The Battle of Tarbes
20th March 1814
By Richard Moore
“I never saw the dead lie so thick...”
A quote from a veteran Army Training Sergeant
made to the author during ‘outdoor survival training’
In late February to early March 1814, Marshal Soult’s army was trying to reach Toulouse, a move dictated to the embattled French commander by the terrain, manoeuvres of Wellington’s army, the danger of encirclement plus the difficulties of operating with the Garonne river to his rear and a hopeful link-up with Suchet’s troops to the east.
Map of France
Wellington’s army had crossed the Pyrenees and were pursuing Marshal Soult’s army into France. After a long and arduous war, in spite of the exhausting campaign through the mountains, they were encouraged to enter France to support the advance of the Allies in the east towards Paris in the final stage of the defeat of Napoleon. French resistance was however far from finished and much hard fighting was to follow before final victory.
Wellington had been slightly wounded by a spent musket ball at the battle at Orthes on February 27th, resulting in him being largely out of things for two days, and then having to take it easy for several more. The French had crossed the Adour river by St Severs on February 28th, where Soult gave the Allied cavalry scouts the slip for a time. Wellington arrived there on March 2nd to find an astonishing letter from the Mayor of Bordeaux waiting for him; the town - the ‘third city of France’ – was willing to declare for the Royalist cause now Soult’s soldiers had disappeared to the east. Wellington made it known that no political decision had been taken regarding the situation in France post Bonaparte and the Allies could take no responsibility for retaliation should the town declare for Louis XIII; in reply, Mayor Lynch stated the town was still intending to declare, so Wellington occupied the town by detaching the 7th Infantry Division escorted by the 4th Infantry Division and sent for the Heavy Cavalry and Friere’s Spanish infantry from Spain to support them. Once this situation was resolved, Wellington could turn his full attention to Marshal Soult. The French in the field now numbered around 28,000 men and forty guns with the Allies numbering 32,000 with forty guns. Soult also had to contend with about 3000 stragglers and conscripts scooped up and sent to him by the military police, but many of these had no weapons and were of doubtful use.
Allied cavalry patrols found that Soult had recrossed the Adour at Maubourget. Soult outnumbered the Allies for about ten days as Wellington waited for the 4th Division to return from Bordeaux; but in terms of military efficiency, the French were suffering from low morale, fatigue and a drop in supplies as the two depots at Mont de Marsan and Dax had been cut off from him. Bonaparte ordered Soult to attack Wellington’s flank with 20,000 men – but by the time Soult had arranged for this, the 4th Division was approaching and Wellington had placed his available troops in a position favourable for defence. A small French cavalry raid on the flank and rear of the Allies developed at St Severs, but by the end of the day Soult had withdrawn his army towards Tarbes and the heights of Orliex, where on March 20th they formed line of battle and awaited the Allied pursuit. The danger for Marshal Soult was that Wellington would strike towards Auch and by a fast march gain Toulouse before him. Soult sent his brother Pierre with five regiments of cavalry to watch out for this move, stationing them at Trie and ordering them to keep in touch with the French right flank. Soult had noted that the country around Orliex was difficult for cavalry, and the sending of the French troopers away from the main road would ease the traffic jam should things go awry for the French infantry.
The Allies were moving on the French in three parts; Hill by the west bank of a major tributary of the Adour river running north from the Pyrenees and Wellington and Beresford by the eastern bank. Three roads were available to the French, and on March 19th Beresford cut the first of them, cutting the second road the next day leaving behind him only detachments of light cavalry to watch Pierre Soult at Trie should the French cavalry here attempt another ‘raid’.
Two French divisions formed Soult’s rearguard defence. Clausel commanded, with his northernmost division under Harispe and the southernmost under Villatte. To Clausel’s rear across the two tributaries of the Larret and Larros rivers lay D’Erlons two divisions and Reille’s two divisions on the main road from Tarbes. With news of Allied troop movements from his brother at Trie, the main road from Pau - Tarbes - Toulouse was now seen by Soult as the Allied target, perhaps forcing the French to retire by a single road taking the long way around to Toulouse and possibly leaving a large detachment of the French army behind in doing so. D’Erlon and Reille would hold the Allies back should Clausel have to retire under heavy pressure. To be on the safe side, because of the two tributaries of the Adour, Soult had sent away in advance all his baggage and unnecessary vehicles and sent scouts to mark field routes and paths in the correct direction for Clausel’s troops to take from Oleac to reach the main road south-east of Tarbes.
The heights of Orlieux running south to Oleac held by Harispe were formidable, but could be easily outflanked by passing the road to Tarbes. Villatte’s troops were stationed at Oleac to prevent such a move. On March 20th, Harispe’s troops became Wellington’s target for a pincer movement with Hill moving towards the town of Tarbes to both attack Harispe’s front and pin down Villatte with Clinton’s 6th Division infantry passing the little hamlet of Dours and attacking the French right flank to try and get between the two French divisions.
