Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Battle of Barrosa 1811 - John Greehan & Martin Mace

I have just finished reading this book and thought I would share my thoughts on what proved to be a very thought provoking and informative read.

Peninsula Map from 1857
As part of my post I thought I would also include a section of this fantastic 1858 period map of Spain and Portugal that I discovered here,

which seems to show all the key cites and minor towns together with a detailed road layout that probably hadn't changed much in forty odd years since the war. My reason for including it is to underline a point that comes up again and again with most military books, namely maps and the lack of them or not enough detail to enable a clear following of the text.

Andalusia - the cockpit of operations affecting the defence of Portugal and Spain in 1810-11

This book was published in 2012 by Pen & Sword books and is entitled "The Battle of Barrosa 1811, forgotten battle of the Peninsular War", which as a title surprised me somewhat, as in my experience Barrosa is pretty well mentioned in most English accounts of the war I have read and is certainly not a battle that I would consider as forgotten, unlike many of the Franco-Spanish clashes, that often receive a lot less coverage in English written histories.

However my initial assessment of the title was before reading this compelling account of not only the battle but the significant events that surrounded it. The premise of the book is that Barrosa was one of the most important actions of the whole war; and that it is its significance that often gets understated, with the major actions of Wellington's main force, operating out of Portugal, having a much higher profile in comparison.

So what does this book have to say on the matter?

The first three Chapters cover the start of the war up to the French laying siege to Cadiz and the build up of forces around the town.

The authors take the reader through a summary of the earlier events that lead to the war between former allies, France and Spain and Napoleon's scheming that enabled him to place his brother Joseph on the throne. The events of the Spanish uprising and the merciless French suppression of the patriots are covered together with the French forces dispatched to key areas in the peninsula to bring it under French control. British intervention in Portugal dealt with one of these columns, with Wellesley's defeat of Junot at Vimeiro,  whilst Spanish armies under Castanos and Reding managed to force the surrender of  General Pierre Dupont and his army of 18,000 men at Bailen, on his way to secure Seville and Cadiz.

The defeat of Dupont had dramatic effects, causing Joseph to leave Madrid and forcing the Emperor Napoleon to take control of events personally, entering Spain in November 1808 with 130,000 troops. In addition Andalusia acquired an ascendancy over other regions in Spain with the newly formed Supreme Junta basing itself in Seville and gaining a grudging acceptance from the other parts of Spain as the recognised national provisional government.

The advance of Napoleon on Madrid and his being drawn away to the north by Sir John Moore's British army meant that Andalusia remained free of French forces, and when Napoleon left the peninsula in 1809 to deal with Austrian issues he left Spanish forces scattered but undefeated and French forces only able to control territory within range of their muskets.

It was at this time that the British made approaches to the Junta in Seville that British troops might be sent into Andalusia to support Spanish forces on the proviso that a British garrison be formed in Cadiz to ensure a safe exit port should the need arise. This was the first occasion of the suspicion that dogged Anglo-Spanish relations during the war arising, when the Junta refused on the basis that they were nervous that Britain would occupy the city permanently as with Gibraltar. So it was that Britain's main army returned to the peninsula via Lisbon and, under Wellesley, established it's main base in Portugal. However from this point the two cities would be inextricably linked in the fortunes of the British forces operating out of Portugal.

The account then moves on to cover Wellesley's 1809 campaign to Oporto and against Madrid with the Battle of Talavera, forcing the French to evacuate Portugal, Galicia and Asturias in response. With the campaign against Austria concluded Napoleon was able to redirect forces back to Spain, the first arriving in December 1809, to regain the initiative and finish the job of crushing all resistance to King Joseph.

Joseph had recognised the importance of Andalusia, with the Supreme Junta directly challenging his authority by declaring itself the legitimate government of Spain. Andalusia was also the richest and most populated area in Spain and would be needed if Joseph was to deal with the thirteen months of pay that were in arrears for his troops.

Not for the last time, the Spanish Junta were to throw caution to the winds and offer Joseph an opportunity to strike. Instead of staying safely on the defensive, controlling the passes of the Sierra Morena mountain range north of Cordoba (see the map above) and daring the French to risk another Bailen, they decided to go on the offensive. The only main army defending the region, numbering 50,000 men left the safety of the mountains and advanced on Madrid losing 18,000 men and getting soundly beaten at Ocana on the 19th November 1809, just south of the city.

