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Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 32 : The Pyrenees (July–September 1813)

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Overview of the Second Half of 1813:

In the six months following Vitoria, Wellington’s army saw more fighting than in any comparable period of the Peninsular War.  No fewer than five major engagements, several lasting more than one day, together with the blockade of Pamplona and two difficult sieges of San Sebastian made exceptional demands on the army and its commander.  Although none of these actions equalled the scale and decisiveness of Salamanca or Vitoria they were, taken together, extremely costly.  The allied army lost approximately 23,000 casualties in the second half of 1813, while the French suffered even more, about 36,000 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner (including the garrisons of Pamplona and San Sebastian).   Yet the net result of all this fighting was insignificant: the front line advanced less than thirty miles from the passes of the Pyrenees to the outskirts of Bayonne and the River Adour.  This was not primarily due to the tenacity of the French defence, (although their ability to keep their army together despite such frequent defeats was most important), but other factors constrained Wellington and deterred him from pushing at the half open door and advancing deep into the interior of France.   But that was in the autumn: in the summer, the two months after Vitoria, his task was rather to consolidate the gains he had already made.

Overall Losses in Second Half of 1813: (figures are very approximate, based on Oman)


                                                Allied casualties                          French casualties

1st Siege of San Sebastian                      571                                             –

Sortie                                                           200                                             –

Battles of the Pyrenees                          7,000                                        13,000

2nd Siege of San Sebastian                   2,400                                      c3,000

San Marcial                                              2,500                                        4,000

Bidassoa                                                   1,600                                        1,600

Nivelle                                                       3,200                                        4,300

Nive                                                            5,000                                        6,000

Pamplona                                                    –                                               4,000

                                                                     22,500                                       35,900

Does not include the 1,500 Nassau and Frankfort troops who defected from Soult’s army during the Battles of the Nive.

Rey’s arrival at San Sebastian:

Rey was appointed two days before the battle of Vitoria and arrived there the day after.   The French had neglected its defences for years, and it is possible that if the allies had arrived sooner they might have been forced to abandon it as untenable, but it was not until 7 July that the Fifth Division and Bradford’s Portuguese arrived before its walls and took over from a motley Spanish force which had established a blockade ten days earlier  (Oman vol 6 p 483; Fortescue vol 9 p 224).

The First Siege of San Sebastian:

The Castle of San Sebastian stands on a steep rock rising some 400 feet from the sea at the end of a narrow isthmus, about 900 yards long, with the estuary of the River Urumea to the east and an enclosed bay to the west.  The town itself was built on the isthmus, below the castle and occupied about half the peninsula. Its land walls were very strong and Rey had incorporated into its defences the outlying Monastery of San Bartolomé.  He had a garrison of some 3,000 men and was never completely isolated, for the Royal Navy proved unable to stop fishing boats and small coastal vessels slipping past its guard and bringing in news, supplies and ammunition, and taking out the wounded.  This meant there was little chance of taking the fortress by a blockade, and while Wellington could have decided to ignore it (leaving a substantial Spanish force to contain its garrison), this was an unsatisfactory solution given its close proximity to the main allied supply base which was being established at the little village of Pasajes, three miles to the east.  Besides San Sebastian did not look particularly formidable, and the engineers were confident that they could take it relatively easily by siege, especially as there would be no difficulty bringing up guns and ammunition (Tomkinson Diary p 260).

In 1719 San Sebastian had fallen to the Duke of Berwick who had attacked it not along the isthmus but across the estuary of the Urumea.  Major Charles Smith, the senior engineer with Graham’s column, proposed adopting the same line of attack and both Fletcher and Dickson agreed.  Hindsight suggests that it was a short-cut which proved costly both in time and blood, but at the time it appeared a reasonable choice, and if the decision had been made to attack the land side critics would have been equally scathing.  Wellington surveyed the scene on 12 July and approved the plan of attack, but the day to day supervision of the siege was left to Graham, with Fletcher and his engineers, and Dickson and the gunners, in charge of the works.  (Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 959-60; Jones Journal of  Sieges vol 2 p 16-17; Oman vol 6 p 564-66).

The battering train sent from England to Coruña earlier in the year began landing at Pasajes on 7 July: its 28 heavy guns were supplemented by six from the army’s travelling reserve, and another six lent by the navy and manned by seamen. Sir George Collier, who commanded the small squadron on the coast in the Surveillante, had carried Sir Arthur Wellesley to Lisbon four years earlier, and now proved exceptionally co-operative.  It was not for any lack of effort on his part that French boats found their way into San Sebastian, and his willingness to put ashore some of the few heavy guns his frigate carried was a marked contrast to Admiral Berkeley’s refusal the previous year (Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 2 p 20, Hall Wellington’s Navy p 213; Wellington to Bathurst 10 Sept 1813 WD VI p 752-755).

Battering of the Monastery of San Bartolomé began on 14 July; a premature effort to storm it on the afternoon of the 15th was repulsed, but it was successfully carried on the morning of the 17th. The principal batteries opened fire on 20 July and a large section of curtain wall fell on the 23rd creating a breach some fifty yards wide.

Did Wellington visit San Sebastian on 22nd or 23 July?

Larpent is quite explicit: in a diary entry dated 23 July he says that Wellington and his party ‘went off at eight this morning’ (Private Journal p 199) and the previous entry is for the 22nd (so there is no question of the entry being misdated).   However Dickson’s ‘Journal of the Siege of San Sebastian’ is equally confident that the visit was on the 22nd (Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 970) and Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 2 p 35 agrees (although it is possible that he draws on Dickson’s papers, rather than an independent source).

Wellington’s correspondence shows that Larpent is correct: there are seven letters from Wellington dated 22 July and none dated the 23rd; all seven are dated ‘Lesaca’ and some bear times ranging from 9 am to 2 pm, while one is to Sir Thomas Graham and has a postscript dated 4 pm.

Presumably Dickson wrote his journal soon after the siege rather than during it, and made a simple mistake, and that Jones did indeed copy him.

The point is intrinsically insignificant, but a valuable demonstration that even the best sources can be unreliable.

