The Battle of Barrosa 1811, John Grehan & Martin Mace

The Battle of Barrosa 1811, John Grehan & Martin Mace

Forgotten Battle of the Peninsular War

The battle of Barrosa was a fairly short conflict that ended an Anglo-Spanish sortie from Cadiz, launched in an attempt to draw the French out of their siege works and allow the Allies to damage them as much as possible. The low-point of the Spanish cause came early in 1810 when Marshal Soult invaded the most important unoccupied Spanish province - Andalusia - captured the seat of the Spanish government at Seville and came very close to taking Cadiz, the last significant city in the area. Cadiz was saved by the prompt action of the Duke of Albuquerque, who rushed his army into the city, arriving just ahead of Marshal Victor's French force. Cadiz was then restricted to the far end of the Isla de Leon, was protected by water on all sides, and was almost impossible to besiege by any conventional means - the city itself was out of range of most guns on the mainland and could easily be supplied by sea.

The importance of Cadiz had been clear to the British well before the start of the siege, but the Spanish had been unwilling to allow any British troops to enter the city. Once the siege began this quickly changed, and by 1811 there was a sizable British army in the city, commanded by General Thomas Graham. He came under constant pressure to take part in a sortie from the city, but most of the time managed to resist. Eventually, in the spring of 1811, he was convinced to take part in an expedition that was to sail east from the city then attack the French lines from the rear. The Anglo-Spanish army would be commanded by General Manuel La Peña, whose performance at Barrosa would be at best controversial. The battle came late in the expedition, as the Allied army approached the French lines, and would mainly be fought between the British and part of Victor's army.  

The battle of Barrosa was hard-fought, but was also quite short (about an hour and a half), fairly straightforward, and involved armies of just over 10,000 men on each size, so there really isn't enough material on the battle itself to fill an entire book. The real focus of this book is thus on the entire siege of Cadiz, the British contribution to the war in southern Spain and how it interacted with Wellington's campaign in Portugal. From Wellington's point of view it was essential that a large French army was kept pinned down in the south, so Cadiz had to be defended, but at the same time it would have been rather dangerous if the French had decided to lift the siege, combine their armies and overwhelm Wellington.

I do think that the authors over-state the vulnerability of Cadiz during the battle - withstanding sieges was one of the key Spanish strengths during the Peninsular War, and although a French force did manage a raid onto the opposite end of the island that holds Cadiz that doesn't mean that the city itself would have fallen. However if the French had managed to win a crushing victory at Barrosa then the impact on morale within the city might well have been significant.

The account of Barrosa itself is excellent, both the account of the hard fighting as the British fought off determined French attempts to seize a crucial hill, and the examination of the Spanish role in the battle. Most British accounts suggest that the Spanish didn't fight at all, but Grehan and Mace have found convincing evidence that part of the Spanish army was engaged for some of the battle, even if La Peña himself was so inactive that even the Spanish government was angered and held him to account. The same is true for the march west, where many accounts dismiss La Peña's changes of route as a result of indecision while here we are presenting with convincing reasons for his actions.

This is an excellent examination of an important but neglected part of the Peninsular War, looking at the heart of Spanish resistance and the British contribution to the successful defence of Cadiz, the longest siege in the Peninsula, and one of the few examples of a successful defence of a city against Napoleon's armies.

1 - Saving Spain
2 - Enter the Lion
3 - A Common Cause
4 - A Considerable Risk
5 - Manoeuvres in the Dark
6 - Barrosa's Blood-Drenched Hill
7 - 'A Great and Glorious Triumph'
8 - 'That Terrible Day'
9 - A Confusion of Commands
10 - 'A Day of Unequalled Joy'
11 - Long Shadows

Author: John Grehan & Martin Mace
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2013

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