On the 7th of January 1810 King Joseph and Marshal Soult led French forces on their invasion of Andalusia, easily brushing aside what resistance remained, the Junta were forced to evacuate Seville and then there began a race to get to Cadiz, the only defensible fortress remaining. The small Spanish force under the  command of the Duke of Albuquerque, knowing the Junta were headed for the fortress and knowing that it lay undefended, on his own initiative, turned and headed to Cadiz arriving on the 3rd of February 1810, just two days ahead of Marshal Victor.

The authors consider the mistake made by Soult and Joseph in heading for Seville, with Soult overruling the King when asked to consider heading straight for Cadiz in the knowledge that Alerquerque was already going there. Soult must then take the blame for  his fixation on Seville, a city that could not be held by the Spanish forces available, and allowing the Spanish to save themselves by getting to Cadiz first. This then finishes the set up for the story of Cadiz and the eventual Battle of Barrosa and its consequences.

With the arrival of the Supreme Junta, Cadiz and its maintenance assumed a very high importance, not just to the Spanish but also to the British who very quickly realised that with its capture would see the end of a government of national resistance in Spain and the likely collapse of formal resistance across the country; and also the cutting off of the supply of Spanish Gold and Silver specie arriving from its colonies that were vital to pay for British military involvement, making the British position very likely untenable. These facts became obvious to the the French as well and so the two sides became locked into a race to fortify and defend whilst the other pulled in resources to lay siege and make preparations to assault.

The book covers the difficulties encountered by both sides in their preparations and the establishment of allied cooperation, at last, with the arrival of British troops supplied for the garrison, with some initial reluctance on Wellington's part as he struggled to build his forces to defend Portugal. The hostility of the residents of Cadiz, particularly to their former enemies, the British, is covered and their resistance to giving any aid to the defenders in building redoubts and defences. Indeed it would seem that the town would have preferred to have been able to throw open its gates to Victor and the French.

Chapters 4,5 and 6

With the arrival of British troops, a British commander was needed. Sir Thomas Graham had already establish friendly links with General Castanos who had been appointed as President of the five man Regency Council, and, with the support of Wellington, was the man selected. The difficult relations between the allies are extensively covered, explaining the concerns the British had with Spanish eagerness to attack the French besiegers. Graham had the task of holding the line between being a supportive ally whilst protecting British interests in the security of the city and the British garrison.

Fortescue's Map of Barrosa
It soon becomes obvious that the defence of Cadiz and Lisbon were becoming inextricably linked as forces from both areas started to affect one another. Marshal Soult commanding French forces in Andalusia was continually having to juggle his resources to find forces to maintain the siege of Cadiz whilst supporting the invasion  of Portugal or sustaining the French garrisons of Badajoz and Cuidad Rodrigo and it is with these movements of French troops and the gradual build up of allied troops in Cadiz that Spanish insistence to take advantage of weakened French forces gradually gains the ascendancy and Graham reluctantly accedes to Spanish General La Pena's plan of attack.

The events of the allied landing and march on Cadiz and the battle itself are covered very well, with various first hand accounts adding detail to the descriptions of the fighting. The fall out between the British and Spanish over the lack of co-operation and support are detailed and assessed. The account makes the point very well that Barrosa demonstrated yet again (Albuera being another example), the resilience and battle winning ability of the British troops in the face of adversity. Having marched for several days and nights over waterlogged ground with little rest and food, they were able to respond quickly on the march to turn, attack and defeat a larger force occupying favourable ground without the guiding hand of Wellington. Graham seems to display the patience of a saint when working with La Pena and seems to vent all that frustration on the French when the opportunity presents.

