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19 July 1808: Spain's victory in the Battle of Bailén

A painting of the battle by José Casado del Alisal.
A painting of the battle by José Casado del Alisal. / SUR
  • The battle was an unlikely victory for the Spanish, with the Napoleonic troops being defeated for the first time on an open battlefield

On 19 July 1808, the bloody Battle of Bailén came to a close. After four days, the Spanish, led by Generals Francisco Castaños and Theodor von Reding, had, against all odds, defeated the Napoleanic troops led by General Pierre Dupont de l'Étang.

Napoleon had come to power in France four years earlier and had assumed the task of dominating most of Europe, with the eventual goal of taking on France's biggest imperial enemy: Great Britain.

The Battle of Bailén took place within the Peninsular War, a conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, which would continue until the despot's downfall in 1914.

In February 1908, after occupying Portugal, Napoleon turned on and invaded Spain, putting it under French occupation.

In the June that followed, riots and uprisings against the French took place throughout Spain and consequently Napoleon ordered French military units to advance on Seville and Cadiz.

The Andalusian commanders met in Seville to put together a military strategy. Between 16 and 19 July, the Spanish forces attacked the French at various points on the Guadalquivir river forcing the French away from the region.

After days of battle in unbearable heat, General Pierre Dupont and his forces were defeated on 19 July 1808 and subsequently taken prisoner by the Spanish.

The battle was a disastrous loss for Napoleon: he lost in both numbers and reputation. This was his army's first ever defeat on an open battlefield, and as news of the battle spread throughout Europe, the illusion of the French Emperor's invincibility was questioned.

One of the keys to the success of the Spanish troops was the preparation of water, both to drink and to cool the cannons in the blistering heat - a luxury which the French did not have. The women of Bailén brought out water to the soldiers throughout the battle, contributing greatly to their victory. One of the most notable of these women was María Bellido, who was allegedly taking out water to a soldier on the battlefield when a bullet went through her pitcher. Over two hundred years later, the pierced jug is represented on Bailen's coat of arms.

Each year, the commemorative celebrations of the battle are standout events in Bailén, and have been declared of National Tourist Interest by the Junta de Andalucía.