Battle of the Pyrenees, 25 July-2 August 1813

The battle of the Pyrenees (25 July-2 August 1813) saw Marshal Soult unexpectedly launch an offensive across the mountains in an attempt to raise the siege of Pamplona. After some early successes he was turned back to the north of the city, and was lucky to escape back into France with his army largely intact.

In the aftermath of the French defeat at Vitoria (21 June 1813), their armies in northern Spain began to retreat back towards the border. Wellington attempted to pursue King Joseph as he retreated via Pamplona, but was unable to catch up with him. An attempt to intercept Clausel's Army of Aragon, which had missed the battle, also failed, but the best the French could manage was to escape with their remaining forces largely intact.

On 1 July the last of General Foy's troops crossed the lower Bidassoa, leaving the entire south bank of the river in Wellington's hands. In the north of Spain the French now only had two garrisons, at San Sebastian on the coast and Pamplona inland. Wellington had decided not to risk a full scale pursuit of the defeated French, as that would have involved an invasion of France at a time when the fighting in Germany had been temporarily ended and peace negotiations were underway. Although these ended in failure, that wasn't inevitable, and Wellington didn't want to run the risk of being attacked by Napoleon and most of his army if peace did break out. Instead he decided to besiege San Sebastian and Pamplona, and wait for further news from the peace conference. Inevitably this news would take some time to reach Wellington - the war was resumed in mid-August with the start of the Autumn Campaign of 1813, but the news didn't reach Wellington until 7 September, almost a month later.

In the aftermath of the battle of Vitoria Wellington sent a large part of his army east to try and catch Clausel's retreating forces. By the start of July Clausel had escaped into France, removing the chance that he might have joined Suchet in the east of Spain, and Wellington's men were able to return to Pamplona, and then move north to clear the French out of the Baztan valley (the upper reaches of the Bidassoa), in order to open up the most direct lines of communication between the main army and Graham's detachment on the lower Bidassoa (soon to be engaged in the siege of San Sebastian). By 8 July Wellington had captured the pass of Maya, cleared the Baztan and was happy with the state of his right wing.

While this was going on, news of the disaster in Spain had reached Napoleon. He decided that his brother Joseph was to blame, and ordered him to hand over command of his army to Marshal Soult. On 11 July Soult reached Joseph's court, and took command. Joseph agreed to move to a house outside Bayonne, although three days later he attempted to escape and had to be placed under virtual arrest! Eventually he was allowed to retire to his estates at Mortefontaine, but was banned from visiting Paris.

By the time Soult arrived, the front line ran along the French border, from Irun on the coast to Roncesvalles in the Pyrenees. Wellington left his Spanish allies to blockade Pamplona, while he concentrated on the siege of San Sebastian, which was considered to be easier for the French to resupply.

Soult reached his new headquarters at Bayonne on 11 July, and took command on 12 July. Soult's first move was to reorganise the forces under his command, eliminating the four separate armies that had escaped from Spain and replacing them with a single Army of Spain. Many of the under strength divisions was also disappear, in order to streamline the organisation of the army. Soult had around 84,311 fighting men under his command, including 72,664 infantry and 7,147 cavalry. He split them into nine infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions and a five brigade Reserve Corps. Foy, Conroux, Maucune, Taupin and Lamartinière retained command of their existing divisions, while Abbé, Vandermaesen, Maransin and Darmagnac were given new commands based around existing divisions. Napoleon had ordered Soult not to form these divisions into corps, but he was allowed to appoint three lieutenant generals, with authority over three divisions each. Reille, Clausel and Drouet, the former commanders of the Armies of Portugal, the North and the Centre, were given these posts, although their ‘lieutenancies' didn't fight in their correct places. Clausel's ‘lieutenancy of the left' end up fighting in the centre, Drouet's ‘lieutenancy of the centre' on the right, and Reille's ‘lieutenancy of the right' on the left wing.

Soult had two main options - to attack near to the coast to lift the siege of San Sebastian, and then turn inland towards Pamplona, or to move east and then attack across the Pyrenees to lift the siege of Pamplona and then turn back to San Sebastian. He decided to take the second option. Reille and Clausel were to attack at Roncesvalles, on the far left of the French line, and Drouet at Maya, a little further to the west. The two columns would then unite on the south side of the passes to attack Pamplona. Soult had access to a good road from Bayonne to St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, at the northern end of the road leading to Roncesvalles, and expected to outnumber any forces Wellington had in the area for the first few days of the offensive. Drouet's role was to cut the best routes from the San Sebastian area to Pamplona, to slow down Wellington and prevent him from concentrating his army before Soult could lift the siege. Soult's plan was audacious, and its only real flaw was that it underestimated the strength of the Allied right.

