Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Battle of La Fère Champenoise 25 March 1814.

Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia defeated Napoleon’s army at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814, but did not immediately pursue the retreating enemy. Napoleon reached St Dizier on 23 March.

On 22 March a patrol of Cossacks from Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia captured a French courier who was carrying a letter from Napoleon to his Empress, Marie-Louise. It revealed that the Emperor planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications in order to draw the enemy away from Paris.

Blücher sent a copy of the captured letter to the main Coalition headquarters with the Army of Bohemia. A conference between Schwarzenberg, Tsar Alexander, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and their staffs on 23 March decided that the two Coalition armies should unite and pursue Napoleon.

The Coalition commanders then received further captured dispatches. They showed that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital. These convinced Alexander that the Coalition armies should advance on Paris.

On 24 March the Tsar persuaded Friedrich Wilhelm and Schwarzenberg that this was the right thing to do. Moving to a rich region that it yet to see fighting would make it far easier to supply the Coalition armies than would be the case if they followed Napoleon through an area that had already been ravaged by war. Paris was far more important politically to Napoleon than Berlin, Vienna or Moscow were to his enemies.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry. He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was. The rest of the Coalition armies were to advance on Paris

The Coalition cavalry advance guard under General Pyotr Pahlen and the Crown Prince of Württemberg encountered the corps of Marshal Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise at about 8 am on 25 March. Initially 5,700 Coalition cavalry and 36 guns, later reinforced by 2,500 more Austrian cavalry, faced 12,300 French infantry, 4.350 cavalry and 68 guns.[1]

The French cavalry were driven off the field and two light infantry regiments were forced to surrender. Marmont and Mortier could see that there were large numbers of enemy troops advancing on them, so retreated the rest of their troops in good order until about 2 pm. The Russian heavy cavalry of General Nikolai Preradovich’s 1st Cuirassier Division then arrived, bringing the Coalition force up to 12,000 men, and a heavy rain and hail storm started.

With rain and hail blowing into their faces, the French infantry were unable to fire their muskets. Two squares gave way under fire from Russian horse artillery, and many of the French infantry panicked and ran.

At the same time the sounds of another battle behind the Coalition cavalry could be heard. Neither side knew what this meant. Was it Napoleon marching to the rescue of Marmont and Mortier? In fat two French National Guard divisions, escorting a large convoy of guns and supply wagons, were being attacked by two cavalry divisions from the Army of Silesia.

The 5,000 inexperienced French troops, commanded by Generals Michel-Marie Pacthod and François-Pierre-Joseph Amey, fought gallantly against Baron Korff and General Ilarion Vasilchikov’s 4,000 cavalry and three horse artillery batteries. They had to abandon their supply wagons as they retreated in square. Eventually their retreat brought them into contact with the main Coalition cavalry force. Most of the Frenchmen were killed or forced to surrender.

The National Guardsmen fought very bravely, but the French suffered very heavy losses at La Fère Champenoise. Dominic Lieven estimates that they lost half of 23,000 men and almost all their guns in a fight with 16,000 Coalition cavalry.[2] F. Loraine Petre says that the French lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded and captured and 60 guns against 2,000 Coalition casualties.[3]

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 509-11.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 192.

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The Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube 20-21 March 1814.

Napoleon’s victory at Rheims on 13 March 1814 put his army in between Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia and Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. The Army of Silesia, temporarily commanded by General August von Gneisenau because Blücher was ill, retreated to Laon, where it had defeated Napoleon on 9-10 March.

This gave Napoleon an opportunity to move south with 24,000 men, including 4,500 recently arrived reinforcements, in an attempt to stop Schwarzenberg’s 122,000 troops advancing on Paris. He left 21,000 men under Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier to cover the 100,000 strong Army of Bohemia. Marshal Jacques Macdonald, with 42,000 troops, had been ordered to hold back the Army of Bohemia, However, his force had been forced to retreat, and was reduced to 30,000 men by 17 March.[1]

Napoleon had a choice of three routes of advance: to Arcis-sur-Aube to threaten Schwarzenberg’s rear; to Provins to join Macdonald in front of Schwarzenberg; or to Meaux. The last option would take him closer to Paris and there was a bad crossroads on the second route, so he chose the first, which he said ‘is the boldest, and its results are incalculable.’[2]

The French advance began on 17 March. Napoleon now had a bridging train, enabling his army to move faster than it had been able to earlier in this campaign. However, Schwarzenberg, after learning of the Coalition defeat at Rheims, began to retreat to Troyes on the same day. Macdonald was unable to prevent him doing so.

