Battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812

The battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812) was one of the most important of Wellington's victories during the Peninsular War, and forced the French to abandon Madrid and temporarily withdraw towards the French border.


At the start of 1812 the French held the key Spanish border fortifications of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, guarding the main invasion routes from Portugal into Spain. Marshal Marmont's Army of Portugal was based to the east of Cuidad Rodrigo, while Marshal Soult's Army of the South was based in Andalusia, with its HQ at Seville and its main preoccupation the long siege of Cadiz.

Early in 1812 Marmont was ordered to move 12,000 men away from Cuidad Rodrigo to try and restore the French position elsewhere in Spain. Wellington took advantage of this, and launched a surprise attack on Cuidad Rodrigo (8-19 January 1812). By the time Marmont learnt that the place was being besieged, it was already too late to save it.

Immediately after the fall of Cuidad, Wellington began to move his army south to attack Badajoz. Once again the speed with which he moved caught out the French. The third siege of Badajoz (16 March-6 April 1812) only lasted for three weeks, and ended with the notorious storm and sack of the city. Neither Soult nor Marmont did anything significant to help the defenders. Marmont's freedom of movement was limited by Napoleon, who insisted on sending him precise but outdated orders. He did eventually move south-west into Portugal, capturing Sabugal, and defeating a militia force at Guarda (14 April 1812), but this had no impact on the overall campaign. Soult briefly advanced towards Badajoz, but not in time to help the garrison. On 7 April he withdrew to deal with a threat to Seville, leaving a corps of observation under Drouet, but this was defeated at Villagarcia (11 April 1812) and withdrew from the area.

Marmont's most effective action was to blockade Cuidad Rodrigo, where supplies soon began to run short. Wellington decided to move north to deal with this threat, and then to invade Spain via Salamanca. He came close to catching Marmont, who remained in the area of Sabugal until 22 April. By this point the first of Wellington's seven divisions were closing in on Sabugal, and a clash between the two armies looking increasingly likely. Finally, on 22 April Marmont ordered his troop to retreat across the Agueda using some fords near Ciudad Rodrigo, and by 23 April his army was on the road to Salamanca. Even then Marmont was only motivated by a shortage of food, and appears to have had no idea that Wellington was so close! Wellington called a halt on 24 April, having forced the French to lift their blockade of Ciudad Rodrigo.

Salamanca Campaign

General Rowland Hill, 1782-1842
General Rowland Hill, 1782-1842

Wellington's first move was to cut the bridge of boats over the Tagus at Almaraz, a move that would cut the already stretched link between Soult and Marmont. In mid-May Rowland Hill led 10,000 British and Portuguese troops to Almaraz, cutting the bridge on 12 May 1812. Hill was then given the task of guarding the southern invasion route via Badajoz.

On 13 June Wellington crossed the River Agueda at the head of an army of 48,000 men and 54 guns). If the French had been able to concentrate even half of the 230,000 men they had in Spain, he would have been badly outnumbered, but the activities of the Spanish armies and guerrillas meant that they were never able to do so (they were not helped by the feuds between the Marshalls or their disputes with King Joseph.

Marmont withdrew his main army from Salamanca, and took up a new position twenty miles to the north, where he ordered his scattered divisions to meet him. He left 800 men in three forts in the town, forcing Wellington to detach the 6th Division to deal with them (siege of the Salamanca Forts, 17-27 June 1812). However Wellington may well have been quite happy with this turn of events, believing that it might force Marmont to attack him in a good defensive position in an attempt to save the garrisons. Wellington moved most of his troops to San Cristobal where he took up a position on a ridge three miles to the north of Salamanca. 

