It’s November of 1808, and Emperor Napoleon
Bonaparte just launched a lightning offensive across eastern Spain, culminating in a crushing
victory at the Battle of Tudela. Those doubting French power had been given a rude awakening.
Although Napoleon had beaten his opponents badly, he failed to land a knockout blow,
and the Spaniards were licking their wounds to fight another day. After Tudela, the Emperor prepared his army
for an advance on Madrid, which was not only strategically important, but held great symbolic
significance as both the capital of Spain, and the birthplace of the anti-French resistance.
Retaking the city and restoring Joseph Bonaparte to the Spanish throne would be a major victory
for France. The Spanish were still reeling from defeat,
and had few troops available to defend Madrid. The Spanish government entrusted General Benito
de San Juan with the task. San Juan scraped together every available fresh recruit, militiamen,
and regular fleeing from the east, amassing a force of nearly twenty thousand in a few
days. He planned to hold the French at the narrow mountain passes outside the city. This
good defensive terrain was the only hope for such a small, inexperienced army.
On November 29th, a 45,000-strong French force, commanded by Napoleon himself, encountered
about 9,000 men of San Juan’s army, guarding the Somosierra Pass on the outskirts of Madrid.
The Spanish infantry were arranged along high ridgelines on either side of the pass, and
San Juan had placed his artillery in four successive barricades along the road through
the pass to the capital. The Spanish were outnumbered, and the quality of their troops
was low, but this was an incredibly formidable position, and they were well-entrenched.
Napoleon had little choice but to try to dislodge them. The Battle of Somosierra began around
8 the next morning, with an attack by three regiments from Marshal Victor’s corps, in
a dense morning fog. The French could barely see their opponents, who raked the attacking
lines with musket and cannon fire. Not even the cream of the Imperial Army could make
any progress against the strong Spanish lines. But as the morning mists lifted, Napoleon
believed he saw a weakness in the enemy defenses. The Spanish cannons at the first barricade
were dangerously close to the French line. A frontal assault against it would be deadly,
but Napoleon thought the barricade was close enough that a quick surprise attack could
seize the position before the Spanish had time to react. He ordered a cavalry charge
against the barricade. One of the staff officers argued it was impossible, to which Napoleon
famously replied: “Impossible? I don’t know the meaning of the word!”
The assault would be made by the elite light cavalry of the Imperial Guard. Most came from
an all-Polish unit, the Imperial Guard Light Horse Regiment, bolstered by Frenchmen from
the Guards Mounted Chasseur Regiment. There were probably around one hundred men in the
initial attack, eventually joined by several hundred more.
N apoleon rode out to offer them a word of encouragement: “Poles, take me those cannon!”
The men raised their sabers and cheered, then began to trot forward. Unfortunately for the
cavalry, the gunners manning the Spanish cannon were not untrained militia, but seasoned regulars.
They unleashed a devastating grapeshot volley. The assault column shuddered and stopped,
then the horsemen reformed and continued the attack. A Polish officer cried out: “The
Emperor is watching!” and they charged. The Spanish gunners failed to reload before
the Poles closed the distance, and after desperate hand-to-hand battle, the cavalry took the
barricade and disabled the guns. To the amazement of every observer, the Poles
then saddled up and reformed to continue towards the second barricade. Perhaps they misunderstood
Napoleon’s orders, perhaps they were carried away with the exuberance of victory, or perhaps
Napoleon really had ordered them to sacrifice themselves and charge as far as they were
able. Whatever the case, this unit was about to enter military history.
Despite heavy losses, the second barricade fell as well. Against all reason, the Poles
then re-formed their column and charged a third time, taking the third barricade despite
bitter resistance. Seeing their success, Napoleon
ordered his infantry to renew the assault on the heights on either side of the road.
By now all of the senior officers of the Guards Light Cavalry had fallen, but the attack had
taken on a momentum of its own, and they reformed and charged yet again, taking the fourth and
final barricade. A French infantry unit moved behind the light
cavalry, securing the positions, and soon San Juan’s army panicked and fled the field.
A few hundred men of the Imperial Guard light cavalry had almost single-handedly won the
battle for France. Every third trooper and all of the officers were either killed or
wounded in this attack, but their achievement at Somosierra would go down in history as
one of the most daring exploits of nineteenth century warfare. As they limped back, Napoleon
greeted them, crying out “I proclaim you my bravest cavalry!”
The Spanish army was falling apart. General San Juan tried to restore order, but was hanged
by his panicked troops. Within days, Napoleon was at the gates of Madrid. The desperate
Spanish government began distributing arms to the people of Madrid, but the spirit of
resistance seemed dead; the city was too overawed by the size of Napoleon’s army and the speed
of his advance. The Emperor gave Madrid several days to contemplate surrender, but on December
4th, his patience ran out, and the assault began. It only took a few hours for the Spanish
leadership to realize their position was hopeless and call for a truce. By the afternoon, Madrid
was back in French hands. Napoleon’s troops rested around Madrid for
two weeks, but he remained as busy as ever. He and Joseph drafted a flurry of new legislation.
The Bonapartes would reform the country in the image of Napoleonic France. Napoleon also
planned the next phase of the war: he dispatched his forces out to the far corners of Iberia.
With the Spanish field armies shattered, he believed the time was ripe to end the war.
Only one enemy army on the Peninsula remained undefeated: a small force of around 25,000
British and Portuguese troops under General John Moore, who was widely considered the
most talented leader in the British army. From his base at Lisbon, Moore had been racing
for Madrid, hoping to bolster the city’s defenses with his trained, professional soldiers.
