Joseph Bonaparte, king of Spain, was in multiple trouble. He labored to win a wider acceptance than that given him by a sprinkling of liberals. These favored confiscatory measures against the wealthy Church, but Joseph, already hampered by his reputation as an agnostic, knew that every move against the clergy would further inflame resistance to his alien rule. The Spanish armies that Napoleon had defeated had re-formed in scattered divisions, undisciplined but enthusiastic; the guerrilla war of the peasantry against the usurpers went on between sowing and reaping annually; the French army in Spain had to divide itself into separate forces under jealous generals in a chaos of campaigns that defied the efforts of Napoleon to coordinate them from Paris. Napoleon learned, said Karl Marx, that “if the Spanish State was dead, Spanish society was full of life, and every part of it was overflowing with power of resistance…. The center of Spanish resistance was nowhere and everywhere.”19 After the collapse of a major French army at Bailén a major part of the Spanish aristocracy joined the revolution, diverting popular hostility from themselves to the invaders. The active support of the revolt by the clergy helped to turn the movement from liberal ideas; on the contrary, the success of the War of Liberation strengthened the Church and the Inquisition.20 Some liberal elements survived in the provincial juntas; these were sending delegates to a national Cortes at Cádiz; and this was writing a new constitution. The Iberian Peninsula was alive with insurrection, hope, and piety, while Joseph longed for Naples, Napoleon fought Austria, and Wellesley-Wellington—a thoroughly modern man —was preparing to come down again from England and aid in restoring medieval Spain.
Sir John Moore, before his death at Corunna (January 16, 1809), had advised the British government to make no further attempt to control Portugal. The French, he thought, would sooner or later carry out Napoleon’s order to make Portugal a vassal of France; and how was England to find transport, and provision enough soldiers to face the 100,000 seasoned French troops then in Spain? But Sir Arthur Wellesley, restless in Ireland, told the War Ministry that if it would give him undivided command of twenty to thirty thousand British troops, and native reinforcements, he would undertake to hold Portugal against any French army not exceeding 100,000 men.21 His government took him at his word, and on April 22, 1809, he reached Lisbon with 25,000 Britishers, whom he was later to describe as “the scum of the earth,… a pack of rascals,… a crowd who only enlist for drink, and can only be managed with the whip”;22 but they could fight lustily when faced with a choice of killing or being killed.
Anticipating their arrival, Marshal Soult had marched 23,000 Frenchmen —doubtless themselves poor devils more familiar with taverns than salonsdown the coast to Oporto; while from the west another French army, under Marshal Claude Victor, was advancing along the Tagus. Wellesley, who had carefully studied Napoleon’s campaigns, resolved to attack Soult before the two marshals could join their forces in an attack on British-held Lisbon. Having added to his 25,000 men some 15,000 Portuguese under William Carr Beresford (Viscount Beresford to be), he led them to a point on the River Douro opposite Oporto. On May 12, 1809, he crossed the stream, and attacked Soult’s unsuspecting army in the rear in a battle that drove the French into a disorderly retreat, having lost 6,000 men and all their artillery. Wellesley did not pursue them, for he had to hurry south to halt Victor; but Victor, informed of Soult’s disaster, turned back to Talavera, where he received from Joseph reinforcements that increased his army to 46,000 men. Against these Wellesley had 23,000 Britons and 36,000 Spaniards. The hostile masses met at Talavera on July 28, 1809; the Spanish troops soon had enough, and fled from the field; nevertheless Wellesley drove off repeated French attacks until Victor withdrew with a loss of 7,000 men and seventeen guns. The British had suffered 5,000 casualties, but held the field. The British government credited Wellesley with his courageous leadership, and made him Viscount Wellington.
Nevertheless his support in the War Ministry was weakening. The victory of Napoleon at Wagram (1809), and his marriage with the Austrian Emperor’s daughter (March, 1810), had ended the Austrian fealty to England; Russia was still an ally of France; and an additional 138,000 French troops were now available for service in Spain. Marshal André Masséna, with 65,000 men, was planning to lead them out of Spain to the definite conquest of Portugal. The British government informed Wellington that if the French again invaded Spain he would be excused if he withdrew his army to England.23
This was a crucial moment in Wellington’s career. Withdrawal, however permitted, would tarnish his record unless some major future victory, not to be reckoned upon, could lend glamour even to his defeats. He decided to risk his men, his career, and his life on one more throw of the dice. Meanwhile he had his men build, from the Tagus through Torres Vedras to the sea, a line of fortifications twenty-five miles north of his base at Lisbon.
Masséna began his campaign by capturing the Spanish stronghold of Ciudad Rodrigo, and then crossed into Portugal with 60,000 men. Wellington, commanding 52,000 Allies (i.e. British, Spanish, and Portuguese), met him at Bussaco (north of Coimbra) on September 27, 1810. In the battle he lost 1,250 in dead and wounded; Masséna lost 4,600. Nevertheless Wellington, feeling that he could not rely, like Masséna, on reinforcements, retired to the Torres Vedras fortifications, ordered a policy of “scorched earth” as his army retreated, and waited for Masséna’s army to grow hungry and disappear. It did. On March 5, 1811, Masséna led his starving men back to Spain, and yielded his command to Auguste Marmont.
After a winter of resting and training his men, Wellington took the initiative, marched into Spain, and with 50,000 troops attacked Marmont’s 48,000 near Salamanca on July 22, 1812. Here the wholesale execution cost the French 14,000 casualties, the Allies 4,700; Marmont gave way. On July 21 King Joseph, with 15,000 soldiers, had left Madrid to go to Marmont’s aid; en route he learned of Marmont’s defeat. Not daring to return to the capital, he led his army to Valencia, to join a larger French force there under Marshal Suchet. He was followed in chaotic haste by his court and officials and some 10,000 afrancesados. On August 12 Wellington entered Madrid, and was welcomed ecstatically by a populace that had remained immune to French charm and Napoleon’s constitution. “I am among a people mad with joy,” Wellington wrote to a friend. “God send my good fortune may continue, and that I may be the instrument of securing their independence.”24
God hesitated. Marmont reorganized his army behind the fortifications of Burgos; Wellington besieged him there; Joseph marched from Valencia with 90,000 men to face the Allies, Wellington retreated (October 18, 1812) past Salamanca to Ciudad Rodrigo, losing 6,000 men on the way. Joseph reentered Madrid, to the grim displeasure of the populace and the delight of the middle class. Meanwhile Napoleon was shivering in Moscow, and Spain, like the rest of Europe, awaited the result of his gamble for a continent.