Second battle of Sorauren, 30 July 1813

The second battle of Sorauren (30 July 1813) was Soult’s last attempt to win a significant victory during the battle of the Pyrenees, and saw an attack along a longer front than during the first battle repulsed by Wellington.

Soult’s plan was to break through the eastern end of Wellington’s lines at the passes of Maya and Roncesvalles then dash south to lift the siege of Pamplona. On 25 July he attacked at both passes. At Maya the defenders were forced to retreat from the top of the valley, but at Roncesvalles they held out all day, and only retreated after General Coles decided that his position was vulnerable to an outflanking movement. As he retreated south Coles was joined by his superior, General Picton, and their combined forces continued to retreat south towards Pamplona. They eventually decided to stand and fight just before emerging from the mountains. On 27 July Wellington and Soult both reached the new front line. Soult decided not to attack until the following day, while Wellington rushed reinforcements to the area, including Pack’s division, which arrived early on 28 July.

Marshal Soult
Marshal Soult

The first battle of Sorauren thus took place in a small area between the Ulzama and Arga valleys, with most of the fighting taking place on the heights of Sorauren, an almost detached hill to the south-east of Sorauren village. Soult attacked up the hill, and in places reached the ridge, but Wellington was always able to counterattack and restore the Allied line. 

While Soult and Wellington were fighting at Sorauren, reinforcements for both sides were heading towards the battlefield. On the French side Drouet and the forces that had fought at Maya, were advancing slowly south along the main road. Drouet overestimated the size of the forces facing him, and didn’t want to risk an attack on British troops in strong defensive positions.

On the Allied side Wellington had issued orders to Hill and Dalhousie as he passed through Sorauren on the day before the first battle. The most direct route from Maya to Sorauren ran south along the main road, passing through the town of Olaque before reaching the Ulzama valley. However when he issued his orders Wellington knew that Sorauren was about to fall to the French, so he ordered Hill to leave the high road at Olague and move west to Lizaso in the Ulzama valley, then cut south across another mountain pass to Ollacarizqueta, just to the west of Wellington’s main position. Dalhousie’s 7th Division was ordered to follow a different route, which would also bring them to Ollacarizqueta.

Soult drew up careful orders for the retreat from Sorauren. His troops were still in the same positions they had taken up for the first battle, with Clausel on the French right (west) and Reille on the left (east). Conroux’s division was on the extreme right, around Sorauren village. Taupin was next in line, with Vandermaesen in the centre of the French line. Maucune was next in line, with Lamartiniere on the left of the main French line. Finally Foy’s division was a short distance away to the south-east, having taken a different route on the advance towards Sorauren.

The plan was for Taupin and Vandermaesen to move around the rear of Conroux’s troops. Conroux would then follow them, meaning that all of Clausels’ command would be on the move. Conroux’s position would be taken by Maucune, who would in turn be replaced by Lamartiniere and Foy. These movements were to be carried out on the night of 29-30 July, without alerting Wellington. Reille’s three divisions were to hold the old French position facing the heights of Sorauren during 30 July and then follow Clausel on the night of 30-31 July, again in secrecy.

On the Allied side Wellington’s orders of 29 July were based on the assumption that the French might attack again. Pack’s division, now commanded by Pakenham, was posted on the hills to the north-west of Sorauren (on the western side of the Ulzama valley), extending the Allied line out to the left. Dalhousie was moved up to support the Allied left. Further to the west Hill was ordered to pick a good defensive position around Lizaso.
 
Soult’s plan was incredibly risky. If anything held up the overnight movements, then his divisions would be strung out in columns, marching sideways across the front of Wellington’s army, the exact same mistake that had led to the French defeat at Salamanca. Unsurprisingly that was exactly what happened, although Soult managed to escape with most of his army intact.

The Battle

Soult’s great movement began at midnight, when Taupin’s and Vandermaessen’s divisions from Clausel’s wing left their position, leaving their camp fires burning, and successfully moved onto the road north of Sorauren. They then paused to wait for Conroux’s division to join them.

Things began to go wrong with Maucune’s division. His men had to move across a wooded hill with no paths, and by 5am had made little progress and were scattered across the hillside. Conroux didn’t wait for Maucune to arrive before he moved one of his brigades out of the line, leaving his other to hold their outposts. 

