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The Battle of San Marcial 31st August 1813:
Napoleon’s last offensive in Spain.
Following the resounding victory of Wellington’s allied army at the battle of Vitoria fought on the 21st June 1813 in northern Spain, Napoleon dismissed his brother Joseph as incompetent. Joseph Bonaparte had commanded the French army since the beginning of the year, but had so mishandled affairs that the Emperor ignominiously relieved him of his position and placed Marshal Soult at the head of the army in July. Wellington’s allied army seemed unbeatable, the French had been pushed all the way back to their own border. Soult advocated a return to the offensive and immediately set about reorganising his depleted and demoralised troops, and by the 25th July 1813, was anxious to regain some of the ground that had been lost throughout the course of the summer.
Soult’s first idea was to try and relieve his isolated troops that had been blockaded in the fortified town of Pamplona. The string of actions that subsequently took place became known as ‘The Battle of the Pyrenees’. This offensive lead to the battles of Maya. Roncesvalles and Sorauren, but although Wellington’s army was initially caught off guard, Soult had over stretched his limits and was eventually compelled to withdraw back to the French border. There, he sprung up a line of defensive works which ran parallel along the Bidassoa river. The allied army quickly followed up but Wellington would not venture any further north until the French-held garrison of San Sebastian had fallen.
Map of Siege of San Sebastian
The fortified town over looking the bay of Biscay was blockaded by the British on the 28th June and although the first assault, carried out on the 25th July, had proved unsuccessful, Soult knew it could not hold out for much longer. He therefore prepared for a general advance over the Bidassoa in the hope that he could march to relieve the garrison and leave a considerable dent in the enemies western flank.
San Marcial Allied Ridge
This bold undertaking took place on the 31st August 1813 and became known as the battle of San Marcial, taken from the heights that stood immediately in front of Soult’s advance and was eventually checked on. Unbeknown to the French Marshal, Wellington’s second and successful assault on San Sebastian took place at exactly the same time as the battle for the heights of San Marcial. This was to be the last French operation on Spanish soil.
The French army was divided into three Corps. The western Corps was commanded by Lt - Gen. Reille, the centre Corps was under Lt - Gen. Clausel and the eastern Corps under Lt - Gen. D’Erlon. Coincidentally, both Wellington and Soult initially intended the eastern flank to be a demonstration. However, the troops in that area became over zealous and entangled themselves in a pointless melee. The French had no serious intentions and, throughout the course of the day, released the ground as the allies pressed forward. The main action was in the west. At 0800hrs Reille’s Corps crossed the Bidassoa and endeavoured to gain the heights of San Marcial. Once taken, the road would lay open for the relief of San Sebastian, but the heights were stubbornly defended by the Spanish and despite many attempts to take the position it was not until 1500hrs that Soult decided to call off his fruitless attack.
The Bridge at Vera
Vandermaesen in trouble.
Clausel’s centre Corps consisted of three divisions. (Taupin,
Darmagnac and Vandermaesen’s divisions). These crossed the fords of the
Bidassoa in the early hours of the morning and began to swing to the west in
order to support and eventually join up with Reille’s troops who, for all
intents and purposes, should have been advancing over the heights of San
Marcial. A combined effort in this quarter could of seen Wellington’s army
recoil and a direct path left open to San Sebastian.
It was a brilliant manoeuvre but, unfortunately for Soult, it did not work.
The allied army were in an excellent position and their morale had been
boosted by the way the campaign had been generally running in their favour. To
cap it all, their was a dreadful storm which swelled the river and made the
fords, which they had passed in the morning, totally unfordable in the
Plan of Operations 1813 (from www.Napoleon-series.org Map Archive and
Vandermaesen was in a desperate situation, the only course left open to him was 5 miles away, via a small stone bridge at Vera. Unfortunately, although there had been French troops in the area for some days, no one had thought to take the bridge and it now lay in hands of the British light division. However, fortunately for the French, the light division was under the temporary command of an incompetent general and he had only posted 100 men of the 2/95th Rifles on the bridge itself whilst the remainder of the division were at least half a mile away on the heights of Santa Barba. Vandermaesen’s men reached the bridge at about 0300hrs on the morning of 1st September only to find that the access was blocked by a barricade and a double sentry. They also noticed that on the opposite bank were a number houses, one of which, closest to the bridge, was heavily fortified; although with more than 5000 men at his disposal, and hardly a Englishman in sight there should not have been a problem in passing to the other side.
The bridge is approached by a narrow winding track and as a
party of Frenchmen began to advance, the British sentries found they could not
raise the alarm as the wet weather had so dampened their firearms, that the
powder would not ignite. This allowed Vandermaesen’s troops to rush the
barricade and gain a foothold on the bridge before the Riflemen in the houses
had chance to stop them.Despite the fact that Vandermaesen had an overwhelming
numerical superiority, Cadoux’s tiny band of men held onto the bridge for more
than 2 hours. But numbers prevailed in the end and just before dawn the houses
The question asked by many a wargamer/ historian must be, how did Cadoux do it ? Lets find out.
The Memorial stone situated on the bridge
Captain Daniel Cadoux.
Bibliography and notes.
