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Siege of San Sebastian

Siege of San Sebastián
Part of Peninsular War

The Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton
Date 7 July–8 September 1813
Location San Sebastián, Spain
Result French victory (1st),
Anglo-Portuguese victory (2nd)
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom,
Portugal
France French Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Marquess of Wellington France Louis Emmanuel Rey
Strength
18,000 3,600
Casualties and losses
5,300, including 1,200 killed, 3,800 wounded, 300 missing 1,900 dead and wounded, 1,200 captured

In the Siege of San Sebastián (7 July - 8 September 1813) Allied forces under the command of Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington captured the city of San Sebastián in northern Spain from its French garrison under Louis Emmanuel Rey. The attack resulted in the ransacking and devastation of the town by fire.

Situation

After winning the decisive Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, Wellington's army moved into the western Pyrenees to face Marshal Nicolas Soult's reorganized French army. To clear his rear area and to obtain a port to supply his forces, Wellington laid siege to San Sebastián.

Forces

General of Brigade Rey's 3,000-man French garrison consisted of the 22nd Line (1 battalion), 64th Line (2 battalions), elements of the 1st Light and 34th Line, one company each of sappers and pioneers, and two companies of gunners. Ninety-seven guns lined the fortifications.

To prosecute the siege, Lieut-Gen Thomas Graham commanded an 11,000-strong corps that included Maj-Gen Kenneth Howard's 1st Division, Maj-Gen John Oswald's 5th Division and Brig-Gen Denis Pack's Portuguese brigade. Graham deployed 40 heavy siege guns.

The makeup of the allied troops investing the town included an important multinational share of soldiers of fortune, whose only incentive was the booty obtained in the conquered strongholds.[1]

Approaches

San Sebastián (Donostia in Basque), numbering 9,104 inhabitants at the time, was a rather liberal town as opposed to the more conservative province of Gipuzkoa, open to different influences from overseas, the north (Gascony and France altogether) and the south (Spain). Additionally, the make-up of the town had been conspicuously mixed ethnic Gascon and Basque since its foundation, while Gascon language may have died out at this point of the town's history.

After Napoleon's takeover in France, elder brother Joseph I was proclaimed king of Spain in 1808. Francisco Amorós, who is cited in many accounts as "French-minded", was then appointed chief magistrate of the town. While it seems that the new authorities and aides weren't especially highly regarded by the population, it holds true that peace prevailed the whole period running up to 1813, and French troops were generally well accepted. This balance swung when French troops on retreat under Emmanuel Rey's command and refugees fleeing Vitoria after the French defeat arrived in the city in June.[2]

San Sebastián stood on a peninsula into the Bay of Biscay that ran generally north and south. The southern face of the city's fortifications was very strong. On its eastern side, the city was protected by the estuary of the Urumea River. British engineers detected a weak point near the riverfront at the city's southeastern corner. Assaults were possible across the river bed at low tide from both the south and the east. Breaching batteries were constructed to the south of the city and in sandhills on the east side of the estuary.

British seapower could not be utilized because the Biscayan blockading fleet was understrength. In fact, French vessels regularly brought in supplies and reinforcements, while taking out wounded and sick soldiers. Because of this, Wellington could not expect to starve out the city. He would have to breach the walls and carry the city by assault.

First Siege

The first parallel was opened on 7 July. Wellington personally launched an unsuccessful attack on 25 July. For the next week, he was fully occupied in defending against Soult's attack in the Battle of the Pyrenees. In the first siege, the British suffered 693 killed and wounded and 316 captured. Rey's garrison lost 58 killed and 258 wounded.

Second Siege


After driving Soult back across the frontier, Wellington again turned his attention to San Sebastián on 8 August. Situated on a narrow promontory that jutted out into the sea between the waters of the Bay of Biscay and the broad estuary of the River Urumea, the town was hard to get at and well fortified – "it was the strongest fortification I ever saw, Gibraltar excepted", wrote William Dent.[3] By this time, Soult had reinforced Rey to a strength of 3,600 men, including complete battalions of the 1st Light, 34th Line and 119th Line. Graham's corps now numbered 18,000 men. The British engineers emplaced their breaching batteries by 26 August. By late on 30 August, the 15 heavy cannon firing from the south and 42 guns firing from the east blasted two breaches in the walls. The main breach was made near the southeast corner of the fortress while a smaller breach was located on the east side. Graham ordered an assault for the following day.

