Posts Tagged ‘Marshal Bluecher’

There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

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There are times when many of us want to get away from overweening, domineering and intrusive nation-states. But where could we go? My thoughts have recently started to turn towards Belgium and to its great gift to the world.

Before I get to Belgium, which is not a thing I usually like to do, what other possibilities could there be? There is always the dream of a sustainable, organic small-holding in some God-forsaken Welsh valley – a place where I could wear sandals, knit my own yogurt or even open yet another home-made candle shop. Yet that’s still not remote enough to avoid the reach of petty-fogging British bureaucrats and, what’s more, it never stops raining in Wales.

A beach in Thailand or in the Indian province of Kerala perhaps? Hanging out with some old, failed, rock musicians, or more successful Cockney criminals, I could watch the daily arrival of hoards of privileged Western youth trying to be hippies but really just living off daddy’s money. Better not.

So what about an enclave, a place lost in a type of no-man’s land that through some quirk of history has evaded the grasping attentions of power-hungry states? For the sake of the more linguistically challenged, an enclave is ‘an enclosed territory that is culturally distinct from the foreign territory that surrounds it’. Even today there are dozens of such enclaves around.

The Vatican City isn’t at all the type of enclave I’m looking for; after all it’s a state in its own right with its own pretty-boy Swiss army. With my political and religious views it’s also highly unlikely that the Pope would ever ask me over for a couple of beers and to listen to his extensive collection of 1970s British blues-rock. Though that’s a shame as I’m led to understand that Pope Benedict does a passable karaoke version of Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water – John the Baptist’s water no doubt.

Well then there’s always Llivia, a miniscule parcel of Spanish territory in the Pyrenees, completely surrounded by France. Llivia was created because the French and Spanish couldn’t agree on its status when they negotiated their frontiers in 1659 – in the Treaty of the Pyrenees. But I’ve also rejected Llivia. It is indeed a true enclave but it’s still part of Spain and the Spanish are surely the noisiest people on the planet, as anyone who has had to sit next to a Spanish family on a beach or in a plane can testify.

After considering several other options I found myself, rather unexpectedly, in Belgium. There are three possibilities here. The first, and the one I think I would find most congenial, unfortunately no longer exists.  Yet I can still dream.

Neutral Moresnet

Once Napoleon had been defeated, at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 the victorious powers established a united Netherlands. They couldn’t, however, agree on who should get a tiny 350 hectare sliver of territory lying south west of Aachen. The main issue was that this land, centred on Kelmis (La Calamine), was the site of one of Europe’s richest zinc deposits. So it was designated neutral  – ‘Neutral  Moresnet’ – a true enclave lying between Germany and Holland. The other bits of Moresnet were divided between Prussia and Holland.

But following the Belgian Revolution, the artificial state of Belgium came into existence. A creation ratified by the London Conference of 1830. I like to imagine the scene in London during the negotiations between Prussia, Holland and the ‘Belgians’, all overseen by the victorious British.

First there were the Prussians, no doubt making it clear in their usual gentle and understated way, and with good reason, that it was their Marshal Blücher and his army of Germans who had saved the Duke of Wellington’s bacon at the Battle of Waterloo, enabling Napoleon to be defeated. The Dutch delegation – somewhat peeved that a large chunk of their country was being removed and given over to the tender mercies of the French-speaking Walloon aristocracy, and remembering the days when they had fought so valiantly for their liberty and had become a great maritime and colonial power – well maybe they snuck off at the end of a hard day’s talking and drowned their sorrows with a few good Dutch beers (remember the superior ‘Belgian’ beer didn’t yet exist).  And then there were the French-speaking Walloons. Even though France’s one and only big attempt at European domination had failed, I like to imagine them, like all French at all times, colourfully dressed like pompous peacocks. I’m also sure they also did an admirable imitation, avant la lettre, of Dr. Strangelove’s instinctive Nazi salute and ‘Sieg Heil’. At every opportunity they would have mentioned ‘L’honneur de la France’ – not yet knowing that they were becoming Belgian now and hence in for two hundred years of French ridicule and condescension. In their pride these Frenchmen probably felt that discussing the future of a few rustic Frankish oiks was below them; and in their national collective historical amnesia I guess they didn’t even remember that it was precisely from these German/Ripuarian Frankish areas that the ‘Franks’, who created and gave their name to France, originated. Did they even know, and do the French today know, that Charlemagne himself was a German-speaking German?

