THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER NIVE, 9–12 DECEMBER 1813

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After losing his line along the Nivelle river, Marshal Soult withdrew his army, now numbering 63,000 men, north towards Bayonne, a strongly fortified town which had served as a major supply depot for the French army throughout the Peninsular War. The ancient citadel on the north bank overlooked the large Vauban fortress south of the river, while new earthworks had been dug around the city. The citizens had also been fiercely loyal to Napoleon thoughout his campaigns and for once the French soldiers were made welcome.

While part of Soult’s army deployed in the fortifications south of Bayonne, the rest crossed the river Nive at Cambo-les-Bains and Ustaritz and deployed along the riverbank where they could threaten Wellington’s flank as he advanced towards the city. Any advance against Bayonne was hampered by the terrain and Wellington’s movements were further restricted by the sea to the west and the river Nive to the east. Soult’s troops could watch and wait in their entrenchments while the British infantry had to contend with a labyrinth of walls, streams and woods as they advanced across the rolling hills. The winter weather had also turned the fields in front of Bayonne into a muddy wasteland.

Wellington planned to approach Bayonne from two directions, attacking the flanks of the French army. Rather than confront Soult head on, the British commander wanted to threaten his lines of communication. He now had over 8,000 cavalry, over ten times the number under Soult’s command, but there were few opportunities for them in the rough terrain south of the city. If he could get them across the river Ardour to the east of Bayonne and into the open countryside beyond, the town would be isolated.

Wellington’s plan called for two divisions to move north along the coast road, threatening the French positions around Anglet. In the centre, the Light Division would hold a line of outposts on the hills around Arcangues, connecting the two flanks of the army. The rest of the army would cross the river Nive, south-east of the city, and capture the hills on the far bank, as the start of an outflanking move designed to cross the river Ardour. It was an ambitious plan and Wellington knew that he would have to advance quickly because his army would be separated by the river Nive at a time when the winter weather could cause it to flood.

Marshal Soult had deployed five divisions south of Bayonne and they were well dug in. His remaining four divisions were holding the east bank of the river Nive, where they could threaten Wellington’s flank as he approached Bayonne. D’Erlon’s corps held a strong position on the heights overlooking Villefranque, south-east of the city, while D’Armagnac’s division covered the crossing at Ustaritz and Foy’s division held the bridge at Cambo.

As the allied troops prepared to move against the city, Wellington was forced to reconsider his situation when Spanish troops under his command began to rebel. The authorities had failed to pay many of them, while the logistics chain frequently broke down, leaving the men starving and with no means to buy food. As troops began to plunder villages, taking out their frustration on the local population, the British commander was forced to order the majority of his Spanish troops back across the Pyrenees. Although the order reduced Wellington’s army to 64,000 troops, and cost him his superiority in numbers, he knew that the French population could easily turn against his men, and he did not want to have to contend with guerrilla bands as the French had had to in the peninsula. He summed up the situation in November 1813:

If I could now bring forward 20,000 good Spaniards, paid and fed, I should have Bayonne. If I could bring forward 40,000, I do not know where I should stop. Now I have both the 20,000 and the 40,000 at my command, but I cannot venture to bring forward any for want of means of paying and supporting them. Without pay and food, they must plunder; and if they plunder, they will ruin us all.

Morillo’s division would continue to serve alongside the British and Portuguese soldiers but only after the Spanish commander had been lectured on how his men must behave once they had crossed the border: ‘I did not lose thousands of men to bring the army under my command into the French territory, in order that the soldiers might plunder and ill-treat the French peasantry, in positive disobedience of my orders.’

