Battle of the Bidassoa (1813)

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of the Bidassoa (1813)

partof=Peninsular War
date=October 7, 1813
place=North Pyrenees, Spain-France border
result=Tactical Anglo-Portuguese victory
combatant1=flagicon|France French Empire
combatant2=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
flagicon|Portugal|1707 Portugal
flagicon|Spain|1785 Spain
commander1=Marshal Soult
commander2=Marquess of Wellington
casualties1=1,650 casualties, 17 cannons
casualties2=1,600 killed or wounded

In the Battle of the Bidassoa (or the Battle of La Rhune) on October 7, 1813 the Anglo-Allied army of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington wrested a foothold on French soil from Marshal Nicolas Soult's French army.


In the Battle of San Marcial on August 31 and September 1, 1813, Soult's army was repelled in its final bid to advance into Spain. The Anglo-Allies also brought the Siege of San Sebastian to a successful conclusion in early September. Only Pamplona's French garrison held out and it would not surrender until October 31. Wellington determined to create a bridgehead across the Bidassoa River and gain some positions in the mountains.

French defenses

Because his French troops had begun to plunder their fellow citizens, Soult was ordered to defend a position as close to the frontier as possible. He had to hold a 30-mile front in the Pyrenees mountains. The area was highly defensible, but lateral communications were poor.

Deciding that the coastal sector was the strongest part of his line, Soult posted Major-General Honoré Reille and 10,550 men to defend that sector. Reille's command included the divisions of Antoine Maucune and Pierre Boyer. These troops held a line behind the Bidassoa running from the Bay of Biscay to a point about eight miles inland. Behind them was the entrenched camp of Bordagain. Eugene-Casimir Villatte's 8,500-man Reserve division remained five miles in the rear around the port of St-Jean-de-Luz.

Maj-Gen Bertrand Clausel held the center with 15,300 men in the divisions of Nicholas Conroux, Jean Maransin and Eloi Taupin. On the right, near the Bidassoa, stood the "La Bayonette" redoubt. Mont Larrun (La Rhune) rose in the center of Clausel's sector. His left touched the Nivelle River near Ainhoa.

Fearing an allied thrust over the Maya Pass and down the Nivelle River to the sea, Soult gave Maj-Gen Jean-Baptiste Drouet d'Erlon 19,200 men to hold his left flank. D'Erlon's corps included the divisions of Maximilien Foy, D'Armagnac, Abbe and Daricau. These troops held a line from Ainhoa to the mountain fortress of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, covering the Maya and Roncesvalles Passes. [Glover, p 281. This author gives French strengths and positions, as well as most of the information about the battle.]

British plans

Wellington had 64,000 Anglo-Portuguese infantry and artillery, plus 25,000 Spaniards. Since cavalry was useless in the mountains, the British commander sent his horse regiments to the rear.

In order to gain his bridgehead, Wellington had to force a crossing of the Bidassoa estuary. The river was 1,000 yards wide and 20 feet deep at the high water mark below the Île de la Conference. What the French never suspected was that, at certain low tides, there was only four feet of water over the lower fords. Allied intelligence knew that the next low tide was October 7.

The crossing was meticulously planned. Near the lower fords, British engineers built a turf wall near the river. This would shelter Andrew Hay's 5th Division during the time before it crossed the river. Wellington positioned five field batteries and three 18-lb siege cannon to provide fire support.


At 7:25 am the 5th Division launched its attack. It came as a complete surprise to the French, who had deployed only Maucune's 4,000 men to defend four miles of river. Immediately, Hay's men gained a foothold at the village of Hendaye and swung to the right to assist the crossing of Kenneth Howard's 1st Division. At 8:00 am, Howard's men, Thomas Bradford's Portuguese brigade and Lord Aylmer's British brigade, forded the river near a destroyed bridge at Béhobie. Three Spanish brigades crossed farther to the right. Rapidly, the British overran the "Croix des Bouquets" position and the Spanish captured Mont Calvaire. The entire ridge on the French side of the river fell into Anglo-Allied hands at the cost of only 400 casualties. [Glover, p 285]

That morning Soult was absorbed in watching Henry Clinton's 6th Division advancing from the Maya Pass. The division's Portuguese brigade boldly seized the Urdax ironworks, losing 150 men in the combat. When he saw the British brigades hesitate, Soult suddenly realized the operation was only a demonstration. He rode off to his coastal sector but he was too late to help Reille.

The toughest fighting of the day occurred in Clausel's sector. John Colborne's brigade of Charles Alten's Light Division attacked "La Bayonette". Not waiting for the attack, the French charged downhill and drove back the green-jacketed 95th Rifles Foot. Suddenly the 1/52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry) Foot appeared and quickly turned the tables. Following closely behind the retreating French, they overran the redoubt with surprising ease.

Meanwhile, James Kempt's other Light Division brigade and Francisco Longa's Spanish division attacked up two spurs of Mont Larrun to secure some positions. To their right, Pedro Giron's two Andalusian divisions attacked the summit of Mont Larrun. Though the Spanish attacked repeatedly, they were defeated. However, the next day the French abandoned the position to avoid encirclement.


In the coastal sector, the French lost 390 killed and wounded, plus 60 men and 8 cannons captured. In Clausel's sector, the French lost 600 killed and wounded, plus 600 men and 9 cannons captured. The British lost 573 and the Portuguese lost 242. [Smith, p 459-460] There were 1,600 total Anglo-Allied casualties. [Glover, p 286] The next engagement would be the Battle of Nivelle in November 1813.


* Glover, Michael. "The Peninsular War 1807-1814." London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0-141-39041-7
* Smith, Digby. "The Napoleonic Wars Data Book." London: Greenhill, 1998. ISBN 1-85367-276-9


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