Napoleon versus Wellington: Welcome to the Epic Showdown At Salamanca

February 2, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: NapoleonFranceBritainWellingtonSpain

Napoleon versus Wellington: Welcome to the Epic Showdown At Salamanca

One of Wellington's greatest wins? 

Marshal Auguste Marmont watched intently as the left wing of his French army maneuvered against the Anglo-Portuguese army during the Battle of Salamanca at mid-afternoon on July 22, 1812. He noted that the 5th Division of General Antoine Louis Popon de Maucune was in danger of being destroyed as it advanced toward the village of Los Arapiles. The 5th Division should have been closely supported by General Jean Guillaume Barthelemy Thomieres’ 7th Division, but that division had marched too far west. If Thomieres’ division continued on its present course it not only would fail to support Maucune’s division but also would lose contact with the main army.

Realizing that Arthur Wellesley, Earl of Wellington, the commander of the Allied army, would in all likelihood exploit the confusion that had engulfed the lead units of the French left wing, Marmont decided to ride down into the valley to take command of the left wing himself. He spurred his horse and picked his way through the rubble on the west slope of the Greater Arapile, a barren ridge where he had enjoyed a sweeping view of the battlefield.

Marmont intended to halt Thomieres’ march and redirect his troops. But as the French commander made his way off the ridge, a British shell exploded next to his horse, causing serious wounds to Marmont’s arm and ribs. While his aides carried him from the field, dispatch riders galloped off to inform 2nd Division commander General Bertrand Clausel that he was now in command of Marmont’s Army of Portugal. The battle was heating up at the time, and the French army was without a commander for nearly an hour. During that time, the situation on the French left flank deteriorated significantly. 

The Earl of Wellington experienced a real sense of accomplishment in the spring of 1812, having driven the French from Portugal. Between January and April he had pried the French from the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. Flush with these victories, the British commander was ready to push deeper into Spain. He could advance into Andalusia and engage Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult’s army in an attempt to relieve the beleaguered Anglo-Portuguese garrison at Cadiz, or he could pursue Marshal Auguste Marmont’s army in Castile. He chose the latter.

After the fall of Badajoz, Wellington improved his supply lines from Lisbon and Oporto. This was a critical step before the Anglo-Portuguese army advanced into Castile. While these efforts were underway, Wellington ordered a raid to cut the link between Marmont’s army and Soult’s army. On May 7 Lt. Gen. Rowland Hill was ordered to move out with a force of about 10,000 British and Portuguese troops, along with a battery of heavy guns, and destroy the pontoon bridge across the wide Tagus River that connected the two French armies.

The raid was a total success, with Hill’s force storming the forts and defensive works that protected the bridge and driving off the French defenders on May 19. The pontoon bridge and fortifications were soon destroyed, easing Wellington’s concern about Soult having direct communication with Marmont.

Leaving Hill with 18,000 troops near Badajoz on the Spanish frontier to protect the southern route between the two countries and his southern flank, Wellington marched east on June 13. The primarily Anglo-Portuguese army included several thousand Spanish troops.

Eight hundred French troops garrisoned three forts in the southwest corner of Salamanca. The forts were situated on high ground overlooking the old Roman bridge across the Tormes River. Fort San Vincente, which had 30 guns, was the most robust of the three forts. French engineers had destroyed buildings to make sure the only approach to the stone fort was across open ground. The two smaller forts, Le Merced and San Gaetano, were separated from San Vincente by a steep ravine.

Wellington had been informed by his Spanish agents that the forts were weak, but he quickly learned otherwise. To batter and breach the stone forts, the British had only four 18-pounders, although six heavy guns were making their way to Salamanca.

Wellington assigned Maj. Gen. Sir Henry Clinton’s 6th Division the job of capturing the three forts. The Allied commander accompanied the 14th Light Dragoon when it entered Salamanca to the shouts of the townspeople. Wellington established his headquarters in the town, and the 6th Division invested the forts that night. When the French opened fire with artillery and small arms on the Allied troops, several hundred marksmen from the Light Brigade of the King’s German Legion spread out among the ruins of the town. They opened up with a brisk fire that kept the French pinned down. This enabled the British artillerists to get their guns into action against the forts.

