Modern history



WHEN THE BRITISH SAILED AWAY FROM CORUNNA NO ORGANISED forces remained in Spain to hinder Napoleon’s Marshals. Everywhere Spanish armies were defeated, and only the implacable guerilla continued. In the opening months of 1809 the French were again free to move their armies where they pleased in the Peninsula. Soult now entered Portugal and established himself at Oporto. What was left of the original British expedition still occupied Lisbon, and by successive reinforcements was again raised to a strength of thirty thousand men. These, conjoined with an equal number of Portuguese, organised under a British general, Beresford, were sufficient to keep Soult inert for several months, during which he distracted himself with an intrigue to become King. The Government in London were divided in counsel upon what ought to be done. Should they resume a major campaign in the Peninsula or strike at the Netherlands? They decided to split their effort and make an attempt in both quarters. An expedition was mounted to seize the Dutch island at Walcheren, at the mouth of the Scheldt, and occupy Antwerp. It proved a costly diversion, but it seemed a promising plan. Few observers were then convinced that effective success could be won in distant Spain and Portugal. These doubts were not shared by Arthur Wellesley. In April he was reappointed to take command in Lisbon. He was to spend the next five years in the Peninsula, and return to London in triumph by way of the capital of France.

Wellesley resigned his seat in Parliament and his office as Chief Secretary, and reached Lisbon before the end of the month. He could choose between attacking Soult at Oporto or re-entering Spain to engage one or other of the numerous French Marshals whose corps were widely spread throughout the Peninsula. He decided first to clear Portugal. By a swift and secret march he reached the Douro, passed a division across it by night in boats and barges, and surprised Soult and his army in the town. With very small loss he compelled the Marshal, whose retreat southwards was also compromised by the operations of Beresford’s Portuguese, to withdraw into the mountainous regions of the north. Soult was forced to abandon the whole of his artillery, his wounded, and the bulk of his baggage. He arrived at Orense, in Spanish Galicia, six days later, with an army disordered and exhausted, having lost since he entered Portugal over six thousand men. The passage of the Douro, the surprise of Oporto, and the discomfiture of Soult constituted a brilliant achievement for the new British general and paved the way for further action.

Wellesley now resolved to penetrate into the centre of Spain along the valley of the Tagus, and, joining the Spanish army under Cuesta, to engage Marshal Victor. Soult, his troop reorganised and re-equipped, was moving to join Victor, who would give him a decisive superiority. Wellesley’s position at Talavera, a hundred miles south-west of Madrid, became precarious, and his soldiers were near starvation. Marshal Victor conceived himself strong enough to attack without waiting for the arrival of Soult. On the afternoon of July 27, 1809, the armies engaged. The French were fifty thousand strong. Wellesley had twenty thousand British and twenty-four thousand Spaniards, but these latter, though brave, could not be counted upon for serious work in a set battle. Their strength lay in harassing operations. The whole severity of the fighting was borne by sixteen thousand British and thirty thousand Frenchmen. Victor’s attacks, which began in earnest on the 28th, were ill-concerted, and were repulsed with heavy loss after fierce mass-fighting with the bayonet. In the afternoon the crisis of the battle was reached. The English Guards, elated by the defeat of the French column in their front, were drawn from their place in the line by the ardour of pursuit.


The British centre was open, and a French counter-stroke caused widespread disorder. But Wellesley had brought the 48th Regiment to the scene, who, in perfect array and discipline, advanced through the retreating soldiery, and, striking the French column on the flank, restored the day. A wild cavalry charge by the 23rd Light Dragoons, in which half the regiment fell, cut deeply into the enemy’s flanks. By nightfall Marshal Victor accepted defeat and withdrew towards Madrid. The ferocity of the fighting may be judged from the British losses. Nearly 6,000 men out of Wellesley’s total of 20,000 had fallen, killed or wounded; the French had lost 7,500 and twenty guns. The Spaniards claimed to have lost 1,200 men.