And the British, the hosts of the London Conference, what did they make of all this? As always they would likely have been slightly bemused by all the strutting and fretting of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, who didn’t even have the courtesy to speak English properly. They did, however, have the satisfaction of putting one of their own German Royal family on the Belgian throne, King Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the uncle of Queen Victoria of England), who was to go on to have such great fun in the Congo.

I’m sure this is all a travesty of history. Or is it?

In any case, the London conference decided to keep ‘Neutral Moresnet’ and it became an enclave in Wallonian Belgium, even though its people spoke German, or more correctly Ripuarian Frankish. Neutral Moresnet’s northern tip met the conjunction of Germany, Holland and Belgium at a veritable four-country point at what is now called the ‘Trois Bornes’ in Vaals (Neutral Moresnet having since disappeared), which lies at the staggering height of 323 metres above sea-level in the endearingly named ‘Dutch Alps’.

Neutral Moresnet existed for a hundred years and what a place it must have been! For most of its history it was run as a kind of ‘social’ company town by Francois Mosselman and his successors, the owners of the zinc mine. Taxes and prices were low, wages high and, for much of the time, its population were able to avoid the rapacious desire of both Belgium and Germany to conscript them as cannon-fodder. Such a haven attracted many immigrants and Neutral Moresnet’s population grew ten-fold from just 256 in 1816 to 2,572 in 1858. And why not? People were allowed to have their own breweries and distilleries, although supposedly only for their own use. Eventually there were 60-70 bars and cafes in the main street alone. Truly I think I’ve ‘found my bliss’. But even they couldn’t drink all the alcohol they produced and much of the population turned to smuggling booze to Holland, a good case we might think of taking coals to Newcastle.

Dr. Wilhelm Molly

The enclave printed its own stamps and wrote its own national anthem. In the early twentieth century, under the leadership of a local doctor, Wilhelm Molly, it even tried to make Esperanto the official language of what Dr. Molly proposed to call ‘Amikejo’. The fourth Esperantist Congress decided to make Neutral Moresnet the new seat of its global organization instead of The Hague.

Regrettably, this bucolic, and probably inebriated, existence all came tumbling down when the Germans capitulated in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles granted the enclave to Belgium. So I can’t move there. Yet there’s no need for despair, Belgium, in its genius, has another couple of enclaves to offer.

The Vennbahn Corridor and The German Enclaves in Belgium

I could go and live on a railway line. Starting in 1885 the Germans built the Vennbahn (‘Fenn Rail’) from Aachen to Trois Ponts in the province of Liège. Over the course of the next decades, and after two German invasions of Belgium, the ownership and property of the Vennbahn was granted to Belgium. The only problem is that this separated five German areas from Germany proper. Strictly speaking it’s these German communes that are the enclaves. The present Belgian territory, often no wider than the railway line itself, is not really cut off from the rest of the country; so it doesn’t really match my criteria. Not only this, but I don’t think I could live there. Stretches of the former railway line have been converted into cycle tracks and the mere thought of waking up every morning to the sight of groups of fat, lycra-clad, German cyclists passing my front window is enough to bring on waves of nausea.

Yet Belgium has one last trick up its sleeve – Baarle.

The Baarle Enclaves

Believe it or not just north of the Belgium town of Breda but in the present-day Netherlands there are twenty-two tiny Belgian enclaves in and around the town of Baarle. It gets better. Lying within these Belgian enclaves in Dutch territory (called Baarle-Hertog) there are also seven Dutch sub-enclaves (called Baarle-Nassau), plus another one in Belgium proper. The total surface area is only 2.34 square kilometers with a population of roughly 2,200. The history of these enclaves goes back to 1203, but the important thing for me is that despite lots of changes these wonderful enclaves still exist and I could go and live there. What joy it must have been, and hopefully still is, for the inhabitants of Baarle to drive the functionaries to distraction. I’ll mention just a few of the pleasures I have discovered.

