Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 3rd Dragoons (King's Own)

By Ray Foster

It is understood that the “King's Own” title was used whilst this regiment changed from Light Dragoon status and back again with its 1808-1814 title as above.

30th August 1811 [landed at a port most likely Lisbon]

PUA 443

Landing at the same time as the 4th Dragoon Guards there would be an influx of in excess of 1000 horses to be allowed for along with the same number of officers and men of the cavalry arm of the ‘Service plus many associated non-combatants a task that by now the men under Major General Warren Peacocke were well able to accommodate.

Both regiments will be under the hand of Major General John Le Marchant who had also accompanied them, a full month later a new heavy cavalry regiment 5th Dragoon Guards comes ashore to be included in this Brigade with little of note until on 8th November 1811 Marchant with his impressive brigade of ‘heavies’ is attached to 1st Cavalry Division, there is more to follow.

It is the case that 3rd Dragoons have shown a marked reduction in numbers as their records show by:

November 1811 [in cantonments in Portugal]

PUA 338

By the end of January of 1812 with more heavy cavalry entering the theatre we see that Le Marchant has relinquished 4th Dragoon Guards but received in its stead the veteran 4th Dragoons thus retaining a three regiment brigade while Wellington’s men have gone onto full offensive mode to capture the border fortress of Cuidad Rodrigo.  Major General Stapleton Cotton has 1st Cavalry Division in hand while the victorious stormers of that fortress will move south to attend to that far more serious obstacle Badajoz on the river Guadiana. In the meantime 3rd Dragoons will make an effort to control the health of its troopers, yet to see any action so that as the year struggles through the winter they will stand at:

February 1812 [cantoned in Portugal]

PUA 349

As the year continues to produce little or no fresh fodder for the horses there is also a falling away of numbers of troopers shown as ‘effectives’ with a loss of almost 100 men, no longer a sickness problem but these principally seen as ‘on-command’ so that with the main northern army set to move on Badajoz and Le Marchant Brigade about to take the field at last they will stand at:

March 14th [on the Guadiana]

PUA 348

It is more than likely that as they come out into the field they will be led by Major William Clowes there being, at no time while in the Peninsula any officer of Brevet, or Lieutenant Colonel status other than Godfrey Munday, who appeared but briefly during the autumn of 1811, present with the regiment and even Clowes himself recorded as retiring by the end of 1812. They await the arrival of the pontoon train coming from Elvas in order to be able to be available for screening operations during the investment and siege of the great frontier fortress at Badajoz with the knowledge that the enemy forces of Marshal Soult will probably march up from Seville and those of Marshal Drouet who occupy parts of the lower Estremadura will certainly be encountered in that area.

So it is that having crossed the Guadiana units of Major General Cotton’s 1st Cavalry Division just four days later come into contact with dragoons of General Charles Lallemand’s brigade who are slowly retiring south east before them, this proceeds with all going on at a little more pace until on 11th April the French troopers are forced to stand about Villagarcia.

We are told that light cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Ponsonby and supported by Le Marchant’s men have been able to hold Lallemand’s troopers in place long enough to set a trap by an encirlement that unfortunately is sprung too early as men of Le Marchant Brigade are still, in the main, performing their hidden flank march . While troopers of 5th Dragoon Guards were able to reach the ground and do some damage Ponsonby’s men had pressed too hard thereby having begun a flight by those still opposing. As to 3rd Dragoons they were still well to the rear and never even arrived in time, a pursuit did however see all arrive at the township of Llerena where Drouet’s infantry stood in line of battle thus ending any promise of a significant capture.

It will be as well to note that their effective numbers during this early part of the year 1812 have come down for whatever reason to:

April 1812 [in the field about Estremadura]

PUA 309

Badajoz falling in a desperate storm on the night of 6th April quickly accelerates further action, new orders issued as early as 13th April see Major General Cotton’s 1st Division being called up to the main northern army in readiness for a series of marches that would compel Marshal Marmont and his Army of Portugal to re-act decisively in the defence of his occupied territories beyond the Portuguese/Spanish frontier. Nothing is heard of 3rd Dragoons during this preparation time excepting to note that yet again its numbers have fallen away, in the next month they will stand at:

May 1812 [by the Agueda in Portugal]

PUA 253

As late as 13th June Lieutenant General Wellington and the whole of the northern army cross the Agueda into Leon, as to its 1st

Cavalry Division Cotton now has the use of Major General George Baron von Bock with his KGL Dragoon Brigade as they advance on Salamanca.

