The burning and rebuilding of San Sebastián
Few events in the history of Donostia are as powerful and distressing for the city’s inhabitants as those that occurred on August 31, 1813 during the war of independence against Napoleonic forces. The attack, the widespread rape, the burning and the destruction of the city are commemorated every year by the residents of the Old City in a simple and intimate ceremony.
In the summer of 1813, Donostia and Iruña were the only fortified towns in the hands of the French that were still resisting, for which reason they became prime targets. However, the troops led by Mendizábal, accompanied by the three Gipuzkoan battalions of Aranguren, Larreta and Calbetón, were not sufficient to dislodge the enemies, for which reason the Anglo-Portuguese troops took charge of the operation. Despite the bombardments and the taking of the hill of San Bartolomé, the town’s governor refused to negotiate. On July 22 the city wall was breached in several places and the attackers began to reinforce positions and undermine the wall. The fierce defence of the city on July 25 ended in a massacre of the attacking forces, to the extent that the English wounded were taken in by the French.
The English army then opted for a complete blockade. The final assault took place on August 31, supported by artillery and across the same breaches in the wall as before. The tenacity of the French and the second defensive line once again prevented the taking of the city. It looked as though it was going to be another disaster for the English, but the explosion of a gunpowder store destroyed the defensive line. This, plus the lack of reserve French forces, changed the course of the attack. The withdrawal of French forces to the interior of the city never occurred. The enemy took refuge in the Mota castle and the city was in the hands of the English and Portuguese.
As well as the military victims, the city was sacked, it’s archives burned, and the houses were destroyed. To finish things off, the assailants set fire to the city, destroying everything except the street that we know today as the Calle 31 de Agosto. After several days of fire, of the city’s 7,000 inhabitants perhaps only 3,500 or 4,000 survived, starving and naked.
On September 8, the surviving residents met in Zubieta, a hamlet close to San Sebastián. Their determination heralded a new era for the city, driven by their desire to rebuild it. The work of clearing the rubble began immediately. By December a Works Committee charged with rebuilding had been established.
Pedro Manuel de Ugartemendia, a disciple of the well-known architect Silvestre Pérez, took charge of the project, which was presented to the local authority in May, 1814. According to Carlos Sambricio, the idea was to strip San Sebastián of its military status, promoting instead the city’s commercial character. Instead of proposing to rebuild over the old layout (a central rectangular square with streets running perpendicular to it), the idea was for a new layout based around the central octagonal square, reserved for public services with eight streets running off it in the shape of a star. The layout around this would be rectangular. The local authority didn’t approve his project, mainly because it was opposed by the owners of the mansion houses. Instead, they decided to rebuild the city according to the old layout, with only small alterations in some streets.
The reconstruction was completed in 1849. In 1857 talks began about pulling down the city walls.