THE BATTLE OF ST PIERRE, 13 DECEMBER 1813

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Marshal Nicolas Soult by L.H. de Rudder.

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The Guards entering France, 7th Oct. 1813 by Robert Batty.

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Following the French attack west of the river Nive on 10 December, Wellington had moved a large number of his troops to the west bank, leaving General Hill to hold the hills south of Bayonne. Beresford’s four divisions, the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th, had crossed the river to reinforce the left and centre of the allied line but the redeployment had seriously weakened the allied position on the east bank. General Hill had been left with Stewart’s 2nd Division and Le Cor’s Portuguese division: only 14,000 men and 14 guns.

By nightfall on 10 December Soult had realised that Wellington must have transferred a large number of troops across the river Nive. He decided it was the ideal time to turn his attentions to General Hill’s positions on the right bank, aware that the poor weather could jeopardise the link between the two allied flanks. His opportunity came forty-eight hours later, on the night of 12 December, when heavy rains flooded the river Nive and swept away the bridge at Villefranque; the bridge of boats at Ustaritz was also in danger of being destroyed. This meant that General Hill would be isolated for the next few hours and Marshal Soult was going to take the opportunity to attack and overrun his troops before reinforcements could reach him.

General Beresford had been given orders to return to the right bank but the floods meant that he would have to wait until the engineers could repair the bridges. To the north, Marshal Soult was making the most of Wellington’s difficult situation and was moving troops through Bayonne on to the east bank of the river Nive. Fortunately for General Hill, his troops were deployed in a strong defensive position between the river Nive and the river Ardour. They held three low ridges that were separated by woods, streams and lakes, and would split the French attack into separate columns. The 2nd Division numbered some 8,500 men, and General Stewart had deployed his brigades on the ridges. Pringle’s brigade held the westerly ridge overlooking the Nive, while the 34th, the 39th and the 28th had been deployed side-by-side, blocking the narrow summit in front of Chateau Larraldea. The central ridge had a wide flat summit around the village of St Pierre d’Irube and General Hill had made sure that it was strongly defended. Barnes’s brigade, with the 50th, 71st and 92nd, was deployed to the west of the road to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, while Ashworth’s Portuguese brigade was to the east. Hill had also ordered ten gun crews to unlimber their guns astride the road so they could sweep the flat summit with canister and grapeshot. Le Cor’s Portuguese division had 5,000 men and both Da Costa’s and Buchan’s brigades were placed in reserve on the central ridge.

The narrow eastern ridge was the weak point in Hill’s line, but Stewart had chosen to position a strong outpost at the northern end, in the hope of disrupting the French advance. The 3rd Regiment was deployed at Partouhirie, protecting a bridge over a stream, about a kilometre in front of the rest of Byng’s brigade. General Hill hoped that the advance guard would disrupt the French advance and give him time to decide how to deploy the rest of Byng’s brigade. The 57th and the 1st Provisional Battalion were positioned near Mouguerre village, from where they would be able to support the 3rd Regiment at Partouhirie or join the fight for St Pierre in the centre where Hill expected the main French attack to fall.

At first light on 13 December artillery fire began targeting the allied positions while the columns of French infantry left Bayonne and marched towards the three ridges. Marshal Soult had amassed around 35,000 men organised into six divisions, and over twenty artillery pieces had been brought forward to support the attack, but they all had to cross the single bridge across the Nive before they could deploy.

As the mist lifted across the hills south of Bayonne, General Hill could see for the first time the strength of the French attack. Each of his three positions would have to face attacks by at least one French division and hold it at bay until reinforcements could find a way across the swollen river Nive. It was going to be a race against time and the British and Portuguese troops silently watched and waited as the noise of drums, bugles and cheers of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ in the valley below grew louder.

On the western ridge General Daricau’s division, numbering over 5,500 men, advanced towards Castello de Villa, where Pringle’s three battalions were positioned. Some 1,800 redcoats waited as the French columns climbed the narrow ridge, confident that their flanks could not be turned as long as they could hold the summit. Although Pringle’s men were outnumbered by three-to-one, Daricau’s men struggled to find a way through the woods and enclosures and kept stopping to reorganise, giving the British skirmishers time to pick off the French officers. Pringle’s men opened fire as the columns drew closer but the French charged. Heavy fighting followed but the British stood their ground and forced the Frenchmen back into the woods, closing their ranks ready for the next onslaught. George Bell later recalled how Colonel Brown rallied the men of the 28th with cries of ‘Dead or alive we must hold our ground’.

On General Stewart’s right flank, the 3rd Regiment faced General D’Armagnac’s entire division, nearly 6,000 men. Although Hill did not expect the outpost to hold the eastern ridge, they did stop the French from crossing the stream for several hours.

The main French attack fell where General Hill expected, in his centre, as General Abbé’s 6,000-strong division deployed on the ridge in front of St Pierre. Once again, walls and rough scrub disrupted the dense columns and Stewart’s skirmishers and the British guns added to the French problems. The summit eventually erupted in musket and artillery fire as the two sides steadied their ranks ready for the inevitable charge. George Bell watched from the western ridge as the French guns bombarded Stewart’s exposed position: ‘Every point was attacked to weaken our force and keep us separate, their guns keeping up a terrific fire, knocking the dust out of Saint Pierre ploughing up the side of the hill, thinning our ranks, and playing Old Harry, having no regard for life or limb.’ The fighting continued unabated for several hours, with the French falling back to rally after each charge, but eventually their weight of numbers began to tell and Ashworth’s Portuguese brigade began to retire east of the road.

