Battle of Medina de Rioseco

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Battle of Medina de Rioseco
Part of the Peninsular War
Escena de la Guerra del Frances.jpg
Escena de la Guerra de la Independencia, 1808, by Joseph-Bernard Flaugier.
Date14 July 1808
Result French victory
Flag of France.svg French Empire Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Spain
Commanders and leaders
Jean-Baptiste Bessières Joaquín Blake
Gregorio de la Cuesta
12,550800 infantry, [1] [2]
9501,200 cavalry, [1] [2]
32 guns [2]
21,30022,000 regulars and militia, [1] [2]
600 cavalry,
20 guns [2]
Casualties and losses
400500 dead or wounded [1] [3] 1,000 dead or wounded,
1,200 missing or captured, [4]
13 guns captured [1]

The Battle of Medina de Rioseco, also known as the Battle of Moclín, was fought during the Peninsular War on 14 July 1808 when a combined body of Spanish militia and regulars moved to rupture the French line of communications to Madrid. General Joaquín Blake's Army of Galicia, under joint command with General Gregorio de la Cuesta, was routed by Marshal Bessières after a badly coordinated but stubborn fight against the French corps north of Valladolid.

Peninsular War War by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom against the French Empire (1807–1814)

The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was a military conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when the French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807, and escalated in 1808 when France turned on Spain, previously its ally. The war on the peninsula lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814, and is regarded as one of the first wars of national liberation, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.

Spain Kingdom in Southwest Europe

Spain, officially the Kingdom of Spain, is a country mostly located in Europe. Its continental European territory is situated on the Iberian Peninsula. Its territory also includes two archipelagoes: the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, and the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. The African enclaves of Ceuta, Melilla, and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera make Spain the only European country to have a physical border with an African country (Morocco). Several small islands in the Alboran Sea are also part of Spanish territory. The country's mainland is bordered to the south and east by the Mediterranean Sea except for a small land boundary with Gibraltar; to the north and northeast by France, Andorra, and the Bay of Biscay; and to the west and northwest by Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean.

A regular army is the official army of a state or country, contrasting with irregular forces, such as volunteer irregular militias, private armies, mercenaries, etc. A regular army usually has the following:


Bessières exploited the poor coordination between Blake and Cuesta to defeat the Spaniards in detail, with Blake being ejected from a low ridge while Cuesta sat to the rear, and Cuesta failing to recapture the ridge with his own troops. The Army of Galicia was the only formation capable of threatening the French advance into Old Castile Cuesta's command having been destroyed earlier at Cabezón and its destruction marked a serious blow to Spain's national uprising.

Defeat in detail, or divide and conquer, is a military tactic of bringing a large portion of one's own force to bear on small enemy units in sequence, rather than engaging the bulk of the enemy force all at once. This exposes one's own units to many small risks but allows for the eventual destruction of an entire enemy force.

Old Castile Historical region of Spain

Old Castile is a historic region of Spain, which included territory that later corresponded to the provinces of Santander, Burgos, Logroño, Soria, Segovia, Ávila, Valladolid and Palencia.

The Battle of Cabezón was an engagement early in the Peninsular War on 12 June 1808 between a small Spanish militia force, based in Valladolid, and a detachment of Marshal Bessières' French Army Corps under General Lasalle.

But in the event, Medina de Rioseco proved to be the solitary French triumph in an invasion of Spain that ultimately failed to seize the country's major cities or to pacify its rebellious provinces, and which met outright disaster at Bailén, forcing French forcesBessières' victorious corps includedto fly over the Ebro in retreat. A fresh campaign, conducted by Napoleon himself with the bulk of the Grande Armée, would be needed to redress the situation.

Battle of Bailén battle

The Battle of Bailén was fought in 1808 by the Spanish Army of Andalusia, led by Generals Francisco Castaños and Theodor von Reding, and the Imperial French Army's II corps d'observation de la Gironde under General Pierre Dupont de l'Étang. This battle was the first ever open field defeat of the Napoleonic army. The heaviest fighting took place near Bailén, a village by the Guadalquivir river in the Jaén province of southern Spain.

Ebro river in the Iberian Peninsula

The Ebro is a river on the Iberian Peninsula. It is the second longest river in the Iberian peninsula after the Tagus and the second biggest by discharge volume and by drainage area after the Douro.

