Tag Archives: Wellington

The Battle of Waterloo 18 June 1815

Napoleon defeated Prince Gerbhard von Blücher’s Prussian army at Ligny on 16 June 1815, forcing it to retreat to Wavre. The battle of Quatre Bras between the French and the Duke of Wellington’s Allied army on the same day was a draw. Napoleon intended to outflank them the next day, but his slowness in acting allowed Wellington to pull back ‘to a ridge line south of Mont St Jean, a position that had been carefully noted by Wellington and his staff some time ago as being an excellent defensive position.’[1]

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On 18 June the two armies at Waterloo faced each other on two low ridges that were separated by a gentle valley, which was bisected by the Charleroi to Brussels road. The frontage was about 5,000 yards and the battlefield measured no more than three square miles. The small hamlet of La Belle Alliance was on the road in the centre of the French line. In front of the Allied line were the Château of Hougoumont on their right, the farm of La Haye Sainte on the road in the centre and the town of Papelotte on the left.[2]

Wellington had 53,850 infantry, 13,350 cavalry, 5,000 artillerymen with 157 guns and 1,000 others (staff, engineers, medical, supply etc) for a total of 73,200 troops. Only 36 per cent of them were British, with 13 per cent Dutch and 9 per cent Belgian: Belgium was then part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other 45 per cent were Germans: 10 per cent were part of the King’s German Legion, Germans serving as part of the British Army; 17 per cent were from Hannover, whose King was also King George III of the United Kingdom; 10 per cent were from Brunswick; and 8 per cent from Nassau. A further 17,000 Allied troops had been positioned at Hal to cover an alternative road to Brussels; they did not take part in the battle.[3]

Napoleon’s army was only slightly bigger, except for a superiority in artillery: 53,400 infantry, 15,600 cavalry, 6,500 artillerymen with 246 guns and 2,000 others for a total of 77,500 men. He had sent 30,000 troops under the newly promoted Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy to cover the Prussians at Wavre.[4]

Blücher had 100,000 men and 283 guns available for combat, but only 49,000 men, made up of 38,000 infantry, 7,000 cavalry, 2,500 artillerymen and 1,500 others, and 134 guns fought at Waterloo.[5]

At a post breakfast meeting Napoleon’s chief of staff, Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, said to the Emperor that he should recall at least some of Grouchy’s troops. Napoleon replied that:

‘You think because Wellington defeated you he must be a great general. I tell you he is a bad general, that the English [sic] are poor troops and that this affair will be no more serious than eating one’s breakfast.’[6]

General Honoré Charles Reille, the commander of II Corps and like Soult a Peninsular War veteran who had fought Wellington and the British many times, argued that the British firepower meant that the French should manoeuvre rather than launch a frontal assault, but the Emperor dismissed this. He decided to postpone the attack from the original 9 am start in order to allow the wet ground to dry, which would aid manoeuvre and allow artillery rounds to ricochet off the ground. The army was also behind its timetable. The Emperor would not have delayed in the past, having once said that ‘space we can recover, but time, never.[7]

The delay meant that the Prussians were getting closer to Waterloo. General August von Gneisenau, Blücher’s chief of staff, wanted to keep the majority of the Prussian army at Wavre until at least noon, but Blücher insisted that two corps should head to Waterloo immediately. General Friedrich von Bülow’s IV Corps, which had not been at Ligny, had set off at daybreak.[8]

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The artillery bombardment began about 11:30 am. Grouchy heard it, but declined the advice of General Étienne Gérard to march to the sound of the guns. Had he done so he would have intercepted Bülow before the Prussians reached Waterloo.[9]

As the artillery opened fire the French 6th Infantry Division, commanded by Napoleon’s brother Jérôme, attacked Hougoumont. This was supposed to be a diversion, but Jérôme was determined to take the objective, regardless of losses. He called up another division, meaning that much of Reille’s II Corps spent most of the battle fighting a single brigade.[10]

By 3 pm the French had sent 12,500 men of the 6th and 9th Divisions against 2,500 men of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, 2nd Battalion, 3rd (Scots) Guards and 1st Battalion, 2nd Nassau Regiment. Light companies of Hannoverians and the 2nd and 3rd Battalions 1st Foot Guards also took part in the desperate and successful defence. The key event came at 12:30 pm, when Lieutenant Colonel James McDonnell ordered the closing of the North Gate, which had been left open to facilitate the movement of Allied troops. About 30 French troops, led by the axe wielding Sous-Lieutenant Legros, nicknamed L’enfonceur, got inside before McDonnell’s guardsmen shut and barricaded the door. Legros and his men were killed, except for a drummer boy.[11]

At 1 pm the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps was ready to attack when Bülow’s 30,000 men were spotted approaching the French right flank. Napoleon ordered cavalry and the 10,000 infantrymen of Comte Lobau’s VI Corps to take up a defensive position facing them.[12]

