History question: France in Spain during Napolianic wars

I’m currently reading one of the myriad books by Bernard Cornwell on the Peninsula wars where the British are fighting the French in Spain/Portugal. In the stories they always talk about the nearly overwhelming numbers of French, of their multiple armies and of the inept Spanish armies who can’t seem to do much of anything right except lose…and of the poor beleaguered British with their one small army fighting and winning.

How historically accurate is this? What exactly happened to the French that were in Spain? How could they possibly lose when they had managed to basically conquered most of the rest of Europe, and Spain is, well, right next door so to speak? How did the Spanish go from being an ally to France early in the war to being one of its worst enemies (seemingly) at the end? How important was the Spanish front to the war and the eventual defeat of Napoleon? And why did Napoleon set off on his Russian adventure when Spain, a country right next to France, was still not subdued?


They faced in particular a massive popular revolt, soon joined by regular troops and spanish local commanders. The country became uncontrolable in quick order, and besides actual battles, the troops suffered many loses from spaniards using guerilla tactics.

The massive uprise was I think the main cause. It’s the only country where a revolt took place during the napoleonic wars. Also, it doesn’t seem to have been a priority for Napoleon. He didn’t took command himself (except fr one opeation, IIRC), and the manpower was quite limited by comparison to other wars he fought .

Spain was originally allied to the coalition during the revolution wars. It seems that the king of Spain wanted to take control of Portugal, and that it’s the reason why he switched to an alliance with Napoleon. However, he was already unpopular, the presence of french troops even more so, and the condemnation of Napoleon by the catholic church seems to have played a significant part too. He eventually abdicated, and his son was essentially forced to do the same by Napoleon, who put his brother on the throne. The revolt began immediately. Technically, Spain was at war, not allied, with the UK. But most spanish regular troops joined the revolt, under the command of various local juntas.

Napoleon has stated that the spanish war was one of his biggest mistakes, poorly conducted, and that he should never have embarked in it. However, it was only a secondary front that only kept at bay a limited part of the army.

Because contrarily to Spain, Russia was a major danger. Napoleon had signed a treaty with the tsar, but he feared a new coalition war in eastern Europe. Russia, Austria, Prussia were much more powerful countries than a Spain reduced to shambles. And it seems that indeed the tsar intended to resume the war. The campaign of Russia was sort of a “preemptive strike” against a potentially very dangerous opponent. Spain and the UK alone (the UK wasn’t very powerful militarily on land) weren’t a serious threat if he could beat Russia and by so doing make sure that the eastern borders would be secure and he expected that after this new defeat, none of the major powers would dare attack him.
Also, it was clear at this point that Spain couldn’t be subdued. The Spanish war is one of the most glorious example of popular resistance.

Random trivia: We got the word “Guerilla” from the Spanish word for “Little War”.

But yeah, Spain during that stage in the Napoleanic Wars was important to England because it represented basically the only foothold the British had in Europe at the time, at a point when almost every other European nation was either neutral or fighting alongside the French.

While England dominated the seas and could project power to any piece of land that touched saltwater, they didn’t have the capability to fight a longterm land war on their own. Even in the American Revolution they had the help of something like a third of the Colonial militia, as well as Canadian and Native American forces and Hessian mercenaries.

Thanks clairobscur, Raguleader. This is a period of history I’m not very familiar with (well, I’m fairly familiar with America’s 1812 war and what lead up to it, but this part has always been more of a footnote to me…American perspective and all. I realize the important stuff wasn’t happening here of course) but that has become more interesting to me reading the Hornblower novels and now the Sharpe novels. As an American its pretty natural for me to think of the British as the be all and end all as far as military power goes, and in the Sharpe books it seems that Cornwell is saying the British began the war with a weak army (and looked down on by the British population who loved the navy by loathed the army), but in Spain Wellington forged the greatest army in the world. It seems, if I’m reading what you guys are saying correctly, that this is an exaggeration and, at least on the Spanish front, it was the partisans (who Cornwell does mention, though my impression was more from a harrassing the French standpoint…its the English who are winning the battles and taking the forts) who were the decisive factor there.

Anyway, I appreciate the responses…looks like this isn’t a very interesting topic for the board though…only 2 responses. :frowning: Again though, appreciate it…have to do some research on my own I guess to flesh things out.


Wellington certainly did turn the British army into an effective force. In terms of what made Spain a giant sore that bled French troops endlessly, that was more the country-wide harrassment the French forces faced. They had to guard their entire logistical base, and patrols and supply convoys were attacked endlessly by partisans. Naturally it was Wellington that won the large battles, but for every large battle there were hundreds of little ones. Probably neither the British regulars nor the Spanish partisans would have been successful in kicking out the French on their own. Without the harrassment of the French by the partisans, Wellington would probably have been kept bottled up in Portugal. Without the victories in the set-piece battles won by Wellington, the partisans could only harrass the French, but couldn’t deny them any territory.

Still, if Napoleon had made it a priority, he could have come in with a half million troops and secured the place. Course, if he’d done that, in all likelihood the Prussians and/or Russians would have been knocking on his back door.

I’ve nothing to add especially (Raguleader stole my guerilla trivia!) except to say that if you are interested in this period of history you could do worse than flicking through a couple of the books Cornwell recommends in his Historical Notes’ at the end of each book.

You might want to try This site. It is a rather thorough Napoleonic site frequented by some heavy hitters in that scholarly field. They even have a discussion forum where a newby can ask questions like the OP.

More the greatest army Britain has ever fielded - not an unjust claim.

