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Napoleon's Peninsular War: The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna, 1808–1809

Napoleon's Peninsular War: The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna, 1808–1809

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Napoleon's Peninsular War: The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna, 1808–1809

483 pagine
7 ore
Dec 2, 2020


Memoirs of British soldiers who fought in the Peninsular War are commonplace and histories of the momentous campaigns and battles of Sir John Moore and Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, can be numbered by the score. Yet surprisingly little has been published in English on their opponents, the French.

Using previously unseen material from the French army archives in Paris, which includes numerous memoirs that have not even been published in France, renowned historian Paul Dawson tells the story of the early years of the Peninsular War as never before.

Eyewitness accounts of the horrific Siege of Zaragoza, in which more than 50,000 soldiers and civilians were killed defending the city, and of the cataclysmic Spanish defeats at Medellin and Ocaña are interspersed with details of campaign life in the Iberian Peninsula and of struggling through the Galician mountains in pursuit of the British army marching to Corunna.

As well as the drama of the great battles and the ever-present fear of Spanish guerrillas – the knife in the back, the flash of steel in the dark – Paul Dawson draws on the writings of the French soldiers to examine the ordinary conscript’s belief in the war they were fighting for their Emperor, Napoleon.

In this much-needed study of the Peninsular War from the French perspective, Paul Dawson has produced an unprecedented, yet vital addition to our understanding of the war in Iberia. Napoleon’s Peninsular War is destined to become one of the classic accounts of this turbulent, yet endlessly fascinating era.
Dec 2, 2020

Informazioni sull'autore

Paul L. Dawson BSc Hons MA, MIFA, FINS, is a historian, field archaeologist and author who has written more than twenty books, his specialty being the French Army of the Napoleonic Wars. As well as speaking French and having an in-depth knowledge of French archival sources, Paul is also an historical tailor producing museum-quality replica clothing, the study of which has given him a unique understanding of the Napoleonic era.

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Napoleon's Peninsular War - Paul L. Dawson

Napoleon’s Peninsular War

Napoleon’s Peninsular War

The French Experience of the War in Spain from Vimeiro to Corunna 1808–1809

Paul L. Dawson

First published in Great Britain in 2020 by

Frontline Books

An imprint of

Pen & Sword Books Ltd

Yorkshire – Philadelphia

Copyright © Paul L. Dawson, 2020

ISBN 978 1 52675 409 7

eISBN 978 1 52675 410 3

Mobi ISBN 978 1 52675 411 0

The right of Paul L. Dawson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the Publisher in writing.

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List of Illustrations



Chapter 1: The Reasons for War

Chapter 2: War

Chapter 3: Roliça and Vimeiro

Chapter 4: Rio Seco

Chapter 5: Baylen

Chapter 6: Napoleon’s Response

Chapter 7: The Zornosa Campaign.

Chapter 8: Napoleon’s Campaign Begins

Chapter 9: Espinosa

Chapter 10: Tudella.

Chapter 11: March to Zaragoza

Chapter 12: Advance to Somosierra

Chapter 13: The Battle of Somosierra

Chapter 14: Entry into Madrid

Chapter 15: Arzobispo

Chapter 16: Action at Tarancon

Chapter 17: Benavente

Chapter 18: Advance to Coruña

Chapter 19: Coruña Preparations

Chapter 20: The Battle of Coruña

Chapter 21: Uclès

Chapter 22: Conclusion

Appendix 1: Somosierra Eyewitnesses

Appendix 2: Coruña Eyewitnesses



List of Illustrations

1. Map of the battle of Medina del Rio Seco. One of the most outstanding victories from 1808, in no small part due to Georges Mouton, future Comte Lobau.

2. The battle of Gamonel was a pivotal moment in the 1808 campaign. Marshals Lannes and Ney were to fight a twin action, to trap and crush the Spanish armies. Ney bungled his operations, and lost the French a tactical victory.

