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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 Start of Napoleon’s 1814 Campaign

Following his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813 Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat from Germany. He managed to get about 70,000 formed troops and 40,000 stragglers across the Rhine after winning the Battle of Hanau on 31 October, but he lost almost 300,000 men in Germany in 1813, with another 100,000 trapped in isolated garrisons. In the south Wellington’s army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops had crossed the River Bidassoa into France on 7 October, and by 10 November were across the Nivelle.

The Coalition facing Napoleon had different objectives. The Austrians were the most willing to negotiate. Emperor Francis I of Austria was Napoleon’s father-in-law. More significantly, his chief minister, Prince Klemens Metternich was concerned that the overthrow of Napoleon would boost German nationalism, which he feared would weaken Austria’s position in central Europe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to David Chandler, ‘in two minds’ about whether to avenge Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 by occupying Paris or to stop a war in which Russia now seemed to be fighting for the benefit of others, but ‘[o]n balance…favoured action.’[1]King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia tended to follow the Tsar’s lead, but many of his countrymen wanted revenge for past defeats and humiliations at the hand of Napoleon.

Bernadotte, once one of Napoleon’s marshals and now Crown Prince of Sweden, dreamed that he might replace Napoleon as ruler of France. The British, concerned with the balance of power in Europe, were willing to leave Napoleon on the throne of France provided that it was restricted to its natural frontiers, excluding Antwerp and the Scheldt.

At Frankfurt on 16 November Metternich obtained the consent of his allies to offer Napoleon the 1797 frontiers of France, including Belgium and the Rhineland. Charles Esdaile suggests that Alexander agreed because he expected Napoleon to reject the offer, which would ‘legitimise the continuation of the war. Esdaile adds that Lord Aberdeen, the ‘young and inexperienced’ British Ambassador to Austria, ‘more surprisingly’ agreed to terms that did not achieve ‘several important British goals.’[2]

The Emperor gave a favourable verbal response to the envoy who brought them to him, but his initial written reply did no more than propose new peace talks, suggesting that he was just playing for time in order to build up his forces. The British insisted that nothing more should be done until Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, arrived.

On 30 November Napoleon gave provisional acceptance to the offer, but his envoys were told that discussions would now be based on France’s 1792 frontiers. This was unacceptable to the Emperor, who told the Marquis de Caulaincourt, his recently appointed Foreign Minister, that:

‘France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.’[3]

Chandler doubts ‘whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time.’[4] However, Esdaile argues that ‘it is impossible to say’ if the original offer would ever have been signed, but ‘it was the best that Napoleon could hope for.’[5]

The Coalition plan was complex. Bernadotte’s Army of the North, less General Friederich von Bülow’s corps, would continue the siege of Magdeburg, surround Hamburg and threaten Denmark. Bülow’s corps, supported by a British expeditionary force under General Sir Thomas Graham would move into Holland which had revolted against France rule, take Antwerp and invade France through Belgium.

The main attack would come from the 200,000 man Army of Bohemia, commanded by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, but accompanied by Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm. It would move from Basle to Colmar, cross the Rhine and advance to the Langres Plateau. It would then attack the French right whilst Napoleon’s centre was pinned by Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s 100,000 strong Army of Silesia, which was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannheim.

Schwarzenberg’s army would link up with Austro-Italian troops that were moving on Lyon, whilst Wellington’s army would advance north from the Pyrenees. By the middle of February there would be nearly 400,000 Coalition troops in France.

The Coalition plan was the one that had worked in Germany the year before. Fortresses should be masked rather than besieged. Its armies should manoeuvre against the enemy’s flanks and lines of communication, forcing Napoleon to respond to these threats. The Coalition would attack only when it heavily outnumbered the enemy. If one Coalition army was attacked by a large enemy force it would retreat, and the other Coalition army would advance.

Against this there were only 67,000 French soldiers on the frontier from Strasbourg to the North Sea. Napoleon called up 936,000 men, but many evaded conscription, and less than 120,000 of them served in the 1814 campaign. There was a shortage of equipment for those who did report for duty and a lack of NCOs and junior officers to command them. Napoleon was forced to use invalids and pensioners as leaders of even Imperial Guard formations.[6]

The Emperor attempted to find troops from his Spanish and Italian allies, but the only ones that he obtained were some veteran troops from the French armies facing Wellington. His position was further weakened by the defections of the King of Naples, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, on 11 January, and the King of Denmark 3 days later.

Napoleon’s main advantage was that he could move his army quickly around a country with good road and river communications and several supply depots. He had to prevent the enemy from uniting, but could not afford the casualties of even a victorious major battle. Chandler notes that the Emperor had to fight a ‘war of subtlety and fast manoeuvre.’[7]

Napoleon could risk losing Paris, which was the centre of his power and the main supply depot and headquarters of his army. F. Loraine Petre points out that Paris ‘represented France in a way that Moscow did not represent Russia in 1812, or Berlin Prussia in 1813.’[8]

Blücher’s Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine on 29 December 1813, followed by Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia on 1 January 1814. Blücher’s army moved 75 miles in nine days, and had crossed the Marne by 22 January. The next day its advance guard took a bridgehead over the Meuse. The cautious Schwarzenberg moved more slowly, but reached his initial objective of the Langres Plateau on 17 January. He then halted for six days because there were suggestions of a new peace conference.

