Two hundred years ago, yesterday, General, the Marquess of Wellington, led his troops into a battle which all his military knowledge and experience demanded he fight. That same knowledge warned him victory would be hard-won, if it came at all. But he knew he could not wait. Though there were vague reports trickling in from the north that Napoleon’s empire was crumbling, Wellington had no confirmation of that fact. Intelligence of advancing French troops was more reliable and required his immediate action.
Yet, a few days later, the news of an action taken by Napoleon would cause Wellington to dance …
At the Battle of Vitoria, in the summer of 1813, the allied armies finally smashed French control of Spain. As Wellington secured the Iberian Peninsula, he drove the remaining French troops out of Spain, gradually moved his army north. The allied army under Wellington crossed the Pyrenees into France, early in 1814. He knew all the French forces he had driven out of Spain were massed in the south of France to resist him. But unlike Spain, where he had built an extensive intelligence network, he had only a few reliable reconnaissance officers available to him in France. Essentially, he was fighting blind. There were, in fact, many instances when Wellington himself rode out to study the terrain over which he might have to fight and to assess the strength of the enemy forces. On one such reconnaissance ride, he was struck by an enemy bullet. Fortunately for the cause of a free Europe, the bullet struck the general’s sword hilt. Nevertheless, the bullet drove the hilt deep into his thigh, causing an extremely painful wound. Yet, despite his doctor’s orders for complete bed rest for several days, Wellington’s only concession to his wound was to refrain from galloping in his usual fashion for the next week.
Wellington was aware that a combined Russian and Austrian army was invading France across the Rhine river, pushing toward Paris itself. He hoped daily to hear news that Napoleon had been defeated and the long war was finally over. But no such news had come by early April. By then, Wellington had reliable intelligence that Marshal Soult had made the regional capital of Toulouse his base and was staunchly defending the nearly impregnable city. There were also reports of additional French troops marching south to relieve and reinforce Soult’s forces. Wellington knew he had to act before those reinforcements arrived. In the early hours of Easter Sunday, 10 April 1814, Wellington launched a multi-prong attack against Soult’s stronghold which became known as the Battle of Toulouse. Casualties were heavy on both sides, but the allied forces took the brunt of it, since they were forced to battle uphill against fierce resistance. Soult was able to hold out for one more day, but finally gave the order to evacuate the city that night, not long after his sentries spied a large force of allied cavalry advancing on his position.
On the morning of Tuesday, 12 April 1814, General Wellington marched into Toulouse at the head of his army. A delegation of city officials welcomed him and presented their city to the victorious British general. There were great celebrations throughout the city and the white cockades of the Bourbons were to be seen everywhere. Wellington was privately offended at such festivities, in light of the many thousands of lives lost on both sides during the battle. Though he was an able general, Wellington abhorred war and the loss of life it so often entailed. He was, perhaps more than anyone else, fully aware of how very close to defeat the allies had come in their fight for the French base at Toulouse. And with no news of a Russian/Austrian victory over Napoleon in the north, Wellington knew there would be no respite to war. There was no choice, he and his men must fight on. Never one to shirk his official responsibilities, regardless of his personal feelings, Wellington arranged for a grand dinner to be given in the Prefecture that evening, to which would be invited the grandees of the city and his own senior officers.
Little more than an hour after General Wellington had met with the city officials in Toulouse, Colonel, The Honorable Frederick Cavendish Ponsonby, brother of Lady Caroline Lamb and nephew of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, rode his exhausted and sweat-lathered horse through the city gates. The young officer of the 12th Light Dragoons had ridden hell-for-leather from Bordeaux, carrying military despatches. But he was also in possession of vital news from the north which he was determined to be the first to bring to his Commander-in-Chief. Nevertheless, Colonel Ponsonby was not only a cavalry officer, he was a man who appreciated good horseflesh, and he knew his first responsibility was to his spent mount. Once he had seen to the care and stabling of his weary horse, the dragoon colonel went in search of Wellington’s headquarters in Toulouse.
Wellington was dressing for the dinner at the Toulouse Prefecture by the time Colonel Ponsonby located his headquarters and was shown to his rooms. The colonel found him in his shirt-sleeves, just pulling on his boots.
"I have extraordinary news for you," Ponsonby reported after greeting his commander.
"Ay, I thought so. I knew we should have peace. I have long expected it."
