Battles of the Nive (9–13 December 1813)

After his defeat at Nivelles, Marshal Soult fell back to a defensive line south of the town of Bayonne along the Adour and Nive rivers.

Despite poor weather, Hill led five Anglo-Portuguese divisions (2nd (including the 29th Regiment), 3rd, 6th (including the 36th Regiment), Portuguese and Pablo Morillo’s Spanish Divisions) across to the east bank of the Nive near Ustaritz on 9 December. Meanwhile, the remainder of the British force under Hope launched diversionary attacks towards Bayonne on the west bank of the Nive.

Soult launched a counter-attack with eight divisions against Hope the following day, and despite several fierce actions the British line held until reinforced.

The right flank of Hope’s line was held by the 7th Division at the bridge of Urdains. The Light Division defended the centre near Bassussary. The left was held by Bradford and Campbell’s independent Portuguese brigades north of Barroilhet. The terrain forced the French into these three corridors of attack. The 5th Division lay three miles to the rear while the 1st Division were ten miles away.

Soult committed five divisions against Bassussary and three divisions against Barroilhet. The four divisions leading the attack were fresh while the supporting troops were tired from skirmishing with Hill’s troops.

The French advance soon came upon the ridge of Arcangues, topped by a chateau and a church. After one attack was beaten off with ease by the Light Division, the French settled down to a futile artillery bombardment and probing attacks against the very strongly built structures.

The picket line on Hope’s left flank was overrun by the French attack and 200 men captured. The Portuguese held onto Barroilhet and awaited reinforcements. The 5th Division arrived, but due to a staff blunder, was low on ammunition.

Soult sent two divisions to assist this attack. After hours of heavy fighting, he ordered one last charge. This attack drove to the mayor’s house of Barroilhet, the French skirmishers wounding and nearly capturing Hope. At this point, the 1st Division came up and Soult called off his attacks. Both sides had lost around 1,600 troops.

Battle of St. Pierre

On the night of 12 December, a temporary pontoon bridge over the Nive at Villefranque was washed away. This isolated Hill’s 14,000 men and 10 guns on the east bank of the river, just as the French were reorganizing for an assault.

Seizing his opportunity, Soult rapidly switched six divisions and 22 guns to the east bank of the Nive and attacked Hill. Soult outnumbered Hill’s corps by three-to-one. Defending a line between Petit Mougerre and the Nive, the Allied corps held on for hours in a bitter fight. The capable Hill performed superbly, feeding in his few reserves with skill and exhorting his troops.

However, after the arrival of reinforcements under Wellington, the French troops refused to continue the attack. Soult reluctantly retreated into Bayonne, having lost 3,000 men against Anglo-Portuguese losses of 1,750. The Allied army commander rode up to his subordinate and congratulated him, “Hill, the day’s your own.”

As a result of their courage on this day both the 29th and 36th Regiments were accorded the battle Honour NIVE.

An aquatint of the Battle of Nive 1813 by Heath from the Museum Collection.

Battle of Nivelle 10 November 1813

Aquatint of the Battle of Nivelle by W. E. Heath in the Museum Collection

Following the Allied victory at the siege of San Sebastian, Wellington’s 80,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops pursued the army of Marshal Soult into France. Soult took up a strong defensive position in front of the River Nivelle. At this point, the river’s course is marked by a series of hills on which the French had built strong defensive fortifications. Soult’s lines stretched from the shores of the Atlantic on the French right flank to the snow-covered pass of Roncesvalles on the left, a perimeter of about 20 miles. With only 60,000 men, Soult’s troops were stretched very thinly indeed.
The French position was dominated by the Greater Rhune, a gorse-covered, craggy mountain nearly 3,000 feet high. Separated from the Greater Rhune by a ravine, roughly 700 metres below it, is the Lesser Rhune along the precipitous crest of which the French had constructed three defensive positions.
Wellington’s plan was, to deploy his army along the whole of Soult’s line but, to make his main attack in the centre. Any breakthrough in the centre or the French left flank would enable the British to cut off the French right. The British left (attacking the French right) under Sir John Hope comprised the 1st and 5th Divisions as well as Freire’s Spaniards. General William Beresford would lead the main Allied attack against the French centre with the 3rd, (including the 36th Regiment), 4th, 7th and Light Divisions, while on the British right Sir Rowland Hill would attack with the 2nd (including the 29th Worcestershire Regiment) and 6th Divisions, supported by Morillo’s Spaniards and Hamilton’s Portuguese. Wellington decided to attack on 10 November.