The Action at Tarbes
This map of the action at Tarbes clearly shows the central position of the three battalions of the 95th Regiment as they engaged the right flank of Clausel’s command at the centre of Soult’s position with Daddy Hill pushing the right flank and 6th Division on the left. Note the steep incline that the Rifles had to fight up and the rivers closing their left and right flanks, confining the fight to the centre with no option to perform flanking movements. This was to be a battle of determination, strong will and the best shots.
The fighting began at noon with an artillery bombardment from Hill on the Allied right and Clinton on the left. Von Alten with the Light Division approached the heights at Oleac sending forward skirmishers from the Second Battalion of the 95th Rifles. One company of this rifle-armed force advanced towards a picket of the French on a small hillock upon which lay an old stone windmill tower; as they skirmished towards the French they found ever increasing numbers of troops in support of the advance picket sent down from beyond the crest. The rifle company requested support in addition as three counter-attacks were made here across the hill by the French, leaving behind each time hundreds of fallen soldiers; the French here initially thought the enemy skirmishers before them were Portuguese, and charged them with the bayonet - the firmness of the enemy, their failure to retreat in the face of the French charge despite being outnumbered and the losses they inflicted by efficient aimed fire soon indicated reinforced veteran troops and a necessary defensive posture was taken. Surtees, an officer of the 3rd Battalion 95th Rifles later wrote: “At length, after much skirmishing, we gained the height but found the whole of their infantry drawn up on a steep activity near the windmill which allowed them to have line behind line, all of which could fire at the same time over each others heads like the tiers of guns on a three-deck ship. We continued to advance upon them till we got to within a hundred paces of this formidable body, the firing from which was the hottest I had ever been in: except perhaps at Barrosa.”
Rifles were used to fighting in skirmish order which covered as much ground as possible while retaining the integrity of the line. One method common in use at the time and probably used at Tarbes was known as ‘chain order’. Used to drive away enemy skirmishers, this tactic employed bodies of men somewhat more solid than ordinary skirmish lines, and so it was calculated to require a smaller reserve. To form a chain three-quarters of the unit was deployed with the remaining forming a reserve between 50 and 120 paces in the rear. The chain was formed of men in groups of four, each group normally separated from the next by 10 paces. The whole unit moved forward until contact was made with the enemy. To engage the righthand man of each group then took three paces forward and fired, before returning to the group, whereupon the second man did likewise followed by the third and fourth, by which time the first man would have reloaded and would be ready to begin the process again. Thus a constant fusillade was maintained by the chain. At Tarbes it is probable given the overlooking position of the French that the process was completed initially from cover without advancing forward until the enemy began to withdraw.
The desperate fighting at this spot by Harispe’s left-flank brigade to gain time for the right-flank brigade of their division to escape from Allied encirclement and Villatte’s troops to get away from Tarbes drew in the whole of the Second Battalion 95th Rifles, followed by the First Battalion and finally by the Third. Harispe’s right-flank brigade was finally forced to run for it by Clinton’s advance, taking to the fields on the routes marked by Soult’s scouts. Under pressure from Hill, seeing the retreat of Harispe on his right, Villatte abandoned Tarbes and made off east along the same road.
Space to Manoeuvre
Once battle was joined it mattered not what cover you had, your position would still be compromised by the first shot through the smoke from your rifle. As the battle became more furious the smoke would also obscure the enemy making it difficult to gauge the effect of your shot or find fresh targets. Normally a rifleman would be able to move his position both to hide his location and to gain clear view for his next mark: at Tarbes it is possible that the 95th through operating in three battalions did not have the luxury of space to manoeuvre.
The woodlands, hedges, fences, gullies, drains and ditches that Soult had noted did not permit an immediate pursuit by any Allied cavalry. Clausel’s men reached the supporting troops of D’Erlon and Reille, who both opened up with artillery on the Allied infantry when they came into range, halting any pursuit. During the night, Soult ordered a retreat at a fast pace along the main road following signal fires lit by his scouts. His worry was that the Allies would swing due east and make directly for Toulouse; this the Allies did, at no great haste in three columns to allow the approaching 4th Division coming from Bordeaux to catch up, each infantry column taking one of the available three roads to Toulouse preceded by Allied cavalry. Soult’s troops force marched to Toulouse and managed to reach it first, but in a terrible condition. Clausel’s two divisions suffered most, being tired already from the fighting of March 20th and being the rearguard having to march cross-country to Montrejean in the early stages as there was no room for them on the single main road.
Fighting in close company
This tactic would very much reduce the frontage of the regiment but concentrate its fire with devastating effect. The Rifles would still use ground and cover to the best advantage under the direction of their officers and would place shots where they would count. It is little wonder that the French casualties were so great and the Rifles so relatively light in this frantic engagement. To mis-quote Voltaire ‘God is on the side of the best shots not the big battalions’.
