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The Battle of Toulouse 10 April 1814

Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814, but news did not reach the south of France until after Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish army had fought a battle against Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army at Toulouse.

Wellington had defeated Soult at Orthez on 27 February. The 4th and 7th Divisions of Wellington’s army, commanded by Lord Beresford, entered Bordeaux without a fight on 12 March. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Lynch, grandson of an Irish Jacobite, and many of the locals supported the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Wellington encountered little opposition from partisans in south west France. Ralph Ashby comments that:

The area was hardly a Bonapartist stronghold to begin with…Bourbon sympathies ran higher than elsewhere in France.

More importantly, Wellington was the one Allied army commander who kept a tight rein on his troops. Looting was absolutely forbidden, on pain of hanging…Wellington took care of his supply lines, and paid for requisitions in full.[1]

The 7th Division remained at Bordeaux, but Beresford and the 4th Division rejoined the army on 18 March. whereupon it resumed its pursuit of Soult across south west France. On 20 March Soult managed to evade an attempt to pin his army against the Pyrenees at Tarbes. Two of the roads east were cut, but the French held the one to Toulouse for long enough to escape.

Jac Weller points out that Wellington had a number of problems: he would be outnumbered if Soult could combine with Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet’s army, which was in Catalonia; operating in enemy territory, he had poor maps and lacks the accurate intelligence that he had received in Spain and Portugal; and he was not fully informed about the course of the campaign further north.[2]

Toulouse was on the east of the Garonne, a wide river. It contained a large arsenal and was surrounded by thick walls, but it lacked outworks, meaning that Wellington’s siege train could breach its walls if the guns could get close enough. The suburb of St Cyprien, to the west of the river, was fortified.

Crossing the Garonne was difficult. The first attempt was made at Portet five miles south of Toulouse after dark on 27 March. It had to be abandoned because the pontoon bridge was 80 feet too short to cross the river there.

The Garonne narrowed three miles further south above its junction with the Ariège. On 30 March the pontoon bridge was laid there, and 13,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill crossed.[3] However, they could not cross the Ariège because there was no bridge across it and no other pontoon. Moreover, there was no road capable of carrying wheeled transport to Toulouse.

The second attempt had to be abandoned, with the troops returning across the pontoon. The French did not discover the first attempt at all, and did not find out about the second one until a day later. Soult sent two divisions, with two more in reserve, to confront Hill once he had crossed the Ariège, but the lack of roads prevented the French advancing. Soult concluded that the British move had been a feint.

Wellington now realised that he could only cross the Garonne north of Toulouse. A suitable spot was found, and 18,000 men under Beresford crossed on 4 April. The pontoon bridge was barely wide enough to cross the river at this point. It was broken after heavy rain caused the river to rise, isolating the troops who had crossed. They were, however, in a strong defensive position, and Soult did not attack them. Sir Charles Oman says that he thought that most of Wellington’s army had crossed the Garonne.[4] By 7 April the river had fallen, and the bridge had been repaired.

Wellington’s 49,000 men began the assault on Toulouse and its 42,000 defenders on 10 April. Hill’s corps was to demonstrate at St Cyprien to the west of the Garonne. On the other side of the river Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division and Karl von Alten’s Light Division were to threaten the Toulouse. The main attack was to be made further north, against the Calvinet ridge, which looked down on the city.

The Calvinet would be attacked from the north by two Spanish divisions under General Manuel Freire, supported by Portuguese artillery, and from the east by the 4th and 6th Division commanded by Beresford. Beresford’s troops had to march further in order to get into position, so Freire was ordered to wait until they were ready.

The attack did not go to plan. Hill’s demonstration was well executed, but failed to fool Soult, who moved troops from St Cyprien to the Calvinet. Picton pushed on too far, taking unnecessary casualties for no benefit. Freire launched his attack before Beresford was in position.

Wellington, seeing Freire’s move, sent orders to Beresford to attack the Calvinet immediately rather than waiting to get into the originally planned position, even though this meant that his troops would be attacking a strongly defended part of the ridge. Freire’s assault had been beaten back by the time that Beresford received this order, so he ignored it and continued with the original plan, which was to attack the ridge at a more weakly defended point.

Beresford’s troops advanced towards the ridge, beat off a French counter-attack, and took part of the ridge with relatively light casualties. Beresford waited until his artillery had been brought up before resuming the assault. His men took the rest of the ridge with help from a further attack by Freire. It was forced back, but helped Beresford by distracting a large number of French troops.

