Battle of Medina del Rio Seco, 14 July 1808

The battle of Medina del Rio Seco, 14 July 1808, was a French victory early in the Peninsular War won by Marshal Bessiéres against a much larger Spanish army. Despite suffering defeat at Cabezon, General Cuesta was determined to fight back. Although his own army was tiny, he was able to convince the Junta of Galicia to send their own much larger army, under General Joachim Blake, to help Cuesta. The two armies met at Villapando on 10 July, where Cuesta took command of the combined army. His plan was to cut the French lines of communication between France and Madrid.

General Antoine Lasalle, 1775-1809
General Antoine Lasalle,
1775-1809

Napoleon had been expecting just such a move, and sent troops to reinforce Marshal Bessiéres, the French commander in north eastern Spain. He soon had an army 14,000 strong which he felt was strong enough to take on the Spanish, and so began to march towards Cuesta. On 13 July the French cavalry of General Lasalle found the Spanish outposts near Medina de Rios Seco.

Although the Spanish had not concentrated all of their available troops, Cuesta still outnumbered the French. His own army contained 6,000 infantry and 550 cavalry, while Blake had 15,000 infantry, 150 cavalry and 20 guns, giving him a total of 21,000 infantry and 700 cavalry. Unfortunately Cuesta seems to have gone out of his way to squander this advantage. He picked a poor place to make his stand, on a gentle hillside in front of the town of Medina del Rio Seco. He had then split his army into two sections. To the south east was General Blake with one division from his army of Galicia and the vanguard bridge. This force was posted on part of the plateau of Valdecuevas, a prominent hill. Cuesta, with his army of Castile and a division from the army of Galicia was one mile away, behind and to the left of Blake’s force. The two halves of the Spanish army could not even see each other. No good reason for this deployment has been found, although it has been suggested that Cuesta was hoping that Blake would be forced to retreat, allowing him to save the day. If so the plan backfired badly.

Marshal Bessieres on Horseback
Marshal Bessieres
on Horseback

Bessières soon realised how vulnerable the Spanish were. On 14 July he began a general advance towards the Spanish position. On discovering the mile wide gap in the middle of the Spanish line he decided to pin Cuesta down with a small covering force, and concentrate on outflanking Blake. Five battalions under General Mouton were able to pin Cuesta in place while fifteen battalions under Generals Sabathier and Merle gradually engaged with Blake’s force. After an hour of fighting, Bessières ordered Lasalle to lead his cavalry into the gap. Once there they were able to attack Blake’s unguarded left flank. In a few minutes Blake’s entire force was in retreat, with the exception of one battalion from Navarre, which formed a square and held up the French for long enough for Blake to escape.

At this point Cuesta should have joined the retreat, but instead as Bessières’s army appeared he ordered his Galician division to attack them up the hill. In the centre this gallant attack actually reached the French lines, captured four guns, but was soon forced back with heavy losses. Finally Cuesta ordered his own troops, from the army of Castile, to retreat back through the town of Medina del Rio Seco.

The French army had been marching and fighting since two in the morning, and so Bessières did not order a determined pursuit. Even so the Army of Galicia lost around 3,000 men – 400 dead, 500 wounded, 1,200 prisoners and the rest deserting. In contrast the Army of Castile had only suffered 155 casualties. The French lost 105 dead and 300 wounded.

The defeat at Medina del Rio Seco ended any Spanish threat to the French lines of communications with France. Joseph Bonaparte was able to travel to Madrid to take up his new throne, arriving on 20 July.

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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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 January 2008), Battle of Medina del Rio Seco, 14 July 1808 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_medina_del_rio_seco.html

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