The Peninsular War part 3. Porto to Talavera

Lynne Booker


Wellesley Returns to the Peninsula - After the British and Portuguese victories against the French at Roliça and Vimeiro in August 1808 (getreal 22 April 2008) and Sir John Moore´s victory at Corunna in January 1809 (getreal 30 December 2008), the winter retreat over the mountains of Galicia had left the army in a lamentable state.


The Whig Lord Grenville stated that England must never again send an army to the continent and the Peninsula should be written off as a lost cause. 


The Whig opposition had not taken into account the feeling of the country and the fact that hatred of Napoleon had become part of the national psyche. Urged on by a masterly strategic analysis provided by Sir Arthur Wellesley, the British Cabinet determined to continue to oppose Napoleon in the Peninsula. This was the first European theatre where there was a spark of national opposition to the European dictator and his New Order, and they hoped that British support in Iberia might reanimate opposition to Napoleon throughout Europe. In the aftermath of the Convention of Cintra, Sir Arthur Wellesley, his name cleared, was re-appointed to lead Britain´s army in another chance to help rid Europe of the seemingly invincible Napoleon, described by Sir Walter Scott as the ´demon permitted to scourge the earth for its sins´. 


The disaster of the Ponte das Barcas 

Since Napoleon´s departure from Spain in January, 1809, Spanish armies had suffered further defeats at Zaragoza (20 February), Valls (25 February), Ciudad Real (27 March) and Medellín (28 March). In Portugal things were little better and the 10 000 redcoats left by Moore under Sir John Cradock had been expecting a French advance on Lisbon and an early recall to England! On 29 March, 1809 Marshal Soult with 20 000 men had descended from Vigo and Pontevedra on the west coast of Spain to attack Porto, Portugal´s second city. The bishop of Porto fled to Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro, and ordered the drawbridges on the Ponte das Barcas to be raised and the bridge itself to be bombarded with artillery fire. 


Hundreds of the fleeing citizens of Porto were drowned. This major disaster is today commemorated in a bronze plaque on the north bank of the Douro in the centre of the city. And despite its cognomen Invicta, Porto quickly fell to the French.


Wellesley retakes Porto

Wellesley arrived in Lisbon on 22 April, 1809. He summed up the situation quickly and correctly; the 20 000 – 30 000 British troops together with their Portuguese allies could hold Portugal against the probable 200 000 French troops in Iberia. Although the French outnumbered him by over 6 to 1, Wellesley calculated that many of the French were needed to keep a hold on Spain. The two options for the French were either to garrison the towns and cities of Spain, or to concentrate their armies to fight the British and disregard the fate of large parts of the country. Wellesley´s first priority was to secure Portugal and the immediate threats were from the 54 000 troops under Marshals Soult (23 000 in Porto) and Victor (23 000 near Mérida) and General Lapisse (6 000 at Ciudad Rodrigo). 


In hostile country, these French armies were completely unable to communicate with each other, and Wellesley chose to deal first with those French who were occupying the important city of Porto. Soult and his French forces felt relatively secure north of the Douro because they had destroyed the river bridges and commandeered all of the boats.


However, less than three weeks after landing in Portugal, on 12 May Wellesley disabused them of their security. He used a few small boats which had been hidden from the French to throw his forces across the river. The surprised Soult was forced to beat a hasty retreat leaving behind 300 dead and 1300 prisoners and the cost to the British was 23 killed, 2 missing and 98 wounded. That day, as Prime Minister Perceval introduced the budget in the Commons, Wellesley sat down to eat the dinner prepared for Marshal Soult himself. To the east, General Beresford advanced across the Douro from Lamego with his Portuguese-British corps, threw back Loison´s division and occupied Amarante. 


Threatened from the south, west and east, Soult and his army had to abandon their transport and guns and retreat northwards over the mountains to Orense. The French army was exposed to an ordeal as severe as that faced by Moore´s army on the retreat to Corunna. This withdrawal alone cost the French over 4000 casualties. Meanwhile, in Estremadura Marshal Victor was running short of supplies. 


