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Britain sent a 15,000 strong army to Portugal in August 1808 under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, later ennobled as the Duke of Wellington. This was to protect British interests and trade in Portugal, and to liberate the country which had been under French occupation since the previous year.

The Battle of Vimeiro fought on 17th August 1808
The Battle of Vimeiro fought on 17th August 1808

The British and their Portuguese allies fought and defeated Junot's main army of 14,000 at the Battle of Vimeiro on 17th August 1808. Wellesley was then replaced in command by Sir Hew Dalrymple who signed a treaty known as the Convention of Cintra, which allowed Junot and the remains of the French army to withdraw unmolested from Portugal and keep all of their looted treasures. There was outrage back in Britain over Junot's lenient treatment, and Dalrymple was recalled and replaced by Sir John Moore.

Napoleon, meanwhile, had sent 300,000 troops into Spain on a fresh offensive, and by December 1808 had retaken Madrid and restored Joseph Bonaparte to the throne.

The British army under Sir John Moore advanced into Spain and attacked Marshal Soult's army at Carrion, but Napoleon, hearing of the attack, sent in 80,000 troops who quickly encircled the British forces. Moore decided to retreat to the northern Spanish port of La Coruña where British relief ships were shortly to arrive, but they were pursued by Soult, forcing the British rearguard to fight numerous skirmishes in order to allow the main army to escape.

The retreat to La Coruña in January 1809
The retreat to La Coruña in January 1809

The retreat to La Coruña was made through freezing cold conditions and heavy snow, causing widespread suffering and starvation, plus the breakdown of discipline amongst some units. When Moore's army reached La Coruña, the fleet had yet to arrive, and Soult's army was in quick pursuit. When the relief ships finally arrived, Soult attacked as troops were embarking, forcing the Battle of Coruña to be fought on 16th January 1809, whereby Sir John Moore was killed. The remains the of British army finally embarked, but still under French cannon fire.

Marshal Soult then invaded Portugal with a force of 20,000 men, first taking the Spanish naval base of Ferrol, before crossing the border and heavily defeating the Portuguese army at the 1st Battle of Porto in March 1809. He then halted at Porto to rest and refit his army.

Sir Arthur Wellesley was returned to overall command of the British army in Portugal in April 1809, and together with newly trained Portuguese regiments, Soult was defeated at both the Battle of Grijo and the 2nd Battle of Porto, and the French were driven out of Portugal.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington
Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington

Wellesley then advanced into Spain with 20,000 troops, plus a Spanish army of 33,000 under General Cuesta, towards the town of Talavera de la Reina, where on 27th July 1809, they encountered a 46,000 strong French army under the command of Marshals Victor, and Jourdan.

The Battle of Talavera lasted two days and was inconclusive, in that all three sides lost around the same number of killed or wounded, but Wellesley, now created Viscount Wellington, decided that he had to retreat into Portugal as his supply lines were in danger of being cut by Soult's army, which had reformed and was now 30,000 strong.

In my first book 'Amy, The Story of a Coram Foundling', Amy's boyfriend Freddy Ponsonby fights his first battle at Talavera, where his regiment, the 23rd Light Dragoons, are heavily mauled when they make a rash charge into the French infantry squares. 102 were killed and 105 captured, but Freddy escapes unharmed.

The Battle of Talavera, July 1809
The Battle of Talavera, July 1809

Wellington retreated into Portugal, and receiving intelligence that the French were about to invade, he then started the construction of three lines of defences surrounding Lisbon known as the Lines of Torres Vedras.

A French army of 65,000 under Marshal Massena then invaded in July 1810, first taking the Spanish border town of Cuidad Rodrigo, and defeating the British under Robert Crauford at the Battle of Côa, before pushing them back to Bussaco where they met Wellington's main British and Portuguese army. The French suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Bussaco, but pushed Wellington back to the Lines and then dug themselves in. They soon suffered shortages and starvation, and after a month, Massena pulled his army back to Santarem, 50 miles north of Lisbon.

Marshal Massena eventually withdrew from Portugal to Salamanca in March 1811, prompting Wellington to go on the offensive into Spain where he besieged the French garrison at Almeida, but Massena came to its relief and the garrison escaped in the night. Wellington then attacked Cuidad Rodrigo which he took in January 1812, and the fortress town of Badajoz fell in March, with the British suffering heavy casualties in the process.

Salamanca was taken on 17th June, although a 40,000-strong force under Marshal Auguste Marmont was on its way, but they were heavily defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Salamanca on 22nd July, where Marmont was wounded. The battle was later described as '40,000 men defeated in 40 minutes'. Anglo-Portuguese forces then occupied Madrid, and Joseph I fled the capital in August.

Wellington fighting at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812
Wellington fighting at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812

Wellington then besieged Burgos, but Joseph I, with Marshals Soult and Jourdan staged a counter-offensive, forcing Wellington to retreat into Portugal. The British army paid a heavy price in the retreat from Burgos, with 9000 lost to starvation, disease, or taken as prisoners.

In the autumn of 1812, the Grande Armée lost large numbers of men after attempting an invasion of Russia, and Napoleon started withdrawing troops from Spain, which heavily depleted the numbers of men in the French army, and they would never attempt another invasion of Portugal.


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