The Battle of Orthez

Disclaimer

These notes about the Battle of Orthez are intended purely as a summary for the purposes of readers of the website for the holiday house known as "The Little House at Orthez".  They have been prepared after studying other, more learned, websites, books and documents.  We make no claims as to their accuracy.  For more information see, for instance, http://www.balizetfr.com/battleoforthez.html or, if you can read French text, there is a great deal of detail in http://www.orthez-1814.org 

The Peninsular War

Napoleon had invaded Portugal via Spain in 1807.  In 1808, being deeply esconsed on Spanish soil through this process, he reneged on his agreements with the Spanish, seized the country, and placed his brother Joseph on the throne instead of the Spanish monarch Ferdinand.  Thus began what the Spanish term the "War of Spanish Independence" and the British call "The Peninsular War".

Napoleon more or less managed to retain control of Spain for several years, despite ongoing civil disobedience and guerilla-style resistance.  But right from the start the British had become involved with an eye to protecting their long-term trading ally Portugal.  The British cause would be best served by removing Napoleon (who had banned trade with the British) from the Iberian peninsula.  This would restore Spain to the Spanish as well as securing future British / Portuguese trade. 

By mid-1813 the tide had turned against Napoleon's army, which had been forced to retreat from Portugal and most of Spain, via the north west, by the allied (British / Portuguese / Spanish) forces under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley, who had been made a Field Marshal and created Duke of Wellington in 1813 after his victory at the Battle of Vittoria.   (He subsequently became British Prime Minister and one of the most famous men in British history).  It should be added that there were also small numbers of Swiss, German, Italian and Polish soldiers amongst the allied forces.

Napoleon responded by appointing Marshal Soult (the Duke of Dalmatia) to take command of his forces resisting Wellington, with the aim of driving the allies back to the Ebro in Spain.  Soult reorganised his forces and formed the "Army of the Pyrénnées" from 4 separate armies.

The two remaining French strongholds in Spain, at Pamplona and San Sebastian, were under siege by Wellington, and Soult unsuccessfully attempted to relieve them in late July and late August 1813 respectively, causing considerable losses to the Army of the Pyrénnées.  Apart from these besieged strongholds, the French had largely been forced for the first time back to the Pyrénnées and onto their own national territory.  Both of these French enclaves in Spain were subsequently forced to surrender - San Sebastian in early September and Pamplona at the end of October 1813.

Wellington, at this stage, was held back in his further progress by 2 factors - firstly he had to await the arrival of additional funds from Britain but, secondly, there were also diplomatic problems with the Spanish junta who were hesitant in accepting Wellington's position as overall head of the allied forces.

With the loss of their garrisons, the French retreat from Spain was executed via a series of battles at various rivers (Bidassoa, Nivelle, Nive).  Soult had decided that he would be better to consolidate his position firmly on French soil.  This process takes us through to the end of 1813.

Napoleon's regime was now under severe pressure and the Army of the Pyrénnées was further depleted in early 1814 by the need to send reinforcements to the army in eastern France.  This decision was perhaps influenced by the fact that Napoleon was putting his faith in negotiations of a treaty with the Spanish.  His hope was that, by agreeing to recognise the rights of Ferdinand VII over Spain and by negotiating the exchange of prisoners of war, the Spanish would withdraw their support for the British.  However, even if the Spanish could put on one side the fact that they had been under French occupation for more than 5 years by this time, and that the British had helped to bring this to an end, Napoleon needed the support of different factions within Spain, and negotiating time was far too limited.  His hopes of a treaty to relieve the pressure on the Army of the Pyrénnées were doomed to failure.

Thus, in early 1814, Soult knew that he was not going to be saved by the diplomatic negotiations with the Spanish and that he needed the numerical strength of his army to be raised again.  The Napoleonic armies were formed of conscripts, indeed military historians claim that Napoleon's escapades would not have been possible without the methodical system of conscription.  While this worked reasonably effectively for some years, the gradual extension of conscription as the armies came under pressure contributed to its increasing unpopularity.  Bearing in mind that 500,000 men were lost (either killed, missing in action, or taken prisoner) during 1814 alone, and that nearly 40% of those born in a six year period, 1790 - 1795, were lost as a result of conscription (a considerably higher rate than for the 1891 - 1895 generation in World War I), one can imagine the pressure the system was under.  The 1814 draft of conscripts had been called up a year early and it was the 1815 draft, again taken early, by which Soult was hoping to increase his numbers.  He also knew, though, that these could not be useful soldiers for some months.  Matters were improved for him by Napoleon's order that 12,000 troops from Toulouse should be provided.  Nevertheless Soult still considered that his army was under strength.

