Toulouse (10th April 1814)
Wellington's victorious army was too tired to give immediate chase to the defeated French after the battle of Orthes but on March 2nd caught up with it at Aire at which fight the Allies lost 150 men before hastening the French on their way. The pursuit stalled here, however, due to political expediency for Beresford, with the 4th and 7th Divisions, marched north to Bordeaux, which was given up to him on March 12th. The 7th Division remained in Bordeaux while Beresford returned with the 4th Division to rejoin Wellington on March 16th.
There were further clashes between the two armies as Soult continued his retreat to Toulouse, notably at Vic Bigorre on March 19th and at Tarbes the following day, an action that Wellington later called the sharpest fight of the war.
Soult finally entered Toulouse on March 24th. His first task was to issue fresh arms and ammunition, clothes and supplies to his men. 8,000 French troops were without shoes and thousands more lacked even the most basic of equipment, much of it having been abandoned during the pursuit from Orthes. Fortunately, Toulouse was a main French Army depot and stocks and supplies were plentiful. Reinforcements were also to be found here which made good some of the losses of the previous few weeks.
A high wall, flanked with towers, surrounded the city of Toulouse but the defences were not constructed along the lines laid down by Vauban and were nowhere near as strong as those at any of the other main towns besieged by Wellington. The wide river Garonne flows to the west of Toulouse and was a major obstacle. On the left bank of the river was the fortified suburb of St Cyprien while to the east lay the suburbs of St Etienne and Guillemerie. To the north and east of the city flowed the Languedoc Canal and even farther still to the east was the river Ers. The key to the city, however, was the Calvinet ridge, which ran between the Ers and the canal to the east of the city. In fact, the feature called the Calvinet was two ridges, the second actually being Mont Rave. The ridge, standing some 600 feet high, overlooked the city and once taken Wellington's siege guns would be able to pound away at the place with ease. A series of redoubts were therefore constructed upon the ridge, notably the Augustins and the Sypiere, while other entrenchments were dug also.
On March 27th an attempt was made to bridge to Garonne but the pontoons fell some 80 feet short. On the 30th another attempt was made, about a mile further south, but this too proved unsatisfactory, as the roads were not of sufficient quality to allow the passage of wheeled vehicles. The bridge was therefore taken up and laid some fifteen miles north of the city and on the evening of April 4th Beresford crossed with 19,000 men. Unfortunately, heavy rain swept the bridge away in a repeat of the episode during the crossing of the Nive, leaving Beresford stranded on the right bank of the river. On this occasion Soult chose not to attack and three days later the bridge was operational once more.
On April 8th the rest of Wellington's army crossed the Garonne leaving Hill's corps on the left bank from where it was to threaten the suburb of St Cyprien. Elsewhere, the 3rd and Light Divisions were to attack the line of the canal along the northern front with the main attack being delivered by Beresford with the 4th and 6th Divisions who were to advance along the left bank of the Ers before wheeling to the right and moving against the French positions on the southern end of the Calvinet ridge. The northern end of the ridge was to be attacked by Freire's Spaniards who, having a much less distance to cover, were to begin their attack only when Beresford was in position in front of the ridge.
The Allied offensive got underway at 5am with Hill's diversionary attack west of the Garonne against the defenders at St Cyprien. Several battalions worked their way around the French works here but the object of the game was to keep Soult from withdrawing his men to the area of the main Allied attack against the Calvinet ridge. Hill's attack petered out with skirmishing and artillery fire between the two sides but no attempt was made to storm the suburb. Soult soon recognised the ruse and withdrew Rouget's brigade to assist in the defence of Mont Rave.
To the north, meanwhile, Picton began his feint with an effective attack on the French positions close to the canal. However, Picton got carried away and `seized with evil inspiration' ordered Brisbane's brigade to storm the bridge over the canal and take some French positions in and around some farm buildings and orchards. This was against Wellington's expressed orders and the attack was driven back with loss. Alten's Light Division, on the other hand, on Picton's left flank, acted precisely in accordance with the commander-in-chief's wishes and restricted itself to skirmishing with French piquets at the Matabiua bridge.
To the east of Toulouse Freire's Spaniards waited while these attacks progressed. Beresford's two divisions had still not arrived opposite Mont Rave owing to the boggy nature of the ground over which they marched. They were still out of range of the enemy guns and so in spite of the slow pace of their march there was little danger. However, when they had got to within a mile of the position from where they would wheel to their left they came under fire from the guns on Mont Rave. This prompted Beresford into abandoning his guns as they sank deep into the mud and slowed the columns down. The guns were left on a knoll from where they commenced firing on the guns on Mont Rave.
The impatient Freire appears to have mistaken the fire from Beresford's guns as the signal for his own infantry attack to begin and at once ordered his two brigades forward in line with two others in support. Freire's Spaniards came on bravely in the face of a heavy artillery barrage from the Calvinet ridge but when they came within musket range the defenders opened up a withering fire which brought the Spaniards to a halt just sixty yards from the French. At this point tragedy struck for the disordered Spaniards sought the shelter of a sunken road which gave them some relief from the storm of lead being turned on them. Unfortunately, they were reluctant to leave the security of the lane and when the French defenders left their trenches and came forward Freire's men were trapped like rats in a barrel. They just fired blindly into the delicious target before them and were joined by other French troops and by two heavy guns that poured out a shower of grape into the Spaniards. It was only with great difficulty that the survivors managed to extricate themselves and fled in panic back to their original positions.
Wellington acted quickly to ease the plight of the Spaniards and sent orders to Beresford telling him to wheel right and begin his attack irrespective of where he was. Beresford, however, had also seen the result of Freire's attack and decided, as he could be of little use there, to ignore the order and continued his march south. Finally, he reached his position, the 4th and 6th Divisions wheeled to their left and formed in line to begin their assault on Mont Rave. The British troops set off with a front of over a mile and a half but had gone only a short distance when two French brigades, under Taupin, appeared on their west attacking in column. Six years of fighting the British had taught the French little of the disadvantage of sending column against line and in the ensuing firefight Beresford's men swept the French before them, killing Taupin himself. Soon afterwards, the two British divisions reached Mont Rave and cleared the defenders from it. Beresford then waited while he had his guns brought up.
At about 4pm the 6th Division advanced north to clear the French from the Calvinet ridge but it succeeded in driving them from the southern end of the ridge only and even that was achieved only after heavy fighting during which the Augustins redoubt changed hands five times.
While the 6th Division struggled for possession of the ridge Picton launched another attack to the north of the city. Once again he was beaten back with heavy casualties including Thomas Brisbane, commanding a brigade of the 3rd Division, who was wounded, and Colonel Forbes, of the 45th, who was killed. Altogether, Picton's division suffered 354 casualties in his vain assaults north of the canal.
At about 4.30pm Soult finally ordered the Calvinet ridge to be abandoned. The remaining defenders there had come under increasing pressure not only from the 6th Division but also from a battery of Horse Artillery that Wellington had sent forward. With the withdrawal from the ridge all French troops were now within the perimeter defined by the canal and at 5pm, with the light beginning to fade, the fighting died down. Both armies slept that night on the blood-soaked ground they had fought so hard for during the day, a day that had cost Wellington some 4,558 casualties, Soult losing 3,236 men.
The following morning Soult began to prepare to abandon Toulouse and as nightfall on the 11th his troops began to file out of the city along the road south towards Carcassone. The whole tragedy of the battle was that it need never have been fought in the first place for even as Soult's men headed south Wellington received news of Napoleon's abdication which had taken place on April 6th, four days before the battle. Toulouse, therefore, had been a tragic and needless waste of life.
Even so, there was still one last pointless postscript to the war. On April 14th, four days after Toulouse and a full eight days after Napoleon's abdication, General Thouvenot, commanding the garrison at Bayonne decided, either out of ignorance or malice, to launch a sortie against the besieging Allied troops. 843 British troops became casualties in the resulting fight including Sir John Hope, who was wounded and taken prisoner, and General Hay, who was killed. The French themselves lost 891 men in this futile action.
The Peninsular War finally ended on April 17th when Soult signed an armistice. Six years of war had come to an end and with it came the break up of Wellington's Peninsular army. It was scattered to various parts of the world including America from where several veteran battalions hurried back to Europe in 1815 to fight once more under `Old Nosey' at Waterloo, only to arrive too late to take part in the battle, leaving Wellington to fight with what he called,`an infamous army', a hotch-potch of British, Dutch, Belgians, Hanoverians and Nassauers. Some veteran Peninsular battalions were present at Waterloo but only around a third of Wellington's troops there were British. It was a pale shadow of that which had marched, it is calculated, over 6,000 miles and had fought undefeated across the Iberian Peninsula, an army of which Wellington later said `I could have done anything with that army. It was in such perfect order.'