Commentary Explorer Results
Commentary for Volume 1, Chapter 33 : Crossing the Frontier, September–December 1813
The desire to plunder France:
Kincaid writes: ‘Lord Wellington, preparatory to this movement, had issued an order requiring that private property, of every kind, should be strictly respected; but we had been so long at war with France, that our men had been accustomed to look upon them as their natural enemies, and could not, at first, divest themselves of the idea that they had not a right to partake of the good things abounding about the cottage doors.’ (Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 127).
Oman vol 7 p 140n quotes a story from Gleig of a Portuguese caçador murdering the first French family he found and then quietly surrendering and being executed – his family having been killed in Masséna’s retreat.
Hennell A Gentleman Volunteer p 138-9 and Rous A Guards Officer in the Peninsula p 82 both mention the Spanish desire to murder, not just plunder, the French.
Wellington, for once, sounds almost sympathetic: ‘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 conqueror; particularly, adverting to the miseries which their own country has suffered from its invaders.’ (Wellington to Bathurst 21 November 1813 WD VII p 151-3).
Wellington’s determination to prevent plundering in France:
Wellington went out of his way, not just to forbid plundering, but to explain his reasons to the army in his General Order of 9 July 1813:
the Commander of the Forces is particularly desirous that the inhabitants should be well treated, and private property must be respected, as it has been hitherto.
4. The officers and soldiers of the army must recollect that their nations are at war with France solely because the ruler of the French nation will not allow them to be at peace, and is desirous of forcing them to submit to his yoke; and they must not forget that the worst of the evils suffered by the enemy in his profligate invasion of Spain and Portugal have been occasioned by the irregularities of the soldiers, and their cruelties authorized and encouraged by their chiefs towards the unfortunate and peaceful inhabitants of the country.
5. To revenge this conduct on the peaceable inhabitants of France would be unmanly and unworthy of the nations to whom the Commander of the Forces now addresses himself, and at all events would be the occasion of similar and worse evils to the army at large than those which the enemy’s army have suffered in the Peninsula, and would eventually prove highly injurious to the public interests.
6. The rules, therefore, which have been observed hitherto in requiring, and taking, and giving receipts for supplies from the country, are to be continued in the villages on the French frontier, and the Commissaries attached to each of the armies of the several nations will receive orders from the Commander in Chief of the army of their nations respecting the mode and period of paying for such supplies. (WD VI p 590n)
On 8 October after the outbreak of plundering following the crossing of the Bidassoa these orders were re-issued with a warning:
1. The Commander of the Forces is concerned to be under the necessity of publishing over again his orders of the 9th July last, as they have been unattended to by the officers and troops which entered France yesterday.
2. According to all the information which the Commander of the Forces has received, outrages of all descriptions were committed by the troops in presence even of their officers, who took no pains whatever to prevent them.
3. The Commander of the Forces has already determined that some officers, so grossly negligent of their duty, shall be sent to England, that their names may be brought under the attention of the Prince Regent, and the His Royal Highness may give such directions respecting them as he may think proper; as the Commander of the Forces is determined not to command officers who will not obey his orders.’ (WD VII p 45n).
Hew Ross explained the circumstances in a letter to Dalrymple of 6 December 1813:
The general order you mention as having seen in a Spanish paper is genuine, and was occasioned by the irregularity of some of the 1st Division when entering Urogne (I believe the Light Company of the Guards and Light Germans) on the 7th October; and the cause of the threat held out to the officers, I understand, was well deserved (but has not been put in force), no effort having been made by them to restrain their men when breaking their ranks for plunder, contrary to a particular order recently given, and absolutely in the very face of the enemy. (Ross Memoir of Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross p 52).
On 3 January 1814 Frazer noted, that 37 men had been executed in the last 12 months (this probably applies just to British soldiers although that is not made explicit). Frazer commented: ‘There is no doubt that great judgment is shown in the exercise of the powers of life and death vested in Lord Wellington, nevertheless, the number of executions in England is fifty-five a year, and these out of about 500 persons who are sentenced to death, and out of about 5000 who are confined in gaols for offences of all kinds. This is on Mr Larpent’s authority …’ (Frazer Letters p 388).
Another possible reason for Wellington’s reluctance to invade France:
It is possible that the difficulties Wellington was having with the Spanish government in the autumn of 1813 discouraged Wellington from adopting a bold strategy. He relied on Spanish troops for his numerical superiority and relations had got very bad indeed. Yet there does not seem to be any direct evidence for this link (e.g. in his letters to Bathurst) and it probably did not have much weight.
Wellington and the Continental Powers:
On 13 August Wellington wrote to Graham,
The Allies appear to be well together, and I think the Austrians show a disposition to join the war, if Buonaparte should not agree to the terms they had proposed as the basis of a peace …
But they have not agreed on the basis, much less the peace of which they are entering on the negotiations; nor is there, in any of the documents sent to me, the slightest trace of their making common cause with England and Spain, by which alone the peace of the world can be restored …’ (WD VI p 677-8).
