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Wellington’s vital victory at Salamanca

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Monday, 3 October 2011

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This edited article about the Napoleonic Wars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 830 published on 10 December 1977.

Wellington reviews his troops before the Battle of Salamanca, by C L Doughty

The year 1812 is a date as well known to young Frenchmen as 1066 is known to young Britons. For that was the time of Napoleon’s terrible retreat from Moscow, when the great city, fired by Russian hands, burst into flames and left nothing worth capturing in front and only snow, ice and a killing cold behind.

In the summer of that fateful year, only months before Napoleon’s empire began to crumble, another 200,000 of the Emperor’s troops were on the other side of Europe, invading Spain.

Here the army opposing them was not Russian but British, with a number of Spanish, Portuguese and Germans. At the head of this army was the newly created Viscount Wellington, soon to become known as the Iron Duke.

As Sir Arthur Wellesley, he had landed in the Iberian Peninsula of Portugal and Spain in 1809, the year after the Peninsular War started. He had kept alive Spanish and Portuguese resistance to the French invaders and won a battle at Talavera.

Wellington was a brilliant tactician. He had realised the farther the French were from their base, the weaker their lines of communications would become.

Back in Portugal he had set up fortifications which would help him to gain ready access to the Atlantic Ocean, from where his supply ships would come. His rear thus protected, he had reasoned that his next task was to pull the French as far away from their base as he could.

So, as the French had advanced toward him in the year of 1810, Wellington had retreated, taking with him everything that might help the approaching enemy. And as the French advanced their columns were attacked by Spanish guerrillas, with the result that their losses, though not perilous, were certainly not without effect.

The year 1811 passed with some costly campaigning. In the following year, the tide turned against the French, not only in Russia, but in Spain as well.

In June of that year, Wellington’s immediate enemy was Marshal Marmont, leading 70,000 Frenchmen animated with one spirit, and obeying one supreme leader, the great Emperor Napoleon.

Marmont that month was an anxious man. He badly needed to win a victory, because King Joseph of Spain, who was Napoleon’s brother, was on his way from Madrid to supersede him. But Marmont was not very worried about Wellington. Although he had never met the Englishman in battle, he did not consider him worthwhile opposition.

On the thirteenth of the month, Wellington advanced upon the Spanish city of Salamanca, held by a French garrison, and laid siege to it. For a time the battle sea-sawed. First the French pushed back the English, then the English counter attacked, but with no decisive result, for neither side gained ground that they could hold for any length of time.

June changed to July. The campaign at Salamanca had now become a game of chess between two skilful generals, until suddenly Marmont got the best of it. It became clear that Wellington’s only hope was now in rapid retreat back to his lines of communication which were behind the River Tormes, on which Salamanca lay.

The fighting now took an extraordinary turn. The French, realising Wellington’s intention, raced his army to the River Tormes. And for long periods the two huge armies, sometimes only a hundred metres from each other, and often within earshot of each other, marched in parallel columns towards a common goal.

Fortunately Wellington regained Salamanca just in time. But by then the French had established their command of the river, and the surrounding countryside, and it soon became clear to Wellington that he would have to make a quick retreat to Portugal.

Then on July 2nd, Marmont, too eager to snatch a victory, committed a fatal mistake.

On the right of the encamped English were two isolated hills, which the French moved in to occupy. Had they won them Wellington would have been forced to withdraw his right flank; as it was, a portion of the two armies raced each other to the hills, with the result that the two generals could observe each other’s movements through their telescopes at close range.

Wellington ordered his troops into new positions and Marmont, seeing the dust that arose as a result of the English movement, thought that his enemy was in retreat to Portugal and that he was going to lose them.

Marmont called one of his commanders, General Maucune, and sent him with two divisions of infantry and fifty guns to cut off the retreat he thought Wellington was making. This was a tactical mistake of the first order.

When Marmont had finished briefing Maucune, it was two o’clock in the afternoon, and Wellington was eating a leg of chicken with his officers. The English commander had had no breakfast and was still astride his horse. At that moment an aide-de-camp rushed in with the news that Marmont had split his army. Wellington threw the half-finished leg of chicken over his shoulder, spurred his horse, and called on his officers to follow him with all speed.

Wellington rode to where he could observe the French movements, and on seeing exactly what they were doing, realised that Marmont was trying to cut him off. He observed also that the French marshal was spreading himself over more ground than he could defend. The answer to all this was clear. He must attack.

Wellington now gave crisp orders. He formed his troops into three lines. One was to cross the enemy’s line of march, another was to attack the hill that the French held, and the third was in reserve.

Too late, Marshal Marmont saw the English advancing in neat, compact order towards his straggling and divided troops. Realising the gravity of his error, he sent out messages in an effort to pull his army together again. But too late, for in an early skirmish, Marmont was badly wounded by a bursting shell and carried off.

Into the French breach came General Bonnet, but he too, was quickly wounded. By the time General Clausel had taken over the French command, the English attack was in full swing.

As one of the French generals wryly remarked after the battle, it took Wellington about forty minutes to beat 40,000 of Marmont’s men. The English artillery opened fire against the French flank and the English infantry charged furiously upon their centre. Through the choking, blinding dust raised by the attack, the French guns were swiftly silenced.

Then the French line was reformed and rallied. Wellington’s answer to that was a great cavalry charge in which the English dragoons struck out to left and right with their long, shining swords, first cutting down, then trampling over the French infantry in a frightening fashion.

The murderous fire and hammering cavalry charges continued and when night came, the French were finished; those who were left fled across the River Tormes.

For Wellington, it had been a brilliant feat of arms which had brought him a resounding victory. For Europe, the Battle of Salamanca freed southern Spain of the French invaders, and showed that their retreat from the peninsula was only a matter of time.

The triumphant campaign which followed Salamanca ended with a tattered French army scrambling back home over the Pyrenees. In that campaign, Wellington tied down large numbers of troops and prevented them being used to reinforce Napoleon’s embattled armies on the Eastern front.

It was the most significant military victory by the British since the long war with France had begun. At long last, the fuse had been lit which was one day to explode Napoleon’s dreams of world supremacy.

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