The Situation in May 1809
The Allies Advance
The Talavera Campaign of June-August 1809 marked a number of important “firsts” in the Peninsular War. It was the first time that Sir Arthur Wellesley campaigned in Spain; it saw the first great Anglo-Spain victory of the war and the first really large French defeat in Spain since Baylen, and ended with the first of Wellesley’s retreats back towards Portugal.
The Situation in May 1809
Wellesley’s first campaign after his arrival at Lisbon on 22 April 1809 had been directed against Marshal Soult, whose invasion of Portugal had stalled at Oporto. Wellesley had liberated Oporto on 12 May, and then chased Soult north, but had just failed to trap his army in the mountain passes between Portugal and Galicia.
By late May 1809 the French armies were scattered across most of Spain. St. Cyr’s 7th Corps was in Catalonia in the far eastern corner. Suchet’s 3rd Corps was in Aragon. Mortier’s 5th Corps had moved into the eastern part of Old Castile after the fall of Saragossa, and then west to Valladolid. Marshal Ney’s 6th Corps was occupied in the north west of Spain, attempting without success to put down the Galician uprising. Marshal Soult’s 2nd Corps had just been expelled from Portugal, and by the end of the month had reached relative safety in Spain. General Sebastiani’s 4th Corps was south east of Madrid, keeping a watch on the Spanish Army of La Mancha. Finally, Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps was based on the Guadiana in Estremadura, with General Cuesta’s Army of Estremadura gathering strength to his south.
Having defeated Soult, Wellesley’s next target was Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps. When Wellesley began to put his plans in place in May, Victor was at Marida, on the Guadiana, while his infantry was based further north, half way between the Guadiana and the Tagus. Victor had even made a limited forward move, attacking a Portuguese detachment at Alcantara on 14 May.
While Victor was in Estremadura, Wellesley had a choice of two options – he could attack along the line of the Tagus, and hope to beat Victor unaided, or he could move south, join up with Cuesta at Badajoz, and attack Victor with his Spanish allies. The first option was more risky, but did offer the chance of trapping and destroying Victor’s army, while the second option was safer, but was likely only to force Victor to retreat back towards Madrid and reinforcements.
Unknown to Wellesley, Victor was already considering abandoning Estremadura. He had only made his attack on Alcantara because he thought it was the start of a major Portuguese and Spanish combined offensive. He was well aware that an advance along the Tagus might trap him in Estremadura, where he was already running short of supplies.
In early June Victor asked King Joseph for permission to retreat north and take up a new position around Plasencia, north of the Tagus, where he would be able to find fresh supplies. At first Joseph refused, but on 10 June he finally learnt that Soult had been forced out of Portugal, and thus that Wellesley was free to turn his attentions elsewhere. Joseph and his chief of staff, Marshal Jourdan, expected Wellesley to invade Spain from northern Portugal, along the Douro towards Salamanca and Old Castile, and so they gave Victor permission to make his retreat.
While this was going on Wellesley and Cuesta were exchanging plans. On 22 May Wellesley had written to Cuesta, asking him for suggestions on how the British and Spanish could best cooperate. Cuesta replied on 4-6 June, offering a choice of three plans. On 8 June Wellesley agreed to the third of those plans, in which the British would advance along the Tagus, and capture the bridges across the river, while Cuesta would harry the French from the south. It was already too late for this plan, for Victor was about to move back across the Tagus, but Wellesley was about to discover that Cuesta was not going to make a good ally.
Having suggested this plan, he was now bitterly opposed to it. Cuesta believed that Wellesley was about to be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish armies, a post that had been left vacant since the start of the Spanish uprising. Some efforts were indeed being made at Seville to bring this about, but Wellesley himself was not in favour of pressing the idea. Unfortunately Cuesta only knew that the idea had been suggested, and so took up a hostile attitude to Wellesley throughout the campaign.
