Atrocities are committed in all wars. Indeed war itself is an atrocity. Some atrocities are remembered, some just disappear from the historical consciousness. The bombing of the Basque town of Gernika by the German Condor Legion at the start of the Spanish Civil War in 1937 is remembered, not least because of Picasso’s famous painting Gernika. But an arguably even more horrendous atrocity was committed in 1813 by Wellington’s British and Portuguese troops on the people of the nearby Basque town of San Sebastian. With the exception of a yearly commemoration of the event in the town itself on 31 August, the memory of what happened there over a period of five days has almost totally disappeared, and even at times been suppressed. In some small way I’d like to rectify this.
If you read books or watch television programmes on the Napoleonic Wars, and particularly those touching on the Peninsular War, you will more often than not find descriptions of Wellington’s army’s siege of San Sebastian, which lasted from 7 July 1813 until the capture of the town on 31 August and the final surrender of the French on 8 September. It is a tale of military struggle, of tactics, of suffering, of death and of acts of valour and heroism. But what followed is rarely if ever told.
Just a few words by way of context: For five years the British army had been in the Iberian Peninsula trying to help the Spanish and Portuguese throw out the French occupiers, while also, it has to be said, trying to loosen the grip of the French blockade of Britain. After the Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, the French army, first under Napoleon’s older brother Joseph Bonaparte (who Napoleon had made king of Spain in 1808), and later under Marshal Soult, had retreated to the Pyrenean borderland of France and Spain. Wellington, who commanded all the allied British, German, Portuguese and Spanish forces, didn’t want to move further into France until the threat posed by the French garrison still stationed in San Sebastian had been removed – hence the siege of the town.
If you’re interested in the siege itself there are many fine, full and accessible accounts. I will start at the siege’s end. On 31 August 1813, British and Portuguese troops managed to pour through a large breach that had been made in the city’s inner wall. The French garrison retreated to find refuge in the town’s citadel, called Monte Orgullo. As the English and Portuguese were capturing the town there was, to use the words of the most famous early English historian of the War, Sir William Napier, ‘a thunder storm, which came down from the mountains with unbounded fury immediately after the place was carried’. This ‘added to the confusion of the fight’. Napier continued:
This storm seemed to be a signal of hell for the perpetration of villainy which would have shamed the most ferocious barbarians of antiquity. At Ciudad Rodrigo intoxication and plunder had been the principal object; at Badajoz lust and murder were joined in rapine and drunkenness; but at San Sebastian, the direct, the most revolting cruelty was added to the catalogue of crimes. One atrocity of which a girl of seventeen was the victim, staggers the mind by its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity. Some order was at first maintained, but the resolution of the troops to throw off discipline was quickly made manifest. A British staff-officer was pursued with a volley of small-arms and escaped with difficulty from men who mistook him for the provost-martial of the fifth division; a Portuguese adjutant, who endeavoured to prevent some atrocity, was put to death in the market place, not with sudden violence from a single ruffian, but deliberately by a number of English soldiers. Many officers exerted themselves to preserve order, many men were well conducted, but the rapine and violence commenced by villains soon spread, the camp-followers crowded into the place, and disorder continued until the flames following the steps of the plunderer put an end to this ferocity by destroying the whole town.
I have started by quoting from Anglo-Irish Sir William Napier’s History of the War in the Peninsula, because you might otherwise think that what follows is Spanish or French propaganda. It is not.
Immediately after the events Napier described, the ‘town council, cathedral chapter and inhabitants’ of San Sebastian compiled a report or ‘manifesto’ which they sent to the ‘Spanish nation’ describing what happened. Its full title is: Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town. ( Tolosa 1813). They affirm: ‘We take it on our own head as to the exact truth of this relation that we present to you and that we have all signed.’ What follows is my inadequate verbatim translation of some extracts from this report. I have taken it from a book published in France in 1813 which contained a French translation of the Spanish report. I apologize if my rendition of a two hundred year old French version of a Spanish text has lost something in translation, but I think you will be able to get an idea of what happened to the people of this Basque town:
The town of San Sebastian had been set alight by the allied troops who had besieged it, after these troops had unleashed a horrible sack and its inhabitants had experienced a treatment such as one has not had any idea in civilized Europe…
… The patriotism of the loyal inhabitants of San Sebastian, for a long time suppressed by the severity of the enemy (the French), shone out in many ways, as did the joy and the affection with which the allies were welcomed; but these, insensible to this demonstration, as sincere as it was pathetic, responded to it by taking rifle shots at these same crossroads and balconies from where these felicitations came, and on which a large number of inhabitants perished, victims of the expression of their love of country, a terrible presage of what was to follow…
These horrors were only a prelude to many others, even the memory of which makes one quiver. Oh day forever unhappy; Oh cruel night!… At the extremity were found the enemy, cornered at the foot of the chateau, to save themselves from the unprecedented excess that the pen refuses to describe.
The pillage, the massacre, the rape were pushed to an unbelievable point; and what we discovered for the first time at the fall of night, after the retreat of the French into the Chateau, were limitless scenes of horror. From every quarter we heard the cries of distress of women who were being raped, without regard either to their tender youth or to their respectable age; wives outraged under the eyes of their husbands, girls dishonoured in the presence of their parents; one girl was the victim of the brutality of a soldier which happened on top of her mother’s dead body… Other crimes more horrible yet were committed on this day, and it’s only a sense of ‘modesty’ which prevents us naming them.
