Today marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Vitoria, during which General the Marquess of Wellington led his troops to victory over the forces of Napoleon’s eldest brother, Joseph Bonaparte, puppet King of Spain. Wellington’s victory destroyed Napoleonic control of Spain and would ultimately lead to the final defeat of the French army the following year. Yet, despite this great victory, it was the behavior of his own troops in the aftermath of the battle which so enraged Wellington that he called them "the scum of the earth" in a dispatch to the British government.
Vitoria, victory and opportunity lost …
In the summer of 1812, Wellington defeated a much larger French army at the Battle of Salamanca, his first offensive campaign of the Peninsular Wars. He went on to take Madrid, but ultimately was forced to abandon an untenable position in Spain in the face of vastly superior French forces. In the fall of 1812, he retreated to the Portuguese frontier with his troops, to avoid being encircled by the French army. Wellington spent the winter rebuilding and reorganizing his forces, heartened by their brief, but effective foray into Spain. For the French armies on the other hand, the winter was a time of severe loss as Napoleon recalled entire regiments from Spain to shore up his Grande Armée after the devastating losses which had resulted from his Russian campaign.
Wellington had good intelligence about the French troop reductions, and their relative positions. In addition to his own army of nearly 54,000 British, he also had nearly 40,000 Spanish and at least 25,000 Portuguese troops under his command. By the start of the 1813 fighting season, the combined army numbered at least 121,000 troops, nearly twice the number the French had in the field on the Peninsula. By May of 1813, Wellington once again marched his armies into Spain, intent on taking advantage of the French troop depletions before reinforcements could arrive. The main French army, under the command of General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, retreated first to Burgos, and then to the area around Vitoria, in northern Spain, where they were in position by mid-June of 1813. There they were joined on Saturday, 19 June, by additional troops under the command of the man Napoleon had made King of Spain, his elder brother, Joseph Bonaparte. It must be noted that though Joseph Bonaparte had titular command of the French army, his orders were routinely ignored by the senior commanders, who had no respect for his military ability.
Though General Jourdan was one of the most talented and respected of the French commanders, while serving in the French army as a young man, he contracted malaria. For the rest of his life, he suffered bouts of the fever from time to time. One of those times was on Sunday, 20 June 1813. He was seriously ill with fever and unable to rise from his bed the entire day. He issued few orders and relied on his senior officers to manage troop placement and defense around the town. The town center was clogged with the massive baggage train of Joseph Bonaparte. This enormous wagon train comprised at least 100 wagons and contained everything of value which "King Joseph" had been able to loot from the Spanish capital of Madrid, before fleeing north to the protection of Jourdan’s army. Due to the rough terrain, the French were lulled into a sense of safety, assuming Wellington would not attempt an attack over such dangerous and impassable ground.
Wellington’s army was within striking distance of Vitoria by 20 June, and he knew he would have to act fast. He had received intelligence that support for Joseph Bonaparte would soon arrive in the form of an additional French army which was already marching north under the able command of Marshal Bertrand Clausel. At 8:00am on Monday morning, 21 June 1813, Wellington launched his well-coordinated attack, sending two divisions against the French on the heights surrounding Vitoria, the all-British 2nd Division under the command of William Stewart, and Pablo Morillo’s division of Spanish infantry, both divisions under the direction of Lt. General Rowland Hill, one of Wellington’s most experienced and trusted commanders. But in truth, these were only feints, to distract French attention while he sent the bulk of his army in from further east. The main force, consisting of the 1st and 5th Divisions, both Pack’s and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades and Colonel Francisco Longa’s Spanish Brigade, all under the command of Lt. General Sir Thomas Graham, came around the lightly guarded French right flank, over ground the French believed impenetrable. [Author’s Note: This is the same Sir Thomas Graham who walled up the portrait of his beloved wife in their drawing room after her death, and joined the army to distract himself from his deep and inconsolable grief.]