The first step in Soult's offensive was to move Reille's men from their position on the French right facing Graham to the French left. They were withdrawn from the front on the night of 19-20 July, and on 20 July began their march east. They slipped away without being noticed, but bad weather slowed them down, and the move wasn't completed until 24 July. The other two columns were already in place, so when Reille arrived, he and Drouet began their march south towards Roncesvalles.

Wellington was aware of this movement by 23 July, when he ordered Sir Lowery Cole to support the defenders of the Roncesvalles pass. However he believed that the movement was a feint, and the real attack would come nearer the coast. San Sebastian was believed to be close to falling, and an assault was planned for 24 July, and Wellington refused to believe that Soult was willing to let the place fall. In contrast Pamplona was in no immediate danger. Wellington refused to believe this until late on 25 July, after the end of the first stage of the battle.

Marshal Soult
Marshal Soult

Soult's plan almost came undone at the battle of Roncesvalles. Reille and Clausel were sent to advance along the ridges on either side of the valley leading to the top of the pass. Soult hoped that the western column would catch the Allies by surprise, as there was no good road along that ridge., and if he had been able to attack on 24 July that would have been true, but late on that day General Cole, who had been given command in the area eight days earlier, ordered General Ross to move his brigade up to the front, and his first brigade was in place at the top of the ridge well before the French attack began. Although Reille and Clausel both had 17,000 men under their command, they were unable to get more than the leading battalions into battle, and by the time a mountain fog ended the fighting at 5pm both of their attacks had failed. Cole had 11,000 men in a strong position along the ridge at the top of the pass, and the French were faced with the unappetising prospect of another day of costly frontal assaults. Instead they were handed a victory by Cole, who feared that he was too badly outnumbered to hold the position, and that the French might be able to turn his right flank in the fog (although they had actually abandoned just that plan because of the fog). Cole retreated back down the Pamplona road.

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

Drouet had more luck at Maya. The two senior British officers, General Hill and General Stewart were absent when his attack began. The British defensive positions weren't well organised, and the French were able to quickly get established at the eastern end of the pass. They then forced the Allies away from the western end, and began to push down into the valley to the south. Late reinforcements allowed Stewart to organise a counterattack that forced the French back up the pass, but the Allies were badly outnumbered, and when Hill discovered that Cole had retreated from Roncesvalles, he was forced to do the same.

Wellington had been unusually out of touch with events during the day. He spent the afternoon of 25 July at San Sebastian, dealing with the aftermath of the failure of that morning's assault, and only learnt of the fighting at Maya and Roncesvalles late in the day, on his way back to his HQ at Lesaca. Even then his information was limited. The first official message came from Cole, informing him that the enemy was attacking at Roncesvalles in overpowering numbers, but the line was holding. However that message had been written at noon and was out of date by the time it reached Wellington. News from Maya arrived later in the evening when Stewart reported that he had lost the pass, taken it back and then been ordered to retreat by Hill. Hill confirmed this and reported that he was going to try and make a stand at Elizondo, ten miles to the south in the Baztan valley.

The campaign now turned into a race to see if Wellington could concentrate a sizable army to defend Pamplona before Soult could reach the city. Wellington was handicapped by limited information, and it would take some time before he realised he was even in a race.

Between the Battles

On the morning of 26 July Wellington began to respond to the bad news. The 7th Division, which was exposed at Echalar (Etxalar), in the mountains on the northern side of the Bidassoa, was ordered to move west to Sunbilla, in the Bidassoa valley. The Light Division, which was on the northern side of the Bidassoa at Vera was to cross back to the south bank, and then prepare to move south towards Santesteban (south of Sunbilla), or to Yanzi (modern Igantzi, in the mountains to the west of the Bidassoa, about half way between Vera and Sunbilla). Hill was to hold on at Irurita, where the Bidassoa turned west after flowing south-west from Maya, for as long as possible. The 6th Division was to move into the line to his west, at Legasa and Santesteban.