D’Erlon’s attack began at 1:30 pm. For some reason he adopted an outdated and inflexible formation that meant that heavier casualties were suffered in the advance and that it was harder to deploy once in musket range. The attack also lacked adequate cavalry support. Papelotte was taken and the French almost reached the crest of the ridge. Sir Thomas Picton’s division then advanced to the crest and opened fire from 40 yards before charging and forcing the French back. Picton was amongst the dead.[13]

Two British heavy cavalry brigades, the Household and Union Brigades, then charged D’Erlon’s corps, sweeping them away, inflicting 4,000 casualties and capturing two eagles. The Allied cavalry commander, the Earl of Uxbridge, led them personally. However, the British cavalry carried on instead of stopping to reform and were themselves charged by French cavalry. The British suffered 1,000 casualties and the 1,500 survivors were spent for the rest of the battle. Around 3 pm the fighting died down everywhere except Hougoumont, enabling the Allies to reinforce La Haye Sainte and recapture Papelotte.[14]

At 3:30 pm Napoleon ordered Marshal Michel Ney to capture La Haye Sainte regardless of casualties. The first attack, by the only two brigades of D’Erlon’s corps that had rallied, failed. However, Ney mistook a column of Allied ambulances, empty ammunition wagons, wounded and a small number of cavalry heading towards Brussels for signs of a retreat. He launched a series of cavalry attacks, which the Allied infantry were able to beat off by forming square.[15]

By 5 pm Ney had committed almost 9,000 cavalry, 6,000 of them armoured cuirassiers or carabiniers. Between 5 pm and 6 pm another 4,500 cavalry attacked after a heavy preliminary bombardment. A total of 76 guns in 12 batteries either gave preliminary fire support or, in the case of horse artillery, accompanied the cavalry. The guns inflicted heavy casualties on the squares but none broke. The Allies had 14,000 infantry in 25 squares and 65 guns.[16]

None of the attacks were supported by infantry until 8,000 men from Reille’s II Corps attacked at 5:30 pm. By then the tired cavalry had withdrawn to regroup and Allied musket fire beat off the attack with 20 per cent casualties.[17]

Napoleon, after observing Wellington’s position, ordered Ney to attack La Haye Sainte again. This time he made a combined arms attack using cavalry, infantry and artillery, which took the farm. The French were now able to position artillery to fire on the Allied centre. This was Wellington’s ‘great crisis of the day…his centre was wavering.’[18]

Ney now requested that the Emperor send him reserves, but Napoleon replied ‘Some troops! Where do you expect me to get them from? Do you want me to make some?’[19]

David Chandler argues that if Napoleon had ‘sent forward the Imperial Guard (or even half of it), the battle would almost certainly had been won.’[20] However, he adds that the Emperor had good reasons to reject Ney’s request: he did not know what state Wellington’s army was in; Ney’s performance so far in the battle had done nothing to make Napoleon trust him; and the Emperor was also worried about his right flank.[21]

Bülow was threatening Napoleon’s right by 4 pm. He nearly turned back after hearing gunfire from Wavre, a town with two stone bridges across the River Dyle, where Grouchy had attacked the Prussians. However, Blücher insisted that Bülow continue. Grouchy won a tactical victory at Wavre, but it made no difference to the outcome of the campaign. He briefly renewed his attack on 19 June, taking Wavre by 10 am. However, he heard the news from Waterloo half an hour later and withdrew.[22]

By 5 pm after an hour’s fighting Bülow had forced Lobau back to the village of Plancenoit, which the Prussians soon captured. Their artillery could now threaten Napoleon’s line of retreat, so he sent a division of the Young Guard in an attempt to retake it.[23]

The Young Guard recaptured Plancenoit, but was then thrown back. Napoleon prioritised the threat to his communications, putting 11 battalions in square on his right flank and sending two Old Guard battalions to retake Plancenoit. They succeeded, forcing 14 Prussian battalions to retreat, but then pushed on too far and had to fall back. However, Plancenoit was now occupied by the Young Guard and the right flank was stable by 6:45 pm, allowing several battalions to return to the reserve.[24]

They failed, but two battalions of the Old Guard then recaptured it, throwing back 14 Prussian battalions from the immediate area. Both sides then stopped to regroup, allowing Napoleon to bring some of the battalions that had been sent to his right back to his central reserve by 7 pm.[25]

The right flank was temporarily stabilised, but more Prussians were on their way. Napoleon therefore decided that now was the time to commit the Imperial Guard units from his central reserve against Wellington’s centre. He personally led them to within 600 yards of the enemy, before handing command over to Ney.[26]

