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The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain 1809

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain 1809

The Soldiers of Hesse Nassau Chapter VII: War in Spain 1809

Translated by Greg Gorsuch


Wellington was advancing by the right bank of the Tagus, after having rallied Cuesta’s army: he presented a force of 80,000 men, English, Portuguese, Spaniards; on his right, the army of Venegas marched on Toledo, and 10,000 men under General Wilson covered his left and arrived on the Alberche.

To these three armies which threatened Madrid, King Joseph opposed all his available forces:  40,000 soldiers; the 1st Corps, with Victor, slowly retreated in front of the enemy and abandoned Talavera to it; the 4th Corps, brought back from Madridejos to Toledo, and the Madrid garrison (Royal Guard, a French brigade, the 27th chasseurs à cheval, 14 pieces of cannon) marched in front of the 1st Corps: on 26 July the concentration was made; as for Marshal Soult, urgent orders invited him to emerge as quickly as possible via Plasencia on the rear of the Anglo-Spanish with the 2nd, 5th and 6th Corps.

The 8 battalions of the German Division presented at these times the following strengths:

Bn. Men
1st brigade:  General SCHAEFER { Regiment of Nassau…….. 2 947
              (from Nassau)        —       of Baden……… 2 1,386
2nd brigade:  General SCHAEFER { Battalion of Frankfurt …. 1 504
              (from Hesse) Regiment of Hesse………. 1 398
3rd brigade:  General CHASSÉ: :         — Dutch………………. 2 1,032


The Hessian battalion returned from Segovia was not included in this situation.

After a skirmish, King Joseph’s army bivouacked on the 26th at Santa Olalla and presented itself the next day in front of the enemy position: the Spanish army occupied the right, supported at Talavera, covered by abatis and by a large redoubt bristling with cannons; to the left stretched the English army, crowning a hillock also furnished with artillery. Noting much movement in Wellington’s army, which did not yet seem to be formed for battle, Joseph decided on a sudden attack to surprise his opponent before he was prepared for battle. Without waiting for the arrival of Sébastiani with the 4th Corps, the King launched Marshal Victor against the English left: the 1st Corps reached up to the mamelon, but a vigorous counterattack from the enemy threw it back down the slopes it had just climbed; Victor’s troops slept in their positions in the evening while the 4th Corps, finally arrived, was established in front of Talavera.

On the morning of the 28th, we learned that Venegas attacked Toledo – a town incapable of resisting for long if it was not rescued – and that he moved on Aranjuez, thus threatening the capital; on the other hand, we had no news of the approach of Marshal Soult’s army. In this pressing danger, the King decided to recommence the attack of the day before: Victor marched again against the English hillock, the 4th Corps in echelon on his left, the German Division in observation in front of Talavera; the cavalry was in reserve, behind the infantry. The attack of the 1st Corps failed again against the crushing forces opposed to it by the English; the King then ordered a general offensive. At two o’clock, Victor launched his tireless army corps a third time against the left of the enemy position, while Sébastiani deployed the German Division against the center of Wellington; the Milhaud dragoons formed our left, in echelons, in front of Talavera.

Despite a violent cannonade, the 4th Corps advanced on a very covered ground; the German Division was at this moment in front of our line and a battalion of Nassau, in the middle of a thick wood of olive trees, was mixed with Portuguese chasseurs whom the similarity of their uniforms with those of Nassau had made take for the other battalion of the regiment…before the Germans had completed their deployment, they were assaulted by the English division of Campbell, a brigade of Mackenzie and all the Spanish cavalry: a mass of 15,000 men. Hesse and Frankfort, on the left, immediately formed squares and attacked their disconcerted assailants themselves; Baden and Holland were in the center of the line of General Leval, of which Nassau formed the right: this last regiment, the first deployed, threw itself on the enemy, breaking its line and making prisoner of an entire English regiment…the enemy took flight…unfortunately the brave Colonel von Porbeck, commanding the Baden regiment, was killed, and his troops retreated, uncovering the left of the Nassau regiment: the latter, attacked from the flank, was forced to abandon most of the prisoners it had just taken,  it could, however keep some, including the English colonel -who soon died of his wounds -and several senior officers.








