In May 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte was truly at the pinnacle of his power. From September 1805 until June 1807 his forces had fanned out across the Continent driving all before them. But in the early months of 1808 the tempo of French aggression was raised to fresh levels. Two dynasties - the Bourbons of Naples and the Braganças - had already been driven from their thrones and a third had now been physically sequestered and forced to give up its rights. Not for nothing, then, did the Ottomans accord Napoleon the title of padishah - ‘King of kings’. Inherent in this situation, however, was an obvious danger. At Tilsit Napoleon had, or so it seemed on the surface, for a brief moment come to terms with reality. Driven by the dictates of the war against Britain, he had established a partnership with Russia. Part and parcel of this was an agreement in effect to share the domination of continental Europe between two ‘superpowers’, and this in turn offered France her only way forward. Allied with Russia, she could genuinely hope for a successful end to the war against Britain, while Russian cooperation also set clear limits to her war effort and removed the very real danger that she would end up having to force the blockade single-handed on the whole of an unwilling Continent. At the same time, caught between the mill-stones of France and Russia, Austria and Prussia would of necessity have to choose the path of submission. But in reality Tilsit was not all it seemed. Far from being an act of policy, it had simply been a useful shift that put an end to a campaign Napoleon had found very difficult to sustain and which had involved some of the worst fighting of his career. What it did not amount to was a recognition that there were limits beyond which the French ruler could not go. In the first place, the concept of sharing power was not one which the emperor accepted. As a master of manipulation, Napoleon had gulled Alexander by adopting the guise of friend and ally, but as a human being he was completely incapable of translating this play-acting into reality in the way that the settlement required. There was little prospect that the mixture of adulation and flattery that had brought emperor and tsar together at Tilsit would lead to a genuine partnership. Whether it was the treaty of Amiens or the treaty of Lunéville, settlements with France had always sooner or later foundered on the rock of Napoleon’s ambition, and now that ambition had been inflated to fresh heights. Tilsit was doomed, the only question being how long it would take for the breach with Russia to become manifest.
According to traditional British accounts of the Napoleonic Wars, if the French hegemony that had been established at Tilsit was eventually challenged, it was in large part because of the events that the overthrow of Charles IV and Ferdinand VII unleashed in Spain and Portugal. If Napoleon had believed that the Bourbons could be removed quietly, then he was sorely mistaken. On the contrary, sporadic disturbances in Spain, most notably a serious rising in Madrid on 2 May, forever after remembered as the Dos de Mayo, had by the beginning of June become a full-scale national uprising that was quickly seconded by a further revolt in Portugal. Of all the events of the French Wars, there is probably none that has been more misunderstood. Generally the revolts have been portrayed as the product of outraged patriotism, but this view is difficult to sustain. In both Spain and Portugal the risings were actually very murky affairs that reflected many of the tensions besetting the body politic. The various provincial risings - for there was no concerted national uprising as such - were engineered by a variety of dissident groups for their own purposes. In Spain, in particular, the insurrection’s leaders included disgruntled office-seekers, radicals eager to make a political revolution, prominent civilians resentful of the privileges of the military estate, discontented subaltern officers eager for promotion, conservative clerics horrified by Bourbon anti-clericalism, and members of the aristocracy opposed to the creeping advance of royal authority. As for the crowd, its motivation was as much material as it was ideological. There was intense loyalty to Ferdinand VII, but this stemmed not so much from who he was as from what he represented. As Godoy’s enemies had deliberately represented Ferdinand as a ruler who would as if by magic right all Spain’s ills, the populace believed he would rescue them from the terrible conditions that they were enduring. With the vast majority of those in political and military authority men who owed their prominence to Godoy, this persuaded the populace that Napoleon’s intervention was somehow the work of the favourite. Added to this was a general belief that the French were bent on killing the entire population: the Dos de Mayo, for example, was commonly believed to have been an unprovoked attack on the people of Madrid. From here it was but a short step to a great social convulsion. Those in authority were seen as traitors: it hardly assisted their cause that in most cases they had been urging the people to remain quiet and accept whatever Napoleon might decree. But they were also men of property and privilege, and this made the rising as much a jacquerie as a movement against the French.
The social and political background to the Peninsular War is a subject that the current author has pursued in depth elsewhere, so here we will confine ourselves to the military history of the conflict. The forces sent to Portugal were expelled by a British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley after a battle at Vimeiro (21 August 1808) and another contingent of almost 20,000 men commanded by General Dupont were forced to surrender at Bailén by a Spanish regular army commanded by Francisco Javier Castaños. Forced to draw back beyond the river Ebro, the invaders then received major reinforcements and Napoleon came to Spain to take charge of operations. The emperor, indeed, was furious: Bailén was an unparalleled blow to his prestige. What made the humiliation still greater was, first, that Dupont was a highly experienced commander who had won much acclaim in the campaign of 1805, and, second, that it came in the wake of a serious Spanish defeat at Medina de Río Seco in Old Castile that had encouraged hopes of an early end to the war. The very day Bailén was fought Napoleon was writing to Joseph, ‘There is nothing so extraordinary in you having to conquer your kingdom. Phillip V and Henry IV were obliged to conquer theirs, too. Be gay; do not let anything get you down; and do not doubt for an instant that things will work out better and be concluded more promptly than you think.’1 A few days later, we find that the tone of his correspondence is very different: ‘Dupont has sullied our banners. What ineptitude! What baseness!’2 Needless to say, such a defeat could not go unavenged, and by the beginning of November a much reinforced Armée d’Espagne was poised to deal out brutal retribution under the leadership of Napoleon himself. There followed a whirlwind campaign which saw the Spaniards suffer major defeats at Espinosa de los Monteros, Gamonal, Tudela and Somosierra. With the Spanish armies in tatters, and the provisional government known as the Junta Central, that had been formed in the wake of the battle of Bailén, in flight for Seville, on 4 December the emperor recaptured Madrid. Meanwhile, the position had also been restored in Catalonia, where the French army of occupation had for the last few months been bottled up in Barcelona.
With matters in this situation, it seemed entirely possible that the French would go on to overrun the entire Peninsula and end the war. All possibility of this, however, was precluded by a last-minute intervention in the campaign on the part of the British. Having cleared the French from Portugal, the British expeditionary force had advanced into Spain under the command of Sir John Moore (Wellesley had returned to England following a furious controversy over the surrender terms agreed in the wake of Vimeiro). For various reasons it had taken a long time for it to get ready for action, and for a while it looked as if Moore would have no option but to withdraw into Portugal. Eventually, however, Moore resolved on an offensive against the French forces guarding Napoleon’s communications in Old Castile under the command of Marshal Soult. As this brought the full weight of the French armies in northern Spain against his 20,000 men, he was soon forced to retreat to the coast of Galicia in search of rescue by the Royal Navy. But so many troops were pulled after him that the French had effectively to abandon their plans for the immediate conquest of southern Spain. As for Moore and his army, almost all the troops were rescued after a rearguard action at La Coruña on 16 January 1809, but their commander was mortally wounded by a cannon ball at the moment of victory. Though his conduct of the campaign is open to much criticism, his sacrifice was not in vain. As an early French chronicler of the conflict admitted, ‘The movement against Soult . . . forced Bonaparte to delay the execution of his designs against Andalucía and Portugal. There was not a soldier to defend the passes of the Sierra Morena, and there were but few English left in Portugal.’3
For the student of Napoleon, there is much to ponder in these events. The fact that many of the French troops sent to Spain in the course of the winter of 1807 were second-line units of the poorest quality speaks volumes for the extraordinary overconfidence with which the emperor embarked on the overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons. At the same time his decision to throw almost every man he had into the pursuit of Sir John Moore suggests a want of judgement of another sort: the British forces were so far from Madrid that to have caught them was almost impossible, particularly in the depths of an icy Castilian winter. Typical enough were the experiences of the aide-de-camp, Lejeune:
I found the whole of the Imperial Guard at San Rafael . . . The storm had been so terrible on the mountain that many men and horses had been swept over precipices, where they had perished. The grenadiers, exhausted with fatigue, were sleeping on the frozen ground covered with masses of snow and ice beside their fires, which were all but extinguished by the rain and hail which were still falling . . . There was not a square foot of shelter . . . not already invaded by sleepers piled one on top of the other.4
Whatever the implications of Napoleon’s conduct, the campaign of November 1808 to January 1809 set the pattern of operations for the whole of the next year. The French controlled most of central and northern Spain, together with a separate area around Barcelona, while Spanish armies held southern Catalonia, the Levante, Andalucía and Extremadura. As for Portugal, she too was in allied hands with a British garrison in Lisbon and such few troops as the Portuguese could muster deployed to protect Elvas, Almeida and Oporto. Called away from Spain by the growing fears of the new war with Austria, Napoleon had left instructions for his commanders - most notably, Soult, Ney and Victor - to crush allied resistance by a series of powerful offensives, but this plan quickly foundered. The Spanish armies defending Andalucía proved unexpectedly aggressive; the British reinforced their presence in Portugal and, once again commanded by a rehabilitated Sir Arthur Wellesley, repelled a French invasion; the province of Galicia rose in revolt; and the cities of Zaragoza and Gerona both put up desperate resistance when they were attacked. By the summer the initiative had passed to the Allies, and the rest of the year was dominated by two major attempts to recover Madrid. Of these, the first - an Anglo-Spanish offensive from the west and south - led merely to stalemate, a major triumph at Talavera on 28 July being deprived of all effect by serious divisions in the allied command and the fortuitous arrival of massive French reinforcements. The second offensive, however, led to disaster. In the wake of Talavera, Wellesley - now Lord Wellington - refused to engage in any further operations in Spain, and pulled his men back to the Portuguese frontier. In consequence, the offensive was the work of the Spaniards alone. Operating on exterior lines from the north-west, the west and the south in terrain that greatly favoured the vastly superior French cavalry, they had no chance, and were routed at the battles of Ocaña and Alba de Tormes with terrible losses. For the French it was a moment of triumph. In the words of an order of the day issued by Joseph Bonaparte on the field of Ocaña:
His Majesty hastens to inform the army that the imperial forces . . . have secured a signal victory at Ocaña. The Army of La Mancha . . . has been destroyed. All of its baggage, all of its artillery and thirty standards have fallen into our hands . . . [and] the number of prisoners, amongst whom are numbered three generals, six colonels and 700 other officers, amounts to 25,000 . The terrain is strewn with dead, and 40,000 muskets lie abandoned on the battlefield . . . It really appears as if not one battalion of the [enemy] army remains in a state fit to fight.5
The defeat of the main Spanish field armies and the British decision to concentrate on the defence of Portugal opened a new phase in the conflict. So serious had been the Spanish losses in the campaigns of 1809 that there was little left to put into the line. Nor could these losses be made up: though generous, British supplies of arms and uniforms were insufficient to the task of equipping whole new armies from scratch while resistance to conscription among the populace had reached enormous heights, the war never having been the popular crusade of legend. Meanwhile, with the new Austrian war fought and won (see below), Napoleon was pouring large numbers of fresh troops into Spain, and so the initiative passed back to the French. With the Spaniards further emasculated by the outbreak of revolution in Latin America - by now their chief source of revenue - the next two years saw constant French advances. City after city fell into the invaders’ hands while the Spaniards lost more and more of such troops and resources as remained to them. By late 1811 all that was left of Patriot Spain was Galicia, the Levante and the blockaded island city of Cádiz, which had in 1810 become the new capital.6 Penned up inside Portugal, the British, meanwhile, could do nothing to arrest the march of French conquest. In the end, indeed, it is clear that Napoleon’s commanders could have completely crushed resistance in Spain and then marched against Portugal in such overwhelming force that even Wellington could not have overcome them, despite the masterly defensive strategy whose details we shall examine shortly. All that was needed was for the French armies in the Peninsula to receive a constant stream of replacements and reinforcements. Thanks to the impending invasion of Russia, however, the supply of men dried up in 1812, the Armée d’Espagne even being stripped of a number of troops. As could be expected, the French forces suddenly found themselves badly over-extended, and all the more so as Napoleon insisted that they continue with the offensive against Valencia launched in the autumn of 1811. As General Suchet, the commander of the French forces in Aragón and Catalonia, put it, ‘The emperor was all impatience at Paris.’7
The events of the autumn of 1811 are worth a moment of extra consideration in the context of a discussion of the international relations of Napoleonic Europe. At this point it is clear the French were winning the war in Spain and Portugal. As fortress after fortress was taken and army after army shattered, it became ever more clear that sooner or later Spanish resistance was likely to collapse altogether. In large parts of the country, the famous guerrillas - in reality a mixture of bandit gangs; bands of levies, volunteers, deserters and liberated prisoners of war organized into semi-regular fighting forces by a variety of army officers and charismatic civilian adventurers; and flying columns of regular troops - continued to plague the French, but it is by no means clear that they could have survived indefinitely. In 1811 and 1812 successive British thrusts across the Portuguese frontier forced the French to concentrate their forces and allowed the guerrillas to run amok, but for the whole of 1811 Wellington was never able to advance very far into Spain. With the battered Spanish armies also incapable of any great feat of arms, the invaders put considerable resources into the war in the interior, while the experience of southern Italy suggested that they were entirely capable of dealing with popular insurrection. As we have already seen, in the wake of the French invasion of Naples in 1806 a serious revolt had broken out in the province of Calabria. Under the leadership of a variety of local chieftains, bands of irregulars had taken to the hills. What followed was a bloody and savage war, but the Calabrian insurgents were even less engaged by issues of ideology or nationalism than the Spaniards, while they also did not enjoy the same degree of regular assistance: occasional descents on the coast à laMaida were no substitute for the support afforded by the presence in Spain of substantial allied field armies. It is, then, no surprise that by 1810 the war in Calabria had been put down, thereby establishing beyond doubt the French army’s ability to develop effective anti-guerrilla strategies.
