Nivelle Battle Field Tour 2018

24 May 2018

The Nivelle Battle Field Tour 2018

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In May a small group of Nivelle Cadet Force Adult Volunteers (CFAVs) embarked on a tour of a portion of the Nivelle Battle Field from 1813.

 

The Battle of Nivelle occurred when Wellingtons Peninsular army stepped foot onto French soil, and is named after the River Nivelle which is situated in the south western corner of France at the foot of the Pyrenees. The front extended from the coast along the base of the Pyrenees for about 20km and was defended by approximately 62000 French soldiers. Wellington had 82000.

 

Wellington drew his army up in 3 columns, Left, Centre and Right. Key to success would be the centre and in particular, the objectives given to the Light Division involving the 43rd, 52nd and 95th.

 

Our tour plan was to follow the route taken by the 52nd in particular.
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Day 1

 

To set the scene we started our tour in the village of Vera de Bidassoa (Bera) in Spain as this was the launch point for the Light Division to gain control of the border along the summit of the Pyrenees.  Driving across the mountains gave us a glimpse of the terrain ahead, beautiful but very steep! 

 

Whilst making the move to Spain we crossed the River Nivelle and found the bridge at Amotz where the remains of the old bridge can still be seen. This was a critical point for Wellington as capture of this bridge would split (turn) the French left and centre.

 

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Taking the waters of the Nivelle!

 

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Vera was the last point through which the French attempted to force Wellington back, unfortunately for them the attack failed. On their withdrawal part of the French army was stranded on the wrong side of the river Bidasoa due to flooding making the river impassable. There remained one bridge available to cross but this was defended by 100 men of the 2/95th Rifles. In attempting to force a crossing here the 95th inflicted 231 casualties on the French including the death of a divisional commander. However numbers prevailed and the 95th were over run with the loss of 16 men and their commander Capt. Cadoux.
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Vera Bridge

 

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Memorial to Capt. Cadoux

 

From Vera the Light Division moved to the border via 2 routes. The 52nd & 2/95th headed up a spur on the left from the ridge above whilst the 43rd & 1/3/95th went right up another spur via the Hogs Back. We followed the route of the 52nd which took in the St Benoit (Star) redoubt a point which caused the 95th some problem due to tough resistance however the 52nd were able to carry the position.
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St Benoit (Star) redoubt

 

From this point the 52nd continued to the summit and a sizeable French position called the Bayonette Redoubt
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Views from Bayonette redoubt

 

Wellington now had control of the border. At this point he stopped for a month to plan his next move, the Battle of Nivelle.

 

 

Day 2

This was our day to follow the route of the Light Division during the battle. In 1813 the Light Division was given the mission to capture the Lesser Rhune and to exploit forward to the Signals redoubt, one of a number of sizeable French defensive positions.
The start point for us was the summit of the Grande Rhune which we reached by a small train. Once at the top we were welcomed by a breath taking vista. The whole of Southern France appeared to be visible. To our north was the Lesser Rhune which had 3 redoubts and behind that a strong star shaped fort. 2k further was the Signals redoubt.
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Centre of the Nivelle battle field and beyond.
We set off downhill towards the left of the Lesser Rhune to the point from which the Light Division launched their attack. The 43rd had the task of clearing the 3 redoubts on that rhune whilst the 52nd skirted further north to outflank the Star Fort behind. The climb down was very steep and rocky.
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The Lesser Rhune as view from the Grande Rhune
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View of Lesser Rhune from 43rd approach
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The Officers
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The Serjeants

 

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Top of lesser Rhune
From launch of attack to gaining control of the Lesser Rhune took the 43rd about 30 minutes. Once in the hands of the 43rd the Lesser Rhune gave them a grandstand view of the 52nd and their endeavours with the Star Fort
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Once this position was consolidated the Light Division continued their movement towards the Signals redoubt. The climb down was steep and the rocks many and loose. We found that the descent took longer than the ascent the previous day.
On the climb up the other side we came across 2 redoubts that the 43rd and 52nd had to clear before they got to the Signals redoubt.
The Signals redoubt was defended by 350 seasoned soldiers and put up a stout resistance to the 52nd. The casualties suffered by the 52nd amounted to 200 against 1 French soldier. The position was eventually secured by the 52nd once the French realised they were surrounded.
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Signal redoubt looking back to the Grande Rhune start point.
In 1813 the Light Division took a single day to reach this position at which point they stopped having achieved their objectives. They had fought through 3 redoubts on the Lesser Rhune, the Star Fort, 2 redoubts on the approach to the Signals redoubt and the Signals redoubt itself. The terrain was a challenge as the troops had to descend from a height of 900m then climb another 300m all over rocky and in places boggy ground. Not an inconsiderable feat when you consider it also took us a day with no one shooting at us!
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Day 3

This was our last day, but we had time to visit the village of Arcangues which was close to the airport at Biarritz. This point is significant as by December Wellington’s army had pushed forward in order to threaten the heavily fortified town of Bayonne. Unfortunately the army over extended and the Light Division was caught by a French counter attack. This caused the 43rd, 52nd and 95th to withdraw to a defensive line anchored on the church and mansion house at Arcangues. One of the positions taken up was the church from where the Riflemen were able to stall the attack. The French even brought up cannon to flush out the Riflemen but were thwarted by skilful long range rifle fire forcing the artillery men to retire.
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Firing position within the church
This is where our journey ended. The tour was truly inspiring and really brought home the environment that men of the regiment to which we are affiliated as cadets, The Rifles, had to endure. Reading the accounts and looking at maps and aerial photos really does not do justice to the magnitude of the demands made on soldiers during the Peninsular campaign of the early 1800’s.
If you ever get the chance to visit the battle field of Nivelle do not hesitate to go. The scenery is breath taking and the history everywhere. Walk the ground and follow in the steps of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th

 

“Celer et Audax” “Swift and Bold”

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