Battle of Salamanca Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The pivotal battle in the Peninsular War against Napoleon’s French occupation army, the Battle of Salamanca in Spain was fought by an army of British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops against a French army known as the Army of Portugal. Although the armies were fairly evenly matched initially, tactical errors by the French commander led to a rout.

Summary of Event

Napoleon I’s coronation as emperor of France in 1804 strengthened his resolve to take over Europe and intensified his ongoing conflict with the British, whose commerce was being ruined by his blockades and who feared his continued progress toward his goal. The French armies had taken Spain in 1808, but they fought ongoing battles known as the Peninsular War against rebellious Spaniards and their allies, the British and the Portuguese. Early in 1812, Napoleon decided to attack the Russians, too, diverting French troops from Spain and heartening the resistance. By mid-July, Marshal Auguste Marmont—the commander of the so-called Army of Portugal, comprising about fifty-two thousand French troops and eighty cannons in the Iberian Peninsula—was under significant pressure. Both Joseph Bonaparte, Bonaparte, Joseph the French-imposed king of Spain, and his own troops wanted Marmont to do something about the resistance. A seesaw of hostilities ensued. Salamanca, Battle of (1812) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Peninsular War Peninsular War (1808-1815);Battle of Salamanca[Salamanca] Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;Battle of Salamanca Marmont, Auguste Clauzel, Bertrand [kw]Battle of Salamanca (July 22, 1812) [kw]Salamanca, Battle of (July 22, 1812) Salamanca, Battle of (1812) Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);Peninsular War Peninsular War (1808-1815);Battle of Salamanca[Salamanca] Wellington, duke of [p]Wellington, duke of;Battle of Salamanca Marmont, Auguste Clauzel, Bertrand [g]Portugal;July 22, 1812: Battle of Salamanca[0590] [g]France;July 22, 1812: Battle of Salamanca[0590] [g]Great Britain;July 22, 1812: Battle of Salamanca[0590] [g]Spain;July 22, 1812: Battle of Salamanca[0590] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July 22, 1812: Battle of Salamanca[0590] D’Urban, Sir Benjamin Bonaparte, Joseph

By that time, Arthur Wellesley, who was then the earl of Wellington, had entered Salamanca without incident, occupying the city with an army of fifty thousand British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops and fifty-four guns on June 27, 1812. Marmont’s army was east of the city, between Toros and Tordesillas, as the combined troops commanded by Wellington were making their way toward him on July 13 via Ciudad Rodrigo. On July 15, Marmont surprised Wellington, necessitating the latter’s retreat to Salamanca. On July 16, Wellington came into possession of a letter from King Joseph to Marmont, promising him thirteen thousand reinforcements with Joseph himself at their head plus the cavalry and guns of a French general named Caffarelli. This forced Wellington to hasten his plans.

Street fighting in the Battle of Salamanca.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

By July 18, the opposing armies faced each other on either side of the Guarena River. Both crossed the River Tormes on July 21 and camped. During that same night, a terrible lightning storm killed some British troops and stampeded some of their horses. The next morning, July 22, Marmont’s plan was to cut off the British access to the road to Ciudad Rodrigo at the point of two distinctive hills, the Lesser and the Greater Arapiles. He managed to defeat a Portuguese brigade and took possession of the Greater Arapil, but Wellington held the Lesser Arapil.

Marmont then made the first of several crucial mistakes. He mistook dust visible beyond the hills for a sign of Wellington’s retreat, even though British troops were still visible in the hills opposite the French troops. Marmont believed that he could overwhelm what he anticipated was a small rearguard force. However, when he sent some of his troops to divide what he thought were two British divisions at the chapel of Nostra Señora de la Peña from what he thought was the retreating main force, he spread himself too thinly and exposed his own flanks. A gap was formed between two French infantry divisions, which were named Thomiere and Maucune, after their commanding officers.

Wellington, who had moved hidden soldiers to his advantage before he stopped for lunch in the town of Arapiles, literally saw his opportunity in the gap. He immediately attacked to the far side, just as a division commanded by his brother-in-law, Sir Edward Pakenham, Pakenham, Sir Edward and General Sir Benjamin D’Urban’s D’Urban, Sir Benjamin Portuguese cavalry entered the fray head-on. They attacked from all sides, and the French fell back. Thomiere was killed and his troops scattered. In response, Maucune defensively chose to group his troops densely, and they were cut down by British fire. They, too, fled, but the British cavalry, commanded by General John Le Marchant, then overran the retreating French infantry, though the general himself was killed in the effort.

Early in the battle, Marmont had been wounded and his deputy general killed, so Marshal Bertrand Clauzel took over command of the French troops. He very nearly saved the day by combining infantry and cavalry attacks. Wellington took advantage of the French troops’ progress into the midst of his troops, however, and caught them in a cross fire. Casualties were heavy on both sides. Wellington then counterattacked and scattered the opposition. By nightfall, the French were in full retreat across the river. Had a Spanish force commanded by Carlos de España not withdrawn from the bridge at Alba de Tormes, this would have prevented the French from escaping, and Clauzel’s entire army would have been trapped. As it was, about seven thousand French were killed and wounded, and another seven thousand were taken prisoner, in addition to the capture of twenty big guns. The victors’ casualties were slightly less than half that number, but half of those came from just two divisions.

Significance

The Battle of Salamanca is known for the catastrophic strategic errors committed by Auguste Marmont that led to the defeat of the French. It is also remembered for the short duration (about forty minutes) of main battle prior to Clauzel’s rally, for the horrific casualties on the French side—about 25 percent of the force, including the three most senior commanders—and for the definitive final victory of the British-led troops, which set the stage for the end of the Peninsular War. The loss of French men, equipment, land, and pride at the Battle of Salamanca was an important step toward thwarting Napoleon’s ambitions. As a direct result of the July 22 battle, the British, Portuguese, and Spanish army marched into Madrid, Spain’s capital, on August 12. This entrance into the capital symbolically freed the Spanish for the first time since 1808 and persuaded the British government to continue the war in Spain, though Wellington then headed to Burgos and near disaster.

Even so, the Battle of Salamanca was definitive for Wellington personally. Previously thought of as too cautious in battle, fighting with defensive strategies, and requiring an overwhelming strength of numbers to succeed, Wellington was now judged aggressive and decisive. He was raised to duke as a reward. The storm the night before the Battle of Salamanca became a pattern in the campaign against Napoleon, with another happening just before the battle at Sorauren and again before Waterloo. The British troops began to believe that such storms were harbingers of victory.

Today, the battlefield, not far from the University of Salamanca, remains essentially unchanged from the time of the battle. There is a memorial to the battle on the crest of the higher hill and a museum in the town of Arapiles itself.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muir, Rory. Salamanca, 1812. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Detailed account of the battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oman, Sir Charles. A History of the Peninsular War. Vol. 5. London: Greenhill Books, 1995. An overview of the efforts to stop Napoleon’s conquest of Europe, though with details of all the aspects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkinson, Roger. The Peninsular War. Edited by Ludovic Kennedy. Ware, England: Wordsworth Military Library, 2000. Detailed guide to the entire period of which the Battle of Salamanca was part.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weller, Jac. Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814. London: Greenhill Books, 1992. Includes Wellington’s own words about the battle via his reports and letters, in addition to third-person commentary.

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