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The Battle of Vitoria

War: Peninsular War

Date: 21st June 1813

British light dragoons about to charge
British Light Dragoons preparing to charge

Place: in Northern Spain to the South of Bilbao

Combatants: British, Portuguese and Spanish against the French

Generals: The Duke of Wellington against Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and brother of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte

Size of the armies: The French army was 60,000 including 11,000 cavalry with 138 guns. Wellington had 52,000 British and 28,000 Portuguese troops. 25,000 Spanish co-operated in the campaign.

Uniforms, arms and equipment: The British foot wore red, waist length jackets, grey trousers and stovepipe shakos. The rifle regiments wore green. The Portuguese infantry wore British style uniforms but in blue. The Caçadores wore green jackets.


The 14th Light Dragoons capture King Joseph's baggage during the battle

The British dragoons wore red jackets with a Roman style helmet. The light dragoons wore light blue jackets and a shako. The British artillery wore blue.
The Spanish army essentially was without uniforms, existing as it did in a country dominated by the French. Where formal uniforms could be obtained they were in white.

The French infantry wore blue tunics and shakos.
The French foot artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery, hussar uniform.

The standard infantry weapon for both armies was the musket, which could be fired two or three times a minute and threw a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres. Each infantryman carried a bayonet that fitted on the muzzle.
The British rifle battalions were armed with the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.

Field guns fired a ball projectile, by its nature of limited effect against troops in the field, unless closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented, but was effective only at a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, as yet in their infancy, were of particular use against buildings. The British had the development of ‘shrapnel’ or fragmenting shell which was effective against troops.

Winner: The British, Spanish and Portuguese

Map of the battle of Vitoria
The Battle of Vitoria

Account:
1813 saw Lord Wellington and his British, Portuguese and Spanish army advance from the Portuguese border into the North East of Spain, forcing the French armies of Joseph Bonaparte, the king imposed on the Spanish by the Emperor Napoleon, towards the French border. As Wellington advanced his army’s base of supply was moved from Lisbon in Portugal to Santander in the North East of Spain. Difficulties with communications through the guerilla-infested country prevented Joseph from concentrating all his forces to meet the threat.

Joseph and his chief of staff, Marshal Jourdan, found themselves at Vitoria with the three French armies, of the South, of the Centre and of Portugal, where they awaited reinforcement by General Clausel and his Army of the North. On 20th June 1813 the French heard sounds of firing from the North of the town, along the road to Bilbao. They knew that Wellington was closing in on them.

On 21st June 1813 Joseph and Jourdan rode out to inspect the positions taken up by the French army.

Vitoria lay at the eastern end of an oval shaped plain. The road to France headed north-east. To the West was the Madrid road. Forming a cross-roads in the town was the north-south road to Bilbao. A further road headed south-west.

The river Zadorra flowed through the plain at its northern edge from East to West, forming a wide curve and leaving at the western end through a narrow defile at La Puebla. Surrounding the plain were rugged but not impassable mountains. The French Army of the South under General Gazan lay at the western end of the plain, the Army of the Centre behind Gazan and to the North and the Army of Portugal on the Bilbao road to the North of Vitoria, defending the crossing of the Zadorra.

The first sign of attack on 21st June 1813 was the arrival of Major General Hill’s corps through the La Puebla defile. The Spanish Division and Cadogan’s brigade moved onto the southern hills where they were fiercely counter-attacked by the divisions of Villatte and Maransin.

Meanwhile Lord Wellington brought his main force through the La Puebla defile and up the north bank of the Zadorra to the village of Nanclares where, he intended to launch his attack on the French flank. Further along the river it was found that the bridges at the main bend in the river were intact. Kempt’s brigade crossed the Zadorra supported by the 15th Hussars.

British artillery in action in Vitoria
British artillery in action

Wellington’s plan envisaged an attack by four forces. On his extreme left Major General Graham’s column was to attack down the Bilbao road, force the bridge over the Zadorra at Gamara Mayor and cut the road leading north-east to France. The fourth column, commanded by Lord Dalhousie, was to cross the mountains and cross the river to the left of Wellington’s column.

