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Siege of San Sebastián

Siege of San Sebastián
Part of Peninsular War
The Storming of San Sebastian by Denis Dighton
Date7 July–8 September 1813
LocationSan Sebastián, Spain
Result French victory (1st),
Anglo-Portuguese victory (2nd)
23x15px United Kingdom
23x15px Portugal
23x15px Napoleonic Empire
Commanders and leaders
23x15px Thomas Graham
23x15px Luís do Rego Barreto
23x15px Louis Emmanuel Rey
9,750 3,380
Casualties and losses
3,770 in total 850 killed and 2,530 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.


After winning the decisive Battle of Vitoria on 21 June 1813, Wellington's army moved into the western Pyrenees to face Marshal Soult's reorganized French army. To clear his rear area before advancing into France, Wellington laid siege to San Sebastián.


On 1 July General of Brigade Rey's 3,170-man French garrison consisted of the 22nd and 34th Line (1 battalion each), 62nd Line (2 battalions), elements of the 1st and 119th Line, one company each of sappers and pioneers, and two companies of gunners.[1] Seventy-six guns lined the fortifications.[2]

To prosecute the siege, Lieut-Gen Sir Thomas Graham was given command of 9,000 troops from Maj-Gen John Oswald's 5th Division and Brig-Gen Henry Bradford's Portuguese brigade. Graham initially deployed 40 heavy guns from various sources.[3]

Javier Sada has stated that 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.[4] In fact the 5th Division had 3,900 British officers and men and 2,300 Portuguese, with a further 2,300 Portuguese troops in Bradford's brigade.[5]


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.[6]

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 and Graham launched an unsuccessful attack on 25 July. In the first siege, the British suffered 693 killed and wounded and 316 captured. Rey's garrison lost 58 killed and 258 wounded.

On the same day, 25 July, Wellington learnt that Soult had launched an attack (which would become the Battle of the Pyrenees) and ordered Graham to remove his guns to ships at Passages.

Second Siege

File:Louis Emmanuel Rey.JPG
Louis Emmanuel Rey

After driving Soult back across the frontier, Wellington waited until the rest of the battering train and sufficient supplies of shot had arrived from England before he again turned his attention to San Sebastián on 22 August: even with the increased resources now available to him, Wellington could only mount one formal siege at a time, whilst it was decided to plump for San Sebastian on the grounds that it was weaker, more accessible and open to resupply by sea. 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.[7] By 15 August Rey had received some drafts from blockade running vessels but, even so, he had 2,700 effective troops and 300 wounded in hospital.[8] By 26 August the British had established batteries for 63 pieces of artillery.[9] On 30 August, the 15 heavy cannon firing from the south and 48 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.

File:Forlorn hope.jpg
Colin Campbell leading the 'forlorn hope' at the Siege of San Sebastián, 1813. Painting by William Barnes Wollen

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 swathes.

The French had built a coupure (inner wall) that stopped the redcoats from breaking through the defences. 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 coupure's 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.[10] Rey and his surviving garrison held out until 5 September before asking for terms. The French commander formally surrendered on 8 September, and, in recognition of a noble defence, the remainder of the garrison stationed in the fortress was granted the honours of war by the Anglo-Portuguese forces, to march out of the stronghold with shouldered arms, flags flying, to the sound of the drums and the officers with the right to retain their swords.

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".[11] 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,[12] but they may amount to 1,000.[13] Some British officers tried to stop the looting but were either ignored or threatened by the drunken soldiers,[14] or turned a blind eye or added to the plight.[15] Statements (75 reports) were gathered bearing witness to the events starting on 31 August.[16] 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".[17] 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."[18] 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. Since the previous council had collaborated with the French, a new council was appointed, and a letter was written congratulating Wellington on his victory[4]: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,[19] and wholeheartedly wished in the reply that he not be addressed again.[4]: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.[4]: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.[4]:8

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


Of Rey's original garrison of 3,170 plus some later drafts, 850 were killed, 670 had been captured on 31 August and 1,860 surrendered, of whom 480 were sick and wounded.[20] Graham's command lost 3,770 killed, wounded and missing.[21] In the final assault, 867 men died, 1,416 fell wounded and 44 were listed as missing.[22] 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.

External links


  1. ^ Oman VII, p.529.
  2. ^ Fortescue IX, p.226.
  3. ^ Oman VI, p.567 & 569
  4. ^ a b c d e Sada, Javier (2010). El Asalto a la Brecha. Andoain: Txertoa. p. 69. ISBN 978-84-7148-493-2. 
  5. ^ Oman VI p.750 to 760, Marching strengths 25 May 1813, minus Battle of Vitoria casualties.
  6. ^ Sada, Javier; Sada, Asier (1995). <span />Historia de San Sebastián<span />. San Sebastian: Editorial Txertoa. p. 67. ISBN 978-84-7148-429-1.  Book in Spanish
  7. ^ L. Woodford (ed.), A Young Surgeon in Wellingtons Army: the Letters of William Dent (Old Woking, 1976), p. 39.
  8. ^ Oman VII, p.529.
  9. ^ Oman VII, p.12.
  10. ^ Sada, Javier; Sada, Asier (1995). <span />Historia de San Sebastián<span />. San Sebastian: Editorial Txertoa. p. 73. ISBN 978-84-7148-429-1.  Book in Spanish
  11. ^ Watson, B. When soldiers quit: studies in military disintegration, Chapter 5 The Siege of San Sebastian, pg 80
  12. ^ Watson, B, When soldiers quit: studies in military disintegration, Chapter 5 The Siege of San Sebastian, pg 80 (quote: "rape and murder were allegedly visited on the town's population but no-one knows the number of victims")
  13. ^ "Donostia-San Sebastián; El penoso arranque de la Edad Contemporánea". Eusko Media Fundazioa. Retrieved 2012-03-16. 
  14. ^ Watson, B. When soldiers quit: studies in military disintegration, Chapter 5 The Siege of San Sebastian, pg 80
  15. ^ "Declaraciones testificales juradas (Sworn testimonies of the survivors)". Eusko Media Fundazioa. Retrieved 2009-09-02. 
  16. ^ "Declaraciones testificales juradas (Sworn testimonies of the survivors)". Eusko Media Fundazioa. Retrieved 2009-09-02. 
  17. ^ Sada, Javier; Sada, Asier (1995). <span />Historia de San Sebastián<span />. San Sebastian: Editorial Txertoa. p. 74. ISBN 978-84-7148-429-1.  Book in Spanish
  18. ^ Sada, Javier; Sada, Asier (1995). <span />Historia de San Sebastián<span />. San Sebastian: Editorial Txertoa. p. 73. ISBN 978-84-7148-429-1.  Book in Spanish
  19. ^ Sada, Javier; Sada, Asier (1995). <span />Historia de San Sebastián<span />. San Sebastian: Editorial Txertoa. p. 78. ISBN 978-84-7148-429-1.  Book in Spanish
  20. ^ Fortescue IX, p.360.
  21. ^ Fortescue IX, p.359, based on Jones.
  22. ^ Oman VII, p.530 (with additions corrected).
  • 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.
  • Col. John T. Jones R.E. History of the Peninsular Sieges. 1827
  • Hon. John W. Fortescue. A History of the British Army. 1899-1930, Vol. IX
  • Prof Sir Charles Oman. A History of the Peninsular War. 1902-30, Vols. VI & VII

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