Soult still held Toulouse, but his positions were vulnerable to artillery fire from the Calvinet, and his supplies would last only a month. Wellington expected him to counter-attack on 11 April, but Soult, concerned that enemy cavalry was moving to cut him off, decided to retreat to Carcassonne.

Both side claimed to have won the Battle of Toulouse. Wellington took the city, but suffered more casualties: his army lost 655 killed, 16 missing and 3,887 wounded against French casualties of 322 killed, 541 missing and 2,373 wounded. Peter Snow writes that Wellington ‘described his rather dubious victory as a “very serious affair with the enemy in which we defeated them completely.”‘[5]

It was very unfortunate that the poor communications meant that such a bloody battle was fought after Napoleon’s abdication. On Soult 17 April he received formal notification of Napoleon’s abdication. He signed an armistice the same day, which required the French to evacuate fortresses in Spain, but not those in France. However, two further actions took place before these orders reached every garrison.

On 14 April General Pierre Thouvenot, the French garrison commander at Bayonne, ordered his troops to sally out against the enemy troops blockading the fortress, although he had been informally informed of Napoleon’s abdication by then. British casualties were 150 killed, 457 wounded, excluding men captured, and 236 captured: many of the prisoners were also wounded, amongst them Sir John Hope, the commander of the blockading force. The French lost 111 killed, 778 wounded and 16 missing.

The garrison of Barcelona sallied against their besiegers two days later, but in this case they were unaware of Napoleon’s abdication.

Thouvenot eventually surrendered on April 27 after receiving a copy of Soult’s armistice the day before.Oman argues that the sally would have achieved nothing even if the war was continuing, noting that Wellington called Thouvenot ‘a blackguard’.[6]

The Napoleonic War was now apparently over, but it was to resume a year later.

 

 

[1] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 130.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 351.

[3] Troop numbers are from C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. vii. pp. 456-57, 556-60.

[4] Ibid. vol. vii, p. 460.

[5] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 229.

[6] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, p. 508.

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The Battle of Orthez 27 February 1814

After the Allied victory at the Battles of the Nive on 9-12 December 1814 Wellington paused his offensive. He left the 18,000 British and Portuguese troops of the 1st and 5th Divisions and three independent brigades plus 16,000 Spaniards to besiege Bayonne under the command of Sir John Hope. This left him with a field army of 48,000 men. The French commander Marshal Nicolas Soult had 62,500 men, but 17,000 of them were at Bayonne and 3,500 more were garrisoning St Jean Pied-de-Port and Navarrenx, leaving him with a field army potentially 42,000 strong.[1]

The weather improved in early February, and Wellington began his offensive on 14 February. St Jean Pied-de-Port was invested by Spanish guerrillas. On 23 February the French fortress of Navarrenx, which was too strong to attack, was masked by Morillo’s Division, the only Spanish troops in Wellington’s field army

Also on 23 February Hope ferried part of his corps across the Adour. The next day, the Allies, supported by Royal Navy boats on the Adour, completed construction of a pontoon bridge across the river. Bayonne was now surrounded.

By 27 February Wellington’s army had crossed four defensible rivers and was facing Soult’s army across the River Gave de Pau at Orthez. Soult had about 36,000 men and 48 guns, with another division of 3,750 conscripts on the way to reinforce him.[2] They were drawn up along an L shaped ridge, which ran a mile north from Orthez at right angles to the Gave de Pau before heading 3 miles west parallel to the river. Three smaller ridges extended from the main ridge to the river. The village of St Boes was situated at the western end of the ridge.

Wellington had 43,000 men and 54 guns.[3] Early on 27 February five of his seven infantry divisions and most of his cavalry crossed the river. The 2nd and Le Cor’s Portuguese Divisions and some light cavalry under Sir Rowland Hill remained on the south bank at Orthez opposite the eastern end of the ridge.

Hill’s orders were to skirmish and demonstrate at Orthez. He was not to cross the river there, but could cross further east if the attack in the west succeeded. The main assault, commanded by Lord Beresford, would be made at 8:30 am by the 4th Division, supported by the 7th, on St Boes from the western end of the ridge. Its intention was to turn the French western flank.

The French centre would be pinned by an attack by the Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division along the most easterly and the centre of the three smaller ridges, supported by the 6th Division.

The Light Division would take a ruined Roman Camp at the north end of the most westerly of the three lesser ridges, the only one that did not connect directly to the main ridge. Wellington would then direct operations from the Roman Camp.

