CAMPAIGN OF 1813: BATTLE OF THE NIVELLE.
OUR Division was soon after pushed forward to our right on a ridge somewhat in advance, and fully looking upon the enemy’s position. His right extended from St. Jean de Luz, his left was on the Nivelle, his centre on La Petite Rhune and the heights beyond that village. Our Division was in the very centre opposite La Petite Rhune.
One morning Colonel Colborne and I were at the advance vedette at daylight, and saw a French picquet of an officer and fifty men come down to occupy a piece of rising ground between our respective advanced posts, as to which the night before I and a French staff-officer had agreed that neither should put a picquet on it. (Such arrangements were very commonly made.) Colonel Colborne said, “Gallop up to the officer, wave him back, or tell him he shall not put a picquet there.” Having waved to no purpose, I then rode towards him and called to him. He still moved on, so I galloped back. Colborne fell in our picquet, ordered up a reserve, and fired five or six shots over the heads of the Frenchmen. They then went back immediately, and the hill became, as previously agreed, neutral ground. I give this anecdote to show how gentleman-like enemies of disciplined armies can be; there was no such courtesy between French and Spaniards.
A few days previously to Nov. 10, the Battle of the Nivelle, the Division took ground on the ridge of hills in our occupation, and the extreme right of the Division became the left. Gilmour, commanding the 1st Battalion of the Rifles, then in the 1st Brigade, had built a very nice little mud hut about ten feet square with a chimney, fireplace, and a door made of wattle and a bullock’s hide. When my wife rode up, Gilmour had just turned out. The night was bitterly cold; it was November in the Pyrenees. Gilmour says, “Jump off and come into your own castle, which I in perpetuity bequeath to you.” When I returned from my Brigade and new line of picquets, etc., I found my wife as warm and as snug as possible – dinner prepared for me and Tom Fane, our horses all bivouacked, our cold tent pitched, and our servants established in it; all was comfort, happiness, and joy, every want supplied, every care banished. At night we retired to our nuptial couch, a hard mattress on the floor, when a sudden storm of rain came on. In ten seconds it came down through the roof of our black-earth sods, and, literally in a moment, we were drenched to the skin and as black as chimney~sweepers. The buoyant spirits of my wife, and the ridiculous position we were in, made her laugh herself warm. We turned the servants out of our tent, and never enjoyed the late comforts of our castle again.
The enemy, not considering this ground strong enough, turned to it with a vigour I have rarely witnessed, to fortify it by every means art could devise. Every day, before the position was attacked, Colonel Colborne and I went to look at their progress; the Duke himself would come to our outpost, and continue walking there a long time. One day he stayed unusually long. He turns to Colborne, – –“These fellows think themselves invulnerable, but I will beat them out, and with great ease.” “That we shall beat them,” says Colborne, “when your lordship attacks, I have no doubt, but for the ease ——” “Ah, Colborne, with your local knowledge only, you are perfectly right; it appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.” “Now I see it, my lord,” says Colborne. The Duke was lying down, and began a very earnest conversation. General Alten, Kempt, Colborne, I, and other staff-officers were preparing to leave the Duke, when he says, “Oh, lie still.” After he had conversed for some time with Sir G. Murray, Murray took out of his sabretache his writing-materials, and began to write the plan of attack for the whole army. When it was finished, so clearly had he understood the Duke, I do not think he erased one word. He says, ” My lord, is this your desire?” It was one of the most interesting scenes I have ever witnessed. As Murray read, the Duke’s eye was directed with his telescope to the spot in question. He never asked Sir G. Murray one question, but the muscles of his face evinced lines of the deepest thought. When Sir G. Murray had finished, the Duke smiled and said, ”Ah, Murray, this will put us in possession of the fellows’ lines. Shall we be ready to-morrow?” “I fear not, my lord, but next day.” “Now, Alten,” says the Duke, “if, during the night previous to the attack, the Light Division could be formed on this very ground, so as to rush at La Petite Rhune just as day dawned, it would be of vast importance and save great loss, and by thus precipitating yourselves on the right of the works of La Petite Rhune, you would certainly carry them.” This Petite Rhune was well occupied both by men and works, and a tough affair was in prospect. General Alten says, “I ‘dink’ I can, my lord.” Kempt says, “My Brigade has a road. There can be no difficulty, my lord.” Colborne says, “For me there is no road, but Smith and I both know every bush and every stone. We have studied what we have daily expected, and in the darkest night we can lead the Brigade to this very spot.” I was proud enough at thus being associated, but no credit due to me. “Depend on me, my lord,” says Colborne. “Well then, Alten, when you receive your orders as to the attack, let it be so.”
Just before starting on this night’s march, [9 Nov.], having had many military arrangements to make before I got on my horse, I had got a short distance when I remarked that, although I knew a proper tough fight was in hand, I had forgotten to bid my “goodbye” to my wife, which habit (on my part, at least) had rendered about as formal as if going to London out of the country. Her feelings were acute enough on such occasions, so I went into my hut, and avowed my neglect. She looked very sad, and I said, ” Hallo, what’s the matter?” “You or your horse will be killed to-morrow.” I laughed and said, “Well, of two such chances, I hope it may be the horse.” We parted, but she was very sad indeed.
