Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Summary of our Tour of Northern Spain

This was our most ambitious tour so far. We had gained a lot of confidence from self drive holiday of the previous year to Portugal and Spain. Many of the battlefields we explored then were return visits to ones we had seen with Holts Tours. However this time it would all be new

Burgos was the only one which was really easy. The castle overlooks the city, and is easy to find. From the castle it is easy to walk the area of the siege.

Vitoria was easy to find, but difficult to explore. A large new motorway through the centre of the battlefield makes it difficult to find Arinez hill, the French first line. But once found the layout of the field was clear and obvious.

Roncesvalles was easy to find, the modern main road goes over the pass and there is a large car park and monument to Roland. Some of the original paths are not so easy to find.

Maya is similar to Roncesvalles. Easy to find the pass, and again a car park. From the pass it is easy to see the direction of the French attack, but very difficult to find the actual area of fighting.

I could not find Sorauren on my modern road map, but passed through it on the way to Pamplona. It would be easy to miss were we not looking for it. Once out of the car it was a delight. The ridge was obvious, and easy to explore. But my favourite was the small café we found within sight of the bridge where Wellington wrote his orders.

Vera was less impressive, except for the bridge where Cadroux and his riflemen held the French division at bay. We never did find the ridge over the village which was the scene of the light division assault on the Rhune.

Fuenterabbia is now a lovely seaside resort and a nice place to spend a few days. But it is greatly expanded from the village of 1813 and impossible to locate where Wellington forded the river into France.

We covered 30 miles trying to find the battle of the Nivelle and largely failed. But we did find Sare, and promised to return to do it properly.

We were luckier with the 50 miles to cover the battle of the Nive. The church at Arcangues and the hill of Monguerre helped to make sense of the large area covered by this battle.

San Sebastian has grown to cover all the area of the siege, and the town is very modern. But the castle was easy to find, and cannot have changed much since Wellington laid siege to it.

So a busy and rewarding tour. I feel that we have done justice to Burgos, Victoria, Sorauren, the Nivelle and San Sebastian. But the Pyrenees was just too big and too difficult to do in the short time available.

We had already decided before we finished that we would return again to explore the Pyrenees, and in particular the battle of the Nive. It would require at least a week, and we would base ourselves in the lovely little French village of Sare.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

San Sebastian

On the last day of our holiday we drove the 20 miles along the coast from our base at Fuenterabbia to the popular holiday resort of San Sebastian. There is no sign of the 1813 siege works as you approach the town, which has the feel of a very modern Spanish town. The road runs along the river towards the dominating mass of Mount Orgullo with the Castle of La Mota on the top. We parked immediately below the castle, and climbed the steep path to the castle keep, passing the site of the Mirador Battery on the way. Unfortunately the small museum was closed, but with the help of Jac Weller’s “Wellington in the Peninsular” we were able to follow the various stages of the siege.

Looking towards Isle of Santa Clara from the Castle of La Mota. The island was occupied by the Royal Navy to establish a siege battery, but also to prevent the constant coming and going of small French ships which took in ammunition, stores and reinforcements, and evacuated wounded.

Jan enjoys the views across the bay from the Castle Keep.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Battle of the Nive

The Battle of the Nive was fought between 9 and 13 December 1813. It covers a wide area south of Bayonne. Marshal Soult held that city with 67,000 men and Wellington was determined to take it with his 64,000 men. Wellington’s plan was to close in on Bayonne from the east as well as from the south, because this would threaten Soult’s line of withdrawal. However this meant that the allied army would be divided by the river Nive, and Soult would take full advantage by moving his army from one bank to the other via Bayonne.

It is a large area to cover, even in a car. It is also very difficult to get an overall view of the battle area. Perhaps the best place to start is at the village of Mouguerre. On a steep hill overlooking the village is the Croix de Mouguerre, a memorial to Marshal Soult and defence of Bayonne. In the map above the village is on the extreme right just below the name Byng.

The monument is obviously a favourite picnic site with locals. We visited on a Sunday, and the car park was full and families spread around enjoying the sun and the view.

The first French attack was on the left, or west, of the river Nive. It caught the allied army by surprise, and isolated bodies fought desperately to allow for reinforcements to be brought up. The light division played an important part in this battle, as did the village of Arcangues. This was to be the scene of the most desperate fighting as the French were held and then driven back. The church and graveyard would play a vital role in the battle.

On 10 December 1813 the church was held by the 43rd regiment, part of the famous light division. The light division had been pushed back by four French divisions. The French deployed a battery about 400 yards from the church. The defenders were deployed behind the church wall and inside the church itself both on the choir gallery and the tower. The church was hit about eight times, but the fire of the defenders was so accurate that the enemy gunners were forced to flee and abandon their 12 guns. The photograph was taken from the artillery position looking towards the church

The church is a very popular tourist attraction, and on the day we were there the large car park was full. However I am not sure whether that is because of the events of 1813 or simply because it is a very beautiful and well preserved old Basque church.

Friday, March 12, 2010

San Marcial

On 31 August 1813 Marshal Soult made a final attempt to raise the siege of San Sebastian before the city fell to the British. The bridge over the river Bidassa at Behobie had been burned, but there were many good infantry fords nearby. A mile south of the river there is a long hill called San Marcial and here Wellington posted three Spanish divisions under General Freire. Soult attacked with two divisions, who were disordered as they climbed the hill. At the crest they were met by the Spanish lines and a firefight developed. Freire requested British reinforcements, but Wellington refused as he could see that the Spanish had already won the battle. By 10am the French were in full retreat back over the Bidassoa into France.

