Combat of Meza de Ibor, 17 March 1809

The combat of Meza de Ibor of 17 March 1809 was a French victory early in the Medellin campaign that forced the Spanish to abandon their positions on the River Tagus and retreat south towards the Guadiana. At the start of March 1809 General Cuesta’s Army of Estremadura was in a strong position on the Tagus. They had forced the French to retreat north of the river, had demolished the bridge over the river at Almaraz and had taken up positions guarding the river crossings at Almaraz, and at the nearby Puente del Conde, close to Meza de Ibor. The French still controlled bridges at Arzobispo and at Talavera, further upstream, but no roads suitable for artillery led from those bridges to the Spanish positions around Almaraz.

General Antoine Lasalle, 1775-1809
General Antoine Lasalle,
1775-1809

Marshal Victor, the commander of the French forces at Talavera, was under orders to attack the Army of Estremadura, and then to capture Badajoz and Merida on the Guadiana River and prepare to cooperate with Marshal Soult’s forces in Portugal. To do this he would need his artillery, and to use his artillery he had to drive the Spanish away from Almaraz, so that the French could use the highroad over the mountains between the Tagus and the Guadiana. After raising a series of objections to the entire expedition, Victor finally moved on 15 March. He decided to take his infantry and part of his cavalry over the bridges at Arzobispo and Talavera, and march along the poor quality road that followed the line of the Tagus to Almaraz. On 15 March Leval’s division and Lasalle’s cavalry crossed the Tagus at Talavera, and on the next day they were joined by Victor, at the head of Villatte’s and Ruffin’s divisions, at Arzobispo. The rest of the cavalry along with the artillery and the baggage was sent to Almaraz, where they were to wait for Victor to sweep away the Spanish troops guarding the river.

Victor’s move was potentially very dangerous. In order to reach Almaraz, he would have to force his way past the Spanish troops guarding the ravine line of the River Ibor at Meza de Ibor. If Cuesta realised what was going on and moved most of his men and his artillery to the Ibor, then the French, who were without artillery, would probably have suffered heavy losses even if they had managed to force their way across the river.

Medellin Campaign
Medellin Campaign

In the event the only forces the French had to face at Meza de Ibor were the 5,000 men of the Duke del Parque’s division, supported by six guns. Cuesta had been informed that the French had crossed the Tagus at Arzobispo and Talavera, but believed the move to be a feint, designed to draw his attention away from the main attack across the river at Almaraz. Del Parque’s men were in a very strong position, protected by the ravine of the Ibor, and with their guns on a rocky outcropping that dominated the road.

The French vanguard, 3,000 men in General Leval’s German division, reached Meza de Ibor on 17 March. Rather than wait for the rest of his men to catch up, Victor ordered Leval to attack across the ravine. This meant that for the last part of the attack the Germans would be charging up a steep hill towards the Spanish lines.

The attack was a success, but a costly one. Leval’s division lost 70 dead and 428 wounded, mostly during the climb up the ravine. The Spanish troops held their position until the Germans attacked with their bayonets, at which point Del Parque’s collapsed and the men scattered across the hillside. Spanish losses are unknown – they were almost certainly lower than the French losses, for the Spanish had been fighting under cover for most of the battle, and there was not chance of a pursuit. Del Parque was able to make his way back to Cuesta’s headquarters at Deleytosa, and the entire Spanish army was soon able to slip away across the mountains while Victor concentrated on securing the bridge at Almaraz. The two armies then moved across the mountains to the Guadiana, where on 28 March Cuesta suffered a very heavy defeat at Medellin.

 A History of the Peninsular War vol.2: Jan.-Sept. 1809 - From the Battle of Corunna to the end of the Talavera Campaign, Sir Charles Oman. Part two of Oman's classic history falls into two broad sections. The first half of the book looks at the period between the British evacuation from Corunna and the arrival of Wellesley in Portugal for the second time, five months when the Spanish fought alone, while the second half looks at Wellesley's campaign in the north of Portugal and his first campaign in Spain. One of the classic works of military history.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 March 2008), Combat of Meza de Ibor, 17 March 1809, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/combat_meza_de_ibor.html

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