The Spanish Ulcer

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The Spanish Ulcer. The war of the Guerillas. Napoleon’s Vietnam. These are just a few of the ways in which the Iberian campaign of 1808-1814 has been described. Napoleon himself famously viewed the conflict of the start of his troubles, draining French resources and beginning the chain of events which culminated in his downfall. Just as Toulon was the first act in the French Emperor’s rise, Iberia was the first act in his fall.

On 7 July 1807, Napoleon made a pact with Russia at Tilsit, allowing him to turn his attention to other parts of Europe. His last rival was Great Britain, rendered untouchable by the English Channel. To strike at the British lion, the French eagle needed to use more than simple military might. In the ultimate act of economic warfare, Bonaparte assembled the Continental System, designed to break British financial power. Napoleon aimed to bankrupt Britain by isolating it from from the markets of Europe, but such a measure required the entire Continent to close its ports to Britain. Portugal, an English ally since 1386, refused to turn on its old friend. 

On 19 July, Napoleon ordered the Portuguese to “close their ports to the British and declare war on Britain.” However, they would not, and so Napoleon ordered Junot to march with 30,000 men through France’s ally Spain to Portugal, in order to enforce the continental blockade. Thus began the war against Portugal, but Napoleon’s Spanish ally could not fail to note how the French Emperor was garrisoning soldiers throughout their country. Bonaparte had long since grown tired of his ineffectual Spanish ally, believing that compared with France it was backward, rural and weak. The squabbling between the members of the Spanish royal family constantly required the French Emperor to act as arbiter and (Napoleon felt) stopped the nation from progressing. Furthermore, Bonaparte had heard reports that indicated Spain was considering siding with Britain if circumstances ever proved favourable – confirming to him they were a military ally who was neither militarily competent nor remotely trustworthy. When protests erupted against the Bourbons over the presence of French forces, the King and his family were invited by Napoleon to seek refuge in France, while the Emperor sent Murat to pacify the Spanish capital. Murat’s presence, however, did nothing to ease tensions, and on 2-3 May 1808, the Dos de Mayo uprising took place in Madrid. Thirty one French were killed in the Spanish riots, and Murat responded by having a hundred Spaniards shot before firing squads – three eyes for an eye. Days later, on 5 May 1808, Napoleon formally deposed the Spanish King and his heir; in their place, he crowned his own brother Joseph. Outraged, the Spanish nobility and clergy set up juntas (local resistance committees and administrations) across the Peninsula. Regular forces were raised, but most of the fighting consisted of guerilla warfare. The term ‘guerilla’ itself comes from the Spanish word for ‘little war’, as most of this campaign consisted not of set-piece battles but small ambushes and raids.

In August, Spanish forces expelled Joseph from Madrid, sparking stronger resistance across the nation, and so it has often been noted that it was “the rebellion in Madrid that ultimately proved fatal to Napoleon’s power (in Spain).” The expulsion was short lived, as the French recaptured Madrid in December, but this would be a costly victory which revealed the power of the guerillas. One French soldier said of them: “they were everywhere and nowhere.” The French were shadowboxing, and their morale collapsed. It was not that the juntas were stronger than their rivals, but that they had a fundamentally notion of what war was. Their armies had no centres or flanks which could be struck at, and so the typical Napoleonic strategies were effectively useless. In 1811, the Battle of Arlaban saw 3,000 guerillas simply materialises, ambush one thousand French troops and capture a convoy of one hundred and fifty wagons, valued at four million realms, and over a thousand prisoners.

As guerrillas proved increasingly effective, Spanish regular troops began to strike against the French invaders and at Baylen, these forces triumphed over a French force of 20,000-24,000. Napoleon’s troops had triumphed over all the great Continental powers, but now they were being hammered by the rag-tag forces of a third rate power. To restore French prestige, Napoleon marched into Iberia with 100,000 veterans of the Grande Armée; the Emperor had been provoked into trying to win the campaign himself. He entered the Peninsula in October 1808 with a total force of 160,000. Using this, he obliterated the Spanish regulars, but before two months were up, he was forced to depart when Austria overcame its fear of a Napoleon humbled by Spain, and declared war. 

Napoleon had proven that unless they had overwhelming superiority, Spanish regulars simply could not stand up to their French counterparts. Now, the Iberians sought the aid of forces which could, and called for British support. This took the form of Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, who skilfully combined his own army of 35,000 with the guerillas. His strategic planning was crucial, but cautious. He exploited the French lack of supplies, while brilliantly utilising British naval supremacy to supply his own forces. If Napoleon had pioneered the combined arms doctrine between infantry, artillery and cavalry, it was Wellington who pioneered the use of combined naval and land based forces.

The myriad juntas effectively meant that French troops only held power in the cities. Wellington, realising this, observed that there were 353,000 French troops in Spain, but they did not have authority beyond the spot where they stood. Wellington and his army would prove the decisive factor. In 1808, the French began an enormous counter-attack, and in December Marshal Soult stormed Sevilla, a key junta’s base of operations. It was only Wellington’s obstinate resistance which halted French momentum, and saved the peninsula from submission. 