As for the bulk of the Allied army, it bypassed the town on June 19 and took up position on the heights at San Cristobal three miles to the north. Marmont had difficulty keeping his troops supplied, and therefore he dispersed his units until he knew where Wellington was going to strike. On June 19, the French commander gathered five of his eight divisions and set out to relieve the garrisons of the three forts in Salamanca.

General Jean Pierre François Bonet’s 8th Division was not scheduled to arrive until early July for it had to march from Asturias to the north. Marmont also sent a request for help to General Marie-François Auguste de Caffarelli in command of the Army of the North. Caffarelli had previously promised to send 8,000 infantry, a brigade of light cavalry, and 22 guns if Wellington attacked Marmont. Marmont also sent a message to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother who had been installed as the king of Spain, requesting troops.

Watching Marmont’s 25,000 troops arrive, Wellington hoped the French would attack his numerically superior force. Wellington’s army held a strong position from San Cristobal to Cabrerizos with cavalry covering his flanks. British guns emplaced on the heights shelled the French as they advanced in three columns, approaching to within 800 yards of Wellington’s lines. The French guns replied in all likelihood to let the beleaguered garrisons in Salamanca know help was on the way.

At dusk a French regiment attacked the British advance post at the village of Morisco, located at the foot of the heights. The village was held by the 68th Light Infantry of the 7th Division which beat off three French attacks. After dark Wellington recalled the 68th and abandoned Morisco. Wellington hoped that Marmont would attack him in the morning, but Marmont did not take the bait.  

Knowing he was outnumbered, Marmont did little the next day, even though two more divisions and a brigade of dragoons arrived that afternoon. Even with the reinforcements, Marmont was in a bad position, with no flank protection and only open ground behind him that offered no protection in case of retreat. The council of war was divided nearly down the middle. Marmont decided that it would be best to err on the side of caution, and therefore he refrained from launching an attack.

By June 22 it was clear to Wellington that the French were not going to attack. There was some skirmishing in the morning before the French withdrew six miles to Aldea Rubia that night. For the next four days Marmont maneuvered his army east of Salamanca. He did send part of his army across the Tormes in an attempt to get Wellington to divide his force, but the savvy Allied commander easily countered the French moves.

Word arrived on June 26 from Caffarelli that he would not be sending reinforcements to Marmont due to guerrilla activity and threatening moves by the Royal Navy in his area of responsibility. News came the next day that the forts in Salamanca had fallen. The garrisons had held out for 10 days. Clinton’s 6th Division lost 120 men in failed assaults against San Gaetano. A shortage of ammunition had slowed Clinton’s efforts, but fresh ammunition arrived to tip the balance in favor of the besiegers. Allied guns ultimately forced the fall of all three forts.

With the fall of the forts and with no reinforcements from Caffarelli on the way, Marmont withdrew northeast toward Valladolid on the north side of the Duero River, putting him closer to Bonet’s 8th Division marching from the north. Wellington followed him to the Duero but did not attack. For the first two weeks of July little happened, except for the arrival of Bonet, which made the opposing armies about equal in strength, although the British were stronger in cavalry, while the French had more artillery.

Wellington scanned the French position for an opportunity to attack, but he did not like the prospects for a frontal assault. What is more, any attempt to flank them would expose his lines of communication to the west. He was also aware that Joseph Bonaparte was gathering about 14,000 troops to march to Marmont’s aid. Marmont did not know this because Spanish guerrillas had intercepted the dispatches sent to him.

The inactivity along the Duero came to an end on July 16 when two French divisions crossed the river at Toro. Concerned that the British might be reinforced, Marmont went on the offensive.  When Wellington learned the French were moving against him, he shifted part of his army to the west to deal with that threat as well as the French advance from Toro. But the advance from Toro turned out to be nothing more than a ruse to deceive Wellington.