Battle of Vitoria 1813 - Wellington on the attack & "the scum of the earth."
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
The Battle of Vitoria marked the start of the final, though long campaign of the Peninsular War, since 1808 a British Army under the commanded by Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington and fought, back and forth from Portugal and into Spain, in a hope to liberate the Iberian Peninsular from the devastating occupation of the French army, under the Bonapartes.
Wellington spent the winter of 1812 reorganising and reinforcing his forces following a long campaign year which had seen a huge victory at the Battle of Salamanca, the liberation of Madrid, but eventually the failure to capture Burgos under siege and withdrawing backing along his lines to the Portuguese/Spanish boarder.
The French army had suffered numerous defeats on the battlefields of that year, both in Spain and hundreds of miles to the east, in Russia. Napoleon was forced to recall many soldiers to reconstruct his main army after his disastrous invasion of Russia, which had decimated his Grand Armee and leaving Napoleon needing reinforcements to defend France, from the wider Allied advance.
In May 1813, Wellington’s Allied forced crossed the boarder again but for what he knew was the last time, leaving Portugal across the mountainous passes of northern Spain to outflank Marshal Jourdan's French army and Joseph Bonaparte’s forces as well, which were strung out between the Douro and the Tagus rivers.
On 19th June 1813, Joseph Bonaparte’s force began to take up a defensive position west of the town of the Spanish town of Vitoria. The French position was enclosed to the south by the Heights of Puebla and to the north and west by the Zadorra River. However, none of the several bridges spanning the river were destroyed. Joseph deployed his forces in three parallel lines facing west, the expected direction of attack.
During the next day, 20th June, the French army, sat idle as Marshal Jourdan was ill with fever. An enormous wagon train of loot clogged the streets of Vitoria, this was the stolen property from years of occupation of Spain by the French, who had committed all atrocities imaginable to gain it (See my article of the French war crimes: www.dukeofwellington.org/post/french-war-crimes-against-civilians)
The French army under was the main command of Joseph Bonaparte, who had replaced the throne of Spain with his relatively ineffective rule, whilst his younger brother, Napoleon had kidnapped King Ferdinand, his supposed ally, in order to extend his power grab in the Iberian Peninsula. Meanwhile Marshal Jourdan was the real military mind for the French army and acted as chief of staff, which as well as some ‘foreign’ regiments of the French Empire, did include a limited Spanish force, due to Joseph’s title. The French army was around 68,000 strong with 151 guns.
Wellington, then Lieutenant-General Marquess Wellington, commanded an experienced army, comprising of 52,000 British and 28,000 Portuguese troops with 90 guns. An army of 25,000 Spanish troops co-operated in the campaign.
[The Battle of Vitoria - George Jones. Royal Collection Trust]
The plan Wellington's devised, involved splitting his army into four attacking "columns", attacking the French defensive position from south, west and north while the last column cut across the French rear.
The four columns were commanded by:
Lieutenant General Rowland Hill, (the largest column)
Lieutenant General Lowry Cole, (which had the majority of the allied cavalry)
Lieutenant General George Ramsay, (the smallest column, with no cavalry)
Lieutenant General Thomas Graham
On the 21st June, Wellington had to move swiftly, before the French received support from General Clausel's approaching army. At 8am Rowland Hill’s column attacked, by crossing the Zadorra river to climb the heights overlooking the main French position. In doing so he engaged Gazan’s troops, both committed more brigades under the command, under the British had the advantage. Gazan then sighted Wellington's column moving north of the Zadorra to turn his right flank. He asked Jourdan, now recovered from his fever, for reinforcements to the heights. Jourdan was focussed with the safety of his own left flank, so the marshal refused to help Gazan, instead ordering some of D'Erlon's force to guard the Logroño road.
Critically, Wellington learned late in the morning that the French had left the bridge across the Zadorra at the village of Trespuentes unguarded. It was at a hairpin (sharp bend) of the river, Kempt's Brigade was immediately despatched from the Light Division to seize the bridge crossing. Concealed by high ground, the hairpin bend of the river, the British Light Infantry were able to take the bridge virtually no opposition at all.
[The Trespuentes Bridge, Vitoria - wiki commons]
On the height’s brigade commander Colonel. Henry Cadogan was killed at a critical moment, as French reinforcements moved up, but the British managed to keep their foothold on the high position. General Hill was now able to advance up the main Burgos road.
At midday, General Graham's column marched down the Bilbao road, though they were initially slowed by fighting on the crossing points. Marshal Jourdan immediately realised the threat of his position being enveloped by Wellington’s four columns and ordered Gazan to pull back toward Vitoria. Graham drove the opposing French division back across the river, but could not force his way across the Zadorra despite intense fighting. Further to the east, Colonel Franciso Longa's Allied Spanish Division defeated Joseph Bonaparte’s Spanish Royal Guards and cut the road to Bayonne.
Kempt's brigade assisted Dalhousie’s column, allowing General Picton's 3rd Division to rapidly cross to the south side of the river. The French responded by battering the British with 40 to 50 guns (estimated) followed by counter attacking their flank, exposed because they had captured the bridge so quickly, meaning they had no support, causing the 3rd Division to suffer 1,800 casualties (over 1/3 of the casualties on that day) but they held their ground.