The attempt to turn the French right flank at St Boes failed, whilst Picton was halted just out of enemy artillery range. The Light Division took the Roman Camp. Wellington now changed his plan. The 3rd and 6th Divisions would launch a full scale assault rather than a pinning attack in the centre, the 7th Division would replace the 4th in the west and the 1/52nd (Oxfordshire) Battalion of the Light Division would attack the flank of the French troops defending St Boes. Only two British and three Portuguese battalions of the Light Division were left in reserve: two other British battalions of that division were not on the battlefield.

The second attack started at 11:30 am. The co-ordinated assaults at St Boes and along the eastern and central less ridges all succeeded in breaking the French line, forcing Soult to order his army to retreat after two hours of fierce fighting. Hill took most of his corps two miles east to a ford across the river when he saw that the Allied attacks were succeeding.

Jac Weller notes that the French had usually managed to successfully retreat after their defeats in the Peninsular.[4] On this occasion they were helped by Wellington being wounded after a bullet hit the hilt of his sword, forcing it against his hip and thigh. He had more cavalry than Soult, which might have turned a victory into a rout had he been in a position to properly direct its pursuit, but Wellington’s wound meant that he could not keep up with the advance.

Soult lost just over 4,000 men, including 1,350 prisoners: 1,060 of those captured came from units that covered the retreat. Wellington suffered 2,164 casualties: only 48 were from Hill’s corps.[5]

Sir Charles Oman contends that this battle showed that

with fairly equal numbers in the field, passive defence is very helpless against an active offensive concentrated on certain limited points, unless the defender uses adequate reserves for counter-attacks.[6]

Wellington took ‘a considerable risk’ in his final assault, when he attacked five enemy divisions with five of his own, but he knew from past experience that Soult would not launch a counter-attack.[7]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 342, 363.

[2] C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. xii, p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 357.

[4] Weller, Peninsula, p. 349.

[5] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, pp. 372-73.

[6] Ibid., p. 374.

[7] Ibid., p. 375.

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The Battles of the Nive 9-12 December 1813.

Wellington’s army successfully crossed the River Nivelle on 10 November 1813. Marshal Nicolas Soult, the French commander, managed to retreat his troops to the River Nive, the next defensive line.

Heavy rains delayed Wellington’s advance until early December. He had 36,000 British, 23,000 Portuguese and 4,000 Spanish infantry in France: Soult had slightly more men. Another 40,000 Spaniards had been left behind because Wellington feared that they would take revenge for the atrocities and privations inflicted on Spain by the French over the previous six years.[1] This would cause the French civilian population to resist, guaranteeing the failure of Wellington’s invasion.

On 21 November Wellington told Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, that:

our success, and everything, depends upon our moderation and justice, and upon the good conduct of our troops. I despair of the Spaniards. They are in so miserable a state, that it is really hardly fair to expect that they will refrain from plundering a beautiful country, into which they enter as conquerors; particularly adverting to the miseries which their own country has suffered from its invaders. Without any pay and food, they must plunder, and if they plunder, they will ruin us all.[2]

Wellington also had problems with the Spanish government. Charles Esdaile notes that ‘it remained hard to discount the possibility of a complete rupture in relations.’[3]

Wellington’s army was in a position where it was safer to advance than to remain stationary. It was in a narrow salient with the coast to its west, the Nive to its east and the River Adour to its north. The two rivers met at the city of Bayonne.

Wellington’s plan was that part of his army, commanded by Sir Rowland Hill, would cross the Nive and advance on Bayonne. The rest of the army, under Sir John Hope, would remain on the west bank of the Nive and also advance north.

The French had destroyed the bridges across the Nive south of Bayonne. However, there were three bridges in Bayonne, allowing Soult to concentrate his army against either Hill or Hope in an attempt to defeat the enemy in detail.

Hill’s corps waded across the Nive at three fords near Cambo, meeting little resistance. Other Allied troops, commanded by Lord Beresford, crossed the Nive via a pontoon bridge further north. A bridge at Ustaritz was repaired, so the two corps could remain in contact with each other.

Hope advanced to Bayonne, expecting the French to remain in their fortifications. At about 9:00 am on 10 December, however, a French attack from Bayonne took him by surprise. There were two roads heading south from Bayonne between the Nive and the sea. One headed diagonally towards the sea and then south close to the coast. The other, to Ustariz, remained close to the Nive. Widespread woods and marshes meant that most of the fighting was near the roads.