Because the attack had to be made as the tide fell, it was scheduled for 11:00 am on 31 August. The 5th Division made the assault from the south on the main breach. The soldiers dashed across the 180 yards from the trenches to the foot of the breach with little loss, but then the French opened a terrific fire. Again and again the men of the 5th Division rushed up the rubble-strewn breach, but they were cut down in swaths.

The French had built an inner wall that stopped the redcoats from breaking through the defenses. Hundreds of British soldiers were killed. Graham committed 750 volunteers from the 1st, 4th and Light Divisions, but they were unable to beat down the French defenders. A Portuguese brigade splashed across the Urumea River and attacked the eastern breach, but their drive also stalled. After two hours, the assault was a costly failure. The survivors hugged the ground to avoid the searing fire.

After consulting with his artillery commander, Alexander Dickson, Graham chose to open fire on the inner wall, despite risk of killing many British soldiers who lay so close under the barrier. When the British heavy guns first fired over their heads, the survivors of the attack began to panic. But, when the smoke cleared, they noticed that the big guns had wrecked most of the inner wall. With a yell, they charged, reached the top of the breach and spilled into the city. At the sight of their defence lines broken, the French retreated to the fortress on the hill of Urgull and by midday the besiegers had taken over the town.[4] Rey and his surviving garrison held out until 5 September before asking for terms. The French commander formally surrendered on 8 September, and the remainder of the garrison stationed in the fortress was allowed by the Anglo-Portuguese forces to leave the stronghold in due formation marching to the sound of the drums under the startled eyes of the survivor civilian, who protested an etiquette not shown to them.

Ransacking and burning of San Sebastian

On entering the town, the victorious British and Portuguese troops quickly discovered plentiful supplies of Brandy and Wine in the shops and houses, with many soon becoming part of a "reeling, riotous mob".[5] Drunken and enraged at the heavy losses they had suffered, the troops ran amok, pillaging and burning the city and killing an unknown number of inhabitants according to some sources,[6] but they may amount to 1,000.[7] Some British officers tried to stop the looting but were either ignored or threatened by the drunken soldiers,[8] or turned a blind eye or added to the plight.[9] Statements (75 reports) were gathered bearing witness to the events starting on 31 August.[10] One of the survivors and witness Gabriel Serres claimed that, "[the assailants] committed the biggest atrocities, such as killing and injuring many inhabitants and also raping most of the women".[11] The burning started that very night on some houses, according to local witnesses. Local Domingo de Echave gave evidence echoing an English soldier's words pointing to flames coming out of a house: "See that house ablaze? Mind you, tomorrow all like this."[12] The city kept burning yet for seven days, by which time only a handful of buildings survived. The rest of it burned to the ground—600 houses, city hall and record office included.

After the burning, the town council and many survivors of the destruction held a meeting in Zubieta, where the devastated town dwellers decided the reconstruction of the town almost from scratch. Moreover, a new council was appointed, and a letter was written congratulating Wellington on his victory[1]:98 and requesting him that they'd be granted 2,000 starvation wages for those most in need. The demand was not met since Wellington refused to do so,[13] and wholeheartedly wished in the reply that he not be addressed again.[1]:98 He went on to attribute the pillage to the French, and on November 2 while he was in Lesaka the British general denied any responsibility of the British troops on the burning.[1]:157 In November a popular trial was arranged by the town council "on the atrocious behaviour shown by the British and Portuguese troops", where tellingly only 2 women answered the questionnaire provided.[1]:8

The tragedy is remembered every year on August 31 with an extensive candlelit ceremony.

Consequences

Of Rey's garrison, 1,900 were killed or wounded and 1,200 captured. Graham's command lost 1,200 killed, 3,800 wounded and 300 missing. In the final assault, 856 men died, 1,216 fell wounded and 44 were listed as missing. Maj-Gen James Leith, who had just returned to command the 5th Division, was wounded in the assault. The engineering officer who laid out the Lines of Torres Vedras, Sir Richard Fletcher was killed during the siege, as was one of Harry Burrard's sons.

Not realizing he was too late to save San Sebastián, Soult launched a final attack on 31 August. This attempt was beaten back in the Battle of San Marcial. With the possession of San Sebastián, Wellington could think about driving Soult back into France. The next action was the Battle of the Bidassoa on 7 October, followed by the Battle of Nivelle in November. The French garrison of Pamplona surrendered to the Spanish on 30 October.

References

  • Chandler, David. Dictionary of Napoleonic Wars. Macmillan, 1979.
  • Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Penguin, 1974.
  • Smith, Digby. The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. Greenhill, 1998.

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