Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 12th Light Dragoons (Prince of Wales’s)

By Ray Foster

Facings: Pale Yellow
Lace: Silver

1st July 1811 [landed at Lisbon]

Of some note all of the six cavalry regiments that arrived during this year, and seemingly all at Lisbon, had a steadily recorded month by monthly landing. This regiment will immediately become brigaded with 1st Dragoons and be led by Major General John Slade; its senior Captain Frederick Dickens being present no doubt led the regiment itself at this time. With Slade’s Brigade having little in the way of permanent structure the inclusion of 12th Light Dragoons has occured as 13th and 14th Light Dragoons have just departed elsewhere, after a few weeks go by it is possible that Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby has relieved Captain Dickens of his role the former recently appointed leader having travelled up from Cadiz sometime during August. With only patrol duties on the Agueda/Azava River lines there is no real action to report, it can be seen however that the effective strength of 12th Light Dragoons will show them at:

25th August 1811 [on the Azava River Line]
PUA 330

While others have been busy during late September holding back the initiatives of Marshal Marmont’s great cavalry sweeps to the west of this river line in his attempts to discover Wellington’s dispositions and strengths Slade Brigade with the heavy cavalry of Major General George De Grey being positioned to the rear has found no action at all. Coming forward onto Fuente Guinaldo to present a strong defense of that place late on 26th September  they will encounter the briefest of confrontations with troopers of Montbrun’s force, the light is already fading  as 12th Light Dragoons have a brush with these men losing two troopers wounded and in the evening gloom four more ‘go-missing. They then hold there until the enemy decides for a retirement resulting in a return westward at some leisure and to find winter quarters by the lower Mondego valley.

During this winter period more changes are made to brigade compositions, 12th Light Dragoons have come out of Slade’s brigade to join Major General George Anson’s brigade with 14th and 16th Light Dragoons a real pair of veterans, Anson himself goes absent so that Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby who has had some violent previous experience as a Major with 23th Light Dragoons at Talavera and small field experiences down by Cadiz takes up this brigade.

Winter passes and in response to the movements ordered by Wellington as he begins to invest the great fortress city of Badajoz, Cuidad Rodrigo having already fallen to siege and storm, all available cavalry units begins to come into the field.  For Ponsonby Brigade this sees them as a part of Lieutenant General Thomas Graham’s Corps combination designed to protect the theatre beyond the Guadiana towards the south.

25th February 1812 [moving south of the Guadiana]
PUA 292

By late February 1812 they will go by Covilhao taking slow marches to cross the Guadiana River by 16th March accompanied by the heavy brigade of Major General John Le Marchant, Graham has them forward enough at Santa Marta to touch the French units of General Drouet/D’Erlon as they retire before them. Nothing of note occurs by this and three days later the whole of Graham’s cavalry screen spreads to Llerena/Usagre eventually settling centred on Almendralejo where events such as the storm and capture of Badajoz to the north and the approach of hostile forces brought up by Marshal Soult and General Drouet begin to demand attention.

Already Graham has been instructed to fall back on Albuera coming into contact with elements of Lieutenant General Hill southern force so that as the forward cavalry of these opposing forces meet a clash must occur. At Villagarcia on 11th April there is a rather mild combat that sees Ponsonby’s Brigade in action upon coming upon General Drouet’s cavalry units of Lallemand and Perreymond near Llerena, the engagement promises to be fairly balanced until Brigadier Le Marchant coming on from a flank pathway with his heavy cavalry collapses the enemy into disorder and hurried retreat, this, more by chance than design seeing that their overall commander Major General Stapleton Cotton had hoped for a much more sweeping victory by entrapment but for Ponsonby’s alleged  ill-timed urgency. A second charge is delivered with all three Regiments present, this must have been driven home as Captain Dickens scores a wound while as many as fifty others of the whole Brigade record injuries but without an individual regimental count.  We are made aware that in this engagement it was Captain Frederick Dickens that had led in the troopers of 12th Light Dragoons and had received the pleasured notice of Commander Cotton in this, effective numbers about this time could have been no more than’

25th April 1812 [shortly after the fight about Llerena]
PAB 239

As spring turns into full summer numbers improve and Graham’s corps is directed north to begin its movements that would lead on to the so called Salamanca campaign, by 9th July Major General George Anson is noted as having returned to pick up his cavalry brigade the composition having been changed, 14th Light Dragoons is gone replaced by 11th Light Dragoons, that thus joins 12th and 16th Light Dragoons.

