the year 1808, France had achieved domination over the great majority of
continental Europe. Through victories at Ulm (1805), Austerlitz (1805),
Jena-Auerstädt (1806) and Friedland (1807) her armies had successively
eliminated Austria, Prussia and Russia as military opponents. Britain
alone had withstood the power of France, achieving security against
invasion through Nelson's victory over the combined French and Spanish
fleets at Trafalgar (1805).
In 1808, Napoleon usurped the Spanish throne in favor of his brother
Joseph. The Spanish uprising that followed encouraged Britain to send an
expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula.
Britain landed an expeditionary force under the command of Lt.-Gen. Sir
Arthur Wellesley at the mouth of the Mondego river in Portugal. Moving
south towards Lisbon, Wellesley defeated Gen. Delaborde at Roliça on
17th August before turning to the mouth of the Maceira river to protect
the landing of reinforcements. On 21st August, Wellesley's position
around Vimeiro Hill was attacked from the east by Junot. The Battle of
Vimeiro was the first occasion on which Napoleonic offensive tactics
combining skirmishers, columns and supporting artillery fire failed
against the British infantry line and Wellesley's defensive skills.
Junot was defeated.
British supremacy of the seas had made such a move possible. And it must
have been a wake-up call. But far from weakening Napoleon’s resolve, it
reinforced it. He moved up by 6 months an involuntary conscription
campaign, adding thousands of troops and bringing veterans to the
forefront. In doing so he sought not only to strike a blow against the
Iberian peninsula and crush the rebellion, but to appeal to the
nationalism he had engendered and show a moral force that would
strengthen his men and strike fear into others. The soldiers destined
for the Spanish front and to reinforce the German sectors of his empire
were feted as they were stationed around his empire, ready for a blow
against Spanish and English ambitions, as Napoleon orders here in this
September 17, 1808,
at Saint Cloud, to Minister of the Interior,
Emmanuel Cretet, Comte de Champmol (1747-1809)
troops have been processed at Metz, Nancy, and Reims.
I want them to be at Paris, Melun, Sens,
Saumur, Tours, Bourges, and Bordeau…. You will send me a note of what
this will cost per man, according to the authorization you have been
Have songs written in Paris and sent into
these difference towns; these songs will speak of the glory the army has
acquired, of what it will acquire, and of the liberty of the seas that
will result from these victories.
These songs will be sung at feasts we
You will make three types of song, so
that the soldiers will not hear sung the same song twice."
This is the very letter quoted by Francois Guizot, who writes in his
authoritative book, L'histoire de France
depuis 1789 jusqu'en 1848,
“These orders were followed point by point…. The passage through France
of these different corps was as a triumphal march.
Municipalities of all towns were revitalized with zeal… The
military songs rolled out to celebrate the triumphs of the grand army
and to predict yet more.”