This coming Sunday marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the decisive battle in the Peninsula by which was broken the iron grip that Napoleon had held on Spain. Known as the Battle of Salamanca, though it did not completely rout the French army out of Spain, and the Peninsular campaign would continue for two more grueling years, the French would never regain the stranglehold they had once held. And, it was during this battle that Wellington proved himself to be a superior offensive General. Up to this time, he had been managing what amounted to a defensive effort in Portugal. But on this day, he would take advantage of French blunders with a series of brilliant and efficiently executed maneuvers by which his troops soundly defeated a superior force.
What did the French commander do that day which made Wellington whoop with delight and toss a partially-eaten chicken leg over his shoulder?
Wellington had been in the Iberian Peninsula since August of 1808, but in all that time he had been forced to fight a defensive campaign against the French, to keep them out of Portugal, which was the reason the British army was there. The French were in control of Spain and menacing Portugal. The English, as an ally of Portugal, had sent troops to the Peninsula in response to the French threat and to keep Napoleon’s troops fighting on two fronts. But Wellington did not have enough troops for an all-out offensive, he had to concentrate on keeping the French army out of Portugal. But by so doing, he remained a constant drain on French military resources by harrying them at every opportunity. And bore out Napoleon’s own prophecy, made years before, that the conquest of Spain was not worth the effort, that it would be "too hard a nut to crack."
But in the spring of 1812, the situation in the Peninsula began to change. Up to that time, Napoleon was routinely reinforcing his regiments in Spain with fresh French troops. That steady influx of new troops fell off sharply as Bonaparte began planning his invasion of Russia. He needed every man who could be spared with him in order to ensure he defeated the Russians quickly and decisively. Reports had reached Wellington in May of Bonaparte’s intention to invade Russia, and he instantly understood its significance in terms of French reinforcements in Spain. Wellington’s reconnaissance officers and other spies kept him informed of the situation with the French, and from intercepted letters and reports of troop movements, he was aware that the French had orders from their Emperor to take the city of Salamanca, in western Spain. As soon as he had conquered and subdued the Russians, Bonaparte intended to finish the Peninsular campaign by routing the British army and invading Portugal. He had decided that Salamanca would be his main headquarters and principal supply depot in support of that invasion. As it was generally believed Napoleon would crush the Russian army in short order, then shift his focus to the Peninsula, Wellington was well aware of the heavy burden he bore in his attempt to protect Portugal, and, if possible, push back the French lines in Spain. Many saw him as Europe’s last hope against complete Napoleonic domination.
On 19 May 1812, Sir Rowland Hill led a swift, successful raid, known as the Battle of Almaraz, in which he destroyed a heavily protected French pontoon bridge over the Tagus River. That had the effect of breaking the main French line of communication for some time, thus isolating the northern French forces under the command of Marshal Auguste de Marmont from the larger French army in the south, under the command of Marshal Nicolas Soult, which was besieging Cadiz. Knowing Marmont could not call for reinforcements, Wellington soon thereafter captured Salamanca along with its forts and Marmont’s army had to fall back. But not for long. By a series of clever maneuvers, Marmont compelled Wellington’s forces to retire from Salamanca within a few weeks.
Then, on 16 June, Wellington, reinforced with a division of Spanish troops, which brought his army to nearly 40,000, against at least 50,000 French, forced Marmont out of Salamanca. The inhabitants of the city were jubilant. One British officer told the tale that an old woman hugged and kissed Wellington, much to the General’s annoyance, for liberating the city, and then she proceeded to kiss the nose of that same officer’s horse. Two weeks later, Wellington left a garrison in Salamanca, and with the main body of his army, went after Marmont and the French. Without the ability to send for reinforcements, Marmont was forced to play for time until his lines of communication could be re-established and fresh troops could arrive. Wellington was constantly short of supplies, and therefore had to protect his supply lines, since he did not allow the British troops to forage off the land as did the French. Thus, Wellington and Marmont danced their armies across the Spanish landscape, usually just out of cannon range of one another. Shots were sometimes fired, but neither side was yet willing to fully engage.
