Friday, 13 February 2015

The Talavera Campaign - 1809

The Battle of Talavera de la Reina by William Heath
Last April, prior to launching a series of games about the Second Battle of Oporto, I posted a couple of brief summaries (as brief as I could make them, and it still filled two posts!) of how the battle fitted in to events in that part of the Iberian Peninsula, so as to set the battle in some context for those less familiar with the history.

The Campaign in Northern Portugal Part 1
The Campaign in Northern Portugal Part 2

I got some really positive feedback on those posts, so I thought I would pick up the thread before commencing on the next series of games, tonight, about the Battle of Talavera and give some background as to why Sir Arthur Wellesley was, with his Spanish allies, facing off two French armies and the Madrid reserve under King Joseph, Napoleon's elder brother.

Map illustrating the relative positions of the various armies at the beginning of the Talavera campaign in July 1809
Having liberated Oporto and driven Soult's army out of Portugal, causing him to lose his artillery in the process, Wellesley turned his attention to Victor's 1st Corps in Estremadura.

During his pursuit of Soult, Wellesley had received authority from the British Government to extend his campaign into Spain, as part of their policy to stretch French resources away from the Scheldt and the Danube Valley.

Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin, Duc de Belluno, Commanding French I Corps
Leaving Portuguese General Silviera to watch the northern corridor and detaching all the Portuguese troops who had accompanied him during the Oporto campaign to watch the approaches from Leon, Wellesley marched his army south amidst reports from General Mackenzie that Victor was beginning to stir. However before committing to a plan of campaign he wrote to Spanish General Cuesta asking his views on how and whether to prosecute a campaign together.

General Gregorio de la Cuesta, commanding the Army of Estremadura
Concentrating his army at Abrantes close to the Spanish frontier, Wellesley took time to refit and reorganise his troops. Because of the demands of the Walcheren expedition, the British Government were unable to spare large numbers of reinforcements, but they did accede to Wellesley's request for light infantry and sent out the first battalions of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th, together with two troops of horse artillery plus several units from Ireland and other garrisons. Contrary winds and other circumstances kept them from joining his army before Talavera. He was also instructed to release some of his badly needed cavalry with the 20th Light Dragoons going home to recruit and the 2nd KGL Hussars to rejoin its HQ in Sicily.

At the same time he reorganised his army into the new formal divisions, creating four such formations each with two brigades of infantry, the exception being the 1st Division with four brigades including the Guards, with a brigade being two to three battalions. This would be the foundation of a new model of organisation for the British army, with Wellington, as he would later become, going on to create seven such divisions and the Light Division, each incorporating Portuguese brigades, with a few exceptions.

Alongside the reorganisation of his forces he also attempted to put his commissariat and finance arrangements into better order for the new campaign. The long marches in April and May had put considerable strain on animals and staff with a commissariat still learning on the job, and huge numbers of mules and muleteers to be arranged to support the needs of the army. This coupled with a profound lack of money produced the need to build up a war chest to pay for the transport and requisitioning of supplies along the route of march, and also to pay the soldiers as well. In this effort he borrowed £13,000 from the impoverished merchants in Oporto and obtained bills of exchange in Cadiz where the treasure fleet had just come in.

All this activity meant that the British army was not ready to move into Spain until the 28th June, crossing the border on the 3rd July.

Marshal Victor's troops (I Corps 20,000 men) lay south of the River Tagus, in a triangle, Truxillo - Cacares - Merida, so that at Abrantes, Wellesley (21,000 men) would lie on their flank and rear. In his correspondence, Cuesta (42,000 men) proposed three differing strategies

  • That the British join him at Badajoz and attack Victor frontally, with two flanking columns to surround him.
  • That the British cross the Tagus at Alcantara and attack Victor in the rear whilst Cuesta attacked in front.
  • That the British march along the north bank of the Tagus and capture the bridges at Almaraz and Arzobispo, thus severing Victor's communications and probable line of retreat.
Of these options Wellesley was only prepared to countenance the last, for the first two could be countered by Victor by simply moving his position. However, when he wrote to accept the last option, Cuesta replied that he did not agree with the strategy and insisted instead on the British moving down to Badajoz. The possible reason for this lack of co-operation was that, unbeknown to Wellesley, his name was being mentioned in Spanish conversations as a potential Generalissimo for the combined British and Spanish armies, which did not carry favour with Cuesta who considered himself as a more preferable candidate.

