200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Salamanca

It was a dark and stormy night…

(No, really, it was.)

The rain came down in torrents…

(No, really, it did.  I’m not making this up.  This is what happened.)

Thunder boomed for hours, the lightning cracked and flashed on the polished metal of the guns, temporarily blinding the soldiers.  The winds, howling across the treeless plain, spooked the horses so that they broke free, bolting, stampeding in every direction.  A night fit for Macbeth’s weird sisters, you might have said.

But by early morning, the storm had passed and the sky was a cloudless wash of watchet blue…

For several days, the two armies–the Anglo-Portuguese army under the command of Lord Wellington and the so-called Army of Portugal (otherwise known as the Frenchies) under the command of Marshal Marmont–had been engaged on a series of manoeuvres, of marches and counter-marches, sometimes in parallel, sometimes within gunshot of each other, each hoping for the other to make a mistake, and all under a blazing sun, while the nights were so cold the soldiers were burning coffin-wood for their fires…

On the morning of the 22nd July, therefore, after rounding up their horses, the two armies again began their journeys toward Ciudad Rodrigo, sweeping onto the plains south of Salamanca, each desperate to reach the road to Ciudad Rodrigo and thus their safe path of retreat first.  

Wellington had ordered his troops into a defensive position along a ridge known as the Lesser Arapil, while the French occupied a more southerly ridge called (here’s a surprise) the Greater Arapil.  Anticipating a day of more manoeuvring, Wellington had sent the baggage train off early, down the road to Ciudad Rodrigo.

Marmont, convinced that Wellington was a fearful, defensive commander, believed that the clouds of dust he saw on that road through his telescope were the main Anglo-Portuguese army making a dash for it.  He therefore ordered his troops to string themselves out along the south for a pre-emptive strike to cut off the British retreat.

(Can I just say here, “Big mistake.  Huge.”)

So here we have, just as you can see below in the map, the Anglo-Portuguese army packed tightly together in formation, with lots of reserves at their back–just to the north–and the Frenchies, bless ’em, marching across the front of the British troops (so dumb!) and blissfully unaware of what’s over that ridge, armed with muskets, Baker rifles, cannon, and wearing red coats.

Lord Wellington, stopping briefly in a farmyard to nab a bite of lunch, was munching on a chicken leg while he watched the French manoeuvres through his glass, when he observed the French line extended and straggling along a full four miles across his army’s front. 

“By God!  That will do!” he is said to have exclaimed, throwing the remaining bit of chicken over his shoulder and leaping onto his horse. 

He galloped off for a better view, liked what he saw (particularly the fact that the French line was not arrayed for battle) and declared to his Spanish aide-de-camp, “Mon cher Alava, Marmont est perdu!”  After which he rode hell for leather over to the north-east to give his orders directly to his brother-in-law, Edward Pakenham, who was in command of the 3rd Division:  “Ned, do you see those fellows on the hill?  Throw your Division into column, take those heights in your front–and drive everything before you.”

The next hour’s events proved a rude, not to say fatal, awakening for the French. 

At close on 5.00 p.m. Pakenham did just as he was told and led his men to the westernmost edge of the ridge, then burst over the crest  to surround the leading French division of General Thomieres. 

As one British soldier later recorded:  “We were going up an ascent on whose crest masses of the enemy were stationed.  Their fire seemed capable of sweeping all before it…we retired before this overwhelming fire, but…General Pakenham approached and very good naturedly said, ‘Reform’, and…’Advance…There they are my lads; just let them feel the temper of your bayonets’.  We advanced, everyone making his mind up for mischief…the bugles along the line sounded the charge.  Forward we rushed…and awful was the retribution we exacted for our former repulse.”

(At approximately the same time as Wellington was giving his orders to Ned Pakenham, cannon-shot from the Lesser Arapil tore into the Greater Arapil and the side of Marshal Marmont, destroying two ribs and an arm.)

Pakenham drove his men forward into General Thomieres men who’d been completely taken by surprise. They managed to get off no more than one round before the feared rolling musketry of the 74th, 88th and 45th  was opened up on them. 

Pakenham’s men crushed the French infantry, the survivors throwing down their arms and running away.  Their first job done, they moved on toward the centre of the French line, which was also having more trouble than they’d anticipated–due to those reserves Wellington had and had ordered forward–General Leith’s Fifth Division and the cavalry brigade under the command of General Le Marchant. 

The battle continued for some time, with the British troops inflicting heavy casualties, breaking the entire French left, taking 2500 prisoners, 12 guns and 2 eagles.  A late effort by General Clausel and Bonnet to break the British centre was doomed.

Three French infantry divisions were available to cover the retreat into the wood south of the Arapil Grande and they fought bravely as the whole Allied army pushed forward, driving all before them. 

Victory belonged to the Allies!

The Battle of Salamanca or Los Arapils as it’s known in Spanish is known as Wellington’s masterpiece.  Some French writers have since observed that at Salamanca, Wellington beat 40,000 men in 40 minutes.  Which has a nice ring to it, I think. 

The Anglo-Portuguese army fought hard–there were some 14,000 French dead and wounded, with another 10,000 stragglers.   Generals Ferey, Thomieres and Berthelot were killed, and Marshal Marmont as well as Generals Clausel and Bonnet wounded.  In addition to this, the Allies took 20 guns, 2 Imperial eagles, and 6 colours.  All this to 5000 Allied casualties. 

Wellington himself had spent the entire battle galloping among the troops as bullets and cannonball whizzed by him–one bullet striking his saddle holster and bruising his thigh.

Wellington did not press his exhausted troops to pursue the disorganised and retreating French into sheltering woods or over the bridge of Alba over the River Tormes, and for this he has been criticised. 

However, the next day, he did order General Anson and his dragoons from the King’s German Legion to cross the bridge to harry the French rearguard.  The KGL hurried to join the fray.  Finding that Chemineau’s Brigade of the 6e Leger and 76e Ligne had been cut off by the rapid retreat, the dragoons charged the artillery battalion squares, shattering them.

For Wellington, the way was now clear to Madrid…and the final push to dislodge the French from the Iberian Peninsula was now on.

Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden.


6 comments on “200 Years Ago ~ The Battle of Salamanca

  1. gemmahistory says:

    Reblogged this on Gemmahistory and commented:
    Battle of Salamanca retold!

  2. I love your descriptions, they really bring aspects of the Napoleonic Wars alive. I have a Spanish son-in–law and he assures me that the British are still loved and admired in Spain because of their defense of Spain at that time. I have always found Wellington a charismatic and complicated figure – I gather he was known as a “Come on” leader, instead of a “Go on” leader – you certainly seem to agree with that.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      When I was last in Spain–up in the mountains–my host insisted on taking me to several tiny villages where upon the churches there were weathervanes in the shape of a British infantryman of the Napoleonic period. They’re called Mambro’s. Because the Spanish couldn’t say Wellington, they called him after the other great British general, Marlborough–and Mambro is how they pronounced that. The locals are immensely proud of these weathervanes and even prouder to shew them to an English person.

      Wellington got a lot of flack for his alleged coldness of temperament, and when he was compared with Nelson and his “band of brothers” style of management (which incidentally, comes from Henry V, the ultimate English military hero/leader and Nelson knew and cultivated that image) Wellington’s more analytical, cerebral style invariably looked less appealling. Still, his men trusted him implicitly. And that, I think, says it all.

  3. […] the rather disastrous rout at Salamanca on the 18th July, the French army–now reduced to a mere 22,000 troops–had fallen back […]

  4. […] England’s Last Revolution […]

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