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Napoleonic Wars

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History of the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolutionary Wars. Brief histories of the battles fought during the Napoleonic period.

Battle of Waterloo

Click the titles below to reveal potted histories:

British Napoleonic History:
  • Battle of Fuentes Onoro 1811
    • Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington) as part of his two-pronged attack marched toward Almeida which he discovered was well defended by French troops. He decided to make an investment and took up a strong position in Fuetes de Onoro, ten miles south. Marshal Massena sent troops to relieve Almeida and attacked Wellington on 5th May. Massena was beaten back and Wellington promptly seized Almeida.
  • Battle of Badajoz 1812
    • After Lord Wellington had laid siege to Cuidad Rodrigo in January 1812, he moved his forces south to attack the stronghold of Badajoz. The garrison at Badajoz was strongly defended by French troops supported by German and loyal Spanish. The Duke of Wellington laid siege to the fortress form 17th March to 6th April, on the 5th April a large scale assault breached the fortress walls which allowed Wellingtons troops to storm the defences. The main assault failed with the loss of 2,000 but one of the two diversionary attacks succeeded in scaling the walls at the second attempt. The following day the defenders surrendered. The British troops took their revenge on the town with sustained looting and it was 3 days before order was restored. The Duke of Wellington's forces had 5,000 casualties during the siege of Badajoz.
    • The Taking Of Badajoz

        On March 16th, 1812, when the popular trees that fringed the Guadiana were bending under a tempest of wind and rain, A British force some 15,000 strong, with a battering train of 52 guns, reached Badajoz, a strongly fortified Spanish town near the frontier of Portugal.

                 About a year before, Imas had delivered up the place to marshal Soult, and although we had made two attempts to retake it, we had failed on each occasion to retake it, we had failed on each occasion with heavy losses, our battering train being insufficient; the third time we were successful.

                 A granite bride with twenty-eight arches, dating from Roman times, still spanned the sluggish river on the northwest.  There was nothing very remarkable about its quaint, crooked streets and massive Cathedral beyond the natural strengths of its position, rising some 300 feet above the marshy plain, with bastions and their connecting curtains to protect it from attack.

                 Philippon and the gallant garrison, and our troops under the Earl of Wellington, have, however rendered Badajoz immortal.

                 General of Brigade Philippon commanded in Badajoz with a force of 4,742 men.

        A Formidable Task

        Although somewhat short of powder and shell, Badajoz presented a formidable task to a besieging army, being protected on one side of the river, 500 yards wide in places, and having several outworks, notably one called the Picurina, on a hill to the southeast.

                 Philippon had, moreover, taken every means possible to strengthen his post: mines were laid, the arch of the bridge built up to form a large inundation, ravelins constructed and ramparts repaired, ditches cut and filled with water; and that he should have no useless mouths to fill, the inhabitants were ordered to lay up for three months provisions or leave the town.

        Badajoz Invested

           Such was Badajoz when Picton’s 3rd Division, Lowry Cole’s 4th division, and the Light Division, invested it.

                 The rest of the army covered the siege; the 5th division was on its way from Beira.

                 On the night of the 17th, 2,000 men moved silently forward to guard our working parties, and began to break ground, 160 yards from the Picurina, the sentinels on the raparts hearing nothing in the howling wind.  So well had the volunteers from the 3rd Division laboured, for we had no regular sappers, that at daylight 3,000 yards of communication, and a parallel 600 yards long, were revealed, on which the garrison opened a fire of cannon and musketry.  The roar of the guns of the crack of muskets continued with little cessation for many days, increasing as we armed battery after battery and brought them to bear upon the doomed town.

                 Of the 46 pieces some dated from the days of the Spanish Armada; others were cast in the regions of the Stewarts; we had 24-pounders of George II’s day, the bulk of the extraordinary medley being brass 24-pound guns of the seventeenth century, which required ten minutes to cool between each discharge, lest the overheating caused the muzzle to droop.

                 Wellington learned from his spies that that the garrison was to make a sally on the 19th, and at one o’clock, from the Talavera gate, a body horsemen came out, followed by 13,000 infantry, who concealed themselves in the covered trench connecting San Roque with the Picurina.

                 The cavalry dividing into two parties, one pursued the other towards our lines, were they were challenged, and allowed to pass on replying in Portuguese.

                 Thee was some excuse for our pickets, as the French Dragoons, in consequence of the difficulty of procuring new uniforms from France, used the brown cloth common all over the Peninsula, and was thus mistaken for our Portuguese allies, some of whom were also dressed in brown.  The troopers dashed at the engineer’s park, cut down some men then galloped off with entrenching tools, for which Philippon had offered a large reward.

                 Simultaneously the infantry sprang out of the covered way with a part of the Picurina garrisons, and rushing forward, began to destroy our works.

                 We drove them back almost to the walls of Badajoz, killing 30 and wounding 287.  But we lost heavily, and, unhappily, our chief engineer, Colonel Fletcher, was badly hit, a bullet striking a silver dollar in his fob and forcing it an inch into his groin, confining him to his tent until the latter end of the siege.  The Earl went there each morning to consult about the day’s operations.

                 Our movements were by no means faultless.  Wellington had great difficulties to contend with in many directions.

                 The Guadiana rose in full flood and tore away the pontoon bridge which connected us with our stores at Elvas; it was replaced, however, and we got nearer and nearer to their walls, until, at last, our men finding the fire from the Picurina very galling, it was decided to storm that fort on the 24th.

                Storming the Picurina fort

        The rain had ceased, and the dark mass of the fort, held by some of the Hesse-Darmstadt Regiment, loomed up, as 500 of Picton’s division mustered about before it about nine o’clock one fine night.

                 A hundred men were kept on reserve, while the remainder, divided into two bodies, were to advance against the right and the left flanks, also securing the communication with San Roque to prevent any succour coming from the town.

                 Scarcely had the word to advance been given when soaring rockets went up from the ramparts, port-fires illuminated the darkness in places, and the stillness became a babel of sounds, as shells came hissing towards us, drums rolled, and the bells of Badajoz rang wildly amid the deep booming of the heavy cannon.  Red flashes streamed through the openings in the palisading, the Hess-Darmstadt men opened fire, and we swarmed hot up the rocks and groped for the gate, the prisoners of the Light Division leading with their axes.

