The Peninsular War in Spain

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will study the Peninsular War in Spain that pitted France against Great Britain, Spain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula.

Napoleon Picks a Fight

By 1807, French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had emerged triumphant from his battles against Austria, Russia and Prussia. He was pretty much in charge of events and alliances on the European continent, but one nemesis remained: Great Britain. Napoleon figured that he might be able to crush Britain financially, so he ordered other European countries not to conduct trade with his enemy. Most of them obeyed. Portugal did not.

Napoleon decided to put Portugal in its place. In the fall of 1807, he sent 100,000 soldiers into the Iberian Peninsula. They marched through Spain on a mission to invade Portugal and take control of it. The six-year-long Peninsular War had begun. Portugal's royal family fled in terror as the French army rolled into their country. Napoleon, however, was not satisfied with merely capturing Portugal. Sneaky as always, he also left some troops in Spain to put pressure on the already unstable Spanish monarchy, which soon collapsed. By the end of June in 1808, Napoleon's own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, was the king of Spain, just as Napoleon had planned.

This, of course, did not please the Spanish people. Uprisings broke out through Spain as the people violently protested their new French king. Napoleon sent more of his troops to quell the rebellion, but the Spanish turned to guerrilla warfare, and confusion reigned everywhere.

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  • 0:02 Napoleon Picks a Fight
  • 1:35 The British Come to the Rescue
  • 3:06 The Tide Turns
  • 4:24 Britain Smashes Its…
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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The British Come to the Rescue, Kind Of

Then Britain decided to enter the fray. British troops, led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, arrived in Portugal in August of 1808. After two British victories, Wellesley had driven the French out of Portugal. He then returned to Britain.

Meanwhile, Napoleon himself arrived in Spain to lead his army as it hammered the Spanish into submission. From October of 1808 through early 1809, French soldiers marched through the Spanish countryside, gaining territory and control as they went. As they approached the Portuguese border, British troops, now led by Sir John Moore, came out to meet them. This time, the French rolled over the British, driving them back and following them right into Portugal.

Thankfully for the British, Wellesley soon returned to the battlefield. Under his command, the British army once again pushed the French back out of Portugal and then headed into Spain to assist the Spanish army and their guerrilla counterparts. While the combined forces met with some success at first, winning the Battle of Talavera in July of 1809, conflict soon arose between the British, who wanted to focus on traditional battlefield tactics, and the Spanish, who were more concerned with disrupting French supply lines. Wellesley retreated to Portugal and began construction on the defense lines of Torres Vedras, which, he hoped, would hold back Napoleon's forces in the future.

The Tide Turns

Much of 1810 and 1811 passed as Wellesley attempted to keep France out of Portugal, and France worked hard to enter the country. Wellesley also pushed into Spain, sometimes sending the French into retreat and sometimes retreating himself. Campaigns and battles were frequent, but they didn't lead to much in the way of results. The two armies flanked each other, clashed, then pulled back to lick their wounds.

After two years of this seesaw motion, Wellesley decided to make a major offensive into Spain. In early 1812, he captured Ciudad Rodrigo and the Fortress of Badajoz and then pushed on to a major victory at the Battle of Salamanca on July 22, 1812. His success didn't last. Before long, the French rallied and forced the British back to Portugal.

Then something important happened. Napoleon lost a major campaign in Russia, and the Russians, Prussians and Austrians were driving him hard on his Eastern front. He needed more men there, so he pulled 30,000 French troops out of Spain and stopped sending reinforcements to replace them. It was just the opportunity Wellesley had been waiting for.

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