The 2/28th (North Gloucesters) charge the 54th Ligne at Barrosa, Cover art work from the very talented David Rowlands

The subsequent chapters then go on to look at events following the battle which failed in its aim to cause the French to lift the siege and led to Graham refusing to commit British troops in support of further expeditions against their lines. The war beyond Cadiz continued to influence and be influenced by the siege. With the defeat of Massena's Army of Portugal in 1811 at Fuentes de Onoro and Soult's failure at Albuera, the struggle with Wellington was finely balanced and indeed Wellington would be forced back into Portugal when Soult and the new commander of the Army of Portugal, Marmont, massed their combined forces against him, but neither French army could stay concentrated for long without finding their respective areas coming under pressure from local Spanish forces and partisans. Soult tried to relieve some of this pressure by laying siege to the walled town of Tarrifa just along the coast from Cadiz, which together with Gibraltar was able to offer support to the Spanish forces. When the attack on Tarrifa failed, the balance in Andalusia shifted in favour of the Allies.

With the advent of 1812 and the draw down of forces for Napoleon's invasion of Russia, the initiative swung to Wellington and the allies. Joseph sent the brother of La Pena, the General who led the allies at Barrosa, as a secret envoy to Cadiz to try and persuade the Junta to come to terms with his regime. The book points out that, with momentum swinging to the allies and with the Spanish needing to keep open the links to their now rebelling colonies in South America, they could not run the risk of having a war with Britain. Wellington took advantage of the change, swiftly taking Cuidad Rodrigo in January 1812 and then moving on Badajoz in April. Soult gathered his forces to march to the aid of the city expecting Marmont to support him, as previously, to force Wellington back, but Napoleon ordered Marmont to let Soult deal with the problem, whilst he demonstrate against Cuidad Rodrigo drawing Wellington away. Meanwhile the forces around Cadiz and Tarrifa threatened Soult's rear areas as the Marshal found out that Badajoz had fallen and there was no support coming from Marmont.

In June 1812 with Wellington now in control of the Portuguese frontier, he went on the offensive against Marmont culminating in the Battle of Salamanca, with Soult refusing Joseph's command to gather his forces to come north in support. His reasons being that this would free the Supreme Junta and Regency in Cadiz and allow the Spanish insurgents to retake Andalusia, reinvigorating Spanish resistance across the peninsula. With Marmont's defeat, the momentum swung still further to the allies, and King Joseph was close to calling for Soult's dismissal for his insubordination. Wellington then moved against Madrid and Soults forces were facing being cut off. The order was given to evacuate French forces and to fall back. The siege of Cadiz was lifted on the 25th of August 1812.

Despite Wellington being forced back to Portugal that year, the initiative was irreversibly in favour of the allies, and we are taken through the events of 1813 leading to the Battle of Vitoria to the close of that year with French forces pushed back into France.

The summary of the events described and the impact of the long siege of Cadiz really makes some strong points as to why its effect on the war as a whole was so important, and why the Battle of Barrosa was an unnecessary risk to the strategic balance at the time of its happening; and that the fact it failed to lift the siege was to the benefit of Wellington's main force in Portugal.

Key points covered are that Cadiz became the focal point of Spanish resistance when French power in the Peninsula was at its height from 1810-11. Wellington was on the defence, only able to launch raids into Spain now that both Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz were in French hands. There was a serious risk of Spanish capitulation had the Supreme Junta and Cadiz fallen in 1810, which would have enabled the French to bring overwhelming strength to bear on the British in Portugal.

The loss of Cadiz would also have cut off gold and silver imports from the Spanish colonies ending the finance agreement between Spain and Britain that was paying for the British war effort.

The occupation and siege of Cadiz tied down more French forces in Andalusia than in any other part of the peninsula, Massena invaded Portugal with about 70,000 men in 1810, about a fifth of all French troops, whilst Soult, in Andalusia, commanded over 80,000 at one stage of the best French troops including most of the Polish contingents.

And finally the book has a useful battlefield tour guide of the main sites and includes three useful maps of the area around Cadiz and the battle site. However with the main proposition of the book being about the wider implications of the siege and the events leading up to and afterwards I did find myself looking to find where certain towns and locations were in relation to Cadiz, but without a map rather like the one I have posted, it made following certain key events more problematic. So my advice would be to get the book if this period is of interest, it is a jolly good read and really spotlights the stresses that all parties involved were under, but I would use the map I have included as I think it will make the book even more enjoyable to read and a great one for Xmas.

Next up Tom's Romans and Fun and Games at the DWG