                Surrender of the Picurina

          In the communication our men repulsed a battalion coming to the rescue, but it seemed for a time as if we had been baffled; the sided of the hill were dotted with our dead.  Oates, of the Connaught Rangers, three engineer officers, with Majors Rudd and Shaw, who commanded the attack, and many a private soldier had fallen there.  But as Powis, of the 83rd, brought up the reserve and forced the palings in front, the pioneers discovered the gateway on the town side, and, battering it down, rushed in with a shout.

                 Nixon, of the 52nd, was shot two yards within the entrance, and we fought with the gun-butt and bayonet against heroic defenders; but at last they overpowered, and half the garrison slain.  One officer and 30 men floundered through the inundation and gained Badajoz in safety, but Gaspard Thierry, with the 86 survivors, surrendered, and the Picurina was ours.

                 The firing from the town ceased at midnight, but the dawn of the day the garrison turned their guns on to the captured fort, driving us out, and crumbling it to pieces.

                 Philippon had hoped to hold the work for four or five days, while he completed certain of his defences, and its capture and destruction was severe blow to him.  But he urges his garrison to fresh efforts by reminding them of the English prison-hulks, which, as Napier justly says, was a disgrace to the country.

                 Three breaching batteries were now constructed, one against the Trinidad bastion, another to shatter the Santa Maria, and the third, which consisted of howitzers-was to throw shrapnel into the ditch and so, prevent the garrison from working there.  We had been eleven days before the town, and in spite of all the obstacles had made considerable progress, although lattery a bright moon had interfered with our night operations.

      Overcoats were laid aside, and our men appeared in the well-worn scarlet coatee with white tape lace, and the black knee gaiter, which was the dress of a British infantry private at that time.  Pigtails had been done away with four years previously, and the well-known grey trousers were not issued too the troops until the following September.  The Rifle Corps wore dark green, and used a wooden mallet on the ramrod to drive the ball down the grooved barrel; Fusiliers and the Grenadier companies of the line had bearskin caps, and Light infantry were distinguished by green tufts in their felt shakos, each man carrying including knapsack, accoutrements, kit, weapons, etc-a weight of seventy-five pounds twelve ounces, or ten pounds more than their opponents.  The soldiers were enraged at the inhabitants of Badajoz for admitting the French, a feeling that boded ill to them if we took the town.  In the meantime many instances of courage on both sides were exhibited.  One morning, early, before the working party arrived, a man crept out of Badajoz and moved a tracing-string nearer to the walls, so that when we began digging in fancied security, their guns suddenly opened and killed many men.  Another time, two of our officers and some men stole forward in the night, gagged and sentry, laid barrels of powder against the dam, which confined the inundation, and got back in safety; but the explosion did not have the desired effect.

                Making a Breach

        At last stones began to fall from the Trinidad bastion, amid clouds of dust, as ball after ball went home with terrific force; and the garrison commenced to form a retrenchment with in the walls, by levelling houses behind the yawning breach.  In places where the fortifications had not been completed the energetic Frenchmen hung brown clothed that resembled earth, behind in which his men were able to pass safely; they also made a raft with parapets and crossed the induction to our side.  But all their efforts were useless; the breaches became larger as masses of stone and rubbish fell into the fosse below, and, on the 6th, a tremendous gap showed in the masonry of the curtain between the two bastions, which had not been renewed when the bastions themselves were rebuilt about 1757.

        The Crisis

        Then came the crisis.  Soult, Drouet, and Daricau were approaching; a battle was imminent which would need all our forces.  In twenty-one days we had expended 2,523 barrels of gunpowder, and we had fired 35,346 rounds of ammunition. Badajoz must be taken at all risks.

                 Wellington’s commands were precise and to the point, but they are terribly eloquent to those who read them.

                 These paragraphs are from the original memorandum:

                 “The fort of Badajoz is to be attacked at 10 o’clock this night (April 6th).  The attack must be made on three points-the castle, the face of the bastion of La Trinidad, and the flank of the bastion of Santa Maria. 

                 The attack of the castle to be by escalade that of the two bastions, by the storm of the breaches.  The 4th Division must try and get open the gate of La Trinidad; the Light Division must do the same by the gate called the Puerta del Pilar.  The soldier must leave their knapsacks in camp.

                 Twelve pioneers with axes, and ten miners with crowbars, must be with the Light, and ditto with the 4th Division.”

                 The original order for 7-30 was altered later to 10 o’clock, and during that interval the French celebrated revolving beam of sharpened sword blades in the gap we had made in the connecting curtain; piles of shot and shell were laid along the ramparts, with beams of wood, old carriage wheels, and every conceivable missile that their ingenuity could devise.

                 The April day drew into evening; a grey mist rose from the river and floated over the trenches and the marshy ground; then next came, still and cloudy, not a star visible, but here and there lights fitted along the ramparts, and the challenge of the sentries could be distinctly heard in the camp.

                 There was no bustle to show that eighteen thousand men were forming for a desperate attack, as, company after company, they got under arms silently, words of command being given in a whisper.

                 Picton had been hurt by a fall, and the 3rd division was led by Kempt.

                 Its destination was the castle, with walls from eighteen to twenty-four feet high.

                 The 5th Division, under Lieutenant-General Leith-composed of English and Portuguese-was to make a feint upon the Pardaleras outwork to the left, and then march round the storm the San Vincente bastion in the rear of the town, while General Power made a false attack on the bridge head beyond the Guadiana.

      The Light Division and the 4th, under General Colville and Barnard, were to attack the trenches.

      The Forlorn Hope

          The trench guards and the forlorn Hope fell in, and about nine o’clock four companies of the 95th Rifles crept forward and lay down, under the crest of the glacis, within a few yards of the French sentinels, whose heads could be seen quite distinctly against the sky.

                 Not a word was spoken as the riflemen crouched, unnoticed, in the mist that veiled the arrival of the forlorn hope to begin the attack.

                 At length one of the sentries peered over the parapet: something had caught his quick ear, for he cried “Qui Vive?” and there was a moment of keen suspense.

                 Not, satisfied, he again challenged, and, receiving no reply, fired his musket into the darkness; it was the signal of alarm, and instantly the drums of Badajoz beat to arms.

                 Still, for ten minutes more the rifle men lay motionless, until the forlorn hope came up, and then, each man sighting are fully at the heads which showed above the rampart, poured in the volley, and the attack began.