The initial French attack along the coast road forced Hope’s pickets back three miles. Fierce fighting at a large farmhouse called the Chateau Barrouillet initially went badly for the Allies, who were outnumbered three to two. However, reinforcements arrived and stabilised the line. Both sides lost about 1,500 to 1,600 men killed, wounded and captured.

Meanwhile on the Ustariz road the Light Division was forced to retreat two miles to a strong defensive position at the Chateau and Church of Arcangues. As well as the two buildings, there was a hill with hedges and stone walls at its summit and marshy ravines at both ends. The Allies were able to hold off the enemy, inflicting over 400 casualties for the loss of 225 of their own men.

The French suffered slightly more casualties over the two actions, but they received a heavier blow in the evening. A German unit in French service, the Nassau Regiment, followed secret orders issued to its commander, General August von Kruse, by the Duke of Nassau after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig to defect to the Allies. Soult lost 1,400 men directly. He and Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet, commanding French troops in north west Spain, decided that they must disband all their German units, totalling 3,000 men.[4]

Soult now switched his attention to Hill’s corps on the east bank of the Nive, which he attacked at St Pierre on 13 December. Rain had caused the Nive to rise, sweeping away the Allied pontoon bridge the day before.

The Allied troops were at first pushed back in a bloody battle. However, once Hill learnt that reinforcements were on their way across the now repaired pontoon bridge he launched a counter-attack. The French were forced back to Bayonne. They lost 3,300 men killed, wounded and captured against 1,775 Allied casualties.

Wellington was now able to put artillery on the south bank of the River Adour, stopping traffic along it to Bayonne. This made it impossible to supply both the population and Soult’s army. Consequently he withdrew most of his army from Bayonne on 14 December, although he left a garrison that did not surrender until 27 April, three weeks after Napoleon abdicated.

An unusual feature of these battles was that Wellington left the bulk of the fighting to Hope and Hill, rather than following his usual practice of being at the key point himself. Jac Weller argues that Wellington realised that he would have to appoint somebody to an independent command at some point. The importance of seniority in the British Army meant that it had to be Beresford, who had already commanded at Albuera, Hill or Hope. Weller suggests that ‘at the Nive and St Pierre Wellington tried out the other two as independent commanders without too much risk.’[5]


[1] Troop numbers are from J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 327-41.

[2] Quoted in Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 326.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 479.

[4] Ibid., p. 481.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 338.

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The Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

The Duke of Wellington’s Allied army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops captured San Sebastian on 31 August 1813, and on 7 October invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa.

The advance was then delayed, allowing the French, commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, to retreat to the River Nivelle. As Charles Esdaile says, ‘the reasons were political.’[1] The French had been cleared out of Iberia, apart from the blockaded and starving garrison of Pamplona, and some in Portugal and Spain were reluctant to participate in an invasion of France. There was also the risk that Napoleon would win his German campaign, allowing him to move huge number of reinforcements to the Franco-Spanish border.

Pamplona surrendered on 31 October, meaning that there was no justification for further delay. The political disputes were overcome, allowing Wellington to use his entire army offensively

The Nivelle itself was not a formidable obstacle, but it was overlooked by hills that had been fortified. Wellington decided to attack to the centre-left of the 20 mile long French position. An assault on the extreme French left was rejected because the mountain passes there were often blocked by snow in winter. The right flank, from the sea to the village of Ascain, was too strongly defended.

Wellington was aware that the French had a strong position, but believed that it could be taken. He told the senior officers of the Light Division that:

‘It appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.’[2]

Sir John Hope was ordered to demonstrate between the coast and Ascain with 23,000 men in order to tie down an equal number of French troops. The main attack would come between Ascain and the Mondarrain mountain, where the 26,000 men of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps and the 29,000 of Lord Beresford’s corps would be opposed by 40,000 Frenchmen.[3]

The key French position was a hill called the Lesser Rhune, separated from the Great Rhune, taken by the Allies just after they crossed the Bidassoa, by a ravine. The Light Division was selected to attack the Lesser Rhune. Success would expose the flanks of the French troops either side of it.Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

There were three separate enclosed fieldworks along the crest of the Lesser Rhune, and it appeared to be almost impregnable against an assault across the ravine from the Great Rhune. However, Wellington worked out a route that enabled the Light Division to descend into the valley and manoeuvre into a position to attack the Lesser Rhune’s flank. The fieldworks would not then be able to support each other against the attackers, and could be taken one after the other.

The Light Division began its attack before dawn, and had taken the Lesser Rhune by 8 am. The rest of the Allied army then advanced. The French were forced to retreat in order to avoid having their flanks turned.