While essentially losing the city itself the Army of Portugal retain a system of forts at the River Tormes crossing, these fashioned from a few sturdy religious buildings that protect this strongpoint, they must be subdued before the serious work of bringing Marmont and his men to battle can take place. No work here for cavalry then but a short note to see that Le Marchant’s Brigade is held in a central reserve while the infantry and artillery attend to the ‘Forts’ and with a developing combat beyond the river at Morisco two Divisions of infantry and Le Marchant are brought over the Tormes, this on 22nd June and with Bock’s KGL Dragoons already in action there is an equal and opposite ‘show of force’ by both antagonists that after some contentious deploying eventually comes down to a discretional retirement for both sides.

A few days later, the Salamanca Forts being taken, thus sees Marmont withdraw all offensive action to retire north east as far as the River Douro almost 50 miles away, there is an expectation for both contestants however that reinforcements could come up to alter the balance of  the ‘game’. Several weeks of good ‘fighting’ weather pass by out on the undulating fertile crop growing countryside each side searching for weaknesses in the other, it is now a time of watchful  marches, hot, dry and forever clouded in dust; at Castrillo on the River Guarena as Wellington’s men are retiring in none too well a co-ordinate manner on 18th July we at last see 3rd Dragoons in action, this is the time when Cotton has received no orders other than those of covering the retirements and as a result both Wellington and Beresford are required to retreat in some disorder and 4th and Light Divisions are compromised as a disjointed rearguard.

Lieutenant Champion Branfill with his troop of 3rd Dragoons is a tiny part of the whole heavy cavalry brigades with the task of ‘getting-off’ after Wellington’s ‘close-call’. It appears that with only moderate numbers of the French cavalry array against them at this quarter it will only be these men that take the few casualties hereabouts, he and just nine of his men in 3rd Dragoons are reported wounded while elsewhere cavalry and infantry of both sides clash in confusion.

18th July 1812[after the combat on the Guarena by Castrillo]

PAB 258

Over the next few days Wellington withdraws his army down and behind the River Tormes while he and Marmont seek to find advantage, there being little between them for numbers, the great close parallel marches are endured until 22nd July, when positioned in a more or less defensive mode but closely deployed facing higher ground, the Arapiles it was observed that the French infantry Divisions were making some speed across their front until becoming disconnected and un-aware that their enemy was still ‘well-connected’. Le Marchant’s Brigade at this time, well into the afternoon of the day has a position in right rear but well able to support 5th Division infantry who take up a full on attack of the men before them, this could be deemed a second link in the chain of disaster about to destroy Marmont’s Army of Portugal. Already 3rd Division Packenham was dealing a smashing defeat on their right to their opposite Thomieres Division and as Maucune’s Division began to feel-the-heat of Leith’s 5th Division a gap between these enemy infantry formations is exposed; Le Marchant leads forward his cavalry brigade to charge from the flanks on men who were already becoming disordered.

A perfect target then, 3rd Dragoons no less than their partner regiments made the most of their opportunities here, occasionally having to fight desperate men but mainly sweeping in a confused mass of prisoners, all is clouded in dust but we are made aware that Lieutenant William Selby and six of his troopers are killed here while a further eleven are to be wounded, of the rest two more perhaps advancing through the rest too far are recorded as missing. Brigadier Le Marchant himself, overly affected by this victorious charge has also got too far ahead and is shot dead while ‘making-the-most-of-it’. There is a deal of fighting yet to be endured elsewhere, some of it continuing until dusk turns to dark but for 3rd Dragoons their day is done, they would stand down at:

22nd July 1812 [after the battle on the Arapiles/Salamanca]

