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 Regimental Badge

badge_web

The badge of the Worcestershire Regiment from 1881

Men of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897 - note the star on the soldiers 'valise' or leather backpack.

Men of the Worcestershire Regiment in 1897: note the star on the soldier’s ‘valise’ or backpack.

The regimental badge of the 29th Regiment of Foot until 1881

The regimental badge of the 29th Regiment of Foot until 1881

The Star of the regimental badge is that from the Order of the Garter, and was used by Colonel Farrington, founder of the 29th Regiment of Foot. He had been an officer in the Coldstream Guards, and kept the Star for his new Regiment. As a result, the 29th were nicknamed ‘Guards of the Line’.

The number of the regiment in written in the centre of the star in Roman numerals. The lion above it may be copied from the Royal Crest.  It is believed that it was presented to the 29th when they were on duty at Windsor in 1791.

The 36th (Herefordshire) Regiment also used a star in their badge, which bore their motto ‘Firm’. It was worn from the 1770s at least, although the origin is unknown, and became official in 1810.

The Regiment also used to use the Naval pattern of crown on their badges to commemorate their service with the Fleet at the Glorious First of June in 1794. This link to their maritime service is also remembered in two of the regiment’s marching tunes, Hearts of Oak and Rule Britannia, both traditionally associated with the Royal Navy

In both regiments, the Star was worn for many years on the Valise – part of a soldier’s backpack. When the regiments were amalgated to form the Worcestershire Regiment in 1881, the badge incorporated the star, the lion of the 29th and the motto of the 36th.  Thus the regiment continued to remain ‘FIRM’.