spanish foot

Battle of Talavera

The Battle of Talavera (July 2728, 1809) was a bloody yet inconclusive battle seventy miles southwest of Madrid, Spain. Although the French army under King Joseph Bonaparte withdrew from the field, the British under Sir Arthur Wellesley (subsequently Duke of Wellington) soon withdrew from Spain, leaving their wounded to the Spanish General Gregorio de la Cuesta, who in turn left them to the French. This reduced trust between the British and the Spanish for the remainder of the Peninsular War.


Having driven Marshal Nicolas Soult's French army from Portugal, General Sir Arthur Wellesley's 20,000 British troops advanced into Spain to join 33,000 Spanish troops under General Cuesta. They marched up the Tagus valley to Talavera de la Reina, seventy miles southwest of Madrid. There they encountered 46,000 French under Marshal Claude Victor and Major-General Horace Sebastiani, with the French king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte in nominal command. The combined Allied force had a sterling opportunity to defeat the French corps of Victor at Talavera, but Cuesta's insistence that the Spanish wouldn't fight on a Sunday provided the French with their chance to escape.

The following day, having lost his best chance for victory, Cuesta sent his army headlong after Victor, losing a clash with the reinforced French army (now led by King Joseph). The Spanish retreated precipitously, necessitating the advance of several British battalions to cover the retreat, a move that nearly resulted in the capture of Wellesley by French cavalry. That night, a patrol of French dragoons spooked the Spanish infantry: ten thousand opened fire at once in one of the largest single volleys of the Napoleonic Wars. Panicked by their own fire, the Spaniards turned and ran, playing nearly no part in the battle the next day.

The French crossed the Alberche in the middle of the afternoon on July 27. A couple of hours later, the French attacked the right of the Spaniards and the British left. A strategic hill was taken and lost, until, finally, the British held it firmly. At daybreak on July 28, the French attacked the British left again to retake the hill and were repulsed when the 29th Foot and 48th Foot who had been lying behind the crest stood up and carried out a bayonet charge. A French cannonade lasted until noon when a negotiated armistice of two hours began. That afternoon, a heavy exchange of cannon fire started ahead of various infantry and cavalry skirmishes. Early in the evening, a major engagement resulted in the French being held off. A cannon duel continued until dark. At daylight, the British and Spanish discovered that the bulk of the French force had retired, leaving their wounded and two brigades of artillery in the field.

Opposing armies

Wellesley's British army consisted of four infantry divisions, three cavalry brigades and 30 cannon. The infantry included the 1st Division under John Sherbrooke (6,000), the 2nd Division led by Rowland Hill (3,900), the 3rd Division commanded by Alexander Mackenzie (3,700) and the 4th Division (3,000) under Alexander Campbell. Henry Fane led a brigade of heavy cavalry (1,100), while Stapleton Cotton (1,000) and George Anson (900) commanded light cavalry brigades. There were three British (RA: Lawson, Sillery, Elliot) and two King's German Legion (KGL) batteries (Rettberg, Heise) with six guns apiece.

Cuesta's Spanish army was organized into five infantry and two cavalry divisions, plus about 30 artillery pieces. The 28,000 infantry were in José Zayas's 1st Division (7 battalions) and Vanguard (5 bns.), Iglesias's 2nd Division (8 bns.), Portago's 3rd Division (6 bns.), Manglano's 4th Division (8 bns.) and Bassecourt's 5th Division (7 bns.). Henestrosa and the Duke of Albuquerque led the 6,000 horsemen of the 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions.

While Joseph nominally led the French Army, his military adviser Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan actually exercised command over their 37,700 infantry and artillerymen, 8,400 cavalry and about 80 cannon. Victor's I Corps included the infantry divisions of François Ruffin (5,300), Pierre Lapisse (6,900) and Eugene-Casimir Villatte (6,100), plus Beaumont's 1,000-man light cavalry brigade. Sebastiani's IV Corps consisted of his own infantry division (8,100), Valence's Poles (1,600) and Leval's German-Dutch division (4,500). Merlin led the IV Corps light cavalry brigade (1,200). Marie Victor Latour-Maubourg (3,300) and Édouard Milhaud (2,350) commanded the two heavy dragoon divisions of the Cavalry Reserve. The Madrid Garrison included part of Jean Dessolles's division (3,300), the King's Spanish Foot Guards (1,800) and two regiments of cavalry (700).


On July 27, Wellesley sent out the 3rd Division and some cavalry to cover Cuesta's retreat into the Talavera position. But when Anson's cavalry mistakenly pulled back, the French rushed in to surprise and inflict over 400 casualties on Rufane Donkin's brigade. That night Victor sent Ruffin's division to seize the Cerro de Medellin in a coup de main. Two of Ruffin's three regiments went astray in the dark, but the 9th Light Infantry routed Sigismund Lowe's KGL brigade (1st Division) and pushed forward to capture the high ground. Alertly, Hill sent Richard Stewart's brigade (2nd Division) on a counterattack which drove the French away. During this action, some French horsemen rode up to the Spanish position. Cuesta's men responded with a gigantic volley, then a thousand of them ran away, taking the British baggage train with them.