PAB 238

The Brigade is turned over to Brevet Colonel William Ponsonby of 5th Dragoon Guards while Baron von Bock’s KGL Dragoons take up the pursuit of the remnants of the Army of Portugal now led by General Bertrand Clausel, there is only a steady march

up to Valladolid then down to Madrid for 3rd Dragoons and their partners who will most likely see the end result of the dismal failure of Benjamin D’Urban’s Portuguese cavalry and its route at Majalahonda then, for a short while enjoy the fruits of victory; a squadron of replacements arrive in the interim as also remounts but as to ‘effectives’ in the field little changes. By late August however as Wellington began his division of his forces to march up to the Douro to test the resolve of Clausel and his battered survivors numbers in 3rd Dragoons do improve slightly so;

31st August 1812 [leaving Madrid to go north]

PUA 278

Having taken three more Infantry Divisions on the march up to Burgos and the two heavy cavalry brigades of Ponsonby and Bock to join a light cavalry brigade already watching Bertrand Clausel’s men on the Douro it would appear that the CIC Wellington was expecting little need for manoeuvre on the journey and, as it turned out their task once that well prepared castle was invested on 19th September,  was mainly to patrol the perimeter of the investment while the infantry and artillery toiled away at this almost forlorn hope.

It is sufficient to see that for 3rd Dragoons there will be little to be discovered even as the siege is terminated by 21st October other than to have them shown as retiring from the more northern part of the city and to lead off the column heading south towards Valladolid.  They are to be overtaken in this when passing about Palencia by none other than the typically swiftly moving General Foy’s men who have come across troops of Galicians so that they are required to shield them, as also rearguard elements of 5th Division infantry 3/1st Royal Scots Light company that is being seriously attacked here by enemy cavalry, there is a suggestion that a minor combat occurs but with casualty figures recorded only by brigade and the danger warded off it remains to mention only that this occurs on 25th October.  The count of men effective at this time and presumably mounted has remained steady to show;

October 1812 [at Palencia during the retreat from Burgos]

PUA 264

In steadily worsening weather the retreat goes on, crossing the Douro in the direction of Salamanca with Ponsonby’s Brigade well to the fore while the constantly harassed rearguard face the enemy cavalry in large numbers engaging in running battles while both sides, cavalry, infantry and artillery have to contend with roads and paths none too manageable as they become seas of mud.

The short halt and turn to face the combined force now sees the army prepared to fight, the weather is of a dismal wintry nature, cold wind and rain that seemingly is discouraging for both sides, so it is that having staged a confrontation the retreat is re-commenced, in the same manner and this time the whole distance back to the Spanish/Portuguese border on the Agueda.

Nothing is heard of Ponsonby’s Brigade until there is a suggestion that they will head for winter cantonments far into Portugal, it is only when there is an upheaval of cavalry presence in the theatre that this arm of the ‘Service is mentioned and this while certainly disturbing has little or no effect on his charges. It is the departure from the theatre and indeed the country itself of four cavalry regiments leaving behind their mounts and equipment to be shared out amongst others, a matter that surely would be discussed during those early spring days as each of those ten remaining and those five new ‘heavy’ regiments waited for the 1813 campaign year to commence.

Much has occurred elsewhere, Napoleon’s Grande Armee has suffered a mortal blow in Russia, by this there is to be overwhelming difficulties to be faced beyond the Pyrenees while Wellington’s task in the Peninsula begins to receive encouragingly huge reinforcement. The weather remains un-helpful even as a whole brigade of Hussars comes ashore to take up the fight, this by mid April 1813.

It is as late as 12th May 1813that Ponsonby has his orders to re-enter the field, 3rd Dragoons will have improved its numbers to be able to show:

12th May 1813 [on the road to Bragança]

PUA 338

With the odds now ‘stacked’ for a great sweeping set of marches to eject the French who will stand against them, out of the Peninsula altogether it is only when the Grande Chausee, the road to the north has reached the approaches to the Basque capital Vittoria that the enemy is compelled to turn about and make a stand. Their almost endless tail of wagon-wheels carrying arms and ammunition, the army’s baggage, the loot of six years of occupational ‘acquisition’, wives, families, the sick and injured, Portuguese/Spanish afrancesados, and the camp followers/bordello had inevitably stuck…..jammed solid in the narrow streets of this city.