Graham replied later the same day:
We shall probably be left as usual in the lurch by the Allies, to whom Buonaparte will make great concessions, in order to be left free to act against Spain.
It never appears to have been at all impressed on the minds of the Northern Powers that securing the independence of Spain was one of the severest blows to Buonaparte’s overwhelming influence in Europe.’ (Graham to Wellington 13 August 1813 WSD vol 8 p 188-9).
On 24 August Wellington was still sceptical that Austria would actually break with Napoleon (WD VI p 707-9).
There are fewer mentions of the subject after this, either positive or negative – most references are limited to reporting news or complaining of lack of information. One notable exception comes in a letter to Bathurst of 18 October where he is optimistic, but within significant limits: ‘I am certain that if the allies are stout and prudent, they will yet force Buonaparte to retire from the Elbe; and if they get him to the French frontier, they will force him to make peace on their own terms. They should, however, have no Congress.’ (WD VII p 71-2). It is notable that even here, he does not look to anything other than a negotiated settlement with Napoleon, or envisage an invasion of France, and this squares well with his advice as late as 21 November to accept a negotiated peace that secured Britain’s objectives (WD VI p 181-3). And of course it had long been British policy that the government of France was up to the French, while Napoleon’s disaster in Spain showed the difficulties and dangers of an enforced regime change. For Castlereagh’s fears of a Jacobin explosion see Castlereagh to Liverpool 29 January 1814 Webster (ed) British Diplomacy p 141-4.
Wellington’s fears of a French insurrection:
On 8 August he told Bathurst: ‘Then observe, that this new operation is the invasion of France, in which country every body is a soldier, where the population is armed and organized, under persons, not, as in other countries, inexperienced in arms, but men who, in the course of the last 25 days, in which France has been engaged in war with all Europe, must, the majority of them, at least, have served somewhere.’ (WD VI p 663-5). This fear evidently diminished with actual contact with the French which showed them eager for peace and tired of Napoleon.
See Larpent’s journal for 29 November 1813 where his fear, quoted in text, has been allayed: ‘The true cause of all is, however, that the morale of the people of Europe is changed. It was France, army and people, against mere armies and bad governments, whilst all the people in Europe were indifferent at the least. This is now reversed; and it is now a mere French army against every people and army; and Frenchmen at least quite indifferent.’ (Larpent Private Journal p 307).
Wellington was not the only one to hesitate at the prospect of invading France. Lord Bathurst wrote to him on 9 September:
The policy of your advancing into France, except for the purpose of dislodging Soult and taking Bayonne, has, I confess, always appeared to me to be very questionable. The occupation of Bayonne is fairly to be considered as a Spanish object, as the establishment of an outwork for the security of the Spanish frontier. If you advance farther you must expect general opposition, unless you are acting with a party in the country. If the party with whom you act be not the prevailing party, the attempt to impose a government upon France would arm the country against you, and the cause here would soon become unpopular. Are we, then, sufficiently sure (or can we be so) that the Bourbon party is the prevailing party? The Duke of Marlborough advanced into France without intending to dethrone Louis XIV. Why should you act differently? (WSD vol 8 p 245).
And he went on to stress the importance of acting in conjunction with the allies.
Wellington’s reluctance to invade France:
Whatever Wellington’s motives, his reluctance to plunge into an invasion of France could be seen by the Continental Powers as excessively cautious and even selfish. His view of the question can seem one-sided and negative. He paid great attention to how the success or failure of the allies might affect him, but does not seem to have considered how his success might help them. The news that Wellington’s army was advancing through Gascony must have demoralized the French army on the Elbe, damaged Napoleon’s standing throughout Europe, and encouraged his opponents within France itself. It would also give more weight to the British diplomats who were often kept in the dark by the allies, and give them a useful bargaining chip in any peace negotiations. Still, the experience of the previous twenty years had not given the British much reason to rely on the Continental Powers remaining in the war in the event of a setback, or in protecting British interests in any peace they negotiated.
The Crossing of the Bidassoa:
Moore-Smith’s Life of Colborne p 185 has an interesting story of Colborne using a visit to the French outposts under flag of truce to thoroughly reconnoitre their position. And p 186-9 Colborne’s account of his brigade’s attack showing his pleasure and pride in its success and the anecdote of his bluffing a large French party into surrender.
William Napier, commenting on the attack on the Grande Rhune, admitted to his wife: ‘I expected that we should be cut to pieces, and I believe very few of us thought differently; it was however managed perfectly: great precision, great courage, great luck, and great numbers, enabled us to carry with little loss an immense mountain – entrenched with abatis, walls, rocks, and obstacles of every kind – in the space of two hours or less.’ (Napier to his wife 8 October 1813 Bruce Life of William Napier vol 1 p 153-4). Three hundred French infantry were cut off and forced to surrender and Taupin’s division was thoroughly beaten. The French retained some posts on the Grande Rhune, but they were untenable and on the night of 8 October the officers on the spot ordered a withdrawal with Clausel carefully avoiding responsibility (Oman vol 7 p 127-133).