In the morning, it could be seen that the bulk of Cuesta's army held the right while the British formed the left. The Spanish right was anchored on the city of Talavera on the Tagus River and followed the course of the Portina stream. In the centre the British had built a redoubt, which was backed by the 4th Division. Further to the left, the Medellin was held by the 1st Division, with the 2nd Division to its left. The 3rd Division plus Fane's and Cotton's cavalry formed the reserve. On the far left, Bassecourt's Spanish division was positioned on some high ground near the Sierra de Segurilla. Anson's brigade covered the valley between the Medellin and the Segurilla, supported by Albuquerque's Spanish horsemen.

Joseph and Jourdan massed Victor's I Corps on the French right, holding the Cerro de Cascajal. Sebastiani's corps held the centre, while Latour-Maubourg and the Madrid Garrison stood in reserve. On the French left, Milhaud's horsemen faced almost the entire Spanish army. Opposite the Medellin, the Cascajal bristled with 30 French cannon.


Victor lobbied his superiors for a massive attack, but Joseph and Jourdan chose to peck away at the Anglo-Spanish position. At dawn, the guns on the Cascajal opened up, causing some loss among the British infantry formed in the open. Having learned the hard way about the destructive power of French artillery, Wellesley soon pulled his redcoats back into cover.

Again, Ruffin's division attacked the Medellin. Each battalion was formed in a column of companies with a width of two companies and a depth of three. (French battalions had recently been re-organized into six companies.) Each regiment's three battalions advanced side-by-side with only a small gap between units. This would make each regimental attack roughly 160 files across and 9 ranks deep. When Ruffin's men got within effective range, the British emerged from cover in two-deep lines to overlap the French columns. Riddled by fire from front and flank, and with their rear six ranks unable to fire, the French columns broke and ran.

Victor shifted Ruffin's survivors to the right against the Segurilla and supported them with one of Villatte's brigades. Lapisse, Sebastiani and Leval (from right to left) then launched a frontal attack against the British 1st and 4th Divisions. Alexander Campbell's men and the Spanish defeated Leval's attack, which went in first. Lapisse and Sebastiani then advanced in two lines using the same regimental columns that Ruffin had employed. Henry Campbell's Guards brigade (1st Division) routed the French regiments opposite them, then charged in pursuit. Running into the French second line and intense artillery fire, the Guards were routed in their turn, losing 500 men. Seeing the impetuous attack of the Guards and their defeat, Wellesley personally brought up the 48th Foot to plug the hole. Backed by Mackenzie's brigade (3rd Division), the 48th broke the French second line's attack as the Guards rallied in the rear. Lapisse was mortally wounded.

The main French attack having been defeated, Victor pushed Ruffin's men into the valley between the Medellin and the Segurilla. Anson's cavalry brigade was ordered to drive them back. While the 1st KGL Light Dragoons advanced at a controlled pace, the 23rd Light Dragoons soon broke into a wild gallop. Suddenly, the indisciplined unit ran full tilt into a hidden ravine, hobbling many horses. Those horsemen who cleared the obstacle were easily fended off by the French infantry, formed into squares. The 23rd Light Dragoons charged past the squares and ploughed into Beaumont's cavalry, drawn up behind Ruffin. The British dragoons lost 102 killed and wounded and another 105 captured before they cut their way out. After the battle, the mauled regiment had to be sent back to England to refit. However, this ended the French attacks for the day. Joseph and Jourdan failed to employ their reserve, for which they were bitterly criticized by Napoleon.


The French bore most of the weight of this hard-fought set-piece battle, losing 7,390 killed or wounded. The Spaniards lost about 1,200 and the British lost 5,500 men. Many of the wounded on both sides were burnt to death when the dry grass of the battlefield caught fire. The next day, the 3,000 infantry of the Light Brigade reinforced the British army after completing a famous march of in 26 hours.

Meanwhile, Marshal Soult advanced south, threatening to cut Wellesley off from Portugal. Thinking that the French force was only 15,000 strong, Wellesley moved east on August 3 to block it, leaving 1,500 wounded in the care of the Spanish. Suddenly finding that Soult had 30,000 men, the British commander sent the Light Brigade on a mad dash for the bridge over the Tagus River at Almaraz. The light infantry reached there on August 6, just ahead of Soult. Now enjoying secure communications with Lisbon, Wellesley considered joining with Cuesta again. But he found out that his Spanish ally had abandoned the British wounded to the French and remained thoroughly uncooperative in other ways.

Although the Spanish had promised food to the British if they advanced into Spain, not only was no food given, but Spanish troops threatened to pillage any town that sold food to their 'allies.' This forced the British to continue their retreat to Portugal. The British in the Peninsula never fully trusted the Spanish again.

After this battle Wellesley was created Viscount Wellington of Talavera.

Popular culture

Talavera is the setting for Sharpe's Eagle, the first book written in Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series.



  • Chandler, David (1979). Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan.
  • Field, Andrew (2006). Talavera: Wellington's first victory in Spain. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military.
  • Gates, David (2001). The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
  • Glover, Michael (1974). The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Hamden, CT: Archon.
  • Oman, Charles (1993). Wellington's Army 1809-1814. London: Greenhill.
  • Weller, Jac (1969). Wellington in the Peninsula, 1808-1814. London: Nicholas Vane.
  • Zimmermann, Dick. "The Battle of Talavera" Wargamer's Digest magazine, July 1983.
  • Some Remarks concerning the Royal Artillery at the Battle of Talavera by Major John H. Leslie, R.A. in the Journal of the Royal Artillery (Vol XXXIV No. 11 Feb 1908)

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