Wellington’s peninsular army was, after he (and others - particularly Murray) had worked their magic on it, well led, well armed, well behaved (for an army), well trained, well disciplined and highly experienced. It was only military force that could regularly beat the French without resorting to overwhelming them with shear numbers of men.

Gorsnak has answered this well - both were major contributors and neither could have been individually successful without the other.

The Spanish irregulars prevented the French from being able to concentrate their forces against the British and Portugese forces, they also massively disrupted the French supply and communication networks and provided Wellington with vital intelligence about the activities of the French. They could not, however, have driven the French from Spain.

That role fell to the British and Portugese (who always get overlooked) forces under Wellington.

It’s worth remembering that the British, at that time, were the only major power to employ a fully professional army (i.e. one that was not conscription-based). That, along with its naval bias, meant it simply couldn’t field the half-million man armies favoured by the other great powers.

Thanks to the interference the irregulars were running, he could concentrate on using his relatively small army to lure each French Army individually into attacking him whilst avoiding being dragged into a situation where he would be massively outnumbered - the defensive equivalent of Napoleon’s own style of warfare.

The thing to remember about the British army (excepting during the two world wars) is that it has always been a small, high quality army that was usually fighting someone, somewhere in a colonial context. Continental European armies pre-French revolution were usually larger than England’s but lower on actual experience between wars. Once the French introduced more or less universal conscription the quality of the average French soldier (and certainly the specific martial skills and experience) fell off. Quality leadership, mobility, and superior operational skills and supporting arms allowed the French to defeat most of their enemies who fell into a middle ground between the French and English examples.

Actually, at least in the books, the Portugese under Wellington are spoken of quite glowingly, at least by the time the books get around the the re-invasion of Spain. The early Portugese armies though seemed to (again, as far as the books go) fair no better than the Spanish against the French…though, according to Cornwell this is more because of their leadership than because of the men themselves. Cornwell doesn’t seem to like the nobility too much…especially when they are playing at war.

One further question I have thats slightly off topic…why does Cornwell say that the folks back in England looked down (nearly despised) the British army. I can understand why they loved the navy, but I never knew they felt so badly about the army. Is this accurate? If so, why?

BTW, continued thanks for all the excellent answers. I’m really starting to get into this subject and will probably go forth and buy some non fiction books on it when I finish the series. I appreciate the information one and all. :slight_smile:


You are right about his treatment of the portuguese (i love the Sharpe books :slight_smile: ). Also, the Portuguese were a helluvah lot better after the British took over their training and Beresford became their commander.

As an anecdote - when Wellington finally crossed the border into France, he was determined to make sure that the French didn’t do to him what the Spanish had done to the French, so he initiated what these days would probably be called a “Hearts and Minds” campaign. Whilst he had to send his Spanish forces back in order to achieve this (he wasn’t the most trusting man in the world) he kept the Portuguese with him.

If you’re interested in a thoroughly readable but serious history on Wellington, the Peninsular War and Waterloo i’d suggest you pick up Wellington by Eliizabeth Longford. If you want a slightly less weighty book then Richard Holmes has a good one out too.

Not sure if you are an American or not, but if so then you should also read Rebels & Redcoats - Richard Holmes’ book about the American Rebellion from a slightly less, well, “American” perspective :wink:

England (and yes i mean England) has always had a strange love/hate relationship with its Army.

I think partially this was because the English have always had a distrust of large bodies of armed men (Cromwell didn’t exactly help this this feeling). From a PR perspective, the Navy could always claim that it was a defensive force - there to protect Britain from invasion, but the army could never really do that - the British Army has always been more of an offensive than a defensive force.

Also, don’t forget that during the Napoleonic period there was no Police force - the first police force would not come into being until Wellington himself was Prime Minister in 1829. Until that happened, the army was used to enforce law and order when necessary - something that did not endear it to the general public.

Finally, a good portion of the rank and file of the army were Irish, Scottish, criminals who had joined up rather than go to prison, or other men to whom getting out of the country had suddenly seemed like a good idea. Not exactly the most loved portions of society. Wellington himself was to refer to his army as being composed of “the scum of the Earth” (although admittedly he was rather pissed off at their behaviour at the time he said it :slight_smile: ).

Interestingly enough, after the American Revolution (or whatever it is they call it on the other side of the pond in Merry Ol’ England :slight_smile: ) the Americans were rather unenthusiastic about building a Navy, even though it was apparant they needed one, because in their eyes, a Navy could only serve to build empires or get the Americans into wars they didn’t want. The fact that the British had a Royal Navy but only a “British” Army didn’t help much in the eyes of the anti-Navy types. The compromise was a small all-volunteer navy of very well-designed and built ships that were kept in dry dock in peacetime and fitted out and put to sea only in time of crisis. These were to be supported by the smaller ships of the Revenue Cutter Service (which later became the Coast Guard) and a series of coastal forts and a fleet of gunboats, neither of which ended up getting developed to the extent that had originally been planned.

Yeah, a lot of the seeds of the American Revolution were planted in the French and Indian War, with lots of friction between the Colonial militia and the British army. The British saw the American Militia as slack, undisciplined, and overall poor soldiers, and the Americans saw the British Army as a bunch of thugs led by a band of seemingly sadistic officers. Big difference being that the Militia was a volunteer force of farmers, merchants, etc. protecting their homes and the British Army was where various folks turned to either to get out of the country or when all their other prospects dried up. (It was a long while before the US started to use a standing army of any great size too, prefering a small cadre of trained soldiers and officers, and beefing it up with militia units and conscripts in time of war. This usually meant we’d get our butts kicked early on before we got our army rallied into fighting shape and were able to fight back.)