Castalla (1813)

The Battle of Castalla, 13 April 1813.

Following the success of Wellington’s victory at Salamanca and the temporary recovery of Madrid, the 1812 campaign in central Spain petered out after the failure to capture the castle of Burgos, and was followed by a difficult and costly retreat all the way back to the Portuguese border. However, the severe French losses in Russia had caused the recall of significant numbers of French troops from Spain during the spring, to face the advancing Russian and Prussian troops in central Europe. Wellington therefore saw great opportunities for the campaign of 1813, with the weakened French forces compelled to remain on the defensive. To aid his great surge forward, he looked to the British forces under the recently arrived Sir John Murray and the Spanish 2nd Army to cause a major diversion in eastern Spain, thus preventing Suchet from supporting the main French army’s efforts.

Sir John Murray is often viewed as a controversial choice for this command, largely on the basis of the harsh judgement of William Napier, the historian of the Peninsular War. He is highly critical regarding Murray’s lack of initiative in cutting off the retreat of Marshal Soult’s army from Oporto in 1809, when he commanded a brigade there. His leaving the peninsula soon after this, however, was not actually related; he simply refused to serve under William Carr Beresford, who had been created a Portuguese Marshal but was still junior to him in the British army. Indeed, Wellington, a harsh judge, who did not bear fools easily, commented on Murray’s wish to leave the army with the words ‘he will be missed’; clearly Wellington cannot have been unhappy with his performance.

During the winter of 1812 the British force still at Alicante on the east coast had grown, with reinforcements arriving from Sicily and Lisbon, and now amounted to 16,000 men, including Whittingham’s Spanish division. The Spanish 2nd Army had also been reorganised and now numbered some 20,000 men in four divisions, one of which, under Roche, was attached to Murray.

It is true that some of Murray’s troops were not of a particularly high quality, many being Italians or French, Swiss and Polish deserters. Indeed, in early February eighty-six men of the 2nd Italian Levy deserted en masse, taking their officer with them as a prisoner. Another serious difficulty was the procuring of draught animals to move stores and supplies. The troops had arrived without horses and it proved very difficult even to establish a supply train in eastern Spain, and this severely hampered any movements. Food was supplied regularly from Sicily and Algeria, but the troops needed to remain close to the coast to be able to access it, which placed a severe restriction on their manoeuvrability.

Suchet’s army retained three divisions around Xativa and had one brigade further forward at Alcoy; this Murray decided to encircle and destroy, but the attempt failed. Murray then put forward the idea of landing Roche’s division at Valencia, in the rear of the French army, and capturing it from the sea. Messages from Bentinck in Sicily, however, stating that he might be compelled to recall his Sicilian troops, ended any thoughts of such an operation – probably a good thing for all concerned.

All this inertia played into French hands and Suchet decided to strike whilst the allied divisions were still spread out and their actions uncoordinated. He attacked in two columns, successfully separating Murray from part of the Spanish army, which was forced to flee to the west, and driving Murray’s force back towards Castalla. Realising the danger, Murray immediately ordered his entire force to concentrate at Castalla, including Whittingham’s and Roche’s Spanish troops. Murray’s own troops then took up a position lining the crest of the hills to the south of the town of Biar, and centred around the hill with the castle of Castalla perched on its summit. Suchet made heavy weather of clearing the two battalions of British troops defending the Biar Pass, who then retired leisurely to the main position when the pass was no longer tenable. The delay meant that any attack by Suchet on the main allied position would now have to wait until the following day.

On 13 April 1813, in an action not unlike that at Bussaco, the French marched in solid columns up the slope of the hill, only to be met by the allied reserves advancing to line the crest at the vital moment and destroying the head of the French columns with a couple of devastating volleys, before following up with a determined bayonet charge. Whittingham’s Spanish also fought well and performed their part admirably; eventually Suchet realised the futility of continuing the attacks and took his troops back beyond the Biar Pass to avoid being trapped in front of it. Murray failed to move forward to take advantage of his victory and was generally criticised by the officers of his army for failing to do so.

Unaware of this action, Wellington penned a memorandum with his orders for the army of the east coast. His main priority was the assembly of a force of no fewer than 10,000 men, which was to be disembarked to besiege Tarragona. Such a move, Wellington judged, would force Suchet to pull back from Valencia and eventually, possibly, even from Catalonia entirely. Wellington indicated that Suchet might intervene and force the abandonment of the siege of Tarragona; in that case, Murray was to re-embark his troops and go to Valencia, and aid the Spanish in driving what remained of Suchet’s forces northwards. Wellington also warned Murray that on no account was he to allow any part of his force to be destroyed; this was unfortunate, as it undoubtedly made a naturally cautious general a very nervous one indeed.