The French lost 4,500 men killed, wounded and captured, plus 59 guns, and the Allies 2,700 men.[4] The November day was short, and the onset of darkness probably saved the French from a disaster. Soult was able to establish a new line along the next river, the Nive.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

[2] Quoted in J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 320.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 325.

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The Crossing of the Bidassoa 7 October 1813.

The capture of San Sebastian on 31 August 1813 left Pamplona as the only Spanish city in French hands. It was surrounded and was being slowly starved into submission.

On 7 October Wellington’s Allied Army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa, which was overlooked by the crests of the Pyrenees on the French side. Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army had tried unsuccessfully to cross the Bidassoa at Irun and Vera on 31 August in an attempt to relieve San Sebastian.

The 1st Division, another British brigade, a Portuguese brigade and two Spanish division forded the river at Irun. The Light Division and three Spanish divisions crossed at Vera, helped by a demonstration by the 6th Division. Unknown to the French, the Bidassoa could be forded near the mouth of the river at low tide. Spanish shrimpers who worked the area led the British 5th Division across three fords at daybreak.

The British divisions all contained Portuguese as well as British troops, except for the 1st Division, which had two British brigades and one of the King’s German Legion, comprised of German expatriates: many of them were from Hanover, whose Elector was also the British King. See Wikipedia for an order of battle.

The 5th Division was across the river before it was spotted by the French. The attack at Irun began when the morning fog lifted at 7:25 am. The 1st Division was half way across the river before it was fired upon. By 11:30 am the Allied objectives in this area had been taken, and Wellington ordered a halt.

Fighting was fiercer at Vera. The Light Division encountered the Star redoubt, but took it after probing for weak spots. It then reached the crest overlooking the river, which were defended by fresh troops, earthworks and artillery. The rapid attack took the crest in several places, and the other defenders retreated.

The Spanish were held up by a hill on the Allied right called the Rhune. However, the French evacuated it the next day in order to avoid being out flanked.

The Allies had crossed the river and quickly taken their objectives. Jac Weller gives Allied casualties as 400 dead and wounded at Irun and 800 at Vera. French casualties were 450 men and all their artillery and most of their baggage at Irun and 1,250 men at Vera.[1] Charles Esdaile says that Allied casualties totalled 1,600 men, half of them Spanish.[2]

Soult fell back to a new defensive line along the River Nivelle.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 314-17.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

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The Siege of San Sebastian 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops began the siege of San Sebastian on 7 July 1813, with Sir Thomas Graham in command. The Allied army was in a position to assault the fortress by 22 July, but Graham delayed for three days, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences; the attack failed.

Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He rallied, reorganised  and reinforced the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, and launched a counter-attack. He forced the Allies to retreat after the battles of Maya and Roncesvalles on 25 July, but was defeated by Wellington in two battles at Sorauren on 28 and 30 July.

Wellington was therefore able to resume the siege of San Sebastian. Extra guns were unloaded from ships on 6 August. More arrived in three convoys between 19 and 23 August, along with 92 members of the newly formed Corps of Sappers and Miners. Previously Wellington’s only engineers had been officers, with the manual work being done by infantrymen. He now had specialist troops with which to conduct the siege.

The bombardment began on 26 August, employing the following guns:

6 x 18 pounders

24 x 24 pounders

4 x 68 pound carronades

9 x 8 inch howitzers

9 x 10 inch mortars with 6 more still to be landed

1 x 12 inch mortar

A further 15 x 24 pounders, 8 x 18 pounders and 4 x 10 inch mortars had been delivered, but they were on traversing platforms intended to be secured to a fortress. The recoil effect meant that guns being fired from temporary emplacements in a siege needed wheeled carriages. However, they had come with a supply of ammunition, and their barrels could be used to replace those of any that were damaged in the siege.[1]

A decoy attack was made on 29 August in an attempt to trick the garrison into prematurely detonating mines placed to defend the breach in the wall, but they were not fooled. The engineer officers stated on 30 August that the breach was practicable for an assault, but others feared that the wall had fallen in a manner that created many obstacles for an attacker.

Wellington decided to launch the attack at 11am on 31 August at low tide: the fortress was on the coast. The breach was, as many had thought, difficult, and the attackers struggled at first.

Graham, probably after consulting Colonel Alexander Dickson, his artillery commander, ordered the siege guns to fire in support of the attacking infantry. This was a very unusual tactic for the period, because of the risk of hitting the attackers, but it worked. The town was taken by 2pm, but the French still held the castle.