Here they are then for a while ahead of 6th Division infantry by Tordesillas on the River Douro, serious manoeuvring with the substantial Army of Portugal led by Marshal Marmont is under way, a few days later while part of a rearguard with Light Division infantry they are called upon to make what they can of a lack of communication while travelling thus near to Castrejon.

Their overall cavalry commander Stapleton Cotton has not been told of a move by the main bulk of the army that has thus left them and particularly the greater part of 4th Division infantry and their attendant horse artillery Captain Ross Brigade well behind and in danger from a fast moving French column coming upon them in the shallow valley of the easily forded Guarena watercourse.

Wellington himself and members of his staff including Marshal Beresford seeing the dilemma late are coming across to discover how this can have happened while 12th Light Dragoons with two of Ross’s HA guns are making good time to also intervene, confusion reigns while the CIC and his small group has to draw swords while evading disaster. In the ensuing clash 12th Light Dragoons are broken followed by newly joined brigade companions 11th Light Dragoons who only stand briefly both having turned about it is said due to a command error but then upon seeing the weak strength of their immediate opposition come around again to deal successfully as the situation is seen to balance to advantage. All however must get off before the enemy can recover to see its overall superiority in numbers, the journey to safety being a full eight miles away while Le Marchant’s heavy cavalry brigade is able to join the ‘disengagement’ and rank and file infantry of 4th Division who are left to save the day bring up the rear. In 12th Light Dragoons Adjutant/Lieutenant John Gitterick had been seriously wounded while of the seventeen trooper casualties five had been killed, one made prisoner and the rest wounded, all on 18th July 1812.

18th July 1812 [after the combat at Castrejon]
PAB 295

Just four days later Anson’s Brigade has found itself on the field in full array before the rolling Arapiles hills to the south east of Salamanca, they are in a central almost reserve position well to the rear of 5th Infantry Division, the day is well advanced before battle is joined which, as it rapidly develops sees them trot forward into clouds of dust within which men are giving their lives, notably men of Marmont’s Army of Portugal who are soon in no state to defend themselves. So it is that the troopers of 12th Light Dragoons find themselves collecting distraught prisoners that have lost the will to resist, not however before Captain Dickens has been dispatched and two of his most forward men killed also, for the rest it will be only necessary for them to take ground while conducting enemy infantrymen to the rear. In the confusion it seems that two troopers, most likely up with Captain Dickens are lost and presumed to have got so far in advance as to be taken prisoner themselves, thus being recorded as missing.

The very next day Anson’s cavalry is on the move, their CIC in close company intending to find the beaten survivors of the Army of Portugal, discovering that the bridge over the river at Alba de Tormes had been abandoned the previous day they cross to come up to Garcia Hernandez where infantry under General Foy is retiring as rearguard. They are being sheltered by chasseurs under General Curto, with hardly an order being necessary these men come about to show a defensive line on some high ground preparing to receive a charge, this comes at them composed of 11th and 16th Light Dragoons who make short work of it, Curto’s troopers after the drubbing of the previous day were in no condition to become heroes. Meanwhile down in the lower ground a drama is about to unfold, 12th Light Dragoons however is not involved in either the one or the other, this becoming the famous breaking of infantry squares by squadrons of KGL Dragoons requiring its own tale to be told in its own place.

With what has become General Bertrand Clausel’s army, no longer ‘of Portugal’ retiring ever northward we will by 28th July see Anson’s Brigade pass through Arevalo to come up to and cross the River Douro the following day by Boecillo and so into Valladolid.

All of this and later movements have little influence tactically, the victors of the battle at the Arapiles begin to separate, Clinton’s infantry of 6th Division have been dealt a major blow at the hands of Ferey’s men in the dusk of that encounter and must be nurtured so that instead of becoming part of Wellington’s drive onto Madrid they come, rather gently, up to the banks of the Douro along with a handful of new battalions still learning the import of the CIC’s ideas on regularity. For 12th Light Dragoons and Anson’s Brigade there is much to do on patrol/outpost duty while Clausel and his Brigadiers sensing a relaxation of his enemy’s drive begins to feel out ‘soft-spots’ where they might re-gain some advantage. General Maximilian Foy is a perfect tool to use in such an enterprise so that his men are put to his usual hard marching that just as usually turns to very little effect. Serious movement only occurs after Wellington has returned from Madrid to come up to the Douro by 6th September whereby we see Anson’s Brigade only four days later up the Pisuerga River closing on Clausel before Dueñas, going on to find the city of Palencia abandoned by the French who are making to cross the river at Torquemada. It is here that the ever busy scribe Lieutenant, now Captain, Tomkinson of 16th Light Dragoons complains of inaction where he had expected that opportunities to attack should ever be accepted, this where a Brigade of French chasseurs had ‘offered themselves’.

This campaign up to the Castle of Burgos would in its time provide enough of that for everyone.

The investment, siege and attempted escalades of this tiny clump of battlements controlling the crossing of the River Arlanzon ran their courses with almost no mention of the exploits of Brigadier George Anson and his men excepting that two days before the whole thing was abandoned Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby of 12th Light Dragoons while out on perimeter duty at Monasterio in preparation for the retreat was wounded, his Regiment, at this time down to a fragile two squadrons was to be an active part of the rearguard once able to get away onto the road south. By this time the enemy was more than ready to mount its ejection of Wellington’s ill conceived siege and to inflict as much punishment as its far superior force could manage, here we are then at 23rd October 1812 and the opening phase of a retreat that would only end once behind the Agueda and safety in Portugal thirty six days later.

Curto’s Division of Light Cavalry made up the vanguard with General Maucune’s Infantry Division close behind while luckily for Anson’s men Brigadier Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Halkett’s KGL 1st and 2nd Light infantry battalions were no great distance in front and for the rest it came down to the Lancers of Julian Sanchez along with a guerrilla band of irregulars now led by Puente, he having ‘dispatched’ his chief in a ‘dispute’. All are by the Hormaza stream and are about to join the combat of Venta Del Pozo, [a house close by] first to join will be Halkett’s men as usual making the best of the plentiful cover to delay any thoughts of an easy thrust while Anson’s Light Dragoons, much in the minority made short stabbing charges before being able to retire beyond the bridge. It was to be several hours before the French could make their superior numbers felt but once beyond this first shock and coming into favourable open ground  it was enough that Anson’s men were able to shelter the KGL infantry going back repeatedly, and for some four miles we are told.  A later dispatch from Wellington praised the work of Stapleton Cotton here that had made best use of his inferior numbers this to be merely an introduction as the French General Merlin brought on his Brigade to make a right flank move, he dislodged Puente’s guerillero’s who ran in on 16th Light Dragoons and in the confusion their Colonel Raymond Pelly and a handful of his men were captured.  Steadily reinforcements gathered on both sides, the French of Faverot’s Brigade with a mix of Lancers, Chasseurs and Gendarmes of Legion, some ten squadrons all told passed the bridge to form a broad line while on higher ground Bock’s KGL Dragoons stood attended by Bull’s horse artillery that at a time most useful was unable to get into action due to being masked by troopers of Anson’s Brigade that only slowly came into a fighting line being somewhat disordered by their prolonged combative situation. So it was that as the KGL Dragoons began their charge and Anson’s men rather falteringly followed in echelon a contact of probably more than 1000 horsemen came together. This on-going affair has now become the combat at Villadrigo and a general melee ensues while being gradually forced to lose ground as the much more fresh enemy squadrons became involved, in all of this, while others of Anson’s Brigade suffered heavily 12th Light Dragoons came away losing just 20 men all told from which only one officer Lieutenant Anselin Taylor was recorded wounded.  As darkness saw the end of this violent activity and with this Regiment down to an effective two squadrons they would in all probability stand down at or about:

23rd October 1812 [after the combats of Venta Del Poza/Villadrigo]
PAB 200

Passing through Torquemada the next day they would be needed to encourage many of the none too steadily retreating infantrymen and no doubt a few of their own number to leave behind the remains of the 1812 vintage descended on by the army the previous night.

