Battle of Somosierra

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Battle of Somosierra
Part of the Peninsular War
La bataille de Somo-Sierra.jpg
La bataille de Somo-Sierra, by Baron Lejeune, 1810, oil on canvas.
Date30 November 1808
Location
Result Franco-Polish victory
Belligerents
Flag of France.svg French Empire
Flag of Poland (1807-1815).svg Duchy of Warsaw
Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg  Spain
Commanders and leaders
Flag of France.svg Napoleon I
Flag of Poland (1807-1815).svg Jan Leon Kozietulski
Flag of Spain (1785-1873, 1875-1931).svg Benito de San Juan
Strength
45,000 20,000 infantry
16 guns
Casualties and losses
57 killed or wounded [lower-alpha 1] 250 killed or wounded
3,000 captured

The Battle of Somosierra took place on November 30, 1808, during the Peninsular War, when a French army under Napoleon I forced a passage through the Sierra de Guadarrama shielding Madrid.

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 Grande Armée was the army commanded by Napoleon I during the Napoleonic Wars. From 1805 to 1809, the Grande Armée scored a series of historic victories that gave the French Empire an unprecedented grip on power over the European continent. Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest fighting forces ever assembled, it suffered terrible losses during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 and never recovered its tactical superiority after that campaign.

Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range

The Sierra de Guadarrama is a mountain range forming the main eastern section of the Sistema Central, the system of mountain ranges along the centre of the Iberian Peninsula. It is located between the systems Sierra de Gredos in the province of Ávila, and Sierra de Ayllón in the province of Guadalajara.

Contents

At the Somosierra mountain pass, 60 miles north of Madrid, a heavily outnumbered Spanish detachment of conscripts and artillery under Benito de San Juan aimed to block Napoleon's advance on the Spanish capital. Napoleon overwhelmed the Spanish positions in a combined arms attack, sending the Polish Chevau-légers of the Imperial Guard at the Spanish guns while French infantry advanced up the slopes. The victory removed the last obstacle barring the road to Madrid, which fell several days later.

Somosierra Municipality in Spain

Somosierra is a municipality in the Community of Madrid, Spain, located at 83 km north of Madrid, in the mountain pass with the same name, at a elevation of 1433 metres above sea level, being the northernmost town of Community of Madrid. The Battle of Somosierra was fought here in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars.

Artillery class of weapons which fires munitions beyond the range and power of personal weapons

Artillery is a class of heavy military weapons built to fire munitions far beyond the range and power of infantry's small arms. Early artillery development focused on the ability to breach defensive walls, and fortifications during sieges, and led to heavy, fairly immobile siege engines. As technology improved, lighter, more mobile field artillery cannons developed for battlefield use. This development continues today; modern self-propelled artillery vehicles are highly mobile weapons of great versatility providing the large share of an army's total firepower.

Benito de San Juan was a Spanish military officer and a notable commander of the Spanish forces during the Peninsular War. He was commanding officer of the Spanish forces during the Battle of Somosierra.

Background

By late November 1808 the French Grande Armée had overwhelmed and destroyed both wings of the Spanish popular army. To complete his reconquest of Spain, Napoleon advanced on Madrid with 40,000 men.

Military history of Spain

The military history of Spain, from the period of the Carthaginian conquests over the Phoenicians to the current Afghan War spans a period of more than 2200 years, and includes the history of battles fought in the territory of modern Spain, as well as her former and current overseas possessions and territories, and the military history of the people of Spain, regardless of geography.

General San Juan mustered an ad hoc army of militia, reservists and various regular regiments still reeling from earlier defeats – in all about 12,000 men – to defend Madrid. In order to screen the many approaches to the city, San Juan dispersed his already greatly outnumbered forces. Under his orders, 9,000 men were sent west to guard the Guadarrama pass while 3,000 occupied an advanced post at Sepulveda, leaving only 9,000 men and 16 guns on the heights of Somosierra.

Militia generally refers to an army or other fighting force that is composed of non-professional fighters

A militia is generally an army or some other fighting organization of non-professional soldiers, citizens of a nation, or subjects of a state, who can be called upon for military service during a time of need, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of a warrior nobility class. Generally unable to hold ground against regular forces, it is common for militias to be used for aiding regular troops by skirmishing, holding fortifications, or irregular warfare, instead of being used in offensive campaigns by themselves. Militia are often limited by local civilian laws to serve only in their home region, and to serve only for a limited time; this further reduces their use in long military campaigns.

