Tag Archives: Rolica

The Napoleonic Wars – Situation in April 1812

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1792 to 1815, and are usually divided into the Revolutionary War of 1792-1802 and the Napoleonic War of 1803-15. The only countries that were continuously at war throughout this period were Britain and France; others varied between being at war with France, neutral, usually whilst recovering from a defeat by France, and allied to France, not always willingly.

Most of Europe was in one of the periods of peace 200 years ago, but this would soon change. This is the first in a series of posts on the 200th anniversaries of the battles of 1812-15. In April 1812, warfare was taking place only at sea, and in Spain and Portugal, where The Peninsular War was being fought.

France invaded Portugal in 1807 in order to force it to comply with the Continental System, Napoleon’s attempt to wage economic war on Britain. Britain’s supremacy at sea after its victory over the Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar and lack of a Continental ally after France signed the Treaties of Tilsit with Russia and Prussia meant that Britain and France were then fighting each other principally by economic means.

The French had to transit Spain, their ally, in order to reach Portugal. The continued French presence in Spain was resented by much of the Spanish population and provoked revolts in March and May 1808. The politics behind these are complex; see this link for more details. I find it to be clearer in Mozilla Firefox 8 than in Internet Explorer 9. Click here for a low resolution map of the Peninsular War.

The Mutiny of Aranjuez took place on 17 March 1808. It was a palace coup, directed against King Carlos IV’s prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, who had allowed French troops to enter Spain. Carlos abdicated two days later in favour of Ferdinand VII, his son. Napoleon invited both to Bayonne, where he forced them to renounce the throne in favour of him. On 5 May he made his brother Joseph King of Spain. There had been a popular uprising against French rule in Madrid on 2 May.

The French invasion of Iberia and the popular reaction to it gave Britain the chance to open a land campaign against France. A force under  General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, landed in Portugal on 1 August. He defeated the French at Rolica on 17 August and Vimiero four days later. The French were out-numbered on both occasions, but they had suffered so few defeats in the previous 16 years that any victory over them had a great effect on the winner’s morale.

A general senior to Wellesley, Sir Harry Burrard, had now arrived and he refused to allow Wellesley to follow-up his victory. Sir Hew Dalrymple took command on 23 August and signed the Convention of Cintra, allowing the French to surrender on very favourable terms. They were returned to France in British warships and were permitted to retain the plunder from their campaign. All three British generals were recalled to face a court of inquiry. Dalrymple was relieved of his command and Burrard retired. Wellesley was cleared, but had for now lost his command to Sir John Moore.

Moore advanced into Spain in October with orders to support the Spanish, but on 8 November a large French army led by Napoleon himself crossed into Spain. Moore was forced to retreat to Corunna , suffering substantial losses to weather, disease and the enemy. The army became disorganised and its discipline ‘infamous beyond belief’[1] in retreat according to Moore. At Corunna it stood and fought Soult’s French army from 16-19 January 1809. 19,000 British troops escaped by sea, but Moore was amongst the 800 dead. Given the situation that Moore faced, it was perhaps to Wellesley’s personal advantage that Cintra temporarily removed him from command.

The next four posts will describe the course of the Peninsular War up until mid-1812. Subsequent posts will come on the 200th anniversaries of major battles.


[1] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Sir John Moore, online edition, accessed 16 April 2012.

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