Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars: War comes to the Iberian Peninsula

Britain versus Napoleonic France

The British opposed France in several ways and places between 1792 and 1815. They owned the seas after Trafalgar in 1805, and used that advantage to blockade French controlled ports. The British Navy captured French and allied Spanish ships worldwide where possible. Prior to their military presence in the Iberian Peninsula, they encouraged and helped finance coalitions against France in Europe. French and Spanish colonies were taken or disrupted where possible. British troops failed spectacularly once in Venezuela but often succeeded elsewhere. They were involved in the Norse countries and were planning a campaign to "liberate" more Spanish colonies when Napoleon changed the character of the conflict again.

In 1806 with the Berlin decree, Napoleon closed the French controlled ports of Europe to british goods, and began moves to close the few remaining ports. The most notable of these ports were those of neutral Denmark, and British friendly Portugal.

The wars affect the Danes

The First overt step toward a meeting of the British and French armies in Portugal was the taking of British DragoonCopenhagen, Denmark and the Danish fleet by the British in September of 1807. This bold move was made by a new government with complete confidence in the support of King George III. Despite knowing that the move would provoke protests, especially at home, they delivered an ultimatum to Denmark. 'Let us protect your fleet from Napoleon by surrendering it to safety in British ports, voluntarily or by force. Oh, we will want to keep it until this Napoleon problem is over.' Since this was not the first time the British and Danish maritime interests clashed, the Danes refused, and as promised, the British attacked Copenhagen for the second time in a generation.

The fleet was successfully removed ahead of Napoleon angering him at being deprived of the opportunities it represented. This did not prevent French occupation of Denmark with a force including Spanish soldiers, and closing Denmark's ports to British trade.

Napoleon next turned his attention to the problem of closing ports and taking the fleet of Portugal. Here the British response was different. Portugal had been an English ally for centuries, so it was enough to warn them and suggest that they remove the Royal family and the fleet to Brazil. The Portuguese fleet disappeared over the horizon two days before the French marched into Lisbon on November 30th 1807.

While Britain and France were moving toward their fates, Sir Arthur Wellesley advanced toward his future role in the conflict. Parliament voted a glowing commendation to Wellesley for his role in the attack on Copenhagen, Denmark and removal of their fleet. In April, the 38 year old Wellesley was made Lieutenant-General, now the youngest Lieutenant-General in the British Army.

War comes to Portugal & Spain

To complete the closure of Europe to the British, Napoleon needed to close Portugal, and gain tighter control over Spain since its ports were not entirely closed to British goods. He also wanted to take Gibraltar and Northern Africa from Britain to completely close the Mediterranean. He first sent letters of ultimatum to Portugal ordering them to forbid their ports to British ships and confiscate any British goods and property. These letters were followed by the troops dispatched through Spain to take the Portuguese royal family and fleet, and close the country to the British.

Britain plans to Meet French Armies

May of 1808 was a busy month of intrigue for Canning and Wellesley. They were both also deep into plans to cause problems for France and formerly allied Spain by aiding Venezuelan General Miranda in a revolt of Venezuela against Spain. There were 9,000 troops gathered at Cork under Wellesley's command to support Venezuela. When the situation in Spain changed during May and June, these plans were suspended and then canceled angering General Miranda.

The expected change in plans for the force at Cork took place in July of 1808. In June a Spanish deputation approached the British government urging simultaneous attacks on French armies. When, in July, a Portuguese Deputation arrived to ask for British forces Wellesley was sent letters with new instructions. He was to make his force ready and embark for Portugal, there to begin the task that was to occupy him for the next six years.

[The French] have besides, it seems, a new system of strategy which has out-manoeuvred and overwhelmed all the armies of Europe. 'Tis enough to make one thoughtful; but no matter. *

My die is cast, they may overwhelm me, but I don't think they will out-manoevre me. First, because I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly, because if what I hear of their system of manoevre, is true, I think it a false one as against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half beaten before the battle was begun - I, at least, will not be frightened beforehand.

Thus Sir Arthur Wellesley, with confidence, a small army, and planned tactics, prepared to push France out of the Iberian Peninsula.

Sir Arthur Wellesley, quoted by Croker, volume I, pp 12-13

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