Reasons for the Failure of the First Siege of San Sebastian:

Wellington told Graham on 19 July 1813: ‘You must be better judges on the spot than I can be; but I think the town wall will breach easily and in a very short time, and that you should not begin to batter in breach till you shall be established on the esplanade.’  (WD VI p 606-7).   And Larpent explains that, ‘It is feared that his hints have not been attended to, and that the breach has been made too soon before all other things were ready, so that the place of danger is discovered to the enemy in time, perhaps, to enable the French, who are ever quick and ready on these occasions, to let in some sea, and make a wet ditch behind, or to throw up new works, &c.  The breach may thus, as at Badajoz, become the worst place of the whole to attack.  It is to be hoped that this is only a false alarm…’ (this was written on 23 July, before the failure of the storm, so was not being wise after the event).  Larpent Private Journal 23 July 1813 p 199.

On the day after the failure of the storm Andrew Hay wrote:

 it was impossible [to succeed] if the garrison did their duty tolerably well … soon after the thing was over the chief [Wellington] arrived & was perfectly satisfied that what men could do had been done by a tremendous fire of musquetry, grape shells & hand grenades & large stones from behind walls & breast works or till we received orders to retire which they did in the best possible order … at the same time I do not think any blame can attach to the planners of the attack as till you try you never can know the physical difficulties.  To give Oswald Credit he always had an extreme bad opinion of the busyness I certainly considered it extremely hazardous but I had no right to give an opinion as I was only to carry it into execution …  (in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 235).

Hew Ross was not present but tells an interesting story that circulated round the army:

 I feel no delicacy in stating what the whole army declare, that the place ought to have been ours had the directing general possessed more energy on the occasion … Captain Jones of the Engineers, followed by the greater part of the grenadiers of the Royals, carried the breach and entered the place.  Support, however, hung back, and the reason assigned for it is publicly talked of to be this: that General Oswald – who was directing the attack, and at the head of the trench – called out at an unluckly moment to Sir Thomas Graham, who stood a little way from him, “It won’t do, it won’t do; shall we call them back?” or some words to that effect, which naturally being overheard by all near, checked ardour, and lost the time which ought to have been taken advantage of whilst the enemy was alarmed and the breach in our possession.  (Hew Ross to Sir Hew Dalyrmple Ross 31 October 1813 Memoir of Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross p 50).

This explains Wellington’s statement to Bathurst that: ‘I understand that the General & superior [or inferior’?] Officers [of the Fifth Division] were so indiscreet as to talk before their Men of the Impossibility of Success, and that they still continue this conversation.’  (Wellington to Bathurst 23 August 1813 WP 1/375 passage deleted from letter printed in WD VI p 706-7).

Frederick Robinson wrote home on 31 July 1813: ‘We falled [sic: failed] in attempting to carry it by storm and one of our best Regiments almost annihilated on the Breach owing to the ignorance and obstinacy of the Engineers.’  (‘A Peninsular Brigadier’ p 164).  And William Gomm wrote on the day after the failure: ‘I thought a broken head or a pension would infallibly have been my portion before I escaped out of the hands of those Philistines, the Engineers.’  And on 1 August ‘Our siege continues in the state which the Engineers call a lull.  When we commence again I dare say we shall do it a little less en charlatan, and more en règle.’  (Gomm Letters and Journals p 314-16, see also ibid p 311-12 is a stronger, more generalized attack on the engineers).

Dickson wrote ‘The column of attack certainly moved forward too early, either from a mistake as to the state of the tide, or from over anxiety on the part of the immediate directors of the assault, for owing to the perfect darkness that prevailed, it was totally out of the power of the artillery in the batteries to lend the assistance their fire would have afforded the operation, and it was not till some time after the failure was compleat that they could sufficiently distinguish objects to discover what had happened.

‘Had the attack been deferred till it was sufficiently light, the pools of water would have passed off with the ebbing tide, and the artillery in the batteries, which were in anxious readiness, would have materially assisted.’  (Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 973).

Jones’s Journal of the Sieges vol 2 p 44-5:

  Opinions were at the moment much divided respecting this failure, many officers of judgment and experience imputing it to want of a more forcible and combined effort on the part of the troops; and others of equal authority considering it as a natural consequence of the musketry fire of the place being nearly uninterrupted, the great distance which the covered approaches were from the breaches, the delay occasioned by filing the men out of a narrow trench, and the want of breadth, as well as the difficulties of the rocky strand at the foot of the wall along which they had to march to the assault, and further, not having any support from their own batteries.

   ‘The efforts on the breach were certainly neither very obstinate nor very persevering, and would lead an unprejudiced person to adopt the former opinion, were it not stated from the very highest authority that the troops did their duty, and were recalled because it was deemed beyond the power of gallantry to overcome the difficulties opposed to them.’

Fortescue writes ‘It may be unjust to hold the engineers exclusively responsible for the conduct of the sieges undertaken by the British during the Peninsular War; but there can be no doubt that one and all of these operations were very ill-managed…’ (vol 9 p 232).

Soult and San Sebastian:

One of the puzzles of the campaign is that Soult should have attacked at the eastern end of the line on the day the allies attempted to storm San Sebastian – so that if they had succeeded, he would have been too late to assist the garrison.  Either he did not think he could intervene in time (both his offensive and the storm were originally planned to begin a day earlier than they did) or he was misinformed about the progress of the siege.  Fortescue vol 9 p 248 says that on 18 July he received word from Rey that San Sebastian could hold out for a fortnight.  But he must have known when the battering began, and that an attempt to storm would follow in a few days.

Wellington’s instructions to Cole:

Like most such operational orders, these were issued to Cole through Murray.   On 23 July he wrote:

It is intended that you should support Major-General Byng in the defence of the passes in front of Roncesvalles as effectually as you can without committing the troops under General Byng and the 4th division against a force so superior as that the advantage of the ground would not compensate it; making allowance also for the feeling of inferiority which may influence the enemy at present in meeting our troops.

You will be so good as to make arrangements further back for stopping the enemy’s progress towards Pamplona in the event of your being compelled to give up the passes which Major-General Byng now occupies, and to retire in that direction. (The Quartermaster-General to Cole 23 July 1813 WSD vol 8 p 112-113).