For the moment Wellesley was unaware of any problems with Cuesta, and so with some misgivings agreed to Cuesta’s new favourite plan. The two armies were to meet up at Badajoz. They would then launch a frontal assault on Victor, while two flanking columns would make long marches around the French left and right, in the hope of trapping them against the Tagus, and winning a second Baylen. The day after Wellesley agreed to this plan, or at least to march to Badajoz, the news of Victor’s retreat finally reached him, and the planning had to begin again.
To Wellesley it was obvious what the Allies should do now. Cuesta had followed Victor to the Tagus, and the French and Spanish armies were facing each other across the bridges around Almaraz. Wellesley saw that if he advanced east along the Tagus, there was a real chance that he could hit Victor’s right flank before the French realised he was there. The Spanish and Portuguese guerrillas largely prevented the French from sending out scouting parties – they had effectively isolated Soult in Portugal and Ney in Galicia for most of the spring, and now they hid Wellesley’s army from Victor and King Joseph. The French would not discover that Wellesley had entered Spain at all until 9 July. Unfortunately Cuesta continued to object to any plan that Wellesley supported, and they would not agree on a common plan until July. Victor’s retreat also brought Sebastiani’s 4th Corps and Venegas’s Army of La Mancha into the picture. If Wellesley and Cuesta were to have any chance of overwhelming Victor, they needed Venegas to keep Sebastiani occupied to the east.
The Allies Advance
Wellesley was forced to stop at Abrantes on the Tagus, forty miles inside Portugal, from 8-27 June, partly while he attempted to come to an agreement with Cuesta and partly to give his army time to replenish its supplies. He also used this time to officially organise his army into the four divisions that he had used during his campaign in the north of Portugal. Finally, on 28 June he left Abrantes at the head of 21,000 troops. On 30 June the army was at Castello Branco, the last town in Portugal, and on 3 July the leading brigades entered Spain.
Once again Victor forced the Allies to change their plans. On 26 June a lack of supplies forced Marshal Victor to abandon his positions around Almaraz and retreat to Talavera. At this point he was still completely unaware that the British were in the area. This move brought Victor much closer to Madrid and to General Sebastiani’s 4th Corps.
One of the main failings of the Allied campaign was their inability to coordinate the efforts of Wellesley and Cuesta with those of Venegas. The latter general would make one offensive move too early, and another that was too late, but at the key moments was inactive. His premature move came in late June. Learning that Victor had retreated to the Tagus, Sebastiani had also moved north, Venegas decided to follow him towards Madridejos. Sebastiani overestimated the size of the army he was facing, and called for assistance from Madrid. On 22 June King Joseph left Madrid at the head of a force 5,500 strong, heading south into La Mancha. This was exactly the reaction Wellesley was hoping for, but it was one month too soon. When Venegas discovered that Joseph had joined Sebastiani, he retreated back into the mountains. The French followed as far as Santa Cruz de Medula, around 140 miles from Talavera on the road through Toledo.
On 2 July Joseph received news from Victor which forced him to return to Toledo with his reserves, leaving Sebastiani watching Venegas. Cuesta had repaired the bridge at Almaraz, and was on the north bank of the Tagus, while the French had finally discovered that there was a second Allied force somewhere to the west of Plasencia. Even now they did not realise they were facing Wellesley’s 21,000 and believed that this force was probably a 10,000 strong Portuguese army. There was still every chance that Victor’s 1st Corps could be caught by Wellesley and Cuesta before reinforcements could reach it.
On 8 July the British reached Plasencia, where Wellesley halted the advance while he attempted to coordinate a plan with Cuesta. He reached the Spanish at Almaraz late on 10 July, and that night inspected the Spanish army. The British were generally impressed by the Spanish soldiers, but not by their leaders, equipment or training, but at this point Wellesley still believed that Cuesta would cooperate willingly. Even a four hour meeting on 11 July, at which Cuesta vetoed a series of ideas, did not shake this view. Eventually the two generals agreed on an acceptable plan. They would begin an advance on 18 July, with Cuesta close to the Tagus and the British on the high road a little to the north. They expected to find Victor and the Royal Reserve at or just beyond Talavera, a total of around 35,000 men, and to be able to attack them on 23 July. General Venegas was given a strict timetable for his operations against General Sebastiani – he was to be at Madridejos on 19 July, Tembleque on 20 July and the bridge at Fuentedueñas on 22 July. If Sebastiani did not take the bait, and instead moved west to support Victor, then Venegas was to threaten Madrid. At this point it was likely that King Joseph would be forced to split his army to defend Madrid, or to abandon the Talavera position entirely. Unfortunately Venegas did not obey his orders. He made no move towards Fuentedueñas, and by 24 July Sebastiani was free to move to Toledo. At this point Venegas was meant to have moved around his east flank to threaten Madrid, but instead he remained between Toledo and Aranjuez.