Napoleon decided to advance on Arcis-sur-Aube, which he thought was held only by a small rearguard. From past experience he thought that defeating it would result in Schwarzenberg retreating. However, the Austrian had decided to take the offensive.Battle_of_Arcis-sur-Aube_map

The French took Arcis without opposition by 11 am on 20 March. Napoleon arrived at 1 pm and ignored reports that there were large enemy forces advancing on Arcis. Instead he unquestioningly accepted a report by one officer that the only Coalition troops nearby were 1,000 Cossacks, which suited his ‘preconceived notions.’[3]

At 2 pm Schwarzenberg launched a major attack. Coalition cavalry at first forced back General Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani’s outnumbered French cavalry, despite the support of Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. However, Napoleon put himself at the head of some newly arrived Old Guardsmen and rallied the cavalry. He frequently exposed himself to enemy fire in this campaign. At one point he deliberately rode his horse over an enemy howitzer shell just before it exploded. The horse was killed, but the Emperor was unharmed.

After dark Sébastiani, with the addition of 2,000 recently arrived French cavalry, commanded by General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouëttes, launched a charge that routed two Coalition cavalry divisions. Their advance was halted by Russian artillery, but they retreated in good order.

The French held the field after the first day and lost fewer men than the over 2,000 casualties that they had inflicted on the enemy.[4] Napoleon still believed that he had fought the enemy rearguard, which had just been bigger than he had expected. However, Schwarzenberg had massed over 80,000 men, hidden on reverse slopes, to attack the next day. Some more French reinforcements arrived overnight, but Napoleon had only 28,000 men, including 9,000 cavalry at dawn on 21 March.[5]

F. Loraine Petre argues that if Napoleon had not ignored the reports that he faced a major opponent he could have safely moved across the Aube at night. He could then have left Macdonald behind in a defensive position, whilst threatening the Coalition lines of communication by operating along the north bank of the Aube. Tsar Alexander feared that he would do this, which would probably have forced Schwarzenberg to retreat.[6]

On the morning of 10 am Schwarzenberg delayed ordering an attack as he was uncertain of Napoleon’s strength and intentions and because the Tsar opposed a Coalition offensive. Napoleon at first continued to believe that he faced only the enemy rearguard, but waited for the arrival of Macdonald.

Just after 10 am Napoleon, unaware of how many enemy troops were hidden on the reverse slopes, ordered Sébastiani and Ney to advance from Torcy-le-Grand on his left flank. They stopped on seeing the size of the Coalition army.

Petre argues that a bold Coalition attack at this point ‘must have swept the French bodily into the river.’[7] However, Schwarzenberg did not decide to issue attack orders until after a council of war at noon, and the attack would not start until he gave the command.

Napoleon acted quickly once he realised that he had been acting on false assumptions. He issued orders to retreat across the bridge at Arcis and a pontoon bridge that was to be hurriedly built at Villlette. The pontoon bridge was ready by 1:30 pm.

Schwarzenberg did not attack until 3 pm, when he finally realised that the French were retreating across the river. The rearguard was commanded by Sébastiani, who got most of his cavalry across the pontoon bridge before destroying it, and Marshal Nicolas Oudinot; his outnumbered troops fought in Arcis until 6 pm, when they withdrew across the bridge and destroyed it.

Over the two days the French suffered about 3,000 casualties and the Coalition 4,000.[8] The Coalition did not try to pursue the retreating French, who reached St Dizier on 23 March.


[1] Coalition troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 505; French from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 156-58.

[2] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 156.

[3] This phrase is used by both D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 996; and Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 169.

[4] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 171.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 997.

[6] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 172.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 998.

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The Battle of Rheims 13 March 1814.

After his defeat at Laon on 9-10 March Napoleon was able to retreat to Soissons because of the inertia of General August von Gneisenau, who took command of the Army of Silesia after Prince Gebhardt von Blücher, its commander, was taken ill.

Napoleon remained at Soissons until he learnt that General Emmanuel de St Priest’s corps had moved to Rheims, within striking distance of Soissons, on 12 March. St Priest had been positioned at St Dizier in order to link the Army of Silesia with Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia.

Defeating St Priest would break the Coalition communications and threaten the Army of Silesia’s left rear and the Army of Bohemia’s right flank. Napoleon had been reinforced to 40,000 men since Laon, whilst St Priest had 12,000, a mixture of Russians and conscript Prussian Landwehr.[1]

Napoleon moved rapidly to Rheims, and launched a surprise attack on 13 March. St Priest’s Prussian Landwehr had dispersed to forage for food, and were easily beaten. The Russians put up sterner resistance, but were overwhelmed. The French inflicted 6,000 casualties and suffered only 700.[2] St Priest was amongst the wounded , and died on 29 March. This victory boosted French confidence and caused both Coalition armies to halt their advances.


