Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Napoleon’

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.


‘The rain will destroy us if it lasts much longer.’ – Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Saint Jean de Luz, 31 October, 1813

It’s raining today in Itxassou in the Basque region of southwest France. As I look of the window I can see that the River Nive is running high. Two hundred years ago in November 1813 it was also raining and early snow covered the nearby hills. The British and allied army commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – the Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington – had just arrived in this part of the world and the troops of his most trusted general, Sir Rowland Hill, were ‘cantoned’ in Itxassou and in the neighbouring villages of Cambo, Espelette, Larressore and Souraide. They were waiting for the weather to improve so they could cross the Nive, on the other bank of which the French army under Marshal Soult had taken up defensive positions all the way from Bayonne on the coast to Saint Jean Pierre de Port. The crossing took place on 9 December, 1813.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte

Briefly the background to all this is that in 1813  we are seeing the last stages of the long and bloody Peninsular War, which the Spanish rather quaintly call the War of Independence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his older brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and the French were in charge of the country. The British had to rescue them. It was a huge, tortuous and brutal effort that took over five years. The decisive victory took place on 21 June 1813 just south of Vitoria – Gastiez (now the capital of Basque Spain) where Wellington’s British, German and Spanish army routed the French.  Joseph Bonaparte and his still huge army started a long and drawn-out fighting retreat over the Pyrenees and back into France. There were many skirmishes and battles and thousands on both sides continued to die.

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

In France the Battle of the Nivelle was fought on 10 November 1813 near the village of Sare on the flanks of the La Rhune.

 Soon after midnight, on the morning of 10 November, the columns of the allies under Wellington wound down the passes of the mountains in silence, lighted by the moon. At earliest dawn the attack was made on the lines of the enemy, and by sunset, in a succession of brilliant charges, the allies had broken the line. Soult had been out-manœuvred and outfought on his own long-prepared ground, and beaten at every point. The French, numbering seventy thousand men, had been placed in carefully selected positions. Strongly entrenched, they knew the roads, and were fighting to protect their native land from invasion; yet they suffered themselves to be dislodged from every point assailed with a lack of spirit that surprised the allies.

Under cover of night Soult withdrew and concentrated his forces in front of Bayonne. Wellington took up a position within two miles of the enemy, his left resting on the sea and his right on Cambo. As the weather was stormy and wet, all operations ceased. The roads were execrable, the crossroads a quagmire. It was not possible at that time of the year to move artillery over the sodden ground, and even communication between the wings was difficult.

The losing French army retreated again to the north side of the River Nive, which they believed they could defend and prevent the British from crossing.

After the Battle of the Nivelle, Wellington had wanted to immediately attempt a crossing of the Nive but the appalling weather made it impossible. The ‘roads’ had turned into muddy bogs and the river was so high that the available fords were impassable. As the rains continued to pore down, on the 16th November Wellington sent orders to ‘canton’ the army.

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

General Sir Rowland Hill’s division was ordered to canton Itxassou, Larressore, Cambo, Espelette and Souraide. Sir Rowland was Wellington’s must steady, reliable and trusted general. He was so loved for his care that his troops nick-named him ‘Daddy Hill’. And one of Hill’s soldiers was the famous Levi Grisdale. Grisdale had captured French General Lefebvre at the  Battle of Benavente in Spain in December 1808, had fought at the Battle of Vitoria in June and would go on to personally lead the Prussians of Marshal Blucher onto the field of Waterloo in 1815. But for now Levi was with his elite cavalry regiment, the 10th King’s Own Hussars, waiting to cross the Nive. Levi was more likely to have been billeted in Larressore than in Itxassou, but it’s nice to think that one of my family also looked through the rain on the River Nive two hundred years ago!

The 10th Hussars were at this moment commanded by Colonel Richard Hussey Vivian. Vivian had found himself some very salubrious quarters in the Chateau of Saint Martin in Larressore, from where he wrote to his wife on December 2:

Here I am, my dearest Eliza, in the midst of my brigade —in the midst of the enemy! Out of the very window of the room from whence I now write this I can almost converse with the French sentries! Nothing but a narrow river (the Nive) separates us; and it is fordable in many places; but they are very quiet, harmless neighbours. We have agreed not to fire at each other; and they are too much afraid of an attack from us to make it at all probable that they will molest us in our quarters. If they chose it would not be a very difficult matter to walk into my bedroom any night. There is, however, a brigade of infantry in the village, under General Pringle, and they would hold them. We could do nothing, for it is nothing but hill and dale!

You can have no conception of anything more magnificently beautiful than the situation of my chateau, which is on the point of a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain river, and looking up a most delightful valley, through which runs the river, the hills rising from the valley on either side crowned with timber; villages in abundance, bordering on the river.  But it is to the eye only that it is now delightful. The ravages of war have depopulated these otherwise charming residences ; few, if any, of the inhabitants remain, and what few do remain are almost starving from having been eaten out of house and home by the soldiery, with whom their houses are literally crammed.

