Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army captured the French held fortress of Badajoz in April 1812 and then moved north to deal with the threat offered by Marshal Auguste Marmont‘s French army to Ciudad Rodrigo, which Wellington had taken in January. Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz covered the northern and southern routes respectively from Portugal to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold both in order to protect its lines of communication back to Portugal.
On 12 May 1812 three brigades under General Sir Rowland Hill attacked and destroyed the wooden pontoon bridge that the French had built across the River Tagus at Almaraz. It replaced a stone bridge that had been destroyed during the Talavera campaign in 1809. The loss of the Almaraz bridge greatly lengthened the lines of communication between Marmont’s army in northern Spain and Marshal Nicolas Soult‘s force in the south.
The French had significantly more troops than Wellington in Spain. According to Jac Weller, he had just over 60,000 men whilst there were over 230,000 French soldiers in Spain. However, the French forces were divided into five armies; Marmont had 52,000 troops and Soult 54,000.
Wellington had sole command and his superior supply and intelligence systems, British control of the seas and the Spanish guerrillas meant that he could manoeuvre against either Marmont or Soult. The latter could more easily evade and join up with other French forces, such as the 60,000 men under Marshal Louis Suchet that had just taken Valencia.
Charles Esdaile notes that the defeat of Soult would result in the liberation of Andalusia, but that this would have no impact on the north. Defeat of Marmont in the north would force the French to withdraw from Andalusia.
Wellington therefore determined to attack Marmont. He did not have control over Spanish troops at this stage,, but his prestige gave him enough influence to persuade the Spanish to undertake operations aimed at tying down the rest of the French forces in Spain.
An Anglo-Portuguese division under Hill was sent south to help General Ballesteros’s army in the south. The threat of invasion of from Naples by from Lord William Bentinck’s British, Neapolitan and Spanish force kept French troops in Catalonia.
Wellington advanced on Salamanca on 13 June with 48,000 men and 54 guns. Marmont withdrew behind the River Duero, leaving behind a small force, based in three fortified convents. Wellington entered the city on 17 June but took 10 days to subdue the garrison.
Wellington then advanced on the Duero, hoping that Marmont would attack him, and waiting for the Spanish 6th Army to arrive in the French rear. The 6th did not appear, as its siege of Astorga took longer than expected.
Marmont had only 44,000 men, but Wellington’s inaction convinced him that he could afford the take the initiative despite being slightly outnumbered. He crossed the Duero on 15 July and forced Wellington back towards Salamanca by trying to outflank him and thus threaten his lines of communication.
On 22 July the Anglo-Portuguese army was positioned along a line of low hills, the southern end of which was a hill called the Lesser Arapile. Marmont seized the Greater Arapile, a larger hill a few hundred yards to its south, and attempted to move round Wellington’s left flank. Wellington saw what was happening and re-positioned his army to avoid this.
Marmont now made a mistake. He was convinced that Wellington was too cautious and mistook these movements for a preparation to retreat. Marmont therefore ordered his army to move westwards. Wellington, who had been considering an attack, observed the French becoming strung out threw away a chicken leg that he had been eating and ordered an attack, announcing ‘By God that will do.’
Thomières’s division, leading the French advance, was attacked by Pakenham’s Third Division, which appeared over the crest of a ridge. The French fell back with heavy losses, and Pakenham then advanced on the next French division, that of Maucune. It had formed itself into squares because of the threat from a British cavalry brigade under General John Le Marchant, but had then been attacked by the infantry of Leith’s Fifth Division, Well disciplined infantry in square were secure against cavalry but had no chance in a firefight with infantry in line.
Le Marchant’s cavalry charged into Maucune’s troops as they retreated, and then attacked the third French division, commanded by Taupin. It was also routed. Three out of eight French divisions had now been destroyed.
Thomières and Le Marchant were amongst the dead, whilst Marmont and his second-in-command, General Bonnet, had both been wounded. There is some doubt over the timing of Marmont’s wound; he claimed that it was before Wellington counter-attacked, preventing him responding, whilst his enemies said that it was later.
An attack by Cole’s Fourth Division and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade on the Greater Arapile was repulsed. General Bertrand Clausel, now commanding the French army, thought that this came him an opportunity to counter-attack. Wellington saw the danger and had plenty of reserves, which he moved into position to cover the danger.
Esdaile says that the battle is ‘Known, and for good reason, as “Wellington’s Masterpiece”.’ He surprised Thomières and then destroyed Maucune and Brennier’s divisions with an attack in echelon. Wellington was able to mas superior numbers at the decisive point.
Weller argues that Clausel’s counter-attack in ‘conception was brilliant; it was flawlessly executed. Against any other contemporary commanders, excepting only Napoleon and Wellington, Clausel would probably have succeeded in making it a drawn battle.’
The French casualties were 12,000, compared with 5,000 for the Anglo-Portuguese. the French also lost 12 guns and two eagles. Their losses might have been higher had the pursuit been more vigorous, but the pursuers lost cohesion in the night and were exhausted after days of marching and a battle on a very hot day. Some, including Weller, blame the Spanish General de España for not garrisoning the bridge at Alba de Tormes, but Esdaile says that this had little effect.
Casualties amongst senior officers were high in this battle. The deaths of Thomières and Le Marchant and the wounds suffered by Marmont and Bonnet have already been mentioned. On the French side, General Ferrey was also killed and Clausel was wounded, meaning that the three most senior French officers were wounded. The British General Lord William Beresford was badly wounded and Wellington was badly bruised by a bullet that struck his saddle holster.
The loss of Le Marchant was a particular blow to the British. He had improved the training and tactics of the British cavalry, which was prone to getting out of control when charging. The only British cavalry general of comparable skill was Henry Paget, then Lord Uxbridge and later Lord Anglesey; he had eloped with Wellington’s brother’s wife and the two consequently did not serve together until Waterloo in 1815.
The map in this post is from Wikipedia; link given in the caption. The two photos were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.
 J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 207.
 C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 390.
 Quoted in Ibid., p. 395.
 Ibid., p. 397.
 Weller, Peninsula, p. 223.
 Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 397; Weller, Peninsula, p. 225.