The Peninsular War
1813: The Battles of Sourauren
Although the French had been completely defeated at Vittoria, they were able to regroup with surprising speed. The ‘Army of the North’ which had not taken part in the battle, was chased towards the French border by a strong detachment of troops under General Graham, though they were able to leave a strong garrison at San Sebastian. Meanwhile, after leaving a strong force inside Pamplona, the French pulled north, accumulating around 120,000, although only 85,000 of those were able to be used on campaign, as they were either half trained, or on garrison duty. Napoleon sent one of his most able commanders, General Soult to take command.
Wellington was faced with two French controlled cities in his rear which would have to be subdued before he could advance in France. San Sebastian was besieged from 14th July, whilst Pamplona was simply blockaded. San Sebastian proved to be a difficult siege, and although the outer wall was breached on 23rd July, an assault on the town on 25th failed, costing 571 casualties.
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Soult, meanwhile, had been preparing for an attack to try and relieve one of the besieged cities and potentially turn the Allies’ flank. Deciding that the approach to San Sebastian was too well defended, he instead attacked towards Pamplona. In two attacks on the 24th July, one at Maya, and the other at Roncesvalles, he sought to break through. The fighting was extremely fierce. General Cole’s men were initially successful at holing the French advance through the narrow Pyrenean passes, but concern about being outflanked caused Cole to pull his men back. The attack at Maya was particularly costly, with the allies losing around 1,500 men, and although the French suffered around 2,000, they were able to break through.
Wellington’s position was now dangerous, but not disastrous. Rapidly riding through the mountains to reach the right flank of his army, he quickly ordered General Picton’s men up to support the withdrawing troops, who made a stand at Sourauren, the last town before Pamplona. Here, on 27th July, Wellington finally reached his army, being greeted by huge cheers from his men, which allegedly made Soult decide against an immediate attack on the Allied position. On the 28th, however, the French did attack in what became known as the First Battle of Sorauren. In fighting that Wellington called ‘fair bludgeon work’ the French failed to break through the allied lines, and were forced to withdraw, having lost nearly 4,000 casualties to the allies’ 2,600.
Rather than retreat, however, Soult was emboldened by the arrival of forces under General D’Erlon, who had pushed through the Pyrenees at Maya, and decided to try and cut between Wellington’s forces and those besieging San Sebastian. The plan involved marching his force across the face of the allied army in the night of the 29th-30th July, but the move was a failure, and the next day Wellington ordered a general attack on the French force that was strung out in front of him, in what became known as the second battle of Sorauren. Soult’s attempted re-invasion of Spain had cost the allies 7,000 casualties, but had cost the French far more, at roughly 12,500 men.
The Battle of the Pyrenees
By William Heath
As the threat posed by Soult subsided, the allies resumed the siege of San Sebastian, which had been suspsended. In an attack on the 31st August, the 5th Division stormed the breach, and entered the town. The French withdrew to the citadel, whilst the British troops ran riot in the town, plundering the inhabitants. There has been some controversy over whether the town was deliberately burnt down by the British. Reliable historical sources indicate that it was not. The town was already on fire when the British stormed the breach (in fact, at one point in the siege, the assault had been delayed as the fires were burning too fiercely for the troops to be able to get into the town). Unconfirmed reports suggested that the French may have placed flammable materials in some houses to help the blaze spread, but ultimately there was no reason for the British to burn the place down. The port did not pose any threat to British commerce, as has been suggested, and the reports issued afterwards show that a huge effort was made to prevent a repeat of the outrages that occurred at Badajoz, which although not completely successful, did help the situation.
In all the siege cost the allies 2,300 casualties, and when the castle of San Sebastian surrendered on 8th September, total French loses included 1,750, although Pamplona did not surrender until 31st October.
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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)