200 Years Ago Today ~ The Liberation of Madrid…

Following the rather disastrous rout at Salamanca on the 18th July, the French army–now reduced to a mere 22,000 troops–had fallen back [slowly] on Madrid, the capital of Spain and home to Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, whom he had installed as king when he annexed the country. 

But King Joseph aka Pepe Botella [Joe the Fat] was…er…weak.  And immensely unpopular.  (He’s still a hate figure today.)  He didn’t command much respect among the French army either–he was no soldier and his brother kept undercutting any authority he did have by writing directly to the French generals under his command, countermanding his orders…

So, once the news had got through to Madrid and elsewhere that the French army had been smashed…and this took several weeks in some cases because the Spanish guerillas controlled almost the entire countryside and disrupting French communications was one of their chief pleasures and specialities.  So whenever a French courier was sent out, hey presto, he was ambushed and the news never got through…

Anyway, once Joseph realised that his position was untenable, he did what the Buonapartes always did when things went pear-shaped:  he grabbed as much loot as he could manage to pack into his baggage train, and hightailed it out of town.  In Joseph’s case, this was in a creaky carriage, heading south through the waterless, dusty country of Aranjuez and Albacete for Valencia. 

Accompanied by the royal household and some 2000 waggons–okay, quite a bit of loot–and maybe 15,000 civilian afranchiadas, civilians who’d collaborated with his regime and therefore didn’t rate their chances very high if they remained. 

Hence on 12 August 1812, Wellington and his Anglo-Portuguese army rolled–unobstructed and unopposed–into Madrid. 

And as Stephen Maturin would say, “The Dear knows, I give you joy!” 

All of Madrid turned out to celebrate the casting out of the French–their assault on the Madrilenos in 1808 had turned the streets to rivers of blood, literally–and the triumphal entrance of their English liberators.

William Grattan of the Connaught Rangers was there:  “In less that two hours we reached the heights which command Madrid:  the soldiers ran forward to catch a glimpse of the countless steeples that were distinguishable through the haze, and their joy was at its height when they beheld a city that had cost them so much toil and hard fighting to gain possession of.  Ten thousand voices at one and the same moment vociferated, ‘Madrid!  Madrid!’

“The enthusiasm of the army was still further increased by the thousands upon thousands of Spaniards that came from the town to accompany us in our entry:  for miles leading to the capital the roads were crowded almost to suffocation with people of all ranks who seemed to be actuated by one simultaneous burst of patriotism, and it was with difficulty that the march was conducted with that order which we were in the habit of observing.  The nearer we approached the city, the greater was the difficulty of getting on, for the people forced themselves into our ranks, and joined hand in hand with the soldiers…

“At length we entered that part of the town near which the palace stands, but the obstacles which impeded our march, great as they were before, now became ten-fold greater. 

“Nothing could stop the populace, which at this period nearly embraced half that Madrid contained, from mixing themselves with us.  The officers were nearly forced from their horses in the embraces of the females, and some there were who actually lost their seats, if not their hearts. 

“Old or young, ugly or well-looking, shared the same fate, and one, in particular, an old friend of my own, and a remarkably plain-looking personage, was nearly suffocated in the embraces of half a dozen fair Castilians.  When he recovered himself and was able to speak, he turned to me and said, ‘How infernally fond these Madrid women must be of kissing, when they have hugged nearly to death such an ill-looking fellow as me.'” 

Lowry Cole wrote home that even Wellington was completely surrounded by women and girls as he rode into town, all of them wanting to touch him and kiss him, and many of them even going so far as to cut bits off the skirt of his coat to cherish as relics. 

(Who says we invented the cult of celebrity in the 20th century?)

 And amid the “deffening shouts of Vivi les Angoles, Vivi les Ilandos!” which were being shouted from every direction, Captain Bragge adds:  “The inhabitants testified their Joy by hanging all their Curtains, Tapestry etc out of the windows…This had a very pretty effect and was greatly increased by a splendid Illumination with Immense Wax Candles.”

Can’t you just see it? 

Here’s how one Spanish eye-witness, Jose Clemente Carnicero Torribio described it:  “When the bells began to announce the entrance of our troops at about ten o’clock, it was wonderful to see the people rushing to…the Portillo de San Vicente, which was the one through which they were said to be coming.  A new town council was formed, and this immediately set forth to greet…the immortal Wellington…

To the crescendo of bells, the people massed in ever greater numbers round the Plaza de la Villa.  When a portrait of Don Fernando [Fernando VII] was placed in the window of the town hall, they simply went mad.  The cheering was incessant; hats and caps were thrown in the air; on all sides people were giving thanks to God; and everyone was filled with the greatest joy and happiness.  Another of the incidents that made the day shine our was the behaviour of the women and children of the poorer quarters.  Joseph…had made a new avenue from the palace to the Casa de Campo [the royal hunting ground]…This had been lined with fruit trees…But the crowd…ripped them up…

“When Lord Wellington arrived, many of the people who greeted him were therefore carrying branches and sprigs of greenery which they waved in time with their cheers and happy shouts of greeting.  In this manner he was accompanied to the town hall.  When he got there, the cheering redoubled…Among thunderous applause, everyone flung their arms around one another, and gave themselves over to congratulating their neighbours in the most unreserved fashion.”

Edward Somers Cocks wrote happily of his experience too:  “Our arrival produced a joy far beyond description…I was never kissed by so many pretty girls in a day in all my life, or ever expect to be again.  If we moved on horseback, the animals were embraced and pulled one way, and we were hauled and caressed the other.  On foot it was impossible to make your way…”

Not everyone enjoyed it all though, as William Wheeler of the 51st wrote:  “But amidst all this pleasure and happiness, we were obliged to submit to a custom so unenglish that I cannot but feel disgust now I am writing.  It was to be kissed by the men.  Which made it still worse, their breath was so highly seasoned with garlick, then their huge mustaches well stiffened with sweat, dust and snuff, it was like having a hair broom pushed into ones face that had been daubed in a dirty gutter.”

Amazing and wonderful, isn’t it?

Many Madrilenos believed this signalled the end of the war.  However, in this they were sanguine…it would be another year before the French armies were driven across the Pyrenees and back into France…Still, what a day, eh?

(Oh, and it’s a happy 250th birthday to George IV too.)

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