On the 19th of June the situation changed altogether, when Victor destroyed all his fortified posts and moved his army north of the Tagus between Almaraz and Talavera. News had reached Madrid of Soult's defeat and consequent retreat, and with no intelligence gathering mechanism in Portugal, King Joseph assessed that Wellesley's next move would be against Mortier in Leon. This together with Victor's demands either for supplies or to be allowed to move to a more fertile area, made it obvious for I Corps to be pulled back as a first stage to reinforce any threatened area.

Victor's move brought his army closer to Wellesley and he wrote to Cuesta to urge that the British should move via Plasencia and Almaraz, whilst the Spanish attacked from the front, pointing out that with an allied combined force of 50,000 men against Victor's 25,000 men, the issue would not long be in doubt.

General Francisco Xavier Venegas

As well as his own army, Cuesta had a subordinate, General Venegas, in command of the Army of Andalusia (23,000 men), to his right. General Venegas preferred to treat Cuesta as an equal rather than a superior and didn't align his movements towards the Tagus with the former, instead preferring to rapidly advance on Sebastiani's IV Corps (15,500 men) just south of Madrid, who when reinforced by King Joseph and his central reserve (6,000 men) reacted by presenting to offer battle. Fortunately Venegas thought better of it than to test his army of untried new recruits against a force that he barely outnumbered and withdrew rapidly to the mountains south of the River Guadiana. The allied campaign would have been imperilled if he had suffered a defeat this early in its progress.

Within a week of his move over the Tagus, Victor wrote to King Joseph complaining that his troops were starving and that he was falling back beyond Talavera to the River Alberche. This move put him further away from Wellesley of whose presence he was completely unaware, and confused Cuesta who began to push north across the Tagus, building a new bridge at Almaraz. Patrolling east towards Arzobispo and Oropesa, the Spanish general halted to await the arrival of Wellesley, who crossing the frontier on the 3rd of July reached Plasencia on the 8th.

Wellesley, leaving his army at Plasencia, rode across country to meet with Cuesta at Almaraz on the 10th of July, arriving in darkness and inspecting a Spanish honour guard by the light of torches. The next day, the meeting with Cuesta proved a difficult affair, lasting about four hours. With neither commander speaking the others language, and although both able to speak French, Cuesta refused to use the language of the hated enemy and so the discussion was translated by Cuesta's Chief of Staff, General O'Donoju, who, with his Irish origins, was able to translate in English.

The key issue that came out in the discussions was how to deal with a French threat from the north, for whilst the two generals knew that I Corps was behind the Alberche, with King Joseph's central reserve close enough to be considered a reinforcement, and that Sebastiani was at Madridejos, they had no clear idea of the numbers or locations of the northern French Corps D'Armee of Ney, Soult and Mortier. They did however feel that their combined forces of about 50,000 men were enough to overwhelm both Victor and Joseph's combined force of about 30,000 men with General Venegas under strict orders to keep General Sebastiani tied down.

Neither commander expected the French to evacuate northern Spain in response to a threat along the Tagus Valley, but they did consider that a move against Madrid would cause Mortier to move south from Avila and thus they agreed that General Wilson would command a combined flank guard of about 3,000 Portuguese and Spanish troops, with Cuesta agreeing to send two weak battalions to guard the pass at Banos.

With these arrangements agreed and Wellesley bringing up the problem of supplies, the British commander left to join his army and prepare to move up to the River Tietar whilst Cuesta would march on a parallel route via Arzobispo, these movements to begin on the 18th July, to allow for time to build up stocks of supplies and to get orders to Venegas. However the delay was to prove time wasted as only small amounts of food stuffs were coming in despite a trawl of the countryside up to Cuidad Rodrigo and there was a severe lack of transport to move it.

Crossing the Tietar at Bazagona, the two armies met each other on the 20th July at Oropesa, where Cuesta inspected the British troops. From Oropesa the two armies marched on Talavera with the Spanish having their right flank closest to the Tagus and the British along the main road with an open flank to the north.

