The Anglo-Spanish War of 1796

The Anglo-Spanish War of 1796 began 221 years ago today when Spain declared war on Britain during the French Revolutionary  and  Napoleonic Wars.  With a brief hiatus between 1802 and 1804 the conflict lasted until 1808 when France turned on her former ally and invaded Spain, bringing about an alliance between the United Kingdom and Spain.

Spain had originally been part of the first coalition against the newly formed French republic which aimed to restore the Bourbon Monarchy.  General Antonio Ricardos who led the Spanish forces had some initial successes but failed to achieve a decisive victory.  Elsewhere French forces overran the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic and the Spanish were struggling.  Their navy combined with the British at the Siege of Toulon but otherwise achieved very little.

In November 1794 the Spanish-Portuguese army was heavily defeated at the Battle of the Black Mountain and the French were in the ascendent.  In 1795 the Peace of Basel was signed, obliging Spain and Prussia to leave the Coalition.  The following year, after French successes in the Rhine Campaign and Italian Campaign Spain signed the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, establishing a Franco-Spanish alliance against Great Britain.  Spanish leaders hoped that French victories would bring advantages of both territory and money to Spain.

From the start the war drained Spanish revenue, with the British blockade reducing the amount of wealth arriving from the colonies. A Spanish fleet consisting of 27 ships of the line planned to link with the French and protect coveys of valuable goods. The British Mediterranean fleet had only 15 ships of the line and was heavily outnumbered, forcing them to retreat from Corsica and Elba by 1797.

The Treaty of Amiens in 1802 brought a temporary break in hostilities until 1804, when the war recommenced and the British captured a Spanish squadron of frigates carrying gold bullion to Cádiz. The French intended an invasion of Britain in the coming year and planned to use the Spanish fleet in the campaign.  In 1805, a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, attempting to join forces with the French northern fleets ready for the invasion was attacked by a British fleet and lost in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar.

The British victory ended the immediate threat of an invasion of Britain by Napoleon and raised serious doubts in Godoy’s Spanish government as to the wisdom of the alliance with Napoleon.  Godoy withdrew from the Continental System which Napoleon had set up to blockade Europe from British trade but joined it again in 1807, after Napoleon had defeated the Prussians.

Napoleon had lost faith in Godoy and King Charles.  There was growing support in Spain for the king’s son, Ferdinand, who opposed unpopular Godoy. Ferdinand, however, favoured an alliance with Britain, and Napoleon did not trust any Bourbon royalty.

In 1807, France and Spain invaded Portugal, and, on 1 December, Lisbon was captured with no military opposition. At the beginning of 1808, the French presence in Spain led to revolt.  Napoleon took the opportunity to remove King Charles and his son Ferdinand to Bayonne and to force them both to abdicate giving the throne to his brother Joseph.  This finally ended the Anglo-Spanish War of 1796, as George Canning, foreign secretary of His Majesty’s Government, declared:

“No longer remember that war has existed between Spain and Great Britain. Every nation which resists the exorbitant power of France becomes immediately, and whatever may have been its previous relations with us, the natural ally of Great Britain.”

The breakdown of the alliance between France and Spain, and France’s invasion of Portugal was the opportunity for Britain to mount a land offensive in Europe. The army which landed in Portugal in 1808 was not large and very little was expected of it, but the significant victories at Rolica and Vimeiro under Sir Arthur Wellesley were a portent for the breakdown of the alliance between France and Spain, and France’s invasion of Portugal was the opportunity for Britain to mount a land offensive in Europe.

The action in An Unconventional Officer spans the initial invasion of Portugal although the battles are mentioned rather than described in detail.  The previous history between Britain and Spain is very important, as letters and accounts written by the British in Portugal at the time often suggest a lack of sympathy for the Spanish, who had so recently been allied to France.  It would take time before Wellington and his officers began to appreciate the ferocious guerrilla war which the Spanish waged on Napoleon’s armies; a war which often tied down large numbers of French troops and prevented them from a concerted attack on Wellington’s army.  Initially, Wellington found it easier to work with the Portuguese army.  By 1812 when he defeated the French at Salamanca, Wellington had already formed a cautious respect for some of the Spanish leaders, in particular Don Julian Sanchez.  At the end of the war he was ready to acknowledge that he could not have won the war without their efforts.