The advance began at 7:30 pm with five battalions of the Middle Guard and a battery of horse artillery in the first line and three battalions of the Old Guard in the second line. Another Middle Guard battalion was positioned as a reserve about half way between Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte. The attack was intended to be a general one led by the Imperial Guard rather than one by the Guard alone. Some cuirassiers and Guard cavalry moved forward, but the main support from other units was from artillery.[27]

The French Guard were attacking in echelon, meaning that their battalions did not arrive together. The first two, the 1/3rd and 4th Grenadiers, encountered the British 2/30th, 33rd, 2/69th and 2/73rd Foot of Major General Sir Colin Halkett’s Brigade as they approached the top of the slope. All these British units had suffered heavy casualties at Quatre Bras. Ney was now on foot after having had his fifth horse shot from under him. The two French Guard battalions were forced to retreat by the British musket fire at 40 metres range. The British were then ordered to about face and get behind the hedge at the top of the crest. However, they came under fire from Duchand’s horse artillery, which had approached to within 100 metres of the crest, as they did so, becoming ‘a mere mob.’[28]

When the 1/3rd and 2/3rd Chasseurs à Pied, which had taken significant casualties from artillery fire, reached the crest they appeared to face no opposition. However, the 1,400 guardsmen of Major General Peregrine Maitland’s Brigade stood up 25 metres away when Wellington shouted ‘Now Maitland! Now’s your time!’, firing a volley that hit over 20 per cent of the surviving Chasseurs, with the others retreating.[29]

The British Guards charged the retreating French with fixed bayonets. The 4th Chasseurs then appeared. Maitland ordered his two battalions to stop and reform; the 2/1 Guards on the right did so, but the 3/1 misunderstood and formed square. The 4th Chasseurs continued, but then were confronted by the largest battalion in Wellington’s army, over 1,000 men of Colonel Sir John Colborne’s 52nd Foot. The two battalions briefly exchanged fire before the French retreated.[30]

Wellington now ordered a general advance. The discipline, courage and experience of the Old Guard allowed many, including Napoleon and his entourage, to escape.[31]

Waterloo was a joint victory for Blücher and Wellington. Napoleon planned to defeat Wellington’s multi-national army before Blücher’s Prussians arrived. He could have beaten either of the two Coalition armies but not both together. Wellington could not have won if Blücher had not arrived, but he would not have fought had he not been sure that Blücher was coming. Blücher could not have won had Wellington not stood and fought on ground of his own choosing.

The French lost because they made many mistakes, most of which were the responsibility of Napoleon for appointing the wrong men to key jobs. Ney was unsuited to independent battlefield command, Soult had no experience of staff work and Grouchy none of infantry command. Napoleon did not supervise operations as closely as he had done previously. He would not in the past have wasted so much time in the morning, allowed so many troops to be sucked into the battle for Hougoumont or permitted Ney to make several uncoordinated attacks on Wellington’s squares.

Better options for key positions would have been Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, who was commanding the Army of the Alps, as Chief of Staff, Soult in Ney’s job and Grouchy commanding the cavalry. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, Napoleon’s best Marshal, who was left in Paris as its Governor and Minister of War should have had Grouchy’s command.

The table below gives the total casualties (dead, wounded and missing) over the campaign, including those in a Franco-Prussian engagement at Gilly on 15 June. Some men lightly wounded in the earlier battles fought at Waterloo and not every available man fought at Waterloo.

Date and Battle Allied Prussian French Total
15 June – Gilly 2,000 600 2,600
16 June – Quatre Bras 4,600 4,100 8,700
16 June – Ligny 18,800 13,700 32,500
17 June – Allied retreat 250 120 370
18-19 June – Wavre 2,450 2,400 4,850
18 June – Waterloo / retreat 17,000 7,000 46,500 70,500
Army at Waterloo 73,200 49,000 77,500 199,700
Total casualties 21,850 30,250 67,420 119,520
Starting strength 112,000 130,000 123,000 365,000

Source: M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion, (London: Aurum, 2001), pp. 73-74.

All ranks suffered heavily on the three square mile battlefield of Waterloo. Six French generals were killed and 37 wounded out of 114 present. The Allies, who had relatively fewer generals, had five killed and 14 wounded out of 41 and the Prussians two killed and one wounded out of 26.

The battle did not immediately end the war, as the French were holding on elsewhere, but the large numbers of Austrian and Russian troops approaching France meant that Napoleon had little chance of victory. He abdicated on 22 June, hoping to escape to the United States of America from the port of Rochefort, where a ship had been provided for him. On 3 July he arrived there to find that it was blockaded by the British. He surrendered to them on 15 July, hoping to be allowed to live in Britain, but was exiled to St Helena in the south Atlantic.

