Battle of Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813

The battle of Roncesvalles (25 July 1813) was part of the wider battle of the Pyrenees, and saw Soult’s main attack held up all day by British and Spanish forces at the top of the Roncesvalles pass, before General Cole decided that his position was too vulnerable and ordered a retreat on the night of 25-26 July.

In the aftermath of the disastrous French defeat at Vitoria, their surviving armies had retreated back into France, where Napoleon decided to put Marshal Soult in command of the entire force. Soult reorganised the four armies he had inherited into a single Army of Spain, and then decided to go back onto the offensive, hoping that he would catch Wellington with his troops badly stretched out along the border. Soult’s plan was to move the bulk of his army east on the good roads on the French side of the Pyrenees, and then attack down the passes at Maya and Roncesvalles. After quick victories there, he would lift the siege of Pamplona, and then turn west to deal with the rest of Wellington’s army and lift the siege of San Sebastian.

After the battle of Vitoria, Wellington had decided not to risk an invasion of France, mainly because peace negotiations were under way in Germany that might have ended with Austria, Russia and Prussia making peace with the French, leaving Napoleon free to turn his full attention to Spain. Instead he decided to concentrate on the sieges of San Sebastian on the coast and Pamplona inland, the last two remaining French fortresses in the north of Spain. His army was thus spread out over a wide front in mountainous countryside, making it difficult for Wellington to keep his subordinates under the close level of supervision that he preferred.

Wellington was aware that Soult was moving some troops east by 23 July, and on that day he ordered Sir Lowry Cole to support Byng’s defenders ‘as effectually as you can’. His main job was to try and defend the passes at Roncesvalles as long as possible, and then to slow any French advance towards Pamplona. However at this stage Wellington believed the move east to be a feint, and expected the main attack to come nearer the coast, where San Sebastian was believed to be about to fall.

The attack at Maya was to be carried out by two of Soult’s three ‘corps’ (although he wasn’t officially allowed to call them that), a total of 34,000 infantry under Generals Reille and Clausel, supported by two cavalry divisions for use on the plains around Pamplona. Clausel was placed on the French left (east) and Clausel on the right (west).

The fighting took place around the very top of the pass, just to the north of the village of Roncesvalles. To the north of the pass was the valley of the River Nive d’Arneguy, with a road running close to the river. Soult decided not to use the valley route, but instead sent his men along the ridges to the west and east of the river. At this point the high road from France to Spain ran along the eastern ridge, and there had already been some clashes between the advanced elements of Clausel’s corps and the British outposts. The western ridge was more difficult, with no road and only a shepherd’s path, but Soult decided to send all three of Reille’s corps along this route. It had two potential advantages. The first was that Soult hoped it would surprise the defenders of the pass, who were indeed concentrated around the high road in the east. The second was that the ridge reached a high level some distance to the north of the top of the pass, so Reille’s men wouldn’t have to attack up a steep slope to reach the top of the western side of the pass. The main disadvantage was that the path was very narrow - in places only one or two men wide, so Reille’s 17,000 men were soon very badly stretched out.

On the western ridge Reille’s column was led by Foy, with Maucune and then Lamartiniere following. On the eastern ridge Clausel’s column was led by Vandermaesen, with Taupin next, then Conroux. The last of the infantry was followed by the cavalry then the guns and transport. Reille only had eight mountain guns, as his road was too rough for the normal artillery.

The pass was originally defended by General Byng’s brigade and the Spanish Regiment of Leon under General Morillo. Eight days before the attack they were placed under General Cole’s command, and his 4th Division had moved nearer to the pass, after spending some time near Pamplona. Byng and Morillo deployed their troops to cover an attack along the eastern ridge. Byng had placed his three light companies, one company from the 5/60th and three light companies from Morillos two miles down the ridge, on the Leicaratheca hill. His main position was near the top of the pass, and was occupied by the Buffs, the 1st Provisional (made up of the 2/31st and 2/66th), and two of Morillo’s battalions. Byng’s third battalion, the 1/57th was on the slopes of the Altobiscar, a little further to the west, at the top of the climb up the pass. Another of Morillo’s battalions was on the eastern side of the Altobiscar. Finally the rest of Morillo’s battalions were down in the valley to the north, near the village of Val Carlos. The western ridge was only watched by a small detachment, which occupied the ruins of a fortification from the clashes of the Revolutionary Wars in the 1790s.

When Cole was given command in the area he moved Ross’s brigade to Espinal, three miles to the south-west of Roncesvalles village. The rest of his command was a few miles further away. On the night of 24 July Cole ordered Ross to move to the front and occupy the top of the Mendichuri pass, and more importantly the Linduz plateau, at the southern end of the western ridge, and Soult’s main target. Ross set off with the 20th and 7th Foot very early on 25 July, and reached the plateau by dawn, well before the struggling French had arrived.