After the initial fighting at the western end of the plain Lord Wellington called a pause to enable Graham’s column to come up and begin its assault.


Wellington directs his troops during the Battle of Vitoria

Graham began his attack, but fierce resistance by the Army of Portugal kept him on the north bank. Further to his left Longa’s Spanish Division managed to cross the river and block the road to France.

Dalhousie’s Third Division crossed the Zadorra east of Tres Puentes, Wellington’s Fourth Division crossed at Nanclares and Hill’s corps pressed forward. Gazan’s Army of the South fell back from ridge to ridge. The Army of the Centre found itself heavily attacked on its left flank.

As the French line broke up Alten’s Hussar Brigade stormed into Vitoria. The town was in chaos. The French took the horses and hurried down the southerly road towards Salvatierra leaving a complete siege train, many guns and the valuables they had accumulated during the years of occupation. Many of the British, Portuguese and Spanish troops gave themselves up to looting.

Later that night Joseph, Jourdan and the senior French officers gathered in Salvatierra to contemplate the end of their dominance of Spain.

The British 14th Hussars attack the French
The British 14th Hussars attack the retreating French
baggage train at the end of the Battle of Vitoria

British Regiments:
1st Life Guards, now the Life Guards
2nd Life Guards, now the Life Guards
Royal Horse Guards, now the Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and Royal Dragoons)
3rd Dragoon Guards, in 1922 3rd Carabiniers, now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards *
5th Dragoon Guards, in 1922 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, now Royal Dragoon Guards *
3rd Dragoons, later 3rd King’s Own Hussars, then Queen’s Own Hussars, now Queen’s Royal Hussars *
4th Dragoons, *
10th Light Dragoons, later 10th Hussars, then the Royal Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
11th Light Dragoons, later 11th Hussars, then the Royal Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
12th Light Dragoons, now 9th/12th Royal Lancers
13th Light Dragoons, later 13th/18th Royal Hussars, now the Light Dragoons *
14th Light Dragoons, later 14th Hussars, then 14th/20th King’s Hussars, now King’s Royal Hussars. *
15th Light Dragoons, later 15th/19th the King’s Royal Hussars, now the Light Dragoons *
16th Light Dragoons, later 16th Lancers, then 16th/5th Queen’s Royal Lancers now the Queen’s Royal Lancers. *
13th Light Dragoons, later 13th/18th Royal Hussars, now the Light Dragoons
Coldstream Foot Guards
3rd Foot Guards
1st Foot, the Royal Scots *
2nd Foot, the Queen’s Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
3rd Foot, the Buffs or East Kent Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
4th Foot, the King’s Own Royal Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment *
5th Foot, later the Northumberland Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers*
6th Foot, later the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers*
7th Foot, the Royal Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers *
9th Foot , the Norfolk Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment *
20th Foot, the Lancashire Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers *
23rd Foot, the Royal Welch Fusiliers*
27th Foot, Inniskilling Fusiliers and now the Royal Irish Regiment*
28th Foot, the Gloucestershire Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment *
30th Foot, the East Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment *
31st Foot, the East Surrey Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
34th Foot, the Border Regiment and now the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment *
38th Foot, the South Staffordshire Regiment and now the Staffordshire Regiment *
39th Foot, the Dorset Regiment and now the Devon and Dorset Regiment *
40th Foot, the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment *
43rd Foot, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets *
45th Foot, the Sherwood Foresters and now the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment *
47th Foot, the North Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment *
48th Foot, the Northamptonshire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment *
50th Foot, the Royal West Kent Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
51st Foot, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and now the Light Infantry *
52nd Foot, the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets *
53rd Foot, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry and now the Light Infantry*
57th Foot, the Middlesex Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment *
58th Foot, the Northamptonshire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment *
59th Foot, the East Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment *
60th Foot, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and now the Royal Green Jackets *
66th Foot, the Royal Berkshire Regiment and now the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment *
68th Foot, the Durham Light Infantry and now the Light Infantry *
71st Foot, the Highland Light Infantry and now the Royal Highland Fusiliers *
74th Foot (Highlanders), the Highland Light Infantry and now the Royal Highland Fusiliers *
82nd Foot, the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment *
83rd Foot, the Royal Irish Rifles and now the Royal Irish Regiment *
87th Foot, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, disbanded in 1922 *
88th Foot, the Connaught Rangers, disbanded in 1922 *
92nd Foot, the Gordon Highlanders and now the Highlanders *
94th Foot, the Connaught Rangers, disbanded in 1922 *
95th Rifles, the Rifle Brigade and now the Royal Green Jackets *
* These regiments have Vitoria as a battle honour.

