Historians have long studied the Napoleonic Wars to understand the significance of the battles that took place. Many have looked back and pointed to the Peninsular Campaign that took place in Spain and Portugal as a pivotal point in the Napoleonic Wars. Modern historians have also pointed out that the guerrilla warfare and popular uprisings against the French occupation set the tone for modern politics in the Iberian peninsula in the 20th century.
For our purposes here, the Peninsular wars were important for several reasons. First, the unrest and the British support of resistance caused Napoleon to invest heavily in putting down the resistance there. This caused a large portion of forces to be tied up in essentially useless police action. Second and perhaps most important, the resources and military leadership which was tied up in Spain and Portugal was unavailable to Napoleon when he decided to invade Russia in 1812.
Block 1: Sir John Moore and the Escape at Corunna
Pictured below, Sir John Moore became leader of a British expedition to Portugal in 1808. After a short campaign, Moore realized that he and his forces were being drawn into a trap by French commanders. He and his men then conducted a prolonged retreat towards the Port of Coruna. The retreated and mostly rear-guard action enabled most of the British forces to embark safely at Coruna. However, Sir John himself was killed defending the town while his men boarded ships. As discussed in this short history of the Peninsular War, the long march and brilliant skirmish engagements sealed in British public opinion the prowess of Moore and helped shatter the image of invincibility of the French fighting forces.
Block 2: The Cost of War
A Voyant Analysis of Eric Howbawm’s The Age of Revolution, highlights some of the issues that France and the world would have been considering during the rule of Napoleon as Emperor of France. The snippet below shows both the dominance of the idea of a revolution as well as a prevalence of issues like class and society mostly centered around the powerhouses in the Europe at the time, France and Britain. Many people of both nations were carried along on waves of nationalism which caused funding for the military to uphold “national honor” to increase despite the loses in the ongoing wars on the continent.
According to Necrometrics, an online amalgamation of differing counts of the Cost of War throughout history, over 3,105,500 total deaths resulted because of the Napoleonic Wars. Of that total, 1,200,000 were French while British casualties (both Navy and Army combined) were 243,000.
The significance of these figures can be seen by looking at the total number of French troops stationed in Spain and Portugal for a large portion of the war. In 1810-1811, over 300,000 French troops were located throughout the Iberian Peninsula. This caused a large problem in the rest of the empire when one considers that Napoleons total invasion force for Russia in 1812 was between 450,000 and 650,000 men.
Block 3: Napoleon in Retrospect
During his final years on the island of St. Helena, Napoleon kept a journal of his daily activities as well as penning books on his campaigns. On March 3, 1817, he had this to say, “In spite of all the libels, I have no fear whatever about my fame. Posterity will do me justice. The truth will be known; and the good I have done will be compared with the faults I have committed. I am not uneasy as to the result.” Napoleon would go on to remark that if he had succeeded he would have been regarded as the greatest man who ever lived.
Dennis Porter, in his review of the French historian Stendahl, would remark on the love shown by that historian to Napoleon. According to Stendahl, Napoleon was one of the most outstanding historical figures, “the greatest man since Caesar.” Viewed in retrospect today, there is no doubt about his military genius. Perhaps historians today might remark more on his ability to organize and train his troops than on his military battles (although they are significant). However, there can be no doubt that Napoleon’s downfall was sealed by the failed campaign in Russia. As has been shown above, the 300,000 men committed to Spain and Portugal to contain the British and the popular uprisings there could have provided a massive swing in the Russian campaign. For this reason, I believe that Napoleon’s downfall was not begun with the Russian campaign but started much earlier with his occupation of the Iberian Peninsula.