The Battle at Vitoria was the end-games to what became known to the British as The Peninsular War. To the French it was the Guerre d’Espagne, to the Portuguese The French Invasions. To the Spanish themselves it was their War of Independence.
It was in Andalucía on the 19th of July 1808 that arguably the pivotal event of the war occurred. At Bailén in the province of Jaén the Napoleonic land Army suffered its first major defeat. A French Army of 23,000 under the command of General Dupont engaged a Spanish force led by General Castaños. Out manoeuvred and out fought, Dupon surrendered. Some 17,635 prisoners were taken and José-Napoleon abandoned Madrid in favour of the relative safety offered by Vitoria. The Spanish had shown that the forces of Napoleon were not invincible.
An outraged Napoleon personally led an army of 135,000 which swept across the peninsular. Napoleon staged victory marches throughout all the provinces, but it was an illusion. Although he defeated the Spanish regular army at every occasion, he never totally destroyed it. It was always waiting in the undergrowth ready to leap out and savage him. However, the main threat to the French was not from the Spanish regulars but from the Guerrillas.
Napoleon referred to their activities as a Spanish Ulcer. The actions of the Guerrillas was to have a profound effect on the outcome of the war in the Peninsular.
So why did Britain and the future Duke of Wellington Prevail?
The Guerrillas passed captured despatches to the British, shadowed French columns and harassed their escorts. They attacked supply columns from ambush and before reinforcements could arrive, disperse. The Guerrillas would then reform, perhaps weeks later to cause more mayhem amongst the demoralised French.
Who leads these bands of legalised Bandoleros?
El Empecinado was such a problem to the French that they sent entire columns to track him down, all to no avail however. El Empecinado (The Obstinate One) and his men became incorporated in the regular Spanish army.
Jeronimo Merino, El Cure outraged at the wanton behaviour of the French in his home village of Valloviado raised a Guerrilla of 2500 men. His speciality was the castration of captured French officers. Somewhat strange conduct for a parish priest, but such was his contempt for the foul behaviour of his enemies.
We can conjure up images of these men and women from the shadows of the past. We can see them in the low sierras ambushing a convoy or galloping across the plains pursued by sabre waving cavalry. Almost 200 years has passed since these patriots roamed the campo, unfettered by convention, righting wrongs, free-spirits laughing in the face of an Empire. The theme of every schoolboy’s playtime. The stuff Hollywood revels in, but we forget that the realities were much harsher.
The Battle of Vitoria
The references to the Guerrillas in British historical textbooks are few. Has the debt to the Spanish Irregulars been recognised? On the other hand would Spain have succeeded in evicting the French without the help of the British and Portuguese?