Victory in the Iberian Peninsula, then, was by no means an impossibility for Napoleon. The last Spanish forces could be subdued; the last Spanish fortresses beaten; and the last Spanish guerrillas hunted down. After that, there would remain Portugal, but it was doubtful whether Wellington would be able to hold out alone, and even if he could there was always the issue of support for the war in Britain. It was perhaps inevitable that the retreat of Sir John Moore, the inability to translate victory at Talavera into further advances and the withdrawal into Portugal produced outbreaks of what Wellington referred to as ‘croaking’ among the Whigs. For a long time figures such as Grey and Grenville refused point-blank to accept there was any chance of victory in the Peninsula and condemned it as a futile struggle. In addition, the more radical of the so-called ‘friends of peace’ were furious at what they perceived as Spain’s continued domination by the Church and the aristocracy. To them, indeed, the war was not only futile but indefensible: to resist Napoleon when he was seeking to invade Britain was one thing, but Copenhagen and the British expeditions to Latin America suggested that the struggle had become one of aggression and even expansion. So long as things went relatively well, the opposition leaders had little hope of winning the support of the independent MPs who were the key to gaining victory in the House of Commons. In the first half of 1810, in fact, repeated attempts to defeat the government were all firmly quashed. Nor is this surprising, for the Whigs had nothing credible to offer in their criticism of the war. In 1808 he Whigs had temporarily rallied to the cause of resistance as Britain was seemingly no longer fighting as the ally of despotism, but rather of a people united in its determination to defend its independence abroad and secure its liberty at home. Yet in Spain even British commanders who were favourable to the Whigs like Sir John Moore discovered that the crusade in which observers like Sheridan or Lord Holland took such a delight was a chimera, while every attempt to criticize Wellington foundered on the unpalatable fact that the Spaniards could not be relied upon. But unable in practice to come up with any alternative scheme for the prosecution of the war, in almost every Commons debate on the subject the Whigs ended up humiliated and discredited.
Yet the collapse of the Spanish cause would almost certainly have changed matters in this respect. Not only would it have spurred the opponents of the war to fresh efforts, but there were limits even to what the government, now headed by Spencer Perceval, could accept. By the end of 1810 Britain’s ability to bear the cost of the war was clearly faltering, and it was only with some difficulty that Wellington had persuaded the Cabinet to give him the resources he required to take the offensive in the spring of 1811. Indeed, such were London’s financial worries that there were serious proposals for his forces to be reduced. With the hope of victory gone - the Anglo-Portuguese army could not have fought the war single-handed - the Perceval administration would have quite probably given up even its commitment to the defence of Portugal.
Setting aside the government’s deficiencies - on the surface it was hardly an impressive body - what makes this even more likely is the economic context. After two years of renewed confidence and growth in part brought about by the greatly improved access Britain now enjoyed to the Latin American market, in 1811 there was a serious economic slump. The causes were complex, but essentially a poor harvest coincided with a change in Napoleon’s operation of the Continental Blockade: that in effect legalized the importation of British goods and badly hit the many speculators who had been profiting from the wholesale smuggling trade that had grown up since 1806. With this, in turn, came a great wave of bankruptcies and a significant upturn in unemployment. It may also be significant that 1811 saw the peak of the enclosure movement in the countryside and, by extension, an increase in migration to the towns, just at a moment when house-building - one of the trades most suited to absorb large numbers of unskilled labourers - was at a low ebb through the cumulative effect of years of high taxation. Distress was acute, and its expression assumed forms that were much more frightening than the ‘peace petitioning’ of 1807. General unrest and rioting spread across key industrial areas of the country, and this was underpinned by much criticism of the war, and, in particular, the Orders-in-Council, which were, entirely wrongly, held responsible for the slump in trade. Nor were these measures just hated by the handloom weavers and framework knitters who were at the heart of the unrest. On the contrary, by 1811 the Orders-in-Council were the subject of an extremely vociferous campaign on the part of the many commercial interests who also felt that they stood in their way. So great was the pressure that in June 1812 the government, which had the previous month been taken over by Lord Liverpool, was forced to capitulate, while 1813 saw a further move towards free trade with the publication of revisions to the East India Company’s charter. And, finally, there was the issue of political reform. Stimulated first by the major scandal that broke in 1809concerning allegations that the Duke of York’s mistress had intervened in army promotions in return for bribes and then by the government’s foolish attempt to quash discussion of the abortive expedition sent to Holland in 1809, several motions were introduced in the House of Commons calling for the reform of parliament, and, while these were defeated, the number of votes they received was by no means inconsiderable. Even put together, all this did not amount to a revolutionary crisis, but the collapse of resistance in Spain would have provoked a storm that neither Perceval nor Liverpool would have found it easy to ride out. Would they, indeed, have been willing even to make the attempt? The chief enthusiast for the continuation of the Peninsular War at all costs was Wellington’s brother, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Wellesley, but he was both notoriously lazy and extremely arrogant and could therefore hardly be said to have had the confidence of his colleagues.
British commitment to the Peninsula was not a given, therefore, but for the time being Wellington’s army fought on. Indeed, its achievements were considerable. Particular attention should be paid here to Wellington’s defence of Portugal in 1810-11. In accordance with France’s resumption of the offensive in the Peninsula in , the summer of that year saw some 65,000 men under Marshal Masséna move across the Portuguese frontier and besiege the fortress of Almeida. This fell very rapidly thanks to the chance explosion of its main powder magazine, and the French moved on towards Lisbon. Wellington had anticipated such a move and put together a comprehensive plan of defence. From the beginning the countryside in the path of the invaders would be devastated and the French forces harassed by the irregular home guard known as the ordenança. If possible, the French would then be brought to battle and forced to retreat, to which end the Portuguese army had been completely rebuilt under the direction of Sir William Beresford and the main routes towards Lisbon blocked by field works at a number of obvious defensive positions. Failing that, the countryside would continue to be devastated, while the Anglo-Portuguese army fell back on Lisbon, along with the bulk of the civilian population. Waiting for them would be probably the greatest single engineering feat in the entire Napoleonic era in the form of the so-called Lines of Torres Vedras, an impenetrable belt of fortifications stretching from one side of the peninsula on which Lisbon was built to the other. Whether this plan would have sufficed to hold off the French had they ever unleashed the sort of massive offensive that would have followed the final conquest of Spain is unclear - Wellington certainly had his doubts - but against the 65,000 men brought by Masséna, it was more than adequate. Despite the defenders achieving complete success on the battlefield itself, an attempt to turn the French back at Buçaco failed due to the marshal’s discovery of an unguarded track around Wellington’s northern front. But when the French reached the Lines of Torres Vedras they found that they could go no further. In this situation Masséna did his best, but through Wellington’s scorched earth policy his supplies collapsed and in March 1811 he abandoned his headquarters at Santarem and fell back on the Spanish frontier. Behind him he left scenes that were among the very worst the Napoleonic Wars had to offer. To quote one British officer:
The Light Division . . . entered Santarem, where we remained about an hour. How different this town now appeared . . . The houses are torn and dilapidated, and the few miserable inhabitants moving skeletons; the streets strewn with every description of household furniture, half-burnt and destroyed, and many . . . quite impassable with filth and rubbish, with an occasional man, mule or donkey rotting and corrupting and filling the air with pestilential vapours . . . Two young ladies had been brutally violated in a house that I entered, and were unable to rise from a mattress of straw . . . Kincaid and I went into a house where an old man was seated: he had been lame in the legs for many years. A French soldier . . . had given him two deep sabre wounds on the head and another on the arm . . . It is beyond everything horrid the way these European savages have treated the unfortunate Portuguese. Almost every man they get hold of they murder. The women they use too brutally for me to describe. They even cut the throats of infants. The towns are mostly on fire - in short, they are guilty of every species of cruelty. I have seen such sights as have made me shudder with horror, and which I really could not have believed unless an eye-witness of them.8
However, clearing Masséna from Portugal was one thing, and invading Spain quite another. For the whole of 1811, indeed, the situation on the Portuguese frontier was a stalemate. Authorized by the British government to enter Spain once more, Wellington soon found that this was easier said than done. The crucial border fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz had been greatly strengthened by the French and every attempt to besiege them was met by massive French counteroffensives, as at Albuera and Fuentes de Oñoro. Repelled though these were, they cost Wellington heavy losses and dissuaded him from marching too far into Spain, while progress was in any case rendered still more difficult by a lack of adequate siege cannon. Of course, the French were in no better state. Twice, indeed, they refused battle rather than attack Wellington in powerful defensive positions inside Portugal, while an attempt on Elvas or Almeida (now back in allied hands again) would have been out of the question. Yet until the end of 1811 the British remained able to exert only the most marginal influence on the situation in Spain, the only thing that changed this situation being Napoleon’s insistence on continual attacks in the Peninsula at the same time as he was massing his armies for the invasion of Russia. By stripping its defenders of troops, this completely destabilized the position on the Portuguese frontier. Seeing his chance, Wellington struck across the border and was quickly able to capture the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, win a major victory at Salamanca and liberate Madrid. Thanks to a variety of problems, of which by far the greatest was the de facto collapse of government and society in Spain, in November 1812 Wellington was again forced to retreat to Portugal. But the French were never fully able to recover and were further weakened by the withdrawal of still more troops in the early months of 1813. Aided by the continued attempts of 1813 the French to hold more territory than they could garrison, in May 1813 Wellington was therefore able to launch a fresh offensive that led to the defeat of King Joseph’s main field forces at Vitoria on 21 June. Bitter fighting continued in the Pyrenees, with the French vainly trying to relieve the besieged fortresses of San Sebastián and Pamplona, but they were repelled at Sorauren and San Marcial, while in October 1813 Wellington invaded France and, after several fierce battles, established himself in an unassailable position south of Bayonne. Though French troops stayed in part of Catalonia until the end of hostilities in April of the following year, to all intents and purposes the Peninsular War was over.
The British triumph in Spain and Portugal was, then, at least as much the work of Napoleon as it was that of Wellington and the Anglo-Portuguese army. To return to the crucial moment in the autumn of 1811 when the march of French conquest was derailed by the emperor, the whole episode is redolent of the attitudes that were now sapping the French imperium, and had in fact threatened its survival from the very beginning. In brief, Napoleon for a long time refused point-blank to pay sufficient attention to the threat represented by Wellington’s forces, and consistently put other issues first. In the spring of 1810, for example, rather than returning to the Peninsula, as was generally expected, he remained in France to pursue his increasingly desperate search for an heir. In part, the problem was psychological: the very fact that the British could maintain an army on the soil of mainland Europe was a constant source of irritation to him, and his instinct was to play the matter down. As Madame de Rémusat noted:
The emperor did not like the Spanish affair; in fact, it bored him. Recognizing that he had commenced it badly, conducted it in a most feeble manner, and greatly underestimated its difficulty and importance, he affected to set little store by it so as not to let it humiliate him . . . Always an improviser, it was more to his taste to draw a veil over all that displeased him, and renew his fortune and reputation from scratch.9
But in the last resort Napoleon despised ‘the sepoy general’ and his men. Wellington, the emperor was convinced, was a cautious general who was unwilling to take the offensive and unlikely to win offensive battles. To the end he underestimated the number of men available to Wellington and refused to regard the Portuguese forces that made up an important part of his field army as anything other than a disorderly rabble, when in fact Beresford had made them, as even the normally austere Wellington put it, the ‘fighting cocks of the army’.10 Never having had to face a British army in battle, Napoleon knew nothing of the superiority of British infantry tactics, or the effects of Britain’s deadly Baker rifles and shrapnel shells. The news of Salamanca, which he received in the depths of Russia on the very eve of the battle of Borodino, therefore came as a severe shock, but still he made light of the situation. ‘The English have their hands full there: they cannot leave Spain to go and make trouble for me in France or Germany,’ he told General Caulaincourt. ‘That is all that matters.’11
All this is most instructive of the way in which the French ruler’s mind had been developing, but there are other hints that all was not well. Time and again he sent orders to the Peninsula that were either completely out of date or incapable of being realized in the first place. Take, for example, his plan to seize Lisbon in 1809. Between the middle of January and 10 February 1809, Marshal Soult, whose troops were still absolutely exhausted from their pursuit of Sir John Moore, was expected to occupy the whole of Galicia, fight his way past not one but two border fortresses, capture the major city of Oporto and present himself before the walls of Lisbon. Even if there had been no resistance whatsoever, the programme would have been hard to achieve - Galicia and northern Portugal were poor regions characterized by few roads, little in the way of food and transport and, in winter, constant rain and snow. In the circumstances Soult did quite well to take Oporto on 29 March. ‘Napoleon was . . . living in a non-existent world, created by his own imagination,’ complained Marshal Marmont. ‘He built structures in the air; he took his desires for realities; and he gave orders as if he was ignorant of the true state of affairs.’12 Unwilling to travel to Spain himself, he also refused to appoint an effective commander-in-chief to act in his stead until it was far too late, and then selected the distinctly inappropriate figure of Joseph Bonaparte, despite the fact that he not only possessed no experience as a field commander but also, largely thanks to Napoleon, was regarded with complete contempt by the marshals and other generals he was supposed to direct. In part this was the fruit of the same over-confidence of which we have just spoken, but also there was something else: obsessed with keeping power in his own hands, the emperor was loath to see too much slip into those of even his closest and most devoted subordinates.