On the opposite end of the line Foy pulled out of Alzuza at midnight, but also had to cross very difficult terrain, and his division didn’t reach Irotz, to the north of Zabaldika, until 5am. Lamartiniere hardly moved at all in the night, and remained in place even as Foy’s men passed them to the north.

On 28 July the British had fought largely without their artillery, but in the gap between the battles they had managed to get a number of guns onto the heights. This included six guns on the hills to the west of Sorauren, close to the village, two guns and a howitzer on the slopes to the south-east of the village and three guns facing Vandermaesen’s original position a little further to the east.

Wellington was awake early, and as dawn broke realised that he had been handed a chance to inflict a serious defeat on Soult. Conroux had one brigade in Sorauren, then to his east Maucune, Foy and Lamartiniere’s divisions were all exposed to view, marching west in columns past the front of Wellington’s army. Unsurprisingly Wellington ordered an attack, preceded by an artillery bombardment.

The artillery fire began on the Allied left, when the guns faced Sorauren opened fire, hitting Conroux’s isolated brigade and the leading part of Maucune’s division. To the east Foy’s division was hit by artillery fire as it passed the col connecting the heights of Sorauren to the hills further north.

The infantry attack also began on the Allied left, where the 6th Division attacked Conroux’s brigade. This was followed by a general attack from the heights. Wellington’s men advanced in two lines, with Byng’s brigade, Stubb’s Portuguese and the 40th and Provisional Battalions from Anson’s brigade in the first line and Ross’s brigade and two more battalions from Anson’s brigade in the second line. On the left this attack hit Maucune, on the right it hit Foy. Further to the right Picton’s division was advancing up the Roncesvalles road, heading towards Lamartiniere’s left wing, although he was ordered to move cautiously, so this part of the battle didn’t begin until a little later. On the Allied left Dalhousie’s 7th Division was ordered to emerge from its hidden position behind the hills to attack Taupin and Vandermaesen.

The French were now in serious trouble. Foy was forced to retreat north, and ended up getting detached from the rest of Soult’s army. He retreated north-east up the Val de Baigorry, and didn’t play any further part in the campaign. Conroux’s isolated brigade was attacked by the light companies of Lambert’s brigade from the south, Madden’s Portuguese from the north and troops descending from the heights to the east. This brigade was almost wiped out, as was Maucune’s division, which also got trapped around the village. On this flank the Allies captured 1,700 unwounded prisoners - 600 from Conroux’s brigade and 1,100 from Maucune’s division. Maucune started the campaign with just over 4,100 men, lost 600 on 28 July and 1,800 on 30 July, so only escaped with 1,800 men. 

Dalhousie’s attack began at around 8.30am. The French were attacked downhill, and after a short clash Clausel decided to retreat. His excuse for not standing and fighting for longer was that Reille’s troops were already in full retreat, and there was thus no longer any reason for him to stand and wait for them. Dalhousie kept up a steady pressure, and by the end of the day Clausel was back at Olague, where he was joined by the survivors of Conroux’s division.

On the French left Reille attempted to save Foy and Lamartiniere. After a brief attempt to stand, he ordered them to retreat by any available route. Lamartiniere began to retreat at around 10m, pushed hard by Picton, who had now reached the scene. By 1pm Reille’s troops had reached Etsain, five miles to the north of the battlefield. He then issued the orders that took Foy out of the campaign, while Lamartiniere and the stragglers who had joined him were sent to Olaque.

By the end of the day Soult’s plan for an orderly disengagement had thus ended in chaos. Clausel and Reille had been forced back to Olague, and it was clear that their only option was to retreat.

Soult not present for this battle, having left before dawn to join the attack on Hill. This attack, the combat of Beunza, was a partial success, with Hill forced to retreat a short distance, potentially opening up the key road west. However reinforcements then arrived, preventing the French from attacking again, followed shortly after by the bad news from Sorauren. Soult realised that his only option was to retreat back into France.

In the aftermath of the battle Soult decided to retreat by the Puerto de Arraiz, heading for Sanesteban. This put him on a more westerly road than Wellington had expected, and helped him escape more easily than might otherwise have been the case. Wellington issued detailed orders for a pursuit, but based them on the idea that the French would follow the main road north from Olaque, over the Velate Pass. As a result most of Soult's men were able to escape, although by the time they reached Echalar (2 August 1813) their morale had been badly eroded, and they were unable to defend a very strong position on the border.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 November 2018), Second battle of Sorauren, 30 July 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_sorauren_2nd.html

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