Military Subjects: Virtual Battlefields

 

Napoleon’s Last Offensive in Spain: Vera

Virtual Battlefield Tour

By Vic Powell and the Portsmouth Napoleonic Society

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.

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.

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 Bridge at Vera
The Bridge at Vera Today

 



The Battle of San Marcial.

The French army was divided into three Corps. The western Corps was commanded by Lieutenant General Reille, the centre Corps was under Lieutenant General Clausel and the eastern Corps under Lieutenant General 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.

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 evening. When Clausel ordered the retreat around mid - afternoon, it appears that, the rear brigades of Taupin and Darmagnac’s divisions and the whole of Vandermaesen’s division were caught stranded on the wrong side of the river. The isolated French may have been forced to surrender to the British who now surrounded them.

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 were forced.

Cadoux and sixteen men were killed, three other officers and forty three men were wounded out of one hundred men.

In the confusion some of the French managed to file over the bridge and began firing on the defenders of the fortified building from their own side.

Vandermaesen himself grew steadily impatient and was killed leading a desperate charge against the bridge and the total French casualties far exceeded that of the Rifles at around 231 men.

 

The Memorial Stone
The Memorial Stone Situated on the Bridge


Captain Daniel Cadoux

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.

Surtees: Twenty-Five 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's 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's 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’.

Map of the Action
Map Showing Positions of All Troops during the Action at Vera

Orders of Battle.

French

5th Divisional Commander: General Vandermaesen.

Brigade Barbot:

4th Leger -   645 men

34th Ligne - 590 men  

40th Ligne -  2 Btns., 590 men per Btn.

59th Ligne - 660 men

Brigade Rouget:

27th Ligne -  660 men

59th Ligne -  660 men

130th Ligne - 2 Btns., 590 men per Btn.

British

Captain D. Cadoux’s company:

2/95th Rifles - 60 men

Captain Hart’s Platoon:

2/95th Rifles - 40 men

Reinforcements at dawn

Lieutenant Travers company:

3/95th Rifles - 60 men

2 x companies of 1st Portuguese Cacadores. 180 men.

Losses at the Bridge

Vandermaesen’s division:

42 - killed, 185 - wounded, 4 missing.

Total - 231

Allied  casualties:

2/95th - 17 killed, 42 wounded, 2 missing.

3/95th - 2  killed, 10 wounded.

Cacadores - 6 killed, 14 wounded, 2 missing.

Total - 95.


PNS at Orthes
PNS at Orthes September 1997

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2001

 

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