Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Genesis of the Peninsular War


Although the crown of Spain was not yet worn by a nominee of Napoleon its present holder, or rather Manuel Godoy, an adventurer who in five years had risen from private in the Guards to chief Minister, was careful not to offend the Emperor. Portugal, on the other hand, was a friend of England, with whom she did a very large trade. Unfortunately her means of resistance were so weak and unorganized that when the Emperor of the French called upon the Prince Regent to close the harbours to British ships and declare war against England he had no alternative but to obey. A constant menace in the form of 28,000 troops had been stationed at Bayonne, and did not admit of argument. This Army of the Gironde was composed for the most part of young and inexperienced conscripts, but they were French, and therefore held to be invincible. The confiscation of British property was also demanded by Napoleon, but on this point the Prince Regent temporized, thus giving the majority of the British residents time to leave the country, to the wrath of the Emperor. Sufficient of the story of Napoleon has been told to show that he was no believer in half measures; when a State hesitated to do his will, swift retribution usually followed. Orders were immediately issued for Junot to proceed to Spain, where he would be joined by troops of that nationality, and enter Portugal. On the other side of the French frontiers the march was only accomplished with much difficulty, the trackless mountains, swollen rivers, and almost incessant rain making progress extremely slow and hazardous.

Stricken with panic, the Queen, the Regent, the Royal Family, the Court and many members of the nobility sailed for Brazil under the protection of a British fleet commanded by Sir Sidney Smith, the brilliant young officer who had already crossed Napoleon's path in Syria. So great was the fear of the French that no fewer than fourteen cartloads of plate were left on the quay at Belem. But for the impassable state of the river Zezere, which prevented Junot from making rapid progress, the royal fugitives would have been prevented from escaping to Rio Janeiro.

Lisbon was occupied by Junot's ragged regiments without much trouble. A strong resistance could scarcely have been expected, seeing what a poor example had been given to the people by those who ruled them. For a time it appeared as if everything connected with the French occupation would be settled satisfactorily. The proclamation issued by Junot, now Duke of Abrantes and Governor of Portugal, on the 1st February 1808, made no secret of Napoleon's intentions.

"The House of Braganza," it runs, "has ceased to reign in Portugal; and the Emperor Napoleon, having taken under his protection the beautiful kingdom of Portugal, wishes that it should be administered and governed over its whole extent in the name of his Majesty, and by the General-in-Chief of his army."

This must have been bitter reading to Godoy. In a secret treaty signed at Fontainebleau on the 27th October 1807, he had been promised the southern Portuguese provinces of Alemtejo and Algarve as a Principality for his connivance and assistance in the downfall of Portugal. Napoleon was paying him back in his own coin. During the Prussian campaign Godoy had cherished hostile designs against France, hoping for the co-operation of either England or Russia. In a proclamation dated the 5th October 1806, he had summoned the Portuguese nation to arms and but thinly disguised the name of the prospective enemy. The brilliant field of Jena, however, so radically changed the political aspect that it was necessary to make other plans, and Godoy put forth every effort possible to placate Napoleon. The Emperor had not forgotten, however; he never did, and he returned evil for evil. Having had the assistance of Spanish troops and the use of Spanish territory for the passage of his own soldiers, the Emperor found it inconvenient to complete his part of the bargain, and so the Prince of the Peace, to give Godoy his official title, went empty away.

Things were far from well with the Royal house of Spain. Charles IV. and his son Ferdinand, Prince of the Asturias, had quarrelled, the King going so far as to have his heir arrested on the charge of plotting against the throne. The main cause of disagreement was the Prince's detestation of Godoy, who at every turn came between him and his father, and might conceivably rob him of his succession to the throne. Napoleon, ever eager and willing to make an advantage out of another's disadvantage, surmised that the quarrel would enable him to settle the affairs of the eastern portion of the Peninsula to his liking. Hence another army of 25,000) ?> men was concentrated at Bayonne which, without warning, crossed into Spanish territory towards the end of November 1807. Further corps followed until more than 100,000 French soldiers had traversed the Pyrenees. Citadels and fortresses were seized, often by bribery or cunning, that of Pampeluna by over-eagerness on the part of the garrison to secure the French soldiers as contestants in a snowball-fight. The opportunity was not allowed to slip, and while the Spaniards were off their guard the new arrivals took possession of the fort, and remained there till 1813.

The nation correctly associated Godoy with the indignities it was suffering. His palace at Aranjuez was sacked, and the Favourite was fortunate in not being lynched by the mob. Finally the King abdicated in favour of his son, an act which caused more rejoicing than had been accorded any other event during his reign.