Wellington then set off to visit his subordinates. He found Hill still holding his position at Irurita, and then continued on to try and find Cole and Picton and gain firm news about the situation at the eastern end of his line. He ended the day at Almandoz, near the top of the Col de Velate. While he was there he decided to order the 6th Division to follow the same route towards Pamplona, starting on 27 July. He then received firm news from Cole, reporting that he was at Lintzoain, on the road to Pamplona, was faced by 35,000 men and was planning to retreat to Zubiri (ten miles to the north-east of Pamplona), where he would join Picton, who would take command of their combined force. Wellington dispatched new orders to Picton, ordering him to join Cole at Zubiri and defend that position, where he would be joined by O'Donnell and by the 6th Division. By the time Wellington was writing this order, Picton and Cole were already planning to abandon that position.

On the French side Drouet wasted almost the entire day. He was worried about the strong forces to his west, and believed that he faced two divisions to his south. He thus decided to send one division down the valley to Elizondo to find out who he faced, while his other two divisions remained on top of the pass. By the end of the day he had some idea of where Hill was, and also learnt of the Allied retreat at Roncesvalles. As a result he ordered a general advance to begin on 27 July.

To the east Cole's force retreated south-west along the road from Roncesvalles to Pamplona. After reaching Viscarret, just over five miles from Roncesvalles, he paused to allow his men to rest. On the French side Soult decided to sent Reille along another impractical mountain track, this time heading west to cut the Col de Velate, thus cutting the best line of communication between the two halves of Wellington's army. However this was an almost impossible task, and even with local guides Reille's men soon got lost, and ended up coming back down into the main valley, where they found themselves just behind Clausel's corps, which had been ordered to follow Cole down the main road. Reille decided to ignore Soult's orders, and join Clausel on the main road. Clausel's own advance wasn't terribly rapid, and his scouts didn't discover Cole's position until quite late. His infantry only caught up with Cole at about 3pm, and there was no serious fighting until after 4pm. At that point Picton reached the front, and decided not to fight. Instead he decided that it was too risky to try and fight in the mountains, and to withdraw to the heights of San Cristobal, the last line of high ground to the north of Pamplona, moving on the night of 26-27 July. Cole carried out a delaying action (combat of Linzoain), but this was a fairly minor clash between his rearguard and the leading part of Taupin's division. That night Picton and Cole retreated towards San Cristobal, but on the way they passed a superior position, and Cole was able to convince Picton to make a stand on the northern side of the heights of Sorauren.

First battle of Sorauren

Soult's best chance for a decisive victory probably came on 27 July. At the start of the day Cole's men were on the heights of Sorauren, while Picton was further to the south-east. Clausel's troops were soon in place facing Cole, but Reille's column was sent across the hills to the east of the road, and were delayed. As a result Soult decided not to attack until the following day. By that point Wellington had arrived on the scene, and issued orders that saw reinforcements rush to towards the battlefield. The first of these troops, Pack's 6th Division, arrived early on 28 July, before the French were ready to attack.

When Soult did attack, on the afternoon of 28 July, the result was predictable. His men attacked uphill towards Wellington's lines. In a few places they managed to reach the top of the ridge, but on every occasion Wellington was able to organise a counterattack that forced them back. By 4pm it was clear that the attack had failed, and Soult called a halt to the battle.

Second battle of Sorauren

At this point it was clear that Soult's plan had failed. Wellington now had more than enough men with him to stop Soult lifting the siege of Pamplona. At first Soult considered retreating back into France, but early on 29 July he learnt that Drouet's troops were finally close by, after a rather slow pursuit of Hill. As a result he came up with another ambitious plan. This time Drouet was to attack Hill, and get around the left wing of Wellington's main army, while Reille and Clausel would disengage at Sorauren and move to support Drouet. The French would then attack west, to try and cut the road between Pamplona and San Sebastian, thus cutting Wellington's line in half and hopefully saving San Sebastian.

This was a rather risky operation. It relied on Reille and Clausel being able to slip away overnight on 29-30 July, without Wellington being alerted, and then move to support Drouet without being caught. In the event the main part of the plan went badly wrong. Two of Clausel's divisions managed to move away as planned, but his third division was delayed at Sorauren by the late arrival of the first of Reille's troops. When dawn broke, Reille's divisions were spread out across Wellington's front, moving west in columns. Wellington attacked, and almost destroyed one of these divisions. The other two were forced to flee north. Clausel's troops were then attacked by troops Wellington had hidden on his left, and retreated after a short battle. Of the 30,000 or so men that Soult had expected would soon be heading towards Drouet, only about half escaped from the battlefield in formed units and heading in the right direct (Foy's almost intact division ended up retreating in a different direction).

