Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Preparing for a Match with France

Gathered Forces

The British had a force of 9,000 men and their supplies on the ships at Cork, Ireland. They were intended to travel to Venezuela with a Venezuelan general to take that colony away from French allied Spain. This changed as the situation changed in the beginning of 1808. The French traveled through Spain to take Portugal at the end of 1807, just missing the Portuguese Royal Family and Fleet. As the spring war season began and the French took control of Spain, both Portugal and Spain approached Britain for support and aid against France.

This altered the mission of the forces at Cork. They were now to join 5,000 troops on ships off the Spanish coast under General Brent Spencer. There were few horses and cavalry gathered at Cork due to the long voyage to South America and they were not increased adequately for the new task. There were fewer than 350 Cavalry. His complement of 229 drummers and trumpeters nearly outnumbered his cavalry sabres.

Troops embarking near Greenwich, William Anderson

Training and Tools and Plans

The mustering of troops and selecting a destination for them was not the first moves toward meeting the French in battle. For some time, General Sir John Moore had been training light division of infantry at Shorncliffe. They were trained to be highly mobile and independent troops. These troops were given the accurate Baker rifles. Their training included using available cover instead of fighting in regimented lines. They were expected to use their own initiative instead of the more usual strict battlefield order.

There were inventions for war being made. Congreve's rockets were one innovation. Colonel Shrapnell at Woolwich developed exploding "round case shot" with fuses to explode them over the enemy. These are the shells that soon earned the name shrapnel. The Caron factory was making excellent cannon, and the Baker rifle allowed a good rifleman to hit his target at 300 yards compared to the 50 yards for the bearer of a standard musket.

General Wellesley began to develop his plans to overcome the French battle tactics that had helped make Napoleon supreme in Europe. He commented that he had an idea that, if correct, should allow him to defeat the French in battle.


Wellesley left the mooring at Cork July 12th and transferred to fast cruiser Crocodile the next day. The army convoy left the 13th of July 1808. General Wellesley first arrived at Corunna's harbor on the Spanish coast. He left looking for an arrival port for his army. He arrived at Oporto, Portugal on August 24th. There he met with Portuguese General Freire to arrange for pack animals, supplies, and the meeting of the two armies at Leiria, Portugal. Wellesley sailed from Oporto toward Mondego bay on the 25th of July to meet his convoy of troops.

While General Wellesley and his troops were crossing, the Spanish dealt the French their worst defeat of the entire Peninsular war. On July 23, 1808, General Castaños of Spain met the 18,000 French commanded by Dupont at Baylen in southern Spain. Castaños troops surrounded the French and forced their surrender.

On the 30th, Wellesley reached Mondego bay meeting Admiral Cotton with the convoy of his 9,000 troops. This port was chosen because students at Coimbra University had seized the port making this a safer landing than at any place closer to Lisbon, 100 miles to the south. Here, he received a letter from Castlereagh. According to information given Castlereagh, General Junot had a larger army than anticipated. The war office needed to collect more troops for the endeavor. General Moore was coming with men from Sweden, and other troops were being moved to increase the British troops by another 15,000. The command of the larger force would now pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (60 years old with active service only in 1793-1794 in Flanders; currently Governor in Gibraltar.) with Sir Harry Burrard as second-in-command, attended by 4 other generals all senior to Wellington. (Dalrymple, Burrard, Moore, Hope, Fraser, Lord Paget, Wellesley.

On land that day, August 30th, 1808 the French General Loison massacred the population at Evora, men women and children. This atrocity would practically guarantee that the British and Portuguese would settle any disagreements they might have.


The disembarkation of troops into Portugal began on August 1st. The landing of Wellesley's 9,000 and the additional 5,000 waiting off the coast continued through August 8th. Sailors stood in the surf, tossing rope to ships boats to begin each attempt to pull it smoothly into shore. Soon the shore was piled high with food, ammunition, tents, equipment, wagons, forage, and of course rum and guns. The barely competent commissariat attempted to inventory and organize amidst the confusion of men and animals. Wellesley complains, in a despatch to Castlereagh, of a bad commissariat under James Pipon. The horses milled or galloped along the shore after their release from long shipboard confinement. Some were so weakened and out of shape that they could not support a rider. The first British casualties were drownings when some craft capsized or splintered on rocks in the rough surf.

The army left Coimbra toward Leiria on the 10th. They reached Leiria the 11th, after a miserable 12 mile march in soft sandy soil with heavy packs through more heat than the not-yet hardened British troops were ready to face. When Wellesley met General Freire in Leiria they argued about supplies and the route, the combined army should take. Wellesley agreed to take and supply only 1,700 of 6,000 Portuguese troops. He would however take the coast road to remain close to his supplies still on board the ships.

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