Most of Napoleon’s senior commanders eventually regained their titles under the restored monarchy. The restored King Louis XVIII issued the Cambray Proclamation, which stated that those who had been ‘misled’ into following Napoleon would not be prosecuted but that he would not ‘pardon the instigators and authors of this horrible plot.’ Ney and the Comte de la Bédoyère, one of Napoleon’s aides, were tried and shot. This website notes that others named on King Louis XVIII’s ordinance, including D’Erlon and Grouchy escaped abroad, but Ney refused opportunities to do so.

For a discussion of why Waterloo was important see this post by Dr Huw J. Davies in Defence in Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. For a number of articles on the British Army in this period see the latest issue of the British Journal of Military History, a free academic journal: registration is required but not payment.

The Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, which had closely followed on from the Revolutionary War were now over. It was also the last of a series of major European Wars that had begun with the Nine Years War of 1688-97. The opposing Coalitions had varied, but France and Britain were always on different sides. It was some time before the two became allies and British and Vichy French forces did fight during World War II, but Waterloo was the last major battle between the two countries.

 

[1] G. Wootten, Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe (London: Osprey, 1992), p. 47.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1064.

[3] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 37.

[4] Ibid., p. 51.

[5] Ibid., p. 65.

[6] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 52.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1068.

[9] Ibid., pp. 1071-72.

[10] Ibid., pp. 1072-73.

[11] Adkin, Waterloo, pp. 329-42.

[12] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 1073-76.

[13] Ibid., pp. 1076-78.

[14] Ibid., pp. 1078-79.

[15] Ibid., pp. 1080-84.

[16] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 356-61.

[17] Ibid., p. 68.

[18] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1085.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., p. 1086.

[22] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 49-50.

[23] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1084.

[24] Ibid., p. 1086.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., p. 1087.

[27] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 391.

[28] Ibid., pp. 393-97.

[29] Ibid., p. 397.

[30] Ibid., pp. 397-98.

[31] Ibid., pp. 399-400.

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The Battles of Ligny and Quatre Bras 16 June 1815

The first stage of Napoleon’s 1815 campaign was to concentrate the 123,000 men of his Armée du Nord just south of the junction of the Duke of Wellington’s 112,000 Anglo-Dutch Army and Prince Gerbhard von Blücher’s 130,000 Prussians.[1]

Napoleon’s plan was to position his army between his two enemies, preventing them uniting. He would then defeat one of them, making it retreat along its line of supply and leaving it unable to support its ally, which Napoleon could then turn on.[2]

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The Emperor had an experienced army with high morale. but he made a number of ‘unsuitable appointments’ to high command.[3] His long serving chief of staff, Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, had fallen from a window to his death on 1 June: whether this was an accident, murder or suicide has never been resolved. However, Napoleon had already given this job to Marshal Jean-de-Dieu Soult, an experienced battlefield commander who had never held such a position. The best choice would have been Marshal Louis-Gabriel Suchet, who was instead commanding the Army of the Alps.

Command of the left wing was given to Marshal Michel Ney, a very brave and inspiring leader, but unsuited to independent command. Emmanuel de Grouchy, a fine cavalry commander with little experience of infantry, was promoted to Marshal after the battle of Ligny on 16 June and put in command of the right wing. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout, Napoleon’s best Marshal, was left in Paris as its Governor and Minister of War. Davout on the right and Soult on the left were Napoleon’s best options for wing commanders.

The Emperor also declined to employ Joachim Murat, King of Naples, the best cavalry commander of the Napoleonic Wars. He had good reasons to do so: Murat had defected to the enemy in 1814 and then attacked the Austrians in Italy too soon in 1815. His consequent rout at Tolentino on 2-3 May allowed the Austrians to redeploy troops from Italy to France. Grouchy would have been a good alternative, but Napoleon did not appoint an overall cavalry commander.[4]

Wellington’s army was a multi-national one, including Dutch and Belgians from the Netherlands army and a large number of Germans, including men from Brunswick, Hannover and Nassau, plus the King’s German Legion, who were Germans in British service. The quality of Wellington’s troops was mixed. Some were veterans, whilst others were inexperienced conscripts. Many of the veteran British troops and commanders had been sent to North America to fight in the War of 1812. Major-General John Lambert, who had taken over command at New Orleans after his superiors were killed or wounded, returned home in time to also fight at Waterloo, but many others were still in or on the way home from North America. The veteran Dutch-Belgians had obtained their experience fighting for Napoleon.[5]

One of Wellington’s corps commanders was the very experienced British General Sir Rowland Hill but the other was the very inexperienced 22 year old Prince of Orange. His second in command and cavalry commander was the Earl of Uxbridge. He was a much better cavalry general than Wellington had had for most of the Peninsular War, but their personal relations were poor, since Uxbridge had eloped with Wellington’s sister-in-law. The army did have good division commanders, both British and Germans who had gained their experience fighting against Napoleon and Dutch and Belgians who had fought for him.[6]

Over half of Blücher’s army consisted of Landwehr, who were inexperienced and poorly equipped but often highly patriotic. There were also a number of men from parts of Germany that only became Prussian in 1814, many of whom had fought for Napoleon until then. They included 14,000 Saxons and Silesians who mutinied and had to be disarmed before the campaign even began.

