hairpin curve

Battle of Vitoria

In the Battle of Vitoria (June 21 1813) General Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington, and his Portuguese and Spanish allies finally broke the French army, leading to eventual victory in the Peninsular War. Wellington's 105,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops, with 96 guns, defeated 60,000 French with 138 guns under King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan near Vitoria in Spain.

Background

In July 1812, after the Battle of Salamanca, the French had evacuated Madrid, which Wellington's army entered on August 12, 1812. Deploying three divisions to guard the capital's southern approaches, Wellington then marched north with the rest of his army to lay siege to the fortress of Burgos, away, but he had under-estimated the enemy's strength and on October 21 he had to abandon the Siege of Burgos and retreat. By October 31 he had abandoned Madrid too, and retreated first to Salamanca then finally to Ciudad Rodrigo, near the Portuguese frontier, to avoid encirclement by French armies from the north-east and south-east.

Wellington spent the winter reorganising and strengthening his forces. By contrast, Napoleon withdrew many French soldiers to rebuild his main army after his disastrous invasion of Russia. The following year, Wellington marched 121,000 troops (53,749 British, 39,608 Spanish, and 27,569 Portuguese) from northern Portugal across the mountains of northern Spain and the Esla river, by May 20, 1813, to outflank Marshal Jourdan's army of 68,000 who were strung out between the Douro and the Tagus. The French retreated to Burgos, with Wellington's forces marching hard to cut them off from the road to France. Wellington himself commanded the small central force in a strategic feint, while Sir Thomas Graham conducted the bulk of the army around the French right flank over landscape considered impassable.

Battle in a nutshell

Finally, Wellington launched his attack at Vitoria on June 21, in four columns. After hard fighting, Thomas Picton's 3rd Division broke the enemy's centre and soon the French defence crumbled. About 5,000 French soldiers were killed or wounded and 3,000 were taken prisoner, while Wellington's forces suffered about 5,000 killed or wounded. 152 cannons were captured, but King Joseph Bonaparte narrowly escaped. The battle led to the collapse of Napoleonic rule in Spain.

Terrain

The battlefield centers on the Zadorra River, which runs from east to west. As the Zadorra runs west, the river loops into a hairpin bend, finally swinging generally to the southwest. On the south of the battlefield are the Heights of La Puebla. To the northwest is the mass of Monte Arrato. Vitoria stands to the east, two miles (3 km) south of the Zadorra. Five roads radiate from Vitoria as follows, north to Bilbao, northeast to Salinas and Bayonne, east to Salvatierra, south to Logroño and west to Burgos on the south side of the Zadorra.

Plans

Jourdan was ill with a fever all day on June 20. Because of this, few orders were issued and the French forces stood idle. An enormous wagon train of booty clogged the streets of Vitoria. A convoy left Vitoria during the night, but it had to leave the siege artillery behind because there were not enough draft animals to pull the cannons.

Gazan's divisions guarded the narrow western end of the Zadorra valley, deployed south of the river. Maransin's brigade was posted in advance, at the village of Subijana. The divisions were disposed with Leval on the right, Daricau in the center, Conroux on the left and Villate in reserve. Only a picket guarded the western extremity of the Heights of La Puebla.

Further back, D'Erlon's force stood in a second line, also south of the river. D'Armagnac's division deployed on the right and Cassagne's on the left. D'Erlon failed to destroy three bridges near the river's hairpin curve and posted Avy's weak cavalry division to guard them. Reille's men originally formed a third line, but Sarrut's division was sent north of the river to guard the Bilbao road while Lamartinière's division and the Spanish Royal Guard units held the river bank.

Wellington directed Hill's 20,000-man Right Column to drive the French from the Zadorra defile on the south side of the river. While the French were preoccupied with Hill, Wellington's Right Centre column would move along the north bank of the river and cross the river near the hairpin bend behind the French right flank.

