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.

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

The siege of San Sebastian, 1813

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.

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton

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.

San Sebastian today

San Sebastian today

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.

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington

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.

British War Memorial in Sean Sebastian

British War Memorial in San Sebastian

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.

  1. Stephen Bell says:

    I am trying to do extensive research on a Robert H Bell, who in all probability was involved in this battle. Family legend has it that he “rescued” a maiden and later married her. Bell was not an officer, but he knew well the Rev Henry Torrens and Wellesley, himself, either as an aid or intermediary of some kind. Acts of bravery and kindness by British soldiers and officers were often met by beatings or death in the aftermath of San Sebastian. I cannot find any information regarding this man or his “bride” Can anyone suggest where stories of this kind of bravery may be written?

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Dear Stephen

      Thanks for your comment to my blog story:

      I am trying to do extensive research on a Robert H Bell, who in all probability was involved in this battle. Family legend has it that he “rescued” a maiden and later married her. Bell was not an officer, but he knew well the Rev Henry Torrens and Wellesley, himself, either as an aid or intermediary of some kind. Acts of bravery and kindness by British soldiers and officers were often met by beatings or death in the aftermath of San Sebastian. I cannot find any information regarding this man or his “bride” Can anyone suggest where stories of this kind of bravery may be written?

      I think it will be hard to find any first hand accounts of Robert Bell but you might try regimental records if you know what regiment he was in. Also published memoirs of soldiers who were at San Sebastian. If you send me what you know about Robert I’ll see if I can help. i.e. dates of birth and death, parents, name of wife, regiment etc. Also how do you know he knew Wellesley? And do you mean General Henry Torrens?

      Also you say, ‘Acts of bravery and kindness by British soldiers and officers were often met by beatings or death in the aftermath of San Sebastian,’ do you have any references for this?

      Best wishes


  2. […] The British Rape and Destruction of San Sebastian […]

  3. Charles J. Esdaile says:

    I am afraid to say that the coverage of the storm of San Sebastian offered in this article is based on a very prejudiced reading of the situation, not to mention evidence whose veracity is open to considerable question. Let me begin, however, by saying that the aftermath of the assault of 31 August 1814 was pretty horrible: that some women were raped there is no doubt, just as there is no doubt that a number of the inhabitants were killed. Nor, of course, would anyone deny that the city was destroyed by fire, and even that certain individual British soldiers may have been guilty of acts of arson. However, that said, the author of the piece has gone too far:

    1. The number of inhabitants killed in the course of the sack was later put by the town council as no more than 41. Moreover, there is no mention here of the persistent reports that the civic guard formed by the French in the course of the occupation took part in the defence. It is therefore probable that at least some of the deaths were the result of combat or, more unpleasantly, summary execution (something that is not quite the same as random murder).

    2. There is no creditable evidence that the city was deliberately set on fire by the Anglo-Portuguese forces. Whilst it is possible, as I say, that there may have been individual acts of arson, it was certainly not in the interests of the Allies to do any such thing, not least because the city offered a great deal of useful accommodation.

    3. There has been no attempt to suppress knowledge of the sack: all the main British historians of the Peninsular War (Southey, Napier, Oman) discuss what happened quite openly and denounce such excesses as took place. Nor is the subject absent from the official correspondence of the period.

    4. There is no recognition that the sources for the deliberate destruction of the city and the massacre of its inhabitants are highly questionable. Thus, on the one hand, they emanate from the newly appointed civil governor of Guipuzcoa and a number of liberal journalists, the significance of this being that relations between both the Spanish government and the liberal politicians’ relations with Wellington were very bad at this time, and on the other from the town council of San Sebastian, the latter being a body that had been guilty of wholesale collaboration with the French and therefore had every reason to win sympathy for itself by emphasising the sufferings of the city on 31 August.

    5. There is no recognition that there was almost no way to stop troops that took a defended city by storm from engaging in acts of pillage, and that any troops required to storm a breach would have behaved in precisely the same way: the horror was so great that the men concerned were in effect seized by a form of madness. For this reason the generally accepted ‘laws of war’ laid down that a governor whose walls had been breached to such an extent that they were open to assault should immediately surrender so as to save unnecessary bloodshed. However, Napoleon ignored this, issuing a standing order to the effect that any governor who did not withstand at least one assault, would face execution. As at Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, then, at least a part of the responsibility is his.

    6. A minimum of 40,000 British soldiers died in the Peninsular War, this representing a loss rate of between one in five and one in six – in other words, over twice the rate of loss experienced in the First World War. Given the nature of the Napoleonic empire and the fate that befell Spain and Portugal at its hands in particular, we should definitely be grateful for their sacrifice, and, perhaps, a little less judgmental in our approach to them. Horrors happened from time to time, certainly, but one may also find acts of great kindness such as, for example, the soup kitchens that a number of regiments established to feed the starving in Madrid when the city was occupied in August 1812.

    • Stephen Lewis says:

      I am honoured that an eminent historian of the Peninsular War has commented on my small piece. But the fact remains that this was an atrocity committed by British and Portuguese troops on the people of San Sebastian, and while historians such as Napier and Oman did report it and condemn it the events don’t appear in most modern histories of the War and are certainly not well known. All I was trying to do was bring this event more into the open; there are lots of histories of the siege and wider military matters which historians seem obsessed with.

      However, some of Charles’s criticisms seem to me to be historical relativism and special pleading: it was all the fault of the French; the French did similar horrible things; that was the convention of war at the time (“generally accepted ‘laws of war’”); there were also acts of kindness, and so on.

      So yes let’s be judgemental and not try to whitewash such atrocities.

      And, by the way, I in no way wish to be not ‘grateful for their sacrifice’. A member of my own family fought in this War and at Waterloo and was even coincidentally stationed in my own village in the Pays Basque on the way to Toulouse: See and

      I’m not a fan of Napoleon and what his armies did in Europe, but we should also ask why thousands of ordinary British soldiers were dragged off (yet again) to fight on the Continent, and for whose benefit it all was? Certainly not theirs… witness the way that were thrown aside on their return, unless of course they were wealthy officers. Wellington certainly had no time for them.

      Best wishes

      Stephen Lewis

      PS Some witness statements in Spanish regarding the sack of San Sebastian can be found here:

  4. sue McCall says:

    I was recently in San Sebastian and visiting the memorial to the British troops was on my agenda as I descend from a brother of Thomas Spunner Shortt who died at this time on the 31st August, 1813. I was rather thrilled to hear while visiting that one of the surviving streets that didn’t burn during the siege was actually named the 31st August Street. (31 de Agousto) in memory of the siege. Every year they have a ceremony I understand where they light candles in this street to remember those that gave their lives.

    • AItor Tilla says:

      Every August the 31’s San Sebastian commemorates the deaths, rapes, destruction and pillage caused but Brittish troops. Just that.

  5. Fernando Gorriño Muguruza says:

    My Grand-Grand Mother was a Child when her Grand-Mother explained how English Soldier Rape her and her 4 sisters. One with only 12 years… and killed many others in the street after Rape

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