Battle of Talavera, 27-28 July 1809

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The Armies
The Battlefield and the Allied Deployment
The Night Actions: 27-28 July
The Morning Attack: 28 July
The Main Battle: 28 July
Leval’s Attack
Sebastiani’s and Lapisse’s Attack
Ruffin’s and Villatte’s Attack
The Aftermath

Books

The battle of Talavera of 27-28 July 1809 was the first of Sir Arthur Wellesley’s great victories in Spain during the Peninsular War. The campaign that led to Talavera had begun as an attempt to push Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps away from the Portuguese borders, but as Victor had retreated, first to Almaraz, and then to Talavera, the Allies realised that they had a real chance of capturing Madrid before the French could concentrate their armies to defend the city. By 27 July this chance had been missed. Marshal Victor had been reinforced by General Sebastiani’s 4th Corps and by King Joseph with the Royal reserve, and so at Talavera 55,000 French troops faced 20,600 British and 35,000 Spanish troops.

The Armies (also see article on the armies of Talavera)

The French army was made up of four separate components. Marshal Victor’s 1st Corp, 19,310 strong, had spent most of the spring in Estremadura, before a lack of supplies had forced it to retreat to the Tagus, and then east to Talavera. While in Estremadura they had won a major victory at Medellin, but had been unable to advance any further.

General Sebastiani’s 15,500 strong 4th Corps had been based in La Mancha, defeating the Army of La Mancha at Ciudad Real.

The two corps had been joined by the reserve cavalry, eleven regiments of dragoons and one of hussars, and by King Joseph, with the King’s Guard and every spare soldier to be found at Madrid. Together these forces contributed 11,000 men to the French force.

They were facing Sir Arthur Wellesley’s British army, and the Spanish Army of Estremadura. Wellesley’s 20,600 men had just expelled Marshal Soult from the north of Portugal, and were confident of their abilities to beat the French. In contrast Cuesta’s Army of Estremadura had been the defeated force at Medellin, where it had suffered very heavy casualties. Most of the 34,800 men he brought to Talavera was thus raw recruits.

The Battlefield and the Allied Deployment

During the short time Wellesley had been at Talavera, he had searched the local area looking for a suitable position for a defensive position. He had quickly dismissed the line of the Alberche River, for the ground east of the river was higher than that to the west, so the Allies would have been overlooked by the French. Instead he had chosen a position than ran north from Talavera itself, roughly following the line of the Portiña stream, to the hill known as the Cerro de Medellin. This hill ran from west to east, rising to its highest point where it overlooked the Portiña. To the north of the hill was a narrow valley, also running from west to east, and to the north of that valley was another line of hills, the Sierra de Segurilla. At the start of the battle the Allied line ended at the Cerro de Medellin, but it would soon be extended into the valley and onto the southern slopes of the Sierra de Segurilla. The Portiña stream was not a defensive position itself – across most of the battlefield it was too shallow to be an obstacle, although it did mark part of the Spanish second line.

Despite being completely flat the southern part of the line was very strong. Talavera was surrounded by olive groves, separated by stone walls, which made it into a virtual fortress. Already aware that his Spanish allies were might not be reliable in the open, Wellesley had offered Cuesta this part of the line. The Spanish front line was positioned in a sunken road and protected by stone walls, while the Spanish right was anchored in Talavera itself, which was still surrounded by medieval walls. Of no use in a regular siege, they made perfect battlefield defences. The Spanish second line followed the line of the Portiña, and was also protected by the stone walls. Even the skirmishers were able to find strong positions protected by more stone walls.

The French would recognise the strength of this part of the line, and concentrate most of their attacks on the Allied left. The British line began in the stone walls at the Spanish left, where Wellington had posted the 4th Division (Campbell’s). At the southern end of the British lines was a small knoll, the Pajar de Vergara, topped with a British artillery position. The only weak point in the line was a gap between the northern end of the enclosures and the southern slopes of the Cerro de Medellin. Here there was no cover for either the British defenders, or the French attackers. The right of the First Division (Sherbrooke’s) held this part of the line, with the rest of the division on the lower slopes of the Cerro de Medellin. The Second Division (Hill’s) held the top of the hill, with the Third (Mackenzie’s) Divison in reserve.

The Night Actions: 27-28 July

Talavera Campaign Mid June
Battle of Talavera, the night attack, 27-28 July 1809

The fighting began on the afternoon of 27 July, with the combat of Casa de Salinas, which saw the leading French troops ambush Mackenzie’s division, nearly catching Wellesley. Once Wellesley had extracted himself and the division from this trap, the Allies took up their positions along the battle line in the expectation that the fighting was over for the day, but Marshal Victor made sure this would not be the case.

