Action of Epila, 23-24 June 1808

The action of Epila, 23-24 June 1808, was a night battle that saw the French defeat a Spanish force attempting to raise the first siege of Saragossa. When the French arrived in front of Saragossa on 15 June, Joseph Palafox, the captain-general of Aragon, decided to leave the city to raise a new army in Upper Aragon, with which he would be able to threaten the French. The city itself was defended by a large but entirely experienced force, and Palafox seems to have believed that the city would fall to the first French attack. On 16 June the French, under General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, made that attack, and were repulsed after desperate street fighting.

When Palafox received this news, he dispatched his older brother, the Marquis de Lazan, back to the city to command the defence, while he continued to raise a new army. On 21 June Palafox’s force met up with another Aragonese army under the Baron de Versage, and the united army began the march towards Saragossa. On 22 June they reached Epila, fifteen miles from the French camp, and in a position to threaten Lefebvre’s communications with his base.

The combined Spanish army was perhaps 5,000 strong, but it contained very few experienced troops. Palafox had 550 regular infantry, 350 cavalry, 1,000 men from Versage’s force who had received some basic training and 2,000 inexperienced levies.

Lefebvre was now faced with a difficult choice. His own force was only 6,000 strong, even after receiving reinforcements. He had two choices – either to take his entire army to deal with Palafox, or to split his forces, taking one detachment to Epila and leaving the rest of the army at Saragossa to maintain the siege and prevent the garrison linking up with Palafox. He chose the second option. On 23 June he dispatched Colonel Chlopiski with 3,000 men to attack the Spanish at Epila, while he remained at Saragossa with the rest of the army. There he carried out a series of feints against the city, which kept the garrison pinned in place.

Chlopiski’s force attacked the Spanish on the night of 23-24 June and achieved total surprise. Palafox suffered several hundred casualties and his army was forced to retreat back towards Calatayud. After this experience he decided not to risk any more open battles with the French, and instead decided to return to Saragossa with his surviving forces. On 1 July he entered Saragossa from the north, at the head of 1,000 men.

History of the Peninsular War vol.1: 1807-1809 - From the Treaty of Fontainebleau to the Battle of Corunna, Sir Charles Oman. The first volume of Oman's classic seven volume history of the Peninsular War, this is one of the classic works of military history and provides an invaluable detailed narrative of the fighting in Spain and Portugal. This first volume covers the initial French intervention, the start of the Spanish uprising, the early British involvement in Spain and Portugal and Napoleon's own brief visit to Spain.
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 January 2008), Action of Epila, 23-24 June 1808 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/action_epila.html

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