The next few days they are not mentioned as playing a part in the rearguard actions brought on as the river crossings of the Pisuerga and the Carrion had to be negotiated. By the end of the month there has been a settling down behind the Douro with a further week or so of indecision as Hill’s Corps begins to come in from their own retreat from Madrid; the French are not confirmed as to numbers threatening from both the north and the east so that it must be the case that Wellington’s light cavalry have been unable to probe forward to discover the weight of the forces against them. It will be as late as 14th November before there is any sign of Anson’s Brigade; they will have come down as far as the approaches to San Cristobal and the area north of the Tormes and Salamanca while away to the south Marshal Soult is readying his men to cross that river almost without opposition. Rapidly during the next day down they come to occupy a part of the high ground on the Arapiles along with three other brigades of cavalry whilst it becomes obvious that a show of force here is just that and no more, baggage is sent off heading for the roads back to the Portuguese frontier while a general retreat will begin the next day. Captain Tomkinson of 16th Light Dragoons, a great diarist/critic in all things military and an observant officer in Anson’s Brigade is scathing of the events that are to follow, he notes that the Commissars are gone completely from their own retirement route and that this road thus leaves others down which the infantry pass to have scant rearguard protection and certainly no sustenance. The trudge through the mud, the constant rain and the reported breaking down of the horses whilst remembered by many is not reflected in the official returns that continue to show numbers unreal to say the least.

Once behind the Agueda and a few days of rest off they go deep into Portugal as far as the lower Mondego below Oporto where they remain throughout the winter period during which, by an Order of 13th March 1813 one of their brigade partners 11th Light Dragoons was ordered to stand down, relinquish its horses and related equipment and return to England. By a complex arrangement these mounts and those from three other cavalry regiments were drafted into cavalry regiments remaining in the rear cantoned areas, surprisingly there is no corresponding rise in numbers recorded by AGO in its monthly returns to Horse Guards. As the spring begins to herald the up-coming summer campaign weather Major General George Anson with now just 12th and 16th Light Dragoons find numbers have been rising slowly throughout this in-active period so that as this Brigade finally begins to change quarters and crosses the Douro we see Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby’s 12th Light Dragoons by the beginning of May standing at:

1st May 1813 [north of the Douro by Braga]
PUA 330

A fortnight later they are on the march through Braganza and onto the rough paths approaching the Spanish/Portuguese frontier where they cross the River Manzanas undisturbed by any enemy presence going on amongst the vanguard of Lieutenant General Thomas Graham’s left/northern flank Corps up to the River Elsa crossing by pontoon on 1st June as the river had at the time been full from upstream rains. Advancing northward uneventfully for two further weeks Anson’s Brigade cross the River Ebro with his foremost diarist Captain Tomkinson of 16th Light Dragoons extolling the grandeur of the scenery and more importantly the ready access of provisions not seen in the previous campaigns in the Peninsula.

Having purposely avoided contact with the enemy in all of this long drive to the north it was inevitable that as the French began to concentrate onto the Grande Chausee with their ‘caravan’ of loot collected over their year by year occupation a contact would take place, and so it was that by 18th June and close by Osma, less than 20 miles from Vittoria an escort of troopers from Anson’s Brigade go forward with Ramsay’s Horse Artillery and the light infantrymen of the KGL to meet retiring units of General Honore Reille’s Corps. With large numbers of opposing units of all arms collecting it was then a case of finding a line to defend for King Joseph’s men and a way to attack it by Wellington, we are made aware that Anson’s troopers having taken a route that saw them going off north had to be re-directed bringing them down a little late onto Murguia by the evening of 19th June in a heavy rainstorm. The next day and covered by elements of Brigadier General Juan Longa’s ‘irregulars, the day before the great battle on the River Zadorra is spent quietly when compared with the hurried arrangements being made by many other of  the opposing forces. By now it will be as well to estimate the strength of Ponsonby’s 12th Light Dragoons as the great day dawns, all figures taken into account regardless of Oman’s rather optimistic brigade count can only have them standing at that of a month earlier:

21st June 1813 [at the battle of Vittoria]
PUA 330

Anson’s Brigade has no significant part to play in the day’s violent events until the defensive lines of King Joseph’s army begin to crumble, still up at the northern end of affairs Longa’s Spanish force has already put an end to the escape route directly north and Major General John Oswald with 5th Division infantry a little lower down the Zadorra has been finally able to cross the hotly contested bridge at Gamorra Mayor from which the retreating men of General Lamartiniere have finally relinquished their hold. Here we see for the first time Anson introducing a squadron each of 12th and 16th Light Dragoons with the full support of the rest of the Brigade in an effort to get as far forward as might become possible to cut off the general retreat that is now seen to be developing.