General Hill’s troops began offensive operations on 16 November and drove General Foy’s outposts from the west bank of the Nive in front of Cambo, but then the weather closed in. Heavy rains turned the roads into quagmires, soaked the men’s powder and turned the river Nive into a raging torrent. Engineers were unable to launch their pontoon bridges into the floodwaters at Ustaritz in General Beresford’s sector, while the fords in Hill’s sector became impassable. The only advantage for the allies was that the French outposts had to withdraw before they were cut off. It was the start of a prolonged period of bad weather and while the allied troops searched for shelter, Wellington contemplated the risks involved in the forthcoming operation. For the next three weeks the rain poured down as the two armies huddled miserably beneath their tents on either side of the flooded river.

The skies eventually cleared at the beginning of December, and as the floodwaters receded the allied troops made their final preparations for the attack. The advance on Bayonne began on 9 December when 15,000 men advanced from St Jean-de-Luz astride the coastal road towards Bayonne. General Hope’s 1st Division led with Hay’s 5th Division following, alongside Aylmer’s, Bradford’s and Campbell’s independent brigades. After crossing the river Tanque where it cut through a deep valley, the British troops advanced on to the heights beyond, forcing the French outposts back to their earthworks around Anglet. By nightfall the 1st Division had established a line of picquets on the slopes overlooking the village, but Reille’s position was never in danger. General Hope decided that the 1st Division was capable of holding Anglet on its own and the 5th Division was ordered to withdraw 5 kilometres to the south and camp for the night; the independent brigades were allowed to return to St Jean de Luc. As the advance went to plan on the left flank, the Light Division moved forward in Wellington’s centre on to the heights overlooking Arcangues village, maintaining contact between the two wings of his army.

The main attack was to take place along the river Nive. More than 13,000 men under General Hill’s command were roused from their billets in front of Cambo while it was still dark and moved down to the river bank. At dawn the sight of a beacon burning brightly against the grey sky signalled that the battle was about to commence. To the south, Morillo’s Spanish division crossed the river at Itzatza (Itxassou) and climbed the slopes towards General Paris’s troops holding Mount Ursouia. This was only a feint attack but it was enough to stop the French moving north to threaten the crossing at Cambo.

In the centre, General Hill’s 2nd Division and General Le Cor’s Portuguese division headed down to the river bank north and south of Cambo, and officers shepherded their companies as the men queued up to cross at three fords. General Foy had posted a strong guard around the bridge in the centre of the village but the floodwaters meant that he had not been able to maintain outposts at the fords. As the British and Portuguese troops waded into the chest-deep torrent they held their powder and muskets above the freezing water. General Foy’s infantry maintained a heavy fire from the far bank but the two divisions quickly deployed on the far bank and returned fire before charging. The village of Cambo and its bridge were soon in allied hands, and as cavalry and artillery poured across the bridge the French began to withdraw. The daring crossing had been a total success and Wellington was able to order an advance north along the river bank.

Wellington’s main attack was in the centre around the village of Ustaritz, which sat high on a ridge overlooking the wide, open river valley. General D’Armagnac had been unable to establish a strong defensive line on the east bank and the allied guns posted on the heights kept the French at bay while the engineers launched their pontoon bridge. General Beresford ordered Picton’s 3rd and Clinton’s 6th Divisions across and they fanned out on the far bank, driving the French before them. The experienced British soldiers advanced rapidly against the green French troops and by the time Cole’s 4th and Walker’s 7th Divisions had crossed, over 26,000 men were on the far bank.

The three French divisions were powerless to stop Hill and Beresford and by nightfall their two footholds had expanded to form a single 8-kilometre-wide bridgehead on the east bank of the river Nive. Marshal Soult chose to abandon Mount Ursuoia and withdraw from the high ground overlooking the British positions so he could concentrate his troops around Villefranque. Although he had lost this battle, Soult was determined to win the campaign. The withdrawal north towards Bayonne was seen by many as a sign of defeat but as Wellington’s troops settled down for the night, the French divisions were on the move once more.

The French commander believed that Wellington had made a mistake in moving so many troops to the east bank of the Nive and he was determined to make him pay for it. As rain fell across Bayonne over 25,000 troops left their camp fires burning and marched into the city. Five divisions moved through the dark streets and deployed south of the city ready to attack in a bold move to strike back at Wellington’s weakened left and centre. Soult wanted to attack quickly before the British commander could move his troops back to the west bank of the Nive.