The French troops faced other problems.  The local inhabitants were somewhat hostile to the Army of the Pyrénnées which largely lived off the land and, as such, must have felt a little like an occupying force.  The South West took the brunt of French troop requisitions and there was no significant voluntary "join-up" by local men.  In contrast, Wellington's troops were welcomed with comparatively open arms.  He, by and large, had a policy (which he had implemented throughout his time in Spain and Portugal as well as France) of paying cash for supplies obtained locally and of expecting his forces to treat local inhabitants with respect.

Early 1814

Soult's headquarters, by this time, were at Peyrehorade, about half way between Bayonne and Orthez, i.e. roughly 30 km from both.   He stationed a large garrison at Bayonne, which lies on the north bank of the Adour estuary.  This, as well as controlling the lower reaches of the Adour, was strategically important for other reasons.  It would limit Wellington's option to make progress towards the major royalist city of Bordeaux, which had a history of trade with Britain going back some centuries, as well as controlling the possibility for reinforcement / supply from the sea.

From Wellington's point of view the strategy needed to be to push inland to the east to cross the Adour or its tributary the "Gave de Pau" ("gave" is the local word for "river").  If Soult did not shadow this then he could find his army forced into the comparatively inhospitable marshy land to the north to avoid being encircled in the Bayonne area.  If Soult did shadow Wellington's movements to the east, Wellington would aim to give battle far enough east of Bayonne to ensure that Soult's army was sufficiently stretched to be unable to resist a secondary action, a crossing of the river between the main armies and Bayonne which could encircle the garrison at the latter.  Control of the estuary, the port, the city and the river at Bayonne would provide Wellington with a significant opportunity for future re-supply.

As Wellington was moving significant parts of his army north-eastwards from Spain there were a few minor clashes from mid-February onwards.  But, by late February 1814, the French were by and large occupying and controlling the north bank of the Adour and of the Gave de Pau, and the allied forces were to the south of this natural barrier.  For the French to contain the allied forces, or at the very least to delay their progress, control of the crossings of the Adour and the Gave de Pau was very important.  They destroyed all bridges over the Gave de Pau between Bayonne and Pau itself, except for the mediaeval bridge at Orthez.  Their engineers had attempted to blow up the latter but had succeeded only in destroying parts of the parapets, leaving the carriageway intact.

So, by late February we see the strategic position in the Orthez area, the first of the towns inland from Bayonne which could offer, to Wellington, a road striking north, eventually towards Paris itself.  While Soult would have liked to be able to unite with other French forces marching from Catalonia he had reached a point beyond which he dare not stretch further.  With bridges destroyed, he had to use cavalry to guard against the enemy crossing the Gave de Pau anywhere over a distance of 80 km (50 miles).  This means they had to guess, and shadow, the movements of the allied forces along the river and could not, unless resorting to guesswork again, put in place any significant preparatory defences of a slightly more permanent nature to resist such a crossing.

Soult was obviously aware of the danger of handing over to his enemies the strategically placed city and garrison of Bayonne as well as transport routes to the north from Orthez.  Napoleon was also aware of these risks and, although it didn't arrive until after the battle, he sent a written order (via his Minister of War) to Marshal Soult, the Duke of Dalmatia, telling him not to abandon territory without giving battle.

But, when one sees the geography around Orthez, one cannot fail to recognise the possibilities for making a defensive stand that are on offer.  There is a ridge rising from the western edge of Orthez and turning west towards Saint-Boès.  This ridge, along which the main road to Dax still passes, would present a concave arc towards the approaching enemy.  It runs for at least 6 km and, apart from progressing along it, is approachable only via very steep inclines.  For all these reasons we can see why Soult concentrated his army at Orthez.

The Immediate Build-up to the Battle of Orthez

At about 4 in the afternoon of 22 February Soult set up headquarters at la Maison Planté (numbers 1, 3, 5 rue Gaston Planté) in Départ on the south side of the river, Gave de Pau.