The French began to move at 2:30 am on 15 June, taking Blücher and ‘especially’ Wellington by surprise.[7] The Duke and many of his senior officers were attending the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels on the evening of 15 June.

About 2 pm on 15 June General Jean Victor de Constant Rebecque, the Prince of Orange’s chief of staff, authorised General Count Perponcher-Sedlnitzberg, commander of the 2nd Dutch-Belgian Division, to move Prince Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar’s brigade of Nassauers to the crossroads at Quatre-Bras, a vital junction on the road from Charleroi.

Ney had sent 2,000 cavalrymen under General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouëttes to reconnoitre ahead of the main body of the left wing of the Armée du Nord. They encountered Bernhard’s advance guard, which retired on the rest of his brigade.

At 8 pm Rebecque authorised the other brigade of Perponcher’s division, Dutch-Belgians commanded by the Count of Bylandt, to move from Nivelle to Quatre Bras. Soon afterwards Rebecque received an order sent by Wellington in the afternoon that stated that all of Perponcher’s division should move to Nivelle. Rebecque showed it to Perponcher, saying nothing, and the latter decided to ignore it. [8]

David Chandler quotes the British general and military historian J. T. Fuller as saying that ‘this act of intelligent insubordination saved Blücher’, adding that it also ‘saved Wellington’s reputation.’[9] Geoffrey Wootten argues that Perponcher and Bernhard showed ‘the benefits of their French training at Quatre Bras where bold initiative and intelligence – the hallmark of the French approach – were to be critical to Wellington’s survival and eventual success.’[10]

However, Perponcher’s 8,000 infantry, 16 guns and 50 cavalry were faced by Ney’s 25,000 infantry, 3,000 cavalry and 60 guns, with 20,000 more French close behind and another French corps and the Imperial Guard expected.[11]

Reports of the French advance reached Wellington during the ball. He realised that a move by Napoleon towards Mons was a feint to draw his army west in order to protect its line of supply. He told the Duke of Richmond that Napoleon had ‘humbugged me…He has gained 24 hours’ march on me…I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so, I must fight him here’, pointing to Waterloo on the map.[12]

Napoleon expected Wellington to fall back and had therefore planned to attack him before he could concentrate his army. He told Ney of this verbally, but the exhausted Emperor did not dictate his written orders until 6 am, four hours later than his usual practice. There was a further two hour delay before they left his HQ, and Ney did not receive his written orders until 10:30 am.[13] They told him to ‘hold yourself in readiness for an immediate advance towards Brussels once the Reserve reaches you’ so he issued no orders until 11 am and did not attack until 2 pm, by when Wellington reinforcements were arriving.[14] Wellington reached Quatre Bras at 9:30 am, saw that the French were cooking food and headed to Ligny to meet Blücher.

The attack by General Honoré Charles Reille’s II Corps began at 2 pm. It was initially successful and had broken through the thin defensive line by 3 pm. However, Sir Thomas Picton’s 5th Division then arrived and stabilised the situation. Wootten notes that if ‘Reille had started just a short while earlier…the battle would now have been over almost before it had started.’[15] The arrival of Picton’s 8,000 men meant that 25,000 French troops were now facing 17,000 defenders.[16]

About 4 pm Ney received a message sent at 2 pm ordering him to attack and drive back whatever force he was facing, before turning to envelop Blücher. However, he did not realise that his sector was now the secondary one: Blücher’s forward disposition had made Napoleon to make the Prussians at Ligny rather than the Anglo-Dutch at Quatre Bras the main target.[17]

Ney sent an aide to hurry the advance of the 20,000 men of the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps to Quatre Bras. However, the Comte de la Bedoyère, carrying orders to Ney to send I Corps against the Prussian flank encountered I Corps before he met Ney. De la Bedoyère sent it towards Ligny, but an error meant that it headed for the French rather the Prussian flank. Ney was furious when he discovered this; soon afterwards the appearance of another of Wellington’s divisions led him to send a message ordering I Corps back to Quatre Bras. It had nearly reached Ligny when the message arrived; it ended up fighting in neither battle.[18]

At 4:15 pm British squares beat off an attack by French lancers at the expense of heavy casualties. More reinforcements were arriving, giving Wellington 26,000 men and 42 guns. At 5 pm Ney ordered General François Étienne de Kellermann to attack with his heavy cavalry, although only one of his four brigades had arrived. The charge almost succeeded, catching two British infantry battalions in line, but it lacked infantry and light cavalry support and was thrown back by fire from a King’s German Legion gun battery and two British infantry battalions.[19]