General Hill’s division, of which I command the cavalry, is posted in the villages of Cambo, Espelette, Souraide, and Larressore — altogether about 12,000 men within a space of three miles of each other. On our left, at Ustarits (sic), is the 6th Division, Sir H. Clinton, about a mile off. I am just going there to dine and sleep at General Pack’s.

They talk of an advance soon, but I do not think it possible; for the roads are in such a dreadful state from the constant rain we have had that it is perfectly impossible for troops to move.

The next day he wrote to his mother:

I am now here in the midst of my brigade, on the banks of the Nive, and the enemy is quietly opposite me; so near that I can certainly make them hear out of the room where I now write; bat they are in a great fright that we should advance, and we are really very good friends, and they do not molest me, or prevent me sleeping in perfect safety and comfort. I have a capital chateau, delightfully situated… I only wish it were in England. I could sell about £10,000 worth of timber without doing any harm…  They talk of an advance very soon. I hope so, for we are terribly off for forage, and we shall get that in front.

‘Whilst the British were in position on the banks of the Nive, in November, 1813, the French used to meet the English officers at a narrow part of the river, and chat over the campaign. One of the latter, in order to convince them of the reverses of Napoleon in Germany (the Battle of Leipzig), rolled a stone up in the Star newspaper, and endeavoured to throw it across the stream. The stone, unfortunately, went through it, which made it fall into the water. The French officer thereupon remarked, in pretty fair English, “Your good news is very soon damped.”’

General Rowland 'Daddy' Hill

General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill

This pleasant, though wet, interlude was not to last. On the 8th December issued his orders for ‘forcing the passage of the Nive’ the next day. The task was entrusted to Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill. He ‘was instructed to cross the river by fords near Cambo at daybreak of the 9th, re-establish the bridge, and assemble on the right bank the Second Division, the Portuguese Division attached to it, Vivian’s and Victor Alten’s brigades of cavalry, and Ross’s troop of horse-artillery. With these he was to advance along the road from St. Jean Pied de Port to Bayonne, and take up a position in the vicinity of Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre’.

Other divisions were to cross the river at Ustaritz and Arrauntz. Spanish General Morillo was ordered to cross the river at Itxassou in order to protect Hill’s rear from any attack by General Paris, who lay at Louhossoa, some four miles up the river from Cambo.

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

I leave the description of what followed to J. W. Fortescue, in his monumental  A History of the British Army:

Meanwhile Wellington’s orders were punctually followed. Beresford successfully laid his pontoon-bridges to an island in the river during the night; and on the morning of the 9th a beacon kindled on the height above Cambo gave the signal for attack.

The Sixth Division at once advanced upon Ustarits, drove the French sentries from the right bank of the river, and enabled the engineers not only to complete the pontoon -bridge but to repair another wooden bridge which had been partly destroyed by the French. They then crossed the water, Gruardet’s brigade of Darmagnac’s division falling back before them upon Villefranque, with little fear of being caught, for the marshy meadows were so heavy that the British could make but slow progress on their way to the road.

Hill simultaneously threw his corps across the river in three columns, one of them above Cambo, the others at Larressore and at Halsou, which was accomplished with only the loss of a few men drowned, though the water was so high that the men slung their cartridge-boxes round their necks to keep them dry. Foy’s division, which guarded this part of the stream, thereupon withdrew slowly, contesting every foot of ground. Fririon’s brigade retired upon Petit Mouguerre and Vieux Mouguerre, where Abbe’s division had been brought forward to support them ; while Berlier’s brigade, being cut off from the road by the advance of Clinton, was forced to retreat due east to the moorlands of Hasparren, and did not rejoin Foy until the afternoon. Paris also was compelled to retire before Morillo eastward upon Hilette (Helette) towards the shelter of Pierre Soult’s cavalry.

Nevertheless Hill’s advance had been so much retarded by the saturated soil that it was one o’clock before the head of his columns reached the heights of Loursinthoa on the road to Bayonne, where he took up a position with the Sixth Division on his left, the Third remaining to cover the bridge at Ustarits. Here he halted for two hours to let the tail of his columns come up; and during this interval d’Erlon deployed the whole of his troops between Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre, where Soult had already since noon taken up his own station. None the less the Marshal did not venture to assail Hill, and at last at three o’clock the Portuguese of Clinton’s division came down to attack Villefranque, and after one repulse succeeded in driving from it one of Darmagnac’s brigades.

A thick fog coming on before dark brought the combat to an end.

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The British and allied army had crossed the Nive, Levi Grisdale among them. But things were not over yet. Marshal Soult counter attacked on the 13th December near Saint Pierre d’Irube, near Bayonne, but Sir Rowland Hill defeated the French without Wellington’s help at the so-called Battle of the Nive. Wellington and his army trundled on across southern France, eventually to take the French surrender at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. But he, and Levi Grisdale, had to come back the next year, when Napoleon had escaped from exile, raised a new army and met the British and Prussians at Waterloo!

9 December 1813: Just another wet day in the Pays Basque.