The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1813 Vitoria, Pyrenees, Roncesvalles Pass, Maya Pass, Sorauren, Bidassoa, La Grande Rhune, Arcangues,

River Nivelle, St Pierre d'Irube

The French had 200,000 men in northern Spain and were well placed to be able to concentrate their forces against the allies. They held the line of the Douro between Zamora and Valladolid and expected Wellington to approach from the south. He chose otherwise and instead planned a wide sweep to the north, moving his supply base from Lisbon to Santander. He organised diversionary attacks by the Spanish guerrillas in the north and a sea-borne assault on the Mediterranean coast at Tarragona. He sent General Hill with a large force to Salamanca whilst the main force of 60,000 troops went via the north under General Graham. Wellington’s objective was Zamora and he launched the operation on 22nd May.


On 26th May Hill captured Salamanca and next day the French abandoned Madrid. Three days later Wellington joined Graham who captured Zamora on 2nd June. The French withdrew to Burgos and Wellington bypassed it to the north. The French withdrew again, blowing up the castle as they left and injuring some of their own troops in the process. They tried to make their next stand on the line of the River Ebro but Graham managed to turn this and Joseph's next stand was made at Vitoria with his reduced force of 60,000 against Wellington's 79,000.

Pass of Puebla

Vitoria is approached from the southwest via the Pass of Puebla with the Heights of Puebla to the east and Monte Arrato to the west. The River Zadorra flows east-west on the west of the plain in a wide curve.

Heights of Puebla

Monte Arrato

Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

The French armies were deployed with the main force of four and a half divisions blocking the route through the Puebla Pass. A brigade was positioned forward, three divisions blocked the plain between the Zadorra and the Heights of La Puebla with a division in reserve behind them. A second line was formed with two infantry divisions and just 500 cavalry guarding three key bridges near the prominent bend in the Zadorra, where the river was shallow but with steep banks forming a significant obstacle. Further troops were deployed to face the road to Vitoria from the north. This deployment on 21st June meant the French forces were back-to-back six miles apart with a weak reserve force of 3,000 men in their centre.


Wellington organised his army into four columns. Graham’s corps of 20,000 men was to march around Monte Arrato high ground to advance down the road from Bilbao and cut the road from Vitoria to Bayonne. Hill’s corps on the right was to force the Puebla defile. On his left was Wellington with the main force to advance along the north bank of the Zadorra, cross it via the key bridges, Nancleres, Villodas and Tres Puentes and attack the French in the rear. The fourth and left-centre corps under Lieutenant General Lord Dalhousie was to advance over the western shoulder of Monte Arrato, take the last bridge east of the bend, Mendoza, and act as a link between Wellington’s and Graham’s respective columns. At best Wellington’s plan could destroy Joseph’s army or at least succeed in routing it.


New and old bridges at Nancleres

Bridge at Villodas

River Zadorra from the knoll above the Tres Puentes bridge

The Tres Puentes bridge

The attack began at 0800 hours with hard fighting and success on the Heights of La Puebla with the French being drawn into reinforcing the southern approaches. A similar hard fight was anticipated for Wellington's column at Nancleres and Villodas when it was reported that the bridge at Tres Puentes was intact. Although Dalhousie's column had not yet appeared Wellington seized the opportunity and the Light Division took and crossed the bridge with little resistance.


Picton, held back by Dalhousie, now lost patience on seeing the action and launched 3 Division to take the Mendoza bridge and exploit the crossing. The attack continued overall and the key Hill of Arinez, the main stay of the French defence, was taken by 1500 hours. As the remaining Allied divisions pressed all along the French right flank their defence collapsed. King Joseph ordered their retreat at 1700 hours but by then all was lost.

The Hill of Arinez

The French command crumbled and Wellington launched Major General Alten’s Hussar Brigade into Vitoria which caused complete panic and chaos. In the north two divisions had held Graham’s attack which enabled thousands of French troops to escape. Nevertheless, they left a complete siege train in Vitoria together with much treasure which fuelled the troops’ ensuing plunder. Looting and exhaustion were the two main factors for an unsuccessful pursuit but those who got away were in total disorder and suffered major material losses.


The French had 8,000 casualties and the Allies just over 5,100, (British 3,675, Portuguese 921, Spanish 562). Vitoria ensured the end of the French occupation of Spain and was celebrated across Europe.

