As Napoleon's French Army retreated, all hope that it could maintain a hold over the Iberian Peninsula began to fade. By September of 1813 the Allied Army commanded by the 'captain of the age'-the Duke of Wellington-stood on the frontier of France within the area of the estuary of the Bidassoa. Napoleon was being pressed on two fronts, but he still had a large reserve of veteran troops stationed in the south of France to call upon. The time had come to tighten the grip on France. Wellington would now invade it, engage the southern army which it was hoped would spur the Coalition of northern European powers to greater endeavours to bring about its defeat. No longer now an expanding empire, the French were faced with the defence of their own homeland and Wellington was poised for a campaign which would bring a large and prosperous region of it under allied control. It would be a contest bitterly fought as only those with desperate stakes can be. In this ,the second of Beatson's series on the fall of Revolutionary France published by Leonaur, the reader is once again taken into the centre of Wellington's strategic and tactical genius. Every action is described in detail and complemented by the voices of the soldiers who experienced those momentous times.
After capturing the redoubt on the right of the French position Colonel Cameron reformed the 9th and advanced in a single column along the ridge towards the 105th battalion which had reformed about the dip in the ridge over which the main road passes. From here, owing to the shape of the ground, the 105th was able to pour a converging fire on the advancing 9th, whilst the three regiments of Pinoteau’s brigade and the guns fled down the northern slopes of the ridge towards Urrugne. Though suffering heavy loss that gallant regiment was not to be denied; raising “a furious shout” it charged down on the 105th, which did not meet it, but broke and followed the other regiments, and the Croix-des-Bouquets ridge was won.
Wellington now appeared on the captured ridge. Frazer writes:
On ascending the hill we found our troops formed somewhat in advance of it. An instantaneous hurrah burst from the line on seeing Lord Wellington, who rode a little to the left, where the enemy showed a feeble line disputing (with Robinson’s brigade) some wooded ground. He thanked the 9th Regiment on the field for their gallant conduct.
Covered by the light companies the allied columns followed in pursuit of the French, and:
. . . . the skirmishing became as hot as ever, the enemy at this time opened a heavy cannonade on our columns, but at that moment our horse artillery came up at a gallop and opened such a destructive fire on the enemy that they soon gave way in all directions. We did not pursue them far, being called back by the sound of the bugle.”
Some of the German legion troops entered Urrugne, but were driven out of it by the second brigade of Boyer’s division and French gunfire which set fire to part of the village at about 11.30 a.m.
Having gained the strong positions covering the river crossings, Wellington decided to proceed no further, and “at half-past twelve the affair ended by our assuming a position a little retired and nearly on the same one on which the second line of the enemy had rested in the morning.”
By the evening the allied left wing had taken up a line as follows. The three divisions of the 4th Spanish Army held the Mandale heights, on their left was Wilson’s Portuguese brigade in the French camp below the Calvaire hill, which they had taken in the morning: then came Maitland’s Guards brigade of the 1st Division on the Croix-des-Bouquets ridge south of the main road with the German legion line brigade to the north of it. On the left of this brigade was Stopford’s Guards brigade: the remainder of the ground from thence to the sea was held by the 5th Division and the German light brigade. In the rear of this line as a reserve Aylmer’s brigade and Bradford’s Portuguese were on the high ground above Hendaye.
As soon as the action was over, a line was, as if by mutual consent, agreed upon for the positions of the outposts of the two armies; the French keeping possession of Urrugne and of a hill on its right on which stands a small chapel (Socorry).
The outposts of the allied left wing were in contact with the French along the line, Socorry, Urrugne and in the Olhette valley, where the village was held by the Spaniards.
To gain entrance to the valley and use the road was the task of Kempt’s brigade of the Light Division, therefore the French had to be cleared off the hogsback which was necessary also because round its eastern end was the line of advance of Giron’s corps; and with this opened the fighting of the day.
The attack on its western end was allotted to five companies of the 3/95th Rifles under Lieut.-Colonel Ross, supported by the 17th Portuguese Regiment, and right well was it done. An eye-witness says:
Never was a movement more beautifully executed, for they walked quietly up and swept them regularly off without firing a shot until the enemy turned their backs, when they served them out with a most destructive discharge. The movement excited the admiration of all who witnessed it.
an opinion endorsed by the approving cheers raised by their comrades of the Light and also by the 4th Division. The eastern end was cleared by a company of the 43rd and a Spanish battalion. When this preliminary was over the general advance took place about 8 a.m.
Kempt’s and Longa’s right brigades pushed through the gap and into the great ravine, covered by the rifle battalions and Longa’s men. The 43rd moved by the road heading for the Puerto de Vera and the French camps on either side of it, the 17th Portuguese advancing between it and the left of Giron’s corps.
Let us borrow the description of the fighting in the ravine from an actor in it, the leader of the 43rd, and the great historian of the War.
Soon the open slopes of the mountains were covered with men and fire; a heavy confused sound of mingled shouts and musketry filled the deep hollows and the white smoke came curling up above the dark forest trees which covered their gloomy recesses. The French, compared with their assailants, seemed few and scattered, and Kempt’s brigade soon forced its way without a check through all the retrenchments in the main pass, his skirmishers spreading wider and breaking into small detachments of support as the depth of the ravine lessened and the slopes merged into the higher ridges. Longa’s brigade, fighting in the gulf between, seemed labouring and overmatched, but beyond, the riflemen and cacadores of Colborne’s brigade were seen coming out in small bodies from a forest which covered the three tongues of land up to the edges of the platform.
It is now time to turn to the doings of this brigade. Before doing so it may be well to say something regarding its commander, Lieut.-Colonel John Colborne, and his actions prior to the engagement. There were many good battalion and brigade commanders in Wellington’s army, but of these no one perhaps had a higher reputation than he who commanded the 52nd Light Infantry.
In the hard struggles of the Peninsular War his name became so well known and his talents so appreciated, that at the close of it no one, after the great Duke himself, would have been regarded by the army as more fit for the highest commands.
During the short time the camp of his brigade had been near Vera, Colborne was on horseback from morning till night reconnoitring the country over which his brigade would have to act:
. . . . thus when he led the troops into action he knew the ground and was enabled to take advantage of every accidental irregularity that favoured his movement at the moment. He thus inspired the highest confidence in the mind of every officer and soldier whom he led, that whatever they might have to do would be done in the best manner and with the least possible exposure to loss.