The Peninsular War
1813: The Battle of Vittoria
Wellington did not attack the French at Vittoria immediately, instead spending the 20th June doing a reconnaissance of their position, whilst moving up his men to be in a position to attack as soon as possible. Wellington’s position was a little dangerous, as he knew that the closer he got to the French border, the more chance there was that the other French armies would come rushing to Joseph’s aid. Suchet’s army in Valencia was being kept busy by an Anglo-Sicilian expedition in the region, the old French ‘Army of Portugal’ and ‘Army of the North’ were not far away having been deployed to subdue unrest in the region.
The French had deployed their forces, comprised of the ‘Army of the South’ and ‘Army of the Centre’, with Joseph’s personal ‘Royal Guard’ and three divisions of the ‘Army of Portugal’ which had arrived in time. Their position was not particularly strong. Although they had withdrawn behind the River Zadorra, planning to use it as a defensive barrier, the river could be crossed in a number of places via fords and bridges, many of which the French had not blown up. The French drew up three lines of defence, all facing west. The Army of the South made up the most formidable line of defence, with around 25,000 men. They were followed by the Army of the Centre. The Army of Portugal was left to watch the north approaches toward Vittoria.
Wellington’s plan was a bold one. Splitting his army into a number of smaller attacking forces, he sought to strike the French in multiple places. General Hill crossed the river a good distance from the French, and then advanced on the Army of the South from the South West, whilst General Cole crossed much closer, and attacked them from the North West, in a pincer movement. Generals Picton and Dalhousie march south across the Zadorra to take the Army of the Centre in the flank. Meanwhile, General Graham was tasked with crossing near Vittoria and occupying the main road to France, cutting off the French line of retreat.
Map of The Battle of Vitorria
The Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish troops under Wellington’s command all fought well, and the demoralised and outnumbered French (who amounted to 57,000 men compared to Wellington’s 75,000) were defeated in all parts of the battlefield. As they withdrew, they abandoned their baggage, fleeing north along small lanes, and being forced to leave all of their 150 artillery guns behind. As the victorious allies advanced, they came across the abandoned baggage and started plundering. Much to Wellington’s fury, discipline collapsed, and he was not able to pursue the French, and turn his victory into a rout. It was this event that caused him to describe his men as ‘the scum of the earth’.
Despite this, Wellington’s victory at Vittoria was a complete one. The French suffered 8,000 casualties, including 2,000 men being taken prisoner, whilst the Allies lost around 5,000 men. The remaining French forces in Spain, with the exception of Suchet’s men in Valencia, all followed the defeated King Joseph north. By July, Wellington’s men were in the Pyrenees, and within striking distance of France. It had taken them just three months. Wellington’s seemingly failed strategy of 1812 had finally been vindicated, though there was more hard fighting to come before the Peninsular War could be concluded.
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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)