The battle of Sahagun (21 December 1808) was a British cavalry victory during Sir John Moore’s campaign in northern Spain in the winter of 1808. Moore had first advanced into Spain in October 1808, but news of destruction of the Spanish field armies and of Napoleon’s arrival in Spain forced him to order a retreat back to Portugal. In early December Moore received two items of news that convinced him to change his plans. He was informed that Madrid was resisting Napoleon, and a lengthy siege might follow, while General La Romana informed Moore that he had 23,000 Spanish troops at his disposal to aid the British. Believing Napoleon’s forces to be much smaller than they were, Moore decided to risk an attack on Marshal Soult’s army in northern Spain, with the aim of cutting French communications between Burgos and Madrid, a move that might force Napoleon to abandon Madrid.
Unfortunately for Moore, Madrid fell 4 December, La Romana could only raise a fraction of the troops he promised, and Napoleon had three times the troops Moore believed he did. The expedition into northern Spain had the potential to turn into a total disaster.
The first clash with Soult’s army went well. Debelle’s light cavalry brigade was acting as Soult’s cavalry screen, with its headquarters at Sahagun. Lord Paget, commanding the British cavalry decided to make an attempt to surprise the French. He reached Sahagun at dawn on 21 December at the head of the 10th and 15th Hussars, without being discovered.
Paget’s cavalry overwhelmed the French guard on the road into Sahagun, but one trumpeter escaped to raise the alarm. Paget reacted by splitting his force. The 10th Hussars were sent straight down the main road into the village, while Paget at the head of the 15th Hussars rode around the village to block the French escape routes.
On the far side of the village, Paget found the two French cavalry regiments based in Sahagun, the 8th Dragoons and the 1st Provisional Chasseurs, formed up in a vineyard. Without the 10th Hussars, who were still searching the village, Paget was outnumbered by two to one, but he still chose to attack. The first British charge was blocked by a ditch. Paget was forced to move along this ditch to find a place where his cavalry could cross over. This move forced the French to change their front to face the new threat.
The British cavalry charged before the French change of formation was complete. The Hussar’s crashed into the 1st Provisional Chasseurs and forced them back into the 8th Dragoons. Both French units broke and fled. The British captured 170 prisoners, including two lieutenant-colonels. The French lost 20 dead, the British 14. A number of survivors of the clash escaped to warn Soult that the British were approaching.
Despite this brilliant victory, Paget would not play a part in Wellington’s campaigns in the Peninsula. On his return to Britain, he eloped with the wife of Henry Wellesley, Wellington’s younger brother. Understandably it was not felt wise to place Paget under Wellington’s command, and they would not fight together until Waterloo.
The first elements of Moore’s infantry reached Sahagun later on 21 December. Moore then gave his army two days of rest. The army was to move on at sunset on 23 December, but during the afternoon of that day Moore learnt that Napoleon was rushing north in an attempt to trap the British army. The advance towards Soult was cancelled, and the retreat towards Corunna, on the north western coast of Spain, began.