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THE PENINSULAR WARS 1807-1814: PART 3 -THE MARCH NORTH TO THE PYRENEES

After the defeat at the Battle of Salamanca in July 1812, the French lost control of southern and most of central Spain, only occupying regions to the north along the Pyrenees. Napoleon now began withdrawing large numbers of troops from the army in Spain to fill in the depleted ranks of the Grande Armée, which had been virtually destroyed in the disastrous attempt at an invasion of Russia, and on its dismal retreat afterwards.

In May 1813, Joseph I decided to abandon Madrid and retreat behind the River Ebro. Wellington then marched out of Portugal and into northern Spain with a combined British, Spanish, and Portuguese force of 121,000 troops, where they met with Joseph I's 65,000 strong army at the Battle of Vitoria on 21st June 1813.

The Battle of Vitoria fought in June 1813
The Battle of Vitoria fought in June 1813

The French were hampered by Marshal Jourdan being ill with a fever, and the large baggage train of Joseph I clogging the roads due to the lack of draft animals. Fighting was fierce and mostly over control of the River Zadorra, but after successfully holding their positions, the British and their allies won the battle when the French moral was broken, and their army fled. Although Marshal Reille's cavalry successfully held off Sir Thomas Graham's light cavalry brigades, ensuring tens of thousands of French escaped the aftermath of the battle.

British troops then descended on the abandoned baggage train of Joseph I, pillaging it of its treasures and loot, and causing a frenzy in the process. It took Wellington two days to restore order again, and he famously described the looting soldiers in a dispatch thus: "We have in our service the scum of the earth as common soldiers."

Wellington chased the French further north into the Basque country, but the French army, now under the command of Marshal Soult, had retreated in good order and fresh reinforcements were on their way across the Pyrenees. Wellington then headed for San Sebastian but was bogged down by wet conditions and heavy rainfall, causing many troops from all armies to fall sick or desert.

Soult began a counter-offensive and there were skirmishes along the Maya Pass, but Wellington put San Sebastian, which had collaborated with the French, under siege throughout July 1813, and it eventually fell in September. He then allowed his troops to sack the town, pillaging, raping women, and setting it on fire before leaving for Pamplona which surrounded in October.

The storming of the Citadel of San Sebastien by the 47th Regiment of Foot
The storming of the Citadel of San Sebastien by the 47th Regiment of Foot

Napoleon's army had been heavily defeated at the Battle of Leipzig, and Suchet, who commanded the French army in Catalonia, lost large numbers of troops to northern Europe, so he withdrew his army to the foothills of the Pyrenees, where he joined the remains of Soult's army. Wellington then drove the French army back across the Pyrenees in a series of battles, and Beresford was sent with 12,000 men to Bordeaux, which surrendered in March 1814.

Wellington then attacked Soult's army outside Toulouse on 10th April, which was defeated after Soult retreated, and the city fell the next day. Napoleon abdicated on 13th April, bringing the Peninsular War to an end when the Treaty of Paris was signed in May.

Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne, but he immediately clashed with pro-liberals when he tried to revoke the Constitution of 1812, which had liberalised laws and introduced universal male suffrage, and he faced rebellions up until 1823 when he was imprisoned. He was freed by the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII's French army, and he spent the next 10 years of his life trying to undo reform and reinstate absolutism.

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