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  • The Battle of Vitoria, June 21, 1813.

    Beatriz Camino

    The Battle of Vitoria, June 21, 1813.

    On June 21, 1813, at the Battle of Vitoria, the British, Portuguese, and Spanish forces decisively defeated the French forces commanded by King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan near Vitoria, Spain. This victory paved the way for the Allies’ triumph in the Peninsular War.

    The Peninsular War

    The Peninsular War began in 1808, following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain and Portugal. Initially an ally of France, Spain became a battleground when Napoleon deposed the Spanish Bourbon monarchy and installed his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, as king. This move ignited widespread outrage and resistance among the Spanish people, who united across social classes to take up arms in what became known as the Spanish Uprising. This guerrilla warfare, characterised by small, mobile units employing hit-and-run tactics, posed a significant challenge to the French military forces.

    Recognising the strategic importance of the Iberian Peninsula and the opportunity to weaken Napoleon, the British government decided to support the Spanish resistance. In 1808, a British expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington, landed in Portugal. Under his command, the Allied forces achieved several significant victories, including the Battle of Talavera in 1809 and the successful defence of Portugal during the French invasions of 1810-1811.

    Despite numerous offensives led by various commanders, including Marshal Masséna, Marshal Soult, and Marshal Jourdan, the French were repeatedly thwarted by Wellington’s strategic defences and counterattacks. A turning point came in July 1812, following the Battle of Salamanca, when the French evacuated Madrid, and allowed Wellington’s army to enter the city on August 12, 1812. Wellington then deployed three divisions to guard the southern approaches of Madrid and marched north with the remainder of his army to besiege the fortress of Burgos. However, he underestimated the enemy’s strength and had to retreat, subsequently abandoning Madrid and falling back to Salamanca and then to Ciudad Rodrigo, near the Portuguese frontier, to avoid encirclement by French armies advancing from the northeast and southeast.

    Over the winter, Wellington reorganized and reinforced his forces to prepare for an attack on King Joseph in Madrid. Meanwhile, Napoleon recalled numerous soldiers to France to rebuild his main army after the disastrous invasion of Russia. By May 20, 1813, Wellington advanced with 121,000 troops from northern Portugal, crossing the mountains of northern Spain and the Esla River to outflank Marshal Jourdan’s army of 68,000, which was spread between the Douro and Tagus rivers. The French retreated to Burgos, with Wellington’s forces moving swiftly to cut off their route to France. On June 21, Wellington launched his attack at Vitoria with 57,000 British, 16,000 Portuguese, and 8,000 Spanish troops, striking from four different directions.

    The Battle of Vitoria

    The Battle of Vitoria, which took place near the town of Vitoria-Gasteiz in the Basque Country, was the culmination of Wellington’s strategic efforts in the Peninsular War. The French forces, commanded by Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were retreating towards France, heavily burdened by a large convoy of supplies and the substantial treasury of King Joseph Bonaparte. The French position was precarious, marred by logistical challenges and low morale.

    Wellington executed a brilliant multi-pronged assault designed to overwhelm the French defences. He divided his forces into four columns, each targeting different parts of the French position to create confusion and prevent effective counterattacks. General Hill led the advance up the Burgos road, deploying Pablo Morillo's division to the right to climb the Heights of La Puebla, while Stewart’s 2nd Division moved into the narrow plain south of the river. Seeing these manoeuvres, French commander Gazan sent Maransin to drive Morillo off the heights. Hill responded by sending Col. Henry Cadogan’s brigade to support Morillo, prompting Gazan to commit Villatte’s reserve division.

    Gazan soon noticed Wellington’s column moving north of the Zadorra River, threatening his right flank. He requested reinforcements from Marshal Jourdan, who refused, focusing instead on securing the left flank. Wellington then advanced James Kempt’s brigade across the Zadorra, while Stewart faced a counterattack from Gazan’s divisions. Despite Cadogan’s death, the Anglo-Spanish force maintained their position. Wellington paused his attacks to allow Graham’s column to engage.

    At noon, Graham’s column appeared on the Bilbao road. Realising the danger of envelopment, Jourdan ordered Gazan to retreat toward Vitoria. Further east, Longa’s Spanish troops defeated the Spanish Royal Guards, cutting the road to Bayonne. The French, with Gazan on the left and D'Erlon on the right, attempted to hold the village of Arinez, but the Allied divisions quickly captured it. The French fell back to the Zuazo ridge, covered by their artillery, but this position also fell when Gazan refused to coordinate with D'Erlon.

    French morale crumbled, and Gazan’s and D'Erlon’s soldiers fled the battlefield. Artillerists abandoned their guns, and the retreat turned chaotic, with the road congested with wagons and carriages.


    The Battle of Vitoria was a devastating defeat for the French, resulting in significant losses of men, artillery, and supplies. They suffered approximately 8,000 casualties and lost their entire convoy, including King Joseph’s treasury. The defeat forced the French to retreat towards the Pyrenees, effectively ending their occupation of Spain.

    The victory at Vitoria also had significant political ramifications, bolstering Allied morale and undermining Napoleon’s influence. It provided impetus for the Sixth Coalition, which saw Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden join forces against France. Concurrently, it significantly weakened Napoleon’s position in Europe, as the loss of Spain disrupted French supply lines and diminished his ability to project power across the continent. The defeat at Vitoria marked a turning point that set the stage for his eventual downfall, culminating in his abdication in 1814 and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in Spain.


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