A Spanish perspective on Espinosa de los Monteros November 10th-11th, 1808

Written by:  Gabriel Gonzalez Pavón
A beautiful land of mountains and high rocky cliffs, cold rivers, forbidding forests and snowy winters. Not Switzerland, this is North Burgos, in Spain.
2800 years ago, a brave Cantabrian tribe, the Coriscans, founded a village at the river bend where now Espinosa stands, strategic location at the exit of several abrupt passes across high mountains, and the (later to be) Royal Road to Villarcayo and Burgos. Razed to the ground by the Romans, rebuilt many times since, stout churches, towers, strongholds and stone palaces dot its green lands.

Taking its name from the abundant espino (hawthorn) trees, it added almost 1000 years ago, in 1016, its proud last name "de los Monteros", when tough mountain men from the town saved the life of the King of Castilla, becaming his Night Watchmen, and continuing this delicate responsibility with the Kings of Spain until 1931. Even today, a company of the Royal Guard is named in their honor...

In late October, 1808, the second French invasion of Spain, with Napoleon leading in person, and 100000 veterans from Jena and Eylau, was underway. Three Spanish armies blocked access to Spain, deployed well forward, combining near 100000 men. The lack of a central government limited logistic support, and command was often complicated by local notables joining the armies in positions of command with more valor than skill.

On the left (Basque country and Santander mountains) the young and professional General Blake and his Army of Galicia, mixing regulars with enthusiastic but poorly trained militiamen.
In the Center, main Royal Road to Burgos, General Belveder and his Army of Extremadura, even more of a mixed force, with a tough task, but relying on its flanking armies left and right for mutual support.
On the Right, South Navarra and Aragon, the victors of Bailén, Army of Andalucía, under the always reliable General Castaños, reinforced by the Army of Aragón, fresh from its great victory against the invaders in the first siege of Zaragoza.

Napoleon´s Army was at its best ever in commander´s abilities, numbers, morale and skill, seeking a decisive battle and assuming that conquering Madrid would put an end to a war he provoked but did not want. He carefully planned its moves against all three Spanish Armies, seeking their annihilation.

The fate of Belveder´s army was sealed at Gamonal, near Burgos, the second day of the battle of Espinosa. Castaños and his combined Army of the Right would also be defeated by Lannes, 12 days later, at Tudela, another battle in this excellent quad game.

Blake was conducting a skillfull fighting retreat from Bilbao, through the mountains, occasionally turning back to bite hard at advancing French, as in Valmaseda. Reinforced by 6000 soldiers of the elite "División del Norte" (1) with many of the best regiments in the Spanish Army, just arrived from Denmark after an epic escape, he sent his artillery park South to Villarcayo and decided to fight a delaying action in the very strong position of Espinosa de los Monteros and its northern ridges, after receiving, on November 9th, overly optimistic reports from General Belveder about the coming battle near Burgos. Making a stand, even against superior forces, was necessary to cover Belveder´s left flank.

Game map details, including river crossings and depth, accurate OOB / force composition, historical times of arrival, deployments and qualitative assessments about any and all units in the game have been made by TLNB brilliant design and development team´s detailed study of Spanish original sources (including Arteche, Toreno, Priego and Sañudo), as well as French (excellent Balagny and others), Oman, Gates, Lipscombe and period and modern military and topographic maps.  Wide strategic options are available, specially  in the Approach to Battle scenario, with the broad valley of Villarcayo, South from Espinosa, open for maneuvering by Lefèvre´s division, acting independently from (reinforced) Victor´s division, and additional Spanish forces.

The stage was set, and playing this very special battle will give you unique insights about how hard fought it was. On its first day, arriving French forces attacked almost recklessly, time and again, the "Division del Norte" in the since then named Loma del Ataque (hill of the attack) losing more than 1000 dead. No prisoners were taken, as French soldiers attacked with the battle cry "mort aux traîtres!", knowing that the Division del Norte soldiers were their allies only six months before. Spanish victory came at high cost, with repeated bayonet charges across hill and forest, led personally by the Conde de San Román until he fell, mortally wounded. Other attacks across the Spanish line failed too, and a cold fog ended the fight for the day.

A colder night of campfires and victory songs (in the Spanish side) somewhat helped prepare for the next day of battle. Additional French forces arrived, and second day´s attack plan became different. The Night Withdrawal scenario explores what would have happened if, as initially planned, the victorious Spanish Army of the Left had slipped away at night of the 10th. Blake has been heavily criticized now for 200+ years for not doing so.

In the thick early morning fog, Blake further reinforced his right, expecting renewed assaults in the Loma del Ataque and in his center, and the Asturian (mostly) militiamen on the high hills / mountains on his left, away from easy reinforcements, reacted to the French attacks with bayonet charges downhill, losing most of their commanders in the fight. A classic flanking maneuver through the Portillo de Ocejo hidden valley partially surrounded them, and their breaking sealed Spanish defeat. 

Although no retreat is completely orderly, Blake´s army conducted, to Napoleon´s dismay, a heroic month-long retreat through the Santander mountains, preserving more than 10000 tough soldiers, eager for the next fight. They would became the core of the Spanish ultimately victorious resistance in North Spain.

Now you have the chance to honor the brave soldiers of both sides who fought so hard in this highlands. This is not the Spanish Army of Napoleon´s Quagmire, these were the best soldiers both nations had to offer. French units and command are better, Spanish units are tough and often well commanded, fighting on defensive positions carefully chosen. Espinosa does appear today in Paris Arc de Triomphe, but it was indeed a "near run thing".

(1) Under temporary leadership of the professional and brave Conde de San Roman, substituting for his commander and friend Marqués de la Romana, not yet arrived, as he was securing British supplies (San Roman´s counter is using the image of La Romana)