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Napoleon’s Great Blunder: Spain 1808

Napoleon’s Great Blunder: Spain 1808


An Epic History TV / HistoryMarche collaboration,
supported by our sponsor, Osprey Publishing. In the autumn of 1807, French emperor Napoleon
Bonaparte dominated Europe. He had humbled Austria… and Prussia… and
sealed an alliance with Russia. Of the major powers, only Britain still defied
him – safe from invasion thanks to its powerful navy. Napoleon had ordered all territory controlled
by France or its allies to stop trading with Britain – the so-called ‘Continental System’,
or Blockade – designed to wreck Britain’s economy and force its government to make peace. But neutral Portugal had continued to trade
with its historic ally, Britain… so Napoleon sent an army under General Junot to occupy
the country, and force it into line. The invasion was supported by France’s ally,
Spain… though privately, Napoleon held Spain’s rulers in contempt: The Bourbon royal family was decadent and
corrupt; The king and crown prince loathed each other,
while the country was effectively run by chief minister Manuel Godoy, the Queen’s lover. Spain, Napoleon concluded, was backwards,
militarily weak and incompetently governed, and devised a plan to seize control of the
country. In the spring of 1808, under the pretext of
guarding Spain against the British, French troops took up strategic positions around
the country. The Spanish people saw the French military
presence as the latest in a long line of humiliations – and held chief minister Manuel Godoy responsible. There were riots at the palace of Aranjuez;
Godoy was nearly lynched. Napoleon invited the Spanish royal family,
and Godoy, to take refuge in the French city of Bayonne, and sent Marshal Murat and 50,000
troops to restore order in Madrid. But on 2nd May 1808, the people of Madrid
rose up against Murat’s soldiers. It became known as the Dos de Mayo Uprising, immortalised
by the artist Francisco Goya. This scene shows Mamelukes of Napoleon’s
Imperial Guard attacked by the citizens of Madrid. 100 soldiers were killed. The French responded
ruthlessly, shooting down dozens in the streets, and executing more than a hundred by firing
squad. Meanwhile in Bayonne, Napoleon forced King
Carlos to abdicate, and bestowed the title King of Spain on his own brother, Joseph. That summer, as Napoleon forced a new, modernising
constitution on Spain, and his brother Joseph entered Madrid as its new king – the Spanish
reacted with fury. The French weren’t just arrogant foreigners
trampling on their national honour – they were godless atheists who, during the French
Revolution, had rejected the Pope and Catholic Church. Napoleon, priests warned the peasants,
was the very Antichrist himself. Revolts erupted across the country. The Spanish
army was joined by militias and partisans, who attacked French troops and killed collaborators. French soldiers carried out savage reprisals. No mercy was shown. The countless atrocities horrified Francisco
Goya, and led to his famous ‘Disasters of War’ series. At first it seemed the French would easily
put down the revolt. Girona, Valencia and Zaragosa were besieged
by French troops… while the Spanish Army of Galicia was routed by Marshal Bessières
at the Battle of Medina del Rioseco. But eight days later, as General Dupont and
three French divisions withdrew from Cordoba, slowed down by wagons piled high with loot,
they were surrounded at Bailén by General Castaños’s Army of Andalusia, and forced
to surrender. The Spanish took 18,000 French prisoners – about
half of whom later died of starvation. Bailén was a humiliation for France – her
first major defeat since Napoleon became emperor. France’s enemies across Europe were delighted…
Napoleon was incandescent with fury. The situation went from bad to worse. The Portuguese joined the revolt, while fierce
Spanish resistance forced the French to abandon the sieges of Valencia, Girona and Zaragoza. Spain’s new king, Joseph Bonaparte, was
even forced to flee the capital. The British assisted the revolt – which
the Spanish now called a ‘war of independence’ – by shipping weapons to Spain using the Royal
Navy. On 1st August, a small British army commanded
by Sir Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal to aid their revolt. On 17th August, he beat a small French force
at Roliça, then four days later, beat Junot’s main army at the Battle of Vimeiro. But Wellesley’s newly-arrived superior,