Barnes’s brigade was standing fast but its position was compromised when the 71st Regiment’s commanding officer ordered his men to abandon their positions after severe hand-to-hand fighting. Colonel Sir Nathaniel Peacock had only just joined the regiment from England and his inexperience led him to believe that all was lost. It was a severe setback and General Hill eventually found the cowering officer pretending to escort Portuguese ammunition carriers forward. Hill cursed when the situation was explained to him and Wellington later commented: ‘Well; if Hill is starting to swear, we must all mind what we are about.’ However, the situation was restored by General Stewart and after rallying the 71st, he led them back to their positions west of the guns while General Barnes guided the 92nd forward to help Ashworth’s brigade.

Several hours had passed since the first shots were fired and the weight of French numbers was now beginning to take effect on Stewart’s exhausted brigades. Regiments were beginning to fall back on either side of St Pierre and some of the artillery crews had to abandon their guns or risk capture. Both Ashworth and Barnes had been wounded, leaving junior officers in command of their brigades, and General Hill realised that it was time to deploy his reserve if he were to stop General Abbé’s division overrunning his centre.

On the eastern ridge the 3rd Division had eventually been forced to withdraw to Mouguerre village but General D’Armagnac’s advance had been slow and poorly organised. The rest of Byng’s brigade had been able to support Ashworth’s beleaguered troops in front of St Pierre while General Le Cor had also been ordered to send Buchan’s brigade forward.

Marshal Soult knew that victory was within reach if he could break General Hill’s centre before Wellington could bring his reserves across the river Nive. The wise option would have been to withdraw General Abbé’s division to make way for one of the three divisions waiting in reserve on the outskirts of Bayonne, but time was running out. To the disgust of the men who had spent all morning fighting around St Pierre, they were ordered to attack again. Although the troops were tired, angry and disheartened, they went forward one last time as the British and Portuguese soldiers again prepared to defend St Pierre ridge.

General Hill and General Stewart had rallied every available man they could find in the hope of holding the smoke-wreathed ridge. As the French columns advanced to the sound of drums and bugles, the two mounted officers rode along the lines cheering the men as they opened fire on the approaching ranks. The men rose to the challenge but casualties were high and every single member of General Stewart’s staff was killed or wounded as they milled around the thick of the fighting. To the west of St Pierre village the sound of a solitary piper playing ‘Cogag na shee’ led the 92nd Regiment forward; nearly 200 of Colonel Cameron’s men were killed or wounded restoring the line.

By midday the fighting had began to die down. General Abbé’s men had reached their limit of endurance but Soult hesitated over sending reserves forward to take St Pierre and the French began to fall back. The tide of the battle had turned in favour of the allies and General Hill was given news that the 6th Division was crossing the river Nive at Ustaritz with Wellington at its head. Fresh reserves were at hand as the columns of redcoats approached from the south, and St Pierre had been saved. Meanwhile, British engineers had repaired the bridge of boats at Villefranque and the 3rd, 4th and 7th Divisions had started to cross.

General Hill was delighted to see Wellington and offered to hand over his command to his superior officer. Wellington refused, being more than satisfied with Hill’s handling of the situation, and replied: ‘My dear Hill, the day’s your own’, leaving his subordinate to organise the inevitable counter-attacks.

Hill’s first instructions were sent to Byng’s brigade, which was ordered to advance against Mouguerre village to regain control of the northern ridge, but when Hill’s aide-de-camp reached the brigade, he could not find any senior officers, all having been either killed or wounded, and so the aide found himself leading the crucial attack. Byng’s men advanced and by mid-afternoon the brigade was pushing General D’Armagnac’s division back along Mouguerre ridge towards Bayonne. This was just the first of many successes. The French troops engaged on the centre and southern ridges had also begun to fall back, leaving General Hill master of the St Pierre ridges.

As the fighting died down the survivors counted their blessings and their casualties. Some 14,000 allied troops had held over 35,000 French troops at bay. Hill’s troops had suffered over 5,000 casualties, the majority of them on the centre ridge, and the historian Napier was later to describe the battle as ‘the most desperate of the whole campaign’.

Although Hill’s position around St Pierre could have been overrun on several occasions, his men had stoutly fought against overwhelming odds until reinforcements had been able to cross the swollen river Nive. For a second time Soult had used the advantage offered by the bridges in Bayonne and had concentrated the majority of his troops faster than Wellington could. But despite his strategic success, he was denied the tactical success he had hoped for by a combination of the difficult terrain, the reluctance of his own troops to push home their advantage and the steadfastness of the British and Portuguese soldiers.

Marshal Soult had seen enough and he withdrew most of his troops east along the river Adour, leaving a large garrison of 10,000 troops under General Thouvenot to defend Bayonne. The battle was over, and Wellington was left in command of the area around Bayonne. Although the fighting on 13 December was officially part of the battle of the Nive, it is often called the battle of St Pierre by the British after the village in the centre of General Hill’s line. The French usually call it the battle of Mouguerre after the small village on the northern ridge where Marshal Soult’s memorial stands.

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