Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 18th Light Dragoons / Hussars
By Ray Foster
25th-30th August 1808 [Landed at ports un-named
but north of Lisbon]
These first figures are arbitrary and before embarking on the military adventures of this regiment it will be as well to put to rest the ever-present argument as to the distinction between the Hussar and the Light Dragoon in British Cavalry nomenclature. Quite briefly, in this whole theatre through the whole period there was none whatever! As regiments of light cavalry came into the field it would only be [at most times] by their particular style of uniform that any differentiation could be suspected.
Coming ashore under Lieutenant General John Moore in company with 3rd Hussars KGL they are of course too late to join the very short hostile action briefly fought between the British led by Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley and the French under General Andoche Junot. We see them given the task of escorting, along with others, Moore’s artillery in that long detour via Elvas and Salamanca to reach the rendezvous with that CIC at that latter place on 4th December merely attached to Lieutenant General John Hope, they will be seen to have perhaps:
4th December 1808 [at Salamanca]
Journeying north as winter grips the country they are mentioned only a week later to have surprised a French foraging party at Rueda on 12th December, no losses are recorded so we follow them as far as Sabugal before the whole army is re-cast to find them now brigaded with their original partners 3rd Hussars KGL under Major General Charles Stewart.
19th December 1808 [at Sahagun]
Yet again, acting as a part of the screening force 18th Light Dragoons on this same day fall upon a squadron of Franceschi’s troopers who just so happen to be escorting the regional intendant, all are captured, colonel, 100 men and, rather quietly the intendant who has about him no less than 300,000 reals [£3,000], there is no mention as to who gets this windfall! Whilst others of Moore’s Cavalry arm become very actively engaged with the enemy it is not until Brigade Stewart takes up the rearguard role as Moore begins the retirement onto Corunna that they face the French themselves. At Valencia de Don Juan they account for 32 troopers of their opposite number in a short sharp combat then, approaching Benevente at the Bridge of Castro Gonzalo they find themselves opposed to what appear to be units of the French Imperial Guard Cavalry. The next day there is no doubt, Chasseurs of the Guard cross the River Elsa with Brigadier Stewart’s men taking first blows, under the hand of Lieutenant Colonel Loftus Otway of 18th Light Dragoons and Major Ernest Burgwedel of 3rd Hussars KGL they will retire back so that Lieutenant General Henry Paget’s Brigade can deal to them.
This done the retirement continues, at the battle that is played out before Corruna on 16th January there is no action for 18th Light Dragoons only the task of embarking as much of their baggage and equipment as possible on board the late arriving transports. It is most likely that their excess of 600 horses would be shot and dumped into the sea while upon arrival at ports in England they would number,
21st January 1809
It will be a full four years before this regiment returns to Peninsular affairs, however, return they do; it is now the spring of 1813, Wellington’s army is being re-built after its long 1812 campaign season finishing as it had in an un-sought for retirement out of Spain and an urgent need to “get up to speed” in the new situation created when Napoleon’s Grande Armee had been destroyed in its retreat from Russia. 18th Hussars [their newly acquired title], would be accompanied by two other Hussar regiments that had previously spent time in the Peninsula, 10th and 15th Hussars, they are first shown as having returned on 15th April 1813, predictably landing at Lisbon. Initially they will be brigaded together under Brigadier Lieutenant Colonel Colquhoun Grant the period of re-organisation going well into early summer of 1813 saw the army finally prepared to move off in the great march to eject the French from Spain entirely, so, re-entering to this late period of the ‘history when exact figures for cavalry strengths by regiment vanish from records [excepting for those fortnightly returns languishing at Kew in the PRO], we can at least make an estimate:
25th May 1813 [on the march out of Portugal
Grant’s Hussars set off a day late having to catch up to what became known as the central column, 4th-6th & 7th Infantry Divisions by Carvajales and crossing the River Elsa on 31st May, a few infantrymen of 7th Division chance an early crossing of that major river by hanging on to their stirrups and drown in the attempt. First notice of action comes as they make contact with troopers of General Digeon’s Dragoon rearguard, it will come as no surprise that this prompts them to mount a charge, break the opposition, incidentally surrounding and capturing 210 of them. It appears that of Grant’s Brigade it was 10th Hussars that would pick up the glory here, the rest of the journey up to the valley of the River Zadorra being uneventful, their passage as a part of central column would bring them up the highway close by the Light Division and entering the field quite late. Lieutenant General Rowland Hill with his large 2nd Division has been attacking on the Puebla Heights for a considerable time before Grant was able to find enough clear ground on the right of 4th Division to debouch into the plain before Vittoria. 10th and 18th Hussars, in the confusion of a battle already lost by the French, were able to insinuate themselves so far as to come in on the rapidly developing retreat to discover King Joseph and his entourage making pace to depart.
