The battle of Almonacid of 11 August 1809 was a relatively costly French victory that effectively ended the Talavera campaign. A key part of the Allied plan for that campaign had involved the Army of La Mancha under Venegas. He was meant to threaten Madrid to prevent General Sebastiani’s 4th Corps from moving west to aid Marshal Victor, but after a good start Venegas had been inactive during the most important days of the campaign. Sebastiani had been able to move to Talavera, but despite this the French had still been defeated. The French position was only saved by the arrival of a large army from the north west of Spain, under Marshal Soult, which forced Wellington and Cuesta to retreat back into Estremadura. As the Allies retreated, King Joseph split the army that had been defeated at Talavera. Leaving Marshal Victor to take part in the pursuit of Wellington, he took Sebastiani’s corps and the Royal Reserve east, to end the threat from Venegas.
On the night of 4 August Venegas received the news that Wellington and Cuesta were in retreat, with a warning that the French might be heading his way. Despite this he decided to remain on the Tagus and to risk a battle with the French. By the morning of 5 August his army was concentrated at Aranjuez, on the southern bank of the river. Later that day the first French troops, under General Sebastiani, arrived on the north bank. Under pressure the Spanish outposts abandoned the north bank, destroying the bridge behind them. Sebastiani responded by sending troops across two nearby fords and attacking the Spanish position, but when Venegas held his ground the French pulled back (combat of Aranjuez).
When King Joseph reached Aranjuez, he decided not to attempt to cross the Tagus there, but instead to move west, and cross the bridge at Toledo. Venegas soon realised what Joseph was doing, and set his army off on a parallel march to the west, on the south bank of the river. The French won this race to Toledo, arriving late on 8 August. On the next morning Sebastiani crossed the river, driving away a Spanish detachment that was watching the town, and then following it east. The Spanish were not far behind the French, and as Sebastiani’s men advanced, they ran into the Spanish 5th division (Major-General Zerain). After a short skirmish the Spanish were forced to retreat, and moved south east along the road to Mora and Madridejos, stopping at the small town of Almonacid. By the end of 10 August the rest of the Spanish army had come up to Almonacid, where they were facing Sebastiani’s corps and Milhaud’s dragoons. King Joseph and the Royal Reserve were about ten miles to the rear.
Sebastiani, Joseph and Venegas were all determined to fight on 11 October. The French believed that they needed to defeat the Army of La Mancha to secure their hold on Madrid, while Venegas was determined not to retire in the face of the enemy. Both sides were also planning to attack, but for some reason Venegas decided to delay his own attack until 12 August, apparently expecting the French to sit quietly for an entire day to allow him to carry out this plan.
The French had a total of 17,800 infantry and 3,800 cavalry at Almonacid. Of those men Sebastiani’s 4th Corps provided 13,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, and the Royal Reserves 4,800 infantry and 600 cavalry. At the start of the battle Sebastiani had 14,000 men available. Venegas had 20,000 infantry and just under 3,000 cavalry, giving him numerical superiority on the day, but the French repeated defeated much larger Spanish armies.
The French task was made much easier by Venegas’s deployment. Just as at Ucles, Venegas arranged his army in a long thin line on a line of hills either side of Almonacid. The artillery was concentrated in the centre of the line, with the cavalry on the wings. The only reserve was made up of four battalions of infantry and two regiments of cavalry, posted behind the town. The strongest point on the Spanish line was the hill known as Los Cerrojones, on the left of the line.
Despite being outnumbered, on the morning of 11 August Sebastiani decided to attack the Spanish line. His plan was to capture Los Cerrojones, and then attack the rest of the Spanish army in the flank. While one division of infantry and Milhaud’s dragoons made a demonstration against the Spanish centre and right, Leval’s German division was sent to outflank the Spanish left while Valence’s Polish division attacked head-on.
The French attack was a success, although the Spanish fought better than expected. Valence’s men were actually held off by the defenders of Los Cerrojones, but when Leval’s division outflanked them they were forced to retreat. Venegas used up his reserves in an attempt to prevent the fall of the hill, but they only succeeded in stopping the French from advancing along the line. Sebastiani responded by sending his own division to attack the Spanish centre. This forced Venegas to abandon his entire line and pull back to a second line of hills, the Cerro del Castillo, a little further to the south east.
There he attempted to form a new line to hold off the French, but by now King Joseph and the reserves had reached the battlefield. Reinforced by Dessolles’ division, Sebastiani was able to break the left and centre of the new Spanish line. Fortunately for the Spanish they still had one fresh division, Vigodet’s, which had spent the entire battle so far on the Spanish right. This division was able to hold up the French advance for long enough for the defeated Spanish left and centre to begin their retreat in good order. The French cavalry was sent to chase the retreating Spanish army, but with less success than normal, and the army eventually rallied at the mountain passes on the borders of La Mancha.
The battle of Almonacid had been a French victory, but a more costly one than most of their earlier victories over Spanish armies. Sebastiani reported his losses as 319 dead and 2,075 wounded, while the Spanish lost around 800 dead and 2,500 wounded. A further 2,000 men were captured during the retreat, leaving Venegas with nearly 18,000 men. The Army of La Mancha had had a lucky escape.
In the aftermath of the battle Venegas was removed from command of the Army of La Mancha, and replaced by General Carlos Areizaga. In contrast King Joseph returned to Madrid in triumph, claiming personal responsibility for repulsing 120,000 British and Spanish troops (40,000 more than took part in the entire Talavera campaign). He then settled down for the winter. Napoleon had just ended another war with Austria after winning the battle of Wagram, and it was clear that large numbers of reinforcements, and possibly even Napoleon himself, would soon be on the way to Spain. Joseph would have to wait for his winter break, for in early October the Spanish Junta began their own offensive, aimed at forcing the French out of Madrid.
|A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.|
|The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain.|
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