First battle of Sorauren, 28 July 1813

The first battle of Sorauren (28 July 1813) was Soult’s best chance to win a significant victory during the battle of the Pyrenees, but by the time he attacked Wellington had reached the scene with reinforcements, and the French attack was repulsed.

Soult’s aim in the campaign was to overwhelm Wellington’s forces in the passes north of Pamplona, at the eastern end of his line, and then dash south to lift the siege of Pamplona. If all went well this could be achieved before Wellington was able to react. Soult split his army into two columns. The largest, made up of Reille’s and Clausel’s ‘corps’, were to attack at the pass of Roncesvalles, and head straight for Pamplona. The smaller, Drouet’s ‘corps’ was to attack the pass of Maya. Soult expected each of these attacks to be quick victories, and issued plans for a pursuit on the afternoon of the attack. In both cases things didn’t go quite as expected. In the west General Hill’s troops held on at Maya for longer than expected before they were forced to retreat. In the east General Cole’s men actually held out all day at Roncesvalles, and still held their initial positions at the end of the day. Soult’s attacking troops were stuck on two mountain ridges, and the position could probably have been held for at least another day. 

In the aftermath of the battle of Roncesvalles, General Coles decided that his position was too vulnerable, and ordered a retreat. His route took him west/ south west along the road to Pamplona. He soon met up with General Picton, who took command of the combined force. They decided that it was too risky to make a stand in the mountains, and after a delaying action at Linzoain, carried out another night march. By the early morning they had reached Zabaldica, in the Arga valley, close to the southern end of the mountains. Picton had decided to leave the main body of the mountains and defend the heights of San Cristobel, the last high ground outside Pamplona.

However as they marched south, Cole realised that they were passing a better defensive position, the heights of Sorauren, an almost entirely isolated mountain between the Arga and Ulzana rivers. Zabaldica was to the north-east of the high ground and Sorauren to the north-west. He was able to convince Picton to make a stand here instead of at San Cristobel. As a result the site of the battle wasn’t chosen by Wellington.

Cole took up a position on the northern slopes of the hill. A spur at the north-eastern corner was held by some Spanish troops sent forward from Pamplona. Anson’s brigade was next in line, facing the only col linking the heights to other high ground. Campbell’s Portuguese brigade was in the centre and Ross’s brigade on the left. Cole drew his forces up in Wellington’s manner, with light troops in front and his main line hidden behind the crest of the hill.

Picton’s division was deployed to the right-rear of the main position, stretching east from the village of Huarte, at the south-eastern corner of the heights. It formed the right wing of a second line, largely held by Spanish troops. Morillo’s troops held the ridge west of Huarte, while O’Donnell’s main force from Pamplona held the San Cristobal ridge.

The French pursuit didn’t go as planned. Soult realised that use of the single road followed by the retreating Allies would slow down his advance. Clausel was ordered down the main road, while Reille was sent down minor paths on the east bank of the Arga River. Once again this attempt to move cross country didn’t work. Reille’s men found no good paths, and eventually had to leave the hills. Foy headed south towards Alzuza, a village to the north of Picton’s new position. Maucune and Lamartinière ended up back on the main road in the Arga valley, but only after a much slower march than if they had simply followed Clausel.

Clausel was keen to launch an immediate attack on Cole’s position. He left one of his divisions at Zabaldica and sent his other two west to occupy the mountain to the immediate north of Cole. He then sent a message to Soult asking for permission to attack, claiming that he could see baggage trains leaving Pamplona and that the Allies were only planning to fight a rearguard action. Soult was unconvinced, and joined Clausel at the front at 11am to see for himself. Soult realised that the Allies intended to defend their new position, and that many Spanish troops had joined the Anglo-Portuguese. As a result he was unwilling to risk an attack until Reille had arrived on the scene. After a council of war that evening, Soult decided to launch a five division attack on the Allied position on the following day, while Foy attempted to contain Picton’s division.