Napoleon 19th century French military leader and politician

Napoléon Bonaparte was a French statesman and military leader of Italian descent who rose to prominence during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was Emperor of the French as Napoleon I from 1804 until 1814 and again briefly in 1815 during the Hundred Days. Napoleon dominated European and global affairs for more than a decade while leading France against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars. He won most of these wars and the vast majority of his battles, building a large empire that ruled over much of continental Europe before its final collapse in 1815. He is considered one of the greatest commanders in history, and his wars and campaigns are studied at military schools worldwide. Napoleon's political and cultural legacy has endured as one of the most celebrated and controversial leaders in human history.

Situation in northern Spain

Recent French operations in the region had come far short of Napoleon's expectations. The Galician and Biscayan provinces were ideally suited as a base for resistance against France: remote and mountainous; out of the French Army's immediate reach yet flanking its long communications to occupied Madrid; its coastline largely secured by the allied Royal Navy, which disgorged supplies and materiel. [5] In June, Marshal Bessières' flying column, marching on Santander in an attempt to secure French communications in Galicia and guard the coast against a possible British landing, had been forced back by popular resistance. Stung by these and other reverses, Napoleon committed more troops and formulated a new strategy. In July he ordered Bessières to renew his western offensive.

Dos de Mayo Uprising conflict

The Dos de Mayo or Second of May Uprising of 1808 was a rebellion by the people of Madrid against the occupation of the city by French troops, provoking the repression by the French Imperial forces.

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

Jean-Baptiste Bessières Marshal of France

Jean-Baptiste Bessières, 1st Duc d' Istria was a Marshal of France of the Napoleonic Era. His younger brother, Bertrand, followed in his footsteps and eventually became a divisional general. Their cousin, Géraud-Pierre-Henri-Julien, also served Napoleon I as a diplomat and Imperial official.

Snaking toward the French were the columns of the Army of Galicia under General Joaquín Blake who supplemented his force with Cuesta's motley levy of militia and regulars from isolated provincial garrisonsdebris from Cuesta's destroyed Army of Old Castile.

Spanish preparations

Captain-General Joaquin Blake y Joyes. El general Joaquin Blake y Joyes, por Manuel Ojeda.jpg
Captain-General Joaquín Blake y Joyes.

Cuesta, quite undeterred by his defeat the previous month, proposed a rapid coup de main toward Valladolid, astride the French communications (and incidentally his old seat of command as Captain General of Old Castile, from which he had been ejected after his rout at Cabezón.) Cuesta mustered some 350 horsea precious, if token, force, considering Galicia and Asturias combined could not furnish as manyand several infantry battalions, but not a single cannon. The northern Juntas received Cuesta's proposals coolly; Asturias refused to be drawn into what it considered a foolhardy scheme but committed several battalions in a show of goodwill; Galicia, however, dispatched General Blake to liaison with Cuesta. [6] A professional officer of considerable talent (albeit new to command), [7] Blake questioned the wisdom of facing the Grande Armée in open country, preferring the broken ground and hills of the north to neutralize the superiority of French arms. [8] Of particular concern to Blake was the dilapidated Spanish cavalry, with which a descent into the plains of Castile seemed a sorry prospect. The Galician commander advocated holding and fortifying the rugged terrain of Léon and Galicia, but deferred to Cuesta. [9]

A coup de main is a swift attack that relies on speed and surprise to accomplish its objectives in a single blow.

Valladolid Municipality in Castile and León, Spain

Valladolid is a city in Spain and the de facto capital of the autonomous community of Castile and León. It has a population of 309,714 people, making it Spain's 13th most populous municipality and northwestern Spain's biggest city. Its metropolitan area ranks 20th in Spain with a population of 414,244 people in 23 municipalities.

In the Napoleonic era, junta was the name chosen by several local administrations formed in Spain during the Peninsular War as a patriotic alternative to the official administration toppled by the French invaders. The juntas were usually formed by adding prominent members of society, such as prelates, to the already-existing ayuntamientos. The juntas of the capitals of the traditional peninsular kingdoms of Spain styled themselves "Supreme Juntas", to differentiate themselves from, and claim authority over, provincial juntas. Juntas were also formed in Spanish America during this period in reaction to the developments in Spain.

Between them the two Spanish generals raised about 25,000 men, many of them dispirited and in poor condition. In May British ships had disembarked some 5,000 former Spanish prisoners of war (largely captured in attacks on the Spanish colonial empire during the recent Anglo-Spanish War) with arms and munitions, notably Cuesta's 800 colonial regularsthe Colorados battalion taken prisoner in Montevideo and, for lack of Spanish uniforms, bedecked in full redcoats. [10] Cuesta, citing his seniority, claimed supreme command and set his columns marching July 12, against Blake's objections (although the Castilian was persuaded to detach a reserve at Benavente). Cuesta, for lack of cavalry, advanced blind to French movements, expecting to find Bessières concentrating near Valladolid.

