Combat of Beunza, 30 July 1813

The combat of Beunza (30 July 1813) was part of the wider second battle of Sorauren and saw a French attack some way to the north-west of the main battlefield repulsed by Hill’s Division.

The battle of the Pyrenees began when Marshal Soult attacked Wellington’s troops in the passes of Maya and Roncesvalles on 25 July. Soult’s aim was to break through the eastern end of Wellington’s defensive lines in the Pyrenees and lift the siege of Pamplona, but this relied on both of the initial attacks being quick victories. Instead Soult’s men were held up for most of the day in both passes. At Maya the defenders were eventually forced off the top of the pass, but at Roncesvalles they held their ground and only retreated after the fighting was over. The defenders of Roncesvalles then retreated south towards Pamplona, looking for a new defensive position. General Cole, the defeated commander at Roncesvalles, was joined by General Picton, who took command, and between them they chose to make a stand at Sorauren.

The first battle of Sorauren took place on the heights of Sorauren, between the Ulzama and Arga valleys, just where the rivers emerged from the mountains north of Pamplona. On the French side the only troops involved were those that had fought at Roncesvalles (25 July), from the two ‘corps’ of Clausel and Reille. On the Allied side Wellington had rushed reinforcements to the area, so Cole and Byng, retreating from Roncesvalles, were reinforced by Spanish troops coming from the siege of Pamplona and Pack’s division, coming from the west, and Picton’s division. The troops that had fought on Maya were too far away to take part in the fighting.

On 27 July, as he passed through Sorauren on his way to join his right wing, Wellington issued orders to Hill’s 2nd Division and to Dalhousie’s 7th Division. Sorauren was about to fall to the French, which would block the main road south from Maya to Pamplona. Hill was thus ordered to follow the road no further than Olaque, and then turn west to reach Lizaso, in the Ulzama valley to the north-west of Sorauren. If time allowed he was then to move south across another mountain pass, reaching Ollacarizqueta to the west of Sorauren by the morning of 28 July. Dalhouise was to follow a different route, also passing through Lizaso on his way to Ollacarizqueta. 

This plan was disrupted by very heavy rain on the evening of 27 July. This hit Hill’s men as they were crossing a mountain pass (the Puerto de Velate), and they were forced to stop and sit out the worst of the weather. His troops began to straggle into Lizaso on the morning of 28 July, and Hill informed Wellington that he would be unable to move on until the following morning. Dalhouise’s route was less exposed. He also reached Lizaso on 28 July, but after a six hour rest was able to continue on his way, and was at Ollacarizqueta by the morning of 29 July.

On the French side Drouet’s pursuit of Hill was slow and careful. Drouet overestimated the number of troops he was facing, and was unwilling to risk an attack on a strong force in a good defensive position. However by the morning of 28 July it was clear that Hill was gone, and Drouet began a slow advance south. By the morning of 29 July his leading troops were at Lantz, about four miles to the north-east of Lizaso. Soult’s three ‘corps’ were thus almost reunited.

By this point Soult had already been defeated at Sorauren. In the aftermath of the first battle his original plan appears to have been to order a retreat and pull back across the mountain passes into France, but when he learnt that Drouet was close by he came up with a new plan. With many of Wellington’s troops now concentrated on the far right of the Allied line, any attack towards Pamplona would be futile, so he decided to move north-west instead, and attempt to cut the road between Tolosa and Pamplona, splitting Wellington’s army in two. This was an ambitious plan. It required Drouet to defeat Hill, and get around the left flank of Wellington’s main army, while Soult’s main force disengaged at Sorauren. The French would then move twenty five miles north-west through the mountains to reach the Tolosa to San Sebastian road. Soult hoped that this move would be so surprising that he would gain an entire day’s lead on Wellington. In order to help Drouet, Soult sent him Treillard’s cavalry, and before dawn on 30 July left his main force to join Drouet.

On 29 July Wellington issued new orders to Hill. Instead of continuing with his march, he was to pick a good defensive position near Lizaso, where he would post two British brigades from the 2nd Division, and Ashworth’s Portuguese. Da Costa’s Portuguese were to move to Marcalain, four miles to the south, to make contact to the rearguard of Dalhousie’s division.

On 30 July Wellington was able to go onto the offensive (second battle of Sorauren), and soon had Soult’s main force on the run. At one point during this battle, Wellington actually ordered Hill to go onto the offensive if possible, be he also ordered Campbell’s Portuguese brigade, O’Donnell’s Spanish battalions and Morillo’s Spanish division, a total of 7,000 men, to move towards Hill to help him if required.  

Hill’s orders were negated by the French decision to attack. As the French approached, Hill withdrew from the town of Lizaso into a more defensible position on a wooded ridge half a mile further south. The village of Gorrontz was just in front of his left wing, and the village of Aroztegi behind his right wing. Ashworth’s Portuguese brigade was in the centre of his line, with one regiment of Da Costa’s brigade on the right and the other regiment on his left. The survivors of Cameron’s brigade, which had suffered heavy losses at Maya, were also on the left. Pringle’s brigade was in the reserve, spread out along the rear of the line. Hill had around 9,000 men under his command.

Drouet decided to send Darmagnac’s division to attack Ashworth and pin Hill in place. Abbé was to send some of his men climb the high hill to the left of the Allied line, heading towards the village of Beuntza, and then attack the Allied left from the front and the flank. He had 8,000 men to carry out this assault, and was to be supported by Maransin’s division.

Darmagnac’s attack was meant to be something of a diversion, but when he realised that he was facing Portuguese troops he decided to press the attack more firmly. This was a mistake, and his attack was repulsed.

On the French right Abbé’s first attack was too far to the east, and instead of outflanking Cameron hit the 50th and 92nd from the front and was repulsed. However he then did find his way around the Allied left, and Cameron’s men were in danger of being surrounded. The 34th was committed from the reserve, and its counterattack allowed Cameron to escape with fairly few losses, including only 36 prisoners. The Portuguese were then forced to pull back to stay in line, although Da Costa held his ground on the Allied left.

Hill retreated south to Yguaras (modern Equarats), and prepared to make a stand. Drouet followed, and was preparing to launch a fresh assault when the first of the reinforcements Wellington had sent arrived on the scene. Drouet decided not to risk another attack, and the fighting ended. The French had successfully pushed the Allies off the main road to Irurtzun, and this would have been a significant victory if the rest of Soult’s plan had worked. However Soult now discovered that his main force had suffered a heavy defeat, and had been forced to retreat north in some chaos. Of the 30,000 troops he had expected to be heading his way, only 14,000 were still with Reille and Clausel, and any hope of breaking through to the west was gone.

It was clear that Soult’s only option was to retreat back into France as quickly as possible if he was to avoid any further disasters. At this point Drouet’s success came to his aid. Instead of taking the most direct route north from Sorauren, along the Velate pass, Soult decided to order Reille and Clausel to move west to join Drouet and then head up the Puerto de Arraiz heading for Santesteban. As a result the French slipped away from Wellington, who organised a powerful pursuit towards the Velate pass, only to find the French weren’t on it.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (3 December 2018), Combat of Beunza, 30 July 1813 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/combat_beunza.html

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