Wellington got the news in early July that Lord William Bentinck, who was supposed to be bringing a force to his aid from England, had chosen to detour from landing on the east coast of Spain and sailed on to Genoa, in Italy. By mid-July, Wellington had received reports that Bonaparte’s brother, Joseph, who Napoleon had made King of Spain, was coming to Marmont’s aid with the army of the Centre, a large force of fresh troops from Madrid. There were also reports that Marshal Soult was bringing at least some of his divisions up from the south. On Monday, 20 July 1812, Marmont cut Wellington’s lines of communication with Salamanca and Wellington immediately went after the French. The two armies were travelling along roughly parallel lines, usually within sight of one another. It became a sort of slow race as to which army would arrive first at the Tormes River. On the afternoon of Tuesday, the 21st, both armies reached the Tormes. Marmont and the French crossed the river first, and took up a position which threatened the road to Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington’s main line of retreat. Wellington crossed the river closer to Salamanca, near two steep, isolated hills known as the Dos Aripeles. But no action took place that afternoon, as a fiercely powerful thunderstorm arose which continued through the night.
The morning of Wednesday, 22 July 1812, dawned sunny, but oppressively hot and humid. Wellington had no intention of engaging Marmont, as he knew he did not have the necessary forces, and all reports told him the French forces under King Joseph would arrive within twenty-four hours and that Soult’s divisions would probably arrive shortly thereafter. Wellington was by then concerned only with securing an orderly retreat to protect his men and his supplies. Marmont, on the other hand, was eager to bring the battle to Wellington before the French reinforcements arrived, so that he could have the credit of defeating the English commander. That morning Wellington received reports that some of Marmont’s troops were trying to take up positions on the slopes of the two steep hills, the Aripeles. His officers thought nothing of it, but Wellington immediately saw the danger and ordered the French repulsed. He then ordered two divisions to take up positions below the ridge of the closer hill, out of sight of the French. He supervised their placement himself, with the intent they could cover his retreat to Portugal, which he was planning to begin under cover of darkness that night. He had already sent his baggage train and commissariat wagons on the road to Ciudad Rodrigo, and ordered up two more divisions from Salamanca, then waited for Marmont to make his move. And waited.
Wellington and his senior officers had been up since dawn, none of them having had a chance for a meal. At mid-day, Wellington descended the near Aripele hill and joined his senior staff at a nearby farm where they had a good view of most of the area. A very late breakfast had been provided for them in the farmyard. However, as there were some bullets falling in the area, from skirmishes which were taking place nearby, the meal had to be moved around the corner of farmhouse. For a time, Wellington paced near the wall of the farmyard, dodging bullets and intently scanning the area near the Dos Aripeles with his spy-glass. Eventually, one of his officers prevailed upon him to eat some bread and part of a roast chicken, a delicacy in comparison to the fare they usually had while on campaign. Having no flatware or even a knife available, Wellington grabbed one of the legs of the roasted fowl and ate it with one hand, while continuing to periodically sweep the area between Dos Aripeles with his spy-glass. About two o’clock, he saw something through his glass which made him rise from the table with a whoop of delight, nearly knocking the table over. He threw the partially-eaten chicken leg over his shoulder and shouted, "By God! That will do!" and ran to his horse, ordering his men to follow him, with all speed.
Wellington galloped closer toward the Dos Aripeles, then pulled up, once again studying the area between them with his spy-glass, and saw the French troops marching through the gap. Exactly what he had been hoping to see. He turned to his Spanish aide-de-camp, Miguel Ricardo de Álava y Esquivel, who had accompanied him, and exclaimed in triumph, "Mon cher Álava, Marmont est perdu!" (My dear Álava, Marmont is lost!) Years later, Álava would tell the tale and add with a grin, "I knew that something ‘very serious’ was going to happen when something so precious as the leg of a roast fowl was thus thrown away!" What was about to happen was ‘very serious’ indeed, for Marmont had made a fatal error in judgement and Wellington knew he was now in the perfect position to crush the French.