The Battle of Vitoria
The Battle of Vitoria

British order of battle:
Commander: Lieutenant General (local General) the Marquess of Wellington

Right Column: commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Rowland Hill
Cavalry:
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Victor von Alten: 14th Light Dragoons and 1st Hussars, King’s German Legion
2nd Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant General Fane: 3rd Dragoon Guards and 1st Royal Dragoons

Infantry:
2nd Division: commanded by Lieutenant General William Stewart
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Cadogan: 1st/50th, 1st/71st and 1st/91st Foot Co 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Byng: 1st/3rd, 1st/57th Foot, 1st Provisional Battn. (2nd/31st and 2nd/66th Foot) and Co 5th/60th Foot.
3rd Brigade: commanded by Colonel O’Callaghan: 1st/28th, 2nd/34th, 1st/39th Foot and Co 5th/60th Foot.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Ashworth: 1st and 2nd/6th, 1st and 2nd/18th Portuguese Line and 6th Caçadores.

Portuguese Division: commanded by Major General Silveira, Conde de Amaranthe.
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General de Costa: 1st and 2nd/2nd, 1st and 2nd/14th Portuguese Line.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Archibald Campbell: 1st and 2nd/4th, 1st and 2nd/10th Portuguese Line and 10th Caçadores.

Spanish Division: commanded by Major General Morillo
Artillery: commanded by Major Carncross
Beane’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery
Maxwell’s Battery Royal Artillery
2 Portuguese batteries under Major Tulloh

Right Centre Column: commanded by the Marquess of Wellington
Cavalry
1st Brigade: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Robert Hill: 1st and 2nd Life Guards and Royal Horse Guards.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel Colquohon Grant: 10th, 15th and 18th Light Dragoons (Hussars)
3rd Brigade: commanded by Major General William Ponsonby: 5th Dragoon Guards, 3rd and 4th Dragoons
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General D’Urban: 1st, 11th and 12th Portuguese Dragoons.

Infantry:
4th Division: commanded by Major General (local Lieutenant General) Lowry Cole
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General William Anson: 3rd/27th, 1st/40th, 1st/48th, Provisional Battn. (2nd and 2nd/53rd Foot) and Co 5th/60th Foot.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Skerrett: 1st/7th, 20th, 1st/23rd, and Co Brunswick Oels.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Colonel George Stubbs: 1st and 2nd/11th and 1st and 2nd/23rd Portuguese Line and 7th Caçadores.

Light Division: commanded by Lieutenant General Charles, Baron von Alten.
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Kempt: 1st/43rd Foot, 1st/95th Rifles (8 Cos), 3rd/95th Rifles (5 Cos) and 3rd Caçadores.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General John Ormesby Vandeleur: 1st/52nd Foot, 2nd/95th Rifles (6Cos) and 1st Caçadores.

Artillery: commanded by Major Augustus Simon Frazer
Ross’s, Gardiner’s and Ramsay’s Troops, Royal Horse Artillery
Sympher’s Battery, King’s German Artillery.

Left Centre Column: commanded by Lieutenant General the Earl of Dalhousie.
Infantry:
3rd Division: commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton.
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Thomas Brisbane: 1st/45th, 74th, 1st/88th and 3 Cos 5th/60th Foot.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Colville: 1st/5th, 2nd/83rd, 2nd/87th and 94th Foot.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Major General Manley Power: 1st and 2nd/9th, 1st and 2nd/21st Portuguese Line and 11th Caçadores.

