The Battle of Arroyos dos Molinos 28 October, 1811
In October 1811, word reached General Hill, the commander of the British forces in the vicinity of Badajoz, that French forces under the command of General Girard were on the move in western Estremadura. The French expedition had several purposes, including: raising taxes, finding food to support their army, and to teach the Spanish a lesson for continued anti-French activity between the cities of Merida and Truxillo. Girard advanced to the city of Caceres, where taxed the residents 5,000 dollars.
General Hill combined his forces with the local Spanish forces and together they began a pursuit of Girard on 22 October. The first day the Allies made a force march of 30 miles that brought them within striking distance of the French. They continued to move rapidly but were hampered by heavy rains. Hill left his heavy nine pound battery behind and proceeded with only a Portuguese light six pound battery, while the soldiers carried only a minimum of equipment and three days of food. George Bell, an ensign in the 34th Regiment, stated that "We marched all the day and lay down on the wet sod by night... the rain kept along with us. I was never thoroughly dry... We never undressed of course, but just pushed on..." This pace was too much for some however, and several Portuguese troops died from exhaustion and fatigue.
The British continued to pursuit the French, but Girard, unaware that he was being chased, kept eluding them. On the 27th, Girard marched only twelve miles, stopping for the night in Arroyo dos Molinos. The Allies marched 28 miles that day and were within five miles of the town. Bell states that "On the evening of the 27th of October we got close to their heels; it rained all the day and in the dusk we halted on ploughed ground. 'Pile arms; keep perfectly quiet; light no fires; no drum to beat; no bugle to sound' were the orders passed through the ranks... All was still, and cold, and cheerless, until about two o'clock in the morning of the 28th, when the word was gently passed through all regiments: 'Stand to your arms!' The whole division was now in silent motion and moved on to the plain some few miles, pretty close to the enemy..."
Hill's plan of attack was simple. Wilson's brigade, plus three Portuguese battalions,would march around the south of the town to the east to block any escape along the roads leading to Merida or Truxillo. Howard's Brigade and the Spanish under Mirillo would attack straight into the town while the cavalry would operate between the two infantry columns.
All went well for the British from the very beginning. Under the cover of a dense fog they were able to approach within a few hundred meters of the town (Photo #1) before the alarm was given. Howard's brigade charged immediately into the town hitting the battalion that was acting as the rear guard. This battalion quickly crumbled and the British swept everything before them, finally halting at a wall on the fall side of the town. According to one soldier in the 71st Highlanders, Girard was nearly captured as he came out of the mayor's house "... frantic with rage. Never will I forget the grotesque figure he made as he threw his cocked hat upon the ground and stamped upon it, gnashing his teeth."
The rest of General Dombrouski's brigade had just begun forming up on the other side of the town when the attack hit. The brigade quickly moved down the road towards Merida, but were threatened by the British and Spanish cavalry. Girard ordered his cavalry to cover the retreat at all costs, while the infantry retreated along the Truxillo road. This road, like the rest of the roads in the area was narrow, muddy, and lined with low stone fences. (Photo #2) The infantry raced down the road hotly pursued by Howard's brigade.
The French were in a trap with no way to go except due east: to the north was the Sierra de Montanchez, a long chain of steep hills; (Photo #3) while to the west and the south were the British. By moving quickly and abandoning all their wagons, the French nearly escaped when their column was hit by the lead units of Wilson's Brigade (the light companies of the 1/28th, 1/34th, and the 1/39th Regiments) coming from the south. The three companies hit the first battalion in the flank and succeeded in slowing down the rest of the column until the rest of the British and Portuguese could come up. Girard, seeing there was no escape, ordered his men not to stop and fight, but to attempt to move cross-country and to climb the high hills. He and about 400 men succeeded, however the rest of the column was penned in and forced to lay down their arms.
Results of the Battle
The British victory was not total. The French had started their march earlier than expected and General Remond's brigade, which had departed the town about an hour before the attack, escaped unscathed. Despite this, the French loses in the battle were staggering. Of the six infantry battalions and three cavalry regiments engaged, about 1,000 men were killed or wounded. In addition to these casualties, another 1300 men and 30 officers were made prisoners. Most of the casualties were among the infantry, who lost about 80% of their effectives. Additionally, General Bron, the commander of the Cavalry, the Prince of Aremberg, commander of the 27th Chasseurs, and Colonel André, the chief-of-staff of the 5th Corps. Girard lost all of his baggage, guns, 6 caissons of ammunition, and the 5,000 dollars tax levied on the town of Caceres. British losses were less than 80 men killed and wounded. General Girard was subsequently relieved by Marshal Soult and returned to France in disgrace.
Commander: Sir Rowland Hill
Howard's Brigade: 1/50th, 1/71st, and 1/92nd Infantry Regiments
Wilson's Brigade: 1/28th, 1/34th, and 1/39th Infantry Regiments
Ashworth's Portuguese Brigade:
6th and 18th Infantry Regiments (2 battalions each)
6th Cacadores Battalion
Long's Cavalry Brigade:
9th and 13th Light Dragoons
2nd KGL Hussars
Artillery Commander: Major Hartmann (KGL)
Arriaga's Battery (6 X 6 pound guns)
Mirillo: 2,000 Infantry
Conde de Penne Villemur Cavalry Brigade: 600 Horses
Total Allied Force: 9,000 Infantry, 1,500 Cavalry, and 6 guns
Commander: General Jean Baptiste Girard
Infantry Division Girard:
Dombrouski's Brigade: 34th and 40th Infantry Regiments (3 battalions each)
Remond's Brigade: 64th and 88th Infantry Regiments (3 battalions each)
Cavalry Commander: General Bron
Artillery: 1 Foot Battery (Was a mixed battery with a 8 pound gun, a 4 pound gun, and a 6 inch howitzer.)
Total: 5,000 Infantry, 1,000 Cavalry, 3 guns
Photo #1. Arroyos dos Molinos looking from the British approach.
Photo #2. A narrow road east of the village that is typical of the road the French tried to escape down.
Photo #3. The high hills that trapped the French.
The Battlefield Today
Little has changed in the region where the battle was fought other than the name of the town. It is now called Arroyomolinos de Montanchez. Once you turn off of the main road from Alcuescar to Montachez, onto the road to the town, the road winds through grasslands and olive groves. Although the road is now paved, it probably has changed little since 1811. The town of Arroyomolinos is still a small town of several hundred people and is a warren of narrow, winding streets, that once entered to, it can be difficult to find one's way out. It took me at least twenty minutes to find my way out! The buildings are stone and whitewashed and maintain the looks of 1811. To the east of the town, there are numerous farm roads and lanes, while the fields are small and still surrounded by stone fences. The hills that trapped the French forces loom high above the town and it is easy to see why so many surrendered rather than trying to scale them.
How to Get There
From Merida go north on E 803 towards Caceres. At about 35 km look for signs for Alcuescar. Go east, by passing Alcuescar. At about 9 km look for a sign for Arroyomolinos dos Montanchez. Go for about 4 km and you will arrive in Arroyomolinos. Note: Should you miss the turn off for Arroyomolinos and arrive in Montanchez, you went about 4 km too far.
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Oman, Charles: A History of the Peninsular War Volume IV.
Sherer, Moyle: Recollections of the Peninsula.
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