It happens that the King’s Lancers of the Guard and other Guard cavalry were doing their duty here; a short sharp combat took place with the most prized chief “victim” abandoning his kingly coach and rich contents while the troopers hacked and stabbed it out. In the 18th Hussars, Captain William Turing is killed, both Captain Robert Carew and Cornet W Foster are mortally wounded, in the ranks ten troopers are killed and twenty-one injured leaving them to stand down numbering perhaps;
21st June 1813 [after the battle at Vittoria]
None of this of course tells the full story, in capturing the King’s coach and a large part of his personal belongings along with the many other treasures that had come to them the regiment like most others found that second meaning to the word cavalier! It is suspected that their CIC [whilst being well aware of the Courts of Slander and Libel] blamed 18th Hussars as “the worst in the army from whom he should take their horses and send them home if he could not get the better of them”.
The final words there must have come about; they were still operating under his eye in mid April of 1814. Chasing here and there about the Pampluna area and the lower Bastan Grant and his men find no sign of General Bertrand Clausel’s Corps that naturally enough is making great speed to put Spain behind it. About now we hear of a move by Wellington to apportion a single light cavalry regiment to each infantry Division, not a new idea certainly but a faint replica of the well-established French Corps Cavalry principle. Not being informed as to who goes where it does however seem that 15th Hussars become detached in this way, we are now in that period where attacks up into the lower Pyrenees foothills exposes a series of north/south terrain features restricting cross communication between the various infantry/artillery units. Acting together 10th & 18th Hussars cannot have gone very far from the hills immediately northward of Pampluna. It will be a full month’s passing before we see them actively in a defensive position looking into lower ground some few miles north of that great provincial capital and besieged fortress.
With King Joseph now gone Marshal Nicholas Soult has re-constructed the French forces in this western theatre and re-commenced the offensive, Grant, with Lieutenant General Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division holding strong positions a little way back has his eye on enemy cavalry skirmishing forward on the banks of the River Egues. Making contact 10th Hussars are driven in falling back on 18th Hussars who show enough of an aggressive stance to discourage further initiative; the whole thing dies down, all of this on 28th July while thousands of infantrymen to their far left on the hills above and around Sorauren are selling their lives dearly. Two days later Picton is ordered to pursue 9th Division General Lamartiniere up the Roncesvalles road to the north east along with two squadrons of Grant’s troopers, Lamartiniere and General Maximilien Foy have already gone off at pace into France so, nothing to be found. Coming up to the frontier region there is no work for Grant’s men and the year slides into autumn and winter even, the River Bidassoa is passed and in wet miserable conditions the army fights its way over the Nivelle straddles the Nive and beats off Soult’s offensive in front of Bayonne. In all of this there is nothing for cavalrymen other than to find cantonments to the rear, until we see on 18th December a move by a Spanish unit of Morillo’s to do some unauthorised foraging/pillaging on the River Joyuese, they have with them a couple of squadrons of 18th Hussars and are met by superior numbers of General Pierre Soult’s cavalry. This encounter receives little note excepting that we discover them thrown back with as many as 35 men of all ranks killed, wounded or made prisoner, the only record being for Captain Robert Bolton who dies the next day of a mortal wound and Major James Hughes with another un-named captain and a lieutenant amongst those injured.
It will be of some interest to see that Grant is no longer in charge here the brigade being now held by Major General Victor von Alten, Wellington is not amused, this junior commander already well to the fore as one to be dispensed with and 18th Hussars themselves still not mightily popular either!
