Monday, August 23, 2010

Retreat from Toulouse 12th April 1814

The Battle for Toulose in April 1814 marked the last act of a war that had raged for almost seven years between the French and British, first in the Peninsula and finally in France itself, with the rearguard action at Baziege being it's final curtain call.

In 1813 the demoralized and defeated French army was forced out of Spain by Wellington, with Marshal Soult driven across the Basque countryside to enter France reaching Toulouse, whilst Marshal Suchet withdrew from Barcelona and Catalonia falling back on Narbonne.

Toulouse lies on the Garonne, which runs into the city from the southwest, then turns and exits to the northwest. Just east of the Garonne, the smaller l'Ers River runs past the city from the southeast to the northeast. The Languedoc Canal extending from the Garonne covers the city to the north before turning south forming a narrow corridor between the Garonne and l'Ers.

Attacking the city from the north, Wellington's main force crossed to the east bank of the Garonne, then drove southeast down the corridor between the two rivers with Beresford on the extreme left thrown forward to take the heights of Calvinet and turn the French right flank, leaving Hill on the west bank to attack the suburb of St Cyprien as a diversion.

When Marshal Soult decided to make a stand against Wellington at Toulouse he was well aware of the weakness of his army and knew he was no longer strong enough to beat Wellington alone but he could give him a bloody nose whilst making him work hard for the prize of Toulouse before withdrawing to join up with Suchet at Narbonne, with Wellington's army weakened by losses and the need to garrison Toulose and conversely Soult strengthened by the forces of Suchet it was possible that Wellington could then be defeated and driven out of France. For Soult's plan to work though he needed to make sure that he didn't get shut up in Toulouse by Wellington and he had expressed his concern about finding himself needing to fight his way out of Toulouse particularly if the British managed to seize Baziège which sat astride his line of retreat.

A hard fought battle on the 10th saw Beresford capture the heights of Calvinet and pushed Soult back into the city, though he still managed to hold on during the 11th. However by that evening with only the road to Carcassonee still open, enemy cavalry were discovered pushing southeast towards Baziège intent on cutting his line of retreat, it was apparent now that he couldn't afford a moments delay if he was to avoid being trapped in Toulouse and he decided to start his withdrawal immediately to effect a junction with Suchet who was still at Narbonne.

It was however no easy task to disengage his force in the face of an aggressive enemy like Wellington. Soult would need to somehow extricate himself from his positions in Toulose without alerting Wellington, move via the Carcassonee road with his flanks protected by the river on the one hand and the canal on the other then crossing both the Languedoc Canal and l'Ers River at Baziège destroying all the bridges across the river and the canal south of Toulouse before the British cavalry moved down from the heights around Baziège.

If he was to complete this task successfully and without further loss he would need to carefully organise the withdrawal and so Soult issued very extensive and meticulous orders to his troops for the night of the 11th/12th. Although quite long these orders as given make a fascinating study and reveal a remarkable flexibility in the command structure of the Napoleonic French army.

The order for withdrawal
The army was to commence it's withdrawal at 9:00pm on the 11th and head along the main road to Castelnaudary via Villefranche, which it was to occupy, and where new orders would be given it.

General Soult's cavalry were to assemble at nightfall and move to Baziège, where it would immediately place outposts on the town walls, the right bank of the l'Ers, and between that river and canal to watch for enemy forces and to cover the various routes that lead to Baziège. It was ordered to wait, at Baziège, until the army had passed, or until it was given new orders to continue it's movement.

Soult left a cavalry regiment between Rangueil and Castanet to guard the course of the canal, particularly the bridges that were destroyed or barricaded. This regiment was to join the rear guard as it passed and take the orders of Generale Comte Reille.

Comte d'Erlon was ordered to start the 2e Division at 9:00pm on the dot, and he was to give orders to his division to take up a position at Baziège, guarding the route of town walls and all the crossings that were on the l'Ers and the canal, until the whole army has passed, then his division would be joined by the 1e division under Comte Reille, and Comte d'Erlon was then to take charge of the rear guard on leaving Baziège, the cavalry necessary for this purpose would be made available to him.