                 This was unfortunate, for Wellington intended all our assaults to take place simultaneously; moreover the garrison threw a “carcass” from the walls, and by its powerful blaze they saw the 3rd Division drawn up under arms; so, “Stormers to the front!” was the order, and we rushed on in an uproar of cheers.

                 The ladder parties and those carrying the grass bags ran forward, scrambling across the trenches and broken ground, and, filling over the Rivillas by a narrow bridge, reached the foot of the castle wall under a heavy fire.

      Kempt, who afterwards fought at Waterloo, fell, badly wounded, and as they carried him back he met Picton hurrying forward to take command.

                 The 3rd Division had only twelve ladders but they reared them against the masonry, and fought with each other who should be first to ascend.

                 Stones, earth, live shells, beams, heavy shot, and a rain of musket balls poured down; those men who reached the top were stabbed and flung on the others behind them-here a cheers as a man grasped the coping-there a howl of rage as the ladder was hurled broken from the wall and all its occupants flung in a heap below.

                 “Forward the 5th Fusiliers; come on, Connaught Rangers.”  A corporal of the 45th fell wounded on hands and knees, a ladder was placed on his back in the confusion, his comrades mounting above him, and he was found next day crushed to death, the blood forced from his ears and his nose.

                 Several of the ladders were broken, and those that remained were flung off repeatedly by the garrison on the ramparts, until the French cried “Victory,” and the 3rd Division retired for a moment, to re-form under the crest of the hill.

        The Light Division

        Meanwhile, the 4th and Light Divisions marched quickly on to the breaches, and the trench guard rushed at San Roque with such fury that they bayoneted its defenders and carried the lunette without a rebuff.

                 As the Stormers of the Light Division moved off, Major Peter O’Hare-who had risen from the ranks to a commission in the 95th (a most unusual thing in those days), and who was, moreover, one of the ugliest men and one of the bravest in the army-shook hands with George Simonds, of the Rifles, saying-“A lieutenant-colonel or cold meat in a few hours!”  They found him next morning stone dead and stark naked, with nearly a dozen bullets in his gallant frame.  Officers were divided into two categories by the Peninsular soldiers-the “come on” and the “Go on.”  O’Hare was a “Come on.”

                 As the firing commenced at the castle the heads of the columns reached the glacis, finding all quiet and the place wrapped in profound gloom.  The ditch yawned beneath them, and the Stormers threw their grass bags, which measured 6 feet by 3 feet, into it, lowered the five ladders which did duty for both divisions, and the forlorn hope of the light division descended into the chasm, doomed to a man!

                 A musket shot told them that the silence was ominous; but none were prepared for the awful scene that followed.  The ditch was crowded with Stormers, and men waited their turn to follow down the ladders, when a tongue of flame lit up the darkness, a terrific explosion seemed to rend the earth itself, and five hundred brave fellows were blown into eternity under the eyes of their comrades on the glacis above them.

                 For a moment the Light Division stood aghast, the next, they were leaping, sliding, climbing, never heeding the depth, into the gory grave that lay between them and the breaches, with a roar that went echoing along the walls of Badajoz-a continuous roar, until bayonet met bayonet on the towering ramparts.

                 Down went the 4th Division and mingled with them: the ditch was full of shouting red-coats, all struggling, regardless of rank, to get at the French, who, yelling defiance in their turn, showered grape, round shot, canister, hand-grenades, stones shells, and buck-shot upon them; rolling huge cannonballs from the parapet, sending balks of timber thudding into the living mass of Britons pent up in the death trap below.

        Wellington’s Suspense

          Bursts of dazzling light were succeeded by moments of intense darkness; for an instant the huge bastions showed, bristling with armed men, to be lost again, till re-illuminated the next minute by the flashing guns-by wavering port-fires, and trailing rockets.  The French had dug in the main ditch a long cut, 17 feet deep, which was nearly full of water.  In it a hundred Albuera men of the fusiliers were drowned unseen; the air was heavy with gunpowder smoke; individuals and regiments surged and scrambled seeking a passage; until at last, getting on to an unfinished ravelin, mistaken in the confusion for a breach, both divisions came together, and great disorder ensued.

                 Wellington, watching from a hill, and seeing the pause, exclaimed repeatedly: “What can be the matter>” sending aided camp after aide-de-camp to report progress, as the glare revealed faces on the ramparts and the peculiar hollow booming reached him, caused by the garrison firing down into the cavernous depths of the ditch.

        The Rush For The Great Breach

        At length there was a rush for the great breach.  Officers and men, having extricated themselves from the carnage below, ran on, to find an impenetrable barrier of sword blades fixed in wooden revolving beams, and set firmly across the opening, wile the rubbish in front was strewn with planks covered with spikes: if a soldier trod on one of them it slid down, either throwing him on the spikes or on to the bayonets of his comrades.  Then the garrison rolled barrels of powder into the middle of the assailants, which exploded with shocking effects, filling the nostrils with the smell of burning flesh and singed hair, and strewing the breach with scarlet figures in every conceivable attitude of agony and death!

                 Our soldiers charged in masses, in groups, and even singly, one private of the Rifles forcing himself among the sword blades, where the enemy shattered his bare head with their musket-butts.

                 It was not until the slaughter had gone on for two hours that the diminished divisions withdrew to the bottom of the slope and stood furious and exhausted, and still under a fire that was thinning their broken ranks, while the enemy cried mockingly to them, “Why don’t you come into Badajoz?”  Captain Nicholas, of the Engineers, now gathered a few men and made frantic efforts to force the Santa Maria breach, and he was joined by Lieutenant Shaw, of the 43rd, who collected 50 men of various regiments and struggled over the broken masonry with them, but when two-thirds of the way up, a hail of balls and hissing grape-shot mowed them nearly all down.  The divisions remained stolidly confronting inevitable death unable to advance, yet unwilling to retire, for the bugles sounded twice unheeded.

                 About midnight Wellington ordered them back to re-form for another attack =, but in the meantime Picton’s division had rushed forward again, led by Colonel Ridge, who placed a ladder against the castle wall, where an embrasure offered a chance of foothold.  A Grenadier officer named Canch reared a second one alongside it, and the two mounted together, followed by their men, securing the ramparts after a desperate hand-to-hand conflict, and were successful in their endeavour to drive the enemy out of the castle into the town. 

                 The garrison sent reinforcements, and there was a sharp passage of arms at the gate, our red-coats firing from one side almost muzzle to muzzle with the blue clad, square shakoed French on the other; but we kept the castle, though the gallant ridge was slain.