As we started for our position before the great, the important day [Battle of Nivelle, 10 Nov.], the night was very dark. We had no road, and positively nothing to guide us but knowing the bushes and stones over a mountain ridge. Colborne stayed near the Brigade, and sent me on from spot to spot which we both knew, when he would come up to me and satisfy himself that I was right. I then went on again. In this manner we crept up with our Brigade to our advanced picquet within a hundred and fifty yards of the enemy. We afterwards found Kempt’s Brigade close to our right, equally successfully posted. When Colborne and I rode up to our most advanced picquet, of course by the rear, we found, to the deIight of us both, the Sergeant, Crowther, and his men, all sitting round a fire, as alert as if on sentry themselves, with their rifles between their legs, the sentry a few paces in their front. We had crept up by ourselves. Without any agitation, they stood up very quietly to reconnoitre us, when Colborne spoke, and commended their vigilance. [I and] Tom Fane, Skerrett’s A. D.C., who nobly stayed with me rather than go to the rear, lay down for about two hours, when I could sleep, but Tom told me he could not. He had had a small flask of brandy, but, what with the cold and the necessity of keeping it out, the brandy was exhausted. About an hour before daylight, by some accident, a soldier’s musket went off a most anxious moment, for we thought the enemy had discovered us, and, if they had not, such shots might be repeated, and they would; but most fortunately all was still. I never saw Colborne so excited as he was for the moment. The anxious moment of appearing day arrived. We fell in, and our attack was made on the enemy’s position in seven columns, nor did we ever meet a check, but carried the enemy’s works, the tents all standing, by one fell swoop of irresistible Victory. Napier, the author of the History of the Peninsular War, at the head of the 43rd, had his pantaloons torn by the ball, and singed by the fire, of one of the enemy from the parapet of their works. Such was the attack and such the resistance, that a few prisoners whom we took declared that they and their officers were perfectly thunderstruck, for they had no conception any force was near them. The 4th Division had some heavy fighting on our right. Vide Napier and the Duke’s despatch. Ours was the most beautiful attack ever made in the history of war.
The key of the enemy’s position was in our hands, and the great line was our next immediate object. We were speedily reformed, and ready for our attack on the enemy’s line-position and strong field fortifications. In descending La Petite Rhune, we were much exposed to the enemy’s fire, and when we got to the foot of the hill we were about to attack, we had to cross a road enfiladed very judiciously by the enemy, which caused some loss. We promptly stormed the enemy’s works and as promptly carried them. I never saw our men fight with such lively pluck; they were irresistible; and we saw the other Divisions equally successful, the enemy flying in every direction. Our Riflemen were pressing them in their own style, for the French themselves are terrific in pursuit, when poor dear gallant (Sir Andrew) Barnard was knocked off his horse by a musket-ball through his lungs. When Johnny Kincaid (the author), his adjutant, got up to him, he was nearly choked by blood in his mouth. They washed it out for him, and he recovered so as to give particular orders about a pocket-book and some papers he wished sent to his brother. He did not want assistance; the soldiers loved him; he was borne off to the rear, and, when examined by Assistant-Surgeon Robson, it was found that the ball had not passed through, but was perceptible to the touch. The surgeon had him held up, so that when he made a bold incision to let the ball out, its own weight would prevent its being repelled into the cavity of the chest. The ball was boldIy and judiciously extracted, no fever came on, and in three weeks Barnard was at the head of a Brigade, with one wound still open, and in the passage of the Gave d’Oleron he plunged into the water, and saved the life of a soldier floating down the river.
