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The 2nd of May by Goya (click to enlarge)

'Ambition is never content, even on the summit of greatness' - Napoleon

Nothing could more accurately explain Napoleon's decision to invade Spain other than blind ambition and total disrespect both for the will of the Spanish people to resist and the steady resolve of the British army.  While it was true that England intended to use Portugal as a disembarkation point for their troops, since Napoleon had basically denied them any other place on the continent to do so, it cannot be reasonably argued that Napoleon ever had sufficient reason to condemn upwards of three hundred thousand of his best troops to service upon the unforgiving plains of Spain.

In doing so, he not only embroiled himself in a horrendous war of attrition fighting guerillas whipped into an anti-French feeding frenzy by rabid priests, he also thus denied himself these soldiers' vital services in the three great campaigns to come in Austria in 1809, Russia and Germany from 1812-1814 and France herself in 1814.

The war in Spain was one of the absolutely worst mistakes Napoleon as Emperor, right along with the invasion of Russia and the Berlin Decree. To get at Portugal, Napoleon had to trick his ally Spain into allowing a French army under General Jean-Andoche Junot to move through its territory. On 1 December 1807, the French captured Lisbon - the Portuguese capital - but just missed the royal family who fled to Brazil the day before Junot arrived.

Just three months later, Marshal Joachim Murat took a huge army into Spain on the pretext of restoring order - the king, Charles IV, was quarreling with his son, Ferdinand - and soon had the entire family taken to France for protection. Next, Bonaparte made the major error of having his brother Joseph chosen as the new king by the large party of French-loving reformists, a move that sent the peasantry and church into a rebellious frenzy.

Within two months there were open uprisings against Joseph and the conflict descended into one of the most brutal periods of warfare seen. The Spanish artist Goya sketched a series of ink images, 'Disasters of War', that show the inhuman levels reached during the campaign. There is also 'The Third of May' which chronicles the execution of the martyrs in Madrid. The primary problem the French faced in Spain was by and large the inability of the Marshals to duplicate their master's habit of beating overmatched opponents.

A self-portrait of Francisco Goya, the great Spanish painter who exposed the 'Disasters of War'

Constantly endowed with numerical superiority, the French nonetheless found themselves outmaneuvered and outfought by their enemies, particulary the English under Wellington, who was as always superlative on the defense. Only upon the arrival of Napoleon himself in Spain at the head of the massive Imperial Guard to restore his brother to the throne in Madrid after he had been chased out forced the Anglo-Spanish allies cause to retreat.

Having to negotiate a tough crossing of the Guadarramas, and stopping along the way to grant clemency to the Marquis of Saint-Simon, who was under a death sentence for having held his position at the gates of Madrid longer than Napoleon was willing to put up with, the Emperor finally got to Madrid and accepted the capitulation of the city on 4 December 1808.

Despite its shockingly poor regular army, the war began well for Spain with the French being forced into a lengthy siege of Saragossa and an army, under the luckless General Pierre Dupont, being made to surrender at Baylen. The reverses in Spain cut Junot off from any support he might have anticipated, but he felt strong enough to defeat a British army that landed in Portugal on 1 August 1808. Unfortunately, for Junot and France, the British were led by Arthur Wellesley, whose military prowess was fostered in India and was therefore unrecognised in Europe.

Wellesley beat General Delaborde at Rolica on 17 August and four days later took on a reinforced Junot at Vimiero. The battle ended in victory for the maligned "Sepoy General" Wellesley and with the French on their knees, British idiocy took over when two geriatric generals - Sir Harry 'Betty' Burrard and Sir Hew 'Dowager' Dalrymple - were placed in command of British forces. They defeated the French under General Lefebvre-Desnouettes at Benevente on 29 December, after wich the pair negotiated the embarrassing Convention of Cintra with Junot that allowed the trapped Frenchman to withdraw his troops, with all their equipment, on British ships back to France.

This detail from the portriat by Lafont shows Napoleon granting a pardon to the Marquis de Saint-Simon at the request of his daughter. Saint-Simon, a royalist emigre, had put up stubborn resistance at his post in Madrid during Napoleon's advance

Wellesley, Burrard and Dalrymple were all brought before an inquiry and only Wellesley was acquitted of any wrong-doing. In the meantime, Sir John Moore took over the British army and, in expectation of major support from the Spanish, advanced deep into Spain. He was badly let down by the Spanish and found himself without support and up against no lesser opponent than Bonaparte himself.

