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Battle of Somosierra

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

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

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.

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  • Poland.The best victory of the world.


Beginning of the 18th century. Since few years Poland, divided by the three occupants, is no longer existing. Appears however a "God of war", descendent from Crosica. Napoleon Bonaparte One of the commanders of the revolutionary France, which is not only getting out of the revolutionary mess, but is also starting to influence the Europe. Bonaparte takes whole power. In 1804 becomes the Emperor. Nearly from the beginning of his career, he`s accompanied by the Poles, who are hopeing that he`ll rescue "Republic" In the summer of 1807 France was in its peak of power. So rivaleising Englad took over Copenhagen. Napoleon started preparations for the invasion. Abadoned this plan however and decided to take over Portugal and finalise his "continental blocade". Aimed to break the British trade with Europe. French were comeing along unsltable Spain, thier allie. But Napoleon decided to make an "order" also there. On march 28 year 1808 Joachim Murat entered Madrid. On may 2nd begun there national uprising, Which soon took over whole country. Regular army was joined by the volunteers, guerillas partisans, fighting guerilla warfare. After several looses, French retreated to the border. Napoleon made decission about personal intervention. And camed with 200.000 soldier`s army. In the early november moved from the north in direction of Madrid. On 29th stopped by the valley of Somosierra. Between the mountains Sierra Cebollera and Cerro Baransal. Along the valley was important path from Burgos to Madrid. This stategic point was guarded by the Spanish army of general Benito San Juan. In the valley was placed 10 cannones battery and three 2 cannones batteries before it. one after another. 3000 Infantry, mainly volunteers, was put on the hills on the valley`s both sides. Main forces San Juan put in rear. Napoleon couldn`t miss Somosierra neither to left forces of a foe on his rear. General San Juan, fanatic Castillian, considered as a one of the most talented Spanish commanders encounted about 12.000 of the soldiers and militia. Despite the triple numerical advantage, French couldn`t use it becouse of difficult terrain. In the battle of Somosierra participated 3 French infantry regiments , not whole cavalry regiment and 2 cannones. On the Spanish side about 3.000 volunteers supported by 16 cannones. Battle was begun by the infantry, its job was hard, 16 six funts cannones, in four batteries, spreaded in a line of 2,5 km. Up the hill. French infantry was routed by the Spanish artillery. Approaching French faced a very intensive fire. Every minute were fired 4 cannon balls and 400 bullets. French infantry was stopped. In addition, French commanders were afraid of sneak attack from the wings, which was possible becouse of a dense fog. Emperor ordered reconaissance. Lieutenant Niegolewski was sended with detachment of the Chevau-légers. Spanish captured one of the Poles. Napoleon, agered becouse of too slowly move of the infantry and a loose of léger, ordered to the official legers squadron attack on the first battery. Despite the contention of his staff, not beliveing in sucess of a charge, in such difficult terrain, remained unbending. Poles were ordered to attack, even without the Niegolewski platoon. Charge took place about 11 o` clock. Becouse of the form of terrain, more exactly a tight path, squadron couldn`t spread and formed column. First moved 3rd company of captain Dziewanowski. Than 7th company of captain Peter Krsiñski. 3rd squadron started to move in trot, in direction of the first battery, on distance of one km. After the first salve, stopped for a momenth, whereby raised by Kozietulski, under the fire of Spanish infantry, approached the cannones. Than get a second salve, which caused heavy casualties. Still légers get the cannones and choped the gunners, therefore realeised Emperor`s order. Emperor`s order was fullyfilled, but in a danger of the second baterry`s fire, squadron, which was joined by the Niegolewski`s platoon, moved on again. Suprised Spanish fired the first salve, becouse of which Kozietulski was wounded amongst the others. Under the leadership of Dziewanowski, légers slashed the gunners of the second battery, and moved on the third one. This fired once, but accurately, Dziewanowski felt down, deadly wounded. Few dozens of the riders, under Krasiñski, captured the third battery. And continued the charge on the last one position, with 10 cannones Battery spit the fire of ten cannones Krasiñski died. Dozen of the légers, with the last officer, liutenant Andrew Niegolewski, captured the valley. Camed French Chasseurs and légers platoof of Tomas £ubiñski. Spanish started to flee, didn`t noticed how small force captured the valley Fleeding general San Juan was killed by his own soldiers. Few hundrets Spanish were captured. Casualties of the 3rd squadron estimated 4 officers and 14 légers killed and few dozens injured. This is a great honor for us to remind battle, which happend 200 years ago. Even if we`re recreating not verry nice for us, Spanish, memories. Fortunatelly it passed away a long time ago. In todays event we`re all very engaged. Napoleon was showing charge as his great victory, triumph of his genius, and Poles only as the simple executers, led by the French officers, about whom we know, that didn`t participated. Blood of the légers didn`t mattered much for the Emperor. After all at that time, for the neutrality of the Russian Tzar, he was redy to give him Warsaw Duchy. This visual historic picture will not replace literature. Can invite however, especially youngs, to learn history, to reach apropriate literature.



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[citation needed], 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.

Somosierra, by January Suchodolski, 1860
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

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

French officers tried to minimize the effect of the Polish charge, saying that all the success should be given to French infantry of Gen. François Ruffin[citation needed]. Yet still, 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.


Surrender of Madrid, by Antoine-Jean Gros, 1810, oil on canvas. Madrid fell in the aftermath of Somosierra.
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 December 1. The Junta made a half-hearted and futile attempt to defend the capital, and on December 4 a devastating French artillery barrage brought the Spanish defense 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".


  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.


  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". 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

This page was last edited on 23 March 2018, at 19:08
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