1809 – GENERAL SÉBASTIANI, Commander of the 4th Corps of the Army of Spain.



The squares of Hesse and Frankfurt repelled the furious charges of the Spanish cavalry three times, but in this fierce and hand-to-hand combat the Germans suffered heavy losses: they were at the end of their strength; Sébastiani then had a French brigade relieve the decimated German Division: the latter executed a retreating line crossing with order; only its artillery, many of whose team horses were killed, could not easily execute the ordered movement: the Baden battery gave up 3 pieces, and the Darmstadt battery would also have lost a cannon if General Schaefer von Bernstein, by ordering to this critical moment an offensive movement to the Hessians, had not given time to its artillery to bring back and save the piece in danger.

A failure of the Lapisse Division, to the right of the 4th Corps, immediately attracted this last enemy effort; but Sébastiani had his French division supported by the rallied German Division, and, in the evening, the 4th Corps remained in its positions on the battlefield.

On the right of our line, the English cavalry had experienced a bloody failure: routed by General Merlin’s division – mounted chasseurs, Polish lancers, and Westphalian light horse – it abandoned the ground with enormous losses: only 5 men of the British 23rd Light Dragoon Regiment escaped.

The next day, the French army, after this hard day when it had not only slept on the battlefield but also gained ground on the enemy, recrossed the Alberche without Wellington daring to follow it. If it was not a complete tactical victory, it was nonetheless a resounding strategic success:  the Anglo-Spanish army would soon be obliged to beat a hasty retreat with the arrival of the 50,000 men of the army of Soult.

The losses of the Germans were considerable: 8 officers and 249 men killed; 30 officers and 720 wounded soldiers; the battalions of Nassau, especially, were tested; the Hessians had only 20 killed and 55 wounded, including 5 officers.

“… The French and German divisions of the 4th Corps covered themselves in glory… the Dutch artillery Major Steinmetz was killed on his guns while commanding the division’s artillery…I owe a special mention to Mr. General Schaefer (of Nassau) and Baron von Kruse, of this regiment, who stood out for their valor and coolness. General Schaefer von Bernstein (of Hesse), who had supported the efforts on the enemy’s right three times, deserves special mention, as well as the brave regiment of Hesse commanded by Major Eysermann …”[1]

Leaving the 1st Corps in observation on the Alberche, King Joseph reached Burgos on 30 July with the 4th Corps and the reserve; he led these troops on 1 August to Yllescas, thus bringing them closer to the army of Venegas. On 5 August, the English army having withdrawn by Arzobispo on the left bank of the Tagus, Joseph attacked in Aranjuez the vanguard of Venegas and throwing it on the other side of the river, while Marshal Soult operated his junction with the corps of Marshal Victor. The German Division, officially named since that time Division of the Confederation of the Rhine, was then called to Toledo where it arrived on the 8th with the reserve and all the 4th Corps: the same evening, Leval carried out on the left bank of the Tagus a reconnaissance during which the regiment of Nassau had an engagement with the Spaniards.  The next day, at three o’clock in the morning, the battalion of German voltigeurs, 1 battalion from Baden and 1 battalion from Hesse crossed the bridges, jostled the enemy outposts and encountered a whole Spanish division supported by 8 pieces of cannon: the 3 German battalions vigorously approached the enemy and were soon supported by the entire 4th Corps: the Spaniards, pushed back, retreat to Ajofrín; the debouchment of the army was assured and King Joseph, warned of the presence in Almonacid of the whole army of Venegas – 36,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry – immediately directed the 4th Corps against it as well as the Milhaud and Merlin cavalry divisions.


Venegas, not having been able to gather his army before Toledo, was stationed at Almonacid, his left leaning on a very high hillock, his center and his right established on the plateau which extends in front of and beyond this village; behind this first line, his reserve crowned a steep mountain at the top of which an old Moorish castle dominated the whole country.

It was on this position that he was attacked, on 11 August, by Sébastiani: the best account of this brilliant victory is the narration made by this general in his report to the King of Spain:

“… I was not long in feeling that the winning of the battle depended on the capture of the plateau on which the enemy’s left leaned. I immediately resolved to have it attacked by the Polish and German divisions. I consequently ordered General Leval to form each brigade in a close column by division, to follow the mountain which descends from Toledo, to support his right with a square at the point where the mountains end and arrive at the base of the mamelon that was to be removed, to outflank it by its right with the Germain Division and to have it attacked head-on by the Polish Division.”