Wellesley was in no condition to pursue. The next morning General Robert Craufurd arrived with his Light Brigade, afterwards the famous Light Division, having marched sixty-two miles in twenty-six hours, the most rapid march by foot-soldiers on record. But Wellesley could no longer place any reliance upon the co-operation of his Spanish allies. They engaged the enemy in their own free way, which was certainly not his. Like Sir John Moore before him, he had run enormous risks, and had been saved only by the narrowest of margins. He withdrew unmolested along the Tagus back to Portugal. Not only had he established the reputation of a highly skilful and determined general, but the fighting quality of the British had made a profound impression upon the French. In England there was unwonted satisfaction. Sir Arthur Wellesley was raised to the peerage as Viscount Wellington, and, in spite of Whig opposition, was granted a pension of £2,000 a year for three years. Nelson was gone; Pitt was gone; but here at last was someone to replace them.


The close connection between political developments at home and the fortunes of the generals at the front is a remarkable feature of the history of these years. Each military reverse led to a crisis in the personal relations of the Cabinet Ministers in London. The disgrace of the Convention at Cintra had sharpened the rivalry and mutual dislike of Canning and Castlereagh. The former had been anxious to dismiss all the generals involved; the latter was interested in the political and military careers of the Wellesley brothers.


Fortunately Castlereagh had prevailed. Now the two Ministers were at loggerheads over the disaster that threatened the expedition to Walcheren. Tempers were sharpened by the ill-defined and overlapping functions of the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary for War. The failing health of the Duke of Portland, the titular head of the Government, increased the rivalry of the two younger statesmen for the succession to the Premiership. A duel was fought between them, in which Canning was wounded. Both resigned office, and so did Portland. Spencer Perceval, hitherto Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over the Government. He was an unassuming figure, but an adroit debater, and in the conduct of the war a man of considerable resolution. Wellington’s cause in Spain was favoured by the new administration. Perceval appointed as his Foreign Secretary the Marquess Wellesley, who steadfastly stood up for his younger brother in the Cabinet. The new War Minister, Lord Liverpool, was also well disposed. The Government did their best to satisfy Wellington’s requirements, but, faced with the Whig Opposition and the Tory rebels in the Commons, they were continually obstructed by petty issues. In 1810 the King’s renewed madness provoked a fresh crisis. Perceval skilfully averted a change in the political balance of power. George, Prince of Wales, became Regent, but he did not send for his former friends, the Opposition Whigs, as they had fondly hoped. The Prince Regent decided to trust his father’s Ministers. It is to his credit that he did so. By frugal finance Perceval was able to maintain supplies and nourish the armed forces. The three years of his Government were marked by quietly growing efficiency.


These were testing years for Wellington. He commanded Britain’s sole remaining army on the continent of Europe. Failure would have been disastrous to Britain, and to the patriots in Spain and Portugal; it would also have liberated large numbers of French troops for the reinforcement of Napoleon’s ventures elsewhere. We can only speculate upon what further triumphs the Emperor might have enjoyed, even perhaps in Russia, but for the steady drain on his resources caused by Wellington’s presence in the Peninsula. All this was not lost upon the English commander. But for the time being caution must be his policy. “As this is the last army England has,” he drily wrote, “we must take care of it.” Since the start of the Revolutionary wars many British lodgments had been made on the European continent, but none had long survived. The French had always bent every effort to driving the British into the sea. In 1810 they were massing for a fresh attempt. Wellington was resolved that no hasty evacuation would be forced upon him. All the previous winter he had been perfecting a series of fortified lines around Lisbon on the heights of Torres Vedras. This was to form his final bastion, and on these defences he gradually fell back.

The ablest of Napoleon’s Marshals, Masséna, now headed the French Army of Portugal. Having overwhelmed Spanish resistance, Masséna advanced across the frontier with eighty thousand men. The British numbered about twenty-five thousand, and their Portuguese allies the same. In September there was a stiff battle at Busaco. Sixty thousand French met fifty thousand Allies, only half of whom were British. But the Portuguese were by now well seasoned. The French were badly mauled and beaten. Wellington’s withdrawal nevertheless continued. Suddenly the forward flow of the French came to a halt. Ahead of them rose the formidable lines of Torres Vedras, manned by the undefeated British, and all around extended a countryside deliberately laid waste. Masséna saw before him a prospect of bleak, hungry months, with no hope of successful assault. This was the hinge of the whole campaign. The French paused and dug into winter quarters. Wellington hovered about them, determined, as he put it, “to force them out of Portugal by the distresses they will suffer.” So it turned out. In the following spring Masséna gave up. He retreated into Spain, leaving behind him seventeen thousand dead and eight thousand prisoners.