Graham's 20,000-man Right Column was sent around the north side of Monte Arrato. This force would drive down the Bilbao road, cutting off the bulk of the French army. Dalhousie's Left Centre column would cut across Monte Arrato and strike the river east of the hairpin, providing a link between Graham and Wellington.

Forces

British, Portuguese and Spanish French Army

  • Right Center Column (General the Marquess Wellington)
  • Right Column (Lieut-Gen. Rowland Hill)
    • 2nd Division (Lieut-Gen. William Stewart) (10,800)
    • Portuguese Division (Maj-Gen. Francisco Silveira) (5,300)
    • Spanish Division (Maj-Gen. Pablo Morillo) (4,600)
    • Cavalry
      • Light Cavalry Brigade (Maj-Gen. Victor Alten) (1,000)
      • Heavy Cavalry Brigade (Maj-Gen. Henry Fane) (800)
    • Artillery (Maj Joseph Carncross)
      • Beane's troop RHA
      • Maxwell's battery RA
      • Tulloh's 2 Portuguese batteries
  • Left Centre Column (Lieut-Gen. George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie)
  • Left Column (Lieut-Gen. Thomas Graham)
    • 1st Division (Maj-Gen. Kenneth Howard) (4,900)
    • 5th Division (Maj-Gen. John Oswald) (6,700)
    • Portuguese Independent Brigade (Maj-Gen. Denis Pack) (2,300)
    • Portuguese Independent Brigade (Maj-Gen. Thomas Bradford) (2,400)
    • Spanish Division (Col. Francisco Longa) (3,100)
    • Cavalry
      • Light Cavalry Brigade (George Anson) (800)
      • Heavy Cavalry Brigade (George Bock) (600)
    • Artillery
      • Dubordieu's battery RA
      • Lawson's battery RA
    • Reserve Artillery (Lieut-Col. Julius Hartmann)
      • Webber-Smith's troop RHA
      • Parker's battery RA
      • Arriaga's Portuguese battery

Distributed among the four columns, the Allied army had 4,300 gunners
plus 900 engineers, wagoneers and support troops.

  • Army of the South (Maj-Gen. Honoré Gazan)
    • 1st Division (Maj-Gen. Leval) (4,700)
    • 3rd Division (Maj-Gen. Eugene-Casimir Villatte) (5,700)
    • 4th Division (Maj-Gen. Nicholas Conroux) (6,400)
    • 6th Division (Maj-Gen. Daricau) (5,700)
    • 1st Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Pierre Soult) (1,500)
    • 2nd Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Tilly) (1,900)
    • 3rd Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Digeon) (1,700)
    • Artillery, Engineers, support troops (2,400)
  • Army of the Centre (Maj-Gen. Jean-Baptiste Drouet D'Erlon)
    • 1st Division (Maj-Gen. D'Armagnac) (4,500)
    • 2nd Division (Maj-Gen. Cassagne) (5,200) on loan from Army of the South
    • 1st Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Anne François Treilliard) (1,000)
    • 2nd Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Avy) (500)
    • Artillery, Engineers, support troops (800)
  • Army of Portugal (Maj-Gen. Honoré Reille)
    • 4th Division (Maj-Gen. Sarrut) (4,800)
    • 6th Division (Maj-Gen. Lamartinière) (6,500)
    • 1st Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Julien Mermet) (1,800)
    • 2nd Cavalry Division (Maj-Gen. Pierre Boyer) (1,500)
    • Artillery, Engineers and support troops (2,500)
  • Army of the North
    • Mixed detachment (800)
  • King Joseph's Spanish Army
    • (French) Royal Guard (Maj-Gen Guy)

(2,300 infantry, 400 cavalry)

  • (Spanish) Troops of the Line (Gen. Casapalacios)

(2,100 infantry, 700 cavalry and 100 gunners)

Battle

Coming up the Burgos road, Hill sent Morillo's Division to the right on a climb up the Heights of La Puebla. Stewart's 2nd Division began deploying to the left in the narrow plain just south of the river. Seeing these moves, Gazan sent Maransin forward to drive Morillo off the heights. Hill moved Col. Henry Cadogan's brigade of the 2nd Division to assist Morillo. Gazan responded by committing Villatte's reserve division to the battle on the heights.