A few hours after the main attack began, Wellington learned that the bridge across the Zadorra River at Trespuentes, which led into Vitoria, had not only been left standing by the French, it had also been left unguarded. Immediately, Wellington dispatched a brigade from the Light Infantry Division, under the command of Brigadier James Kempt, to seize the bridge. Fortunately, the bridge was near a tight hairpin bend in the Zadorra valley and was thus nearly concealed by the high ground in the area. Kempt’s Brigade from the Light were able to take it with little opposition. The 3rd Division, under Lt. General Thomas Picton, was then able to cross the river to engage the French. Once the French realized the English had crossed the river, they turned their heavy artillery on them and Picton’s troops were subject to heavy fire. Despite this punishing attack, the 3rd held their ground, though they suffered high casualties, roughly one-third of the total British losses that day.
By noon, Graham’s main force had cut the road between Vitoria and Bayonne, and had taken the road to Bilbao, critical components of Wellington’s plan to isolate and encircle the French army. Too late, the French generals realized their danger and requested reinforcements from Marshal Jourdan. However, Jourdan, concerned for the strength of his left flank, refused their requests and ordered them to fall back. Initially, the French fell back in good order, and made a stand at the village of Arinez. But they soon faced a menacing line made up of the 3rd, 4th, and 7th Divisions, as well as the Light Infantry Division, which captured that position. The French fell back again, to the Zuazo ridge, under cover of their large placement of field artillery. However, this position also fell when Generals Gazan and D’Erlon refused to cooperate with one another. As Wellington’s armies advanced, French morale dissolved and the troops broke and ran. The French General Reille, in command of two divisions, prevented a complete rout, as his troops held Graham’s main force at bay long enough for most of his fleeing French comrades to escape before falling back themselves.
Wellington’s intent was to pursue the retreating French army right though Vitoria, to capture as many as possible and thereby end French control of Spain then and there. But the fleeing French soldiers had purloined every horse they could find, including all the draft animals. Thus, the streets of Vitoria were clogged with the over 100 large and overloaded wagons of Joseph Bonaparte’s enormous baggage train, with no way to move since there were no horses left to draw them. It is estimated that this massive plunder train was worth in excess of £100 million in current British pounds or about US$150 million. It is still considered by many military historians to be the largest and most valuable single collection of national plunder ever gathered together in one place. One scholar called it the "loot of a kingdom." And it was stuck in the streets of Vitoria, in the path of the British and allied troops who were pursing the fleeing French soldiers.
Had the French planned a scheme by which to cover their escape from Wellington’s oncoming army, they could not have done better than a hundred wagons overloaded with rich booty filling the streets of the town which stood between them and the pursuing allied forces. Added to that were their own provision wagons, also without horses to pull them, since those had also been taken by the fleeing French, in some cases, the same men who had been assigned to drive and protect those very wagons. It was without doubt the biggest prize of the Peninsular Campaign and by the military conventions of the time, the soldiers believed they were entitled to anything they could get. Wellington’s troops fell upon the abandoned wagons, grabbing everything of value that came to hand. There was a lot of cash, since Joseph Bonaparte had cleaned out the Spanish royal treasury before his departure from Madrid. But there were also jewels, silver and gold plate and many other valuable objects from both the Spanish Royal collection and Joseph Bonaparte’s personal property packed into these wagons.
It was not just the rank and file soldiers who were involved in looting the French wagons, a great many officers, even those of quite high rank, also took what they could. The involvement of so many officers in the plundering is one of the reasons it was nearly impossible to stop the looting or restore order once it had begun. There were just too many wagons, spread out over a wide area and just too many men of all ranks actively engaged in the pillage for anyone to gain control until the ravaging storm had burned itself out. By then, it was very late in the day, the allied troops were in complete disarray and it was much too late to go after the retreating French army. The opportunity to completely eradicate French military control of Spain had been lost, and Wellington, who had hoped to end the long, costly war, was both furious and disheartened at the realization it must continue, for many more months. Months in which even more lives would be lost in the campaign to force the French out of the Iberian Peninsula.
