Monthly Archives: September 2013

Deserter – Charles Glass – Edinburgh Book Festival

At last month’s Edinburgh book Festival I attended a presentation by Charles Glass on his latest book, which is called Deserter: The Last Untold Story of the Second World War in the UK and The Deserters: A Hidden History of World War in the USA.

He began by apologising for the sub-title of the UK edition of his book, which he blamed on his publisher. He does not think that it is ‘the last untold story of the Second World War’, as his next book is also about that conflict.

His website describes the book as follows:

The extraordinary story of the deserters of the Second World War. What made them run? And what happened after they fled?
During the Second World War, the British lost 100,000 troops to desertion, and the Americans 40,000. Commonwealth forces from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Britain’s colonial empire also left the ranks in their thousands. The overwhelming majority of deserters from all armies were front-line infantry troops; without them, the war was harder to win. Many of these men were captured and court-martialled, while others were never apprehended. Some remain wanted to this day. Why did these men decide to flee their ranks?

The website says 40,000 US deserters, but Glass stated that there were 50,000 in his talk.

The book concentrates on three of the deserters: two American, Steve Weiss and Alfred Whitehead, and one British, John Bain. As he was in the UK, he talked mainly about Bain.

Most of the deserters were front line combat troops. A policy of just replacing casualties rather than rotating units out of the front line meant that some Allied soldiers fought throughout the war, whilst others did not see combat, causing great resentment amongst the former group.

John Bain was an Englishman who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders after he and his brother ran away from their brutal father. His first choice had been the Merchant Navy, but it rejected him. He was a poet and boxer who disliked the army. He deserted, was caught, demoted from corporal to private and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders.

He fought at El Alamein and in Libya and Tunisia. He adopted a persona of a hard drinking boxer, forgetting about literature. He wandered off in a daze after seeing members of his unit looting the corpses of dead Seaforth Highlanders. An officer gave him a life to the rear area, where he had no idea what to do. He was arrested and sentenced to nine months in the British Army’s toughest prison, which was the model for the prison in the Sean Connery film The Hill.

After six months he accepted an offer of an honourable discharge after the war if he volunteered to train for D-Day. He was wounded in Normandy, and sent back to the UK. He deserted on VE Day instead of waiting for his discharge, and became part of an underground of 20,000 deserters in London. He met a Leeds University student, and moved and studied there. He was eventually arrested and court-martialled, but discharged after psychiatric evaluation.

He changed his name to Vernon Scannell, and became a poet and teacher, but still boxed and drank heavily. He deserted three times but never from combat.

Most deserters were brave men who eventually cracked. Their treatment depended on their officers. After the fall of Tobruk 20,000 British troops deserted, but most came back after General Bernard Montgomery took command. Glass claimed that some of those who had been most adept at surviving on the run in the Nile Delta took those skills to the SAS or the LRDG. Montgomery’s predecessor, Claude Auchinleck, had asked the War Cabinet to restore the death penalty for desertion. It refused, as doing so would reveal the scale of desertion to the British public and the Germans.

The USA did retain the death penalty for desertion, and sentenced 49 soldiers to death for desertion. Only one, Eddie Slovik, was actually executed, during the Battle of the Bulge. He was supposed to have been shot as an example, but his execution was kept secret at the time, meaning that it could hardly serve as an example.

The German executed about 15,000 of their own men during the war; most of them were summarily executed, with barely a court martial.

American and British treatment of soldiers who have cracked under the strain of combat is now better than in WWII, but more needs to be done to deal with PTSD. There is no possibility of deserting in Afghanistan or Iraq. Modern deserters are those who refuse to be sent to the operational theatre for political reasons.

A British Normandy veteran in the audience took exception to the numbers quoted by Glass, arguing that desertion on such a scale would have been more visible to him than it actually was. The discussion did not progress beyond Glass saying that he had seen the numbers in archives, and the veteran refusing to accept them because of his personal experiences.

