The battle of Castalla (13 April 1813) was a defensive victory that saw General Murray’s largely Anglo-Sicilian army defeat an attack by Suchet’s Army of Valencia.
The British had landed an army on the east coast of Spain during the summer of 1812, made up of a mix of British and Sicilian troops. A series of commanders had come and gone, before finally Sir John Murray took over on 25 February 1813. He is seen as a fairly timid commander, and his performance in the east of Spain didn’t greatly enhance his reputation. Murray found himself in a standoff with Marshal Suchet’s smaller Army of Valencia, which held a line along the Xucar River.
In March Murray came up with a plan for an amphibious assault on Valencia. First he attacked in the centre of the French line (combat of Albeyda, 15 March 1813), forcing the French out of an isolated position to the south of their main line). He hoped this would force Suchet to weaken the garrison of Valencia enough for a force of 5,000 men to be able to capture it from the sea. If this attack failed the amphibious force was to capture an alternative port further to the south instead. On the day that the assault force was embarking news arrived of a political crisis in Sicily, and so the entire offensive was cancelled.
By early April Suchet was certain that Murray no longer planned to attack, and decided to launch an offensive of his own. His plan was to attack on his far right, in the gap between the Anglo-Sicilian and Spanish armys, force them apart and then defeat Murray’s scattered Army of Alicante before it could be concentrated. Suchet concentrated his three infantry divisions at the western end of the line, and began his attack on 10 April. The French attack was split into two columns - Harispe’s division was sent to attack the Spanish at Yecla, while Habert’s division and Musnier’s division (commanded by Robert while Musnier was absent), advanced into the gap between the two, heading for Villena.
The first part of the plan went well. The Spanish at Yecla suffered a heavy defeat on 11 April and were forced to retreat west. Clinton and the Spanish commander General Elio happened to be at Villena, right in the path of the advancing French. Elio decided to leave an infantry battalion in the castle, and then concentrate the rest of his army. Murray headed back to his main position at Castalla, leaving Colonel Adam’s light brigade to defend the key pass of Biar, the route the French would need to follow to reach Castalla.
12 April also began well for the French, when Villena surrendered without a fight. However things then began to go wrong. Adam carried out a very skilful rearguard action (combat of Biar), and delayed the French for most of the day. Suchet didn’t reach the plains north of Castalla until late in the afternoon of 12 April, by which time most of Murray’s army had concentrated and taken up a strong defensive position.
Murray was in a very strong defensive position. A steep hill ran west from Castalla, getting steeper as it went west. Castalla itself was built around another isolated hill, with the castle built on top. To the east the Allied right flank was protected by wet ground overlooked by low hills. The hills were protected by barricades and entrenchments that Murray had ordered his men to construct after the end of his March offensive. Suchet was outnumbered, and wasn’t at all sure that it was wise to attack, but he was convinced by his subordinates, who didn’t believe that Murray’s international army would be able to stand and fight.
Murray had around 18,000 men at his disposal. On the left he posted Whittingham’s Spanish division, six battalions strong. Whittingham held one mile of the hills that ran west from Castalla. Next in line was Adam’s light brigade, around 2,000 men, posted above a spur that ran north from the hills into the plains. Mackenzie’s division (one British, two German Legion and two Sicilian battalions) held the line from the spur to Castalla castle. Next came Clinton’s division (three British, one composite Foreign and one Italian battalion). The 1/58th Line from Clinton’s division held the castle, and the rest of his division held the line of the wet ground to the south/ south-east of the castle. Roche’s division (five Spanish battalions) was split, with two battalions supporting the cavalry screen in front of the main Allied line and three forming a reserve.
Suchet didn’t attack until noon on 13 April. His plan was to use Robert’s division to attack Whittingham’s Spanish division on Murray’s left. Once Whittingham had been forced back from the crest of the hill, Suchet would attack the British held part of the line from the flank and the front at the same time. The Allied right, protected by the wetlands, was largely ignored.
Suchet’s attack began with an attempt by five light companies to turn the left flank of Whittingham’s line. Once these troops were some way up the hill, six infantry battalions were to launch a frontal assault (3rd Leger, 114th and 121st Line). Four of these battalions hit Whittingham’s line and two Adam’s line.
The French attack began just as Whittingham had been forced to move out of his defensive positions to obey an order apparently sent by Murray (although he later denied it). The order was for Whittingham to carry out an outflanking attack on Robert’s division, which would then be supported by Adam and Mackenzie. Whittingham decided to leave three of his battalions in place on the ridge and lead three on this outflanking assault. Whittingham led these three battalions along a mountain path on the southern side of the hill, hidden from the French.
Suchet’s attack began about half an hour after Whittingham’s own march. The light troops got close to the top of the hill before Whittingham learnt was going on. Luckily the mysterious orders had actually placed Whittingham in quite a good position. His rearmost battalion was sent straight up the hill to face the French light troops, while he led the other two back to his main position.
The resulting battle was similar to others where the French had attempted to attack a British army in a strong defensive position, but with Spanish troops performing the defensive duties. The French managed to reach the top of the ridge on several occasions, but in each case Whittingham launched a counterattack that forced them down. Even so the French continued to press for some time.
Further to the east the 121st Line suffered a total disaster. Their advance brought them to the top of the spur, where they found themselves facing the 2/27th Regiment of Foot, part of Adam’s Brigade. Colonel Millet of the 121st ordered his men to deploy from their marching to attacking formations dangerously close to the British. The French attempted to manoeuvre while under heavy fire and became disordered. Colonel Reeves of the 2/27th then ordered a downhill bayonet charge, and the French column broke and fled, losing around 350 men in a five minute fight. At about the same time the attack on Whittingham’s position also came to an end, after four companies for the Spanish reserve launched a similar charge.
By about 4.30 the French right wing had thus suffered a heavy defeat, and six of Suchet’s eighteen battalions were effectively out of action. For a brief period Suchet was in a very dangerous position - his cavalry was two miles to his east, and there was a real chance that an immediate Allied attack would have been able to cut his line of retreat back across the pass of Biar, probably forcing him to surrender.
Luckily for the French, Murray wasn’t the man to take that chance. He did plan a counterattack, but was unwilling to launch it until his unengaged right wing had moved left to support the attack. This took them through Castalla town. Once they were in place, Murray ordered a general advance.
By now it was too late. When his attack was repulsed, Suchet recalled his cavalry, and ordered a retreat back to a position defending the entrance to the pass. By the time Murray had his army deployed, the French had deployed their guns across the entrance to the pass, supported by infantry on the hills. Murray decided not to risk an evening attack, and overnight Suchet was able to escape.
Murray thus missed a chance to win a major victory. French casualties are unclear, with Suchet claiming only to have lost 800 men at Yecla, Biar and Castalla, while Oman suggested a total of around 950 at Castalla alone. On the Allied side Whittingham lost 233 men, Mackenzie 47, Adam 70, Clinton 20 and the cavalry and artillery 10, around 400 in total.
In the aftermath of the battle the stalemate on the Xucar resumed, with Suchet waiting for an Allied attack that didn’t come and Murray waiting for orders from the duke of Wellington that did. When these orders finally did arrive, Murray found himself engaged in a siege of Tarragona (3-15 June 1813), which ended as an embarrassing failure, although did perhaps distract Suchet at a key moment in the 1813 campaign.