“This order was carried out with admirable order and precision. The hillock, defended by 10,000 men and 7 pieces, was carried off at a charge, under terrible artillery and musket fire, by the Polish Division. The attack on the right, made by the German Division, was no less impetuous: Generals Leval and Schaefer (of Nassau), marching at its head, knocked down everything in front of them.”

“While the allied troops so courageously overthrew the enemy’s left, the French division of 6,000 men attacking at a charge the 15,000 Spaniards who were defending the plateau and the village of Almonacid seized 3 pieces of cannon, with a large number of caissons and covered the battlefield with enemy dead. Never was an attack more vigorous and had a more brilliant success.”

“The enemy, forced from its first position, had withdrawn to the mountain and the castle.  I ordered General Leval to turn around, and I ordered a vigorous cannonade. The King (?), seeing them shaken, prescribed a simultaneous movement of the right, the left and the center.  General Leval, with the Polish and German divisions, moved behind the left flank of the army of Venegas; Generals Rey and Bélair forced the center and the right, and the whole army was at the same time on the other side of the mountain, pursuing the enemy with an order and precision difficult to obtain on a maneuvering field…”













BATTLE OF TALAVERA (28 July 1809) (After Isenbart. –Mittler and Son, editors)




“Infantry, cavalry, artillery, everything competed in glory on this beautiful day… I must do justice to the talent and the intrepidity of the generals of division Leval, Milhaud and Merlin.  MM. Generals Bélair, Werlé, Schaefer (of Nassau), Schaefer von Bernstein (of Hesse) distinguished themselves in all respects… The colonel and the major of the regiment of Nassau and the other senior officers of the German Division supported their reputation. Finally, I would have to cite all the officers, all the non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the army, if I wanted to nominate the brave ones.”

During their turning movement, the German battalions suffered two successive charges from the Spanish cavalry, charges brilliantly repulsed thanks to the efficient help of the Hessian and Baden cannons which, placed in the spaces between the squares, struck down enemy squadrons at short distance. The 2 French cavalry divisions Milhaud and Merlin transformed the retreat of the Spaniards into a rout: 35 cannons, 100 caissons, more than 400 carts, 4,000 prisoners and several flags were the trophies of this day, when our 20,000 soldiers defeated more than 40,000 enemies .

We had 107 killed and 2,216 wounded, including 36 killed and 170 wounded for the German Division; on these figures, the regiment of Nassau has 20 dead, the regiment of Hesse 4, – and 25 wounded including 3 officers. We had gathered in a convent near the battlefield 500 of our wounded: these unfortunate people, left without guard during the night, were found the next day slaughtered by the Spaniards.[2]

After this rapid twenty-day campaign, during which he got rid of the three enemy armies which threatened his capital, King Joseph returned triumphantly to Madrid on 15 August.

The last operations had greatly fatigued and weakened the division of the Confederation of the Rhine; it was sent to quarter until the beginning of September between the Tagus, the Tajuña and the Henares, to the south-east of Madrid: Nassau and Baden to Arganda, Hesse and Frankfurt to Chinchón. The division provided detachments on the banks of the Tagus to watch the fords and to observe the movements of the numerous bands of guerrillas which scoured the countryside; the mission of these detachments was not without danger: a company from Baden was indeed surprised in its post and massacred by the Spanish partisans. A similar mishap happened to a company from Nassau established in the village of Fuentidueña:  this company, 50 men strong and commanded by Captain Reichard, was attacked during the night of 21 to 22 August by 200 Spanish guerrillas: the surprise was complete; Nassau’s soldiers, however, managed to assemble in a house where they defend themselves as best they could. They already counted 6 killed and 2 wounded, when the Spaniards succeed in setting fire to the house: the cartridges being exhausted, resistance became impossible, and Captain Reichard was taken prisoner with his company.

On 14 September the two brigades met in Chinchón; they came back on the 18th to Toledo where they spent the end of the month; the Hessian battery, at Alcala, set up and harnessed 2 pieces of Spanish 8; the rest of the artillery of the division included 2 French pieces of 4 and 2 howitzers.

