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The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

On 2 June 1814, 2,500 men from Wellington’s army under the command of Major General Robert Ross, like many of his men a Peninsular War veteran, left Bordeaux, arriving at Bermuda on 25 July. Another battalion of 900 men was then added to Ross’s force.

Ross’s force and its naval escort then proceeded to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay where it joined a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had been appointed to command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station in March. The combined fleet included more than 20 warships, four of them ships of the line, and a large number of transports. Ross’s force was increased to over 4,000 men by the addition of 700 marines.[1]

Cochrane sent frigates up the Potomac and towards Baltimore in order to confuse the Americans before entering the Patuxent. On 19 August Ross’s force made an unopposed landing at Benedict, 50 miles from Washington.. However, the difficulty of including horses in an amphibious operation meant his force lacked cavalry and had only one 6 pounder and two 3 pounder guns, which had to be man-handled.

Jeremy Black notes that:

‘the British could not only take Washington without fatal effects to the American war effort…but…the Americans had the opportunity to withdraw from Washington without losing their capacity to maintain their forces.’[2]

At Bladensburg on 24 August, Ross attacked a larger American force commanded by Brigadier-General William Winder, a lawyer before the war. He had been captured at the Battle of Stoney’s Creek in July 1813, and had only recently been released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Alfred Mahan quotes the subsequent US Court of Enquiry as saying that Winder had 5-6,000 men, all but 400 of them militia. The Navy had provided 120 marines under Captain Miller and the 500 sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, but Barney had to leave some of his men behind to burn their vessels.[3]

Theodore Roosevelt says that the militia fled so quickly that only 1,500 British troops got into action, to be faced by 78 marines under Miller and 370 sailors under Barney with two 18 pounder guns and three 12 pounders.[4]

Mahan gives British casualties as being 64 killed and 184 wounded. He says that only 10 or 12 Americans were killed and 40 wounded ‘by the estimate of their superintending surgeon.’[5] Wikipedia quotes sources giving a range of 10-26 Americans killed, 40-51 wounded and 100-20 captured.  The small number of losses suffered by the losing side indicates how few Americans stood and fought. This should be blamed on politicians who did not make proper provision for the defence of their capital, rather than on poorly equipped, inexperienced and badly led citizen soldiers.

The British entered Washington the same night without further fighting. Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered the destruction of the public buildings and military facilities, including the White House. Black comments that this was done:

‘in retaliation for American destructiveness at York in 1813, an attempt at equivalence not generally mentioned in American public history where the emphasis, instead, is in damage by the British.’[6]

It is often claimed that the White House is so called because it was painted white to hide the scorch marks from the burning. In fact it is built of white-grey sandstone;  the name was used unofficially from about 1810, when it was officially named the Executive Mansion, but it did not become the official name until 1902: see the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s website.

Ross ordered that private property should not be destroyed. This was obeyed, with the exception of a small number of buildings whose occupants resisted the invaders. British looters were flogged.

The Americans themselves burnt the Navy Yard, its stores and supplies and two warships that were almost complete: the 44 gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus. The damage from this destruction alone was estimated to have cost $500,000.[7]

The invaders re-embarked on 30 August and landed at North Point, 10 miles from Baltimore. A force of Maryland militia confronted Ross and his advance guard. The British attacked and the Americans, assuming that they were heavily outnumbered, retreated, but Ross was killed.

The British, now under Colonel Arthur Brooke, another veteran, continued to advance, but met more Americans. The British defeated them, but Brooke halted his force a mile and a half from Baltimore as the British believed that the army could not advance further until the navy had overcome Fort McHenry. Baltimore’s defences had been greatly improved by Major General Samuel Smith, a rich merchant who commanded the Baltimore militia and was a Republican Senator.

The naval bombardment was carried out by the rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb ketches Devastation, Aetna, Meteor, Terror and Volcano, each carrying a 13 inch mortar with a range of two and a half miles. The bombardment lasted from dawn on 13 September to 7:30 am on 14 September. From 1,500 to 2,000 rockets and bombs were fired, but relatively little damage was done. Only four Americans were killed and 24 wounded.