3. French forces in northern Spain in 31 October 1808, prior to the Emperor taking direct command.

4. French positions in central Spain on 31 October 1808.

5. French positions on 3 November 1808 as the two French forces began to separate to head to Burgos and Tudela.

6. Location of French forces around Burgos on 8 November, with Lasalle’s cavalry in the vanguard.

7. The French and Spanish positions at Burgos on 10 November 1808 shortly before Marshal Soult took command.

8. Marshal Soult’s positions around Burgos on 12 November 1808 after he had captured the town.

9. Troop positions of Marshal’s Victor and Lefebvre at Espinosa on 10 November 1808.

10. Positions of the armies of Victor and Lefebvre on 12 November 1808.

11. The opening positions of the French and Spanish forces at Espinosa.

12. Second positions of the French and Spanish forces at Espinosa, a tactical French victory, but one that was squandered by Marshal Lefebvre acting without orders.

13. Position of Marshal Moncey’s forces relative to the Spanish field armies on 8 November 1808

14. Moncey headed to besiege Zaragoza, the map shows his positions on 10 November 1808.

15. Marshal Moncey’s positions at Zaragoza on 12 November 1808 shortly before the siege was to begin in earnest.

16. Position of French forces around Vitoria on 12 November 1808, shortly before the push against the Spanish towards Madrid began.

17. The Battle of Zornoza, a tactical French victory.

18. The Battle of Coruña, a tactical victory by the forces of Marshal Soult against the British Army.

19. The French advance to Coruña was conducted through snow and ice as vividly imagined in this painting.

20. The capitulation of Madrid as pained by Gros. This marked the apogee of the Emperor’s campaign in Spain, made possible by the brilliant action at Somosierra

21. Marshal Jourdan, Chief of Staff to King Joseph.

22. Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. A moral coward, his ineptness cost the French outright victory in the Peninsular War on several occasions.

23. Andoche Junot, the corporal of Toulon, who bungled the invasion of Portugal and lost his army.

24. Marshal Moncey. Doyen of the active marshals, he openly criticised the Emperor and fellow marshals, which resulted him in being stripped of command and sent back to French.

25. Marshal Ney, ‘Bravest of the Brave’, but a man whose abilities as a field commander were utterly lacking during the 1808 campaign in Spain. He bungled all his orders and refused to co-operate with Soult, Lannes or Moncey, yet was not stripped of command.

26. Marshal Soult, lead 2nd Corps faultlessly throughout the campaign of 1808 and into 1809. A great administrator and leader of men.

27. Marshal Bessières; a great cavalry officer but a poor field commander. His timidity resulted in him being stripped of his command.

28. Marshal Lannes, victor of Tudela, harsh critic of Ney’s bungling and victor of Saragossa.

29. General Montbrun, hero of Medina del Rio Seco and Somosierra.

30. Auguste de Colbert, who got himself uselessly killed in December 1808.

31. Lefebvre-Desnoëttes, a man whose judgement was seriously lacking at Benevante where he lead his regiment to infamy, and his own capture by the British.

32. Marshal Berthier, the Emperor’s chief of staff, whose tireless work co-ordinated the various armies in Spain in 1808, and at the same time re-assembled the Grande Armée to invade Austria in February 1809.

33. Marsal Murat; all dash and swagger but of limited intelligence and tactical ability.

34. An eyewitness to the siege of Zaragoza was Louis François Lejeune. This is his famed painting of the event.

35. Another element from the painting of Zaragoza by Lejuene, where the Vistula Legion storm the city.

36. Marshal Lefebvre, whose impetuosity gained a victory at Espinosa, but not the victory planed by the Emperor.


I would like to thank all those who have offered advice and support in the preparation of this book. I would also like to thank all those who have helped me with my research.

I am indebted to my research consortium of Ian James Smith, Sally Fairweather and Jean Charles Lair for their assistance with, and photographing of, archival material at the Archives Nationales and Service Historique de la Défense Armée de Terre, in Paris.

We have spent many hundreds of hours in Paris, and without their help, the work in collecting the research material would have taken far longer than the four years it has taken already.

I must also acknowledge the tremendous and most generous assistance in the provision of research material by Ronald Pawly and Yves Martin of digital images of material at Archives Nationales and Service Historique de la Défense Armée de Terre, in Paris.

Lastly, the long-suffering staff at Service Historique de la Défense Armée de Terre, in Paris need to be thanked for answering questions and locating items of research that have made this book possible.


This book is written almost exclusively from the letters and later writings of those who took part in the Peninsular War as members of the French Army. This book covers the beginning of the war in October 1807 through to the end of the Coruña campaign, which surely secured Soult’s reputation as a great commander.

