Sunday, September 12, 2010

Summary of Walking the Pyrenees

This holiday would be different from our earlier battlefield visits.

First it was longer than our previous battlefields. We left Portsmouth on 21 June 1996, and we would have 17 days to explore a relatively small area of the Pyrenees. We had paid a flying visit to the area the year before, but this time we would spend much more time on each battlefield, and walk the area in much more detail.

Second we would be based in one location for the whole 17 days. We had booked a Gite outside the small village of Sare, right in the middle of the area we wanted to explore. It’s a very popular area, so we could combine our twin hobbies of battlefield walking and hill walking.

We took the shorter boat crossing from Portsmouth to Caen, but we then had the longer drive down through France. However we made good progress and did the journey in 12 hours.

We had hoped for good weather, as it was the middle of June. However the rain started as we left Caen and it rained most days until we returned.

From our Gite we could only see the Rhune, but we could walk there in less than half an hour. Our first attempt was a false start, and we had to return to Sare and try again. But we soon found the right path and the climb was pretty easy.

We would spend three full days walking around the Rhune, and despite the overcast weather it was wonderful. Apart from the summit, which we never did visit, the whole area is completely unspoilt. There is a train which takes holidaymakers up to the summit, so they leave the rest of the mountain alone.

We also returned to Maya, and this time found all the tracks and locations which we had missed the first time. We visited Maya twice, but we never did get good weather.

Then there was Roncesvalles. We were luckier with the weather, and had a lovely clear day following the route taken by the French. On this same day we experienced how quickly the weather can change. We started in clear, sunny weather. Fortunately we were on our way back to the car when the mist came down and the temperature dropped. Visibility was down to about 100 yards, but we were on a good track and found the car ok.

There was also the area immediately around our Gite. Just behind was St Barbe redoubt, and on the other side of Sare a while range of redoubts fought over during the battle.

Sare itself was a delight, as was Ainhoa and the area in between. We walked the path from Sare to Ainhoa, which was connected the two wings of Soults army.

Our only long drive was to Orthez. It was 65 miles each way, but took longer due to the narrow roads. And to be honest the battlefield was a disappointment. I had spent a lot of time studying the battle, and had a really good period map. But much of it was overgrown, the modern roads seemed to go in the wrong direction and we could not even find any paths which would take us to the areas of interest. Orthez is very pretty, but that was not the reason we had gone there.

So all in all not our best battlefield walking holiday. But well worth it despite that. And I ended with a much better understanding of the whole area fought over during the Battle of the Pyrenees, something which I had always found it difficult to grasp.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Thursday 4 July 1996

We had put off a second visit to Maya due to poor weather, but today was our last day and our last opportunity. Dressed in our waterproofs it was not what you would expect for the south of France in July.

This is the path from Maya Pass to the Gorospil. British reinforcements would have taken this path to delay the French advance.

Another photo on the same path, you can see from the puddles that it had already been raining heavy before we arrived. Just after we left the car it started to rain again.

By the time we reached the Gorospil the rain had stopped, but it was still very overcast. During the battle heavy mist also played a part, so it was appropriate to see the area in these conditions.

This is the area where 400 men of the 92th Highlanders fought a delaying action against a full French division.

Once more the weather cleared, and we decided to push on beyond the Gorospil along the Chemin des Anglais. This is the track the French followed in their advance from Ainhoa.

The French infantry would have seen this view as they neared the Gorospil from Ainhoa.

This area of the Gorospil was held by the British skirmish line and was the scene of fierce fighting. The British infantry were soon pushed back by vastly superior numbers.

The arrival of heavy rain forced us to abandon our final visit to Maya. This was the last photo I took as we made our way back to the car.

This was the last day of our holiday. The weather throughout had been a real challenge. We had come prepared for anything, including bad weather. We had visited all of the battlefields which we had planned to visit, and we had enjoyed them all. But it would have been much more enjoyable had we had warm sunny days to explore this beautiful area.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Wednesday 3 July 1996

It’s a 65 mile drive from Sare to Orthez, so we had postponed the visit until the weather improved. This morning we had a dry, if cloudy, sky and as our holiday was nearing its end decided to go anyway.

Fought on 27 February 1814 this was one of the last battles of the Peninsular War. Soult withdrew his main army from Bayonne, and took up a defensive position at Orthez. The battlefield covers a large area and despite a lot of preparation we found it quite difficult to explore, even on foot.

We found a picnic site where we got out our maps and books to orientate ourselves and decide how best to tackle the battlefield.

We found the church of St Boes quite easily. This village was the centre of the early fighting, and helped us to get our bearings. This photograph was taken from the main French position on the road between the St Boes and Orthez.

We did find the Roman Camp, but it is now completely overgrown by large trees and thick undergrowth. We walked around the whole area, but could not find even one good view of St Boes. Hot and tired we eventually retired to the local pub to rethink our strategy.

The terrain made it very difficult to follow the main attack from the Roman Camp, so we decided to search for the main French position. Driving along the new road we found this memorial to Marshal Foy, who was wounded during the battle. We knew that the original road marked the main French position.