Harry Smith (Autobiography p 132-7) and Kincaid (Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 125-6) give characteristic accounts. Hennell’s account written only a few days later is more interesting and full of praise of the 95th (A Gentleman Volunteer p 136). He also praised the performance of the Spaniards on the right (p 137) but gives no details.
Hew Ross told Dalrymple on 9 October 1813: ‘Our columns of attack were put in motion about half-past seven o’clock, and I think in less than two hours we had full possession of the whole of the enemy’s position, which was remarkably strong, but most shamefully defended.’ (Ross Memoir of Hew Dalrymple Ross p 48).
Frazer mentions that ‘An instantaneous hurrah burst from the line on seeing Lord Wellington, who rode on a little towards the left …’ (Frazer Letters p 292).
John Fremantle describes the battle as ‘one of the prettiest operations that I suppose ever took place in military history’ (John Fremantle to W. H. Fremantle, Vera, 10 Oct 1813 Wellington’s Voice p 158-9).
The Spanish at the Crossing of the Bidassoa:
Fitzroy Somerset’s private comments to his sister-in-law cast some doubt on the sincerity of Wellington’s public praise:
I am fully willing to give them every Credit for their Conduct, & certainly have no desire to detract from their merit, but they are not the perfect Creatures You suppose them. To begin with the Army, it is much more backward than you can have any idea of. The Men are in general very fine & thanks to the British Govt. in general well clothed, but their Officers are such wretches that it is impossible to expect much of the men under their Guidance. Their Generals are very conceited & very ignorant, & the tout ensemble is anything but what one could desire to have them. The Conduct of the Galician Army on the 7th was very good & they carried on the Guerrilla sort of attack which was assigned to them with great spirit & gallantry. The Conduct of the Army of Reserve on the same day is also said to have been good.
But he then goes on the warmly criticize their conduct when the French drove them from an advanced redoubt and say that if the Spanish troops were all collected, one third their number of French would be enough ‘not only to keep them in Check, but probably to destroy them.’
This is followed by a warm attack on the Spanish government which possibly explains the feeling in the letter. (Fitzroy Somerset to the Duchess of Beaufort 18 October 1813 Badminton Muniments FmM 4/9/18).
Could Wellington have advanced further before Pamplona fell?
Wellington frequently made the connection, for example, on 2 October 1813 telling Beresford: ‘I propose to move forward with our left in the course of 3 or 4 days. I shall not do more till Pamplona shall have fallen, which will, I hope, be in the course of the next 10 days; although, as far as we can make out a ciphered letter, it would appear that it would hold till beyond the 20th.’ (WD VII p 31-2).
And to Graham, on 6 October, he wrote: ‘We certainly shall not be able to do more than establish ourselves on the right of the Bidassoa before the fall of Pamplona, which cannot be expected till the 20th.’ (WD VII p 43).
On 18 October he told Bathurst ‘It is impossible to move our right till Pamplona shall fall, which I think will be within a week.’ However this was the same letter in which he admitted ‘I am very doubtful indeed about the advantage of moving any farther forward here at present.’ (WD VII p 71-2). Which suggests that he was not looking very hard for a way of advancing before Pamplona fell.
It is hard to believe that the allied army was not strong enough to both cover the blockade and advance, while a serious advance would have removed the French from St Jean de Pied du Port and so removed their hope of relieving Pamplona. However it is certainly true that officers in the army were convinced of the connection. Here is John Aitchison:
It is very evident that until it does surrender no general movement will take place. It is so close to the frontier and situated at so important a point on the high road that great danger might result from moving an army at a distance from the blockading force, but as soon as the place falls these dangers will cease and the advantages now felt from it by the French will in a much greater degree revert to us. (Aitchison to his father 25 October 1813 p 268 An Ensign in the Peninsular War – see also Vivian Memoir p 150).
If Wellington really was deterred from pressing his advantage in September and October by Pamplona (rather than using it as an excuse) he was being much more cautious and defensive than circumstances appear to justify, but cf Oman vol 7 p 140 who accepts Wellington’s argument, at least in part. (But on the other hand see how little progress Foy’s attempt to advance through Maya actually made at Nivelle).
La Petite Rhune:
Michael Glover notes that the height known as La Petite Rhune is shown on modern maps as Mont Lachangue, while the feature now shown as Petite Rhune was already in British hands (Hennell A Gentleman Volunteer p 142n).
The Eve of the Nivelle:
On 6 November Larpent noted: ‘If the French defend their new works with as much steadiness as they have shown activity in making them, you will have a long Gazette [i.e. high casualties]. We all think that their morale is much shaken, and that the old soldiers will not stand now; if so, the young ones will not hold out long, though it was observed that they fought best on late occasions.’ (Larpent Private Journal p 294).
