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The battle of Alba de Tormes was a dramatic French cavalry victory that ended the Spanish Junta’s autumn campaign of 1809. The Spanish plan had involved two main armies – the Army of La Mancha, which was to attack Madrid from the south, and the Army of the Left, under the Duke Del Parque, whose job was to draw French troops away from the Spanish capital.
Del Parque’s campaign had begun with a victory, at Tamames on 18 October 1809. He had then occupied Salamanca twice, leaving the first time after the French concentrated against him. On 21 November he left Salamanca for the second time, hoping to get between the French army of Marchand and Kellerman and Madrid. His target was the town of Medina del Campo, which his advance guard reached on 23 November, at the same moment as a French force arrived from the opposite direction. The French launched a cavalry attack on the Spanish vanguard, which was repulsed. For the next two days the two armies faced each other, with the French expecting an attack at any moment, for Del Parque had 32,000 men while Kellerman had only 16,000. That attack never came, for on 24 November Del Parque learnt that the Army of La Mancha had been destroyed at Ocaña on 19 November, leaving the French to concentrate against him in overwhelming numbers. On the next day the Spanish began to retreat back towards the mountains at Alba de Tormes.
This sudden departure gained Del Parque a significant head start over the French who did not respond until 26 November. For the next two days it seemed likely that Del Parque would escape with his army intact. Eventually, on the afternoon of 28 November Kellerman’s cavalry found the Spanish army camped around Alba de Tormes. Confident that he had escaped pursuit, Del Parque had camped with his army split in half by the River Tormes, with two divisions west of the river and three in the town. When Kellerman arrived, Del Parque had 18,000 men on the east bank of the river. Kellerman had only 3,000 cavalry, but he was aware that if he waited for his infantry to catch up, then the Spanish would probably escape, and so he decided to risk a cavalry attack on the much larger Spanish army. Although this seems like a massive risk, Kellerman knew that he outnumbered the Spanish cavalry, and so even if his attack failed, he was in no danger of suffering a significant defeat, but if he was lucky then he could catch the Spanish unprepared.
This was exactly what happened. The French attacked while the Spanish were struggling to form a line, with Losada’s division on the right, Belveder’s in the centre and La Carrera’s on the left. The French attack hit the Spanish right, before the Spanish had time to form into squares. Losada’s division and part of Belveder’s broke under the impact. As the scattered Spanish troops attempted to reach safety across the bridges, the French took 2,000 prisoners, and inflicting most of the 1,000 casualties that the French suffered on the day. Kellerman then turned to deal with La Carrera’s division, but this time the Spanish had formed into squares, and the French cavalry were repulsed. However the Spanish were not able to move in squares (unlike the British light division, who managed to retreat in squares across the field at Fuentes de Onoro on 3-5 May 1811). As long as Kellerman maintained the pressure on the Spanish, they were unable to escape. Eventually, when the French infantry began to arrive, La Carrera ordered his men to attempt to reach the bridges. By now it was getting dark, and the French were unable to take much advantage of the situation.
Overnight the Spanish withdrew back into the mountains. Del Parque lost as many men in this retreat as he had lost in the battle, and one month later he had only 26,000 men under arms, but worse was to follow. Over the winter of 1809-1810 another 9,000 men were lost to illness and starvation. By the spring of 1810 only half of the army that had begun the retreat to Alba de Tormes remained.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.3: September 1809-December 1810 - Ocana, Cadiz, Bussaco, Torres Vedras, Sir Charles Oman. Part three of Oman's classic history begins with the series of disasters that befell the Spanish in the autumn of 1809 and spring of 1810, starting with the crushing defeat at Ocana and ending with the French conquest of Andalusia and capture of Seville, then moves on to look at the third French invasion of Portugal, most famous for Wellington's defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.|
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