The battle of Maya (25 July 1813) saw the French force Wellington’s men to abandon the pass of Maya and retreat toward Pamplona, and was the only occasion in which an army under Wellington’s command lost guns (battle of the Pyrenees).
In the aftermath of the battle of Vitoria, the French were forced to retreat out of northern Spain, leaving garrisons at San Sebastian and Pamplona. Wellington was unwilling to risk an invasion of France while peace negotiations were underway in Germany, and decided to focus on eliminating the last French positions in Spain while he waited for news.
On the French side Marshal Soult was given command of all four of the armies that had retreated out of Spain. He reorganised them into a single Army of Spain, and then prepared to go onto the offensive. His plan was to use the superior roads to the north of the Pyrenees to move most of his men to the eastern end of the line, and then attack across the passes of Maya and Roncesvalles. He expected to brush aside the defenders of these passes on the first day of the offensive, after which he would be free to lift the siege of Pamplona. He would then be able to turn west to San Sebastian, giving the French at least a toehold in northern Spain.
The attack at Maya was to be carried out by the 21,000 men of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, comte d’Erlon’s ‘corps’ (Napoleon had allowed Soult to split his army into three subunits, but forbidden him to call them corps). Drouet’s orders were based on a rather optimistic view of the likely course of events further to the east at Roncesvalles. Soult assumed that this pass would be taken rather easily, and that once that news reached the Allied troops further to the west they would abandon their defensive positions and retreat. Drouet was to capture the pass and then pursue the retreating enemy, either heading down the Bidassoa valley to Ariscun and Elizondo and then south across the col de Velate heading towards Pamplona, or to Berderis then the pass of Urtiaga (the col de Berderis is a minor route east from the Baztan into the Aldudes valley and the pass of Urtiaga connects Aldudes to Eugi, in the mountains to the east of Maya, on another route towards Pamplona), depending on the route taken by the retreating troops. At the same time he was to send detachments to harass any troops that attempted to retreat to the west, while also making sure that he united as soon as possible with the other two columns, which Soult assumed would be somewhere to the south-east of Maya.
Soult’s basic assumption was that there would be no significant fighting at Maya, but this proved to be a mistake. The French made no progress at Roncesvalles on 25 July, so there was no reason for the Allies to retreat. Although they were outnumbered at Maya, they managed to hold on for most of the day.
The area was defended by General Hill, who had most of the 2nd Division (General William Stewart) and Silveira’s Portuguese division. He was responsible for the sector from Maya, at the northern end of the Baztan valley east to the Aldudes valley (Alduedes or Alduides in contemporary British accounts), in the next valley to the east. The positions were connected by the Col de Ispegui. Stewart had two British brigades (Cameron and Pringle) near the Maya Pass and Ashworth’s Portuguese brigade defending the Ispegui Pass. One of his battalions was posted at the top of the pass and his others on the road west leading to Errazu and from there into the Baztan just south of Maya. Silveira had posted Da Costa’s brigade in the Col de Berderis and other passes to the south of the Ispegui and Campbell’s brigade in the hills above Aldudes, where he was closer to the forces that fought at Roncesvalles, and was dragged into that battle.
The nearest supporting troops was the 7th Division, at the ‘Puerto’ of Echalar (Etxalar), eight miles to the west/ north-west across the mountains, then the Light Division at Vera (12 miles to the north-west as the crow flies, but rather further along the valley route) and the 6th Division at Santesteban.
Stewart’s troops weren’t very well positioned. Cameron’s brigade defended the western side of the broad top of the pass, but the eastern end was only guarded by 80 men from Pringle’s brigade, which was based two and a half miles to the south, at Maya village. There was plenty of hidden ground to the north of the Allied position,
The pass of Maya is one of the more difficult to describe. It was located in the high ground between the valley that ran south into Spain, with the village of Maya on its eastern side, and the valley that ran north into France, heading towards Urdax. The main road follows the ridge up the eastern side of the northern valley, then runs west along the northern side of the ridge between the two valleys, before turning south to cross a pass into the southern valley. It then heads south, dropping down the western slopes of this valley (passing to the west of Maya village). The top of the pass is now known as the Puerto Otsondo. Maps of the battle generally show the Col de Maya itself as being on the northern side of the ridge, between that ridge and an outlying peak. The ridge could also be approached from the north-east, following a route along the top of the main line of mountains. This route was later improved by Wellington’s engineers, and became known as the Chemin des Anglais. At the time it was known as the Gorospil path.
Stewart had deployed most of his men at the western end of the ridge, with the battalions of Cameron’s brigade camped around the road - the 92nd nearest to the top of the pass, the 71st to its south-west and the 50th further to the south-east. The eastern end of the ridge was only defended by an outpost of 80 men, posted at the start of the ridge running north-east away from the pass. This came from Pringle’s brigade, which was based in Maya village, two and a half miles to the south, at the bottom of a bad path. Four light companies were posted about half way between the outpost and the main body. The troops in the outpost had a limited view to the north, with most of the ridge hidden from site by the next hill along the ridge.
