Battle of Somosierra

The Battle of Somosierra took place on November 30, 1808, during the Peninsular War, when a French army under Napoleon I forced a passage through the Sierra de Guadarrama shielding Madrid.

At the Somosierra mountain pass, 60 miles north of Madrid, a heavily outnumbered Spanish detachment of conscripts and artillery under Benito de San Juan aimed to block Napoleon's advance on the Spanish capital. Napoleon overwhelmed the Spanish positions in a combined arms attack, sending the Polish Chevau-légers of the Imperial Guard at the Spanish guns while French infantry advanced up the slopes. The victory removed the last obstacle barring the road to Madrid, which fell several days later.

Battle of Somosierra
Part of the Peninsular War
La bataille de Somo-Sierra

La bataille de Somo-Sierra, by Baron Lejeune, 1810, oil on canvas.
Date30 November 1808
Location
Result Franco-Polish victory
Belligerents
France French Empire
Flag of Duchy of Warsaw Duchy of Warsaw
 Spain
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon I
Flag of Duchy of Warsaw Jan Leon Kozietulski
Spain Benito de San Juan
Strength
45,000 20,000 infantry
16 guns
Casualties and losses
57 killed or wounded[a] 250 killed or wounded
3,000 captured

Background

By late November 1808 the French Grande Armée had overwhelmed and destroyed both wings of the Spanish popular army. To complete his reconquest of Spain, Napoleon advanced on Madrid with 40,000 men.

General San Juan mustered an ad hoc army of militia, reservists and various regular regiments still reeling from earlier defeats – in all about 12,000 men – to defend Madrid. In order to screen the many approaches to the city, San Juan dispersed his already greatly outnumbered forces. Under his orders, 9,000 men were sent west to guard the Guadarrama pass while 3,000 occupied an advanced post at Sepulveda, leaving only 9,000 men and 16 guns on the heights of Somosierra.

Somosierra pass

The nature of the terrain and the tenacity of the Spaniards initially worked in their favor. On the evening of November 29 the brigade at Sepulveda repulsed a French attack, inflicted heavy casualties and escaped from overwhelming French numbers in the gathering darkness to the west. The following morning Napoleon advanced his infantry directly toward the pass while small detachments crept up the flanks. Exchanging musket volleys with the defenders, the French made slow but measurable progress toward the enemy guns.

The Polish charge

Because the Spanish forces could not easily be outflanked by infantry movement, and Napoleon was impatient to proceed, he ordered his Polish Chevaux-Légers escort squadron of 125 men[b] to charge the Spaniards and their fortified artillery batteries. To that number must be added members of other squadrons, totaling some 450 men, but these entered the battle later. The charge of 125 against the batteries was joined by Niegolewski's platoon returning from reconnaissance. It is not clear, however, whether the number included only front-line troops (sabres) or all the soldiers in the units. Napoleon issued no written orders. Jan Kozietulski, who commanded the 3rd squadron that day, mentioned that he called, "Lekka jazda kłusem!" ("Light cavalry at the trot!") and, passing the little bridge, added, "En avant, Vive l'Empereur!" (Forward, long live the Emperor!")

Battle of Somosierra by Piotr Michałowski
Battle of Somosierra by Piotr Michałowski

Some western authors [1] have assumed that Napoleon had gone out of his mind in ordering the Poles to charge batteries of 16 cannon over several kilometers of extremely difficult terrain. Others,[2] however, think Napoleon ordered only the closest battery to be taken, in order to open the way for his infantry, and that Kozietulski had misunderstood the order. No matter – once the charge had begun, and the chevaux-légers found themselves under fire from the second battery, they had no choice but to press the attack, as the horses went to the highest speed and were unable to stop. They took the second and third batteries but only a few chevaux-légers reached the last battery, and the Spanish attempted to recapture it. It was then that Napoleon saw his chance and immediately committed the other squadrons.

Benito de San Juan had 16 cannon at his disposal, arranged in four batteries. Some accounts, based mostly on recollections of French officers, assume that the Spaniards placed all their guns at the peak of Somosierra pass. However, with a range of 600–800 metres, the cannons, deployed in this fashion, could not have struck much of the French army—and there were reports that Napoleon himself was at times under artillery fire. The first battery defended the entrance to the Somosierra pass, the next two covered the pass at its angles and the fourth, only, stood by the heights. It was assumed that all batteries had four cannons, and later theories that the pass was too narrow for that to be possible should be treated as legends. 13th Bulletin of the Army of Spain mentioned that chevau-légers were commanded by Gen. Louis Pierre, Count Montbrun. However, both Polish charge participants mentioned above and Lt. Col. Pierre Dautancourt, one of the French tutors of the unit, stressed in their accounts that such was not the case. Datancourt mentioned that Montbrun in conversations with him had laughed at that idea. Yet French historian Adolphe Thiers gave him the honor of leading the charge, which caused a protest by surviving Polish participants of the battle. Maj. Philippe de Ségur in his memoirs wrote that he had commanded the charge, but his accounts were often described as unreliable and, again, both Dautancourt and the Poles denied his role in it.