                 It was about half past eleven when the 3rd Division succeeded in their escalade.  About the same time the 5th Division, under Lieutenant-General Leith, came under the breastwork before San Vincente at the west end of the town.

                 As the regiments, together with a Portuguese brigade, halted, undiscovered, a few yards from a guardhouse where the French could be heard talking, the roar of a distant explosion sounded, and the men whispered among themselves, “It is at the breaches!”

                 All was silent around them; the wash of the river rose on their left, the fortifications showed clearly before them as the moon came out; they knew that their comrades far off on the other side of the citadel were engaged, and an eager thrill went through the ranks.  A sentinel discovered the mass of men from the glint of the moonbeams on the bayonets at the moment when our engineer guide exclaimed, “Now’s the time!” and as he fired we ran forward against the gateway.

                 Seized by a sudden panic the Portuguese ladder party bolted, but the Britons snatched up the heavy ladders and the axe men chopped fearlessly at the gate and wooden palings that fringed the covered way, while from the walls which towered 31 feet, overhead, a tempest of beams, and shot, and bags of powder showered down on the heads of the division.

      They cleared the paling and jumped into the ditch, crossing the crunette with difficulty and finding the ladders too short for the top of the escarp; the engineer was killed, and a small mine exploded in a ditch, but fortunately the ramparts at San Vincente had been thinned of their defenders, who had gone to fight Picton’s men in the castle, and three ladders were placed under the embrasure where there was a gabion instead of a gun and where the scarp was only 20 feet high.

        The Ramparts of San Vincente

          Hand over hand, the troops clambered up under a fire that struck down dozens, and the topmost stormers had to be pushed up by those behind in order to reach the embrasure; but as the leading men got a foot hold, they pulled the others up, until the red coated mass grew larger and larger, and then half the King’s own attacked the houses while the rest of the division charged along the ramparts, pushing the stubborn garrison out of the three bastions in succession.  Garrison out of three bastion in succession.  Shout mingled with the crash of grape shot and the hum of shells; yells and curses were heard amid the boom of cannon and the incessant crack-crack of muskets fired at close quarters.

                 The awestruck watchers on the hill above our camp, spectators of the terrible struggle, stood in an agony of suspense; the entire citadel seemed full of flame and noise, as mine after mine exploded, and fireball after fireball was flung over the walls to enable the besieged to shoot their assailants.  Napaoleon’s soldier fought gallantly, officer and man vying with each other in their efforts to keep us out, and as we drove them from one defence they retired into another and stood once more at bay.

                Triumph of the 5th Division

        Philippon, and Vielland, the second in command, though both wounded, hurried, sword in hand, from rampart to rampart, encouraging their men, while the solemn chime of the cathedral rang out unnoticed hour after hour of that night of horrors.

                 A strange incident occurred at San Vincente when General Walker fell riddled with balls on the parapet.  Either by accident or design, he made a Masonic sign as he staggered backwards, and a brother mason in the French ranks dashed aside the threatening bayonets of this countrymen and saved him; afterwards, it is said, the General found his preserver a prisoner-of-war in Scotland, and procured his exchange in remembrance of his chivalry on the ramparts of badajoz.

                 There arose a cry of “A mine! A mine!” and the men retired helter-skelter, followed by a fresh body of the French under Vielland, who drove them back to the parapet again, and pitched several over into the ditch.  Now a reserve of the 38th, under Colonel Nugent, about two hundred strong, poured a volley into the French, and the men of the 5th Division rallied and charged along the wall towards the breaches.

                 The King’s Own had entered the town at the first onslaught of Leith’s division, and in strange contrast to the uproar of the bastions, with bayonets fixed and bugles blowing, they filed through the streets, silent and deserted as the tomb; every door shut, lamps alight in many of the windows, but not a soul abroad except some soldiers leading ammunition mules, who were promptly taken prisoners.

                 Sometimes a window opened and was immediately closed again; voices were heard, but the speakers were invisible; a few shots came from beneath the doors, but they were unheeded, and the battalion continued its march into the Great Square, where the same silenced reigned, although the houses around it were brilliantly lighted.

                 The renewed fury at the breaches turned their steps in that direction, and they hurried off to take the garrison in rear: but they were met by a fire that repulsed them, and they continued their wandering down streets and lanes, unmolested, for the French began to be disheartened.

                 The Trinidad and Santa Maria were still well-nigh impregnable, in spite of their shattered condition, if the garrison had been able to concentrate there, but the capture of San Vincente had let us in behind them; so Philippon with some soldiers crossed the bridge into san Christoval across the Guadiana, where he surrendered next day.

                 As the firing died away towards morning, a mighty shout arose inside the walls, caught up and echoed far and near by our victorious soldiery, “Hurrah! Hurrah! The town’s our own, hurray!”  And the carnage-maddened men, braking from all control, began a wild orgy, which lasted for two days and two nights, sullying the glory of their triumph.

                 Churches and houses were entered and pillaged; costly sacramental plate and silver money from the military chest strewed the uneven pavement of the town; wine flowed down the gutters as freely as blood had done on the ramparts, and men staggered along with their shakos full of liquor.  One bestrode a cask with a loaded musket, and compelled officer and private alike to drink as they passed them; here a group fired aimlessly down a street, caring little whom they hit, others blazed away at the covent bells, while some masqueraded on court dresses, in French uniforms, and monks, cowls, howling, singing, dancing, like men possessed.  Many of the wrenched inhabitants placed lightened candles and flasks of  aguardiente on their table and sought to hide themselves, hoping the marauders would drink and go away; they drank, but every cranny of the house was ransacked before they left, and deeds were done of which we cannot speak.

                 By degrees the tops were drawn out of the town.  Philippon, the French commander who retired from the service in 1816, a General of Division, Baron of the Empire, and wearer of the Legion of honour and the order of St Louis- surrendered to the future Lord Raglan.

                 In great contrast to the licence with in the walls was the scene outside: the ditch, slope, from the edge of the glacis to the top of the bastios, resembled a huge slaughter house, nearly 2,500 of our men having fallen between the Santa Maria and La Trinidad alone, within a space of 100 square yards, the 43rd and 52nd losing 670 men between them. The place presented a shocking appearance as the result of the explosion that had taken place there.