Sir Hew Dalrymple, then agreed to repatriate Junot and his army to France, with all their
arms and plunder, using British ships. In Britain, the generous terms were seen as
a disgrace and scandal: a subsequent inquiry exonerated Wellesley – the future Duke of
Wellington – but Dalrymple never held command again. Napoleon decided the only way to sort out
the situation in Spain… was to go there himself. He assembled 130,000 reinforcements, including
many of his best troops… and, on 7th November, led
a second invasion of Spain. Most Spanish troops were inexperienced, were
often badly-equipped and led, and their armies had no coherent strategy. They were no match for the Grande Armée,
which burst across the Ebro River, and inflicted heavy defeats on the Spanish at Burgos and
Tudela. At Tudela, Marshal Lannes’ Third Corps avenged
the defeat at Bailén by smashing the army of General Castaños, sending it fleeing in
two directions. Napoleon pushed on rapidly. North of Madrid, 8,000 Spanish held the mountain
pass at Somosierra. Napoleon, impatient to break through to the
capital, ordered forward the Polish Light Horse of the Guard. In an attack of almost suicidal bravery, they
charged the Spanish guns head-on and enabled the French to take the pass. Four days later, after Napoleon threatened
to obliterate the city, Madrid opened its gates to his army. Unaware of the disaster engulfing Spanish
forces… a 20,000 strong British army, commanded by Sir John Moore, had just arrived in Salamanca
after a 300-mile march from Lisbon… with another smaller force en route from Coruña. The British army was inexperienced, but in
contrast to most Spanish forces, it was well-trained… organised, and led. As news reached Moore of the Spanish collapse,
he nevertheless planned to divert French forces by attacking Marshal Soult’s isolated Second
Corps, and threatening Napoleon’s communications to Burgos, and France. At Sahagun, on 21st December, the British
15th Hussars advanced overnight through winter frost, and made a dawn attack on a French
cavalry brigade, routing it in one great charge. But as Moore prepared a full-scale attack
on Soult’s corps, he received news that Napoleon was advancing rapidly towards him,
with his main army, from Madrid. While two French corps under Marshal Lannes
began a second, bloody siege of Zaragoza, Napoleon saw a chance to get to grips with
the British at last. Intending to trap Moore between his own forces
and Soult’s Second Corps, he force-marched his troops over the icy Guadarrama Pass in
the midst of a blizzard. Moore, facing odds of more than two to one,
immediately ordered a retreat, planning to march 250 miles to the coast where his army
could be evacuated by the Royal Navy. For both sides, the race to the sea was an
exhausting slog through mountains, mud and bitter cold. Many fell by the wayside, as British discipline
collapsed, leading to looting and drunkenness… Except among the rearguard, which fought several,
skilful delaying actions and kept the French at bay. Soldiers of Britain’s elite 95th Rifles
were prominent in these skirmishes. This specialised light infantry regiment wore green uniforms
for better concealment, and were one of the few units on any side armed with rifles. Unlike
the standard smoothbore musket, rifles had spiral grooves in the barrel that spun the
bullet as it was fired, making them slower to load… but much more accurate. In one legendary incident during Moore’s
retreat, at Cacabelos, Rifleman Tom Plunkett picked out and shot dead a French general
at 400 yards – some say further. Thanks to the skill of the rearguard, and
the desperate pace of the retreat, the British kept one step ahead of the French. On New Year’s Eve, Napoleon received grave
news from Paris – rumours of plots, and Austria mobilising once more for war. The Emperor immediately left for France, taking
many of his best troops with him… and entrusted Marshal Soult and Second Corps with finishing
off the British. The pursuit continued, but on 11th January
1809, Moore’s ragged army reached Coruña. For Sir John Moore’s exhausted army the
Spanish port meant supplies, rest and the prospect of rescue. But few ships were there to meet them on the
11th. Fortunately, the British had been able to
blow up bridges behind them to delay Marshal Soult’s advance… and three days later,
on 14th January, the naval transports arrived, allowing Moore to begin embarking his cavalry
and artillery. But the very next day, Soult’s army appeared
on the hills south of Coruña, taking up positions on the heights of Peñasquedo, where he sited
