Friday, 18 May 2018

First and Second Battles of Castalla 1812 -1813

Combat of Castalla, 21st June 1812 - Jean-Charles Langlois

I still find it somewhat surprising that one can live in an area for many years and not go and visit a place that ordinarily if you were visiting from out of town and had time on your hands you would most probably make the time to go and have a look at.

I have, for the last sixteen years, been fortunate enough to own a holiday home in southern Spain and was aware that the battlefield of Castalla was only about an hour and a half drive up the local motorway.

A visit has always been part of my plans but somehow or other trips to this beautiful part of Spain have focused on family holidays and trips to the beach rather than me indulging my eccentric past time and time passes and then you realise you still haven't been.

The other aspect I find curious is that the only Peninsular War battle sites I have visited have been in Portugal (Rolica, Vimeiro, Torres Vedras) following in the footsteps of the Duke, and so this little trip was to be my first in Spain and not a battle site directly involving the British general who seemed to dominate the Napoleonic period in this part of the world.

The map below is taken from my post published last year about Nick Liscombe's book covering the war in this part of Spain.

Based on a map from his book, it illustrates well the principle actions that characterised the campaign in eastern Spain and the high water mark of French attempts to capture and control the ports and coastline along it.

This campaign saw several Spanish armies destroyed and re-built in their attempt to stop the progress of the only French general officer to be made a Marshal in Spain, Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, whose abilities soon drew the attention of the emperor and who seemed to be able to do wonders with the small force at his disposal where other French generals with much greater assets to hand failed miserably.

Strategic Map of the East Coast Campaigns - Based on  Lipscombe 

With the fall of the city of Valencia in January 1812, Valencia and Catalonia provinces were under French occupation with Murcia province next on the target list and eventually a French force besieging Gibraltar with the principle access routes for Spanish gold and silver from her south American colonies that were helping to pay for the maintenance of Allied armies in the war.

This progress was against the tide of the war as a whole as Napoleon was drawing down on his armies in Spain to support his campaign in Russia that year and Wellington was making plans to take the offensive.

Suchet rode into Valencia that January with plans to carry on his campaign and take Alicante later that year, but was unaware that the emperor was issuing orders to be sent to him that would instruct him to release Polish troops, several cavalry units and the bulk of his artillery for service in Russia.

He would soon realise that what was a promising situation where his forces of 30,000 men opposed a Spanish force of around 10,000 had changed dramatically within a month to see his reduced force of around 9,000 men facing a rejuvenated Spanish army under General Jose O'Donnell of nearer 17,000 men.

From an allied perspective and specifically the Duke of Wellington the east coast of Spain was a secondary front which simply needed to be stabilised whilst events elsewhere forced the French to abandon their position; thus the British general communicated his desire via his brother, liaising with the Spanish regency in Cadiz that General O'Donnell, should look to contain the French and avoid any unnecessary and destabilising actions that risked French victory in the region.

In addition given that the Spanish army under O'Donnell was funded, clothed and equipped by the British government, and with two of the Spanish divisions under the command of British officers (Whittingham and Roche) he expected that his requests would be complied with.

General Joseph (Jose) O'Donnell

In addition the British plans also included a reinforcement into the region of the British expeditionary force from Port Mahon under the overall command of Lord William Bentinck which would only add to the allied superiority in the region and make containment of the French that much easier.

However Wellington could not plan for the inadequacies of allied command in the region and  Bentinck's and O'Donnell's characters conspiring to cause the late arrival of the British force and the urge for the Spanish commander to take the offensive when the weakness of French forces before him became known.

To be fair to O'Donnell, now made aware of Wellington's plans for that year, he also felt compelled to take the lead in distracting the French in his area and preventing any reinforcements heading off in support of the French Army of Portugal, particularly now Bentinck's force would be delayed.

This plan saw his army, quite reasonably, taking on just one of Suchet's divisions under General Harispe at Ibi and Castalla whilst detaching part of his force on an amphibious operation with the Royal Navy further up the coast to distract and pin the rest of Suchet's army.