A good presentation. I am not sure that the story was unknown: I certainly knew about the large number of British troops who deserted after Tobruk and returned before El Alamein. However, it is subject that is mentioned briefly in other books and has not, as far as I know, had a work dedicated solely to it before.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513, George Goodwin, Edinburgh Book Festival

I attended a presentation by George Goodwin on his recent book Fatal Rivalry: Flodden 1513 at last month’s Edinburgh Book Festival. It tells the story of the rivalry between King James IV of Scotland and Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, which ended with James’s defeat and death at the Battle of Flodden.

James came to the throne in 1488 after his father James III was killed at the Battle of Sauchieburn. James IV was not officially involved in his father’s death, but later wore signs of penitence. Goodwin said that James IV was by 1513 arguably the first monarch to be king of all of Scotland. He was a renaissance man and a builder.

James signed a Treaty of Perpetual Peace with Henry VII in 1502, and married Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor. The penalty for breaking this treaty was excommunication by the Pope. Henry was not interested in English claims to Scotland, but was focused on the security of himself and his realm.

James and Henry both claimed to be the inheritor of King Arthur. Henry named his eldest son Arthur, and James claimed that Stirling was Camelot.

Arthur died before his father, so Henry VII’s was succeeded by his second son, who became Henry VIII on his father’s death in 1509. Pope Julius II wanted the French out of Italy, and encouraged Henry VIII to invade France. Henry could have kept Scotland neutral with a new treaty, but he displayed a lack of tact, treating James as a vassal.

James was allied to both England and France. He had a large navy, including the Great Michael, the biggest warship in Europe, and could have conducted a naval war against England without contravening the terms of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace with England. However, he chose to invade England in 1513. He was excommunicated by Cardinal Christopher Bainbridge, the Archbishop of York.

This was the largest ever Scottish invasion of England: 42,000 men with pikes and artillery. The French had delivered the pikes, but not the promised handguns. The Scottish army enjoyed dramatic early success, capturing all the major fortresses of the English Eastern March. It then took up position at Flodden on a plateau with steep slopes and its own well.

It was opposed by Northern levies armed with War of the Roses weapons, commanded by the 70 year old Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was a friend of James from the time of the King’s wedding. The English did have good artillery, but their best troops were in France with Henry VIII. Queen Catherine of Aragon was ruling England in her husband’s absence.

Surrey asked James on 7 September 1513 to move his army as there was, in the custom of the day, an agreement to fight on flatter ground. James objected to taking direction from an Earl. It was now dishonourable for Surrey not to attack, but he moved his army north towards Berwick, still held by the English, the next day. On 9 September he turned to cut the Scottish lines of communication.

James then moved his army to Branxton Hill. The battle began with an exchange of artillery fire, but it and long range bow fire were ineffective due to the blustery wind.

The Scottish pikes then attacked, successfully at first. Surrey then brought up reserves, and the second Scottish pike unit lost momentum due to groundwater. The Scots dropped their pikes and used their sidearms. The English bills, a polearm derived from an agricultural implement, were more than a match for these.

The English archers were effective, for the last time in a major battle, against the lightly armoured highlanders and retreating troops.

10,000 Scots and 4,000 English were killed. Casualties were particularly heavy amongst the Scottish nobles. James was amongst the dead. His excommunication was posthumously lifted by Pope Leo X because of the suffering that he had endured. Howard regained the title of Duke of Norfolk that his father had lost after fighting for Richard III against Henry VII at Bosworth.

Goodwin said that James’s defeat as a general overshadowed his brilliance as a king. Joan of Arc and William Wallace also suffered defeats. The battle was a strategic victory for Catherine, though Henry had to receive the credit. However, it is James and Margaret’s line that holds the British throne: Henry’s died out.

An excellent presentation about an important battle that is overshadowed by Bannockburn in Scotland and victories over the French in England.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Battle of Lake Erie 10 September 1813

The American plan for the Niagara Front in 1813 was to recapture Detroit and invade Canada. In order to do so they had to control Lake Erie, which in turn depended on conquering Ontario. The British were forced onto the defensive by lack of resources. The Americans captured Fort George on 27 May. They were reluctant to advance further after being defeated at Beaver’s Dam on 24 June, whilst the British were too weak to try to retake Fort George.

I have written British throughout this post because the ships were sailing under the British flag, but the majority of their crews were Canadians.

Source: Map of Lake Frontier to Illustrate Campaigns of 1812-1814  From Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (Vol. I, p. 371) by A.T. Mahan (Boston: Little, Brown, 1905).

Source: Map of Lake Frontier to Illustrate Campaigns of 1812-1814
From Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812 (Vol. I, p. 371) by A.T. Mahan (Boston: Little, Brown, 1905).

The two naval commanders on Lake Ontario, Commodore James Lucas Yeo of the Royal Navy and Commodore Isaac Chauncey of the United States Navy, were cautious men, who spent much of July, August and September manoeuvring without coming to a decisive battle

The British ships were more strongly built and more manoeuvrable. The total armament of the two squadrons was similar, but the British had a far higher proportion of carronades, very powerful but short ranged guns. The Americans had an advantage in calm weather, when they could stay at long range, but a disadvantage in strong winds.[1]

Yeo had the better of an engagement off Niagara on 10 August, whilst Chauncey had the advantage of one off the Genesee on 11 September. Neither was decisive.

On Lake Erie, which was initially completely controlled by the British, the Americans had to construct a fleet locally. The story of how they did so, under the direction of Dan Dobbin, a merchant navy captain, is told in this article by Rear Admiral Denys W. Knoll, USN (Ret.).

Oliver Hazard Perry took command of the US squadron on Lake Erie 26 March. The British squadron was commanded by Captain Robert Barclay. Both men were far more energetic and aggressive than Chauncey and Yeo.

Theodore Roosevelt notes that sources differ on the armaments and crews of the ships involved, but believes that the following figures are the most likely. Note that some guns could bear on either broadside, so the broadside is often more than half the total weight of fire carried.

American

Name Type Tons Crew Long guns Carronades Broadside lbs
Lawrence brig 480 136 2 18 300
Niagara brig 480 155 2 18 300
Caledonia brig 180 53 2 1 80
Ariel schooner 112 36 4 48
Scorpion schooner 86 35 1 1 64
Somers schooner 94 30 1 1 56
Porcupine schooner 83 27 1 32
Tigress schooner 96 30 1 32
Trippe sloop 60 35 1 24
TOTAL 9 vessels 1671 532 15 39 936

Only 105 of the Lawrence’s crew, 127 of the Niagara’s crew and 184 of the crews of the smaller ships were fit for duty, meaning that the US fleet had only 416 men available.

The Lawrence and the Niagara both swapped a long 12 pounder from their unengaged side for a 32 pound carronade of the engaged side, giving a total US broadside of 896 lb, split 288 lb from long guns and 608 lb from carronades.

British

Name Type Tons Crew Long guns Carronades Broadside lbs
Detroit ship 490 150 17 2 138
Queen Charlotte ship 400 126 3 14 189
Lady Prevost schooner 230 86 3 10 75
Hunter brig 180 45 8 2 30
Chippeway schooner 70 15 1 9
Little Belt sloop 90 18 3 18
TOTAL 6 vessels 1460 440 35 28 459

The British broadside split 195 lb from long guns and 264 lb from carronades. A comparison of the number of guns suggested that the British fleet was superior, but its largest guns were two long 24 pounders and a 24 pound carronade on HMS Detroit and 14 24 pound carronades on HMS Queen Charlotte.

The USS Trippe carried a long 24 pounder, and all the other US ships except the USS Ariel had at least one 32 pound long gun or carronade. The USS Lawrence and the USS Niagara each had 18 32 pound carronades, although only eight were carried on the engaged side during this action.[2]

Thus the Americans had a significant fire power advantage over the British regardless of range, but it was even more pronounced at short range than at long range.