Pyrenees, Roncesvalles Pass, Maya Pass, Sorauren

A furious Napoleon now relieved his brother Joseph of command and on 12th July appointed Marshal Soult as overall commander. Three actions followed between 25th July and 1st August which are referred to together as the Battle of the Pyrenees. However before Wellington could cross the Pyrenees and march into France he had to deal with the defended towns of Pamplona and San Sebastian, on his right and left flanks respectively.

Roncesvalles Pass

In this region watch out for changes in place names and names written in Basque.


Wellington blockaded Pamplona and moved his siege train to San Sebastián. Soult was planning a counter-offensive having suspected that Wellington had over-extended himself with only 60,000 allied troops to defend over 50 miles of frontier between the two fortified towns.


The main routes allowing Soult artillery and logistic movements through the western mountains were Roncesvalles, Maya and the coast at Irun. His plan was to force the first two passes and relieve Pamplona, then make contact with Marshal Suchet to the south-east before marching north to San Sebastián hoping Wellington, who expected him to attempt to relieve San Sebastián via the coastal route, would raise the siege and withdraw.

Maya Pass

Mount Alcorrunz

Soult launched two attacks at dawn on 25th July through the Roncesvalles and Maya passes to Pamplona. The attack at Roncesvalles was made by 40,000 men on the positions being held by 13,000 men of 4 Division under Lieutenant General Sir Lowry Cole. They put up a stubborn resistance with fighting continuing until about 1600 hours when a thick fog descended. The French were still a mile from the pass but fearing encirclement Cole withdrew his force back along the road to Pamplona.

The English road - which joins the pass from the east

Looking south into Spain from the Maya Pass

While the action at Roncesvalles was taking place a French corps of 20,000 men attacked the Maya pass. The main road from France to Pamplona ran through this pass and its defence depends upon keeping control of the broad grassy ridge between two dominant peaks. It was guarded by 2 Division, under Lieutenant General Stewart, with two brigades astride the road, one of them badly deployed.


The attackers were seen forming up at 0600 hours and reinforcements were rapidly moved forward to the weaker eastern flank. The attack came in at 1000 hours with 7,000 French infantry against less than 500 defenders. They held out for 40 minutes before being overwhelmed. Further reinforcements and a series of counter-attacks were to no avail. As they fell back another French division advanced up the road and overran the brigade on the west side by 1630 hours. The road to Pamplona was threatened but more reinforcements and steady musketry volleys halted any further French advance but they were unable to retake the pass.


Allied casualties for the day totalled 1,500 and French casualties 2,000.


Wellington did not receive a report of the battles until the following evening on 26th July but was not unperturbed as he expected to be able to hold the French to the north-east. The next morning though he learnt that further withdrawals had been made and too much defendable territory had been given away. Wellington rode to Sorauren to take command himself. En route he was shot at by French dragoons who came upon him when he was on the bridge over the River Ulzama (previously the Lanz) at Sorauren writing orders. Having escaped he was then recognised by Portuguese troops who, joined by the British, sent up such cheering along the line that French morale plummeted when they realised who was in command.

The bridge at Sorauren where Wellington was nearly captured as he wrote his orders

The Allied army of 20,000 men were deployed on a steep ridge south-east of the village and running east to west for about 1½ miles. Soult’s 35,000 troops were in position on an opposite ridge to the north. About two miles behind the Allied ridge there was another ridge with 3 Division and two Spanish divisions. Troops on the ridge at Sorauren were joined by 6 Division on 28th July after a delay due to bad weather.

The French attack did not come until 1230 hours on 28th July but it had a numerical superiority of 2:1. Hard fighting continued until 1630 hours with the allies' line tactics and bayonet charges successfully driving back repeated French attacks. The French suffered about 4,000 casualties and the allies over 2,600. Both armies remained in position on their respective ridges on 29th July and after getting some artillery up on the forward ridge Wellington attacked on 30th July. The French were driven back with heavy losses and Soult withdrew his army into France.