The book presents not facts and figures, but moreover is a book that contains rumour, gossip, personal anecdotes, which as Paul Fussell has established, occupies a place between fiction and autobiography.¹ This book is written from two primary sources of information. Official reports and orders written as the events unfolded at the time, housed in the French Army Archives, and soldiers’ writings. Soldiers’ memoirs and their writings as well as memory has been the subject of recent research and has called into question the value of memoirs and so-called eyewitness reports. Indeed, neuroscientist John Coates argues that what is recalled from memory is what the mind believes happened rather than what actually happened. This effect is often referred to as ‘false memory’.²

False memory is created by the eyewitness in two ways. Firstly, having read material since the event described took place, this has overwritten their own memories, and they then write down and recall what they have read since the event rather than what they witnessed happen. Secondly, false memory can be created by the mind recording memories of what it thinks ought to have happened rather than what did. A memoir, letter or other material used to help create a narrative of events is of limited value in terms of historical interpretation without context. This is defined as hermeneutics. Hermeneutics addresses the relationship between the interpreter and the interpreted; viz: What does it mean? What were the author’s intentions? Is the source authentic?

Therefore the historian’s primary aim is decoding the language of the source used, to understand the ideological intentions of the author and to locate it within the general cultural context to which the source material belongs.³ The letters and memoirs cited in this narrative were written down by combatants or by their family members long after the events had taken place, and are not necessarily an accurate reflection of events that happened. Each of the writers of the letters included in this work had a personal and unique view of the war – what they experienced will be different from participant to participant. The letters left by the participants recorded what was important to them. However, the closeness of the written narrative to the events that took place will affect what is recorded.⁴ This is the reason why the police take statements immediately from as many eyewitnesses to an incident as possible without allowing the eyewitnesses to hear what others are saying. They then tease out the facts from this jumble of data.

Therefore, the cited memoirs of various participants should only be seen as the authors’ recollection of the events at the time in which they created the written narrative of them. These memoirs had a different ‘credibility’ to the hard empirical data recovered from the documentary sources held in the French Army Archives in Paris.

As critical or evaluative historians we must also take into consideration that observers do not always understand what they saw or thought they saw. The audience which the author of the narrative is addressing is also important, and this again is a reflection of the social-political background and time of the author. Also, we must bear in mind that the writer may not have understood what he saw.

Similar issues arise with personal letters. Soldiers writing home are doing so with self-imposed censorship and the stories told differ according to the recipient of the letter and also include what the writer deem important and what the writer thinks the reader will think is important and how the writer understands those events/facts. They are more objective and more reliable than memoirs because they are a ‘snapshot’ and are immediate, unlike memoirs, but have already passed through one level of perception filter: the writer. It is only by collating data from various accounts that something approaching a balanced view of an event can be created. One must also bear in mind that what might be reported as ‘fact’ may just be ‘perception’ or even rumour. Here again, a letter, like a memoir, is part-way between fiction and autobiography. In many cases a writer will invent facts to suit their own ends, such as their regiment defeated such and such regiment to increase the prestige of their regiment and their own deeds. Whom the writer is writing to will also impact on what they say. Writing to parents, the writer will subconsciously edit out a lot of the detail. Writing to a brother, the content may be more graphic. In both cases the writer will concentrate on their regiment’s achievements above others. A diary entry will be more candid and honest in what took place. When an author writes about events they cannot have seen or experienced, then we must question the whole content of the text. If the writer has constructed a narrative of events they did not take part in, clearly this is based on what they have been told or read, which may include all of what they have written.

The further the written narrative shifts away from a diary or the events, the closer it becomes to a figurative fiction. The recollection of crucial events will be re-evaluated and re-contextualised throughout the life of the author to the point of creating the written record – personal memoirs become influenced by the socio-political and socio-economic environment, and the experiences of the author will have an impact on how they recall an event.⁵ As time passes between the event and the recollection of it by participants who were there, the degree of cognitive processing distorts memories even further and various biases creep in, the main one being that people come to believe that the version of events that they recall is actually correct because they recall it. This becomes self-reinforcing until they are unable to accept their original recall was incorrect. But the biggest issue with memory recall after time is almost always that the person recalling the event has been influenced by other memories (their own and those of other people) which have combined to create a new version of the event.