Though Wellington did not condone the plunder of captured property, the men who plundered the French wagons in Vitoria believed they had every right to do so, that the contents of those wagons were the spoils of war and therefore the property of the victors. However, it should be kept in mind that most of those men were ill-fed, ill-clothed and unpaid, as supplies and payroll from the British government was erratic and not always forthcoming. This was a chronic problem, despite Wellington’s frequent demands for enough food and supplies to keep his men properly fed and clothed. Unlike the French, Wellington would not allow his troops to live off the land, taking what they wanted from the local population. He was aware that doing so would engender hatred in the locals which would create a serious danger for his troops. He knew he needed the goodwill of the people of both Portugal and later, Spain, if he was to have any hope of success against the French. At this time, the British Treasury controlled the provisioning of the troops, not the army, and they were more interested in cutting costs than ensuring the troops were fully supplied. The Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief, organized a modest supply train which was independent of the Treasury, using the forage wagons of twelve of the Peninsular cavalry troops to transport the supplies. The House of Commons decided this was excessive and demanded the troops cut to seven, and ordered Wellington to send three "unnecessary" troops back to England to be disbanded. Already desperately short of transport for the supplies he was able to obtain, Wellington ignored the order. Even so, his men did not always have enough to eat, they had to wear whatever clothes they had until they were nothing but rags. Nor were there enough boots or shoes to go around, so men wore their boots until there was literally nothing left of them. One soldier, William Lawrence, remembered the state of his boots when he arrived in Vitoria, " … the chief part of the sole is my own natural one belonging to my foot."
When Lawrence came upon the French wagons, he was overjoyed to find one full of boots and shoes. He immediately grabbed as many pairs as he could carry. Fighting free of the melee, he took his booty back to his unit, since he knew many of his comrades had footwear no better than his own. Other soldiers grabbed clothing or food, which they also shared with the men in their units. Edward Costello, of the 95th Rifles, came upon a wagon loaded with gold Spanish coin. He filled his knapsack, and with the help of a fellow soldier, carried it back to his unit. There, he split it evenly among all the men who had survived the battle. Some months later, he came upon Sergeant Fairfoot of his unit, who had just been appointed the troop’s payroll sergeant. The man was in despair, and contemplating suicide, since he had had a few drinks to celebrate his promotion, while still carrying the payroll money. In his intoxicated state, he had been robbed of the entire payroll, £31. Costello had been very careful with his share of the Spanish gold and still had a significant amount tucked away. He gave the dejected sergeant the £31 he needed to make the payroll. Costello later remembered, quite proudly, that Fairfoot had eventually risen in the ranks to become an outstanding soldier and an officer in the regiment. None of these anecdotes should be seen as at all out of the ordinary. Recent studies have shown that the majority of the rank and file British soldiers on the Peninsula were decent men. Of even greater importance, the trials and privations of war had bonded the men of each unit so firmly together that they viewed each other as closer than brothers. They looked out for one another, regularly risking their own lives for others in their unit, and in nearly every case, sharing with them anything that came their way which might ease their collective lot.
Some, but not all, of the officers had this same kind of feeling about their men. There were a few officers who looted the French wagons and kept everything they took for themselves. But there were also many more who shared what they took with their regiment, even down to the enlisted men. However, where the enlisted men preferred food, clothes, footwear, tobacco and cash, if they could find it, the officers would also be willing to take valuable objects, especially those made of gold or silver. They recognized the value of such pieces and expected to be able to sell or trade them for food and other supplies when needed. Plus, since most officers had baggage allotments, it was much easier for them to transport these usually more bulky items than it was for the enlisted men. And easier to conceal them.