By 23 January the flanks of the two Coalition armies were only two days march apart. Napoleon had hoped that his frontier forces would delay them more, enabling him to build up his army. He now had to take personal command of the field army. On 25 January he left Paris to start his 1814 campaign.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 947.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 517.

[3] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 948.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 515-16.

[6] Troop strengths are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 948-50.

[7] Ibid., p. 955.

[8] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 3.

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The Battle of Crysler’s Farm 11 November 1813.

In September 1813 the USA invaded Lower Canada with the intention of capturing Montreal, thus cutting the lines of supply to British troops in Upper Canada. See this website for a map of the theatre of operations.

Two US armies took part in the invasion. One, commanded by General Wade Hampton, was to move from Plattsburgh along the River Chateuaguay, whilst the other, under General James Wilkinson, was to advance from Sackett’s Harbor along the River St Lawrence. The two were to unite at Montreal, but co-operation between them was hampered by a long running feud between the two US generals.

On 6 November Wilkinson learnt that Hampton’s army had been defeated by a Canadian force in the Battle of the Chateuaguay on 26 October. Wilkinson sent a messenger ordering Hampton to march west and rendezvous with him at Cornwall in Eastern Ontario. However, Hampton was retreating towards winter quarters at Plattsburgh.

Wilkinson’s 8,000 men were being followed and harried by a 1,200 man corps of observation as it sailed down the St Lawrence. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison, a British officer who had been born in New York when it was still under British control towards the end of the American War of Independence. The main British force was at their naval base of Kingston, which they assumed was Lawrence’s objective.

Morrison’s troops consisted of a mixture of British regulars from the 49th and his own 89th Regiments of Foot, three Royal artillery guns and crews, Canadian Fencibles, Canadian Voltigeurs, Tyendinaga and Mississauga Mohawk warriors and the Dundas County Militia. They were supported by a flotilla of gunboats commanded by William Howe Mulcaster. Two-thirds of the 270 Canadian regulars were French speakers.Crysler's Farm 1813

On 10 November a skirmish was fought at Hoople’s Creek. The next day Wilkinson decided that he needed to chase Morrison away before crossing the Long Sault Rapids. He was ill and his second in command, Major-General Morgan Lewis was unavailable, so Brigadier-General John Parker Boyd was put in command.

The Anglo-Canadians headquarters was at Crysler’s Farm, sometimes mis-spelt Chrysler’s Farm. Morrison was able to fight on ground of his choosing . Woods and two ravines enabled his men to take up concealed positions , but the Americans were moving across an open battlefield that exposed them to the accurate fire of the Anglo-Canadians

On 11 November the Americans were slow to attack, used only 4,000 of their troops and committed them piecemeal.  They lost 102 killed,  237 wounded  and 120 captured. Anglo-Canadian casualties were 31 killed, 148 wounded and 13 missing. About a third of the Fencibles, half of whom were French-Canadians, became casualties.

The American attack was called off after three hours. Their men were tired and hungry, and they had fewer experienced officers than their opponents. Despite the defeat Wilkinson ordered his army to cross the Long Sault rapids. However, the next day he received a message informing him that Hampton would not make their planned rendezvous, as he had retreated to winter quarters. Wilkinson therefore ordered his army to retire to winter quarters at French Mills.

As well as ending the US 1813 invasion, the battle is very important in Canadian history because it was a victory won by a mixture of British, English-speaking Canadians, French-Canadians and Mohawks.

The following websites were used in researching this post, in addition to those linked in the text:

About. com Military History

Canadian Military History Gateway.

The Friends of Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Memorial.

The Register of Canadian Historic Places.

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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 Battle of the Thames, 5 October 1813

Victory at the Battle of Lake Erie on 10 September 1813 meant that the US controlled the lake. The British could not resupply Fort Amherstsburg at the mouth of the River Detroit or defend it, as most of its guns had been transferred to warships that were lost in the Battle of Lake Erie.

The garrison commander, General Henry Procter, therefore had the fort dismantled before starting to retreat along the River Thames on 27 September. Tecumseh, the leader of the Confederacy of Native American tribes that were allied to Britain, protested because this meant that the western tribes would be cut off from British support.

Most of the 4,000 Native Americans who had joined the British refused to retreat, but Tecumseh reluctantly withdrew  with Procter, who had promised that he would make a stand. [1] Procter kept falling back, despite Tecumseh’s urging to stand and fight, The retreating British were pursued by US troops, commanded by General William Harrison. Lack of supplies and poor leadership by Procter meant that many British troops were lost during the retreat.

Procter eventually made a stand on 5 October on the Thames near Moraviantown, a community of Native Americans who had converted to Christianity, and modern-day Chatham. The subsequent battle is known as both the Battle of the Thames and the Battle of Moraviantown.

Harrison had about 3,500 troops facing 6-700 British regulars and 1,000 Native Americans. Procter had made no attempt to fortify his position, and a charge by Kentucky mounted riflemen quickly broke through the British line, before taking Tecumseh’s tribesmen in the flank.

Tecumseh was amongst the dead. The Native American Confederacy died with him, and the tribal alliance with Britain ended. Procter was court-martialled for his conduct of the retreat and sentenced to six months loss of rank and pay. This was reduced to a reprimand on review, but this was still enough to end his career. The Battle of the Thames (or Moraviantown) was a resounding US victory that finished the war in the north-west and set Harrison on the path to the Presidency.


[1] Troop numbers are from T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i. pp. xiii-xiv.

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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.

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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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