The delay in the Allied advance was largely caused by supply problems. Wellesley had yet to realise how impoverished large parts of central Spain actually were – in later years his armies would move with heavy supply trains, but in 1809 he had believed the Central Junta when it had promised to send supplies. When those supplies did not arrive, Wellesley began to suspect treachery or at best double-dealing, and on 16 July announced that he would move no further than the River Alberche, just east of Talavera, until the promised supplies arrived. Eventually, on 18 July the British left Plasencia, heading towards Talavera, reaching Oropeas on 20 July, where on the following day they were joined by Cuesta. The combined Allied armies were now 55,000 strong.
The Allied armies began their final advance towards Talavera on 22 July. At midday the Spanish cavalry came into contact with six regiments of French dragoons close to Gamonal, west of the town. To the surprise and disappointment of the many British observers, the Spanish cavalry was unwilling to attack the French, and even after a Spanish infantry division had joined them refused to do more than skirmish. Only the arrival of Anson’s cavalry brigade forced the French to retreat back through Talavera. The Allies followed up, and found Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps drawn up for battle on the east bank of the Alberche. This was the moment Wellesley had been planning for – 55,000 Allied troops faced Victor’s 22,000 Frenchmen, unsupported by either King Joseph’s royal reserve, or by Sebastiani’s 4th Corps.
Wellesley would later gain a reputation as a defensive general, but on 23 July he wanted to attack. At midnight on 22/23 July, Cuesta agreed to Wellesley’s plan. The British would attack the French right, while the Spanish would attack their left, taking advantage of a wooden bridge and a number of fords. At 3 am on the morning of 23 July, Sherbrooke’s and Mackenzie’s divisions of Wellesley’s army were in position, ready to launch the attack, but the Spanish never arrived. When Wellesley found Cuesta, he was fobbed off with endless excuses. Despite Wellesley’s best efforts, the attack had to be called off for the day.
On the next morning, the French had gone. Victor had finally realised that he was facing the combined British and Spanish armies, and had pulled back towards Madrid. The best chance for a decisive Allied victor at Talavera had just been missed. Wellesley was furious with Cuesta, and announced that he would not move any nearer to Madrid until the promised supplies arrived. The supply situation was indeed critical at this point – the British had gone onto half rations on 24 July, but Wellesley incorrectly believed that his army was in a unique position – he was convinced that the French had been living of the country, when they were in fact equally as short of food, while Cuesta’s own army was in little better shape.
In turn Cuesta was furious with Wellesley for his refusal to move. He seems to have believed that Madrid would fall to a determined push, and was also determined to reach the city before Venegas. Accordingly, on the afternoon of 24 July the Spanish moved off, on their own, to chase Victor. A similar amount of energy on the previous day might have resulted in the destruction of the 1st Corps, but that moment had passed. By the end of the day the Spanish army was only fifteen miles from Toledo.
Unfortunately for Cuesta, Venegas had failed to obey his orders to press Sebastiani. He had begun well, moving forward on 16 July. By 19 July he was in front of Sebastiani’s corps, and for the next three days the armies faced each other across the Guadiana. Unfortunately by now it was clear that the Spanish were not willing to risk a battle, and the two armies only remained together because Sebastiani was willing to fight. This meant that when, on 22 July, King Joseph finally learnt that Wellesley was present at Talavera, he was able to order Sebastiani’s corps to move from La Mancha to Toledo without there being any danger that Venegas would follow closely behind. Over the next few days, Venegas advanced at half the speed achieved by Sebastiani.