On the 25 February a large part of the imperial troops, over 20,000 men under Major General Eloi Charlemagne Taupin, Brigadier Claude Pierre Rouget (who was in temporary command of the 5th division), Major General Jean Claude Barthélemy Toussaint Darmagnac and Major General Maximilian Sébastien Foy, met up to the west of Orthez in the area from Bérenx (9 km from Orthez) to Castétarbe (3 km from Orthez).  Another division (the 6th) of about 4,900 men, under Major General Eugene Casimir Vilatte, was still on the south bank of the Gave de Pau near Orthez moving ahead of a Portuguese division and a British division (plus a cavalry brigade and a troop of horse artillery) which were under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Sir Rowland Hill.  Vilatte would cross the Gave on the 26th to take up positions controlling the bridge and the town.  Meanwhile Marshal Soult had moved his headquarters across the river to the hotel "La Belle Hôtesse" (49 rue St Gilles) in Orthez itself.

The French cavalry, the 15th Chasseurs, trying to keep the allied forces from crossing the river were now, on 25 February, impossibly stretched.  Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton's troops were searching for a ford near Bérenx, where the bridge had been destroyed.  Then on the night of 25 to 26 February the cavalry brigade commanded by Colonel Vivian crossed the Gave de Pau at a ford at Cauneille, just to the east of Peyrehorade.  This was followed on the morning of 26 February by Field Marshal Beresford and 2 of his divisions, the 4th under Lieutenant-General Sir Lowry Cole and the 7th under Major General George Townsend-Walker, crossing the Gave at Peyrehorade (but described as a waist-deep ford between Cauneille and Lahonton in a history of the 82nd Regiment), where he left a regiment to secure the village.  He then pressed forward towards Orthez, sending a detachment up the road to Habas to put in a presence behind the French on the Dax - Orthez road.

The French 15th Chasseurs were now between Field Marshal Beresford (in particular Vivian's 18th Hussars) and Orthez and were therefore having to pull back through Puyoo and Ramous.  At this point they found their route blocked by some of their own infantry, under Foy.  Their ability to patrol the region in which  Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton was seeking a river crossing near Bérenx was therefore compromised and they pulled back further towards Orthez.  Fording of the Gave 'la gué (ford) de la Liberté', 2km west of Bérenx, by the first elements of cavalry (Somerset) under Picton and his 3rd Division was consequently accomplished on 26 February and the allied forces advanced as far as Baigts-de-Béarn, 6 km west of Orthez.  The allies' engineers spent the night building a pontoon bridge at Bérenx to allow the rest of Picton's force to get across the river the next day.

Further to the east, Lieutenant-General Sir Rowland Hill, with General Carlos Le Cor's Portugese troops, had arrived at about noon on 25 February at the heights of Départ / Magret overlooking the old bridge and the town of Orthez from the south of the river.  Portuguese troops were ordered to descend to the area approaching the bridge in the early afternoon to dispute access to it with the light infantry of Major General Jean-Isidore Harispe and Major General Vilatte who were tasked with its defence.  In due course, then, the divisions of  Lieutenant-General Sir Williams Stewart (2nd division),  Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton (6th) and Field Marshal Le Cor (Portuguese Division), plus two regiments of cavalry (13th and 14th Dragoons) and a troop of horse artillery were on the south bank of the river, distributed around the villages of Départ, Magret and Montalibet.  At this stage, Wellington and his headquarters were with these troops.  In the afternoon, a French battery on the hill at Lamouret (on the western edge of Orthez) opened fire on Wellington and his headquarters officers who were assessing the disposition of the French troops from the heights at Magret.  This battery was well placed to cover the road from Bayonne, the old bridge (Pont Vieux), and the slopes from Magret and Départ down to the river.

At about 2pm several of Hill's infantry batallions moved down into Départ and began exchanging fire with the French defenders of the Pont Vieux.  Later Wellington reconnoitred the possibility of gaining entry into Orthez via the old bridge.  Coming under fire, he took refuge at number 13 Place Saint-Loup.  The marks of musket balls can still be seen on the frontage of this building.  Fighting at the bridge continued for the next 2 days.

The French troops had barely arrived in Orthez ahead of Wellington so it is perhaps not at all surprising that on the day of 26 February, the town itself, where the main logistics convoys and supply depots were hurriedly located, is said to have been somewhat disorderly, with a general air of drunkenness.  By the end of the day the French strength was maybe about 36,000 men (although estimates vary between 30,000 and 44,500).