Further to the west Drouet's attack on Hill was more successful (combat of Beunza). Hill was forced to retreat from his first defensive position, giving the French control of the key road west. However this took longer than Soult had hoped, and Hill was able to form a new line a short distance further south. Reinforcements then began to join him, and Drouet decided not to risk another attack. News then reached Soult of the disaster at Sorauren, and he realised that any chance of a victory had now gone. His only option was to attempt to retreat safely back into France. 

The Retreat

At this point Soult was in a very dangerous position, outnumbered by Wellington, with many of his units defeated and disordered, and on the wrong side of the Pyrenees. However he now chose an unexpected line of retreat. Instead of ordering Drouet's intact command to move east to cover Reille and Clausel as they retreated north up the main road to the Velate pass, he ordered Reille and Clausel to move west to take cover behind Drouet. The combined force was then to retreat north along the Puerto de Arraiz, several miles further to the west. This would bring them to Sanesteban, in the Bidassoa valley.

At this point the Bidassoa flowed through very mountainous terrain. It rose in the mountains to the north of Maya, and flowed south past that village towards Elizondo, where it turned to flow west. This brought it to Sanesteban (now Doneztebe-Sanesteban), where it turned north, flowing past Sunbilla on its way to Vera (now Bera), passing through a very narrow valley. From there the river flows north-west towards the Bay of Biscay, forming the Franco-Spanish border in its lower reaches. Soult's plan was to advance down the valley as far as a side valley that branched off to the east, heading to Echalar (now Elxalar). He would then pass over another mountain pass to return to France. 

In the immediate aftermath of the second battle of Sorauren, Wellington expected Soult to retreat across the Velate Pass, due north of Olague, then move up the Bidassoa to cross over the mountains by the pass of Maya. He also sent some troops along routes further to the east, including the pass of Roncesvalles. No attempt was made to block the Bidassoa at Vera, or to get a blocking force into the valley further to the south. The Light Division, which might have been in a position to interfere, had been sent on a wild goose chase in the hills to the west of the Bidassoa and wasn't in a position to interfere. Even so, over the next few days Soult remained in real danger.

On the night of 30 July Wellington ordered Picton to follow the Roncesvalles road, while Pakenham was to follow him with the 6th Division, moving east from Olague. In the centre Wellington was to lead his main force up the Velate Pass, heading towards Elizondo. This consisted of Byng and Cole's commands coming from Sorauren. Hill was to move north-east from Beunza to join Wellington's main force. Dalhousie's 7th Division was sent up to Puerto de Arraiz, to act as the left flank of the main army. The Light Division was to move to Zubieta, which would place it due west of Sanesteban. 

On 31 July most of Wellington's men were thus chasing shadows. Picton only found a few straggles. Cole discovered that Foy was a day ahead of him. Wellington's column passed over the Velate and reached Irurita, just to the west of Elizondo on the southern side of the Bidassoa, but found very French troops. Byng's brigade was sent ahead to capture a French supply convoy at Elizondo, but that didn't compensate for missing Soult's main column. On Wellington's left Hill began the day in contact with Soult's rearguard, under Drouet. When he attacked at around 10am the French retreated north towards the Puerto de Arraiz, where Soult's columns were making slow progress. Hill attacked without waiting for reinforcements (combat of Venta de Urroz or Donna Maria, 31 July 1813), and was repulsed twice. The French retreated after a third attack, but an evening fog then ended the fighting. By the end of the day Soult's main force was at Sanesteban. Hill then abandoned his pursuit, and moved east, obeying Wellington's orders. This just left Dalhousie to follow the main French force, and he camped at the top of the Puerto de Arraiz.

By the morning of 1 August Wellington was finally convinced that the main French force was around Sanesteban, and began to alter his orders. However Soult moved quickest. His men began to move north down the Bidassoa valley well before dawn. Reille's men were mixed in with the cavalry and baggage train at the head of the column. Drouet's divisions were next in line and Clausel formed the rearguard. Reille was to follow the valley as far as the turn to Echalar, and then follow that valley up to the Puerto de Echalar. Drouet was apparently ordered to follow a smaller track from Sumbilla to Echalar, but didn't, while Clausel's rearguard did follow that route.  