On 23 July Joseph left Madrid at the head of his reserves, and on the morning of 25 July all three French forces were united around Toledo. That morning Cuesta discovered that instead of facing 22,000 demoralised men, he was advancing towards 46,000 fully prepared French troops. Clearly by this stage in his career Cuesta had finally learnt the value of caution, for he immediately turned around and made for the Alberche at high speed. When the French advanced on the morning of 26 July all they found was the Spanish rearguard. The resulting fighting (combat of Torrijos) saw the French inflict heavy casualties on that rearguard, but they were unable to catch the main army, which reached the Alberche that evening.
That night the French missed a last chance to catch the Spanish unsupported, for on reaching the Alberche, Cuesta decided to stop on the east bank overnight, and to only cross the next morning. If the French had sent their cavalry forward, then there was a real chance that they could still have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spanish, who took most of the morning to cross the Alberche, but Victor missed his chance.
Once the Spanish were across the river, the Allied army began to move into the positions that Wellesley had identified as being best suited for fighting a defensive position. The line of the Alberche was of no use – the higher ground was on the east bank, and so the Allies would have been overlooked by the French, but a little further west Wellesley had identified a strong position that ran north from Talavera to the hill know as the Cerro de Medellin.
Wellesley himself was nearly caught by the French at Casa de Salinas as the British withdrew from the Alberche, and the French made a series of night attacks on the British lines, but the main fight would come on the following day.
The battle of Talavera was a classic defensive battle. The French made three attacks on the British portion of the line, starting with a night attack launched by Marshal Victor, and finishing with a full scale assault on the centre and right of the British lines, which also overlapped the Spanish left. All three attacks failed, and after the third attack King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan decided to withdraw. Victor wanted to make a fourth attack, but even if this had met with success against the British lines, Cuesta’s army was still intact, and Venegas was finally moving to the east. An unsuccessful fourth attack might have cost Joseph his capital. Joseph and Sebastiani retreated on the evening of 28 July, Victor in the early hours of 29 July, and the French armies took up a new position on the Alberche.
Napoleon now made an inadvertent contribution to the campaign. He had received no news from Portugal since Soult entered the country, but by mid-June he was aware that Soult was facing Wellesley in the north of the country. On 12 June, from his base at Schönbrunn on the Danube, he issued a new plan for the conquest of Portugal. Soult was to be given command of Ney’s 6th Corps and Mortier’s 5ths Corps as well as his own 2nd Corps. This combined force, 50,000 strong, was to be used to throw the British out of Portugal. This order reached King Joseph at Madrid on 1 July, by which time Soult had been thrown out of Portugal, and was at Zamora, and Ney had abandoned his campaign in Galicia. Soult ordered his new army to gather around Salamanca, and began to plan for a new invasion of Portugal via Cuidad Rodrigo and Almeida.
Both Napoleon and Soult’s plans were based on a mistaken belief that Wellesley was still somewhere in Portugal. On 19 July, three days before the news reached Madrid, Soult learnt that the British were advancing up the valley of the Tagus, and altered his plans. Now he would concentrate his three corps at Salamanca, and then advance south to Plasencia, where he would block Wellesley’s main lines of communication with Portugal. The British would still be able to retreat south of the Tagus, and make for Badajoz, but if they could be caught far enough to the east then they might be forced to abandon most of their baggage if they were to make their escape. At first the French believed that Soult might reach Plasencia by 27 July. It was the news that he would not be there until 1 August at the earliest that convinced Joseph and Jourdan to launch the main assault at Talavera on 28 July. In the event the main body of Soult’s army reached Plasencia on 2-3 August.
