The Peninsular War 1808-1814
After the December battle of St Pierre the weather deteriorated with heavy storms until mid-February 1814. Soldiers on both sides spent the time in their billets and operations ground to a halt. Local French villagers found the occupying force treated them better than their own troops had done and relations between the outposts across a short strip of no-man’s-land were friendly. The Allied line of communications was unmolested and attempts by Soult to initiate French guerrilla operations proved fruitless.
Whilst Soult awaited further orders from Napoleon he sought to contain the Allies on a line between Bayonne and St Jean Pied de Port. He expected Wellington to besiege Bayonne and deployed his force with the intention of attacking Wellington’s flank when he came to cross the Adour.
Wellington had other plans. These were to besiege Bayonne with a single corps and to engage Soult in open country with the rest of his force. He conducted a series of successful operations to draw Soult away from Bayonne and cross the Adour using local boats modified to form a floating bridge. Despite serious bad weather the assault troops crossed on pontoons, the boats were manoeuvred into place, the engineers built the bridge, the troops filed across and Bayonne was invested on 27th February.
Monument to Marshal Soult and all ranks of his Army of the Pyrenees
This monument was erected in 1917. Marshal Soult was the Duke of Dalmatia and in 1808 was known to the British soldiers as the 'Duke of Damnation'. By 1813 he was known as 'Old Salt'.
Wellington then went on to defeat Soult at the battles of Orthez on 27th February and Toulouse on 10th April leaving Bayonne under siege. Paris was liberated by the Eastern Allies on 31st March, Napoleon abdicated on 6th April and the monarchy was restored. Wellington received the news by special but slow messengers on 12th April. In the meantime the battle of Toulouse had been fought leaving the victorious Allies with 4,500 casualties against 3,326 French casualties. Wellington heard the news that evening and the messengers were sent on to Soult who queried their validity and delayed an armistice until 17th April.
At Bayonne the French garrison commander heard of the abdication by 12th April but had not been notified officially. Despite not taking any previous offensive action he decided to make a sortie and attacked the British positions with 6,000 men early on 14th April. This resulted in 838 and 905 unnecessary casualties to the British and French troops respectively. The siege continued until the commander acknowledged the armistice and surrendered on 27th April.
Coldstream Guards cemetery, Bayonne
3rd Guards (Scots Guards) cemetery, Bayonne
The photographs in this section were taken over two periods in Spring 2008 and 2009.
Although the war started in 1807 the places shown are those where the British Army was largely, but not exclusively, deployed from 1808. For the Spanish this was their War of Independence and to Napoleon it became the Spanish Ulcer.
The brief narrative omits the path which led to war and also details of the immense roles played by the Royal Navy, the Spanish Army and the guerrilleros. Similarly the extensive operational involvement of the administrative and logistical staff needed to keep the Allied Army in the field, the great contribution made by those of the baggage trains and the wives and women who followed the drum have not been touched upon. Their support, the lists of participants and the wider, fuller aspects of this major campaign in the Napoleonic wars can be appreciated from the following sources:
Chandler, David (1998) A Guide to the Battlefields of Europe, Wordsworth Editions.
Esdaile, Charles (2003) The Peninsular War, Penguin Books.
Esdaile, Charles (2008) Peninsular Eyewitnesses, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
Fletcher, Ian (2002) Badajoz 1812, Osprey Publishing.
Glover, Michael (2001) The Peninsular War 1807-1814, Penguin Books.
Grehan, John (2004) The Lines of Torres Vedras, Spellmount.
Hall, Christopher D (20040 Wellington’s Navy, Chatham Publishing.
Haythornthwaite, Philip (2004) The Peninsular War, Brasseys.
Holmes, Richard (2001) Redcoat, Harper Perennial.
Humble, Richard (1974) Napoleon’s Peninsular Marshals, Purcell Book Services.
Longford, Elizabeth (1992) Wellington, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
McNish, Robin (1978) Iron Division, Ian Allen Ltd.
Montgomery of Alamein (1968) A History of Warfare, Collins.
Paget, Julian (2005) Wellington’s Peninsular War, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.
Riley, J P (2000) Napoleon and the World War of 1813, Frank Cass.
Urban, Mark (2001) The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, Faber and Faber.
Urban, Mark (2004) Rifles, Faber and Faber.
The former Anglican church in Biarritz was opened in 1861 and has a memorial entrance hall devoted to the regiments, officers and men who died in the battles on French soil in 1813 and 1814.
Amongst the memorials associated with these battles there is a
plaque to the Royal Navy officers and men who died whilst
building the bridge of boats to cross the River Adour in 1814.
The church is now the Historical Museum of Biarritz.