The two squadrons encountered each other on 10 September near Put-In-Bay in light winds. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, flew a flag with the words ‘Don’t give up the ship’ on it. This phrase had famously been said by James Lawrence, Captain of the USS Chesapeake, just after he was mortally wounded. HMS Detroit opened fire at 11:45 am, first hitting the USS Lawrence at 11:50.

At the head of the line HMS Chippeway and Barclay’s flagship HMS Detroit were engaged with the USS Lawrence, Scorpion and Ariel, with the British fire concentrated on the USS Lawrence. HMS Queen Charlotte and Hunter were in a long range artillery duel with the USS Caledonia, Niagara and Somers. At the end of the line the USS Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were exchanging long range fire with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt.

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 6th ed. (New York; G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1897)

Source: Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 6th ed. (New York; G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897)

The USS Lawrence reached close quarters at 12:20. The USS Lawrence, Scorpion, Ariel and Caledonia were now in a bloody battle in at canister range with HMS Chippeway, Detroit, Queen Charlotte and Hunter. Roosevelt argues that this part of the action was roughly equal because the larger British crews cancelled out the heavier American guns.[3]

Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott kept his ship, the USS Niagara, at long range, a strange tactic for a ship armed mainly with carronades and possessing the largest crew of any of the US warships present.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

At the end of the line the USS Somers, Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were engaged at long range with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt. The British were outgunned in this segment of the battle.

Both sides concentrated on the largest enemy ships, resulting in heavy damage to HMS Detroit and Queen Charlotte and especially to the USS Lawrence. At one point Perry fired the last effective heavy gun himself, helped by only the purser and chaplain.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

Source: Roosevelt, p. 270.

The USS Lawrence was too badly damaged to continue as the flagship. Perry had to switch his flag to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara. Perry, along with four seamen and his brother, took a rowing boat to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara, and transferred his flag to her at 2:30 pm. Perry had four brothers who all served in the USN. One of the others, Matthew, led the mission that opened up Japan to US trade in the 1850s.

Perry ordered the schooners USS Somers, Tigress and Porcupine to join the Niagara, and at 2:45 led an attack aimed at breaking the British line. The British ships were too badly damaged to manoeuvre or offer much resistance. Barclay struck his colours at 3:00 pm. All the British squadron was captured. The USS Lawrence also struck her colours, but the British were unable to take possession of her.

US casualties were 27 killed and 96 wounded, three of whom died. Most of them were on board the USS Lawrence, which suffered 22 dead and 61 wounded. British losses were 41 killed and 94 wounded. The Captain and second in command of every British ship was killed or wounded. Barclay was wounded.[4]

One consequence of the battle was a long-running feud between Perry and Elliott over the latter’s conduct during it.

This was a vital victory for the USA. It now controlled Lake Erie, protecting it from invasion in that region, and allowing it to later recapture Detroit. It also boosted US morale. However, like most naval actions of the War of 1812, it was won by the side that had the greater firepower, with the men on both sides fighting equally well.


[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), pp. 287-88.

[2] Ibid., pp. 311-17.

[3] Ibid., p. 321.

[4] Ibid., pp. 325-26.

5 Comments

Filed under War History

The Battle of Dennewitz 6 September 1813

At the start of the Autumn 1813 German campaign Napoleon appointed Marshal Nicolas Oudinot to command the Army of Berlin, which was ordered to capture Berlin. Its advance initially went well, but it was defeated by Prussian troops under General Friederich von Bülow at Gross Beeren on 23 August 1813.

Napoleon, following his victory over Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Dresden on 26-27 August, intended to take part of his army 60 miles north to Luckau. There he would  join up with Oudinot and attack Berlin.

The rest of the main army would remain at Dresden under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat to cover against the Army of Bohemia, which was regrouping. In the east Napoleon believed that Marshal Jacques MacDonald would be able to rally his Army of Bober after its defeat at the Katzbach by Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia on 26 August.

Oudinot, however, ordered a retreat to Wittenberg on the Elbe rather than Luckau. This exposed the communications of both MacDonald’s army and the main French force.