Marshal Soult concentrated his troops in the 6 km long, concave, semi-circular, defensive, position previously described on the heights to the north and west of Orthez, stretching along a rising ridge from the river to the village of Saint-Boès.  He was aiming, by showing his re-grouped army positioned in a strong defensive arrangement, to cause Wellington to re-consider whether this was the place to give battle.  As was perhaps inevitable, this approach, together with earlier failure to engage sections of the allied forces at various points where and when they were exposed, has come in for some criticism after the event.

The position of the extreme right of the French forces, at the very top point of the ridge on the Dax road around and beyond Saint-Boès, can perhaps partly be explained by the fact that it was known that there could well be allied troops arriving from a northerly direction on this road.  Observers had seen some on the evening of 26 February in that direction.  This was possibly the detachment that Beresford had sent via Habas that morning.  However, the main reason for the choice of this position for the French right wing was presumably geographic - there is enough of a plateau to locate a couple of divisions here, and the land falls away in every direction, even in the Dax direction followed by the main road.

The area of Saint-Boès itself, where much of the most intense fighting was to take place was defended by Taupin's 4th Division.  Then distributed successively along the ridge towards Orthez are divisions commanded by Paris, Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy.

Apart from the main deployment along the ridge, Soult gave orders for Harispe's division to protect the town of Orthez (with 2 battalions) and to deny a crossing, by any of Hill's forces, of the Gave de Pau upstream towards Soarns (with 2 battalions of the 115th line).  The rest of the troops (5 battalions) were positioned around the Moncade tower and the Trinité convent in order to lend their support to the positions of the old bridge and of Soarns, and to monitor, in case it were needed, the line of retreat along the road to Sallespisse.  Vilatte's troops stationed themselves during the night near the hamlet of Rontrun, between this same road and the road to Saint-Boès.  From here they were in a position to move to support Harispe, or the positions up to Saint-Boès, as well as, above all, keeping an eye on the Sallespisse / Mont-de-Marsan road (the line of retreat).  Finally, all reserves, the medical personnel and the administration were moved to locations in that direction.

The Battle

It appears, from dispatches, orders, etc. at the time, 26 February, that Wellington did not anticipate the battle starting that day, and possibly not the next.  But he was up and about early on the 27 February reconnoitering the disposition of Soult's forces.  He presumably realised the potential weaknesses in the positioning of his own troops, being split between the two banks of the river.  He would appear to have decided that attack may be the best form of defence and that it was better to be bold, at least in a limited way, while continuing to improve the disposition of the bulk of his forces.  The estimates of the numbers of men available to him by this time vary between 37,000 and 46,400 although it wasn't until later in the day, perhaps noon, that many of these were in a position to take part in an offensive.  These numbers were made up of approximately 1/3 Portuguese and 2/3 British (although the latter included the "King's German Legion") - the Spanish, under Field Marshal Pablo Morillo, having been left in charge of Navarrenx, about 20 km south of Orthez.

Wellington's initial plan was to get round behind the French right wing to cut off retreat of the Army of the Pyrénnées and trap it in Orthez, and initial movements in pursuing this plan began early in the morning.  The 4th division under the command of Cole, to be joined later by the 7th division of Walker, Vivian's 2 cavalry regiments, and a battery under Stewart, all under the overall command of Berseford, were to move east from Baigts-de-Béarn before veering off to their left (north) to engage the French right wing at Saint-Boès.

Before the attack commenced Wellington had established himself and his headquarters at "Le Camp Romain" (the Roman camp).  This is not, in fact, a Roman site but an Iron Age hill fort, well worth a visit by the tourist for that historical interest also.  While quite a lot of the modern panorama from this high point is hidden by trees, particularly in the months in which they bear leaves, Wellington had a commanding view of much of the battlefield.