Under General Cole, the 4th Division, supported by the 3rd, 7th and Light Divisions all formed a rough line of attack against a steadily fading French force. Though they did resist the attack around Arinez, it was soon abandoned and the Allied troops captured it. The French fell back in towards a prepared ridge position, well covered by their numerous cannon, however this is turn fell, when Gazan refused to cooperate with his colleague d'Erlon.
By this point the French were being pressed from a multitude of sides and morale collapsed. All 151 French guns, except one, were abandoned, the crews, cutting their horses free and riding to escape, leaving their precious guns to be recaptured. Some would be repurposed and used against the French by the allied armies, others would be returned to Britain in a traditional symbol of victory.
[Reenactors portraying the French at the 2013 commemorations - by kind permission of 3/95th Rifles]
By 7.30pm, the first British Hussar Brigade was in the town of Vitoria. They found the streets choked with wagons. 3,000 wagons and assorted vehicles were crammed into the area of Vitoria, filled with loot being removed by Joseph’s army, together with herds of livestock as well. Joseph Bonaparte himself, is said to have abandoned his coach and escaped on horseback. Later that night, Joseph, Marshal Jourdan and the other senior French officers met and contemplated the end of the French dominance of Spain.
The loot which the French had stolen from Spain was in turn looted by the victorious British Army. Much of it had come from the Spanish Royal Palaces and was worth a fortune to the soldiers. These wild scenes of ill-discipline along with the actually exhaustion of the attacking battle, coupled with the fact the army had marched miles in the preceding days, meant that Wellington could not complete his victory with a pursuit, which would had surely captured many more French soldiers.
The mass abandonment of discipline caused an enraged Wellington to write in a dispatch to Earl Bathurst (Secretary of State For War and the Colonies):
"We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers… we have been doing everything in our power … to relax the discipline by which such men can be kept in order."
The British suffered the brunt of the fiercest fighting, so therefore the casualties also with, 3,164 troops killed or wounded, the Portuguese 1, 022 and the Spanish 562.
The French suffered 8,000 troops killed, wounded or captured and lost all of their 151 guns, except one.
The battle was of huge significance throughout war-torn Europe. Napoleon’s army was already struggling to reform from the catastrophic consequences of the invasion of Russia. The Victory at Vitoria showed that his dominance of the continent was finally coming to an end. The battle established Wellington’s reputation throughout Europe as arguably the greatest military commander of the age, Beethoven even wrote a tribute to the battle, called ‘Wellington’s Victory’ (also known as Opus 91, often called the "Battle Symphony".)
On hearing the news of the battle, Austria mobilised and declared war on France again. The Emperors of both Russia and Austria both offered Wellington command of their armies, which he had to decline (as it would have meant abandoning his Peninsular Campaign before seeing it through to a final victory.
As a regimental tradition still held to this day: One of the items looted from Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage was a silver chamber pot. The 14th Light Dragoons (later 14th Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars),that ‘liberated’ the pot kept it as a trophy and, to this day, use it on regimental mess dinners for the toasts, filled with champagne. The chamber pot is referred to, by the officers of the Hussars, as ‘the Emperor’.
Apsley House - The Wellington Collection
The many paintings of the Spanish Royal Collection, which Joseph Bonaparte had ordered looted from the many Spanish palaces were found in the baggage wagons. They were sent back to London, with the real King of Spain being written to, explaining that some of his priceless art was in safe hands. No reply came (the King was effectively under house arrest by Napoleon) and the collection was catalogued and a further letter was written to him, still no reply. Eventually a third letter was written and a reply came from King Ferdinand. It explained that the paintings were rescued in battle, and that was a honourable thing amongst men, so Wellington may keep them.
As such, the paintings after the war came to live in Apsley House, his London home, which her purchased from his older brother Richard in 1816. Apsley House had been richly "decorated" on news reaching London of the Battle of Vitoria, which lamps and flags, so perhaps it is apt.
Today the Spanish Royal Collection provides to core of the wonderful "Wellington Collection" that is at Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner (149 Piccadilly in modern mapping, though popularly known as 'Number One London' due to it's location), Added to during Wellington's life, the collection is one of the finest in London, consisting of works by, Goya, Velázquez Caravaggio, Bruegel, and Sir Thomas Lawrence, amongst many others, as well as fine silver and military decorations in the most lavish Regency surroundings possible. It is now a museum, under the custodianship of English Heritage and manged by, myself, the author, Marcus Cribb. I look forward to welcoming you through the doors of the home of the Duke of Wellington.
[Apsley House, The Waterloo Gallery - The Wellington Collection - English Heritage]
Sources: The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington: During his various campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low Countries, and France from 1799-1818. Volume 10.
From Corunna to Waterloo with the Hussars 1808 to 1815. John Mollo
Wellington’s Regiments, the men and their Battles 1808 to 1815. Ian Fletcher.
Wellington’s Peninsular Army. James Lawford
British Battles website: www.britishbattles.com/peninsular-war/battle-of-vitoria/
And supported by many other important works.
Thank you to the 3rd Battalion 95th Rifles for the use of images with this article, the most welcoming living history society with a real focus of historical research, join them to reenact Wellington's Army www.95thrifles.com/