How the calcified British high command nearly sacrificed the young general— and Britain’s future—after he defeated the French in 1808.
Victory on the battlefield can be easily frittered away. Anyone familiar with the British Army in the early 19th century knows this, and can readily identify the errors, missteps, and sheer incompetence at high levels of command. It often seems that the army’s leaders did not even know how to handle victory.
Such was the case at the outset of the Peninsular War in 1808. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte had defeated the Fourth Coalition of Great Britain, Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia the year before. Free from distractions in central Europe, he decided to conquer Portugal, a British ally, and had his eye on Spain as well. Because several Spanish factions had essentially conspired with Napoleon to help depose Spain’s Bourbon dynasty, he assumed that all the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula would welcome French rule and order with the same enthusiasm as had, at first, many Germans. But they did not. Most Iberians resented the invaders and worked against them.
The first general to force the French out of Portugal and Spain was young Arthur Wellesley who, before arriving on the Peninsula, was already known as the victor of a few key battles in India. In four days in Portugal, Wellesley beat the French twice—including an emphatic defeat of French general Jean Andoche Junot at Vimeiro—and broke a string of British losses to Napoleon’s forces.
But instead of being hailed a hero, he and his two superior officers were ordered home to face charges of having squandered those victories and returning the spoils to the enemy. The outcome of that inquiry would determine not only the future of Wellesley but also, as it turns out, the fate of Europe.
Like most nations in the early 19th century, Great Britain still turned to its aristocracy for military leader- ship. Those who then served their country bravely could win fresh honors. Yet as warfare became ever more complex, Britain needed more army officers who were both brave and imaginative, and who knew how and when to use infantry, cavalry, and artillery.
The Royal Navy had trounced Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and then destroyed French naval power at the decisive Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, blocking Napoleon’s attempts to move beyond the European mainland. The British Army, on the other hand, had yet to win a single significant victory against the French, who since their revolution had been commissioning more and more officers based on merit. Furthermore, the structure of the British Army had been fragmented and bound by bureaucracy in the 17th century during the reign of King Charles II, when Parliament tried to ensure that he could never again mobilize forces against his own kingdom. The result was an inefficient army that was slow to respond, difficult to organize, and far from cost-effective. It did not help matters that Britain never employed the universal conscription that fueled Napoleon’s Grande Armeé, and was chronically forced to fight against superior numbers.
The British made some changes, such as training officers at what would later become the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and forming scouting rifle corps. But Sandhurst was only founded in 1802, and during the course of British participation on the Iberian Peninsula it provided a mere 4 percent of the officers. As he often stated in his dispatches and correspondence, Wellesley himself detested having to use untrained, untested officers who had purchased their appointments.
The rifle corps was one bright spot in the army’s attempts at innovation. While light infantry and scouting rifle corps, such as Rogers’ Rangers, had first appeared in the British Army in colonial units during the French and Indian War, their tactics were seen as undisciplined in the peaceful years before the Revolutionary War and they were disbanded. Once the fight was on again in the American colonies, the need for light skirmishers became obvious and they developed into a useful and permanent addition to the British ranks.
Taken together, though, these minor improvements did not change the British Army nearly quickly enough. In particular during the Napoleonic Wars, it became impossible to ignore the glaring faults of a British Army officer corps populated with poorly trained, untalented, and even incompetent men chosen solely for their wealth and aristocratic connections. Yet it would take an Irish-born aristocrat, with a genius for waging war, to finally turn Britain’s fortunes.
Though the late 18th and early 19th centuries are remembered largely for the wars between various European coalitions and Napoleon’s France, it was also a time when Britain faced insurrections in its Indian colonies. These battles pitted the British against a determined and competent adversary. French military advisers aided the Indian forces, training Maratha troops in modern methods of warfare. It was against those soldiers that Arthur Wellesley, the fifth son of an earl, began earning a reputation as a British general officer.
After serving well in Ire- land, Flanders, and Holland, the 30-year- old Wellesley went to India with his regiment, commanding one of two columns at Seringapatam that took the city in 1799. The most notable of Wellesley’s Indian victories came when he led 4,500 soldiers—3,000 of them British-trained natives (or sepoys)—against the 30,000 men of Daulat Rao Scindia, king of Gwalior, at Assaye in 1803, capturing all the enemy’s guns and supplies. He went on to lead his troops to victory at Argaum and stormed the fortress of Gawilghur, effectively ending the Second British-Maratha War.