General Rowland Hill, 1782-1842
General Rowland Hill, 1782-1842

At the same time that Soult reached the front, Wellington also arrived on the scene, after an eventful ride from Almandoz. On the way he kept receiving news from the front, which looked so bad that he began to plan for a general retreat away from Pamplona. However that was only a contingency plan, and his intention was still to move reinforcements east to stop Soult. Wellington crossed the bridge at Sorauren just before the French occupied the village, and was even cool enough to send a message back to Murray to warn him that the road was blocked at Sorauren and further troops would have to use a side road further south! He then joined Cole and took command. Wellington’s arrival had a very positive affect on the morale of his men, restoring their mood after several days of retreat. Once he had examined the position, Wellington concentrated on issuing orders to his other divisions to bring them to the battlefield. Pack’s 6th Division was nearest, and was ordered to march at dawn on 28 July and get onto Cole’s left flank as quickly as possible, ignoring any French troops found on the way. Hill and Dalhousie were ordered to move their forces towards the battlefield as quickly as possible, but a storm on the evening of 27 July delayed them, and they weren’t able to arrive in time to take part in the first day of the battle.

28 July

On 28 July Soult only had the troops that had fought at Roncesvalles, around 36,000 men from Clausel’s and Reille’s ‘corps’. Clausel was placed on the French right and Reille on the left. On the far left Foy was alone facing Picton. On the main front Lamartiniere was placed on the French left, with Maucune to his right. Vandermaesen was in the centre, with Taupin on his right and Conroux on the far right of the French line, around Sorauren village. Conroux was to try and outflank Wellington’s left flank. Otherwise this was to be a frontal assault up the hill, as Soult couldn’t get his artillery out of the narrow Arga valley while the Allies held the high ground.

On the Allied side Wellington had gathered 24,000 men. His main line was placed on the northern slopes of the heights of Oricain, to the north-east of the village of the same name (also known as the heights of Sorauren). Pack’s 6th Division was approaching from the left, and would be deployed on the road from Oricain to Sorauren. Cole’s 4th Division defended the northern slopes of the hill.

The Allies had a second line, further to the south, running along the Heights of San Cristobal, the last high ground before the plains around Pamplona. O’Donnel’s Spanish troops were on the left of this position, with Morillo’s Spanish in the centre and Picton’s 3rd Division on the right.

Soult’s original plan had been to attack at 1pm. However Clausel’s scouts detected Pack’s approaching 6th Division, and he decided to launch a pre-emptive strike. Conroux was ordered to advance south down the Ulzama valley to intercept Pack, while his other divisions were to attack immediately. Conroux got half a mile to the south of Sorauren, but then found himself surrounded on three sides, between Portuguese troops on the hills to his west, Ross’s troops to his east and Pack’s troops to his south. Conroux was forced to retreat back to Sorauren, where the fighting on that flank ended for the moment.

The main French attack began in the west, with Taupin’s division. Vandermaesen moved next, followed by Maucune. On the left of the French line the timing of Lamartiniere’s attack on the Spanish is unclear, with the general himself claiming it started about an hour earlier than it was meant to, but other sources putting at about the same time as the main French attack.

Six French brigades took part in the attack on the hill. On their right Lecamus attacked Ross’s troops. Next in line Bechaud attacked towards the join between Ross and Campbell. Vandermaesen’s two brigades attacked Campbell’s right and centre. Maucune’s leading brigade attacked Anson, at the low col linking the heights to the mountains further north. On the French left Gauthier’s brigade attacked the Spanish.

Lecamus’s first attack got close to the crest of the ridge before it was repulsed by Ross and the Fusilier Brigade. Bechaud’s brigade attacked next, and actually reached the ridge. However it was still engaged with Campbell’s troops when Ross attacked it from the west, and forced it to retreat.

Next in line Vandermaesen’s attack began while Bechaud was still fighting. They forced Campbell back and reached the summit. Cole was able to hold for some time, but the 10th Line on his left then gave way. At the same time Bechaud’s troops made a second attack, and pushed back Ross’s right, creating a gap in the Allied line. Further to the east Maucune’s attack was also underway, and for a short time Clausel believed that he was close to victory.