For some days Wellesley and Cuesta remained optimistic about their chances of capturing Madrid. On 29 July the British were still immobilised by the effects of the battle, and despite the arrival of Sir Robert Crauford and the Light Brigade was unable to risk pursuing the French. Wellesley believed that Venegas had captured Toledo, which if true would have forced King Joseph to split his army, and so Wellesley began to plan for a move forward on 30-31 July. In fact Venegas had only spent a small force towards Toledo, and his main force only reached Aranjuez, significantly further east, on this day. He still had a chance to threaten Madrid, for the city was weakly defended, and no French army was in a position to intervene, but instead he Venegas remained at Aranjuez until 5 August. Joseph too believed that Venegas was close to Toledo, and so he did indeed split his armies, leaving Victor on the Alberche and taking Sebastiani towards Toledo.
By 30 July Wellesley was sure that Soult was planning to attack his communications, but still believed that he only had 20,000 men in total, and would only be able to bring at most 15,000 of them south to the Tagus. On this day Wellesley suggested that Cuesta should send a division to reinforce the troops in the passes north of Plasencia. Cuesta refused, but by now it was too late to reinforce the passes, for any troops sent from Talavera on this date could not have reached the passes before Soult. While Soult was coming increasingly close to Wellesley’s rear, to the east the French were moving further away. Joseph and Sebastiani were now north of Toledo, while Victor had received news that an Allied column was threatening Madrid from the west. This was a Spanish-Portuguese column 4,000 strong under the command of Sir Robert Wilson, but Victor was told that it was twice that size, and so began to prepare to move back.
On 31 July Victor retired to Santa Cruz. Over the next few days he would spend all his time preparing to face an Allied offensive that never came, and would thus be too far to the east to intervene when the Allies decided to move west.
During 1 August Joseph and Sebastiani moved east into a position from where they could threaten the flanks of Venegas’s army. They remained based around Illescas for the next four days. On the evening of 1 August, Wellesley finally received concrete news that Soult was close by, when a report arrived that the French vanguard was at Bejar, just north of the passes above Plasencia. This convinced him to abandon the advance on Madrid, and turn to concentrate on Madrid. It also convinced Cuesta to send Bassecourt’s 5th Division to reinforce the troops in the passes.
On the morning of 2 August, Wellesley and Cuesta argued again. Cuesta wanted Wellesley to send half of the British army to reinforce the troops at Plasencia. Wellesley refused to split his army and suggested that one allied army should remain at Talavera, and the other turn to face Soult’s force, still believed to be around 12,000 strong. Cuesta agreed to remain at Talavera, and the British began to prepare for the march west. On the same day Soult’s corps began to join Mortier’s in Plasencia, and the first French troops began to advance east towards the Allies.
3 August was the most dangerous day for the British. That morning Wellesley’s men began to march west, expecting to find 12,000-15,000 survivors of Soult’s retreat from Portugal. Instead 18,000 British troops were heading towards the first of 50,000 French troops who were moving through Plasencia. By the end of the day the British and French cavalry had met around Naval Moral, Wellesley was camped at Oropesa and Mortier was only thirty miles west at Toril. The next mornings march would have made a battle almost inevitable.
By an extraordinary coincidence on the evening of 3 August both Wellesley and Soult received captured messages that gave away their opponents plans. Soult captured a Spanish messenger carrying a letter from Wellesley to General Erskine, written on 1 August, in which he revealed how small he believed Soult’s force to be. On the same day Spanish guerrilla’s captured a dispatch being sent from Joseph to Soult, which contained details of the king’s plans, and made it clear that Soult had at least 30,000 men from two or possibly three corps. The guerrillas passed the message to Cuesta, who immediately decided to abandon Talavera, and rush west towards the bridge at Almaraz (although there were bridges across the Tagus at Talavera, they led to roads that were unsuitable for artillery and heavy baggage, and Cuesta was not willing to abandon either of those). This move probably saved the Spanish army from being trapped north of the Tagus, but it also meant that Cuesta had to abandon the hospitals at Talavera. 4,000 wounded British troops were left behind, of whom only 2,000 were able to reach safety.