The Baarle frontiers run through houses and shops

The frontiers sometimes run straight through houses and shops, offering great opportunities to irritate the bureaucrats. Dutch and Belgian taxes and child benefits often vary in their generosity. This affords the chance to change your residence as you deem best for you. Residence is defined by in which country your main entrance is located, so if you want to change your residency, and hence your fiscal regime, you can change your front door. People do this. There are houses in Baarle with an inward-opening front entrance in one country and an outward-opening door in the other. If the relative tax merits of Holland and Belgium change you can always reverse the hinges. How the Dutch and Belgian petty bureaucrats must hate this!

And then there is no better way to savour the ludicrous, capricious nature of state borders than to post a letter.  If you post a letter in a Dutch enclave within the Belgian enclave in Holland, to a person down the street in the Belgian enclave itself, your letter will first go to Brussels then by air to Amsterdam before eventually making its way back to Baarle. If, on the other hand, you were to walk a few metres down the street and post your letter in the Belgian enclave it would never leave the town at all.

Back to alcohol. One report I have read tells us that ‘several years ago Belgium and Holland had different licensing hours which the landlord of one of Baarle’s pubs, bisected by the frontier, blatantly exploited by installing a set of doors on each side of the border. When they stopped selling alcohol in Belgium, the patrons hastily left through the Belgian door, only to re-enter immediately through the Dutch one and to carry on boozing.’ It irritated the authorities so much they had to harmonize the licensing laws to do away with this simple pleasure.

What about fireworks and sex? The truly important things in life. Anyone who knows Holland a little will know that you’re only allowed to buy fireworks on Christmas Eve (please tell me if I am wrong); but then the Dutch go absolutely crazy with them. In Belgium you can buy them all year round, so the firework trade in Baarle thrives. ‘The Dutch bits of the town respond with numerous sex shops – not allowed near public buildings in Belgium, but thriving on the Dutch territory, next door to the Belgian town council in Baarle.’

Finally, I love the fact that in the town there are ‘two mayors (Belgian and Dutch), two sets of political parties, two town councils, two fire brigades trying to beat each other to the fire, two post offices, two refuse collection services. It is the only town in the world where police forces of two different countries share not only the same police station but also the same offices, with filing cabinets painted in the colours of Dutch or Belgian national flags.’

Belgium and its Languages

Belgium is, of course, an artificial creation, a place where the French-speaking Walloons, the Flemish, and the oft forgotten Germans in the east of the country, have been living unhappily together for nearly two hundred years. But the Belgian enclaves have been a real and great gift that Belgium has given to the world; along with… well I can’t think of anything else at the moment.

So the Belgian enclaves of Baarle in Holland are the places for me. Now I only need to persuade my family of their merits.

‘The rain will destroy us if it lasts much longer.’ – Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, Saint Jean de Luz, 31 October, 1813

It’s raining today in Itxassou in the Basque region of southwest France. As I look of the window I can see that the River Nive is running high. Two hundred years ago in November 1813 it was also raining and early snow covered the nearby hills. The British and allied army commanded by Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley – the Marquis (later Duke) of Wellington – had just arrived in this part of the world and the troops of his most trusted general, Sir Rowland Hill, were ‘cantoned’ in Itxassou and in the neighbouring villages of Cambo, Espelette, Larressore and Souraide. They were waiting for the weather to improve so they could cross the Nive, on the other bank of which the French army under Marshal Soult had taken up defensive positions all the way from Bayonne on the coast to Saint Jean Pierre de Port. The crossing took place on 9 December, 1813.

Joseph Bonaparte

Joseph Bonaparte

Briefly the background to all this is that in 1813  we are seeing the last stages of the long and bloody Peninsular War, which the Spanish rather quaintly call the War of Independence. In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte had installed his older brother Joseph on the Spanish throne and the French were in charge of the country. The British had to rescue them. It was a huge, tortuous and brutal effort that took over five years. The decisive victory took place on 21 June 1813 just south of Vitoria – Gastiez (now the capital of Basque Spain) where Wellington’s British, German and Spanish army routed the French.  Joseph Bonaparte and his still huge army started a long and drawn-out fighting retreat over the Pyrenees and back into France. There were many skirmishes and battles and thousands on both sides continued to die.

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

The Battle of the Nivelle, November 1813

In France the Battle of the Nivelle was fought on 10 November 1813 near the village of Sare on the flanks of the La Rhune.