His army was too slow and too far away to have any impact on the battle for Madrid,
but this slowness saved them from defeat. Napoleon assumed Moore would already be in
full retreat to the coast, to be evacuated to Britain, but the British were preparing
to fight. Spanish guerrillas captured a report containing the location of every French unit,
and passed this information to their allies. Emboldened, Moore decided to strike one blow
against the French before making his retreat, and chose to target the corps of Marshal Jean-de-Dieu
Soult, which was marching north to pacify León. Soult’s corps was tempting prey,
spread out on the march, with a vulnerable flank facing Moore’s army.
Soult was among Napoleon’s most capable commanders, but he had no idea Moore’s army
was so close; like Napoleon, he had assumed the British were long gone. On December 21st,
Moore’s cavalry appeared seemingly out of the blue on Soult’s flank, taking a French
detachment completely by surprise at the village of Sahagún, capturing nearly 300. Fortunately
for Soult, the British infantry were too exhausted to follow up on this victory. This attack
was a success, but, at the same time Moore had given away his position to the enemy,
who outnumbered him ten to one. His little army would have to run for their lives if
they hoped to survive. Napoleon sent reinforcements to Soult, and assembled a force of around
36,000 men to lead personally towards the British rear. Napoleon ordered Soult to pin
Moore down, moving his own force to cut off Moore’s retreat. If all went according to
plan, the British would have no choice but surrender.
Moore was now hemmed in on two sides by much larger forces. He ordered a desperate retreat
northwest, toward the port city of Corunna, where the Royal Navy waited to take his army
to safety. Fortunately for the British, Napoleon was delayed by bad weather and poor road conditions,
allowing Moore to slip out of his encirclement. However, the French remained in hot pursuit
through the rugged mountains of northwestern Spain. Much of the British supply train had
to be abandoned, or was captured. Moore’s men entered the snowy passes of Galicia with
little food, ammunition, or winter clothing. Discipline broke down in many units of the
British army. The British cavalry held together, and fought brilliantly in rearguard actions,
but that was just one bright spot in an otherwise dismal slog. Many British veterans would remember
this as the low-point of the war. Despite their hardships, by January 11th,
most of Moore’s troops were safely inside Corunna, where they began fortifying the town
and preparing for the evacuation. The arduous retreat through the mountains had cost nearly
5,000 British casualties, but the army had survived. Napoleon returned to Madrid and
left Soult with orders to make one last attempt at preventing Moore’s escape. Soult began
assembling his army outside Corunna on January 14th, 1809. His men were tired; many were
fresh off of the punishing road through the mountains. The British, on the other hand,
had spent days resting and resupplying in the city. However, Soult could see the masts
of British ships in the harbor– the evacuation had already begun. There was no time for rest
or reconnaissance. On the 15th of January, Moore positioned his
15 thousand troops to the south of Corunna, with his center on a hill called Monte Mero.
The area was full of hills, rivers, hedges and olive groves which made any cavalry action
possible only on the extreme left of the battlefield. Soult’s 16 thousand was in the area and
managed to push back the advanced British forces, taking control of Penasquedo and Palavea
heights. This made the English to take up the positions opposite to them. The French
commander planned to take the settlement of Elvina and turn the British line, pushing
it towards the coast and cutting it from Corunna. However, the rugged terrain made it difficult
to attack immediately and the battle was delayed until the next day.
This delay seemingly fooled Moore, who thought that Soult did not have enough troops to attack,
and decided to ramp up the evacuation. So, early on the 16th he sent 3,000 under Paget
towards the city. This proved to be a mistake, as a group of Soult’s cavalry managed to
form up on the Monte de Mesoiro, which threatened the British right. This worried Moore and
forced him to recall Paget and Fraser from the city, ordering them to form up to the
northwest of the main formation on the Heights of San Margarita.
Simultaneously, French artillery started to shell the British positions, and two units
were moved against the Bentinck’s position at Elvina. This attack managed to take the
village and push the British back, but Moore personally moved reinforcements into the area
and counter-attacked. As the terrain was making it almost impossible to attack in a formation
to the east of Elvina, the main engagement happened around it, and the village changed
hands a number of times. The British commander in the area, Bentinck,
was killed, and Moore took his place. The shelling in the area was constant, and as
the French artillery had the numbers, they were doing most of the damage. Seeing that
it was difficult to take the village head on, Soult send his reserves and the cavalry
on the extreme left to flank the British from the right. Moore gave orders to Paget and
Fraser to move closer and cover the flank of the troops at Elvina. This was probably
the last order given by Moore, as he was soon struck by a cannonball.
Initially, the French flanking force managed to push the defenders at Elvina back, but
they were soon counterattacked by Paget and Fraser and the whole of the French left was
forced to retreat to avoid being outflanked. Although the French still had the numbers,
the night made it difficult to continue the battle.
The Battle of Corunna cost around 1000 French and more than 1,000 British casualties. It
was a bloody affair for both sides, but the British had bought themselves the time they
needed, and by January 18th, the last units had evacuated, and Soult entered the city.
With that, Napoleon was on his way back to France. Rumors of a coup plot in Paris, and
of another war in central Europe, demanded his attention. On paper, Napoleon’s campaign
looked like a triumph. However, he had failed to bring the conflict to a definitive end.
Spain was a trap and Napoleon’s troubles were just beginning.
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