The life of Wellington’s hard swearing and fighting subordinate
For casual students of the Napoleonic age Sir Thomas Picton might be most notable for his death at the Battle of Waterloo where he was killed by a shot to the head, aged 56, while driving his infantry forward in a bayonet charge against d’Erlon’s French Army corps early in the conflict. A Welshman, Picton was known to be difficult man, naturally aggressive, short of temper and given to prolific cursing. Nevertheless, he rose from comparatively humble beginnings, one of twelve children, from the rank of ensign to that of Lieutenant General of the British Army. Perhaps more importantly he became a trusted member on the staff of the Duke of Wellington who, it is well known, would tolerate no officer he did not know to be a soldier and who combined courage with dependability and command capability. After a troubled period in the West Indies, Picton’s military career and reputation prospered and grew during the Peninsular War as the divisional commander of ‘The Fighting Third’. From 1810 onwards ‘the rough and foul-mouthed Devil’ (as Wellington described Picton) fought in most of the principal engagements undertaken in Spain, in the Pyrenees and into the South of France culminating in the final battle at Toulouse in 1814 as Napoleon abdicated. The emperor’s attempt to reclaim the throne in 1815 naturally brought Picton back to his masters side. He was wounded at Quatre Bras, though he kept the fact from his men. Probably never very popular, Picton was a man made for battle and died, the most senior officer killed at Waterloo, the archetypal warrior’s death. This thorough biography is enhanced in this Leonaur edition by a brief overview of Picton’s career.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
About two o’clock Soult commenced the attack; when, as the superior numbers of the French made resistance almost hopeless, Picton, after consulting with General Cole, resolved to fall back and occupy a more advantageous position in the rear, near Zubiri. Here, therefore, the troops were withdrawn, skirmishing the whole way; but the skill and judgment of Picton stopped every attempt of the enemy to press his retreat and throw him into confusion. They arrived in admirable order upon the ground which they were to occupy, when they were once more thrown into line, and until night closed in, they succeeded in defeating every effort made upon the position.
Soult was thus checked for a while in his advance; still it was not possible to continue the struggle with such an inferiority of force. Picton knew that the position was not tenable without a considerable reinforcement, and that he must ultimately retire. He accordingly resolved to save the fruitless expenditure of life which must result from a continuance of the contest at this place, and determined to fall back upon the villages of Huerta and Villalba, where, by occupying a strong position between the Rivers Arga and Lanz, he would be enabled to cover the blockade of Pamplona. In accordance with this plan, the two divisions were put in motion during the night of the 26th, the march being continued on the ensuing day, followed, but not very closely, by the enemy. Much chagrin was experienced by the officers and men upon this occasion, but the necessity for the measure was apparent to all.
Immediately Lord Wellington was informed that Soult was in motion, he set off to the scene of action; but before his arrival General Picton had taken up a position about four miles from Pamplona: the right, which was composed of his third division, extending along a range of hills on the right of the village of Huerta; and the left, consisting of the fourth division, with Major-general Byng’s and Brigadier-general Campbell’s Portuguese brigade, on the heights in front of Villalba, having their left at a chapel behind Sarausen, on the high road from Ostiz to Pamplona, and their right resting on a height which commanded the road from Zubiri and Roncesvalles; General Morillo’s division of Spanish infantry and a part of the Conde de Bisbal’s corps being in reserve. The cavalry, under Sir Stapleton Cotton, was placed near Huerta on the right, being the only ground which would allow of the employment of this arm.
It was just as these dispositions had been made, and a short time before the enemy commenced the attack, that the Marquis of Wellington arrived. General Picton immediately acquainted him with the whole of his proceedings, and the arrangements which he had now made to meet the advance of Soult. The field-marshal expressed his entire approbation of General Picton’s conduct, and did not consider it necessary to make the least alteration in his present plans. Lord Wellington had, during his journey from the left, issued orders for the direction of the other corps of the army, so that they should move by an organised arrangement to the point of conflict. The French commenced the attack upon the allied position by an attempt to obtain possession of a hill on the right of the fourth division. This was held by a battalion of the fourth Portuguese regiment and some Spaniards, who received the enemy at this post with great firmness, and drove them back in disorder.
But the importance of this post induced Lord Wellington to reinforce it with the Fortieth regiment. Early on the following morning, (the 28th), the sixth division, under Major-General Pack, came up, when Lord Wellington ordered it immediately to occupy some heights and a valley on the left of the fourth division. This had hardly been effected, before the enemy made a movement in considerable force upon the troops in the valley, with the intention of penetrating the line at this point, and thus turning the left of the allies. But the fire with which this column was received, both in front and on each flank, was so destructive, that the attempt was after a short time abandoned; while, to extricate their troops from the dilemma in which this failure had placed them, Soult directed an attack on the height occupied by the left of the fourth division, which was defended by a Portuguese regiment of Caçadores. The French came on in great force and with much impetuosity, and they succeeded in obtaining a brief possession of the hill; but a spirited charge which was on the instant made by the brigade of Major-General Ross speedily drove them back with great slaughter.
The firing was now opened along the whole line. The French advanced with loud cries of “Vive l’Empereur,” and an apparent determination to conquer: but they were young soldiers, drawn by the conscription from the very last resources of the country. They came on with all their national enthusiasm, and exhibited many daring feats of personal heroism; but they were not equal to a conflict with Wellington’s veterans. These had withstood the old warriors who had fought under Napoleon, and they now stood firm and confident until the enemy was within a few yards of their bayonets: then a volley was poured in upon the advancing column which made it stagger. The rear ranks were stopped by the bodies of those who had already fallen, and the raw levies saw, amidst the receding smoke, the whole line moving forward at double-time. The first shock tumbled the leading files back upon their rear, and then drove the whole in confusion down the precipitous heights. The slaughter was terrific; the ground was strewed with dead, while the wounded implored, and received quarter.
Only in a single instance did the enemy gain the slightest advantage during the attack. This was against a Portuguese battalion on the right of the position occupied by General Ross. This battalion having given way, the French succeeded for a short time in establishing themselves in this part of the line; but two British regiments, the Twenty-Seventh and Forty-Eighth, were immediately ordered to drive them from this post: four times these troops charged with the bayonet, and each time did they succeed in driving the enemy before them.
Soult now discovered the hopelessness of the attempt, and after having sustained a severe loss, desisted from any further efforts for that day. The result of this battle showed him that the troops which he now had under his command had no chance of success when opposed to the steady and well-disciplined soldiers of Wellington: he had come into the field with nearly double their numerical strength, but in no one instance had they withstood the charge of British bayonets. This was a disheartening conviction to a general who had so long been accustomed to lead veterans, and who had so often been victorious.