Wellesley’s service in India left him as something of an oddity—a British general tested and proven on the battlefield. Returning to England, he was elected to Parliament, where lawmakers soon decided to send troops to Portugal, since there was no one else to stop Napoleon.
As a French army led by Major General Jean Andoche Junot entered Lisbon in late November 1807, the Portuguese royal family fled to its Brazilian colony, not to return until after Napoleon’s defeat. In 1808, Wellesley made his bid to lead the small army bound for Portugal. Politically ambitious and well connected, and fresh off a win against the Dutch at the Battle of Koge, Wellesley had an ally in Secretary for War and Colonies Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, and Castlereagh assured Wellesley he had the job.
But thanks to the unwieldy division of responsibilities within the army, Prince Frederick, Duke of York, as the army’s commander in chief, had the final say, and he tended to favor seniority over combat experience. He selected Lieutenant General Sir Hew Dalrymple to lead the Lisbon expedition. Dalrymple had been serving as the British governor of Gibraltar, which gave him ready access to reports from Spain and Portugal. He was familiar with the political situation in the region and had served in the army for more than 40 years. But Dalrymple, 58, had only served as a combat officer for about a year.
Army leaders worried that another senior general might be needed to keep Wellesley in check if Sir Hew was killed or injured, and chose 53-year-old Lieutenant General Sir Harry Burrard. Unlike Dalrymple, Burrard had a long military career that included service in North America, Denmark, and Flanders. But he had led troops to defeat in the 1796 campaign in Flanders— and was captured by the French; his battlefield career was generally not so marvelous. So Dalrymple was to lead, with Burrard second in command, followed by Wellesley.
Lieutenant General Sir John Moore, a young combat-tested officer who had also been considered to lead the expedition to Portugal, was already commanding 10,000 troops in southern Spain. He was to join the trio in Portugal, marching his troops from Gibraltar and placing them under Dalrymple.
Shortly before he sailed from Ireland, Wellesley learned that his superiors had taken away his promised command. Perhaps naively, Wellesley had believed that his successes in India had earned him the respect of the London elite. In 1826, describing to friends his failure to secure overall command in 1808, he said, “They removed me because [they] thought very little of anyone who had served in India….An Indian victory was not only [held in low esteem] but it was actually a cause of suspicion.”
During the voyage to Portugal in 1808, however, Wellesley labored on plans for his forces, unwilling to concede his ambition. Wellesley was never going to sit idle once he had an army to command and an enemy to fight. He reached Portuguese soil before his rival generals, and as the ranking officer on the ground, he had the authority to make command decisions.
In a letter to a friend, Wellesley confided: “I hope that I shall have beaten Junot before any of them arrive, and then the government can do as they please with me.”
Wellesley landed 14,000 troops in early August 1808 at Modego Bay, roughly 100 miles north of Lisbon. He had learned in India that strong discipline, good logistics, and control of supplies, plus the support of the local population in scouting and provisioning, were essential to maintain an army in good working order. So after landing in Portugal, he immediately organized his logistics, equipped and structured his troops and some 2,000 Portuguese, and made plans to find and engage the French. By August 8, he was marching on the French. Nine days later, Wellesley decisively defeated Major General Henri-François Delaborde’s 4,500-man force as it blocked the road to Lisbon at Roliça. The victory, though small, won him the respect of his troops and boosted their morale.
Nevertheless, Wellesley knew that a single victory meant little; the French were moving growing numbers of troops into Spain and Portugal. General Moore, engaged in the south, was unavailable to reinforce him, and he correctly assumed that Junot would rush from Lisbon to thwart the British campaign. By engaging Delaborde, the British had kicked a hornet’s nest; a counterattack was inevitable.
Wellesley’s army met Junot’s at the village of Vimeiro, some 35 miles north of Lisbon. The British general placed his troops in the village and along a ridge on either side, a good defensive position split by the Maceira River. With 17,000 men, Wellesley believed he outnumbered the French. But his advantage wasn’t great: Marching from Lisbon on August 15, Junot had linked up with not only Delaborde but also Major General Louis Henri Loison, giving him 13,000 men, most seasoned combat veterans, and 24 cannons, six more than the British.