Soult’s assault failed, and now Napoleon found himself stuck in what, a century and a half later, would become known as quagmire. The French Emperor could see no route to defeating an entire nations under arms, and thus saw no hope for victory. But nor could he face the humiliation of withdrawing, as this would mean accepting defeat and that previous French losses had been for nothing. Instead, he was forced to commit more men to a futile cause.

A total of 600,000 French troops were engaged in the Peninsula throughout the campaign. Therefore, both French troops and accomplished generals (such as Soult) couldn’t participate in simultaneous conflicts around Europe. France’s main resource in this era was its manpower, and the only way for the Allies to triumph was to drain French resources in “ulcers” like Spain. By 1814, this had been done so successfully that Napoleon was totally outmanned at the Battle of Leipzig, and Coalition forces effectively became impervious to defeat.

At the same time, Iberia taught the Allies how to defeat French forces. The Spanish system of guerrilla warfare proved that the Napoleonic system of having troops forage from the lands could be turned into a weakness – if the French were denied access to such supplies, they would inevitably starve. A variation of this tactic would doom the Grande Armée in Russia. Similarly, the British troops that would win the final battle at Waterloo were given the opportunity to learn French doctrines and stratagems, and perfect counters, in Iberia. Wellington mastered his reverse slope tactic here and was given such a thorough education in repelling French lines that at Waterloo he merely noted of Napoleon’s columns “They came in the same old way, and we sent them back in the same old way.” Most importantly of all, Iberia taught British soldiers that they could stand against the (seemingly) invincible French forces and triumph. The battle of Waterloo may not have been won on the playing fields of Eton, but on the battlefields of Iberia. 

Britain gained immense credibility from its role in the conflict. No longer could Austrians or Prussians argue that the British were hiding behind the Channel, while France’s reputation for invulnerability was immensely damaged by the Peninsular War. France’s European foes were largely kept in line by the psychological impact of this reputation, and Iberia’s tarnishing of it had immense strategic significance – seen by the fact Austria joined the Coalition shortly after Baylen. 

One of the main influences of the campaign was its failure to enforce the continental system. Regardless of whether or not the continental blockade would have worked with Portugal involved, the failure in the Peninsular cemented this. Ironically, Britain now had even greater access to Portuguese markets, and trade between the two nations soared from £1 million in 1808 to £6 million in 1811. Thus, the impact of the Continental System was lessened, and this in turn contributed to Britain helping form the Sixth Coalition and organising the Treaty of Chaumont on 1 March 1814.

France’s reputation was severely crippled by the Iberian campaign. Publicly, Napoleon had proclaimed that the Empire was to provide oppressed people with liberty, yet liberty was notably absent from the Peninsular War. The rural Spaniards were fervently Catholic, and despised the secularism and bourgeoise nature of the Enlightened French Empire. In Portugal too, the revolutionary ‘ideals’ hardly proved popular, and on 13 December 1807, Junot was met with a riot when he tried to raise a French flag in Lisbon. Instead, Napoleon relied on terror in Portugal, while the constitution he imposed upon Spain ran counter to his own civil code. Finally, the arbitrary nature of his Spanish invasion convinced many in Europe that there would never be peace until he was deposed, and, in combination with his stubbornness in 1814, would convince the Seventh Coalition to declare him an outlaw during the Hundred Days.

By the end of the Peninsular War, British troops were attacking French territory. Following the failure of the Russian campaign, Wellington went on the offensive. At Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz he enjoyed great success, and following his decisive victory over Marmot at Salamanca, he entered Madrid. Then, in late 1813, he invaded southern France. Marshal Soult was forced to abandon Iberia, cross the Pyrenees and engage Wellington at Nicelle (9 November 1813) and at Nive (fought throughout December 1813), where the French casualties numbered 7000. Soult slipped away to Toulouse to replenish his army, but Wellington surrounded the city on three sides. The campaign ended with the Battle of Toulouse on 10 April 1814, though this was ultimately pointless, as Napoleon had surrendered four days prior. 

The Iberian Campaign is often overlooked in the story of Napoleon’s downfall, with most historians focusing on Leipzig and Russia. Certainly, Iberia alone did not bring down the French Empire, as shown by the fact Napoleon was able to raise an army of 600,000 with which he planned to bring the Tsar to heel. But it is also wrong to ignore the savage Peninsular War, or relegate such a significant campaign to a mere sentence or two. Iberia was indeed “a Spanish Ulcer” and sapped French strength which would be sorely needed elsewhere in the campaigns to come. The war was effectively a training ground for the Coalitions, in which they could learn how to overcome the Napoleonic way of war. The conflict was a dark stain on Napoleon’s record, and began to undermine the myth of French invincibility, which was central for the maintaining of the Empire, while also revealing some of Napoleon’s darkest streaks. The war would strengthen Britain’s diplomatic hand, giving Castlereagh greater clout at Chaumont and Vienna. Finally, more than it drained French resources, Iberia drained morale. The idea of a costly guerrilla war followed by a British incursion helped convince many Frenchmen that continued conflict was too much to bear, and as war weariness set in, France grew less enamoured with its great warrior. 

Esdaille, C., 2003. The Peninsular War: A New History. Penguin Books

Rees, D., and Townsend, D., 2001. France in Revolution: 1774-1815. Hodder Education

Wells, M., 2018. The French Revolution and the Rule of Napoleon: 1774-1816. Hodder Education