January Suchodolski, Bitwa pod Somosierrą
Somosierra, by January Suchodolski, 1860

The charge was led by Kozietulski, but he lost his horse after taking the first battery. The squadron was then joined by Lt. Andrzej Niegolewski, who had previously been on reconnaissance with his soldiers. The charge was continued under Dziewanowski, and when he fell from his horse after taking the third battery he was replaced by Piotr Krasiński. The charge that continued to the last battery was led by Niegolewski, who miraculously survived a fierce attack by Spanish troops – he received nine wounds from bayonets and two carbine shots to the head.

According to many memoirs of veterans of the battle, Kozietulski led his men in a charge with the official cry Vive l'Empereur. However, popular legend has it that the true battle cry was the Polish Naprzód psiekrwie, Cesarz patrzyForward, you sons of dogs, the Emperor is watching.[3]

When the fourth battery was taken Napoleon ordered his Chasseurs of the Guard and the 1st squadron of Poles led by Tomasz Łubieński to resume the attack and drive the Spaniards from the Pass. Łubieński tried to give himself the whole glory, minimizing the role of the third squadron (while Niegolewski tried to show that he had taken the cannons and Łubieński had therefore had it easy, as the Spanish were shooting at him "with candies").

Charge effects

WKossak025
The Charge, part of an unfinished panorama of the battle by Wojciech Kossak and Michał Wywiórski

The 13th bulletin of the Army of Spain mentioned the lead role of the Polish chevaux-légers. Only a cavalry charge was able to take all four batteries, even if French infantry was close enough to press their attack, and caused the en-masse retreat of Spanish Andalusian irregular militia and, in effect, the retreat of the whole army. Spanish artillerymen preferred to die rather than abandon their position – but no Polish account mentioned any fight with Spanish militia. Militiamen just left their position after seeing how seemingly easily the Poles took the artillery positions – however, in the smoke they could not see just how few Poles were on the top.

Aftermath

Antoine-Jean Gros - Capitulation de Madrid, le 4 décembre 1808
Surrender of Madrid, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1810, oil on canvas. Madrid fell in the aftermath of Somosierra.

San Juan raced his army back to Madrid. Although the victory at Somosierra was more accurately the result of a combined infantry and cavalry attack, with the infantry bearing the heavier fighting, later accounts – Napoleon's included – placed all the emphasis on the Polish charge. San Juan was later killed by his own men.[4]

French patrols reached the outskirts of Madrid on the 1 December. The Junta made a half-hearted and futile attempt to defend the capital, and on the 4 December a devastating French artillery barrage brought the Spanish defence to grief. Spaniards surrendered their remaining 2,500 regulars; the 20,000 civilians under their banner dispersed; and the French entered Madrid for the second time that year.

The Battle of Somosierra is commemorated on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Warsaw, with the inscription "SOMOSIERRA 30 XI 1808".

Notes

  1. ^ Unit registers showed the deaths (not counting the officers) as 12 Poles from 3rd squadron (plus 2 others who died from wounds), and 2 from 1st squadron and 4 from 2nd squadron (plus one who died later from wounds). With officers, total losses were 18 dead and 11 wounded, from which 5 later died from wounds. Those were large losses, but all Polish squadrons were operational within few days after the battle. Datancourt mentioned in his relation 57 dead and wounded.
  2. ^ Unit registers showed that the squadron numbered 125.

References

  1. ^ Geoffrey Regan, Great military blunders ISBN 978-0-7522-1844-1
  2. ^ Robert Bielecki, Somosierra 1808Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1989. ISBN 83-11-07620-0
  3. ^ Andrzej Nieuważny (May 2006). "Najpiękniejsza z szarż (The Most Beautiful of Cavalry charges)". Rzeczpospolita (in Polish). 123 (2006-05–27). Cf. word of Cambronne
  4. ^ "Batalla de Somosierra - Entre 1809-1810". sites.google.com. Retrieved 23 March 2018.
  • Frank Bauer: Somosierra 30. November 1808. Durchbruch nach Madrid (Kleine Reihe Geschichte der Befreiungskriege 1813-1815, H. 24), Potsdam 2008.

External links

1808 in France

Events from the year 1808 in France.