But to the fight. Everything was carried apparently, and our Division was halted. Some sharp skirmishing was going on, and Colborne and I were standing with the 52nd Regiment, again ready for anything, on a neck of land which conducted to a strong-looking star redoubt, the only work the enemy still held, when Charlie Beckwith, the A.Q.M.G. of our Division, came up with orders from General Alten to move on. “What, Charlie, to attack that redoubt? Why, if we leave it to our right or left, it must fall, as a matter of course ; our whole army will be beyond it in twenty minutes.” “I don’t know; your orders are to move on.” “Am I to attack the redoubt?” says Colborne. “Your orders are to move on,” and off he galloped. Colborne turns to me, and says, “What an evasive order ! ” ” Oh, sir,” says I, “let us take the last of their works; it will be the operation of a few minutes,” and on we went in a column of companies. As we neared the enemy, Colborne’s brilliant eye saw they were going to hold it, for it was a closed work, and he says, “Smith, they do not mean to go until fairly driven out; come, let us get off our horses.” I was just mounted on a beautiful thoroughbred mare, my “Old Chap” horse being somewhat done, and I really believed anything like fighting was all over. I said nothing, but sat still, and on we went with a hurrah which we meant should succeed, but which the garrison intended should do no such thing. My horse was struck within twenty yards of the ditch, and I turned her round so that I might jump off placing her between me and the fire, which was very hot. As I was jumping off; another shot struck her, and she fell upon me with a crash, which I thought had squeezed me as flat as a thread-paper, her blood, like a fountain, pouring into my face. The 52nd were not beat back, but swerved from the redoubt into a ravine, for they could not carry it. While lying under my horse, I saw one of the enemy jump on the parapet of the works in an undaunted manner and in defiance of our attack, when suddenly he started straight up into the air, really a considerable height, and fell headlong into the ditch. A ball had struck him in the forehead, I suppose – the fire of our skirmishers was very heavy on the redoubt. Our whole army was actually passing to the rear of the redoubt. Colborne, in the most gallant manner, jumped on his horse, rode up to the ditch under the fire of the enemy, which, however, slackened as he loudly summoned the garrison to surrender. The French officer, equally plucky, said, “Retire, sir, or I will shoot you!” Colborne deliberately addressed the men. “If a shot is fired, now that you are surrounded by our army, we will put every man to the sword.” By this time I succeeded in getting some soldiers, by calling to them, to drag me from under my horse, when they exclaimed, ” Well, d— my eyes if our old Bngade-Major is killed, after all.” “Come, pull away,” I said; “I am not even wounded, only squeezed.” “Why, you are as bloody as a butcher.” I ran to Colborne just as he had finished his speech. He took a little bit of paper out, wrote on it, “I surrender unconditionally,” and gave it to me to give the French officer, who laughed at the state of blood I was in. He signed it, and Colborne sent me to the Duke. When I rode up (on a horse just lent me), his Grace says, “Who are you ?” “The Brigade-Major, 2nd Rifle Brigade.” ” Hullo, Smith, are you badly wounded?” “Not at all, sir; it is my horse’s blood.” “Well.” I gave him the paper. “Tell Colborne I approve.” The garrison began to march out just as my Brigade were again moved on, and General Downie was left to receive it with his Spaniards. The garrison was composed of the whole of the French 88th Regiment, complete in every respect. The Duke was sorry we had attacked, for the 52nd lost many men, and it never was the Duke’s intention, as he saw what Colborne had previously observed. Some discussion afterwards took place as to the order Colborne received. However, I think now, as I did then, move on implied attack.
This was a most bnlliant day’s fighting, and showed how irresistible our army was. As the Duke foretold, the enemy had not men enough. We were never opposed to a formed body. The whole army was in occupation of their works, and when we penetrated, retired. A proclamation had been issued to show the French inhabitants we made war on their army, not on them, and never in an enemy’s country was such rigid discipline maintained as by the British Army. It is scarcely to be credited. The day after the battle our baggage moved up, and my wife joined me, horror-struck -at the state of my cocked hat, clothes, and only half-washed face. She would not believe I was not awfully wounded, and then reminded me of her prophecy, that either I or my horse would be killed the following day.
A curious coincidence occurred in respect to this horse. Shortly before the Battle of Salamanca [22 July, 1812] a great friend of mine, Lindsay, of the I1th Dragoons, came and prayed me to take it in exchange for a magnificent brown mare I had bought from Charlie Rowan; he had often tempted me, but I resisted, but upon this occasion I yielded, so earnest was he for a Dragoon’s charger; and he gave me sixty guineas to boot. In a few months he was killed off my gallant mare on the Bridge of Tudela on the Douro, and now his mare was killed under me as described. Lord Fitzroy Somerset bought his mare at the sale; his lordship afterwards sold her to me, and she went with me to Washington. I brought her back, gave her to a brother, and she bred many foals afterwards.
Footnote 1 -Cope writes ‘Arrhune’. The Duke’s Despatches have ‘Rhune’.
Footnote 3 – Cope’s account (p.155) represents Barnard as falling wounded in the attack on the redoubt described in the text below. But he seems here to have read George Simmons’s rather carelessly. Though Simmons, in his Journal for Nov. 10, says Barnard was wounded “towards the end of this day’s fighting” (p. 321), in his letter of Dec. 7, he makes it clear that it was before the final attack on the redoubt; in fact, as Barnard was ” reconnoitring how to move to the best advantage ” (p. 326). There is no discrepancy between this and the text above.
Footnote 4 – It is difficult to reconcile this story with that told by Colonel Gawler (quoted by Leeke, Lord Seaton’s Regiment at Waterloo, vol. ii. p.365). Speaking of the check received by Colborne and the 52nd in their advance on the redoubt, he goes on: “At this moment an interesting episode occurred. Baron Alten, seeing from the lower ridge the desperate nature of the effort, endeavoured to send an order to prevent further attempts. It was confided to the Brigade-Major, Smith. Trusting to the shifting character of the mark of a horseman in motion, he tried the desperate venture; but it was impossible ; no single living creature could reach the 52nd under the concentrated fire from the forts. The horse was soon brought down, and Captain Smith had to limit his triumph to carrying off his good and precious English saddle, which he performed with his accustomed coolness to the amusement of observing ftiends and enemies.”