Despite the appalling weather some 50,000 French troops were in position before dawn on 10 December and ready to attack. Reille’s corps was waiting to advance down the coast road towards Hope’s position around Anglet while Clausel’s corps faced the Light Division. D’Erlon’s corps was poised to advance down the west bank of the river Nive, cutting the British army in two. Wellington, however, was unimpressed by the marshal’s plan and confidently stated that he ‘has lost his numerical advantage by extending himself in this manner and I intend to attack him in the false position he has adopted’.

General Reille’s corps led the attack down the coast road towards the 1st Division and soon drove the Guards picquets from Anglet, forcing General Hope’s men to fall back in confusion across the river Tanque, where they made a stand alongside Campbell’s and Bradford’s Portuguese brigades. Although French dragoons overran the 1st Portuguese Line, another more solid line was soon formed and Reille’s men were stopped in front of Chateau Barrouillet, the home of the Mayor of Biarritz.

Undeterred, Reille ordered the rest of his corps forward. While General Villatte’s division reinforced the attack down the coast road, General Foy advanced inland through the village of Pacho and forded the upper reaches of the river Tanque to outflank General Hope’s precarious position. As soon as this manoeuvre was spotted by British outposts, Wellington was notified and he ordered General Hay to move his 5th Division forward to counter the move. Lord Aylmer’s brigade arrived just as the French were about to attack the 1st Division’s flank and Wellington galloped up to the 85th to offer them encouragement: ‘You must keep your ground, my lads. Charge! Charge!’ The two lines of redcoats did exactly what was asked of them, opening fire as the French infantry closed in and charged. The 85th stopped Foy’s attack in its tracks, giving the 1st Division time to reorganise and prepare for the next onslaught. This was, however, the high point of the French assault: Reille had lost the advantage. General Hope was able to cover the south bank of the river Tanque and turn his right flank at an angle to face Foy’s attack. Time after time the three French divisions tried to break the British but the line repeatedly triumphed over the column and after several hours’ fighting Reille gave the order to withdraw.

While the 1st Division was fighting for its life, the Light Division faced the full weight of Clausel’s corps. The picquets fell back in front of the three French divisions, abandoning the high ground around Bassussarry, as General Alten checked the deployment of his troops around Arcangues, 3 kilometres to the south. He had chosen a strong position and the French found marshy ground blocking the way forward in many areas. It would have been suicidal to push columns forward on the flanks and Clausel ordered them to wait until the Arcangues ridge had been taken.

The 43rd Regiment was deployed around Arcangues church and stood directly in the path of the French onslaught. Alten’s riflemen took cover where they could, some using the churchyard wall and the headstones for cover. Others broke into the church and lined the galleries inside, smashing the windows to get a better shot at the French. Clausel needed to deploy his gun batteries as close as he could to the 43rd to give his men the advantage they needed but as soon as the gun teams appeared on the ridge around Arcangues chateau, the riflemen opened fire. They were some 400 metres away, at extreme range for riflemen, but dozens of French artillerymen and horses were shot down as they tried to take aim, firing roundshot at the church. It was an unequal fight but the Goliath of the duel was eventually forced to retire and Clausel’s horse teams withdrew to a safe distance, leaving twelve guns abandoned on the ridge.

By the afternoon of 10 December, Soult’s ambitious plan was in tatters but General D’Erlon was ordered to make a final attempt to drive a wedge between the two wings of Wellington’s army. D’Armagnac’s division was ordered forward and advanced along the west bank of the Nive, aiming to outflank the riflemen holding Arcangues. Again the outcome was the same. The outposts abandoned their positions near Villefranque and fell back towards Ustaritz. The French columns found General Le Cor’s 7th Division waiting for them on the far side of a stream and once again the lines of British and Portuguese troops stopped the columns in their tracks.