Wellington still had a chance to block Soult's route, but this was perhaps not obvious to him. While there was enough time to do it no effort was made to block the valley at Vera. The Spanish had an outpost at the bridge of Yanzi (now Igantzi), to the west of the main valley, close to the turn to Echalar, but when Longa asked for that post to be reinforced only one battalion from Barcena's division was sent. On 1 August Wellington wasn't sure where the Light Division actually was, but sent orders for it to try and reach Santesteban or Sumbilla if possible. Cole's 4th Division was sent west to harass the French on the north bank of the Bidassoa, while Dalhousie's 7th Division was to advance down from the top of the pass to operate on the south bank. Byng was to wait for Hill, still catching up after moving east after the fighting on 31 July.

This triggered a rearguard action, the combat of Sumbilla (1 August 1813). Cole caught up with the French first, followed later by Dalhousie. Clausel's rearguard held off the British for some time, but eventually found themselves stuck behind Darmagnac's division, which was held up by problems on the road further to the north. Clausel's three divisions then broke out of the valley and escaped across the mountain route to Echalar. The British pressed Darmagnac's rear. The British only lost 48 killed and wounded during the combat, suggesting that the French didn't put up much of a fight (or that the British never really caught up with them).

More fighting took place at the head of the French column. The Spanish had two companies of troops at the bridge of Yanzi, which crossed the Bidassoa a mile to the east of the village. The 2nd Regiment of Asturias was posted at the village, having arrived on the previous day. The small force at the bridge caused an inexplicable amount of delay (combat of Yanzi, 1 August 1813), and generally harassed the French as they passed. Towards the end of the combat the British Light Division even appeared on the scene, causing more chaos. Although the chance for a major victory was missed, the Allies did take around 1,000 prisoners on this day

The last action of the campaign came on 2 August. Wellington had briefly considered attempting to send part of his army over the Maya pass in an attempt to catch Soult between that force and the troops following him to Echalar, but by dawn on 2 August abandoned that plan when it became clear that the troops available weren't really strong enough or in the right place. Instead he limited himself to an attack on Soult's new position on the hills to the north-east of Echalar. This line was held by most of Soult's survivors - maybe as many as 25,000 men, while Wellington only had 12,000 men from the 4th, 7th and Light Divisions. Even so the morale of the French was so poor that they retreated almost as soon as the British attacked, and Soult was forced to resume his retreat.

By the end of the day Soult's army was effectively defeated, and might well have fallen apart completely if Wellington had pressed it hard on 3 August, but instead he decided to halt the pursuit, and return to his original plan, remaining on the defensive until San Sebastian and Pamplona had fallen, and the peace negotiations in Germany had come to an end. 

The battle of the Pyrenees had cost Wellington and his allies around 7,000 men - 6,400 killed for the British and Portuguese and around 600 for the Spanish (although not all of their losses are recorded). The French suffered more heavily, officially admitted to 1,308 dead, 8,545 wounded and 2,710 prisoners from the infantry and cavalry. Some of Soult's divisions suffered very heavily, with Vandermaesen losing 1,480 men and Maucune 1,850, both from an original strength of 4,000, while Darmagnac and Conroux each lost 2,000 of their original 7,000 men. Soult thus suffered 12,563 casualties from 59,000 men who had started the campaign, while around 10,000 stragglers took up to ten days to rejoin the army. 

Wellington's decision not to pursue Soult any further allowed the Marshal to recover and rebuild his forces. At the end of August he made yet another attempt to raise the siege of San Sebastian, but this was defeated at the second battle of San Marcial (31 August 1813). The town of San Sebastian fell on the same day, followed by the citadel a few days later. Wellington didn't learn that the armistice in Germany had ended until 3 September (by which time Napoleon had already fought and won the battle of Dresden), at which point he began to prepare for an invasion of France, which got underway at the start of October (second battle of the Bidassoa, 7 October 1813). 

A History of the Peninsular War, Volume VI: September 1, 1812 to August 5, 1813: Siege of Burgos, Retreat of Burgos, Vittoria, the Pyrenees

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (25 September 2018), Battle of the Pyrenees, 25 July-2 August 1813 ,

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