The battle of Valls (25 February 1809) saw the French defeat the right wing of an ambitious Spanish offensive aimed at recapturing Barcelona. The Spanish had been conducting a long siege of Barcelona during the summer and autumn of 1808, but they had been forced to abandon that siege after suffering a defeat at Cardadeu on 16 December 1808 at the hands of General St. Cyr. They had then been driven away from the vicinity of Barcelona after a second defeat at Molins del Rey on 21 December 1808, and had been forced to regroup around Tarragona.
After his daring dash across the mountains to Barcelona, St. Cyr was not willing to risk an early advance against Tarragona, and so the Spanish were able to rebuild their army. General Vives, the captain-general of Catalonia, was replaced by General Reding, who soon had 30,000 men at his disposal. Meanwhile St. Cyr, who had initially occupied a large area around Barcelona, had slowly been forced to pull his 23,000 men back towards the city.
This encouraged Reding to plan a new offensive. He split his army into two, posting his left wing at Igualada, under General Castro, and his right wing at Tarragona, 35 miles apart as the crow flies, but nearer to sixty miles apart on the mountain roads. Reding was planning to take advantage of his greater numbers to attack each of the French divisions simultaneously.
This plan would only have worked if St. Cyr had not responded to it, but of course he was not willing to fall into the Spanish trap. He decided to concentrate most of his troops against the Spanish left, leaving one division under Souham to face Reding. He would smash Castro’s division before Reding could come to his aid. At the combat of Igualada (16-17 February) St. Cyr successfully carried out the first of his plan, dispersing the Spanish left under Castro. He then turned south to deal with Reding.
When news of the defeat at Igualada reached Reding, he abandoned his own plans for an advance east towards Barcelona, and turned north to help Castro. He left Tarragona on 20 February, heading north towards Pla. At the same time St. Cyr was moving south down the valley of the Gaya River. By 21 February St. Cyr was around Villarodoña, while Reding was heading north towards Sarral and Santa Coloma. At the latter place Reding joined up with Castra and most of the left wing, giving him 20,000 men. However, he was now in danger of being cut off from his base at Tarragona, for St. Cyr was between him and the city.
Reding decided to return to Tarragona, and chose to use the road that passed through Valls, hoping to defeat Souham’s isolated division before he could join with St. Cyr. On the evening of 24 February the Spanish began a night march, which brought them to within two miles of Valls by the following morning. With him were just under 11,000 infantry, 700 cavalry and 8 guns.
St. Cyr was more interested in defeating Reding than in attacking Tarragona. When he first learnt that the Spanish were to his north, he had decided to follow them, but when he discovered that the Spanish had stopped and were about to turn south, he decided to block the two roads back to Tarragona. Souham’s division was to block the road at Valls, while Pino’s division blocked the road nine miles east at Pla. St. Cyr himself accompanied Pino’s division.
In theory Souham had a strong position at Valls. The town was located just to the east of the River Francoli. Reding’s road approached the river from the far side of the river, so the Spanish had to cross the Bridge of Goy, north west of Valls, before they could attack the French in strength. This should have given Pino plenty of time to reach Valls.
Reding’s night march caught the French by surprise. His vanguard reached the bridge at Goy between six and seven, drove in Souham’s guards at the bridge, and began to cross to the east bank. Souham, at the head of a force of 5,500 infantry and 500 cavalry, formed up in line of battle on the plains north of Valls. Reding underestimated the size of the force he was facing, and attacked with his vanguard and part of his centre. This attack was repelled, but over the course of the morning more of his troops were able to cross the river, and by noon Souham had been forced back to the town of Valls.
Reding now had a choice of options that could have led to success – he could either have attacked Souham with his entire force with a good chance of success, for Pino had still not arrived, or he could have continued on his way to Tarragona, for by noon most of his army and all of his baggage was on the east bank of the river. Instead, Reding chose to rest outside Valls, probably to give the rest of his army time to cross the river.
This should have led to disaster, but St. Cyr and Pino had not learnt of the battle until late in the morning. When the news finally reached St. Cyr he took command of Pino’s cavalry, and led it to Valls, leaving Pino behind with orders to bring his infantry along as quickly as possible. St. Cyr arrived at Valls soon after the first phase of the fighting had ended.
When Reding saw that reinforcements had reached the French, he decided to abandon both the march on Tarragona and the attack on Valls, and retreated back across the river to take up defensive positions in the hills on the west bank. He was given the time to perform this slow manoeuvre by Pino, who did not leave Pla until after noon, reaching Valls three hours later than expected.
Once his entire force was back together, St. Cyr launched a classic attack in columns against the Spanish line. Forming his two divisions into four massive columns, each one brigade strong, St. Cyr crossed the river at four separate places (three fords and the bridge), and advanced up the hill towards the Spanish lines. As had so often happened in the past, the sight of the massive French columns advancing towards their lines was too much for Reding’s men, and after firing a number of well aimed volleys at the French broke and fled before the columns reached their lines. The only close quarters fighting took place on the far left, where Reding led a cavalry charge against the French flanks in which he sustained three sabre wounds. Although he escaped from the battlefield, these wounds would later prove fatal, and Reding died of his wounds several weeks later.
As often happened in the Peninsular War, the French did not capture as many prisoners as they had expected. The hilly country behind the Spanish lines was not suited to cavalry, and the Spanish forces broke up into small parties, most of which eventually made their way back to Tarragona. The Spanish lost 1,500 killed and wounded and the same number of prisoners, while the French themselves suffered 1,000 casualties. In the aftermath of the battle, St. Cyr moved to blockade Tarragona, but he was still not interesting in conducting a regular siege, and with the British in command of the seas he was unable to prevent a constant flow of supplies from reaching the city. Once again another French battlefield victory had done little to improve their situation in Spain.