As critical evaluative historians, we must also take into consideration that observers do not always understand what they saw or thought they saw. The audience to which the narrative is addressed is also important, and this again is a reflection of the social-political background and time of the author.

Finally, and importantly, we must also stress the role of the writer in the creation of the narrative. We all have preconceived ideas and personal biases about historical events based on what we have read about the subject, our own political, economic, sociological and ideological grounds; these will impact on the way the historian interprets the source material. No historian is free from bias. I am pro-Napoleon and anti-Britain at the start of the nineteenth century. I endeavour though to be even-handed, and offer critique of Napoleon and his commanders where it is justified.

Chapter 1

The Reasons for War

The Marshalate was at its zenith in the summer of 1807. The Empire had reached its apogee: peace had been brokered with Russia, Prussia had been completely defeated as a military power the year before and the Confederation of the Rhine had allied the German states to France, as was nascent Poland, the Duchy of Warsaw. In Italy, led by Prince Eugène de Beauharnais and Joseph Bonaparte, French influence was also at its peak. Spain, technically, was still a French ally. All of Europe, bar Portugal and Great Britain, owed fidelity to Napoleon. Europe was united under France.

Surely now was the time for Great Britain to make peace and accept Napoleon as what he was, the legitimate ruler of France. Yet for Britain, peace was unthinkable. Political reform, which many politicians had championed since the 1770s, was now off the agenda. Conservative, reactionary propaganda had stirred up a hatred of all things French and all things that offered legitimate political and economic reform, such as scrapping the church rate and the Corn Laws and disenfranchising rotten boroughs in favour of new industrial centres. Change was seen as French and Jacobin. Bad harvests, hyperinflation, starvation, food riots and the suspension of habeas corpus by the British state were all seen as worth it to stop France. It was a war fought for the few against the many.

The sole aim of the British government, and particularly the Royal Navy, was to preserve free trade, and any barriers to that trade were forcibly removed. This included regime change. Napoleon threatened trade monopoly and therefore had to be stopped. Britain, both her government and businessmen, understood that with the loss of the American colonies, a second empire (a trading block, as it were, with unique access for the British nation) had to be created, to and from which free trade would take place, through the exploitation of people. It meant that eyes turned to new markets in India, South America and back to Europe. So long as the British merchant fleet could sail unopposed wherever it wanted, friction between countries remained low. As soon as a threat arose to British free trade, with the emergence of a new power to challenge Britain militarily and above all economically, then war was the inevitable result.

Key to that trade was Portugal. The British merchant fleet had been docking in Portugal for over a century before the Napoleonic and Revolutionary Wars began. Oporto and Lisbon, as well as Cadiz in Spain, were key ports. Without free trade the British economy would stagnate. No new markets could be obtained. By 1800 the only country that posed a major threat to British free trade was a resurgent France. France had to be contained to allow the British to safely get on with exploiting India and Africa for their resources. Trade, far more than crushing the ideals of the rights of man and putting a king back on his throne, was the primary cause of the Napoleonic Wars, at least from Great Britain’s point of view. Supressing nascent democracy came second. France was the major threat to British domination of the world. The British government tried to stop France throughout the course of the previous 100 years but had failed. Britain went to war with France to maintain world dominance in free trade. Napoleon went to war to bolster the economy of Europe, and to cleanse European trade of British goods.

Since 1802, the British government had done their level best to stop France becoming a major power, albeit by crushing any idea of nascent democracy and the right of a country to choose its own government. Pitt had failed with the various coalitions that had been defeated at Austerlitz, Jena and Friedland. Napoleon realised this. Unable to invade Britain due to the Royal Navy, he sought war by other means. The Continental System was to exclude British goods from Europe. By preventing the import of British goods into Europe, and the export of goods to Britain, Napoleon hoped to cripple the British economy, as well as to boost internal markets. Trade wars and economic protectionism are as costly as a war fought with pitched battles and the outcome is as unpredictable. With virtual French hegemony over Europe, only Portugal remained as a barrier to closing all of Europe’s ports to British goods. The Treaty of Tilsit had closed all of the Baltic ports – for a time – to Britain. America closed her ports to French and British ships in 1807, as America sought to protect and bolster internal markets. In the first quarter of 1808, after the Continental System had been in place for over a year but more importantly the Russian ports were closed. The British economy began to contract. Exports had fallen by a quarter and the country was sliding into a depression.