The east-west ridge to the south-west of the village

The French abandoned Pamplona which held out until 23rd October but an attack on San Marcial above San Sebastian was planned. Wellington anticipated Soult attacking along the coast through Irun to relieve the fortress at San Sebastian and had prepared his defences accordingly. The Bidassoa runs for five miles through the steep Gorge of Bidassoa before slowing down from level ground around Vera and in a wide three miles estuary where the river could be forded in places. A long ridge runs parallel to and one mile south of the river which virtually blocks the road to San Sebastian and Wellington built his defence on this with two Spanish divisions. The Light Division was deployed at Vera, should the French try to cross there, and diversionary operations were launched around Maya at dawn on 31st August, the day scheduled for the assault on San Sebastian. Soult's bold attack failed and ended with a Spanish victory on 31st August. They lost 1,679 men but caused 2,500 French casualties. The city fell that day after two fierce and bloody assaults in which the allies lost 856 men killed and had 1520 wounded. So many officers were killed that the subsequent sacking of San Sebastian was uncontrollable and became even more notorious than Badajoz.


River Bidassoa

As the French started across the Bidassoa in the early hours of 31st August they were observed by the Light Division at Vera. When a Portuguese brigade in the diversion at Maya got a bit too enthusiastic the French commander diverted one of his division’s to deal with the Light Division and got little further during the rest of the morning. In the afternoon Soult, recognising the whole operation had failed, ordered the commander to withdraw back to Vera. This was not so easy as there was heavy rain that morning and by afternoon the Bidassoa was a torrent and 6 feet deeper at the fords. About 10,000 men were stranded on the allies’ side of the river. They searched for a crossing and found a small stone bridge near Vera which was held by 80 men of the 95th (The Rifle Regiment) under Captain Cadoux

The small bridge near Vera

Captain Cadoux and his men fought the French division for two hours inflicting over 200 casualties which included the death of the divisional commander. Sadly no support was forthcoming and they were eventually overwhelmed. Cadoux was killed.

The memorial to Captain Daniel Cadoux

La Grande Rhune

For Soult the whole operation had failed, the French troops were dispirited and their morale plummeted. Soult was now on the defensive and faced Wellington on a wide front from St Jean Pied de Port on his left to the sea on his right with difficult mountains in between. He anticipated, at worst, that Wellington would attack his left flank to surround him, cut his line of communications and drive him into the sea. He could not withdraw any further because he would need Napoleon’s authority to cede French territory and that was distinctly unlikely. Soult therefore got on with building redoubts and other defences as quickly as possible. Expecting Wellington’s attack to come via the Maya Pass and down to St Jean de Luz he deployed his troops across this broad front.


Wellington was ready to continue his advance by the end of September and, realising Soult's wide defence, concentrated his 44,000 men to launch his attack across the estuary in the west to Irun. This was Soult’s weakest area and he was unaware that the estuary was fordable at very low tides. Wellington knew of this and the favourable tide of 7th October fixed the date for the attack. A deception plan was made for an inland attack on the right about 5 miles to the south-east. The main assault would be done by 1 and 5 Divisions with a Spanish Brigade and nine Portuguese battalions whilst the Light Division, with two Spanish divisions in support, had the task of capturing the Great Rhune.

La Grande Rhune

The fight for the Great Rhune was the tougher battle. Soult had two divisions in redoubts and other earthworks from the river back on to the mountain and the assault was a difficult climb. The Light Division advanced north-east from Vera and attacked up two spurs or ridges about 1½ miles apart. The Spanish division filled the gap and the left flank. Although the plan had been to isolate the peak rather than take it the assaults were so successful that it was overrun.

The Light Division's approach route

At Fuenterrabia (Hondarrabia) 5 Division started at 0725 hours and waded the 500 yards of the River Bidassoa with three batteries of artillery in support. They reached the other side safely, albeit uncomfortably crutch-wet, saw off the sentries, contended with some skirmishers and quickly secured Hendaye. One brigade then went straight ahead whilst the other two veered south to deal with the French on their right.


1 Division stepped off at 0800 hours and used the fords by the ruined bridge at Béhobie to cross the river. The KGL had some difficulties with fast flowing water up to their armpits and hardly noticed the incoming musket fire splashing around them. The defenders were soon overwhelmed and the French positions were taken by 1100 hours. With this success Wellington halted the advance. The Allies were now in France and Soult withdrew to the River Nivelle where he prepared a second line of defence.

Fuenterrabia (Hondarrabia) harour and estuary

After establishing the forward positions Wellington paused to resupply and consolidate and when Pamplona surrendered on 23rd October he was able to continue the advance. He was also anxious to get his troops off the higher positions before winter set in as snow was already falling at Roncesvalles.


