Battle of the Gebora River, 19 February 1811

The battle of the Gebora of 19 February 1811 was a disastrous Spanish defeat that ended an attempt to break the French siege of Badajoz of 27 January-10 March 1811. Marshal Soult had begun that siege with only 6,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, having been forced to detach half of his army to pursue a Spanish army under General Ballesteros. As a result he was not able to completely invest Badajoz, and instead had used his cavalry to blockade the northern approaches to the city and his infantry to conduct a regular siege of the town. Even after the missing infantry returned, the French forces were still spread thinly.

The French invasion of Estremadura had been launched in part to aid Marshal Masséna’s invasion of Portugal. In the autumn of 1810 the Marquis of La Romana had led 7,000-8,000 men from the Army of Estremadura to join General Wellington at Lisbon. Now with Badajoz threatened and Masséna on the verge of withdrawing from in front of the lines of Torres Vedras, La Romana decided to return to Estremadura.

Badajoz and the Gabora
Badajoz and the Gabora

He was able to gather together a force of 14,900 men. The infantry was made up of 5,000 men from O’Donnell’s division at Lisbon, 2,500 men from La Carrera’s division (of which 1,000 had been at Lisbon and 1,500 (Carlos de España’s brigade) opposite Abrantes) and 3,500 men from General Mendizabal’s division, which had been left in Estremadura. The cavalry was made up of 2,500 men under General Bruton, also part of Mendizabal’s force, and the 950 men of Madden’s Portuguese cavalry. When combined with the garrison of Badajoz the Spanish force was the same size as Soult’s besieging force.

Wellington and La Romana agreed on a plan that they expected would force Soult to abandon his siege. The Spanish army was to fortify a camp on the heights of San Cristobal, north of Badajoz and block the bridges across the Guadiana. With the blockade of Badajoz broken, and strong hostile forces in a dominating position opposite his camp, Soult would have been in a very vulnerable position.

Unfortunately for the Allies, La Romana died on 23 January, and was temporarily replaced by General Mendizabal. He decided not to follow this plan, and instead to send most of his infantry into Badajoz, and make an attack on the French siege lines from within the city. He reached Badajoz on the night of 6 February, on the next day launched an attack with 5,000 men against the right wing of the French army. This under-strength attack failed, and the attacking columns were repulsed with 650 casualties. Mendizabal responded by retreating to the heights of San Cristobal with 9,000 of his infantry and all of his cavalry, leaving the remaining 2,000 men in Badajoz.

The Spanish should have been in a strong position. The heights of San Cristobal ran north from Badajoz, dividing the Caya valley (to the west) from the Gebora valley (to the east). The hill itself was steep sided, and could easily have been fortified, while Mendizabal had enough cavalry to make sure he could not be surprised. Unfortunately he failed to take any precautions, did not fortify his camps and left his cavalry in their camps in the Caya valley.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

For some days after the sortie the Spanish were protected by high water levels in the Gebora and Guadiana rivers, but even during this period Soult was able to weaken the Spanish position. Between 11-13 February the French bombarded the southern end of the ridge, forcing the Spanish infantry to retreat half a mile up the ridge, leaving a gap between their right flank and the Fort of San Cristobal.

On 18 February the water level fell in the rivers, and Soult began to ferry troops across the Guadiana. By the next morning there were 4,500 French infantry and 3,000 cavalry east of the Gebora, all under the command of Marshal Mortier. The French planned a double envelopment of the Spanish lines. The cavalry were to move around the right flank of the Spanish lines, while one third of the infantry advanced into the gap between the Spanish right and the Fort of San Cristobal. Part of the cavalry was to advance down the ridge, and attack the Spanish infantry, while the rest were to attack the Spanish cavalry.

The French advance was protected by a dense fog, and so the first Mendizabal knew of it was when the French infantry attacked his pickets on the Gebora. His infantry formed up ready to face the French attack, but his cavalry fled at the first sight of the French dragoons. As the fog lifted, Mendizabal discovered that he was about to be attacked from the rear by the dragoons and by the French light cavalry on the ridge. He responded by forming all of his infantry into two massive divisional squares, with artillery at the corners.

These squares may have been effective against the cavalry, but they were ineffective against Mortier’s combined infantry and cavalry assault. Infantry fire weakened the Spanish lines sufficiently for the cavalry to break into the squares, and both squares were soon broken.

Mendizabal’s army was smashed in one of the most one-sided battles of the Peninsular War. The French suffered around 400 casualties, while the Spanish suffered 800-900 casualties and had 4,000 infantry taken prisoner on the day of the battle. Another 2,500 survivors escaped into Badajoz, where they were captured at the end of the siege. Only just under 2,000 of the infantry escaped into Portugal. 

A History of the Peninsular War vol.4: December 1810-December 1811 - Massena's Retreat, Fuentos de Onoro, Albuera, Tarragona, Sir Charles Oman. The main focus of this fourth volume in Oman's history of the Peninsular War is the year long duel between Wellington and the French on the borders of Portugal, which saw the British make a series of attacks across the border, most of which were repulsed by strong concentrations of French troops. Despite the apparent lack of progress, this was the period that saw the French lose the initiative to Wellington.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 March 2008), Battle of the Gebora River, 19 February 1811 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_gebora.html

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