In the middle of January 1809 Napoleon left Spain at the end of the only campaign he would conduct in person during the Peninsular War, convinced that the war was close to an end. He had swept aside the Spanish armies on the Ebro, occupied Madrid and then chased Sir John Moore’s British army out of Spain at Corunna. A few tattered remnants of Spanish armies were still hanging on around the fringes of the country, while the Central Junta had fled to Seville. The Spanish siege of Barcelona had been lifted on 17 December 1808, and the second siege of Saragossa looked to be heading towards a successful end. On his way back to France, Napoleon left behind a plan that he believed would complete the conquest of Spain and Portugal.
This plan used four main armies. In the north Marshal Soult was to finish his operations around Corunna, and then invade Portugal from the north, heading for Oporto. Marshal Victor was to move to Talavera, on the road from Madrid to Lisbon. Once Soult reached Oporto, Victor was to invade Estremadura, occupy Badajoz and Merida, and then invade Portugal from the east, joining up with Soult at Lisbon. For this invasion he was given his own 1st Corps, plus Leval’s division from 4th Corps and the cavalry brigades of Milhaud, Latour-Maubourg and Lasalle. Once at Lisbon, Victor was to take another infantry division from Soult and invade Andalusia from the west. Napoleon believed that the invasion of Andalusia would probably start early in February, and suggested that his brother, King Joseph, should take personal command. Meanwhile, further east the victorious troops from Saragossa were to complete the conquest of Valencia, while St. Cyr completed his operations in Catalonia. The entire war would be over by the start of the summer of 1809.
Napoleon’s plan was based on a number of misconceptions. He was unaware that there was still a British army around Lisbon, although admittedly quite a small one. He seems to have had no idea how difficult the terrain of northern Spain and Portugal actually was, for he gave Soult only 23 days to expel the British army (the battle of Corunna would not be fought until 16 January), conquer Galicia, capture Oporto and reach Lisbon. He persistently underestimated the speed with which new Spanish armies could be raised or defeated armies restored to some sort of order – even as Napoleon was setting out his plans at Valladolid (6-17 January) the Spanish launched an attack on Madrid, which was defeated at Ucles on 13 January 1809. Finally, although Napoleon was becoming aware of the activities of the Spanish partisans, who were making it increasingly dangerous for small detachments of Frenchmen to travel around Spain, he still believed that this was a short term problem.
Napoleon’s first attack on the Spanish forces in Estremadura had involved Marshal Lefebvre’s 4th Corps, supported by Lasalle’s cavalry. They had been sent to deal with what he believed to be a scattered and disorganised Spanish army in Estremadura. Lefebvre was under orders to cross the Tagus on 24 December, establish a bridge head at Almaraz, and then retire back east to Talavera and await further orders. Lasalle’s cavalry was to remain around Almaraz. The first part of the plan went as expected. On 24 December Lefebvre made a feint against the Spanish position at Arzobispo, and at the same time captured the bridge at Almaraz. The Spanish forces under General Galluzzo retreated south across the Sierra de Guadalupe into the valley of the Guadiana. For some reason Lefebvre then decided to disobey his orders, and instead of returning east to Talavera, moved north to Avila, in Old Castile. After ignoring a series of orders to return south, in January he was replaced by General Sebastiani, and sent back to France in disgrace.
Lafebvre’s behaviour left Madrid somewhat under protected. When the Duke of Infantado made his move towards Madrid, the only French forces in the area were Marshal Victor’s 1st Corps, so he had to abandon his position at Talavera, and make his way east. The Spanish offensive was defeated at Ucles on 13 January, after which Victor was sent on a march through La Mancha to Toledo. He would not be ready to invade Estremadura until March 1809.
This gave the Spanish a valuable breathing space, which they used to gather a new Army of Estremadura. General Galluzzo had been replaced by the incapable General Cuesta, whose main qualification for the post was that he had not been involved in the disasters on the Ebro late in 1808. Cuesta eventually had an army 15,000 strong, made up of the survivors of the defeats at Gamonal and the Somosierra Pass, the Estremaduran levies who had been defeated at Almaraz in December, and four regiments of dismounted Cavalry who had returned from the Baltic without their horses. Cuesta managed to restore some order to this army, partly by shooting a large number of mutineers (the army defeated at the Somosierra had only recently murdered their previous commander, General San Juan). He then organised his army into three divisions, under Generals Henestrosa and Trias and the Duke Del Parque.
At the end of January Cuesta was ready to move from his positions at Badajoz and Merida on the Guadiana back to the line of the Tagus. On 29 January the French cavalry were forced to abandon their bridgehead at Almaraz and the Spanish promptly destroyed the bridge. Cuesta was now in quite a strong position. He posted troops to guard the river crossings at Alamaraz and Puente del Conde (near Meza de Ibor). These two river crossings are only two miles apart, and guarded the main road from Madrid to Lisbon via Talavera and Badajoz. The next major crossing was at Arzobispo, twenty five miles to the east across mountainous terrain (Almaraz and Arzobispo are still important crossing points over the Tagus, lying in two gaps in the long line of reservoirs on that river, separated from each other by the Embalse de Valdecañas).