He had no news of Soult and was being pressed by Cuesta´s Spanish army of 23 000. He eventually obtained permission from King Joseph to withdraw towards Madrid to an area where he could feed his men. He left Mérida on 14 June and took up a position along the Tagus to cover the three river crossings from Almaraz, Arzobispo and Talavera La Reina. Wellesley advances into Spain Wellesley, having dealt quickly and effectively with Soult, now turned his attention to Marshal Victor and his army. Sir Arthur received permission from the British Cabinet to take his army into Spain, and on 27 June he left Abrantes to join the nearest Spanish force under General Cuesta. The British field army numbered 25 000 and there were a further 8 000 reinforcements (including the Light Division) en route to join him, and Cuesta´s Spanish now numbered 30 000. Wellesley crossed the Spanish border at Zarza la Mayor on 2 July and joined Cuesta at Oropesa. 


As the French had done before them, the British struggled to acquire adequate provisions in this poverty stricken area, and shortages of supplies were to be a key feature of the campaign. Wellesley, complaining bitterly of his difficulties, said " we really should not be worse off in an enemy´s country". He was however determined to march on Madrid whilst Napoleon was in difficulties in Austria. Another key feature was the lack of an agreed strategy between the British and the Spanish. Wellesley was to find that the formulation of strategic plans in Spain was very different from their execution, since Spanish troops were not under his direct command. 


Wellesley begs on his bended knee

On 16 July the British army moved forward from Plasencia and by 21 July the British and Spanish had joined forces at Oropesa, while Victor´s French force was only 19 miles away around Talavera. The allied advance found Victor´s numerically inferior force in a relatively weak and extended position beyond the River Alberche, 3 miles to the east of Talavera. Wellesley proposed an immediate attack for dawn on the following day (23 July) but could get no agreement from the testy old Cuesta. A golden chance was lost as Victor was able to withdraw his force eastwards under orders to join King Joseph´s army near Madrid. Believing the road to Madrid was now clear, Cuesta determined to push forwards to the capital, and it became Wellesley´s turn to refuse to move without intelligence about the enemy´s movements and without adequate provisions. 


Obliged to offer Cuesta a measure of support, however, he pushed forward 2 divisions, while Sir Arthur himself reconnoitred the ground near Talavera for the best available defensive position. On 25 July Cuesta discovered that Victor´s corps had been joined by Sebastiani´s corps and by King Joseph´s Guard. The 30 000 Spaniards were now outnumbered by over 46 000 French and on 26 July he retreated precipitately to the river Alberche with his rearguard suffering at the hands of the advancing French cavalry. He chose to halt in a perilous position and it took all of Wellesley´s considerable persuasive powers to persuade Cuesta to cross the Alberche with his army and to join forces with the British on the defensive ground chosen by the British general. Sir Arthur later said that he had had to ´go down on his knees´ to get Cuesta to move his army. 


Two near misses

On 27 July, French light infantry made a surprise flanking attack near Casa das Salinas to the east of Talavera. At that moment, Wellesley was spying out the land from a tower in the house and was surprised by the sudden French advance. He had to leap on to his horse and gallop off as musket balls flew around him. It seems that the British had not bothered to post pickets, or that the sentries had failed to give warning of the enemy approach. In this one tiny action, the British lost 447 in killed, wounded and captured, and it could easily have been worse; had Sir Arthur been either captured or killed, the whole of the Peninsular War would have taken a different direction. British officers learned from this near disaster, and began to take more care in posting pickets. 


Victor was the first French Marshal to arrive at the battlefield chosen by Sir Arthur at Talavera – and he immediately appreciated the importance of the Cerro de Medellin, the hill commanding the northern end of the allied line. Seeing it weakly held, he determined on a night attack. At 22:00 he thrust forward a diversionary attack in the centre, the main attack reaching the top of the Cerro before being thrown back. It was General Rowland Hill, returning from his dinner in Talavera, who chanced on the scene and led the counterattack. If the Cerro de Medellin had been lost, the whole British position would have been untenable, and the allies would have had to withdraw in front of superior forces. 


28 July 

It was Sir Arthur´s idea to post Cuesta´s Spanish forces behind the walls of Talavera town itself, and to the north towards the small hillock of Pajar de Vergara. His reasoning was that he did not know how they would react on open ground, and that they would hold a defensible position more certainly. He posted the British on the open ground north of Cuesta´s force and on the Cerro de Medellin itself. The French planned to concentrate their whole effort on the British section of the line. Victor was permitted in the morning to launch another attack on the Medellin but his infantry attack in column, both unsupported and unwise, was shot down by British musketry. King Joseph, the Commander-in –Chief of the French forces, was not only commanding an army for the first time, but Talavera was also his first experience of battle. It was he who determined on an attack by Sebastiani´s corps in the centre while Victor aimed to turn the British north or left flank. 


