27–28 July 1809
Wellesley’s chief problem was a shortage of supplies, for he insisted that his men should not plunder the countryside so as not to antagonize the local population. He continued his march and on 16 July moved forward from Plasencia, reaching Talavera six days later. It was the height of a Spanish summer, and the heat on the baking plains was intense, the dust kicked up by the marching army choking. Even so, there was snow on the sierra to the north, which extended nearly as far as the river at Talavera. The French were surprised by the British advance but quickly retreated east towards Madrid.
Cuesta, that ‘desperate-looking lump of pride, ignorance and treachery’ as one British soldier called him, or a ‘perverse stupid old blockhead’ as an officer described him, ordered his army forward in pursuit, with Wellesley wisely refusing to follow. As Arthur Bryant picturesquely described it: ‘All that day the astonished British watched it pour past – a bewildering kaleidoscope of turbulent half-armed brigands emerging from clouds of dust, regular regiments in blue and scarlet marching in perfect order, of cavalry staff officers, priests, musicians, women, carts, guns and artillery wagons, and herds of sheep, pigs and cattle. It looked like the last army of the Middle Ages pouring out to do battle with the French Revolution.’
The Spaniards soon ran up against a force of 46,000 Frenchmen, a combination of Victor’s army and Joseph’s reinforcements from Madrid. Of Venegas there was nothing to be seen. He had stopped at Aranjuez to the south. Cuesta was forced immediately to retreat to the British position behind him.
There Wellesley, with his extraordinary eye for a good defence, had drawn up the British between the mountains and the river. He allowed the Spaniards to occupy the most protected front beside Talavera itself, while the British were in the exposed gap and the steep foothills of the mountains, the Cerro de Medellin, overlooking the valley.
There were only 20,000 British and German troops and just thirty light cannon against the 40,000 French troops and their eighty cannon. Wellesley himself narrowly evaded capture as he tried to escort the Spanish into their defensive positions. On the same evening of 27 July Victor ordered his men to attack and they succeeded in taking the top of the Cerro de Medellin before Hill led a counter-attack and drove them back down.
The following morning the battle began in earnest. The French opened up with their guns. Wellesley ordered his men back over the brow of the hill and told them to lie down. The French infantry marched up the hill but as they reached the top the British rose in good formation and fired volleys before Wellesley ordered them down the slope, routing the French with their superior forces.
There was a lull in the fighting before a general advance was ordered. On the British right, near Talavera, General Campbell repelled the French so successfully that he had to restrain his men from advancing too fast and breaking the already overstretched British line. To the north a British pursuit was counter-attacked by the French, who killed half of them as well as their commander, opening up a huge gap in the British line which 15,000 French infantry moved quickly to occupy. The British reserves were hurried up.
Wellesley also ordered infantry down from the Cerro de Medellin to plug the hole. But there was a further danger: the French had scrambled up the rocky ravine to the north of the Cerro de Medellin to outflank the British where they were weakest. Cavalry were ordered forward to stop them, but many plunged to their deaths into a hidden gully, although enough survived to halt the advancing French.
At this stage the French commanders decided to cut their losses and withdraw on learning that Venegas was at last advancing from the south to threaten the capital. A particular horror of the battle now ensued when the long grass on the slopes of the Cerro de Medellin caught fire, leading to the burning alive of hundreds of wounded lying there. Yet it had been a victory of sorts, with 7,000 French dead and captured, compared to some 5,000 British, Spanish and Germans, who had also taken the battlefield. Wellesley had shown that he was not just a capable and lucky commander, as at Vimeiro and Oporto, but a first-rate one, who made careful preparations and maintained absolute coolness in the heat of the fighting. Talavera was also a triumph for Sir John Moore’s reforms – although modified by Wellesley’s much stricter enforcement of old-fashioned discipline.
Victor withdrew towards Madrid with just 18,000 men to defend the capital from the attack believed to be imminent under Venegas from the south. The British and the Spanish armies also prepared to march on Madrid from the east. However on 1 August Wellesley learnt that Soult had been reinforced from the north by Ney and Masséna to 50,000 men. Spain’s northern commander, the Duque del Parque, had been forced to stand aside to escape annihilation and the French were marching on Plasencia having driven off the 3,000-strong Spanish force guarding the crucial Pass of Banos.
Wellesley learnt of the French concentration of forces in the nick of time and escaped to the south-west across the only available bridge across the Tagus. General Cuesta followed reluctantly and his rearguard was badly mauled by the French who captured most of the Spanish guns. Meanwhile Venegas’s army was also badly beaten at Almonacid de Toledo. Wellesley’s force huddled in the barren hills south of the Tagus, quarrelling with Cuesta’s troops and in danger of starving as the Spaniards took what little was available from the peasantry. After a few weeks Wellington, disgusted with the Spaniards whom he blamed for failing to fight effectively at Talavera, decided to bolt back into the fertile land of southern Portugal. He had overreached himself and been forced back to his heartland.
The Spaniards were furious with what they saw as British desertion. They staged a quixotic attack which was crushed at Ocaña in November by 50,000 against their 34,000. The Spaniards fought bravely but lost 18,000 men and were routed. The Spanish governing junta were driven south by a French attack in January and fled to the safety of Cadiz where it was overthrown by its fellow countrymen. But the French were stopped outside the city as Spanish troops under Sir Thomas Graham held the isthmus to the great port. Some 70,000 French troops now found themselves tied down in the south besieging Cadiz.