We then made our way to Orthez and found the medieval bridge over the Gave de Pau. The British crossed the river above and below the village, so the bridge was not the scene of any fighting and consequently was not damaged. The village is very pretty, but not particularly interesting in relation to the battle.

I had done a lot of preparation for our visit to Orthez, and had found a very detailed map of the battle. So we were expecting to experience little difficulty in walking the battlefield. However we wasted a lot of time around the Roman Camp and the area between there and the French position. Although interesting to explore St Boes and the French position, we were disappointed that the area around the Roman Camp proved so difficult and unrewarding.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Bayonet Ridge

Tuesday 2 July 1996

Overcast skies yet again. We had planned to drive to Orthez, but the dismal weather decided us to postpone the 65 mile journey in the hope of better weather. Instead we decided to return to Vera and explore the Bayonet Ridge again.

The ridge is dominated by a collection of duty free shops, with a large car park and plenty of places to eat and drink. There is nothing to show that it played a critical part in the campaign of 1813, and I doubt if many of the thousands who visit each week are aware of its colourful history.

The hill in the background is Le Grande Rhune.

From our earlier visit we had a good knowledge of the area, and we quickly found a path which led away from the shops towards the bayonet redoubt and the area of fighting. It is appropriate that this path is called Commissari Ridge on the map.

The weather quickly took a turn for the worse, and it was soon raining heavily. Despite our waterproofs we had to seek shelter in a small cave. We immediately noticed a very wet donkey who stood a few feet away and stared at us resentfully. Our cave was obviously his home! He looked so miserable that we felt guilty keeping him in the rain. Despite the weather we left the cave and walked back to the shops. As soon as we left he scooted into the cave.

It was clear that the heavy rain would not soon clear up, so we settled for a hot coffee in the café and returned to Sare. This was not the first, nor would it be the last, battlefield walk which we had to abandon due to the weather.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Roncesvalles Pass

Monday 1 July 1996

On our previous visit to Roncesvalles we had explored the area from the Pass itself, which was the British position. This time we wanted to explore the approach to the Pass used by the French. This involved a 60 miles drive to St Jean Pied du Port and then another 6 miles up a steep, narrow and winding minor road to the Redoubt de Chateau Rignon. This was the position held by the forward picquets on 25 July 1813. The photo shows the position from behind the Redoubt looking towards the French approach area.

The French approached on both sides of the Pass of Roncesvalles. The main fighting was all on the right of the map. The area we visited today was between 1 and 3 on the map.

The new road goes off to the right, and this is where we left the car. I am standing on the 1813 road on the Redoubt de Chateau Rignon.

The British picquets retreated from Chateau Rignon to Pic de Leizar Atheha, which was held by seven British and one Spanish light companies. They were now attacked by 17,000 French infantry. I am standing on the road used by the French and the Pic is directly ahead. Because of the steep slopes either side of the road, the light infantry were able to hold this position for most of the morning and allowed the British troops to concentrate on the Roncesvalles Pass two miles beyond.

We were surprised to find quite a few walkers in such an isolated area, but when we found this marker we realised we were on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella.

We had lunch in the Pic de Leizar reading descriptions of the fighting here. The light infantry were spread amongst the rocks and held off repeated attacks by enemy skirmishers. Because the sides of the mountain are very steep, the French were unable to deploy their men and make use of their vastly superior numbers. Eventually they formed dense columns and marched right over the position, forcing the light infantry to retire to the main position on the Pass.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ainhoa Redoubt and Bridge at Amotz

Sunday 30 June 1996

At last a dry, if cloudy, day. We decided to explore the area from the bridge at Amotz to the redoubts above the village of Ainhoa. This bridge spans the river Nivelle and carried the only lateral communications between the left and right sections of the French army.

Today the bridge is closed to motor traffic and overgrown with grass and weeds. Despite this it is apparently still used by local farmers. It is set back from the main road and was quite difficult to find. We parked near the old bridge, crossed over the river Nivelle and began our search for the original road to Ainhoa. We followed the obvious road, but found it led us in the wrong direction. Returning to the bridge we found a dirt road leading towards Ainhoa. It was quite clear of weeds and presumably used by local farmers.

The deeply rutted track led sharply uphill from the river and followed the crest of the hill towards Ainhoa. Looking back there were impressive views of The Rhune. Whilst the Light Division stormed the Rhune, Colville’s Third Division took the line of redoubts on the hills overlooking Ainhoa and protecting the road over the bridge at Amotz

Although overcast it was very hot and though well used to walking in UK we found it quite hard going for the four or five miles from the bridge to the main redoubt overlooking Ainhoa.

It was quite difficult to find the redoubt. All were completely overgrown and really just grassy depressions. It was only when we realised that most were surrounded or covered by trees that we finally found what I think was the main one. Once the general area was located it was easy to find the shape of the redoubt, and we were grateful for the shade provided by the trees.

This is the view from the top of the redoubt looking down on Ainhoa (the village left of centre). It provides a commanding view of any approach from the valley, and long views over the distant Pyrenees.