 Soon after midnight, on the morning of 10 November, the columns of the allies under Wellington wound down the passes of the mountains in silence, lighted by the moon. At earliest dawn the attack was made on the lines of the enemy, and by sunset, in a succession of brilliant charges, the allies had broken the line. Soult had been out-manœuvred and outfought on his own long-prepared ground, and beaten at every point. The French, numbering seventy thousand men, had been placed in carefully selected positions. Strongly entrenched, they knew the roads, and were fighting to protect their native land from invasion; yet they suffered themselves to be dislodged from every point assailed with a lack of spirit that surprised the allies.

Under cover of night Soult withdrew and concentrated his forces in front of Bayonne. Wellington took up a position within two miles of the enemy, his left resting on the sea and his right on Cambo. As the weather was stormy and wet, all operations ceased. The roads were execrable, the crossroads a quagmire. It was not possible at that time of the year to move artillery over the sodden ground, and even communication between the wings was difficult.

The losing French army retreated again to the north side of the River Nive, which they believed they could defend and prevent the British from crossing.

After the Battle of the Nivelle, Wellington had wanted to immediately attempt a crossing of the Nive but the appalling weather made it impossible. The ‘roads’ had turned into muddy bogs and the river was so high that the available fords were impassable. As the rains continued to pore down, on the 16th November Wellington sent orders to ‘canton’ the army.

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

The 10th Hussars in the Peninsular Wars

General Sir Rowland Hill’s division was ordered to canton Itxassou, Larressore, Cambo, Espelette and Souraide. Sir Rowland was Wellington’s must steady, reliable and trusted general. He was so loved for his care that his troops nick-named him ‘Daddy Hill’. And one of Hill’s soldiers was the famous Levi Grisdale. Grisdale had captured French General Lefebvre at the  Battle of Benavente in Spain in December 1808, had fought at the Battle of Vitoria in June and would go on to personally lead the Prussians of Marshal Blucher onto the field of Waterloo in 1815. But for now Levi was with his elite cavalry regiment, the 10th King’s Own Hussars, waiting to cross the Nive. Levi was more likely to have been billeted in Larressore than in Itxassou, but it’s nice to think that one of my family also looked through the rain on the River Nive two hundred years ago!

The 10th Hussars were at this moment commanded by Colonel Richard Hussey Vivian. Vivian had found himself some very salubrious quarters in the Chateau of Saint Martin in Larressore, from where he wrote to his wife on December 2:

Here I am, my dearest Eliza, in the midst of my brigade —in the midst of the enemy! Out of the very window of the room from whence I now write this I can almost converse with the French sentries! Nothing but a narrow river (the Nive) separates us; and it is fordable in many places; but they are very quiet, harmless neighbours. We have agreed not to fire at each other; and they are too much afraid of an attack from us to make it at all probable that they will molest us in our quarters. If they chose it would not be a very difficult matter to walk into my bedroom any night. There is, however, a brigade of infantry in the village, under General Pringle, and they would hold them. We could do nothing, for it is nothing but hill and dale!

You can have no conception of anything more magnificently beautiful than the situation of my chateau, which is on the point of a hill overlooking a beautiful mountain river, and looking up a most delightful valley, through which runs the river, the hills rising from the valley on either side crowned with timber; villages in abundance, bordering on the river.  But it is to the eye only that it is now delightful. The ravages of war have depopulated these otherwise charming residences ; few, if any, of the inhabitants remain, and what few do remain are almost starving from having been eaten out of house and home by the soldiery, with whom their houses are literally crammed.

General Hill’s division, of which I command the cavalry, is posted in the villages of Cambo, Espelette, Souraide, and Larressore — altogether about 12,000 men within a space of three miles of each other. On our left, at Ustarits (sic), is the 6th Division, Sir H. Clinton, about a mile off. I am just going there to dine and sleep at General Pack’s.

They talk of an advance soon, but I do not think it possible; for the roads are in such a dreadful state from the constant rain we have had that it is perfectly impossible for troops to move.

The next day he wrote to his mother:

I am now here in the midst of my brigade, on the banks of the Nive, and the enemy is quietly opposite me; so near that I can certainly make them hear out of the room where I now write; bat they are in a great fright that we should advance, and we are really very good friends, and they do not molest me, or prevent me sleeping in perfect safety and comfort. I have a capital chateau, delightfully situated… I only wish it were in England. I could sell about £10,000 worth of timber without doing any harm…  They talk of an advance very soon. I hope so, for we are terribly off for forage, and we shall get that in front.