                 Five general were wounded, 5,000 officers and men had fallen during the siege, and when Wellington stood in the breach and looked around him at the scene of the carnage, he burst into tears. 

  • Battle of Corunna
  • Battle of Salamanca 1812
    • Wellington marched on into northern Spain with 40,000 troops of British, Portuguese and Spanish origin. After weeks of jockeying for position against the French army under Marshal Marmont the two sides met on July 22nd 1812, just 100 miles from Madrid. The troops under Wellington gained the upper hand and forced the French to withdraw after inflicting 12,000 casualties with the loss of 5,000. Marshal Marmont was wounded in the battle and it was his replacement General Bertrand Clausel who managed to pull the French troops back.
  • Storming of San Sebastian
    • The Storming party, 750 volunteers, included 200 men of the Guards, one hundred each from the First and Coldstream Guards. They moved off at two in the morning on the 31st August 1813, and occupied a ruined convent where they remained till half past nine. Aware of the almost impossible task ahead of them, and subjected to a violent electric thunderstorm, the troops waited in a state of savage anticipation. ' Wild senseless laughter' was said to have preceded the attack on the breach which could not be entered except in single file under heavy fire. The troops attacked in succession, but were struck down by hundreds. General Graham then ordered the artillery to fire over the heads of the assailants, clearing the ramparts. A shell ignited a quantity of powder, and under cover of the explosions, the storming party forced its way into the town.

      San Sebastian was savagely sacked and burned, and the good name of Wellington's Army suffered as it had done at Badajoz. The civilians were raped, robbed and murdered in revenge for the heavy losses suffered by the troops. The Franco-Spanish governor retired the citadel (San Marcial) and on the 9th September, after a gallant resistance of over a week, surrendered the charge he had so faithfully defended. The casualties among the officers of the first Guards were one Officer, Ensign Burrard, First battalion (a son of Sir Henry Burrard who was responsible for the disastrous Treaty of Cintra) severely wounded, since dead, and one Officer, Ensign Orlando Bridgeman, wounded. In the Coldstream Guards, one officer ensign Thomas Chaplin, According to Lord Saltoun there were in round numbers, 150 casualties amongst 200 Guardsman. Total losses of volunteers from all regiments were 1500 men. (text by Atlanta Clifford, assistant to the Curator-The Guards Museum)

      The Siege of San Sebastian

       This was the last of the many sieges of the Peninsular War.  It was long protracted.  The first serious assault failed; though the second proved successful, it was more by good luck than good management-a happy accident, the chance ignition of a quantity of explosives behind the French line of defence, which turned the scale just when the British stormers were in danger of a second defeat.  Finally, capture was followed by pillage and a series of atrocities and cruelty, which, as Napier puts it, “staggers the mind with its enormous, incredible, indescribable barbarity.”  Discipline disappeared in universal drunkenness.  The men were checked chased their officers away with volleys.  A party of English soldiers put a Portuguese adjutant who ventured to interfere to death.  The sack did not cease until a general conflagration, following in the footsteps of the brutal soldiery, completely destroyed the town.  


      Wellington’s New Port

           The possession of San Sebastian, or of some good seaport upon the Bay of Biscay, became necessary to Lord Wellington in the closing campaign of the Peninsular War.  When he left Portugal to march across Spain, driving the French before him, he abandoned his only base of supply at Lisbon.  A new and nearer port was now needed; a harbour at which food, stores, and reinforcements coming from England could be landed, and by which he could keep up his direct communication

                 San Sebastian was the most convenient for Wellington’s purpose, and, cost what it might.  San Sebastian he meant to have.  He made no secret of this determination, and his anxiety no doubt stimulated those entrusted with the siege-for Wellington was not constantly present-to premature efforts in an unwise departure from the instructions he gave.  Had the plan of which he approved been followed exactly, history would not have recorded the delays, disappointments, and disasters, which have made San Sebastian memorable among the siege of Spain.  Wellington wished to lose no time in gaining the fortress, but he still wished it to be besieged according to rule: Sir Thomas Graham, who was in chief command, although one of his ablest lieutenants, was sometimes over-persuaded to take steps which cost costly expenditure of men and material.

        San Sebastian in 1813

                 San Sebastian is nowadays a most fashionable resort, and occupies the whole frontage of its spacious bay.  In 1813 it was limited to the low peninsula running north and south, on which stood the small town surrounded by its fortifications.  These defences to the landward or southern side of the isthmus were the more important, and consisted of a high rampart, 350 yards in length, at which were half bastions giving flanking fire along the ditch.  In the centre of the rampart a bastion stood out to the front, and in front of that again was a more advanced fort, called a horn work, covered by a ditch and glacis.  East and West of the town the only defence was a simple wall, indifferently flanked and unprotected by obstacles in front of it, for waters washed it base, to the westward of those of the sea, to the eastward of the River Urumea, a tidal shallow stream that ebbed twice daily, leaving exposed a long, firm strand.  The latter undoubtedly constituted the weakest part of the fortress, and it was within full view and easy reach of high land and commanding sand-hills, called the chofres, on the far side of the San Sebastian had a second and a third, an outer and a inner, line of defence.  The first was the high ridge called San Bartolomeo, which crossed the isthmus at its neck; the other was the rocky height of the Monte Orgullo, or “Mountain of Pride,” that rose steeply north of the town at the end of the peninsula.  San Bartolomeo had been fortified directly the siege became imminent.  A redoubt was constructed on the plateau connected with the convent buildings, and this redoubt was supported by a second made of casks nearer the town, and by strengthening the houses in the suburb just under the northern ridge of San Bartolomeo and on the inner side of the ridge.

                 Monte Orgullo was crowned by the castle of La Mota, a small-enclosed fort with batteries on each flank, the whole raised on such an elevation as to command the town and the isthmus beyond.  La Mota formed the citadel and key of the defence.

        Rey’s Preparations for siege

          The possession of San Sebastian became of greater importance after Vittoria, and General Emanuel Rey entered the place, determined to hold it at all hazards.  Rey was a man of strong, soldier like character and his somewhat harsh, overbearing demeanour was accompanied by indomitable energy well suited to the present crisis.  He was like Philippon, of Badajoz, and many other French governors of fortresses, the product of Napoleon’s famous ordinance that a place of arms must never be surrendered until it has endured at least one open assault.

