The battle of Medellin of 28 March 1809 was the final battle during Marshal Victor’s invasion of Estremadura of March 1809 and was one of the most costly Spanish defeats of the Peninsular War. The Spanish Army of Estremadura under General Cuesta had been forced out of its defensive positions on the Tagus River after the combat of Meza de Ibor (17 March 1809), and had retreated to the Guadiana River. Just before reaching the river, Cuesta had been faced with a choice of routes – either west towards his base at Badajoz or south east, away from the highroad towards Medellin and La Serena. Cuesta was still intending to offer battle, and so he chose the road to Medellin, for he was expected reinforcements to arrive from the east. He then moved east from Medellin to La Serena, where on 27 March he was joined by the Duke of Albuquerque at the head of a force of 4,500 infantry and 250 cavalry. This gave Cuesta a total of 19,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry and 30 guns, which he decided was enough to allow him to risk battle.
Marshal Victor had begun his campaign with 22,000 men (15,000 infantry, 5,500 cavalry, 60 guns and 1,600 artillerymen). He had followed Cuesta over the mountains between the Tagus and the Guadiana. By the time he discovered that Cuesta had gone to Medellin, Victor had left four infantry battalions and two cavalry regiments to guard key points on the main road, leaving him with 13,000 infantry, 4,500 cavalry and 50 guns.
The battlefield at Medellin was a triangle of land bordered by the River Guadiana to the north and the Hortiga to the west, with Medellin at the north western tip of the triangle, on the west bank of the Hortiga. On the morning of the battle the French were based around Medellin, while the Spanish were approached from Don Benito, to the south east. Both Victor and Cuesta were willing to risk a battle. Although he was outnumbered, Victor’s army was the better organised and more experienced, and was superior in cavalry. Cuesta’s only numerical advantage was in his infantry, but this was split between raw recruits and men who had been defeated Gamonal and the Somosierra Pass. The one redeeming feature of the Spanish position was that the French were fighting with their backs to the River Guadiana. If the Spanish could win the day, their victory would be a large one.
Victor posted all of this cavalry and two of his three infantry divisions east of the Hortiga. Villatte’s infantry, in the centre of the line, was pulled back from the two flank forces. On the left was Lasalle’s cavalry, supported by two battalions of Leval’s infantry, and on the right was Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, against supported by two battalions of infantry.
If this was an odd deployment, Cuesta’s forces were in an even more unusual position. To make sure that he could not be outflanked, Cuesta deployed his infantry into a single thin line, four miles long and only four men deep and split into five divisions (from left to right: Henestrosa, Del Parque, Trias, Portago and Albuquerque). For the Spanish to win they had to prevent the French from finding any gaps in this line, for there were no reserves. If the French cavalry got around the edges of Cuesta’s army, then a disastrous defeat would follow.
At first Cuesta’s plan seemed to be working. At the thin Spanish line advanced, Latour-Maubourg attempted to charge Del Parque’s division, and suffered a repulse. His cavalry retreated to the rear in disorder, and Victor was forced to order a fighting retreat to a new position. This stage of the battle is said to have lasted for two hours, as Lasalle’s left wing pulled back into line with Latour-Maubourg and Villatte’s troops.
The battle was decided on the Spanish left. Here Victor had set up a battery of ten guns, protected by Latour-Maubourg’s two German battalions, one battalion from Villatte’s division and a battalion of grenadiers, with the cavalry protecting their flank. Cuesta sent Henestrosa and Del Parque’s infantry to attack these guns. Their infantry fought with impressive determination, and actually managed to reach the guns. At this point Latour-Maubourg sent his cavalry into the attack. Cuesta, who was on the left, responded by ordered three regiments of Spanish cavalry to counter-charge the French. The Spanish cavalry advanced a short distance towards the French, and then turned and fled without having fired a shot, nearly riding down Cuesta during their rout.
The flight of the Spanish cavalry exposed the left flank of the Spanish line. Latour-Maubourg sent three of his cavalry regiments to attack Henestrosa and Del Parque’s infantry from the side, and the entire Spanish left wing collapsed. Most of the survivors from the Spanish infantry came from the left wing.
A similar collapse occurred on the Spanish right. When Latour-Maubourg began his charge, Lasalle responded by attacking the extreme right of the Spanish line, where their cavalry was advancing along the River Guadiana. Two French cavalry regiments hit the leading Spanish cavalry, and forced them to retreat back towards the remaining regiments. All three then fled from the field, leaving the right flank of the Spanish army exposed. Once again the French were able to attack the Spanish infantry from the side and the front. The Spanish commander on the right, the Duke of Albuquerque, did better than his equivalents on the left wing, managing to organise some resistance to the cavalry, but the Spanish were then hit from the rear by Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, fresh from the rout of the Spanish left.
The result was a massacre. At least 7,500 Spanish troops were killed in the battle, with most of those casualties being suffered by the infantry on the right. Some battalions attempted to stand and fight, and were virtually wiped out, while the French cavalry offered no quarter during the pursuit. The French took at least 1,850 prisoners as well as twenty of Cuesta’s thirty guns. French losses were much lower, although probably not as low as the total of 300 killed and wounded given by Marshal Jourdan. A figure of between 1,000 and 2,000 seems more likely, for the French had one cavalry charge defeated by artillery and had performed a long fighting retreat.
In the aftermath of the battle Cuesta retreated to Monasterio, half way between Medellin and Seville. Bizarrely his standing with the Central Junta improved after Medellin, for despite the defeat and the heavy losses, his army had put up a much more credible fight than had been the case in the majority of recent battles. By mid April enough reinforcements had reached him to bring the Army of Estremadura back to same size as it had been before the battle.
Victor gained very little from his victory. The second part of his orders had been for him to capture Badajoz, close to the border with Portugal, and then wait for news from Marshal Soult, who was believed to be advancing towards Lisbon. Instead of doing this, Victor put his men into camps at Merida and Medellin. He remained in Estremadura until the middle of June, by which time it was clear that Soult’s campaign in Portugal had gone badly wrong. Arthur Wellesley had taken command in Portugal, forced the French to retreat across the mountains back to Galicia, and was now threatening to invade Spain. Victor and his army was needed around Talavera.
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