Marshal Marmont had seen a large cloud of dust in the distance, and thereby assumed Wellington was in retreat. What the French commander had actually seen was the dust from the British supply train, but he was not to know that no troops accompanied the wagons. Marmont’s first mistake was that though he had reports of the troops of Wellington’s left wing, he believed them to be a small rear-guard force, left to cover the bulk of Wellington’s retreating army. Secondly, in his haste to smash what he believed to be a disorganized and fleeing horde, he ordered his main force south, then west, with the intention of striking the British right flank. But in fact, what Marmont had done was order his army to march past the ridge behind which Wellington had earlier that morning stationed two of his most powerful divisions. Worse for Marmont, he had ordered his better troops too far out, and some of the slower troops fell behind, thus over-extending and weakening his line. A blunder which Wellington was quick to turn to his own advantage.
Leaving de Álava, Wellington galloped over to his brother-in-law, Sir Edward Pakenham, who had been placed in command of the 3rd Division, when General Picton had been forced to return to England after being severely wounded at the Siege of Badajoz. Wellington himself had created the division, known as the "Fighting 3rd," and placed great faith in them. To his brother-in-law he said, "Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill? Throw your division into column and have at them. Drive them to the devil!" In response, General Pakenham held out his hand to Wellington and said, "I will, my Lord, by God, if you will give me your hand." Some in the vicinity thought Wellington seemed a little embarrassed by Pakenham’s show of emotion, though he did shake his brother-in-law’s hand, if rather stiffly. However, Pakenham galloped off almost immediately to give the 3rd their orders, and Wellington said to one of his officers, "Did you ever see a man who understood his orders more clearly than Pakenham?" Wellington then galloped away to give his orders to the other division commanders.
Wellington struck hard and fast, all of his divisions following his precise orders and never wavering. They smashed the French troops, who were completely unaware of the two divisions hidden behind the ridge. Marmont had been hit by an exploding shell early in the battle, was badly wounded and carried to the rear. Several other French senior officers were killed or severely wounded and the French army was given no chance to re-group. The main battle was over in less than an hour. It was later said that Wellington had " … defeated 40,000 men in 40 minutes." Near the end of the battle, Wellington was struck in the thigh by a musket ball while riding at the head of a cavalry charge, but fortunately, it passed first through his holster and inflicted only a minor wound. It is generally believed that the artist, Francisco de Goya, made this drawing of Wellington, when the British commander came into Alba de Tormes late that night in pursuit of the fleeing French. After looking at the drawing, one can certainly believe what Wellington is reported to have said on that night, "I was never so fagged."
Complete victory was snatched from the British by the failure of a Spanish commander whom Wellington had stationed at the ford of the river near Alba de Tormes. Wellington believed the garrison would prevent the remains of the French army from crossing the river, and they would be trapped. Earlier in the day, the garrison commander had sent Wellington a request to evacuate the garrison. Wellington immediately sent a refusal and ordered him to maintain his position. But unbeknownst to Wellington, the Spanish commander had already abandoned his post and had apparently sent the request to Wellington after he had done so. Thus, the French troops who were mobile escaped over the Tormes River. Wellington’s forces pursued the French the following day, and several regiments of rear-guard cavalry were defeated, but still the main body of the French army managed to escape.
Though not the complete victory which Wellington had expected, the Battle of Salamanca had destroyed French military prestige in the Peninsula. The British commander also realized he had garnered precious time, and he immediately planned a march on Madrid, which he entered on 12 August 1812, even as King Joseph Bonaparte fled. The British victory also had the effect of raising the siege of Cadiz, as Soult brought his forces north to defend what remained of the French lines there. In addition, both Andalusia and Castile were soon free of French occupation. If Wellington had failed that day, and Napoleon had succeeded in Russia, as most people expected, the Little Corsican would have controled Europe from Archangel to Cadiz, with no one to gainsay him. Long after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon is reported to have said, "The Spanish ulcer destroyed me." But as one historian noted, it was Wellington’s victory at Salamanca which rendered the Spanish ulcer incurable.
