Wellington’s decisive defeat of Joseph Bonaparte’s French army on 21st June 1813
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Majadahonda
The next battle in the British Battles sequence is the Battle of Cape St Vincent
War: Peninsular War
Date of the Battle of Vitoria: 21st June 1813
Place of the Battle of Vitoria: in Northern Spain, to the South of Bilbao and near the French border.
Combatants at the Battle of Vitoria: British, Portuguese and Spanish troops against French troops
Commanders at the Battle of Vitoria: The Marquis of Wellington (from 1814 Duke of Wellington) against Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain and brother of the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Size of the armies at the Battle of Vitoria: Wellington’s army comprised 52,000 British and 28,000 Portuguese troops. An army of 25,000 Spanish troops co-operated in the campaign. The French army comprised 60,000 troops (including 11,000 cavalry), with 138 guns.
Uniforms, arms and equipment at the Battle of Vitoria:
The British infantry wore red waist-length jackets, grey trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets and trousers.
The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and black ostrich feather caps.
British heavy cavalry (dragoon guards and dragoons) wore red jackets and ‘Roman’ style helmets with horse hair plumes.
The British light cavalry was increasingly adopting hussar uniforms, with some regiments changing their titles from ‘light dragoons’ to ‘hussars’.
The King’s German Legion (KGL) was the Hanoverian army in exile. The KGL owed its allegiance to King George III of Great Britain, as the Elector of Hanover, and fought with the British army. The KGL comprised both cavalry and infantry regiments. KGL uniforms mirrored the British.
The Portuguese army uniforms increasingly during the Peninsular War reflected British styles. The Portuguese line infantry wore blue uniforms, while the Caçadores light infantry regiments wore green.
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 white.
The French army wore a variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers, wearing heavy burnished metal breastplates and crested helmets, Dragoons, largely in green, Hussars, in the conventional uniform worn by this arm across Europe, and Chasseurs à Cheval, dressed as hussars.
The French foot artillery wore uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery wore hussar uniforms.
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the muzzle-loading musket. The musket could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet for hand-to-hand fighting, which fitted the muzzle end of his musket.
The British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, of limited use against troops in the field unless those troops were closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented and was highly effective against troops in the field over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, yet in their infancy. were of particular use against buildings. The British were developing shrapnel (named after the British officer who invented it) which increased the effectiveness of exploding shells against troops in the field, by exploding in the air and showering them with metal fragments.
Throughout the Peninsular War and the Waterloo campaign, the British army was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The Army was sustained by volunteer recruitment and the Royal Artillery was not able to recruit sufficient gunners for its needs.
Napoleon exploited the advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the French Ancien Régime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many of his battles were won using a combination of the manoeuvrability and fire power of the French guns with the speed of the French columns of infantry, supported by the mass of French cavalry.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle field in fast moving columns, the British trained to fight in line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two, to extend the line of the British infantry and to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments.
Winner of the Battle of Vitoria: The British, Portuguese and Spanish.
British order of battle at the Battle of Vitoria:
Commander: Lieutenant General (local General) the Marquess of Wellington
Right Column: commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Rowland Hill
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
2nd Division: commanded by Lieutenant General William Stewart
1st Brigade: commanded by Colonel Cadogan: 1st/50th, 1st/71st 1st/91st Foot and 1 company of 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Byng: 1st/3rd, 1st/57th Foot, 1st Provisional Battalion (2nd/31st and 2nd/66th Foot) and 1 company of 5th/60th Foot
3rd Brigade: commanded by Colonel O’Callaghan: 1st/28th, 2nd/34th, 1st/39th Foot and 1 company of 5th/60th Foot
Portuguese Brigade: commanded by Brigadier General Ashworth: 1stand 2nd/6th, 1stand 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
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
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 1 company of 5th/60th Foot
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Skerrett: 1st/7th, 20th, 1st/23rd, and 1 company of 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 companies) and 3rd Caçadores
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General John Ormesby Vandeleur: 1st/52nd Foot, 2nd/95th Rifles (6 companies) 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
3rd Division: commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Thomas Brisbane: 1st/45th, 74th, 1st/88th and 3 companies of 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 companies)
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
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
1st Division: commanded by Major General Kenneth Howard
1st Brigade: commanded by Major General Kenneth Stopford: 1st/Coldstream Guards, 1st/3rd Guards, and 1 company of 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 1 company of Brunswick Oels
2nd Brigade: commanded by Major General Robinson: 1st/4th, 2nd/47th, 2nd/59th Foot and 1 company of 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:
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
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 at the Battle of Vitoria:
Commander in Chief: Prince Joseph Napoleon, King of Spain
Chief of Staff: Marshal Jean Baptiste Jourdan
Army of the South: commanded by General Gazan
1st Division: commanded by General Soult
2nd Division: commanded by General Tilly
3rd Division: commanded by General Digeon
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
1st Division: commanded by General Treillard
2nd Division: commanded by General Avy
1st Division: commanded by General Darmignac
2nd Division: commanded by General Cassagne
Army of Portugal: commanded by General Reille
1st Division: commanded by General Mermet
2nd Division: commanded by General Boyer
4th Division: commanded by General Sarrut
6th Division: commanded by General Lamartinière
King Joseph’s Spanish Army:
Guard (Cavalry and Infantry)
Account of the Battle of Vitoria:
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 French 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 guerrilla-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; the Army of the South, the Army of the Centre and the Army of Portugal, where they awaited reinforcement by General Clausel and his Army of the North.