The Peninsular War reveals much about the character of Napoleon. At the same time, however, it also highlights the difficulties Britain had in building and maintaining the sort of continental coalition which was her only chance of bringing the war to a successful conclusion. This problem was bad enough with powers such as Austria and Russia, but in respect of smaller or weaker states who found themselves totally dependent on Britain for their survival it was even worse. This had already been demonstrated in Sicily in the months preceding the outbreak of the Peninsular War. Since the first months of 1806 Ferdinand IV of Naples and his wife, Maria Carolina, had been living in Palermo under protection of a British garrison. Yet relations between the king and queen and their protectors were far from good. Earlier tensions in the relationship were revived by the peace negotiations of 1806, which had given rise to the suspicion that Sicily - indeed, the entire Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - might be bargained away in the pursuit of wider objectives. Ham-fisted British diplomacy - in this case the suggestion that a permanent garrison might be maintained on the island even in peacetime - also gave rise to suspicions that there might be plans to seize the island or at the very least secure some coastal city as a new Gibraltar. And, as ever, there was strong commercial pressure. Britain wanted her produce and re-exports to be given free access to all Sicily’s ports and suggested that British merchants resident on the island should be given special privileges. With some difficulty a treaty of alliance was eventually negotiated - but bitter disputes arose over exactly how much money had been paid to the Sicilian regime by London. There were also constant clashes over strategy: Maria Carolina, especially, was all for sending expeditionary forces to the mainland and encouraging the cause of popular revolt, whereas most British observers believed that there was no hope of reconquering Naples by force and that the Calabrian insurgents were in reality mere brigands who could achieve nothing other than to draw down the wrath of the French on their unfortunate fellow citizens.
Added to all this was a political dimension. In the first instance, Sicily was desperately poor, and the misery of the common people made for considerable social tension: by 1807, indeed, there was a real possibility of famine. In the second, the local nobility were extremely jealous of their feudal privileges, and looked on the arrival of the court at Palermo with considerable concern, for ever since the 1780s the monarchy had been trying to erode their power. And, in the third, there was a strong feeling among educated opinion that Sicily was being both neglected and exploited. For example, the king and queen insisted on giving the chief positions at court, and in such armed forces as they were able to maintain, to nobles who had escaped with them from the mainland. That a number of these noblemen were French in origin did not help: although they were all either emigrés or men who had been in Neapolitan service for many years, it began to be said that some of them were French agents. Keen to ensure stability, the British were inclined to press a reformist agenda on Ferdinand and Maria Carolina, especially given Sicily’s inability to sustain much of a war effort. The entrenched privileges of the nobility, encapsulated by the survival of the island’s medieval parliament, ensured that tax revenues were low; the defences of such towns and cities as possessed them were mostly in a state of complete disrepair; and there was little in the way of an army or militia, nor much hope of recruiting fresh soldiers. Demands that something be done to remedy this situation, however, only produced charges that the British were being unreasonable, while Maria Carolina compounded the resultant anger by periodic attempts to find some alternative to the British alliance. As one possibility was a deal with Napoleon that would have given Ferdinand back his old throne in return for getting the British to withdraw from Sicily, the wildest rumours were soon gaining ground. The queen, it was said, wanted to block reform so as to provoke a pro-French revolt. Equally, if she was constantly urging the British to invade the mainland, it was to engineer their destruction and thereby rescue the Bourbons from their control. Small wonder, then, that by there were those in Britain who believed the only way forward in Sicily was to take the island under direct rule, sideline the king and queen and force through a programme of reform from the outside.
Nor were matters much better with regard to Sweden. As we have seen, back in February 1808 Russia had invaded Finland. Only weakly garrisoned, much of the south had soon been occupied, along with Gotland and the Åland archipelago. Meanwhile, Sweden was also threatened with invasion from Denmark, which had joined the war and immediately received the assistance of a considerable detachment of the grande armée, including the Spanish division commanded by La Romana. In consequence, in April a substantial British expeditionary force was sent to Göteborg under Sir John Moore. The dispatch of this force had been dictated by the need to cement Britain’s credibility as an ally, but by the time it arrived the need for its presence had been supplanted by military necessity. In brief, thanks in large part to the loathing provoked by Gustav IV among the nobility on account of his continued support for the policies of enlightened absolutism associated with his father, Gustav III, many officers opposed the war with Russia or saw it as a chance to discredit Gustav. Resistance had therefore been sporadic at best, and on 7 May the supposedly impregnable fortress of Sveaborg - an imposing citadel situated on an island just off the coast from modern-day Helsinki (then called Helsingfors) - surrendered without firing a shot. Moore’s arrival, then, came as something of a godsend for the embattled king, but in the event relations between the British and Gustav IV proved turbulent. Part of the problem was the result of a simple muddle: Moore had been given to understand that his forces were to be commanded by himself alone, while the Swedes believed that control of the expeditionary force was to belong to Gustav. At the same time, Gustav IV was anxious to fight an offensive war, whereas Moore wanted rather to fight a defensive one. Indeed, the king insisted that Moore’s division had been sent for the express purpose of launching attacks on the enemy positions ringing the Baltic, and refused to let them disembark from their ships. To all this, of course, Moore objected very strongly:
The King . . . is a man of honourable, upright mind, but without ability and every now and then proposes measures which prove either derangement or the greatest weakness of mind. He has no minister, but governs himself, and, as he has neither the habits nor the talents requisite, Sweden is . . . a country without a government, or . . . one that is only governed by fits and starts. The King is perfectly despotic: whatever he orders must be done, and, unfortunately, when he gives orders he depends entirely . . . on his own impressions as facts. He does not see the perilous position he is in, and nobody dares represent it to him. He is speculating on conquests when he has already lost one province, and has not the means to defend the rest. In short, his situation is such that it is next to impossible that he can sustain himself . . . Our troops . . . might check his enemies so far as to . . . give the King time to rouse his people . . . but it is not a prince such as he that could rouse a people or direct their efforts with ability. The natural consequence . . . is that his people become indifferent, and many adverse . . . In such a state of things we can do him no permanent good: he will not follow our counsels, and our force alone is not sufficient.13
Setting aside the distraction offered by the Spanish insurrection - Gustav IV appears to have suspected that Moore was looking for a pretext to withdraw his troops so as to get a share of the glory in the Peninsula - at issue were two fundamental problems. In the first place, behind the Swedes’ intransigence was fear of Britain’s underlying intentions. Were a British garrison to be installed in Göteborg, what guarantee was there against that city becoming a Baltic Gibraltar? And, in the second, Gustav had expectations of Britain which she simply could not satisfy. To the embattled Swedish monarch, Britain’s resources seemed infinite - in 1807 he had, after all, been offered one of the most generous subsidy deals of the entire Napoleonic period - but Moore was deeply conscious that the 12,000 men that he commanded represented a substantial part of Britain’s disposable resources. In consequence, they had to be carefully husbanded, but the British commander’s insistence that this was the case produced a total breakdown of relations that ended with Moore being placed under house arrest in Stockholm. Escaping from custody in disguise, Moore fled to Göteborg, and within a matter of hours his troops were under sail for England. Assisted by a British squadron that had also been sent to the Baltic, the Swedes fought on, but the relationship between the two allies never recovered. Indeed, the winter of 1808-9 was to see a fresh crisis. Faced by the need to renew his subsidy treaty with Britain, Gustav IV resorted to very aggressive tactics. The unfortunate British ambassador was suddenly confronted with the announcement that unless the subsidy for 1809 was raised to £2 million from its current level of £1,2 million, and £300,000 found for him immediately, Gustav would cut off all trade with Britain. Somewhat shaken, the ambassador caved in, and made over the £300,000 while at the same time referring the subsidy issue to his superiors. London, however, was made of sterner stuff, and a furious Canning vetoed the increase. Desperate for money to carry on the war, the king gave way in his turn, but he only did so with the worst possible grace. In this, it is at least arguable that Gustav had a point. Given British support, it is possible that an invasion of Danish-ruled Norway might have succeeded, the defenders being in such disarray that they had been forced to negotiate an armistice, while the generous aid sent to Spain and Portugal left Gustav feeling that he had been abandoned. And so, in a sense, he had. The Baltic entanglement had become a nightmare for Britain, and all the more so as Canning was convinced that without it Russia would long since have been reconciled with Britain. Few tears, then, were shed when Gustav was overthrown by a military coup a mere twelve days after he had accepted the new subsidy deal, even though the regime that replaced him under Gustav’s uncle, the aged and childless Charles XIII, made peace, accepting the terms of the Continental Blockade and surrendering Finland and the Åland islands to Russia.
To return to Iberia, from the very beginning the Spanish alliance in particular posed immense problems. In part, the cause lay with the overheated atmosphere in which the alliance had emerged in June 1808.
Despite claims that William Pitt and others predicted such a development, the news of the Spanish insurrection arrived in England as a bolt from the blue. Nothing was known about it until two messengers that had been dispatched from Asturias arrived in London on 8 June 1808 (as a matter of fact, the British governor at Gibraltar, Sir Hew Dalrymple, had been contacted about a potential uprising a few days after the Dos de Mayo, but only his first reports on what was going on had turned up in London by the time the deputation arrived from Asturias). With the French cause clearly in the ascendant, the result was the most wild excitement. For the Whigs, the Peninsula afforded a cause with which they could identity - a people rising to free itself from despotism - and a means of fighting the war which not only promised certain victory in their eyes, but also freed Britain from association with the autocracies of Eastern Europe. And for the Tories it offered the equally noble sight of a populace fighting just as heroically not to make a revolution, but to defend the traditional social order and the religious and political institutions which sustained it. What no one doubted, meanwhile, was that the Spanish people were fighting heroically, and that this was a cause to which Britain must rally.
Within a very few days, then, the basic principle had been resolved: Britain would support the Spanish revolt to the full extent of her abilities. But what this meant to the Portland administration was one thing, and what it meant to the Spaniards quite another. Much as Gustav IV had done, the Spaniards assumed that Britain’s resources were far greater than was actually the case. Troops were not at first seen as being that important - when he made his first landfall in Spain, indeed, Sir Arthur Wellesley was advised to sail on to Portugal and land his men there instead - but there was almost no limit to the arms, equipment and money that were asked for. To this was added a further complication in that Britain embarked on the Peninsular War with the sense that she was rushing to the rescue of ‘gallant little Spain’, whereas the Spaniards believed that it was rather Spain who was rescuing Britain. Needless to say, the general concord of the summer of 1808 did not survive for very long. As we have seen, the Spanish revolt was an extremely complex phenomenon which had little in common with the great popular crusade of Britain’s imagination: enthusiasm for the struggle was at best limited, and the provisional government that was formed at Aranjuez in September was an unwieldy affair that had difficulty imposing its authority. Conscription, then, did not go well while there were very few volunteers. At the same time, it proved very difficult even to get the Spanish armies to the front, let alone coordinate their activities or suppress the feuding that characterized the high command. Slow to get his army into Spain at all, let alone to the front line on the river Ebro, Moore was incensed by what he found, and concluded, along with many of his men, that the Spanish war was a mere sham - that both he and the British government had been deceived. A terrible affair, the retreat to La Coruña was therefore blamed on the Spaniards, while many stories spread of their supposed cruelty, ingratitude, cowardice and incompetence. Yet there is also the Spanish point of view to be considered here. Moore’s army was slow to arrive in Spain; the behaviour of many of the British troops was nearly as bad as that of the French soldiers they were supposed to be opposing; and the British had failed to make a stand even when they reached the shelter offered by the eminently defensible frontiers of Galicia.
The campaign of Sir John Moore set the tone for what proved to be a most acrimonious partnership. As the years of conflict continued, fresh recriminations kept surfacing with regard to the conduct of operations. The battle of Talavera saw the British complaining that the Spaniards had failed to supply them with adequate food, and the Spaniards complaining that Wellington had deliberately sabotaged their operations. The battle of Ocaña saw the Spaniards maintaining that defeat had come because the British commander had refused to support their offensive. After the first siege of Ciudad Rodrigo the captured Spanish governor accused Wellington of deliberately abandoning him to his fate when his forces were a mere day’s march away to the west. The battle of Barosa saw the British, this time commanded by Sir Thomas Graham, arguing that they had been betrayed by the Spaniards. The battle of Albuera saw complaints that the excessive Anglo-Portuguese casualties had been the product of the Spaniards’ inability to manoeuvre, and that it was invariably necessary for the British to do all the fighting. And the siege of Burgos and the miserable winter retreat that followed found Wellington blaming the setback on the Spaniards and suggesting that their battered regular armies had failed to do enough to tie down his various French opponents. For these disappointments both sides had their own explanations. Time and again all the Spaniards saw of the British was their disappearing backs as they fled for the safety of their refuge of the moment, while loudly protesting the need to defend Portugal. This suggested that their allies did not have their hearts in the struggle, or, at least, that they were quite content for Spain to do the bulk of the fighting, in which respect it should be remembered that there were long periods - from August 1809 to July 1810, for example - when Wellington’s forces hardly fired a single shot. Spanish disappointment was also fuelled by the influence of an ever-optimistic, not to mention wildly irresponsible, press, which consistently overestimated the number of British troops available for action. Encountering a group of Spanish soldiers on the Portuguese frontier in 1810, one British officer wrote:
They knew little of . . . the regular practice of war; they knew only that we had not fired a shot by their side since the battle of Talavera, that our companions in arms under Sir John Moore had fled through the strong country of Galicia without fighting two years before, and their angry and contemptuous looks told us plainly that they expected that we should retire through Portugal . . . with similar precipitation.14
As for the British, the Spaniards were, or so it seemed, incompetent, cowardly and unreliable, a judgement that was backed by their armies being beaten on almost every occasion that they took the field. The British viewed all this through the lens of the ‘black legend’: thanks to centuries of obscurantist Catholicism, Spain was backward, her leaders corrupt and her people cowed and apathetic. Irritation and disappointment therefore reaffirmed the already strong British sense of cultural superiority, and this expressed itself at best as haughtiness and arrogance, and at worst as outbursts of savagery that saw several liberated towns - most notably Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastián - brutally put to the sack. Even Wellington was by no means immune to the general sense of cultural superiority. ‘The Spaniard,’ he wrote to his aide-de-camp, Lord Burghersh, ‘is an undisciplined savage who obeys no law, despises all authority, feels no gratitude for benefits conferred or favours received, and is always ready with his knife or firelock to commit murder.’15 In the wake of the retreat from Burgos, in particular, his anger knew no bounds:
I have never yet known the Spanish army do anything, much less do anything well . . . A few rascals called guerrillas attack one quarter of their number and sometimes succeed and sometimes not, but as for any regular operation, I have not heard of such a thing and successful [sic] in the whole course of the war. 16
Such attitudes engendered a greater degree of suspicion and resentment among the Spaniards, increasing the likelihood that honest cooperation with the British would not be forthcoming. At the same time, by a variety of means, of which the greatest and most devious was appointing Wellington to be commander-in-chief of the Spanish armies in September 1812 (see below), the Spaniards sought to secure control of the operations of the Anglo-Portuguese army and keep it linked to operations in Spain. Yet these manoeuvres caused further outrage in Wellington’s headquarters, and led to angry accusations of political interference. It was a vicious circle, and the mutual incomprehension which marked the relationship between the rival armed forces continued to fester until the end of the war.