The cotton trade, relying heavily on imports from America, was stagnating. With Saxony and Spain now under French control the flow of valuable merino wool to Britain to fuel the production of superfine cloth also began to contract. Thousands of tons of grain every year had been imported to Britain from Europe and America, which resulted in an increase in price of basic foodstuffs, at the same time wages dropped due to the contracting economy.

France also relied heavily on imported grain from America. Jefferson, in closing US ports to British and French shipping, made Napoleon seek new markets for grain and Russia suddenly became the breadbasket of Europe. The Treaty of Tilsit promised access to Russian supplies of grain and other foodstuffs. France was not able to feed itself and needed to import huge quantities of grain which made Napoleon feel confident enough to step up the imposition of the Continental System Europe-wide. Portugal was the only gap in the trade barrier around Europe. France was protected from the rest of Europe by a massive tariff barrier, the result of which was that the industries of areas like the Ruhr and Lombardy suffered terribly and were temporarily all but wiped out. Indeed, quite literally, the Napoleonic Empire was a captive market. We cannot underestimate the effect that the war had on the economy of Britain, and particularly the huge amount of social unrest it caused. Unfavourable trading conditions led to the failure of a number of banks across the country. The English export market collapsed in 1806–13, bringing economic ruin to thousands. Yorkshire and the north of England was hardest hit. The huge expansion of cloth manufacturing for the home market, as well as export markets to America and France following 1785, had resulted in 30 per cent increase in production year on year. By 1800, 90 per cent of the broadcloth made in Yorkshire was for the export market. The sudden closure of the export market to France, America and Russia as well as Spain and Portugal brought the economy of the north of England to its knees.

The Treaty of Tilsit and the Emperor’s overtures for peace chimed once again with the mercantile class of England. History suggests that fighting Napoleon was universally championed in England, that all supported the war of extermination. Due a rapidly shrinking economy employers cut wage bills, workers were sacked and machines were made more use of. In addition, there was a series of bad harvests (1808–12). Food prices rapidly increased and food riots broke out in 1812 in places like Manchester, Oldham, Ashton, Rochdale, Stockport and Macclesfield.

The peace petition of 1801 had in its own small way brokered peace. With Europe under Napoleon’s yoke, many in England sought peace to end the war on moral as well as economic grounds. The Continental System brought in a nationwide depression the major impact of which is often overlooked. The peace movement was a major force in the 1807 General Election – it was Church and King verses Chapel and the Rights of Man. A nationwide petition was taken up to urge the government for peace. Opposition to the war was no longer based solely on economic reasons, but also on moral obligations and political reasoning. The leadership looked beyond the woollen trade, and appealed to the community at large. Huddersfield and Bradford held general town meetings, and in Leeds the trustees of the Mixed and White Cloth Halls called a meeting. Three large petitions were forthcoming. Wakefield did not raise one perhaps due to the vociferous efforts of the Anglican clergy. Bingley and Saddleworth also submitted petitions, over 60,000 signatures being collected: 28,628 men signed in Leeds alone. The Bradford petition was led by William Smithson, a Unitarian connected to Mill Hill Chapel and the Arian Chapel at Call Lane, both in Leeds. The Huddersfield meeting was chaired by Benjamin Ingham, a banker from Wakefield. In Leeds the ailing Rev William Wood, minister at Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel, made an appearance at the Cloth Hall in support of peace. With Charles James Fox dead, the Whig politician Samuel Whitbread was now the darling of the peace movement. The war with France was loathed, and MPs from across the Whig spectrum sought to end the war.

But Britain was led by men such as William Pitt the younger, Spencer Percival and the Tory oligarchy, who despised everything the French Revolution stood for – the rights of man, nascent democracy (even if very flawed and far from universal) – as it threatened the rights of those born in high places to keep exploiting the accident of their birth to rule the country. The era of Whig ascendancy and an era of meritocracy, which had flourished for a time in the eighteenth century, was over: the suspension of habeas corpus, the introduction of a Corporation and Test Act in 1790, censorship of the press, imprisonment of dissenting voices, the desecration by the mob of Dr Priestley’s library, the burning of Unitarian chapels for their support of the rights of man, in essence the violent suppression of any voice of dissent by whatever means possible was the goal of the Tory administration of the 1790s. Britain was on the verge of becoming a police state: the Tory oligarchy and Church of England were threatened by what was happening in France and viewed Quakers and Unitarians as well as the more radical Whig elements as traitors. The British government banked on having the fiscal resources to weather a 10 to 15-year recession, and long-term economic goals trumped short term disadvantages to the economy and domestic policy at home. War it was to be.