The first appearance of the French on the battlefield did not bode well. As seven in the evening of 27 July Victor’s leading units arrived in front of the Allied lines. He decided to begin an artillery bombardment of the Allied lines, and at the same time sent some light cavalry towards the Spanish lines, in an attempt to discover their positions. Well before the French were within range, the Spanish infantry responded with a massed volley of musket fire. Four entire battalions of infantry, some 2,000 men, cried “treason” and then broke and fled. The only reason Wellesley could give for this behaviour was that they had been frightened by their own volley! Cuesta’s cavalry soon brought most of them back, and the French were unable to take advantage of their retreat, but it was not a promising start to the battle.

Victor’s next move was to make a night attack on the strongest point on the British lines, the summit of the Cerro de Medellin. The nine battalions of Ruffin’s division were chosen to launch this attack, but only three, the battalions of the 9th Léger, would play a major part in the attack. If the British had been in the correct positions, then Ruffin’s attack could have ended in total disaster. Low’s brigade was on the lower slopes of the hill, while the crest of the hill should have been held by the two brigades of Hill’s division (Richard Stewart’s and Tilson’s), but these last two brigades had actually camped half a mile behind the lines, leaving the crest of the hill unguarded. 

While the other two French regiments missed their targets, the 9th Léger smashed their way through Low’s brigade, and actually reached the crest of the hill. If they had been able to hold that position, then the Allies may well have had to abandon their lines, for the French would have overlooked the entire position, but the 9th Léger was not strong enough to hold off a counterattack by Richard Stewart’s division, and the French were soon forced back to their starting positions.

That ended the serious fighting for the night, but neither side had a restful night, and on a number of occasions the Allied line had to stand to arms in the belief that a new French attack was on its way. Each case turned out to be a false alarm, and the next French attack would not come until after dawn on 28 July.

The Morning Attack: 28 July

Talavera Campaign Spain on 28 July
Battle of Talavera, the morning attack, 28 July 1809

Despite the failure of his night attack, Victor was still convinced he could capture the Cerro de Medellin without help from Sebastiani or King Joseph. The French army now had three heads – Marshal Victor, King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan, the king’s chief of staff. Joseph and Jourdan had not yet decided to attack, for the Allies were in a strong position and they knew that Marshal Soult was approaching from the north. All they had to do was wait for a few days, and the Allies would be forced to retreat.

Victor did not share this opinion. He informed King Joseph that he would attack at dawn unless he received orders not to, and neither Joseph nor Jourdan were ready to issue those orders. This was the first time Victor had faced British troops, and he clearly did not expect them to pose much of a threat, for he decided to make his attack with only one of his three divisions. After a preliminary artillery bombardment, Ruffin’s division, 5,000 strong, made an attack in three columns. They reached to within 100 yards of the skyline before the 4,000 men of Hill’s division stood up and fired their first volley. French column clashed with British line, and as would so often happen, the line won. The first volley halted the French advance. For a few minutes the two sides exchanged volleys of musket fire, and then the French column began to waver. Seeing this, Sherbrooke, who was not being attacked, attacked the left flank of the Ruffin’s column. The French began to retreat, and seeing this Richard Stewart’s division charged. Ruffin’s column broke and fled. The British chased them back down into the valley of the Portiña before returning to their starting positions.

Ruffin’s division lost 1,300 men during their attack on the Cerro de Medellin. Victor’s other divisions had not yet been seriously engaged, but despite this he would still use Ruffin’s division to spearhead his part of the main afternoon attack. Hill’s division suffered 750 casualties, amongst then Hill himself, who suffered a head wound.

The Main Battle: 28 July

After the repulse of Victor’s attack, the French commanders met to decide what to do next. At first Joseph and Jourdan were in favour of going onto the defensive. They were still expecting Soult to appear behind the Allied lines in the next couple of days, a move that would force the British and Spanish to retreat. Victor in contrast was still determined to attack, and promised to break the Allied left if Joseph attacked in the centre. The debate had not ended when two items of news reached the French commanders. The first came from the Governor of Toledo, who reported that General Venegas’s Army of La Mancha had appeared outside the city. If true, then Madrid was in danger and Joseph would need to move to defend his capital. The second came from Marshal Soult. He confirmed that he was moving south, but not as fast has had believed. He would not be able to threaten the Allies in time to save Madrid. If Joseph was to save his capital, then he needed to defeat Wellesley and Cuesta as quickly as possible, and then turn back to the east to deal with Venegas. The French had no choice but to attack the Allied lines.