‘Whilst the British were in position on the banks of the Nive, in November, 1813, the French used to meet the English officers at a narrow part of the river, and chat over the campaign. One of the latter, in order to convince them of the reverses of Napoleon in Germany (the Battle of Leipzig), rolled a stone up in the Star newspaper, and endeavoured to throw it across the stream. The stone, unfortunately, went through it, which made it fall into the water. The French officer thereupon remarked, in pretty fair English, “Your good news is very soon damped.”’

General Rowland 'Daddy' Hill

General Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill

This pleasant, though wet, interlude was not to last. On the 8th December issued his orders for ‘forcing the passage of the Nive’ the next day. The task was entrusted to Rowland ‘Daddy’ Hill. He ‘was instructed to cross the river by fords near Cambo at daybreak of the 9th, re-establish the bridge, and assemble on the right bank the Second Division, the Portuguese Division attached to it, Vivian’s and Victor Alten’s brigades of cavalry, and Ross’s troop of horse-artillery. With these he was to advance along the road from St. Jean Pied de Port to Bayonne, and take up a position in the vicinity of Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre’.

Other divisions were to cross the river at Ustaritz and Arrauntz. Spanish General Morillo was ordered to cross the river at Itxassou in order to protect Hill’s rear from any attack by General Paris, who lay at Louhossoa, some four miles up the river from Cambo.

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

The Nive at Cambo les Bains

I leave the description of what followed to J. W. Fortescue, in his monumental  A History of the British Army:

Meanwhile Wellington’s orders were punctually followed. Beresford successfully laid his pontoon-bridges to an island in the river during the night; and on the morning of the 9th a beacon kindled on the height above Cambo gave the signal for attack.

The Sixth Division at once advanced upon Ustarits, drove the French sentries from the right bank of the river, and enabled the engineers not only to complete the pontoon -bridge but to repair another wooden bridge which had been partly destroyed by the French. They then crossed the water, Gruardet’s brigade of Darmagnac’s division falling back before them upon Villefranque, with little fear of being caught, for the marshy meadows were so heavy that the British could make but slow progress on their way to the road.

Hill simultaneously threw his corps across the river in three columns, one of them above Cambo, the others at Larressore and at Halsou, which was accomplished with only the loss of a few men drowned, though the water was so high that the men slung their cartridge-boxes round their necks to keep them dry. Foy’s division, which guarded this part of the stream, thereupon withdrew slowly, contesting every foot of ground. Fririon’s brigade retired upon Petit Mouguerre and Vieux Mouguerre, where Abbe’s division had been brought forward to support them ; while Berlier’s brigade, being cut off from the road by the advance of Clinton, was forced to retreat due east to the moorlands of Hasparren, and did not rejoin Foy until the afternoon. Paris also was compelled to retire before Morillo eastward upon Hilette (Helette) towards the shelter of Pierre Soult’s cavalry.

Nevertheless Hill’s advance had been so much retarded by the saturated soil that it was one o’clock before the head of his columns reached the heights of Loursinthoa on the road to Bayonne, where he took up a position with the Sixth Division on his left, the Third remaining to cover the bridge at Ustarits. Here he halted for two hours to let the tail of his columns come up; and during this interval d’Erlon deployed the whole of his troops between Villefranque and Petit Mouguerre, where Soult had already since noon taken up his own station. None the less the Marshal did not venture to assail Hill, and at last at three o’clock the Portuguese of Clinton’s division came down to attack Villefranque, and after one repulse succeeded in driving from it one of Darmagnac’s brigades.

A thick fog coming on before dark brought the combat to an end.

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The ford of the Nive at Itxassou

The British and allied army had crossed the Nive, Levi Grisdale among them. But things were not over yet. Marshal Soult counter attacked on the 13th December near Saint Pierre d’Irube, near Bayonne, but Sir Rowland Hill defeated the French without Wellington’s help at the so-called Battle of the Nive. Wellington and his army trundled on across southern France, eventually to take the French surrender at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. But he, and Levi Grisdale, had to come back the next year, when Napoleon had escaped from exile, raised a new army and met the British and Prussians at Waterloo!

9 December 1813: Just another wet day in the Pays Basque.