F. C. Beatson's famous trilogy on the genius of the Duke of Wellington as military commander as he led his 'old peninsular army' towards victory is a classic study of the 'great captain of the age' at the height of his powers. It is also an account of the British Army on campaign that encompasses both strategy and tactics together with the personal narratives of the soldiers who took part in these fascinating battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The days of French dominance of Spain and the British war of retreat and defence are over. Everywhere it is Napoleon's French Army that is retiring and it appears that the pivotal battle of Vitoria has heralded their decline. Between the French and their homeland stretches the great natural barrier of the Pyrenees mountain range--difficult terrain ideal for defence. Over the border lay vital resources for the continuance of the war. Marshal Soult believes all is not lost and he intends to throw the advancing Wellington back and regain the offensive.
On reaching Lizaso and seeing the ridge held by the enemy, Soult thought his opportunity had come and ordered D’Erlon to attack. The latter decided to contain the allies’ right and front with Darmagnac’s division, whilst Abbé, supported by Maransin, was to seize a height near Beunza which commanded the allied left, and then moving down from it sweep them off the ridge. Thus the soldiers who had so valiantly opposed each other on the Maya ridge on the 25th were this day again to cross bayonets.<br>
Whilst Abbé commenced his turning movement, Darmagnac’s division, in several columns, connected by regiments of Treilhard’s cavalry division, and covered by swarms of skirmishers, advanced against Hill’s right and centre. Kept off for a time by the fire of the light companies, Darmagnac urgently pressed his attack, and driving in the allied skirmishers pushed up the steep and wooded slopes. But nowhere here could he gain a footing, for the light companies being reinforced from the battalion companies on the crest dashed at the French again and drove them down the hill. Henry, who was attending to the wounded on the hill, thus describes an incident he witnessed in the fight.<br>
At one point the light troops came running in, their faces begrimed with powder and sweat, quite close to the spot where Sir Rowland Hill and his staff were standing. I distinctly saw him turning back some men and heard his words addressing them: ‘Go back my men, you must not let them up You shall be instantly supported. You must not let them up.’ Back they went cheerfully and soon disappeared among the trees and with the aid of a couple of battalion companies, that dashed from the hill at double quick, soon beat down the enemy at this point.<br>
All along the rugged and wooded front of the position it was a fight of small bodies, “the regiments were all partially engaged, companies and even subdivisions all had their turn.”1 On the right, where the ground was more open, a strong French column had assailed the Portuguese, but Ashworth’s brigade met it “ with the greatest steadiness and drove the enemy before him at the point of the bayonet.”
All along the line D’Erlon had failed, for Darmagnac abandoning his role of holding the enemy engaged, had attempted to push his attacks home—all accounts agree that the French advanced with great dash and gallantry—and had been driven back before Abbé had really come into action.<br>
The latter’s column, aiming at the high ground on Hill’s left, when it arrived near the position moved to its right along the front seeking for the best place to ascend. This being seen from above, the 1st British brigade, screened by the trees and brushwood, made a corresponding movement to its left. When the French, having reached an easier part of the ridge, began to ascend the 71st Highland Light Infantry extended in skirmishing order down the slope, the 50th formed line on the crest and the 92nd was formed in two bodies, one half-battalion being moved beyond the left of the 50th to watch for any turning movement on that flank and the other kept as a brigade reserve. All attempts of the French to gain the ridge here were repeatedly repulsed by the 1st brigade reinforced by the 34th regiment and 14th Portuguese, which Hill sent up from the general reserve.<br>
But the rest of Abbé’s division coming up followed by Maransin, they extended still further to their right, and there ascended. The first to reach the hill top was a strong grenadier battalion1 which, issuing from a wood beyond the left of the 92nd wing with drums beating and shouts of Vive l’Empereur, advanced to the charge.
The Highland skirmishers were at once called in. We had four small companies. Thinking it best to meet them half way Captain Seaton gave the command to charge. Our lads moved forward with great spirit to measure bayonets with their opponents, but from such an unequal trial of strength we were unexpectedly relieved by the 34th regiment, who coming in sight just as we were moving forward, gave us three hearty cheers and joined in our offensive.<br>
The French retired when the British arrived within thirty paces of them. Reinforced they again advanced, but the British held their ground. At length, however, the French massed in such strength on the ridge beyond the allied left, that Hill saw the position could no longer be held and about 3 p.m.