his main battery of cannon. Half of Moore’s army deployed in a defensive
line two miles south of the city, with two divisions held back to protect his right flank. Both armies were roughly 16,000 strong. The French had 4 regiments of dragoons, while
the British cavalry was already aboard ship. But the broken terrain of walls, hedges and
olive trees made the battlefield ill-suited to cavalry. Soult’s plan was to attack the British right
flank, and trap Moore’s army against the sea. Around 2pm the French artillery opened fire.
Then Mermet’s infantry division advanced, supported by Lahoussaye’s dragoons on his
left. Moore had been unsure if Soult would attack,
and had just ordered Paget’s division to begin embarkation. Now he hurriedly cancelled that order, ordering
Paget instead to bring up his men to reinforce his open flank, and Fraser’s division to
take up position on the heights of Santa Margarita. The French advanced through hedges and over
walls, with heavy firing from skirmishers on both sides. Then the British counterattacked. The 42nd Highlanders and 50th Foot charged
into the village of Elviña, and drove the French out. But in confused fighting… they, in turn,
were soon pushed back to their own lines. Sir John Moore was close to the front line,
observing developments, urging on officers and men. But as he ordered up the Guards brigade to
reinforce the line, he was hit in the shoulder by a cannonball. He remained conscious, but
it was obvious the wound was fatal, and he was carried back to the city. Soult sent forward Merle’s division to support
the attack on Elviña Scottish general Sir John Hope had taken over
command of the British army from the dying Moore, and he ordered forward two battalions
of infantry to meet the French attack. Now Paget’s division, led by skirmishers
of the 95th Rifles, arrived to shore up the British right flank. The terrain was so bad for horses that French
dragoons choose to dismount and fight on foot… but were slowly pushed back by the British. Paget’s advance threatened the flank of
Mermet’s attack on Elviña, and he too was forced to withdraw… while an attack on the right by Delaborde’s
infantry secured a foothold in the village of Piedralonga, but got bogged down in heavy
skirmishing. Around 6pm, dusk fell, and firing died out
across the battlefield. News that the British line had held reached
Moore shortly before he died in Coruña, around 8pm. That night, the British lit campfires and
posted sentries, then silently withdrew to Coruña, to begin embarkation. The next morning the French found the enemy
positions abandoned. But they were slow to take advantage. It wasn’t until noon that they were able
to bring up six cannon, and get them into position overlooking the bay of Coruña. The British had almost completed their evacuation
by the time the French guns opened fire. In a hurried departure, a few British transports
ran aground and two were set on fire… but overall losses were light. A small Spanish garrison held Coruña, waiting
until the British fleet had escaped to sea… before surrendering. Whether Moore’s retreat to Coruña was a
British disaster, or miraculous escape, is still debated. And, did he abandon Spain in its hour of need,
or draw off Napoleon’s main force, buying time for others? Either way, Britain’s only army had been
saved… and would return to fight another day… While Napoleon now faced the prospect of a
long war on the Iberian Peninsula, and renewed conflict with Austria… a war on two fronts
that would challenge his empire like never before. Napoleon had blundered in Spain. But it was
years before the scale of his mistake was evident. Then, he would say: “I embarked pretty badly on this affair,
I admit it. The immorality showed too obviously, the injustice
was too cynical… the whole of it remains very ugly.” If you’d like to learn more about the Peninsular
War or any of the campaigns across Europe, our sponsor Osprey Publishing has nearly 200
titles on the Napoleonic Wars, written by specialist historians, and covering everything
from the history of elite units, to tactics, weapons and uniforms. Visit their website
to find out more. Thanks to the YouTube channel HistoryMarche
for the battlemap and animation sequences, and to the 95th Rifles re-enactment society
for the use of their photo. Most of all thank you to our Patreon supporters
for supporting this channel. If you’d like to join their ranks and get access to exclusive
updates, previews and polls on future topics, please visit our Patreon page.