The battle began at around 6.00am when Vandermaesen’s division, from Clausel’s column, attacked the seven light companies on the Leicaratheca. General Barbot sent the 1st Line and 25th Leger to try and storm the position, but this attack failed. This was the start of three hours of skirmishing, which saw the French make no progress. In the meantime the rest of Clausel’s column was closing up, blocked behind Barbot’s brigade.

Eventually General Vandermaesen ended the deadlock by leading three battalions on a long outflanking march, which soon threatened to get between the outpost on the Leicaratheca and the main force. In addition Clausel had managed to get six guns up from the back of the column. At this point Byng ordered the light companies to retreat to the main position. When the French attacked again, this time with the 50th Line in the front and the flanking column attacking the right, they found the defensive position had been abandoned. By the time the French reached Byng’s main fighting position it was already 3pm. Clausel realised that this was too strong a position to carry with a frontal assault, and prepared for a long outflanking movement, using Conroux’s division. However at 5pm a mountain fog rose, ending the fighting. In theory this part of the battle had seen a column of 17,000 French troops attack 6,000 British and Spanish troops, but in reality only Barbot’s brigade and the light companies had been engaged, and casualties on both sides were light. Clausel reported losing 160 killed and wounded, Byng and Morillo 120.

The fighting on the western ridge started rather later. By 6am Ross had one battalion on the Linduz, with his second close behind. His third was further off, but would arrive by 2pm. He sent his light companies to watch the northern edge of the plateau and a company of Brunswick-Oels troops to watch the ridge heading north. These troops finally spotted the leading troops of Reille’s at about 11am, but their progress was still slow, and they weren’t firmly identified as French until after noon, after Ross sent the Brunswickers down the ridge to identify them. About half a mile down the ridge the two sides finally came into contact, when Ross’s men were fired on by the leading troops from the 6th Leger from Foy’s division.

In order to gain time for the rest of his brigade to deploy, Ross ordered the leading company of the 20th Foot to charge the advancing French column. This led to a rare example of a real bayonet fight, fought between the men from the right wing of the 20th Foot and the 6th Leger on the narrow ridge. This brief skirmish, which allowed the rest of the 20th time to form a line across the ridge, cost the company 11 dead and 14 wounded out of 75 men.

The battle then expanded into a clash between the rest of the 20th Foot and the French, who were slowly reinforced by the 1/69th Foot. Eventually the 20th was forced to retreat, but only to the edge of the plateau, where the rest of the 20th was waiting, supported by the 1/7th, with the 1/23rd in support. The French were faced with a very difficult task. The narrow ridge meant they could only attack in a narrow column, while the British on the plateau were able to deploy in a line on the plateau. Unsurprisingly the first French attack was stopped by a British volley. Foy then committed the 2/69th Line, but they were also repulsed. This set the pattern for the rest of the day, with the French only able to feed in small numbers of men. Reille’s second division, Maucune’s, only began to arrive at 3.30pm, and wasn’t complete until 5pm. At this point the fog appeared, ending the fight.

Once again the battle had only been between small parts of the respective forces. On the French side five battalions from Foy’s leading five battalions had been involved, while on the British side the 20th, 7th and 23rd Foot had taken part in the fighting.

By the time the fog stopped the battle, the British were in a strong position. Ross’s second and third brigades had arrived, so the ridge at the top of the pass was held by 11,000 men. General Campbell was also approaching from the west, with five battalions of Portuguese troops, after hearing the sound of battle to his right. In contrast Soult’s two columns were trapped on the two ridges, with no real alternative other than to resume the frontal assaults on the following day.

The most controversial moment of the battle came after the fighting had ended. Both Cole and Byng were worried that they were badly outnumbered, by almost three to one, and that the French could be using the cover of the fog to outflank them to the east. Both men came to the conclusion that they would have to retreat, with Cole’s orders to Byng to pull back arriving after Byng had already started to do so. This was despite Wellington’s explicit orders to hold the pass ‘to the utmost’, and Wellington was certainly unimpressed with this move, which turned a victory into a defeat.

In the aftermath of the battle Cole was joined by Picton. They decided not to risk making a stand in the mountains, and continued to retreat towards Pamplona. Picton’s plan had been to hold the last line of hills north of Pamplona, but Cole spotted a better defensive position on the heights of Sorauren, a little further to the north. Soult decided not to attack on 27 July, as his two ‘corps’ were too widely separated, and by the time he was ready on 28 July Wellington had reached the front to take direct command. The delay also allowed Pack’s 6th Division to reach Sorauren, and the first French attack on 28 July ended in failure. A second assault on 30 July also failed, and Soult was forced to retreat back to France, with his grand plan in tatters. 

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 November 2018), Battle of Roncesvalles, 25 July 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_roncesvalles.html

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