O'Donnell's flank forces (Sanisteban and Roche) failed to prevent Delort from uniting his force in and around Castalla and managing to attack the brigades of Miyares, Michelena and Montijo as they deployed around Castalla in the plain beyond

The plan on the face of it looked like a good one however the 'putting into operation' left a lot to be desired and whilst Suchet's nearest supports were indeed distracted by the Spanish amphibious landings, the main Spanish army under O'Donnell arrived on the battlefield of Castalla in separate distinct groupings with two flanking brigades unable to prevent the French from concentrating their force in and around Castalla and leaving the other brigades to be defeated in detail with French cavalry again proving their superiority over the Spanish troops.

A description of events can be found here;

First Battle of Castalla - 21st June 1812

Spanish Troops on the East Coast of Spain Spring 1812
Remains of the 2nd (Valencian) and 3rd (Murcian) Armies

Commander General Jose O'Donnel
Second in Command General Manuel Friere (also cavalry commander)

lst Division: Conde de Montijo (110/2,049)
1er de Badajoz (2)
Regiemient Cuencia (2)
Cavalry (2 sqns)

2nd Division: General Luis Riquelme
2° Guardias Waloons (2)
Regiemient Guadalaxara (3)
1er Regimiento de Burgos (3)
Regimiento de Guadix (2)
Regimiento Bailen (1)
Regimiento Alpujarras (1)
Dismounted Cavalry (1 bn)

Reserve Division: General Phillip Roche (300/5,576)
Voluntarios de Aragon (1)
Regimiento Canarias (1)
2° Regimiento Murcia (1)
Alcazar de San Juan
Regimiento de Chinchilla (1)
Husares de Fernando VII (2 sqns)

Cavalry: General a Rich (321/1,565)
Regimiento de Principe (2)
Regimiento de Espan~a (2)
Regimiento de Reina (2)
Carabineros Reales (1)
Regimiento de Farnesio (1)
Regimiento de Montesa (1)
Dragones del Rey (1)
Cazadores de Valencia (1)
Regimiento de Pavia (1)
Regimiento de Rey (1)
Granaderos a cavallo (1)
Husares de Castilla (1)
Provisional Squadrons (3)

Cadres of dispursed Battalions: (98/1,079)
Regimiento de Lorca
Regimiento de Velez Malaga
Regimiento de Almanza
Regimiento de America

Field Artillery: (38/651)
Garrison Artillery at Alicante & Cartagena: (17/582)

Engineers: (8/202)

Colonel Debussy's 24th Dragoons supported by the 13th Cuirassiers smash into Miyares and Michelena's Spanish brigades at Castalla 1812

General Harispe's Division at Castalla 
Alcoy - 116th Line (2)
Ibi - General Jean Mesclop, 1st Legere (3), plus 100 cavalry
Castalla - General Jaques Delort, 7th Line (2), plus 100 cavalry
Biar  - 13th Cuirassiers and 24th Dragoons
Onil - Colonel Dubessy , 24th Dragoons
Total Force approx 3,500 Infantry and 900 cavalry

Contemporary map of the first Battle of Castalla 21st July 1812
The battle saw the entire Spanish army of 10,000 men retire in confusion with 3,000 being killed or captured. For some unknown reason Roche did not attack Mesclop's force as it marched from Ibi and after some brief fighting with a small French garrison in the town withdrew in reasonable order to cover the withdrawl of the rest of O'Donnell's army back to Alicante.

The next day Wellington won, perhaps the greatest of his victories,at Salamanca against Marmont's Army of Portugal.

The only French cuirassier regiment to serve in Spain was the 13th shown here wearing their distinctive brown Spanish cloth jacket

Wellington was furious once he had discovered what exactly had happened at Castalla and had managed to see through the cover up Roche and others attempted to plaster over the affair, writing to General Roche soon after the battle.

" It is useless to tell you or General O'Donnell what I propose to do, because you cannot aid me in my plans. I only request that you may not be defeated again; and to accomplish this object you must not attack the French if success is not quite certain." 

Close up from the map above of the principle action between O'Donnell's and Harispe's Spanish and French forces in and around Castalla  - The Spanish brigades of  Miyares, Michelena and Montijo are being attacked in the plain around Castalla town

Second Battle of Castalla 13th April 1813

Despite the French success at Castalla, Wellington's victory over Marmont at Salamanca had temporarily unhinged the French position in Spain and Suchet was forced to take steps to await what Wellington's next steps would be.