To disappointment on the battlefield was added a variety of political and diplomatic problems. Chief amongst these was the burgeoning controversy that surrounded the linked issues of British subsidies, political reform, free trade and the Latin American revolutions. When Spain went to war with Napoleon, the Patriot authorities had bombarded the Portland government with petitions for help that took no account of Great Britain’s abilities actually to meet their expectations. In April 1809, for example, the Spanish representatives in London asked for a loan of at least £10 million, and this at a time when Britain was simultaneously attempting to furnish assistance to the Austrians (who were, as we shall see, once more at war with France). Still more extreme was a draft treaty presented to the British government in August, of which the main terms were that Britain should provide Spain with an auxiliary force of 30,000 men for use in either Britain or America, sufficient muskets for 500,000 men, and a loan of 40million reales (approximately £450,000 ) per month. Needless to say, Canning was outraged, remarking that the proposal was ‘so utterly extravagant that it was useless to begin negotiating upon’.17 At the same time no subsidy treaty was offered the Spaniards, the Portland administration preferring to use what money they could send to Spain as a weapon of diplomacy, and even then warning the Spaniards that the financial help Britain could offer would necessarily be very limited.
Canning’s anger is understandable. In the course of 1808 Britain had dispatched £1.1 million to Spain as a free gift, along with perhaps 200,000 muskets and large quantities of other military supplies. Additional aid had, of course, gone to Portugal and when Canning’s old friend and ally, John Hookham Frere, had been appointed as ambassador to Patriot Spain he had been given a further £650,000, supplemented in June 1809 by another £1.7 in treasury bills. And finally there came the costs of the British army itself, which for the year were calculated as at least £1.7 million. For all this, the return had hardly been brilliant. The Spaniards had effectively shown neither the political or military capacity to benefit from Britain’s generosity nor the will to act on her suggestions. Despite British pressure, a single commander-in-chief had never been appointed for the Spanish armies. Portugal, meanwhile, stood in striking contrast. Here the British had succeeded in obtaining an influence never equalled the other side of the frontier. In part the reasons for this were fortuitous. By the time that news arrived in London of the Portuguese insurrection, which took place somewhat later than its Spanish counterpart, so much money had been committed to Spain that there was only £60,000 left for Portugal. From the beginning, then, the British had greater leverage in Portugal than they did in Spain, while a variety of other factors helped, including the absence of much of the political elite in Brazil and the country’s long-standing ties with Britain (of whom, by contrast, Spain was a historic enemy). From the beginning, then, many concessions were forthcoming. Already in January 1808 a gift of £100,000 in a mixture of specie and credits had produced a declaration by the government-in-exile in Brazil that henceforward there would be no restrictions on foreign trade with Brazil. Although this did not fully meet Canning’s expectations - what he wanted was a deal that would give Britain ‘most-favoured nation’ status by means of a preferential tariff - it was a good start. And there was more to come. In exchange for an agreement to meet the wages of that part of the Portuguese army attached to the British forces in Portugal and the guarantee of a £600,000 loan on the London market, Prince John placed his army under the command of Wellington, appointed Beresford to the command-in-chief of the Portuguese army itself, and agreed that British officers - a vital tool, it was felt, in the construction of the much-needed new army - could be given commissions in the Portuguese service. Supplies in kind had continued to flood in and the promise of regular payments from Wellington’s military chest ultimately secured a place for the British ambassador to Lisbon in the council of regency established to govern the country in John’s absence.
This is not to say that the relationship with Portugal was trouble-free. On the contrary, Wellington bombarded its administration with demands for such measures as a forced loan, an increase in the property tax, the introduction of a graduated income tax, the reinforcement of local government and a purge of the commissariat, only to find that his demands were simply ignored. Nor was British control especially popular: the powerful Sousa family set itself up as the voice of protest, and at various times caused much trouble. Yet, although it grew in inverse proportion to the reduction in the threat of French invasion, such discord was limited and the situation much better than it was in Spain. By the middle of 1809 there were simply not the reserves of hard cash necessary to meet the Spaniards’ demands. Encouraged by the Portuguese example, Canning began to turn the screw on the Patriot camp. As early as the summer of 1808, it had been intimated that no more financial aid would be forthcoming unless some form of central government was brought into being, while attempts had also been made to press for the appointment of a commander-in-chief. Angered by the failure of the Talavera campaign of 1809, which he put down entirely to Spanish mismanagement, Lord Wellesley, now ambassador to the then Patriot capital of Seville, went still further and openly advocated the need for political, administrative and social reform:
It is evident that the independence of a nation must rest on the basis of her own internal force and public spirit, and that no country can attain or preserve happiness or glory by implicit reliance on foreign aid. For these great objects I should view with the most lively satisfaction any regular, deliberate and systematic attention to the increase and management of the military resources of Spain, and to the augmentation, composition, discipline and efficiency of the Spanish armies . . . But the source of every improvement must be the efficiency of the executive power, which can never possess sufficient force or activity without the direct assistance of the collective wisdom of the nation, and without the aid of that spirit which must arise from the immediate support of a people animated by equal sentiments of loyalty and freedom.18
The ideas contained in this note were developed further in a series of private conversations with the general secretary of the Junta Central, Martín de Garay. What Wellesley required, it transpired, was the replacement of the Junta Central, which numbered more than thirty members at full strength, by a council of regency, the election of a national assembly or cortes, a general redress of grievances with respect to the governance and taxation of both metropolitan Spain and her foreign dominions, and the incorporation into the new Spain of the American colonies through a fair system of political representation. But the expression of such views was extremely indelicate. It was all very well to suggest that Spanish America was on the verge of revolution, but in 1809 there were few signs that a general convulsion was nigh in Spain’s American possessions. Although a small rebellion broke out in Upper Peru (today Bolivia) in the summer of 1809, this was easily suppressed and appears to have been as much directed against rule from Buenos Aires as it was against rule from Spain. Less than two years before, British troops had invaded present-day Uruguay and Argentina, and it should not be forgotten that a British force had been available for service in the Peninsula within weeks of the rising breaking out because the Portland administration had returned to the idea of an American adventure. Faced by the French takeover in Spain, its initial response had been to resolve that a division should be sent to what is now Venezuela to support the adventurer, Francisco de Miranda, and stir up an insurrection that, if it spread, would put the riches of the Indies beyond the reach of Napoleon once and for all. Concentrated for this purpose at Cork, the troops concerned had been given to Sir Arthur Wellesley who in consequence became the archetypal example of the right man in the right place at the right time. And finally, the fact that Britain had been fighting on the side of Spain in the war of 1793-5 had not prevented her from engaging in a variety of actions that had damaged Spanish interests. With Britain continuing to seize French and Dutch possessions around the world - the period 1809-11 saw the capture of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion, Mauritius, Dakar and Batavia - it is not to be wondered at that senior figures in the local junta were putting it about ‘that the greatest circumspection was necessary with regard to England, that her views were dangerous, and, notwithstanding her apparent exertions for Spain, that her policy was to be dreaded’.19
Wellesley’s references to Spanish America notwithstanding, the chief focus of Spanish suspicions prior to 1810 was the port city of Cádiz. British interest in Cádiz was so strong as almost to be an obsession. In June 1808 and again in February 1809 there had been offers to give the city the protection of a British garrison, and in the wake of Talavera the issue was raised yet again. Canning proposed that the Junta Central should be informed that the admission of British forces to Cádiz would be integral to any further British advance into Spain. The pretext for this, of course, was that Spanish political and military unreliability was such that no British army could be risked in the interior of Spain unless it was assured of a safe refuge on the coast. But the military logic underlying the proposal was questionable, and the role of Cádiz as the centre of the colonial trade raised further suspicions in the Patriot camp, especially given Britain’s continued presence in Gibraltar and her control of Menorca (which was in British hands from 1708 to 1756, to1763 1782, and1798 to 1802).
For the first two years of the war Cádiz remained the chief territorial point of friction between the British and the Spaniards. Gradually, however, the issue of Spanish America began to supplant it. Initially, there were two basic problems: specie and free trade. From the very beginning of the war, indeed, Canning had maintained that, because of the shortage of specie that affected Great Britain, her ability to aid the Spaniards would be contingent on gaining access to American silver. His response to Spanish demands for help was therefore to request the Junta Central for permission to export specie directly from the Spanish colonies, or at least for Britain to be given a share of the vast quantities of bullion that were arriving at Cádiz. The empire was seen by the British government as a means of breaking the Continental Blockade and securing the revenues it needed to continue the war, while it was also conscious that exploitation of the market represented by the Spanish colonies would be a good way of assuaging the concerns of the commercial community in respect of the Orders-in-Council. It was not long, then, before the Foreign Secretary was ordering his representatives in Spain to discuss access to the hitherto exclusive colonial trade and, still more importantly, the produce of the empire’s silver mines. Only limited progress was made, however. The Spaniards did sanction a few purchases of specie, but to demands for trade concessions Seville had but one answer. Recognizing that to relinquish Spain’s commercial monopoly on the empire would equate to severing one of the most important links that bound it together, the Junta Central refused to make any commercial concessions except in return for a guaranteed subsidy (it might also be noted here that the British were already conducting a substantial contraband trade with the Spanish colonies through such entrepôts as Jamaica). Nor was their anxiety wholly selfish, for the shipments of bullion that were arriving at Cádiz were becoming ever more important as the tide of French conquest spread across Spain. Yet the British refused to take account of this concern, and continued to push the Spaniards, claiming that Spain’s inability to supply its colonies with goods was provoking a revolutionary situation.
And there for a while matters might have rested. But in the first months of 1810 the situation was transformed. The French conquest of Andalucía early in the year led to the Junta Central’s deposition, and the capital of Patriot Spain was hastily transferred from Seville to Cádiz. On one level this was helpful as the Regency that was now formed seemed less hostile to Britain: not only did the election of a new National Assembly at last go ahead, but British garrisons were admitted both to Cádiz and to the Moroccan enclave of Ceuta. But on another level the development was less welcome, as the move put the Patriot regime firmly in the pocket of Cádiz’s powerful merchant community, just as the loss of Andalucía - in financial terms the central bastion of Spanish resistance - increased the Spaniards’ dependence on America. And, finally, in April 1810 revolt broke out in Venezuela, an example soon copied in Buenos Aires, Chile and Mexico. In each case the catalyst was the fall of the Junta Central, an event that seemed to presage the complete collapse of Spain and with it the need for the local elites to take responsibility for their own destiny. In many areas of the empire there had of course been simmering discontent with Spanish rule, but in few instances would this have been enough to produce outright rebellion; indeed, in the colonies had on the whole rushed to support the cause of the metropolis. By the end of the year, the only areas of the Americas to remain loyal - chiefly Peru and Cuba - were the ones in which racial tension was so serious that the local elites did not dare jeopardize their position by stirring up a war. This was but the beginning of a long story: in Mexico and Venezuela social unrest led to the wholesale defection of the criollos and the restoration of the status quo; in Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile, Peruvian expeditionary forces were able to crush the rebels; in Uruguay, Brazilian troops moved in and established a Portuguese protectorate; and in Colombia, serious splits in the insurgent camp enabled loyalism to maintain a foothold. However, Argentina and Paraguay remained independent, while such was the disruption caused by the fighting that financial support for Spain fell dramatically. Thus, the 860 million reales received from across the Atlantic in 1809 fell to a mere 225.5 million reales the next year. As total domestic receipts in were only 182.2 . million reales, the Regency was presented with a serious problem. As the commander of the British expeditionary force that was sent to Cádiz, Sir Thomas Graham, noted in April 1811, ‘The government is quite bankrupt.’20
All this complicated matters tremendously. In Spain, and especially in Cádiz, the American revolts were greeted with extreme hostility. No matter what their political views were - and there were deep divisions between them - the Spanish deputies who attended the new Assembly that opened in Cádiz in September 1810 united in condemning the insurrection (there were a number of American deputies, but the colonies had deliberately been assigned a less generous level of representation than the metropolis, and they were therefore overwhelmed). At best the insurgents were regarded as self-seeking degenerates - there was a common perception that the American climate had encouraged sexual profligacy and sapped the moral and intellectual fibre of the criollos - who had gulled the savage and uncivilized masses into following their lead. As well as having to fight the French, successive regencies therefore found themselves committed to a highly expensive second front, which by 1814 had absorbed some 20,000 troops. Yet thecortes set its face against any moves in the direction of reform, even the political equality that was granted to the colonies in October 1810 being hedged about with so many qualifications that it was almost meaningless.