                 Rey strained every effort to reconstitute the fortress and develop its resources.  There was commissary sent off to Bayonne in an open boat, braving the English cruisers, to beg for substantial help.  San Sebastian itself had been nearly dismantled.  Many of its guns had been removed to arm other smaller places along the coast.  It was short of ammunition, food was scanty, the wells were mostly foul, brackish, and thick with mud, an aqueduct, which was soon cut off by the besiegers, supplied the only fit drinkning water.  Fortunately for the French, the British blockade in the bay of Biscay was ineffective, and sea communication was maintained between the fortress and Bayonne almost to the end of the siege.  In this way munitions of war, reinforcements, food, and all other necessaries were constantly received.

                 Rey set his garrison, which was now being strengthened by the arrival of fresh detachments, to work on the fortifications.  It was now that the redoubt was built on San Bartolomeo; the ridge across the Urumea was burnt down; and as guns were received the batteries were armed and strengthened.  When the siege actually began Rey could dispose of 76 pieces of artillery: 45 were in the main works, 13 on Monte Orgullo, 18 were held in reserve.  The number of artillerymen was insufficient, so detachments of infantry were instructed in gun drill.  The garrison was without bombproof cover, and much exposed; so were the magazines.  Another drawback, which Rey dealt with in peremptory fashion, was the non-combatant population.  Refugees from Madrid, the fugitive, had crowded San Sebastian.  The fugitive grandees of King Joseph’s Court, and this helpless people-all useless mouths-were promptly expelled.

      Reconnoitre by Wellington

          Wellington, accompanied by his senior engineer officer, Major Smith, reconnoitred the place, July 12th, and with him concerted the plan of operations; but the conduct of the siege was given to Sir Thomas Graham, who had under his orders the 5th Division of the British troops, two brigades of Portuguese, some blue jackets from H.M.S Surveillante, and a party of sappers and miners-the first occasion on which these valuable soldiers were employed in a siege in Spain.  The total force amounted to 10,000 men, being about three times the strength of the garrison.  Forty pieces of artillery were available, part of them belonging to the battering-train prepared for Burgos, the whole train being under command of Colonel Dickson, a favourite artillery officer of Wellington.

                 The weakest part of the defences, a point in the eastern wall of the town was to be breached.  When the breach was formed, the assault was to be delivered, the assailants advancing at low water between the walls and the river.  It soon became clear that the San Bartolomeo ridge must be wrested from the enemy, for its guns would have greatly harassed the attacking columns.  The capture of San Bartolomeo was accordingly the first enterprise undertaken.  It was bombarded, then attacked on the morning of July 17th by two columns-one of British, the other of Portuguese troops.  The latter moved slowly, Colonel Cameron, leading the 9th and Royals, raced forward and charged with such impetuosity that the French were driven straight out of the redoubt.  Down below in San Martin they rallied, but Cameron being reinforced the suburb was presently won.  The cask redoubt beyond was next stormed, but without success.  It was however, taken a couple of nights later.  

       Breaching walls

         The fire from the breaching batteries was continued without intermission, and effected great damage; the stone embrasures were destroyed, the guns dismounted, the walls shaken severely.  The garrison, however met the bombardment bravely, and laboured hard to repair damages and neutralise them.  On the 22nd a breach, which appeared to be practicable, was formed.  On the 23rd a second breach was commenced beyond the first.  Our shells ignited some houses in the town, and a general conflagration was imminent, but it came to nothing beyond delaying the British attack, which had been fixed for the 24th.

                 Everything was ready for the last act in the siege.  The storming party, 2,000 strong, was composed of General Hay’s brigade of the 5th Division, for the first breach, while another battalion attacked the second.  The whole of the stormers were to assemble in the foremost trench.  The signal for the advance was to be the explosion of a mine on the left flank, designed by a young officer of engineers, Lieutenant Reid.  On the 21st, while digging at a parallel, he had come upon a pipe four feet by three wide, which was actually the aqueduct conveying the water into the town.  Reid had entered the mouth of this narrow opening and followed the passage right up to the counter-scarp of the horn work, where a closed door stopped him.  Returning to report, it was decided to form a mine at the end of the drain.

                 The postponement was unfortunate; the tide would have served well at daylight on the 24th; it was then at the lowest ebb, and the wide strand would have given ample space for the advancing columns.  The troops assembled before daylight.  The Royal Scots, under Major Frazer, intended to assail the great breach, supported by the 9th (Norfolk) Regiment ad the 38th (South Staffordshire) Regiment, whose goal was the lesser breach beyond.

                 About 5 a.m. the column filed out of the trench on the signal given by the exploding mine.  There were 300 yards of the open to cover.  Our batteries on the sand-hills, which fired upon our own men, had not heard the signal.  The advance was very arduous, the ground most difficult, much narrowed between the wall and the waters, very slippery from the receding tide, which left the rocks covered with sea-weed and here and there deep pools; more over, the fortifications on the flanks were lined by sharpshooters, who kept up an effective fire.  The first to reach the breach were Major Frazer of the Royal Scots and Lieutenant (afterwards Sir Harry) Jones, of the engineers; a few men closely followed, but in disorder, straggling and out of breath.  On the far side down below was then yawning breach, filed with smoke and flames of the burning houses beyond.  By this time a small handful of the most intrepid had gathered round their leaders, but quite two thirds of the main columns had turned aside on their road to the breach, and were engaged in musketry battle with the enemy on the rampart.

      Failure of the Attack

        The rear of the storming party was thus already in confusion, and the van would not advance.  Frazer now was killed, so was Machel with the ladders; Jones was wounded and taken prisoner; the rest of the leading assailants were either slain or dispersed.  The Colonels of the 38th and 9th, Greville and Cameron, and Captain Archimbeau of the Royals, strove hard to encourage and urge on their men; but all were dispirited and in inextricable confusion, and now a hail of shot and shell fell upon them from the whole of the enemy’s artillery, while continuous musketry fire, with showers of grape and hand grenades, smote the struggling mass, which could neither advance nor retire, causing the most frightful slaughter.

                 According to the French account, at this last supreme moment, when defeat was unmistakable, “the bravest English rushed upon the French bayonets to find a honourable death; the rest sought safety in flight, still decimated by the furious fire, so that few escaped alive.” 

                 The attack had proved a failure, costly in valuable lives, of officers out of all proportion to men.  Many reasons and some excuses were offered for the disaster; the most plausible were that the attack had been badly planned and feebly executed.  Jones, in his “Sieges of Spain,” says: “The efforts in the breach were certainly neither very obstinate nor very preserving,” and he was an eyewitness.  “No general or staff-officer went out of the trenches with the troops, and the isolated exertions of regimental officers failed.” 