Reader Comments

  1. I hope you enjoy the video! A lot of love went into this one, and if I talk about Sir John Moore and the 95th too much, well – as an army cadet I commanded a platoon affiliated to the British Army's Light Division, and was awarded the Sir John Moore cane…
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  2. Britain, Saved Europe many times through history and has never received any thanks from the other cowards.

    I return you many thanks for the honour you have done me, but Europe is not to be saved by any single man.
    England has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save Europe by her example ~ Prime Minister William Pitt the younger 1799

  3. Way better than sitting in a classroom. Also, that quote at the end- "the immorality showed too obviously, the injustice was too cynical.." Amazing. He knew exactly the moral price for the actions he was taking and the social principles he was violating. The first of the "great men.."

  4. I use to be a regular donor to St. Jude's until I discovered they are paying their CEO over 1.5 million per year. For a charity hospital this is outrageous. They could not find someone to do this job at 1/2 mill or less. I am incensed that sent so much money in to make their CEO a millionaire.

  5. Wow . That were t'riffic . Demand more . Wotcha got on the 1807 to 1814 Peninsular Campaign ? Well ? Don't tarry man ! Ya must ' Ave 'some'it available . Look lively now , don't have all day ya know .

  6. Long live Spain & the Spanish! Long may Epic History TV continue to produce mini historical documentary’s like this one ( my favourite) this is the 4th time I’ve watched this particular mini documentary & the second time I’ve left a comment… I can’t help myself, it’s totally brilliant & so amazingly well edited & put together & as far I’m concerned historically accurate & I’ve been studying this period in history for decades… for fun but taking it seriously & after all these years of looking at the subject from every point of view I couldn’t hope to put a script like this together. So much information, so well laid out & easy to follow. It’s a students dream. Keep them coming & thank you 🙏

  7. The dragoons dismounted and fought on foot. I thought that is what dragoons do. They are mounted infantry, not cavalry and would never be expected to fight mounted.

  8. Don't be so negative! Napolean managed to end centuries of hostilities between Spain and England, just like Germany managed to end open hostilities between France and England

  9. What a triumphant retreat for Britain. "Run away"! Napoleon gave modern law codes to backwards Europe and set the model for the future. Power to the people.

  10. Great video, the serie of etchings Los Desastres de la Guerra by Goya are extraordinary. You probably know that spaniards nick named Jose Bonaparte, as Pepe Botella. I miss the rest of Spain Independence war from the popular revolt directed by Cachamuíña, the defence of Zaragoza and the heroine Agustina de Aragón until 1814.

  11. Ah spreading your army too thin is never a good option unless you can ensure dominance. The Mongols did the same thing but it worked for them cause they showed that they didn't give no F. They raided and massacred millions just to show a point, their tatic revolved around absolute obedience and it worked

  12. The French troops raped the women and stole the wine and food as always. The Spanish men unsurprisingly didn't like this and invented guerilla warfare.

  13. Spanish should learn not to betray their Portuguese neighbours with anyone else! The Portuguese never been interest in acquiring Spanish territory, not sure why the Spanish are so fascinated with taking over Portugal. It’s not the first time they tried. They wanted to take over during the WW2 and in 1974.
    I did backfire against them!

  14. "Forward you sons of dogs, the emperor is watching" – Jan Kozietulski while charging with Polish lancers in samosierra.

