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The Peninsular War


1813: Into France

With the fall of San Sebastian, part of Wellington’s army could now move into France without fear of an attack in their rear. However, Wellington did not push hurriedly into France, as he did not wish to provoke a strong reaction from Napoleon until the position in central Europe was clearer.

Only in early October did his army move to cross the Bidassoa. In the battle that resulted, the French were pushed back on all fronts, as Wellington took advantage of information supplied by the locals that the river’s estuary was fordable at low tide to achieve complete surprise. Although the fighting in the centre was fiercer, as the French had dug in on the Grande Rhune which dominated the area, the allies still prevailed, with the Spanish troops particularly fighting well.


The Battle of Nivelle


The French pulled back and began preparing earthworks to the north and south of the River Nivelle to defend against the inevitable assault. Shortly before Wellington’s attack on 10th November, news arrived from Germany that Napoleon had been defeated at the Battle of Leipzig (sometimes called the Battle of the Nations), which demoralised the French, whilst encouraging the allies.

Although Soult was able to deploy conscripts into his earthworks, and in all had around 60,000 men at his disposal, the balance had now tipped decisively in Wellington’s favour, as his army amounted to over 80,000 infantry.

In a bold attack Wellington stormed the petite Rhune in the centre (a hill to the north of the Grande Rhune which had featured in the Battle of Bidassoa) with the Light Division, whilst his right flank also pressed forward. Both moves encountered some resistance, but were able to push the French back. This is more surprising considering that many of the French had occupied rapidly constructed forts, but although the British brought ladders with them to storm these forts, they were not needed as the French abandoned them rather than fight. In a comprehensive victory, the French lost around 4,300 casualties to the Allies’ 3,300.

With this success, Wellington was content to only make a small advance into France, again not wanting to provoke a forceful reaction from Napoleon. His army crossed the Nive on 9th December, in what was a move that contained calculated risk, since the river ran due north, effectively cutting his army in half. Soult responded by trying to break through Wellington’s centre on the 10th, but the assault was brought to a halt by Wellington’s Light Division. As the Nassua and Frankfurt troops in Soult’s army began to desert en-masse, the French General paused, allowing his men time to rest whilst he planned his next move.


Rowland Hill

By William Salter


Soult’s next attack, on 13th December, was launched against Hill’s contingent of 14,000 men on the right bank of the Nive. Wellington had planned for this, building a new bridge over the river, but heavy rain carried this away, leaving Hill’s men exposed for a few crucial hours. Despite an overwhelming advantage in numbers, Soult’s men made slow progress in the face of stubborn resistance, particularly from Hill’s Portuguese units, who held out until reinforcements arrived. In this final instalment of the Battles of the Nive, the French lost around 6,000 men, compared to the Allies 5,000. However, it was the failure of the numerically superior French force to break their vastly smaller opponents which spoke volumes. Having set out from Portugal just seven months earlier, Wellington’s troops had won a string of major engagements with the French in rapid succession. The Peninsular War wasn’t over, but there was no question about who was in the ascendency.


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Interested in Learning More?

Rory Muir, Wellington: The Path to Victory (Yale: Yale University Press, 2013)


Charles Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Penguin, 2003)


Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923)

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