The battle of Gamonel of 10 November 1808 was the first French victory during Napoleon’s November 1808 campaign in Spain. Napoleon’s plan was for a grand double envelopment of the Spanish armies facing him along the Ebro valley. The Spanish uprising had forced the French to abandon most of Spain, but they had then wasted their best chance to expel the French from the country. No supreme commander had been appointed, and so Napoleon faced a line held by a series of separate armies, each with their own plans. The main armies were those commanded by General Blake on the north coast, General Castaños around Tudela and General Palafox around Saragossa. Napoleon decided to attack towards Burgo, in the gap between Blake and Castaños. Once he had broken through the weak Army of Castile at Burgo, the huge French armies would fan out across the plains of Old Castile. One force would swing north to cut off Blake, another would swing south to deal with Castaños and Palafox and a third force would make for Madrid.
The Spanish forces at Burgos were no longer part of the Army of Castile. This force had been absorbed by the Army of Andalusia, and replaced by the Army of Estremadura under the Conde de Belvedere. This force only began to reach Burgos on 7 November. Until that date the city had been held by only 1,600 men from two reserve divisions. By 10 November Belvedere’s force had reached a strength of 8,600 infantry, 1,100 cavalry and sixteen guns. Of his twelve battalions of infantry only five were regulars units. Belvedere had only taken command of the army on 2 November, when his superior, Don Joseph Galuzzo, had been recalled to Aranjuez. No successor was appointed, and so Belvedere had taken temporary command. The battle that followed would be his first military experience.
The French had already missed a chance to capture Burgos without a serious fight. On 6 November Napoleon had ordered Marshal Bessières, then in command of 2nd Corps, to advance on Burgos and attack any Spanish forces he found there. When he reached Burgos and discovered a small force of infantry in the town, Bessières’s advance stalled. His caution seems to have been caused by a combination of an unwillingness to act independently this close to Napoleon, and the news that he was about to be replaced by Marshal Soult.
Soult arrived on 9 November and immediately ordered an advance towards Burgos. He had 18,000 infantry and 6,500 cavalry at his disposal, an overwhelming amount of force even if Belvedere had shown some military skill. Instead, on 10 November the Spanish commander left Burgos, where he would at least have had some protection from the defences of the city, and advanced to the village of Gamonal. There he took up a weak position on an open plain. His right flank was partly protected by the river Arlanzon, but his left flank was entirely exposed, while there was a large forest in front of his position. Belvedere placed six battalions of infantry in his front line, with a cavalry regiment on each flank. His second line was also to have contained six battalions of infantry, but when the French attacked two of them were still some way to the rear.
Soult arrived at Gamonel during the morning of 10 November at the head of his advance guard – one division each of light cavalry, dragoons and infantry. Soult decided to attack with the forces at his immediate disposal, rather than wait for his remaining two infantry divisions to reach the battlefield. His plan was simple – the 5,000 French cavalry would attack the Spanish right and centre, while the infantry used the cover of the woods to attack the Spanish left. The plan worked perfectly. The cavalry charge smashed the inexperienced Spanish right before they had been able to form squares, and then turned right and overran the Spanish centre and left. The Spanish army collapsed and fled. Despite two attempts by Belvedere to organise a rally, most of the army did not stop until they were thirty miles west of Burgos.
Estimates of the Spanish losses vary from Napoleon’s claim of 3,000 killed and wounded and 3,000 prisoners down to Marshal Jourdan’s total of 1,500, with a figure of 2,500 killed and wounded and 900 prisoners perhaps more likely (Napoleon also claimed to have captured 25 guns, although the Spanish army only contained 16). French losses were inevitably very light. Napoleon’s own figures were 15 killed and 50 wounded, and the true figure was probably no more than 200.
The French entered Burgos during the afternoon of 10 November, and spent the rest of the day and the night that followed sacking the city (Napoleon himself had to move after looters set fire to the building next to his original quarters). The next morning the French moved on, beginning the second stage of Napoleon’s plan, the great double envelopment of the main Spanish armies.