The Spanish at Talavera (28-7-1809)
Translated by Caroline Miley for the Napoleon Series
Editor's Note: This paper first appeared in the Spanish language website GUERRA DE LA INDEPENDENCIA ESPAÑOLA 1808-1814. The editors have kindly given the Napoleon Series to publish it in English.
In spite of the victory won at Medellín, Marshal Victor did not judge it prudent to go on to Andalusia, and fortified himself in the Guadiana between Medellín and Mérida. After assisting with Soult’s operations in Portugal, whose leader was supposed to be already near Lisbon, Victor moved to Alcántara, which he entered on the 14th May. (When a corps of Portuguese troops retreated to this point after a short battle, its (English) Colonel Mayne blew up the famous bridge, a marvellous construction from the time of Trajan, which the Moors had always respected.) He moved soon after as far as the neighbouring kingdom, but afraid of the British forces under General Wellesley’s command posted at Abrantes, who had already thrown Soult out of Portugal, retreated to Torremocha on the 8th of June. He then went on to establish himself at Plasencia on the 19th, continuing his retreat towards Talavera as the British army approached. Cuesta, who had rebuilt his army again, was advancing from Monasterio in pursuit of Victor, first locating at Fuente del Maestre and then on the 20th of June in the houses at Puerto de Miravete, facing the Almaraz bridge, with his right wing watching Puente del Arzobispo. Wellesley left the field of Abrantes on the 27th of June, arrived at Castelo Branco on the 30th and entered Spain on the 3rd of July. He went by Zara la Mayor and Coria to Plasencia, where he established himself on the 8th, then going to meet with General Cuesta on the 10th to decide the plan of campaign.
Although they did not have precise information about the position of the French armies the allies, who were united by this time, moved towards the Alberche river on the Madrid road, the Spanish crossing the Tagus on the 19th by Almaraz and Puente del Arzobispo. They spent the night of the 20th at La Calzada in the rearguard of the English, who were already at Oropesa. The next day they were brought forward by way of Velada and after some fighting, Marshal Victor’s French forces arrived on the left bank of the Alberche occupied by Cuesta and at Talavera on the 22nd. On the 23rd the enemy remained quietly in their new positions, sheltered from the batteries which dominated the whole course of the river from Cazalegas, where the French leader had established his headquarters. That night went by Torrijos for Toledo, the Ist Corps thereby escaping a certain defeat, because Wilson’s British Corps was already at Escalona. It was also thanks to the discord between Wellesley and Cuesta, Wellesley attacking the enemy the same day (the 23rd), which Cuesta was against, requesting that the attack be deferred until the following dawn. This was ill-timed and extraordinary caution on the Spanish leader’s part, however, on the 24th he ventured in pursuit of the French with only the troops under his command.
The French concentrated their forces behind the Guadarrama river. On the 25th Victor’s I Corps joined with King Joseph in person with some troops from the Madrid garrison and Sebastiani’s IV Corps, which had previously been posted near Daimiel. They observed the army of La Mancha commanded by General Venegas, which raised the number of enemies in that area to about 50,000. Although the interloper did not contemplate taking the offensive until Marshal Soult had left Salamanca behind the allies’ back with the three Corps under his command, Cuesta’s imprudent advance and the French impatience to learn their lesson, led them to make no use of the fact that they had correctly guessed the plan of action. They anticipated battle, since on the 26th they left the encounter with the Spanish and at Torrijos and Alcabón overran their vanguard and the cavalry which threatened them, consisting of the Calatrava and Villaviciosa regiments (the brave Colonel of this regiment, Barón de Armendariz, died in the skirmish), running into the protection of the Duke of Albuquerque with a division of 3,000 cavalry. The enemy had not got past Santa Olalla and Cuesta, who did not want to cross the Alberche in disorder in the full view and presence of allies as egocentric as they were magnificent (according to Gómez de Arteche), stayed on the left bank, not transferring to the opposite bank until the morning of the 27th.