      The Siege Suspended

         Lord Wellington went at once to San Sebastian and wished to renew the attack.  But the besiegers were short of ammunition, which was daily expected from England, and he thought it better to await his arrival.  Then momentous events followed elsewhere.  Soult advanced and began the serious movements that produced the first set of the battles of the Pyrenees, and Wellington was peremptorily called away from San Sebastian.  The siege was suspended for several weeks and converted into a blockade.  Now the French, elated at their respite, were constantly alert, and being reinforced made many sallies.  At the same time, under Rey’s energetic impulse, the damaged defences were repaired and strengthened, the magazines were refilled, and guns were remounted in the batteries.

      The Second Attack Planned

          Soult having been defeated on august 24th, the siege was resumed.  A new battering train had arrived from England, although scanty supplies of ammunition had been sent with it.  On the 26th, 57 pieces ordnance of all kinds opened fire from the two attacks.  The points selected for breaching were the same as in the previous bombardment, and the results were soon and satisfactory apparent.  Rey reported to Soult that great damage had been affected both on the fortification and town, and this increased daily.  Yet the blockade was so ineffective that help was sent from France, and to check this island of Santa Clara, lying to the westward of the peninsula, was captured.  A battery placed on this island caused great annoyance to the castle, which is enfiladed.  On August 30th it was reported that the braches were practicable.  Lord Wellington arrived about 3 p.m. and having made a close examination of the condition of the fortress, he ordered the second assault to be for 11 a.m. next day.

                 Wellington was prepared to take the risk while sparing no effort to succeed.  His eagerness in this respect led him to do a grave injustice to the brave but unfortunate men who had been beaten back in the first attack.  He would not again trust to the 5th Division alone, but he called for volunteers from the 1st, 4th, and Light, asking for “men who could show others how to mount a breach”; and 750 under intrepid officers at once responded to the appeal.  But the commander of the 5th Division, Sir James Leith, who had general charge of the assault, would not suffer those own men to be put aside by the volunteers he distributed along the line of the trenches to keep down the enemy’s fire; the rest were in reserve with Leith’s second brigade, held to support the attacking columns.  A diversion from the main attack was to be made by a body of Portuguese, who were to ford the Urumea at low water, and advance against the father breach in the eastern wall.  At the same time the rear of the castle was to be threatened by a battalion embarked in the boats of the squadron.

                 In this second attack there was to be no doubt about daylight.  The hour fixed was 11 a.m. when the tide was low, and there was room for the troops to move between the walls and the water.  The British batteries were to have harassed the garrison from early dawn, but a thick fog hung like a screen till 8 a.m. and from that hour only until the columns started was all possible mischief done.  The first to move out was a brave sergeant, who, with a dozen men, had volunteered to run forward and cut off the slow match of a mine the French had ready to fire.  These heroes are failed; the train was exploded prematurely, and a mass of wall fell upon the advancing column, killing many.  The forlorn hope had, however, got past before this catastrophe, and made for the breach, headed by Lieutenant Macguire, who, “conspicuous from his long white plume, his fine figure, and his swiftness,” soon, alas!  Met his death, and the stormers step onwards over his corpse.  The main column now followed and ascended the breach, but their foremost ranks were at once annihilated by the destructive musketry from the inner retrenchment.  Those behind pressed forward undaunted, to suffer terribly, for there was no clear road, no descent possible, into the body of the place.  Inner defences had been thrown up beyond the breach, and the stormers when thus detained were exposed to a fierce fire from the ramparts, and from the guns on the castle heights.  The most favourable inlet was found at the breach in the left hand bastion; but here the dense masses of the assailants offered huge targets, and the loss was appalling.

                 Fresh troops were, however, sent constantly forward in support, and ere long and more of half the 5th Division and all the volunteers were either actively engaged or had been stricken down.  About 1 p.m. the Portuguese made their attack; they crossed the sands in beautiful order and gallantly assaulted the third breach.  That of a second column, who reinforced the assailants at the main breach, speedily followed this successful passage

                 And yet no substantial impression was made.  All these heroic efforts proved fruitless.  In this desperate situation Sir Thomas Graham, having consulted with the chief of the artillery, determined to concentrate the fire of all our available guns upon the high curtain or rampart above the breached bastion.  Forty-seven guns thus brought to bear cleared away the defenders; they did far more, for the gunners knew the exact range, and pitched their shell into the magazines, which speedily took light; explosion followed explosion, and a general conflagration broke out.  Hundreds of the French defenders were destroyed, and the rest were thrown into confusion, and while the ramparts were still enveloped with suffocating eddies of smoke the British soldiers broke in.  But the garrison, although at a disadvantage, were not yet conquered; a fierce hand-to-hand conflict ensued; the French fell back inch by inch, and only yielded to the overwhelming numbers of their assailants.  Abut the same time the Portuguese made good their entrance at the lesser breach.  Then the stormers swept forward irresistibly; although the streets and squares were barricaded, the French, being instantaneously attacked in every direction, made no further resistance in the town.  Several hundreds were taken prisoners; there the still indomitable Rey withdrew rest into his citadel on the Monte Orgullo.  The last phase of this stubborn struggle had been fought amid a most terrific thunderstorm.

                 Rey held out for many days in the citadel.  Wellington was now at San Sebastian in person, and he resolved to assault the castle by escalade, after concentrating on it the fire of all his guns.  Fifty-nine heavy pieces opened simultaneously from all parts, and within a couple of hours the batteries were broken down, magazines exploded, and the castle itself was untenable.

                 Then Rey surrendered, and next day him and his brave garrison marched out o their last stronghold with all “the honours of war.”