The British ships stayed out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, with the exception of a short period on the afternoon of 13 September, when they closed the range, before withdrawing again after being damaged by American fire. Ships of that period were vulnerable to forts, so the British were forced to stay at a range where they could do little damage. A night time amphibious assault also failed.

Brooke’s men re-embarked at North Point on 15 September and were taken to Jamaica. From there, they could threaten the Gulf Coast of the USA. The British defeat at Baltimore did not end their blockade of the USA.

The American victory was celebrated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was then set to the tune of a British song called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club for amateur musicians. It was renamed The Star Spangled Banner and became the US national anthem in 1931.

HMS Terror was used as a polar exploration ship from 1836; bomb vessels had to be strongly built, so were particularly suited to operating in ice. She was fitted with a steam engine before being sent on the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set off in 1845 to try and find the Northwest Passage.

The HMS Erebus that accompanied her was not the ship of the same name that had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The entire expedition was lost, but in September 2014 the underwater wreck of Erebus was found.

 

 

[1] Troop and ship numbers are from A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol, ii, p. 184

[2] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 167.

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, pp. 185-87

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 44.

[5] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 189.

[6] Black, War of 1812, p. 174.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, location 6238.

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U9 Sinks HMS Hawke 15 October 1914

On 13 October the German Navy, after receiving intelligence that the British Grand Fleet was at least partly operating from Scapa Flow, sent two U-boats to patrol off the Orkneys. The U9, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Otto Weddigen, which had already sunk three British cruisers in a single engagement, was to patrol to the east of the Orkneys. The U18 was ordered to patrol to the west, but had to return to base almost immediately because of a hot bearing. She was replaced with the U17. The U-boats were to stay 60-100 miles off the Orkneys.

U9 was an early German submarine, carrying only four 17.7 inch torpedo tubes and just six torpedoes. She was capable of only 8 knots submerged. On the surface her Körting paraffin engines gave off a lot of smoke and sparks and a speed of only 14 knots. She could make 8 knots submerged. U17 and U18 were newer, larger and faster: 15 knots on the surface and 9 submerged. However, they had the same armament as U9 and also had paraffin engines.

Other U-boats had been operating in the North Sea; U16 fired two torpedoes at the cruiser HMS Antrim on 9 October, but they missed thanks to orders given quickly by Commander John Webster, Antrim’s navigating officer. He was promoted to Captain for his action.

The Grand Fleet had been patrolling the North Sea in early October because of the risk that German battlecruisers would try and break out in order to attack a convoy that had left Canada on 2 October carrying over 30,000 men and their equipment to Europe. Click here for more details.

It was escorted by four old cruisers, two pre-dreadnought battleships and one of the Royal Navy’s newest battlecruisers, HMS Princess Royal. Other cruisers covered ports on the east coast of the USA in case German liners that had been trapped there by the outbreak of war had been secretly armed and tried to break out to attack the convoy.

So secret was the assignment of Princess Royal to the escort that neither the Canadian government nor the escort commander, Rear Admiral Wester Wemyss, knew about it until she met the convoy in the Atlantic. This level of secrecy was justified by the need to minimise ‘the risk entailed in weakening the 1st Battle Cruiser Squadron.’[1] The convoy reached the UK without being attacked, although the presence of U-boats in the channel forced it to dock at Devonport rather than Southampton, as originally planned.

On 15 October five Edgar class cruisers were on patrol off Peterhead on the north east coast of Scotland, sailing in line abreast 10 miles apart. Rear Admiral Dudley de Chair’s flagship HMS Crescent had returned to Cromarty to take on coal, ‘but he had left definite instructions for the method of cruising so as to minimise the risk of submarine attack.’[2]

The squadron did not repeat the errors of U9‘s earlier victims, which had kept to a steady course, formation and speed. Instead, the Edgars ‘kept well apart; they continually altered course; they varied their speed.’[3]

However at 9:30 am HMS Hawke and Endymion ‘incredibly’ stopped so that Hawke could send a boat to her sister ship in order to collect mail.[4] Endymion returned to her station once the boat had left. Hawke was stationary for 15 minutes until she had recovered her boat before moving off at 12-13 knots. By then the rest of the squadron was out of sight.

