The Peninsular War was a six-year-long armed struggle which took place in the Iberian Peninsula from 1808 to 1814, during the Napoleonic Wars. It pitted Spain, England, and Portugal against the French Army. The Peninsular War broke out on May 2, 1808, when the people of Madrid rose up against the French troops, under the command of Joachim Murat, who attempted to move the daughter and youngest son of Charles IV of Spain to the French city of Bayonne, where the Spanish King and his son Ferdinand, heir to the throne, had already been taken prisoners. That day the Spanish rebels killed 200 French soldiers in the streets of Madrid. Although the uprising was brutally quelled by the French forces, the news of the rebellion spread throughout Spain, and on May 25 the small province of Asturias rose up in arms, too, ousted its French governor and declared war on Napoleon, who had already replaced the Spanish King with his brother Joseph on the throne of Spain.
Origin and Cause of the Peninsular War
In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a continental blockade in an attempt to prevent England from trading with the European countries. Nevertheless, Portugal kept doing business with England. To enforce effectively the blockade, France decided to invade Portugal. But the only way to do it was to march across Spain, which seemingly was not a problem, since, until then, France and Spain had been allies in the Napoleonic Wars. In October 1807, Spain’s Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy and France signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which divided Portugal into three kingdoms: the new Kingdom of Northern Lusitania, the Algarve, and a rump Kingdom of Portugal. In November 1807, Napoleon sent an army into Spain under General Jean-Andoche Junot with the task of invading Portugal. But, then, the French emperor saw the opportunity to invade Spain as well, betraying his former ally, sending General Dupont as well in the direction of Cádiz and Marshal Soult towards Coruña in northern Spain, taking possession of the main Spanish fortresses.
Since 18,000 of the finest and most experienced Spanish troops were stationed in Denmark under French command, Godoy initially requested Portugal’s alliance against the incoming French armies, but later secretly agreed with France that, in return for Spain’s cooperation, he would receive a fraction of Portugal’s territory, sending two local divisions to help French troops occupy Portugal. At the beginning the liberal, republican and radical elements of the Spanish and Portuguese populations supported the French invasion in the hope that Nopoleon would rid Spain of the clerical and feudal preveledges. However, when Napoleon established his brother Joseph Bonaparte as the new King of Spain, soon most Spanish liberals came to oppose the occupation for they saw that the Spanish monarchy was simply replaced by another yet worse one, which brought violence and brutality.
Summary of the Peninsular War
In July 1808, the Spanish Army of Andalusia, commanded by General Francisco Castaños, decisively defeated a numerically superior French Army, led by Pierre Dupont, who was made prisoner, at the Battle of Bailen, which was the first French defeat in the Peninsular War. From June to August, 1808, the people of the Spanish city of Saragosa managed to hold off superior French forces. In Ausgust 1808, a British expeditionary force, under Arthur Wellesley, landed in Portugal. British and Portuguese armies recaptured Portugal, using it as a springboard from which to launch campaigns against the French army while Spanish guerrilla fighters bled the occupiers. Thus, years of fighting in Spain gradually wore down France’s famous Grande Armée (Great Army).
Led by local provincial juntas, the combined regular and irregular forces prevented Napoleon’s commanders from subduing the rebellious Spanish provinces. The Battle of Vimeiro was the first time in which Napoleonic offensive tactics combining skirmishers, columns and supporting artillery fire failed against the British infantry line and Wellesley’s defensive skills. In 1812, a combined allied army under Arthur Wellesley pushed into Spain and took Madrid. From 1813 to 1814, exhausted and demoralized, the French forces, under Field Marshal Soult, was on the retreat, fighting their withdrawal across the Pyrenees and into France as they were constantly being harassed by Spanish guerrilleros.
Famous battles of the Peninsular War
Battle of Bailen (1808)
Battle of Alcañiz (1809)
Battle of Talavera (1809)
Battle of Albuera (1811)
Battle of Salamanca (1812)
Battle of Vitoria (1813)