Jan is sitting on the crest of the San Marcial hill in the centre of the Spanish positions, looking towards France. The French infantry advanced up the hill towards this point, and were thrown back by the Spanish defence.

The San Marcial hill with the chapel on the skyline on the right, as seen from the French bank of the Bidassoa immediately downstream from the bridge at Behobie. The Spanish were deployed on the crest of this hill, and the French infantry disordered in climbing towards them.

The chapel of San Marcial was the scene of fierce fighting during the battle, but was held by the Spanish throughout.

From the western edge of San Marcial hill is an impressive view of La Rhune and the road into France.

The French defeat at San Marcial would cause General Vandermaesen to retreat towards Vera with his division and result in the gallant defence of the bridge by Captain Cadoux and his company of the 95th Rifles.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


In 1813 the Bidassoa river was the border between France and Spain. On the Spanish side was Wellington’s army. On the French side Soult and the French army. The river was considered not fordable as it joined the sea at Fuenterrabia. However local fishermen confirmed that it could be forded at low tide. At first light on 7 October 1813 the British 1st and 5th divisions crossed the wide estuary and the water came up only as far as the men’s waist at most.

Fuenterrabia today much expanded, and is a thriving Spanish seaside holiday destination. We could find no memorials or other reminders of 1813. Nor could we find any bars or café’s which spoke English, an ongoing problem with our complete lack of spoken Spanish!

To explore this area we spent two nights in the very impressive Parador. These are state run hotels, and this one is a converted 10th century Moorish castle. No expense has been spared in the conversion, and we have fond memories of the large dining room with a glass roof so that you can admire the castle walls. There is also a large collection of weapons, cannon and armour which decorate the castle.

From the bedroom window we had an excellent view of the river and of France beyond.

This peaceful garden, with the castle behind, was useful for sitting in the evenings and reading up on the next battlefield on the agenda.

At the end of a long promenade is this rocky breakwater. From here there are good views of La Rhune Mountain, the site of the famous light division engagement. The Rhune is the largest peak surrounded by low cloud.

Taken from the castle gardens looking across the river towards France.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Vera is a small village on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It played an important part in Wellington’s 1813 campaign as it has one of the few bridges over the Bidassoa river. The 20 miles journey from Maya is through the river valley through impressive mountain scenery. It is very similar to Scotland, but with more sun than is usual there.

On 13 August 1813 about 10,000 French troops crossed this bridge as part of an offensive to raise the siege of San Sebastian. The attempt failed and they returned in heavy rain, which dramatically raised the level of the river, making the river unfordable. When they reached the bridge they found it defended by 80 men of the 95th Rifles under the command of a Captain Daniel Cadoux. He held the bridge for two hours, but died in the action along with 16 of his men. The French forced the bridge, but lost 231 casualties in the process.

I first heard about this gallant action when I read a battle report in Wargamers Newsletter in the early 1970’s. I always remembered it, because my Vera is also my sister’s name. So when I saw a sign for the village I was determined to find the bridge. It proved very difficult to do so, and we were lucky that we found a local who spoke a little English and pointed out the direction of the bridge. It is still in use, but not part of the main road and you would not find it unless you were determined to

Thursday, February 18, 2010


The village of Sorauren is easy to find, just drive six miles north on the road to Roncesvalles and you are there. The battlefield is equally easy to locate. The village consists of just one street, with the river Ulzama on the left and “Cole’s ridge” on the right. Jan is sitting on the by the road which leads to the river. Ahead is the French position of “Clausel’s ridge”

Jan is sitting on the left of “Cole’s ridge”. To her right the road to Roncesvalles, along which Cole retreated and Soult arrived. Sorauren is out of sight below the ridge on her left. This position was held by a Portuguese brigade, and when Wellington arrived their welcoming cries of “Douro! Douro! Douro!” caused the cautious Soult to delay his attack and allowed British reinforcements to arrive.

Another photo of Jan on “Cole’s ridge”. This was the scene of the main French attack by six divisions. The French reached the crest of the ridge but were driven back by the familiar British two deep lines which could bring 1200 muskets against the 300 forming the head of the French column.

This photo was taken on the extreme left of “Cole’s ridge”, over looking the village below and the road behind along which the British reinforcements would arrive. The French captured this area, but lost it again to a British counter attack.

This is the bridge over the river Ulzama, with the village on the far bank. The building to the right beside the bridge is where we would later have lunch. The French position of “Clausel’s ridge” is on the left and the British “Cole’s ridge” on the right. It was also where Wellington’s arrived and wrote his famous dispatch.

Jan stands in the same spot where Wellington wrote his hasty orders. The village is not much changed since 1813 and the bridge not at all. The dusty track is no longer a main road, but is easy to find and follow.

We were delighted to find a comfortable inn on the village side of the bridge, beside the river and within sight of the bridge itself. Throughout this holiday we found communication difficult. We spoke no Spanish at all, and none of the locals we met spoke any English. The inn owner was no different. We thought we had ordered an omelet, but were bemused to be served a plate of soup with a fried egg floating in the middle, and a plate of chips. However after our scrambles over the hills we were very hungry and enjoyed the strange meal.