The battle that everyone wanted was already imminent. Wellesley summoned Wilson, who had advanced as far as Navalcarnero, five leagues from Madrid. The allied army took up a position between the Tagus and the Medellín hill. They formed the Spanish into three lines: on the right, 33,000 men, of whom 7,000 were cavalry, distributed in a vanguard, reserves, five divisions of infantry and two of cavalry (by express orders under the command respectively of: D. José de Zayas, D. Juan Berthuy, the Marqués de Zayas, D. Vicente Iglesias, the Marqués de Portago, D. Rafael Manglano, D. Luís Alejandro Bassecourt, D. Juan de Henestrosa and the Duque de Albuquerque). The Anglo-Portuguese were on the left, numbering 16,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, distributed in four divisions (under the orders of Generals Sherbrooke, Hill, Mackenzie and Campbell) and serving as a link between all the units in the centre of the line of battle. This extended over three quarters of a league and included a redoubt which the British had begun to build on a hill called Pajar de Vergara, equipped with ten field pieces of artillery. Another big battery was established on the right next to the hermitage of the Virgin del Prado, aimed towards the main highway and enfilading the entire banks of the Tagus and the olive groves.
Outline of the campaign
The French crossed the Alberche at noon on the 27th, coming of course into the hands of Mackenzie’s division, which was in an advanced post next to the river. They saw them heavily committed and were able to fall back in good order to the line behind the rest of their country’s troops. Wellesley, who was observing the enemy’s movements from the tower at Salinas, was on the verge of being taken prisoner and was saved only by the speed with which he got on his horse. Joseph and Sebastiani were still far away, and although it was already night Marshal Victor, the hero of Montebello and Friedland, greedy for glory, sent Ruffin’s division to attack the Medellín hill, the key of the whole Anglo-Spanish line, leaving Villatte’s and Lapisse’s divisions to observe any movements the allies might make. The imperial forces crossed the cliff of the Portiña stream and climbed the hill, whose slope was very high and rugged, charging Hill’s English troops with fixed bayonets with their customary energy. Although the soldiers managed to get control of the height, throwing the British off it, they reformed, bravely assaulting the attackers, who were also thrown off the height which they had just conquered. They were no luckier when they repeated the attack for a second time. Latour-Maubourg’s dragoons, who served as a link between the I and the IV Corps, supported by Leval’s division, also fell on the left flank, creating terrible disorder in some corps on the front line, who fled, panic-stricken. Many of the fugitives did not stop until they got to Oropesa, mixed up with British officers and soldiers. Luckily the artillery of our extreme right, the fire from the other corps and Albuquerque’s cavalry contained the attack of the imperial cavalry, who went to take refuge in the olive groves. (This breach of discipline, excusable in raw recruits, many of them without uniforms, was punished the following day by the energetic Cuesta, who decimated the corps that fled. This was severe and cruel, but it was necessary to teach men not to flee on the battlefield. The British General interceded and suspended the punishment of the Spanish when 50 men had been shot already, a fifth of those who were to suffer this terrible punishment.)
The battle was renewed at dawn on the 28th. The allies stayed in their positions of the previous afternoon, reinforcing Wellesley on his left with part of the Duke of Albuquerque’s cavalry division and the 5th (Bassecourt) Spanish division, which was positioned on the rocky terrain of Atalaya. Marshal Victor displayed still greater persistence in taking the Medellín, attacking the same division, supported by fire from over 50 artillery pieces; but isolated, as Sebastiani’s Corps and Joseph’s reserve had been previously. Wellesley could take forces from the centre with impunity and direct them to flank the position that was attacked. Three regiments of Ruffin’s division were repulsed with huge losses, which could not be fewer than 1,500 dead and wounded from these corps left lying on the slopes of that hill, which was so lethal for the French.
In view of this second failure, the interloper king rejoined Marshals Victor, Sebastiani and Jourdan, who was head of the General Staff, to see if he would decide to retreat or continue the battle. After long deliberation it was finally decided to follow Victor’s advice and arrange a combined general attack on the entire allied line. (He was influenced in this decision by the knowledge that Soult could not be in Plasencia until the 4th or 5th of August, and that Venegas was advancing towards Toledo and Aranjuez with the army of La Mancha). Wellesley did not waste the time his adversary gave him, as he made new dispositions and asked General Cuesta for some artillery pieces of larger calibre than his own. He was reinforced with those that had equipped the redoubt on the Pajar de Vergara and four others commanded by Captain Uclés. The soldiers of both sides took advantage of the tacit suspension of hostilities to go down to the Portiña stream to slake the raging thirst, that made them extremely hot.