Uffindell (National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 240) has a good quote on the postponement of the attack from 8 to 10 November.
The operational orders are printed in the Memoir to accompany the Wyld Atlas p 138-44.
On the night of 9-10 November the Light Division stole forward in silence until the mass of the troops had reached the line of the advanced picquets, and the men then hunkered down under their blankets to wait for the dawn. Jonathan Leach, now a seasoned veteran, noted that the patient vigil which followed was far more trying than actual fighting when there was so much to do that the danger could be ignored. (Leach Rough Sketches p 346-7).
The Light Division at Nivelle:
It was here that Edward Freer was killed – see ‘Letters from the Peninsula. The Freer Family Correspondence’ ed by Norman Scarfe p 72-3 and Napier’s extraordinarily warm tribute vol 5 p 383.
Maclean’s account is too long to quote in the narrative but too good not to include here:
The regiment having moved off about 3 o’clock ascended the side of the mountain, halting within a short distance of La Petite la Rhune, and close to our left we saw and passed the Rifles, lying down in close column, covered by their white blankets, in the faint light resembling a flock of sheep much more than grim warriors prepared for the strife. The most perfect silence had been enjoined, and the 43rd were directed to lie down in close column to await the signal of attack – the firing of a third gun from the right.
We heard the French drums beating to arms, and even could distinguish voices, although not in sight of them; for being on the slope of a hill, we [they?] had no idea we were so near or about to attack. Sir James Kempt, who commanded the 1st Brigade of the Light Division, ordered that two companies of the regiment should lead a skirmishing order, followed by a support of four in line under Lieut-Colonel Napier, and a reserve of three companies under Lieut-Colonel Duffy. Major Brock’s and Captain Murchison’s companies were to lead the advance in extended order.
The sunrise in those regions is most sudden, for darkness is dispelled by a burst of glowing light as the sun clears the head of a high mountain, and startles the beholder with its glorious brightness. Such was its appearance as it glanced on the recumbent troops, and sparkled from their bayonets along the arms piled by companies that eventful morning. The next moment the sound of a gun followed by others was heard, and every ear was on the alert to count each shot. The men were on their feet in an instant, and the words ‘Stand your arms’ being given, each soldier seized his Brown Bess. The Rifles folded their blankets, and moved off to their left. General Kempt mounted his horse, and said, ‘Now, 43rd, let me see what you will do this morning;’ and pointing to an intrenchment on a rising ground in front to the left of the regiment lined with French infantry, gave the order to advance and carry it; and the await the arrival of the support before an attempt was to be made on the stone redoubts on the ridge of rocks on the top of La Petite la Rhune.
The companies then extending, and bringing their right shoulders forward, were at once in fire, and after descending a short distance and crossing a piece of marshy ground, made a rush for the breastwork, which was quickly evacuated by the enemy; but not before they had by their sharp practice dropped a few of their assailants, who had scarcely returned their fire, so intent were they on rushing at the intrenchment. On clearing the breastwork, we brought our left shoulders forward to face redoubt No. 1, and as we were directed to wait for the four companies, we took such shelter as some scattered rocks afforded about fifty or sixty yards from the first redoubt. The enemy made our quarters pretty hot, as they when firing were all covered, which our men perceiving were endeavouring to check by aiming at their heads when opportunities offered; but, to avoid exposing themselves, they preferred firing at the support and reserve, although not so close, for thus they had a far better chance of killing and not being hit by our men, and consequently could fire coolly. The redoubts were built of rough stones, but had no cannon.
Captain Murchison and myself got alongside of a flat piece of rock with about forty yards of the redoubt, and as they could see part of us, they made the rock smoke with their shots. Captain Murchison raised his head to look over, and instantly his face assumed a livid appearance as if choking. I inquired that was the matter, when he with difficulty said, ‘he was struck in the neck and must see a doctor!’ but in the meantime, should the support arrive, he desired me to take on the company. Shortly after the surgeon examined him, and found that the bullet had got entangled in his neckcloth and had run around his neck. A sergeant pointed out better cover about twenty-five yards nearer the redoubt, to which we both went; and I borrowed his fusee and fired several shots in the heads of the French, the sergeant loading for me. While so employed, Colonel Napier and the support came sweeping up behind us, on which I gave the order to advance, and we all dashed forward with a cheer. Napier, boiling with courage, and being withal very active, attempted to scale the walls without observing the bayonet points over his head; and, being rather short-sighted, would certainly have been very roughly handled had not James Considine and myself laid hold of the skirts of his jacket and pulled him back, for which we received anything but thanks. We of course apologized to Colonel Napier for the liberty we had taken, for he was very wrath at the time. We then pointed out an easier ascent of him, and assisted each other over the wall. To show the danger he was in at the moment, I was even under the necessity of striking a bayonet up with my sword, though they were giving way, as a hint that we were coming over in spite of them. The hint was taken, and a free passage left.