Murat and his troops entered Madrid the day previous to the state entry of the young monarch. Little interest was shown in the arrival of the French soldiers, but Ferdinand received an astounding ovation, women in their enthusiasm scattering flowers before him as he rode. Forty-eight hours after the event Napoleon offered the Crown of Spain to his brother Louis, King of Holland.

On one pretext and another Ferdinand, whom Napoleon called "the enemy of France," was persuaded to meet the Emperor at Bayonne. During the interview he was informed that he could have the choice of two evils. If he would resign his throne the Emperor would give him Etruria as some kind of compensation, if not he would be deposed. To complicate the difficulty, Charles IV., at Napoleon's instigation, withdrew his abdication, which he declared had been wrung from him by fear, and did everything in his power to induce his son to accept Napoleon's offer. At last the Emperor lost patience, and Ferdinand was given a few hours to make up his mind whether he would submit or be tried for high treason. Accordingly, on the 6th May 1808, the King, who had reigned less than two months, surrendered his throne, as he believed, to its former occupant, totally unaware that Napoleon had exacted the resignation of Charles IV. on the previous day. Few more despicable acts are recorded in history, certainly no better example could be found of Napoleon's lack of a sense of honour in political matters.

Spain was now at the Emperor's disposal. Louis had refused the kingdom, and so it was handed over to Joseph, Naples being given to Murat, his brother-in-law. The Emperor lived to repent the day, as did Joseph, who had endeared himself to the Neapolitans but could never persuade his Spanish subjects that he was anything but a vulgar upstart trading on the reputation of his brilliant brother.

Baptiste Capefigue, the eminent French historian, has tersely summed up the cause of Napoleon's ultimate failure, and the passages quoted here have special reference to the events we are now studying. "Napoleon," he says, "did not fail through the governments opposed to him, but through the people; it was when he attack( d national feelings that he met with a stubborn resistance; he had strangely abused his dictatorial power over Europe; he crushed down nations by his treaties, and he gave up the populations to kings of his own creation; he broke territories into fractions, separating that which was before united, and joining together those parts which were separated; he transformed a republic into a kingdom; of a free town he made a district of one of his prefectships; he united the high lands to the plain; simple, primitive populations to old and corrupt ones, without regard to diversities of language, or manners, or to religious antipathies. In Germany, above all, his policy appears most tyrannical; he takes away a province from one monarchy and gives it to another; he plays with the masses as if they were chessmen; he creates a kingdom of Westphalia out of more than twenty States or fragments of States; he detaches Tyrol from Austria, heedless of traditional customs, institutions, and manners; Holland, a mercantile republic, he changes into a kingdom; to Naples, at the extremity of Italy, he sends one of his brothers. His is an unparalleled despotism, without reason or excuse. The people are for him like a mute herd of cattle; he pens them up, or drives them before him with his terrible sword. Add to this the French spirit, the French character, which, in his pride of a founder of a great empire, he wished to force upon all Europe, together with his own code of laws. God has imparted to each of the various nations a character which is its own; for good or for evil, it is unwise to run counter to it. Germany has its own morals and manners; Spain has its inveterate habits—perhaps they dispose to indolence—but what is that to strangers? Uniformity may be a plausible idea in mathematics; but in the moral organization of the human kind, harmony is the result of diversities."

What is probably a typical summing up of the case from the distinctly British point of view is afforded us in a letter written by Francis Horner on the 13th June 1808, in which he says: "I cannot but rejoice that a people who bear such a name as the Spaniards should make a struggle at least for their independence; the example cannot be otherwise than beneficial, even if they should entirely fail, to their posterity at some future day, and to all the rest of mankind. It is the most detestable of all the enormities into which Bonaparte's love of dominion has plunged him, and more completely devoid than any other of all the pretence of provocation or security. If I were a Spaniard, I should consider resistance, however desperate in its chances of success, and however bloody in its immediate operation, as an indispensable duty of discretion and expediency; to put the proposition in its most frigid form of expression. . . . What a moment for a Spaniard of political and military genius