Throw a veil over this sad tableau, we’ll put our sights on another, no less deplorable: We have seen innocent victims having their throats cut…. even people of renown. Don Domingo de Govocehea, an old and respectable churchman, and a great many others, who we will not name, were murdered; the ill-fated Joseph de Larramaga was killed while trying to save the lives of a young girl, who had been raped, and her young son, by holding them in his arms.
A huge number of people were dying each day from the bad treatment that they had received. The citizens who were neither killed nor wounded were to suffer in a thousand ways; many of them stripped and left entirely naked.
… Pursued by the soldiers, they envied the fate of the people who had found a momentary asylum on the roofs or in the ‘pigsties’…
These excesses lasted several days after the affair, without anything being done to stop it… They appeared authorized by the commanders, since the goods stolen in the town were sold publically by the English and Portuguese in full view, and right next to, the military head-quarters.
When we thought the spoliation had finished, the allied troops found that the flames weren’t making enough progress; they fed them with a whole mixture of artefacts that they threw into the cauldrons, by which means they propagated the fire with frightening rapidity…
In this manner the town of San Sebastian perished.
Of the six hundred and some houses that were contained within the ramparts, there were only thirty-six left. It is remarkable that those saved were all adjoining the Chateau that the enemy occupied. The two parochial churches have also been conserved, as they served as quarters and hospitals for the victors. All the rest have been delivered to the flames… Fifteen hundred families were without bread and shelter eking out an existence worse than death.
Goods, furniture, merchandize, shops, boutiques, all had fallen prey to rapacity or incendiary… San Sebastian exists no more.
Oh unhappy town! Honour of Guipuscoa! You who had given such proof of constancy, who had regarded the English as liberators, could you believe that you would be destroyed by the same hands which should have broken your chains! To how many dangers were the inhabitants exposed during the five years that the French occupation had lasted!
When, on 25 July, we saw English and Portuguese prisoners arrive, we wanted to help them; the most delicate women ran to the hospital to lavish them with linen, food and care; the recompense for such fidelity has been the destruction of our town.
When the survivors came to survey what remained of their town, they found, as was reported, only thirty-six houses and two churches left standing. The houses had been spared because they were being used by British and Portuguese officers when they were attempting to force the surrender of the French holed up in the Chateau – the French capitulated on 8 September. A census of inhabitants showed that before the siege there were about 5,500 people in the town, the massacre had reduced this to 2,600!
San Sebastian had to be rebuilt from scratch. The beautiful city you see today is the result of that rebuilding.
We often hear tell that Wellington was a great enforcer of order and military discipline and that he punished any pillaging in the most severe way. After San Sebastian, when his allied army was moving into France, he declared that he had not come to France to inflict pillage on the local people. Supposedly this was in reference to the pillaging and attacks of Spanish troops on the local French (Basque) population. He sent most, though not all, of the Spanish troops under his command back to Spain.
Wellington was not present at the fall and destruction of San Sebastian. The besieging army was under General Thomas Graham. But not only were no measures taken against the British and Portuguese troops who had run wild, but no mention was ever made of what happened in any official letters written by either Graham or Wellington. On 8 September, Graham wrote to Wellington: ‘My Lord, I have the satisfaction to report to your Lordship, that the castle of San Sebastian has surrendered.’ After giving more military details, he adds: ‘Thus, giving your Lordship another great result of the campaign, in the acquisition to the allied armies of this interesting point on the coast, and near the frontier.’ He also enclosed a copy of the terms of surrender agreed with the French.
Wellington sent the news to Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, on 11 September: ‘The town of San Sebastian was taken by storm on the 31st August, and the garrison capitulated in the castle on the 8th.’ No mention of any ‘atrocities’. But on the same day Wellington wrote to the Spanish General Freyre: ‘Sir, I shall be very much obliged to you if you will send the civil engineer of Biscay…. in regard to the repairs of the place of San Sebastian.’ He also requested that the civil magistrates sent masons, carpenters and ‘common labourers’ to ‘perform the works necessary’. He was no doubt fully aware of what had happened to the town.
There is in San Sebastian a memorial to the British liberators of the town in 1813. It is located on the slopes of Monte Orgullo (Urgull) and was unveiled by the Spanish Queen on 28th September 1924. The two inscriptions read, in both Spanish and English: ‘England has confided to us her Glorious Dead, Our Gratitude will Watch Over Their Eternal Repose’, and, ‘In memory of the Gallant British Soldiers who gave their lives for the greatness of their own country and for the Independence of Spain’.
Knowing what happened after the British entered the town, reading these words is enough to make one weep.
The state this memorial has been allowed to fall into is deplorable and should no doubt be remedied. But perhaps it is small wonder if the people of San Sebastian do not want to remember their British and Portuguese ‘liberators’. Perhaps they still remember and wish to mourn the atrocity which was perpetrated on their town?
Sources and references:
Description of the atrocities committed by the Anglo-Portuguese troops in Saint Sebastian, 31 August 1813 and in the following days, exposed to the eyes of the Spanish nation by the municipality, chapter and inhabitants of the town, Tolosa, 1813; Sir William Napier, History of the War in the Peninsula, Vol 3, 1835-40; Victoires, conquêtes, désastres, revers et guerres civiles des Français de 1792 a 1815. Par une société militaries et de lettres, Vol 28, Paris, 1813; Javier Sada, Historia de San Sebastian, 1995; The Dispatches of Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington, Vol 11, London, 1838; Lieutenant Mazars, Les divisions espagnoles de l’armée de Wellington, Revue des Pyrenees, Vol 25, Toulouse, 1913; J. W. Fortescue, History of the British Army, Vol 9, London, 1920.