Needless to say, all this posed enormous problems in London. The Perceval administration could not openly support a revolt against its most important ally, but it feared the rebels might be driven into the arms of the French, wished to forge good relations with them, and had a strong interest in seeing them attain their independence. The administration was at the same time encumbered by a public opinion that was strongly pro-American. The result was a most unhappy compromise. British representatives in the Caribbean and elsewhere were forbidden to give direct assistance to the rebels, but insurgent emissaries were received in London. Rather than agreeing to Spanish demands that it should help put down the rebels by force, the British government offered to mediate between the belligerents in the hope of securing terms - amongst them, needless to say, a liberalization of trade - that would restore the Americans to their allegiance. To the Spaniards this was totally unacceptable, for inherent in the very concept of mediation was the idea that they should make substantial concessions. Meanwhile, they knew perfectly well that the rebels were receiving a considerable amount of covert British help and, unofficial though this was, they could not be convinced the government was not behind this. Equally the Spanish could not be convinced that the Brazilian invasion force sent into what is today Uruguay was acting on the say-so of the Portuguese Prince Regent and his Spanish wife, María Carlota de Borbón. In their eyes, it was self-evident that the arrival of Brazilian troops at Montevideo amounted to nothing less than a covert British attempt to reverse the result of the campaigns of 1806-7. As a result, the Regency would only agree to mediation if the British promised to assist in repression should the negotiations fail. This meant of course that the British were regarded with more hostility than ever. Writing from La Coruña, Sir Howard Douglas noted a worrying tendency ‘to attribute all our measures to selfish policy’, while Henry Wellesley, who had taken over from his brother, Lord Wellesley, went so far as to claim that the American revolts ‘have been the principal cause of all the trouble and vexation I have met with in my different communications with the government’.21 Indeed, even Wellington was inclined to admit that the Spaniards had a point:
I hope that the regency will have firmness to resist the demand of free trade with the colonies; as a boon of the colonies, it might answer in some degree and might be connected with measures of finance which would probably give them a very large revenue. But we have no right and it is the greatest impolicy in us to demand it. Great Britain has ruined Portugal by her free trade with the Brazils: not only the customs [duties] of Portugal are lost, but the fortunes of numerous individuals who lived by their trade are ruined, and Cádiz will suffer in a similar manner if this demand is agreed to. Portugal would now be in a very different situation as an ally if our trade with the Brazils was still carried on through Lisbon, and I would only ask is it liberal or just to destroy the power and resources [of], and absolutely to ruin, our allies in order to put into the pockets of our merchants the money which before went into their treasuries and would now be employed in the maintenance of military establishments against the common enemy.22
By 1812, then, relations between London and Cádiz were very bad, but matters now deteriorated still further. Hitherto the Spaniards had, much to the irritation of many British observers, refused to accept the idea of any of their troops being placed under British control. On 22 September1812 , however, the cortes suddenly voted to offer Wellington nothing less than the command-in-chief of the Spanish army. This concession was made in the wake of Wellington’s great victory at Salamanca (22 July 1812) and it was supposed by Henry Wellesley that the cortes’ move came in recognition of the British commander’s military prowess. In fact it was the product of nothing of the sort. A small number of deputies may have been acting in good faith, but at the root of the offer was the fact that two rival factions had emerged in Spanish politics. On the one hand there were the liberales, a progressive group who were strongly committed to a programme of radical political reform that encompassed such principles as equality before the law, freedom of speech, freedom of occupation, the sovereignty of the people and a constitutional monarchy. And on the other, there were the serviles, a rather larger group who were in their own way equally reformist but hoped rather to return Spain to a mythical medieval golden age in which the nobility and the Church would stand supreme and the monarchy be relegated to a mere figurehead. Infighting between the two had become more and more ferocious, and in the summer of 1812 the situation had suddenly tilted away from theliberales. Since 1810 the governance of Spain had been in the hands of a Council of Regency, and for two years this had been dominated by figures who were either more or less favourable to the liberales or too weak to stand in their way. In January 1812 a much more conservative body took office, and by August fresh changes had eliminated the only figure in its ranks who was believed to be progressive in his views. In this situation the liberales not unnaturally believed that their programme would be blocked for good, and decided to attempt to get yet another regency into office. To do this, however, they needed British support, and in this situation the command-in-chief offered itself as a most convenient bribe. But, committed as they were to the principle of the sovereignty of the people, the liberales had no intention of surrendering any real power to Wellington, while they also saw the offer as a potential ‘Trojan horse’ that would secure the Spaniards control of the Anglo-Portuguese army. Everything revolved around what was meant by the phrase ‘command-in-chief’. Wellington would be given command of the Spanish field armies, certainly, but what the British did not realize was that that did not mean that they had been placed under his control. On the contrary, political responsibility for the army, and with it control of its organization and structure, continued, as laid down by the constitution, to lie with the Regency and cortes. In future, in short, Wellington would have to do exactly what he was told.
At first this reality was hidden from the British by elaborating the decree offering the command to Wellington in language of great complexity. Indeed, it is probable that neither he nor Henry Wellesley nor anyone in the new British government of Lord Liverpool (in May 1812 Perceval had been murdered by a lunatic) ever really understood the Spanish manoeuvre. But this hardly mattered. To the horror of the liberales, Wellington insisted on a number of conditions that made it clear that he would have the power to purge the officer corps of undesirable elements and exercise control of the military budget. None of this, of course, had been anticipated by the decree’s supporters, while both the military and the political situation had now changed dramatically: in November 1812, as we have seen, Wellington had again been forced to retreat to the Portuguese frontier, while the danger posed by the conservative Regency that had been established in January had in large part evaporated. For the whole of 1813, the liberalesand their supporters strove by every means in their power to undermine the new commander-in-chief’s authority, sabotage his orders and rescue at least a part of the army from his control. Wellington, meanwhile, found himself battling against conditions that were near impossible. So chaotic was the situation in Spain it was all but impossible to gather the resources of men, food, transport and money that would have been needed to make the army an effective fighting force. Something of the sense of frustration that prevailed at his headquarters is communicated by the diary of the Judge Advocate General, Francis Larpent:
The Spanish government and Lord Wellington have not got on well together in spite of outward appearances. The moment any general acts cordially with us . . . some reason is found for his removal. This ridiculous Spanish jealousy would be bearable if they supported it by exertion of their own so as to enable us to leave them to themselves, but we are now feeding and clothing their half-starved men in the front and they are doing very little in the rear to supply those they have or to increase their numbers. In short, five years’ misery has not scourged them into reasonable beings, and turned romance heroes into common-sense soldiers and practical politicians.23
Only in the autumn did significant numbers of Spanish troops reach the line, and then their discipline proved so lax that most of them were sent to the rear almost immediately. Deeply frustrated, Wellington was driven to tender his resignation (though this was eventually rejected by the cortes), while there were moments when he seriously considered overthrowing the government. So weary was he of Spain, indeed, that in November 1813 he even proposed making the continued employment of British forces in Spain conditional upon the admission of a British garrison to the recently captured border fortress of San Sebastián. This, he claimed, would cut the Gordian knot: ‘You may rely upon this, that if you take a firm, decided line, and show your determination to go through with it, you will have the Spanish nation with you, you will bring the government to their senses, and you will put an end at once to all the petty cabals and counter action existing at the moment.’24 At all events, it is not a happy story, but in the end the commitment of the Patriot regime and the Liverpool administration to the war effort and Wellington’s own dedication and common sense saved the Anglo-Spanish alliance from collapse.
All things considered, the survival of the Anglo-Spanish alliance can be considered as something of a minor miracle. It is important to note, however, that these sorts of troubles were not just restricted to Spain. At the same time that Wellington was experiencing such difficulties in the Peninsula, Britain also found itself coming under pressure in Sicily. In the course of 1809 skirmishing had continued between the court and the commander of the British garrison - the same Sir John Stuart who had won the battle of Maida in 1806 - over the direction that military operations should take. As before, the queen in particular favoured an invasion of the Italian mainland, but it was only with some difficulty that Stuart could be persuaded to launch even the most minor operation. Eventually Austrian requests for help in1809 led him to sanction a two-pronged descent on Calabria and the city of Naples, but news of the Austrian defeat at Wagram caused its cancellation. As a result, Maria Carolina and her supporters were left even more disgruntled than before, especially as Stuart had agreed to a request from the commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Lord Collingwood, to send a force to take the Ionian islands from the French, a task that was quickly achieved in respect of all of them except Corfu. This dissatisfaction was in part justified, for Stuart was not an impressive figure and may well have wasted genuine opportunities at this time. But the British still had reason to complain of the utter inability of the Sicilian regime to muster a credible fighting force, while their allies would not give them the authority that might have allowed them, as in Portugal, to have made something of the situation. As the British were convinced that much of their subsidy to Sicily was being used to fund the expenses of the court, and were increasingly anxious to send some of the troops they had in Sicily to Spain, there was much discontent and a growing conviction that the only way forward was a change of regime. In this they were encouraged by their contacts with the island’s nobles and merchants: eager to throw off the control of the court, the local elites saw the British as their salvation and sought to secure their patronage by affecting much admiration for the British model of constitutionalism.
A coincidence of political and military crises in 1810 precipitated dramatic change. Short of money as ever, in January of that year Ferdinand demanded a much larger subsidy from the estates than was customary, only for the barons to respond by persuading their fellow chambers to join with them in halving the sum required and proposing a radical reform of the tax system - henceforward there was to be a single levy of 5 per cent payable on the value of all landed property, irrespective of ownership. As the right of the nobility to determine the level at which it was taxed was central to Sicilian feudalism, this threatened the whole edifice of noble privilege, and some comment is required on the barons’ motives. There was some recognition that the war effort had to be financed adequately, but the move was also motivated by shrewd economic calculation. Sicilian feudalism was fast becoming an embarrassment to many of its beneficiaries. Thanks in large part to the British presence, Sicily was experiencing a great economic boom. Perennially in debt, the barons were eager to benefit from this but were prevented from doing so by the feudal system. Being entailed, for example, estates could not be sold or rationalized; mining rights were often shared with the Crown or restricted; there was no free market in corn; and the peasantry enjoyed a variety of irritating rights with regard to pasturage and water courses. Finally, economics aside, feudalism also brought serious disadvantages to the barons’ relationship with the Crown, for, as fiefs, all estates reverted to the Crown in the event of a noble house failing to produce an heir. In making their proposal, then, the baronial opposition was both asserting its economic interests and identifying itself with the cause of the nation. Faced by this rebellion, the king at first appeared to back down, making some judicious changes in the personnel of the government and promising to forgo the increased levies he had demanded. These changes paid off when the opposition was defeated in a second session of parliament in August 1810. But this was not an end to the matter. Still desperate for money, in February 1811 Ferdinand quite unconstitutionally established a national lottery, imposed a 1 per cent tax on all commercial transactions, and expropriated and put up for sale considerable quantities of Church and municipal land. The result was uproar and the new measures encountered extensive resistance. But this time the regime stood firm, pressurizing the deputation charged with the defence of the constitution when the assembly was not in session into declaring Ferdinand to be within his rights, and imprisoning five of the opposition’s most important leaders. The royal triumph was to prove short-lived, however. At the very time it was outraging the barons, the court had also alienated the British.
