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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

The Battle of Barrosa 1811: Forgotten Battle of the Peninsular War

Grehan, John and Martin Mace. The Battle of Barrosa 1811: Forgotten Battle of the Peninsular War. Barnsley, UK: Pen and Sword, 2012. 224 pages. ISBN# 978184848269. Hardcover. $35

The Battle of Barrosa 1811

The Battle of Barrosa 1811 is a bit of a misnomer.  Although the book covers that bloody battle, it is much more than that.  It is a history of the Spanish and British defense of southern Spain from 1810 to 1812, in particular the city of Cadiz.  By the spring of 1810, virtually all of Spain had fallen to Napoleon’s armies, except for Cadiz, a port city of about 75,000 people.  For almost 30 months the city withstood an epic siege that reflected the ups and downs of the Spanish people’s struggle against the might of the Napoleonic Empire.

The authors assert that Cadiz was the key to the Peninsular War.  Their hypothesis is that as long as an independent Spanish government held the city, the Spanish people would continue to resist the French invaders.  Should the city fall, Spanish resistance would inevitably fail.  The Battle of Barrosa examines the siege by exploring how the Spanish ability to hold the city was dependent on British support.  Spanish pride made accepting British help difficult and the relationship between the two countries throughout the siege was stormy at best and never reached the level of willing alliance that existed between Britain and Portugal.  The Battle of Barrosa draws heavily on primary sources to show the frustration of the British commander and how he repeatedly tried to forge a cohesive and unified strategy for defeating the French.  Sir Thomas Graham, the commander of the British forces, finally asked to be relieved and was transferred to Wellington’s Army in 1811.

In addition to chronicling the political maneuvers of the siege, The Battle of Barrosa also details the military side of it. The authors start at the very beginning and show how if the French had attacked immediately they would have been able to take the city quite easily.  However, they were distracted by the prospects of an easy conquest of Seville.  By the time they turn their attention to Cadiz, the Spanish had begun to organize the defense of the city and British reinforcements had arrived.  Once again the authors draw on British primary sources to tell the story of the day-to-day struggle with building fortifications and walls, bombardments, attacks, and counter-attacks.

Although the focus of the book is on the siege of Cadiz, this is not to say The Battle of Barrosa  ignores the battle for which the book is name.  Instead the battle is considered just one of many events that were so essential to defeating the besieging forces.  About half the book is devoted to the Barrosa Campaign that lasted about ten days.  The goal was to defeat the French forces around Cadiz, which had been weakened when Marshal Soult, the overall French commander in southern Spain, departed with a large part of the army to relieve Badajoz, which was under siege by the British and Portuguese. In a rare show of unity, the Spanish and the British agreed to cooperate in an attack on Marshal Victor’s Corps, which was still in the siege lines at Cadiz.  The campaign climaxed at Barrosa Hill, where British and Portuguese forces were caught in a long column.  The ensuing battle saw neither side being able to bring an overwhelming force to bear, so it became a slugging match that the British eventually won. 

The authors skillfully use primary sources to place the reader in the midst of the action that saw unparalleled gallantry on both sides and the taking of a French Eagle by the British in combat.

The Battle of Barrosa includes three maps which are both extremely detailed and easy to read – a rarity in many histories!  One that I found quite useful was the map pinpointing all the batteries, forts, and strongpoints of both the besieged and besiegers.  The book closes with a guide to the battlefield and siege works as they are today, plus appendices giving orders-of-battles for the various forces involved in the siege and the Barrosa Campaign.

The Battle of Barrosa is a well written account of an often overlooked, but important aspect of the Peninsular War. It is the best account of the battle written in English that I know of it.  The fact that the authors provide so much detail on the siege of Cadiz is an added bonus!


Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2013


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