Monday, 24 February 2014

The bridge at Bayonne

As we ramp up to commemorate the start of one vast European war a century ago, it is easy to forget that another vast European war drew to a close two centuries ago. 1814 saw the end of the Peninsular War, which had seen various European armies chasing Napoleon's might through France and Spain. By April 1814 Napoleon was defeated.

Although war was to flare up a year later in the brief and disastrous Battle of Waterloo, the main war for the Iberian Peninsular was over.

Over the winter of 1813/14, British, Spanish and Portuguese forces chased Napoleon's troops over the Pyrenees and into France. As they swept northwards, the forces had to deal with the isolated French garrisons they came across.

One of these was the citadel of Bayonne, situated on the northern bank of the River Adour, six miles upstream from the sea. This was garrisoned by the French under General Soult. If Bayonne was left unmolested, then the French troops within could cause great difficulty for the allies.

To do this, the wide and fast-flowing River Adour had to be crossed. British guns fought off the French sloop and gunboats that patrolled the river, forcing them to safety further upstream. Then sixty men made their way across to the French bank on a pontoon, and the French picquet retreated without combat.

A hawser was then stretched across the river and the remaining pontoons made into a raft, by which 500 British troops and some rockets made it across. But this was not ideal: the crossing could only be made at the slack water of low tide, and the rafts were a slow and vulnerable way of getting men and materials across.

Unlike today, the mouth of the Adour was a mass of sandbanks that were difficult to navigate, and the French had removed the poles that marked the only channel. The allies had commandeered scores of boats, including Spanish chasse-marees, and several of these were lost trying to find a route into the river. Eventually such a route was found, although the final attempt had to wait until the next day.

At the next high tide on the 24th of February, British warships headed upstream to chase off the damaged French ships. This was followed by a long stream of boats, crewed mainly by Spanish sailors, with British engineers on board to manage the later tasks. They made their way across the breakers and headed upstream for three miles to reach a point halfway between the citadel and the sea, where retaining walls narrowed the swift-flowing river to 800 feet in width.

Twenty-six of the chasse-marees were moored in a line across the river, and planks and cables strung across them to form a floating bridge that could cope with the fourteen-foot tides. This was protected with booms, and was used to get the rest of the army across the river.

This bridge has fascinated me for years: it was an ingenious way of solving a problem, and yet this postscript to the Napoleonic wars is little known. To my surprise, I found an engraving, reputedly from 1823, showing the bridge. This means that it remained in place for at least nine years after the battle.

Like all battles, it was won more by the side that made the least mistakes: the French had thought the river unnavigable by the British so had not guarded the mouth, and they had not thrown everything into repulsing that first landing of sixty troops.

Sadly, the battle turned into a siege of the citadel that lasted until the end of the war a few months later. But a siege was good enough for the British, as it bottled up the French forces.

So tonight I will raise a toast to the brave men and boys from three nations who risked their lives to build that humble bridge of boats.

The bridge of boats below Bayonne, May 1823

No comments: