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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 2—Passage of the Douro, Talavera, Cadiz: 1809-1810

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The British Army and the Peninsular War: Volume 2—Passage of the Douro, Talavera, Cadiz: 1809-1810
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Author(s): J. W. Fortescue
Date Published: 2016/10
Page Count: 276
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-570-8
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-78282-569-2

Volume 2 of the 6 volume history of the Peninsular War


Fortescue is rightly renowned for his multi-volume magnum opus, ‘The History of the British Army’, which, since it was written in the early decades of the twentieth century, feature the struggles with Napoleonic France, as a substantial part of the whole. These campaigns took place across the world but, for the British, most notably in Spain, Portugal and the South of France following the French invasion of Iberia. The numerous disconnected sections, within Fortescue’s larger work, concerning the Peninsular War, have been extracted for the first time and carefully edited to create this six volume history. There can be no doubt that in Fortescue the British Army found one of its finest historians. His scholarship is superb, but is balanced by outstanding and fearless academic analysis. What makes this history incomparable and essential is that Fortescue was a contemporary of the other great British military historian of the modern age, Charles Oman, who wrote his own history of the Peninsular War. Fortescue conferred and collaborated with Oman to produce this work and within these pages the reader will discover both confirmations and qualified corrections to some of Oman’s assertions on points of detail. Fortescue was extraordinarily thorough in his use of primary source material (which is annotated) and he additionally walked the ground of the campaign himself. The magnitude of the joint scholarship which brought this history into being cannot be overstated. This analysis of the Peninsular War differs significantly from Fortescue’s other writings on the British Army, in that in embraces the activities of the French and the Spanish in some depth, thus creating a total view. This is a serious, academic, and thoroughly readable, history and no library of the subject can be truly said to be complete without it. The text has been complemented in this Leonaur edition by battlefield maps not present in the original publication.

Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket; our hardbacks are cloth bound and feature gold foil lettering on their spines and fabric head and tail bands.