The British were in position at Vimeiro by the evening of August 20. That same day, Burrard arrived, and he and Wellesley conferred on board HMS Brazen. Burrard decided that he would spend the night on the Brazen. Wellesley, once ashore, was still the senior British officer in the field.
On the hot and humid morning of August 21, Junot sent two brigades against the British skirmishers. The skirmishers pulled back and dispersed, but Wellesley had positioned most of his troops in two lines beyond the crest of the ridge, out of sight and safe from artillery. Once the attackers reached the top, the steadfast lines of British regulars on the reverse slope pumped volley after volley into the surprised French. The surviving Napoleonic troops quickly withdrew. This encounter would not be the last time Wellesley effectively used the reverse-slope tactic against his enemy.
Junot launched a full frontal assault against the British center, believing his adversaries too weak to resist a direct attack. But Wellesley again used terrain to his best advantage. As two battalions of French grenadiers marched on the British center, the defenders poured fire down on their foes from the high ground, catching the French in an overwhelming crossfire. (British fire came from the northwest, the west, and the southwest, such that the British units were not firing toward each other.)
Junot thought the British had fielded two battalions; in reality, the British had seven. Junot responded by committing two additional battalions to assault the village of Vimeiro.
The fighting was close and intense, but Wellesley had positioned his forces well. Again, the French troops broke and retreated. Junot then called for a general withdrawal. Wellesley ordered dragoons to attack the retreating infantry, at first to good effect, but after they galloped out of range of their artillery support French cavalry mauled them, killing their commanding officer. After about three and a half hours of combat, the British won a decisive and lopsided victory against the seemingly invincible French army. The British suffered 720 casualties, the French 1,800. By any standard, Wellesley and his army had performed brilliantly.
The young general knew that Junot had brought the bulk of the troops stationed in Lisbon. If he pursued the French, he had an excellent chance of capturing Lisbon and expelling the French from Portugal.
That might also encourage the Spanish, already restive under the uncertain authority of Napoleon’s brother Joseph as their new king, and hasten the defeat of Napoleon in Iberia. Victory beckoned. Burrard, however, failed to seize the opportunity.
Arriving on the field after the battle, the older officer declined to pursue Junot. When Dalrymple arrived the next day, he also adamantly opposed further offensive operations. Both men knew—or should have known—that their adversary was on the ropes. But it seemed that the two senior generals could hardly believe that their forces had trounced the invincible French and were simply afraid to push their luck.
Junot, meanwhile, was wary after taking such a beating from opponents he had considered undisciplined and inconsequential. But he had no options for safe retreat. He sent Major General François Étienne Kellermann to parlay an armistice with the British at Cintra. On August 22, his first day in command, Dalrymple negotiated the terms of the French capitulation. In the resulting Convention of Cintra, Junot agreed to withdraw all French forces from Portugal, the reason for the British expedition in the first place. The British, however, promised to furnish Junot safe passage to France along with his troops and their weapons, equipment, and booty.
Understandably, Wellesley was outraged. He later told Viscount Castlereagh, “Although my name is affixed to this instrument, I beg that you will not believe that I negotiated it, [or] that I approve of it, or that I had any hand in wording it.”
The treaty drew fire at home as well. The British people, first exulting in two great victories against the French, quickly became embittered and demoralized when news of the armistice arrived in London in mid-September. Because he was better known than the senior officers, Wellesley was singled out for condemnation. The influential Morning Chronicle lambasted the one-time hero:
Who in the absence of all evidence would believe that Sir Arthur, a Minister of State, highly and powerfully connected, of a family certainly not distinguished for the meek submissiveness of their tempers, having just resigned the command of an army, which we are told in the course of four days won two battles, would in the compliance of Sir Hew Dalrymple, a person whom the world scarcely heard of, involuntarily subscribe an instrument [that] dishonored himself and his country? Had he not approved of [the convention] we are convinced that he would have rather cut off his right hand [or] he would have submitted to have been shot in front of his camp rather than sign it and stoop to such ignominy.
The words hit home, in part because Wellesley had already gained a reputation for short-tempered brusqueness. With press and public considering the treaty a disgrace, politicians could hardly ignore it. In short order, all three generals were recalled to London to face a general inquiry into their actions.