The waiting British could see the French deploying and knew exactly where the next blows would fall; Wellesley deployed his forces accordingly. The French artillery opened up again at about 14:00 and after an hour´s bombardment, Leval´s German troops attacked the extreme right of the British position and the left of the Spanish and the centre of the line on open ground is where the thin red line came closest to losing its cohesion. This attack was repulsed by allied artillery on the Pajar de Vergara and by the British infantry who regrouped in good order. North of the Cerro de Medellin, there was still a substantial force of Allied cavalry and the French could not see a way forward. It was here that a charge by the Light Dragoons came to grief in a hidden ditch. As the attackers in the centre began to fall back, so the northern attack began to falter and fail. 


At the end of the day, each side occupied exactly the same position as they had at the beginning of the day, and as the artillery continued to exchange fire, the long dry grass ignited and some of the wounded were gruesomely finished off in the resulting bush fire. King Joseph, fearing for the safety of his capital, ordered a retreat and the French began to withdraw at 17:00 that evening. The sullen Victor, rightly believing that defeat was being snatched from the jaws of victory, eventually withdrew at 03:00 next morning. 


Talavera - A Pyrrhic Victory?

Talavera was a very costly battle for both sides in typical Spanish heat. It is famous for the disastrous cavalry attack by 23rd Light Dragoons, for the late arrival of the Light Division after a heroic forced march and for the fact that the battlefield caught fire; many of the wounded perished through either thirst or burning. The British lost 5 363 (or 26% of their force), the Spanish about 1 200 (3.6%) and the French 7 268 (or 15.75%). In terms of absolute numbers, the contest was evenly matched but in practice the battle took place between 20 578 British and 46 158 French. At the end of the second day, 28 July, the threat to Madrid posed by another Spanish army under Venegas approaching from Toledo caused the French to leave the field. 



Wellesley´s exhausted army was now on one-third rations. He was aware that Soult had put together a force and was marching south via Plasencia to cut off the path of a British retreat towards Portugal. Wellesley left Cuesta at Talavera with the British serious wounded and marched out to meet this new threat near Plasencia. En route, he learned that Soult had a force of 50 000 men and not the 20 000 he had expected. Sir Arthur appreciated that he was on the verge of a disaster and he hastened to withdraw southwards beyond the Tagus. He crossed at Arzobispo and Cuesta´s force soon followed him. 


The British moved southwest towards Mérida still on short rations and on 20 August, in order to protect Portugal, they went into cantons around Badajoz and Elvas. For the second time in a year, the British army had had to run away from superior enemy forces.


Talavera - Who won?

With 46 000 men, the French had stopped an allied army of 52 500. King Joseph had achieved his strategic objective of safeguarding his capital from attack by both Spanish and British armies. In their dispatches, King Joseph and his marshals portrayed the battle therefore as a victory but Napoleon was not misled. The French had lost more men, 17 guns (although they recaptured 15 a week later), and had vacated the battlefield first. For Napoleon the destruction of the enemy was always the primary objective, and he saw this encounter as a defeat. The allies on the other hand had their own difficulties. 


The British army was unable to consolidate or to pursue its strategic objective towards Madrid, and was forced to withdraw westwards and to abandon 1 500 of its wounded. Sir Arthur had outrun his own supply system, and his Spanish allies were unable to find either foodstuffs or transport for the wounded. Having lost 26% of his force, and having eventually to withdraw from the battlefield, Sir Arthur did well in maintaining that his performance at Talavera was a victory. 



In assessment of the campaign, it is clear that the British army and its allies would have been defeated by a more resolute opponent. The British had not achieved their strategic objective of threatening Madrid but Wellesley had shown his resolve in a crisis and the British line had proved itself steadfast against attack by French columns. The army and its general began to take pride in each other. Sir Arthur had learned not to rely either on his allies or on his quartermasters. In the future, he would do everything himself! 



As a result of yet another victory on the Peninsula, Wellesley was raised into the English peerage. He became Baron Douro of Wellesley and Viscount Wellington of Talavera, with an income of £2 000 for three years. The Spanish Government presented him with 6 Andalusian horses and the position of Captain-General of the Army. No longer would he have to beg on bended knee for Spanish troops to cooperate or rely on their promises of supplies. In the future, not only would he bring his own supplies but he would never again be an ally of a Spanish army - he would be its commander.