As had happened in Wellington’s previous successful sieges, Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, British discipline held during the attack, but broke down afterwards. Soldiers went on drunken pillages of rape, theft and murder. The town caught fire. Some Spaniards accused Wellington of deliberately setting it alight, but Jac Weller claims that, if he had wanted to do so, he could have done so as part of the initial bombardment, resulting in fewer casualties to the attackers.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that some, including Wellington, justified the sack on the grounds that the population of San Sebastian were pro-French and had fought for the defenders.[3] However, Esdaile goes on to argue that it was ‘a disgrace – a war crime, indeed. And in political terms, of course, it was a disaster.’[4]

See this blog for accounts of the sack of San Sebastian, some in English, some Spanish.

The castle surrendered on 8 September after an artillery bombardment. Casualties in the siege were 3,700 Allied and 2,500 French killed and wounded and 1,000 French captured.[5] Sir Richard Fletcher, Wellington’s engineer commander, was amongst the dead.

Wellington was not at San Sebastian on 31 August, as he had received intelligence that Soult was planning an attack to relieve the siege. Three French divisions attacked the same number of Spanish ones defending a ridge at San Marcial, overlooking the River Bidassoa.

The first two French attacks were beaten off. The third managed to get a foothold on the ridge, but the Spanish brought up another division and forced the French back. The Spanish proved to be the equal to the French in individual combat. Casualties were 2,500 French and 1,700 Spanish. Another French attempt to cross the Bidassoa, at Vera, was also defeated, with 1,300 French and 850 Allied casualties.

Any French threat to Spain was now ended. Pamplona was still in French hands, but was starved into submission by 30 October.

Much of this account is based on Frederick Myatt’s British Sieges of the Peninsular War, which itself relies heavily on the letters of Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Frazer of the Royal Artillery.[6] They are available online at archive.org.


[1] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp. 168-69.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 307.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 469.

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 307-11.

[6] Myatt, British Sieges, pp. 167-90.


[1] F. Myatt, British Sieges of the Peninsular War (Tunbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1987), pp. 168-69.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 307.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 469.

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, pp. 307-11.

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The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.

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The Battles of Maya and Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

Following Wellington’s victory at Vitoria his Allied army pursued the retreating French towards the Franco-Spanish border. The French, however, still held the fortresses of San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington’s siege train was too small to carry out two sieges simultaneously, so he surrounded Pamplona. The siege of San Sebastian began on 7 July.

Peter Snow and Jac Weller both note that some commentators have argued that Wellington should have ignored San Sebastian and pushed on into France. Snow and Weller both point out that if Napoleon had been able to come to terms with the Prussians and Russians he could have sent reinforcements to the Pyrenees. Wellington thought that capturing San Sebastian and Pamplona would allow his army to defeat any French counter offensive, even if reinforced by troops then in Germany.[1]

Wellington left Sir Thomas Graham in command at San Sebastian. There was a breach in its walls practicable for an assault by 22 July. However, Graham delayed until 24 July, then postponed for another day, allowing the French commander, General Emmanuel Rey, to reinforce his defences.

The attack on 25 July failed, provoking Wellington to immediately ride the 25 miles from his headquarters to find out what was happening. He resolved to keep closer control on events at San Sebastian. A later post in this series will describe the outcome of the siege.

On the same day the French counter-attacked. Marshal Nicolas Soult had been put in command of the French army in the Pyrenees on 12 July. He had rallied and reorganised the army that had been beaten at Vitoria, reinforcing it with troops from Bayonne.

There were, according to Wellington, at least 70 passes across the Pyrenees that could be crossed by bodies of a few hundred troops.[2] However, there were only four roads that a large army could use to cross them, three of which were in the western theatre of operations. The main one, which crossed the River Bidassoa, at Irun,  was the furthest to the west. There were two roads from Pamplona to France. The Roman road, which crossed the Pyrenees at the pass of Roncesvalles, was the most easterly one. The other crossed at the pass of Maya.

As San Sebastian was in danger of falling, but Pamplona was not being attacked, Wellington expected Soult todemonstrate towards Maya and Roncesvalles, but to make his main attack along the Roman road.

Soult, however, concentrated his efforts against Maya and Roncesvalles. On 25 July 20,000 troops under General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, better known by his title of Count D’Erlon, attacked the 6,000 men at Maya . 40,000 men under Soult himself assaulted Sir Lowry Cole’s 13,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops at Roncevalles.[3]

Soult attacked with three divisions along the Roman road and another three along a mule track to the west, each facing only one brigade, though Cole had two more in reserve. Soult’s main problem was that the pass was too narrow for him to fully exploit his advantage in numbers.

