Battle of Vitoria
The 21st of June 1813 AD
In the first defeat of Napoleon, the Battle of Vitoria was as significant as Waterloo was in the second. After the long campaign in the peninsula the writing was already on the wall for the army commanded by Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jourdan. They had been pushed into the north of Spain, their numbers around 60,000 men, though with considerable artillery strength, perhaps 138 guns at the time of the battle. Wellington has around 100,000 men, but fewer than 100 guns.
The morale of the French, driven homewards, may have been a weakness. Their homeland beckoned, they had plenty of plunder burning a hole in their pockets, and had been picked off by the Spanish guerrillas, whose appalling treatment of prisoners was well known throughout the army.
The Allied army had made a hard march in the days preceding the encounter, covering 300 miles in a month. On the 20th, seeking to surprise the French camped in the wide Zadorra valley with Vitoria at their rear, the Allies marched 20 miles. To a great extent Wellington’s men were living off the land, their supply train left some distance behind.
With Vitoria to the east, behind the bulk of the French forces facing the expected arrival of Wellington from the west, and the Heights of Puebla, thought to be impossible to cross, to the French left flank, the French seemed to have a strong position. The River Zadorra itself looked to be an excellent obstacle protecting their front. Their escape route along the road north east was well guarded, and Joseph felt his army was in good order. Wellington on June 21, however, out-thought the French.
General Hill was sent on a flanking manoeuvre over the Heights of Puebla, which though eventually resisted by the French gave the Allies a strategic advantage. Another flanking move saw Graham come at the French in a move threatening their right flank, and with the fear of their route of retreat being cut by him.
The French had inexplicably left a series of bridges over the Zadorra intact. Picton, in a move contrary to his orders to await reinforcements, broke the French centre by carrying one of these bridges in a dashing charge. Though resistance continued for hours, the result of the battle was no longer in doubt. Reille to the north held the Allies at bay for a time, allowing the French to flee through Vitoria and eastwards to safety.
The impact of the battle could have been even greater had not the Allies been tempted by the baggage train abandoned in the environs of Vitoria by the French. Discipline disappeared, and more men were lost in the squabbling over loot and desertion, permanent and temporary, prompted by the discovery of instant fortune. Wellington famously called the 18th Hussars the scum of the earth for abandoning the wounded they were ordered to attend in order to rush to the orgy of plunder in Vitoria. With few supplies left, an exhausted army, and the chaos caused by the magnetic attraction of the treasure wagons, Wellington had no alternative but to let the remnants of Joseph’s army escape east.
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