At about 8.30 am, Wellington ordered the initial attack described above.  To the French right, the forces of Cole began their contact with their enemy at Saint-Boès, which sits on a triangular plateau at the top of the ridge, with Ross's brigade and the Portuguese of Vasconcellos: his aim was to open a passage across the open ground and then skirt round Soult's right wing, defended by Taupin.  The engagements in this area were fierce and sometimes at bayonet point.  The problems for the allied forces were particularly accentuated by 2 batteries of French artillery totalling 28 guns (one battery in the region of the farm named Mousqués and the other at one called Luc).  Ross managed to lead his forces five times into the French defences in the vicinity of the church at Saint-Boès and five times he was forced to retreat through the dead and dying in the face of French cannon fire.  It was during one of these retreats that Ross was seriously injured, although he subsequently recovered.  Some accounts quote words from a Sergeant Donaldson (possibly a Royal Highlander) as saying that "the French resisted doggedly helped by a cannonade by which many of our men were decapitated."  (Perhaps typical for infantry advancing over the brow of a hill).  The process of advance and retreat continued for about 3 hours until noon.

Meanwhile, from early morning until noon, Picton's Division, the 3rd, which had been moving towards Orthez along the old Bayonne road, split into 2 groups, each moving in column; one of these advanced on Darmagnac in the centre and the other towards Foy to his left.  The first column, consisting of 9 batallions under Colonel Keane and the Portuguese Power, advanced via the lane leading into the area known as "le Barat du Rey".  The second column consisting of 3 batallions under the command of Major General Brisbane broke off the old road at Lescoute and headed up the lane via Brana.  As they proceeded, the 2 columns came under artillery fire from the batteries placed at Lafaurie and Escouriet.  They also had difficulties in deploying effectively because of the boggy ground in the region of the stream (Ruisseau de) Caséloupoup.

However, a significant advance was not the intention at this stage.  The main point was to deliberately delay so as to provide cover for Clinton's Division, the 6th, to cross the pontoon bridge at Bérenx which had been put up overnight.  The crossing reduced the vulnerability of Picton's position, to some extent isolated on the north side of the Gave de Pau.  Clinton then followed up, in reserve for the time being, behind the smaller of the 2 groups, the one advancing on Foy.  Foy's orders were to delay Picton and, in so doing, fall back to his proper defensive positions along the main ridge of hills rising up the Dax road.

Finally, from Wellington's point of view, General Hill had been given twofold orders for that morning.  Firstly he was to keep Harispe's Division occupied, especially at the bridge at Orthez, with a Portuguese brigade under Le Cor, to make sure that Harispe could not fall on Picton's slightly vulnerable division.  (Harispe was also being kept occupied by Somerset's brigade of hussars who were attempting to gain entry into Orthez from the old Bayonne road).  Then secondly, Hill was ordered to get the rest of his troops across the Gave de Pau as soon as possible.

These initial operations lasted for most of the rest of the morning.  Wellington had, by now, his centre and his right fully deployed.  Analyses seem to be divided as to whether the precision timing that saw this achieved was a masterpiece of manoeuvre or whether it involved a measure of luck.

Slightly prior to this Soult, who was based in the locality of Lafaurie (near the present day water tower) and Boutou, had been observing the lack of progress of Picton in the centre and had also been kept informed of the success of his right, which he couldn't directly see, in fighting off the repeated attacks of Cole's forces at Saint-Boès.   This had caused him to become confident of victory and he was quoted as saying, of Wellington, "Finally I have him".  But Soult's confidence was premature.

Wellington's own despatches explain how he came to change his plan a little before midday.  He realised the strength of the French around Saint-Boès and also that, each time Ross and Vasconcellos had broken through, the terrain was so tight that they couldn't deploy to attack the hills further down the ridge.  Additionally he had needed to be careful how far he stretched his troops beyond Saint-Boès to the north to attempt to turn the French right. 

However, Wellington now, at about 11.30 am, intensified the pressure on Saint-Boès with a multi-pronged attack using the fresh troops of Walker's 7th Division.  He ordered Anson's brigade, which had also been in reserve, to support Ross in the locality of the church together with one part of Walker's division and two batteries.  A second part of Walker's division, a Portuguese brigade under the command of Doyle, followed one of the routes used in the morning, via the land either side of the gully containing the Montlong stream.  A third part of Walker's division, with Vivian's cavalry, was moved towards the Dax road, from the direction of Bidaluc, thereby reinforcing this position attacking the northern flank of the French right wing at Maysounave.  Then the final segment of Walker's division, the 6th regiment of foot under the orders of Lt. Col. Scott followed successively by the 68th, the 82nd [the South Lancashire Regiment (Prince of Wales Volunteers)], and the Chasseurs Brittaniques, advanced into Saint-Boès via the spur at Barbau towards Loustau along the road nowadays numbered the D315.  This spur, which constricted into a narrow neck with steep slopes either side before reaching the road, was a key location for both sides.  The French had taken up positions to concentrate their fire on this narrow point.  The 6th regiment sustained appreciable losses (2 Lieutenants, 5 NCOs and 19 men killed as well as 119 wounded) before they finally managed to break through and charge the French defenders, by now presumably tired and depleted in number from successfully holding their position throughout the morning.  This French division, under Taupin, was forced to pull out of Saint-Boès and fall back to the Dax road, between its junction with the D 315 at Plassotte and the junction with the D 715 (road to St-Girons), receiving some protection from Paris's division.  But, in parallel with the multi-pronged attack on Saint-Boès, Wellington had ordered the 3rd and 6th divisions to immediately press their attack on the French centre / left (i.e. Darmagnac / Foy).  This helped the allies' 7th division to deploy more fully and put Taupin and Paris under pressure at a time when, because of the action in the centre against Darmagnac, Rouget was unable to offer assistance.