Napoleon, angry at Oudinot’s performance, replaced him as commander of the Army of Berlin with Marshal Michel Ney on 2 September, but left him in charge of XII Corps. This meant that Ney had an unhappy subordinate in a key position. The army also included General Jean Reynier’s VII Corps, General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s III Cavalry Corps.

Ney’s orders were to attack Berlin, with support from Napoleon at Luckau. However, MacDonald’s army was in a worse state than Napoleon had realised, so he moved to Bautzen on 3 September to confront Blücher. The Army of Silesia withdrew, in accordance with the Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan of avoiding combat with Napoleon himself, but attempting to attack detached French corps.

Napoleon now returned to Dresden, having heard reports that Schwarzenberg was advancing on the city. Michael Leggiere argues that Ney’s orders to his army imply that he did not receive a message sent by Napoleon on 4 or 5 September informing him that his advance on Berlin would not now be supported by troops commanded by Napoleon.[1]

Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and commander of  the Coalition Army of North Germany, intended that the advance guard of General Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps would engage the French at Zahna. It would then fall back on the rest of the corps at Dennewitz  and Jüterborg. The rest of the Army of North Germany would then attack Ney’s left and rear.

On 5 September Oudinot’s corps forced Tauentzien’s advance guard to retreat. The next day Bertrand’s corps encountered Tauentzien’s at Dennewitz. Reynier’s corps was late leaving its overnight camp and then took the wrong road. This also delayed Oudinot.

There was a gap between Tauentzien’s right flank and Bülow’s corps. By 11 am Bertrand’s attack on Tauentzien was going well, but the French were unwilling to take risks on their left because of the threat from Bülow. He had started marching towards the guns at 10:30, and his troops reached the battlefield at 12:30. Tauentzien was beaten by then, but his troops had held the French up for long enough for Bülow to arrive.

Reynier did not reach the battlefield until 2 pm, with Oudinot arriving an hour later. The Prussian troops were by then under pressure, with Swedish and Russian reinforcements two or three miles away. F. Lorraine Petre comments that a French attack on their left at this stage could have won them the battle, but ‘Ney seized this moment to ruin his own chances of success.’[2]

Ney could not see what was happening on the left because of thick dust swirling in the air, amd decided that the decisive area was on the right, which he could see. He ordered Oudinot to move his corps from the left to the right in support of the remnants of Bertrand’s corps.

Reynier asked Oudinot to leave at least one division on the left, but Oudinot  insisted on obeying the letter of his orders, although he could see that they were mistaken. Petre, Dominic Lieven and David Chandler all criticise him for this, arguing that he did so because he was still upset at having Ney put above him.[3]

Bertrand was forced back by 5 pm, long before Oudinot was in position. Ney ordered a retreat on Dahme at 6 pm, but many French units did not receive  the orders, and his army scattered. Only a few French troops reached Dahme, and Ney ordered them to continue to retreat to Torgau.

Two Prussian corps totalling 45,000 men had defeated three French corps, killing or wounding 8,000 out of 58,000 enemy troops and captured 13,500 men, 53 guns and 412 supply wagons. Prussian losses were 10,500 killed and wounded including losses at Zahna and in the pursuit.[4]

See this website for a detailed description of the battle, including maps and orders of battle.

Bernadotte’s total army was bigger than Ney’s, but its Swedish and Russian components did not reach the battlefield until the battle was almost won. However, the Russian cavalry contributed significantly to the pursuit, in which most of the prisoners were taken.

Napoleon had won the biggest battle of the campaign so far, at Dresden, but his dilatory handling of the pursuit meant that he did not turn a victory into a rout. His subordinates had lost four other battles: Gross Beeren, the Katzbach, Kulm and Dennewitz. Dominic Lieven points out that the French had so far lost 100,000 men and over 200 guns and the Coalition, which was receiving more recruits, 85,000 men and 50 guns.[5] The campaign was only three weeks old, and the balance had swung against Napoleon.


[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 193.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 274.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 914-15; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 424; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 274-75.

[4] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 209; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 271, 276.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 425.

2 Comments

Filed under War History

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.

5 Comments

Filed under War History