In September 1810 Murat had attempted an assault on Sicily across the Straits of Messina. This had proved a fiasco, but the Sicilian response at every level had been one of apathy. It also became clear that Maria Carolina was in contact with both Napoleon and Murat. Enraged, and fearing that the court was now so unpopular that it might provoke a pro-French revolt, the British determined on intervention. The British government’s aims were threefold. First of all, Maria Carolina was to be eliminated as a threat to the alliance; secondly, peace was to be restored to relations between Crown and country through a programme of domestic reform; and thirdly, mainland Italy was to be encouraged to revolt against the French through the example of a new and progressive administration in Sicily. London then selected a vigorous soldier and administrator of liberal views, Lord William Bentinck, as the instrument for this policy, whose obvious corollary was a change of government in Palermo. Arriving in Sicily as both ambassador and military commander in July 1811, Bentinck at first tried persuasion, only to be faced by a flat refusal to cooperate. Given fresh backing from London, Bentinck now applied considerable pressure, threatening to withdraw the British subsidy unless the administration was remodelled to include a respectable proportion of prominent Sicilians, the exiled barons freed, the court and government purged of treacherous elements, and the British ambassador appointed commander-in-chief of the Sicilian army. Faced with these demands, the court resisted, only to cave in when Bentinck ordered the military occupation of Palermo. Ferdinand agreed to withdraw from the government in favour of his son Francis, who now acted as Prince Regent. As for Maria Carolina, she was defiant to the last. ‘This is a repetition of Bayonne!’ she shouted at the British general sent to secure her person. ‘Bonaparte did not treat the Spanish royal family worse than Bentinck has treated us! Was it for this that I escaped the axes, conspiracies and betrayals of the Neapolitan Jacobins? Was it for this that I helped Nelson to win the Battle of the Nile? For this that I brought your army to Sicily? General, is this your English honour?’25
As Francis quickly released the exiled barons and rescinded the unconstitutional measures taken by his father, the way now seemed clear for reform, but Ferdinand and Maria Carolina had no intention of letting their son have a free hand, and strove by every means to block any advance. Their relations with Bentinck were therefore in a state of permanent crisis: eventually he had to virtually deport the queen, who went into exile in first Constantinople and then Vienna, where she died in 1814. Yet, step by step, progress was made. In March 1812 a new ministry was formed which included the reformist leaders, Belmonte and Castelnuovo. In May new elections were called; and on 20 July the basis of a new constitution was agreed by the assembly. This document purported to be an exact copy of British political organization. There was to be a House of Lords and a House of Commons; parliament was to meet on an annual basis and to have the power of legislation; ministers were to be appointed by the king but be responsible to parliament; all taxation had to originate in the Commons; the monarchy lost its estates in return for a civil list; and Sicily was to enjoy the principle of the rule of law and trial by jury. Feudalism was now specifically abolished: baronial jurisdiction vanished, the old fees were in theory swept away, and the estates of the nobility converted into freeholdings. And last but not least, Sicily was given complete autonomy from Naples. All this was happily sanctioned by Bentinck, a somewhat vainglorious figure much influenced by concepts of liberal imperialism he had picked up in the course of several years’ service in India under Lord Wellesley.
Despite being hailed by Bentinck as a great victory for Sicilian patriotism, the affair appears rather as a coup on the part of a faction of the nobility who were eager to break the power of the monarchy and advance their own economic interests. The abolition of feudalism in Sicily, as elsewhere, meant almost nothing in social terms. The peasants were effectively dispossessed of numerous and vital customary rights, deprived of access to the commons, and encumbered with greater burdens than ever (though all feudal dues were supposedly abolished, the decision as to what was and what was not a feudal due was left to litigation). By contrast the nobility, as well as gaining immensely from the unrestricted control they now possessed of their estates, had also to be paid compensation for what they were deemed by the courts to have lost. Furthermore, although a free market in land was created, entails per se were never abolished, the estates of the nobility therefore being guaranteed. Yet the predominance of the barons proved disastrous for the cause of constitutionalism, the political crisis of 1810-12 having exposed deep divisions in Sicilian society. Economically, the nobility had since the late eighteenth century been challenged by a non-noble oligarchy that had derived considerable income from usury, leasing land from the barons, or estate management, and this threat had been sharpened by new fortunes made during the war. Alongside this basic economic rivalry there also existed tension between greater and lesser nobles, between different regions of the country, and even between individual cities. In protest at the obvious sectionalism of the constitutionalists, there therefore emerged a radical movement which took as its inspiration the French Revolution and the cortes of Cádiz. A rapid process of disintegration now affected the baronial party because of personal differences between Belmonte and Castelnuovo and second thoughts about the wisdom of abolishing feudalism. As a result the radicals were able to seize control of the assembly. Demanding universal suffrage, a single chamber and the abolition of entails, they proceeded to block all supply, the result being that parliamentary government had soon broken down completely. Social disorder was meanwhile on the increase, with bread riots in Palermo and serious anti-seigneurial disturbances in the countryside, and by October 1813 Bentinck was left with no alternative but to dissolve parliament and impose martial law.
What makes the Sicilian example particularly interesting is that it clearly exhibits the limits of Britain’s power in relation to her weaker allies. Sweden, Portugal, Spain and Sicily all displayed similar problems: they were all relatively poor and underdeveloped; they were states in which the march of enlightened absolutism had only achieved a limited degree of success in its battle with the privileged orders; they were possessed of rulers, or at least executive authorities, whose competence was open to question; they were all under intense military pressure; and they were in no case able to mount the sort of war effort which the British desired. This generated different responses, however. In Sweden, the British threw up their hands in disgust, while in Portugal and Spain compromises were worked out that gave the British enough of what they required for them to refrain from taking matters any further. But in Sicily a combination of circumstances led Bentinck to extreme solutions. In this, however, he proved just as overconfident as Napoleon had been in Spain. Not only was little progress made in getting Sicily into a position in which she could stand on her own two feet, but the ‘nation’ to which Bentinck had sought to appeal proved to be no nation at all, but rather a collection of deeply antagonistic groups who were quite incapable of cooperating with one another in the common cause. In 1812 a large part of the British garrison was withdrawn for service in eastern Spain, where it formed the basis of an expeditionary force based at Alicante, while in 1813 Bentinck was able to join it for a few months in a series of operations that took him to the gates of Barcelona. But this was not so much the reflection of a sound state of defence as of the growing unwillingness of Marshal Murat, who had replaced Joseph Bonaparte as King of Naples, to take an active part in the war. Meanwhile, Britain found herself playing in effect the same role that France had played at Bayonne, and in the process to have justified some of the very arguments that were used against her to such effect in Spain. By 1813 it really looked as if she had come to Sicily with no other object than to annex it. Strategically, the British presence in Sicily had fulfilled its objectives - so long as Sicily and Malta were in British hands Britain could hope both to forestall another French invasion of Egypt and to intervene in the Ottoman Empire should this prove necessary - but politically it was a serious embarrassment.
States such as Spain and Sicily were to a very large extent dependent on Britain for their survival, and yet in each case substantial elements in the body politic proved deeply unwilling to accept British tutelage. As often as not, Britain’s wishes were ignored and her representatives openly snubbed. Some of the reasons, such as opposition to reforms desired by the British and fear of British imperialism, we have already examined. However, also at issue was Britain’s ability to sustain her allies. Over and over again expectations were confounded by developments elsewhere: in 1807 Sicily found that troops stationed there were sent to Egypt; in 1808 Sweden found that Britain’s attention was distracted by the outbreak of insurrection in Portugal; in 1809 Spain and Portugal saw large numbers of troops that might otherwise have fought in the Peninsula sent to Walcheren (see below); and from 1810 onwards troops from Sicily fought in Spain. Added to this was a further issue. With British troops very thin on the ground, Moore and Wellington alike were well aware that defeat had to be avoided at all costs and were therefore inclined to adopt a cautious line that again did not sit well with the expectations of their allies. In the absence of supporting forces, however, Spaniards especially died by the thousand and this could not but fan the flames of anglophobia. But if anglophobia was strong even in states that received large amounts of British aid, it was still stronger in states like Austria, Prussia and Russia, which all had good reason to complain of tardy, inadequate or downright niggardly British support in the past and saw the Peninsular War as, at best, a sideshow. In short, Britain’s turbulent relations with her Mediterranean and Baltic allies are suggestive of a deeper reality: that neither the Portland, nor the Perceval, nor the Liverpool administrations could possibly hope to orchestrate a general coalition against Napoleon. Whether it was jealousy of British prosperity, suspicion of British war aims, anger at British actions or resentment of British chauvinism, there were simply too many obstacles in the way.
As so often, then, we must once again turn to the figure of Napoleon Bonaparte. Engaged in an increasingly bitter struggle in Spain and Portugal which had already proved its capacity to deal the heaviest blows to his prestige, it would clearly have been sensible for the emperor to maintain peaceful relationships with the rest of the Continent, and in particular to retain the friendship and cooperation of Russia. But the emperor was hardly in a conciliatory mood. Let us first look at Prussia. At Tilsit the unfortunate Frederick William III had been forced to accept peace terms that were bad enough, but a year on the screw was being turned still further. In theory, by means of a separate convention signed at Königsberg on 12 July 1807, France had agreed to evacuate Prussia by 1 October 1807 provided that the latter paid off whatever sum it was agreed that she should pay in reparations. On the surface, this looked reasonable enough, but when the bill came in it proved to be almost 155 million francs, to which was added the 30 million francs calculated as being owed by the Prussian state to creditors of different sorts in the lands ceded to France. At least 100 million francs were to be found within a year for even this agreement to hold good, but this was impossible: the army by which Prussia was occupied amounted to 150,000 men; the plunder seized during the war was specifically excluded from the indemnity; and large parts of the east, in particular, were in a state of the utmost ruin and misery: ‘In the villages . . . there was not an animal to be seen that did not belong to the army. The houses were all unroofed and most of the woodwork burned. Many of the inhabitants [had] absolutely starved to death or [been] obliged to remove and seek their livelihood in other places.’26
With Prussia facing complete ruin, her new chief minister, Baron Heinrich vom Stein, reacted with great vigour. Swingeing cuts were imposed in the budget through a series of reductions in pensions, salaries and the expenses of the court, and the first steps taken in the implementation of a major programme of reform designed to revivify the Prussian state. On the international front, meanwhile, attempts were made to enlist the good offices of Russia and convince the French that full payment was impossible: so desperate was Frederick William that Napoleon was even offered an offensive and defensive alliance and a guarantee of up to 40,000 men if he would only offer better terms. But the emperor remained deaf to all argument, and the increasingly desperate Stein concluded that the only way out was a new war in conjunction with Austria. With this in mind, he therefore sent a special envoy to Vienna while looking into the possibility of stirring up some sort of popular insurrection in Germany. Unfortunately for him the French intercepted some of his correspondence, and promptly imposed new terms that made matters even worse: Prussia would be freed of all French troops other than garrisons in Magdeburg, Glogau, Küstrin and Stettin and need now pay only 140 million francs in terms of actual reparations, but in exchange for this she found herself stripped of much revenue, confined to an army of 42,000 men, committed to a military alliance against Austria, and deprived of Stein, whom Frederick William was obliged to banish and send into exile. Even by the standards of Napoleonic peace settlements, it was a massive blow. Deprived not just of much of her territory and population, but also unable even to levy tolls on the entire length of such frontiers as remained to her, Prussia was economically ruined. Still worse, she was seemingly forever in Napoleon’s pocket: with her main fortresses in the hands of the French, her army a mere shadow of its former self and Frederick William resolutely opposed to any move that might incur the emperor’s ire, there was no chance of the national uprising of which a few diehard officers dreamed, and, indeed, no guarantee of Prussia’s continued existence other than Napoleon’s will.