If as he suspected Wellington pursued King Joseph east of Madrid, the war was likely to relocate to his region and therefore he decided it was prudent to fall back into Valencia province behind the River Jucar (shown as Xucar on the strategic map above) and await events before deciding on his next course.

British reinforcements were landed at Alicante constrained from any offensive follow up by a lack of Spanish transportation for their supplies and thus the front went into a quiet period as events unfolded in the rest of Spain, leaving the British to build up their defences around Alicante.

In January 1813 Wellington was made Generalissimo of Spanish forces and was in Cadiz discussing joint operations with Spanish forces. This planning included a letter from Wellington to General Campbell, later Murray, commanding in Alicante informing them that he would issue precise instructions on how they should conduct their forces whilst he led the offensive in the north.

Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, Duc D'Albufera

Suchet's Army at Castalla, 13 April 1813 (Bns./Sqds.)(Officers/Men)

lst Division: Général de division Robert
1st Brigade: General de brigade Robert
1st Légère Regiment (2)(38/1,443)
114th Line Regiment (2)(36/1,498)
121st Line Regiment (2)(34/1,252)
3rd Légère Regiment (2)(16/767)

2nd Division: Général de division Harispe
1st Brigade: General de brigade Mesclop
44th Line Regiment (2)(26/1,160)
116th Line Regiment (2)(35/1,502)
7th Line Regiment (2)(31/1,298)

3rd Division: Général de division Habert
1st Brigade: General de brigade Montmaire
14th Line Regiment (2)(42/1,189)
1/16th Line Regiment (21/614)
2nd Brigade: General de brigade Gudin
1/117th Line Regiment (27/829)

Cavalry: Général de division Boussard
Brigade: General de brigade Delort
4th Hussar Regiment (2)(21/408)
24th Dragoon Regiment (2)(20/427)
Brigade: General de brigade Maupoint
13th Cuirassier Regiment (25/523)

Army Artillery: (Guns/Officers/Men)
20/1st Foot Artillery (2/6/67)
4/3rd Foot Artillery (3/6/37)
14/3rd Foot Artillery (2/6/47)
18/3rd Foot Artillery (3/5/39)
21/3rd Foot Artillery (3/6/30)
22/3rd Foot Artillery (2/6/35)
7/5th Foot Artillery (3/6/42)
14/6th Foot Artillery (2/6/40)
11/7th Foot Artillery (3/4/60)
7/2nd Horse Artillery (3/4/57)
7/5th Horse Artillery (3/6/78)
2nd Artillery Artisan Company (1/4/54)
2/1st Pontooneer Battalion (2/6/51)
2/,4/,5/,6/3rd Principal Train Battalion (8/17/318)
1/,2/,4/4th (bis) Train Battalion (4/9/229)
1/,2/,3/,4/12th (bis) Train Battalion (8/18/289)

Source - Oman

The period of allied inactivity on the Alicante front was somewhat baffling to Marshal Suchet especially after a limited attempt by British and Spanish troops to encircle one of his brigades at Alcoy had been bungled in manoeuvres reminiscent of the Castalla battle the previous year, with no attempt made to follow up.

In the end it seems the waiting proved too much for Suchet and in early April the French commander decided to strike, stating that he 'resolved not to wait till the forces that threatened him should be augmented or united'.

Suchet's campaign April 1813, showing Suchet's muster point and the positions occupied by Murray's troops

Covertly concentrating his forces at Feunte la Higuera he decided to attempt to destroy one of the two allied formations closest to him,  Miyares at Yecla and Whittingham just north of Alcoy, both 50 km apart from one another and about 20-30 km from the balance of Murray's force at Castalla.

Choosing to demonstrate against Whittingham's force he directed two columns, one directly against Miyares whilst the other moved on Villena to prevent Murray moving to support them.

In a brilliant surprise attack Miyares was forced to make a rapid evacuation losing two of his battalions in a rearguard as the bulk of his forces fled west, whilst Murray and Colonel Adam were equally caught off guard meeting at Villena discussing rumours of a possible French offensive.

