Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 20th Light Dragoons
By Ray Foster
1st August 1808 [landed in Mondego Bay from Cork
Since cavalry units can only fill their proper role whilst mounted it must be made clear here that this regiment had, when set up for action in the field just 180 horses so, perhaps it will be best to realise that in fact their mounted strength would be no more than 180 PUA.
They are led by the dangerously gallant Lieutenant Colonel Charles Taylor, they come into line under overall CIC Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley and being of such small number are attached to the Line infantry under Brigadier Major General Henry Fane seeing no action at Rolica but as the army advances, comes to a halt and is engaged by the enemy at Vimeiro on 21st August we do have a suggestion that they have received sufficient numbers of horses to put between 200 and 240 sabres into the field. Their part in the proceedings that day come down to a precipitate charge into and through a mix of all arms when a check has occurred to an enemy infantry thrust, they attack a vulnerable flank causing havoc amongst these unfortunate men. However, here we see the very first indication of indiscipline when examining most British cavalry actions throughout the whole period in this theatre of the war, carrying on their initial success and “hacking away” with abandon they come up against stern opposition. Colonel Taylor and one of his squadron Captains Alexander Eustace being well to the fore are both fatally dispatched, eighteen more of the regiment are killed, twenty four wounded and, significantly [as a result of getting out of hand and consequently unsupported] another eleven are captured, so when all is decided and the enemy have quit the field 20th Light Dragoons will stand down at
21st August 1808 [after the battle at Vimeiro
no more than]
Best to reiterate that at all times cavalry will only be as strong as its ready horseflesh, there is now a long period of rest and recuperation as Lieutenant General John Moore takes up overall command, this eventually finds 20th Light Dragoons remaining about Lisbon coming under Lieutenant General John Cradock who uses them lightly with no action of note as and until the re-appearance of Wellesley.
Note; for the sake of continuity we must leave 1808 and be seen now as a part of the “Class of 1809”.
It is now the beginning of May 1809; we are led to understand that 20th Light Dragoons have available for the field two full squadrons of troopers who will be part of Wellesley’s small corps that advances directly north to the discomfort of the French on the Douro at Oporto, we are given figures for this period so;
6th May 1809 [opening the short Oporto campaign]
Those two squadrons being for most of this adventure in close company with troopers of 14th and 16th Light Dragoons and that combination in small numbers working the right flank of Wellesley’s array it is not possible to separate these units of horsemen for numbers engaged or affected by the actions. However, the story is well worth the telling, coming up to Grijon on the south side of the Douro they will meet opposition as the French light infantry is making a steady retirement through country broken by stone walls, fields and the occasional country pathway. Major William W Blake of 20th Light Dragoons has them in hand steadily taking up ground when up comes the Adjutant General Brigadier Charles Stewart who, taking in the situation calls upon Blake to ‘charge’, this is immediately acted upon by Blake and off they go, in, round and over walls across the fields and ultimately upon finding the high road to the north pursuing such of the French 31st Light infantry as remain about to get a thorough sabring. We are assured that as many as 200 of these infantrymen would be either killed, wounded or captured. It has not been a totally one-sided affair, hurriedly aimed musketry has brought down ten men killed an officer [no less than the redoubtable journalist Lieutenant William Tomkinson of 16th Light Dragoons] and 30 troopers wounded and no less than 9 men ‘missing’.
With the mix of Light Dragoon Regiments on this flank and nothing of further note to show for their efforts once north of the Douro we can pass on this episode with perhaps an observation from Tomkinson who was of the opinion that Charles Stewart [a brother of the British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh] far exceeded his military duty in ordering an un-necessary charge when the enemy was already well committed to retirement, getting himself wounded there may have influenced his own military judgment too!
As soon as this small campaign has run its course and the army returned down country to re-organise about Abrantes it comes about that 20th Light Dragoons are sent off down to Lisbon, shipped off to Gibraltar and then sent seaborne off to the rather remote island of Sicily. So, here we are then, our very first “adventure” for the mounted arm of the service, its Colonel and a squadron captain gloriously dead and so reduced in effective numbers that they leave the ‘theatre not to return.
Since this corps was leaving to more expected service in the field it must be taken that their horses would go with them, later re-organisations of cavalry would not always have that option. Although they will not return to the Western theatre of Peninsula military affairs we see that much reinforced, Lieutenant General William Bentinck will bring them from Sicily along to the Catalonian East Coast theatre to confront the French during late 1813, here they will distinguish themselves at Villafranca on 13th September but of course that’s another story.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2011
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