Battle of the Pyrenees

Battle of the Pyrenees

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Pyrenees

partof=Peninsular War
date=July 25 to August 2, 1813
place=North Pyrenees, Spain
result=Tactical Anglo-Spanish-Portuguese victory
combatant1=flagicon|France French Empire
combatant2=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Portugal|1707 Portugal
flagicon|Spain|1785 Spain
commander1=Marshal Nicolas Soult
commander2=Marquess of Wellington
casualties1=12,600, including 1,300 dead, 8,600 wounded, 2,700 captured
casualties2=7,000 dead or wounded
The Battle of the Pyrenees was a large-scale offensive launched [Chandler., p.351. Recognizes the 'battle' as an offensive. ] on 25 July 1813 by Marshal Nicolas Soult from the Pyrénées region on Napoleon’s order, in the hope of relieving French garrisons under siege at Pamplona and San Sebastián. After initial success the offensive ground to a halt in face of increased allied resistance under the command of Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington. Soult abandoned the offensive on 30 July and headed toward France, having failed to relieve either garrison.


Marshal Soult consolidated the remnants of four armies into a single force of 80,000 troops [Fisher and Fremont-Barnes., p.235.] . Soult ordered Maj-Gen Jean-Baptiste d’Erlon commanding one corps (21,000 men) [Fisher and Fremont-Barnes., p.235.] to attack and secure the Maya Pass. Maj-Gen Honoré Reille was ordered by Soult to attack and secure the Roncesvalles Pass with his corps and the corps of Maj-Gen Bertrand Clausel (40,000 men) [Fisher and Fremont-Barnes., p.235.] . The French reserves under Eugene-Casimir Villatte would hold the defences on the lower Bidassoa River near the Bay of Biscay.

Marshal Soult’s plan was to relieve the siege at Pamplona first, then swing the army westward to relieve the siege at San Sebastian. Soult had trouble securing rations for his soldiers, so he launched his offensive with only four days' rations.


Clausel's Left Corps consisted of the infantry divisions of Nicolas Conroux (7,100), Vandermaesen (4,200) and Eloi Taupin (6,000). D'Erlon's Center Corps included the infantry divisions of D'Armagnac (7,000), Abbé (8,000) and Maransin (6,000). Reille's Right Corps had the divisions of Maximilien Foy (5,900), Antoine Maucune (4,200) and Lamartinière (7,100). Each Corps had a single light cavalry regiment attached for scouting purposes, for a total of 800 horsemen.

Wellington defended the line of the western Pyrenees with a covering force of 62,000 men. These faced to the northeast, with the left anchored on the Bay of Biscay at the mouth of the Bidassoa River. From left to right, he deployed the following infantry divisions: Maj-Gen Kenneth Howard's 1st, Maj-Gen Charles Alten's Light, Lieut-Gen Lord George Dalhousie's 7th, Lieut-Gen William Stewart's 2nd, Maj-Gen Francisco Silveira's Portuguese, Lieut-Gen Lowry Cole's 4th and Maj-Gen Pablo Morillo's Spanish. In reserve were Maj-Gen Denis Pack's 6th and Lieut-Gen Thomas Picton's 3rd infantry divisions, plus other Portuguese and Spanish units. Cavalry being useless in the mountains, Wellington stationed most of his far to the rear.

The Siege of San Sebastian was conducted by Maj-Gen James Leith's 5th Division and other units under the direction of Lieut-Gen Thomas Graham. Pamplona was besieged by General Joseph O'Donnell's Spanish division and other units.


The surprise offensive opened on 25 July 1813. The passes of Maya (north of Pamplona) and Roncesvalles (NE of Pamplona) were both weakly held by the allies spread over a 50-mile front from Pamplona to the sea.

Maya Pass

The responsibility for Maya Pass lay with Stewart's 2nd Division. That morning, Stewart decided that the French would not attack, left the brigades of Maj-Gen William Pringle and Lieut-Col John Cameron in the valley and rode to Elizondo, ten miles to the south. Some French soldiers were seen and light companies were sent up in support of the picket.

When the French attacked in force, the British forces in the valley had to climb to the pass in full kit. By the time they got up, the picket force was wiped out and 10,000 of D'Erlon's men occupied the pass. Pringle opposed D'Armagnac's division, while Cameron faced the rest of the French corps. The 4,000 British tried manfully to retake the pass, but they were unable to do so. On the other hand, the narrowness of the defile helped the British to hold off D'Erlon's immensely superior force. When Stewart returned at 2:00 pm, he pulled the redcoats back to a second position. By 3:00 pm, the British were on the verge of disaster. At this point, Maj-Gen Edward Barnes's brigade of Dalhousie's 7th Division arrived from the west to strike D'Erlon in the flank and the battle died down. The British lost 1,600 men.