7th Division: commanded by Lieutenant General Lord Dalhousie.
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Barnes: 1st/6th Foot, 3rd Provisional Battalion (2nd/24th and 2nd/58th Foot), Brunswick Oels (7 Cos)
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel William Grant: 51st, 68th, 1st/82nd Foot and Chasseurs Britanniques.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Major General Le Cor: 1st and 2nd/7th, 1st and 2nd/19th Portuguese Line and 2nd Caçadores.
Artillery: commanded by Major Buckner
Batteries of Cairnes and Douglas.

Left Column: commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Graham.
Cavalry:
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General George Anson: 12th and 16th Light Dragoons
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Baron Bock: 1st and 2nd Dragoons, King’s German Legion

Infantry:
1st Division: commanded by Major General Kenneth Howard
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Kenneth Stopford: 1st/Coldstream, 1st/3rd Guards, Co 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Colonel Collin Halkett: 1st, 2nd and 5th Line Battalions, 1st and 2nd Light Battalions, King’s German Legion.

5th Division: commanded by Major General Oswald.
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Hay: 3rd/1st, 1st/9th, 1st/38th Foot and Co Brunswick Oels.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Robinson: 1st/4th, 2nd/47th, 2nd/59th Foot and Co Brunswick Oels.
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Spry: 1st and 2nd/3rd, 1st and 2nd/15th Portuguese Line and 8th Caçadores.

Independent Portuguese Brigades:
Independent Brigades:
1st Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Pack: 1st and 2nd/1st, 1st and 2nd/16th Portuguese Line and 4th Caçadores.
2nd Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Bradford: 1st and 2nd/13th, 1st and 2nd/24th Portuguese Line and 5th Caçadores.

Spanish Division: commanded by Colonel Francisco Longa:

Artillery:
Dubordieu’s and Lawson’s batteries Royal Artillery

Army Artillery: commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dickson
Webber Smith’s troop Royal Horse Artillery
Parker’s battery Royal Artillery
Arriaga’s battery Portuguese Artillery.

French order of battle:
Commander in Chief: Prince Joseph Napoleon, King of Spain
Chief of Staff: Marshal Jean Baptiste Jourdan

Army of the South: commanded by General Gazan
Cavalry:
1st Division: commanded by General Soult
2nd Division: commanded by General Tilly
3rd Division: commanded by General Digeon

Infantry:
1st Division: commanded by General Leval
3rd Division: commanded by General Villatte
4th Division: commanded by General Conroux
6th Division: commanded by General Daricau
General Maransin’s brigade

Army of the Centre: commanded by General Count D’Erlon
Cavalry:
1st Division: commanded by General Treillard
2nd Division: commanded by General Avy

Infantry:
1st Division: commanded by General Darmignac
2nd Division: commanded by General Cassagne
Artillery

Army of Portugal: commanded by General Reille
1st Division: commanded by General Mermet
2nd Division: commanded by General Boyer

Infantry:
4th Division: commanded by General Sarrut
6th Division: commanded by General Lamartinière

King Joseph’s Spanish Army:
Guard (Cavalry and Infantry)

The Battle of Vitoria
The Battle of Vitoria

Casualties:
The French lost 8,000 men. The British lost 3,675, the Portuguese 921 and the Spanish 562. The French lost all their guns other than one.

The Emporer
King Joseph's silver chamber pot
"liberated" by the 14th Light Dragoons

Follow-up:
The battle was of wide significance throughout Europe. The Emperor Napoleon was already reeling from the catastrophe of the Russian campaign. Vitoria helped to show that his dominance of the continent was coming to an end. The battle established Lord Wellington’s reputation throughout Europe, as is indicated by Beethoven’s tribute (see below).

On hearing the news of the battle the Austrians mobilised and declared war on France. The Emperors of Russia and Austria both offered Lord Wellington the command of their armies.

Anecdotes and traditions: