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Orthes (27 February 1814)
The day after Hope's
blockade began Wellington, with the main Allied field army, fought a major
battle at Orthes, some thirty-five miles away to the east. On February
26th Beresford had crossed the Gave de Pau with the 4th and 7th Divisions
near Peyrehorade, pushing Soult back towards Orthes. The 3rd Division
forded the river at Berenx while Wellington himself brought up the 6th and
Light Division, plus a force of cavalry, across on a pontoon bridge, which
had been thrown across the Gave, also at Berenx. Hill, meanwhile, with the
2nd Division and Le Cor's Portuguese division, marched to the south of
Orthes, passing to the east of the town but remaining on the south bank of
On the morning of
February 27th Wellington had with him on the northern bank of the Gave
some 38,000 infantry and 3,300 cavalry as well as 54 guns. Soult's army,
about 7,000 less with six fewer guns, occupied a strong position along a
ridge which ran north from Orthes for about a mile before running west for
three miles from the bend in the main Bayonne-Orthes road, which ran along
the ridge, to the small village of St Boes upon which Soult rested his
right flank. Soult's troops occupied the whole length of this ridge from
which three very prominent spurs extended south towards the Gave. The spur
on the extreme western edge of the ridge does not actually connect with
the ridge itself, being separated by a few hundred yards. The remains of
an old Roman camp were situated on the forward edge of the spur and would
feature prominently in the battle.
The battle opened
shortly after 8.30am on the cold, frosty morning of February 27th when a
battalion of French infantry was driven from the church and churchyard of
St Boes by the 1/7th, 1/20th and 1/23rd, who made up Ross's brigade of the
4th Division. The brigade advanced further east along the ridge to clear
the rest of the village but it came under fire from French artillery and
could go no further. French troops under Taupin were then sent to recover
the village and St Boes became the scene of severe house-to-house fighting
as both sides struggled for its possession.
While the fight for St
Boes flickered and flared Picton's 3rd Division entered the fray,
attacking Soult's centre. His troops advanced up the two centre spurs but
were held up by French artillery that swept the crests of the spurs,
inflicting heavy casualties. The attack here was only intended to be a
demonstration, however, and he pulled his troops back leaving just his
strong skirmishing line of light troops and riflemen to prod and probe the
French line, something which they continued to do for the next two hours.
Meanwhile, the fighting
in St Boes intensified until at about 11.30 Wellington gave orders for an
assault along the whole length of his line, leaving part of the Light
Division only in reserve at the Roman Camp from where Wellington watched
the progress of the fight.
On the Allied left
Brisbane's brigade of the 3rd Division began to push its way up the
eastern-most spur with the 6th Division following behind. At St Boes, the
4th Division was replaced by the 7th Division, while the 1/52nd advanced
from the Roman camp to deliver an attack on the French brigade on the
right flank of the advancing 7th Division.
These attacks were
pressed home vigorously but French resistance was stiff and it was to take
the advancing British columns about two hours of hard fighting to drive
the French from the spurs. This was not accomplished without loss,
particularly to the 1/88th, three companies of which suffered heavy losses
when a squadron of French cavalry, the 21st Chasseurs, charged and overran
them after catching them in line. The French cavalry suffered similarly
when they received the return fire from Picton's men, half of their number
being killed or wounded.
The French troops along
the ridge were being severely pushed by Wellington's attacking columns but
it was the advance by the 1/52nd, under Colborne, that decided the day.
This battalion entered the fight in support of the Walker's 7th Division
just at the moment when this division, along with Anson's brigade of the
4th Division, was finally driving the French from the body-choked village
of St Boes. The 52nd advanced almost knee-deep in mud in places but when
it reached the crest of the spur it took Taupin's division in its left
flank. Taupin's men were driven back by Colborne's determined charge and
fell in with those retreating from St Boes. In so doing, they precipitated
a degree of panic, which caused the collapse of the entire French right.
It was now about 2.30pm and with Wellington's triumphant troops pouring
along the main road on top of the ridge the day was as good as won.
At first, Soult's army
began to fall back in an orderly manner with the divisions of Villatte and
Harispe drawn up on his left flank to cover the withdrawal. However,
Hill's corps had crossed the Gave to the east of Orthes and fell upon
Harispe's division, driving it back upon Villatte. The controlled retreat
soon became a panic-stricken flight, which spread along the whole of the
French line, Soult's men discarding great loads of equipment to facilitate
their retreat to the north-east towards Toulouse.
The battle of Orthes
cost Wellington 2,164 casualties while Soult's losses were put at around
4,000 including 1,350 prisoners, a number which would have been far
greater had not Wellington been slightly wounded towards the end of the
battle which caused him to halt and incapacitated him during the next few
days. The wound was his third of the war but at least he could rest that
night with the satisfaction of knowing that there was little now standing
between himself and the final victory over the French.