Sepúlveda, Segovia municipality of Spain

Sepúlveda is a municipality located in the province of Segovia, Castile and León, Spain. The town lies next to the Hoces del Rio Duratón National Park and also incorporates the district of Duratón. A popular town within the province of Segovia to visit for cultural and gastronomic pursuits - a number of traditional restaurants serve roasted cordero and cochinillo, with appealing views of the local sierra.

Somosierra pass

The nature of the terrain and the tenacity of the Spaniards initially worked in their favor. On the evening of November 29 the brigade at Sepulveda repulsed a French attack, inflicted heavy casualties and escaped from overwhelming French numbers in the gathering darkness to the west. The following morning Napoleon advanced his infantry directly toward the pass while small detachments crept up the flanks. Exchanging musket volleys with the defenders, the French made slow but measurable progress toward the enemy guns.

The Polish charge

Because the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked by infantry movement, and Napoleon was impatient to proceed, he ordered his Polish Chevaux-Légers escort squadron of 125 men [lower-alpha 2] to charge the Spaniards and their fortified artillery batteries. To that number must be added members of other squadrons, totaling some 450 men[ citation needed ], but these entered the battle later. The charge of 125 against the batteries was joined by Niegolewski's platoon returning from reconnaissance. It is not clear, however, whether the number included only front-line troops (sabres) or all the soldiers in the units. Napoleon issued no written orders. Jan Kozietulski, who commanded the 3rd squadron that day, mentioned that he called, "Lekka jazda kłusem!" ("Light cavalry at the trot!") and, passing the little bridge, added, "En avant, Vive l'Empereur!" (Forward, long live the Emperor!")

Polish cavalry

The Polish cavalry can trace its origins back to the days of medieval mounted knights. Poland is mostly a country of flatlands and fields and mounted forces operate well in this environment. The knights and heavy horse cavalry gradually evolved into many different types of specialised mounted military formations, some of which heavily influenced western warfare and military science. This article details the evolution of Polish cavalry tactics, traditions and arms from the times of mounted knights and heavy winged hussars, through the times of light uhlans to mounted infantry equipped with ranged and mêlée weapons.

Jan Kozietulski POlish noble

Baron Jan Leon Hipolit Kozietulski was a Polish noble, military commander and an officer of the armed forces of the Duchy of Warsaw during the Napoleonic Wars. He is best remembered as the heroic commander of the Polish cavalry charge at the Battle of Somosierra.

Battle of Somosierra by Piotr Michalowski Battle of Somosierra by Piotr Michalowski.PNG
Battle of Somosierra by Piotr Michałowski

Some western authors [1] have assumed that Napoleon had gone out of his mind in ordering the Poles to charge batteries of 16 cannon over several kilometers of extremely difficult terrain. Others, [2] however, think Napoleon ordered only the closest battery to be taken, in order to open the way for his infantry, and that Kozietulski had misunderstood the order. No matter – once the charge had begun, and the chevaux-légers found themselves under fire from the second battery, they had no choice but to press the attack, as the horses went to the highest speed and were unable to stop. They took the second and third batteries but only a few chevaux-légers reached the last battery, and the Spanish attempted to recapture it. It was then that Napoleon saw his chance and immediately committed the other squadrons.

Benito de San Juan had 16 cannon at his disposal, arranged in four batteries. Some accounts, based mostly on recollections of French officers, assume that the Spaniards placed all their guns at the peak of Somosierra pass. However, with a range of 600–800 metres, the cannons, deployed in this fashion, could not have struck much of the French armyand there were reports that Napoleon himself was at times under artillery fire. The first battery defended the entrance to the Somosierra pass, the next two covered the pass at its angles and the fourth, only, stood by the heights. It was assumed that all batteries had four cannons, and later theories that the pass was too narrow for that to be possible should be treated as legends. 13th Bulletin of the Army of Spain mentioned that chevau-légers were commanded by Gen. Louis Pierre, Count Montbrun. However, both Polish charge participants mentioned above and Lt. Col. Pierre Dautancourt, one of the French tutors of the unit, stressed in their accounts that such was not the case. Datancourt mentioned that Montbrun in conversations with him had laughed at that idea. Yet French historian Adolphe Thiers gave him the honor of leading the charge, which caused a protest by surviving Polish participants of the battle. Maj. Philippe de Ségur in his memoirs wrote that he had commanded the charge, but his accounts were often described as unreliable and, again, both Dautancourt and the Poles denied his role in it.