Portugal was now free, and Wellington’s successes strengthened the position of the Government at home. Rejoicing in London and Lisbon however was mingled with a certain impatience. The British commander had eager critics, even within his own army, who could not appreciate the wisdom of his steadily developing strategy. Wellington himself was unperturbed by cries for haste. Nothing could shake him, and he kept his own counsel. He was determined to secure behind him a broad base and reliable communications before he ventured into the recesses of Spain. He must have in his hands the frontier fortresses of Badajoz and Ciudad Rodrigo, which guarded the roads to Madrid. Two French armies confronted him. Masséna, later replaced by Marmont, held the northern front in the province of Leon. Soult lay to the south in Andalusia. They and their fellow Marshals elsewhere in Spain commanded some quarter of a million men, of whom about a hundred thousand faced Wellington. They were much hampered by the incessant guerrilla. They could no longer count on living off the country, as French armies had hitherto done all over Europe; they quarrelled among themselves; and they were in constant receipt of angry instructions from their Emperor in Paris, based on fancy rather than on fact. For the genius of Napoleon, grappling with the problems of his Continental empire, failed him in his conduct of the distant, remorseless Spanish struggle.

Wellington had gauged precisely the size and scope of the task before him. A war of manœuvre unfolded in 1811 within the Spanish frontiers, and both the French armies blocking his advance were separately met and defeated at Fuentes d’Oñoro and Albuera. These were violent battles. Of Fuentes, which lies to the west of Ciudad Rodrigo, Wellington admitted, “If Boney had been there we should have been beaten.” But Napoleon was not there. He was enmeshed in diplomacy and preparations for war elsewhere. Besides, he had just solemnised his second marriage. The Corsican’s bride was a daughter of the proud house of Habsburg, the Archduchess Marie Louise. She gave him a long-desired son and heir, but little happiness.

The battles of Fuentes and Albuera, which was fought by Wellington’s lieutenant, Beresford, were not decisive, but the British remained masters of the field. As Wellington wrote to Lord Liverpool, “We have certainly altered the course of the war in Spain; it has become to a certain degree offensive on our part.” This was a typical understatement. In fact Wellington was already laying his plans for the day when he would drive the French back over the Pyrenees and carry the conflict into their own country. Amid the snows of January 1812 he was at last able to seize Ciudad Rodrigo. Four months later Badajoz fell to a bloody assault. The cost in life was heavy, but the way was opened for an overpowering thrust into Spain. Wellington and Marmont manœuvred about one another, each watching for the other to make a mistake. It was Marmont who erred, and at Salamanca Wellington achieved his first victory on the offensive in the Peninsular War. King Joseph Bonaparte fled from Madrid, and the British occupied the capital amid the pealing of bells and popular rejoicing. But there was still Soult to be dealt with. Coming up from the south, the French Marshal wheeled round Wellington’s flank. He outnumbered the British commander by nearly two to one, and he was careful to offer no opening for promising attack. Wellington fell back once more on the Portuguese frontier. In the year’s campaign he had shattered one French army and enabled the whole of Southern Spain to be freed from the French. But meanwhile heavier shadows from the East were falling upon Napoleon’s Empire. It was the winter of the retreat from Moscow.


