The battle of Ucles (13 January 1809) was a major French victory close to Madrid early in 1809. It saw a French army under Marshal Victor destroy the vanguard of the Spanish Army of the Centre, under General Venegas, and ended any chance of a quick Spanish return to Madrid.
In the aftermath of their defeat at Tudela on 23 November, Castaños’ Army of the Centre had escaped to Calatayud, and then began to move towards Madrid, hoping to take part in the defence of the capital. At Siguenza Castaños had been replaced by the incapable La Peña, who had continued to move towards Madrid. By 2 December it had reached Guadalajara, where it was joined by the Duke of Infantado, the newly appointed President of the Junta of Defence of Madrid. He had hoped to hurry the army towards Madrid, but it was too late, for Napoleon reached the city on 2 December, and after two days of fighting Madrid fell on 4 December 1808. Infantado then took command of the army in person, and by 10 December it was in winter quarters at Cuenca, 85 miles east of Madrid. Once there Infantado concentrated on reorganising his army, which by late December was 20,000 strong. The original four divisions of the army were reduced to two, with separate vanguard and reserve brigades made up of some of the best troops.
One of the many reasons for the French failures in Spain was Napoleon’s habit of underestimating the ability of the Spanish to raise new troops. In mid-December he received news that Sir John Moore’s British army had left its base in the west, and was marching north east towards Marshal Soult’s corps, spread out west of Burgos. Napoleon realised that he had a chance to trap the British, and on 19 December he left Madrid at the head of most of his armies. King Joseph was left at Madrid, protected by 36,000 men under Marshals Victor and Lefebvre, but Napoleon was not content to leave these men around Madrid. Instead Lefebvre’s corps was ordered to attack the remnants of the Army of Estremadura, leaving Victor, with one division of infantry and six dragoon regiments, to guard against any Spanish attack from the south or east. In total Victor had 9,000 men under his command.
Infantado quickly learnt that Napoleon had left Madrid. His scouts reported finding nothing but cavalry on the plains below Cuenca, and so he decided to launch an attack on King Joseph at Madrid. If he had moved quickly, this plan may well have succeeded, for very few French troops were close enough to Madrid to have arrived in time. The Spanish made their first move on 25 December. General Venegas, with most of the Spanish cavalry, and the vanguard, was sent to attack the French cavalry at Tarancon, while a second column under General Senra was sent to Aranjuez. Venegas came clossest to success, surrounding the French cavalry unit, but when the French realised the danger they were in they charged the Spanish infantry. The infantry formed into squares, and the French escaped through the gaps. General Senra found a large force of infantry at Aranjuez rather than the cavalry he had expected, and sensibly decided not to attack.
The news of Infantado’s advance caused something of a panic in Madrid. King Joseph only had one infantry division in reserve to reinforce Victor – Lefebvre had just begun his move into Estremadura, while the bulk of the French armies had been drawn north by Sir John Moore. This was Infantado’s big chance – if he had moved with any speed, he should have been able to defeat Victor’s small force and move on Madrid, which may well have fallen to him. Instead, the duke remained at Cuenca with the bulk of his army, while his vanguard remained static at Tarancon. As often seemed to happen during the Peninsular War, the duke missed the chance of winning a real victory by concentrating on massively over-ambitious plans – in this case for a massive operation that would liberate Madrid, cut the French lines of communication back to the border and lift the siege of Saragossa.
The delay was fatal. Although Napoleon refused to believe that there was any real threat to Madrid, he still sent reinforcements. Dessolles’ division arrived at Madrid on 8 January, while the entire 4th Corps arrived two days later. The one division that had been in reserve at Madrid, under General Ruffin, was sent to join Victor. Their combined force was ordered to attack Venegas’s vanguard, still based at Tarancon. Victor now had 12,000 infantry and 3,500 cavalry under his command.
On 12 January Victor marched to Tarancon, only to find that the Spanish had finally moved. On the previous day Venegas had retreated back to Ucles, called in the detached division under Senra, and then decided to make a stand. He was outnumbered by the French, with only 9,500 infantry and 1,800 cavalry, just under half of the total force available to Infantados, but he did have a good defensive position at Ucles, on a ridge that overlooks the plains to the north-west. The only problem was that he did not have enough men to properly defend the ridge.
This forced Venegas to over-extend his line. Four battalions were posted in Ucles itself, with six to the left (south west) and eight to the right (north east), in a single long line. Only one battalion was left in reserve behind this line, while three infantry battalions and four regiments of cavalry were left exposed at Tribaldos, to the north west of the line, with orders to observe the French advance. Even with his men this widely spread, Venegas’s flanks were unprotected by any natural features.
On the morning of 13 January Victor’s force left Ucles in two columns. One, under General Villatte, was sent on the direct road to Ucles, while the other, under General Ruffin, was sent on a longer road slightly to the north, heading towards Carrascosa. The Spanish outpost at Tribaldos was soon forced to retreat back into the main Spanish lines, and Victor was able to reconnoitre the Spanish position. He decided to take advantage of his marching order to outflank both wings of the Spanish army. Ruffin was ordered to turn south to attack the Spanish right, while Villatte was to attack the Spanish centre and left.
Villatte’s part of the plan worked perfectly. While part of his force made a noisy demonstration in the centre of the Spanish lines, six battalions marched beyond the Spanish left, climbed up onto the end of the ridge, and attacked along ridgeline. The Spanish left wing crumpled up all the way back to Ucles at the centre of the line. Venegas attempted to reinforce his left, but with no reserve he had to move troops from the right. They were unable to reach the left in time to prevent the collapse, but the move did weaken the Spanish right. Victor responded by sending that part of Villatte’s division that had remained in front of Ucles to attack the Spanish right, and soon Venegas’s entire army was retreating to the east.
Only now did Ruffin’s division appear on the scene. They had got lost while trying to find the original Spanish right wing, and had ended up marching too far to the east. This meant that they had missed the battle itself, but they now found themselves directly in the line of the Spanish retreat. The Spanish were almost completely encircled, and had no choice but to surrender. The Spanish suffered around 1,000 killed and wounded during the battle itself, and the French took 5,887 prisoners during the retreat (four generals, seventeen colonels, 306 other officers and 5,560 rank and file). The French only lost 150 men in the fighting.
Somewhat ironically, Infantados had finally moved from Cuenca on 12 January. On the morning of 13 January he was only fifteen miles from Ucles, and had reached Carrascosa before fugitives from the battle made it clear that Venegas had been defeated. He immediately turned around and returned to Cuenca, before escaping south to Murcia, having lost one third of his army in its first battle. Back in Madrid news of the victory of Ucles finally convinced Napoleon to let King Joseph make his formal return to the city (22 January). By then Napoleon had left Spain, crossing the border into France on 17 January, leaving behind him a grand plan that he confidently believed would quickly end the war.