After the successful Allied siege of San Sebastian (7 July – 8 September 1813), Wellington, with 80,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops advanced northwards pursuing Marshal Soult’s retreating army.
Soult turned to face the British at prepared position along the River Nivelle. The French army was drawn up on a series of hills on which they had constructed a number of strong redoubts. However, Marshal Soult’s lines stretched from the shores of the Atlantic on the French right flank to the snow-covered pass of Roncesvalles on the left, a perimeter of about 20 miles. With only 60,000 men to protect this, Soult’s forces were stretched impossibly thin.
The French position was dominated by the Greater Rhune, a gorse-covered, mountain nearly 3,000 feet high. Separated from the Greater Rhune by a ravine, roughly 700 yards below it,was the Lesser Rhune along the precipitous crest of which the French had constructed three defensive positions.
Wellington decided to attack along the whole of Soult’s line, but to mount his major assault in the centre. A breakthrough in the centre or on the French left flank would enable the British to cut off the French right. Wellington disposed his forces as follows: the left wing led by Sir John Hope, comprised the 1st and 5th Divisions as well as Freire’s Spaniards. General Beresford was to lead the main Allied attack against the French centre with the 3rd, 4th, 7th and Light Divisions, while on the British right (attacking the French left ) Sir Rowland Hill would lead with the 2nd and 6th Divisions, supported by Morillo’s Spaniards and Hamilton’s Portuguese. In this assault, the 2nd Division, including the 29th Worcestershire Regiment and the Sixth Division, including the 36th Herefordshire Regiment, had the toughest job and earned special praise from Wellington. The battle honour “Nivelles” was to be borne on the Colours of both Regiments thereafter.
The battle started just before dawn on the 10th of November, as the Light Division headed towards the plateau on the summit of the Greater Rhune (the summit had been garrisoned by French troops but they had fled after the skirmish on the River Bidassoa, fearing to be cut off from their own army). The objective of the division was to sweep the three defensive forts the French had constructed out of the battle. They moved down into the ravine in front of the Lesser Rhune and were ordered to lie down and await the order to attack. After the signal from a battery of cannon, the assault began. It started with the men of the 43rd, 52nd and 95th – with the 17th Portuguese Caçadores in support – storming the redoubts on the crest of the Rhune. The surprise and boldness of the British sent the French fleeing towards forts on other hills.
While the 43rd and 95th were dealing with the French on the Rhune, there still remained one very strong star-shaped fort below on the Mouiz plateau which reached out towards the coast. This was attacked by Colborne’s 52nd Light Infantry, supported by riflemen from the 95th. Once again, the French were surprised and in danger of being cut off, they fled leaving Colborne in possession of the fort and other trenches without a single fatal casualty.
The main British assault then began with the nine divisions fanning out over a five-mile front. When the 3rd division took the bridge at Amotz, all French resistance broke as any communication between the two halves of Soult’s army was now impossible. The French resistance melted away and soon they were in full retreat (by 2 o’clock they were streaming across the Nivelle) having lost 4351 men to Wellington’s 2450.