The battle started just before dawn on the 10th November. The Light Division headed towards the plateau on the summit of the Greater Rhune. Their objective was the French Redoubts. The men of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th Regiments (with the 17th Portuguese infantry Regiment in support) advanced from The ravine below and stormed the redoubts on the crest of the Rhune. The boldness of this British move sent the French fleeing towards other forts on other hills.
While the 43rd and 95th were dealing with the French on the Rhune, there still remained one very formidable fort on the Mouiz plateau which reached out towards the coast. This was attacked by Colborne’s 52nd Light Infantry, supported by riflemen from the 95th. Once again, the French were surprised and fled, leaving Colborne in possession of the fort without a single fatal casualty.
Then, the main British assault began with the nine divisions fanning out over a five-mile front. When the 3rd division (including the 36th Regiment), took the bridge at Amotz, all French resistance broke as any communication between the two halves of Soult’s army was now impossible. By two o’clock, the French were in full retreat and were streaming across the Nivelle, having lost 4351 men to Wellington’s 2450.

The occupation of France 1815-18

Following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815. The Allies were faced with the issue of securing France. The allies had not been at war with Louis XVIII and were, in fact, in alliance with him. The terms of a peace settlement therefore focused on securing France’s frontiers with her neighbours, without overstating territorial claims.

As well as the wider object of a peaceful settlement for Europe, each of the allied powers had their own particular interests: the Prussians wished to reshape French territory along its eastern boundary; and the British government became alarmed at the cost of subsidising the fortifications that would guarantee the security of the Low Countries — arguing that the whole of the projected sum (£4 million) should be defrayed by France.

The financial arrangements with France were settled in a meeting of 13 October — and a formal treaty (a second Treaty of Paris) was agreed on 20 November 1815. It committed the four powers — Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia — to the use of military force to ensure the peace of Europe: 60,000 men were to be in the field, beyond the army of occupation. France was to pay 270 million francs over three years from 1 December 1815. That army was to be in place for a minimum of three years and a maximum of five, with the possibility of reducing it in size after one year.

There was a separate military convention agreed at the same time under the terms of the treaty. This defined a zone of occupation which was limited to north-east France, bordering on the Low Countries and the German Confederation — if the allied troops had been dispersed across the whole of France, they would have been spread too thinly to have been of use. Louis XVIII was effectively agreeing to the occupation of his country, while he built up his own military force. While the army of occupation was security for the allies against French aggression, it was also intended that it give France herself, and especially the King, protection against a revolutionary uprising.

The allied powers had considered it desirable on 22 October that Wellington should command the army of occupation. The army was to be composed of 30,000 troops supplied by each of the Austria, Great Britain, Prussia and Russia. On 20 November, formal treaties and conventions were agreed to give effect to the discussions of the allies, for an army of occupation of 150,000 men. The French were to provide quarters, heating, lighting, forage and provisions. In addition France was to pay 50 million francs per annum towards equipment, clothing and other necessaries.

Richelieu attempted within six months of the convention to have the army of occupation reduced in size. Although his moves were rejected, there were other pressures beyond those of the French government for the reduction. France could not resume her normal commercial activity while she was burdened with heavy reparation payments. She had found it hard to raise the funds to pay the allies and a financial crisis in November 1816 resulted in the suspension of payments. At the start of 1817, negotiations with the Hope-Baring bank provided a way for a substantial loan. The Times of 15 July 1817 saw advantages for Anglo-French trade if France had more finance available. The question of payment for French reparations was only concluded at the Congress of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1818, at which point they were reduced and France was enabled to pay them off with further loans from Anglo-Dutch bankers.

Richelieu had been successful in 1817 in reducing the size of the army of occupation: the allies agreed that it should be 20% smaller from 1 April that year. The next stage was to negotiate an early conclusion to the occupation itself. This was also business for Aix-la-Chapelle: it was concluded that two further years of occupation would exacerbate conditions in France, rather than providing security for the allies.

On 4 November 1818, the allies agreed that the provisions of the treaty of 20 November 1815 had been fulfilled, and that France might be restored to her full position in international relations — the declaration was made publicly on 15 November. In parallel, preparations had been in hand since early October for the withdrawal of the army of occupation and the troops marched out of France during mid-November.