  • Battle of Maida 1806
    • The British expeditionary force under General John Stuart, which landed in Calabria, met the French army, under General Reynier on July 6th 1806. The French force was defeated but another army was sent by Marshal Massena and Stuart realised he couldn't win so ordered his troops to get back on the ships.
  • Battle of Vittoria June 21st 1813
    • The battlefield of Vittoria was in the valley of the Zadorra, some six miles wide and ten miles long. Enclosed by mountains apart from the east. Wellington ordered Hill, with 20,000 men (2nd Division and Morillo's Spaniards) to gain the heights of Puebla. The Light Division and 4th Divisions plus cavalry advanced through the village of Nanclares. The 3rd and 7th Divisions advanced through the valley of the Bayas to attack the northern flank and rear of the French position. Wellington ordered the 1st and 5th Divisions, Longa's Spaniards and two Portuguese brigades, under Graham, to march around the mountains to the north and severe the main road to Bayonne. 
    • On the morning of June 21st Wellington watched Hill's troops advance through peered through the Heights of Puebla where the battle began with Hill driving the French from their positions. Two hours later, Graham's army swept down over the road to Bayonne cutting off the main French escape route. Later on the French army collasped. At noon Wellington ordered Kempt's brigade of the Light Division to take the undefended bridge over the Zadorra at Tres Puentes. Picton's `Fighting' 3rd Division stormed across the bridge of Mendozaand were faced by two French divisions supported by artillery but these guns were taken by Kempt's riflemen. Picton's men supported by the Light Division and by Cole's 4th Division, routed the French troops and with Dalhousie's 7th Division drove the French from the hill of Arinez. Soon afterwards, what was once Joseph's vantage point was being used by Wellington to direct the battle.
    • Joseph Bonaparte's army was being assaulted on all sides and when Cole's 4th Division struck at about 5pm the French army snapped. Wellington thrust the 4th Division into the gap between D'Erlon and Gazan, as a sort of wedge, and began to push D'Erlon back. Gazan realised he was in danger of being cut off and shortly after Joseph realised he had to give the order for a general retreat. The resulting disintegration of the French army was as sudden as it was spectacular, every man, from Joseph downwards, looked to his own safety and all arms, ammunition, equipment and packs were thrown away by the French in an effort to hasten their flight along with a fantastic amount of treasure acquired by Joseph as he plundered Spain.

French Napoleonic & Revolutionary History

  • Battle of D'Arcole 1796
    • After crossing the River Adige Napoleon was stopped by the troops of General Josef Alvinczy near Arcole at the River Alpone. Napoleon's cavalry tried numerous times to take the bridge but were beaten back and only on the second day did they succeed in forcing Josef back. By November 17th, the third day of the offensive, General Pierre Augureau's division finally crossed the bridge and chased Josef's army out of Arcole. Napoleon's casualties numbered 4,600.
  • Battle of Rivoli 1797
    • The Austrians attempted to relieve the fortress of Mantua under the command of General Josef Alvinczy. Napoleon sent two French divisions under Joubert and Massena toward Rivoli to stop the Austrians. On 14th January, they attacked the Austrians and though outnumbered won a decisive victory. The next day Joubert's division pursued the fleeing Austrians while Massena's division marched toward a 2nd column of Austrians outside Mantua and surrounded them. Massena became Duc D'Rivoli for his actions in the battle.
  • Battle of Marengo 1800
    • On the evening of 13th June 1800 Napoleon's troops reached Marengo where the Austrian army under General Baron Von Melas awaited them. In the morning Melas decided to take the initiative and attacked the French, catching them by surprise. Melas artillery allowed the infantry to attacked the French army at Marengo and after five hours the French line began to falter. By 3pm on the 14th June the French had been driven back to San Guiliano. Believing the battle to be won Gen Melas retired and a subordinate officer took over command of the Austrian forces. The French however, were re-organising and were also augmented by Desaix's corps. The French counter-attacked (Desaix was killed at this point) and it was the Austrians who were forced back towards Marengo. By nightfall the Austrians had been beaten and the next day Melas signed a truce.
  • Battle of Austerlitz 1805
    • Napoleon reached Brünn where he rested his troops on 19th November 1805. Here he tricked his enemies - the Russians under Alexander I and the Austrians under Francis II into occupying Pratzen Plateau. On 2nd December the Russian General Friedrich von Buxhowden began to push the French troops under Davout without success. Napoleon ordered the main army to strike at the allies center. Marshal Soult led the attack which drove the Russians and Austrians off the Plateau. Another two French corps and Marshal Murat's cavalry struck at the allies right resulting in the collapse of the allies. Austerlitz is often called the Battle of Three Emperors.
  • Battle of Jena 1806
    • October 14th 1806 Napoleons main army of 56,000 men were pitted against the Prussian armies of King Frederick William III at Jena. The Prussians were destroyed by musket and artillery fire. Napoleon pushed his advantage by sending in the corps under Mashal Soult and Pierre Augereau and by evening had forced his way toward Weimar. At the same time Davout's corps had attacked Brunswick's Prussian army near Auerstedt even though he was outnumbered. It was during this battle that the Duke of Brunswick was killed and King Frederick took over the command. The Prussians were defeated and the French troops marched into Auerstedt. Davout became Duc D'Auerstedt after his victory.
  • Battle of Eylau 1807
    • The Russian general Levin Bennigsen began an offensive toward the Vistula River which Napoleon learnt of and quickly ordered a counteroffensive. The French army were ordered to attack Gen Bennigsen's left flank and cut the Russian's off from Königsberg (Kaliningrad). While Bennigsen pulled back the French continued to attack and on 7th February the French formed a line through Königsberg. A heavy artillery battle ensued the next morning as well as snowstorm which allowed an attack on the Russian centre though it was defeated. Davout's corps manoeuvred to attack the left flank and only reinforcements from a Prussian corps under General Lestocq stopped the French from breaking through.
  • Battle of Friedland 1807
    • Yet again the Russian general Bennigsen was forced back towards Königsberg and after crossing the Alle River near Friedland, he was confronted by Marshal Jean Lannes troops. Although Lannes was outnumbered he staved off the attack for 9 hours on July 14th. Reinforcements of 80,000 French troops arrived west of Friedland and Marshal Ney's corps attacked Bennigsen's left. General Victor's corps assisted Ney and brought 30 guns to bear on the enemy who were holed up in the village. Russian casualties were great and within 2 hours all of Bennigsen's troops had been captured, killed or driven into the river.
  • Battle of Borodino 1812
    • Napoleon sent his armies deep into Russian territory until on 5th September Marshal Murat found Marshal Kutuzov fortifying a line near Borodino. Napoleon then deployed his troops and on 7th September sent Marshal Davout's troops into battle. The French artillery eventually managed to gain the upper hand which resulted in many thousands of casualties on the Russian side including the mortally wounded Prince Petr Bagration. Marshal Kutuzov retreated but having suffered many casualties themselves, the French army were unable to pursue.

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