Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars: Notes on Strategies during Napoleonic War in Europe and the Peninsula

Changing warfare

Warfare strategies changed twice during the period of the French Revolutionary wars. Europe responded to the destruction of a monarchy by moving toward war to oust the new Government in France. France responded to the professional armies with a very large conscripted army.

The first change was with large fast moving armies and battles that really settled something, as in the entire war. France's armies at first held their own because they fielded so many men. They lived off of the land and people instead of transporting large trains of supplies. This new way of making war met the second change in strategies in the Iberian Peninsula. The second change was opposite to the first, the guerilla or "little war". (This by the way would be pronounced gway-ree-ya by any returning soldiers with even a little Spanish.) The guerilla was first fought and named in Spain during the Peninsular War between 1807 and 1814. The Spanish people and small militias fought the French armies with much more success than the larger Spanish national armies. These successes and even the later unsuccessful battles and skirmishes forced the French to garrison much of the countryside.

To complicate the situation for French armies, Spain is not a country in which it is easy to live off the countryside. It has been said as recently as WWII that a small army cannot defeat Spain, and a large one will starve. It is for these reasons that the British forces of less than 80,000 personnel added to a similar total of Portuguese and Spanish could battle and eventually force the withdrawal of the French forces numbering, at times, closer to 500,000.


This is not to say that their were not tactical changes (improvements?) in warfare during these wars. There were of course the Napoleonic columns, and the British lines as well as Moore's skirmishers, or riflemen, and the French tirailleurs. Some of these tactics will become part of the discussion in the pages of different battles elsewhere on this site.

When the Peninsular war is discussed, the major battles, especially those in which General Sir Arthur Wellesley played a part, are often the only ones mentioned. Actually there were over 200 battles or skirmishes during the time the French were trying to subjugate the Spanish and Portuguese. You should also notice that at this period there were typically "battle seasons" instead of them being the year around affairs of more modern conflicts.

More on strategy

When asked once about his strategy for his British in the Peninsula, General Wellesley replied, to never lose. While this may sound either arrogant or facetious there is some truth to the statement. Having an elder brother in politics, he was well aware that losses would affect public and soon government support. Personally he had to realize that as a junior general that he might soon be replaced. Militarily he realized that his force was small relative to the total number of French troops, and a single defeat might lead to a pursuit and destruction of the army, which brings us back to the political situation when thinking of its reinforcement after a loss.

The unifroms & the campaigns: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Uniforms of the Napoleonic Wars : campaign maps; Provides an unrivalled source of visual information on the fighting men of the period by Digby Smith

The tactics: Tactics and the Experience of Battle in the Age of Napoleon by Rory Muir

The generals: Napoleon Bonaparte by J. M. Thompson
Wellington: The Iron Duke by Richard Holmes

The final battle: Waterloo : June 18, 1815: The Battle for Modern Europe by Andrew Roberts
Napoleon and Wellington : The Battle of Waterloo--and the Great Commanders Who Fought It by Andrew Roberts

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