As the light began to fail, Soult had to admit that his plan had failed; his men were exhausted after their long night march followed by a frustrating battle in the heavy rain. The situation did not improve during the night for the French when three battalions of German troops deserted after hearing news that Napoleon had been defeated at Leipzig in October.

Meanwhile, Wellington spent the night deploying his army, shifting troops from west to east to counter further attacks. The 4th and 7th Divisions moved to St Jean de Luc to help General Hope defend the coast road. The 3rd and 6th Divisions had also crossed the river Nive to reinforce the Light Division and took up positions north of Ustaritz.

By the morning of 11 December the advantage had shifted in the allies’ favour. Wellington knew where the French were likely to attack and French morale had plummeted after two days of fighting and marching without success. Even so, Soult was determined to continue and Reille renewed the attack across the river Tanque, taking the 1st Division by surprise. The British picquets were overrun and as they fell back General Hope found himself on the defensive. His battalions suffered over 400 casualties in the opening attack and they fell back over 1.5 kilometres, losing the village of Barrouillet and its chateau. Despite the initial shock, the 1st Division rallied on the 4th and 7th Divisions, bringing Reille’s attack to a halt.

Soult’s options were running out and a final attack on 12 December ended in failure when Reille’s exhausted corps fell back from the river Tanque to the fortifications around Anglet. Casualties had been high–around 1,500 on each side–but the French commander refused to accept defeat. Although his attempt to break the allied positions on the west bank of the river Nive had failed, Marshal Soult had not given up trying to drive Wellington’s troops back from the outskirts of Bayonne. He would once again move his men through Bayonne and shift his attack to the opposite flank.

British Troops Engaged during the Battles of the Nive

1st Division General Sir John Hope

Howard’s Brigade 1/1st Guards, 3/1st Guards, 1 Coy 5/60th

Stopford’s Brigade 1/Coldstream, 1/3rd Guards, 1 Coy 5/60th

Hinuber’s Brigade 1st, 2nd and 5th Line KGL

Halkett’s Brigade 1st and 2nd Light Battalions KGL

2nd Division General Stewart

Barnes’s Brigade 1/50th, 1/71st, 1/92nd

Byng’s Brigade 1/3rd, 1/57th, 1st Prov. Bttn (1/31st and 2/66th)

Pringle’s Brigade 1/28th, 2/34th, 1/39th

Ashworth’s Brigade 6th Portuguese Line, 18th Portuguese Line, 8th Caçadores

5th Division General Leith

Greville’s Brigade 3/1st, 1/9th, 1/38th

Robinson’s Brigade 1/4th, 2/47th, 2/59th, 2/84th

Lord Aylmer’s Brigade 2/62nd, 76th, 85th

De Regod’s Brigade 3rd Portuguese Line, 15th Portuguese Line, 8th Caçadores

6th Division General Clinton

Pack’s Brigade 1/42nd, 1/79th, 1/91st, 1 Coy 5/60th

Lambert’s Brigade 1/11th, 1/32nd, 1/36th, 1/61st

Douglas’s Brigade 8th Portuguese Line, 12th Portuguese Line, 9th Caçadores

Light Division General Alten

Kempt’s Brigade 1/43rd, 1/95th, 3/95th

Colborne’s Brigade 1/52nd, 2/95th

Portuguese Brigade 1st and 3rd Caçadores, 17th Line

Portuguese Division General Le Cor

Da Costa’s Brigade 2nd Line, 14th Line

Buchan’s Brigade 4th Line, 10th Line, 4th Caçadores

Bradford’s Brigade 13th Portuguese Line, 24th Portuguese Line, 5th Caçadores

Campbell’s Brigade 1st Portuguese Line, 16th Portuguese Line, 4th Caçadores

Cavalry 13th Light Dragoons, 14th Light Dragoons, 16th Light Dragoons

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