By the start of 1810 the only part of Spain that had not been occupied by the French at least once was Andalusia. This wealthy province had been invaded at the very start of the Peninsular War, only for the French to suffer defeat at Baylen. Since then Seville had served as the capital of the Spanish Central Junta, protected by the Sierra Morena and the Armies of La Mancha and of Estremadura. While the Spanish had large armies in place to defend the mountain passes, any French campaign into Andalusia would have been very dangerous.
The situation changed after the failure of the Spanish Junta’s autumn campaign of 1809. This had seen two main Spanish armies attempt to recapture Madrid. The Army of the Left had moved first, threatening Madrid from the west. The Duke Del Parque had won one victory at Tamames on 18 October 1809, and had briefly occupied Salamanca. The Army of La Mancha had then advanced to within 35 miles of Madrid, before suffering a catastrophic defeat at Ocaña on 19 November 1809. Andalusia was suddenly very vulnerable to French attack.
After the success at Ocaña the French had two options. Perhaps the most sensible would have been to strike west into Portugal in an attempt to defeat Wellington and force the British out of the Peninsular, but this did not appeal to King Joseph. Andalusia was the most populous and the wealthiest province of Spain, and its possession was very appealing to the king, who was permanently short of money. Over the winter he convinced Marshal Soult, his chief of staff, to support this idea, and despite a lack of direct approval from Napoleon the French began to plan to cross the mountains.
The forces defending Andalusia were still commanded by General Areizaga, despite his defeat at Ocaña. He had a total of no more than 32,000 men, spread out along a 167 mile long front. On the far left was the Army of Estremadura, 8,000 men under the command of the Duke of Albuquerque. They were based around Don Benito and Merida on the Guadiana River, to protect the western end of Andalusia from an attack through Estremadura. Next in line were two weak divisions under Generals Copons and Zerain, 4,500 strong, based at Almaden, at the northern end of the passes that leads from La Manca to Cordova. Sixty miles further east was the main body of Areizaga’s army, defending the passes on the main road from Madrid to Seville, with its headquarters at La Carolina. Finally the divisions of Vigodet and Jacomé were posted fifteen miles further to the east, to defend the passes of Aldea Quemada and Villa Manrique.
The Spanish Junta had responded to the crisis by called up 100,000 recruits and by planning a massive program of fortification in the passes, but very little had actually been done by the time the French attacked. Most of the major passes were too wide to easily defend, and the French would prove to be strong enough to force their way through at all three points.
The eventual French plan involved two main columns. In the west Marshal Victor with 22,000 men from 1st Corps, was to attack at Almaden, and then advance directly for Cordova. The main army, 40,000 strong, under the direct command of Joseph, would attack towards La Carolina. It was hoped that Areizaga would be forced to retreat west straight into Victor’s corps and that his army would be trapped and destroyed.
The invasion began on 12 January when Victor’s corps swept the Spanish out of Almaden, and began to advance across the mountains towards Cordova, reaching the valley of the Guadalquivir fifteen miles east of Cordova on 21 January after a difficult but unopposed march.
The main French attack towards La Carolina began on 18 January, as French troops began to advance up the passes. On 20 January the French forced their way through four separate passes, and the Spanish were forced to retreat south towards Jaen, away from the road to Seville. On 21 January Castejon’s division, trapped between two French forces, was forced to surrender.
The road to Seville was now open. Joseph and Victor had made contact on 22 January, so 60,000 French troops were now concentrated in the Guadalquivir valley. The only Spanish troops left in the area were 8,000 survivors of the fighting around La Carolina, who had reformed around Jaen, and Albuquerque’s army, which had been ordered to move towards Seville once it became clear that the French were attacking in force. Joseph decided to split his army once again, sending Sebastiani south with 10,000 men to deal with the forces at Jaen, while the main French army advanced on Seville.
On 23 January Sebastiani caught up with Areizaga at Jaen, and dispersed the remnants of his army almost without a fight. Two days later Sebastiani was ordered south to conquer Granada, winning a small battle at Alcada la Real on 28 January and taking possession of the city.
Joseph’s main force met with little more resistance. Cordova surrendered on 24 January. The French then made a mistake which would cost them dearly over the next two years. At this point both Seville and Cadiz were open to attack, and both cities could easily have been seized by the French, but Joseph was so obsessed with Seville that he entirely ignored Cadiz. While the French moved on Seville, Albuquerque realised that the situation there was hopeless, and made for Cadiz. By the time the French reached the port city its defences were secure, and despite a two year long siege, the city would never fall to the French. Instead the siege lines outside Cadiz would consume a large part of the French army in Andalusia.
Seville itself fell without a fight. The city had begun a descent into chaos on 18 January when news of Victor’s advance arrived. The Junta fled on 23 January and was replaced by a Revolutionary Government, dominated by men out of favour with the Central Junta (although not without merit in their own rights, including amongst them the Marquis of La Romana and Francisco Saavedra, the original head of the Junta of Seville in 1808 and led by Francisco Palafox). When this new Junta realised how weak its defences were, its members also fled (28 January). Without leaders the mob remained defiant but unorganised. When the first French troops appeared on 29 January they were fired at, but on 31 January the corporation of Seville surrendered the city without a fight and on 1 February Joseph entered the city. Somewhat ironically their experience of the Junta and of mob rule convinced many citizens of Seville to make their peace with the French.
Only now did the French realise that Spanish troops were heading for Cadiz. Victor was ordered to march for Cadiz, but he arrived two days too late, on 5 February. Cadiz was securely held, and would become a valuable base for the British and Spanish.
At first the conquest of Andalusia seemed to be a stunning triumph of French arms, but by the end of 1810 it had been revealed as a massive mistake. The French were forced to use 70,000 men to garrison Andalusia, troops that might have made the difference during Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal later in the year. Possession of Seville made no more contribution to a final French victory than the possession of Madrid.
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