British Engineers 1813

The crossing of the Adour

In the days leading up to 7 October 1813, Wellington tried with evident success to convince the French that his attack, when it came, would be inland, probably around Maya. Soult therefore placed the bulk of his troops in this area, leaving the mouth of the Bidassoa virtually undefended, believing that the river was not fordable. Unfortunately for the French, Wellington knew that it was, thanks to the help of local fishermen. The French had heavily fortified the right bank of the river and their troops were spread over many miles, manning various redoubt and forts. The defences looked impressive but Wellington was confident they could be taken, saying to Captain Harry Smith of the 95th Foot ‘These fellows think themselves invulnerable, but I will beat them out with great ease’. He went on to explain that they did not have enough troops to hold their position. On the morning of 7 October, the attacks were launched. The two main attacks were at the mouth of the Bidassoa and against Vera. Captain Todd RSC, who had been surveying the area for some weeks, was with the attackers fording the river, no doubt guiding them to the fords. Other RSC officers carried out similar roles at the several fords used to get the troops across. As predicted, Wellington was able to outflank and overwhelm the enemy.

Two days later the whole area was in Allied hands and Soult had withdrawn his demoralised troops across the next barrier, the river Nivelle. As soon as the right bank was secured, work started on laying the bridges. Wellington’s orders for the attack stated:

A pontoon bridge is to be thrown across the river near the ruined bridge [at Irun] as soon as it is possible to establish it. To cover its construction and the passage of the troops, the 18-pounder battery and two other batteries are to be placed on the San Marcial heights.

Apart from the number of guns, the 18-pounders would have greater range than anything the French could bring up to try and disrupt the operation. Wellington’s orders also specified a second pontoon bridge further up the river. Burgoyne noted ‘we commenced throwing bridges of trestles, boats, pontoons, etc. over the Bidassoa’. Frazer also wrote that by 10 October there were two pontoon bridges and a third bridge of boats in place. As well as the bridges, new redoubts were started on the right bank. This was the first occasion where a substantial number of Pasley’s trained Royal Sappers and Miners (RSM) were present. Some worked under Lieutenant Piper RE to throw the pontoon bridges across the river at Irun, while another company under Captain Dickens RE built a trestle bridge further upstream. Although these bridges were washed away by the strong current, they were speedily restored. Captain Wells RE was building defences on the Bidassoa, General Hope reporting that working parties had been assigned to him and asked if Burgoyne could look at the ground around the pontoon bridge as he thought ‘that several considerable works may be necessary’. Further east, Captain Pitts RE with another company of RSM quickly erected breastworks at Vera and then proceeded to build several redoubts around La Rhune. Further east again, Lieutenant Wright RE was erecting defences around Roncesvalles. The work done by the Royal Engineers, Royal Staff Corps and Royal Sappers and Miners is often difficult to identify, but these corps made a significant contribution to strengthening the defences to resist French attacks, then in getting the army across the Bidassoa and then building further defences to allow Wellington to retain his toe-hold in France.

For the first time in the Peninsular War there were now sufficient artificers from the RSM to attach companies to divisions in the army. For the next few months they lived and fought with the soldiers and after a shaky start, appreciation of their value grew, Reid, who commanded the company with the Light Division, remarking ‘the arrangement seems to answer. My Company was taken away the other day, which put all the division in a rage. Sappers are thought absolutely necessary now.’ A few weeks later, Reid commented again, that ‘Baron Alten got in a rage and wanted to write to Wellington’ when the divisional entrenching tools were taken away.

For the next few weeks Wellington waited for the surrender of Pamplona and for news from northern Europe. Following a request from Sir John Hope, Captain Todd RSC was employed to improve the roads around Vera to aid troop movements. As mentioned earlier, there was change of command in the Royal Engineers. Elphinstone returned to headquarters on 13 October and Burgoyne was speedily reassigned to Sir John Hope’s force. Elphinstone, having arrived by sea, needed to settle himself in. Writing to his wife he said:

Hitherto I get on famously with Lord W., but he is said to be so violent and capricious that it is impossible for any one to say how long the civility may continue. It was decidedly his wish that I should come up [I do not believe this is true] and I think he is pleased with my coming up as I have done without any regard to my personal comfort … I have purchased a mare … for the enormous price of 80 guineas … In England I should not have paid above 40 for her. I have also purchased a mule for 130 dollars … Ellicombe and myself dine with each other alternately, each party bringing their own plates, knives and forks, as always living with Fletcher he is as badly of for canteen, cook etc. as myself. I shall be very glad to get my new canteens … I am told my coming up is already making a row in the artillery – there certainly will be a breeze, whether I shall stand the squall or not remains to be proved. I heard rather a moderate man say he thought if any officer senior to Dixon [sic, Dickens] remained to serve under him after my coming up they ought to be sent to Coventry by the regiment.

