Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 15th Light Dragoons (King's Hussars)
By Ray Foster
12th November 1808 [landed at Corunna]
It may be as well to first set the scene as this regiment comes ashore here, there has already been a great stirring of events in northern Spain, Joachim Blake’s Spaniards are about to be thrown back at a battle against the French forces of Marshal Nicholas Soult well to the east at Reynosa, a moderately sized expeditionary British contingent of all arms have for some time been landing at this same Biscayan seaport while making its way down into the Spanish interior meanwhile Napoleon himself with a massive army is well set to crush all opposition in a bid to take Madrid.
The Kings Hussars led by their Lieutenant Colonel Colquhoun Grant, [not to be confused with another Colquhoun Grant a Captain of the 11th Foot and the well known exploratory officer much praised by Napier for his deeds behind the ‘Lines and his efforts to escape from capture] are speedily, by the standards of the day, brigaded with 7th and 10th Hussars to come under the redoubtable Lieutenant General Henry Paget who will get them on the march after a mere three days of ‘settling in’. They are first mentioned in the field at Lugo on 23rd November on the march towards Astorga, the main corps of this northern contingent under Lieutenant General David Baird is by now well in advance at that place his orders to get in touch with Lieutenant General John Moore who is bringing a much larger force laboriously northward through western Spain via Salamanca.
Five days later that latter General is writing hurriedly to Baird to stop his progress and retire back all the way to Corunna, this as a result of information as to Napoleon’s movements about Madrid, his courier delivers this sad dispatch with admirable speed as December begins. Messages intended to see all of the British units reaching the coast to be then re-embarked and concentrated on Lisbon are flying about the country roads, Paget’s Brigade no doubt will turn about and retrace its route in as orderly a fashion as possible, they get only as far as Lugo perhaps before another order comes to them to halt and return! Once more this mass of somewhere like 1600 horsemen and their lightest baggage head for Astorga to be found as far forward as Toro on 11th December, now of course it is winter with short daylight hours, cold winds and the threat of sleet and snow.
A week later the snow has arrived to greet them about Mayorga where by 19th December there is a concentration of all forces now coming directly under CIC Moore, Paget is elevated to full Divisional status thus handing on 15th Hussars and their other two Hussar regiments to the utterly incompetent but most senior Brigadier Lieutenant Colonel Jack Slade.
We now get our first indication that the enemy may be contacted it is 21st December and they are but nine miles off so that Paget [quite likely, fully aware of Slade’s inadequacies] takes 15th Hussars himself while directing Slade to go on directly at the town road into Sahagun with 10th Hussars where the enemy is known to have cavalry in some number.
Sweeping around the town at pace 15th Hussars are expecting to meet that French light cavalry under General Debelle catching them in flank as they react to Slade’s intrusions, that officer, being what he is prevaricates and not a friendly sabre is to be seen, undeterred Paget continues the manœuvre but naturally will now be more behind than on flank.
It will be troopers of 1st Provisional Chasseurs a Cheval that, having discovered this attack in their rear are struggling to come about to form a defensive array, being charged to contact [something that British horsemen do rather well] they have no chance and are put to the sword, beaten back into the oncoming half-formed men of Debelle’s 8th Dragoons, Lieutenant Colonel Grant must have been well forward in all of this getting himself [the only officer] wounded to count amongst the total 14 recorded K&W in that regiment.
Whilst there is no reliable record of loss by the French 8th Dragoons we are made aware that 1st Provisional Chasseurs a Cheval recorded as many as 157 troopers and 13 officers captured, 20 more killed and ‘many more’ escaping wounded, so much depleted that when the campaign closed this provisional regiment was broken up and re-distributed.
By the time that Slade came on the scene all was over and the survivors had fled to warn their CIC Marshal Soult that there were serious numbers of British troops in their immediate front, that commander, ever competent at moving his troops calls up a whole Division of Dragoons [somewhat in excess of 2000 sabres] under General Lorges to restore some balance while he can evaluate this new threat.