The French decided to launch four attacks on the British lines. Ruffin’s division and half of Villatte’s division was to attack around the British left. Lapisse’s division was to attack the southern flanks of the Cerro de Medellin. Sebastiani’s division from his 4th Corps was next in line, and was to attack the Guard’s Brigade and part of Cameron’s brigade. Finally Leval’s German division was to attack the British right, and part of the Spanish left.

We will deal with these attacks in the order they began. Leval’s attack went in first, at around 2.30pm, followed by Sebastiani and Lapisse at around 3.00 and finally Ruffin and Villatte at 4.00.

Leval’s Attack

In the original French plan, Leval was to attack second, but his troops had to advance through the olive groves north of Talavera, and he soon lost sight of the rest of the French lines. Believing his advance had taken longer than it really had, Leval attacked early. His columns had been broken up in the advance through the trees, and emerged into the open ground in front of the Allied lines in some disorder. His right hand regiment was facing British troops, his left hand regiment Spanish troops and his central regiment the gun battery on Pajar de Vergara. For some time his left and right regiments made some progress, but then the central regiment broke under the impact of the artillery fire. Seeing this, the 7th, 40th and 53rd Regiments charged the French right, which broke and fled. Leval’s left was forced to retreat to avoid being isolated. The British captured six French guns, spiked them, and then returned to their lines. In a fight that had lasted 45 minutes, Leval had lost close to 700 men.

His division returned to the fight for a second time at 4.00pm, in an attempt to support Sebastiani’s attack. This second attack was less successful than the first. Once again Leval lost guns, and was forced to retreat. By the end of the day his division had lost 1,007 men. This second attack also saw the Spanish cavalry have their best moment of the battle, when the Regimiento del Rey charged the retreating French battalions.

Sebastiani’s and Lapisse’s Attack

In the centre Sebastiani’s and Lapisse’s division attacked Sherbrooke’s division. Eight British battalions faced twenty four French battalions, in two lines. The first French attack ended in disaster. The British waited until the twelve French battalions were only 50 yards away, then all eight battalions fired simultaneously. The French attack stalled, and then the British charged. The French front line turned and fled, having suffered very heavy casualties. Unfortunately, Sherbrooke’s men did not show the same restraint as those on the British right. Six of his eight battalions chased the French first line took far, and came under attack from the intact French second line. It was now the turn of the British to retreat in disorder. One of Sherbrooke’s battalions lost half of its men in the retreat.

This was the crisis of the battle. Sebastiani and Lapisse’s men advanced towards a gap in the British lines. Mackenzie’s division advanced to fill the right hand side of the gap, facing Sebastiani, but there was no reserve to face Lapisse. Wellesley responded by sending the 1/48th Foot down from the Cerro de Medellin. They managed to hold the line for long enough for the retreating troops from the front line to reform and take their place in the line.

Talavera Campaign 28 July 1809
Battle of Talavera,
28 July 1809:
The Main French Attack
Talavera Campaign 2 August 1809
Battle of Talavera,
28 July 1809:
The British Centre Advances
Talavera Campaign 2 August 1809
Battle of Talavera,
28 July 1809:
The British Line Holds

Sebastiani’s men were first to retreat. They had inflicted 632 casualties on Mackenzie’s division, and had killed the general, but they had lost 2,100 men themselves. Their retreat did not stop until they were a mile behind the lines. Meanwhile Lapisse’s columns had been halted by the musketry of the 1/48th. After a prolonged musketry duel, in which both sides suffered equal losses, Lapisse’s men suffered two blows – Lapisse himself was killed, and they saw Sebastiani’s men retreating, and they too fell back. Both sides suffered around 1,600 casualties on this part of the battlefield.

Ruffin’s and Villatte’s Attack

The failure of the attack in the centre meant that Villatte never launched his attack on the Cerro de Medellin. Instead, the two sides became involved in an artillery duel, which caused light casualties on both sides. The main fighting on the British left was in the valley north of the Cerro de Medellin. Wellesley had realised that the French were intending to outflank his line before the first attack was made, and had moved Fane’s and Anson’s cavalry into the valley north of the Cerro de Medellin He also asked Cuesta for assistance, and the Spanish general responded by sending Bassecourt’s division to reinforce the British left. By the time Ruffin and Villatte made their attack, Bassecourt had taken up a position on the slopes of the Sierra de Segurilla. The Duke of Albuquerque’s cavalry division was also moved north, arriving after the fighting had started.