Weddigen had been tracking the squadron since daybreak, but had been unable to get into a position to fire. He dived after almost being run down by a cruiser and came up to periscope depth expecting to have a shot at the cruiser with one of his stern tubes. However, she was in front of U9, so he fired a bow tube. Hawke was hit amidships at 10:30 am and sank within 10 minutes. Only two boats could be launched in the time available.

The rest of the squadron did not know what had happened until 1:20 pm, when U17 fired a torpedo at HMS Theseus. The squadron was obeying de Chair’s instructions regarding anti-submarine measures, and the torpedo missed. The squadron was ordered to head north west at full speed, but Hawke did not reply.

One of Hawke’s boats, with 49 survivors, was found by the Norwegian merchantman Modesta, but there was no sign of the other one, which was probably crushed by Hawke as she capsized. Another 22 men on a raft were rescued by the fast flotilla leader HMS Swift. U17 fired a torpedo at her as she headed to Scapa, but it missed thanks to Swift’s high speed. One of the men rescued died the next day, making a total of 70 saved and 524 lost. They are listed on the website Naval-History.net.

At 1:15 pm on 16 October, the Acorn class destroyers HMS Lyra, Nymphe, Nemesis and Alarm, were making 13 knots on patrol off the eastern entrance to Scapa Flow. Nymphe had just increased speed to 15 knots and followed a change of course signalled by Lyra when her officer of the watch spotted a periscope.

It belonged to U9, which was manoeuvring with the intention of getting between Lyra and Nymphe so that it could torpedo them simultaneously using a stern and a bow tube respectively. It fired a bow torpedo that missed Nymphe by two feet, Nemesis by 200 yards and Alarm by 10 yards after she went hard a port to stop the torpedo hitting her stern. Nymphe tried to ram U9, but Weddigen managed to dive his boat in time. The destroyers stayed in the area until dark, but had no means of attacking a submerged submarine.

There had been a number of false sightings of alleged German U-boats in British harbours. One on 1 September led to the First Battle of Scapa Flow, with British ships firing on phantom periscopes. The first ‘periscope’ sighted was probably a seal. [5]

The Grand Fleet went to sea after this, with all but the 3rd Battle Squadron then being based at Loch Ewe from 5 to 24 September. This base was thought to be far enough from German bases to be safe from U-boats, but it was also too far from the English Channel for the Grand Fleet to have arrived in time had German High Seas Fleet entered the English Channel to attack the British Army’s supply ships.

In October a mistaken sighting of a periscope as the battle cruisers entered the Cromarty Firth led to the Battle of Jemimaville in which a 4 inch shell damaged the roof and chimney of a house in the village of Jemimaville. A baby was slightly injured, but the parents were ‘soothed’ with the news that two U-boats had been sunk.[6]

At 4 pm on the afternoon of 16 October, it was reported wrongly that there was a U-boat in Scapa Flow. Loch Ewe had been abandoned as a base after a U-boat had been reported in the harbour on 6 October. There was another reporting of a submarine in Scapa Flow on 17 October. The next day the Grand Fleet’s commander Admiral Sir John Jellicoe started to move it to Lough Swilly on the north coast of Ireland and Loch na Keal, south of Loch Ewe. These harbours had narrow and easily defensible entrances and Lough Swilly was shallow, making it hard for a submerged submarine to safely enter.

The Grand Fleet returned to Scapa Flow on 9 November. A fortnight later the trawler Dorothy Gray rammed U-18 inside the anchorage. The submarine was so badly damaged that her captain, Kapitänleutnant Heinrich von Henning, had to scuttle her. One man was lost, and the rest of her crew captured. Had she escaped, the Germans would have learnt about the weakness of Scapa Flow’s defences, but her loss made them assume that it was well defended.

There were few more submarine alerts until later in the war. However, it was the middle of 1915 before Scapa Flow had been made secure by the use of sunken merchant ships and booms to block some channels, defensive minefields, seaplanes, gun batteries and searchlights. Hydrophones were later added to the defences.

 

 

[1] Naval Staff Monograph (Historical) 1924 xi, Home Waters part ii, September and October 1914. p. 103.

[2] J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i, p. 207

[3] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), p. 12.

[4] J. Goldrick, The King’s Ships Were at Sea: The War in the North Sea, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), p. 138.