Pending the arrival of the new monarch, Murat was assigned the important post of Lieutenant-General of the kingdom. He was a good cavalry leader beyond question, but as a statesman he did not shine during the period in which he was dictator of Spain. He let it be seen that he regarded the nation as already conquered, and it is not surprising that his tactless rule should have roused bitter resentment. On the 2nd May there was a riot in Madrid, short and furious, but indicating the passionate nature of the citizens. Eight hundred insurgents fell in the streets, perhaps half that number of soldiers were laid low, and two hundred Spaniards were afterwards shot by Murat's orders for having taken part in the rebellion. Many of the populace had been armed with sticks and stones only, others with muskets which they used to good effect, both in the squares and from the housetops. It was only when additional soldiers, including the Mamelukes, the chasseurs, and dragoons, were brought up that the crowd realised the hopelessness of the task they had undertaken. If "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," the blood of those who fell in Madrid on that May day in 1808 was the seed from which the harvest of disaster for Napoleonic statesman-ship was reaped. The despot did not realise the possibility at first, but at St Helena, when frankness was not always a despised virtue, he told Las Cases that the Spanish war "was the first cause of the calamities of France." The self-confidence of Murat, who said, "My victory over the insurgents in the capital assures us the peaceable possession of Spain," a sentiment in which the Emperor agreed, was speedily dispelled. "Bah!" exclaimed Napoleon when he was told by an eyewitness of the revolution at Madrid and the sullen courage of the people, "they will calm down and will bless me as soon as they see their country freed from the discredit and disorder into which it has been thrown by the weakest and most corrupt administration that ever existed."

While the officials in Madrid were bowing to Joseph, the people in the provinces were showing by open rebellion that they neither desired him as king nor wished for Napoleon's assistance in the ruling of their country. The priests told the people of the Emperor's ungenerous treatment of the Pope, how a French force had entered Rome in the previous February, and that his Holiness had lost almost every vestige of his civil power. Every little township began to take measures of offence and defence. Innumerable miniature armies roamed among the mountains like bandits, awaiting an opportunity to annihilate a French outpost, to interrupt communications, or to fall on a division as it marched along to join one of the army corps now being poured into Spain. General actions were not encouraged, and usually ended in disaster. Assassinations and massacres became the order of the day on both sides, forcing the French commanders to realise that they had to face a novel kind of warfare—a nation in arms. At the end of May 1808, when the people were actively organizing, there were nearly 120,000 French troops in Spain and Portugal. In the first few engagements the Spaniards, who possibly numbered 100,000, including the regulars, were routed. When towns were besieged the French met with less success, and the defence of Saragossa under young Joseph Palafox, whose daring soon raised him to the dignity of a national hero, is a most thrilling episode. A name which must be coupled with his is that of Augustina (or Manuela) Sanchez. A battery had been abandoned by the Spaniards, and this brave girl, one of the many inhabitants who helped to defend their city, found that the hand of a dead gunner still grasped a lighted match, whereupon she seized it and fired the gun, thereby attracting the attention of the fugitives, who returned to the fight. The first siege of Saragossa lasted for nearly eight weeks, but the place eventually surrendered to Lannes.

Duhesme and his French soldiers met with even worse fortune, being forced to take refuge in Barcelona, where the Spaniards kept them secure for nearly four months. At Medina de Rio Seco the insurgents under La Cuesta and Blake, an Irishman, were completely routed by Bessieres. This event might have weakened the national cause very considerably had not Dupont's army been entrapped among the Sierra Morena mountains by Castanos. In the fighting that took place 3,000 French were either killed or wounded, and 18,000 troops were forced to lay down their arms at the subsequent capitulation of Baylen. When Napoleon heard of the victory at Medina de Rio Seco, he wrote: "Bessieres has put the crown on Joseph's head. The Spaniards have now perhaps 15,000 men left, with some old blockhead at their head; the resistance of the Peninsula is ended!" His reception of the news of Dupont's surrender was very different. "That an army should be beaten is nothing," he burst forth after reading the fatal despatch, "it is the daily fate of war, and is easily repaired, but that an army should submit to a dishonourable capitulation is a stain on the glory of our arms which can never be effaced. Wounds inflicted on honour are incurable. The moral effect of this catastrophe will be terrible." The luckless Dupont was promptly imprisoned on his return to France, and remained so until 1814.

This trouble did not come singly. It was followed shortly afterwards by the news that Joseph, feeling that Madrid was no longer secure, had deemed it advisable to retire in haste to Burgos, behind the Ebro, and within comparatively easy distance of the frontier. Some three weeks later Castaflos at the head of his troops marched into the capital. The position of Ferdinand's successor was speedily becoming untenable. "I have not a single Spaniard left who is attached to my cause," he tells his brother. "As a General, my part would be endurable—nay, easy; for, with a detachment of your veteran troops, I could conquer the Spaniards, but as a King my position is insupportable, for I must kill one portion of my subjects to make the other submit. I decline, therefore, to reign over a people who will not have me." He adds that he does not wish to retire conquered, but pleads for an experienced army that he may return to Madrid and come to terms with his rebellious subjects ere seeking the quiet of Naples.

In Portugal Junot, by dint of extreme severity, had succeeded in disarming the populace and securing the principal fortresses, his troops being dispersed about the country. His success made him feel so self-satisfied that he entertained the hope that Napoleon would confer the crown of Portugal upon him. As a preliminary step he endeavoured to win over the nobles and clergy. The Emperor had different views, and while recognising Junot's unquestionable ability he was not blind to his shortcomings.

