The Spanish Armies
The French Position
Army of the Left – Tamames
Army of La Mancha - Ocaña
Army of the Left – Alba de Tormes
The Spanish Junta’s Autumn campaign of 1809 was a disastrous politically motivated campaign launched in the hope that a spectacular military victory might remove the pressure on the Central Junta to put in place a more permanent government. The series of Spanish military defeats during most of 1808 and 1809 had eroded the Junta’s authority, and led to calls for its replacement by the National Cortes, a body that had not met since the time of Charles V. By the autumn of 1809 the Junta had already been forced to agree to summon the Cortes, but the French occupation of large parts of Spain made it very difficult to actually bring together a representative body. The member of the Junta believed that if they could recapture Madrid, then they would be able to maintain their own authority.
The Spanish Armies
The main weakness in any Spanish plan at this time was the quality of the Spanish armies. A long series of defeats had destroyed each Spanish army in turn, leaving a core of experienced troops and a mass of raw recruits (although Spanish armies also proved to be rather better at recovering from defeats than most other European armies, dispersing at the end of a battle and reforming a few days later).
The one high quality professional army available to oppose the French in the Autumn of 1809 was Wellington’s army. After the victory at Talavera, a concentration of French troops had forced Wellington to retreat back to Badajoz, and the Junta hoped that they could convince him to take part in their campaign. Unfortunately Wellington had been totally disillusioned by his experiences during the Talavera campaign. His Spanish allies had proved unwilling to cooperate with him, and when plans had been agreed often then failed to carry them out, while the Junta had promised to provide large amounts of supplies which never reached the British. Wellington had decided never to campaign with the Spanish unless he was in charge of the combined army. He was also unwilling to allow the increasingly capable Portuguese army to take part in the campaign.
The Spanish had three armies available for their campaign. The smallest was the Army of Estremadura, under the command of the Duke of Albuquerque. In theory he had 12,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry, but only the cavalry and 8,000 of the infantry were available for the upcoming campaign.
One of the reasons that this army was so small was that three divisions of infantry and twelve regiments of cavalry had been taken from it to reinforce the Army of La Mancha. After suffering a heavy defeat at Almonacid, this army had been reduced to only 25,000 men, under the command of the General Venegas. When the 25,000 men from Estremadura joined him, Venegas had 50,000 men. Having created this impressive army, the Junta then removed Venegas and replaced him with General Carlos Areizaga, an elderly general who had never before commanded more than a single division. By the time the campaign started, Areizaga had 48,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 60 cannon in what was one of the best equipped Spanish armies of the war so far.
The third Spanish force was the Army of the Left. This had been formed from La Romana’s Army of Galicia, Ballasteros’s Army of the Asturias and a force collected by the Duke Del Parque from the area around Ciudad Rodrigo, recruited while Ney’s corps had been absent from the area taking part in the final stages of the Talavera campaign. In theory this army was 50,000 strong, although only 40,000 of those men actually took part in the campaign. Command of this army was given to the Duke Del Parque.
The Spanish plan was for the Army of La Mancha to advance towards Madrid from the south, the tiny Army of Estremadura to take up a position on the Tagus at Almaraz and Talavera and for the Army of the Left to attack towards Madrid from Ciudad Rodrigo. The hope was that the French would overestimate the strength of the Army of Estremadura, and leave the corps of Soult and Mortier in their positions at Plasencia and Talavera. This would then give the remaining 100,000 Spanish troops a chance of defeating the otherwise overwhelming force of 120,000 French troops concentrated around Madrid. The Spanish plan was incredibly dangerous. Three armies operating with wide gaps between them were to attempt to surround a larger French force. If either the Army of the Left or of La Mancha was delayed then the French could concentrate and destroy them in detail, while the Army of Estremadura was always in danger of being overwhelmed the forces in front of it. The only reason the Spanish came as close to success as they did was surprise – the French did not expect any Spanish attacks after the failure of the Talavera campaign, and King Joseph was waiting for reinforcements from France before taking the offensive.
The French Position
At the end of the Talavera campaign, the main French armies had all been concentrated around Madrid, and most of them were still in the area. Soult was at Plasencia and Mortier at Talavera, both in the central Tagus valley, facing the Army of Estremadura. Victor was in La Mancha with Sebastiani close behind. Ney’s 6th Corps had returned north to Salamanca, although when the Junta began their campaign Ney was on leave and General Marchand had command of the corps. Finally King Joseph and the central reserve were at Madrid. The French were expecting reinforcements from Germany, and so had no offensive plans of their own.
The first part of the Spanish plan to fail was the attempt to pin Soult and Mortier in place on the Tagus. When King Joseph discovered that some Spanish troops were moving east from Estremadura to La Mancha, he moved Mortier to Toledo and Soult to Talavera. Unless the Army of La Mancha moved very quickly, four French corps could soon be concentrated to oppose them.
Army of the Left – Tamames
Del Parque was the first to move. By the end of September he had 25,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry at Ciudad Rodrigo, and only the Asturians were yet to arrive. On 5 October he advanced to Tamames at the head of 20,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry and took up a strong defensive position on the hills above the village. When General Marchand received news of the Spanish advance, he decided to attack. On 17 October he left Salamanca at the head of a force of 12,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry, reaching Tamames on the following day. The resulting battle of Tamames (18 October 1809) was a clear Spanish victory. Marchand attempted to attack a strong position uphill and was repulsed after suffering 1,400 casualties, while the Spanish only lost 713 killed and wounded. This was the first victory by the Spanish field armies since the battle of Alcañiz of 23 May 1809, and a promising start to the campaign.
