Wellington's contribution to the end of the Napoleonic Age
Napoleon's bright star is fading and following his Russian defeat and further setbacks in Northern Europe his back is against the wall .The great powers are advancing on his borders and the beleaguered French have few resources in men or material that compare to those opposed to them. Now the Emperor must face advancing armies on two fronts-because the war in Spain has been effectively lost and his army under Soult is being pressed back over the borders of the French motherland by the dogged military genius of the Duke of Wellington and his 'Old Peninsula Army', a body of men of whom he would say 'he could go anywhere and do anything!' The mighty barrier of the Pyrenees has been crossed and now the campaign is moving into Southern France where the difficult fighting in the 'gaves' or torrential ravine country of the highlands is taxing for the attacker and favours a desperate defender. The drama is nevertheless drawing to a close as the curtain is about to be drawn on the golden epoch that is the First Empire. Pitched battle lies ahead and at Orthez. This would be a particularly desperate affair as the 'eagles' are finally brought to bay. Only Toulouse would follow and by this time Napoleon would be close to his abdication in Paris. This final chapter of F. C. Beatson's brilliant trilogy shows the 'captain of the age' at his most inspired and makes all three books essential additions to any Peninsular War library.
Meanwhile, Wellington, who had arrived on the field from Isturits, and had ordered Hill to send Morillo’s division by the long spur which runs eastward towards St. Palais to turn the enemy’s left flank and cut off their retreat by the road from Garris to St. Palais, rode up to Pringle’s brigade of the 2nd division, which was on the left of the line holding the spur to the north of the existing main road with Barnes’ brigade and the Portuguese brigade of the 2nd division in its rear on the same spur, and Byng’s brigade on the lower ground south of the road. The time, all accounts agree, was about an hour before sunset, and may be taken as about 4 p.m. To General Pringle Wellington gave the concise order, “You must take the hill before dark,” and sent the same to General Byng and the Portuguese division. “The expression caught the attention of the troops, and it was repeated by Colonel O’Callaghan, as he and General Pringle placed themselves at the head of the 39th, which, followed by the 28th, rushed with loud and prolonged shouts into the ravine.”1 It was not the expression only which influenced the troops, but also the fact that the Commander of the Forces himself was present and had given the emphatic order. That Wellington was there and spoke as he did was probably for that very purpose, for, anxious as he was to get possession of the river crossing, he knew that if he appeared himself everyone would consider the matter one of great importance.2 To the tired and hungry soldiers, moreover, the hill represented food and rest, so with cheers and the bugles sounding the advance they went for it with a will.
The French fire was heavy, but the timber gave cover, and, though General Pringle fell wounded, there was little loss in ascending the hill. As the 39th reached the summit, the French there, probably imagining from the cheers and noise that they were about to be attacked by a much larger force, retreated somewhat toward their centre, and the 39th gaining the summit, swung round to their right, so as to sweep along the ridge. Then came the French charging back with the bayonet, and many fell on both sides; driven off, they twice came back again. Meanwhile, the 28th being now up, checked them by their fire, and the leading troops of Byng’s also reaching the top, a sharp fight ensued, and the French right was driven off the hill. Then Harispe realizing the strong determined attack, for the leading brigade of the Portuguese division was also moving up, and that if he delayed any longer his retreat would be cut off by Morillo, now broke off the action, and the French retreated on St. Palais, having lost about 500 men, of whom about 200 were made prisoners.
Dr. Henry,1 the surgeon of the 66th Regiment in Byng’s brigade, thus describes its advance:
At the time General Byng’s brigade attacked there was hot work going on on our left, where General Pringle’s brigade, having crossed the deep ravine, mounted to the top of the position and were there strongly opposed. When Byng’s column was ascending the hill it was one blaze of fire from the enemy’s skirmishers behind trees and fences on the summit. This was for the greatest part as harmless as fireworks, the balls going over our heads. Our men soon reached the summit, scattering the enemy and taking some 200 prisoners. This was altogether as showy a piece of fighting as ever I witnessed; the brilliant musketry along the hillside and from the crest of the hill, the cheering of our men as they mounted, and the continual advance of numerous bugles, the roar of our artillery reverberating in long echoes from one side of the ravine to the other; all was martially grand and fine.