From the 19th-23rd December Moore has busied himself in re-arrangements to his potentially powerful new combinations, Soult, as his immediate foe right before him is, quite pragmatically, far more concerned with hurrying forward his wide spread Corps in order to meet an expected serious challenge. By 23rd December however the opportunity for Moore to deal him a deadly blow will pass, an intercepted enemy dispatch reaches him late in the day in what could be seen as a ‘Dear John’ letter, it informs him that none other than Napoleon himself has discovered his whereabouts and is hell-bent to do his comparatively small British Army some serious harm.
Paget meanwhile, good man that he is, cannot be other than sweeping this ‘front’ on the look-out for enemy movement that might reveal his intentions, it becomes all too obvious when he gets his orders to create a screening rearguard and in very short order finds before him elements of Marshal Michel Ney’s 6th Division cavalry, those 2000 sabres of Lorge’s Dragoons. Luckily snow is now falling heavily, luckily? Yes, those enemy troops coming up from the Madrid area have to cross the Guadarrama Pass and deep snow drifts on the tops cause vital delay not only in time spent but in re-grouping of those much-tried troops who managed to overcome this snow-swept geographical obstacle.
Meanwhile we may pick up 15th Hussars four days after receiving their orders to retreat back from whence they came, they are now at Benevente, it is 27th December and the only observation is that the retreat is going steadily considering the weather with another reference two days on that they are behind the River Elsa. Nothing here to suggest that 15th Hussars might be involved in the scramble at the Castro Gonzalo bridge and the defeat of the Imperial Guard Chasseurs thereabouts on 31st December, however on that day as the cavalry of the army is given the chance to retire unimpeded back onto Corunna we do discover that this regiment will stay as final cavalry rearguard and will have a brush with units of Lahoussaye’s Dragoons.
Over-matched by sheer numbers they are driven off at Bembibre on 2nd January ’09 quite unable to protect the trickling stream of stragglers on foot who thus come in for some serious sabring. The next day at Caçabellos a detachment is caught on the wrong side of the bridge over the Cua, turns about and makes off at speed leaving the infantry to make the best of it, it is here that Tom Plunket of 95th gets his man [Brigadier General Colbert of Ney’s Corps Cavalry] no casualties recorded for this single squadron of troopers in the ensuing infantry defence.
At Lugo we hear of at least 500 cavalry horses being shot when no longer able to be of use, this gets much worse when the Kings Hussars finally reach the Corunna wharf side, they are ordered to slaughter the rest of their mounts before being amongst the first to embark for England so it is that we shall receive last figures for this unfortunate campaign.
21st January 1809 [disembarked at ports in England
sick, wounded and fit for service]
Of horses fit for service
Colonel Grant and his men will need some considerable time to reorganise, four years however does seem an inordinate amount as many regiments manage to make the turnaround far more rapidly.
15th April 1813 [first mention of a return to
the Peninsular Theatre]
This is during the period of waiting as there is much activity bringing all military services up to a maximum strength for what is now seen as a final push to remove the French from this theatre.
26th May 1813 [Graham gets his orders to take the field as the Left Wing Corps]
Grant is still in charge and at least has his troopers up to the army when the call is finally made, even then they only commence the day after the great offensive has begun to move northward soon to overhaul and pass the infantry regiments of 4th and 6th Divisions all onto the right banks of the Douro. By 31st May Grant, who has under hand a full brigade of Hussars, they are 10th, 15th and 18th on the Elsa River along with 7th Division infantry crossing a deep ford by Almendral with some difficulty heading for Zamora and just two days later, by Morales his other two Hussar regiments have their first touch with the enemy, naturally enough this will be by way of a spirited charge and a pursuing gallop after these cavalrymen of General Digeon’s Brigade of Dragoons. Merely following up 15th Hussars will only arrive perhaps to do some herding of the many prisoners captured here, contact with the enemy is lost and for a couple of weeks it comes down to making their way on narrow country roads leading up to the Zadorra River. On 21st June there they are in the rear of the bulk of Wellington’s infantrymen who, after some hours of serious fighting are in the ascendency at the battle of Vittoria, with only brigade numbers to work from they may well be at;
21st June 1813 [at the battle of Vittoria]
Crossing the Zadorra and coming into the field after Lieutenant General Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division and units of Light Division they will have difficulty finding open ground to form up on, however as the fighting moves away in the direction of Vittoria Grant is able to work around the right extremities of the plain to bring his troopers into some very confused struggles and seemingly with 15th Hussars well to the fore. With King Joseph’s Army already crumbling into defeat it enables Grant and his eager sabres’ to fall upon a large retiring group of enemy cavalry protecting what appears to be an assembly of high ranking officers with a well appointed coach at its nucleus, it is of course King Joseph Bonaparte himself and most importantly his mounted Guard cavalry.
