Vittoria was the decisive battle of the Peninsular War; it was the last major battle against Napoleon's forces in Spain and opened the way for the British forces under Lord Wellington to invade France.
By mid 1812 the campaign in Spain had been going well for Lord Wellington but the British forces suffered a serious setback at the siege of Burgos in September and October of 1812 and were forced to retreat to the often fought over Ciudad Rodrigo. Despite this the British forces soon recovered. After a winter spent preparing they were ready by the spring of 1813 to go on the offensive again and expectations of a successful campaign were high in Britain. In May 1813 Wellington left Portugal for what he knew the last time - the final campaign of the peninsular war had begun.
Wellington's Army was in a good condition, for once not short of supplies or men as new infantry and some cavalry had arrived from England. Wellington was confident. He then cleaned house, using the time to get rid of troublesome or inefficient officers one of whom committed suicide rather than return to the UK in disgrace. Wellington also replaced his quartermaster general with George Murray who was to become Wellington’s right hand man.
The situation in the French Army was far different. Napoleon had begun to strip the army of troops he needed for the upcoming campaign in Germany. 15,000 veteran French troops were recalled (by this stage experienced French troops were in short supply, the last decade of war having left many dead or crippled). Spanish Guerrilla attacks were also tying down large numbers of French troops with two French armies totaling around 37,000 men engaged in counter insurgency. While the Spanish Guerrillas were busy destroying French morale, Napoleon's brother Joseph was continuing to be a poor replacement for his brother and Napoleon’s famed spy network was failing, leading him to believe the forces under Wellington were much fewer and in much poorer condition than in reality.
The early stages of the campaign went well with Wellington's army in two wings advancing easily and retaking Salamanca with little difficulty. By the 13th June Wellington's forces had forced the French to abandon the hated fortress of Burgos, which they blew up as they fled. Wellington now decided to advance via a very rugged and mountainous region rather than directly follow the retreating French. This proved highly successful as the British and Portuguese would have been slowed by French rearguards in well-prepared positions allowing French troops coming up from the south to join the main body. The French disregarded any possibility that Wellington would advance via the mountains which shows how badly they misjudged him. Wellington's plan was to cross the Ebro, which would allow him to use the port of Santander and therefore considerably shorten his supply lines. French intelligence proved poor which is understandable as they were a hostile army facing considerable guerrilla attacks and they lost contact with Wellington's army for 4 days. A few brief engagements followed on the 18th June as the French realised that Wellington had outflanked them. Joseph was so angry about the French General Maucune's performance during these initial engagements that he sent him back to France guarding a convoy thus sending away valuable troops. On the 20th of June Wellington halted to concentrate his army and make final plans for the upcoming battle, captured French prisoners had shown him how chaotic the enemies army was and he was confident of victory.
The battlefield of Vittoria is 12 miles long and 6 miles wide. The French army numbered 60,000 with 153 guns and deployed in a rough “L” shape. The Anglo-Portuguese, Spanish army had 78,000 men and 96 guns which Wellington spilt into four columns with the centre two under his personal command totaling 30,000 men. His plan was to hit the French line in several places, roll up the flanks and chop it into pieces. Another 12,000 Spanish troops under Giron had swept north and despite their efforts did not reach the battlefield in time. The battle began about 8am and it was a clear dry morning with good visibility across the battlefield. Within an hour the French position was under threat as Spanish troops took the entrance to the heights of Puebla threatening the French left flank. The French seeing the threat sent more troops in but the English and their allies held.
Meanwhile British and French troops fought to a stalemate over the village of Subjiana de Alava, which lies north of the heights of Puebla. Here the French were unable to retake the village but the allies were unable to advance out of it due to artillery fire. Picton’s troops to the north had been delayed and the British on the heights continued to advance. Believing the troops in the north were a distraction, the French weakened their centre to commit more troops to the battle for high ground on the left flank. This resulted in 2 of General Hill’s Brigades up on the heights drawing off more than two whole French divisions from the main line, more than Wellington could have hoped for.
Things were not going so well elsewhere for Wellington. General Graham's attack on the French right flank at the crossing of the Zadorra River north of Vittoria had run into determined opposition at the village of Gamara Mayor. Wellington was becoming concerned, as by noon his centre columns under Picton and Dalhousie had not yet arrived. When they finally arrived Picton impatient for orders led his division to take the bridge of Mendoza. The French had by the afternoon been driven from the heights and were being squeezed into the area around Vittoria as the allies drove at them from the centre and left flanks. The French were now under threat from both flanks and the centre with an artillery duel between 75 allied guns and 76 French guns being the biggest artillery battle of the war and the largest amount of artillery Wellington would have command of until Waterloo. By 4 pm Wellington was preparing for the final stroke. Outflanked and under pressure the French finally broke. Only the failure by the allies to take Gamara Mayor prevented the French being cut off completely and destroyed.
The retreating French convoy contained much of Joseph's ‘court’ and contained 3,000 carriages and stretched for 12 miles by the time it reached Vittoria. For such a large convoy there was no escape from the Allied troops eager for plunder and among the French convoy were wagons newly arrived from France containing over 5 million gold francs! Joseph himself was nearly captured by the British 10th Hussars and had to leave all his personal belongings behind even his chamber pot. The huge amount of treasure saved the French from complete destruction as looting began by both sides on a huge scale and Wellington only retrieved 250,000 francs! The Allies lost around 5,000 men; the French lost around 8,000 but also vast amounts of money, equipment, wagons, artillery guns and other treasures, but surprisingly no Imperial Eagles. The news of the defeat spread throughout Europe and Napoleon's old enemies Austrian, Russia and Prussia all pressed for war. Vittoria not only marked the end of French ambitions in Spain but the beginning of the end for Napoleon.