Tag Archives: Vera

The Crossing of the Bidassoa 7 October 1813.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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The Siege of San Sebastian 1813

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

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

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

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

6 x 18 pounders

24 x 24 pounders

4 x 68 pound carronades

9 x 8 inch howitzers

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

1 x 12 inch mortar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 470.

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

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