“The Sortie from Bayonne, at 3 in the Morning, on the 14th April 1814” by Thomas Sutherland.
When the dramatic news of Napoleon’s abdication reached Wellington at Toulouse on 12 April, 1814, he promptly informed Soult, who in turn sent a message at once to the Governor of the besieged garrison of Bayonne, General Thouvenot.
The French garrison numbered about 14,000 and held positions on both the north and south banks of the River Adour.
The besieging force was under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir John Hope, and consisted of 1st Division north of the Adour, and 5th Division south of the river. There were a further three infantry brigades and also one cavalry brigade, and the two divisions were linked by a pontoon bridge across the Adour west of Bayonne.
The Allied line encircling Bayonne to the north consisted of a line of outposts, supported by picquets, and extended from the Adour east of Bayonne through St Etienne to the Adour at St Bernard. The left was held by 5th Brigade of 5th Division. The centre was the responsibility of 2nd Guards Brigade, while the 1st Guards Brigade2 held the right of the line. Hinuber’s German Brigade was in support on the left, with the remainder of 1st Division encamped around Boucau.
Rumours of Napoleon’s abdication and an armistice had reached the Allied troops, and there seems to have been a distinct relaxation in their vigilance. Indeed, one commander is said to have gone round on the evening of the 13th telling his men that they would soon be home with their wives and sweethearts.
But the French had other ideas, and were busy planning one final sortie. They considered attacking from their positions south of the river, capturing the pontoon bridge, and then assaulting 1st Division from both east and west, but decided that that was too risky. Instead, they settled for a strong sortie northwards from the Citadel at dawn on 14 April against the Allied picquets around St Etienne.
At about 0200 on 14 April, 1814, the relaxed calm in the Allied lines round Bayonne was disturbed by the arrival of two deserters from the French garrison. They were brought to Major-General Hay, who was the General Officer of the Night, but he could not speak French, and so sent them to Major-General Hinuber of the King’s German Legion who discovered from them that a sortie was due to be made at dawn.
Hay apparently did not believe the men’s story, for he did not order any additional precautions to be taken. Hinuber, on the other hand, put his men under arms and passed the information on to General Hope.
Thouvenot meanwhile, hearing about the deserters, brought the time of his sortie forward from dawn to 0300, and at that time, the assault was duly launched.
A feint attack was made by Lieutenant-General Baron Abbé against Anglet and Bellevue, while the main assault, 3,000 strong, under General Maucomble, was launched northwards from the Citadel. The Allied picquets were taken by surprise and soon overwhelmed.
The right-hand column (95th Regiment) captured St Etienne, and the only house retained by the Allies was one occupied by a picquet of the 38th, under Captain Forster, who held out.
Major-General Hay was killed in St Etienne, just after he had belatedly ordered it to be held “to the last extremity”.
Both the other two French columns broke through, and considerable confusion reigned for a while; Major-General Stopford, commanding 2nd Guards Brigade, was wounded and was replaced by Colonel Guise. The left-hand French column (82nd Regiment), supported by gunboats on the river, attacked Basterreche.
As the fighting developed, General Hope rode forwards towards St Etienne to see what was happening. He had two officers with him, Lieutenant Moore, a nephew of Sir John Moore who was his ADC, and Captain Herries of the Quartermaster General’s Department.
He came up in the darkness “by a hollow road which led close behind the line of picquets, one of which had been improperly withdrawn by an officer of the Guards, and the French thus lined both banks”. For some strange reason, he seems to have been in plain clothes.
The party was ambushed by 20 men of the 82nd Regiment, and to quote General Thouvenot’s despatches, “were taken by Mr Pigeon, Adjutant-Sergeant-Major of the 70th, by Sergeant Beregeot and Voltigeur Bonencia, of the 82nd. I named Mr Pigeon Sub-Lieutenant on the field of battle.”
Napier’s account of the incident paints the scene well: “A shot struck him [the General] in the arm, and his horse, a large one, as was necessary to sustain the gigantic warrior, received 8 bullets and fell upon his leg; his followers had by this time escaped from the defile, yet two of them, Captain Hemes and Mr Moore, a nephew of Sir John Moore, seeing his helpless state, turned back and endeavoured amidst the heavy fire of the enemy, to draw him from beneath his horse. While thus engaged, they were struck down with dangerous wounds; the French carried him off, and Hope was again severely hurt in the foot by an English bullet before they gained the Citadel.”
The serious situation for the Allies was largely saved by the efforts of Major-General Hinuber, who rallied the troops round St Etienne, launched a counter-attack from St Esprit, and drove the French out.
The left French column was meanwhile repulsed by 1st Guards Brigade under Colonel Maitland.
The French bridgehead north of the Citadel was now under attack from both east and west, and Thouvenot ordered his troops to withdraw. Dawn had broken and the Allies had recovered from the confusion of the night.
The Allies had come close to defeat, and had lost 826 men, 231 of whom were prisoners, though the French claimed that the figure was three times higher. They themselves lost 910, all a tragic waste, when peace had been declared.
The siege continued for almost another two weeks and did not end until 26 April, when Thouvenot accepted news of the armistice at Toulouse, and surrendered the same day, nearly three weeks after Napoleon had abdicated.