  15. Retreat is never good for the morale of any army regardless the reason and while the Scot the Irish and the Englishman will fight like hell on any ground they are told to stand and fight on no one expects a long 200 mile forced march in awful terrain and weather to do anything but break morale and discipline of even the most stubborn or best trained troops. It was by the grace of the new leadership and training ideas and efforts of Sir John Moore himself that allowed that army to not completely disintegrate and a firm reason as to why he was considered after his death as the father of the (at the time) modern British infantry. The irony here being that he discouraged the use of the lash or hanging and tried to foster some measure of respect from the officers for their troops really came into play here as even he was forced to use such harsh methods while on the retreat to keep some semblance of order, sometimes in full view of French forces! A fact that delighted the Emperor as he used such sights as examples that the British army was a rabble with no pride held together only by fear of punishment….this combined with the fact that his only actual viewing of the British was those instances and the head long desperate retreat might have perhaps colored his decisions a couple of years later at a certain battle in the Netherlands.

  16. Fun fact: From this conflict comes the term Guerrilla war. Guerrilla is Spanish for "little war." Goya's Desastres De La Guerra was not published until well after the war, and his death. Important to remember that the Spaniards did the same to the French when they were captured.

    In Spain, if your relatives participated in the uprising of May 2, 1808, it is like having relatives who participated at Gettysburg, or Iwo Jima. The Spanish army was under orders not to interfere with the French, so the uprising was mostly citizens and not soldiers.

    This was excellent. Thank you so much for posting it!

  17. Hi, thx for your videos!! But I found an error: at 6:11 – 6:18, you wrote wrong the year 1805, instead of 1808, for battles of Roliça and Vimeiro. Thank you. 👍

  18. So well done. Very interesting part of the Napoleonic era which I didn't know much about. I did wonder if I saw some dates out of order though.

  19. The video is great and all but there is no quote to the fact that the British (whom were at war with Spain few years before, so it's understandable) obliterated Spain's northern industries during their advances and commited some minor war attrocities (compared to the French or Spanish ones on that moment). I also concede that Spanish Army forces were less equipped nor trained than British ones, but (maybe because a lack of quality education xdd) they were stubborn and usually didnt retreat until suffering heavy damages. There is one interesting book of Arturo Perez Reverte (I think its translated to other languages like many of his great books) which narrates the battles in Russia of conscripted Spanish Army prisoners in the Grand Arme, "La sombra del águila" / "The shadow of the eagle". He also has some great books about the Spanish Independence War like "Trafalgar" or "Dos de Mayo". Hope you enjoy them if you can find them translated to your language.

  20. I will never understand why the Spanish non-noble population didnt saw Napoleon as an liberator. Instead they fought against him and in fact for the old feudal system of nobility and clergy.

  21. It always intrigues me how badly Napoleón I, who himself set so much store by morale and espirit de corps, underestimated the morale factor among the Spanish, who believed that they were defending their country against godless, presumptive foreigners.

  22. I dont understand why u call such a fantastically made video as napoleans blunder 😳…any wars be it small or very big shaped socities for the entire world

  23. I thought the Peninsular War involved Arthur Wellesley. Perhaps that should have been made clear at the end. As it is, the otherwise excellent video seemed to suggest the escape of the British at Coruna brought and end to that war.

  24. If any of you don't have the PC game "Napoleon, Total war" then get it…. it has recreations of epic Battles from Egypt to all locations…. you can get it on steam.com . if link doesn't work type it in manually. COme back and comment on my reply and tell me what you think…. look for many long hours of building your empire….

  25. How many times have we (Britain) stood up to Tyrants in Main land Europe but still get no respect from any of them?!

  26. Napoleon's great blunder was giving his brothers ruling roles to play rather than decentralising and autnomising the territories he had conquered with himself as Federal Emperor.

  27. I love how you try to pronunce spanish names. Love your channel. Not ot mention that this invasion, also make the conditions for the independence of the Spanish Colonies in Latin America, since most wealthy Creolles were against a french led goverment of the colonies.