For France, in order to protect the economy of Europe, new markets had to be found. Unable to trade beyond the mainland of Europe due to the Royal Navy, the French state had no other recourse than to exploit the captive market. Spain and Portugal were the only ‘targets’ for Napoleonic expansion.

For Napoleon three main factors led to the Peninsular War. Firstly, securing grain supplies from Russia made Napoleon feel confident enough to step up the imposition of the Continental System across Europe. Secondly, the French economy, in freefall since the 1760s, had survived the 1790s through wars of conquest. The state relied upon war paying for war: war boosted the textile, leather, iron, timber and bronze trades and countless others. War gave the economy the stimulus it needed to expand. Yet paying for war was always the issue. Once the troops had entered enemy territory, army administrators went about organising a range of seizures, both in kind and in money. The enemy’s public finances were requisitioned and all taxes received were confiscated. In many cases, the local authorities (from the smallest village to the capital itself) were also ordered to provide additional contributions. All these funds helped ease the financial pressure on the French treasury, particularly with regard to the army payroll. The net result, however, was to make the payment of the troops’ wages heavily dependent on the capacity of the occupied countries to pay their dues. In wealthy regions such as Germany, Prussia and Austria, the military administration was well provided for, but the situation was quite different in Poland, Russia and Spain. Once military operations had been completed, each major town or city in states occupied by the French army was assigned a contribution commensurate with its level of wealth, which took no account whatsoever of the amounts already exacted by the army paymasters (intendance) during the war. Once the system was operating, it could not be stopped. It needed more money, more men and new wars. The French state was subsumed into a branch of the military. Thirdly, thousands of tonnes of wool were needed every year to clothe the army – the best wool came from Spain and Portugal to bolster the domestic market. France had relied heavily on imported woollen goods for the majority of the eighteenth century – by blocking trade with Britain, the cloth and wool trade of France, and also that of ‘Germany’, notably Saxony, needed to find new markets and materials. Rather than shipping wool fleece to England from Portugal and Saxony, the market became internalised. The Napoleonic Empire was a captive market: its sole purpose was to serve the needs of the Emperor’s war machine. Pitt’s economy was little different.

Both Britain and France needed war for economic gain. In both countries, for some elements of the economy, the massive collateral damage was accompanied by the odd collateral benefit. Yet it was the Emperor’s or the British Government’s will, and their ministers only sought to make the plan become reality.

Chapter 2


Napoleon wanted no gaps through which British goods could enter France. On 19 July 1807, he ordered his ambassador to inform Portugal to close its ports to British shipping by 1 September. Britain needed wool from Spain and Portugal and new markets for grain. With Spain as an uneasy ally, Napoleon hoped to take control of Portugal in a single swift campaign, and to knock Britain out of European trade. He chose one of his oldest friends, Andoche Junot, to lead the expedition.¹ The decree of 2 August 1807 formed the 25,000-strong Corps of Observation of the Gironde. The force was to field some 2,000 cavalry mounts, 800 draught horses for the artillery train, 800 draught horses and 600 pack mules for the equipment train.² On 12 August Napoleon and Charles IV of Spain demanded that Prince John, who ruled as regent in Portugal for his insane mother, declare war on Britain, join his fleet to the Franco-Spanish fleet, arrest all British subjects in Portugal and seize all British goods in the country. If Prince John was willing to break off diplomatic relations and to block all trade with Britain, that concession might have satisfied Napoleon if his main objective had indeed been the enforcement of the Continental System.³ But in fact he sought to overthrow the monarchy – who the Emperor planned to be monarch we do not know. Was Portugal to be annexed to Spain? Perhaps. So, in October 1807, Napoleon ordered the invasion of Portugal.