On getting inside I saw a French officer kneeling with his arms raised begging for quarter, and his head and face covered with blood. I told one of the men to take care of him, and proceeded through the gate at the rear, following the retiring enemy towards the second redoubt on the ridge of rocks, similarly constructed to the one we had just taken. I then met Cooke and Considine, and we consulted what was best to be done, as we had not a sufficient number of men with us to assault the second redoubt, most of them having joined the regiment below the rocks. We were then about 100 yards from it, and exposed to its fire. I proposed to Considine to follow a path leading along the face of the ridge of rock, which I expected would lead to the redoubt, and if I found it practicable would not return. I had judged correctly as to the direction of the path, for it led direct on the redoubt in question; but although the enemy must have seen me distinctly they did not fire in my direction: I suppose from seeing me alone, and being occupied by the others who were gathering for a rush. I quickly discovered that they were about to quit the redoubt by the gate behind, for some were taking that direction, and before I could get close up they were off. (Levinge Historical Records of the 43rd Regiment p 195-7).
The Light Division made a second advance in the centre in the middle of the day, driving Taupin’s division before it with little trouble, for these French regiments had suffered heavily at the Bidassoa and then been diluted with conscripts. The only setback suffered by the allies here was when the 52nd made a pointless attack on a French fort which had already been surrounded, and was repulsed with quite heavy losses. The fort surrendered soon afterwards, but the incident led to some recrimination, until it was later recast by flexible memories as a triumph of daring and cool pluck. (Compare the account in Autobiography of Sir Harry Smith p 147-50 with Napier vol 5 p 375 and Oman vol 7 p 193). Later in the day Andrew Barnard, the popular commander of the 1/95th was wounded – it was thought seriously, although he made an excellent recovery and rejoined only a month later. (Kincard Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 132; Simmons A British Rifleman p 321-22, 326). Altogether the Light Division lost 451 casualties, rather more than the Fourth or the Seventh Divisions. (339 and 363 respectively), but not quite so many as the Third (518 casualties). (Oman vol 7 p 541-44).
Wellington at Nivelle:
‘One of those bursts of cheering, which electrify one, now indicated the presence of Lord Wellington.’ (Frazer Letters p 336).
Nivelle shows the difference in quality between the armies:
On 12 November Hew Ross wrote:
We have today been in expectation of an order to advance, but as yet it has not arrived. From what I can discover, it is not likely that we shall carry our advance much farther into France; but opinion seems divided whether the Nive or the Adour will be the line we shall take up, and I think there is no doubt that we can do which we please, for the spirit of the French army is too low to give us a hope at its committing itself by risking a general action. (Ross Memoir of Sir Hew Dalrymple Ross p 51).
‘Soult’s army is weak, and very, very bad; the enemy were never a match for our men, but now they run even before Spaniards and Portuguese.’ Ralph Heathcote to his mother 12 November 1813 Letters of a Young Diplomatist p 268.
Plundering after Nivelle:
Frazer’s letters show how Wellington’s determination to prevent plundering was gradually enforced, so that the army went from the severe plundering after the Bidassoa to the good order after the Nive. Nivelle marked the transition, and Frazer wrote on 11 November:
I have had two houses since I last wrote, but am now, as I hope, fixed for the night. The house I am now in is a large, and I dare say was, an opulent town-house. It is now plundered of all furniture, in confusion, and the remnants of chairs and tables scattered about. Most of the houses are filled with wounded … The troops are licentious; a Brunswicker killed a peasant in Sarre without provocation, and was hanged for it in that village. Another Brunswicker I just now saw hanging, and a picquet placed round the tree to keep the body there. A paper, on which was written “For plundering and outrage,” showed the passing troops for what he had suffered, yet within five yards of the spot I met Colonel Elley, who had just, he said, been thrashing a Spaniard for driving off a sow and her whole litter of pigs.’ (Frazer Letters p 338-9).
When we reached Sarre the inhabitants were generally in their houses, and many women saluted us from the windows: calling out, in French, “Welcome, welcome the English.” This, however, is unnatural, and was probably the effect of fear. Three houses were afterwards, I learn, burnt in the village, but during the time I was there, and under a severe cannonade from the enemy, our mounted staff-corps, under Lieutenant During, was most active in preventing disorder amongst the Spanish troops, some of whom, nevertheless, forced their way into some of the houses. A proclamation has been issued both in French and Basque, assuring the inhabitants that their property and their persons shall be respected; and General Pakenham (Adjutant-General), told me that one of the peasants, who had been taken to Lord Wellington near our outposts this morning, having been asked where he was going, and having answered that he was going to drive his sheep to Bayonne, was told he might go where he pleased, and take his sheep where he pleased. This ought to produce confidence on the part of the inhabitants.’ (Frazer Letters p 340).
Name of the Battle of the Nivelle:
Bathurst to Wellington 25 November 1813 (WSD vol 8 p 401):
My dear Lord,
I forgot to ask Lord Worcester how you name the last battle. You will see I have called it the battle of the Nivelle. However, I will change it very readily to any other name, as I am by no means partial to it; on the contrary, I think it sounds ill. Be so good as to let me know your wish upon it.’