By July 14 Cuesta had drawn up the Spanish force near Medina de Rio Seco, with Blake commanding the forward position on a small elevation and Cuesta hovering about a mile to the rear (near the village proper), with many of the best troops. Their meagre cavalry detachment stood by the road between the two corps. [11]

French response

Bessières, well-informed of the Spanish plans by virtue of an enterprising double-agent, advanced from Burgos July 9 in the aim of preventing Blake's junction with Cuesta, resolving to concentrate his effectives en route. Receiving part of a division at Palencia July 10, Bessières rapidly assembled 14,000 with 40 guns and marched to meet Blake and Cuesta, approaching the Spanish positions along the cultivated plains of Medina de Rio Seco at dawn on the 14th. The French army contained elements of three divisions, decidedly mixed in quality: a reserve division (with which French commanders in Spain often had to make do), a division of veterans expedited from France, and Imperial Guard units dispatched from Madrid. [12]

The battle

Blake, separated from Cuesta by a glaring gap, faced off against the French with his flanks uncovered and his line of retreat far from secure. [8] Bessières immediately understood his enemies' weakness and moved to seize the central position, allowing him to dispatch the two Spanish wings in detail by keeping Cuesta at bay with a screening force (Major-General Mouton) while elements of two divisions stormed the ridge under his supervision. The Imperial artillery, with twenty pieces arrayed on the Monclin Mound opposite Blake, blasted terrible holes in the Spanish ranks. [13] Major-General Merle led the attack against Blake on the left, reaching west toward the Spanish flank, while Mouton, on the right, put up a noisy demonstration against Cuesta.

Blake reacted promptly to the menace to his position, stretching his line right to ward off encirclement and replying to the devastating French cannonades with his own batteries. Bessières' cavalry reserves then charged into the gap kept open by Mouton and tore into Blake's right flank, cracking his fragile force and driving it off the ridge in a panicked rout. Blake was saved from complete annihilation by the self-sacrifice of a lone battalion of regular troops from Navarre which stood its ground against the swarming cavalry, keeping the French at bay while Blake's half of the army made good its escape over the Sequillo river. [14]

Before Bessières could turn on Cuesta, the Spanish general, quite unwilling to follow Blake in retreat, formed his troops into columns and hurled them uphill at the Imperial army, now drawn up on the ridge. The tirailleurs screening Mouton's division were abruptly charged by 300 carabiniers and Spanish Guards and thrown into the ravine, with Spanish infantry columns advancing up the ridge behind the cavalry. The Imperial Guard horse managed temporarily to blunt the advance, flattening the weaker Spanish cavalry against its own supporting infantry columns. [15] The Spanish foot, however, continued to gain ground, capturing two guns from the Artillery of the Guard and threatening the entire French position on the ridge. [16]

Merle, however, continuing his march along its original axis, was now drawing his division upon the right flank of the second Spanish line; sensing this opportunity, Bessières ordered Merle to wheel right and plunge into the Spanish flank à la baïonnette. [16] Mouton's chasseurs appeared on the Spanish left, and under the combined pressure the Spanish line, overlapped and plunged into disorder, ruptured. The leading Spanish grenadier battalions struck their last determined blows against the French centre before being caught in this crossfire and brusquely forced off the ridge, convincing Cuesta to sound the retreat. As with Blake's retreat, a rearguard of regular battalions held off the French while the other formations flew north to Medina.


Monument, Medina de Rioseco. Bronze by Aurelio Carretero (1863-1917). Monumento-batalla-de-Rioseco-20060826-05.jpg
Monument, Medina de Rioseco. Bronze by Aurelio Carretero (1863-1917).

While Cuesta and Blake both escaped the battlefield, in all other respects the rout was complete: the Army of Galicia, while numerically intact, all but ceased to exist as an army. Blake suffered most, losing 13 guns and as many as 3,000 casualties. [8] Many veteran Spanish battalions were badly mauled in the fight for the ridge; the Colorados, for instance, were destroyed as a unit. [17] Fearing pursuit, Cuesta channeled his infantry north to Asturias and rode off with a small cavalry corps to Salamanca, while Blake returned to Galicia.

