Wellington and the Siege of San Sebastian 1813

30 Jul 18
Posted by: Andrew Lambert

by Bruce Collins

In this important re-assessment of Wellington’s use of sieges in the Peninsula campaign, Professor Collins demonstrates mastery to the wider strategic and political issues that determined the pace and direction of operations in Spain, enabling him to explain the key decisions with a clarity lacking in operational and tactical studies. Having smashed the French army at the Battle of Vittoria on 21st June, Wellington blockaded Pamplona, on the main road to the Pyrenees, and looked to the Biscay coast for an advanced supply base, and for a port to land his heavy siege guns. San Sebastian was the obvious target, linked to the smaller port of Passajes. With Marshal Soult rapidly reforming the French army he had little time to waste.
San Sebastian, heavily fortified by nature and located on a steep hill, it had the sea on three sides, and a strong French garrison. This secondary theatre depended on the progress of Britain’s allies in central Europe, Russia, Prussia, and later Austria. If Napoleon defeated the allies he would swing back into Spain. Anxious to move quickly Wellington complained that the Royal Navy had not provided the support he needed, and Collins is half-inclined to accept his argument.
The Biscay Coast posed serious problems for the Navy, in a westerly gale it offered nothing but a rock-bound lee shore, few anchorages, and no secure harbours. The most suitable vessels for the area were small coasters, able to take the ground in dry harbours. Once the autumn advanced no sane Admiral would risk line of battle ships as far west as San Sebastian, and only a few frigates. This coast came under the command of the Channel Fleet, not the Admiral at Lisbon who had supported Wellington this far. Admiral Lord Keith had few ships to spare from blockading the French fleet at Brest, and dealing with swarms of American privateers cruising between Plymouth and Santander. These predators forced the British to convoy troop and store ships, along with the New England grain that fed Wellington’s troops. Above all the Navy’s main priority was, as it had been since 1793, the security of commercial shipping. Not only did the City of London have a powerful voice in the House of Commons, but it controlled the loans that funded the war.
Wellington’s anxiety about the French army led to a premature assault, which failed with heavy losses. Increased firepower, more 24 pounder naval guns, and mortars, compete with naval and Royal Marine Artillery gun crews, a larger assault force and a degree of good fortune which saw the city fall at the second attempt. Because time was of the essence Wellington threw ammunition and manpower at the problem, and his men paid a heavy price, before the victors sacked the Spanish town.
Wellington’s complaints about the Navy reflect the strategic situation, the frustration of working with an increasingly assertive Spanish Government, and the realisation that he faced a redoubtable French marshal in the Pyrenees. They were neither objective, nor fair. In reality the Navy made the campaign possible, it enabled the army to switch bases from Oporto to Passajes, avoiding the need to drag heavy stores across Iberia, and delivered siege artillery to within a few miles of San Sebastian.
Wellington was supported by a squadron under Captain Sir George Collier, an expert in coastal warfare, who did everything possible. This campaign highlighted the need for joint command. When the war moved into southern France in 1814 Wellington worked with Rear Admiral Sir Charles Penrose, another sophisticated scientific sailor, with the ability to solve problems, and the authority to use his initiative. By the time Napoleon abdicated in April Penrose’s squadron had opened the Rhone, and helped liberate Bordeaux.
This study highlights the importance of context. Wellington, like Nelson, adapted his tactics and operations to meet evolving strategic and diplomatic contexts. When necessary he was ready to expend blood and stores to solve strategic problems, as he did at San Sebastian. He erred in expecting everyone else to see the war in the same way: the defence of floating trade took priority at sea while the American privateers remained potent. By 1814 the American effort had been broken, and the Fleet could release more resources to support the land campaign. Pen & Sword are to be congratulated on a very well-produced book.

Andrew Lambert
Kings College London