No reply to this has been traced.
Wellington does not exploit his advantage at Nivelle:
Wellington gave the heavy rain, its effect on the roads, and the distress of the Spanish troops over supplies as his reasons for not advancing, both in a letter to William Clinton on 14 November and in one to Bathurst on 22 November (WD VII p 136-7, 156-7). On the 28th he wrote to Bathurst ‘The weather cleared for a few days, and I was in hopes that I should have been able to extend our posts beyond the Nive; but the rain has again commenced, and it is impossible to move the troops by the cross roads at present.’ (WD VII p 172). And on 8 December, the day before the advance over the Nive, he told Bathurst ‘I had always intended to cross the Nive as soon as the state of the weather would permit; and orders had been given for that operation to be performed tomorrow morning before I had received your Lordship’s letter, expressing your wish that I should continue my operations.’ (WD VII p 189).
Viewed in isolation there seems a strong case for accepting Wellington’s explanation at face value, but put it in the context of his avowed reluctance to advance into France, and lack of forward impetus throughout the autumn, one is left with the impression that he welcomed the excuse to remain in his position.
There is some good material on the difficulties caused by the rain in Vivian Richard Hussey Vivian A Memoir p 154-55 (letter of 3 November 1813).
Soult’s views of Wellington’s intentions after the Nivelle:
Wellington released an officer of the garrison of Pamplona bearing the Governor’s report on its surrender to Soult after the battle. This officer, Captain Pomade, had dined at Wellington’s HQ and reported to Soult that all the talk there was of an immediate advance to the Garonne, leaving Bayonne and St Jean de Pied du Port to be blockaded by inferior (Spanish?) troops. Soult saw nothing implausible in the idea, and reported to Paris that he was making his plans accordingly (although it is hard to see that he actually did so). Oman vol 7 p 212n. This raises two main questions: was the HQ talk a ruse? Mere jeu d’esprit ? Or genuine? And might the plan have had some real merit? After all, it was only a few weeks later that Wellington told Bathurst that if only he could pay and feed the 40,000 Spanish troops available for operations he could be on the Garonne (Wellington to Bathurst 21 December 1813 WD VII p 213-16).
The Passage of the Nive, 9 December 1813:
Two crossings were made: Hill, with the Second Division, the Portuguese division, Morillo’s Spanish infantry and two brigades of cavalry passed the river at Cambo; while Beresford with the Third and Sixth Division established a pontoon bridge further downstream (i.e. closer to Bayonne and the French) at Ustaritz. D’Erlon withdrew his forces to a position at Villafranque two or three miles south of the town, and the allies followed slowly. It was a wet miserable day and the rain-sodden country did not encourage rapid movements or fine manoeuvres. At the same time Hope, with the First and Fifth Divisions and the unattached brigades of Aylmer, Bradford and Campbell, pushed the French back to the outer defences of Bayonne advancing along the main coast road. There was some fighting and allied casualties here (about 350) were slightly higher than on the right (about 300). The Light Division was in the centre linking the two wings, with the Seventh and Fourth Divisions in support as a reserve (Oman vol 7 p 224-237).
Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 242 has a good if untypical account by Capt Richard Brunston 6th Caçadores who saw some hard fighting.
Clausel’s attack on the Light Division, 10 December 1813:
Clausel’s attack did not begin until nine o’clock, which may explain why the Light Division was caught by surprise. The picquets fell back in some disorder, and a whole company had a narrow escape. This was a mortifying blow to the pride of a Division trained in the school of Moore and Craufurd, and only recently exalted to fresh heights of self-satisfaction by its success at the Petite Rhune (Oman vol 7 p 239-242, Urban Rifles p 239-40, 243). But it soon recovered its poise, slowing the French advance around the village of Arcangues while occupying its main position, a natural bottleneck only a thousand yards wide with virtually impossible ravines protecting each flank. The chateau of Arcangues and its associated buildings stood near the road at one end of the position while there was a strongly built church and churchyard at the other. Clausel looked at the position and quailed. A tentative probe with a single battalion revealed that the allies were in force and had no intention of retreating. Time was pressing, but an unsuccessful attack would be worse than none, and Clausel had no doubt that if he ordered his infantry forward, their attack would fail. So he sent back for two batteries of artillery, even though they were well to the rear and had to make their way through the crowded columns on the narrow roads. By the time they arrived the momentum which had been gained by the initial attack had been lost, and the Light Division had recovered its accustomed arrogance. The batteries unlimbered and opened fire some 400 yards from the church, only for the 43rd Light Infantry, occupying the church and churchyard, to return the fire with their smoothbore muskets. This was preposterous. Muskets were inaccurate at anything much over one hundred yards, and long range fire was usually a sign of poor troops and slack discipline. But not on this occasion. The massed volleys of the 43rd sent enough musket balls amongst the gunners to make them flinch. Artillerymen were accustomed to receive very few casualties in battle and now, rather than doing their duty, they packed up their guns and retired out of sight. There could be no better proof of the loss of spirit and professional pride in the French army: it was not thus that Senarmont had turned the tide of battle at Friedland, or that Napoleon had taken the bridge at Lodi. (Oman vol 7 p 242-3. Urban Rifles p 242 suggests that some companies of the 95th were present and took part in the long-range fire, which certainly would help to explain its success, although Kincaid, his source, says that he was in the chateau not the church (Kincaid Adventures in the Rifle Brigade p 136). See also Duffy in Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 243. For the low casualties suffered by the artillery in other battles in this period see Muir Tactics p 45-6).