On the following day Murray wrote again:

 Lord Wellington has desired that I should express still more strongly how essential he considers it that the passes in front of Roncesvalles should be maintained to the utmost, and I am to direct therefore that you will be so good as to make every necessary arrangement for repelling effectually every direct attack that the enemy may make in that quarter.  (The Quartermaster- General to Cole 24 July 1813 WSD vol 8 p 114).

            Cole writes: ‘I did not receive your letter of the 24th until nine o’clock yesterday, just as Byng’s people had driven back the enemy in their first attack.’  (WSD vol 8 p 124-5).  That leaves no doubt that he did indeed receive the second, unequivocal order, hours before he took the decision to abandon his position.

The fighting at Roncesvalles:

The Roncesvalles Pass had been occupied by Byng’s brigade of the Second Division, and Morillo’s under-strength Spanish Division for three weeks, and they had been joined by Cole and the Fourth Division a week earlier, although he had kept his men well back from the pass.  Byng received an anonymous warning of the impending attack on the day before (Captain Charles Forrest (DAQMG 2nd Division Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 226) and L’Estrange Recollections p 109 both mention this), and at first light his men were in position and on the alert.  The French could only advance on a narrow front, and Byng’s men were able to repulse their initial attacks with little difficulty, and for several hours there was a stalemate with much firing, but few casualties for the men were well under cover and the range long. A subsidiary French attack along a narrow track on the western side of the valley might have had more success if Cole had not ordered his leading brigade forward well before dawn.  Robert Ross’ brigade occupied the little plateau at Linduz where the track upon which Foy’s division was advancing reached more open ground. There was some hard fighting here during the day, with Ross losing 216 casualties and Foy 371, but Ross held his ground, and by mid-afternoon the rest of the Fourth Division had arrived to support him.  At the main pass Byng had been forced to withdraw his light company from their advanced position when Clausel finally got some artillery up to the front, but he was still in command of his ground when dense fog descended about 5 o’clock that afternoon (Oman vol 6 p 608-24).

Was Cole’s decision to abandon Roncesvalles justified?

This can be argued both ways.  My first impression on reading Oman’s account, and the language of the order to hold the pass to the utmost, was that Cole was lucky to escape a court martial; but other accounts, both first hand and secondhand, were much less critical, and seemed to accept that once Byng’s picquets had been driven from their advanced position a retreat was inevitable.  Beatson (Wellington and the Pyrenees p 102-3) takes this view as does Napier vol 5 p 215 (Bk 21 ch 5); and Fortescue (vol 9 p 255-6) is only mildly critical of Cole.  Ian Robertson Wellington Invades France p 70-1 actually praises Cole for not obeying his instructions, and so saving his force from destruction.  The fact that Byng regarded retreat as necessary, and had already given an order before he received Cole’s instructions (Byng to Cole 26 July 1813 WSD vol 8 p 128-9) must carry a good deal of weight, especially as he was an excellent officer.  Among the reasons he gives is shortage of ammunition, but the principal ones are the strength of the enemy and fear for his flank.  There is nothing useful in the Memoirs of Sir Lowry Cole (except evidence that Wellington did not express any dissatisfaction) nor in the letters of Alexander Gordon. Wellington’s remarks about Gallant Officers quoted later may be relevant, but it is not certain that they apply to Cole’s decision to retreat.

Some first hand accounts suggest that the defence of the pass was not as successful as Oman has it – see Forrest in Uffindell (National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Army p 228-9) and Bingham (Wellington’s Lieutenant, Napoleon’s Gaoler p 205-6) although the latter attributes the order to retreat to news that Maya had been lost which seems to be a red herring.

Hill and Stewart and Maya: 

Oman is scathing about William Stewart at Maya (vol 6 p 626-7) especially for being absent from his post, but makes no criticism of Hill on the same grounds.  Of course Hill had wider responsibilities, but Maya was the key point and he didn’t arrive until the fighting was over: it is possible that Oman is keen to make Stewart and Hill behave in character and that this rather distorts the picture.  Fortescue (vol 9 p 263) at least raises the issue of where Hill was and why he didn’t play a more obvious role.

The Guns lost at Maya only ones lost by the Allied Army:

Wellington’s angry comment to this effect has generally been accepted as gospel: ‘the only one in which any guns have been lost, excepting at the battle of Albuera.’  (Wellington to Bathurst 23 August 1813 WP 1/375) and ‘I was very sorry to have lost those guns, as they are the only guns ever to have been lost by troops acting under my command.’  (Wellington to William Stewart 13 September 1813 WP 1/377 printed in WD VI p 757).  Wellington’s anger was probably heightened by the recent disgrace of Sir John Murray’s loss of guns at Tarragona, but was his statement true?  Barely if at all.  Three exceptions come to mind: Dyneley’s guns taken at Majadahonda in August 1812 but retaken the next day; the siege guns (and some French howitzers ?) left at Burgos when the siege of Burgos was raised; and a nine pounder which fell down a precipice 300 feet ‘and of course was lost’ in Hill’s march c28 July 1813, Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 1022.  Special pleading can so define Wellington’s complaint to exclude all three, but only by twisting the knot very tightly.

Frazer wrote on 4 September 1813: ‘Apropos: the British Artillery have never lost a single piece of artillery in the Peninsular War.  The Portuguese have occasionally.’  (Frazer Letters p 254).

But on 4 November he wrote: ‘Three guns of Captain Maxwell’s battery (which is attached to General Stewart’s division) were obliged to be left, on the 1st instant, in an advanced redoubt near Roncesvalles, all attempt to withdraw them were fruitless.  They were accordingly buried under the snow in the ditch of the redoubt.’  (Frazer Letters p 332).   But this was a loss due to the inclemency of the weather not enemy action.

The Retreat to Sorauren:

There is an evocative description of this in L’Estrange’s Recollections (p 111-114) including the comment: ‘I now began to discover the difference between a victorious advance and a retreat in face of the enemy.  We trudged along all night in the dark.  I was so sleepy I could not keep my eyes open.’  (p 113).

