“I found him changed for the worse.
He has become a king in every respect.”

(Napoleon about his brother Joseph)

“I can see that I shall have to go there myself to wind up the machine”, had exclaimed Napoleon furiously (See chapter 50) upon being informed of the latest developments in Spain, and of the presumptuous incompetence of his brother Joseph, who had taken it upon himself to flee from “his” capital when he received the news of the unbelievable and disastrous capitulation of Baylen.

These were not just idle words.

The Emperor who arrived back in Paris on 19 October, set off again barely ten days later at 11 a.m. He passed through Rambouillet, Vendôme, Angoulème, Saint-André-de-Cubzac, Mont-de-Marsan and, on 3 November, he arrived at Bayonne where he stayed at the Château de Marracq. Marshal Berthier was there to greet him.


His presence in Spain was all the more necessary as the French troops there were still demoralized by the disaster of Baylen and England’s financial support to help the Spanish drive the “Antichrist” out of Spain had been more than generous.

These figures back up this statement:

- 4,000 Spanish soldiers – and it is worth mentioning that the men concerned were in fact ex-prisoners of war who had been captured by the English at the time when Spain was still allied to France who were equipped and dressed from head to foot;
- 35 million pounds were poured into the coffers of the Peninsula;
- 80,000 rifles with the appropriate ammunition;
-20,000 pairs of shoes;
-20,000 uniforms….

Not forgetting, of course, what are known today as “military advisors” a great many English officers who were sent over to work closely with their Spanish counterparts, and among others with Castaños, the nominal victor of Baylen. And, last but not least, the English civil agents whose special mission it was to keep a close eye on the way the precious subsidies were used.


Napoleon had barely arrived in Bayonne when he wrote to Joseph to inform him of his impending arrival.

Then, he rested briefly. In his letter addressed to his brother, we read:

“After having just crossed a good part of the region of the Landes [in the SW of France] at full gallop, I’m a little [!] tired.”

And not without reason as the roads were so bad that Napoleon had been obliged to abandon his coaches and travel the rest of the way on horseback like a simple aide-de-camp.

On 5 November, Napoleon left Tolosa and headed for Vitoria to take over command of the operations after his brother Joseph’s disastrous performance

Up before sunrise, he dictated his orders to the marshals who commanded the corps d’armées. Jourdan, the commander-in-chief of Joseph’s army, was to send him the precise establishment figures of his troops; Ney was to inform him of the enemy’s movement around Logroño; Moncey, who was in the region of Lerin, in

Navarre, was to be more precise as the information he had sent him was too vague; Bessières was to head for Burgos; Soult was to join him there immediately and take over command of II Corps presently commanded by Bessières, whom Napoleon put in charge of the cavalry. As for General Marchand, he was to proceed to Tolosa without delay and General Walther was to organise an inspection of the Imperial Guard that very day.

One last letter was addressed to Joseph informing him of all these dispositions.

What remains of the Château de Marracq today
In the afternoon of the following day, 4 November, Napoleon left Marracq.

His first stop was at Tolosa, in the Spanish Basque region.

Among the members of Napoleon’s personal entourage was a man who was extremely devoted to him and who was one of his favourite marshals:

Jean Lannes, Duke of Montebello, who would soon distinguish himself in this dramatic Spanish campaign in front of the town of Saragossa, which was to become the symbol of Spanish resistance.

Lannes was sincerely devoted and attached to Napoleon even though their relationship was often stormy as Lannes was argumentative and well-known for his outspoken character. Today, it was this attachment which had just made him accept a mission for which he felt little enthusiasm.

