On November 30th 1807, a column of 1,500 dusty, disheveled and exhausted French soldiers trudged into the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. They were just in time to see, out in the Tagus, the ship carrying the Portuguese Royal Family to safety, its sails fluttering in the wind as it began its journey to Brazil.
The French had begun their march in October 1807, when Napoleon had sent them, under Marshal Andoche Junot, to occupy Portugal. He then set up his brother Joseph as King of Spain but when he did he had little idea of the repercussions the invasions were to have for him and his empire. 'The Spanish Ulcer', as the war in the Peninsula was to become known - dubbed a 'running sore' by Bonaparte himself - proved to be a turning point in the history of Europe and was a major factor in his ultimate downfall. It was a massive drain on French arms, armour and, more important, manpower. Thousands of French troops were tied down in the Peninsula who could otherwise have been engaged elsewhere in Europe as what seemed like yet another Napoleonic conquest turned into a savage guerrilla war, fought not only between the armies of France and Britain and her allies, but also between the French invaders and populations of both of the Iberian nations.
Unlike the people of other European nations that had crumbled beneath the power of French arms the people of Spain and Portugal were not prepared to simply lie down and have the yoke of France placed about their necks and when French troops occupied first Lisbon and then Madrid savage revolts broke out in both countries. The risings were remarkably successful at first, particularly in Spain where a French force surrendered at Baylen and as a result of this the British government decided to act to help the two countries. They had at their disposal a force of trained troops, mainly in Ireland, which was placed under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. Later to become the Duke of Wellington, Wellesley had already displayed his prowess in the field during the Mahratta Wars in India where he had led his men to numerous outstanding victories. In fact, when he reflected on his military career later in life he maintained that Assaye, fought in 1803, was his greatest achievement. This 'Sepoy General', as Napoleon called him, was to demonstrate on the battlefields of the Peninsula that his Indian victories were no fluke. He proved himself to be a master of Organisation and preparation, and of strategy and tactics, his instrument being the army, largely re-modelled and trained in individual combat and musketry at Hythe and Shomcliffe by Sir John Moore.
The battle began on a fine bright day, and the sun played on the arms of the enemy's battalions, as they came on, as they had been tipped with gold. The battle soon became general; the smoke thickened around, and often I was obliged to stopping, and dash it aside my face, and try in vain to get a sight of what was going on, whilst groans and shouts and a noise of canon and musketry appeared almost to shake the very ground. It seemed hell on earth, I thought.
John Harris, 95th Rifles
Bembibre exhibited all the appearance of a place lately stormed and pillaged..... Rivers of wine ran through the houses and into the streets, where fantastic groups of soldiers, women, children, runaway Spaniards and muleteers, all apparently inanimate except when here and there a leg or arm was seen to move, while the wine oozing from their lips and nostrils seemed the effect of gunshot wounds. Every floor contained the worshipers of Bacchus in all their different stages of devotion; some lay senseless, others staggered; there were those who prepared the libation by boring holes with their bayonets into the large wine vats, regardless of the quantity which flowed through the cellars and and was consequently destroyed. The music was perfectly in character; savage roars announcing present hilarity were mingled with groans issuing from fevered lips disgorging the wine of yesterday.
Robert Blakeney, 28th Regiment, describing the retreat to Corunna.
The Peninsular War raged from 1808 to 1814 during which time Wellington's army fought over twenty major actions including three successful sieges. However, we must not imagine that these six years of fighting saw nothing but unbroken conflict during which the British soldier saw little prospect of survival. On the contrary, the actual time spent fighting their French adversaries was minimal. Apart from Talavera and Fuentes de Onoro each of the actions fought during the Peninsular War - sieges excepted - lasted for just a single day and therefore one does not have to be a mathematician to realize that only tiny fraction of their time in Spain and Portugal was spent engaged in fighting.
So what did the British soldier do for the rest of the time? Well, for the most part he spent his time marching. It is estimated that some British soldiers marched 6,000 miles during the course of the war and on average it could not have been much less. Some regiments recorded incredible marches, including the famous march to Talavera by Craufurd's Light Brigade in the summer of 1809 when the brigade marched nearly sixty miles in thirty hours, and by the lst Foot Guards who marched 404 miles between September lst and October 18th 1812. And of course, as most of the campaigning season took place in the summer, when the sun was at it hottest, these figures represent amazing achievements. When not occupied with fighting and when in camp, the British soldiers found a variety of things to help pass the time. Apart from the daily routine of army life, including drill, training and forage parties, the men, and in particular the officers, found time to go sightseeing, they attended Balls, gave dinner and card parties, held sports days during which horse races would be run or boxing and played football matches, and in general all manner of pastimes helped keep the men occupied during the war, an existence which has been likened to that of the gypsies.
For the officers of the army, many of whom were from the aristocracy and landed gentry, life on campaign provided ample opportunity to continue the country pursuits enjoyed by them at home in England. Many of them brought their sporting guns with them and a few even brought packs of hounds out to the Peninsula. Indeed, Wellington himself could often be seen at the front of a pack of horsemen, frantically chasing the quarry, usually a fox, and on more than one occasion both huntsmen and hounds were taken prisoner by the French when they strayed into enemy territory, only to be returned by the bemused French a short while afterwards. Of course, being in a foreign country meant that a great deal of time was spent observing local customs and events like bullfights and religious festivals. Markets were often held at which the locals tried their hardest to relieve the soldiers of the pay.
Army life in the Peninsula gave the majority of the men a release from their problems at home, such as poverty, starvation and crime, many men joining to escape these evils. However, life in Wellington's army also gave a few of his men the opportunity to indulge in criminal activities, the culprits hoping that their movements would be hidden behind the screen of army life. They were sadly mistaken, however, as the numbers of red-jacketed corpses dangling from Iberian trees testified. Wellington was as merciless on plunderers as he was relentless in the pursuit of his object in the Peninsula, namely to defeat the French, after all, it went without saying that if his men carried out atrocities and crimes against the local people - his allies - there would be little prospect of a satisfactory outcome at the end of the war. indeed, reprisals by Spanish soldiers in France became such a problem that Wellington was forced to send all but a few of the more disciplined Spaniards back across the Pyrenees, lest a resistance movement along the lines of that organized by the Spaniards break out in France. As we shall see, however, his own men were to let him down badly, particularly after the successful stormings of Ciudad Rodiigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian.