The combat of Biar (12 April 1813) was a successful British rearguard action that delayed Suchet’s advance and reduced his chances of winning a major victory over Murray’s Army of Alicante.
In the spring of 1813 the French Army of Valencia under Marshal Suchet faced the Anglo-Sicilian Army of Alicante (Sir John Murray) and parts of the Army of Murcia (General Elio) along the Xucar River. In March Murray had briefly gone onto the offensive, planning to launch a risky amphibious assault on Valencia, but this was cancelled after news arrived of political problems on Sicily. The brief offensive left Murray’s army rather scattered. His main forces were based at Castalla, where they had a strong defensive position. His best Spanish division (Whittingham) was fifteen miles to the north-east around Alcoy. On the left the nearest part of the Army of Murcia was a division at Yecla, twenty five miles to the west.
Suchet decided to take advantage of Murray’s inactivity and his poor position. He concentrated his three infantry divisions at the western end of his line, and launched an attack into the gap between the British and Spanish armies. Two divisions were sent towards Villena, in the gap, while the third attacked the Spanish at Yecla. The aim was to then advance east through the pass of Biar and hit Murray’s base before he could concentrate his army.
At first all went well. At dawn on 11 April the French hit the Spanish at Yecla and forced them to retreat, destroying two of the four infantry battalions involved during the fighting. Murray and Elio happened to be at Villena when the attack began, right in the path of the larger part of Suchet’s army. This concentrated their minds. Elio ordered the infantry battalion he had with him to defend the castle at Villena, while Murray ordered Colonel Adam to use his light brigade to defend the pass at Biar, while the rest of his army concentrated at Castalla.
On the morning of 12 April a short French bombardment blew the gates off the castle at Villena. The defenders mutinied, and surrendered without a fight. This only left Adam to defend the road to Castalla. Adam’s force was around 2,200 strong. It contained one British and two Italian infantry battalions, two German Legion rifle companies, four mountain guns and one squadron of ‘Foreign Hussars’. Adam had prepared a series of defensive positions, and intended to hold each of them until it was too strongly threatened, starting with the village of Biar itself, at the western end of the pass.
Biar was held by the Calabrese Free Corps and the light companies from the 2/27th Foot and 3rd K.G.L. The rest of the brigade held the hills that flanked the pass, while the artillery was posted on the road.
The combat began when the leading French infantry battalion attacked Biar and was repulsed. The French then attempted pass the village on both flanks. The garrison retreated, but the outflanking columns came under heavy fire from the hills and had to retreat.
Suchet’s next attack involved nine infantry battalions (from the 1st and 3rd Leger, 14th, 114th and 121st Line), while the voltigeurs were sent to attack Adam’s left flank. Adam used his own light companies to hold off the outflanking assault, while his four guns and infantry slowed the main French attack up the pass. Eventually, at the crest of the pass, he was forced to abandon two of his guns which had lost wheels.
Once the French had reached the top of the pass, Suchet ordered a squadron of cuirassiers to charge down the opposite side to hit the retreating infantry, but instead they ran into an ambush launched by three companies from the 2/27th and were forced to retreat. This ended the fiercest part of the fighting, which had lasted for some five hours. Adam’s men were able to march into their allotted position on the defensive line at Castalla, covered by three battalions that had been sent to guard the eastern end of the pass.
The Allies lost 300 men killed and wounded during the retreat, including Adam who suffered an arm injury. The French probably lost a similar number of men, but the most important result of the battle was that Suchet didn’t reach the plains north of Castalla until the late afternoon of 12 April, which gave Murray time to complete his defensive deployment. On the following day Suchet attacked, but the resulting battle of Castalla (13 April 1813) was yet another British defensive victory, and the daring French offensive ended in defeat.