[1] Troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 503.

[2] Casualties are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 993.

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The Battle of Laon 9-10 March 1814.

Napoleon won a pyrrhic victory over Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Craonne on 7 March 1814. The French held the battlefield at the end of the day, but suffered more casualties than they could afford.

Napoleon thought that he had fought Blücher’s rearguard, and that the Army of Silesia was heading north. He realised that he could not win a major battle against it. However, he believed that if he pursued it and inflicted another defeat on its rearguard he could then turn south to deal with defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia, which was advancing on Paris.

Blücher was not withdrawing, but had drawn up his army in a strong position just south of Laon. He placed the corps of Generals Friedrich von Kleist and Johann Ludwig Yorck along a steep ridge to the east of Laon. Some of their troops were hidden on a reverse slope. General Friedrich von Bülow’s corps held the centre, in front of Laon, and General Ferdinand von Winzengerode’s corps was positioned on flatter ground to the west. The corps of Prince Fabien von Osten-Sacken and Count Alexandre de Langeron were held in reserve.

Blücher had 85,000 men and 150 guns. Napoleon had only 37,000 troops with him. [1] Another 10,000 under Marshal Auguste de Marmont had been detached from the main body in order to prevent Blücher from retreating to Rheims. A mixture of bad weather, swampy terrain, Russian cavalry and inertia by Marmont meant that the Emperor was unsure of Marmont’s location.

On 9 March Napoleon’s leading troops, commanded by Marshals Édouard Mortier and Michel Ney, encountered the enemy. The Emperor launched a series of attacks. Blücher thought wrongly that Napoleon had 90,000 men, so feared that this attack was intended to pin his army whilst Napoleon enveloped it. He consequently acted very cautiously.

Marmont’s VI Corps arrived at about 2 pm. The troops and their commander were tired, and halted for the night after taking the village of Athies. Marmont failed to secure the narrow Festieux defile to his rear.

By the early evening reconnaissance reports had informed Blücher of the enemy’s weakness. He therefore ordered Yorck and Kleist’s corps, supported by Langeron, Sacken and cavalry, to attack Marmont.

VI Corps was caught foraging and thrown back. Kleist’s corps cut the Rheims road, and Coalition cavalry headed for the Festieux defile. It appeared that VI Corps’ line of retreat would be cut, resulting in its destruction.

However, complete disaster was averted by the actions of Colonel Charles Nicolas Fabvier. Marmont had sent him with 1,000 men and two guns to link up with Napoleon. On hearing the sound of the guns Fabvier retraced his steps and managed to reopen the Rheims road. At the Festieux defile the Coalition cavalry were beaten off by 125 Old Guardsmen who had been escorting a convoy.

The bulk of VI Corps were able to escape, but Marmont lost a third of his men, 45 guns and 120 caissons. David Chandler says that the whole French army was put at risk by ‘Marmont’s irresponsible conduct…it is a wonder that Napoleon left him in command of his formation.’[2]

Napoleon did not learn of VI Corps’ fate until 5 am the next day, 10 March. He decided to hold his position in order to take the pressure off Marmont. Blücher intended to aggressively attack that day, which Chandler and Dominic Lieven agree would have resulted in a major French defeat.[3]

However, the 72-year-old Blücher was taken ill overnight. His chief of staff General August von Gneisenau took command, but he lacked Blücher’s dynamism and confidence. Fighting on 10 March was therefore confined to skirmishing, and Napoleon was able to extract his army after dark, and retreat to Soissons. He still suffered a significant defeat, losing 6,000 men compared to 4,000 from the numerically larger enemy.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

[2] Ibid., p. 990.

[3] Ibid; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 502.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

 

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The Battle of Craonne 7 March 1814

Napoleon defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Montereau on 18 February 1814, but Schwarzenberg was able to retreat, preventing Napoleon from achieving a decisive victory.

Representatives of the Coalition of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia met at Chaumont on 1 March. Eight days later they signed a treaty, which was dated 1 March, promising to continue the war and not to sign individual peace treaties with France. Britain agreed to pay £5 million in subsidies in 1814, to be evenly divided between the other three signatories. Napoleon was offered peace if he accepted the pre-Revolutionary War frontiers of France; he rejected this offer.

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website.

