The Peninsular War
Although 1812 had appeared to end in failure, Wellington’s advance into the centre of Spain had transformed the strategic situation, forcing the French armies to gather together to face the threat he posed. Wellington’s army quickly recovered from the retreat from Madrid in the autumn, and spent the next 5 months training hard for the campaign.
In May 1813, Wellington set out from the Portuguese border for the final time. He had planned meticulously for this campaign, and devised a clever strategy to deceive the French. Whilst he sent the bulk of his army in a series of outflanking moves into the north of Spain, Wellington stayed with a smaller force in central Spain to deceive the French, making them think that there was nothing to fear, as they incorrectly assumed he was with the main army.
Map of Spain and Portugal
As the French pulled back, they were unable to concentrate their forces in one location, as Napoleon had issued orders for many of the troops to be used in putting down an uprising in northern Spain. The French were forced to pull back to Valladolid, then Burgos, and then the River Ebro, as they tried to gather enough troops to fight off Wellington’s advance. Even here, however, Wellington managed to turn their flank, sending his army over narrow mountain tracks which the French had not defended as they had assumed an army could not cross such difficult terrain.
The French finally made a stand at Vittoria on 22nd June, planning to hold the line of the River Zadorra. Vittoria represented the last chance the French had of fighting before the French border. It also wasn’t an especially strong defensive position, as the Zadorra had a number of bridges and fords, which Wellington was able to make use of in his attack, as the French failed to blow them up. In a bold plan of attack, Wellington crossed the army at multiple points, and tried to cut the French off from the roads back to France, though this attempt failed. Nonetheless, the French army was comprehensively defeated, and fled north towards the Pyrenees.
The French largely evacuated Spain, leaving Suchet’s army in Valencia, and strong garrisons in Pamplona and San Sebastian. Pamplona was blockaded and starved into surrender, whilst San Sebastian was besieged, with the remainder of the Anglo-Portuguese-Spanish army guarded the approaches through the Pyrenees.
In the meantime, Napoleon appointed Soult as commander of the remaining forces which had returned from Spain. He made an attack towards Pamplona on 25th July, hoping to break through the allied lines, relieve the town and then turn to face the forces besieging San Sebastian. After fierce fighting, Generals Cole and Stewart pulled back their forces guarding the Pyrnees passes that had been attacked, but Wellington was able to collect enough forces to stop the French advance at Sourauren.
The Storming of San Sebastian
By Denis Dighton
San Sebastian was taken in early September, and Pamplona surrendered in October, but in the meantime, Soult made a further attempt to push across the Pyrenees at San Marcial in a desperate to relieve San Sebastian before it fell. Wellington continued to push into France, but did not seek to rush into the centre of France. His forces crossed the River Bidassoa in October in the face of strong French opposition. In December they crossed the Nive in another well planned operation, and although a bold French counterattack initially made some progress, they were pushed back.
Having started the year inside Portugal, Wellington’s army now found itself camped in France. News from central Europe showed that the tide of the Napoleonic Wars was changing as emphatically as that of the Peninsular War had.
In this section you will find more information on the course of the Peninsular War in 1813:
The Battle of Vittoria
The Pyrenees Campaign
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Interested in Learning More?
Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)
Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)
Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923)