Bonaparte learned of Marmont’s defeat in Russia on 6 September 1812, the night before the Battle of Borodino. He was furious, since he realized he could hope for no reinforcements from a victorious French army in Spain. He is reported to have said the battle would have gone the other way, if he had been present. Marshal Marmont, who lost his arm due to the injury he suffered at Salamanca, was for sometime out of favor with Napoleon. Eventually, the Emperor forgave him and Marmont returned to his service. It was only years later that Wellington learned, from a member of Marmont’s own family, that it was he who had done that signal service for Marmont. When enquiring how that could be so, he was told that some months after the battle, Napoleon got hold of a copy of Wellington’s Salamanca dispatch, which had been published in the English papers. Once he read it, the Emperor immediately realized Marmont had come up against a vastly superior and cunning commander. Bonaparte considered Wellington’s report honest and forthright and he forgave Marmont when he understood what had really happened.
The night after the battle, many of the residents of Salamanca, who had seen much of the conflict, came out onto the battlefield, with carts and wagons filled with provisions, including bushels of fresh fruit and water. This was a great relief to men who had had little to eat for more than a day, and had gone without water for nearly as long, while fighting a grueling battle under the burning sun. These people went all over the field, doing their best to aid all the soldiers they could find. And they did all of this without payment, though the Spanish were used to being paid by the English for all provisions. The soldiers on the field that night never forgot the kindness and consideration shown them by the people of Salamanca.
Young Juana María de los Dolores de León Smith was behind the lines that night. She was the teen-age wife of Sir Harry Smith, who was to become the title character in Georgette Heyer’s novel, The Spanish Bride. She was only fourteen and had only been married to Sir Harry for a few months, but she was determined to stay with him as he campaigned across the Peninsula. Before the battle, Sir Harry had sent her to the rear, much to her annoyance, with his faithful groom, West, to care for her and her beloved Andalusian horse. Sir Harry recorded in his autobiography that he later learned that West had cut a bunch of green wheat to make a bed for his mistress, but rather than sleeping, she spent most of the night giggling as her horse munched away, slowly devouring her bed around her. Sir Harry had adored his Juana from the first moment he set eyes on her. Of that night he wrote: "… She had to hold her horse all night, and he ate all her bed of green wheat, to her juvenile amusement; for a creature so gay and vivacious, with all her sound sense, the earth never produced."
In England, the news of the victory at Salamanca was greeted with great demonstrations of joy. The Prince Regent was delighted to learn that two of the vaunted French Imperial Eagles and their colors had been captured during the battle, even though they were not taken by his personal regiments. Wellington, an earl at the time, was soon raised to the rank of marquess. Thanksgiving services were held in nearly every church and meeting house in the land. Most people illuminated the windows of their homes and in many places there were grand fireworks displays. The authorities in many cities and towns called meetings, during which resolutions of support, esteem and congratulations for Wellington and his troops were proclaimed. Untold quantities of beer and other alcoholic libations were consumed in repeated toasts to the great General and his valiant troops over the course of many days.
Wellington always considered Salamanca one of his most important victories. So much so, that, in 1815, after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, a grand entertainment was planned for three of the crowned heads of Europe who were visiting Paris. It was decided that one of the battles of the late war should be re-enacted on the field at St. Denys, and Wellington chose the Battle of Salamanca. Years later, he explained that at Salamanca, the British troops were not simply expected to stand and defend their ground to the death, which is mostly what they had done in Portugal. On that July day, in Spain, they had been called on to maneuver quickly and efficiently in the face of a larger and more experienced force which was well-known for its precise and rapid movements. That day, the English beat the French, decisively, at their own game.