The Peninsular War
The Battle of Talavera
With Portugal liberated, Wellington turned his attention to Spain, and planned a joint operation with a Spanish army under General Cuesta. As part of the agreement, the Spanish promised to help keep the British army supplied. However, the Spanish were having enough trouble keeping their own troops fed. Once the campaign began, the British found that the Spanish were making little effort to help them transport their supplies and, as a result, the British troops soon began to go hungry.
After the initial advance into Spain, which forced the French to pull back and regather their forces, Wellesley refused to move deeper into Spain unless the Spanish resolved the supply problem. He had also been frustrated when, after spending hours negotiating with Cuesta for an attack on the French on 23rd July, the Spanish decided not to take part. As a result, when Cuesta became overexcited about news of the French withdrawal, and pursued them, the British remained at their position a few miles east of the town of Talavera.
On the 25th and 26th July the Spanish were forced to rapidly withdraw to Talavera as they were confronted with a much larger French army. The reunited Spanish and British armies took up a strong defensive position north of the town of Talavera.
The position was a relatively strong one. Wellington gave the strongest part of the line, based on the bank of the River Tagus to the Spanish, whilst his own troops formed a line stretching to the top of the Medellin ridge. As the army occupied its positions on 27th July, some of the less experienced Spanish troops panicked at the sight of the advancing French, fired too soon, and fled.
That night, the French commander Marshal Victor launched a surprise attack on the Medellin ridge, which very nearly succeeded, before being pushed back by British troops under the command of General Rowland Hill.
The following day 45,000 French soldiers, including 5,000 cavalry and 80 guns, faced 22,000 British soldiers, including 3,000 cavalry, and 30,000 Spaniards. Throughout the day, the British faced the bulk of the French attack. Victor sent General Ruffin’s division forward in another attack on the Medellin ridge, which was again broken after fierce fighting.
After a lengthy artillery barrage, the French attacked again, this time using Leval’s and Sebastiani’s divisions. Both attacks were beaten back, but in pursuing the first wave of Sebastiani’s attack, the British Guards got carried away, pursuing the French too far and opening themselves up to an attack by Sebastiani’s reserves. As the British fell back Wellesley was obliged to commit his limited reserves who, after some fierce fighting pushed the French back for a final time. Meanwhile, an attempt by the French to outflank the Medellin ridge to the north defeated a British cavalry charge, but were stopped, again, by British musketry.
The Battle of Talavera
Talavera cost the British 5,365 casualties, with historian Rory Muir describing it as the bloodiest battle fought by the British Army for over fifty years. The Spanish appeared to suffer 1,200 casualties, although it is unclear whether this includes their retreat on 26th July. The French lost 7,263 men, and although not broken, their shaken army pulled back. Another Spanish army, under Venegas, was threatening Madrid, forcing the French to accelerate their withdrawal.
For Wellesley’s troops, who had been reinforced by General Craufurd, the victory felt like a hollow one. Marshal Soult was advancing his army southwards, hoping to cut the British off from their supply bases in Portugal. Wellesley was left with no choice but to withdraw back into Portugal. Britain’s second advance into Spain had resulted in yet another barren victory.
Up Next: The Aftermath of Talavera
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Interested in learning more?
Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)
Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)
Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War: Volume II (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905)