General Clausel was instructed to order the 4e division to leave immediately after the 2e division, and to follow it's movement and form a second line to the 2e division, behind Baziège, until the arrival of the 5e division, when Comte Reille would give them orders and they would resume their march, but in the meantime, the 4e division would comply with the any orders it receives, if necessary, from Comte d'Erlon.

The army artillery park was to leave as soon as the 4e Division had marched, and follow it's movement; when it reached the highway, it was to march as far as possible, in two files, in order to reduce it's depth. General Tirlet was to ensure that his officers and noncommissioned officers of artillery and the train were distributed along the column to ensure it ran in order and to prevent any gaps from forming.

The Train was to follow immediately after the Artillery, they would also move in two files and observe the highest order. The Gendarmerie a pied, under the command of Colonel Thouvenot, were to be distributed along the column of the train and artillery park to make sure they marched in order and was to be prepared to contribute to it's defense if necessary.

After passing Baziège, the artillery and train would head the column to Villefranche, where they would receive new orders.

General Travot was to start the reserve division immediately after the park and train, and follow them to Villefranche. It would also track their progress, and if the column were to halt, it was ordered to immediately find the reason for it and make sure it resumed the march as quickly as possible.

General Clausel was occupy all the positions along the line, from Porte-Neuve and Saint-Etienne to Pont des Demoiselles inclusive, until the 1e and 5e Divisions had passed and were formed wholly on the main road and then he was to start the 6e and 8e divisions, they were to follow the movement of the reserve division, and head to Villefranche, where they would receive further orders.

Generale Comte Reille was to evacuate the brigade of 5e Division and all the artillery that was currently occupying the suburb of Saint-Cyprien, when he judged that the movement of the army was well advanced, so that it would not need to wait too long on the grande esplanade. At the same time he was instructed to send orders to General Darricau to join him on the promenade, with the 1e division. When the junction was made, and all the army had passed, Comte Reille was to start his two divisions and form the rearguard. To this end, he was to have at his disposal the cavalry regiment that General Soult had left between Rangueil and Castanet. He would also have the squadron of Gendarmerie a cheval that General Buquct was to leave under his command, after leaving the suburb of Saint-Michel. Finally, he would be joined on the heights of Saint-Aigne by the brigade of General Rouget, whom he was to send orders to to proceed overnight to this destination.

The posts General Clause had occupied along the Garonne in Toulouse were to be recalled.

The running order for the army, after Baziège, and up to Castelnaudary was to be as follows:
The Artillery park;
The Train;
The reserve division, under General Travot;
The divisions of the left wing, commanded by General Clausel;
The divisions of the right wing, under command of Generale Comte Reille ;
The divisions of the center, forming the rearguard, commanded by Generale Comte d'Erlon;

The cavalry was to be part of the rearguard or would be used at points where required, according to the orders it receives.

After Baziège each General was to resume control of the divisions that formed part of his command.

All divisions, even the reserve, were instructed to take with them their artillery batteries, which must be completed to 8 guns each, and the rest of the field artillery, which would not be used by the divisions, would form a reserve battery and march with the park.

General Tirlet was instructed to take everything that belonged to the artillery at the place and the school.

Colonel Michaux, commander of the engineers, was to take a company of sapeurs and a company of miners with the tools of engineers and leave with the 2e division for Baziège and at the canal, complete the destruction of the bridges and open up new communications as necessary. He was to leave at the disposal of the Comte Reille another pioneer company for the destruction of bridges and the establishment of barriers that could stop the movement of the enemy. This company was to follow the orders of Comte Erlon, when he took over the command of the rearguard after Baziege.

General Travot was instructed to order the Garde-Nationale of Toulose to take over control of all gates and canal bridges, and the suburb of Saint-Cyprien during the night. He was also to instruct the Chefs de Legion and cohorts, on their honor and responsibility, to stand firm in these positions, during the following the day, until the enemy were present in such superior numbers that they were compelled to surrender. In this regard, the lieutenants were to each send a staff officer to General Travot to act as couriers carrying any orders that they were given to their destinations, taking care to ensure that there would be no interruption at all to this service. General Travot could if he wished, to increase the apparent strength of his posts, employ individuals of the city guard who were not armed, because in such cases their appearance alone might be suffecient to impress the enemy.

The l'Ordonnateur en Chef (chief officer of the department) was instructed to use the evening to load as much supplies as possible on to the canal to then be taken back to Castelnaudary and Carcassonne, but if, against all odds, they were unable to make it they should be dumped into the canal.

