“See the Conquering Hero Come”
On the 22nd September Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese army won a decisive victory over the Army of Portugal, commanded by Marshal Marmont. Wellington then had to decide whether to chase the defeated French northwards, or to make a political gesture by marching on the Spanish capital. He chose the latter option, knowing that such a gesture would send a potent message to the rest of Europe.
A 19th Century view of Madrid
By the 12th August 1812 Madrid was ready to celebrate. The detested soi-disant king, Joseph Bonaparte,had abandoned his capital with his guard, the Army of the Centre and a train of men, women and children who had thrown in their lot with the French.
Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain
The allied Anglo-Portuguese army was approaching the city gates. The whole population, young and old, rich and poor, had taken to the streets to welcome the conquering hero, Arthur Wellesley, Lord Wellington. Wellington himself wrote laconically in an official dispatch to Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for War, that
‘It is impossible to describe the joy manifested by the inhabitants of Madrid upon our arrival,’ before turning his attention to the wider implications of this welcome. ‘I hope that the prevalence of the same sentiments of detestation of the French yoke, and of a strong desire to secure the independence of their country, which first induced them to set the example oresistance to the usurper, will induce them again to make exertion in the cause of this country, which being more wisely directed, will be more efficacious than those formerly made.’
What Wellington found impossible to describe was certainly not beyond the powers of the troops who accompanied him into the city. Words flowed freely from the pens of officers and men alike, in letters and journals, and for years to come in memoirs of this apotheosis of triumph.
Led by the 7th division, with the 51st at its head, the victors of the battle of Salamanca drew near the Spanish capital. At the first sight of the city in the morning haze there were raucous cries of ‘Madrid! Madrid!’ Some, however, wondered how they would be received in a place that had enjoyed more than three years of relative peace while the rest of Spain was caught in the turmoil of war. These concerns were soon put to rest. Five miles from the city gates, the vanguard of the allied army encountered the first crowds, men, women and children bearing boughs of oak and laurel, symbols of victory. On every side they were greeted with enthusiasm and delight, as well as with flowers, bread, grapes, melons, wine, aquadente, lemonade, tobacco, sweetmeats.
Wellington’s ecstatic welcome in Madrid
For one man nothing was more pleasing than the pretty, pale-faced and black-eyed maidens who modestly presented nosegays to the passing troops. For another, it was the generous offer of pigskins of wine, more generous than even the deepest drinking soldier could manage to consume, that brought the greatest delight.
As they neared the city, colours flying, drums beating, bands playing, the excitement which greeted them was almost overwhelming. The people were mad with joy. All the bells of Madrid were ringing to the heavens. There was singing, dancing, guitars, tambourines, all adding to the cacophony of welcome. And joyous acclamations from all sides. They were hailed as liberators, delivers, saviours. Viva los Ingleses! Viva los Ilandes! Viva los Colorades! greeted these scarlet-jacketed fellows. God was called upon to save King George. King Ferdinand. England. Even Portugal, their Iberian rival and age-old enemy. As for Wellington, riding at the head of his troops, every other viva hailed the hero of the hour as he rode through the gate which had been turned into a triumphal arch decorated in his honour. The populace fell to their knees on the ground that bore the imprint of his horse’s hooves. Even the children’s caps were decorated with Wellington and Salamanca. It was, as a staff officer wrote home, the fondest idolatry.
Tens of thousands of laughing, cheering, jubilant people were crammed into the streets, so that the troops could pass along only with the greatest difficulty. Indeed, some men fainted in the heat and the crush, to be succoured by the concerned citizens.
Everywhere eager hands reached out, to caress their deliverers, to touch the colours, to drag the soldiers into their houses and the ice and lemonade shops, where they were plied with free refreshments. Or even just to walk hand-in-hand with them. Not only the officers were embraced with a fervour which threatened to unseat them; even their horses received the same attention. The colours were kissed, and so were the ensigns carrying them. As was everyone else, by pretty girls and men with garlic-laden breath and moustaches so stiff and sweaty that one soldier was reminded of brooms that had been daubed in the gutter.
Every viewpoint, up to the very rooftops, was occupied. The balconies were crowded with fair and elegant ladies, waving their white handkerchiefs and showering flowers on the troops below. Velvet and silk hangings, richly embroidered with gold and silver thread, were suspended from every balcony as if it were a great feast day of the Church. Garlands of flowers festooned every door and window. As the sun set, wax candles in silver candlesticks, flaring torches and variegated lamps turned night into day. Shops were closed. Business was suspended. For three days and three nights Madrid was en fête.
It was a time of delirium, an ecstasy of the brain, shared by soldiers and citizens alike. To the sober mind it was like a dream, but a dream of confusion and rapture that everyone was experiencing.
A rather fanciful picture showing Wellington receiving the keys to the city
Yet the war was never far away. Joseph had left, taking his guard and a train of afrancesados with him, but a garrison 2,000 strong remained in the fortified Retiro palace with enough pieces of cannon to raze Madrid to the ground, so the governor boasted. Even as the citizens continued to celebrate, and the troops were still marching in, Wellington turned his attention to the reduction of the Retiro. On the evening of the 13th, against a background of illuminated buildings, detachments from the 3rd and 7th divisions drove in the French outposts at the Prado, the Botanical Gardens and the works outside the walls of the Retiro park. They were then able to establish themselves in the park by breaking through the wall close to the La China building, which served as an arsenal.
The following morning preparations were soon underway for an attack on the interior lines. People were already packed in the nearby streets and houses, and perched on the housetops, ready for the show. Every movement of the troops was loudly applauded, the shouts of the people being echoed by the cheers of the men, so that no orders could be heard and disorder threatened. Then, without warning, the governor sent an aide to seek terms. Negotiations ensued, resulting in the garrison marching out with the honours of war, but escorted by Spanish guerrillas as a compliment to the Spanish nation.
As Wellington reported to Bathurst, the allied haul was considerable: ‘189 pieces of brass ordnance in excellent condition, 900 barrels of powder, 20,000 stand of arms, and considerable magazines of clothing and provisions, and ammunition. We have likewise found the eagles of the 13th and the 51st regiments, which I forward to England to be presented to His Royal Highness’ the Prince Regent, whose birthday coincidentally was the 12th August.
For the soldiers there were other rewards. Many of the men made an excellent breakfast of the fruit in the park, while the more enterprising spirits of the 68th helped themselves from the stockpile of clothing the French had left behind. William Wheeler of the 51st found more unexpected but equally desirable plunder. ‘I strolled into a summer house and was agreeably surprized to find a quantity of books, Spanish, French and English. I secured all I could find in my own tongue but as I have not the means of carrying them I distributed them amongst my comrades who I know are fond of reading.’ He even found a guide to his home town, Bath.
With Madrid firmly in allied hands, officers and even some of the men were able to enjoy the pleasures of what many considered the most beautiful city they had ever visited. The clean, wide streets and spacious avenues, shaded by wide-spreading trees and cooled by refreshing fountains, were favourite places of resort, despite the constant importuning of beggars. Museums, palaces, theatres, all demanded the attention of the avid sightseer, as so many officers were, while the novelty of the bull-fight attracted men and officers alike, with generally antagonist reactions.
A medal struck in London to commemorate Wellington’s triumphant entry to Madrid
While his army relaxed and enjoyed the rest from campaigning, however, Wellington had to decide upon his next move. When the Army of the North made cautious movements southwards to Valladolid, dealing with them became a necessity. At some point during the allied counter-movement Wellington made his crucial decision to attack Burgos…
[My next book, Wellington’s Worst Scrape, covering events from August to November 1812, will appear in the autumn.]