On 20 June Marmont approached the San Cristobal position, and for the next three days (20-22 June) there was a real chance that a major battle would erupt. Instead all that happened were a couple of minor combats below the ridge, before on the night of 22-23 June Marmont retreated east. On 24 June he sent two divisions south across the Tormes, but withdrew after Wellington moved two of his divisions into a strong defensive position. Marmont then received news that he wouldn’t be receiving some reinforcements he had been relying on, and so he decided to cross the Tormes further upstream, and advanced towards Salamanca from the south, advancing onto the same ground where he would suffer defeat in July. However this plan was cancelled when it became clear that the forts had surrendered. Marmont now decided to retreat north-east towards Valladolid, take up a defensive position behind the Douro, and wait for Bonnet to rejoin him. This position made it difficult for Wellington to advance directly towards Madrid, but also meant that Marmont could no longer communicate directly with King Joseph.

By 30 June Marmont had reached Rueda, close to the Douro. From there he wrote to King Joseph, explaining that he would be willing to attack Wellington if he had roughly the same number of troops, but not with a weaker army.

Wellington followed Marmont, and in early July took up a position along the Douro, watching fifteen miles of the river. The 3rd Division, Pack's and Bradford's Portuguese troops, and Carlos de Espana's Spanish were on the left, guarding the fort of Pollos, where the Tranancos joins the Douro (two miles to the west of Pollos village). The Light, 4th, 5th and 6th Divisions were on the right, opposite Tordesillas. The 1st and 7th Divisions formed the reserve and were based at Medina del Campo. This deployment allowed Wellington to concentrate against any offensive movement by Marmont, or to gather for an attack of his own.

Marmont's left was near Simancas, seven or eight miles to the east of Wellington's right, and his right faced the ford of Pollos. When Bonnet arrived on 7 July, with 6,500 infantry, he was posted on the French right, to support Foy, who had now been given the task of watching the river west of Pollos. The bulk of his army was around Tordesilla. Marmont also partly solved his shortage of cavalry by taking 1,000 horses from the junior infantry officers and giving them to his dismounted dragoons. This gave him another 800-00 cavalry, and meant that he now had roughly the same number of men as Wellington.

A period of deadlock now developed. Wellington wasn't willing to risk a river crossing against a force equal in size to his own. However Marmont was becoming increasingly impatient. He had no reason to believe that any reinforcements were on the way, but he did already have the number of men he had stated would be enough for an offensive. Finally, he couldn't wait any longer, and ordered a new offensive. This was to begin on 15 July, with a feint against Wellington's left, followed by a real attack against his right.

On 15 July Foy and Bonnet were ordered to cross the river at Toro, and advance towards Salamanca. The rest of Marmont's army began to shift to the west, as if they were planning to join them. Foy and Bonnet were across on 16 July. Late on the same day Wellington ordered most of his army to move to the west to cover the road from Toro to Salamanca, although the 4th and Light Divisions and Anson's cavalry were to act as a rearguard to watch for any movement from the French left around Tordesilla.

On the night of 16-17 July Marmont began the second part of his plan. Foy and Bonnet re-crossed the river and destroyed the bridge at Toro, while the rest of the army turned around and moved back towards Tordesillas, where the leading units crossed the river. By the morning of 17 July Clausel's and Maucune's divisions had crossed the river. Most of the rest of the army followed them across the same bridge, while Foy and Bonnet crossed the fort of Pollos, which was now in Wellington's rear. At this point Wellington's rearguard was at Castrejon, on the Tranancos (but some way to the south of Pollos), while the rest of the army was further west, watching the empty Toro to Salamanca road.

Wellington discovered that he had been tricked during 17 July. Early on 18 July he moved east with two heavy cavalry brigades to rescue his rearguard. By the time he arrived the cavalry from the rearguard was already engaged with the advancing French, and a French infantry column was advancing around the British left. Wellington was briefly caught up in the cavalry fighting, but once this was over ordered the rearguard to retreat back towards the main army at Castrillo on the Guarena. The French briefly threatened the northern flank of the retreating force (Cole's 4th Division), but the British were able to reach the Guarena largely unscathed, where the two parts of the army were reunited (combat of Castrejon, 18 July 1812).