Rear Admiral Hallowell had escorted the convoy of transports initially used to land the army at Alicante, and his squadron of three ships of the line and a few frigates still lay close at hand. Therefore, in line with his instructions, by 31 May Murray embarked 18,000 troops with a large siege battery and sailed for the Catalan coast.

On 2 June the fleet arrived off Cape Salou, 8 miles south of Tarragona. Here they met with the Spanish General Copons, who agreed to station a force of about 12,000 men of his 1st Army to the west of Tarragona in support. Murray immediately detached a brigade of troops commanded by Colonel Prevost under convoy to the Coll de Balaguer, where Fort San Felipe commanded the coastal road from Tortosa to Tarragona. After four days of bombardment, the fort surrendered when a lucky shot from two mortars sent ashore by HMS Stromboli ignited a magazine, causing an explosion.

Meanwhile the main force disembarked on 3 June and the investment of Tarragona was completed by that night. Having inspected the fortifications, Murray, with his chief engineer and artillery officers, all agreed that the only realistic line of attack was from the west. This was exactly as the French had concluded previously and by 5 June two initial batteries had been constructed. The French garrison numbered some 1,600 men under the command of General Antoine Bertoletti, who already held little hope of a successful outcome, with the western defences still not properly repaired since the French siege. General Murray was, however, actually the more nervous. He constantly fretted about a combined attack from Suchet in the south and Decaen from the north, which could overwhelm him. He also overestimated the strength of the city defences and the numbers of the defenders. He was severely criticised by his own officers for the handling of the siege, and they unanimously declared that an immediate assault on the southern defences would certainly succeed, but Murray refused to countenance such an attempt. His engineers also signally failed to drive the agenda, making contradictory analyses which further drained Murray’s confidence in the proceedings. Indeed, Murray wrote to Wellington that ‘I am much afraid we have undertaken more than we are able to perform.’

Hallowell and his sailors ignored such pessimism and energetically worked to land more siege guns and construct further batteries. By 10 June they had five batteries in operation and by the following morning there was a suitable breach in the walls of Fort Royal. Clinton’s troops were ordered to be prepared for an assault that very evening.

Murray then rode out to meet General Copons and heard from him that French forces numbering some 10,000 men were marching south from Barcelona, but that the Spanish forces had moved to intercept them. Returning to the siege, Murray then heard that Suchet was still some 30-odd miles away, on the other side of the Coll de Balaguer. Despite the fact that Suchet had no way of immediately threatening the siege operations, this news seems to have unnerved Murray to the point that he cancelled the planned assault and ordered the army to re-embark completely by dark on 12 June. He was confronted by a group of his senior officers, who argued that they should march to destroy the French column approaching from the north before continuing with the siege. But hearing on the 12th that this column was now only a few hours’ march from the city, Murray issued a series of both contradictory and deeply embarrassing orders effectively abandoning everything. In fact, the column had turned around and returned northward on learning that Pellew had landed his marines in their rear in the Bay of Rosas.

Hallowell refused to abandon all their stores so lightly and he delayed sailing until 13 June in order to bring on board all the supplies and horses, but eighteen cannon were spiked and abandoned in the batteries.

Murray had further decided that the force at the Coll de Balaguer was also to be withdrawn and the Spanish forces were effectively abandoned to escape as best they could. However, news that Suchet was actually moving southwards because of reports of Spanish advances towards Valencia, and that one French brigade had been left in an isolated position and might be cut off, seems to have renewed Murray’s belief and he promptly ordered the army to disembark again!

The intended attack came to nothing and the army simply sat and waited for Murray to make any decision at all. Instead, he ordered a council of war on 17 June, which agreed that the only realistic option now was to re-embark, which was accomplished by the 19th. Bentinck had finally arrived from Sicily on 18 June and promptly superseded Murray, but he agreed with the decision to abandon the campaign, and ordered the fort at the Coll de Balaguer to be blown up. The army sailed back to Alicante in ignominy.

Even the historian Fortescue, his harshest critic, recognises that the position Murray found himself in may well have made re-embarkation essential, but the unnecessary haste and confusion engendered was unfounded, for there was certainly time to have recovered all the siege artillery. It was not the decision that is most criticised, but the unseemly rush and the embarrassing losses incurred because of it.

The final chapter of this shambolic and deeply embarrassing campaign led to Sir John Murray having to face a court-martial in January 1815; unbelievably, he was acquitted of all charges, but found guilty of an error of judgement in abandoning his guns. It did not, however, negatively affect his future career one jot!

Leave a Reply