Following Medina de Rioseco Bessières seized Benavente, León and Zamora, but dallied in the area while his beaten foes made good their retreat. The French were guilty of savage reprisals against both the Spanish prisoners and the populace of the neighboring cities which, ironically, had been among the very few not carried by popular uprisings. Bessières was informed that Blake and Cuesta had separated, the former to Manzanal and the latter into Léon; both were allowed to retire unmolested when General Lasalle was uncharacteristically recalled to headquarters.

Bessières' victory marked a great improvement to the strategic position of the French army in northern Spain, formerly the cause of much anxiety. A delighted Napoleon asserted, "if Marshal Bessières has been able to beat the Army of Galicia with few casualties and small effort, General Dupont will be able to overthrow everybody he meets." A few days later, Dupont's entire corps was broken in battle at Bailén and captured by General Castaños. With 20,000 French troops erased from the map, the French command panicked and ordered a general retreat to the Ebro, undoing Bessières' hard-fought gains. News of the disaster reached Bessières July 22, forcing him to fall back towards Madrid.


Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessieres. Jeanbabtistebessieres.JPG
Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessières.

Medina de Rioseco was a sorely contested battle, with the Spanish infantry attack upon the ridgeconducted with "precision and audacity"coming close to victory. The latter action especially was lauded by contemporaries; in Britain, Hamilton applauded the Spanish troops' bitter fight against the much more seasoned French Imperial Army. Cuesta's divisions (though not the commander himself) received special praise for nearly securing a dramatic victory even after Blake's rout:

The battle of Rio Seco, though unfortunate, was far from dishonourable to Spanish prowess... Under circumstances the most unfavourable and dispiriting, the second line of the Spaniards fought with a courage and pertinacity worthy of a better general... That, after the defeat of the first line, the issue of the battle should even for a time have become doubtful, is a circumstance honourable to the courage of the Spanish troops. [18]

Another contemporary, General Maximilien Sebastien Foy, described the Spanish force at Medina de Rioseco as: "A splinter of the ancient Spanish army which demonstrated what such an army could do: for an army new to the field, facing for the first time an experienced foe, it was a lot." [19]

In contrast, the BlakeCuesta partnership has been widely criticized and the tactical deployment arranged by Cuesta found wanting. [8] One historian of Spanish military history in the Napoleonic period attributed the outcome to the fact that the Spanish generals acted at cross-purposes: "To have any hope of success, the Spaniards needed to strike fast with all their forces, but the unwilling Blake in fact moved very slowly, whilst leaving two of his four infantry divisions behind him to cover his retreat." [12] British military historian David G. Chandler pinned the blame for the defeat squarely on Cuesta, who for reasons not quite clear to him refused to deploy his portion of the army against the enemy and planted his divisions far to the rear. Likewise, according to General Foy, the Spanish deployment did not offer much prospect for success: approaching a prepared enemy frontally along the defile, with both flanks open to attack, and with such a gap between the two lines, all but guaranteed defeat. Foy, however, does not fault Blake with agreeing to a pitched battle: denuded of cavalry, the Spanish general faced the grim prospect of traversing an open countryside hounded by 1,500 French sabres under possibly the greatest cavalry commander of all time, General Lasalle. [20]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Charles J. Esdaile in The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 627.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Gates, p. 79
  3. Gates, p. 80
  4. Esdaile (2003), p. 73
  5. Hamilton (1829), p. 225
  6. Gates (1986), p. 77
  7. Chandler, p. 625
  8. 1 2 3 4 Gates (1986), p. 78
  9. Hamilton (1829), p. 228
  10. Chartrand (1999), p. 18. The Colorados de Buenos Aires had been taken prisoner during the unsuccessful British attacks on the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata.
  11. Hamilton (1829), p. 229
  12. 1 2 Esdaile (2003), p. 71
  13. Gates (1986), p. 79
  14. Gates (1986), p. 80
  15. On the endemic weakness of the Spanish cavalry arm, see Esdaile (2003), p. 123
  16. 1 2 Foy (1827), p. 312
  17. Chartrand (1999), p. 14
  18. Hamilton (1829), p. 232
  19. Foy (1827), p. 313: C'était un échantillon de l'anciènne armée espagnol, qui montra ce qu'elle aurait pu faire: c'était beaucoup pour une armée neuve qui était aux mains pour la première fois avec des troupes aguerries.
  20. Foy (1827), p. 313

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Coordinates: 41°53′39″N4°59′37″W / 41.8942°N 4.9936°W / 41.8942; -4.9936