Wellington's men were now in a good defensive position, in a range of hills west of the river. At first it appeared that the French would actually attack this new position, but this proved to be an independent move on the part of General Clausel, the commander of the right-hand part of the French army, and the fighting eventually died away without producing a major battle (combat of Castrillo, 18 July 1812).  Marmont's deception had achieved nothing, and Wellington ended the day in a good defensive position, protecting his lines of communication back to Salamanca.

19 July saw the start of the most famous stage of the campaign, several days of almost parallel marching that eventually ended with the battle of Salamanca itself. Marmont spent most of the day examining the British position, before at 4pm he began to move his army south, towards Tarazona and Cantalapeidra. Wellington responded by shifting south past Vallesa, so the two armies ended the day facing each other across the Guerena.

On 20 July the two armies moved a little further apart. Marmont moved south/ south-east along the Guerena, by now a fairly minor stream. Wellington moved south along the west bank of the Poreda, a tributary of the Guerena. Later in the day Marmont crossed the Guarena, and the two armies both headed towards the village of Cantalpino. The two armies spent part of the day marching in parallel, within cannon range of each other, without either opening fire. When the French did open fire around Cantalpino, Wellington refused to take the bait and ordered his men to move a little further to the west. The two armies separated again later in the day. Wellington camped around Cabeza Vellosa and Aldea Rubia, while Marmont was at Villaruela. This put Wellington to the north of a bend in the Tormes River, while Marmont was to the east and north-east of the same point, with a good chance of reaching the fords across the river at Huerta.

At the start of 21 July Wellington moved west to San Cristobal, from where he could either defend Salamanca against an attack north of the Tormes, or cross over to the south bank if Marmont did the same. That was exactly what Marmont did - part of his army crossed at Huerta, the rest at La Encina, three miles further upstream. During the afternoon the Allies followed, crossing at Cabrerizos and Santa Marta. By the end of the day the British held a line begin the Ribera de Pelagarcia, a ravine that ran north from Nuestra Senora de la Pena to the river. The French were concentrated to the south of Calvarisa de Ariba and Machacon

The Battlefield

The course of the battle was greatly influenced by the landscape. The two armies ended up forming a long reversed 'L' shaped line, with one branch running north-south to the two Arapiles, and the other running west from the Arapiles. The Lesser Arapile was effectively the end of the ridge of hills on Wellington's left, and was on the inside of the bend in the line. The Greater Arapile was an isolated hill with steep ends protected by crags, but a gentle northern slope. A separate ridge began to the west of the Greater Arapile and ran west to Miranda de Azan. This ridge was about three miles long and three quarters of a mile wide, with a fairly gentle slope facing north towards Wellington's right wing, which was on and behind another line of hills. The village of Arapiles was between these two ridge lines.

The Build-up to Wellington's Attack

At the start of 22 July neither commander expected a battle. Marmont intended to continue his long outflanking march. Wellington was ready to attack if he was given a good chance of a major victory, but otherwise was planning to move back towards the Portuguese border. Wellington had one big advantage at the start of the day - he could see large parts of Marmont's army, but his own troops were largely hidden on the reverse slopes of heavily wooded hills, so all Marmont could see at the start was one division near Calvarisa de Ariba and a supply column that was being sent back to Cuidad Rodrigo.

Marmont sent the light troops from Foy's division forward to push the British off the heights of Nuestra Senora de la Pena (towards the northern end of the 'L'. Wellington sent the 68th and 2nd Cacadores to stop the French from taking this hill, and a prolonged skirmish broke out. The fighting lasted for several hours, but was inconclusive. At the same time the French began to advance on their left, at the start of another attempt to outflank Wellington.