The fighting on the hill near Oleac is regarded as unique in the annals of the Rifle Brigade, as soldiers from all three battalions fought side-by-side for the only time in the Peninsula War. The French losses around Tarbes were never counted, but were estimated later to exceed four hundred, with the great proportion falling on the hill; the three rifle battalions of the Light Division lost eleven officers and eighty other ranks from a total Allied casualty list of one hundred and twenty. Colonel Andrew Barnard reported to Wellington and requested he come to the hill upon which stood the old tower and see for himself the ‘great slaughter’ that his three rifle battalions had inflicted on the French defenders; Wellington at first declined to do so, later saying ‘Well, Barnard; to please you I will go - but I require no novel proof of the destructive fire of your rifles’.
An officer of the 95th Rifles later wrote …
“Our three battalions were most sharply engaged; three times the enemy with a greatly superior force endeavoured to drive them off the hill, but the losses of the enemy from the fire of our rifles was so great that one could not believe ones eyes. I certainly had never seen the dead lie so thick; nor ever did, save at Waterloo.”
Fighting in wooded terrain such as that on the initial slope at Tarbes required expert field-craft using available cover to close with the enemy and to provide protection from tactical detection and subsequent fire. The green uniforms and black accoutrements would have aided such a tactical deception and allowed riflemen to adopt firing positions within range of the enemy with relative security. Generally riflemen worked in pairs with one man holding ready until his partner had made his shot and reloaded.
The old windmill on the hill referred to by several British diarists was at the time of the battle actually a station of the French National semaphore. Damaged in a fire, the windmill was not rebuilt and was converted into a semaphore signal station back in 1799; the signal equipment in the ‘mill’ at the time of the battle was probably destroyed by the French and as a result British historians didn’t find this fact out until 1835. The tower from 1998 is currently being restored and converted into a stellar observatory; during the rebuilding and renovations several mysterious artifacts were found and the history of the battle discovered - (illegal) metal-detecting has indicated there is much more here. A visitor centre is now planned for the future, showing visitors what happened here in March 1814. In the interests of all, the author has made all his research, maps, photographs and illustrations on the site available to the pleasantly-surprised owners of the old mill after a visit to the spot in 2000.
The French National Semaphore
This picture depicts the type of semaphore signal station that would have been in position at Tarbes as a part of the national network. It was made up of a horizontal beam (called the "regulator") and two smaller wing beams (called the "indicators") that could be varied in 45 degree increments. In 1793 the National Assembly voted 6000 francs to Chappe to build the system. It was the first recorded use of the term telegraph: "far writing”. On 12 July 1793: A Critical Test was conducted with three locations selected, 15 km first hop and 11 km second hop. It took 11 minutes to transmit the original 27 word message to which an answer arrives 9 minutes later. On 26 July 1793 a decision was taken to build a French state telegraph at a cost of 58,400 francs with 15 stations spanning from Paris to Lille (120 miles North of Paris). On 15 August 1794: The first official message regarding the recapture of the city of LeQuesnoy from the Austrians and Prussians was received in Paris. In 1799 when Napoleon seized power he Sent the message "Paris is quiet and the good citizens are content" via optical telegraph. By 1800, telegraph stations spread in all compass-directions from Paris to cover the whole country with stations placed approximately 10 kilometres apart. By 1803, the line began to be extended to the French allies of Italy and Belgium but the entire system was not completed until 1814.
A wanderer on the battlefield today can traverse the heights of Orliex from the direction of Rabastens and starting south of old Dours all the way to Tarbes if you have a map and around two to three hours to spare. William Napier included a map of period operations in this area in his ‘History’; most useful as some place-names have changed. The area around the hill upon which the old mill tower stands is mostly private property (of course) but crossed by footpaths, one of which - despite some modern barbed wire entanglements and a small copse - gives (from a farm on the old road from Vic Bigorre) a rough approximation of the approach route for the 95th Rifles, finally attacking the hill up the west and south-west slopes along a frontage of about two hundred metres. Although appearing grassy and unkempt, livestock in the form of cattle is kept in these fields – beware of the bull and don’t touch the more convenient fences here to see if they really are electrified. Visitors are welcomed to the old tower, but it is still a building site at the time of writing and access to the tower itself is granted only under special circumstances accompanied by the owner. Local folklore in Oleac has it that the French and British fallen are buried in a mass grave at a certain spot nearby. Near Oleac, you can take a pre-battle ancient path (one of those marked by Soult’s scouts) going across fields heading south-east to the main road and Soult’s second position over the Larros river; you’ll be going the same way as many of Harispe’s soldiers and their Light Division pursuers did in the afternoon of March 20th - but - despite pleasant scenery it takes at least an hour and there are a few small hazards to negotiate along the way. It's a pity I can't find the photos to go with the article. The chap who was restoring the Semaphore Tower mentioned found a lot of bullets etc on site and was wondering how they came to be there (that was the state of 'local knowledge' before I sent him my stuff). An unknown Englishman disputes the location of the fighting but the presence of rifle-bullets seem to indicate he is off the mark. It's not an outstanding battle save the young soldiers of the French rearguard were very stalwart in the face of adversity and it was the only occasion that all three 95th Battalions acted in close company ... hence the carnage.