Marshal Jean Lannes (1769-1809) was most reluctant to accompany Napoleon to Spain

At Erfurt, when Napoleon had informed him of his intention of taking him with him to Spain, Marshal Lannes had confided to his wife in a letter:

“I am longing to be with you. I will only be able to stay for eight days before leaving for Spain. You know all the reluctance I feel at having to go to that country. I think this is the greatest proof of devotion to duty that I have ever given His Majesty…”


As Joseph’s name is often mentioned in these chapters on Spain it seems fitting here to stress – not to criticise but to regret the sort of blind obstinacy which made Napoleon persist in wanting to establish on the Spanish throne a man who deluded himself so much as to his own talents that he went so far as to write the following:

“In Spain, I must be Spanish [so far, so good] and defend the interests of this country, even against those of France when they are opposed to mine…”!!!

And in a memoir he even stressed “all the advantages that Spain would derive from concluding a treaty of alliance with England.”

With England! It is beyond belief!

What was equally hard to believe was that Joseph had concocted a plan which had been completed by the commander-in-chief of his army, Marshal Jourdan, who hardly had the reputation of being a military genius.

This plan consisted of Joseph returning to Madrid to redeem “his” throne. All on his own. Like a big boy. Without any help from Napoleon.

It would be useless to give the details of his plan here. It is, however, much more instructive and revealing to quote the Emperor’s reply:

“Any general who undertakes an operation of this kind would be a criminal.”

The plan was then submitted to the marshals commanding the corps d’armées, some of whom were far less “diplomatic”.

Moncey replied courteously enough but this was probably due to his age as he was 54 which was considered a grand old age at the time! to the aide-de-camp that Jourdan had sent to him that the Emperor had “certainly not given him the command of one of his finest corps d’armée to compromise its glory and security thus.”

Marshal Moncey, Duke of Conegliano (1754-1833)

Ney, on the other hand, who commanded one of the other corps, was his usual self, abrupt and blunt:

“This order undoubtedly comes from a man who knows nothing of military matters. The Emperor gave me a corps d’armée to conquer with and not to capitulate. You may tell the king that I have not come here to play the same role as Dupont.”

In view of the situation in the Peninsula campaign which had become chaotic, it was more than time that Napoleon himself started to “wind up the machine”.

Marshal Ney (1769-1815), who was shot by French royalists in 1815

On 5 November, he entered into Vitoria (See our opening illustration which shows Napoleon and Joseph embracing as they meet again) and officially took over command of the army.

A little later on upon discovering Joseph’s state of mind, he made the following comment which was more than revealing about his own brother:

“I found him changed for the worse. He has become a king in every respect.”

A fine expression and a pertinent observation!


Marshal Jourdan (1762-1833)
So what was Napoleon’s plan of campaign?

It consisted in leaving Vitoria with strong forces and heading straight for Burgos, and there forcing a passage with a powerful drive of cavalry which would clear the region of Castile and once there advance in every direction and engage combat with any enemy troops that were in ambuscade and not concentrated for open combat. And, of course, defeat them.

Naturally, the Spanish generals whose moral was heightened after their victory of Baylen which had been unexpected even for them had a completely different view of the situation.

To get rid of French troops in Spain once and for all, their plan of action consisted in outflanking Joseph’s troops on the right, in the region of Biscay, and on the left, in Aragon. Thus, cut off from the Pyrenees and surrounded the French Army would have no alternative, they thought, than to surrender. In other words, it would be an even greater victory than Baylen.

And for their plan to succeed, the Spanish counted on the support of the English Army commanded by Wellesley (not yet Wellington) presently in Portugal a force of 35,000 men – who were to come to their rescue.


To achieve his plan, Napoleon had given the commanders of the corps d’armées strict orders not to react against any enemy troop movements in the direction of the north-east and north-west. If they attempted to outflank the French, the Spanish would be forced to disperse their troops dangerously and should they decide to reinforce them they would have no other alternative than to weaken their centre.

And this was exactly what Napoleon needed to drive in a salient, crush the enemy centre before turning on the Spanish right flank and then attacking their left flank.

This large scale movement was to include the capture of the town of Saragossa on the left and, on the right, the defeat of General Blake who had already been vanquished at Medina del Rio Seco.