Moreover, the Spanish Army also was falling short of provisions, less apparently owing to actual dearth than to the difficulty of procuring animals to carry corn from the fertile Vera de Plasencia. Cuesta’s staff, meanwhile, seems to have done its best, for O’Donoju made over to Wellesley some captured biscuit: and Wellesley, on his side, very evidently did not make want of supplies a mere pretext for not working with Cuesta, for he professed himself ready to join the Spaniards immediately upon receiving the biscuit aforesaid.
It should seem, therefore, that there was nothing underhand in the behaviour of the two commanders towards one another: though there was something very mysterious about Cuesta’s unwillingness to fight on the 23rd, and his sudden ardour in following up the French after Victor’s retreat. The latter point is, however, explained by the fact that the Supreme Junta had given secret orders to Venegas to assume the captainship-general of New Castile upon his entry into Madrid, and to nominate the principal military and civil officials from among his own officers. It is no wonder that, having knowledge of this intrigue, Cuesta was anxious to reach Madrid before Venegas. (Wellesley to Frere and Castlereagh, 24th July: to O’Donoju and Sherbrooke, 26th July 1809. Arteche, vi.).
Meanwhile the French plans on the sides both of Plasencia and Toledo were slowly accomplishing themselves. Mortier’s corps had reached Salamanca on the 23rd: though Ney, thinking that Soult’s orders pointed to an invasion of Portugal, deferred obedience to them until their true purport had been explained to him. On the 24th Foy arrived at Soult’s headquarters with Joseph’s new commands: whereupon the marshal directed the whole of Ney’s corps to march to Salamanca, and bade such troops of his own corps as were not already there to move thither from Toro on the 25th without a halt. On the side of the Tagus, Joseph, while at Naval Carnero on his march southward, was met on the 23rd by Victor’s report of his retreat, and at once turned the direction of his march away from Talavera towards Toledo. On the 25th Sebastiani entered Toledo; Victor took up a position on the east bank of the river Guadarrama, about ten miles to west of that city: and Joseph reached Vargas about ten miles to north of it. Thus the First and Fourth Corps, and the reserve from Madrid, were successfully concentrated, with a total strength of some forty-six thousand men.
What, then, had befallen Venegas that the French should so completely have ignored his presence? On the 14th, while at Santa Cruz de Mudela, some ninety miles south and east of Toledo, he had received commands from the Supreme Junta at Seville to draw the enemy’s attention to his side, but without compromising himself. On the 15th at the same place there reached him the orders from Cuesta already mentioned, which bade him concentrate his troops at Madridejos on the 17th and 18th: whence, if unopposed by a larger force than ten thousand men, he was to advance by Tembleque, Ocaña, and Tarancón, so that by the 21st or 22nd his vanguard should have reached Fuentidueña on the Upper Tagus, or even Arganda, little more than twelve miles south-east of Madrid: the whole manoeuvre being undertaken, of course, as part of the general operations of the Allied army on the Tagus, which, as he was told, would move on the 18th or 19th.
Thus beset with conflicting orders, Venegas on the 16th pushed his troops forward from their cantonments along the various roads to the north by Arenas, the pass of Lapiche, Villarta, Villarrubia, and Herencia, only to find the four last-named occupied by the enemy. Since the two first of these four directly blocked the road to Madridejos and the two others flanked it, he decided, after consultation with a council of war, that to proceed farther would be to compromise himself, and sent a message to the Junta for instructions. Three days were lost before on the 19th the junta’s answer arrived, bidding him continue his advance, since the armies on the Tagus were absolutely dependent upon his co-operation: but this he was to do only upon receiving certain intelligence of their progress, and after assuring himself that the enemy in his front had not been reinforced to a dangerous strength.
Venegas thereupon cantoned his troops along the line Ciudad Real, Daimiel, Manzanares, Membrilla, and La Solana, with advanced posts across the Guadiana on his left at Fuente el Fresno and Malagón: and there he sat still, listening gladly to exaggerated tales of Sebastiani’s strength, without an attempt to disturb him. At length on the 24th, upon learning that the enemy was disappearing from his front, he moved forward irresolutely, hesitating whether to follow Sebastiani to Toledo or to march upon Madrid. Some excuse may be made for his previous inaction, looking to the contradictory orders that he had received: but even the Junta had bidden him to distract Sebastiani’s attention to his own quarter, and this he absolutely neglected to do.
In the meantime Wellesley on the 25th stationed the divisions of Sherbrooke and Mackenzie with two regiments of cavalry on the farther bank of the Alberche about Cazalegas, in order to maintain communication with Wilson at Escalona, and with Cuesta. The Spanish general, still full of ardour in the pursuit, had pushed his army on to Torrijos within fifteen miles of Toledo, when to his surprise he learned that over forty thousand French were in his front. Reluctantly enough he resolved to retreat: and Wellesley, who had ridden forward to choose a new position in lieu of that of Cazalegas, upon hearing of his determination, made preparations to send Sherbrooke’s and Mackenzie’s divisions on to Cevolla in case the French should advance. He hoped that the French would now take the offensive, and he was not disappointed. Finding that Cuesta only was opposed to them, King Joseph and his marshals resolved to attack at once: and on the morning of the 26th they marched upon Torrijos, where Cuesta had left the division of Zayas and two regiments of cavalry to cover his retreat.
Zayas seems to have begun his own retrograde movement in fair order: but the French cavalry, following him up sharply, cut one of his two regiments of horse to pieces. After this the infantry appear to have run in disorder to Alcabon, where they rallied under cover of Alburquerque’s division of cavalry, which had come forward to save them. Victor thereupon halted his advanced guard, and the troops composing it dispersed to gather forage.
It is strange that the marshal did not show greater energy against the retiring Spaniards, for they had been much shaken by the first onset, and the retreat even of the main body was conducted in such confusion as greatly to resemble a flight.(There can, I think, be no doubt of this from the joint testimony of Napier, Leslie, and Munster). The French infantry, it is true, was far in rear, but the cavalry numbered five thousand sabres to Alburquerque’s three thousand, to say nothing of infinite superiority in quality.
Had the pursuit been pressed with ardour, there can be little doubt that it would have met with but slight resistance until checked by the British, and might have so scattered Cuesta’s army as to put it out of action for a month. Victor’s excuse was that the horses were tired. This may have been true of Merlin’s division, one thousand strong, which had marched up with Sebastiani, but can hardly have been so of Latour-Maubourg’s, which of itself outnumbered Alburquerque’s. Be this as it may, Victor halted for some hours at Alcabon, and moved no farther that day than to Santa Olalla. Cuesta therefore continued his disorderly retreat unmolested to the banks of the Alberche, where Wellesley had brought forward Sherbrooke’s division to cover the passage over the bridge.
About five o’clock in the evening the British general rode out and begged Cuesta to take his army across the river while there was yet time, lest he should be attacked in the morning with the stream in his rear. Cuesta at the time was fast asleep in his tent on the left bank of the Alberche, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that Wellesley obtained access to him, to be met by a resolute refusal. (Life of Sir S. Whittingham). Some sympathy may perhaps be felt with the proud old man in his unwillingness to allow his demoralised troops to file to the rear before the scornful eyes of the British. During the hours that followed, Wellesley renewed his entreaties to Cuesta, who, thinking to humiliate his colleague, resisted until the British general indulged him by beseeching consent upon his knees, after which he gave the order to cross the Alberche. When the British stood to their arms an hour before dawn the movement had already begun: and at a little past nine Wellesley sent orders to Sherbrooke to withdraw his division, leaving, however, Mackenzie’s division and Anson’s cavalry still on the left bank of the river.
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