At about 8am the French began to emerge from the woods to the south of the Greater Arapile. Wellington hadn't occupied that hill overnight, but he now decided that it was too close to his right wing, and ordered the 7th Cacadores to try and take the hill. The French beat them to the summit, and the Portuguese were unable to push them off it. Marmont now had two divisions to the north of the hill (Foy and Ferey), Bonnet defending the hill and the other five divisions in the woods behind the hill, ready for his planned move west.

Wellington responded to Marmont's movements by moving his own troops to the right. Cole's division was given the task of defending the Lesser Arapile and the village of Arapiles. The 7th Division remained on the British left (north). The 4th Division formed up on the right (west). The 5th and 6th Divisions were moved from the Allied left to a new position at Las Torres, a central position from where they could support either wing. The 3rd Division, which had been left north of the river to guard Salamanca, was called south and reached an area between La Penilla and Aldea Tejada by 2pm, placing it on the Allied right.

At about noon Wellington appears to have been planning to attack the French right, hitting Bonnet on the Greater Arapile and Foy and Ferey, now quite isolated to the north. He appears to have cancelled this plan after talking with Beresford. Marmont had noticed the possible preparations for this attack, but he then saw some of the British units west and decided that any possible attack had been cancelled, and the British were preparing to retreat west. 

At about 2pm Marmont began to send his men west along the ridge west of the Great Arapile. Maucune took his division about half way along the ridge, and then drew his troops up on the northern side of the ridge, facing the village of Arapiles. He then sent his skirmishers north towards the village. At the same time an artillery duel began between Maucune's divisional artillery and some nearby British guns.

Thomières division was next to move, followed after quite a delay by Clausel. Thomières marched west past Maucune, towards the far end of the ridge. He ended up moving three miles to the west. Clausel stopped towards the eastern end of the ridge.

At first Wellington believed that this move meant he was about to be attacked and he concentrated his troops on his own ridge. The 5th Division was moved up to a position to the right of the 4th Division on the ridgeline. The 6th was moved up behind the 4th. The 7th was withdrawn from the left and posted to for a second line to the rear of the 5th, next to the 6th. Only the 1st and Light Divisions were left on the Allied left, where they faced Foy and Ferey. However no such attack began.  Instead Maucune continued to skirmish around Arapiles, while Thomières pushed on to the west, and Bonnet remained on the Great Arapile.

Wellington's Attack

The nature of the battle was about to change. Leith send a messenger to Wellington to inform him of the French movements, probably finding him eating lunch in a nearby farmyard. Wellington is said to have looked at the French through his telescope and exclaimed 'By God! That will do!' (or something similar). He then rode to the front to examine the situation in more detail. Wellington now knew for certain the location of six of Marmont's eight infantry divisions - two were isolated in the north, one on the Great Arapile and three stretched out to the west. The other two were in reserve behind the Greater Arapile, partly out of sight.

Wellington decided to launch a full scale assault on the French left. Two divisions (5th (Leith) and 4th (Cole) and Pack's Portuguese were to be in the first wave, supported by the 6th and 7th Divisions. Leith was to attack Maucune.

On the far right Pakenham's 3rd Division was to get around the left flank of the French line and force Thomières. Wellington was determined that the attack would go right, and wrote at great speed around the battlefield issuing the key orders in person.

In contrast the French now lost their commander. Marmont was badly wounded some time between 3 and 4pm, and command passed to Bonnet. However he was wounded within an hour and command then passed to Clausel. However by the time Marmont was wounded he had already allowed his left wing to get into a very dangerous position, and it is unlikely that any actions on his part could have stopped the upcoming disaster.  

The main part of the battle began on the French left, where Pakenham and D'Urban caught Thomières by surprise. The French were unable to form up properly before the cavalry attacked, and the infantry weren't far behind. The French were outnumbered and were unable to hold. Thomières's two leading regiments lost 1,899 men out of 2,672m the division lost 2,130 men out of 4,500. Thomières himself was amongst the dead. Pakenham and D'Urban pursued the scattered remains of the division east along the ridge back towards Maucune.