On the 22nd July the Spanish advance guard bumped Victor's pickets to the west of Talavera and soon discovered that all of Latour-Maubourg's Dragoons were present, with the French only falling back with the arrival of Anson's Light Brigade. Falling back from Talavera with the forward infantry supports and getting back behind the Alberche, Victor was made aware, for the first time, of British troops being in the area.

Immediately both commanders began talk of giving battle the next day, for their plans had worked perfectly and Wellesley proposed attacking the French corps frontally with his army whilst the Spanish used fords over the Alberche to come up on their left flank. After some consideration Cuesta agreed.

Early the next morning the redcoats filed down to the river bank and formed up in silence, confident that the darkness had hidden their movements, but by the time daylight broke, there was no sign of their allies and it was becoming apparent that the French pickets were aware of their presence. A bewildered Welesley rode across to see what had happened, to be informed that Cuesta had changed his mind because his men were tired and he was unsure of his route in the dark. He proposed a day of rest and to attack the next day,on the 24th, even though the French trains were on the move revealing only cavalry pickets left at the end of the day. Cuesta, however, would not move.

To Wellesley, it was quite apparent that the possibility of destroying Victor was over, and when Cuesta suggested that they should follow him up even though they had heard nothing from Venegas, Sir Arthur refused flatly, particularly as his troops were now on half rations.

Consequently on the afternoon of the 24th the Spanish moved eastwards, only to discover on the 25th that not only had Sebastiani moved west to join up with Victor, but that Joseph had also joined the new force with his reserve, giving the French a concentration of about 50,000 men. With commendable prudence, which he seldom showed, Cuesta, on the 26th July, determined upon an immediate retreat.

Such a move would normally have been fraught with risk, since the French cavalry were superior in every respect to their Spanish counterparts. Despite the fact that Victor was content to chivy the Spanish army along, excusing his lack of energetic pursuit to the fact that his men were tired from their long marches, the Spanish columns were extremely unsettled by the time they reached the Alberche and a rendezvous with the British. The retreat possibly costed them about 1000 casualties.

Incredibly, on reaching the Alberche, Cuesta decided to camp on the eastern (French) side of the river and it was only after an argument and when Wellesley pleaded with him, that he could be prevailed to fall back to Talavera, under cover of Sherbrooke's and Mackenzie's Divisions and Anson's cavalry brigade. On the morning of the 27th the Spanish fell back along the highway to Talavera followed by Sherbrooke's division with Mackenzie bringing up the rear, halting briefly at about 12pm at a derelict group of farm buildings known as the  Casa de Salinas, whilst Wellesley climbed a tower in the farm to observe the approach of the French.

Thus the text brings us to the first serious contact between the Allied and French forces at Talavera, as Marshal Victor, anticipating any likely rearguard to halt in the woods near to the Casa, stealthily moved his forward infantry across the River Alberche, taking advantage of the cover provided from the smoke caused by burning French bivouacs, ironically set alight by the British as they pulled back.

Sources used:
Great Battles of History Refought - Talavera, Richard Partridge & Mike Oliver
Talavera 1809 - Wellington's lightening strike into Spain, Rene Chartrand & Graham Turner,Osprey
Wellington's Peninsular Army 1809-14, Stuart Reid, Osprey
The Peninsular War Atlas, Colonel Nick Luscombe

Next up the action at Casa de Salinas.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi John, thank you. Writing stuff down really helps me to get clear in my mind why things happened the way they did and I am conscious that I am blighthly writing about stuff without explaining its context, assuming everyone knows what's happening.

  2. JJ
    Brilliantly succinct yet appropriately detailed account of the preliminaries to Talavera. You really offer a sense of the personalities and difficulties faced by the commanders engaged in this theater of operations.
    Excellent post - thank you!

    1. Thanks Nigel, I appreciate your comments, I wanted to post the context of this really important campaign before I got stuck into the minutiae of how it played out in our replays. As a scenario player, I want to know why are these two forces are here on the table and what are they trying to achieve, and obviously playing an historical scenario it is fun to try and capture those drivers in the set up.

  3. Great stuff, JJ. I've just reread the Portuguese posts and now this, so I feel fully up to speed. Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks Bill, I hope you enjoy the first AAR for Casa de Salinas