In adopting a hard line, Napoleon was acting against the advice of many of his advisers, not least his ambassador to Russia, Armand de Caulaincourt, who told the emperor to his face that his conduct was creating a climate of fear in Europe, and urged him to withdraw all his troops from Prussia other than a token garrison in one single fortress. This, he claimed, ‘would be of greater use to him than an army of 100,000 men and ten strongholds on the Oder, and . . . leave all his forces at his disposal to cover Spain and put an honourable end to the complications in that country’.27 But Napoleon would not hear of such a move. Fears of a universal monarchy he just laughed off: ‘France is large enough! What can I want? Have I not enough with my Spanish affairs, with the war against England?’28 And Caulaincourt’s plans for an evacuation of Germany, he scorned as ‘a system of weakness’. As the ambassador continued, ‘He objected that they would lose the fruit of all the sacrifices already made in order to make England bow, and that it was essential to close every port to the commerce of that power so as to compel her recognition of the independence of other flags . . . The emperor often listened to me with a genial air, but sometimes also with impatience. More than once he told me, though in a joking tone, that I understood nothing of affairs.’29
To return to Russia, it had been agreed that emperor and tsar should meet to settle the differences that had arisen over the Ottoman Empire. On 28 September 1808 the two rulers duly met at the small Saxon city of Erfurt, a spot chosen as it was roughly midway between the frontiers of France and Russia. Outwardly, all was well. The tsar was greeted not just by Napoleon but a large number of German princes, and the emperor conducted him in person to the sumptuous lodgings - furnished, incidentally, with fittings brought from Paris for the purpose - that had been selected for him to the sound of cannonades and church bells. To flattery, meanwhile, was added bedazzlement: as at Tilsit, the Imperial Guard put on an impressive display of military pomp; the German princes had been encouraged to attend so as to reinforce the notion of Napoleon as padishah; and Alexander was reminded of the superiority of French culture by the specially invited actors of the Comédie Française. As Napoleon told Talleyrand prior to the conference, ‘I wish my journey to be brilliant . . . I wish to astonish Germany by my splendour . . . I wish the emperor of Russia to be dazzled by my power.’30 As this suggests, Alexander was not the only monarch who was to be impressed and overawed. Erfurt was intended to be a restatement of Napoleon’s control of the Confederation of the Rhine and a reminder to its rulers of his overwhelming power. ‘I doubt whether the princes who came to pay court left satisfied,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘Their presence was doubtless flattering, but . . . these sovereigns found themselves treated rather as Austria had formerly treated her electors, and they may well have discovered that, although their new title had freed them from their former functions, it had no way altered their position with regard to their protector.’31 Nevertheless, the chief object of attention was always Russia. Curiously, however, Napoleon did not display quite the same charm and consideration that had been on show in July 1807. In command of the Old Guard was Marshal Oudinot, who relates a minor but none the less telling anecdote:
One day we were riding into the country, the two emperors riding side by side. At a given moment ours, carried away by his thoughts, took the lead, whistling and seeming to forget those he was leaving behind. I shall always remember Alexander turning stiffly towards his neighbour and asking, ‘Are we to follow?’32
Nor was this the only such incident. In general, indeed, ‘The emperor Napoleon took command of the ceremonial of the congress like a sovereign in his capital.’33
Underlying the smiles, compliments and embraces, then, there was always something of an edge to the meeting at Erfurt. It was not long, for example, before Talleyrand, who had been invited to the meeting by Napoleon specifically to cultivate Alexander, was noticing that he seemed ‘preoccupied’.34 At all events, the meeting was a failure. The Russian ruler had come to Erfurt bent on securing French support for a partition of the Ottoman Empire, and believing he already had Napoleon’s agreement to such a policy. All that was left was to arrange the precise details of the territorial settlement. Alexander felt he had every right to Napoleon’s support: by joining the Continental Blockade and going to war against Sweden, Russia had more than fulfilled the obligations she had accepted at Tilsit. Nor had the tsar come to Erfurt in any spirit of suspicion or hostility. Prussia, it is true, was a problem, as Alexander believed Napoleon should renounce his aspirations to annex Silesia, evacuate what was left of Prussia and reduce the financial burden that had been placed upon her. He had no quarrel, though, with the basic principles by which Prussia had been treated. A number of figures at court had expressed fears that Napoleon might somehow spring a second Bayonne and kidnap him, but Alexander laughed at such alarmism. He also refused to listen to the denunciations of French policy emanating from Russia’s envoys in Paris and Madrid, both of whom were convinced that the French ruler was bent on nothing short of universal dominion. Napoleon was his friend and what had happened in Spain was of little consequence. ‘Russia,’ wrote Caulaincourt, ‘was silent concerning affairs in Spain, which the tsar expounded in his discussions with good will rather than irritation as regards his ally . . . Nor was he displeased that the emperor’s warlike ardour should find vent in the Peninsula . . . The interest which England had in wresting that country from our influence and in saving Portugal was in his eyes a powerful instrument for inducing her to make peace. From this point of view the course of events was therefore serving the interests of Russia as well as our own.‘35
Spain, then, was of no concern to Alexander, but in the summer of 1808, and, more especially, at the battle of Bailén, it was of huge concern to Napoleon. And now there was a further threat to be dealt with. Heavily defeated in 1805 and subjected to a diet of constant humiliation thereafter, Austria had until 1808 maintained a low profile. Under the leadership of the Archduke Charles, the army was strengthened through military reforms, but Charles himself believed that Vienna should cut its losses in Germany and Italy, abandon all notion of fighting Napoleon, and seek compensation in the Balkans. As for Emperor Francis - since 6 August 1806 Francis I of Austria rather than Francis II of the now defunct Holy Roman Empire - he remained as cautious as ever, all the more so as Russia now appeared as a potential enemy. For a time, a consensus even emerged that Austria should seek an alliance with Napoleon. But it soon became clear that the emperor was simply not interested in such a deal. Still worse, his overthrow of the Spanish Bourbons provoked fears that he might treat the Habsburgs in the same fashion. A number of figures in the Austrian court had always been in favour of a new war. Francis’s third wife, Maria-Ludovica of Habsburg-Este, had bitter personal memories of French aggression in northern Italy; the chancellor, Phillip von Stadion, possessed a deep nostalgia for the Holy Roman Empire (in which he had enjoyed the status of a so-called imperial knight); and the youngest of the emperor’s brothers, the Archduke John, was a Romantic obsessed with the idea that the Tyrol - lost to Bavaria in 1805 - was the very cradle of the German nation and, as such, could only belong to Austria. In the wake of Bayonne, such figures had a credibility they had previously lacked, and they were now joined by others such as Metternich. In his eyes, at least, there was no longer any option: ‘Austria was in a position in which she could not possibly maintain herself . . . Not only, then, was the renewal [of hostilities] in the nature of things, but it was for our empire an absolute condition of its existence.’36 Though still hopeful war might be avoided, Francis allowed Charles to accelerate reform of the army, which he also ordered should be brought up to full strength, and rather reluctantly permitted Stadion to organize a propaganda campaign designed to stir up German nationalism and provoke an insurrection.
If the object was to secure better treatment from Napoleon, however, the effort was a futile one. On the contrary, on 25 July Napoleon dispatched a series of letters to the rulers of the Confederation of the Rhine warning them that Austria was bent on a war of revenge - a matter of particular sensitivity for states such as Baden, Württemberg and Bavaria - and that they should therefore get ready for war themselves: ‘If Austria arms, then we must arm too . . . If there is one way of avoiding war, it is showing Austria that we have picked up the gauntlet and are ready for her.’37 And, on 15 August, Metternich received a most clear and public warning of the likely French response at a formal reception at the palace of St Cloud:
Napoleon advanced towards me with great solemnity. He stopped two feet in front of me, and addressed me in a loud voice and pompous tone: ‘Well, Monsieur Ambassador, what does the emperor, your master, want? Does he intend to call me back to Vienna?38
With Austria restless, not to mention the many thousands of French troops tied down in Spain, a French attack on the Ottoman Empire had to be postponed. Alexander, then, got something of a shock at Erfurt. Rather than discussing arrangements for a joint attack on Turkey, the tsar found himself facing demands that he should threaten the use of military force against Austria. Thus Napoleon’s instructions to Talleyrand, whom he summoned from retirement to act as his chief negotiator, were as precise as they were cynical:
Now I shall go to Erfurt. I wish, in returning, to be free to do what I wish in Spain. I wish to be assured that Austria will be afraid and hold back, and I do not wish to engage in too precise a manner with Russia concerning the affairs of the east . . . You will insist greatly upon that, for Count Rumiantsev is sanguine about the eastern question. You will say that nothing can be done without public opinion, and that it is necessary that, without being scared by our combined power, Europe should see with pleasure the achievement of the great undertaking we contemplate. The security of the neighbouring powers, the legitimate interest of the continent, seven millions of Greeks restored to independence: all this constitutes a fine field for philanthropy. I will give you carte blanchefor that. I wish only that it be distant philanthropy.39
More and more, in fact, it seemed the chief goal of French policy was to keep Vienna quiet. This was vital to Napoleon at this time. After twelve years of marriage, he was still childless and yet in every battle that he fought he risked death or serious injury. In consequence, he was desperate for an heir and that in turn meant a period of peace in which he could replace Josephine with a new bride - something that was already under discussion in the French court - and spend some time with whichever princess was chosen for the task. But Alexander was not happy about his interests being relegated to the realms of ‘distant philanthropy’. As for the deal on offer, it was simply unacceptable. If the possibility of a marriage to the tsar’s youngest sister, Anna, was raised at Erfurt, then it seems likely that this was only to test out the idea’s reception.
Peace talks were to be offered to Britain - something that the tsar was increasingly anxious for - but only on terms that seemed unlikely to bear fruit, in that London would be required to recognize the new territorial arrangements in Europe and to force Patriot Spain and Spanish America to acknowledge Joseph Bonaparte as their legitimate monarch. And, in exchange for pressurizing Austria, Russia was offered little or nothing. In theory, she could have Finland and the Danubian provinces, but there was no mention of armed assistance from France and some suggestion that these annexations would not be recognized unless peace was forthcoming with Britain. As for the rest of the Ottoman Empire, she would be expected to guarantee its independence and integrity. Against all this, vague hints that in the future things might be very different counted for very little, while the tsar may have been encouraged by a Talleyrand who, according to his own account, was increasingly convinced that the emperor had to be stopped. Alexander’s duty, he is supposed to have told him, was to resist Napoleon, who had now become a threat not just to the peace of Europe but also to its very stability.
Such was Alexander’s discomfiture at discovering Napoleon’s change of position over the Ottoman Empire that Talleyrand’s intervention was hardly necessary. At all events discussions between the two emperors did not go smoothly. ‘The tsar was unshakeable,’ wrote Caulaincourt. ‘Nothing could alter his resolve. He refused to see in the arguments and insistence of his ally anything but a proof of the hostile intentions and schemes of revenge of which he suspected him . . . Alexander showed great character . . . On one occasion, for instance, Napoleon . . . tried the experiment of working himself up into a rage, and, losing control of himself, threw his hat . . . upon the ground and stamped on it . . . Alexander stood still . . . and, looking at him with a smile, said, when he had calmed down a little. “When you become violent, I just become stubborn. With me anger is of no avail. Let us discuss and be reasonable, or I will go.” ’40 In the end all that Napoleon could obtain was the promise that Russia would support him against Vienna should Austria attack him. Beyond that it was agreed that a joint peace offer should be made to Britain, and that France should keep Spain and Portugal and remain in occupation of Silesia, and Russia retain the Danubian provinces and Finland. As for the Ottoman Empire, it was guaranteed by both sides, though Russia was permitted to abandon her current armistice with the Turks and resume active military operations if negotiations with the Turks had made no progress by 1 January 1809. All this was agreed in a document signed on 12 October 1808, and the monarchs then parted amidst further protestations of friendship. These, however, meant nothing. What counted was that Alexander rode home with the firm conviction that Napoleon could not be trusted and, in particular, that he could not be allowed any extension of his power in Eastern Europe. War between France and Russia was neither inevitable, nor close - for one thing the current Foreign Minister, Rumiantsev, was a firm proponent of the French alliance - but it had suddenly become possible again.
No peace came from Erfurt. The talks offered to Britain were rejected out of hand and Austria was not dissuaded from the course on which she had embarked. Indeed, given Napoleon’s belligerent attitude, the latter was driven even further down the road towards a fresh conflict. Among significant parts of the establishment there was still no enthusiasm for renewing the struggle, but on 23 December a resigned and despondent Francis resolved on war. Needless to say, the Austrians endeavoured to secure help from Russia, Prussia and Britain alike, but the first was unwilling to break with Napoleon when she was still embroiled in both Sweden and the Balkans; the second was cowed and under military occupation; and the third distinctly lukewarm. Given the constant French refrain that continental coalitions were the fruit of British gold, this last point is worth considering. With war looming, in October 1808 Vienna had contacted London with a request for money, but at £7.5 million the sum was far beyond Britain’s means - it far outstripped any other payment that had previously been made - and it was made clear that, while help would be given, it would only appear after Austria had shown herself to be in earnest. A second and somewhat more moderate request met a slightly more encouraging answer, but only in April 1809 was it eventually agreed that £250,000 would be sent to Austria in silver and a further £1 million deposited in Malta for Vienna to draw upon at will. Nor is any of this surprising. Not only was there little faith in the Austrian army, but right up to the last moment it was feared that Vienna was not bluffing. As for reports that preparations for a great popular insurrection were underway in Germany, these were accorded little credence. In brief, far from ‘Pitt’s gold’ buying an attack on Napoleon, it was rather the other way about.
When the Austrian armies crossed the frontier into Bavaria and the kingdom of Italy on 9 April 1809, they did so all but unsuccoured. Only in the Tyrol was any assistance on offer. Here the local inhabitants had become increasingly resentful of Bavarian rule, which was both destructive of provincial privilege and strongly anti-clerical, while there were also long traditions of irregular military service, with the result that, under the leadership of the innkeeper Andreas Hofer, talk of insurrection had assumed concrete form. Initially, however, Austrian success was considerable. With much of the old grande armée serving in Spain, Napoleon had only 80,000 troops available for service in Germany as opposed to the 180,000 who had marched to meet the Prussians in 1806. Nor did it help that politics dictated that the Austrians should be seen to be the aggressors: the French forces in Germany were kept well back from the border, while Napoleon himself remained in Paris and gave Marshal Berthier - normally his chief of staff - command of the deliberately misnamed ‘Army of the Rhine’. Also, the spring thaw meant that the rivers of Bavaria were in full spate, with the result that the grande armée could not concentrate with any great speed. Hampered by the floods though he was too, the Archduke Charles therefore overran much of eastern Bavaria. Nor were matters much better for Napoleon elsewhere. The army of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw could put less than 20,000 men into the field; the Kingdom of Italy was largely defended by raw recruits; and the Tyrol was held by a mere 3,000 Bavarians. While Charles went forward in Bavaria, then, other Austrian armies captured Warsaw and scored successes in Italy and the Tyrol, where the local insurgents had soon eliminated the inadequate Bavarian garrison. And, finally, the Kingdom of Italy was swept by a wave of agrarian unrest. For a brief moment, indeed, the atmosphere was one of panic, as witness this account of the aftermath of the defeat of Eugène de Beauharnais at Sacile:
At length I reached Verona. All was in confusion. The wounded were coming in in large numbers, [and] fugitives, riderless horses, carts, baggage wagons [and] carriages [were] crossing each other . . . blocking the streets and filling the squares; in short, all the horrors of a rout . . . The authorities were without news and crowded round me to ask for some . . . The Viceroy . . . sent several aides de camp to . . . desire me to come straight to him . . . He was even more taken up with what the emperor would say and write than with the affair itself. ‘I have been beaten,’ he said, ‘at my first attempt at commanding, and in a bad place too. The emperor will be furious; he knows his Italy so well.’41
Austria’s success proved short-lived, however. Despite gallant attempts by two Prussian officers named Schill and Dornberg to whip up revolts in Westphalia and Prussia, Germany remained quiet, and so Napoleon was able to fall on Charles with every man he had available. Thoroughly overawed, the Austrian commander was soon falling back on Vienna, which he proceeded to abandon to the French. Threatened with being trapped, the Austrian forces in the Tyrol and northern Italy fell back in their turn, while in the east the Poles countered the fall of Warsaw with an invasion of Galicia. On 21-22 May an attempt by Napoleon to cross the Danube just east of Vienna was thrown back by Charles at Aspern-Essling with heavy losses, but in Italy the Austrians were beaten at the river Piave and forced to retreat to Hungary where they were defeated for a second time at Raab. Meanwhile, in response to Napoleon’s demands for support, a Russian army invaded Galicia and occupied Cracow. The coup de grâce, however, came at the battle of Wagram. Fought just outside Vienna on 5-6 July, this was a titanic struggle that saw Napoleon secure a narrow victory. Now badly outnumbered, Charles knew that his forces would not be able to endure another battle and was much alarmed by a proclamation that Napoleon had issued on 15 May in which he called on the Magyars to revolt and promised them an independent state. In practice, the results turned out to be non-existent, but when the French caught Charles up at Znaim, the Archduke promptly asked for an armistice. Yet Wagram had been a respectable performance on the part of the whitecoats. There had been little pursuit, and it was clear enough to veterans of Napoleon’s campaigns that something was wrong. To quote the infantry officer, Elzéar Blaze:
Wagram had no great material results. That is to say there was no great haul of the net as at Ulm, Jena and Ratisbon. Scarcely any prisoners were made; we took from the Austrians nine pieces of cannon, and we lost fourteen . . . In general, after a battle an order of the day acquainted us with what we had done . . . In his proclamations to his army, which Napoleon drew up himself, he told us . . . that he was satisfied with himself, that we had surpassed his expectations, that we had flown with the rapidity of an eagle; he then detailed our exploits, the number of soldiers, cannon and carriages that we had taken. It was exaggerated, but it was high-sounding and had an excellent effect. After Wagram we had not the least proclamation, not the least order of the day . . . For upwards of three weeks we knew not the name it was to have in history. 42
The Austrian collapse was not quite the end of the story, even if what remained made depressing reading for Napoleon’s opponents. By the time of the battle of Wagram, Sweden was effectively out of the war: following a series of reverses, on 13 March Gustav IV had been overthrown by an aristocratic faction sickened by what they saw as the king’s mismanagement of the war effort and determined to put an end to enlightened absolutism and restore Sweden’s traditional alliance with France. As for the British, 1809 was marked by an episode that was virtually epic in its futility. Driven not so much by a desire to aid Austria as one to strike a further blow against French naval power and undo the damage to its prestige incurred by what appeared to have been its failure in Spain, the Portland administration decided to land a large army at the mouth of the Scheldt and seize Antwerp. After much delay an army was duly assembled, and by 30 July the first British troops were going ashore. Vlissingen was besieged and captured, but the British advance was so slow that the defenders had time to reinforce Antwerp to such an extent that all thought of taking it had to be abandoned. An attempt was then made to retain control of the island of Walcheren, but its climate provoked an epidemic of malaria so terrible it had eventually to be evacuated. Only in Germany (where a flying column known as the Brunswick Black Corps had chosen to fight on despite Wagram), Tyrol and Calabria did active hostilities continue, but here too the French and their allies had the upper hand. The Brunswickers were forced to take ship for Britain, the Tyroleans gradually hunted down, and the Calabrian banditti, as we have seen, subjected to ever greater pressure. Against this, the British occupation of most of the Ionian islands amounted to very little. Almost everywhere French arms ruled supreme.