The fighting in the centre began a bit later. Leith's 5th Division, on the right, was in the lead, heading for Maucune. Two brigades from Cole's 4th Division, formed the centre, and were a little delayed passing through the village of Arapiles as they advanced towards Clausel. On the left the last brigade from Cole's division and Pack's Portuguese faced Bonnet on the Greater Arapile, with orders to protect Pack's left flank by whatever method Pack felt was best.

Leith's men reached the French lines soon after 5pm. Maucune formed his men into squares, about fifty yards back from the crest of the ridge. This produced an odd clash between British line and French squares. The French squares were overwhelmed by the heavier British fire, and broke up just as Le Marchant's heavy cavalry finally reached the ridge. The heavy cavalry was thus able to charge into the retreating French, and helped to prevent Maucune's men from reforming. They then ran into the 22nd Line, the leading part of Brennier's division, which was just arriving on the scene, but this unit was also swept away. This was one of the greatest achievements of the British heavy cavalry during the entire period, but Le Marchant was killed towards the end of the fight, denying Wellington the services of his best cavalry commander. Leith's men took 1,500 prisoners. The French were prevented from making a proper stand at this point by the arrival of Pakenham's men, advancing along the ridge.

Further along the line the British were less successful. Cole's division reached the ridge, and pushed Clausel back from his first line,  but Cole was then wounded and the attack came to a halt. On the left Pack decided to attack the Great Arapile, but his attack was repulsed with heavy losses and the survivors were forced back towards the Lesser Arapile. The French then attacked to the west, hitting Cole's left flank. At the same time Clausel counter-attacked, and Cole's men were forced to retreat back to the foot of the ridge.

Clausel was now in command of the French army, after the injuries to Marmont and Bonnet. He decided to launch a counterattack in an attempt to take advantage of Pack's and Cole's defeat to break Wellington's centre. Sarrut's division was given the task of supporting the three broken divisions from the left. Clausel's division, part of Bonnet's division and three regiments of dragoons took part in the attack. However Wellington's line was much stronger than Clausel had realised. Wellington still had three divisions (1st, 6th and 7th) in reserve, and the 6th Division was in the right place to deal with Clausel's attack. Beresford also intervened with some of the Portuguese troops from the 5th Division. Between them they were able to stop Clausel's attack. The Portuguese stopped Clausel's advance, while the 6th Division stopped Bonnet's men. Bonnet's men were forced to retreat back up the Greater Arapile, which in turn forced Clausel to retreat. The French then had to abandon the Greater Arapile, as it was now threatened from two sides - the retreating French left was now moving past it to the south, while the British 1st Division now threatened from the north. The French got off the hill just in time, but had to abandon the artillery on the summit. The two French divisions lost around 3,400 men during this counterattack, leaving only Ferey's division intact on the main battlefield, along with part of Sarrut's division.

The fate of the French army was now in Ferey's hands. He was given the task of defending the hills just outside the woods south of the Greater Arapile long enough for the rest of the army to escape. He formed a good defensive position, with one battalion in square at each end of his line and his other seven battalions in a long three-deep line.

Clinton's 6th Division was the first British force to encounter Ferey. He attacked in an attempt to break the French line before darkness could save them, but suffered heavy losses in the attack. The French were able to hold the British back for about an  hour, before they were forced to retreat to the woods. Ferey himself was killed at the edge of the woods, and his division was eventually forced to retreat, after suffering 1,100 casualties.

Marmont's army had suffered a crushing defeat. Wellington failed to take full advantage by ordering a full pursuit, instead ordering the 6th Division to follow the French. This unit had been fighting all day, and was too exhausted to follow. Wellington was also unaware that the castle of Alba de Tormes had been abandoned by his Spanish allies, leaving the French with a better escape route than he realised. Foy was able to stop the Light Division getting to Alba de Tormes ahead of the retreating French, but it was the half-hearted nature of the pursuit that allowed the French survivors to escape. Even so, the French lost around 14,000-15,000 men in the battle. Thomières, Bonnet and Maucune suffered the worst, with over 2,000 losses each, Clausel, Brennier and Ferey each lost around 1,200 men. Wellington reported taking 7,000 prisoners and suffering 3,129 British, 2,037 Portuguese and 6 Spanish casualties.