The board of inquiry was convened under General Sir David Dundas on Wednesday, November 16, 1808, and concluded two months later. Dalrymple and Wellesley gave several days of testimony; what one read into the record on one day, the other could clarify or rebut the next. On November 22, Wellesley responded to Dalrymple’s long statement by saying that most of the treaty negotiations occurred in a closed room from which he had been excluded, waiting in an outer room. It was reported that at length, “General Dalrymple entered that room with the armistice, and handed it to [Wellesley who] read it, and returned it [saying]…it was an extraordinary paper. In compliance with the desire of his superior officer, he did sign it.”
Wellesley made clear that he “never could be deemed the negotiator; nor was his signature to it ever considered by him more than a matter of form.”
Questioning revealed that the French general, Kellermann, had initially insisted that Wellesley sign first. Kellermann had told Dalrymple that it was traditional: The primary signatories should be the officers who had commanded the battle. It had been clear to the French, if not to the British command, which general it was they had to reckon with.
Testimony continued. Based on his modest command experience, Dalrymple said he had felt that Junot’s army was large enough to retain arms and defend Lisbon. He believed an attack on Portugal’s capital would cause such loss of civilian life and property that an armistice was preferable. He apparently never considered the long-term military consequences. Burrard’s testimony, on the other hand, seems to indicate that he was not entirely clear about anything that had happened.
Early in the new year, the board simply decided not to determine whether the convention appropriately concluded the 1808 Portuguese campaign. It found, instead, that with the French ousted from Portugal, a major objective of the British had been achieved. Critics pointed out that repatriated French troops could easily march into Spain to reinforce Napoleon’s huge presence there. But the convention removed French troops quickly and at minimal cost to the Crown.
In the end, the members of the inquiry likely believed that while Dalrymple’s actions were timid and not sound militarily, his reasoning was rational. All three officers were exonerated; the board recommended no courts-martial or other punitive actions.
The results did not quell the fury of the public or the London press. Even the management of the Times, a bastion of Tory conservatism, characterized the verdict as a political cover-up of the military incompetence of men favored by the British high command. “The Board of Inquiry’s [findings] gave no opinion,” the paper clucked. “The Board tells us that they based their decision on the ‘fitness’ of the Convention, and they declared that ‘no further military action [court-martial] should be taken against the officers because they acted with ‘fitness and zeal.’ Figs ends and fiddlesticks!”
After the inquiry, Burrard retired. Dalrymple withdrew from active duty but was promoted to general in 1812. For Wellesley, the nation’s need for a winning general helped put the Vimeiro incident behind him, and he was soon back on active duty. But in the months he had been absent from the Peninsula, Britain had suffered setbacks that would take years to repair.
Moore, who had taken command of 30,000 troops when the three other generals were recalled, had faced an infuriated Napoleon. The emperor decided not to court-martial Junot, instead shunting him aside. (Junot would commit suicide a few years later.)
Napoleon then personally took to the field, launching a massive assault with 200,000 battle-hardened troops against British and Spanish forces. Napoleon’s troops harassed Moore and forced the British to give ground across Portugal and Spain, ending with the infamous retreat to Corunna in January 1809, just as Wellesley’s board of inquiry was wrapping up. Moore was mortally wounded at Corunna and the British then suffered a Dunkirk-like evacuation.
Paradoxically, it may well have been the need to allow Wellesley to return to Portugal in April 1809 as commander in chief that protected Dalrymple and Burrard from the consequences of signing the Convention of Cintra: If the two senior leaders had been subjected to punitive action, Wellesley would have had to be implicated too. Instead, he sailed for Portugal and took on the immense task of regrouping and reinvigorating a demoralized British force.
He divided the infantry into autonomous divisions, each brigade provided with at least one company of green-coated riflemen. He also had battalions of Portuguese infantry placed in each of five British brigades, which improved cooperation between the allies. He made extensive use of local partisans, first in Portugal and then in Spain, where the partisans were known as guerrillas. They thoroughly vexed the French with their evasive tactics and, in particular, their success at capturing French military couriers.
It took six years, but Wellesley fought the French all the way to Toulouse and forced Napoleon’s first abdication. Then, when the emperor returned to power in 1815, Wellesley, now the Duke of Wellington, led the British army that, in concert with Prussian forces, finally defeated France and Napoleon at Waterloo, making Wellesley the most celebrated general in British history.
Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.