Food becoming rare because of the exhaustion of the country, King Joseph decided to move on the Guadiana the 1st Corps reinforced by the Leval Division: these troops would also serve to closer survey to the Spanish army that had reorganized and seemed to resume its march on Toledo. The 4th Corps was gathered in Toledo and Aranjuez, and the Germans would occupy the small town of Yepes with Merlin squadrons (10th and 26th Chasseurs, Polish lancers, and Dutch Hussars) while the corps of Soult guarded the Tagus, from Talavera to Navalmoral. Victor moved by way of Consuegra, Madridejos and Almagro, on the Jabulón, bringing with him the Polish division and the Germans: these last were posted first in Manzanares, then at Santa-Cruz of Mudela (24 October). But the failure of the 6th Corps in Tamames, near Salamanca, forced Joseph to recall to the north the 1st Corps:  it slowly went back to Consuegra and the Germans with the Poles regained Toledo and Aranjuez respectively (30 October).












BATTLE OF ALMONACID (11 August 1809) (After Isenbart. — Mittler & Son, editors)



The feeding of the troops left a lot to be desired: the black bread and the little mutton meat that constituted all the distributions were hardly sufficient to support the forces of the Germans, accustomed to a more copious mess. The bad cantonments, whose straw wicked up the freshness, altered the health of the soldier: but if the discouragement began to be felt, the attachment to the flag remained intact, and the attempts to induce, like calls for desertion, still had no effect on our allies.

The Spanish General Aréizaga having gathered new levies from  the debris of the army beaten at Almonacid, marched on Toledo at the head of 50,000 infantrymen and three divisions of cavalry:  Victor, after a happy fight in Consuegra (6 November) was pulled back on the Tagus in front of the formidable forces of the Spaniards; Sébastiani immediately called to Aranjuez the German Division reduced to 3,300 fighters; Aréizaga threw on the right bank of the river, at Villamanrique, a strong advanced guard – and a battle seemed imminent. Also Marshal Soult, successor of Jourdan as Chief of Staff of King Joseph, sent to Aranjuez the 5th Corps, commanded by Mortier, giving the order to rally the corps of Sebastiani and to debouch with him on the left bank to attack the Spaniards: The Royal Guard, a French brigade and the Spanish troops of Joseph left Madrid at the same time and gained Aranjuez. Mortier took the supreme command of the 4th and 5th Corps, that of the cavalry was entrusted to Sebastiani.


On 18 November, at the head of 1,500 horses, Sébastiani crossed the Tagus from Reyna and soon met the numerous cavalry of Aréizaga:  despite the enormous disproportion of the number, he charged them without hesitation and in a few moments the enemy regiments were crushed and put into a rout:  “behind the curtain then torn from the enemy cavalry, Sebastiani could see the bulk of the Spanish army that moved on Ocaña to deliver battle.”[3]

From the dawn, Marshal Mortier gave his orders to his lieutenants and distributed them their tasks:  Sebastiani would keep the direction of the cavalry, Leval would command the Germans and the Polish, – General Dessolles, the French of the 4th Corps; finally, General Girard would lead the only 5th Corps division having arrived on the field: it was a total of 25,000 men that the Duke of Trévise would launch against the 55,000 combatants of the Spanish army.

The attack was done by our left, formed troops entrusted to General Leval; this one was supported by the Girard Division and by all the cavalry. General Schaefer (Hesse) made the following account of the battle:

