Reminiscences of Captain Gronow

Author: R. H. Gronow

The Battle of the Nivelle

We expected to remain quietly in our winter quarters at St. Jean de Luz; but, to our surprise, early one morning, we were aroused from sleep by the beating of the drum calling us to arms. We were soon in marching order. It appeared that our outposts had been severely pushed by the French, and we were called upon to support our companions in arms.

The whole of the British army, as well as the division of the Guards, had commenced a forward movement. Soult, seeing this, entirely changed his tactics, and from that time, viz. the 9th of December, a series of engagements took place. The fighting on the 9th was comparatively insignificant. When we were attacked on the 10th, the Guards held the mayor’s house, and the grounds and orchards attached: this was an important station.

Large bodies of the enemy’s infantry approached, and, after desultory fighting, succeeded in penetrating our position, when many hand-tohand combats ensued. Towards the afternoon, officers and men having displayed great gallantry, we drove the enemy from the ground which they courageously disputed with us, and from which they eventually retreated to Bayonne. Every day there was constant fighting along the whole of our line, which extended from the sea to the lower Pyrenees - a distance probably not less than thirty miles.

On the 1lth, we only exchanged a few shots, but on the 12th Soult brought into action from fifteen to twenty thousand men, and attacked our left with a view of breaking our line. One of the most remarkable incidents of the 12th was the fact of an English battalion being surrounded by a division of French in the neighbourhood of the mayor’s house - which, as before observed, was one of our principal strategical positions. The French commanding officer, believing that no attempt would be made to resist, galloped up to the officer of the British regiment, and demanded his sword. Upon this, without the least hesitation, the British officer shouted out, "This fellow wants us to surrender: charge, my boys! and show them what stuff we are made of." Instantaneously, a hearty cheer rang out, and our men rushed forward impetuously, drove off the enemy at the point of the bayonet, and soon disposed of the surrounding masses. In a few minutes they had taken prisoners, or killed, the whole of the infantry regiment opposed to them.

On the 13th was fought the bloody battle of the Nivelle. Soult had determined to make a gigantic effort to drive us back into Spain. During the night of the 12th, he rapidly concentrated about sixty thousand troops in front of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps d’armee, consisting of 15,000 men, who occupied a very strong position, which was defended by some of the best artillery in the world. At daybreak Sir Rowland Hill was astonished to find himself threatened by masses of infantry advancing over a country luckily intersected by rivulets, hedges, and woods, which prevented the enemy from making a rapid advance; whilst, at the same time, it was impossible on such ground to employ cavalry. Sir Rowland, availing himself of an elevated position, hurriedly surveyed his ground, and concentrated his men at such points as he knew the nature of the field would induce the enemy to attack. The French, confident of success from their superior numbers, came gallantly up, using the bayonet for the first time in a premeditated attack; Our men stood their ground, and for hours acted purely on the defensive; being sustained by the admirable practice of our artillery, whose movements no difficulty of ground could, on this occasion, impede, so efficiently were the guns horsed, and so perfect was the training of the officers. It was not until mid-day that the enemy became discouraged at finding that they were unable to make any serious impression on our position; they then retired in good order, Sir Rowland Hill not daring to follow them.

Lord Wellington arrived just in time to witness the end of the battle; and while going over the field with Sir Rowland Hill, he remarked that he had never seen so many men hors de combat in so small a space.

I must not omit to mention a circumstance which occurred during this great fight, alike illustrative of cowardice and of courage. The colonel of an infantry regiment, who shall be nameless, being hard pressed, showed a disposition not only to run away himself, but to order his regiment to retire. In fact, a retrograde movement had commenced, when my gallant and dear friend Lord Charles Spencer, aide-de-camp to Sir William Stewart, dashed forward, and, seizing the colours of the regiment, exclaimed, "If your colonel will not lead you, follow me, my boys." The gallantry of this youth, then only eighteen years of age, so animated the regiment, and restored their confidence, that they rallied and shared in the glory of the day.


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Chicago: R. H. Gronow, "The Battle of the Nivelle," Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. Oliver Elton in Reminiscences of Captain Gronow (New York: Norroena Society, 1857), Original Sources, accessed October 1, 2023,

MLA: Gronow, R. H. "The Battle of the Nivelle." Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by Oliver Elton, in Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, New York, Norroena Society, 1857, Original Sources. 1 Oct. 2023.

Harvard: Gronow, RH, 'The Battle of the Nivelle' in Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, ed. and trans. . cited in 1857, Reminiscences of Captain Gronow, Norroena Society, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 1 October 2023, from