At the same time as King Joseph was retreating from Madrid, 9000 British soldiers under Sir Arthur Wellesley had reached the mouth of the Mondego River, and, in spite of many difficulties, had effected a landing. The future Duke of Wellington was not to retain supreme command, although he had started out with that expectation. After leaving England he learned that three other officers, namely, Sir Hew Dalrymple, then Governor of Gibraltar; Sir Harry Burrard, a Guardsman of some experience; and Sir John Moore, who had previously taken part in Paoli's descent on Corsica and seen much honourable service in the West Indies and Ireland, were to join the expedition. Wellesley was not pleased at being superseded, but he was too good a soldier to show resentment. "Whether I am to command the army or not," he told the home authorities, "or am to quit it, I shall do my best to secure its success, and you may depend upon it that I shall not hurry the operations or commence them one moment sooner than they ought to be commenced, in order that I may reap the credit of success." Nothing that he ever wrote or said reveals more truly the unswerving honour and loyalty of the Iron Duke.

Junot was not particularly perturbed by the news of Wellesley's arrival. Small British expeditionary forces had landed again and again in various parts of the continent since 1793, and usually had been only too glad to return to England. The French commander noted with pleasure that the Portuguese showed little sympathy with their allies, so much so that Sir Arthur had the utmost difficulty to persuade them to lend assistance. Lisbon was still too disturbed to warrant Junot leaving it, and he accordingly directed Loison and Laborde to concentrate near Leiria. Wellesley, however, outmarched them, and prevented them from combining their forces immediately. On the 15th August he had a smart skirmish with Laborde, and two days later was victorious at Roleia, where a stiff battle was fought with the same commander. Unfortunately Wellesley's forces were not sufficiently strong to make the victory decisive or to stop the two forces of the enemy from uniting later.

Junot now found it necessary to assume personal command. Leaving Madrid with a garrison of 7000 soldiers, he gathered his available forces, including those of Loison and Laborde, and came up with the British at Vimiero on the 21st August. Wellesley's strength was some 18,000 troops in all, and although Sir Harry Burrard was the senior officer, he did not exercise his authority until the battle was almost concluded. In infantry Sir Arthur had the advantage, but Junot, while having but 13,000 men for the task he had undertaken, was considerably better off in cavalry. One incident in particular relieves the sordid story of the fight. In a charge made by the 71st and 92nd British regiments a piper, who was wounded in the thigh, fell to the ground. He continued to blow his pibroch, declaring that "the lads should nae want music to their wark." The day remained with the British, and had Wellesley been allowed to pursue the French, probably Lisbon would have fallen. It is said that when Wellesley heard Burrard's order to abstain from following the enemy, he remarked to his staff: "There is nothing left for us, gentlemen, but to hunt red-legged partridges!"

On the suggestion of Junot an armistice was agreed upon. This ended in the ill-considered Convention of Cintra, signed on the 30th August 1808, whereby Portugal was relieved of 25,000 French invaders. The troops were conveyed back to France by British ships. Junot was disgraced in the eyes of the Emperor and received no further command until the Russian campaign of 1812. His wife, when reviewing this campaign, says with justice, "Everything which was not a triumph he (Napoleon) regarded as a defeat." As no clause was inserted in the 'Convention to the effect that the troops should not serve again, it is not difficult to understand why a popular outcry was raised in Great Britain against the three generals. It soon became evident that Wellesley did not merit the attacks made upon Dalrymple, Burrard, and himself in the Press and elsewhere. An inquiry into the affair was instituted by command of George III., and its finding was favourable to the decision of the signatories of the Convention, but only Wellesley saw active service again. The command in Portugal was given to Sir John Moore, and meantime Sir Arthur took his seat in the House of Commons and resumed his work as Irish Secretary, little thinking that in a few months he would return to the South as Commander-in-Chief.

A caricature by Woodward, published in February 1809, very ably sums up British opinion of the affair. It can be understood by the following humorous lines, in imitation of "The House that Jack Built:—

These are the French who took the Gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

This is Sir Arthur (whose Valour and skill began so well but ended so ill) who beat the French who took the Gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

This is the Convention that Nobody owns, that saved old Junot's Baggage and Bones, altho' Sir Arthur (whose Valour and skill began so well but ended so ill,) had beaten the French who took the Gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.

This is John Bull, in great dismay, at the sight of the Ships which carried away the gold and silver and all the spoil the French had plundered with so much toil after the Convention which nobody owns, which saved old Junot's Baggage and Bones, altho' Sir Arthur (whose Valour and skill began so well but ended so ill) had beaten the French who took the Gold that lay in the City of Lisbon.