The French attack in this area never really developed. By the time Ruffin and Villatte reached the valley, they were facing the cavalry of Anson, Fane and Albuquerque and the infantry of Bassecourt, as well as a flanking fire from the British artillery on the hill above. The French advanced cautiously into the valley, but were never in a position to launch the planned attack. They would however be handed a minor victory. Wellesley ordered Fane and Anson to attack the French infantry. They responded by forming squares, but before the British cavalry could even reach them, the charge came to grief. The valley was crossed by a hidden ravine, ten feet deep and fifteen feet wide at its northern end. The British cavalry discovered this feature by charging into it. This cost them half of their strength, as horses were injured, and men dismounted, but they still insisted on carrying out their attack, suffering a predictably heavy defeat. One of Anson’s two regiments, the 23rd Light Dragoons lost 207 of their 459 men in the attack.

Despite this success, Victor’s two divisions were no longer in any position to launch an attack. They now knew that the attack in the centre had failed. They were facing Hill’s intact division on the Cerro de Medellin, Bassecourt’s infantry, Albuquerque’s cavalry division and Fane’s cavalry. Ruffin and Villatte realised that they were no longer capable of launching a decisive attack, and withdrew.

The Aftermath

This effectively ended the battle. The French still had 5,000 men in reserve, and Victor wanted to make yet another attack. Joseph was wavering, when he received news that Cuesta was on the move. This was not actually true, but even the rumour convinced Joseph not to risk another attack. Encouraged by Jourdan and most of his staff, Joseph ordered a retreat back to the Alberche. By the end of the day the 4th Corps had begun its retreat. Victor was furious. He refused to retreat from his position opposite the Cerro de Medellin until 3am on the following morning, and in the aftermath of the battle he would continue to claim that one last push would have won the battle, despite his three previous attacks have gained no ground at all.

Both the British and French suffered heavy casualties at Talavera. The British lost 801 killed, 3915 wounded and 649 missing. Two generals – Mackenzie and Langwerth – were amongst the dead. Over a quarter of the British infantry were out of action at the end of the day. The French suffered even more heavily, with 761 dead, 6,301 wounded and 206 missing, with General Lapisse amongst the dead. Cuesta reported his casualties as 1,201, normally considered to be an unrealistically high figure, for very few of his men were engaged on the right. Unfortunately no detailed casualty figures were produced, so it is unclear where these casualties were meant to have been suffered.

For some time after the battle the British were immobilised by a lack of supplies. During this period Wellesley still believed that there was a chance he could reach Madrid, for he did not yet known that a second large French army under Marshal Soult was approaching from the north. On the evening of 1 August Wellesley finally learnt that Soult was in his rear, although he still did not realise that he was at the head of 50,000 men. The advance on Madrid had to be abandoned, and Wellesley’s attention turned west to deal with the new threat. When it did become clear how big Soult’s army actually was, Wellesley and Cuesta were forced to retreat south across the Tagus, and eventually back to the Portuguese border.

The French forces repulsed at Talavera were soon broken up. Victor was left to watch Wellesley and Cuesta, while Sebastiani and King Joseph moved towards Toledo to deal with General Venegas and the army of La Mancha. On 11 August the French defeated Venegas at Almonacid, effectively ending the Talavera campaign. Wellesley had won his first great victory in Spain. He had successfully ended the threat to Portugal, but for a moment it has seemed possible that the Allies would liberate Madrid, and so the campaign is generally judged to have been unsuccessful. Despite this, Talavera confirmed that the British line could defeat French columns on a major battlefield and Wellesley was confirmed in his belief that he could beat the French.

Books

Talavera 1809, René Chartrand. A good shorter history of one of Wellington's first victories in Spain, the defeat of King Joseph and Marshalls Victor and Jourdan at Talavera. Good on the problems within the French command, the difficult relationship between Wellington and his Spanish allies, and more generous to the Spanish than many English-language accounts of the battle. [read full review] cover cover cover
 A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history. cover cover cover
 The Spanish Ulcer, A History of the Peninsular War, David Gates. An excellent single volume history of the Peninsular War, which when it was published was the first really good English language history of the entire war since Oman. This is a well balanced work with detailed coverage of those campaigns conducted entirely by Spanish armies, as well as the better known British intervention in Portugal and Spain. cover cover cover
Wellington: A Military Life, Gordon Corrigan. This in an excellent military biography of the Duke of Wellington. It focuses very heavily on Wellington the general, allows Corrigan to describe the wider campaigns in some detail, giving a good idea not only of what Wellington did, but also why he did it. [see more] cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 March 2008), Battle of Talavera, 27-28 July 1809, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_talavera.html

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