The attack along the Roman road was initially was halted by no more than 500 British and Spanish skirmishers, who were defending a frontage of only 300 yards and had plenty of cover.

The French columns eventually forced the Allies back along the Roman road. They were able to retreat to a strong defensive position, but in doing so opened up the possibility of them being outflanked to the east.

The narrow mule track went through partially wooded terrain, with a frontage of only 60 yards, meaning that only one battalion could fight at a time.

However, a thick fog descended at 4 pm. Cole, fearing that his force would be outflanked, decided to retreat, disobeying Wellington’s clear orders to hold even if there was a risk to his eastern flank.

Sir Rowland Hill had put Sir William Stewart in command of the two brigades at Maya. They fought fiercely, but had been badly deployed and were eventually forced back. Weller says that ‘British troops have rarely fought so courageously, but have not often been worse commanded.’[4] The British suffered 1,500 casualties, but inflicted 2,000.

Hill arrived at Maya after the battle was over. He organised a successful retreat to a position that continued to block the road.

Wellington reached Hill’s position just before noon the next day, and was happy with Hill’s dispositions. No news was received from Cole until the evening. On hearing of the retreat from Roncevalles Wellington ordered Cole and Sir Thomas Picton to stand east of Zubiri. They had 19,000 men facing 40,000 French.

Early on 27 July Wellington learnt that Cole and Picton had continued to retreat. He described his generals as being:

‘really heroes when I am on the spot to direct them, but when I am obliged to quit them they are children.’[5]

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, then rode towards the Allied army. They found it and the advancing French at Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona. Wellington took command, and prepared to give battle the next day.


[1] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), pp. 205-6; J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 275.

[2] Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.

[3] Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 289.

[5] Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211

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The Battle of Vitoria – map

I forgot to include a map in the previous post on the battle of Vitoria. This one should make it easier to understand the course of the battle

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Vitoria_map.jpg

Battle_of_Vitoria_map

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The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813.

In 1812 Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, took Madrid, and then advanced to Burgos. He failed to capture Burgos, and was forced to retreat past Salamanca. Crucially, however, his army retained control of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south.

These two fortresses, known as the keys to Spain, controlled the two invasion routes from Portugal to Spain. In 1812 Wellington had needed to capture them in order to advance further into Spain. In 1813 his task was easier because he already held them.

Additionally, the French forces facing him were weaker because they had been stripped of troops to rebuild the French army in central Europe after the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. Wellington had received reinforcements, and had spent the winter and spring training his troops and improving his army’s supply and medical arrangements.

Napoleon thought that Wellington had only 50,000 men, but he had 80,000. He was therefore more concerned with the Spanish guerrillas than with Wellington. General Bertrand Clausel was sent north with the 40,000 troops of the Army of Portugal to deal with the guerrillas.[1]

Wellington was aware that the French had split their forces because George Scovell, his code breaker, had deciphered a captured despatch from the French army in the north to King Joseph Bonaparte.[2]

Wellington’s plan was to advance as far as he could towards the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Operations did not begin until 22 May, as the rains had been late, meaning that there was a shortage of suitable forage for the horses until then. He was confident of success, allegedly stating ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again’ as he crossed the frontier into Spain.[3]

Wellington initially split his army: part moved through Salamanca, with  the rest, commanded by Sir Thomas Graham moving north before heading east towards Valladolid.

The French, commanded by King Joseph and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were forced to retreat. The Allied army took Salamanca, Zamora, Valladolid and Burgos, advancing 200 miles without a fight. On 13 May the French blew up the defences of Burgos, which they had successfully defended in September and October 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Austro-Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen in May, before agreeing an armistice with them at Pläswitz on 4 June. Wellington later told a friend that his staff argued that:

‘we ought not to risk the army and what we had obtained, and that this armistice would enable Buonaparte [sic] to reinforce his army in Spain, and we therefore should look to a defensive system. I thought differently.’[4]

Buonaparte was a deliberate mis-spelling of Bonaparte often used in Britain to emphasis Napoleon’s Corsican origins.

On 21 June the French made a stand at Vitoria. The Allies were now too close to France for Joseph to continue to retreat.