In they go hacking and slashing away, their enemy now some very serious swordsmen, their advantage such as it was that the whole French effort elsewhere has turned to full retreat; as we know Joseph is to escape leaving his coach and some valuable contents to the victors. The victors, and in this case 15th Hussars, do not come about their success without loss, 60 of them are brought down, no less than 10 of the troopers being killed and 49 wounded Captains Skinner Hancox and Joseph Thackwell with an un-detached Lieutenant John Finch [a member of Lieutenant General Stapleton Cotton’s staff] amongst these last, so certainly a contest well entered into and not one of those valiant charges but a close milling about of man and horse with total commitment to the fight.
We are made aware that in the aftermath of the whole affair the CIC [who had been rather naively hopeful of securing the greater part of the loot] gave Grant’s officers some very pointed criticism for setting a bad example to the “men”.
Note: Wellington never really understood that after survivors of a full-on-kill-or-be-killed situation had before them a means of emotional release from their extremely un-natural, un-human killing frenzy they did for a while display some unusual characteristics!
21st June 1813 [after the battle of Vittoria]
A month later after some chasing about the Bastan it appears that 15th Hussars will have been drawn out of Grant’s Brigade to perform the duties of Corps Cavalry that is to explore ahead of infantry units that themselves are seeking out the enemy too. None of this lasts for long however, the country running up to the ridges of the Pyrenees is far too rugged for cavalry of a formed nature so that it would be natural, once the French have gone into the hills that the CIC would send them back into quarters. There is soon to be a change of leadership in the cavalry arm mainly brought on due to the English Prince Regent in acknowledging this sweeping victory being kind enough to award Wellington the Marshal’s baton thus handing over the appointment of his most senior officers to his own choice. Wellington of course had already quite a list of those fellows he saw as unfit for the serious work of leading his Divisions and nowhere more urgently than in his cavalry arm, out goes Ballard Long and George Anson while his own preferences start to enter the theatre, particularly Major General Edward Somerset and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hussey-Vivian both of whom must have been forewarned considering the speed that they displayed in answering the call. 15th Hussars returns to Grant’s Brigade, 18th Hussars moves off elsewhere and the old companions from 1808 7th Hussars enter the theatre after a very long wait, so there we are, or are we?
During all of this stand-down period Grant himself has been levered out and before the end of the year who should step up but Major General [steady Eddie] Somerset getting 7th 10th and 15th Hussars until the end of hostilities. As to action in the field that only comes about during early 1814 when the frosts harden the ground enabling offensive activity to resume.
For the Light cavalry this comes down to forward exploration of the field going east towards Orthez and it is late February, Somerset has his troopers up at Sauveterre to make progress seeking fords across the Gave, quite rapidly as the army finds that Soult has decided for a stand by Orthez and a ridge trending away to the north-west Somerset is seen skirting the right of 6th Division [already over the Gave de Pau] and in moderately good open cavalry country well to the right of what would be the main event.
27th February 1814 [at the battle of Orthez]
It will only be as Soult’s men have begun the start to a retirement from their chosen defensive line that the Hussars will be given any indication that they might be of some use, not a lot as it transpires. Taking ground as the enemy evacuates Orthez township they come forward and upon seeing a slightly un-ordered gap amongst the retiring enemy swoop down upon them, they are only slightly resisted 15th Hussars receiving just nine men wounded before the task turns to capturing and rounding up infantry who have fallen behind what has rapidly turned into a full retreat. This real chance of perhaps making prisoners of a goodly proportion of men here is passed up, Somerset has in hand no less than 1600 sabres and any true cavalryman would say that here was an opportunity lost, however the Brigadier pulls up his men who, like most of the rest of the army settle down for a cold night out in the open. It is only conjecture that would see Somerset and his troopers availing themselves of better cover for the night in the outer buildings fringing Orthez town to their right rear, we are not informed.