On 20th June 1813, the French around Vitoria heard sounds of firing from the north, along the road to Bilbao, indicating that Wellington’s army was approaching.
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 that stretched from west to east. The road to France headed north-east. The Madrid road ran to the west. 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, following a wide curve and leaving the plain at its 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 was behind Gazan and to his north. The Army of Portugal was on the Bilbao road to the North of Vitoria, defending the crossing of the Zadorra.
The first sign of Wellington’s attack on 21st June 1813 was the arrival of Major General Hill’s corps through the La Puebla defile along the southern bank of the River Zadorra. The Spanish Division and Cadogan’s brigade moved onto the southern hills where they were fiercely attacked by the divisions of Villatte and Maransin.
Meanwhile, Lord Wellington brought his main force through the La Puebla defile, up the north bank of the Zadorra, to the village of Nanclares, from 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 of the Zadorra were intact. Kempt’s brigade crossed the river, supported by the 15th Hussars.
Wellington’s plan envisaged an assault by four forces. Hill’s attack was the first. Wellington’s was the main thrust. On Wellington’s extreme left, Major General Graham’s column was to attack down the Bilbao road, force the bridge over the Zadorra at Gamarra Mayor and cut the road leading north-east to France. The fourth column, commanded by Lord Dalhousie, was to come over the mountains and cross the river to the left of Wellington’s column. Wellington intended to destroy Joseph’s French army and prevent the remnants from escaping across the border to France.
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 cut off the French retreat to France.
Graham began his attack down the Bilbao road, but fierce resistance from the Army of Portugal kept him on the north bank of the River Zamorra. Further to his left, Longa’s Spanish Division managed to cross the river and block the road to France.
Dalhousie’s 3rd Division crossed the Zadorra east of Tres Puentes. Wellington’s 4th 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 retreated in disorder down the southerly road towards Salvatierra, leaving a complete siege train and horde of valuables, accumulated during the occupation of Spain.
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.
Casualties at the Battle of Vitoria:
The British suffered 3,675 troops killed and wounded, the Portuguese 921 troops killed and wounded and the Spanish 562 troops killed and wounded.
The French suffered 8,000 troops killed, wounded and captured and lost all their guns, except one.
Follow-up to the Battle of Vitoria:
The Battle of Vitoria 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 of Vitoria established Lord Wellington’s reputation throughout Europe, as 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 command of their armies, which he declined.
Vitoria is a Battle Honour for the British regiments that took part. The Military General Service Medal, issued to veterans of the Napoleonic Wars still alive in 1847, carried a clasp for those who fought at the Battle of Vitoria.
Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Vitoria:
- One of the items looted from Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage was a silver chamber pot. The regiment that ‘liberated’ the pot, the 14th Light Dragoons (later 14th Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars), retained it as a trophy and, to this day, use it on regimental guest nights for the toasts, filled with champagne. The chamber pot is known as ‘the Emperor’.
- To commemorate the battle Beethoven wrote a symphony that he called ‘Wellington’s Victory’.
References for the Battle of Salamanca:
History of the Peninsula War by Sir William Napier Volume 1
History of the Peninsula War by Sir Charles Oman
History of the British Army by John Fortescue Volume 6
British Battles on Land and Sea by James Grant Volume 2
The Peninsular War: A Concise Military History by Michael Glover
The previous battle of the Peninsular War is the Battle of Majadahonda
The next battle in the British Battles sequence is the Battle of Cape St Vincent