Clausel’s attack had stalled and he made no further progress that day. The Fourth division arrived to support Alten in the early afternoon and the Third and Sixth Divisions, ordered back across the Nive by Wellington early in the morning, arrived a few hours later.
Reille’s attack on Hope’s wing on 10 December:
Fortunately for French pride, Reille’s attack was far more successful than Clausel’s. Here too the initial attack came as a surprise and many of the allied picquets were taken prisoner, while there is evidence of some panic. That should have been the limit of Reille’s success, for he had only two divisions while Hope had the equivalent of more than three, and the ground favoured the defence. But for some reason Hope’s men were widely dispersed: the Fifth Division was quartered at Bidart and Guéthary three miles from the front, while Aylmer’s brigade and the First Division had spent the night at St Jean de Luz ten miles away! This meant that behind the broken picquets there were only the Portuguese brigades of Campbell and Bradford. They made a stand, but were but were thrown into disorder by the sudden appearance of some French cavalry, and fell back to Barrouillet where they rallied in some enclosures. Here they were soon joined by the Fifth Division. Reille attempted to outflank the position by sending Boyer’s division forward through the woods to its east, but the caçadores held their own in the confused fighting which resulted. Foy now joined Reille. Soult had seen that Clausel’s attack had failed and shifted some of his reserves to support the unexpected success of his right wing. Villatte’s reserve followed Foy, so that Reille’s force was virtually doubled. Hope’s line came under extreme pressure. His flank was turned and Robinson’s men barely managed to cling on to the ‘Mayor’s House’ of Barrouillet – the key to the position. In the nick of time Hope’s reserves (the First Division and Aylmer’s brigade) arrived; the French abandoned their assault, and by mid-afternoon the fighting was over. Hope’s corps had suffered some 1,500 casualties including more than four hundred prisoners: on the whole it was lucky not to have fared worse. The French had probably lost almost as many in this part of the field, while in the centre Clausel had suffered around 500 casualties compared to the Light Divisions 224 (including prisoners). (Oman vol 7 p 246-52, 546; Hope to Wellington 11 December 1813 WSD vol 8 p 420-22).
Why was the First Division so far back on 10 December?:
First, is it ten miles as Oman says (vol 7 p 237) or seven miles as Michael Glover suggests (Hennell A Gentleman Volunteer p 151n)? Or is the difference explained by measuring either from the forward picquets (Oman) or to the main defensive position at Barrouillet (Glover)? For what it is worth the modern Michelin Road Atlas gives a distance of 15 kms from St Jean de Luz to the outskirts of Bayonne, so Oman’s figure looks good for picquets-cantonments.
Oman is extremely critical of Hope for this deployment (vol 7 p 237, 250-1) but it may be worth remembering S. G. P. Ward’s statement in another context: ‘all troops were placed in their positions at the direction of Wellington himself usually by orders issued through the QMG, and that no troops were moved except at his command …It may be more convenient to write that General So-and-so disposed his brigades in such-and-such cantonments. But it is, strictly speaking, wrong. General So-and-so put his brigades where he was told to.’ (Ward ‘Brenier’s Escape from Almeida, 1811’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 35 March 1957 p 23). If this is right, the blame should fall on Wellington, not Hope. But it is possible that by this late stage of the war, with a much larger army to command, Wellington had loosened his control and delegated such details to his principal subordinates. The QMG’s movement orders to Hope (printed in the Memoir annexed to the Wyld Atlas p 150-1) say nothing explicit on the point, but their purport is to suggest more a reconnaissance in force than a permanent advance, which suggests a fault on Wellington’s or possibly Murray’s, part, for it was necessary to advance in force and hold most of the ground covered.
The Fifth Division on 10 December 1813:
Oman’s account refers almost exclusively to Robinson’s brigade, which was certainly heavily engaged. Its four battalions suffered 339 casualties; but Greville’s brigade (3 battalions) lost 169 casualties and Da Rosa’s Portuguese lost 272 – although that includes casualties suffered on 11 December (Oman vol 7 p 546). The particular role each brigade played is not clear. Wellington’s dispatch says: ‘The brunt of the action with Sir J. Hope’s advanced post fell upon the 1st Portuguese brigade, under Major Gen. Arch. Campbell, which were on duty, and upon Major Gen. Robinson’s brigade of the 5th division, which moved up to their support.’ (WD VII p 196). He also confirms that Hay commanded the Division. (see Gomm Letters and Journals p 329 – Oswald had gone off to visit his wife at Bilbao not expecting any action). Unfortunately there is nothing in Robinson’s letters on the battle.
