Battle of San Marcial

Last updated
Battle of San Marcial
Part of the Peninsular War
Date31 August 1813
Near Irun, Spain
Result Spanish victory [1]
Flag of France.svg French Empire Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Spain
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom (at Vera)
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Nicolas Jean Dieu Soult Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Manuel Freire
Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Gabriel de Mendizábal Iraeta
18,000 [2] 16,000 [3]
Casualties and losses
4,000 dead or wounded [1] 2,500 dead or wounded [1]

The Battle of San Marcial was a battle fought during the Peninsular War on 31 August 1813. The Spanish Army of Galicia, led by Manuel Freire, turned back Marshal Nicolas Soult's last major offensive against the army of Britain's Marquess of Wellington. [lower-alpha 1]

Peninsular War War by Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom against the French Empire (1807–1814)

The Peninsular War (1807–1814) was a military conflict between Napoleon's empire and Bourbon Spain, for control of the Iberian Peninsula during the Napoleonic Wars. The war began when the French and Spanish armies invaded and occupied Portugal in 1807, and escalated in 1808 when France turned on Spain, previously its ally. The war on the peninsula lasted until the Sixth Coalition defeated Napoleon in 1814, and is regarded as one of the first wars of national liberation, significant for the emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare.

The Army of Galicia was a Spanish military unit that took part in the Peninsular War against Napoleon’s French Grande Armée.

Jean-de-Dieu Soult Prime Minister of France

Marshal General Jean-de-Dieu Soult, 1st Duke of Dalmatia, was a French general and statesman, named Marshal of the Empire in 1804 and often called Marshal Soult. Soult was one of only six officers in French history to receive the distinction of Marshal General of France. The Duke also served three times as President of the Council of Ministers, or Prime Minister of France.



Wellington approached San Sebastián in the aftermath of the Vitoria campaign and put the city under siege in July 1813, aiming to reduce the important coastal fortress while the French army retired east, nursing its wounds from Vitoria. San Sebastián and Pamplona sat on Wellington's flanks, guarding the approaches to the French border, and needed to be pried from French hands before the allies could pursue operations into France. However, it appears Wellington misjudged the resourcefulness and determination of the French garrison and its talented commander, General of Brigade Louis Rey. British assaults sustained very bloody repulses, losing 600 killed in a 26 July attack. [5] Before Wellington could organize a new effort, news reached him that Soult had rebuilt the French field army and reappeared to the east—weeks earlier than Wellington had believed possible—and the allies broke off the siege to confront him. [6]

San Sebastián City in the Basque Autonomous Community, Spain

San Sebastián or Donostia is a coastal city and municipality located in the Basque Autonomous Community, Spain. It lies on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, 20 km from the French border. The capital city of Gipuzkoa, the municipality's population is 186,095 as of 2015, with its metropolitan area reaching 436,500 in 2010. Locals call themselves donostiarra (singular), both in Spanish and Basque.

Battle of Vitoria

At the Battle of Vitoria a British, Portuguese and Spanish army under General the Marquess of Wellington broke the French army under King Joseph Bonaparte and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan near Vitoria in Spain, eventually leading to victory in the Peninsular War.

Siege of San Sebastián

In the Siege of San Sebastián Allied forces under the command of Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington captured the city of San Sebastián in northern Basque Country from its French garrison under Louis Emmanuel Rey. The attack resulted in the ransacking and devastation of the town by fire.

While Wellington faced off against Soult in the Battle of the Pyrenees, Lieutenant General Graham maintained a blockade of San Sebastián and prepared for the resumption of the siege on 26 August. A line of light fortifications was put up to guard against a relief effort by Soult, and a strong cordon was established up to the banks of the Bidasoa. In addition to the Anglo-Portuguese divisions at Vera, Lesaca, and Irun, this screen included the Spanish 3rd, 5th, and 7th divisions on the San Marcial heights, as well as two brigades of the 4th division in reserve (forming Freire's Fourth Spanish Army, or Army of Galicia). After four weeks of rest Soult was, in fact, preparing one last push toward San Sebastián, concentrating all his nine divisions at Ainhoue for an attack in the vicinity of San Marcial. Neither the French nor the Spanish troops were in perfect spirits; the French were demoralized by their recent retreats and their heart was not in the coming fight, while Freire's ragged troops, neglected by the Spanish commissariat, had not enjoyed full rations in several days. [7] Behind them, the allied army was locked in a terrible struggle for San Sebastián that would cost it 2,376 dead and wounded on 31 August alone. [8]

Battle of the Pyrenees (1813)

The Battle of the Pyrenees was a large-scale offensive launched on 25 July 1813 by Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult from the Pyrénées region on Emperor Napoleon’s order, in the hope of relieving French garrisons under siege at Pamplona and San Sebastián. After initial success the offensive ground to a halt in face of increased allied resistance under the command of Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington. Soult abandoned the offensive on 30 July and headed toward France, having failed to relieve either garrison.

Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch British Army general

General Thomas Graham, 1st Baron Lynedoch was a Scottish aristocrat, politician and British Army officer. After his education at Oxford, he inherited a substantial estate in Scotland was married and settled down to a quiet career as a landowning gentleman. However, with the death of his wife, when he was aged 42, he immersed himself in a military career, during the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars.

Fortification A military construction designed for miltiary defense

A fortification is a military construction or building designed for the defense of territories in warfare, and is also used to solidify rule in a region during peacetime. The term is derived from the Latin fortis ("strong") and facere.


In an early morning mist, seven French divisions crept toward the Bidassoa on August 31, fording the river under cover of their guns. The allied positions at Vera and Irun were surprised and overrun but not before alerting Freire, who drew his troops into a line on the heights. The Imperial columns lost all cohesion as they climbed over the difficult terrain, reaching Freire in a confused mass. [3] The Spaniards welcomed them with a scathing volley and, advancing with fixed bayonets, rolled Soult's leading divisions back down the hill.[ citation needed ]

Soult rallied the broken units at noon and committed fresh troops to a second assault on the heights, but the line of Spanish bayonets held firm against his final assault and the faltering French were badly beaten. Unable to keep his men from retreating back over the river, Soult ordered a withdrawal back to Irun and called off his offensive without having met a single red coat: When, in the last laps of battle, Freire requested reinforcements from the British to shore up his battered line, Wellington replied, "As he has already won his victory, he should keep the honour of it for his countrymen alone." [1] San Sebastián fell after a fearful battle later that day, and Soult retreated into French soil.[ citation needed ]

Combat of Vera

During the afternoon, a violent thunderstorm struck the area and brought in torrents of rain. By the time General of Division Bertrand Clausel's rearguard reached the fords over the Bidassoa, there were six feet of water over them. The rearguard commander, General of Division Edmé-Martin Vandermaesen, led 10,000 men upstream to Vera (Bera). The 50-yard-long (46 m) bridge at Vera would only admit a column three or four men wide, but it was the only possible escape route. A 70-man company of the green-jacketed, rifle-armed British 95th Regiment under Captain Daniel Cadoux held the village with two sentries posted at the bridge. At 2:00 am on 1 September, the French successfully rushed the bridge, but could go no farther. In the heavy rain, the muskets of the French would not fire so they had to resort to the bayonet. Meanwhile, the British riflemen were secure with dry gunpowder in loopholed buildings. Over and over, the French tried to rush the buildings at the end of the bridge, but they were mown down in heaps by rifle fire.[ citation needed ]

Edmé-Martin Vandermaesen French general

Edmé-Martin Vandermaesen was a French general of the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. He was killed in action while leading his troops to safety after the Battle of San Marcial in the Peninsular War.

Bera, Navarre Municipality in Navarre, Spain

Bera is a town and municipality located in the province and autonomous community of Navarre, northern Spain. The river Bidasoa crosses the town before entering Gipuzkoa at Endarlatsa, and joining the Cantabrian Sea between the towns of Hendaye and Hondarribia.

Cadoux sent for assistance from a brigade of the Light Division that was camped a mile away. Incredibly, Major General John Byrne Skerrett refused to send help. Instead, he ordered Cadoux to withdraw. The captain refused to obey and held his post against repeated attacks. At length, Skerret repeated his order to withdraw. Cadoux, who had only lost his two sentries, reluctantly prepared to obey. However, it was now dawn, the rain had stopped and the gunpowder of the French was now dry. As the green-jackets abandoned the buildings, the French opened a terrific fire. Cadoux and 16 of his men were killed and more wounded. Abandoning their artillery, the French filed over the now-undefended span to escape from the trap. Vandermaesen lay among the dead. [9]


The battle marked the end of Soult's once redoubtable fighting force: "war-weary and despondent, Soult's divisions had lost all heart and, except in a few inspired flashes, were never again to fight with their once customary skill and zeal". [10] The Spanish performance at San Marcial, together with that of General José Zayas's Division at the Battle of Albuera and General Francisco Castaños's army at the Battle of Bailén, were among their best efforts of the Peninsular War. The next action would be the Battle of the Bidassoa on 7 October.[ citation needed ]

See also


  1. Wellington had been named Marquess the previous year and wouldn't become a duke until 1814. [4]
  1. 1 2 3 4 Gates 2001, p. 428
  2. Gates 2001, p. 523.
  3. 1 2 Gates 2001, p. 427.
  4. Gifford 1817, p. 375.
  5. Gates 2001, p. 395.
  6. Gates 2001, p. 396.
  7. Glover 2003, p. 263.
  8. Glover 2003, p. 262.
  9. Glover 2003, pp. 263–264.
  10. Gates 2001, p. 429.

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Coordinates: 43°19′40″N1°45′41″W / 43.32778°N 1.76139°W / 43.32778; -1.76139