The Origins

Few events in history have influenced the world like the French Revolution. Its repercussions altered the lives of millions of people for centuries and many of its accomplishments continue to shape the present. The course of humanity was changed in 1789 and the world as we knew it collapsed to make way for a new one.

The transition from the Modern to the Contemporary Age was not linear, it was marked by several advances and setbacks. However, the events of the late 18th century in France, together with the independence of the United States, meant the beginning of a new era worldwide.

The impact of the French Revolution transcended the nation where it originated. It had an almost immediate effect on all European societies, and with Napoleon’s coming to power in 1799, that influence spread rapidly across Europe as a consequence of the Grande Armée’s conquests.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born on 15 August 1769 in Ajaccio, the capital of Corsica. His parents sent him to mainland France when he was just a boy to study at a military academy. His military career was meteoric and he quickly climbed the ranks with the Revolution underway. He was just 26 when he was promoted to General on account of his service. His accession to power changed the course of Europe’s history and shook the old absolutist monarchies that were still ruling the continent and looked down on the young Corsican.

Napoleon’s life story outrivalled history itself and morphed into a legend. His military triumphs were manifold. And so were his defeats. These include the Siege of Toulon, the Eighteenth Brumaire, the Campaign in Egypt, the proclamation of the Empire, the great French Invasion of Russia, his exile to the island of Elba, his return amidst acclamations, the Waterloo debacle and the second exile to Saint Helena Island. 200 years after his death, Napoleon Bonaparte continues to be one of the most fascinating and controversial figures of all time.

Impact on Spain

If France was leading the Europe of the enlightened and the liberals, Spain represented the ancient monarchy, characterised by despotism, sometimes enlightened and sometimes not, depending on the ruler of the time. In the early 19th century, after years of disagreements between the two nations, political relations were re-established with Napoleon as the French leader.

In 1805, the navies of both countries fought and lost together in the Battle of Trafalgar against the British fleet of Admiral Lord Nelson. With the subsequent triumph of Napoleon at Austerlitz, it seemed that this alliance was going to last a long time.

Charles IV ruled over Spain and had a vast empire in his possession, but the indifferent king was least concerned about government affairs and the welfare of his people.

But the course of history took an unexpected turn. With the blockade of England as a pretext, France began to deploy a massive number of troops into the Iberian Peninsula. The conspiracy of the then Prince of Asturias, Ferdinand VII, to dethrone his father and the discontent of the people due to the presence of French troops resulted in the popular uprising of 1808.

It was the people of Madrid and A Coruña that demonstrated extraordinary valour and initiated the revolt against the invaders. With this rebellion of the citizens and Spain’s victory in Bailén, the first Napoleonic defeat in an open field battle, it appeared that the uprising would be able to withhold, however, confronting the French empire alone proved quite challenging for Spain.

When the British support seemed indispensable to substantiate the viability of the Spanish resistance, the British crown quickly agreed to send its troops to the Iberian Peninsula and help defeat France, its arch enemy. It was at this point that the British General Sir John Moore entered the scene and instigated a campaign that was initially successful but ended with a difficult retreat.

Those initial years of the Peninsular War were tremendously turbulent. Tired of all the instability, especially after France’s defeat in the Battle of Bailén, Napoleon took command of his Grande Armée to quell the revolt. With the emperor in command, the French army enjoyed one victory after another and reached Chamartín, where the Spanish capital surrendered without a fight.

The British army, which had been moving towards Castile and led to believe that the local troops were resisting across the territory, found itself in a difficult situation at that point. Away from their sphere of influence and lacking the ability and the will to face the imperial army alone, they became easy prey for the French.


In late 1808, Napoleon found out about the presence of British soldiers in the Iberian Peninsula and initiated a two-month-long pursuit across the northwest region. General John Moore ordered a hasty retreat towards A Coruña where his army could embark for the British Isles. The march of the British troops during that harsh Castilian winter is reminiscent of the famous Dunkirk Evacuation, which would take place 132 years later during the Second World War.

The British retreat became one of the greatest sagas of the Peninsular War. A valiant general trying to save his army in a long withdrawal, destroying everything in his path and stopping to fight on several occasions.

Napoleon pursued Moore’s army to Astorga (León), where he was informed that the situation in central Europe was getting complicated, especially in Austria. The emperor left Spain and delegated the pursuit to General Jean-de-Dieu Soult.

In Galicia, Lugo and Concubelos proved to be the most significant milestones, but it was at the entrance of A Coruña, in the town of Elviña, where the toughest battle would take place. The one that would mark the end of this adventure.

During the battle, General Moore was fatally wounded, but his troops still managed to hold their positions. As a clever manoeuvre, the British soldiers lit numerous watchfires during the night to make their enemy believe that they were prepared to fight. Nothing could be further from the truth. The next morning, the French army discovered that the majority of the British troops had already embarked for the islands.

This way, despite the withdrawal, General Moore, whose mortal remains still rest in the San Carlos Gardens of A Coruña, managed to save a large part of his army. An army that would play a crucial role in the war against Napoleonic France in the years that ensued.

With hardly any British troops left, A Coruña held out for two more days against the French before finally capitulating. The Napoleonic reign lasted for years and it was not until early 1813 that the situation in the Iberian Peninsula began to change for the better. The numerous open fronts began to take a toll on Bonaparte’s army, especially with their defeat in Russia and the British military offensive by the Duke of Wellington.



With the French army already expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and Napoleon’s exile on Saint Helena Island since 1815, the embers of the Peninsular War, also known as the Spanish War of Independence, would linger for years. From the battle that practically continued to be fought throughout the nineteenth century emerged two perspectives of Spain. The dichotomy between the supporters of Ferdinand VII of Spain and those loyal to Joseph Bonaparte became a perennial struggle between liberals and conservatives. Those were the years of the Bourbon Restoration, the revolt of Riego, and the French invasion of the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis, this time aimed at restoring absolutism with King Ferdinand VII.

A Coruña continued to grow as an Atlantic port, maintaining a special alliance with England and Portugal and preserving its identity as a convergence point for different cultures. The city became one of the gateways to the continent. Its history and legend are infused with the echoes of the campaign in which Napoleon Bonaparte relentlessly pursued the British army and General John Moore, who died in this city and whose tomb in San Carlos Gardens is a reminder of the crucial war that marked Europe’s destiny.

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