Head Memoirs of an Assistant Commissary (p 313-14) says that Picton showed signs of intense strain and exhaustion on the retreat and gave orders to send supplies well to the rear.

Wellington’s reception at Sorauren:

Ellesmere Personal Reminiscences p 129 quotes on interesting variant, presumably as told by Wellington himself: ‘It was on this occasion that, as he rode along the line, a corporal broke out of the ranks and shouted, “There goes the little blackguard what whops the French.”’  (Ellesmere Personal Reminiscences p 129).

Relevant here is a comment in a letter written a few days earlier by Frederick Robinson just before the unsuccessful assault on San Sebastian:  ‘Our noble Lord is arrived, and if he places himself within view of the men they will fight like Heroes – It is not easy to describe the enthusiasm of the Army about him, although he appears to harass them more than any Army suffered before.’  (‘A Peninsular Brigadier’ p 163-4).

Wellington and the Spy:

Years later Wellington told a story, recorded by Samuel Rogers, (Reminiscences and Tabletalk of Samuel Rogers 1903 edition p 233-5) of a spy who went between the two armies, and on this occasion pointed Soult out to Wellington who deduced Soult’s intentions from the way his messenger went.  It is lively but not very plausible.

First Battle of Sorauren 28 July 1813:

James Mill, of the 40th, described a familiar pattern:

When the French had gained the brow of the hill, at the command and with a threatening shout as vehement as prolonged, our battalion singly fell upon them with the bayonet, and shivering the compact order, swept upon them from, and to some distance down the descent.  Our men were hardly to be restrained from following too far; and they reluctantly obeyed the orders and monitions of their officers to return to the hill, where we, as expeditiously as possible, again formed up our companies, and awaited tranquilly any renewed attack. (Mill ‘Service in Ireland, the Peninsula, New Orleans and at Waterloo’ United Service Magazine June 1870 p 217).

It was a text book example of a ‘column and line in the Peninsula,’ one of the few from the second half of the war, but it is difficult to see that Soult had any alternative to a frontal attack, although he might have prepared the way for his assault better by prolonged skirmishing. (Oman vol 6 p 678 says that the French attempted to protect their columns by heavy screens of skirmishers, but this still left the British main line in perfect order at the critical moment making a successful attack very unlikely).

Even so there came a moment when Ross’s brigade was under great pressure and some of the Portuguese were giving way.  However Wellington threw the 3/27th and 1/48th into the fray and brought forward Byng’s brigade to support them.  There was heavy fighting; the 27th and 40th lost almost 400 casualties between them, but the French were driven back in disorder.  At the same time there was fighting on each flank of the hill, with the Sixth Division pressing forward in an unsuccessful attack on the village of Sorauen, while two Spanish battalions defending Zabaldica were driven out but the French advance was checked by a British counter-attack.  By the end of the day the French had been repulsed at all points.  Alexander Gordon told his brother ‘I have never yet witnessed so desperate an action and our fellows behaved most gallantly.’ (Alexander Gordon to Lord Aberdeen, 30 July [1813] At Wellington’s Right Hand p 390).

John Carss wrote home a few weeks later: ‘I was not more than half an hour with the division, before the enemy attacked our position; this engagement commenced about ten o’clock am and continued without intermission until dark night.  The 4th and 6th Divisions were the only two particularly engaged that day, both suffered very much; they were in the centre of our ground direct in front of Pamplona, where the enemy made their grand effort that day, but our brave fellows never yielded a bit of ground the whole contest, notwithstanding I never saw the enemy fight with more bravery than in that action.’  (Johnston ‘The 2/53rd in the Peninsular War’ p 16).

‘The Duke mentioned, as the finest individual feat of arms he had witnessed in Spain, an affair in the Pyrenees, in which the 40th Regiment repulsed 20,000 men.’  (Ellesmere Personal Reminiscences p 129).

Wellington at Sorauren:

Andrew Barnard noted a few days later that, ‘Lord Wellington was very much exposed on that day [as] the only situation from whence he could command a view of the action was the point of attack where he sat during the whole of it exposed to a most severe fire – Gordon was wounded, the Prince of Orange had his horse killed and many of the rest of his staff were slightly hit, but luckily for his army and the Cause of Europe he escaped.’ (Barnard Letters 4 Aug 1813 p 230).  And T. H. Browne states that: ‘Ld Wellington equally active, & every where present, encouraging all by his coolness, courage & decision – wherever he showed himself, confidence attended him – He never doubted the result of the Day’s action.’  (Napoleonic War Journal  p 230-1).

Fitzroy Somerset wrote home on 3 August: ‘Gordon is wounded in the Arm but I hope not severely.  Every part of the position occupied by the 4th Divn with which Lord Wellington was the whole day was very warm.’  (Fitzroy Somerset to the Duke to Beaufort, 3 August 1813 Beaufort Muniments FmM 4/9/12).

Hugh Gough of the 87th in the Third Division wrote home on 2 August ‘Early the third morning, the Marquis came up to our hill.  I was standing with Thos. Picton, who with Sir Stapleton Cotton, Generals Colville and Ponsonby, was with the whole time.  He appeared in the most wonderful good spirits, and shook Sir Thos. (who by the bye he has not been hitherto on good terms with) most heartily by the hand.’  (Rait Life of Gough vol 1 p 115).

And Charles Colville noted ‘The quickness and judgement with which Sir Thomas took up this position with the two Divisions and Byng’s Brigade atoned, I believe, to the Lord for the greater degree of promptitude than he had counted on in the retrograde movements so far.’  (Colville Portrait of a General p 153-54) which is a nicely circumspect way of putting it!

Wellington’s reasons for not advancing into France:

On 11 August Wellington told Bathurst:

The various battles which had been fought between the 25th of last month and the 2d inst. had nearly consumed the musket ammunition in reserve with the several divisions of the army, and some days elapsed after the enemy were driven across the frontier before these could be completed; and then, upon a general review of our situation, and adverting to the state of affairs in the North of Europe, when I knew that the armistice had been renewed till the middle of August, mi-Août, according to the French accounts, with a view to negotiations for peace, I did not deem it expedient to attack the enemy again with object of establishing the allied army within the French frontier.  (WD VI p 675-6).