Somosierra, by January Suchodolski, 1860 January Suchodolski, Bitwa pod Somosierra.jpg
Somosierra, by January Suchodolski, 1860

The charge was led by Kozietulski, but he lost his horse after taking the first battery. The squadron was then joined by Lt. Andrzej Niegolewski, who had previously been on reconnaissance with his soldiers. The charge was continued under Dziewanowski, and when he fell from his horse after taking the third battery he was replaced by Piotr Krasiński. The charge that continued to the last battery was led by Niegolewski, who miraculously survived a fierce attack by Spanish troops – he received nine wounds from bayonets and two carbine shots to the head.

According to many memoirs of veterans of the battle, Kozietulski led his men in a charge with the official cry Vive l'Empereur. However, popular legend has it that the true battle cry was the Polish Naprzód psiekrwie, Cesarz patrzyForward, you sons of dogs, the Emperor is watching. [3]

When the fourth battery was taken Napoleon ordered his Chasseurs of the Guard and the 1st squadron of Poles led by Tomasz Łubieński to resume the attack and drive the Spaniards from the Pass. Łubieński tried to give himself the whole glory, minimizing the role of the third squadron (while Niegolewski tried to show that he had taken the cannons and Łubieński had therefore had it easy, as the Spanish were shooting at him "with candies").

Charge effects

The Charge, part of an unfinished panorama of the battle by Wojciech Kossak and Michal Wywiorski WKossak025.jpg
The Charge, part of an unfinished panorama of the battle by Wojciech Kossak and Michał Wywiórski

The 13th bulletin of the Army of Spain mentioned the lead role of the Polish chevaux-légers. Only a cavalry charge was able to take all four batteries, even if French infantry was close enough to press their attack, and caused the en-masse retreat of Spanish Andalusian irregular militia and, in effect, the retreat of the whole army. Spanish artillerymen preferred to die rather than abandon their position – but no Polish account mentioned any fight with Spanish militia. Militiamen just left their position after seeing how seemingly easily the Poles took the artillery positions – however, in the smoke they could not see just how few Poles were on the top.

Aftermath

Surrender of Madrid, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1810, oil on canvas. Madrid fell in the aftermath of Somosierra. Antoine-Jean Gros - Capitulation de Madrid, le 4 decembre 1808.jpg
Surrender of Madrid, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1810, oil on canvas. Madrid fell in the aftermath of Somosierra.

San Juan raced his army back to Madrid. Although the victory at Somosierra was more accurately the result of a combined infantry and cavalry attack, with the infantry bearing the heavier fighting, later accounts – Napoleon's included – placed all the emphasis on the Polish charge. San Juan was later killed by his own men. [4]

French patrols reached the outskirts of Madrid on the 1 December. The Junta made a half-hearted and futile attempt to defend the capital, and on the 4 December a devastating French artillery barrage brought the Spanish defence to grief. Spaniards surrendered their remaining 2,500 regulars; the 20,000 civilians under their banner dispersed; and the French entered Madrid for the second time that year.

The Battle of Somosierra is commemorated on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw, with the inscription "SOMOSIERRA 30 XI 1808".

Notes

  1. Unit registers showed the deaths (not counting the officers) as 12 Poles from 3rd squadron (plus 2 others who died from wounds), and 2 from 1st squadron and 4 from 2nd squadron (plus one who died later from wounds). With officers, total losses were 18 dead and 11 wounded, from which 5 later died from wounds. Those were large losses, but all Polish squadrons were operational within few days after the battle. Datancourt mentioned in his relation 57 dead and wounded.
  2. Unit registers showed that the squadron numbered 125.

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References

  1. Geoffrey Regan, Great military blunders ISBN   978-0-7522-1844-1
  2. Robert Bielecki, Somosierra 1808Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1989. ISBN   83-11-07620-0
  3. Andrzej Nieuważny (May 2006). "Najpiękniejsza z szarż (The Most Beautiful of Cavalry charges)". Rzeczpospolita (in Polish). 123 (2006-05–27). Cf. word of Cambronne
  4. "Batalla de Somosierra - Entre 1809-1810". sites.google.com. Retrieved 23 March 2018.