[5] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). ii, p. 66.

[6] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 155.

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Britain cuts German Cable Communications 5 August 1914

In the early hours of 5 August 1914, only a few hours after war was declared, Britain carried out something that seemed to be minor, but was actually vital. A British cable ship severed five German overseas underwater cables, which passed from Emden through the English Channel to Vigo, Tenerife, the Azores and the USA

This cut direct German communications to outside Europe, most significantly to the United States. The British could now intercept German signals to their embassies. They were sent in code, but British codebreakers were eventually able to read them.

Most significantly, Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, sent to the German Ambassador to Mexico. If the USA went to war with Germany, he was to offer the Mexicans an alliance with the promise that they would receive Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Its revelation helped to push the USA into war with Germany.

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Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

As in previous wars, Britain intended to blockade its Continental enemies in order to prevent them from trading with the rest of the world. In 1908 Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided that the traditional close blockade was no longer viable because of the threat from torpedo armed vessels. He therefore ordered that the blockade ships should withdraw 170 miles at night.

In 1911 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, his successor, reinstated the plan for a close blockade. However, as well as being very risky, it required twice as many destroyers as the Royal Navy (RN) possessed, since one would be in port refuelling and one on the way to or from the port for each one on duty.

In mid-1912, the Admiralty considered replacing the close blockade with an observational one across the North Sea in the middle of 1912. This was rejected because it was still vulnerable to German attack and needed too many ships. Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, who was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1912, called this idea ‘plain stupid.’[1]

A policy of distant blockade was introduced in July 1914. The Channel Fleet would block access to the English Channel. A line of cruisers from the Shetlands to Norway would prevent German trade with the rest of the world. They would be safe from the enemy because the Grand Fleet, the RN’s strongest force, including most of its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers, would frequently patrol the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

A good performance by submarines in the 1913 fleet manoeuvres led to suggestions that the close blockade might be reinstated using submarines. Nicholas Lambert notes that ‘[s]ufficient evidence has survived…to contradict widespread assertions of myopia among British naval officers with regard to the submarine.’[2] Admiral Sir John Jellicoe wrote that submarines ‘can undoubtedly carry out a blockade of the enemy’s coast in the old sense of the word.’[3]

There were not enough submarines to adopt such a policy in 1914, but it was intended to increase submarine construction in later years. The Naval Estimates had risen from £31.3 million in 1907-8 to £48.7 million in 1913-14. It could be reduced by replacing a planned battleship with a number of submarines. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote in the first draft of The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, that the margin of 60 per cent over Germany could be maintained by regarding dreadnoughts ‘not as capital ships, but as units of power which could, if desirable, be expressed in any other form.’[4]

The British switch to a distant blockade ruined German plans to whittle down the RN by attacks on British ships carrying out a close blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office, asked Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Germany’s main naval force, in May 1914 ‘[w]hat will you do if they do not come [into the Heligoland Bight]‘?[5] Neither appeared to have an answer to this question.

Lambert argues in a recent book, Planning Armageddon, that the Admiralty planned to conduct economic warfare against Germany in a huge scale.[6] Britain would use its effective monopolies in banking, communications and shipping to disrupt the global economy and paralyse Germany. The plan was not carried out because of fears about the impact on Britain and neutral countries, especially the USA.

In the Mediterranean Austria-Hungary and Italy, although both members of the Triple Alliance with Germany, each regarded the other as its principal naval rival. They were building against each other, but their alliance meant that the Admiralty had to allow for the possibility that they would combine against Britain and France.

After a period of neglect of its navy, France laid down its first dreadnoughts in 1910. A new naval programme was announced in 1912, with 16 dreadnoughts planned, although the need to prioritise the army during the war meant that only seven were completed, plus another that was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Britain and France had undertaken a series of naval conversations, but were not formally allied. Britain, which had to match the threat from Germany in the North Sea, reduced its Mediterranean fleet. France, which could not match Germany on its own, moved most of its fleet to the Mediterranean.