Cadoux’s unenviable predicament was first immortalised into the annuals of history in the ‘Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith’. Smith blames brigadier Skerret for leaving Cadoux with an insufficient picket at the bridge, claiming that he himself told Skerret to reinforce the position. Although there are two versions as to why Cadoux was left unaided; the other being in the commander’s defence, referring to the fact that Cadoux had been told to retire but did not do so. The general consensus with most of the contemporary diarists however, is that if the bridge had been reinforced, and the passage blocked, the French would of been compelled to lay down their arms when daylight came.
All of the 95th Rifle Memoirs make some note of the incident but the most important authorities for obtaining an overall picture of things must be Sir Harry Smith’s account and Sir Charles Oman’s history of the Peninsular war. Whereas the best conjectural story of the events that lead up to Cadoux’s defence of the bridge comes from Georgette Heyer in her novel (based on fact) entitled, ‘The Spanish Bride’. First published in 1940. To gain an even fuller picture it may be necessary to consult all the available narratives in order to fill in some of the voids left by others. For this purpose the following is a list of significant references that exhibit minor details, which in turn, may or may not be transferred onto a wargaming tabletop scenario.
Surtees - 25 years in the Rifle brigade.
According to Surtees, Cadoux was killed almost instantly ‘as he had imprudently mounted his horse on the first alarm’. Surtees also states that a company of his own battalion 3/95th commanded by a lieutenant Travers were posted ‘ a short distance in the rear to support him’. Surtees mentions breastworks and entrenchment’s on the south side close to the bridge. These works were previously set up by the Spanish General Longa and now the French were making good use of them. Surtees also mentions that in the morning the French had brought down some mountain guns but to little effect.
The Private Journal of F. S. Larpent.
Larpent was captured and made prisoner at the battle of San Marcial close to Vera but his escort managed to cross the Bidassoa at a ford before the river swelled. He was taken to General Clausel’s HQ where, during the night, he could hear the firing at the bridge. Larpent says that General Longa had ‘Knocked off the parapet of the bridge, and dug a trench’.
W. Napier. History of the Peninsular War. Vol. 5.
Napier clearly states that it was 3 O’clock in the morning and the passage was defended until daylight, ‘ when a second company and some Cacadores came to their aid’ Napier continues, ‘The French reserve left at Vera, seeing how matters stood, then opened a fire of guns against the fortified house from a high rock just above the town; their skirmishers approached it on the right bank, while Vandermaesen plied his musketry from the left bank’.
Maj. G. Simmons - A British Riflemen.
Simmons talks about the French advance over the Bidassoa in the morning but more interestingly says that after Cadoux fell the company was obliged to retire a little distance and kept up a fire on the enemy who continued to file over the bridge.
Moorsom - History of the 52nd Light Infantry.
Although a broad history concerning a particular battalion in the light division, he describes the barricade at the bridge as being, ‘partially blocked up with casks filled with stones, leaving only a narrow passageway for a man’.
The Recollections of Rifleman Harris.
Harris describes Cadoux as ‘effeminate and lady like in manners’ and goes on to recall a rather surprising tale. ‘he wore on his finger a ring worth 150 guineas. As he lay dead on the field, Orr, one of our Riflemen, observed the sparkling gem and immediately resolved to make a prize of it, but the ring was so firmly fixed, Orr could not draw it from the finger so, whipping out his knife, he cut the finger off by the joint. After the battle, Orr offered the ring for sale amongst the officers. On enquiry, the manner in which he had obtained was learned. As a consequence, Orr was tried by court - martial and sentenced to receive five hundred lashes, which sentence was carried into execution’.
Setting up the scenario.
The rear brigades of Taupin’s and Darmagnac’s divisions and the whole of Vandermaesen’s division were stranded on the wrong side of the river. (Oman Vol. 7 P.54.) Taupin’s casualty returns show 128 men drowned when re-crossing the Bidassoa at night. (Oman Vol. 7 P.531.).
For the purposes of the game we shall assume that Taupin and Darmagnac’s troops managed to cross the river, further downstream, or played little part in the action at the bridge, and confine the availability of French troops, that can be brought to Cadoux’s bridge, to just Vandermaesen’s 5th division. Vandermaesen’s men amount to an impressive 5,575, but can only be brought to the bridge in a maximum of half battalion strengths at any one time. This is due to the narrow confinements of the defile and could be the main reason why Cadoux’s men hung on for so long against such overwhelming odds.
If it seems fit, there can also be a contingency plan for one or two Frenchmen getting across the river and thereby adding to the British plight by firing from the right bank or north side. But there must also be a percentage option for a commander casualty. Example - the death of Vandermaesen himself could cause considerable chaos in the French ranks.
The game starts at 3:00 am and first light is at 5:30 am. When dawn comes, if the bridge is still holding out, then some French skirmishers can come down from the side of Vera, but the British can likewise be reinforced.
Scales relate to the breadth of the bridge, whereas no more than 4 lead figures wide can cross.
Figure ratio is even simpler at 1:1.
Order of Battle.
Losses at the bridge.
42 - killed, 185 - wounded, 4 missing.
Total - 231.
2/95th - 17 killed, 42 wounded, 2 missing.
3/95th - 2 killed, 10 wounded.
Cacadores - 6 killed, 14 wounded, 2 missing.
Total - 95
Pictures from around the action:
Also on the excellent Napoleon Series: Virtual Battlefield Tours site as a virtual battlefield tour a lot more there worth looking at!
First published Portsmouth Napoleonic society Spring 1998
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