However Colonel Adam's brigade were in the town and were able to conduct a skillful rearguard whilst falling back on the pass at Biar, allowing the rest of Murray's force to assemble at Castalla, with Whittingham's division being recalled from Alcoy.

Marshal Suchet could only have been exasperated as his surprise attack became stalled in front of what Sir Charles Oman described as one of the most creditable rearguard actions fought during the whole war.

Allied Army at Biar and Castalla, 12-13 April 1813

Brigade: Adam
2/27th Foot Regiment
1st Italian Levy
Calabrese Free Corps
Rifle Coys of
3rd KGL Battalion
8th KGL Battalion

Division: Mackenzie
1/27th Foot Regiment
4th KGL Battalion
6th KGL Battalion
1st Sicilian Regiment

Division: Clinton
1/58th Foot Regiment
De Roll's Foot Regiment
Dillon's Foot Regiment

Spanish Division: Whittingham
Cordova Infantry Regiment
Mallorca Infantry Regiment
Guadalajara Infantry Regiment
2nd Burgos Infantry Regiment
5th Grenadiers
2nd Murcia Infantry Regiment

20th Light Dragoon Regiment
Sicilian Cavalry Regiment


Source - Oman

Map to illustrate the photo points taken around the battlefield of Castalla
On debouching from the Biar pass in the wake of Adam's withdrawing rearguard force, Suchet paused his army as he considered the prospect of tackling Murray's force assembled before him on the heights southwest of Castalla, but conscious that there were likely yet more troops to the rear and east of those heights and not visible to him.

After a full reconnaissance and lengthy deliberation he decided on throwing caution to the wind and attacking. Perhaps the vigorous fight put up by Adams Sicilian, British and KGL light infantry had given the French Marshal pause for thought but it seems his lieutenants were quick to disparage the quality of the other Spanish and Sicilian troops and advocated an immediate attack.

You can almost imagine the winces from Marshals Soult, Victor, Marmont and Ney who having faced British and allied troops arranged behind a ridge would have urged caution but Suchet and his army had not faced such a challenge before and so they would have quite naturally adopted the approach that had served them so well up to now.

Thus it was that Harispe's division was to be held in reserve guarding the Biar pass and a retreat route should that prove necessary whilst the French cavalry and Habert's division were to manoeuvre out on the French left to guard against any interference from an allied reserve positioned behind Castalla and to contain Mackenzie's division.

The main attack was delivered on the French right by Robert's division against Whittingham's Spanish, supported by Adam's Light Brigade on the Guerra Heights.

A full description of the attack can be read here:

The French attack was repulsed by both allied formations with heavy French losses that could not easily be replaced.

Suchet reported his losses as 800 men and played down the affair but modern estimates suggest French casualties were nearer 1500 whilst Murray reported losses of 670 men in a very upbeat post battle dispatch.

Murray was criticized by Oman and Napier for not conducting an immediate pursuit, but given French cavalry superiority and that Harispe's division was untouched and guarding the formidable Biar pass not to mention Wellington had instructed a cautious approach, designed to just keep the allied army tying down Suchet,  modern viewpoints tend to accept that Murray was correct in holding his position.


We began our tour of Castalla, naturally in the town itself nestled in and around the base of the Moorish castle at its heart.

We were very fortunate in finding not only the Tourist Office close by but also a very informative and helpful Tourist Guide, Mr Andres Ruiz who was a mine of local information about both battles and was able to point us in the right direction for places we might not necessarily have seen and which I have pictured here.

The road into Castalla traveling up from Alicante on the coast

Castalla is a very pretty Spanish town and obviously very proud of its history and its role in the Peninsular War with monuments and markers placed around the town to indicate places associated with both battles.

Andre directed us to the Town Hall where officials were very happy for me to take a picture of their full size copy of Langlois' original picture of the first battle showing General Delort directing his battle winning cavalry attack.

Castalla Town Hall

A copy of the Langlois picture, held in Versailles, hangs in the town hall 

The Tourist Information Office is right next to the town hall 

Close by to the town hall are the houses occupied by General Delort during his time in the town and that of General Samford Whittingham who, though British, was a serving Spanish officer and whose British trained and clothed division much of which was financed by Whittingham was held in high regard by both Wellington and the Spanish authorities.