The area entered has before it wooded country so that men of General Reille’s Corps, still in some order are able to mount a rearguard as all the rest make their way in no order at all some way to the east of Vittoria, a regiment of Brigadier Fririon’s men makes a stand forming square near Zurbano, and thus receives a charge from the foremost of Anson’s troopers, driven off by this it appears that any enthusiasm to persist from here onwards dies away after the last pieces of artillery leaving the field are found abandoned. The 12th Light Dragoons in this final action of the battle have lost Cornet Abel Hammon [or Hammond] killed with three of his men while eight more were wounded, they would come to rest hereabouts and  nowhere near the captured loot nor the riotous scenes back at Vittoria as the day ended:

21st June 1813 [after the battle of Vittoria]
PAB 318    

Just three days later they are to be found pursuing a convoy of ‘valuables’ under escort by General Maximilien Foy as they approach Villafranca, there is a combat to be endured, broken off and repeated at Tolosa where a more serious attempt to capture is frustrated with little or no work for cavalry, the ‘valuables’ escape bringing to an end this encounter with no recorded loss to the troopers of 12th Light Dragoons. They do however lose their Brigadier George Anson who on 2nd July steps down for them to receive a new commander Major General John Vandeleur. Between Late August and September a large contingent of re-mounts, no less than 160 horses have come into 12th Light Dragoons so that this sees this cavalry Regiment able to present its highest number of ‘effectives’ since entering the Peninsular theatre.

September 1813 [in quarters north of Passages]
PUA 441

By the advent of the late autumn as Marshal Soult’s defence responsibilities have increased beyond the capacity of his abilities to hope of success we see the entry of Wellington’s burgeoning forces into French soil by the crossing of the Bidassoa River. It is early on the morning of 7th October 1813 with orders to a couple of squadrons of 12th Light Dragoons to cross the shallowest of waters at low tide at the very westerly end of the frontier made by the broad estuary of this moderate watercourse. This it seems by near surprise, the water depth a mere three feet, without casualties as other far more serious incursions occur inland and with such weight that resistance is predictably minimal.

By the onset of winter little can be expected of the men of the mounted arm of the service, Vandeleur Brigade however will, no doubt, on 10th November in crossing the River Nivelle by Saint Jean de Luz at a bridge thereby have that opportunity provided by their brigade partners 16th Light Dragoons who had prevented its destruction by the retiring enemy.  As a part of their task of covering the movements of 5th Division infantry they will by the second week of December have moved ahead of that fighting force to explore the sand-dune country on the coast running up to the estuary of the River Ardour where forward planning had envisioned a crossing in force to embarrass the garrison occupying that military strong post Bayonne. Although heavy and prolonged infantry and artillery fighting has developed on the River Nive between 10th and 13th December and most certainly for the infantrymen of 5th Division there will be no work for the cavalry arm so that as all of this dies down it will be a search for comfortable quarters to see them through the worst of the winter that they concentrate their energies on. Numbers will show some success for their efforts so that by the time that we hear of Vandeleur’s Brigade returning to the field they will show:

2nd February 1814 [up by the left bank of the Ardour]
PUA 426

Lieutenant General John Hope the ever optimistic leader of the Army Corps of the Left Wing as soon as the weather shows signs of allowing him to activate the CIC’s desires has decided that his time has come and begins to assemble all of his resources, along with Army, Navy and all willing local seafarers on the Atlantic coast hereabouts to build a rope-hawser bridge at the most western end of possibility. This involves cavalry it seems so that Vandeleur Brigade gets to be amongst the throng of bridge builders but, of course with little or no information of how this might be. Utilising boats and eventually rafts being towed across we see that they begin to come ashore on the northern/right bank by 23rd February, numbers in 12th Dragoons show a reduction by a mere 40 ‘effectives’ so, it must be seen as a great success.

This it seems is the end of their Peninsular adventures.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2013


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