All through the spring of 1812 the Emperor had been gathering forces on a scale hitherto unknown in Europe, and as the summer came he drew them eastward from all his dominions. For two years past his relations with Russia had been growing more and more embittered. The Czar had gradually become convinced that no general European settlement could be made so long as the French Emperor dominated the scene. The amiable days of Tilsit were forgotten, and the Emperors who had sworn friendship on the raft in the river Niemen were now foes. Napoleon determined to get his blow in first, and to make it a shattering one. Although his generals and Ministers were reluctant and apprehensive a kind of delirium swept the martial classes of the Empire. The idea of a campaign larger than any yet conceived, more daring than the deeds of Alexander the Great, which might lead to the conquest of all Asia, took possession of the fighting men. Napoleon marshalled beyond the Vistula a group of armies nearly five hundred thousand strong. His Viceroy and stepson Eugene marched from Italy with fifty thousand Italians. Holland, Denmark, and all the states of the Rhine sent their contingents. Austria and Prussia took the field as Napoleon’s dutiful allies, each with thirty thousand men. War-ravaged Europe after all these years of strife had never seen such an array. Among these armies moving eastwards were barely two hundred thousand Frenchmen. They formed the central spearhead of attack under the Emperor’s direct command. Thus the great drama reached its culmination.

Many voices had warned Napoleon of the hardships and difficulties of campaigning in Russia. Nor did he disregard their advice. He had assembled what seemed for those days abundant transport and supply. It proved unequal to the event. In June 1812 he crossed the Niemen and headed straight for Moscow, some five hundred miles to the east. He was confronted by two main Russian armies totalling two hundred thousand men. His plan was to overwhelm them separately and snatch at the old Russian capital. He confidently expected that the Czar would then treat for peace. All the other sovereigns of Europe in similar circumstances had hastened to bow the knee. But Russia proved a different proposition. In this fateful month of June the Russian Ambassador in London made a startlingly accurate prophecy. It reflected the expectations of the Czar and his advisers. “We can win by persistent defence and retreat,” he wrote. “If the enemy begins to pursue us it is all up with him; for the farther he advances from his bases of supply into a trackless and foodless country, starved and encircled by an army of Cossacks, his position will become more and more dangerous. He will end by being decimated by the winter, which has always been our most faithful ally.” Defence, retreat, and winter—on these resources the Russian high command relied. Napoleon had studied the amazing Russian campaigns of the great Swede, King Charles XII. He thought he had profited by his reading. In the twentieth century another more ruthless dictator was to study Napoleon’s errors. He too thought he had marked the lesson. Russia undeceived them both.

Before Napoleon the Russian armies fell back, avoiding the traps he set for them and devastating the countryside through which the French had to pass. At Borodino, some sixty miles west of the capital, the Russians turned at bay. There in the bloodiest battle of the nineteenth century General Kutusov inflicted a terrible mauling on Napoleon. Both the armies engaged, each of about a hundred and twenty thousand men, lost a third of their strength. Kutusov withdrew once more, and Moscow fell to the French. But the Russians declined to sue for peace. As winter drew near it was forced on Napoleon’s mind that Moscow, burnt to a shell by accident or by design, was untenable by his starving troops. There was nothing for it but retreat through the gathering snows—the most celebrated and disastrous retreat in history. Winter now took its dreadful toll. Rearguard actions, however gallant, sapped the remaining French strength. Out of the huge Grand Army launched upon Russia only twenty thousand straggled back to Warsaw. Marshal Ney was said to have been the last Frenchman to quit Russian soil.

On December 5 Napoleon abandoned the remnant of his armies on the Russian frontier and set out by sleigh for Paris. Whatever salvaging could be done he left to his Marshals. For himself he was insensible of disaster. He still put trust in his Star. If he had failed to extend his Empire to the East, he could yet preserve it in the West. By tremendous efforts he would raise new forces and fight again. In the spring of 1813 he once more took the field. Half his men were raw recruits, and France was no longer behind him. Reluctant support was all he could get, and even his Marshals began to waver. Germany rose in the hour of his downfall. The spirit of nationalism, diffused by French armies, sprang up to baffle and betray the master of Europe. Coalitions were formed, backed by the finances of Britain. Napoleon was offered the chance of an honourable peace. Thinking that fate could be reversed by genius in battle, he rejected it. One by one his hesitant allies dropped away. Sweden, ruled by the French Marshal Bernadotte; Prussia, Austria, and even Saxony and Bavaria, his own client states, abandoned him. The Czar was resolved upon a march for the Rhine. Central Europe, so long subservient to France, joined the Russian thrust. A series of gigantic engagements were fought in Saxony and Silesia. At last in the three-day battle of Leipzig in October all Napoleon’s foes closed in upon him. Nearly half a million men were involved on each side. In this Battle of the Nations Napoleon was overwhelmed and driven westwards to the frontiers of France. The Allies gathered on the borders of their enemy for the first time since 1793. The great Revolutionary and Imperial adventure was drawing to a close.