On the morning of 4 August Wellesley and Cuesta met at Oropesa, and had yet another argument. Cuesta was now ready to stand and fight north of the Tagus, while Wellesley was determined to retreat south of the river. After a fruitless meeting, Wellesley decided to move without Cuesta, and at 6am the British began to move towards the bridge at Arzobispo, the only intact bridge in Allied hands. By the end of the day the British were safely across the river, but Cuesta spent the entire day at Oropesa.
On 5 August the Spanish moved closer to Arzobispo, but remained on the north bank of the Tagus for most of the day. This was probably Soult’s best chance to achieve a significant victory, but Mortier did not press his attacks, and after a day of skirmishes the Spanish finally crossed the bridge at Arzobispo. On the same day Victor finally learnt that Wilson’s column had already retreated from its position west of Madrid, and King Joseph and Sebastiani reached Aranjuez.
On 6 August Soult’s entire force was back together after its march from Salamanca, but the best chance of a quick victory was over. The Spanish had left a strong rearguard at Arzobispo, consisting of Bassecourt’s division and Albuquerque’s cavalry, a total of 8,000 men. Meanwhile Wellesley had sent Craufurd and the light division ahead of the main army to reinforce the troops defending the crossing at Almaraz, and they reached the southern end of the ruining bridge on 6 August. The French would have to fight to get across the Tagus. Further east, the first of Victor’s troops had finally reached Talavera, and crossed to the south bank of the river, from where they could have outflanked the Spanish rearguard, but Victor was unwilling to send his troops along the poor quality roads south of the Tagus.
Soult spend all of 7 August examining the Spanish positions at Arzobispo, while Wellesley and Cuesta moved ever closer to the highway and to safety. The French did not make their attack until the following day. Soult had sent Ney to attack across a ford at Almaraz, but Ney couldn’t find the ford, and made no attack. On the following day he pulled back to Naval Moral. Soult was more successful, forcing his way across the river (combat of Arzobispo), but with Ney stuck on the north bank of the river, Wellesley in a position to defend the Tagus at Almaraz, and Cuesta defending the very strong position at Meza de Ibor, even Soult had to admit that the chance of trapping the Allies was gone.
Soult’s attention now turned back to Portugal. He proposed a variant on Napoleon’s plans for his three corps – an invasion of Portugal along the line of the Tagus. Joseph and Jourdan refused to give him permission to move west. They felt that this would leave Madrid dangerously exposed. Soult assumed that Wellesley would rush west to defend Lisbon, but it was also possible that he would turn east to attack Madrid, which would only be defended by Victor and Sebastiani. On 9 August, when the decision was made, Venegas was also undefeated, and so only Victor would have been free to defend Madrid. Joseph and Jourdan decided to send Ney back to Salamanca, and ordered Soult and Mortier to watch the British and Spanish armies on the Tagus. This allowed them to call Victor east to help against Venegas. He would not be needed. On 11 August Sebastiani’s corps along was able to defeat Venegas at Almonacid, inflicting 3,300 casualties and capturing 2,000 prisoners. The main threat to Madrid was over, at least for the moment.
Wellesley remained on the south bank of the Tagus until 20 August, by which point his army was close to starving. This forced him to retreat back to bases around Badajoz, Montijo and Merida, where he finally found sufficient food for his army. The British remained in that position until mid-winter, and then pulled back into Portugal.
At the end of the campaign the advantage was just with the Allies. Portugal was no longer threatened by French armies, Galicia had been abandoned by Ney and King Joseph had been given a real scare. Wellesley was awarded for his victory at Talavera by being made Baron Douro of Wellesley and Viscount Wellington of Talavera in the English peerage. On the other hand Wellesley and Cuesta had been forced to retreat after Talavera, while Venegas had suffered a serious defeat. The French had proved that although their armies were often dangerously scattered, they could concentrate them dangerously when needed. The supply problems before the battle had also convinced Wellesley that he could rely on his Spanish allies, and that he would need to create an efficient supply train of his own before he could move back into Spain. Perhaps Wellesley’s most significant achievement during the Talavera campaign was to keep his army in existence, ready to return to the fray in the following year.