Wellington on the Battles of the Pyrenees as a Whole:

Wellington himself told William Wellesley-Pole, ‘our last Battles, which were infinitely more difficult [than Vitoria]; and I believe the best operations I have yet carried on.  If I had any others but Gallant Officers to deal with, I had Soult & his whole Army.  As it was he escaped by the most extraordinary accidents, and a number of Blunders which our people alone can commit.’ (Wellington to Pole, Lesaca, 18 August 1813 Raglan Papers Wellington A no 57).   And he told Liverpool on 4 August, ‘It is a great disadvantage when the Officer Commanding in Chief must be absent, and probably at a distance.  For this reason there is nothing I dislike so much as these extended operations, which I cannot direct myself.’  (Wellington to Liverpool, Lesaca, 4 August 1813, WD VI p 649-50).

Wellington’s health, August 1813:

7 August: ‘Lord Wellington was on his bed yesterday, and could scarcely rise from the lumbago; but was in good humour and good spirits.’  (Larpent Private Journal p 221).

10 August: ‘Lord Wellington … is better, but not well.’  (ibid p 228).

11 August: ‘My Lord Wellington is getting round again from a violent rheumatic attack caused by his unceasing exertion in the course of the late incursion; this has not been singular, for I hardly know anybody that has not felt the fatigue except myself, and I really never was better.’  (Edward Pakenham to his mother 11 August 1813 Pakenham Letters p 219).

11 August: ‘as I passed the Church saw Lord Wellington (looking I thought, very ill).’  (Charles Crowe An Eloquent Soldier.  The Peninsular War Journals of Lieutenant Charles Crowe of the Inniskillings, 1812-1814 edited by Gareth Glover p 155).

13 August: after a grand dinner: ‘every one here, in fact, is fagged, and half done up.  Lord Wellington could scarcely rise when he sat down, or sit down when he rose, from lumbago, and was in great pain, but is much better; all around him looked pale and worn.’  (Larpent Private Journal p 229).

23 August: ‘Wellington, who was indisposed, has now recovered, and is now quite ready for a Brush.’  (Edward Pakenham to Lord Longford 23 August 1813 Pakenham Letters p 221).

The Second Siege of San Sebastian:

Late on 25 July when it was clear that Soult had launched a major offensive, Wellington ordered that the siege of San Sebastian be suspended and that the battering train be embarked at Pasajes, although a close blockade was to remain.  The following night the garrison made a successful sortie, damaging the works and taking almost 200 prisoners (mostly Portuguese).  The next three weeks were quiet as the hopes of the garrison rose and then fell as news of Soult’s advance and retreat percolated through to them.  When the campaign was over, Wellington ordered that the siege be resumed, although not until an additional battering train arrived from England.  However the convoy was delayed by adverse winds and the leading ships did not reach Pasajes until 18 August, while the vessels carrying the much-needed ammunition took another five days to arrive.

Waiting for new battering train and ammunition:

The guns were needed as much as the ammunition for Dickson noted that of fourteen 24 pounders used in the first siege four were unserviceable and two more much worn.  (Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 978).  These were iron guns but could not stand too much firing especially in the heat; evidently the same problem had been encountered at Badajoz.

Wellington complained bitterly to Pole about the delay in the arrival of the new siege train (18 August 1813 Raglan Wellington A no 57 and Wellington to Bathurst 18 August 1813 WD VI p 690).  See also Wellington’s earlier complaint about what was being sent: Wellington to Graham 6 August 1813 WD VI p 657-8.  The details of the train are given in Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 980-2.

Bathurst apologized for the delay in a letter of 22 July 1813 (WSD vol 8 p 109) – bureaucratic fighting between Ordnance and Transport Board.

The decision to persist with an attack across the estuary:

According to Burgoyne, when Wellington visited San Sebastian on 25 July, after the failure of the first attempt to storm the fortress, he ‘immediately sent for Sir Richard Fletcher, who, not being able to go, sent me.  His Lordship seemed determined to persevere, talked of opening the breach more extensively on the left, said he expected much more heavy artillery, and demanded a project attacking the place in front regularly’. (Burgoyne journal 25 July 1813 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 270).   This is rather obscure, for the last phrase seems to refer to a frontal attack along the isthmus, but opening the existing breach implies a continuation of the original line of attack.

Frazer Letters p 206 (26 July 1813) says ‘Lord Wellington came here yesterday about 12, and remained till 4.  Another attack is determined upon.  We are to complete the second or half-finished breach, to throw down the demi-bastion, and to have fresh troops for another assault.’

On 29 July Fletcher wrote to Wellington: ‘Major Smith has informed me of your Lordship’s opinion that, whenever the siege of San Sebastian shall be continued, the original plan ordered should be carried on upon a more extended scale, by laying open both towers and the low bastion on the left, and connecting the present breach with the rampart.’  (Fletcher to Wellington, Ernani, 29 July 1813 WSD vol 8 p 148-9).

Taken together these seem to show that Wellington not only approved the decision to persist with the attack across the river, but pointed the engineers in this direction; but that they (with the exception of Burgoyne who expressed private doubts in his journal, and may have raised them with his fellow engineers or with Wellington) agreed with this approach.  (For Burgoyne’s doubts see his journal for 7 Aug 1813 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 273-4).

The final decision seems not to have been taken until 7 August, for Burgoyne records in his journal under that date: ‘The proposal sent in to Lord Wellington for continuing the siege is to persevere on the same plan enlarged; that is, to add more guns to the old breaching batteries, continue to enlarge the old breach right and left, and from a powerful battery in the gorge of the French redoubt, to endeavour to continue the breach round the main front, by laying open the adjoining demi-bastion and the end of the curtain above it.’ (Burgoyne’s journal 7 Aug 1813 Wrottesley Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 273).