Following the surrender of Pamplona on 31 October, Wellington was free to act. The Allies had superiority in numbers and probably also in the quality of their troops. The next challenge was to pass the river Nivelle. Following the French withdrawal, Soult has set his troops to work building a set of defences on the banks of that river, similar to those that had failed to work on the Bidassoa. The natural defences of the area also assisted the French. Heavy rain and snow now fell and the river levels rose, making crossing difficult, if not impossible. Hope was concerned that the bridges across the Bidassoa could be lost. He wrote to Wellington on 1 November:

We have had torrents of rain last night and it has just been reported to me that the upper bridge, constructed, I believe, by the Portuguese, has been carried away, and that they are in some apprehension the coming down of the materials and other matters carried by the river may injure the Spanish bridge. Burgoyne and Todd are, however, doing what they can to secure it, as well as our pontoon bridge.

Writing again the next morning, he reported ‘I found that a premature report had been made respecting the trestle bridge above Biriatou, which, though in danger, was not carried away.’7 There are a number of interesting points in this letter. Firstly, the Royal Engineers and Royal Staff Corps are once again mixing roles as circumstances required. Secondly, Hope mentions both the Portuguese and Spanish as having a role in the construction of the bridges. Burgoyne had mentioned some weeks earlier that there was a company of Portuguese artificers with engineer officers at San Sebastian. The same day that Hope wrote the letter above, Wellington remarked that ‘Hill, however, being up to his knees in snow, it is absolutely necessary to defer our movement for a day or two’. The weather continued poor and Wellington had to postpone an attack that was planned for 8 November, which was re-scheduled for the 10th. Hope carried out feint attacks around the mouth of the Nivelle at St Jean de Luz, Hill similarly demonstrated around Ainhoue and Beresford made the main attack around Sarre.

The outnumbered and demoralised French put up only limited resistance before once again retiring to the next barrier, the river Nive, and the city of Bayonne. As the French retired from St Jean de Luz on the morning of 11 November, the Allies quickly moved into the town, Burgoyne recording that ‘the bridges … were burning but saved them before much mischief was done’.8 Hope reported the next day that Captain Todd was repairing the bridges at St Jean de Luz and having moved forward to Guethary, noted on the 13th that ‘a pontoon bridge has been established across the stream of Bidart’.9 As Burgoyne was with him, it is likely that he was involved in its construction. Wellington agreed with the need to have the pontoon bridge because a means to move artillery across the river would be the ‘best defence for our posts towards the Nive’, but cautioned that the bridge should be able to be quickly removed. A third bridge had been built across the Nivelle at Sarre by the company of RSM under Captain Pitts. The trestle bridge had been constructed using material taken from a local farmhouse. Pitts, describing the action around Sarre, mentions around thirty redoubts built by the French to defend the area. Elphinstone also recorded the events of the last few days in a letter to his wife:

Good news and I am quite safe and well. Having stated above what is of most consequence to you I shall now add an outline of our proceedings, that is such part of them that I happened to see. On the 10th at 3am I left Vera and went to the advance post where I knew the attack was to commence. Lord Wellington arrived soon after and as soon as it was light, a cannonade commenced on the advance redoubt of the enemy … the gentlemen not approving much of the effects of our artillery, saved us the trouble by taking to their heels … The works were also deserted one after another except one which was the largest and most formidable. This Lord Wellington continued to surround most completely that an officer was sent to advise them to lay down their arms … They then retreated across the Nivelle in such a hurry that they had not time to destroy the bridges. Our people followed them and got into the village of St Pé … It was at this place that I regret to say Mr Power [Lieutenant Robert Power RE] was killed … It is the only casualty in the Corps … we set off to return to Vera at least 3 leagues off, and where we arrived at half past eight o’clock. The ride home was altogether the worst part of the day. It was so dark that they rode with a torch before Lord Wellington to show him the way and we were obliged to follow trusting entirely to our horses … Except a few shots from the first redoubt, the Head Quarters party were never nearer than a mile to the enemy, so that it was nothing more than being at a review. I took out plenty of toast and hard eggs so that I had nothing to do but munch all day. What a fortunate thing it has now been my coming round by water.