About this time, Gazan first spotted Wellington's column moving north of the Zadorra to turn his right flank. He asked Jourdan, now recovered from his fever, for reinforcements. Having become obsessed with the safety of his left flank, the marshal refused to help Gazan. Instead, he ordered some of D'Erlon's troops to guard the Logroño road.

Wellington thrust James Kempt's brigade of the Light Division across the Zadorra at the hairpin. At the same time, Stewart took Subijana and was counterattacked by two of Gazan's divisions. On the heights, Cadogan was killed, but the Anglo-Spanish force managed to hang on to their foothold. Wellington suspended his attacks to allow Graham's column time to make an impression and a lull descended on the battlefield.

At noon, Graham's column appeared on the Bilbao road. Jourdan immediately realized he was in danger of envelopment and ordered Gazan to pull back toward Vitoria. Graham drove Sarrut's division back across the river, but could not force his way across the Zadorra despite bitter fighting. Farther east, Longa's Spanish troops defeated the Spanish Royal Guards and cut the road to Bayonne.

With some help from Kempt's brigade, Picton's 3rd Division from Dalhousie's column crossed to the south side of the river. Cole's 4th Division crossed farther west. With Gazan on the left and D'Erlon on the right, the French attempted a stand at the village of Arinez. Formed in a menacing line, the 4th, Light, 3rd and 7th Divisions soon captured this position. The French fell back to the Zuazo ridge, covered by their well-handled and numerous field artillery. This position also fell to Wellington's attack when Gazan refused to cooperate with his colleague D'Erlon.

Soon, French morale collapsed and the soldiers of Gazan and D'Erlon ran for it. Artillerists left their guns behind as they fled on the trace horses. Soon the road was jammed with a mass of wagons and carriages. The efforts of Reille's two divisions, holding off Graham, allowed tens of thousands of French troops to escape by the Salvatierra road.

Aftermath

The Anglo-Allied army lost about 5,000 men. By nationality, there were 3,675 British, 921 Portuguese and 562 Spanish casualties. French losses totaled at least 5,200 killed and wounded, plus 2,800 men and 151 cannon captured. By army, the losses were South 4,300, Centre 2,100 and Portugal 1,600. There were no casualty returns from the Royal Guard or the artillery.

French losses were not higher for several reasons. First, the Allied army had already marched that morning and was in no condition to pursue. Second, Reille's men valiantly held off Graham's column. Third, the valley by which the French retreated was narrow and well-covered by the 3rd Hussar and the 15th Dragoon Regiments acting as rearguard. Last, the French left their booty behind.

Many British soldiers turned aside to plunder the abandoned French wagons, containing "the loot of a kingdom". It is estimated that over one million pounds of booty (perhaps £100 million in modern equivalence) was seized, but the gross abandonment of discipline caused an enraged Wellington to write in a dispatch to Earl Bathurst, "We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers". The British general also vented his fury on a new cavalry regiment, writing, "The 18th Hussars are a disgrace to the name of soldier, in action as well as elsewhere; and I propose to draft their horses from them and send the men to England if I cannot get the better of them in any other manner." (On April 8, 1814, the 18th redeemed their reputation in a gallant charge at Croix d'Orade, shortly before the Battle of Toulouse.)

Order was soon restored, and by December, after detachments had seized San Sebastián and Pamplona, Wellington's army was encamped in France.

The battle was the inspiration for Beethoven's Opus 91, often called the "Battle Symphony," or simply "Wellington's Victory", which portrays the battle in a form of a musical drama.

Notes

References

  • Gates, David. The Spanish Ulcer: A History of the Peninsular War. Da Capo Press 2001. ISBN 0-306-81083-2
  • Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-141-39041-7
  • Smith, Digby. The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill, 1998. ISBN 1-85367-276-9
  • .

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