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Salamanca

22 July, 1812

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Spanish Battle Tour Guides

As more and more French troops were siphoned from Spain to prepare for the advance on Russia, the British position in the Peninsula became stronger.

The Duke of Wellington was determined to maintain the pressure on his immediate counterpart, Marshal Marmont, and a dance of manouevre began as each side strove to get the upper hand.

Wellington gained the advantage by capturing a series of forts at Salamanca, but word of fast-approaching additional French troops reached him.

The British then set about preparing for another retreat to Portugal, with wagon convoys ordered to move the sick and injured, as well as baggage and unrequired stores, towards Ciudad Rodrigo.

News of Wellington's imminent evacuation reached Marmont and he moved his army of 50,000 men, bolstered by almost 80 cannons, to try to catch the British on the march.

He arrived at Salamanca on 21 July, but the only fighting was an initial series of fierce light-infantry skirmishes.

The next morning, Marmont planned his battle and made two major mistakes.

The terrain around Salamanca was filled with dead ground that hid many areas from view and he thought the left wing of Wellington's army was only a small rearguard force.

The dusty clouds he could see in the distance added to his perception that the British were pulling out and so he decided to swing most of his army around the delaying force and cut Wellington off from Portugal.

When the British commander saw Marmont marching his army across the front of his own drawn-up, but hidden force of some 48,000 men, he let out a whoop of delight.

He knew that by doing so, Marmont had potentially led his men into serious trouble.

The French position was not helped by the fact that the leading troops were outpacing the rest of the army, which was slowly being split into several bodies of men.

Wellington acted quickly and sent his brother-in-law Sir Edward Pakenham and his 3rd Division to stop the advance French troops. The assault caught the French unawares and scattered a full division almost instantly.

Then Wellington ordered a combined infantry and cavalry attack upon the second block of two French divisions which, also caught by surprise, were smashed and routed. During the fighting, one of Britain's best cavalry commanders - General John Le Marchant - was killed, and Marmont left the field, wounded by an exploding shell.

The battle had only been going for some 40 minutes and it was effectively already won by the British.

However, the new French commander General Bertrand Clausel quickly stabilised the situation, fending off two British attacks and then going on to the offensive himself.

In a superb combined infantry and cavalry attack he inflicted serious losses on the British 4th Division and, as he advanced into the centre of Wellington's men, looked as he could be on the verge of a seemingly improbable victory.

Quickly repositioning his men, Wellington caught Clausel's attack in a vicious crossfire that firstly halted them, then broke them. It was a costly success, with heavy casualties on both sides.

With the French now on the verge of defeat Wellington released a counterattack that broke their cohesion and scattered them.

Clausel's entire army could have been trapped had it not been for the failure of a Spanish force to block an escape route at the bridge at Alba de Tormes.

More than 7000 French troops were killed or wounded, a further 7000 captured, while the British and their Portuguese allies suffered just under 5000 casualties.

Salamanca was the decisive battle Wellington had needed to prise open France's grip on the Peninsula.

 

 

 
 
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