"No. Napoleon has abdicated."
There was a long moment of silence as Wellington took in the ramifications of Napoleon’s abdication of the French empire.
"You don’t say so, upon my honour! Hurrah!"
The Commander-in-Chief of the allied armies, still in his shirt-sleeves, spun around, stamping his heels and snapping his fingers in an impromptu Flamenco, a dance which he had often seen in Spain.
Despite Wellington’s dance of joy, the Battle of Toulouse did not prove to be the last engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. The next day, Wellington sent a letter in the care of a British office and a released French officer with the news of Napoleon’s abdication to Marshal Soult. Though he had evacuated Toulouse, Soult had retrenched nearby, intending to continue the struggle to hold Wellington in the south until reinforcements from the north could arrive. Though the news had not yet officially reached Soult, he was an intelligent and practical man who knew Napoleon’s power could not last. He accepted the news as fact and sent orders to General Thouvenot, the French commander at Bayonne, to surrender to the British. Thouvenot refused to surrender, and in fact, made plans to attack the allied troops under the command of Lt. General Sir John Hope, who were besieging Bayonne. Rumors of the abdication had reached Bayonne, and some of the French soldiers, who considered any further fighting to be futile, deserted the garrison. A pair of them were caught by British sentries and interrogated at General Hope’s headquarters. They revealed Thouvenot’s plans, but by then, Thouvenot had discovered the desertions and moved up the time of his attack.
At about 3 o’clock in the morning, the French troops poured out of Bayonne, rushing the British encampment. Lt. General Hope was wounded and captured, along with several of his officers, some of whom were killed trying to defend their general. Major General Hinüber, of the King’s German Legion, saved the day by rallying his own men and leading a counter-attack against the French. The French were eventually driven back, but Thouvenot still refused to surrender. It was not until Tuesday, 26 April 1814, two full weeks after Wellington received the news of Napoleon’s abdication, when Marshal Soult sent some of his senior aides to Bayonne to confer with Thouvenot, that the war finally came to an end. Soult’s aides showed Thouvenot incontrovertible proof of the Emperor’s abdication and only then was the French general was finally convinced to surrender to the allies.
Sadly, neither of those military engagements, at Toulouse or Bayonne, were necessary, since Napoleon Bonaparte had actually abdicated on 6 April 1814. But the news took six days to get to Wellington at Toulouse, and it was two more weeks before General Thouvenot could be convinced that there was no reason to continue to hold Bayonne. That delay cost the lives of more than 5,000 men, in addition to the many thousands more who were wounded. Those who lost loved ones were desolate, but the public at large could not help but rejoice at the end of a war which had been dragging on for more than a decade. There were celebrations all over Europe as the news spread across the Continent and those celebrations went on for several months. Wellington was finally able to return to England for the first time in six years and took part in the victory celebrations held that June in London with the visiting Allied Sovereigns.
Napoleon had tried to commit suicide rather than abdicate. However, the poison he used, which he had had prepared for him during the Russian campaign, and had carried with him ever since, had lost its potency. Though it made him very ill for a couple of days, it did not kill him. On 11 April, the day before Wellington rode into Toulouse, Napoleon ratified the Treaty of Fontainbleau, by which he surrendered all his power and agreed to go into exile on the island of Elba, situated near his home island of Corsica. Bonaparte and his entourage set sail for Elba on Wednesday, 20 April 1814, so he had actually left France six days before General Thouvenot surrendered his command at Bayonne. A little over a month later, Napoleon learned from a French newspaper just delivered to his tiny island empire that his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, had died of pneumonia at their former home, the Château de Malmaison, on 29 May 1814. He locked himself in his room for two days and refused to see anyone. Yet, within the year, Bonaparte would escape from Elba and launch a campaign to reclaim the throne of France.
However, that was all in the future in April of 1814. Two centuries ago, tomorrow, Wellington rode into Toulouse, the victor in a hard-fought battle for the city which had been waged on Easter Sunday, two days before. Within a couple of hours of his arrival, the gallant young dragoon, Colonel Ponsonby, brought him the news of Napoleon’s abdication, which signaled the end of a war which had dragged on for more than ten years. Is it any wonder that Wellington, who abhorred war and yet had been fully focused on fighting one for more than six years, was inspired to dance an impromptu Flamenco?