The French made one attempt to threaten Cuesta’s right flank in February 1809, when Lasalle’s cavalry and Leval’s division of infantry crossed the Tagus at Arzobispo, but the mountain terrain made it impossble for the French to use their cavalry, and after advancing twenty miles south towards the pass of San Vincente they retreated back across the river.
Victor’s long planned campaign in Estremadura finally got underway in March 1809. There had been no news from Soult since 24 February, and he would not reach Oporto until late March, but King Joseph, and his chief of staff Marshal Jourdan did not want to delay putting Napoleon’s plan into place for any longer. Victor himself was unenthusiastic, but was overruled, and prepared for a campaign in mid-March.
Victor had a potentially very difficult task. The French still held bridges over the Tagus at Talavera and Arzobispo, but the roads that lead from those bridges towards Cuesta’s army were not usable by artillery. Victor would have to recapture the river crossing at Almaraz.
He decided to split his army into two columns. Three infantry divisions and part of the cavalry crossed the Tagus at Talavera and Arzobispo on 15-16 March, and followed the rugged riverside road towards Almaraz. The rest of the cavalry, the artillery and the baggage were sent to Almaraz, where they were to wait until Victor had swept away the Spanish forces defending the bridge and then cross the Tagus on a bridge of rafts which had been built on the French occupied bank of the river.
Cuesta soon learnt of Victor’s move, but decided that it had to be a feint. Accordingly only del Parque’s division was sent against Victor. Del Parque took up a strong position at Meza de Ibor, where on 17 March he was attacked by Victor’s vanguard. The Spanish held their strong defensive position until Victor’s troops closed with them, and then scattered into the hills, retreated back to join Cuesta at his headquarters at Deleytosa.
The Spanish were now split in two. One division, under Henestrosa, was now isolated at Almaraz, with the other two, under Del Parque and Trias at Deleytosa. Just in time Cuesta realised the danger he was in, and ordered his entire army to retreat south along the Lisbon road to Truxillo (Trujillo). Victor nearly caught Henestrosa’s division, but the French were more concerned with securing the road to Almaraz and their artillery and baggage than in intercepting the Spanish, and so Henestrosa was able to escape.
At this point Cuesta had 15,000 men around Truxillo, while Victor had 22,000 men at Almaraz (15,000 infantry, 5,500 cavalry, 60 guns and 1,600 artillerymen). Despite being outnumbered, Cuesta seriously considered making a stand just beyond Truxillo, at the Pass of Santa Cruz, where the main road to Lisbon crossed over the Sierra de Guadalupe, but he knew that around 7,000 reinforcements were on their way, and so decided to pull back to the Guadiana to collect those men (4,500 men coming down the river from the east under the Duke of Albuquerque and 2,500 under the Marquis de Portago coming from Badajoz).
Henestrosa was left behind with most of Cuesta’s cavalry, to act as a rear guard. He inflicted minor defeats on Lasalle’s cavalry at Barrocal (20 March) and at Miajadas (21 March). This gave Cuesta time to retreat to Medellin, on the Guadiana, where he hoped to join up with Albuquerque. This move meant that Cuesta was cut off from his own base at Badajoz, but he felt that the risk was justified, for he was still willing to risk a battle.
From Medellin Cuesta moved east to La Serena, where on 27 March he was joined by Albuquerque. He then turned back towards Medellin. Meanwhile, Victor had discovered which route Cuesta had taken from Truxillo, and had moved all of his available army to Medellin. This gave him a force of around 13,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry, having left two battalions of infantry at Merida and two at Truxillo and a cavalry regiment at Almaraz. Cuesta now had around 19,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, and might have had a chance of success in a defensive battle, but instead he decided to attack Victor’s army at Medellin.
The resulting battle of Medellin of 28 March was hard fought for the first five hours, but ended in a costly Spanish defeat. Cuesta lost at least 10,000 men, of whom 7,500 were killed, mostly in the final stage of the battle after the collapse of the Spanish line. In the aftermath of the defeat Cuesta retreated sixty miles south, to Monasterio, half way between Medellin and Seville. Rather bizarrely rather than remove Cuesta for his incompetence, the Central Junta promoted him to Captain-General of Estremadura as a reward for his willingness to fight. By the middle of April the Army of Estremadura was as strong as it had been before Medellin.
As was so often the case in Spain, the French gained very little from their victory. Marshal Victor’s orders were for him to get in contact with Marshal Soult in Portugal, who was expected to be in Lisbon by the end of March, but with no news from Portugal Victor decided to place in army into camps around Medellin and Merida and wait for news. With Cuesta’s army beginning to reform to his south, and guerrillas threatening his communications back to Madrid, Victor did not even begin a siege of Badajoz, thirty miles west of Merida and the key to the Portuguese border. Instead Victor remained largely inactive in his camps on the Guadiana until mid June, when he was forced to retreat back to the Tagus by the first moves in Wellesley’s Talavera campaign.