Outline of the battle
Towards two in the afternoon the General Staff’s orders were executed. The French columns advanced simultaneously, uniting in battle with Leval’s division, which formed on the enemy’s left. It cost the allies some effort to repel the attack that gave them the Pajar de Vergara redoubt, and repeating the counter-attack with great determination, went out to meet some Spanish battalions and a section of artillery commanded by Lieutenant Don Santiago Piñeiro (de las Casas) which covered the aggressors with shrapnel. The King’s Cavalry regiment fell on them immediately in a brilliant charge led by its Colonel, Brigadier D. Joseph Maria de Lastres, who was wounded, Lieutenant Colonel D. Rafael Valparda replacing him. Our brave horsemen overran Leval’s soldiers, resulting in ten cannon being taken, four of which Lieutenant Piñeiro had brought to the Spanish camp.
At the same time the enemy attacked the allies’ left, Ruffin’s division surrounding the hill that served him as a shelter, while leaving Villatte’s division to threaten it from the front. The British cavalry moved to prevent it, supported by Albuquerque’s men, and made a charge which was impetuous but unfortunate, in that the two regiments which initiated it were split up, particularly the dragoons, by encountering a deep ditch whose existence they had been unaware of. Despite this they crossed it and got among the squares and enemy columns, although with only partial success, with great difficulty saving half their people. However, the formidable mass of cavalry which had at first sight inspired respect for the French and suspended the allies’ manoeuvres, contributed no less to their resolve to engage in the battle. The attitude of the 5th (Bassecourt) Spanish Division deployed at the time on the lower Peñascales, contributed to this, also the damage caused to the French by fire from the Albuquerque Division’s horse artillery, directed with singular success by Captain D. Diego de Entrena and Lieutenant D. Pedro Ladrón de Guevara.
There was more persistence in the part of the line between the Medellín hill and the Pajar de Vergara redoubt. The allies attacked Lapisse’s division on the right and Sebastiani’s on the left, which was supported by Leval’s. The enemy advanced slowly by squares in echelon, afraid of the Spanish cavalry; but Lapisse was repulsed and mortally wounded and his soldiers had to retreat, pursued by the English Guards, who saw so clearly that they could also be in serious difficulty that they did not use too much reckless enthusiasm in the pursuit. Another British regiment, their cavalry and the Spanish Entrena battery that played such an important part throughout the day, escaped danger, although at the cost of many losses. Sebastiani’s division also had to fall back, following the movement of the troops on his right.
It was only five in the afternoon, but nevertheless the French did not consider it prudent to make new attacks on the allied line, remaining quietly in their positions. The following day they re-crossed the Alberche, retreating without being troubled, Joseph and Sebastiani to Toledo and Victor towards Maqueda and Santa Cruz de Retamar. Victor returned a few days later to occupy Talavera, when he saw the allies retire to the left of the Tagus as a result of Marshal Soult’s arrival at Plasencia on the 1st of August.
The battle of Talavera was, then, completely fruitless, having cost each of the contenders more than 7,000 men, 1,200 of them Spanish. Nevertheless, honours and mercy were extended, Wellesley’s government gracing him with the title of Viscount Lord Wellington of Talavera, and the Spanish authorities with the title of Commander in Chief, while Cuesta received the Grand Cross of Carlos III. In addition, a Cross was created with the inscription: "Talavera 28th of July 1809". The veteran leader in his official role gave distinctions to some officers of rank and their aides, especially the King’s Cavalry regiment, to which Captain D. Francisco de Sierra belonged, who took a cannon from the enemy, and Lieutenant D. Pablo Cataneo, sixteen years old, who killed four enemies with his own hands.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2005