The combat of Venta de Urroz or Donna Maria (31 July 1813) was a rearguard action during Soult’s retreat after his defeat at the second battle of Sorauren, and saw Hill’s division harass the French rearguard and begin to provide evidence that the French weren’t retreating along the route that Wellington had expected.
On 30 July the French fought two separate actions. At Beunza Drouet’s ‘corps’ successfully forced Hill’s 2nd Division to retreat from their original defensive position, although Allied reinforcements then began to arrive, preventing Drouet from attacking the new position. At the second battle of Sorauren things didn’t go well for the French. An attempt to disengage from Wellington’s main army failed, and Reille’s and Clausel’s ‘corps’ both suffered heavy losses. Foy’s division ended up retreating on a different road, and by the end of the day only about half of the 30,000 men Soult had been expecting to join him at Beunza were with the colours (although more stragglers rejoined over the next few days). Soult realised he would have to retreat back into France. There were several possible routes. Reille and Clausel had ended the day at Olague, on the high road that led north across the Velate Pass into the upper Bidassoa valley at Elizondo, and from there over the Maya pass back into France. Drouet was nearer to the Puerto de Arraiz, which entered the Bidassoa further to the west, at Sanesteban. Wellington expected Soult to use the eastern Velate Pass, but instead he chose to use the Puerto de Arraiz.
As a result most of Wellington’s plans for the pursuit of Soult’s defeated army were aimed at the wrong places, with two divisions sent to follow the Roncesvalles road, to the east of the Velate. Byng and Cole coming from Sorauren were ordered up the Velate, as was Hill, who was ordered to move north-east from Beunza to join Wellington’s main force. Only Lord Dahlhousie’s 7th Division was ordered to follow the Puerto de Arraiz. The Light Division, which was operating somewhere to the west of the Bidassoa, was ordered to try and get to Zubieta, due west of Sanesteban, but Wellington didn’t know exactly where that division was, so wasn’t relying on it.
At the start of the day Hill was still in the position he had been pushed back into on the previous day, a mile or so into the hills. Abbe’s division, Drouet’s leading unit, was still in position in front of him, so Hill was unaware that the rest of the French army was moving past him only a couple of miles to the north.
On the French side the retreat back at dawn. Soult led the way, with his two cavalry divisions and the baggage. Reille’s badly battered command came next. Clausel formed a temporary rearguard during the move west from Olague to the Puerto de Arraiz, while Drouet remained in place facing Hill until the other units had passed, at which point he was to join the retreat. Drouet then joined the rear of the column, leaving Abbé’s division was to remain behind as the rearguard.
The French actually had three parallel routes across the mountains (none of which appear to carry a modern road), coming together near the village of Donna Maria. The best road was in the centre of the three. To the east was the official Puerto de Arraiz, presumably starting from the modern village of Arraitz-Orkin, and perhaps following an existing track that heads north up one valley and almost joins a road heading down the next valley heading towards Donna Maria. To the west was a pass known locally as the Puerto de Eradi.
At first Soult appears to have led his entire force along the main route, but this caused chaos as the cavalry and baggage slowed down the infantry on the climb up the pass. When the sounds of fighting came from the south, Reille even went as far as ordering his infantry to push their way through, causing more chaos. Clausel avoided the chaos by leaving the main path and instead using the eastern path.
Hill remained in his original position until 10am, when having been informed of Wellington’s victory on the previous day, he launched an attack on Abbé’s troops. Abbé was ordered to give ground without risking getting too closely engaged with Hill’s men, until he reached the southern end of the pass, near the Venta de Urroz (so far unidentified). Further to the north Darmagnac’s and Maransin’s divisions could be seen, waiting for the blockage ahead to be cleared.
This part of the fighting took until 2pm. By now Dalhousie’s 7th Division had almost arrived, but Hill was clearly worried that the French would escape without a fight, and so he ordered General William Stewart, commander of the 2nd Division, to attack to pin the French in place. Steward ordered Fitzgerald’s badly damaged brigade to launch a frontal assault on the French position. Fitzgerald had 1,000 men under his command, while Abbé still had 7,000 in his division. The result was unsurprising, and Fitzgerald was repulsed.
Stewart then launched a second attack, using Pringle’s brigade and supported by two guns which had reached the front, but this attack was also repulsed. Finally Dalhousie’s men reached the front, and a third attack forced Abbé to retreat. He was replaced as rearguard by Darmagnac.
By this point the road north had been cleared, and most of Drouet’s troops were already heading down the far side of the pass. As the British pushed up the pass, the French retreated. Eventually a fog appeared, ending the pursuit.
Once the fighting was over, Hill reverted to his original orders, and took his men across the hills to Almandoz, to join Wellington’s main column. As a result the 2nd Division took no part in the fighting on 1 August, when Soult was at his most vulnerable. Dalhousie was left to follow Soult’s column by himself. He didn’t want to risk pushing too far, and camped at the top of the pass.
Between them the 2nd and 7th Divisions suffered a total of 41 dead, 239 wounded and 35 missing, for a total of 315 casualties during the fighting. The 2nd Division suffered most heavily, and within that division Fitzgerald’s brigade suffered the most, with a total of 174 casualties. Amongst the casualties was Fitzgerald himself, who was wounded and captured during the fighting. Steward was also wounded, although remained in command of his division for the invasion of France.
By the morning of 1 August, Wellington realised that he had misjudged Soult’s line of pursuit. His main force had reached the Bidassoa valley some way to Soult’s east, and he sent Cole’s 4th Division to try and press the French on the north bank of the river. Dalhousie was ordered to press them on the south bank, and both divisions thus fought at the combat of Sumbilla (1 August 1813), which appears to have been more of a race than a genuine conflict.