By 6:30 pm Wellington had 36,000 men and 70 guns, outnumbering Ney. He counter-attacked and by 9 pm had regained almost all the ground lost earlier in the day. Total casualties (dead, wounded, captured and missing) were 4,100 French and 4,850 Coalition, 250 of the latter in the retreat the next day.[20]

The main French attack, however, had been made against the Prussians at Ligny. The Prussian defence was based along the Ligny, a marshy stream that was hard to cross other than at its four bridges. A defensive line based on ten villages and hamlets covered them. The ground rose to the rear. However, the defensive line was vulnerable to flanking fire and troops on the forward slope could be bombarded by artillery. Napoleon intended to demonstrate with cavalry on the Prussian left whilst attacking their right and centre. When Ney appeared on their right the Guard would destroy the Prussian centre.[21]

The Prussians had 84,000 men, including 8,000 cavalry, and 224 guns to defend seven miles. Despite the favourable terrain, this was too few to defend that distance: 20,000 men per mile were then believed to be needed in defence. The Prussians hoped that a further 31,000 of their troops plus Wellington’s force would support them, but the former were too far away and the latter too heavily engaged. The French had 68,000 infantry, 12,500 cavalry and 210 guns, but could choose where to concentrate their attack and expected support from Ney.[22]

The attack began at 2:30 pm. Napoleon assumed that Ney had taken Quatre Bras and was heading for Ligny, since no gunfire had been heard from that direction.[23]

Grouchy’s cavalry on the French right pinned the Prussian left. A fierce battles for the Ligny stream and the villages beside it took place in the centre and on the Prussian right, French left. The Prussian reserve infantry was drawn up close enough to the line to be bombarded by French artillery, but too far away to use their muskets to support their front line.[24]

At 3:15 pm Napoleon sent an order telling Ney to envelop the Prussian right and rear. Almost immediately, he received news of Quatre Bras, so ordered that only D’Erlon’s I Corps should move to Ligny. Shortly afterwards, he realised that he had left the 10,000 men of the Comte de Lobau’s VI Corps near Charleroi without any orders, so ordered them to Ligny.[25]

By 5 pm Blücher had been forced to commit virtually all his reserves, but Napoleon still had 10,000 fresh troops. He intended to launch his Imperial Guard at 6 pm to strike the decisive blow, but about 20,000 men then appeared on the French left flank, causing the French troops there to waver. At first they were assumed to be hostile, but by 6:30 pm it was apparent that they were the French I Corps in the wrong place. D’Erlon had failed to follow the normal practice of sending officers ahead of his force. Napoleon ordered him to the correct place on the Prussian right flank, but by the time that the messenger arrived I Corps was on its way back to Quatre Bras.[26]

Blücher now led personally a counter attack by six battalions, which briefly retook the village of St Amand, but the French rallied and recaptured it. The Guard finally attacked at 7:30 pm in heavy rain. The infantry was supported by 60 guns on their right and heavy cavalry. Blücher then led another counter attack, this time by 32 squadrons of cavalry. It was repulsed and his horse was killed. French cavalry rode over him without recognising him, and he was eventually rescued by an aide. The Prussian centre had been crushed, but both wings were able to withdraw under cover of darkness.[27]

Total dead, wounded, missing and captured at Ligny were 13,700 French and 18,800 Prussians, with another 120 French and 10,000 Prussians being lost in the retreat the next day.[28]

Napoleon had defeated Blücher at Ligny, but the Prussians had escaped to fight again. Wellington and Ney had drawn at Quatre Bras, but the Anglo-Dutch army was forced to retreat because of the result of Ligny. If D’Erlon’s corps had fought at either battle, it would have been a decisive French victory. If Reille had attacked earlier, Ney could have won Quatre Bras soon enough to arrive on Blücher’s flank and make Ligny a decisive victory. These mistakes were Napoleon’s fault for making the wrong appointments.

[1] M. Adkin, The Waterloo Companion (London: Aurum, 2001), p. 29.

[2] G. Wootten, Waterloo 1815: Birth of Modern Europe (London: Osprey, 1992), p. 29.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1023.

[4] The last three paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 1021-22.

[5] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 21-23.

[6] Ibid., pp. 16-17.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1027.

[8] The last three paragraphs are based on Ibid., pp. 1030-32.

[9] Ibid., p. 1032.

[10] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 15-16.

[11] Ibid., p. 31.

[12] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 1032-33.

[13] Wootten, Waterloo, pp. 31-32.

[14] Ibid., p. 32.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1050.

[17] Ibid., pp. 1040, 1050.

[18] Ibid., pp. 1051-52.

[19] Ibid., pp. 1052-53.

[20] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 74.

[21] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 40.

[22] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1038.

[23] Wootten, Waterloo, p. 40.

[24] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1041.