I am sure his engineer officers would have been happy to have nothing to do but munch all day! The Allied army’s communications were now divided by two major rivers and the next few weeks was a constant battle to keeping the bridges in place as the winter torrents battered them and trying to move bulky pontoon trains on near-impassable roads.

Once again the Allied army settled themselves in to guarding the crossing-points over the Nivelle. The French destroyed their bridge and tête du pont at Cambo on 17 November and Colville reported that he had ordered Captain Henderson RE to strengthen his piquet defences around Ustaritz to be able to withstand field artillery. Whilst Wellington was keen to press on, the weather made any rapid movement impossible and there was a lull as all the equipment and material was moved into place.

The final action of 1813 was the passage of the river Nive. Wellington wanted to expand the area his troops occupied but also restrict the ability of the French to supply Bayonne. If he could place his troops on the left bank of the Adour, the French could not use the river to bring in supplies. Once again, Wellington decided on three simultaneous attacks. The first column under Hope was to advance up the coast from St Jean de Luz. As part of his advance, Hope was asked to push on to the mouth of the Adour to reconnoitre for the ‘possibility of a bridge being thrown over the river there in some future operations of the army’. Inland, Beresford was to attack in the centre at Ustaritz where the plan was to capture the bridges and if required to thrown pontoon bridges across. Further east, Hill was to attack at Cambo, again with the intention of throwing a bridge across. Detachments of Royal Sappers and Miners and Royal Staff Corps were attached to each of these columns.

The pontoon train was moved up and a pontoon bridge thrown across the Nive at Ustaritz in the early hours of 9 December. Burgoyne, describing the situation a few days’ earlier, wrote:

Five pontoons have been ordered to Ustaritz, to throw a bridge across the Nive, where an island to which we have access, makes it very narrow … There is great difficulty however to get pontoons to the spot, on account of the state of the roads and the heavy rains that have now recommenced; two days of them will probably increase the Nive and stop the operation.

Early that night, the pontoon train was laid from the left bank to the island and in the morning the troops forded the river to the right bank. Once secure, the final part of the bridge from the island to the right bank was completed.

At the same time, Hill forded the river at Cambo with the intention of re-establishing the bridge once the right bank was secure. Burgoyne praised the inventiveness of Sub-Lieutenant Calder RSM:

A bridge was to be made over the Nive above Cambo. It was there 90 feet wide with low banks frequently inundated. – Goldfinch asked Mr Calder if he would undertake it with a few Sappers and some rough carpenters tools only – he said he would – well how will you do it? – why, I’ll cut a large mallet and drive a few piles.

Both these crossing were achieved with surprisingly little opposition. Wellington’s army was now split on both sides of the river Nive with lengthy communications between them. This appears to be what Soult had hoped for, and on successive days he attacked each formation separately. The first attack against Hope seems to have been unexpected and there was hard fighting before the French retreated. The following day, Soult moved his forces back through Bayonne and attacked Hill on the right bank of the Nive. Soult’s superior forces came very close to defeating Hill before reinforcements could arrive. The Allied situation was made more critical by the pontoon bridge at Villefranque being washed away and it was after noon on that day before it was repaired and reinforcements could move to support Hill.

Whilst these actions were taking place, the engineering services raced to stabilise the crossings across the river. Beresford reported to Wellington on 11 November that the pontoon bridge had not been completed the previous night and was still liable to be swamped by the rising river. Consequently, the bridge of boats that had also been thrown across the river could not be moved downstream to the preferred position at Villefranque. This work was under the command of Captain Henderson who had been in the area for a number of weeks and consequently knew it well. Henderson had recovered his reputation with Wellington after being removed from the repairs at Badajoz in late 1812, partly through his conspicuous gallantry at the siege of San Sebastian. The following day, Beresford was more confident but reported the bridges were still not exactly where he wanted them due to a lack of materials and anchors (to hold the pontoons in place against the fast-flowing rivers). He expected to improve them in the following days. Wellington was keen to get the main bridge at Ustaritz repaired as soon as possible so that these pontoons could be removed and placed in reserve for any new opportunity. Burgoyne recorded on 12 December that three bridges were in place at Herraritz, Ustaritz and Cambo. Anton, who served with the 42nd Foot, noted that ‘our artificers lost no time in making the necessary repairs [to the wooden bridge] for the passage of troops and stores’. Frazer also noted that ‘troops were filing over’ the bridge at Cambo ‘which had been hastily and inexpertly repaired’.