Coming down from the high ground into the flats around the Zadorra River valley by the Nanclares road Ponsonby’s Brigade is almost last in line behind more cavalry units, the whole of 4th Division infantry and a Portuguese Brigade of infantry, Sympher’s KGL guns, soon to be joined by many more. No way through there, and as a result no action, all day, it is just possible that as the Portuguese infantry Brigade of Stubbs and the rapidly assembling ‘grand-battery’ of guns pushing on fought out the duel with General Gazan’s artillerymen there would be missiles penetrating through this otherwise untouched area but for the whole of Ponsonby’s charges here a casualty count of two men injured.

21st June 1813 [after the battle at Vittoria]

PAB 345

Colourful as the change of ownership of six years of loot might be little or nothing is revealed of how this impacted on the troopers of 3rd Dragoons, in fact, even this [only just there] battle and its consequences taking us through the rest of the year have little to excite these men. A short face-off against men of General Maximilian Foy’s Division occurs at the second day of battle at Sorauren, in their case on 28th July across the banks of a tributary of the Arga River, the Egues, all in defence of the siege of Pamplona; matters go badly against Marshal Soult’s men further off to their right, Foy, ever the rapid decision maker evacuates this far-flung flank leaving no enemy available, so ending that chance of action.

The Bastan is not cavalry country so it comes as no surprise that with the rest of the campaign year being taken up in the struggle to command the hill country now looking down into France itself Ponsonby and his ‘heavy’ men go off to quarters more amenable to the care of horses. During this period of rest they are to receive no less than fifty remounts and a detachment of troopers that will see them able to record by:

October 1813 [at rest in quarters by the Spanish/French frontier]

 PUA 390

Nothing is heard of 3rd Dragoons as the year comes to a close but by 25th January 1814 Brigadier Major General William Ponsonby has gone, his brigade command picked up by their own Lieutenant Colonel Lord Charles Manners a previous ADC to Lord Wellington.

The first months of 1814 find no work for this cavalry brigade, still composed of 5th Dragoon Guards, 3rd and 4th Dragoons, they are variously mentioned as setting out from cantonments between February 24th and March 2nd , getting ‘in touch’ with the army moving up on Aire but by the middle of March 1814 they will have joined, along with the main part of Wellington’s army which, having beaten Soult’s men at Orthez in a hard fought struggle are following them up easterly across the French side of the Pyrenees. With horse numbers difficult to maintain they will stand a little under the previous October strength. So, there they are by 20th March in formation with elements of Light Division infantry along the Rabastens/Tarbes road alongside the Canal de Alaric others having ejected the enemy up ahead. Soult and his men having slipped out of a potential trap by Tarbes are now moving in some haste ever eastward off the Heights of Pietat where minor streams fall into the River Estéous, not at all cavalry country and are able to reach Toulouse with only attritional loss.

Although the chase has come to naught in the saturated valleys below the French Pyrenees Manners Brigade keeps well in touch with the army as they eventually find a way to cross the Garonne and begin to close in on that heavily defended city, they move with the part of Wellington’s encircling corps under Marshal Beresford above the Languedoc Canal where we shall see 3rd Dragoons, in the second week of April standing at a possible:

10th April 1814 [on the Croix Daurade road north of Toulouse]

PUA 375

As the battle opens on 10th April they are positioned in rear of the Spanish Corps under General Manuel Friere who is set with the task of attacking the battlements at the northern end of the Mont Rave, the fighting hereabouts finds the Spanish infantry repulsed more than once after heroic charges, for 3rd Dragoons we only have the casualty count, Captain William Burn and five of his men are wounded with the possibility that this occurred through penetration fire there being no other notice of the part they may have played.

Thus ended their part played in the Peninsula War of 1808-1814, not present at Waterloo they would have accompanied the rest of the British cavalry all the way north to the ports by the British Channel in leisurely style although as is reported not often very welcome.



Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2014


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