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.
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. 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.
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.’ 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.’
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.
 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.
 Quoted in Weller, Peninsula. Footnote 2, p. 278.
 Troop numbers and casualties are from Ibid., pp. 280-90.
 Quoted in Snow, Wellington. p. 211