The combat of Bejar (20 February 1813) was the only direct clash between Wellington’s army and the French during the winter of 1813 and saw an attempt to surprise the British 50th Regiment fail.
In the aftermath of the dramatic campaigns of 1812, the British and French had gone into winter quarters with a wide area of no man’s land between them. Neither side attempted to raid across this gap for most of the winter, apart from the brief expedition that ended at Bejar. General Foy, who was based at Avila, half way between Salamanca and Madrid, decided to try and surprise the most isolated part of General Hill’s division, the 50th Regiment at Bejar, sixty miles to the west of Avila.
Foy gathered a force 1,500 men, made up of three weak infantry battalions and 80 cavalry, at Piedrahita, 24 miles to the east of Bejar. The expedition began on 19 February, and his men marched through the day and into the night of 19-20 February. The French reached Bejar in time to attack at dawn.
Unfortunately for Foy, the 50th was commanded by the able Colonel Harrison. He had repaired the old town walls, and built barricades to block the broken gates, giving him a strong defensive position. Hill had also realised that the position was potentially vulnerable and had sent the Portuguese 6th Cacadores (Ashworth’s Brigade) to reinforce him. Harrison also made sure that several companies of his men were always under arms from 2am until daylight, to guard against any surprise attack.
As a result Foy’s attack didn’t go as planned. He was able to push back the outlying guards, and his advance guard of 300 voltigeurs advanced towards the walls. However they then came under such heavy fire from the alert defenders that the voltigeurs stopped when they were 30 yards from the gates. At this point Foy, realising that the element of surprise had been lost, ordered a full scale retreat. The Cacadores pursued the French for some way before halting.
In his official report Foy claimed to have lost two dead and five wounded, and to only have stopped the attack because he had been warned that the 71st and 92nd Foot were approaching Bejar. However the attack ended so quickly that this seems unconvincing. More likely is that he had relied on catching the British by surprise, and when this failed was unwilling to risk suffering heavy casualties with little chance of success.
After this brief encounter, the two sides remained in their winter quarters until the start of the Vittoria campaign.
A History of the Peninsular War, Volume VI: September 1, 1812 to August 5, 1813: Siege of Burgos, Retreat of Burgos, Vittoria, the Pyrenees