[25] Ibid., p. 1043.

[26] Ibid., pp. 1044-45.

[27] Ibid., pp. 1045-46.

[28] Adkin, Waterloo, p. 74.

 

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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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The Battles of the Nive 9-12 December 1813.

Wellington’s army successfully crossed the River Nivelle on 10 November 1813. Marshal Nicolas Soult, the French commander, managed to retreat his troops to the River Nive, the next defensive line.

Heavy rains delayed Wellington’s advance until early December. He had 36,000 British, 23,000 Portuguese and 4,000 Spanish infantry in France: Soult had slightly more men. Another 40,000 Spaniards had been left behind because Wellington feared that they would take revenge for the atrocities and privations inflicted on Spain by the French over the previous six years.[1] This would cause the French civilian population to resist, guaranteeing the failure of Wellington’s invasion.

On 21 November Wellington told Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, that:

our success, and everything, depends upon our moderation and justice, and upon the good conduct of our troops. I despair of the Spaniards. They are in so miserable a state, that it is really hardly fair to expect that they will refrain from plundering a beautiful country, into which they enter as conquerors; particularly adverting to the miseries which their own country has suffered from its invaders. Without any pay and food, they must plunder, and if they plunder, they will ruin us all.[2]

Wellington also had problems with the Spanish government. Charles Esdaile notes that ‘it remained hard to discount the possibility of a complete rupture in relations.’[3]

Wellington’s army was in a position where it was safer to advance than to remain stationary. It was in a narrow salient with the coast to its west, the Nive to its east and the River Adour to its north. The two rivers met at the city of Bayonne.

Wellington’s plan was that part of his army, commanded by Sir Rowland Hill, would cross the Nive and advance on Bayonne. The rest of the army, under Sir John Hope, would remain on the west bank of the Nive and also advance north.

The French had destroyed the bridges across the Nive south of Bayonne. However, there were three bridges in Bayonne, allowing Soult to concentrate his army against either Hill or Hope in an attempt to defeat the enemy in detail.

Hill’s corps waded across the Nive at three fords near Cambo, meeting little resistance. Other Allied troops, commanded by Lord Beresford, crossed the Nive via a pontoon bridge further north. A bridge at Ustaritz was repaired, so the two corps could remain in contact with each other.

Hope advanced to Bayonne, expecting the French to remain in their fortifications. At about 9:00 am on 10 December, however, a French attack from Bayonne took him by surprise. There were two roads heading south from Bayonne between the Nive and the sea. One headed diagonally towards the sea and then south close to the coast. The other, to Ustariz, remained close to the Nive. Widespread woods and marshes meant that most of the fighting was near the roads.

The initial French attack along the coast road forced Hope’s pickets back three miles. Fierce fighting at a large farmhouse called the Chateau Barrouillet initially went badly for the Allies, who were outnumbered three to two. However, reinforcements arrived and stabilised the line. Both sides lost about 1,500 to 1,600 men killed, wounded and captured.

Meanwhile on the Ustariz road the Light Division was forced to retreat two miles to a strong defensive position at the Chateau and Church of Arcangues. As well as the two buildings, there was a hill with hedges and stone walls at its summit and marshy ravines at both ends. The Allies were able to hold off the enemy, inflicting over 400 casualties for the loss of 225 of their own men.

The French suffered slightly more casualties over the two actions, but they received a heavier blow in the evening. A German unit in French service, the Nassau Regiment, followed secret orders issued to its commander, General August von Kruse, by the Duke of Nassau after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig to defect to the Allies. Soult lost 1,400 men directly. He and Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet, commanding French troops in north west Spain, decided that they must disband all their German units, totalling 3,000 men.[4]

Soult now switched his attention to Hill’s corps on the east bank of the Nive, which he attacked at St Pierre on 13 December. Rain had caused the Nive to rise, sweeping away the Allied pontoon bridge the day before.

The Allied troops were at first pushed back in a bloody battle. However, once Hill learnt that reinforcements were on their way across the now repaired pontoon bridge he launched a counter-attack. The French were forced back to Bayonne. They lost 3,300 men killed, wounded and captured against 1,775 Allied casualties.

Wellington was now able to put artillery on the south bank of the River Adour, stopping traffic along it to Bayonne. This made it impossible to supply both the population and Soult’s army. Consequently he withdrew most of his army from Bayonne on 14 December, although he left a garrison that did not surrender until 27 April, three weeks after Napoleon abdicated.

An unusual feature of these battles was that Wellington left the bulk of the fighting to Hope and Hill, rather than following his usual practice of being at the key point himself. Jac Weller argues that Wellington realised that he would have to appoint somebody to an independent command at some point. The importance of seniority in the British Army meant that it had to be Beresford, who had already commanded at Albuera, Hill or Hope. Weller suggests that ‘at the Nive and St Pierre Wellington tried out the other two as independent commanders without too much risk.’[5]


[1] Troop numbers are from J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 327-41.

