Marshal Soult’s invasion of Estremadura in January-March 1811 was a delayed response to the failure of Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810. At first Napoleon had believed that Masséna had enough men to defeat the British and Portuguese unaided, but as that campaign faltered he began to involve Soult’s Army of Andalusia in his plans. At first Napoleon’s main concern was to make sure that the Spanish could not send troops from La Romana’s Army of Estremadura to support the British, and on 29 September Napoleon ordered Soult to use Mortier’s 5th Corps to pin the Spanish in place. This order was issued only two days after Masséna had suffered a costly defeat at the battle of Bussaco (27 September 1810), and well before Napoleon received news of the battle. The order also came rather too late, for La Romana was already on his way to join Wellington with 7,000 men. This Spanish contingent reached Wellington on 25 October, but its movements had clearly been announced in advance, for by 26 October Napoleon had learnt of it from a British newspaper. On that date he sent a dispatch to Soult blaming him for La Romana’s movements, followed soon afterwards by another in which he claimed that Mortier should have followed La Romana all the way to the Tagus.
This was an entirely unrealistic idea. Mortier’s corps contained 11,500 infantry, 1,200 cavalry and 700 gunners in the autumn of 1810. To reach the Tagus he would have had to fight his way past the 14,500 men La Romana had left in his field army in Estremadura, 6,000 Spanish troops in the fortresses of Badajoz, Olivenza and Albuquerque, 8,500 Portuguese troops near the Spanish border and 14,000 British troops under General Hill on the southern banks of the Tagus, a total of around 43,000 men. Soult argued that if he had obeyed Napoleon’s orders, then there was a real chance that Mortier’s corps would be destroyed. Instead he suggested he should invade Estremadura at the head of a force of 20,000 men, conquer the province and capture the key border fortress of Badajoz. Although this campaign would not directly help Masséna, Soult hoped that it would force La Romana to return to Estremadura, and possibly force Wellington to detach troops from the defensive of Lisbon to help protect the border. In January and February Napoleon indicated his approval of this plan, although after it became clear that Masséna’s invasion of Portugal had failed, the Emperor began to blame Soult for not having been even more ambitious.
One of the most important achievements of the Spanish guerrillas was the constant interruption of the post between Madrid and the French armies in Spain. Soult did not write his reply to Napoleon’s orders of 26 October until 1 December, and he received no more news from Paris until 22 January. On that date he received dispatches dated 28 November, 4 December and 10 December. By this date Soult’s expedition was already underway, and the first dispatches approving it were on their way to Spain. This demonstrates one of Napoleon’s biggest mistakes during the Peninsular War – rather than give one of his marshals the overall command in Spain and Portugal, and let that officer run the war, Napoleon preferred to keep each of his armies independent and to control the war himself from wherever he happened to be. As a result he was often issuing orders on data that was at least one month out of date, and that would be utterly irrelevant when they finally reached the commanders in Spain.
Soult had not waited for approval from Napoleon before beginning his invasion of Estremadura. At the start of December he had begun to gather his field army and to redistribute the troops that were to remain behind. Both Marshal Victor, then engaged in the siege of Cadiz, and General Sebastiani in Granada were required to provide artillery and sappers. Most of the infantry came from Mortier’s corps, but five of the eight cavalry regiments came from Victor and Sebastiani. Soult decided to take an unusually high proportion of cavalry with him into Estremadura, and so his final army contained 13,500 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 2,000 artillerymen.
Soult decided to split his army into two columns. The main column, led by Soult and Mortier, and containing the artillery, was to follow the route of what is now the main road from Seville to Merida, via Ronquillo, Santa Ollala and Monasterio. The second column, under Latour-Maubourg, would follow a road a little further east, running through Guadalcanal, Llerena and Usagre. The two columns would reunite at Los Santos or Almendralejo, on the main road, and then attack Badajoz.
Latour-Maubourg had the easier march. Although he found 2,500 Spanish and Portuguese cavalry at Usagre on 3 January, they offered no resistance, for they were only there to cover the retreat of General Mendizabal’s infantry division back towards Merida. Mendizabal’s orders were to destroy the bridge at Merida and then defend the line of the Guadiana, but instead he fell back to Badajoz, leaving Latour-Maubourg free to reach Almendralejo.
Soult’s column made much slower progress. The siege train was soon bogged down in mud on the roads around Santa Olalla and Ronquillo, while when the head of the column reached Monasterio, at the top of the pass between Andalusia and Estremadura, a column of Spanish infantry was discovered only four miles to the west, at Calera.
