Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Salamanca

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Salamanca

Battle of Salamanca - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Salamanca was fought July 22, 1812, during the Peninsular War, which was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Armies & Commanders:

British, Spanish, & Portuguese

  • Viscount Wellington
  • 51,949 men


  • Marshal Auguste Marmont
  • 49,647 men

Battle of Salamanca - Background:

Pushing into Spain in 1812, British, Portuguese, and Spanish troops under Viscount Wellington were confronted by French forces led by Marshal Auguste Marmont. Though his army was advancing, Wellington grew increasingly concerned as the size of Marmont's command steadily increased. When the French army matched and then became slightly larger than his, Wellington elected to halt the advance and began falling back towards Salamanca. Under pressure from King Joseph Bonaparte to take the offensive, Marmont began moving against Wellington's right.

Crossing the River Tormes, southeast of Salamanca, on July 21, Wellington was resolved not to fight unless under favorable circumstances. Placing some of his troops on a ridge facing east towards the river, the British commander concealed the bulk of his army in the hills to the rear. Moving across the river the same day, Marmont wished to avoid a major battle, but felt compelled to engage the enemy in some way. Early the next morning, Marmont spotted dust clouds behind the British position in the direction of Salamanca.

Battle of Salamanca - The French Plan:

Misinterpreting this as a sign that Wellington was retreating, Marmont devised a plan calling for the bulk of his army to move south and west to get behind the British on the ridge with the goal of cutting them off. In actuality, the dust cloud was caused by the departure of the British baggage train which had been sent towards Ciudad Rodrigo. Wellington's army remained in place with its 3rd and 5th Divisions en route from Salamanca. As the day progressed, Wellington shifted his troops into positions facing south, but still concealed from sight by a ridge.

Battle of Salamanca - An Unseen Enemy:

Pushing forward, some of Marmont's men engaged the British on the ridge near the Chapel of Nostra Señora de la Peña, while the bulk began the flanking movement. Moving onto a L-shaped ridge, with its angle at a height known as the Greater Arapile, Marmont positioned the divisions of Generals Maximilien Foy and Claude Ferey on the short arm of the ridge, opposite the known British position, and ordered the divisions of Generals Jean Thomières, Antoine Maucune, Antoine Brenier, and Bertrand Clausel to move along the long arm to get in the enemy's rear. Three additional divisions were placed near the Greater Arapile.

Marching along the ridge, the French troops were moving parallel to Wellington's hidden men. Around 2:00 PM, Wellington observed the French movement and saw that they were becoming strung out and had their flanks exposed. Rushing to the right of his line, Wellington met General Edward Pakenham's arriving 3rd Division. Instructing him and Brigadier General Benjamin d'Urban's Portuguese cavalry to strike at the head of the French column, Wellington rushed to his center and issued orders for his 4th and 5th Divisions to attack over the ridge with support from the 6th and 7th as well as two Portuguese brigades.

Battle of Salamanca - Wellington Strikes:

Intercepting Thomières' division, the British attacked and drove back the French, killing the French commander. Down the line, Mancune, seeing British cavalry on the field, formed his division into squares to repel the horsemen. Instead, his men were assaulted by Major General James Leith's 5th Division which shattered the French lines. As Mancune's men fell back, they were attacked by Major General John Le Marchant's cavalry brigade. Cutting down the French, they moved on to attack Brenier's division. While their initial assault was successful, Le Marchant was killed as they pressed their attack.

The French situation continued to worsen as Marmont was wounded during these early attacks and was taken from the field. This was compounded by the loss of Marmont's second-in-command, General Jean Bonnet, a short time later. While the French command was reorganized, Major General Lowry Cole's 4th Division along with Portuguese troops attacked the French around the Greater Arapile. Only by massing their artillery were the French able to repel these assaults.

Taking command, Clausel attempted to retrieve the situation by ordering one division to reinforce the left, while his division and Bonnet's division, along with cavalry support, attacked Cole's exposed left flank. Slamming into the British, they drove Cole's men back and reached Wellington's 6th Division. Seeing the danger, Marshal William Beresford shifted the 5th Division and some Portuguese troops to aid in dealing with this threat.

Arriving on the scene, they were joined by the 1st and 7th Divisions which Wellington had moved to the 6th's aid. Combined, this force repelled the French assault, forcing the enemy to begin a general retreat. Ferey's division attempted to cover the withdrawal but was driven off by the 6th Division. As the French retreated east towards Alba de Tormes, Wellington believed the enemy was trapped as the crossing was supposed to be guarded by Spanish troops. Unknown to the British leader, this garrison had been withdrawn and the French were able to escape.

Battle of Salamanca - Aftermath:

Wellington's losses at Salamanca numbered around 4,800 killed and wounded, while the French suffered around 7,000 killed and wounded, as well as 7,000 captured. Having destroyed his principal opposition in Spain, Wellington advanced and captured Madrid on August 6. Though forced to abandon the Spanish capital later in the year as new French forces moved against him, the victory convinced the British government to continue the war in Spain. Additionally, Salamanca dispelled Wellington's reputation that he only fought defensive battles from positions of strength and showed that he was a gifted offensive commander.

Selected Sources