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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Vitoria

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Battle of Vitoria: Date & Conflict:

The Battle of Vitoria was fought June 21, 1813, during the Peninsular War (1807-1814) which was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Armies & Commanders

Allies

  • Marquess of Wellington
  • 105,000 men

    French

  • Joseph Bonaparte
  • Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan
  • 60,000 men

  • Battle of Vitoria - Background:

    Allied fortunes on the Peninsula in 1812 were subject to great fluctuation. The year saw the forces of then-Viscount Wellington win a dramatic victory at Salamanca, capture Madrid, and then lay siege to Burgos before being forced to abandon these gains and retreat back to Ciudad Rodrigo near the Portuguese border. Reinforcing and reorganizing his forces during the winter, Wellington, now a marquess, intended to return to the offensive in 1813. Having assembled around 121,000 men (a mix of British, Spanish, & Portuguese), he intended to outflank the position of Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan.

    With French forces extended in a thin line between the Tagus and Douro Rivers, Wellington intended to move through the mountains of northern Portugal and Spain with the goal of cutting off the enemy's line of retreat back to France. In the opposing lines, Joseph and Jourdan's position had been considerably weakened during the winter as Napoleon stripped their armies of men to rebuild his forces following the disastrous campaign against Russia. Possessing around 68,000 men, the two were forced to retreat across northern Spain in the face of Wellington's advance (Map)

    Battle of Vitoria - The French Position:

    Reaching Vitoria, Jourdan halted to await further reinforcements. Ill with fever, he took few actions on June 20 as he attempted to recover. With their commander sick, French forces deployed to defensive positions north and west of the town while a massive baggage train, consisting of siege artillery and loot taken from Spain, stood idle in Vitoria. Vitoria was located to the south of the Zadorra River and was a major crossroads town with roads leading in all directions. West of the town, the Zadorra made a hairpin turn to the southwest, leaving the area through a narrow defile.

    To the south of the bend were the Heights of Puebla, while the rugged terrain of Monte Arrato rose across the river to the northwest. To hold the area around Vitoria, Major General Honoré Gazan's Army of the South was positioned north of the heights facing east, with Brigadier General Jean-Pierre Maransin's division in an advanced position at Subijana. They were supported to the east by Major General Jean-Baptiste Drouet D'Erlon's Army of the Centre. While Major General Honoré Reille's Army of Portugal initially formed a third line, it was shifted to guard the river crossings north of Vitoria (Map).

    Battle of Vitoria - Wellington's Plan:

    Approaching Vitoria, Wellington sought to envelop the French position. To achieve this, he sent Lieutenant General Rowland Hill's Right Column across the Zadorra to the south with orders to drive the French from the defile and move onto the Heights of Puebla. While the French were occupied with Hill, he intended to cross the river at the hairpin to get behind the enemy's right flank. While fighting was developing west of the town, Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Graham's Left Column was to move behind the Monte Arrato and attack Vitoria from the north along the Bilbao Road.

    Battle of Vitoria - The Armies Meet:

    To support Graham's operation and connect his advance to Wellington's fight, the Left Centre Column, under the Earl of Dalhousie, was to move over the Monte Arrato and attack the river west of Vitoria. Key to the coming fight was the fact that D'Erlon had failed to destroy key bridges over the Zadorra. Advancing up the Burgos Road on June 21, Hill sent Major General Pablo Morillo's Spanish Division to occupy part of the heights while Lieutenant General William Stewart's 2nd Division's deployed closer to the river. Seeing the threat, Gazan ordered Maransin to advance to block Morillo.

    As the fighting grew in intensity, both sides reinforced with Hill sending in a brigade and Gazan committing Major General Eugene-Casimir Villatte's reserve division. With the battle raging, the French began to notice Wellington's movement along the west bank of the river. Understandably concerned about his right flank, Gazan requested aid from the recovering Jourdan. More concerned about the fight on the heights, Jourdan refused this request. Meeting little resistance, Wellington pushed a brigade of the Light Division, under Major General James Kempt, across the river near the hairpin.

    As Kempt's men were crossing, Hill was making progress as Stewart's men succeeded in taking Subijana. Though Stewart and Morillo were repeatedly counterattacked by Gazan's divisions, they succeeded in holding their positions in the village and on the heights. Aware of Graham's approach, Wellington paused in his advance. Rolling down the Bilbao Road, Graham succeeded in driving the Army of Portugal's 4th Division back across the river. Intense French resistance blocked Graham from crossing. To the east, Colonel Francisco Longa defeated the Spanish Royal Guards and severed the road north to Bayonne.

    Battle of Vitoria - The French Collapse:

    Grasping the severity of the situation, Jourdan issued orders for Gazan to fall back towards Vitoria. Arriving on the field, Dalhousie began pushing Lieutenant General Thomas Picton's 3rd Division across the Zadorra with aid from Kempt. Coming under heavy French counterattack and bombardment, Picton's men were able to hold their ground as Lieutenant General Lowry Cole's 4th Division crossed to the west. Retreating, Gazan attempted to make a stand with D'Erlon at the village of Arinez. Uniting, the Allied forces south of the river succeeded in driving the French back from this position to one on Zuazo Ridge. Attacking again, Wellington's forces were able to take the ridge despite the efforts of the French artillery.

    Their line shattered, Gazan and D'Erlon's men began fleeing the field. Only the determined efforts of Reille's men prevented a complete rout as they held off Graham and allowed their comrades to escape. Retreating from the field, they departed to the southeast on the Salvatierra Road. Entering Vitoria, discipline among the Allied troops broke down as the men began plundering the abandoned French baggage train. Enraging Wellington, these actions along with the fatigue of his men prevented him from mounting a determined pursuit of Jourdan's wrecked army.

    Aftermath of Vitoria

    The Battle of Vitoria cost Wellington 5,158 casualties (3,675 British, 921 Portuguese and 562 Spanish) while the French incurred around 8,000 as well as lost the majority of their artillery. The defeat at Vitoria effectively broke the back of French power in Spain and forced Joseph and Jourdan to continue retreating towards France. Advancing in pursuit, Wellington captured San Sebastián and defeated the French during the Battle of the Pyrenees (July 25-August 2, 1813). Pushing on, Wellington advanced into France that fall.

    Selected Sources

  • British Battles: Battle of Vitoria
  • Peninsular War: Battle of Vitoria
  • Napoleon Guide: Battle of Vitoria

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