Warning: Mature Adults only
After Wellington defeated Soult at The Nivelle on November 11, 1814, Soult had few options available to him. His army was in disarray and dispersed. He had lost almost 5,000 of his force, nearly ten percent of his effectives, Soult could see that Wellington was in position to cut his army in half and then defeat each half in detail. He chose to withdraw towards Bayonne, so he ordered a general retreat of the army to his next line of defense. Under the cover of severe rain storms, he pulled back to the line south of Bayonne.
The Bayonne line was anchored on the right by the Bay of Biscay. Bayonne city lay astride the River Adour which ran east to west to the Bay and the River Nive, which flowed south to north to join the Adour at Bayonne. Soult positioned Lieutenant General Reille’s corps formed the right of the line in the cul de sac formed by the Bay of Biscay, Adour and Nive. Lieutenant General Clausel’s corps held the center in the front of Bayonne and the Bayonne defenses. Lieutenant General Drouet’s, the Comte D’Erlon, corps was in position on the left and from that location could descend on Wellington’s right as they advanced. Soult’s forces
Wellington advanced slowly behind Soult. He was waiting for information about the Allied armies’ battle with Napoleon at Leipzig. By December 9, the weather had improved and Wellington’s forces were in place to attack.
Soult had been surprised at Nivelle. Cresson’s attempts to find out Wellington’s plans are in the realm of possibility. Instead of playing defense only, Soult could have gone on the offense. If Soult was able to significantly defeat Wellington, the outcome of negotiations with the Coalition leaders could be more favorable to France. Soult was not able to divine Wellington’s plan so waited for Wellington to make his next move.
Wellington attacks began on December 9, with Hope’s wing divisions on the west bank of the Nive. Hill’s wing divisions at multiple fords crossed the Nive to attack D’Erlon’s corps. Both forces were successful in the face of the French and the weather. Hope’s force pushed north as far as the defenses outside Bayonne. Hill slowly advanced against D’Erlon, but was concerned about his supply route as the Nive flooded under the amount of rain. Both generals slowed or stopped their advances. Hope even withdrew many of the leading units to leave only patrols to define the forward progress.
By night, Soult’s forces had fallen back to their next defense line. The forts around Bayonne were strong. He was willing to let Wellington try to assault these forts. The storming of forts from Portugal to France had repeatedly taken the British a long time and at the cost of many men. Soult still wanted to inflict a decisive defeat on Wellington more than just delaying progress into France. He decided that there was an opportunity to concentrate his army against Hope. The city of Bayonne and its bridges supported him to move his army on interior lines. He decided to move units from D’Erlon to Clausel overnight to attack Hope.
On the 10th, Clausel attacks and surprises Hope’s camps. Hope’s divisions are very disciplined and included the Light Division, which Sharpe had been assigned. Clausel’s divisions led the attack and were fresh. But, D’Erlon’s men were tired from the march through the night to join the attack. As we saw with Sharpe’s defense, Hope’s corps was able to blunt the French attacks. They were able to hold the line until the reserves came to support them.
Reille and Clausel attacked strong positions on a narrow front with artillery and infantry in wet weather. Reille would do this again at Mont St. Jean at Hougomont.]
The Light Division did stop Clausel’s corps in front of Arcangues. The Rifles of Kempt’s brigade used the chateau and the church as forts. Clausel’s artillery dueled with the riflemen in what have should have been an unequal fight. But, the Rifles were up to the task and shot many of the crews and horses so that when the French withdrew, they left twelve guns on the field. Hagman, Harris and Angel with some of the 2/95th have been credited for what was done by their neighboring battalions.
By the 11th, the allied line has passed the test of the attack. Soult was initially excited that his attack had caught Wellington off guard. But, when the British line held, he realized that he could not succeed with the attack and that changing the attack to the east bank could succeed. He cancelled Clausel’s thrust and moved six divisions to the east bank to face Hill, who has not moved. He suspects that Wellington moved forces from the east bank to secure the west bank. Perhaps he could succeed on the east bank now
On the 13th, D’Erlon’s corps attacks Hill. Hill had deployed his units to cover all the approaches from Bayonne. The well seasoned British and Portuguese brigades held the French in front of them. Although Hill was outnumbered, Soult could not move Hills troops. By the afternoon, the French could see reinforcements coming to Hill’s relief. They were personally led by Wellington. Soult’s troops were exhausted. Many of them laid down where they were. Soult realized his attacks were finished. He had already lost 2,000 German troops who had defected to Wellington after word of the defeat of the French at Leipzig. He needed to conserve his force for the next battle. It was time to return to defense.
By December 14th, both Wellington and Soult decided to cease battle. To the north, Napoleon is pressed by the Austrians and Prussians on the eastern borders of France. Wellington is already into France, but is blocked by Bayonne. New battles will be fought, but not until the weather improves in 1813. The British army will be called on to press further into France.