Sunday, June 27, 2010

Battle of Medellin, 28 March 1809

In the Peninsular War, the Battle of Medellín was fought on March 28, 1809 and resulted in a victory of the French under Marshal Victor against the Spanish under General Don Gregorio Garcia de la Cuesta. The battle marked the first major effort by the French to occupy Southern Spain, a feat mostly completed with the victory at the Battle of Ocana later in the year.

Victor began his southern drive with the objective of destroying the Army of Estremadura, commanded by General Cuesta, who was retreating in face of the French advance. A series of successful rearguard actions between the 17th and 27th of March gave Cuesta a breathing space and after he was reinforced with Albuquerque's 7,000 troops he decided to meet the French in battle rather than continue to withdraw. Cuesta with now around 19,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry, might have had a chance of success in a defensive battle, but instead he decided to attack Victor’s army at Medellin.

The battlefield was just southeast of the town of Medellín, which was roughly 300 km southwest of Madrid. The battlefield was a triangle of land bordered by the Guadiana River along a west-east axis in the northern edge of the battlefield and was joined with the Hortiga River, which ran along a north-south axis that precluded any Spanish flanking maneuvers on the French right, and with Medellin at the north western tip of the triangle. Victor had roughly 17,500 troops while Cuesta possessed about 23,000. However, Victor had a 50-30 advantage in guns and could also count on more cavalry than the Spanish, 4,500 to 3,000, Cuesta’s only numerical advantage was in his infantry, but this was split between raw recruits and men who had been defeated at Gamonal and the Somosierra Pass.

Both commanders arrayed their armies in an unusual fashion, although Victor's setup seems to have been more reasonable. The center of the French army, an infantry division under General Eugene-Casimir Villatte, occupied the main road that led from Medellín to Don Benito in the southeast, whereas the wings, commanded by Lasalle (the left) and Latour-Maubourg (the right), stood much farther south and southeast. Each wing was composed of a cavalry division and two battalions of Laval's German infantry. Apparently, Victor's intentions were to keep withdrawing his flanks closer and closer to the center until a powerful counter-attack could shatter the Spanish lines. Victor's reserve was an infantry division under General François Ruffin, which would not take part in the battle. If this was an odd deployment, Cuesta’s forces were in an even more unusual position. To make sure that he could not be outflanked, Cuesta deployed his infantry into a single thin line, four miles long and only four men deep and split into five divisions (from left to right: Henestrosa, Del Parque, Trias, Portago and Albuquerque). For the Spanish to win they had to prevent the French from finding any gaps in this line, for there were no reserves. If the French cavalry got around the edges of Cuesta’s army, then a disastrous defeat would follow.

The cannonade began around 1 p.m. and Cuesta ordered the attack about an hour later. The Spanish initially had a great deal of success, repelling an impatient cavalry charge on their left flank by a brigade of Latour-Maoubourg's dragoons and prompting both French wings to keep falling back, all while their skirmishers unleashed deadly fire into the French ranks. Lasalle's position was a bit dangerous, since the Guadiana at his back meant his 2,000 cavalry and 2,500 infantry could not fall back more than a mile. Three Spanish cavalry regiments hovered around the bank of the Guadiana and attempted to turn the French left, but Lasalle and his men held on to their tenuous positions.

By this point in the battle, both French flanks had retreated far enough to be within easy supporting distance from Villatte's division. Latour-Maubourg's western sector was reinforced with the 94th Line infantry regiment and a battalion of grenadiers. The ten French guns in this part of the battlefield also stabilized the situation as they consistently outperformed their Spanish counterparts. Spanish infantry, however, kept pushing forward and created many problems for Latour-Maubourg's men, who were arrayed in squares to protect themselves against cavalry charges and consequently had limited firepower.

As the Spanish led by Colonel de Zayas, who was marching on the French battery at the head of a column of grenadiers threatened to capture the French guns, Latour-Maubourg ordered the dragoons to attack once more. This time, the charge succeeded. The French dragoons defeated three Spanish cavalry regiments, who fled the field and left their infantry isolated, the entire left wing crumbled and fled, most of the survivors from the Spanish infantry came from the left wing. Since Cuesta had no reserves, a breach of this magnitude was just about the worst that could happen to his fragile line.

Events now unfolded quickly. Lasalle had been reinforced with seven infantry battalions from Villatte, and once he saw the Spanish routing to the west he too ordered a powerful counter-attack. The 2nd Hussars regiment, accompanied by a regiment of Chasseurs à Cheval, smashed the Spanish cavalry, reformed, and charged at the once-again abandoned Spanish infantry in the eastern flank. Lasalle's fresh battalions also attacked frontally, General Trias fell mortally wounded. Though the Spanish commander on the right, the Duke of Albuquerque, did better than his equivalents on the left wing, managing to organise some resistance to the cavalry, the Spanish were then hit from the rear by Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry, fresh from the rout of the Spanish left, and the entire Spanish army broke. Some battalions attempted to stand and fight, and were virtually wiped out, while the French cavalry offered no quarter during the pursuit (in vengeance for the 10th Hussars at Miajadas). Many were brutally killed in this chaotic retreat and Cuesta's army effectively ceased to exist.

It had been a disastrous day for Cuesta, who nearly lost his life in the battle. The Spanish had 8,000 troops killed or wounded and about 2,000 captured, while the French only suffered about 1,000 casualties. On top of that, the Spanish lost 20 of their 30 guns.

In the aftermath of the battle Cuesta retreated to Monasterio, half way between Medellin and Seville. Bizarrely his standing with the Central Junta improved after Medellin, for despite the defeat and the heavy losses, his army had put up a much more credible fight than had been the case in the majority of recent battles. By mid April enough reinforcements had reached him to bring the Army of Estremadura back to same size as it had been before the battle.

Victor gained very little from his victory. The second part of his orders had been for him to capture Badajoz, close to the border with Portugal, and then wait for news from Marshal Soult, who was believed to be advancing towards Lisbon. Instead of doing this, Victor put his men into camps at Merida and Medellin. He remained in Estremadura until the middle of June, by which time it was clear that Soult’s campaign in Portugal had gone badly wrong. Arthur Wellesley had taken command in Portugal, forced the French to retreat across the mountains back to Galicia, and was now threatening to invade Spain. Victor and his army was needed around Talavera.

Battle Of Meddelin
A History of the Peninsular War: January to September 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the End of the Talavera Campaign v. 2
Battala Medellin


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