On the southern front Wellington’s achievement surpassed all expectations. Issuing from his frontier bastions in May 1813, he flourished his cocked hat. “Farewell, Portugal!” he exclaimed. “I shall never see you again.” Nor did he. He once more bundled King Joseph Bonaparte out of Madrid. He cleared the whole north of Spain and herded the retreating French into the old mountain kingdom of Navarre. At the battle of Vitoria on June 21 he routed Marshal Jourdan and drove his forces over the Pyrenees. News of this victory heartened the Czar and the Allied armies of Europe in Saxony. Little more than a tithe of the forces circling round Dresden and Leipzig had been engaged at Vitoria. But the effect was signal. Except for Catalonia, Spain was free from the French. For the first and only time in history the success of British arms was greeted by a Te Deumsung in Russian. Tenaciously Wellington pursued his purpose of reducing, as he put it, “the power and influence of the grand disturber of Europe.” By the spring of 1814 he was on French soil and had occupied Bordeaux. In early April he sought out and defeated his old antagonist, Soult, at Toulouse.

For Napoleon the end had already come. In the south the front had crumpled; to the east Prussians, Russians, and Austrians were reaching into the heart of France. Napoleon was never more brilliant in manœuvre than during his brief campaign of 1814. In February he beat the allies at Montmirail and Montereau. Rivers which flow between the fronts of opposing armies have never proved a secure shield. In this campaign Napoleon used the much surer advantages to defence of rivers which run parallel to the lines of advance. His manœuvres were a model of the military art, and by crossing and recrossing both the Aisne and the Marne he compelled his superior opponents to withdraw in disorder. But the combined strength of Europe was too much for him. The forces of opposition to his rule in France openly rose against him. Fouché and Talleyrand, long conspiring in doubt, now put it to themselves that France could only be saved by deserting her Emperor. At the end of March Marshal Marmont, defending Paris, gave up and surrendered the capital. On April 3 Napoleon abdicated and retired to the island of Elba. The long, remorseless tides of war rolled back, and at the Congress of Vienna the Powers prepared for the diplomatic struggle of the peace.


Britain was represented at Vienna by Castlereagh. In 1812 the Prime Minister, Perceval, had been shot dead by a madman in the lobby of the House of Commons. His colleague, Lord Liverpool, took over the administration, and remained in power for fifteen years. Castlereagh rejoined the Government as Foreign Secretary, an office he was to hold until his death. The war Governments of these years have received graceless treatment at the hands of Whig historians. Yet Perceval and Liverpool, Canning and Castlereagh, bore the burden with courage and increasing skill. Castlereagh was now to take an influential part in the reconstruction of Europe. His voice was foremost in proposing a just and honourable peace. He had already in March 1814 negotiated the Treaty of Chaumont between the principal Allies which laid the foundations for the future settlement. Castlereagh believed in the Balance of Power. This is a concept that became unpopular in the twentieth century during the interval between the World Wars. We have since learnt the need for a balance when great power is concentrated in the hands of two or three nations. In Castlereagh’s day there were five Great Powers in Europe. His object was to concert their interests. Harmony between them was too much to expect. But at least it might be arranged that the jars of international life should not lead inevitably to war.

Castlereagh’s principal colleagues at Vienna were Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, and Talleyrand, the spokesman of France. Metternich was a confirmed believer in the old régime of the eighteenth century; his desire was to put back the clock to pre-Revolutionary days. In his later years, when bereft of power, he was proud to declare that he had always been a “Rock of Order.” The supple Talleyrand had served in turn the Revolution, Napoleon, and now the Bourbons; his aim was to salvage for France all that he could from the ruins of the Imperial adventure. Between them Castlereagh held the advantage of disinterestedness.

