The battle of Tudela, 23 November 1808, was a major French victory that sealed the success of Napoleon’s great plan of double-envelopment during the one campaign he conducted in person in Spain. The early French successes in Spain had been overturned by the Spanish uprising in the spring and early summer of 1808, and the French had been forced to pull back to the Ebro. This was the best chance the Spanish had to expel the French, but they missed the chance. No supreme commander was appointed, so the various Spanish armies continued to operate independently. The main armies were those commanded by General Blake on the north coast, General Castaños around Tudela and General Palafox around Saragossa. Of these Blake’s was the most active, but his offensive around Bilbao ended in defeat at Zornoza on 31 October 1808.
Napoleon’s great plan was for an attack in strength towards Burgos, in the gap between Blake and the southern armies. Once the Spanish line had been pierced, French armies were to swing north and south, trapping the remaining Spanish armies. For this plan to work, the Spanish armies had to remain in their dangerously exposed advanced positions, and so Napoleon gave his troops facing these armies orders not to attack. The result was that from late October to 21 November Marshal Moncey’s 3rd Corps remained inactive opposite General Castaños’s Army of the Centre.
In contrast the Spanish armies remained in constant but ineffective movement. Castaños was ill for much of the period, leaving Palafox in effective charge, and he seems to have adopted and then abandoned a series of different plans. This period of relative peace came to an abrupt end on 21 November. On this day Castaños was around Calahorra on the Ebro, between Logrono and Tudela. There he received news that the French 3rd Corps had crossed the Ebro at Logrono, and was heading east along the river towards Calahorra, while another French army (Marshal Ney’s column) had reached the upper Douro valley and was headed in the direction of Tudela. This left Castaños’s army in serious danger of being trapped between two French armies.
Castaños managed to escape from this trap by pulling back to Tudela. Once there he decided to defend a ten mile long front, stretching west from Tudela on the banks of the Ebro, along the line of a small river to Cascante and then to Tarazona, at the foot of the Sierra de Moncayo. Castaños was well aware that he did not have enough men to defend this line, and so he called for help from General O’Neille, who had two divisions at Caparrosa on the east bank of the Ebro. O’Neille was under the command of Palafox, and refused to move without permission from his commander. This was not given until noon on 22 November. O’Neille reached the east bank of the Ebro opposite Tudela late on the same day, but then decided to postpone his crossing until the next day.
At nightfall on 22 November Castaños’s army was very badly stretched. Close to 45,000 Spanish troops were in the vicinity of Tudela, but at that point very few of them were actually in place. Castaños had placed two divisions of his own army at Cascante (La Peña’s division) and Tarazona (Grimarest’s division). His third division (Roca) was on the east bank of the Ebro, as were the two divisions from the Army of Aragon (O’Neille and Saint March). During the battle of 23 November most of the fighting would only involve these last three divisions, a force of around 23,000 infantry. Castaños also had an unusually large number of cavalry – 3,600 in total – but he failed to take advantage of them, and on 23 November would be caught completely by surprise.
Of the two French columns, only the 3rd Corps would be involved in the fighting at Tudela. During the period of waiting this force had been commanded by Marshal Moncey, but when the advance began Napoleon transferred command of the force to Marshal Lannes. His army was just under 34,000 strong. It contained the four infantry divisions and three cavalry regiments of Moncey’s Corps as well as Lagrange’s infantry division and Colbert’s cavalry from Ney’s corps. On the night before the battle Lannes’s army had camped at Alfaro, ten miles up the Ebro from Tudela.
On the morning of 23 November Lannes split his army into two columns. The smaller column, containing Lagrange’s infantry division and two cavalry brigades, was sent towards Cascante, while the larger column, containing Moncey’s corps, was sent along the Ebro towards Tudela.
While the French were advancing towards him, Castaños was attempting to get O’Neille’s three divisions across the Ebro. The first of those divisions, under General Roca, was across first, and had just reached its place at the right of the planned Spanish line when the French made their first attack. Saint March’s division was second across, and was also able to take its allotted place in the line before the French attacked, but O’Neille’s own division had to fight off a force of French skirmishers who had reached the top of the Cabezo Malla ridge ahead of them.
This first French attack was carried out by Lanne’s vanguard. As he arrived in front of Tudela, the Marshal had realised that the Spanish were not yet in place, and had decided to risk launching an improvised attack with his leading brigades. This attack was repulsed, but it did reveal just how weak the Spanish position was. Even after the three divisions at Tudela were in place, there was still a three mile gap to La Peña’s force at Cascante.
The result of the battle would be decided by the behaviour of La Peña and Grimarest. By noon both men had received orders to move – La Peña to close the gap with the troops at Tudela, and Grimarest to Cascante. Neither man responded. La Peña moved two brigades slightly to the east, but made no other move, allowing his division to be pinned in place by two French cavalry brigades. At noon Castaños himself attempted to reach La Peña to order him to move in person, but his movement was detected by some French cavalrymen, and he only escaped after a long chase.
Marshal Lanne’s second attack was carried out in much greater force than the first. On the French left Morlot’s division attacked Roca’s division on the heights above Tudela. To the right Maurice Mathieu’s much larger division made a frontal assault on O’Neille, while also attempting to outflank him. Both attacks succeeded. Roca’s division broke when French troops began to reach the top of the ridge, while O’Neille’s was pushed off the ridge and outflanked. Finally the French cavalry under Lefebvre-Desnouettes charged at the gap between Roca and Saint March, and the entire Spanish right collapsed.
Meanwhile on the left La Peña and Grimarest had finally united at Cascante, giving them a total of around 18,000 infantry and 3,000 foot. They were opposed by Legrange’s division, 6,000 strong, and a small number of dragoons. After watching the defeat of the rest of the Spanish army, they withdrew under cover of darkness. The poor performance of La Peña and Grimarest is reflected in the casualty figures. The Spanish left suffered 200 killed and wounded, while the right lost 3,000 killed and wounded and 1,000 prisoners.
The number of prisoners was relatively low for two reasons. Most immediately, the terrain behind Tudela was very poor country for cavalry, cut up by drainage ditches and walled olive groves. More importantly, Marshal Ney’s column was still fifty miles away in the mountains. Napoleon later tried to pass all of the blame for this onto Ney, but this was unfair. Ney’s orders had been issued on 18 November, and he had received them on 19 November. In them he had been told that Lannes would attack on 22 November, only four days after the orders were issued. In that time Ney had to march for 121 miles, often along rough mountain roads. Ney had actually only been able to set off on 20 November, and two days later had reached Soria, a march of nearly 80 miles in three days. On the day of the battle he had been resting at Soria, and he did not reach Tarazona until 26 November. If anything Ney had over-worked his men on the first two days of the march. Having reached Soria at the end of the day he had been told the battle would begin, he can hardly have been blamed for resting his men before beginning the two day march to the Ebro.
The two wings of the Spanish army at Tudela escaped in different directions. The forces from Aragon that had fought on the Spanish right made for Saragossa, where many of them would take part in the second siege (which would begin on 20 December), while the virtually intact Spanish left attempted to return to Madrid to defend the city from Napoleon, but the French emperor moved far too fast for them. Having brushed aside a small Spanish army at the Somosierra pass on 30 November, Napoleon reached Madrid on 1 December. His grand plan appeared to have ended in total success. The main Spanish armies had been scattered, Madrid was in his hands, and he began to prepare for the reconquest of Portugal.