Peninsular War


Peninsular War
(1808–1814)
   Known in Spain as the War of Independence, a Napoleonic War fought on the Iberian Peninsula and in southern France between British, Spanish, and Portuguese forces on the one hand and those of France on the other. Napoleon Bonaparte, frustrated with the Portuguese refusal to submit to his anti-British Continental System, invaded Portugal in 1807 with the acquiescence of Spain. Equally frustrated with the inefficiency of Spanish cooperation with his war effort, he then used his troops to evict the Bourbons from the Spanish throne, putting in their place his brother Joseph in July 1808. This provoked a popular Spanish uprising, bloodily repressed by the French. Britain, looking for an opportunity to carry the war to Napoleon, sent an expeditionary force to Portugal, a traditional ally.
   British forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French at Vimeiro, forcing them to leave Portugal under a controversial armistice, the convention of Cintra. Simultaneously, a British army under Sir John Moore advanced into Spain, but was obliged to retreat on the port of Corunna, Moore being killed in January 1809. In April, Wellesley returned to Portugal, leading an army east along the River Tagus into central Spain. After holding their own in hard-fought defensive battle at Talavera on July 27–28, 1809, the British were obliged to withdraw for lack of supplies. But Napoleonic forces had not hitherto been driven from many battlefields, and Wellesley was raised to the peerage as Viscount Wellington, notwithstanding Whig predictions of disaster. Supported by the government in London, and in particular by the then Secretary at War, Lord Liverpool, Wellington remained on the strategic defensive in 1810, fighting effective defensive battles against the advancing French under Marshal Masséna, and eventually retreating into prepared positions outside Lisbon, the famous lines of Torres Vedras.
   The French withdrew from Portugal for lack of supplies in the spring of 1811, a year characterized by bloody sieges of fortresses on the Portuguese-Spanish border. Two major fortresses, Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz, fell in the early months of 1812. As French forces were drawn down for the coming invasion of Russia, Wellington advanced into Spain, defeating the French at Salamanca on July 22 and going onto Madrid, before being forced to retreat once more on his bases on the Portuguese border. In 1813, Wellington advanced into Spain by a northern route, depending for support on the Spanish Biscay ports. Wellington inflicted a major defeat on the French at Vittoria on June 21, 1813, and, after sharp engagements in the Pyrenees, advanced into southern France. The abdication of Napoleon and the treaty of Fontainbleau concluded European hostilities. The French forces had attempted to live off the countryside, as was their practice elsewhere in Europe, thereby incurring the hostility of the Spanish, whereas Wellington made a practice of paying for requisitions and preventing looting by ferocious discipline and a system of military police. Wellington’s much smaller forces were able to use the aid of the Spanish guerillas to keep the French forces dispersed, and for valuable intelligence. The Peninsular war created the term guerrilla originally to name popular resistance to foreign occupation, now transferred to any small-unit, unconventional forces. The Peninsular War also saw the collapse of the Spanish Latin-American Empire. In some ways, it established the pattern of future guerrilla wars: guerrillas can wear down large conventional forces, but generally cannot prevail without secure base areas of conventional forces on their own side.
   See also <>; <>.
   FURTHER READING:
    Esdaile, Charles. The Peninsular War: A New History. London: Allen Lane, 2002;
    Gates, David. The Spanish Ulcer. New York: Norton, 1986;
    Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War, 1807–1814, A Concise Military History. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1976.
   MARK F. PROUDMAN

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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