The battle of Espinosa de los Monteros was a major French victory during Napoleon’s November 1808 campaign in Spain. During October 1808 a Spanish army under General Joachim Blake had advanced to the east of Bilbao, hoping to cut the French lines of communication back to Bayonne, but instead he had been defeated by a French army under Marshal Lefebvre at Zornoza on 31 October, and forced to retreat back to the west of Bilbao. Blake then turned back east to rescue one of his divisions that had become trapped in the mountains (5 November), before resuming his retreat to the west when Lefebvre pressed him.
By 10 November three French armies were threatening Blake’s retreat. Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps was pursuing him through the mountains. Marshal Lefebvre’s 5th Corps was undertaking a flank march to the south, in the hope that Victor would be able to slow Blake down enough for Lefebvre to reach Reynosa, well to the west of the Blake’s position, before the Spanish. Finally, on 9 November Marshal Soult had taken over command of 2nd Corps. On 10 November he routed a Spanish army at Gamonel and captured Burgos. On 11 November, the second day of fighting at Espinosa de los Monteros, Soult was sent north west towards Reynosa at the head of three infantry divisions and a brigade of cavalry.
After a skirmish at Valmaceda on 8 November, Blake continues his retreat, reaching the small town of Espinosa de los Monteros by 10 November. At this point the commander of his rearguard, the Conde de San Roman, informed Blake that he was being so hard pressed by Marshal Victor that he was in danger of being cut off. Blake decided to take advantage of a strong defensive position at Espinosa to make a stand.
Blake’s position was based on a line of high ground that ran north from the River Trueba. On his right, at the southern end of the line, he placed his rearguard, a force of 5,000 experienced soldiers under San Roman who had only recently returned from the Baltic, where they had been fighting as allies of the French. They were positioned on a hill close to the river. To the north of that hill there was a half-mile wide gap in the line of high ground. Here Blake placed the Vanguard Brigade and the 3rd Division. Finally, to the left, at the northern end of the line, the Asturian division under General Acevedo was placed on a ridge called Las Peñuccas. The troops in the centre were pulled back a little to the west, making it very dangerous to attack them without first dealing with the troops on the flanks. The reserve consisted of the Reserve Brigade, the 2nd Division and part of the 4th Division. The entire force probably numbered between 22,000 and 23,000.
Victor had a similar number of men with around 21,000 infantry in his three divisions. As was often the case in Spain, the French army was much more experienced than their Spanish opponents – while Blake’s Baltic division was one of the best in the Spanish army, eight of the ten Asturian battalions were made up of raw levies, supported by one regular battalion and one pre-war militia battalion. The French would have to attack from the Campo de Pedralva, a small plain to the east of Blake’s position.
The battle began early in the afternoon of 10 November. General Villatte’s division, containing twelve infantry battalions, arrived at Espinosa well ahead of the rest of the French army. Villatte believed that the Spanish army would not stand against a determined attack, and so instead of waiting for Victor and the rest of the army to arrive, he launched an attack against the Baltic troops on the Spanish right. The odds against success were increased by his decision to make that attack with only half of his troops, leaving six battalions to guard against a Spanish counterattack, a move not entirely consistent with his apparent view that the Spanish could be easily defeated.
This first attack went on for two hours, but ended in failure. So far the Spanish position was holding well. At around 3pm Marshal Victor reached the battlefield along with the remaining two French divisions. Victor repeated Villatte’s mistake, attacking the same part of the Spanish right with nine battalions while leaving the rest of the Spanish line untouched. This allowed Blake to move his 2nd and 3rd Divisions to the right to support San Roman. Once again the French attack was repulsed, but this time Blake had been forced to weaken the rest of his line.
Most of the casualties suffered on both sides during the battle came on the first day of the fighting. San Roman’s division lost around 1,000 men killed and wounded, while San Roman himself was amongst the dead. The majority of the roughly 1,000 French casualties were also suffered on the first day of fighting.
Overnight Marshal Victor devised a rather more intelligent plan. He decided that Blake would expect a third attack against his right wing, and so decided to concentrate his main efforts on 11 November against the Spanish left wing on the Las Peñuccas ridge. This strong position was held by the ten Asturian battalions under General Acevedo, of which eight were recent recruits. On the morning of 11 November they were attacked by Lapisse’s division, and after a short fight gave way and fled to the west. Acevedo himself was wounded during the battle (he would later be killed during the retreat).
The French now had control of the dominating heights at the northern end of the Spanish line. Lapisse took full advantage of this, and turned to attack the weakened Spanish centre. During the night Blake had moved his remaining reserves further south, towards his right, and so they were unable to intervene in the fighting on the left before it was too late. As Lapisse attacked Blake’s 1st Division, Victor ordered the rest of his army to launch a general assault. After a short fight the Spanish army collapsed and scattered into the hills. Spanish losses during the battle were probably only around 3,000 in all, but another 8,000 men disappeared home after the battle. When Blake reformed his army at Reynosa on 12 November, only 12,000 men remained in his army.
Blake remained at Reynosa until 14 November. He had hoped to spend a few days resting his army there, for neither Lefebvre nor Victor were threatening the new position, but on 14 November the first of Marshal Soult’s men appeared from the south and cut the one remaining road between Reynosa and the relative safely of Leon. Blake only saved the remnants of his army by leading them across the mountains to the west. This was a journey just as terrible as Moore’s retreat to Corunna, which would follow later in the winter. The only redeeming feature of the march was that the French stopped their pursuit at Reynosa. On the first day of the retreat Blake learnt that he had been replaced by General La Romana, but La Romana decided not to take up that command until the army had reached Leon. Despite the terrible conditions on the march, when the final count was made at Leon, 10,000 of Blake’s men had escaped from the French trap