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The battle of Baylen (19 July 1808) was a crucial Spanish victory early in the Peninsular War that encouraged both Spanish resistance and Napoleon’s enemies across Europe. By the start of the summer of 1808 large areas of Spain had rebelled against the French invasion, but Napoleon had been misinformed about the strength of the revolts. Believing he faced small local revolts, he ordered a number of small flying columns to be dispatched from Madrid to restore order. One of those columns, 13,000 men under the command of General Dupont, was sent to Andalusia, with orders to occupy Alcolea.
After winning a victory at Alcolea on 7 June, Dupont’s troops sacked Cordova. However, the French did not have the strength to remain in Cordova, and Dupont was soon forced to retreat east. At the end of June Dupont was reinforced by 6,000 infantry and 600 cavalry under General Vedel, bringing his total strength to 20,000. The French force then remained inactive, spread between Andujar and Baylen.
The revolt was much more serious than Napoleon had been told. The Spanish soon had 30,000 men facing Dupont, under the command of General Francisco de Castaños. Neither commander handled their forces well in the early phases of the fighting. Dupont decided to defend a long stretch of the River Guadalquivir, from Andujar to Mengibar with his 13,000 men, while leaving Vedel north of the river. Castaños split his army into three parts, believing that the French were concentrated at Andujar. He was to lead 12,000 men in an attack on that place, while 10,000 under General Reding attacked Mengibar and another 8,000 attacked at Villaneuva, half way between Mengibar and Andujar. Castaños expected that his central and right wings would easily sweep across the river and hit the French in the flank.
The Spanish attack began on 14 July in a series of skirmishes with French pickets south of the river. The first serious attack was made on 15 July, and was repulsed by the French. Dupont now knew that the Spanish army was divided, but failed to take his chance to defeat it in detail. Instead he remained on the defensive all along the line. His only major decision was to order Vedel to move some of his men west to Andujar. Vedel misjudged the size of the Spanish force at Mengibar, and moved all but two battalions of his men west to support Dupont.
As a result the Spanish gained a significant victory of 16 July. While their attack at Andujar achieved little, the virtually unopposed attack at Mengibar succeeded in cross the river, threatening to cut the French army in half. Things got worse the next morning when the French commander at Baylen, General Dufour, retreated north towards La Carolina, believing that the Spanish were about to block the mountain passes and cut the French off from Madrid.
Battle of Baylen, 16 July 1809: Morning
Battle of Baylen, 16 July 1809: Evening
Battle of Baylen, 17 July 1809: Morning
Dupont still had a chance to retrieve the situation. He now had most of his army at Andujar, facing a smaller Spanish force under Castaños. If he had chosen to attack the Spanish commander, the French would still have had a very good chance of defeating the Spanish in detail, taking advantage of their separation into three columns. Instead Dupont decided to split his army, remaining at Andujar himself while Vedel was sent east in an attempt to restore the situation at Baylen. Instead, when he reached Baylen and found that Dufour had moved north, Vedel decided to follow him. The French army was now dangerously divided.
Early on 18 July Dupont finally decided to leave Andujar and move east. However he did not want to abandon the loot captured at Cordova, and so spend most of the day loading wagons and preparing for the move. Finally, on the evening of 18 July the main French force left Andujar, heading for Baylen. This delay allowed the Spanish to consolidate their position at Baylen and would cost the French dear.
The final battle began early on 19 July when the French advance guard attacked the Spanish position. General Chabert, commanding that advance guard, only had 3,000 men, while the Spanish had 14,000 men in the lines defending Baylen. This first French attack was soon beaten off. Dupont then arrived at Baylen, and took personal command of the battle. Aware that General Castaños was still behind him, Dupont threw his troops into the attack piecemeal, and the Spanish were able to beat off each attack. Dupont’s first two attacks failed, and by noon Castaños was indeed beginning to threaten the French rear. Dupont made one last desperate attempt to break through the Spanish lines, which came close to success but failed because Dupont no longer had the reserves to exploit the initial success.
With his army beginning to disintegrate, Dupont sued for terms. His entire force of 20,000 men went into Spanish captivity. The negotiations were prolonged, and the surrender did not take place until 23 July. Of that number, 17,635 were considered to be uninjured. The defeat at Baylen had widespread consequences. Although Napoleon was not personally involved, the reputation of his armies suffered. Dupont was disgraced, losing his titles and spending two years in prison. Napoleon was forced to intervene personally in Spain, temporarily restoring the French position in the Peninsula, but any hope of an easy occupation of Spain ended at Baylen.
|History of the Peninsular War vol.1: 1807-1809 - From the Treaty of Fontainebleau to the Battle of Corunna, Sir Charles Oman. The first volume of Oman's classic seven volume history of the Peninsular War, this is one of the classic works of military history and provides an invaluable detailed narrative of the fighting in Spain and Portugal. This first volume covers the initial French intervention, the start of the Spanish uprising, the early British involvement in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon's own brief visit to Spain.|
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