick