Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: General Moore's move into Spain. October, 1808 - January, 1809


The senior British generals were recalled to Britain after the Convention of Cintra was signed, three of them to appear before a court. It took some time for them to assign the Commander-in-chief role to General Sir John Moore since he was not in good "odor" politically. Moore was confirmed in the command in a letter from the War minister Lord Castlereagh dated September 25th 1808 actually taking the post on October 6th. He was given the command of 30,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry and promise more to some 15,000 to 17,000 more to arrive through Corunna, Spain.

His orders were to cooperate with the Spanish armies in the expulsion of the French from Spain. This cooperation was not to be smooth. Spain had been a traditional enemy to England for hundreds of years including in the current wars losing men and ships to Britain until July of the current year.

The British government is optimistic that the general uprising of the Spanish and the success of their armies at Baylen, and Joseph Bonaparte's forced retreat from Madrid can lead to pushing all French from the Peninsula. Napoleon has the opposite assumption of course. He has suffered losses to both the British and Spanish. It is tarnishing the image of his armies as invincible. He is about to commit his attention and person to Spain to conquer the Spanish and push the British into the sea.

Current Situation in the Peninsula

The French have been transported out of Portugal as the result of British intervention and victories at Roliça and Vimeiro and the subsequent Convention of Cintra. Spain is without a government. Using intrigue and threats Napoleon managed to oust the minister Godoy, then precipitate conflicts between King Charles and his heir with the result that Napoleon deposed both and placed his own brother Joseph in their place. For Spain this left independent ruling Juntas in each part of the country with no history of, or desire for, cooperation. The British had to make agreements with each Junta, depend on several different Spanish armies and generals for support, information, and supplies. It took much argument over the span of 10 days to even allow some portion of the British troops under General Sir David Baird, to land and disembark at Corunna.

The Spanish had the French in some disarray. General Castaños had forced General Dupont to surrender 18,000 French at Baylen. Joseph had retreated to Vitora and Spanish General Castaños was in Madrid. General Palafox at Saragossa directed and won a fierce defense. In other places the French were pushed as far back as the Pyrenees.

General Moore inherited a mess from the recalled General Hew Dalrymple. No preparations had been made for a move from Portugal to Spain. The idle troops were suffering from too much drink, dysentery and typhus. Moore was no more happy with the supply and commissariat than Wellesley had been. He wrote Castlereagh that in it, no proper officers were to be found but men of business and resource should be found in London fit for the task. Other officers suggested that the army would benefit from the dismissal of the whole Commissariat.


General Sir John Moore left a garrison in Lisbon of 10,000 men and entered Spain with 20,000 to aid the Spanish in pushing the French back over the Pyrenees. His command was to be augmented with 15,000 to 17,000 more under Lt. General Sir David Baird being sent through Corunna Spain.

Moore had an army to get from Queluz near Lisbon, through Portugal to Salamanca in Spain. He had maps that showed good routes, but not the terrain. He was told that the northern routes The most direct roads to the northeast would not support guns or cavalry. The army was poorly supplied, and had no adequate transports. It also turned out that he had no money, only some £25,000 which would not cover the cost of hiring the transport. Along with these problems he ad time constraints. The seasonal rains would start in only weeks.

He decided to split his forces sending Hope and Paget south through Elvas on a 400 mile route with the guns and cavalry to meet him later at Salamanca. He sent Lt. General the Honorable Edward Paget to take and infantry division through Alcantara and Coria to Cuidad Roderigo. Moore was to take the infantry through the mountains toward Abrantes and Almeida, and true to forecast, did not quite beat the winter rains. Anstruther reached Almeida on November 1, and Moore on the 8th. The troops were in good spirits however as they crossed the border. The knew that with the Spanish patriots and armies succeeding, and their own army the being best in the world that they would soon liberate Spain and be back home.

Baird did not get ashore at Corunna until October 26th, and with transportation hard to find was only to Astorga by November 22nd.


We have the same problem that Moore himself had. We can look at simple maps and see where, but the terrain and elevations are more difficult to understand. Realize that it is year end with rain at the beginning of these marches, and snow and freezing at the end.


The battle?

Through 2 months of activity there were no battles involving the British. There was a protracted entry into Spain, confused dealings with the Spanish, and a quick retreat from the French. There were skirmishes and during the retreat of course rearguard actions, as detailed below.

Into Spain

Moore entered Salamanca on November 13th and soon found that his governments confidence in the situation and the Spanish was misplaced. The many Spanish generals and Governors could or would not cooperate. The Army of Estramadura under Conde de Belevar had retired from Burgos. The French now held the city. General Joachim Blake had "suffered slight reverses" at Espinosa. Ney on the 31st of October, and Napoleon on November 7th had destroyed Blake's army. Napoleon arrived at Vitoria, and had taken Burgos and Vallodolid which was to have been the British rendezvous point in the North, and Belvedere and Castaños armies had been destroyed. Baird reached Astorga on November 22nd 1808 there discovering more about true situation in Spain.

By the 26th of November Moore had decided that he should retire. Hope and Baird agreed, but the other Generals and most of the troops did not want to show up but not fight. Days later he gave the order to retreat. Discipline declined in the troops due in part to the unpopular order. His army had barely begun to move back to Lisbon in Portugal by the 5th of December when fresh dispatches from Madrid arrived.