“… At eight o’clock in the morning, the 4th Corps started and arrived at ten thirty on the heights in front of Ocaña. From there, we could see the entire enemy army, his right pressed to an olive wood and his left in Ocaña, – his large cavalry and his artillery. The army corps formed by tight column regiments, one next to the other, the Polish Division on the front line, the Germans in the second line, under the command of General Leval. The latter gave me the order to place myself with my brigade on the far right, in support of the light cavalry; but I would soon go to the left wing to support their attack on the 10th Chasseurs and Polish lancers. At eleven o’clock, the 5th Corps arrived and takes the same formation. All the artillery of the two army corps, brought in front of the right wing, opened its fire at noon. I then moved my brigade forward in columns by half distance divisions. The first company of voltigeurs and the voltigeurs of Frankfurt, under the command of the Captain von Schäfer, formed the vanguard that I strengthen half an hour after with the 2nd Company of voltigeurs. In order not to exceed the forefront, I had several times stopped under the fire of the enemy, which could not be done without losses. About one o’clock, I realized that the enemy cavalry placed in front of me were preparing a movement to turn the light cavalry that was on my left:  but the 3 companies of voltigeurs opened on the Spanish squadrons a fire so violent that they were thrown back in disorder: taking advantage of this circumstance, our light cavalry then charged pass the voltigeurs and made about 8,000 prisoners.  At the right wing, the battle also took a good turn, the enemy fell back everywhere in disorder, and at two thirty took flight. The whole cavalry began to pursue and followed that of the left wing almost to Dos-Barrios where I arrived at night and bivouacked in an olive wood.  On the morning of the 20th, I went back to Ocaña where I went to the German Division. The result of the battle is, so far, 24,000 prisoners, 54 guns, 30 flags. The 1st Corps had crossed the Tagus in morning near Villamanrique:  it is in pursuit of the enemy, with the 5th Corps.  Generals Mortier and Leval were injured…”[4]










  1.  — MARSHAL MORTIER, Commanding the 5th Corps of the Army of Spain.



The critical moment of the day was where the German Division underwent, during its offensive movement, a violent counterattack of the Spanish elite troops supported by several batteries:  General Leval fell wounded, one of his aide-de-camps was killed; 2 pieces placed in the intervals of the German regiments were unmounted, and a certain wavering occurred in our line… But Marshal Mortier ordered the Girard Division to move forward and to relieve the division of the Confederation by a passage of line that ran in perfect order: the troops of the 1st Corps were deployed and made the enemy fall back: the Polish and the Germans, quickly rallied, supported this offensive movement that soon transformed into a victorious advance throughout the fore front.

The losses of the German division amounted to 143 killed (including 3 officers) and 329 wounded (including 14 officers); for its part, Nassau counted 18 killed and 53 wounded, Hesse 15 killed and 50 wounded; Baden more than 100 soldiers out of action and Holland more than 150. The Darmstadt battery fired 296 cannon shots during the battle.  The French army, as a whole lost only 1,200 men, it was the Confederation Division alone that sustained more than a third of the total losses of the day: also, the high command made them the most honorable testimony of their satisfaction:

“The Polish and German divisions engaged in combat and showed great valor.  The German regiments, all rivaled in their ardor and dedication.  Among the officers who deserve to be cited are: … General Schaefer von Bernstein, Lieutenant-Colonel of Schmalkalder of the Hessian Regiment, the Lieutenant of Hessian Artillery Venator …”[5]

After the victory, the reduced Leval Division at 2,500 men went to Aranjuez and then in Madrid; while the horses of his artillery were used to bring into the capital the cannons captured from the Spanish, the infantry escorted the prisoners to the borders of France: Colonel von Kruse, at the head of 800 soldiers of Nassau, arrived 20 December in Bayonne with a first column of 2,700 prisoners; he had to shoot en route a Spanish officer to put an end, by this profitable example, to the attempts to escape that occurred during the march; a second convoy of 2,600 men was escorted by the Baden, another of 3,300 men by the Dutch; the Hessian Regiment also participates in this service; its 2nd Battalion pushed up to Bayonne, but the 1st was stopped in Valladolid where it was ordered for some time as a garrison troop.

From Bayonne the German battalions were returned, in the last days of December, to Palencia where preceded the artillery of the division remained near Madrid.  General Kellermann, Governor of Valladolid, and General Solignac, Governor of Burgos employed the troops of the Confederation at the occupation of the main positions established in the old Castile; the Dutch men remained in Palencia, Nassau occupied Servera and Saldaña;  Baden, Frómista; Hesse, Aranda and Lerma; it was the General Chassé, like the older brigadier, which commanded the German troops in the absence of General Leval that his wound still held away from the division.

[1] Report from General Sébastiani to King Joseph.

[2] Kosterus, p. 64.

[3] Thiers, Consulate and Empire.

[4] Report of General Schaefer, commanding the 2nd Brigade of the German Division, at the battle of Ocaña.

[5] Report of Marshal Soult, Chief of Staff of the Army of Spain.