Joseph had about 60,000 troops after being joined by part of the Army of Portugal. He hoped to be reinforced by Clausel and another three divisions. Wellington had about 75,000 men, having detached the British 6th Division to cover the road to Santander and sent most of the Spanish 6th Army towards Bilbao. Wellington had received intelligence that Clausel could not arrive before 22 June.

Vitoria was in a valley that measured about six miles from north to south and 10 miles east to west. It was protected to the south by hills that were mostly impassable to formed troops and by the River Zadorra to the north. The French thought that Wellington would therefore have to attack from the west, and believed that he would not be able to outflank them.

There were, however, many fords and bridges across the Zadorra. Wellington sent a large force under Graham north to swing round the French right flank. Joseph and Jourdan knew from the reports of cavalry patrols that there were fewer enemy troops to the west than they had expected.

As they apparently thought, wrongly, that the roads through the hills north of Vitoria were unsuitable for large number of men, they assumed that Wellington was heading for Bilbao.  One of the  French division resumed its retreat towards France, escorting the baggage, thus reducing the French army to 57,000 men.

Wellington’s plan involved four different attacks. Graham, with the 25,000 men of  the 1st and 5th British Divisions, Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades, Longa’s Spanish Division was to cut off the enemy retreat. In the west, the first attack would come in the south from the 20,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill: the British 2nd, Silveira’s Portuguese and Morillo’s Spanish Divisions.

Wellington personally commanded the rest of the army. The British 3rd and 7th Divisions would attack from the north-west and the 4th and Light Divisions from the west, where the French expected the main attack. Each force had a proportion of cavalry and artillery, but the largest contingent of cavalry, four of 10 brigades, was in the force attacking from the west.[5]

Hill attacked first, and his troops were in combat before 8:30 am. Graham’s troops were skirmishing by 9 am, but his orders were to delay a full attack until he was in contact with the other Allied columns: he was starting eight miles away from them.

Hill’s attack went well, but Wellington did not want to launch the attack from the west until the 3rd and 7th Divisions were in combat. Lord Dalhousie’s 7th Division was slow getting into position, and Wellington sent an ADC to find him. The ADC instead encountered Sir Thomas Picton, commanding the 3rd Division. The ADC had orders for Dalhousie to attack a bridge, but no orders for Picton, who declared that his division would attack the bridge.

Wellington, seeing the 3rd Division moving into action, ordered the Light Division forward. A Spanish peasant volunteered to guide one of its brigades across the Zadorra by the unguarded Tres Puentes bridge. He was later killed.

By lunchtime the French were being attacked from three sides. They put up fierce resistance, but had been deployed against a frontal assault, and were forced back. They could have been completely destroyed, but Graham, much older than the other British generals, was slow to move.

He followed the letter of his orders and moved east to cut the Madrid to Bayonne road. Charles Esdaile argues that, had he ‘shown a modicum of initiative’, he could have attacked south towards Vitoria and cut the French line of retreat.[6]

Jac Weller gives the total of dead, wounded and missing as being 8,000 French and 5,000 Allied.[7] However, the French lost all but one of their 152 guns, over 500 artillery caissons. almost all their supplies and Joseph’s state papers and treasury.[8]

The French baggage train offered huge opportunities for loot, which the Allied troops were unable to resist. The citizens of Vitoria also suffered. Wellington deplored such activities, but even he benefitted: the Spanish government allowed him to retain a collection of Old Masters that Joseph had been taking back to France. They can still be seen on the walls of Apsley House, Wellington’s London house, which is now open to the public.

Jourdan’s Marshal’s baton was amongst the trophies. Wellington sent it to the Prince Regent, who in return promoted Wellington to Field Marshal, which meant that he received a British baton.

Graham’s lack of initiative and the army’s loss of discipline once presented with an opportunity to loot meant that most of the French soldiers escaped. However, the capture of the French supplies and artillery meant the destruction of Joseph’s army as an effective fighting force. The Allied army could now advance to the Pyrenees and threaten France.

Vitoria and the preceding campaign showed that Wellington was not just a cautious general, happiest on the defensive. He moved his army quickly across Spain and devised an imaginative plan that ended in the enemy being routed.


[1] Unless otherwise stated, figures for troop numbers are from C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 442-54.

[2] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 189.

[3] Quoted in Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 443; and Snow, Wellington, p. 188. Esdaile is ‘wary’ of the story, but notes that there is ‘little doubt’ that Wellington was optimistic

[4] Quoted in Snow, Wellington, pp. 188-89.

[5] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 256-57.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 448.

[7] Weller, Peninsula, p. 269.

[8] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 450.

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