All that remains to be said of the campaigns of 1809 is the territorial adjustments to which they gave rise. Needless to say, the chief casualty was Austria. On the battlefield of Wagram Francis I had responded to the news of defeat with the laconic remark, ‘We shall have much to retrieve.’43 Rarely could he have spoken a truer word. Already badly hit in 1805, the Habsburgs were now punished still further. Carinthia, Carniola and that part of Croatia south of the river Sava were annexed and joined with the territories lost in Istria and Dalmatia in 1805, and the city-state of Ragusa, which had been occupied by the French in 1807, to form the French-ruled Illyrian Provinces. Western Galicia, the portion of central Poland seized by Austria in 1795, was divided between Russia and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw; and Salzburg and some other border districts were ceded to Bavaria, which also got back the Tyrol (minus the largely Italian-speaking Trentino which was passed over to the Kingdom of Italy). Austria had to pay an indemnity of 85 million francs, reduce her army to 150,000 men, and agree to join the Continental Blockade. In addition, Joseph Bonaparte was recognized as King of Spain and Joachim Murat as King of Naples. There was still the issue of Hungary: although nothing had come of the proclamation of 15 May, Napoleon pointedly failed to guarantee Francis I’s remaining possessions and continued to encourage his representatives to stir up Magyar separatism. With Austria all but bankrupt, further resistance was out of the question, and salvation was now sought in détente with France. The chief symbol of this was the marriage of the Archduchess Marie-Louise to Napoleon, the empress Josephine having previously been divorced on account of her failure to produce an heir. Stadion having resigned the post of chief minister in the wake of the battle of Wagram, Austrian foreign policy was now in the hands of Metternich, who had absolutely no illusions as to Austria’s situation. As he wrote to Francis on 10 August 1809:
Whatever the conditions of the peace may be . . . we shall find our safety only by accommodating ourselves to the triumphant system of France. That this system . . . is most unsuitable for us, I need not repeat to Your Majesty. My principles are unchangeable, but to necessity we must yield. If the present war, with extraordinary means, is unsuccessful, to repeat the attempt with reduced strength against a stronger adversary would be an act of insanity. From the day when peace is signed we must confine our system to tacking and turning and flattering. Thus alone may we possibly preserve our existence till the day of general deliverance . . . For us there remains but one expedient: to increase our strength for better days, to work out our preservation by gentle means, without looking back upon our former course.44
Nor was Austrian withdrawal from the scene the only damage done to the cause of resistance to Napoleon. In Germany there were plenty of patriots who were ready to attribute the miserable failure of their hopes to want of British assistance. To quote the words of an officer fighting in the British army as part of the so-called King’s German Legion:
From these heroic and loyal efforts of Schill and Dornberg, and from insurrections like that organized in the name of the Duke of Brunswick . . . it may clearly be seen that, if an English force of only 4,000 men had been landed on the banks of the Elbe, and about 10,000 in East Friesland, all Westphalia and Hanover and East Friesland would directly have taken up arms to protect their country, and to regain their liberty. One Hanoverian general, with a sufficient supply of money and arms, would certainly have collected in a short space of time 80,000 men, and the bad success of all the insurrections is to be attributed to the want of the authority and sanction of England.45
Just as bad, perhaps, was the manner in which Napoleon had posed as the defender of the states of southern Germany against Austrian aggression. Prior to one battle, for example, the French ruler assembled the commanders of the Bavarian troops attached to his forces and delivered a stirring harangue:
Bavarian soldiers! I stand before you not as emperor of France, but as the protector of your country and of the Rheinbund. Bavarians! Today you fight alone against the Austrians. Not a single Frenchman is in the first line . . . I have complete faith in your bravery. I have already expanded the borders of your land: I see now that I have not gone far enough. I will make you so great that you will not need my protection in any future war with Austria . . . We will march to Vienna, where we will punish Austria for all the evil it has caused your fatherland!46
In one respect only was there any reason to take heart. The Austrian army of 1809 was very clearly not the Austrian army of 1805, and had meted out severe punishment to the French. At Aspern-Essling and Wagram imperial losses had amounted to over 50,000 men. The reason this was so was not because the soldiers of the Habsburg empire had been inspired by the appeal to German nationalism which had accompanied the campaign, but rather that the Archduke Charles had given the Austrian army the corps system. Hitherto used only by the French, this had been a key part in their ability to win decisive victories. Armies thus organized could operate on a broad front and thereby envelop their opponents, while on the battlefield they were infinitely more flexible in terms of their capacity to mass overwhelming numbers against one section of the enemy line or respond to attacks on their own. Broken down into the self-sufficient (and extremely substantial) sections represented by the corps d’armée, they were also much harder to smash: one corps or another might be broken but the rest of the army could go on fighting unimpaired. In consequence, battles between two such armies were likely to be long struggles of attrition from which neither side would emerge triumphant unless they could manoeuvre themselves into a position from which they could attack the enemy from all sides - something which was now likely to become much harder. Significantly, in 1806 Prussia did not have the corps system at all, while in 1807 Russia was only groping towards it. When he next faced them, however, Napoleon was to find that both armies, like that of the Austrians, had moved on: hence the fact that the war of 1809 was the last conflict in which he would triumph.
The scales of conflict, then, were tilting against Napoleon, but this was also true in another sense. Four years of incessant campaigning had cost the French and their allies hundreds of thousands of casualties. The dead and wounded of Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstädt, Eylau, Friedland, Aspern-Essling and Wagram alone came to a minimum of 120,000 men, and to these must be added the losses suffered in many other actions, together with countless other men who had been lost to sickness. Casualties had in other words easily equalled the 210,000 men who had made up the original grande armée of 1805. The officer corps had been particularly hard hit - forty generals, including the brilliant cavalry leader, Lasalle, had fallen at Wagram, along with 1,822 men of the rank of colonel or below - while Aspern-Essling had seen the death of Marshal Lannes, who has often been rated as one of the very best of Napoleon’s subordinate commanders. Making up these losses was not easy. Though by no means always a reliable observer, on this point the aide-de-camp Marbot is sharp enough:
On the evening of the battle the emperor rewarded the services of Macdonald, Oudinot and Marmont by giving them his marshal’s baton. It was not, however, in his power to give them the talents required to command an army: brave and good divisional generals as they were when in the emperor’s hands, they showed themselves clumsy when they were away from him, either in devising a plan of campaign, or in executing it, or in modifying it according to circumstances. It was held in the army that the emperor, not being able to replace Lannes, wanted to get the small change for him.47
But it was not just the officers. Also dead or maimed were thousands of the veteran sergeants, corporals and common soldiers who might have made good subalterns or provided the cadres around which the ever larger numbers of conscripts being called forth from France and her allies could have been mustered. Henceforth, then; French armies were far less sophisticated than before. Instead of the highly flexible system of infantry tactics with which Napoleon’s troops had gone to war in 1803, from 1809 onwards battles were marked by the use of formations that were little more than bludgeons and, still worse, likely to incur terrible casualties. Also a feature after 1809 were small cannon attached in pairs to infantry regiments for close support, which in practice were more of a hindrance than a help. And as a result of these changes, the chances of achieving decisive victories on the battlefield receded still further, especially as the campaign of 1809 had also revealed the first signs of physical and mental weakness in Napoleon himself: many of his orders had been oddly imprecise, and after both Aspern-Essling and Wagram he had suffered genuine exhaustion.
There were domestic implications here as well. All across the Napoleonic imperium, the years 1808 and 1809 had seen a massive acceleration in the demands of the state for manpower. Where systems of conscription already existed, the pressures grew heavier. In France, 1808 saw the mobilization of three separate levies of 80,000 men, including many from the year groups of 1809 and 1810. In the Kingdom of Italy, the 12,000 men taken each year from 1806 onwards had to be supplemented by an additional levy of 9,000 men in 1809. In Baden the 8,000-strong army was at this same moment directed to find an additional 6,000 men in preparation for the war against Austria. And where no French-style system of conscription existed, it was now introduced: in Naples, for example, the ballot began in the summer of 1809. The extent of this ‘blood-tax’ can be exaggerated: even in the Kingdom of Italy, where conscription has generally been regarded as having been very severe, no more than 7 per cent of the available manpower was ever taken in any given levy, while the expansion of the state’s frontiers meant there was actually a small decline in the proportion of the male population that had to be taken. Yet the impact was none the less severe enough, and in most parts of the empire there was considerable low-level resistance in the form of desertion and draft evasion. All this produced much brigandage, periodic riots and occasional outbreaks of wholesale insurrection. In France, at least, improved policing and ever-increasing legal penalties managed greatly to reduce the problem. But beneath the surface the limits of popular acceptance were being placed under ever greater strain, and all the more so given the fact that in part the war had changed its character. If the Austrian campaign had been, like the struggles of 1805-7, a relatively civilized affair fought out within the so-called ‘rules of war’, the fighting in Spain and Portugal had, in popular legend at least, assumed a very different character. Men sent to the Peninsula did not just die in battle: just as often they were murdered or subjected to the most appalling tortures. In short, confidence in the empire was undermined even in France, while in Germany and Italy it was in effect smothered before it had any chance to take off. There was as yet no revolution, nor anything remotely resembling one, but from 1809 onwards it is hard to see the French imperium as anything other than a house of cards.
To conclude then, in the autumn of 1809 Napoleon was seemingly as unassailable as ever. Austria and Sweden were so cowed that they had both effectively changed sides; Prussia was helpless; Britain was securing only limited benefits from her few allies and seemingly unable to forge stable relations with junior partners; the cause of insurrection in Germany had been stripped of all credibility; and Russia was still an ally of France. Meanwhile, if the Peninsular War continued to rage unabated, it seemed likely that the French would eventually crush Spanish resistance and then turn on Portugal in irresistible force, while internal pacification was also making some progress in Italy. Nor, in the end, was the campaign of 1809 anything to be ashamed of: French control of Europe had been reasserted; a moment of great danger overcome; and Napoleon’s Polish, German and Italian auxiliaries shown to be soldiers who were potentially very good. Yet it is hard not to have a sense that the wind had changed. Victory at Wagram had come at the cost of efforts that far outstripped anything that had yet been demanded of the French empire and had only been achieved with considerable difficulty. French armies, it appeared, could be beaten after all. And Napoleon himself had been shown to be fallible. All this brings us back to Tilsit. In the end what had brought Alexander into the French camp had been not so much the French ruler’s personal charisma but the sense of awe that he generated. This aura, however, was now shattered, while at Erfurt the tsar had learned that Napoleon was not to be trusted. Russia’s interests, it was now clear, would only be backed by France so long as they did not conflict with her own, whereas French interests were to be backed by Russia no matter what the costs to her own aspirations. The moment when Tilsit broke down had not yet come, but it could now be foreseen.