As the attack by the 3rd and 6th divisions built up, the region to the French left of centre was under the command of General Foy and at about 12.30 in the afternoon he was seriously wounded (he subsequently recovered).  This occurred in the proximity of his memorial monument, nowadays somewhat overgrown, at the junction of the Dax, Amou and Bonnut roads.  This position was shielded from direct British fire.  His own account describes this :-

«J'allais à pied sur le mamelon pour observer les mouvements des masses anglaises et régler les miens en conséquences; comme je revenais à ma première brigade, un boulet à la congrève éclate à six ou huit pieds au-dessus de ma tête; une balle sortie de ce boulet creux me frappe à l'extrémité inférieure de mon omoplate.»
"I went on foot onto the knoll to observe the movements of the English troops so as to adjust my own troops accordingly; as I returned to my first brigade, a congrève ball exploded six or eight feet above my head; a ball from this hollow shell struck me at the lower end of my shoulder blade"

[N.B. Colonel (later Sir) William Congreve developed a rocket for use by the armed services.  His designs made it possible to choose either an explosive (ball charge) or incendiary warhead. The explosive warhead was separately ignited and could be timed by trimming the fuse length before launching. Thus, air bursts of the warheads were feasible at different ranges.  They carried shot which was ejected like shrapnel by the embedded gunpowder charge.  The smallest of these rockets weighed just 3 to 12 pounds (larger sizes went up to 60 pounds), and could be easily deployed by infantry units - a forerunner of the modern-day rocket propelled grenade, RPG.  "Congreves" were used in the Peninsular War from 1812 onwards.]

The progress of Brisbane's brigade (3rd division, i.e. Picton), by way of Brana and up the spur to Escouriet was taken up by Clinton's division (the 6th) causing Foy's division (under the command of Brigadier Joseph - François Fririon after Foy received his wound) to fall back to the east of the Dax road, and off the line of the ridge, in the region immediately around and to the north of where the monument to the battle is now located.  This progress was a bloody affair for Brisbane's men but the outcome not only caused the French battery at Escouriet to retire with their infantry but enabled the allies to establish their own battery in its place.  A French cavalry squadron (the 21st Chasseurs under Captain Leclaire) was subsequently used to charge the British battery, sabres drawn, but committed themselves at too great a distance and were driven back into a cul-de-sac where men and horses were decimated by the artillery fire (only 7 escaped).

Meanwhile the remainder of Picton's division forced their way up the slopes in the region between Boutou and the junction of the Amou and Bonnut roads with the Dax road.  With footholds on the ridge Picton's pressure caused Darmagnac to pull back eastwards, initially along the direction of the road now numbered D 56. 

The successes for Wellington's centre, described in the two preceeding paragraphs, came about at around 2.30 in the afternoon.

The other significant element of Wellington's revised plan was somewhat ad hoc based on a brief recce of the ground - he ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Colborne, who commanded the Oxfordshire light infantry (the 52nd) as part of Colonel Barnard's brigade, to descend from the "Roman camp", a hillock, to cross the intervening marshland, and attack on the left flank of those French (Taupin's Division) who jutted out on a hilltop spur at Saint-Boès and who threatened the allied progress into the village.  The focus of this attack by the 52nd was in the region between "Plassotte" at the junction of the road into Saint-Boès with the main Dax road and the farmstead called "Luc" where one of the troublesome artillery batteries was located. The men of the 52nd crossed the swamps under French fire then, covered in mud, threw themselves on the French flank in a position which was, earlier in the day, protected by Rouget, to the right of Darmagnac.  Unfortunately the records are not entirely clear about the French dispositions in the "Luc" area at the time the 52nd reached the ridge.  Indeed there are 3 distinct hypotheses about what precisely went on, and why. 

