Comments about the fighting prowess of the Spanish soldier during the nineteenth century have not been complimentary. Describing their efforts as variable is perhaps the best one can expect. It has even been suggested that the proximity of luncheon has had a decisive effect on some major engagements. The soldier, historian and contemporary of the period, William Napier, wrote ‘I cannot say that they (the Spanish) do anything as it ought to be done, with the exception of running away and assembling again in a state of nature’. Is this justified or just a northern European generalisation?
The Spanish War of Independence or the Peninsular War as it is known to the British started in 1808 and ended with the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. The War began in early May with the insurrections which followed massacres in Madrid. French troops opened fire on a crowd in the Puerta del Sol killing over a 1,000. It was the ordinary people who rose up against Napoleon. The upper strata of Spanish society preferred to accept passively the will of their conquers. Much has been made of the British involvement in the war, however there were more Franco-Spanish actions than those between France and the other two allies.
The two most significant battles were at Vitoria where Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese Army delivered the fatal blow and at Bailén. Without Bailén there would have been no Vitoria.
Napoleon was determined to quell the uprisings and sent an army of some 23,000 men south to pacify Andalucía. Under General Dupont, the Army mainly consisted of inexperienced conscripts but he had several regiments of veteran troops to support and bolster his force. Their aims were to put down the insurgencies in Sevilla and Córdoba. Dupont sacked Córdoba, carrying off all the portable wealth of the city in a vast train of wagons and pack-mules. His brutality increased the scale and ferocity of the rebellion with many armed peasants joining a Spanish force intending to intercept the French Army.
After the destruction of Córdoba the French column, burdened with its plunder and wounded moved slowly across the Plain of Andújar along the road to Madrid. The town of Andújar, a French logistical base had by this time been taken by Castaños’s Spanish. By the 19th of July his Army stood between Dupont’s French and their passage to Madrid. From first light the French made five separate and concerted attempts to break the Spanish line and gain the road to Madrid. First the French infantry tried to break through but were repulsed. The French heavy cavalry then managed to crumble two battalions but were eventually forced to retire. Twice more the infantry tried and twice they were repulsed. At twelve thirty in the afternoon, Dupont made a final desperate attempt to advance but was again held. He himself was wounded and his Swiss regiments defected to the Spanish. A Spanish division led by Peña finally completed the encirclement of the French Army. Dupont sued for a ceasefire. Over 17,500 uninjured French soldiers threw down their arms and surrendered.
The lengthy ceasefire negotiations ended with the agreement that the prisoners be sent back to France. The Spanish however reneged on this stipulation under pressure from the British. The British argued that they would simply be re-armed and sent straight back across the Pyrenees. The French were imprisoned on the uninhabited island of Cabrera where almost two thirds succumbed to disease and malnutrition. The conditions on Cabrera were no worse than those in the prisoner-of-war hulks around the British coast however.
This was the first major defeat of the French Grande Armée and sent Napoleon into a blind rage. He accused Dupont of thinking more of his plunder than his duty. It was Bailén that swayed the British into putting Wellington ashore at Lisbon almost a year later and the endgame at Vitoria. The news of the battle was received in London with outpourings of Hispanic fervour. The courage and heroism of the Spanish were regaled in the British press. Poems were written to commemorate the deeds of the Spanish people .The Morning Chronicle of April 1809 carried a poem concerning the Siege of Saragossa where 40,000 died.
“…… In house by house, in street by street, The Franks a brave resistance meet; Hopeless and baffled they retreat— Huzza! for Saragossa. ……”
A delegation from the Spanish Supreme Junta visited London and were given one and a half million pounds, 120,000 muskets and 100,000 uniforms. Closer to home, it forced the aristocracy to join the rebellion.
This was certainly not the achievement of cowardly or undisciplined soldiers. The Spanish liked to decide who, when and where they fought, disappearing if they got into trouble and re-emerging when more favourable conditions existed. The French commanders often remarked that innumerable Spanish contingents kept materialising all over the country. By British standards of the day they were undisciplined. Wellington admitted that without a mule-train of 8,000 beasts bringing in supplies daily he would not have been able to keep his army in the field for more than a month. On several occasions open mutiny occurred within the British ranks due to the non-arrival of supplies. To the Spanish who lived off the land this amounted to indiscipline.
During the nineteenth century Spain was a remote country isolated by mountain ranges, the phrase ‘Europe ends begins at the Pyrenees’ held true. The Spanish character was little understood in London. These differences, when it came to the Peninsular War complemented one another. Wellington’s long and vulnerable lines of supply were never seriously disrupted. The ‘indisciplined’ regulars and irregulars of Spain never allowed the French to move freely and hinder Wellington’s rear-guard.