The battle of Salamanca greatly boosted Wellington's reputation, showing that he wasn't just a defensive general, but could also take advantage of a chance for an attack. The battle totally changed the situation in Spain, although not quite as dramatically as first appeared.

On the day after the battle Wellington rode with the leading cavalry units, in an attempt to speed up the pursuit. He was thus present when his cavalry smashed two French infantry squares at Garcia Hernandez (23 July 1812), helping to push back Foy's rearguard. After that the pursuit slowed down and on 25 July it was abandoned. Wellington couldn't afford to risk an all-out pursuit, as he was expecting French reinforcements to arrive from Madrid, and possibly from Soult in the south, and had to keep his army intact to deal with them.

King Joseph finally left Madrid with 14,000 men on 21 July heading for Valladolid. On 22 July they heard rumours that Marmont was about to fight, and turned west to try and join him. On the night of 24-25 July the first rumours of the battle reached them, and official news of the defeat arrived on 25 July. King Joseph decided to return to Madrid. This encouraged Wellington to consider the pursuit of Clausel, but this ended once his cavalry had reached Valladolid at the end of July. Wellington then decided to deal with King Joseph and liberate Madrid. The move south began on 7 August, and once he was on his way King Joseph and his supporters prepared to flee from the city. There was one cavalry clash at Majalahonda (11 August), but Joseph left later that day and Wellington made an unopposed entry into Madrid on 12 August. The only French garrison, in the Retiro, surrendered on 14 August after their outer defences had fallen late on 13 August.

Wellington spent the rest of August in Madrid, before finally resuming his campaign in September. His new target was Burgos, on the road to France, but he was badly equipped to conduct a siege, and the resulting siege of Burgos (19 September-22 October 1812) was one of his rare failures.

Official news of the defeat at Salamanca didn't reach Soult in Andalusia until 12 August, along with orders to evacuate Andalusia and move his entire army to Toledo. Soult had spent most the summer ignoring King Joseph's orders and even that this late date he attempted to convince the king to join him in the south. However even Soult realised that he couldn't hold on by himself, and the retreat began on 12 August. The siege of Cadiz was finally lifted on 24 August, when the French destroyed their siege lines. Soult evacuated Seville on 26-27 August. The Spanish harassed him on his retreat. 26 August also saw Drouet retreat from Estremadura, leaving Hill without an opponent. Once Drouet was gone, Hill moved north to rejoin Wellington's main army. Soult soon had 45,000 men at Granada and was able to complete his retreat without any problems. He left Granada on 16 September, and by the start of October Soult had joined up with Suchet at Valencia. Although the French were able to regain control of Madrid, they never returned to Andalusia
By October the French were ready to return to the offensive. Soult and King Joseph were to advance on Madrid, while the reformed Army of Portugal faced Wellington. The news of the advance on Madrid finally convinced Wellington to lift his siege of Burgos and return to the Portuguese frontier. The retreat was something of a nightmare, and the loss of Madrid an embarrassment, but the Spanish had permanently lost control of large parts of Spain, and when Wellington went back onto the offensive in 1813 he would permanently sweep the French out of Spain.

Salamanca 1812 - Wellington's Year of Victories, Peter Edwards. A look at Wellington's campaigns of 1812, from the sieges of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz to the triumph at Salamanca, the failure at Burgos and the retreat back to Portugal at the end of a year that saw the French permanently forced out of large parts of Spain. A good account of this campaign, copiously illustrated with carefully used eyewitness accounts. [read full review]
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