Whatever the cause, the 52nd did not face the full might of Rouget's division.  They arrived on the Dax road at about 2pm, making contact with Cole's forces.  This breakthrough put Taupin's forces in real trouble, in the triangle of high land at Saint-Boès, as well as removing the threat of the French battery located at Luc.  Saint-Boès was no longer defensible by the French and, in the resulting fury, Brigadier Jean-Pierre Béchaud was killed, amongst many others.  There is a memorial plaque to Béchaud on the wall of the school at Saint-Boès.  By 2.30pm, Taupin is on his own, those previously supporting his position (Paris, Rouget, etc.) having started to retreat eastwards.  Although their situation might appear hopeless, at around 3 o'clock they managed to escape down the gully heading east from Plassotte, near the water tower, towards Laplace, manhandling all but two of their artillery pieces down with them brazilian hair.

So by now the whole of the French force is on the move, to Soult's orders.  But in Wellington's revised plan, Lieutenant-General Sir Rowland Hill and his 12000 men had been ordered to cross the Gave de Pau to prevent Harispe attacking the flank of the 6th division and also to launch a final attack to gain victory.  Hill left a small force harassing the old bridge (Pont Vieux) in Orthez and, with the bulk of his men, crossed the Gave at a ford at Lartigué, between the modern lake at Biron and Soarns.  He managed to occupy the higher ground immediately above the river, which had been defended by two French infantry batallions (115th), and blocked any possibility of French retreat along the road to Pau.

The retreat towards Sallespisse was risky because of the geography of the region.  It was therefore, initially at least, executed slowly, step by step, leaving many casualties on both sides.  But General Hill, observing the French circumstances, quickly advanced his division, and Brigadier Henry Fane's dragoons reached the hill at Tury overlooking the line of retreat.  In the face of this imminent danger of seeing their line of withdrawal cut, the French retreat became faster and confused.  But Hill forced the pace against the French who, inevitably, faced with the circumstances, scattered in all directions, towards the Gave, and towards Sault de Navailles.

It was, by then, after 3pm.  The British cavalry was in pursuit of the French and the 7th Hussars first overtook Harispe's division.  During one of the charges, 300 soldiers were sabred and 2000 threw down their weapons.  Further on, the 7th Hussars took 17 officers and 700 men near Sault de Navailles.  The pursuit continued towards the river Luy de Bearn, 7 km from the battlefield.  Donaldson told that "there were so many soldiers who put their weapons on the ground that it became difficult to find a way through."

At 4pm Wellington (who had also sustained a minor wound, a badly bruised hip from either a musket ball or canister shot hitting his sword hilt / scabbard) made a grand entrance into Orthez and named Lord Kennedy as temporary governor of the town.  He set up administrative headquarters at the hotel "La Belle Hôtesse" (49 rue St Gilles), which shortly before had provided the same facilities for Soult.

[N.B. Some sources refer to musket ball and others to canister shot in relation to Wellington's wound.  Canister shot, which was an anti-personnel weapon used by the artillery, consisted of canisters filled with balls / shrapnel. When it was fired, the canister would disintegrate and its shards and projectiles would spread out in a conical formation, causing a wide swath of destruction.]

The French are said to have lost about 2600 killed and wounded, and 1350 taken prisoner, while the allies lost perhaps 2300 killed and wounded.  By nightfall, the bulk of Soult's troops had, however, successfully crossed the Luy of Bearn.  Soult continued his retreat during the night to St Sever, destroying all the bridges behind him.

The Battle of Orthez was over, and nowadays there is only limited visible evidence that it happened, despite the potential for tourist interest.  Apart from the features previously mentioned, there is a general monument to the French dead immediately to the right of the Dax road approximately 1 km above the mini roundabout at the extremity of the built-up area. 

There is also a cemetery occupied by British, Portuguese and French dead, to the south side of the D56 road about ½ kilometre east of the junction with the Orthez - Dax road.  Unfortunately this is on private land, behind locked gates, and is not accessible by the public without special arrangement.

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