  28. There never have been and there will never be "olive trees" in A Coruña. Olive trees don't resist cold. WTF.

  29. Everyone is raving about the video but for my part it was mostly difficult to watch due to the unnecessary background music and narration which was read too fast. The whole thing went too quickly and that, combined with the frustratingly distracting music, made it more difficult to absorb. I don't understand the sheeple mentality of 98% of video makers who think they have to add some sort of music and /or sound effects to a factual informative video. Maybe they feel it will seem to bland without it and the mostly brainwashed sheeple watching it who need the distraction of music, also demand it. Fools.

  30. Everyone knows that Napoleon was only bringing Liberté, égalité, fraternité to Europeans and that it was only the despotic monarchs who stood in his way!

    – Every French Politician on Napoleon

  31. Awesome job. A lot of useful information and artistic graphics. I enjoyed very much.
    A huge thanks to the developers

  32. Family always ruins everything… Napoleon trying to keep his brother in power was a serious setback for him… People always refer to all his men who died marching back from Russia. But conquests into Spain were just as bad economically for him

  33. The narration is SUPERB!!! Had me on the edge of my seat, and the music fit exceptionally well – not too loud: it never obscured or competed with the voice. Tight script writing… i'm impressed. Keep up the good work!!!

  34. Awesome video. Although it is apparent by the order of the events, you may want to change the date of the Battle of Roliça and Vimeiro to the year 1808 instead of 1805.

  35. Napoleon himself should've went to Spain & lead his men Instead of having his brother & other top Generals trying to do the job… I know he was preparing the invasion of Russia at that time as well so… In my opinion if he wanted to defeat Spain he should've went himself & put the invasion of Russia off another yr…

  36. The church of Saint Vicente de Elvina, the cemetery and the house in the left side in the painting still exist as witness of this historical moment.

  37. Check Sharpe's movie-series. Is just about this and Sean Bean doesn't die, or maybe he does. It's up to you. 🙂

  38. topics about Spain. Spais was more modern , with a modern constitution and a little industrial wide as most modern countries in Europe in that century- The problem was not because religion, was because Napoleon was a Genocide

  39. The Spaniards are the only tough latins, I will have a guerrilla war on my rear – Adolf Hitler.

  40. This was a disaster for the french, but of course, spaniards would have been better of with the french reforms in the country, and we would have kept them if Fernando VII wasn't such a bad king

  41. As a frenchman, I can honestly say Napoleon was a tyrant. The British were right. I have no idea why this obsession in France with him….WTF were we doing in Spain? Or Russia?

  42. Seems to me that Napoleon's greatest blunder (at least in the early going) was putting his own brother on the Spanish throne. Of course that was going to piss everyone off.

  43. Olive trees in Coruña!
    Coconut trees in the green fields of York, sweet figs and almond trees from Norway, muscatel grapes from the Scottish Highlands…That's how "olive trees from Coruña" would sound to any Spaniard.

  44. Gotta love how powerful the Royal Navy used to be.

    “Okay lads, so you won’t trade with Britain…. or each other! proceeds to put a naval blockade over the entirety of Europe 😂😂

  45. Mutual hatred of France and its little despotic Corsican was so great that it actually succeeded in manifesting an unprecedented episode of Anglo-Spanish cooperation. Now that’s such a goddamn miracle that Napoleon should have been nominated for sainthood in Rome over it.

  46. This really is a fantastic educational series – I would love to see one on the ill-fated 1809 Walcheren Expedition & siege of Flushing. Although a disaster for the British, my 4 x Great Grandfather Lt Otto Ernst von Heldreich of the 1st Regiment de Prusse was captured and became a PoW in Ashbourne Derbyshire. He stayed & married an inn keepers daughter. And that’s why I’m British! ☺️👍

    Ps: the date tag on the Battle of Vimeiro says 1805 – but should be 1808.

  47. More proof that Napoleon was his own worst enemy, withdrawing before he could deliver the killing blow. This also helped prove that Soult was, at best, an average general.

  48. Can u make a video on Tipu sulan the indian king us British. Napolean like Tipu Sultan. He wrote letter to tipu. Have a fairytales understanding between him and tipu the tiger of mysore.

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