Date: 27 February 1814

War: The Peninsular War

The Battle of Orthez (Orthes – as it appears on the Guidon) saw the Anglo-Portuguese Army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Wellington defeat a French army led by Marshal Nicolas Soult in southern France near the end of the Peninsular War.


After failing to defeat Wellington in the Battle of the Nive, Soult tried to confine the Anglo-Allied army in the extreme southwest corner of France. On the north side of the allied-occupied area, the French marshal kept a strong garrison in the fortress of Bayonne and held the line of the Adour River to Port-de-Lanne with three divisions. On the east side, Soult strung out four divisions behind the Joyeuse River, with his cavalry forming a cordon as far south as the fortress of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees.

From December 1813 through January 1814, heavy rains brought operations to a standstill. Finally, on February 14, Wellington launched his offensive. On the right flank, Lieutenant General Rowland Hill quickly breached the line of the Joyeuse. The following day, Hill’s forces crossed the Bidouze River after winning the Battle of Garris. By now, Wellington’s left flank corps, under William Beresford was in motion. Sending the division of Louis Abbéto help defend Bayonne, Soult assembled his remaining six divisions and his reserve behind the Gave d’Oloron River. The weather broke again on February 18, causing another pause in operations.

On February 24, John Hope’s corps crossed the Adour to isolate the city of Bayonne on the Bay of Biscay. That day, Wellington quickly manoeuvred the French army out of its position on the Gave d’Oloron. Soult pulled back to Orthez on the Gave de Pau River.


At Orthez, the Gave de Pau runs from southeast to the northwest. About two miles north of the Gave de Pau, there is a ridge running roughly parallel to the stream.

Soult held Orthez with the 5,100 men of Jean Harispe’s 8th Division. The 2,700 cavalry under his brother, Pierre Soult watched the river line upstream (east) from the town. Holding the ridge, from west to east were Eloi Taupin’s 4th (5,500), Claude Rouget’s 5th (3,700), Jean Darmagnac’s 2nd (5,000), Maximilien Foy’s 1st (3,800) and Eugene-Casimir Villatte’s 6th (4,600) Divisions. The 1st Division was north of Orthez. Paris’s brigade from the 8th Division was attached to Taupin’s command. Jean-Pierre Travot’s conscripts (7,300) waited in reserve.

Honoré Reille commanded the units under Taupin, Paris and Rouget on the right flank. Jean Baptiste Drouet d’Erlon led D’Armagnac and Foy in the centre. Bertrand Clausel supervised Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. Soult had 36,000 men and 48 artillery pieces.

William Beresford’s Corps had already crossed to the north side of the Gave de Pau. Wellington planned to send Lowry Cole’s 4th (6,000) and George Townshend Walker’s 7th (5,600) Divisions to attack the western end of the ridge, under the direction of Beresford. Thomas Picton would lead his own 3rd (6,600) and Henry Clinton’s 6th (5,600) Divisions in pinning the French centre. Charles Alten’s Light Division (3,500) stayed in reserve. Wellington ordered Rowland Hill to lead William Stewart’s 2nd (7,800) and Francisco Le Cor’s Portuguese (4,500) Divisions across the Gave de Pau above Orthez and turn the French left.

Wellington also had three cavalry brigades under the overall direction of Stapleton Cotton. There were 1,600 mounted men under Lord Edward Somerset (7th, 10thand 15th Hussars), 1,000 horsemen led by Hussey Vivian (18th and 1st KGL Hussars) and 800 troopers under Henry Fane (13th and 14th Light Dragoons). All told, Wellington commanded 44,000 men, including 17,600 Portuguese, and 54 cannons.

William Heath’s print of the battle of Orthes was published in May 1816. Cavalry is seen charging against the French infantry but they are not the 13th or 14th Light Dragoons, as their action in the battle was against artillery.


To open the battle, Beresford’s divisions attacked Taupin’s and Paris’s men near the church and village of St-Boes. They captured the church but were unable to force their way into St-Boes. The French right-wing commander, Reille launched a counterattack that drove the British out of the church as well.

Watching this reverse from his command post near an ancient Roman camp, Wellington changed his plans. His holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Division would be converted into a head on assault. Meanwhile, he committed the Light Division between Beresford’s effort against the French right and Picton’s attack against the French center. Led by the 1/52nd Foot, the Light Division advanced up the narrow spur from the Roman camp. This move drove a wedge between Reille’s right wing and D’Erlon’s two center divisions. Hill’s men crossed the river and started to envelop the French left. Picton’s force fought his way onto the ridge in the centre.

At his command post, Wellington was unhorsed and badly bruised when a canister shot hit his sword hilt. Soult, seeing his defences compromised, ordered a retreat. This was conducted in good order at first, though menaced by the British cavalry. With the terrain too rough for most mounted operations, only the 7th Hussars made an effective charge, capturing 200 Frenchmen. That evening, the French escaped across the Luy de Béarn River at Sault-de-Navailles in some disorder, blowing up the bridge behind them.


Soult lost 6 cannons and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners. Foy was wounded. The Anglo-Portuguese lost 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174. Walker was wounded and sent back to England. Soult continued his retreat. The next battle would be fought at Toulouse.

Taken from: http://en.wikipedia.org

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