Soult advised the lieutenants that they should personally take in hand these movements to ensure that they occur in the strictest order and complete silence, and that no one was to be left behind, even wounded, and during the night nothing was to happen in the batteries.

As can be seen when necessary to ensure the movements of the army were coordinated the commander would give very specific and detailed orders, normal command structures were bypassed and a more ad hoc structure was used more like battle-groups as Soult endeavored to ensure that the army managed to slip away under the nose of Wellington. Once they were at a safe distant then the normal structure would resume.

The withdrawal
Soult reported on the night of the 12th from Villefranche:
Yesterday evening the enemy had pushed the head of a column of cavalry up as far as Bastide de Beauvoir (LaBastide-Beauvoir) and St. Martin des Champs (St. Martin-Boulogne), with his outposts occupying the heights at Baziège.

His plan was obviously to cut my communication with Castelnaudary, and shut me in Toulouse. Therefore at 9:00pm, I set the army on the march, the movement took place in the greatest order and by 8:00am in the morning it had entirely crossed the bridges over the l'Ers and the Languedoc canal near Baziège.

The ten squadrons of enemy cavalry hadn't yet appeared, but in the afternoon the heads of several columns of infantry and a large number of cavalry with supporting guns, moved down from Bastide, Mont-Laur and also by the highway, and along the right bank of the canal.

A small engagement took place, which cost us 25 chasseurs of the 10e Regiment.

The enemy has established it's advanced guard in front of our positions at Ville-Nouvelle. He holds Montesquieu, and we have seen large movements of cavalry. My advance guard is at Mount-Gaillard and Saint-Rome, and the rest of the army is between Villefranche and Avignonet. Tomorrow, I'll occupy positions in front of Castelnaudary, and it is likely the rearguard will be involved in several actions.

I had to leave 900 sick or injured troops in Toulouse that couldnt be moved. The amputees and those whose recovery is uncertain are in the hospital, others were divided among the inhabitants, and I have no doubt they will take the utmost care of them. I can not praise too highly the conduct of the inhabitants of Toulouse and the city guard and the dedication that I witnessed, and the attentions that they gave to our wounded, give the highest honor to this important city.

I had to leave behind in Toulouse three pieces of 24, one piece 16, two mortars and two 8-inch howitzers, belonging to the school that we did not have time to evacuate, those guns are now unusable. Besides the weapons, ammunition, and all that was capable of transport has been released.

A group of 300 to 400 enemy cavalry appeared yesterday between Caraman and Auriac, they pushed up as far as Cabanial on the road to Revel, a detachment of 25 Gendarmes, commanded by an officer who were in search of deserters and also looking for supplies, has unfortunately been caught and have lost part of the unit. I do not know yet exactly how many Gendarmes have returned, but to date we only know of four or five. This detachment of cavalry has not yet appeared in Revel by 8:00am today, but it was expected there, as they had requested that supplies be prepared for them. I can only regret being unable to prevent these incursions.

The reports I have received from Montauban are from 10:00pm, General Loverdo tells me that the bridgehead is in a state of defense, and that he has blocked the entrances to the city. The enemy detachments of cavalry have not yet appeared on the left bank of the Tarn.

An enemy column was reported to be marching through Arriege, I do not think it is strong, but the means of resistance are low in this area, General Laffitte will rejoin tomorrow in Mirepoix.

I have not heard any news of Suchet, or a response to the proposals that I have made to him.

The British troops entered Toulouse at around 8:00am on the 12th. Despite the strong words of defiance from the city during the battle the British were greeted now with shouts of joy and cheers, enthusiasm for Napoleon was clearly waning, and everywhere the insignia of the old bourbon monarchy appeared.

Two roads lead southeast out of Toulouse across the plains of Bas-Languedoc. One, by Saint-Agne, Castanet and Mount-Giscard, follows the left side of the valley Lauraguais, the other by Montaudran and Labège along the right side of the same valley. Both meet at Baziège. Taking the first of these directions, Soult had taken care to cut all the connecting roads and communications, blowing up all bridges crossing the canal at Madron, Castanet, Pompertuzat, Se Donneville and Mont-Giscard around 4:00am as they departed.