Wellington and the Engineers:

Wellington was not particularly happy with Fletcher at this time.  During the first siege, he had warned Graham about the incessant demands of the engineers for soldiers to carry stores and work in the trenches: ‘Sir R. Fletcher and Col. Dickson appear to be worse than usual in their demands for working parties; and unless they are forced to use the animals and carts at their disposal, whenever they can be used, they will work your men to death.  I have known Col. Fletcher demand hundreds of men whom he could not use; and I am quite certain that much of the carriage of ordnance stores from Pasajes might be done with mules and carts.’  (Wellington to Graham 9 am 22 July 1813 WP 1/373 printed in WD VI p 618-9 with many deletions.  See also same to same 16 July 1813 WP 1/ 373 (WD VI p 600-1). And in the course of the second siege he expressed strong disapproval of Fletcher’s intention to use howitzers and mortars to inflict ‘general annoyance’ on the garrison, which would inevitably harm the town’s civilian population, rather than purely military objectives such as impending French troops working on interior defences, or bombarding the castle. (Wellington to Graham 10½ am 23rd and 24 Aug 1813 WP 1/373 both printed with deletions in WD VI p 704-6, 707).

Progress of the siege:

On 26 August 1813 the siege batteries opened fire with 63 heavy guns on San Sebastian.  The French artillery in the fortress was soon silenced, although the governor had prudently withdrawn and hidden a few pieces which would only be brought into action when the allies made their inevitable attempt to storm the walls.  Rey had used his month of quiet to strengthen his interior defences, and if these were carried he intended to continue the struggle in the streets of the town, rather than at once falling back to the castle.  Wellington visited the siege and ordered the construction of a new battery closer to the walls of the land side, which proved very effective. (Jones Journal of the Sieges vol 2 p 60-61).

Volunteering for the storm of San Sebastian:

Mark Urban (Rifles 226-7 and n) has some interesting comments on this, noting none of the most experienced officers of the 95th volunteered and suggesting a degree of weariness.  This is a good point although the range of contemporary evidence (e.g. Hennell’s letters in A Gentleman Volunteer) makes it clear that the enthusiasm and push to be included was genuine.

That even the call for volunteers was regarded as a disgrace for the Fifth Division is made clear by Larpent Private Journal p 248 and Capt Cairnes in Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 1032-33).

Frederick Robinson notes that his men endured terrible conditions in the siege and were most anxious that San Sebastian not be allowed to capitulate before they stormed it (‘Peninsular Brigadier’ p 164).

Comments on the Second Siege of San Sebastian:

Edward Pakenham commented:

My Lord Wellington has been very kind in giving credit to Graham for this operation, but I really think it has been the worst conducted from the beginning to the end of any military undertaking which has come under my observation.  The batteries in the first instance were too distant and feeble, the assault was undecided and failed, the means of ammunition to increase the Breach were insufficient, the waiting for supply gave the Enemy time to retrench; the Naval means were so insufficient to form the blockade, the Garrison communicated every night with St Jean de Luce [sic], got in supplies, and sent away wounded, and in short nothing but ultimate success has removed us from discredit.’  (Pakenham to Longford 11 September 1813 Pakenham Letters p 223).

Charles Colville criticized the little use of mortars and other indirect fire to damage the interior defences (Colville Portrait of a General p 141).  However Wellington explicitly authorized their use in such a way, while expressing his scepticism as to its effectiveness.  (Wellington to Graham 23 August 1813 WP 1/375 printed with deletions in WD VI p 704-6).

Dickson explicitly denies that Graham’s decision to order the British batteries to open fire when the assault had stalled caused allied casualties, but this is simply not credible given the number of allied casualties on and around the breaches (Dickson Manuscripts vol 5 p 992-3).

Wellington, Burgoyne and the Castle of San Sebastian:

Wrottesley tells an interesting story:

 On this occasion Lord Wellington asked Colonel Burgoyne how he proposed to obtain possession of the castle.  He replied by explaining the measures in progress, which consisted in the erection of additional batteries, so as to bring a conveying fire upon the castle from both sides of the river and harbor, and thus force the garrison to surrender.  Lord Wellington, who always wished to know what the next step would be if the measures contemplated did not produce the desired result, then asked him, “But if the garrison don’t surrender, what then?”  Colonel Burgoyne found it difficult to answer this question, for the castle hill was all rock, and approaches by sap or mine were impracticable.  He was forced therefore to confess that there was no resource left but to continue the cannonade, and to storm the castle by open force if the garrison did not surrender; but he added, he was convinced they would surrender; it was impossible to believe that they could sustain such a fire in so small a compass.  The event proved that his reasoning was correct; but the question was characteristic of Lord Wellington, and puzzled him for the moment.  (Wrottesley’s Life of Burgoyne vol 1 p 283n).

Perhaps Wellington was just growing sceptical of the promises of his engineers!

Soult’s last attempt to relieve San Sebastian: San Marcial and Vera, 31 August 1813

Soult’s army had not recovered in numbers or morale from his earlier defeat, but French pride and esprit de corps demanded that Rey’s gallant men not be left to their fate without some further attempt to rescue them.  Soult’s plan was necessarily more modest than in July.  A direct advance across the Bidassoa, combined with a turning movement by Vera, was as much as he could hope to accomplish.  The one source of encouragement for the French was that the Bidassoa continued to be held by the Spanish Army of Galicia.

Wellington was aware of a shift of French forces to the west, and it was not hard to guess that Soult would attempt another advance.  He alerted his troops, moved some of his reserves closer to the threatened point, and ordered the units further inland to prepare to mount demonstrations to alarm the French for the safety of their flank.  Dawn on 31 August was hazy and Soult’s troops were able to cross the Bidassoa virtually unopposed.  General Freyre formed the three divisions of the Army of Galicia on the ridge of San Marcial some way back from the river while the British First Division held the town of Irun on their left.  About 9 o’clock Soult ordered his leading troops to attack the Spanish position.  They did so, but were driven back with relative ease.  A second larger attack was mounted around noon, and had some temporary success before it too was repulsed. The French fell back in disorder and heavy rain in the afternoon prevented any further fighting on this front.  The Army of Galicia had suffered 1,679 casualties while the French had lost about 2,500 (Oman vol 7, p 37-49).