Early on the morning of 25 July a column of French National Guards made a demonstration in the area between the two main attacks, aimed at distracting Campbell’s Portuguese Brigade, posted in the Alduides. Campbell quickly drove off this force, but the fighting attracted the attention of Generals Hill and Stewart, who left their posts in the Baztan to investigate the source of the noise. The French attack at Maya thus came while the two senior men were absent. Command of the 2nd Division fell to General Pringle, a newly arrived brigade commander, who had only reached the front two days earlier, and lacked the authority or local knowledge to have much impact on the fighting.
Drouet’s plan was to sent Darmagnac’s and Abbé’s divisions up the Gorospil path, to attack the weak eastern end of the Allied line. Maransin’s division was to advance up the high road, but not to attack Cameron’s brigade until the main part of the army had taken the eastern end of the ridge.
The French finally came into sight at 10.30am. By this point the 80 troops at the outpost had been joined by the light companies, raising the strength of that outpost to 400 men. Drouet began his attack by sending the eight light companies from Darmagnac’s position to attack the outpost. They were followed by the 16th Leger. The defenders managed to hold on for three quarters of an hour, but while this was going on the rest of Darmagnac’s division reached the ridge behind them, so the French soon had four battalions on the ridge behind the outpost. The defenders were finally overwhelmed, with 260 of the 400 killed or wounded and 140 taken prisoner.
When the fighting began, Pringle ordered his battalions to advance up the track from Maya. They moved in the order they were camped, with the 34th in the lead, followed by the 39th and then the 28th. Pringle himself left them to fend for themselves and moved to Cameron’s camp, where he took command. By this point Cameron had already sent the 50th Foot east along the ridge to try and stop the French from advancing further west. He was thus left with the 71st and 92nd Foot at the western end of the pass.
The next stage of the battle saw Pringle’s three battalions and the 50th carry out a series of uncoordinated attacks on the eight French battalions at the top of the ridge. The 34th Foot attacked first, and was repulsed with heavy losses. The 39th attacked slightly further to the west, but made even less progress. The 50th then attacked from the west, and managed to push the nearest French battalion back towards their main body, but then fell back. Finally Pringle sent half of the 92nd to support the 50th. They arrived just after the 50th’s attack had failed, but instead ended up coordinating with the 28th Foot, arriving from Maya. The two British units began engaged in a close range musketry duel with the French in which they inflicted more casualties than they suffered, but were still defeated by the superior French numbers. Most of the survivors of Pringle’s brigade retreated south back towards Maya.
This just left Cameron’s brigade, at the western end of the pass. They were faced by all three French divisions. Pringle sent half of the 71st Foot to support the half of the 92nd he had already committed, and they managed to delay the French for a short time. The French then outflanked them on both sides, forcing them to fall back. Maransin then entered the fighting, attacking the remaining halves of the 71st and 92nd in their position at the western end of the pass.
At this point General Stewart finally reached the battlefield, arriving at about 2pm, after hearing the sound of the fighting. He decided to conduct a fighting retreat back down the road into the Maya valley. The uncommitted elements of the 71st and 92nd were ordered to form a new defensive position to the south of the crest of the pass, while the survivors of the fighting reformed behind them. Four Portuguese guns were lost during this retreat, the only guns lost by troops under Wellington’s command during the entire Peninsular War). His hope was that reinforcements would arrive from the 7th Division.
Stewart was given a brief respite by the French. Darmagnac’s troops had also suffered in the fighting, and paused for the moment. Maransin, coming up the main road, decided not to attack until all of his battalions had reached the top of the pass.
The final part of the battle saw the French slowly push Stewart’s men down the southern side of the pass. The battle resumed just after 3pm, when Maransin attacked Stewart’s first defensive position. Stewart’s men fought a skilful fighting retreat, but he was slowly forced back into a second defensive position. The French attacked at around 4.30, but at first were repulsed by a counter-attack, possible because part of the 82nd Foot had arrived from the west to reinforce Stewart. However this was a temporary setback, and the French were soon advancing once again.
More Allied reinforcements began to arrive at around 6pm. This was 1,500 men from the 1/6th Foot and Brunswick-Oels, part of the 2nd Brigade of the 7th Division, led by General Barnes. They launched an immediate and unexpected counterattack, and forced Maransin’s leading troops to retreat. They caused a more general retreat of Maransin’s men, which ended back at the top of the pass. Drouet believed that the entire 7th Division had arrived, and decided to go onto the defensive. He took up a defensive position at the top of the pass, and waited to be attacked.
This effectively ended the battle, for Stewart was in no condition to attack the French. Soon afterwards Hull arrived at the scene, with bad news from Roncesvalles, where General Cole had decided to retreat even though his men had held the pass all day. As a result Hill decided that his position was now too vulnerable, and he ordered a retreat south to Elizondo.
Both sides suffered heavy losses in the fighting at Maya. The Allies suffered 1,500 casualties from 6,000 men, the French 2,100 from around 20,000. By the end of the day the French had achieved their first objective, taking the pass, but were in no condition to conduct the pursuit that Soult had expected. In the aftermath of the battle Drouet moved inexplicably slowly, and was thus not able to take part in the next part of the campaign, the first day of the battle of Sorauren (28 July 1813), and was also unable to pin Hill in place. Despite his success at Maya he thus failed to live up to Soult’s expectations, and the entire campaign ended in failure and a retreat back into France.
A History of the Peninsular War, Volume VI: September 1, 1812 to August 5, 1813: Siege of Burgos, Retreat of Burgos, Vittoria, the Pyrenees