The moment soon passed. Maucune’s attack failed with heavy losses. Wellington then ordered Anson to leave his position on the heights facing Maucune and attack Vandermaesen’s flank. He also ordered Byng’s brigade to move up out of the reserve. When Anson’s counterattack hit the French were still disorganised by their attack up the hill, and Vandermaesen’s troops were forced to retreat. Anson then moved on to attack Bechaud, who was also forced to retreat. The two battalions involved in this dramatic counterattack suffered 389 casualties in the fighting, but their attack ended any real chance of a French victory.

The battle continued for another hour, as individual French battalions launched isolated attacks. These all failed, and at 4pm Soult ordered an end to the battle.

On the left of the French line Gauthier’s brigade attacked the Spanish position on the right of Wellington’s line, by then held by the Pravia and Principe battalions and the British 40th Foot. The French attack was carried out by three battalions from the 120th Line. The French skirmishes reached the crest of the hill, only to find the Allies hiding behind the skyline. The Allies opened fire and the 120th broke and fled. The Allies then stepped back into their original position. The 120th rallied when it met the 122nd, and launched a second attack. This time they forced the Spanish back, but were stopped by the 40th Foot. Finally the 122nd attacked, but was repulsed. After this the French stopped half way down the hill and kept up a harassing fire until Soult ordered an end to the battle at 4pm.

Around Sorauren Pack attempted to take advantage of the French failure on the hill to capture the village. He sent in the light companies from two British brigades from the south while Madden’s Portuguese were to try and get behind the village. The attack failed as the village was too heavily defended. Madden’s men suffered 300 casualties and Pack himself suffered a bad head wound. Wellington then sent orders cancelling the attack.

On the other flank Foy’s isolated division hardly got moving. There was a skirmish between his cavalry and the British Hussar Brigade, but little other action.

The fighting on 28 July cost the Allies 2,652 casualties - 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spanish. On the French side the casualties are unclear. Soult reported suffering 1,800 casualties in his entire army. However Clausel admitted to 2,000, Maucune to 700 and Lamartiniére 350, for a total of 3,050.

While the battle had been going on, reinforcements for both sides had been moving towards the scene. On the French side this was Drouet’s ‘corps’, which had fought at Maya. On the British side it was Hill’s division, also coming from Maya, and Dalhousie’s 7th Division, most of which was still fresh.

On his way to the battlefield Wellington had issued orders to Hill and Dalhousie, which he had hoped would see them reach Ollocarizqueta, just to the west of the position at Sorauren, by the morning of 28 July. Their route would take them south down the main road from Maya to Olague, then west to Lizaso in the Ulzama valley, and then south across another mountain pass, a route they had to take because the French held the bridge at Sorauren village, further down the Ulzama.

Heavy rain on the evening of 27 July slowed down both divisions. Hill was caught in the mountains, and could only reach Lizaso. It took most of 28 July for his units to reach the village, and Hill had to tell Wellington that he would be unable to move any further until 29 July. Dalhousie received his orders a little later than Hill, and despite making better progress didn’t reach Lizaso until noon on 28 July. He didn’t need such a long rest, and his men were able to move again late on 28 July, reaching Ollocarizqueta by dawn on 29 July.

On the French side Drouet’s pursuit didn’t begin until the morning of 28 July, after the storms of the previous evening helped the British escape unnoticed. By the morning of 29 July his leading troops were at Lantz, about four miles to the north-east of Lizaso.

By the morning of 29 July Soult knew that Drouet’s troops were close by, and he decided to risk another attack. His new plan was to advance north-west, get around the western flank of Hill’s troops at Lizaso, and cut the road from Pamplona to Tolosa. This would cut Wellington off from Graham’s wing of his army around San Sebastian, forcing Graham to lift the siege.

This plan was put into effect on 30 July, and ended in failure. In the west Drouet clashed with Hill at the combat of Beunza, and was unable to push him aside as required, although Hill did have to abandon his first defensive position. Worse came on the east, where Soult’s main force was unable to escape from Wellington’s grasp, and suffered a second defeat at the second battle of Sorauren (30 July 1813). In the aftermath of this disaster, Soult was forced to retreat back to France, although he did achieve this without too many problems, after taking an unexpected route back across the mountains.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 November 2018), First battle of Sorauren, 28 July 1813 ,

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