At dawn the cavalry of Stappleton-Cotton had been observed at Labege on the opposite bank of the canal and 10:00pm almost all the cavalry under the orders of Major Edward Somerset were seen moving down the valley towards Baziege. At about the same time on the main highway infantry appeared, primarily that of Rowland Hill.

Sir Rowland Hill, after having crossed the Pont de Neuf that connects the suburb of Sainte Cyprine with the town, hastily chased after the French at the head of almost 20,000 men down the rues des Couteliers, de la Dalbade and de la Fonderie leaving via the gate of Saint Michel and marching in the direction of Villefranche slowing only when they reached the rearguard of the French army which had retired in the best order.

Between Rangueil and Ramonville the main highway southeast to Carcassonee is squeezed between the heights and the waterways. In this space between the road and the canal Soult had placed his light cavalry under his brother Pierre Soult to block the advance. General Reille moved to a position on the heights above overlooking the road with two divisions, alarming Hill who was unable to deploy on such a narrow front nor could move by any other route, and threatening to attack his flank from behind the ridge line that extends to his right as he advanced.

Hill suddenly seeing the French rearguard halted with artillery deployed in their front, slowed. Although he wasn't facing more than 6,000 French troops he didn't know if the Marshal was there, ready to punish those who would boldly pursue him. Hill immediately called for reinforcements from his commander-in-chief, who dispatched two divisions to support him.

Only when the reinforcements finally reached him, did Sir Rowland Hill manage to turn the position. For it's demonstration, through his skillful maneuvers, Reille had contained the British for a few hours, and that was all that the Marshal had hoped for. The six thousand men Reille commanded then resumed their march, they reached Baziège around 4:00pm, and found it occupied by the two divisions of the center commanded by Darricau and Darmagnac. The left wing had already marched to the small town of Avignonet, where Soult had established his headquarters.

Action at Baziège
Wellington gave the order for Beresford to move on Bastide and forward to Baziège and for General Stappleton Cotton to cut the road to Villefranche there. The cavalry brigade of Colonel Arentschild advanced on Baziège whilst the 5th Dragoon Guards, commanded by Brigadier Ponsonby, moved on to the heights above Baziège in support, they were joined by Sir Stappleton Cotton with one troop of the 1st KGL Hussars.

About 4km north east of Baziege, the plain between the Chateau de Lamothe and the Chapelle de Sainte Colombe slopes gently to a stream of Visenc it is ideal ground for cavalry. The rest of the 1st KGL Hussars led by Captain Poten were on the LaBastide road that descends into the plain of Sainte Colombe. The French 10e Chasseurs a Cheval of Colonel Houssin de Saint-Laurent who had been supporting Darmagnac's 2e division part of the rearguard under Comte Erlon were marching in column of division as they withdrew in the afternoon.

Captain Poten, having first ascertained that he had only cavalry to deal with, ventured to charge the column with his single half squadron. The two leading divisions were overthrown, and crowding back upon the rear in confusion, the whole hurried on in retreat; Poten followed to the village of Ville Nouvelle, about two miles distant, where some infantry appearing in support of the enemy, he withdrew; but twenty-seven captured men and twenty-five horses, bore testimony to his daring attack. In this short but fierce action Britsh losses at Baziege were around a couple of dozen men.

In the late afternoon the British cavalry pushed on from Bastide to Toutens and Caraman.

In the gentle countryside of Sainte Colombe there is a small cemetery, a somewhat overgrown rectangle divided by an avenue of cypress trees, this is the last resting place of the dozens of British soldiers who fell on April 12th, 1814.

The Armistice
That evening, Wellington received news from Frederick Ponsonby of Napoleon's abdication. A few hours later, this was confirmed when the official couriers arrived from Paris. The next day Soult was notified and a formal armistice was signed on the 17th. The war was over at last.

Considérations militaires sur les Mémoires du maréchal Suchet et sur la bataille de Toulouse
Histoire générale de Languedoc, composée par deux religieux bénédictins de la congrégation de S. Maur
Journal des sciences militaires
Mémoire sur la campagne de l'armée française dite des Pyrénées, en 1813 et 1814
Revue des Pyrénées, Volume 16
The London Gazette
History of the King's German legion By North Ludlow Beamish

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