Abdank coat of arms

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Battle of Guadarrama

The Battle of Guadarrama (Spanish: Batalla de Guadarrama, also known as Batalla de Somosierra) was a battle involving troops loyal to the Second Spanish Republic in the Guadarrama Range at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

Battle of Tudela

The Battle of Tudela (23 November 1808) saw an Imperial French army led by Marshal Jean Lannes attack a Spanish army under General Castaños. The battle resulted in the complete victory of the Imperial forces over their adversaries. The combat occurred near Tudela in Navarre, Spain during the Peninsular War, part of a wider conflict known as the Napoleonic Wars.

Spanish casualties were estimated to be about 4,000 dead and 3,000 prisoners out of a total force of 33,000. The French and Poles lost no more than 600 dead and wounded out of a total of 30,000. This is one of the battles whose name was engraved on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

Benito de San Juan

Benito de San Juan (before 1775 – 7 January 1809) was a Spanish military officer and a notable commander of the Spanish forces during the Peninsular War. He was commanding officer of the Spanish forces during the Battle of Somosierra.

Charge (warfare)

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Gregorio García de la Cuesta

Gregorio García de la Cuesta y Fernández de Celis (9 May 1741 – 1811) was a prominent Spanish general of the Peninsular War.

Jan Kozietulski

Baron Jan Leon Hipolit Kozietulski (4 July 1781 – 3 February 1821) was a Polish noble, military commander and an officer of the armed forces of the Duchy of Warsaw during the Napoleonic Wars. He is best remembered as the heroic commander of the Polish cavalry charge at the Battle of Somosierra.

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Louis Pierre, Count Montbrun (1770, Florensac, Hérault – 1812), French cavalry general, served with great distinction in the cavalry arm throughout the wars of the Revolution and the Consulate, and in 1800 was appointed to command his regiment, having served therein from trooper upwards.

After serving at the Battle of Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, he was promoted to General of Brigade. He earned further distinction in Germany and Poland as a dashing leader of horse, and in 1808 he was sent into Spain. Here occurred an incident which unfavourably influenced his whole career. He found himself obliged to overstay his leave of absence in order to protect the lady who afterwards became his wife. Napoleon was furious, and deprived him of his command, and Montbrun was awaiting his master's decision when an opportunity came to retrieve his reputation.

Some doubt exists as to the events of the famous cavalry charge at the Battle of Somosierra, but Montbrun's share in it was most conspicuous. Soon afterwards he was promoted to General of division, and in 1809 his light cavalry division took no inconsiderable part in the victories of Eckmühl and Raab. He was employed in the Peninsular War, during 1810–1811. At the battles of Bussaco and Fuentes de Onoro, he commanded Marshal Andre Masséna's cavalry reserve.

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The town of Sepúlveda is first mentioned in the Chronicle of Alfonso III. They referred to their depopulation as a result of the raids of Alfonso I. In the year 940 is charged to Fernán González of Castile, which stabilizes restocking a Christian area beyond the Duero River. There is a legend which tells the struggle of Fernan Gonzalez and Mayor Abubad Muslim. This legend is reflected on the facade of the "Casa del Moro". Fernan González gave Sepulveda a charter to assist in their recruitment.

In 1111, Sepulveda lands came the Battle of Candespina, in which Alfonso I of Aragon and Count Henry of Portugal fought and defeated Urraca of León and Castile. This victory resulted in the independence of Portugal.

During the Peninsular War, Sepúlveda witnessed the only battle in which Napoleon's Imperial Guard fought. This action is settled with a failure for the French that fail to destroy the Spanish forces, first withdraw to Sepúlveda and then, undisturbed, for Segovia. The action was a delay to the Napoleon's advance towards Madrid before the Battle of Somosierra. Sepúlveda was besieged by French troops on its territory and Juan Martín Díez (which was based in the caves of Duratón River Canyon) acted.

Somosierra

Somosierra is a municipality in the Community of Madrid, Spain, located at 83 km north of Madrid, in the mountain pass with the same name, at a elevation of 1433 metres above sea level, being the northernmost town of Community of Madrid. The Battle of Somosierra was fought here in 1808 during the Napoleonic Wars.

Somosierra (mountain pass)

Somosierra is a mountain pass in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid in Spain. It connects the north of the Community of Madrid with the east of the province of Segovia. Just south of the pass is the municipality of Somosierra with a population of 77.

It has an altitude of 1,434 metres (4,705 ft) and is crossed by the A-1 (E5) road through a short tunnel; there is also a 3.9-kilometre-long (2.4 mi) rail tunnel. Near the summit the Spanish authorities provide an unmonitored rest stop aimed at Arab migrant workers driving to France, to discourage them from simply stopping at the side of the road.

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