Gateway to the Classics: The Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge
The Struggle for Sea Power by  M. B. Synge

Wellington's Victories in Spain

"For this is England's greatest son,

He that gain'd a hundred fights,

Nor ever lost an English gun."

—Tennyson (Wellington).

W HILE Napoleon was marching on his ill-fated expedition to Russia, Wellington was wresting Spain from the grip of France. The hardly won victory of Talavera had not been much use, and the English had been obliged to fall back on Portugal in face of the huge French armies, which threatened them on all sides. The winter of 1810 was spent by Wellington, in securing Lisbon against the vast armies of Napoleon.

To the north of the capital, run two rugged lines of mountains stretching from the coast, washed by the Atlantic Ocean, to the mouth of the river Tagus. No less than 7000 Portuguese peasants were set to work, to build forts and construct earthworks, to turn these mountains into natural defences for Lisbon. Bristling with guns, these famous Lines of Torres Vedras, as they are called, formed a formidable barrier. The summer of 1810 found Marshal Massena, of Wagram fame, in command of the French army destined by Napoleon for the conquest of Portugal. In the ranks were 70,000 hero veterans of Marengo and Austerlitz.

"We will drive the English into the sea," they said with confidence, as they took fort after fort on their triumphant march.

Wellington awaited them on the heights of Busaco, thus barring the road to Lisbon.

"There are certainly many bad roads in Portugal, but the enemy has taken decidedly the worst," said Wellington.

From their high perch, the English could see Massena's great host marching onwards, their bayonets gleaming, their helmets sparkling in the valley below. It was still cold grey dawn on the morning of September 29, when the splendid French troops swept bravely up the steep face of the hill of Busaco. The English grimly awaited them at the top. Neither side was wanting in courage. But it was only a few minutes, before the unhappy heroes of Austerlitz were rolling down the steep face of Busaco, the slopes of which were soon thick with dead and dying.

Massena now heard for the first time of the Lines of Torres Vedras, that tremendous barrier, which made it impossible for him to reach Lisbon. He had been warned of Wellington's work, but not of the existence of the hills.

"Yes, yes," he said angrily, as the truth dawned on him, "Wellington built the works, but he did not make the mountains."

For six weeks he camped hopelessly before the Lines, his army wasting with disease and starvation. Not till 30,000 soldiers had perished did he retreat, leaving Wellington triumphant behind his lines. The bitter winter passed; spring gave way to summer, summer to autumn, and still the conflict in Portugal raged on. It was not till the winter of 1812, that Wellington was able to turn his attention to Spain. His way was barred by the two great frontier fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, to the north and south of the river Tagus. Secretly and hastily, Wellington laid his plans to besiege the most northerly of these, Ciudad Rodrigo. It was strongly defended by the French, but the English smote it with strokes so furious and with such "breathless speed" that it fell in twelve days. It was midwinter; the rivers were edged with ice, snow lay on the ground, bitter blasts blew over the ramparts, the nights were black dark, but Wellington was undaunted.

The siege began on January 8. It ended on the 19th with a tremendous assault. Up the black face of the grim fortress swarmed the English in the dark night. Racing over broken stones, scrambling over huge rocks, upwards they rushed till the summit was gained and the French garrison driven back.

"It was the rush of the English stormers up the breaches of Ciudad Rodrigo, that began the fall of the French Empire."

Leaving a Spanish garrison in possession of the fortress, Wellington now with "heroic madness" pushed on for the next attack. Badajoz stood on a rocky ridge of extraordinary strength. Twice the English had already tried to take it: twice they had failed. But Wellington was "strong in his own warlike genius, and in the quality of the troops he commanded."

On the stormy night of March 17 the siege began. On April 6 an assault was ordered. At 10 o'clock on that still dark night the English troops stood firm and ready for the attack. No less than five assaults were to be made at different points: each was equally heroic in its mad rush to the top under fire. But hour after hour of that terrible night passed away, and still the stormers had not taken Badajoz.

"Why do you not come into Badajoz," cried the French from the top, to the English below, who gazed upwards at the grim height bristling with French guns, unable to advance, refusing to retreat. Wellington watched, his face grey with anxiety, for the cost in human life was tremendous. It was not till daylight, that the men gained the heights, and the French commander, who had been badly wounded, surrendered. In that wild night-fight Wellington had lost heavily; and as he gazed on the slope, strewn with the dead bodies of his soldiers, he burst into tears.

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