Napoleonic Wars: French Invasion of Portugal 1807
The Eagle Marches On
The Theatre of War
The year is 1807, and Napoleon Bonaparte is the master of Europe. Two years earlier at Austerlitz he successfully subdued the major Central European powers with a stunning, tactically astute victory. The only enemy that still proved to be a thorn in his side was an ancient enemy that dwelt on the other side of the English Channel or ‘La Manche’ as it’s known in France.
There was though, one small corner of Europe that remained free of Napoleonic control- the Iberian Peninsula. The official reason stated for the French decision to attack Portugal was their blunt refusal to betray their oldest ally by refusing to endorse a blockade on all British trade. But in reality, Napoleon had always envisaged sending his armies into Spain; therefore an attack on Portugal at some point was inevitable.
Portugal at this time was ruled by Queen Marie I of the House of Braganza, although true power lay with the Regent, Prince John. He ruled on behalf of the Queen, his mother who was as insane as her English counterpart George III. For Prince John, the main objective was to try to preserve Portuguese neutrality. But on the 12th August 1807, that neutrality was put under considerable strain when both Napoleon and Charles IV of Spain demanded that Portugal declare war on the British. Furthermore, they demanded that he join his fleets to the already considerable Franco-Spanish fleet, arrest all British subjects currently residing in the country and seize all British goods in the country. Despite the official reasoning behind the war, being Portugal's refusal to comply with Napoleon, in reality John was willing to break off diplomatic relations with Britain and block all trade with them. Ordinarily this would have been enough to satisfy Napoleon, but at the same time that he issued his demands, a huge French army assembled on the Spanish border, ready to pour into the country once the word was given.
The Man Leading the Attack
The first to have the honour of striking into the Iberian Peninsula was a 25,000 strong force under the command of General Junot. On the 18th October, Junot and his men crossed into Spain heading to Portugal via Salamanca and then Almeida and Coimbra. He reached Salamanca a month later after a relatively leisurely march across Northern Spain. Along the way, his engineers made careful notes of every significant military outpost. A smaller detachment of Junot’s force was left behind at Bayonne in Southern France, ready to cross into Spain when required.
The rather leisurely start to the invasion was no accident, as it was what Napoleon had always intended, but that leisurely timetable threatened to be disrupted by a sudden crisis at the Spanish court. On the 27th October, the Spanish King Charles IV arrested his son and heir Ferdinand, accusing him of treason. But within a week, the matter died down with the King issuing his son a pardon. Despite the matter being settled relatively quickly, the experience had a left a rather bitter taste in Napoleon’s mouth, and it was now that he decided the time was right to depose the Bourbon dynasty that ruled Spain. So he sent word to Junot to speed up the invasion, which the General duly received on the 12th of November. Napoleon’s orders also directed Junot to alter the route of his invasion, instead of taking the road that passed by the fortress of Almeida, he was to move south, across the mountains of Estremadura and pile into Portugal along the line of the River Tagus.
This particular route took the French through a rather barren and sparsely populated area of Spain, and also along treacherous mountain roads, where just the slightest slip meant certain death for man or beast. The route did take its toll on Junot’s army, whereby they lost half their horses and all but six of their guns, and this was without meeting any opposition. At the small town of Alcantara on the Tagus, he found some Spanish troops and quickly proceeded to seize their supplies and munitions, before continuing westwards towards Portugal.
Flee From the Fray
The Absent Defenders
More on the Peninsular War- the Conflict that Followed the Invasion of Portugal
Entry into Portugal and Victory
On the 23rd November, a mere eleven days after departing from Salamanca, Junot and his army were in Portugal, and had stopped for a brief rest at the town of Abrantes to allow the vanguard of his army to catch up. Three days later, the final stragglers finally reached the town. It has to be said that if the Portuguese had decided to put up any sort of resistance, then the ragged French army would have been in serious trouble, strung out along treacherous mountainous roads and isolated from any sort of support. Amazingly though, no Portuguese attack came, indeed there were none in sight whatsoever.
Instead, all Junot found at Abrantes was a Portuguese diplomat called Barreto who approached the French with offers of submission and tribute. This buoyed French morale and encouraged Junot to take a calculated risk. He gathered together the elite of his army and formed them into four brigades that totalled around 1500 men in total. His goal was to make a quick dash for the capital Lisbon. On the 30th November, the risk paid off, as the French marched into Lisbon totally unopposed. Over the next few days, the remainder of his army filled the capital, although it did take much longer for his cavalry and his artillery to catch up.
Junot’s victory though was rather hollow as really it was all down to the Portuguese simply not bothering to put up any resistance. The reason why no resistance was put up was that Prince John refused to believe that Napoleon would have the gall to invade his country. By the time the reality hit home, it was far too late to offer any effective resistance. The presence of a British fleet off the coast near Lisbon only served to confuse matters, and for several days Prince John was deadlocked in thought on whether to side with Napoleon or flee the country entirely.
The commander of the British fleet, one Sir Sydney Smith was concerned about the fate of the Portuguese fleet, consisting of fifteen ships. He worked to convince the hesitant Prince to flee to Brazil, where he knew he’d be safe. John’s decision was effectively made for him when received a copy of the Paris Moniteur which was Napoleon’s official deposition of the Portuguese monarchy; and so, on the 29th November, just a day before Junot’s army swelled into Lisbon, Prince John and the rest of the Royal Family slipped quietly out of Lisbon and out of Portugal towards Brazil.
Alongside the French in their Portuguese invasion were two Spanish armies, but they moved at a much slower pace than the French, and only arrived in Lisbon after it had already fallen into French hands. The Southern Spanish army entered Portugal at the beginning of December, while Oporto in the north was occupied on the 13th December. Throughout this time the Franco-Spanish army met very little resistance.
On the same day that Oporto fell into French hands, a serious riot erupted in Lisbon, but this was quickly put down by the French. At this point, General Junot disbanded his invading army, sending the majority of his relatively inexperienced men to the Baltic region. It seemed a rather strange occupation, for the French at this time lacked any real leaders or direction. But what it had done was sown the seeds of discontent in both Portugal and Spain...
More to follow...