The most urgent problem was the government of France. Napoleon had gone, but who was to replace him? It was Talleyrand who persuaded the Powers to restore the Bourbons in the person of Louis XVIII, brother of the executed king. After the glories of the Revolution and the triumphs of Napoleon not even the royalist pen of Chateaubriand could invest the shadowy monarchy with prestige or popularity. Louis however represented at least a tradition, a fragment of the political faith of France; above all, he represented peace. He was himself a man of mildness and accommodation. The years of exile had not soured him. The main social changes of the past twenty-five years were tacitly accepted; the system of government and administration created under Napoleon was continued by his successors, with the added novelty of a partially free Press and the beginnings of a Parliamentary constitution.

A politic moderation was displayed in the terms offered to the defeated enemy: no indemnity, no occupation by Allied troops, not even the return of the art treasures which had been looted from the galleries of Europe. The foreign conquests of the Emperor were surrendered, but the essential unity of France remained untroubled and the territory over which Louis XVIII ruled was slightly more extensive than that of Louis XVI. The reason for this moderation is not difficult to comprehend. To disrupt France would add too much weight to one or other of the Continental Powers. Besides, it would kindle a flame of vengeance in the hearts of all Frenchmen.

The British were principally concerned with the colonial settlement. Many conquests were returned, yet the Peace of Paris, which was the outcome of the Congress, marks another stage in the establishment of the new Empire which was replacing the lost American colonies. The captured French colonies were surrendered, with the exception of Mauritius, Tobago, and St Lucia. The Dutch recovered their possessions in the East Indies. Sir Stamford Raffles, who had governed with singular success the rich island of Java, saw this British prize given back to its former owners. It was not until some years later that he founded the trading settlement which is now the city of Singapore. At the price of three millions sterling Britain acquired part of Guiana from the Dutch. The Government however was most concerned with those possessions which had a strategic value as ports of call. For that reason it held on to Malta, and the key of the route to India, the Cape of Good Hope. From this acquisition in South Africa a troubled saga was to unfold. Dutch Ceylon was kept, and Danish Heligoland, which had proved a fine base for breaking the Continental System and smuggling goods into Germany. These gains were scattered and piecemeal, but, taken together, they represented a powerful consolidation of the Imperial structure.

On the Continent the main preoccupation of the Powers was to draw a cordon sanitaire around France to protect Central Europe from the infections and dangers of revolution. In the North was established a precarious and uneasy union of Calvinist Holland and Catholic Belgium in the Kingdom of the Netherlands—a union which lasted only until 1830. The Rhineland, mainly at the instance of the British Government, was allotted to Prussia. In the South the King of Sardinia regained Piedmont and Savoy, with the old Republic of Genoa as a further sop. Throughout the rest of Italy the authority of Austria stretched unchallenged. Lombardy and Venetia, Trieste and Dalmatia, were placed under direct Austrian rule. Austrian Archdukes reigned in Florence and Modena. The Empress Marie Louise was allotted the Duchy of Parma, more because she was a Habsburg than because she was Napoleon’s wife. It was laid down that her son should not succeed her. Bonaparte blood was to be barred from thrones. At Naples for a while Marshal Murat was left in possession of his stolen kingdom. But not for long. Soon the Bourbons were restored, and over them Austrian influence also reigned supreme.

So much for Western Europe. The root trouble lay in the East. Russia wanted Poland, Prussia wanted Saxony. Left to themselves each might have accepted the demands of the other, but this was far from agreeable to either France or Austria. Castlereagh, as fearful of the expansion of Russia as Metternich was of Prussia, took sides against so sweeping a settlement. An alliance between Britain, France, and Austria was formed to resist these pretensions, if necessary even by war. War did not prove necessary. Russia consented to swallow the greater part of Poland, with many professions from the Czar that Polish rights and liberties would be respected. He did not live up to his promises. Prussia, grumbling, accepted two-fifths of Saxony as well as the Rhineland. This compromise was reached only just in time. For while Congress danced at Vienna and the statesmen of Europe replotted the map Napoleon was brooding and scheming in his new retreat at Elba. Long before the wrangling of the Powers had ended he again burst upon the scene.

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