The battle of Benavente, 29 December 1808, was a rear-guard action during Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna. In early December Moore had begun an advance north, with the intention of threatening French communications between Burgo and Madrid. He had made this move in the belief that Napoleon was engaged around Madrid, but that city surrendered to the French early in December, leaving Napoleon free to make an attempt to trap Moore. After winning a minor cavalry battle at Sahagun on 21 December 1808, Moore had been forced to order his army to retreat at full speed towards Corunna in north western Spain.
The first major obstacle in Moore’s way was the River Esla. The British and French became involved in a “race to Benavente”, where there was a bridge across the river. The British won the race, and on 28 December the bridge was destroyed. Moore’s infantry continued the retreat, while part of the cavalry was left on the Esla to delay any French advance.
On 29 December General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, the commander of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard, decided to make an attempt to cross the river. He led four squadrons of the chasseurs, a force probably 500-600 strong, across a over the river. At first the French outnumbered the British pickets. The first British counterattack, made by 130 men from the 18th Light Dragoons under Colonel Otway, was easily defeated. They were then reinforced by men from the 3rd Dragoons of the King’s German Legion, under Major Burgwedel, and a second attack was launched. This time the dragoons broke through part of the French front line, and only just escaped being encircled.
The pickets then retreated back towards Benavente, where Lord Paget had placed 450 men of the 10th Hussars. Lefebvre-Desnouettes advanced towards Benavente without waiting for reinforcements to cross the river. When he approached Benavente, Paget launched his surprise attack. This time the French were outnumbered, for the British now had 650 men. The French cavalry put up a short resistance before breaking. A two mile chase then followed, as the French attempted to escape back to the safety of the ford. A second French attempt to cross the river was called off after Paget brought up a battery of horse-artillery.
The British suffered 50 casualties during this engagement. French losses were much more serious. The British captured 73 unwounded prisoners, including Lefebvre-Desnouettes (who spend the next three years in Britain). Another 55 of the chasseurs were left dead or wounded on the battlefield, while Napoleon’s surgeon reported treating another 70 wounded after the battle.