Wellington on 11 & 12 December 1813:
George Hennell of the 43rd describes a visit from Wellington on the 11th:
About this time Douro, Lord Wellington, came to the church to reconnoitre. He said in the room, “I don’t care what they do here,” in a minute, after looking through his glass, “Hallo, they are going to attack Hope again, I’ll be off.” He went back again & we all thought Douro out for once, for all was quiet till 4 o’clock & as we were saying “Douro, my lad, you are out,” a cannon gave the signal & in one minute both the French & our lines opened on the old ground on the left a tremendous fire which lasted till dark. Our battery was getting very forward. We had working parties all night & it was finished by daylight. (Hennell A Gentleman Volunteer p 153).
Uffindell National Army Museum Book of Wellington’s Armies p 245-6 quotes Elley’s account which has a nice glimpse of Wellington coming up and examining the French to see if they intended to press an attack.
Wellington expected Soult to shift his attack to Hill: see Wellington to Beresford noon 12 December 1813 WD VII p 191-2; and also Beresford to Hill 7am 11 December 1813 in Sidney Life of Hill p 266 – the latter includes: ‘Lord W. says we must not be surprised if he [Soult] should turn his attack against you …’
Wellington gives Hill full credit for St Pierre:
The point is worth stressing for Moore-Smith quotes Colborne: ‘Hill, of course, wrote a despatch giving an account of the affair, and sent it to Lord Wellington, expecting to see it published in the Gazette. Much to his disappointment, however, Wellington only used it to compile his own dispatch, in which he made very little mention of Hill’s affair.’ (Life of Colborne p 199). This is simply not true and Wellington underlined Hill’s role by sending his dispatch home by Hill’s ADC, and by enclosing with his dispatch the reports of both Hope and Hill. The simple fact was that St Pierre was part of a larger action stretching over several days and that Wellington, quite rightly, wrote a single dispatch covering all the episodes of the Battle of the Nive, rather than sending home separate accounts of each.
Misconduct at St Pierre:
Two British officers disgraced themselves at St Pierre. Sir Nathaniel Peacocke, the unpopular commander of the 71st showed unmistakable signs of cowardice, and was seen by Hill far to the rear berating slow Portuguese ammunition carriers. This provoked the second recorded oath of Hill’s career. On the right Colonel W. H. Bunbury of the Buffs precipitately pulled his regiment back in the face of Foy’s attack. This too was generally attributed to cowardice. Bunbury escaped some of the consequences of his actions by resigning before Hill could, as he intended, bring him to a court-martial; but Peacocke, together with Colonel Macdonald of the 57th, was publicly dismissed from the service and ordered home in March 1814 following representations from Wellington to the Duke of York. (Macdonald seems to have offended by failing to keep his men in order and prevent them from plundering, and some officers felt that he had been harshly treated for he was full of fight and beloved by his regiment, though worn out in service) (L’Estrange Recollections p 150-1). The 71st which had been such a fine regiment when Cadogan had commanded it, had deteriorated in Peacocke’s hands. It was now entrusted to George Napier who soon restored its morale and esprit de corps. (Oman vol 7 p 270-71; Henry Surgeon Henry’s Trifles p 86-89 comments on Bunbury’s cowardice; Wellington to Torrens 2 January 1814 WP 1/395 (printed with names deleted in WD VII p 239) details the circumstances of Bunbury’s resignation); Wellington to Torrens 8 March 1814 WP 1/406 (printed with Macdonald and Peacocke’s names deleted in WSD vol 8 p 626-8). This suggests that Peacocke was dismissed more for the indiscipline and misconduct of his men in the early months of 1814 than for his cowardice on 13 December 1813, although there was probably a cumulative effect. For the case of Macdonald, see L’Estrange Recollections p 150-1 and C. M. H. Miller ‘The Dismissal of Colonel Duncan Macdonald of the 57th Regiment’ J.S.A.H.R. vol 60 no 242 Summer 1982 p 71-7. The public order, recalling Peaccoke and Macdonald speaks only of irregularities committed by the troops: it is printed in General Orders edited by Gurwood (1837 edition) p 69-70. In November 1810 Torrens expressed his belief that Peacocke’s protests at being replaced in command of the 1/71st in the field by Cadogan were not sincere (Torrens to Cadogan 23 November 1810 WO3/598 p 197-8). See also ‘A Subaltern of the 9th in the Peninsula and the Walcheren’ ed by C. T. Atkinson J.S.A.H.R. vol 28 Summer 1950 p 61-2 for a earlier view of Peacocke’s mishandling of men in an admittedly difficult position. G. Napier Passages p 264-8.)
© Rory Muir