Churchill was wary that the Anglo-French naval conversations had restricted British freedom of choice. He argued that both parties would have made the same dispositions of their fleets even without the talks as they were the logical  measures to take:

‘the French…are not strong enough to face Germany alone, still less to maintain themselves in two theatres. They therefore rightly concentrate their Navy in the Mediterranean where it can be safe and superior and can assure their African communications. Neither is it true that we are relying on France to maintain our position in the Mediterranean.’[7]

The Cabinet decided that Britain would deploy a Mediterranean fleet of a one power standard excluding France in 1915 when enough ships would be available, meaning a fleet of six dreadnoughts and the two newest pre-dreadnoughts. In the interval, the Mediterranean fleet would be made up of enough battlecruisers and armoured cruisers to ensure that Anglo-French strength exceeded the combined Triple Alliance fleet, including the German Mediterranean squadron of a battlecruiser and a light cruiser.

Despite the absence of a formal alliance between Britain and France Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on 3 August, the day before Britain declared war, that the naval conversations gave Britain a moral obligation to France:

‘the Northern and Western Coasts of France are absolutely undefended…The French fleet is in the Mediterranean, and has for some years been concentrated there because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries.’[8]

RN ships in the rest of the world were mostly old, with the exception of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. Their wartime role would be to protect trade and hunt down the German cruisers that were stationed overseas.

 

[1] Quoted in H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 395.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 290.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 299.

[5] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 23.

[6] N. A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[7] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. v, p. 306

[8] Quoted in C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 544.

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Battle of the Chippewa, July, 1814- when Cousin Jonathan finally received some respect

Martin Gibson:

Excellent blog post about the Battle of the Chippewa 200 years ago from Bruce at History Stuff That Interests Me.

Originally posted on History Stuff That Interests Me:

This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.

It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.

While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the…

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The Battle of Toulouse 10 April 1814

Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814, but news did not reach the south of France until after Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish army had fought a battle against Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army at Toulouse.

Wellington had defeated Soult at Orthez on 27 February. The 4th and 7th Divisions of Wellington’s army, commanded by Lord Beresford, entered Bordeaux without a fight on 12 March. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Lynch, grandson of an Irish Jacobite, and many of the locals supported the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Wellington encountered little opposition from partisans in south west France. Ralph Ashby comments that:

The area was hardly a Bonapartist stronghold to begin with…Bourbon sympathies ran higher than elsewhere in France.

More importantly, Wellington was the one Allied army commander who kept a tight rein on his troops. Looting was absolutely forbidden, on pain of hanging…Wellington took care of his supply lines, and paid for requisitions in full.[1]

The 7th Division remained at Bordeaux, but Beresford and the 4th Division rejoined the army on 18 March. whereupon it resumed its pursuit of Soult across south west France. On 20 March Soult managed to evade an attempt to pin his army against the Pyrenees at Tarbes. Two of the roads east were cut, but the French held the one to Toulouse for long enough to escape.

Jac Weller points out that Wellington had a number of problems: he would be outnumbered if Soult could combine with Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet’s army, which was in Catalonia; operating in enemy territory, he had poor maps and lacks the accurate intelligence that he had received in Spain and Portugal; and he was not fully informed about the course of the campaign further north.[2]

Toulouse was on the east of the Garonne, a wide river. It contained a large arsenal and was surrounded by thick walls, but it lacked outworks, meaning that Wellington’s siege train could breach its walls if the guns could get close enough. The suburb of St Cyprien, to the west of the river, was fortified.

Crossing the Garonne was difficult. The first attempt was made at Portet five miles south of Toulouse after dark on 27 March. It had to be abandoned because the pontoon bridge was 80 feet too short to cross the river there.

The Garonne narrowed three miles further south above its junction with the Ariège. On 30 March the pontoon bridge was laid there, and 13,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill crossed.[3] However, they could not cross the Ariège because there was no bridge across it and no other pontoon. Moreover, there was no road capable of carrying wheeled transport to Toulouse.

The second attempt had to be abandoned, with the troops returning across the pontoon. The French did not discover the first attempt at all, and did not find out about the second one until a day later. Soult sent two divisions, with two more in reserve, to confront Hill once he had crossed the Ariège, but the lack of roads prevented the French advancing. Soult concluded that the British move had been a feint.