Moore turned his army around and began a horrendous retreat through winter-blasted mountains that tested the British army to its limits. When faced with destruction, however, the exhausted redcoats turned on their attackers and saw them off. The city of Corunna was the haven for Moore as the Royal Navy was waiting to evacuate his army.

With Marshal Soult now at his heels, Moore arrived at Corunna and organised a defensive perimeter to hold the French at bay while his men embarked. Corunna was a victory for Britain, but Moore died during the battle, opening the way for the return of Wellington as commander.

With the extremely capable Sir William Beresford retraining and organising the Portuguese army, Wellesley at last had allies he could trust and caught Marshal Nicolas Soult on the hop when he crossed the Douro River at Oporto and seized the military initiative.

Sir John Moore, the capable general who made England's army in Spain the efficient fighting force Wellington would later put to good use at Waterloo

Moving into Spain, Wellesley was attacked by the French at Talavera, where the duplicitous Spanish general Gregorio de la Cuesta did nothing as the British fought tooth and nail to defeat Marshal Victor and Joseph Bonaparte's army. Deciding against trusting the Spaniards again, the now Duke of Wellington fell back to Portugal where he waited for the next opportunity to take on the French.

Though 1810 saw the French enjoying occasional victory at the battles of Lerida and Ciudad Rodrigo and the siege of Astorga, Wellington had constructed an impenetrable, series of fortified prepared defensive lines at Torres Vedras which completely cut off Lisbon from attack and stymied the hopes of the new French commander, Marshal Andre Massena, of an easy victory over the Anglo-Portuguese army.

Massena's invasion of Portugal earned him a bloody nose at Bussaco and before he had time to reorganise for another attempt at Wellington, the British commander had withdrawn behind the defensive perimeter at Torres Vedras. The French marshal made some attempts to get through the lines and then sat obstinately outside them waiting for another chance to be at the British.

Wellington had other ideas and just waited for hunger - the lands having been cleared of foodstuffs - to take its effect. It took the entire winter for Massena to get the message and he was finally forced to march his starving army towards better providing countryside.

The British won a further battle at Barrosa and Wellington and Massena collided at Fuentes de Onoro. In 1811, one of the most bloody encounters on the Peninsula occurred when Soult moved to end the siege of Badajoz, a fortress guarding the Portuguese-Spanish border. Marching towards the city, he attacked a blocking force under Beresford at Albuera.

A French convoy is attacked by Spanish guerillas, a detail from the painting by Lejeune

The battle was up-close and nasty with the two lines of troops only seperated by 20 paces. In the end it was the obstinacy of the British that won them the battle. As Soult said he had defeated the redcoats, only they did not know the meaning of the word. While Wellington's army was the master of countryside, the French still garrisoned the key fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo.

The mighty towns stood as gatekeepers into Spain and the British leader knew he had to capture them before taking on the French in Spain. As careful of his mens' lives as he was, Wellington lost caution when storming fortresses and both Ciudad Rodrigo (19 January) and Badajoz (19 April) were extremely bloody affairs that cost thousands of British lives and then thousands more inside the cities as the redcoats were given free reign. The sacking of both brought little honour to Britain.

Moving quickly into Spain, Wellington found himself up against a new French commander - Marshal Auguste Marmont - but dealt with him the same way as the others and defeated him at Salamanca, though the French emerged victorious at Somosierra largely thanks to a frontal assault on four Spanish artillery batteries blocking the pass by the 3rd Squadron of the Imperial Guard's Polish Light-Horse, the 150 men of which charged in a column of fours on direct orders from the Emperor who had grown annoyed at being delayed by just a few enemy artillery.

The Poles took possession of the pass despite losing all of their officers and half their men. It was at Somosierra where the brave Niegolewski, struck down with no fewer than eleven wounds, received the Cross of the Legion of Honor straight from the Emperor's own tunic. Madrid was freed but, being unable to capture the fortress at Burgos, the British had to make another retreat into safety in Portugal.

Though Napoleonís Marshals suffered many defeats during the War in Spain at Vimeiro, Busaco, Oporto, Torres Vedras and Chiclana, and suffered greatly at the hands of partisans whipped into a religious and superpatriotic frenzy by their priests and monks, the back of French occupation was broken at the battle of Vitoria where King Joseph not only lost his crown, but also millions of pounds worth of treasure. Soult now took over command of a unified French force and conducted a brilliant series of rearguard battles through the Pyrenees.

Eventually, Wellington forced his way through, overran the border fortresses, defeated Soult at Orthez and entered France at Toulouse, witnessing the end of Napoleonís first reign on French soil.

Vive L'Empereur!