The turning movement was no more successful and almost ended in a major disaster for the French.  Clausel forded the river around Vera, a few miles upstream of San Marcial, but with very rough country in between.  From the outset he was worried about his eastern flank and used two of his four divisions to guard against an allied counter-attack from this direction, leaving only two for his own attack.  The two advancing divisions succeeded in driving back the two brigades of the Fourth Division (Miller’s Portuguese and Inglis’s British brigades) after some very sharp fighting (Inglis lost over 300 casualties in his brigade alone).  This resistance cost the French their momentum, and before Clausel could follow up his hard won success, he received word from Soult that the main attack had failed and that he should withdraw.  The storm now broke plunging the countryside into darkness and the upper reaches of the river were soon in full spate.  The French divisions took time to find their way back to the fords and as the leading brigades struggled across the turbulent water, it became clear that those still on the allied bank were trapped.  The only possible escape for the four brigades south of the Bidassoa was to force their way across the bridge at Vera, even though this was held by a company of the 95th Rifles.  If Wellington had known of the French dilemma he could easily have moved troops to block the bridge but the same darkness and poor weather that had led the French astray concealed their plight.  General Skerret, commanding a brigade of the Light Division, refused to reinforce the picquet despite urgent entreaties, and so the French finally secured their retreat shortly before dawn on 1 September, although not without suffering about 200 casualties at the hands of the riflemen. Skerret was bitterly reproached in many memoirs for his lack of initiative – if nothing worse – but the position was so confused and the weather so bad that it is hard to blame him for being cautious.  Wellington did not do so, and it is not even clear if he understood the opportunity that had been missed, even after the event. (Oman vol 7 p 49-57; Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith p 119-124; Fortescue  vol 9 p 370-1).

The Spanish at San Marcial:

Hew Ross wrote home on 19 September 1813:

   The conduct of the Spaniards under General Freyer [sic], on the 31st, has been particularly gratifying to the army, as it has not been the practice to indulge the Gallician army with much of our confidence; they have now claimed it for us, from they defended their position most gallantly during the whole day against repeated attacks of a very superior force of the enemy, and several times employed the bayonet.  (Ross to Sir Hew Dalrymple 10 September 1813 Memoir of Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross p 47).

And Lowry Cole wrote home:

The principal share fell to the Spanish army, who behaved admirably.  I was close to them and saw the whole of it.  I have seldom seen more gallantry.  This gives me particular satisfaction, as it takes away one of the principal arguments from the Croakers who used to say they would never be any good.  (Cole to Lady Grantham, 4 September 1813 Memoirs of Cole p 99-100).

Compare this contemporary evidence to Wellington’s later, and most ungenerous conversation, recorded by Stanhope in 1837 (Conversations p 106-7).

Sunday. – After dinner the Duke conversed at some length on the inefficiency and failures of the Spanish armies in his time; he gave several instances.  “At San Marcial, in front of Irun, I had placed the Spanish troops in a position known all over that country for its strength, and I put a body of our own troops on each side of them.  Yet even in that position they could not stand.  When I rode up to them in the morning, I found them all running away.  Hollo, I said, what can be the reason for this?  The men didn’t know what to answer.  Some of them said, There is one of our officers wounded, and we must run and take care of him; and certainly they still continued to run.  However, I had with me two or three orderly dragoons, and I sent one of them on to Irun, to which they were running, with orders to the governor to shut the gates.  The dragoon got there first, and the gates were shut.  In that way I stopped them, and by degrees got them back to their position; and meanwhile the inherent strength of the position had kept the French off.  The same evening late, as I was sitting on a rock watching what was going on among the enemy opposite, a fellow came up to me – one of their officers – and said he was desired by their General to tell me ‘twas impossible they could hold out any longer, and requesting I would send my troops to assist them.  I looked through my glass, and I observed that the French were already in movement to retreat.  I pointed this out to my friend.  Why, he said, they do seem to be going.  Well, then, I said, had not you better keep your position a little longer and gain the honour of the day rather than give up the post to our troops?  They did as I advised, and now I see in their reports that they claimed this as one of their greatest victories!”

       But then, Sir, said Lord Verulam, the Spanish troops can have been of no use at all?

“Why, by putting them in third lines and fourth lines we made them something, or at least made the French think them something.

“The men are all very fine fellows; but the officers have no knowledge or discipline – no lo se is the answer on every occasion.”

Wellington and Croker:

Wellington’s comments to Pole show real resentment:

    I am by no means pleased [with the ministers] … [for] their having allowed their Secretary of the Admiralty to blackguard me in an Official Letter nearly in the same language & using the same topicks as he did Lord Cochrane in the House of Commons.  This may do very well in the House of Commons, & let him take that Stage if he likes, & we shall see whether he or my friends will have the best of it; but I have told Lord Bathurst that an officer serving abroad ought not to be so treated in an Official letter only because he reports what he believes to be facts & makes known his wishes to the Secretary of State.’  (Wellington to Pole 24 September 1813 Raglan Papers Wellington A no 59).

Of course (as I pointed out in Britain and the Defeat of Napoleon p 278) Wellington may have exaggerated his ill-humour in writing to Pole so as to discourage Pole’s solicitations for assistance in getting back into cabinet; still it is an interesting example of Wellington’s indiscretion that he would write so freely to a brother whose political alignment was uncertain at the time, and it seems likely that the letter would be shown around London (and that Wellington knew that it would be) as a way of influencing opinion against Croker and the Admiralty.

Wellington’s ill-humour with the British government:

Wellington even went so far as to tell Pole that he thought that Lords Melville and Mulgrave deserved to lose their jobs (Wellington to Pole 18 August Wellington A no 57).   Both were in cabinet, Melville as First Lord of the Admiralty, Mulgrave as Master-General of the Ordnance.

Wellington was never the most patient of men, and he was always inclined to vent his grievances in the most inflammatory language, but it is possible that by the autumn of 1813 he was beginning to tire, having been on active service in the Peninsula for four-and-a-half years.