While Marchand retreated to the north east, Del Parque advanced north, and on 25 October entered Salamanca in triumph. French reinforcements soon arrived in the area. First to arrive was General Kellerman, who was able to scrape together 1,500 infantry and 3,000 cavalry from the garrisons of northern Leon and Old Castile. He took command of Marchand’s force, which he then moved east to reopen communications with Madrid. That also gained him another brigade of reinforcements (Godinot’s). Kellerman then turned west, and advanced towards Salamanca. Rather than risk another battle, Del Parque slipped away to the south, leaving Salamanca on 5 November.
As so often happened in Spain, as Kellerman moved to help Marchand northern Leon and Old Castile rose in open rebellion. This forced him to abandon the chase. Marchand and the 6th Corps were left in Salamanca, while Kellerman was forced to return to the north to restore French control. Meanwhile, as Del Parque was leaving Salamanca, Areizaga began the second phase of the campaign.
Army of La Mancha - Ocaña
The Army of La Mancha left its mountain bases on 3 November, and reached a point just south of Ocaña five days later. The French were caught out by the arrival of over 50,000 Spanish troops only 35 miles from King Joseph’s capital, but having reached a point from where he could have threatened Madrid, Areizaga lost his nerve, and for the next three days remained static while the French concentrated against him. The Army of Estremadura completely failed to hold any French forces in place, allowing King Joseph to concentrate Victor’s and Mortier’s corps against the Spanish. Only on 11 November did Areizaga begin to move north, only to run into a force of French cavalry at Ocaña (combat of Ocaña). Despite an overwhelming numerical superiority the Spanish failed to push the French out of the town, but overnight the French retreated rather than risk being caught by the entire Spanish army.
On 12 November the Spanish moved north east to Villamanrique, and attempted to cross the Tagus over two pontoon bridges. Despite some several storms, by 15 November half of the Spanish army was across the river. King Joseph assumed that Areizaga was planning to march on Madrid, and so ordered Marshal Victor to destroy the bridge at Aranjuez and march north to Arganda to block the Spanish advance.
Having made this brief offensive movement, on 17 November Areizaga retreated back across the Tagus, taking up a new position at La Zarza. This otherwise pointless manoeuvre did have the effect of splitting the French force in two, for Victor had to be sent east to cross the Tagus at Villamanrique, while King Joseph, with Marshal Soult as his chief of staff, crossed at Aranjuez with Mortier’s corps, Sebastiani’s infantry divisions and the King’s Reserves.
On 18 November the two vanguards clashed at Ocaña, in the biggest cavalry battle of the war, involving 8,000 men. Despite being outnumbered, the French were victorious. Despite this initial success, Joseph was badly outnumbered, with only 33,500 men present, but the French were confident of victory. There were no natural features to aid the Spanish at Ocaña, and so the French were able to take advantage of the superior quality of their troops. The resulting battle of Ocaña (19 November 1809) was a crushing French victory. The Spanish lost 4,000 killed and wounded, and 14,000 prisoners. Three weeks later only 21,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry were still with the army.
Army of the Left – Alba de Tormes
One more defeat was to follow. Del Parque had moved south from Salamanca, but when he discovered that the French had withdrawn some troops back to Madrid to help against the Army of La Mancha, he decided to return north and make a second attack on Salamanca. On 18 November he pushed back a French brigade at Alba de Tormes, and on the following day Marchand evacuated Salamanca. On 20 November Del Parque occupied Salamanca for the second time, before making an attempt to move between the retreating Marchand and Madrid. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the defeat at Ocaña meant that the French were free to concentrate against Del Parque.
On the morning of 24 November Del Parque was in a strong position around Medina del Campo, facing the French 6th Corps, which he outnumbered by two to one, but on that day he finally received the news of Ocaña, and on the following day began a retreat back into the mountains, aiming for Alba de Tormes. For two days the Spanish managed to keep ahead of the pursuing French, but on 28 November Kellerman, at the head of 3,000 cavalry, found the Spanish camped around Alba de Tormes. The French cavalry was ten miles ahead of the infantry, and so in order to give the infantry time to catch up, Kellerman launched a dramatic attack on the Spanish camp, taking over 2,000 prisoners (battle of Alba de Tormes, 28 November 1809). In total Del Parque lost 3,000 men in the fighting and another 3,000 deserted in the retreat. When his army came back together one month later he had 26,000 men left, but over the winter of 1809-1811 he lost another 9,000 men to illness and starvation.
The failure of the autumn campaign ended the power of the Central Junta. A date was set for the first meeting of the Cortes, 1 March 1810, but more disasters were to come before the Cortes could meet. Early in 1810 the French invaded Andalusia, capturing Seville on 1 February and forcing the Junta to retreat to Cadiz. On 24 September the Cortes finally met for the first time in the besieged city, then eight months into a two year long French siege.
Meanwhile the French were free to turn their attention back towards Wellington and Portugal, but Masséna’s invasion of Portugal would not get under way until late in 1810, giving Wellington the time he needed to prepare the famous Lines of Torres Vedras.
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