Peninsular War

British army soldiers at drillBetween the outset of the French Revolution and 1815, Britain was almost continually at war, first against the armies of revolutionary France, and subsequently, against Napoleon and the combined forces of his empire. If the wars of the revolutionaries were initially confined to Western Europe, with the coming to power of Napoleon the conflict became worldwide in its scale and far-reaching in its consequences. Britain’s forces, especially her navy, were engaged in this struggle from the Low Countries to South America, India and the Far East. Her army played a major role in the Peninsular War — the campaigns against the French fought in Spain and Portugal from 1808 to 1814. British support for Spain and Portugal, both occupied by the French, was critical in the overall defeat of Napoleon. To Spaniards, this is la Guerra de la Independencia — the war of independence; to the Portuguese, it is the legacy of invasions in 1807–8, 1809 and 1810–11. In both countries, large areas were devastated, civilian populations were terrorised and uprooted, and there was massive dislocation to ordinary life. 1810 marked the nadir of the war for Britain and her allies in the Peninsula. Despite major victories in 1809 and 1810, there was a period of defensive stalemate; but the mere fact that an army of British redcoats survived, combined with a resurgent Portuguese army and militia, and Spanish anti-French forces, was of great significance in the long term.

The war in the Peninsula was the setting for some of the most important engagements fought by the British army in the nineteenth century. Led by Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, Britain’s troops and those of her allies acquired an enviable reputation and inflicted a succession of defeats and stalemates on the French. As part of the events commemorating the bicentenary of the Peninsular War, Wellington’s despatch for one of the most important of the engagements of 1810, the battle of Busaco, is presented in this on-line exhibition.