Wellington and Collier:

In June 1814 Wellington gave some support to Collier’s claim for a baronetcy, telling Bathurst ‘I have only to say in regard to Sir G. Collier, that he manifested the greatest zeal upon all occasions; and that, in my opinion, he did every thing which it was possible for any other man to do with the naval means which were placed at his disposed.’  (Wellington to Bathurst, Bordeaux, 11 June 1814 WD VII p 513).   However  at the time Wellington was much more critical, while John Fremantle told his uncle ‘Sir George Collier they say is going home, which we are very glad of, for he does not do at all.  I dare say he will be succeeded by an admiral.’ (John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Vera, 25 October 1813 Fremantle Wellington’s Voice p 160-1).


The army was plentifully supplied with specie in the summer of 1813, so much so that in August Wellington was able to pay his non-commissioned officers and men a day’s pay each day.  He commented that this should lead to an improvement in their conduct as, ‘Many of their outrages are certainly to be attributed to the want of money.’ (Wellington to Bathurst 9 Aug 1813 WD VI p 670).  Large arrears of back pay remained of course, but the flow of ready money helped improve morale and discipline, while easing relations with the local population.  The supply of cash lasted into the autumn and it was not until late September that Wellington again felt that the lack of money was becoming a problem (Wellington to Bathurst 21 Nov and 8 Dec 1813 WD VII p 150-1, 189).   Around the turn of the year this became serious, before again being relieved.   Far from being criticized, the government deserves great credit for its extraordinary, and largely successful, efforts to maintain the supply at a time when there was shortages and great demand across all of Europe and beyond.


The flow of gold was matched by a flow of reinforcements which kept Wellington’s army up to strength throughout the second half of the year.  These included a whole new brigade of infantry (76th, 2/84th and 85th) which was placed under Lord Aylmer and which always operated with the First Division, although it was never made part of it.  But even more valuable was the steady stream of recruits sent out to join battalions already serving in the army, who quickly learnt their duty from the veterans and who in turn reduced the danger that experienced battalions would become stale and jaded.  ‘Combat fatigue’ could take the edge off even the best units, and there came a point when naïve exuberance was needed more than further experience.  By the late autumn of 1813 there were signs that a few of Wellington’s best regiments were beginning to deteriorate rather than improve. Nonetheless the army as a whole was in excellent spirits and full of confidence.  (For some fragmentary evidence that some parts of the allied army were beginning to show signs of combat fatigue see Alexander Life of Field Marshall His Grace the Duke of Wellington vol 1 p 393 and sources quoted there; also comments of Mark Urban on signs of battle stress in the 95th posted on the Napoleonic Discussion Forum on 22 and 23 December 2004 – see also Urban Rifles p 237-8, 239).

The Portuguese Army:

‘Lord Wellington, talking of the Portuguese, said that it was extraordinary just now, to observe their conduct; that no troops could behave better; that they never had now a notion of turning; and that nothing could equal their forwardness now, and willing, ready tempers.’  (Larpent Private Journal 21 July 1813 p 196).

‘Nothing can look better than the condition of the Portuguese troops.  They are cleaner than our men; or look so, at least.  They are better clothed now by far, for they have taken the best care of their clothes; they are much gayer, and have an air, and a je ne sais quoi, particularly the Caçadores both the officers and private men, quite new in a Portuguese.’  (Larpent Private Jouranl 23 August 1813 p 241).

Wellington and the Spanish government in 1813:

Evidence for Wellington’s hostility to the Spanish liberales (‘the jacobin party’) and contempt for the inflammatory role of the press, can be found in Wellington to Bathurst 29 June and 12 July 1813 WD VI p 559-60, 594-5 and Bathurst to Wellington 23 June 1813 WSD vol 8 p 16-18.   This even led him to flirt with the idea that Britain should play an active part in seeking to change the government, but, on second thoughts, he wisely back-pedaled.

This probably amounted to nothing more than Wellington indulging himself in a good grizzle (e.g. Wellington to Bathurst 21 April 1813 WD VI p 437-8 and to Henry Wellesley 4 May 1813 WD VI p 464-5).  But it, and reports from Henry Wellesley, first alarmed Bathurst (Bathurst to Wellington 5 May 1813 WSD vol 7 p 616-17) and then led to his suggestion – presumably serious – that Wellington use force to intervene in Spanish politics (Bathurst to Wellington 23 June 1813 WSD vol 8 p 16-18) – although the remark is made almost in passing in a rather speculative letter.  See also his more considered and tentative letter of 14 July 1813 (WP 1/372) in which Bathurst asks Wellington’s opinion.  Wellington toys with a decided line – withdrawing aid, not using force – in his letters of 29 June WD VI p 559-60, but on 12 July comes out firmly against active interference which would only arouse jealously (WD VI p 594-5).  Yet Wellington became almost willing to consider the idea in the autumn – Esdaile Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Armies p 155.

It is interesting that this nadir of relations occurred so early – June and July – long before San Sebastian, and the subsequent outcry in Cadiz.  Yet it may not really amount to very much except that Wellington got carried away in his grumbling and was taken by surprise when Bathurst took him up on it.  It would have been quite different if Wellington had advocated using force to overthrow the Spanish government and had been prevented from doing so by the ministers.

Wellington and Spanish libels over the sack of San Sebastian:

 ‘I never saw such a libel as in the Duende.  If it is published in England, I shall prosecute the printer …

‘I don’t know how long my temper will last; but I was never so much disgusted with anything as with this libel’ and I don’t know whether the conduct of the soldiers in plundering San Sebastian, or the libels of the Xefe Politicco and Duende, made me most angry.’  (Wellington to Henry Wellesley, 11 October 1813, WD VII p 55).

Corporal John Douglas of the Royal Scots reports extreme hostility and a near riot at Pasajes in the aftermath of the sack (Douglas’s Tale of the Peninsula and Waterloo p 87-8).

And in the following May Admiral Lord Keith told Wellington that ‘several attempts had been made to set the ships [at Pasajes] on fire by throwing combustibles from the windows into them.  In so confined a space the consequences would be dreadful.’  (Keith to Wellington 16 May 1814 WSD vol 9 p 79).

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© Rory Muir

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