Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 23rd Light Dragoons
By Ray Foster
Late May1809 [Landed Lisbon]
Marching well in the rear of Lieutenant General Arthur Wellesley’s Corps that is already well into Spain to meet Captain General Gregorio Cuesta’s army all intending to advance on Madrid. They are led by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Seymour and as they come up to the main force will be brigaded under Major General George Anson along with 1st Hussars KGL, all of this about Plasencia on 16th July 1809. Six days later we have first figures showing a full compliment, four squadrons at:
25th July 1809 [on the Alberche stream]
Two days later on this position the French come on crossing the Alberche to attack Wellesley’s left flank, although there is spirited fighting hereabouts 23rd Light Dragoons are not close enough to be involved more than to support those infantry who, though surprised manage to quell this initiative. It remains to fall back onto the real position of defence centred on the Medellin hill to the north of Talavera where on the 28th July a serious general action developed. For Anson’s men, standing well formed in the northern extreme left flank valley there was to be no action for a great part of the day, hidden by the Medellin hill to their immediate right all they could hear was the furious noise of battle until quite late a mass of infantry appeared before them marching around the base of this prominent height. It was General Villate’s 3rd Division of Marshal Claud Victor’s Corps who seemed to be in no great hurry, they were being bombarded by the Spanish artillery on the hilltop but, when a messenger riding down that decline presented Anson with a direct order from the CIC himself it was to “charge the enemy before you”.
Anson brought his troopers on in classic style, a trot, a canter and then a full-on charge that should have brought them in contact, in the case of 23rd Light Dragoons with a solidly formed regimental square of that veteran unit 27th Legere.
About 150 yards short of this target Lieutenant Colonel John Elley of Royal Horse Guards [AAG] a mere two horse lengths in front of the leading squadron suddenly saw before him a deeply cut dry watercourse previously concealed by the tall dry grasses but completely across the path of his charging troopers, being finely mounted on a superior charger he was able to leap across and immediately swing about to warn the rest. Much too late of course, men and horses stumbled, staggered, half leaped, fell in heaps by the hundred to either lie wrecked and broken, men dragged by their surviving horses and some even to gain the far bank where Elley, full of bravery rallied a reasonable number, so much so that he recklessly called on them to complete the charge.
By now the sharpshooting Voltigeurs of 27th were more than ready, deadly musketry thinned the mob as they not only reached the square but swept down its side between it and the farm enclosures of Valdesfuentes where we are told both the French Divisional commander General Villate and his Brigadier General Victorin Cassagne are out in the open and close by but not touched; on they go to attempt to engage a line of Chasseurs a Cheval standing in rear. These worthy troopers simply opened their ranks, allowed the remnants of Elley’s mad charge to continue and then closed in behind them to attack from the rear. Naturally enough the result was disastrous for these survivors of the light dragoons, cut to pieces almost all were brought down either killed, wounded or, in the main taken prisoner. Far more conservatively 1st Hussars KGL their brigade partners while still having to negotiate the natural trench desisted in going on so were far less than destroyed.
All of this happened as the main battle on the other side of the hill was subsiding into a stand-off, there had been quite enough killing for one day on both sides so that it soon became possible to extract survivors, count heads and hold such positions as each side was prepared to accept.
In the 23rd Light Dragoons 49 men had been killed, Lieutenants John King and William Power amongst these, 50 more were wounded including Captains Lord George Russell, James Frankland, Thomas Howard, James Allen, this one also captured along with Lieutenant Francis Anderson who must eventually have escaped, Cornet James Dodwell got off just slightly injured and a further 105 troopers captured/missing. Colonel Elley it seems came off scot free. The Regiment’s surgeon Patrick Egan must have got far enough ahead to find himself amongst those captured perhaps while tending to wounded comrades, of which there would be no shortage the further he ventured. It cannot be other than that even more of their mounts had died, broken bones or been seriously injured to the point where they would have been shot out of hand.
28th July 1809 [after the battle at Talavera]
We hear absolutely no more about this regiment as a fighting unit, Lord Russell and John Elley re-appear in other roles but the remnants of 23rd Light Dragoons after enduring the long march in retirement down the left bank of the Tagus, then via Truxillo get all the way down to the Guadiana basin well before the beginning of autumn. In a General Order of 31st October 1809 issued from Badajoz 23rd Light Dragoons are to go home having been relieved of their horses for them to be distributed to other regiments remaining in the theatre to the number of 283 and principally to 14th Light Dragoons  and 16th Light Dragoons  .
Note: With such numbers of mounts still available for service there is much more to be discovered as to the readiness or otherwise of this Regiment for the field, as the war proceeds we do see via Challis that an appreciable number of officers no less than 14 of them with 4 of this number Captains then present in this regiment transfer to other regiments or staff positions to thus remain in the theatre. It will be seen that a number of PUA beyond 250 horses was often the regular count for many other of their comrades of the mounted arm. With hindsight it can be asserted that with not a single new mounted regiment entering the theatre during 1810 this one would be sadly missed. Was it the case then that here was a shortage of internal command structure rather than a shortage of horses?
At Waterloo 23rd Light Dragoons would be brigaded with 1st & 2nd KGL Light Dragoons under Dörnberg having a day full of defensive counter-charges.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2012
© Copyright 1995-2012, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.