The house in Castalla used by General Delort during his stay in the town

General Jaques-Antoine-Adrien Delort

Sunny Placa El Carreter where General Whittingham stayed

Andre let me have a copy of a picture he had showing two artifacts from the time given to the owners of the house by Sam Whittingham as a gift for their hospitality.

The house where General Whittingham stayed after the battle

British shako plate and officers sword belt clasp given to the owners of the house in Castalla by General Whittingham as a thank you for their hospitality and now a prize family heirloom


The next stop, point 1 on the map above was to look at the ground over which Robert's division attacked Whittingham's and Adam's troops lining the heights directly opposite the Biar pass.

The scene of Whittingham's position on the Guerra Heights with Adam's brigade further to the left

It seems likely that this part of the battlefield has changed little in the last two-hundred years and it was easy to imaging the eight columns of the 1st and 3rd Legere and 114th and 121st Ligne screened by the voltigeurs picking their way through the olive groves to cross the road and attack the British and Spanish lines beyond.

Looking along the old road towards Colonel Adam's position on the heights in the background

The view through the olive trees to the Biar Pass beyond over which the French attacked

Close up of the Biar Pass from Whittingham's lines - The modern road follows the line embankment in the background

The view along the old road looking towards Castalla behind the ridge

The ridge defended by Whittingham's Spanish troops is difficult broken terrain with plenty of cover

A small gully that covered the French attack on its right flank


Next stop was to head off towards Biar via the pass through the mountains and the scene of Colonel Adam's famous rearguard action.

The Combat of Biar with the Biar castle shown centre and the town of Castalla with its castle above in the background

The picture above, entitled the Battle of Castalla 1813 is based on an original drawing by Lieutenant Colonel Reeves of the 27th Foot who was on the spot during the action and seems to portray the combat in the pass of Biar that took place on the 12th April 1813, the day before the main battle.

The 27th Foot were part of Adam's brigade initially tasked with holding the positions around Biar and delaying any French advance as the allied army assembled at Castalla.

Marshall Suchet detailed troops from Habert's and Robert's divisions to drive in the British outposts pushing them back until, being severely checked as they entered the narrow confines of the Biar pass.

The French were severely mauled as they closed in on the allied battalions strung out across the pass supported by Arabin's half brigade (4 x 4lbrs) of 4lbr light guns pouring in canister at close range to compliment the allied musketry.

At one stage the two allied battalions of the Calabrian Battalion and the combined light companies of the 27th Foot and 3rd KGL were fending off nine French battalions and the force succeeded in holding up Suchet's three divisions for nearly five hours with Suchets army emerging from the pass late in the afternoon of the 12th.

The twelfth century Moorish castle of Biar seen from the entrance to the pass 

The road through the Biar pass is a busy fast moving modern route with few opportunities to pull in to take pictures, but I was keen to get a picture of the castle in Biar that so obviously relates to the one captured in Colonel Reeves' picture above.

The route into the Biar pass hotly contested by Adam's brigade on the 12th April 1813

The road leading out of Biar into the pass beyond

The next stop brought us to the foot of Castalla castle looking towards Onil and where more modern building work has changed what would have been open ground suitable for the French cavalry to manoeuvre across.

The view from the foot of Castalla Castle towards Onil nestled at the base of the mountains, centre background

This area covers much of the ground used during the first battle in 1812 and where Habert's division together with Boussard's cavalry pinned Mackenzie's division during the second.

Close up of modern day Onil from Castalla with an intervening industrial estate between the two towns

The view up towards Castalla castle - It was here that the bulk of Murray's artillery was arranged to fire out into the valley below

The built up area gives way to more open ground and the original battlefield as you move towards the old road to Sax.

The picture below shows the ground crossed by Suchet's army with the Biar pass in the right background and Mackenzie's division occupying the heights on the left.


This is the area that formed the junction between Mackenzie's division and Adam's Light Brigade.

The view towards the Biar pass where Harispe's division was held by Suchet in reserve, in the centre background


Of course any visit to Castalla should include a look at the beautiful 11th century Moorish castle with its early settlement called al-qastala.

