Peter Allport - Bayonne is a beautiful small city in south west France where the wide River Adour flows into the Bay of Biscay and the smaller but historically-resonant river Nive bisects the town. In a typical Basque seaman’s house on the quay where goods used to be stored on the ground floor is now the museum of Basque History. As luck would have it, this summer the museum has a special exhibition with the theme ‘in the shadow of the Emperor’. This features the events of 1814 culminating in the French Sortie from Bayonne to attack the residual portion of Wellington’s surrounding and victorious army under General Hope…
The building itself is historically interesting and explores the Basque culture which is strong and largely rural but colourful and distinctive – stretching as it does across the Pyrenees in France and northern Spain. We may think of the Basques as a Spanish people but in fact ‘Proud to be Basque’ resonates everywhere in this region – all the street and directional signs are written in French and Basque.
On the 4th floor is the temporary exhibition. Bayonne was a well-fortified town because of its strategic position on the route to Spain. The paintings illustrate the fortifications built prior to the 30 Years War and earlier and then reinforced by Vauban in the late 17thcentury – more of that in a subsequent post –
Below is a Bastion with two guerites at the confluence of the Adour and Nive in the centre of the town. The museum is housed in one of the buildings on the quay in the background towards the bridge.
In one of the rooms there is a fabulous 6-10mm scale model of the city. It fills the room and stretches down either side in two massive glass cabinets. Above is the gateway (no longer there) and confluence point of the two rivers.
And here is the same river bastion and guerite today.
Above is the model of the Citadel, built by Vauban on the northern bank of the Adour on a hill overlooking the town. Today it is still occupied by the French military and is not open to the general public. French Special Forces have their HQ there! The flag at half-mast today…
The model illustrates how the town looked in the 18th century. Trees line the esplanades and the houses cram together behind the massive walls and ramparts.
The image of Napoleon is everywhere despite a weak connection with city. Bayonne was however very loyal to him but by the time of the infamous sortie in April 1814 he had already abdicated, was saying goodbye to the Old Guard at Fontainbleau and heading for Elba.
The exhibition contains diaries and journals including these fabulous illustrations of the uniforms of the British and French troops in the last days of the Peninsular War. The fact that these were drawn at the time gives them an immediacy and impact… That’s how it looked then… two hundred years ago in clock-time, but only yesterday in another sense…
In addition to a fascinating range of paintings, drawings, cannon balls, cutlery, officer’s boxes in one of the rooms is a centrepiece diorama in 1/72nd scale with hundreds of individually-based figures illustrating the action around the church of St Etienne on the north bank of the Adour. The French, led by Thouvenot broke out into the half-hearted siege works of the surrounding British and captured General Hope and killed General Hay. Each side lost over 100 killed and several hundred wounded. It was a last hurrah of a defeated opponent…
Some of the detritus of battle, recovered from the banks of the River Nive and the encircling forests. The exhibition provided inspiration and enjoyment for a couple of hours. Bayonne would make a perfect town to create an imaginary siege- fabulous wargame potential.
Later in the week, the well-preserved fortifications overseen and developed by Vauban were on the walking schedule…and that will be the subject of another post.