That evening, Lieut-Gen Rowland Hill authorized a retreat to Elizondo. D'Erlon, who lost 2,100 men, worried about Barnes's incursion and pursued very cautiously the next day.

Roncesvalles Pass

Cole held Roncesvalles Pass with his 4th Division, Morillo's Division and Maj-Gen John Byng's brigade of the 2nd Division, a total of 11,000 men. From 6:00 to 9:00 am, Byng's brigade took the brunt of Clausel's assault, while Cole rushed up reinforcements. Cole fended off the French until 5:00 pm when thick fog rolled in. He lost 450 men while the French lost over 500.

Troubled by a small French probe of his right flank and fearful that 36,000 Frenchmen would swamp him out of the mist, Cole quit the area and retreated toward Pamplona. When Picton's 6,000-man 3rd Division appeared, Cole convinced him to retreat also.

French Pursuit

The French did not realise that the British had decamped until the next morning. Clausel pursued, but did not come into contact with Cole's rear guard until late in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Reille's corps attempted to use an alternate path across the mountains and wound up marching in a circle. A push on 27 July from Roncesvalles by troops personally commanded by Marshal Soult, got within 10 miles of Pamplona [Esdaile, C., p.462. Note that this is disputed. One person says 10 km.] . However, Picton's British and Portuguese forces made a stand on an excellent defensive position near the village of Sorauren, just north of Pamplona.

Believing D'Erlon's corps to be the main French attack and receiving no information from Cole, Wellington spent 26 July setting up his defences in the direction of Maya Pass. Leaving Hill in charge at Elizondo, he then rode toward Pamplona on 27 July to find out what was happening. He ordered Pack's 6th Division to join Cole and Picton.


On 27 July, Wellington joined the 17,000 British and Portuguese force at Sorauren [Fisher and Fremont-Barnes., p.235.] . To Clausel's intense frustration, Soult decided to wait for Reille's tardy corps to arrive and even took a nap. The next day, the Battle of Sorauren was fought when Soult's 36,000 men tried unsuccessfully to defeat the 24,000 allied forces in front of Pamplona. Hill's corps, blocking D'Erlon, was pulled back by Wellington toward Sorauren. But D'Erlon was never able to reach Sorauren to help Soult. Instead, when D'Erlon's cavalry made contact with Soult on the morning of 29 July, the French Marshal decided to move to the north rather than retreat northeast toward Roncesvalles. As July 30 dawned, Soult's men could be seen retreating east to west across the British front. Now reinforced by his 7th Division, Wellington ordered an attack.

Soult's Retreat

The French clung to Sorauren village in a bitter fight before being driven away. The British reported 538 casualties while French losses were much heavier. Cut off by the sudden British offensive, Foy's division at the east end of the French line retreated by way of Roncesvalles Pass to the northeast. Foy was joined by elements of Reille's and Clausel's commands so that he took as many as 12,000 men with him.

Meanwhile, D'Erlon led the rest of the French army in a retreat to the north, shoving Hill's forces back just enough to get through. Instead of retreating over Maya Pass, Soult veered northwest up the Bidassoa River valley. At Yanci, Longa's Spanish division blocked a key bridge. For two hours, without support from the rest of their division, a battalion of the 2nd Asturias Regiment held off D'Erlon's entire corps. Finally, five French battalions stormed the bridge and Soult's defeated army crossed over it. Too late to block the retreat, Alten's Light Division arrived and fired into the gorge from above, causing chaos in the French column. His starving army fast disintegrating into a mob, Soult swung northeast again and reached the French frontier on 2 August.


Soult failed to relieve the siege at San Sebastian and Pamplona, suffered about 13,000 casualties [Fisher and Fremont-Barnes., p.235.] , and had to withdraw to French soil weakened and demoralised. Soult's army lost 423 officers [Glover, p. 258. Note that most of the article's material is from Glover.] . Wellington's total losses for the campaign were 7,000. Soult would try to attack again in the Battle of San Marcial at the end of August.



*Chandler, David, "Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars". Wordsworth editions, 1999.
*Esdaile, C. "The Peninsular War: A new History". Penguin Books, 2003.
*Fisher, T. and Fremont-Barnes, G. "The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire". Osprey Pub., 2004.
*Glover, Michael, "The Peninsular War 1807-1814". Penguin Books, 1974.
*Smith, Digby, "The Napoleonic Wars Data Book". Greenhill, 1998.

External links

* [ The French Army 1600-1900]

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