Wellington now realised that he could only cross the Garonne north of Toulouse. A suitable spot was found, and 18,000 men under Beresford crossed on 4 April. The pontoon bridge was barely wide enough to cross the river at this point. It was broken after heavy rain caused the river to rise, isolating the troops who had crossed. They were, however, in a strong defensive position, and Soult did not attack them. Sir Charles Oman says that he thought that most of Wellington’s army had crossed the Garonne.[4] By 7 April the river had fallen, and the bridge had been repaired.

Wellington’s 49,000 men began the assault on Toulouse and its 42,000 defenders on 10 April. Hill’s corps was to demonstrate at St Cyprien to the west of the Garonne. On the other side of the river Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division and Karl von Alten’s Light Division were to threaten the Toulouse. The main attack was to be made further north, against the Calvinet ridge, which looked down on the city.

The Calvinet would be attacked from the north by two Spanish divisions under General Manuel Freire, supported by Portuguese artillery, and from the east by the 4th and 6th Division commanded by Beresford. Beresford’s troops had to march further in order to get into position, so Freire was ordered to wait until they were ready.

The attack did not go to plan. Hill’s demonstration was well executed, but failed to fool Soult, who moved troops from St Cyprien to the Calvinet. Picton pushed on too far, taking unnecessary casualties for no benefit. Freire launched his attack before Beresford was in position.

Wellington, seeing Freire’s move, sent orders to Beresford to attack the Calvinet immediately rather than waiting to get into the originally planned position, even though this meant that his troops would be attacking a strongly defended part of the ridge. Freire’s assault had been beaten back by the time that Beresford received this order, so he ignored it and continued with the original plan, which was to attack the ridge at a more weakly defended point.

Beresford’s troops advanced towards the ridge, beat off a French counter-attack, and took part of the ridge with relatively light casualties. Beresford waited until his artillery had been brought up before resuming the assault. His men took the rest of the ridge with help from a further attack by Freire. It was forced back, but helped Beresford by distracting a large number of French troops.

Soult still held Toulouse, but his positions were vulnerable to artillery fire from the Calvinet, and his supplies would last only a month. Wellington expected him to counter-attack on 11 April, but Soult, concerned that enemy cavalry was moving to cut him off, decided to retreat to Carcassonne.

Both side claimed to have won the Battle of Toulouse. Wellington took the city, but suffered more casualties: his army lost 655 killed, 16 missing and 3,887 wounded against French casualties of 322 killed, 541 missing and 2,373 wounded. Peter Snow writes that Wellington ‘described his rather dubious victory as a “very serious affair with the enemy in which we defeated them completely.”‘[5]

It was very unfortunate that the poor communications meant that such a bloody battle was fought after Napoleon’s abdication. On Soult 17 April he received formal notification of Napoleon’s abdication. He signed an armistice the same day, which required the French to evacuate fortresses in Spain, but not those in France. However, two further actions took place before these orders reached every garrison.

On 14 April General Pierre Thouvenot, the French garrison commander at Bayonne, ordered his troops to sally out against the enemy troops blockading the fortress, although he had been informally informed of Napoleon’s abdication by then. British casualties were 150 killed, 457 wounded, excluding men captured, and 236 captured: many of the prisoners were also wounded, amongst them Sir John Hope, the commander of the blockading force. The French lost 111 killed, 778 wounded and 16 missing.

The garrison of Barcelona sallied against their besiegers two days later, but in this case they were unaware of Napoleon’s abdication.

Thouvenot eventually surrendered on April 27 after receiving a copy of Soult’s armistice the day before.Oman argues that the sally would have achieved nothing even if the war was continuing, noting that Wellington called Thouvenot ‘a blackguard’.[6]

The Napoleonic War was now apparently over, but it was to resume a year later.

 

 

[1] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 130.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 351.

[3] Troop numbers are from C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. vii. pp. 456-57, 556-60.

[4] Ibid. vol. vii, p. 460.

[5] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 229.

[6] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, p. 508.