As before, once the situation stabilised, the Allied troops dug in. Cole was ordered to dam some tributaries on the Nive and construct breastworks and redoubts to strengthen his front, the main works to be at Garat’s House. The QMG also noted when issuing the orders that Cole would have to do his best as his company of RSM had been removed to work on the bridges. Other engineer officers continued to serve on the general’s staff, Lieutenant Peter Wright noting that ‘he had been drawing all day for Sir Rowland [Hill]’.

Following these engagements, the army went into cantonments through the worst of the winter, but the work of the engineers continued. Elphinstone was engaged in fortifying the area around the mouth of the Bidassoa as the river was to be used to supply the army and more importantly to deny it to the French. Keeping the various bridges in place was a constant challenge due to the bad weather and the torrents coming down the rivers, Frazer noting on 23 December that all the bridges across the Nive had been washed away but would soon be restored. Captain Wells RE had also been dispatched to Santona to assist the Spanish forces that were blockading the port.

Writing to his brother, Lieutenant Harry Jones gave some idea of the internal politics of the Corps under its new commander:

Oh what a difference in the spirit of our undertaking compared with the time of your Sir R. Fletcher. At the present while my division is busy strengthening its front by field works, he [Fletcher] would have been constantly moving about and giving every assistance required; whereas I suppose Col. Elphinstone does not go around the line once in a fortnight and when he does he is so much in a hurry and is so near sighted that he retains very little more than when he left his house. Ellicombe, upon the strength of Lord Wellington’s answer to Sir R. Fletcher when he recommended him for Brigade Major; still keeps the situation, very much to the annoyance of E————e who wishes to have Boteler and is always complaining of it. Ellicombe told him; unless he ordered him to give up the situation he should not do it.

Elphinstone himself had little good to say about anyone. He had waited anxiously to see if he would be mentioned in dispatches for the crossing of the Nive and was disappointed when he was not:

I am not seriously disappointed at not being mentioned, but he mentions the bridges and the attack on the Chateau D’Arcangues – therefore according to the old proverb he might have praised the bridge that carried him over … I send home by this pacquet a very fine military sketch of the position, to General Mann, but [I am] afraid it will be putting pearls before swine.

Having had a bit more time to think about it, he wrote home again:

I am not aware upon what occasion Lord Wellington can have said anything in my favour, but I assure you that he is so uncertain and violent with everybody that you are not certain for five minutes of retaining his good opinion. The only person I know of to compare him to in character is Dfezzan Pasha who had always his ante-room filled with people without noses or ears whom he called his marked men. I firmly believe that he sighs for the same power – a peace is necessary if it is only to put an end to his over grown power and dissolve this army, which is a complete mass of corruption.

Probably his most unpleasant comment was to his wife in January 1814, when he wrote: ‘Don’t you set fire to yourself as poor Dickson’s wife has done – though I don’t know that he would have been very sorry if it had not been put out. It is not being very charitable you will say.’ The only good point about this uncharitable comment is that for the first time he spells Dickson’s name correctly. Dickson’s wife had been involved in an accident in December 1813 and Dickson was receiving updates from the Royal Artillery headquarters on her condition and the care of his children.

In the days leading up to the crossing of the Adour, Elphinstone described his relationship with Wellington and his position in the army:

I assure you I now fair sumptuously every day, and as it happens at present that I am obliged to see a great many people having even Naval officers under my orders; my splendour has its effect. I have had two or three most extraordinary rows with the Peer [i.e. Wellington], but I believe I have come off the victor. The first arose from his being obliged to dismount his artillery to furnish horses for the pontoon train. He was perfectly furious and like a mad man; however I gave up no one point to him, and he personally asked me to dine with him the next day. The next day following he sent for me and took all the platforms we had, to make a bridge across the Adour by the Staff Corps. However, two days after, I received a letter from General Murray to desire I would make the bridge and that the Staff Corps were to be under my orders. Now that he finds he cannot get the better of me by argument he makes me report to him twice a day the progress of the work. It is really quite ridiculous to see us together; he tries all he can to get me to make him promises as to time and I as resolutely refuse it. I told him plainly yesterday [12 February 1813] I would not deceive him, and that I had no one ground upon which I could say when our preparations would be ready. You may depend upon it I am doing right.

Whether he was right or wrong, his behaviour would not have been appreciated by Wellington. Bridges and pontoons would remain a source of tension until the end of the war.


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