Even before the signing of this treaty Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia had resumed its advance northwards. It had been reinforced back to 53,000 men after its defeats at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814.[1]

Blücher forced Marshal Auguste De Marmont’s heavily outnumbered force to retreat. Napoleon told his brother Joseph that ‘As soon as I see what Blücher wants to do I shall try to fall on his rear and isolate him.’[2]

Blücher was heading for Paris, but David Chandler notes that Napoleon doubted that Blücher would do something as risky as resuming his advance on Paris.’[3] However, the Emperor planned to attack the Army of Silesia’s rear with 30,000 troops of the Imperial Guard. Marmont and Marshal Édouard Mortier’s corps would pin Blücher frontally.

Marshal Jacques Macdonald was to command the 40,000 troops facing Schwarzenberg, but the enemy were to be given no hint that Napoleon had moved away. He told his minister of war that ‘I hope I will have time to complete my operations [against Blücher] before the foe [Schwarzenberg]  notices it and advances.’[4]

On 1 March Blücher ordered his army to cross to the north bank of the Marne after receiving reports that there were French troops advancing on him. All the bridges across the Marne had been burnt by the time that Napoleon reached the south bank. He had no bridging train, so had to wait whilst a bridge was repaired. He believed that he would have been able to decisively defeat Blücher here and to have destroyed Schwarzenberg’s army at Montereau had he possessed a bridging train.

Blücher was moving north with the intention of joining the Prussian corps of General Friederich von Bülow and the Russian corps of General Ferdinand von Winzengerode. By 5 March they had combined, giving Blücher over 100,000 men.

In the south Schwarzenberg had renewed his offensive once Napoleon headed north to attack Blücher. Macdonald had retreated, giving up Troyes. On learning of this Napoleon claimed that ‘I cannot believe such ineptitude. No man can be worse seconded than I.’[5]

The Emperor still intended to advance on Laon and attack Blücher. However, on 6 March he learnt that there was a substantial enemy force on the Plateau of Craonne. He assumed that it was Blücher’s flank or rear guard. In fact the Prussian wanted Napoleon to attack General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps and Winzengerode’s infantry, commanded by General Mikhail Vorontsov. Winzengerode’s cavalry and General Friedrich von Kleist’s Prussian corps would then sweep round the French northern flank and attack their rear.

Dominic Lieven notes that this plan left a large portion of Blücher’s army unengaged, and that the flanking attack would have to move over difficult terrain that had not been properly reconnoitred. It consequently moved very slowly and failed to get into action.

Chandler gives Vorontsov and Sacken’s combined strength as 30,000, with 11,000 cavalry in the flanking attack.[6] Lieven says 10,000 cavalry, with Vorontsov’s 16,300 infantrymen fighting alone for the bulk of the day. He argues that claims that 29,000 Frenchmen opposed 50,000 Coalition troops count every soldier within a day’s march of the battlefield rather than the number who actually fought.[7] This website estimates 35,000 Frenchmen and 30,000 Coalition soldiers, noting that:

French author Houssaye gives Napoleon 30,000 men and Vorontsov 50,000 men. British military historian Digby-Smith gives 33,000 Frenchmen and 24,000 Russians. Another British author Maycock gives 30,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Russians.

Vorontsov had a strong defensive position in the centre, based on the Heurtebise farm. Napoleon intended to pin him frontally, with 14,000 men led by Marshal Michel Ney attacking Vorontsov’s northern flank.[8] Ney attacked just after 10 am. This was earlier than planned, and the 72 guns of the Imperial Guard artillery were not ready to support him, resulting in his attack failing.

Vorontsov was able to hold his position comfortably until the early afternoon, when French reinforcements arrived. Blücher then ordered him to withdraw, as the failure of the Coalition flank attack meant that there was no reason to continue the fight. Vorontsov was reluctant to retreat, but eventually obeyed repeated orders by Sacken to fall back. His men withdrew in good order.

Chandler gives casualties of 5,000 Coalition and 5,500 French killed and wounded.[9] Lieven agrees on the Coalition casualties, but notes that the French initially admitted to 8,000 casualties until later French historians, such as Henri Houssaye,  downgraded this to 5,400. He adds that, whilst the French held the battlefield at the end of the day, they captured no guns and very few men. The French could not afford battles in which they lost even the same number of men as the enemy, so this was a bad result for them.[10]


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 984-88.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 984.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 985.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., p. 986.

[6] Ibid., pp. 987-88.

[7] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 499-502.

[8] Ibid., p. 500.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 988.

[10] Lieven, Russia, pp. 501-2.

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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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