However, impelled by little more than opportunism, as autumn turned to winter Napoleon resolved on intervention in the complicated politics of the Spanish court, his aim being to make Spain a more effective ally. This would over time prove to be a disastrous mistake. After Trafalgar, the Spanish had been uneasy allies despite their huge losses. Political instability in the Spanish government was a concern for the erstwhile ruler of France. The King of Spain, Charles IV, was supported by the venal and corrupt Manuel de Godoy. The previous monarch, Charles III (1759–88), had antagonised a huge swathe of the Spanish elite, including the Catholic Church, by carrying out social, religious and political reforms which the new monarch wanted to continue. Charles IV’s son, Ferdinand, the ‘poster boy’ of the Spanish reactionary elite but of dubious intellect, was the manipulated figurehead of the movement to turn back the tide of social reform. Ferdinand was presented to the public as the man for all seasons, to cure all of Spain’s economic, political and social problems. There was a genuine fear that Godoy would make a bid for the throne as the King became older and increasingly infirm. Ferdinand was encouraged to seek a Bonaparte bride to cement the alliance between France and Spain, Charles IV panicked and arrested his son. The move proved catastrophic: the public was outraged at the plot to get rid of Ferdinand, and it brought about French intervention in Spain. Napoleon could ill afford political instability in Spain. The best option was to overthrow Godoy and place Ferdinand on the throne, an idea Napoleon was still musing over in January 1808, but by the spring he had swung decidedly behind the idea of making Spain a satellite kingdom of France, with disastrous consequences.⁴ The boundary to the Empire was to be the sea. But all of that was in the future.

On 18 October 1807, the newly-formed army crossed the border into Spain, heading towards Salamanca and the normal invasion route into Portugal, via Almeida and Coimbra. Junot reached Salamanca on 12 November, and Lisbon was occupied on 1 December. The monarchy fled to Brazil, and in consequence the government of the country was placed into the hands of a Council of Regency which appealed to the British for assistance.

One of the regiments that went with Junot to Portugal was the 2nd Swiss. An officer of the regiment, Captain-Adjutant-Major Louis Marc Begos, has left a fascinating journal of his experiences in the campaign. He wrote:

I arrived at Avignon in the spring of 1807. I was appointed, thanks to my old services, adjutant-major, after having organized the service of the barracks at Marseilles and Toulon. The 2nd Swiss Regiment was composed of three battalions, 700 men each. Its organization was quite difficult, for most of the soldiers and officers were conscripts without any experience of war. Later, the strength of the second battalion was increased to 1,200 men. It was this battalion which was chosen for the campaign of Portugal, and I was one of the officers.

We left Marseilles towards the end of August 1807 and had to endure scorching heat, we arrived at Bayonne towards the end of September after thirty-six days of marching. As far as I was concerned, I had a hard task, as I had much work to do as the adjutant-major of a battalion where the soldiers and officers were new recruits.

The day after our arrival at Bayonne, we left for St. Jean-Pied-de-Port which is situated sixteen leagues from this first town. This locality is about eight leagues from the Spanish frontier. It was formerly fairly well defended and is dominated by a citadel, but can only contain three or four hundred men at most; we had two companies quartered there; the rest of the battalion were staying in the city and the surrounding area. During our stay in this little town we were able to recover from our fatigues and teach our soldiers the most necessary thing in the art of war – to know how to kill and defend ourselves well. After having stayed at St. Jean-Pied-de-Port for twenty days, which were not lost for the conduct of our battalion, we left for Salamanca, passing by Bayonne. It was the 22nd of October when we reached Vitoria, where we remained a few days; we had to do the same in Burgos, but we were ordered to leave immediately. Three days later, we were forced to march on forced marches and to double the steps to Valladolid. The country we were crossing is pretty beautiful; the peasant cultivates the vine and some olive trees, but the villages have a poor, dirty and dilapidated appearance, which was hard for us to see.

Our battalion marched on the left wing of the army so we had a hard time getting supplies and our young recruits suffered a lot from the hardships they had to endure. We had, after all, only what the French troops wanted to leave us. The people watched us pass with impassive indifference, which often resulted in assassinations. After forced marches of perhaps ten or fifteen leagues a day, we reached Salamanca, where we had scarcely time to see the city which possesses some curiosities which we would have been very glad to visit. In the march to Salamanca we had lost some stragglers. When undertaking forced marches, it is difficult not to lose men. The French army, which preceded us by a few

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