Going into January of 1814 the cavalry command tree gets a good shake, Major General Henry Fane is given what looks like a small Cavalry Division, von Alten is dismissed, 10th and 15th Hussars are gone elsewhere, 1st Hussars KGL join and Vivian’s Brigade comes under Fane the whole being brought into the field as the CIC begins that “hard frost” offensive to edge Soult gradually away from the Biscay coast area. First sighting of 18th Hussars will be on 14th February brigaded with 1st Hussars KGL; they are away on the right flank crossing those chilling rivers falling out of the Pyrenean foothills and under Vivian but little action until they have shifted to Marshal William Carr Beresford’s left flank. It will be on 26th February that Vivian himself leads a charge of Captain Edward Burke’s squadron at Cauneille where the road crosses the Gave de Pau, the bridge is not only taken but Burke’s men [not unusually] charge on in pursuit of the French 15th Chasseurs for a considerable distance until met by enemy reinforcements.
Back they go in the familiar pattern but this time the main part of 18th Hussars come up in well formed support and off we go again, on through Puyoo this time as much as 15mls ahead of the Cauneille Bridge until a halt is affected close by Ramous. Not a word as to casualties or discipline from above as a result of this rousing gallop, Major General Sir Hussey-Vivian of course is very well “connected”.
The battle for Orthez the next day as was usual saw few opportunities for Wellington’s cavalry to gain distinction and having no clear indication as to numbers it can only be supposed that 18th Hussars would bring to the field somewhere in the region of 500 sabres, certainly this regiment lost not a single trooper at this intense infantry/artillery contest.
When the city’s notables of Bordeaux make their claim to shift allegiances to the Bourbons Vivian’s Brigade will accompany Beresford’s infantry away from the main army marching off in foul weather for that great regional city.
This detour sees them move at pace both towards Bordeaux and then back again as Lieutenant General George Ramsay, Earl Dalhousie’s men of 7th Division reach that goal; this will find them back on the route for Toulouse and up to the army by 19th March at Plaisance.
Arriving in the environs of Toulouse there is much frustration as the rains and the lack of sufficient pontoon boats force Wellington to alter his plan of attack; eventually by 8th April there is the chance of action. Vivian has his Hussars well north of the city already over the Garonne with an opportunity to force back the enemy cavalry eastward to the Ers River, the target a bridge at Croix d’ Orade, once more it will be 18th Hussar regiment leader Major Hughes who picks up the glory. Hussey-Vivian however is in the lead, so much so that before any momentum can be achieved he is shot in the arm, badly enough to take him out of proceedings, Hughes of course assesses his chances, sounds the charge and off they go. Captain Richard Croker leading his squadron is seriously wounded and a mere 15 troopers go down in capturing the bridge, this success however has little tactical effect on the battle that takes place two days later, certainly it does ensure that this northern aspect of the field remains clear of the enemy but since so many bridges higher up this river are blown its capture will be hardly a pivotal factor in the game.
On the day of the battle there is some confusion as to command of Vivian’s Brigade, in practical terms it will be Major Philipp von Gruben of 1st Hussars KGL who will hold the brigade but we see that Arentschildt of that same regiment is mentioned [by no lesser than CT Atkinson], this however has no bearing on the events of the day. Von Gruben’s men spend all of their time away down at the end of Mount Rave close by the Montaudran bridge threatening the more westerly canal bridge of Demoiselles and being held back all day by the French General Berton’s chasseurs, so much so that 18th Hussars collect no casualties at all while their comrades of 1st Hussars KGL do all the work that comes to hand.
It can only be conjectured that strength on the day would be in excess of 450 sabres, following on their service takes them down the road towards Carcassonne where Soult finally admits that the game is up, a leisurely trot back up country through France will see them back home and, as Napier has it, soon to be forgotten.
At Waterloo a little over a year later Vivian is back in charge, every cavalry unit present is dashed into action time and again, neither side using much science and although 18th Hussars have managed to bring almost 400 sabres to the field and suffered the loss of 104 of these it was rightly observed that on this particularly violent day this was “only very average”!
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2011
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