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The Battle of Orthez 27 February 1814

After the Allied victory at the Battles of the Nive on 9-12 December 1814 Wellington paused his offensive. He left the 18,000 British and Portuguese troops of the 1st and 5th Divisions and three independent brigades plus 16,000 Spaniards to besiege Bayonne under the command of Sir John Hope. This left him with a field army of 48,000 men. The French commander Marshal Nicolas Soult had 62,500 men, but 17,000 of them were at Bayonne and 3,500 more were garrisoning St Jean Pied-de-Port and Navarrenx, leaving him with a field army potentially 42,000 strong.[1]

The weather improved in early February, and Wellington began his offensive on 14 February. St Jean Pied-de-Port was invested by Spanish guerrillas. On 23 February the French fortress of Navarrenx, which was too strong to attack, was masked by Morillo’s Division, the only Spanish troops in Wellington’s field army

Also on 23 February Hope ferried part of his corps across the Adour. The next day, the Allies, supported by Royal Navy boats on the Adour, completed construction of a pontoon bridge across the river. Bayonne was now surrounded.

By 27 February Wellington’s army had crossed four defensible rivers and was facing Soult’s army across the River Gave de Pau at Orthez. Soult had about 36,000 men and 48 guns, with another division of 3,750 conscripts on the way to reinforce him.[2] They were drawn up along an L shaped ridge, which ran a mile north from Orthez at right angles to the Gave de Pau before heading 3 miles west parallel to the river. Three smaller ridges extended from the main ridge to the river. The village of St Boes was situated at the western end of the ridge.

Wellington had 43,000 men and 54 guns.[3] Early on 27 February five of his seven infantry divisions and most of his cavalry crossed the river. The 2nd and Le Cor’s Portuguese Divisions and some light cavalry under Sir Rowland Hill remained on the south bank at Orthez opposite the eastern end of the ridge.

Hill’s orders were to skirmish and demonstrate at Orthez. He was not to cross the river there, but could cross further east if the attack in the west succeeded. The main assault, commanded by Lord Beresford, would be made at 8:30 am by the 4th Division, supported by the 7th, on St Boes from the western end of the ridge. Its intention was to turn the French western flank.

The French centre would be pinned by an attack by the Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division along the most easterly and the centre of the three smaller ridges, supported by the 6th Division.

The Light Division would take a ruined Roman Camp at the north end of the most westerly of the three lesser ridges, the only one that did not connect directly to the main ridge. Wellington would then direct operations from the Roman Camp.

The attempt to turn the French right flank at St Boes failed, whilst Picton was halted just out of enemy artillery range. The Light Division took the Roman Camp. Wellington now changed his plan. The 3rd and 6th Divisions would launch a full scale assault rather than a pinning attack in the centre, the 7th Division would replace the 4th in the west and the 1/52nd (Oxfordshire) Battalion of the Light Division would attack the flank of the French troops defending St Boes. Only two British and three Portuguese battalions of the Light Division were left in reserve: two other British battalions of that division were not on the battlefield.

The second attack started at 11:30 am. The co-ordinated assaults at St Boes and along the eastern and central less ridges all succeeded in breaking the French line, forcing Soult to order his army to retreat after two hours of fierce fighting. Hill took most of his corps two miles east to a ford across the river when he saw that the Allied attacks were succeeding.

Jac Weller notes that the French had usually managed to successfully retreat after their defeats in the Peninsular.[4] On this occasion they were helped by Wellington being wounded after a bullet hit the hilt of his sword, forcing it against his hip and thigh. He had more cavalry than Soult, which might have turned a victory into a rout had he been in a position to properly direct its pursuit, but Wellington’s wound meant that he could not keep up with the advance.

Soult lost just over 4,000 men, including 1,350 prisoners: 1,060 of those captured came from units that covered the retreat. Wellington suffered 2,164 casualties: only 48 were from Hill’s corps.[5]

Sir Charles Oman contends that this battle showed that

with fairly equal numbers in the field, passive defence is very helpless against an active offensive concentrated on certain limited points, unless the defender uses adequate reserves for counter-attacks.[6]

Wellington took ‘a considerable risk’ in his final assault, when he attacked five enemy divisions with five of his own, but he knew from past experience that Soult would not launch a counter-attack.[7]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 342, 363.

[2] C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. xii, p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 357.

[4] Weller, Peninsula, p. 349.

[5] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, pp. 372-73.

[6] Ibid., p. 374.

[7] Ibid., p. 375.

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