This column was made up of General Ballasteros’s infantry division, 5,000 strong, which had just been sent south from Estremadurato to the Condado de Niebla, with orders to expel the weak French garrison from that area, and then to threaten Seville. If Soult had not been crossing the mountains at the exact same time as Ballesteros, this expedition could only have ended in disaster, for it would have left the Spanish dangerously isolated close to Seville, but as it was their presence disrupted Soult’s plans. He decided that he could not proceed any further with this Spanish force on his left flank, and sent Mortier to attack him. After a two hour running fight on 4 January, the Spanish escaped to Fregenal, twenty miles further west along the mountain passes. Soult then decided to split his column in two. He led the cavalry along the road to Almendralejo, joining Latour-Maubourg on 6 January, while General Gazan’s infantry division was sent to catch Ballesteros.
Ballesteros conducted a skilful retreat across the mountains towards the lower Guadiana valley, finally standing and fighting at Villaneuva de los Castillejos on 25 January 1811. Although Gazan won a minor victory on the day, Ballesteros had kept him occupied for nearly a month, and forced him to march over 100 miles out of his way across mountain roads. Gazan only rejoined Soult’s main force at Valverde on 3 February.
The absence of 6,000 infantry and most of his artillery forced Soult to abandon his plans for an immediate attack on Badajoz. Instead he turned south to besiege Olivenza, fifteen miles south west of Badajoz. The French arrived outside this outdated fortress on 11 January, and despite the lack of siege guns the place fell on 22 January. At this point Gazan was still moving south in search of Ballesteros, and so Soult was no stronger than he had been when he first chose not to attack Badajoz, but on the same day that Olivenza surrendered, he received a letter from Berthier, writing in the name of Napoleon, ordering him to join Masséna on the Tagus as quickly as possible.
This forced Soult’s hand, and so on 26 January he began his siege of Badajoz. The city was defended by 5,000 men under the command of General Rafael Menacho, a very able officer who conducted an active defence of the city until his death on 3 March. Two attempts were made to break the siege. The first came very early in the siege. Wellington and La Romana had begun to reinforce Mendizabal’s army in mid-January. La Romana had planned to take personal command of the expedition, but on 22 January he died, and the command fell to the incapable Mendizabal. The Spanish Regency planned to replace him with Castaños, but he arrived too late to take part in the fighting around Badajoz.
Mendizabal decided to take his men into Badajoz, combine with the garrison and make a sortie against Soult’s forces. The French were not strong enough to prevent the relief army breaking into Badajoz, and on 7 February Mendizabal sent 5,000 men to attack the French lines. This inexplicably weak attack failed to achieve anything, and two days later Mendizabal withdrew most of his men from the city and took up a position on the hill of San Cristobal. Much to his frustration Soult continued to besiege Badajoz despite the presence of the relief army. Mendizabal failed to properly fortify his position, but for the next few days he was protected by unusually high water levels in the river Gebora.
On 18 February the water levels finally returned to normal, and on the following day Soult launched an attack on the Spanish positions (battle of the Gebora, 19 February 1811). The Spanish and Portuguese cavalry fled, and the infantry was smashed. Of the 9,000 infantry who began the battle Soult captured 4,000 prisoners on the day, and another 2,500 when Badajoz fell. Only just under 2,000 men escaped back into Portugal.
Despite this crushing defeat, Menacho continued to hold out in Badajoz. A second Allied relief army was soon being planned, this time a Anglo-Portuguese force under General Beresford, but before this army could move Menacho had been killed. He was replaced by his senior brigadier, José Imaz, a much less impressive figure. This marked the end of the active defence of Badajoz.
Time was now beginning to run out for Soult. On 8 March he received news from Portugal, where Masséna had finally abandoned his positions on the Tagus and begun a retreat back towards Spain, and from Andalusia, where an Allied had landed on the coast and was threatening to attack the troops besieging Cadiz. On the same day the French were finally able to open fire on the walls of Badajoz at close range, and soon battered a breach in the wall. Soult began to prepare for an assault on the breach, but on 10 March, before the attack went in, Imaz surrendered.
The fall of Badajoz ended Soult’s campaign in Estremadura. He had destroyed the Spanish Army of Estremadura and captured the key fortresses of the area, but his expedition had not helped Masséne in Portugal. Meanwhile the Anglo-Spanish expedition in Andalusia had inflicted a heavy defeat on Marshal Victor at Barrosa on 5 March, threatening the French hold on all of Andalusia. On 13 March, one day after receiving this news, Soult was on the move again, heading back to Seville. With Soult’s departure the Allies regained the initiative in Estremadura, for the second Allied relief army under General Beresford was now on its way south. By 24 March Beresford was at Campo Mayor, and the first of three Allied sieges of Badajoz was about to begin.
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