River Nivelle


French morale was now very low and Soult was under pressure from the French Minister of War to re-enter Spain. He was more realistic and established a line of defence hoping to make it strong enough to deter an allied attack. He anticipated Wellington advancing on his seaward flank and built his line from just south-west of the River Nivelle at St Jean de Luz to St Jean Pied de Port just east of the Mont Monderrain massif. Soult’s strongest sector ran from the coast to Ascain where he put three divisions with a fourth in reserve whilst the rest of his line was held by five divisions. He put 23,000 men between the sea and the western side of the Lesser Rhune, a key ridge700 yards north and parallel to the Grande Rhune, 15,000 on the Lesser Rhune and east to the Nivelle, and 11,000 men between the river and Mont Monderrain.

'Looking down into France' from La Grande Rhune towards St Jean -de-Luz

Wellington studied the French deployment from the heights of the Grande Rhune and appreciated that they had over-reached themselves and were unbalanced with insufficient reserves. He had about 82,000 men against Soult’s 63,000. His plan for the battle of the River Nivelle was to engage the French across their complete front but to focus his attack with strength in the centre. From there they would be able to break through, swing towards the sea and encircle the French around the area of St Jean de Luz. He put 19,000 men in four divisions on the left and Hill with 26,000 men on the right. In the centre Beresford commanded 3, 4 and 7 Divisions, the Light Division and two Spanish divisions, a total of 36,000 men. Wellington and Beresford commanded from the Grande Rhune and H hour was at dawn on 10th November.


The battle started with the Light Division attacking the Lesser Rhune on the western side. The enemy was taken by surprise and there was fierce close quarter combat as they advanced through each defensive position to take the last one at 0800 hours. Nine divisions then advanced north-east on a five mile front to the river. Key positions were taken by 0900 hours with the strong Signal Redoubt on the Grande Rhune being taken by a ruse. After two unsuccessful attacks Colonel John Colborne raised a flag of truce, met the French commander and pointed out that they were surrounded by Spanish troops and suggested they surrendered immediately. The French fear of becoming prisoners of the Spanish was enough and their commander handed his sword to Colborne. By noon all the redoubts had been taken and the French were trying, unsuccessfully, to rally on the north side of the river.

Signal Point

In the west the advancing batteries put fire down on Urrugne and after a short exchange the allies were able to move in and take up defensive positions. Similar action occurred at Socorri. In the east Hill’s divisions advanced up the tough Harismendia ridge but took the redoubts with little trouble. As the allies crossed the river Soult evacuated St Jean and withdrew to a position covering Bayonne. He had lost 69 guns with 4,444 casualties including 1,250 prisoners. Wellington’s losses were 2,625. In his view it was his best set piece attack and executed well.


Wellington advanced to Bayonne where Soult had fortified old city defences with earthworks in the two sectors from the sea on his right to the River Nive, and from its east bank to the River Adour. The ground south of Bayonne was interlaced with streams and sodden after heavy downpours which delayed the operation until 9th December. Spanish units had been left in Spain and the two sides were now almost even with 62,500 French to the allies 63,500. In order to attack Wellington had to split his troops either side of the Nive to approach from the south east and cut Soult’s lines of communications to the French interior. Soult held the east bank of the Nive as far as Cambo, albeit thinly but with interior lines he could deploy a main force swiftly to wherever it was needed either side of the Nive and had boats ready on the River Adour to do this.


The advance took three days using pontoon bridges and fighting a series of engagements. At one stage the allies were driven back three miles and in another engagement four divisions attacked the Light Division forcing a withdrawal to Arcangues where they came under fire from 12 French guns. Using the galleries of the church the riflemen picked off the gunners until their weapons were silenced. On the 10th three German battalions fighting for the French deserted to the allies. After further engagements Soult realised he was unlikely to get a decisive victory and stopped the operation on the 12th.

The Church used by Light Division sharpshooters

Memorial placed by a Victorian visitor

Galleries used by the riflemen to silence the French gunners

Soult now attacked Hill on the east side of the Nive on 13th December at St Pierre d'Irube. The ground provides a strong position between the Nive and the Adour at about three miles from Bayonne and is about three miles across. There were three possible approaches along three distinct ridges running east from Bayonne with swampy ground in between them. The attack came at 0800 hours across all three ridges and a desperate battle ensued with the allies losing 1,775 casualties and the French suffering over 3,000.

Views of the broad battlefield of St Pierre d'Irube from Croix de Mouguerre