The castles has been restored in recent years and now retains much of its former glory

I was hoping to get a good view across the 1813 battlefield from its battlements but the gates were locked on the day of our visit so I contented myself at looking at those parts that were accessible and the view along the road to the coast and Alicante. the reason for this town being the site of two battles within a year.

The water cisterns were vital for any force attempting to hold this rock for very long in such a hot and dry climate and the original water channels carved into the nearby rock face leading into it are still clearly visible.

Water channels carved into the rock face and leading into the cistern

It seems likely that other cisterns honeycomb this rock fortress

The road leading to Alicante (back left  of picture) and off which General O'Donnell attempted to deploy in front of Delort's French

The area of the first battle of Castalla now very much built over


Our final stop was to get some pictures of the battle memorial created in 2003 and which carries as part of its centre piece an image of the special badge issued to the Cazadores de Mallorca, part of Whittingham's division, by the Spanish King Ferdinand VII on his release from French captivity, for their gallant performance during the second battle.

At some stage in the future it would be great to replace that attempt at a cannon with something more akin to the real thing

My turn to reference for my trip and this post has been Nick Lipscombe's excellent book covering this very much overlooked, certainly in British sources, theatre of the Peninsular War.

I read this book last year and posted a review of my thoughts which can be found in the link below.

Cazadores de Mallorca

Finally I would again express a huge thank you to Andre Ruiz who is now down as my best and most helpful tourist information officer ever.

It was such fun meeting a fellow enthusiast who was keen to share his local knowledge and much more, which included some of the mementos I took away from our visit seen below.

As well as several copies of the poster illustrating the reenactments held on the battlefield in commemoration, Andre let me have a facsimile of the report published by General Santisteban who became General O'Donnell's scapegoat for the crushing defeat he suffered in the first battle, which compelled the Spanish cavalry general to outline in detail his position and role during it.

This copy is just one of a thousand published for the two hundredth anniversary of the battle and I am looking forward to working through a translation to see what the other viewpoint was for this lost opportunity.

A digital copy can be read here

In addition Andre let me have a couple of the replica pins issued to the Cazadores de Mallorca by King Fedinand VII in recognition of their valour in the second battle in 1813.

Next up, Devon Wargames Group are on tour to Wargames Foundry and Partizan, a full report on all the fun from this weekend.


  1. Hi Carojon

    Great battlefield visit report. Loved the photographs and the detailed description.

    We also live in Spain and like you delayed visiting this battlefield for a couple of years. It was only when I contacted an ex pat who is an English teacher there that we finally managed to do so. He is also a wargamer, and he offered to show us around. We spent a great day doing so.

    I also did a blog about our visit. Not up to your high standards, but you can find it here if you wish

    Some years ago my wife and I spent a few years exploring Wellington's Peninsular battlefields. They are a long way from the Costa Blanca, but really well worth a visit.



    1. Hi Paul,
      Thank you, glad you enjoyed the read.

      I have read your series of Peninsular battlefield visits and made copious notes for a trip my wife and I plan to make working our way across the country to our base in the south.

      I find that walking a battlefield, for me, is the best way of trying to understand why the events reported unfolded they way they did, something looking at a map very often can't quite convey.


  2. Hi JJ

    We really enjoyed our battlefield holidays.

    I agree that walking the battlefield makes it so much easier to understand the battle. For me that was particularly so for the Pyrenees. I always found that campaign really difficult to understand until we spent two weeks there.

    I would change only one thing if I were to do them again. I would try to hire bike's to do so. We did this only once, when we visited Aspern Essling. As you know that is a very large area, and not having to walk everyhwere make a great difference. We had so much more energy when we did walk. Also we could travel cross country on the bikes, and stop when we wanted.

    I will be very interested in reading your report on each visit.

    best regards


    1. Hi Paul,
      That's interesting as Carolyn and I are keen cyclists and we spent last summer cycling around Holland visiting several sites and the bikes were in deed very handy.

      Kind regards

  3. JJ, thank you for an interesting and enjoyable account of your tour of the Castalla battlefields. You really landed on your feet with the tourist local tourist guide. I've only walked a few battlefields; enjoyable and helped by locals falling over themselves to help - at Ligny they dug out the local museum curator to open it up for my friends and me as it was closed when we were there! Castalla really has terrain that needs to be seen to understand the battle!