On November 30th Napoleon came within sight of Madrid. In response Hope was told to turn north to Salamanca instead of Cuidad Rodrigo his original destination. He avoided meeting any French but by as little as 20 miles. Moore was assured on December 3rd and again on the 5th that the Spanish had large armies re-gathered that the people were prepared to resist, and that Madrid would stand and had trenches around it to hold back the French. On December 6th Moore chose, against his reasoned worries, to countermand the orders to retreat. He planned to cut the French communication and demonstrate to the Spanish and British public the willingness of British armies to fight for Spain. By the 10th he found out that Madrid surrendered to Napoleon on the 4th, and that without a fight. Moore believed could still draw off some of French and give the Spanish help by cutting the French lines of communication.

The army began to advance toward Alaejos and Valladolid on the 11th with Moore leaving Salamanca on the 13th. On the 15th news via some captured dispatches he discovered that the French not only did not know where the British were, the thought they were retreating to Portugal and Marshal Soult with 18,000 was isolated only 100 miles to the north. Some army reorganization was done, and Sahagun became the new destination. Moore was soon to find that he did not know the entire situation. He still believed that the French force total was 80,000 when the actual number was 3 times that.

Forces Meet

Lord Henry Paget with the 15th Hussars cleared Sahagun of the French on early December 21st. The army arrived later that day and waited through a foggy December 22nd for the weather and their supplies to catch up. The full attack on Soult was planned for early the 24th of December. Hearing the night of the 23rd about the real disposition and location of Napoleon, his troops began to retreat. It turned out that Napoleon had started earlier, and moved quicker, and had more men than Moore had heard. Fortunately Napoleon was also misinformed. He was marching to attack Moore at Vallodolid while Moore was already farther north at Sahagun.

Moore ordered a retreat to Astorga and Corunna. Baird was to take the upper road, while Hope's and Fraser's divisions would take the lower road.

Retreat toward Corunna

Rearguard in retreat

Benavente, combat at Bridge of Castro Gonzalo, -- December 24th

The first action against the British rear occurred at the bridge of Castron Gonzalo over the Esla River at the town of Benavente. French General Lefebvre-Desnoettes gave orders for his dragoons to cross and engage British cavalry pickets.At about 9:00 in the morning 500-600 French moved against about 220 under Colonel Ortway. The Colonel when joined by a few from the 3rd Dragoons charged, were surrounded, and charged back out.

At this point General Paget arrived with the 10th Hussars and drew off the French. The French quickly fled back across the river leaving 55 casualties, killed and wounded, and 70 prisoners including Lefevbre himself. The bridge was then destroyed before the British moved on.

Napoleon leaves the field

Napoleon arrived at the Esla river and was held up by the flooding river and destroyed bridge. He reached Astorga with his forces on January 1st 1809 while the British leading divisions were entering Villfranca. Here Napoleon found a despatch with news about Austria's preparations for war, plots in Paris, and revolutionaries in Turkey. Napoleon considered the British defeated and about to be destroyed. He therefor returned with a large portions of his current army to confront the more dangerous Hapsburgs in Austria leaving the completion of the British destruction to Marshal Soult.

Other rearguard actions

At Bembibre the British soldiery discovered the wine vaults with predictable results. The French rounded up or slaughtered the drunken British and passed them easily.

At Calcabellos French General Colbert's cavalry was repulsed by the 52nd, 95th rifles and the light company of the 28th and a few guns. Colbert himself and the majority of his force were killed.

French General Merle attempted to bring his infantry across the Guia. He was opposed by the 95th and 52nd, He attempted to turn the British left but was driven back by cannon fire.Thes two meetings had a salutary effect on the British troops. They had been a sullen drunken lot, in fact there had been flogging and an aborted execution immediately prior to the conflict. After their "victory" they were a happier group and more amenable to orders and discipline.

Near the Sil River the British continued toward Corunna and the Spanish under La Romana headed for Orense. Soult dispatched Franceschi who fell on the Spanish rear at Foncebadon pass killing many and capturing 1,500.

General Paget's rearguard fought defensive actions again at Lugos and Betanzos, allowing Moore to arrive at Corunna late the 11th of January.

Anecdotes and ancillary events

As Hope's army entered Spain in October, the 92nd Highlanders in Highland garb, and the 71st stopped at Fraxiollo a small village near the border. The 71st had been to Venezuela and several could speak Spanish. When the Spanish expressed wonder at the novelty of the highland garb, they were informed by the 71st that the 92nd were a set of cowards and transported felons doomed to wear the costume as a badge of disgrace. The locals grew indignant, and the mayor refused supplies to the 92nd.

The troop morale was poor prior to the entry into Spain. They had celebrated their victories under Wellesley, and where not patient with Moore's attempts to get supplies and organize the army, nor his waiting for information. The morale improved only on forward movement and fell to disobedience and drunkenness at each wait or retreat.


They had made it out the mountains to find that their transport ships had not arrived in Corunna's harbor yet. They were still in danger of losing the British army.

Political situation

It is interesting to note that no one understood or anticipated the mood and actions of the Spanish. Not Napoleon who seemed to expect the Spanish populace to accept new rulers much as other European countries. Nor the British government that expected the Spanish armies to stand and provide powerful and steady resistance to the French. Least of all the expectations of the British Generals and their armies who hoped to be welcomed, and supplied in their endeavor to help oppose the occupying armies. They were to be disappointed of all those hopes with the people, armies and juntas in Spain.


Further Reading.

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