Wellington was furious when he learned of the plunder and ordered as many troops as possible searched. A small portion of the loot was recovered, but the bulk of it was irretrievably lost. There were two crucial reasons for Wellington’s fury. First, the fleeing French troops were allowed to escape, thus prolonging the war, and therefore the loss of life and destruction which accompanied war, for the foreseeable future. Though Wellington was an able general officer, he did not enjoy war, particularly the loss of life it cost. He had hoped to put an end to the war that day and was personally revolted at the prospect of all those additional lives which would be lost because it must continue. Second, Wellington had received intelligence of the contents of Joseph Bonaparte’s rich baggage train. Well aware of the many privations suffered by his men, he had intended to seize the wagons in the name of the British government. His plan was to use the treasure to buy food and clothing for his troops, and to pay at least part of their back wages. Since the British Treasury had been so lax in supplying and paying his troops, he intended to let them deal with making restitution to Spain later.
Unfortunately for the British troops, they would have been much better off in the long run if they had resisted the urge to plunder Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train. The local Spanish in the area, fearing the British and their allies as much as they feared the domineering French, had hidden most of their foodstuffs to protect them from theft. But when news got around that this new wave of soldiers had money and were willing to buy provisions, all that food suddenly appeared and was available for sale. But with multiple units of soldiers vying for the victuals on offer, prices skyrocketed and individual buyers got very poor value for their money. It was not long before the plundered riches were gone and the troops found both their pockets and their stomachs empty yet again. The situation would have been much different if the purchase of food had been left solely to Wellington’s own commissariat procurement officers. Competition and price-gouging would have been kept to a minimum, and more provisions could have been acquired at much more reasonable rates. The provisions would also have been shared more equally among all the troops.
Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train included hundreds of trunks of women’s clothing, since he had with him a great many women. One French officer called it "un bordel ambulant," a mobile brothel. The majority of these women were pretty young Spanish girls, dressed in fancy hussar uniforms and were mounted on pretty ponies. One officer later wrote, "All they wanted was protection and a new lover, both of which they soon obtained, and they were to be had for the asking." Bonaparte’s baggage train was very nearly a mobile zoo as well, as there were a number of lap-dogs, monkeys and parrots included in several of the wagons. The night after the Battle of Vitoria, the allied encampment was an incredible sight, as vast quantities of looted liquor flowed lavishly. Many enlisted men cavorted about the camp adorned with plumes, turbans and frilly gowns, some of them carrying a French lap-dog, a monkey or a parrot. A number of the officers were enjoying the company of the young Spanish girls which Joseph Bonaparte had abandoned to their fate.
The complete failure of discipline with regard to the plundered baggage train so infuriated Wellington that in a dispatch to the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Earl Bathurst, he wrote: "We have in the service the scum of the earth as common soldiers." Order was eventually restored, but not in time to continue the pursuit of the fleeing French army. Though it is true that the troops were tired after the battle, if they had maintained the discipline which Wellington expected of them, on this longest day of the year, they might well have caught a large portion of the escaping French troops, perhaps even Joseph Bonaparte himself, before nightfall. Had they done so, they would have ended Napoleonic control of Spain and the long and costly Peninsular War that very day.
Despite his inability to capture the bulk of the French army after the Battle of Vitoria, Wellington had broken the back of French military control in Spain. And, unlike his situation the previous year, he had a superior number of troops under his command and was able to maintain his position in Spain without having to retreat once again into Portugal. In fact, by the end of 1813, Wellington had taken full military control of Spain. In November of 1813, he wrote again of his troops, "It is probably the most complete machine for its numbers now existing in Europe." With his rear area secure, and his army in excellent fighting form, Wellington led them across the border into France. In the spring of the following year, Wellington fought what he believed would be the last battle of the Napoleonic Wars, and had received news that Napoleon Bonaparte had abdicated the throne of France. Wellington’s victory at the Battle of Vitoria had done much to set that train of events in motion.
Though Wellington was certainly above plundering the treasures of any nation, it came about that some of Joseph Bonaparte’s ill-gotten booty would soon come his way. Despite his repeated efforts to return it, much of it is still on display in his London home, Apsley House, to this day. Next week, the tale of how the arrogance and avarice of Joseph Bonaparte would ultimately benefit the man who drove him from the Iberian Peninsula and the throne of Spain.