Marshal Lefebvre (1755-1820) was the first of the marshals to be created duke (of Dantzig) of the Empire

The Emperor had every reason to believe that he was about to win another battle of Austerlitz on Spanish soil this time.

But asking some the marshals to keep still was definitely expecting too much of some of them.

One example is Lefebvre who before Napoleon even entered into Spain and perhaps to celebrate the Emperor’s arrival had been unable to resist the temptation of attacking General Blake, then in Biscay, and driving him back into the region of Old Castile.

Napoleon was extremely displeased by this initiative as a great victory is not necessarily achieved by small local victories and although the engagement was a triumph, it permitted Blake to escape instead of being encircled in the great general movement as Napoleon had planned.

Soult was at the head of the troops that marched on Burgos, which was the centre of the enemy’s disposition. The battle which took place there on 10 November lasted only a few hours. The Spanish lost some 3,000 men who were killed, wounded or taken prisoners, some twenty cannons, and standards which not surprisingly were sent to Paris with great pomp and ceremony.

It was essential to live down the disgrace of Baylen.


On the 11th, when Napoleon entered into Burgos, the town was a scene of utter devastation. After having stigmatized the terrible atrocities committed by the Spanish, we cannot fail to mention that the conduct of French troops in this instance was disgraceful.

They put the town to the sack, and the Surgeon General of the Grand Army, Pierre-François Percy (1754-1825) described the scenes of looting and plundering which ensued in the following terms:

“There are no words to describe the violence, the abominable acts by which the troops disgraced themselves at Burgos, on the day and the day after, they entered into the town, which has every reason to be famous…”

It is worth mentioning that Burgos is famous among other things for being the birthplace of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar, in 1043, better known to aficionados of Cornelian literature as Cid Campeador.

The only reasonable explanation for the soldiers’ conduct were the acts of cruelty which they had witnessed.

On their way, the soldiers had just seen, in one place, a dragoon officer who had been nailed to a door and who, “had between his teeth the proof of the mutilation he had just suffered”, elsewhere a sutleress and her child who had been massacred had been laid along the side of the road “with great skill” so as to leave no doubt as to the method which had been used to execute them, and at Zamora, an Episcopal town some sixty kilometres north of Salamanque, a corporal in the Imperial Guard who was hanging on a butcher’s hook: he had been slit all the way down and gutted like an animal.

A view of Burgos, the capital of Old Castile and famous for its cathedral which is one of the finest examples of gothic architecture. The town had a population of approximately 12,000 inhabitants at the time

The fresh troops which had just been sent to Spain were no longer the young frightened timid raw recruits who had originally been sent out but hardened veterans who did not hesitate to react brutally.

And yet despite all they had witnessed, there had been no massacres or reprisals on the population.

Only Napoleon, who was a man of authority and who detested plundering, had the power to restore order in the town.


The right of the Spanish Army which was commanded by Castaños and Palafox, a man who will be mentioned again here, was now cut off from the centre of the army following the capture of Burgos by the French. Napoleon had therefore instructed Lannes and Ney to attack and defeat him.

Unfortunately, Ney arrived too late and although the Spanish troops had been severely battered during their engagement with Lannes’ men the remnants of their army managed to escape and take refuge in Saragossa saving what remained of their troops. The battle which had just taken place north-east of the town of Tudela, on 23 November, earned Lannes Napoleon’s full praise, whereas Ney was sharply reprimanded by Napoleon.

Time had now come to march on Madrid.

But in order to succeed the first task was to advance and cross over the difficult passage of the Sierra de Guadarrama, a natural fortress which separated the region of Old-Castile from New Castile.

A reconnaissance party sent by Napoleon came back with the firm news that the Spanish troops who had escaped from the disaster of Burgos were well entrenched and blocked the only difficult pass exit that existed.

Its name would soon become synonymous of the Polish cavalry’s courage and honour: Somosierra.

To be continued…