[2] Quoted in Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 326.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 479.

[4] Ibid., p. 481.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 338.

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The Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

The Duke of Wellington’s Allied army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops captured San Sebastian on 31 August 1813, and on 7 October invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa.

The advance was then delayed, allowing the French, commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, to retreat to the River Nivelle. As Charles Esdaile says, ‘the reasons were political.’[1] The French had been cleared out of Iberia, apart from the blockaded and starving garrison of Pamplona, and some in Portugal and Spain were reluctant to participate in an invasion of France. There was also the risk that Napoleon would win his German campaign, allowing him to move huge number of reinforcements to the Franco-Spanish border.

Pamplona surrendered on 31 October, meaning that there was no justification for further delay. The political disputes were overcome, allowing Wellington to use his entire army offensively

The Nivelle itself was not a formidable obstacle, but it was overlooked by hills that had been fortified. Wellington decided to attack to the centre-left of the 20 mile long French position. An assault on the extreme French left was rejected because the mountain passes there were often blocked by snow in winter. The right flank, from the sea to the village of Ascain, was too strongly defended.

Wellington was aware that the French had a strong position, but believed that it could be taken. He told the senior officers of the Light Division that:

‘It appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.’[2]

Sir John Hope was ordered to demonstrate between the coast and Ascain with 23,000 men in order to tie down an equal number of French troops. The main attack would come between Ascain and the Mondarrain mountain, where the 26,000 men of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps and the 29,000 of Lord Beresford’s corps would be opposed by 40,000 Frenchmen.[3]

The key French position was a hill called the Lesser Rhune, separated from the Great Rhune, taken by the Allies just after they crossed the Bidassoa, by a ravine. The Light Division was selected to attack the Lesser Rhune. Success would expose the flanks of the French troops either side of it.Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

There were three separate enclosed fieldworks along the crest of the Lesser Rhune, and it appeared to be almost impregnable against an assault across the ravine from the Great Rhune. However, Wellington worked out a route that enabled the Light Division to descend into the valley and manoeuvre into a position to attack the Lesser Rhune’s flank. The fieldworks would not then be able to support each other against the attackers, and could be taken one after the other.

The Light Division began its attack before dawn, and had taken the Lesser Rhune by 8 am. The rest of the Allied army then advanced. The French were forced to retreat in order to avoid having their flanks turned.

The French lost 4,500 men killed, wounded and captured, plus 59 guns, and the Allies 2,700 men.[4] The November day was short, and the onset of darkness probably saved the French from a disaster. Soult was able to establish a new line along the next river, the Nive.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

[2] Quoted in J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 320.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 325.

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The Crossing of the Bidassoa 7 October 1813.

The capture of San Sebastian on 31 August 1813 left Pamplona as the only Spanish city in French hands. It was surrounded and was being slowly starved into submission.

On 7 October Wellington’s Allied Army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa, which was overlooked by the crests of the Pyrenees on the French side. Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army had tried unsuccessfully to cross the Bidassoa at Irun and Vera on 31 August in an attempt to relieve San Sebastian.

The 1st Division, another British brigade, a Portuguese brigade and two Spanish division forded the river at Irun. The Light Division and three Spanish divisions crossed at Vera, helped by a demonstration by the 6th Division. Unknown to the French, the Bidassoa could be forded near the mouth of the river at low tide. Spanish shrimpers who worked the area led the British 5th Division across three fords at daybreak.

The British divisions all contained Portuguese as well as British troops, except for the 1st Division, which had two British brigades and one of the King’s German Legion, comprised of German expatriates: many of them were from Hanover, whose Elector was also the British King. See Wikipedia for an order of battle.

The 5th Division was across the river before it was spotted by the French. The attack at Irun began when the morning fog lifted at 7:25 am. The 1st Division was half way across the river before it was fired upon. By 11:30 am the Allied objectives in this area had been taken, and Wellington ordered a halt.

Fighting was fiercer at Vera. The Light Division encountered the Star redoubt, but took it after probing for weak spots. It then reached the crest overlooking the river, which were defended by fresh troops, earthworks and artillery. The rapid attack took the crest in several places, and the other defenders retreated.

The Spanish were held up by a hill on the Allied right called the Rhune. However, the French evacuated it the next day in order to avoid being out flanked.

The Allies had crossed the river and quickly taken their objectives. Jac Weller gives Allied casualties as 400 dead and wounded at Irun and 800 at Vera. French casualties were 450 men and all their artillery and most of their baggage at Irun and 1,250 men at Vera.[1] Charles Esdaile says that Allied casualties totalled 1,600 men, half of them Spanish.[2]

Soult fell back to a new defensive line along the River Nivelle.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 314-17.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

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