27th February 1814 [after the battle
Following up the French the next day the Kings Hussars along with the rest of the Brigade have little to do except travel along the very wet foothills and mountain streams intersecting the line of retreat taken by this mass whose object is to maintain as much space as possible between them. Soult’s rearguard to begin with consisted of units of 13th Chasseurs a Cheval while on or about 14th March a raid deep into the rear of Wellington’s array by a party of 5th Chasseurs a Cheval created a flurry of excitement but no violent clash of arms so that the retreat carried on towards Tarbes reaching Rabastens where Somerset’s troopers eject the enemy cavalry with only brief mention.
Drawing in towards Tarbes on 20th March Soult turns in defence of a favourable hill position behind that town so that a fight must ensue, coming in from the north Somerset’s troopers are given a left flank to complete the CIC’s line, their movements seemingly merely to encourage the enemy to retire as the attacking infantry closed in.
Note: The combat hereabouts although hard on the infantry elements of Light Division petered out with the French Divisions able to get off almost unmolested, an opportunity to bring on a general assault pinning Soult’s men against the Pyrenean hills to finish “the game” was passed up and as a result that bloody fight on the Mont Rave would take many good men to their graves a few weeks later at Toulouse.
The retreat carries on with little or no mention of Somerset’s Hussars so that on 24th March the French are able to enter Toulouse and begin their recovery, re-arm, re-clothe and set up as much defensive positions as that strong fortress city offered. We do hear that Lieutenant Edward Barrett of 15th Hussars has received a serious wound somewhere along the way to this final destination no doubt due to a contact with that ever retiring rearguard of General Pierre Soult’s chasseurs on those dismal waterlogged tracks and interminable cold mountain streams ever eastward.
With the spring weather the many watercourses flowing out of the Pyrenees had filled the Garonne to almost overflowing so that as Wellington’s men reached that river the chance of laying their critically short pontoon bridge was a failure, more days passed before the army was able to cross. This was to be some miles downstream well below Toulouse and we only see Somerset’s troopers getting to the right bank of the Garonne well into the first week of April, they are also by then to be found in small number on the far banks of the Ers river, not, as it transpires to be able to take much advantage of that eastern ground.
10th April 1814 [at the battle of Toulouse]
So, on the fatal 10th April when all has been prepared for a full-on attack there they are given the task of sweeping that saturated ground between this latter river and Mont Rave to their right. Progress is slowed by the heavy ground underfoot but there seems to have been no great danger from those enemy artillery batteries on the high Mont that had to be passed.
General Berton’s brigade of Hussars/Chasseurs that had been present earlier gave back without resistance while Somerset it seemed made very slow progress barely ahead of the infantry of 4th Division so slow indeed that when the mass of Marshal William Carr Beresford’s attacking force began to swing right to face the hill their left flank was exposed for a short while.
The French light cavalry made a show of threatening this infantry flank of Lieutenant General Lowry Cole’s 4th Division but sheared off as Somerset came on to present a much superior number of sabres at this southern end of the Mont Rave assault. It is obvious that with 15th Hussars showing but four men wounded all day their part in all of this was merely to be ready and willing, these casualties very likely received in their wet plod down the valley floor, their movements throughout that time when the assault on the French hilltop positions was deciding the whole contest would be to come into the flat area between the Royal Canal and the west side of the Mont Rave hill.
10th April 1814 [after the battle of Toulouse]
This would have seen them finish the day hereabouts and on the next day to rather leisurely follow Soult’s retirement down south towards Carcassonne where their war would end.
At Waterloo with Grant as Brigade Major General this regiment was originally posted on the far right missing action at Quatre Bras only coming to serious blows with the enemy at the crisis of the final day, even so they collected 83 casualties from a PUA of 392 and this on such a day as being regarded as having been only lightly engaged.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011
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