Tag Archives: Maya

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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Zero Dark Thirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty tells the story of the successful US attempt to find and kill Osama bin Laden; I am using the most common spelling of his first name, but there are different ways of transliterating Arabic names into English. The US intelligence services called him Usama bin Laden or Ladin , and he is referred to as UBL throughout the film.

The film starts with the last messages left by some of the victims of 9/11. It then shows the CIA’s attempts to track down bin Laden, culminating in his death at the hands of US Navy SEALs at Abbotabad on 2 May 2011.

The main protagonist is Maya (Jessica Chastain), a CIA analyst who is obsessed with the hunt for bin Laden. She is a fictional character, although it is unclear whether she is based on a single CIA agent, as The New York Review of Books states, or is a composite of several, as the makers of Manhunt, a documentary treatment of the story, claim.

Unlike many fictional characters with an obsession (eg Agent Mulder in The X-Files), Maya does not appear to have a personal stake in the case. Rather, she appears to be simply utterly absorbed in her job, which is to find bin Laden. She does not seem to have any life outside of her work. Even Carrie Mathison, the obsessive and bi-polar CIA agent from the TV series Homeland, with whom Maya has been compared,  visited her father, sister and nieces and had a sex life.

Zero Dark Thirty is an entertaining film, which deserved its five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Chastain, but it was fair that even better films and performances beat it in these categories, leaving it with only a joint win for Sound Editing.

The film has caused a number of controversies. It begins with one: the film-makers did not ask permission from the families of the dead to use the recordings of the last phone calls made by victims of 9/11 that are played over the opening credits.

Another is that shows the CIA obtaining vital information from torture. It has been claimed, most notably in a letter from Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), that this intelligence actually came from other sources. Sen. McCain, captured in the Vietnam War, can give advocates of the use of torture the unanswerable reply that it did not work on him.

Michael Morell, the Acting CIA Director, distanced his agency from claims that it had co-operated closely with the film-makers in a statement that said that:

Zero Dark Thirty is a dramatization, not a realistic portrayal of the facts. CIA interacted with the filmmakers through our Office of Public Affairs but, as is true with any entertainment project with which we interact, we do not control the final product.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has just decided to drop its inquiry into how much help the CIA gave the film-makers.

The release of the film was delayed until after the US Presidential Election because it was feared that it might boost support for President Obama, since he ordered the mission that killed bin Laden. However, the film asserted that waterboarding, introduced by the Bush Administration, but banned by Obama, was a key element in finding bin Laden’s whereabouts.

Neither President nor any members of their Cabinets are portrayed by an actor in the film. The most senior officials to appear are the CIA Director (James Gandolfini) and the National Security Adviser (Stephen Dillane). Each is described by his job title rather than name in the film; the incumbents were Leon Panetta and Tom Donilon.

Overall, this is a good film, but it is marred by the rudeness shown to the families of the 9/11 victims whose last messages are broadcast without permission, and by its ambiguous attitude to torture. Not showing it would have been a whitewash, but the film shows it producing useful intelligence. The Guardian quotes Bigelow as telling the New York Film Critics Circle, who had just given her their Best Director award that:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

The trouble is that the difference between depiction and endorsement will be lost on some, who will see torture producing the evidence that led the good guys to get the bad guy, when in reality it did not.

Incidentally, the zero dark is US military code for midnight, so zero dark thirty means 0030 am, the time at which the SEALs attacked bin Laden’s compound.

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