Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 9th Light Dragoons
By Ray Foster
1 August 1811 [un-named, at Lisbon most likely]
After some juggling of regiments this ex-Walcheren unit is brigaded with 13th Light Dragoons taken from Brigadier Major General George Anson and join with 2nd KGL Hussars who are already with Major General Robert Ballard Long, cavalry brigading it must be observed is a constantly changing temporary measure. All of this while the whole of Wellington’s Cavalry arm of the Service is being once again revised, for 9th Light Dragoons this will find them now a part of a 2nd Cavalry Division under the hand of Major General William Erskine and of course Brigadier Ballard Long.
It seems that while this 2nd Cavalry Division is to be devoted to operations in the southern or right hand of the Portuguese/Spanish frontier zone 9th Light Dragoons will only come properly into the field as the 1811 campaign season is drawing to a close. As late as the last days of October Lieutenant General Rowland Hill the overall CIC in the south has been informed that a French force of all arms led by General Girard is close enough to be taken to task while going about the never-ending task of gathering in whatever food can be found and the taking up of what are euphemistically termed ‘contributions’ wherever money and semi-precious plate can be got too. By keeping this action as secret as possible a force of Spanish, Portuguese and British of all arms is set in motion, the time 22nd October the assembly area around and about Portalegre with Morillo’s infantry, Villemur’s cavalry and two British infantry brigades with Long’s light cavalry a part of the screening array off they went.
At the time Girard’s men would be about Caçeres and its surroundings as Hill’s men had got as far as Albuquerque with both Morillo and Penne Villemur closing in on Arroyo del Puerco, cavalry outriders of both sides met and an alarm of sorts was raised: it was 25th October before Girard’s sweepers-in of contributions began to see they might be best to depart but still not with any urgency. Even on 26 October with rain threatening it was apparent that the French with perhaps much booty to be brought along were losing the race, CIC Hill called on his men to put on a night march at full stride so that as torrents of rain streamed down off the hillsides next day they had virtually reached their prey. In none of this hurried marching by their enemy had Girard’s cavalry, in the hands of General Bron found these forced marchers with naturally enough such as the 200 or so troopers of 9th Light Dragoons and many others screening these columns up ahead.
Arriving at Arroyo dos Molinos a small settlement in these drenched hills Girard called a halt to spend the night, at least for his own entourage, in some comfort, Hill’s combined force just a few miles away spent very little of such, by 2.30am they were off again intent on capturing their quarry by dawn. It transpired that 9th Light Dragoons with Captain George Gore at its head and Captains Savage and McKenzie in close attendance, along with troopers of 2nd KGL Hussars managed to come to fighting distance of men of Bron’s now swiftly retiring cavalry as the road to the rear became blocked with every kind of valuable loot, amongst which no less than $5000 that only a few days earlier had been ‘extracted’ from the inhabitants of Caçeres.
The chase followed the roads through San Pedro, Merida and for the fastest as far as Almendralejo with troopers of Penne Villemur, 2nd KGL Hussars and 9th Light Dragoons intermingled to eventually lose touch. It is well reported elsewhere that this rapid descent on Girard and his men produced not just a significant capture of prisoners but great embarrassment for their leader who had at least avoided being made a prisoner himself. With no casualties reported in 9th Light Dragoons and numbers in this regiment not yet fully up in the field we can say that after this great success there they would be more or less at:
28 October 1811 [after
the chase at Arroyo dos Molinos]
We hear nothing more of Long’s Brigade until the new year is well forward, Cuidad Rodrigo has been sieged, stormed and occupied bringing troops of Wellington’s more northern units down preparing for the more difficult task at Badajoz. Inevitably this will run into Lieutenant General Hill’s area of operations but for cavalry operations it will be 16 March 1812 before regiments under Major General’s Le Marchant and Slade are set in motion to cross the Guadiana intent on getting down to Santa Marta and Villafranca.
Brigade Ballard Long however is still north of that river as far as Montijo approaching Merida, that place having been ‘left to itself’ over the worst of the winter, with Lieutenant General Graham and a Corps of 30,000 men of all arms now set to keep the enemy under Marshal D’Erlon well out of the way as Badajoz is reduced there is an expectation that a good deal of manoeuvring is to take place.
For the men of 9th Light Dragoons little of note occurs, in mid March they, in company with two squadrons of 2nd KGL Hussars sit about Merida being mentioned occasionally by their KGL partners while spending the next four months moving almost at will over the upper Guadiana left banks and the watershed of one of its tributaries the River Matachel.
An encounter with a body of enemy cavalry under General Lallemand on 24 July 1812 is sufficiently memorable as to see one of the junior officers of 9th Light Dragoons Mentioned in Dispatches; they are still with troopers of 2nd KGL Hussars becoming involved in a fore and aft affair firstly having men of Colonel John Campbell’s 4th Portuguese Dragoons pressed back from Hinojosa onto their supports at Ribera. This develops to bring a further retirement onto men of Ballard Long’s Brigade who, being out somewhat extended have to be drawn together, this by Villa Franca by which time Brigadier Long has also the use of Lefebvre’s Horse Artillery Lallemand sees gradually that he is no longer superior in strength.
With a more or less general alarm situation looming Major General John Slade has squadrons of his ‘heavies’ joining in but coming from as far away as Los Santos and Usagre where Ballard Long awaits a ‘concentration’. It never really gets as far as all this might suggest, using a little more discretion than his earlier moves would have suggested Lallemand calls a halt, beginning to fall back on Ribera, his British and KGL opponents are not to be denied an action, charge in and, whilst the casualty sheet suggests that their quarry is more to be hit by cannon fire than the sabre the report goes in to see Lieutenant Benjamin Handley, this may be Captain Benjamin Handley, Challis’s cards show both separately as belonging to 9th Light Dragoons but the Dispatches forwarded by Erskine and Hill as shown by Gurwood have him as Lieutenant, described as being the leader of the charge that day.
Horses tend to have been in the great majority of casualties in this clash of arms …….while naturally enough both sides retire back onto their defensive lines with a small mention that the local peasantry seemed to come out best by making off with a goodly number of the rider less mounts. It will be as well to show numbers at this time so:
24 July 1812 [after
the combat at Ribera]
By this time of course not only had Badajoz been taken, but some time ago made safe against any incursions by the enemy while away up by Salamanca a great battle had been fought completely changing the balance of military power in Spain, little of this affects the situation in Estremadura until there is a noticeable shift away by D’Erlon’s whole corps. This does not happen until Wellington has moved deep into central Spain to capture Madrid so that the minor touches against regular enemy light cavalry units only gradually fade away.
General Hill receives orders to bring his charges up by the Tagus and make his way towards Madrid as that city becomes abandoned by ‘King’ Joseph and all French influences. By all of this 9th Light Dragoons become a small part of an Army of Occupation moving about but soon to lose their brigade comrades 2nd KGL Hussars, gazetted on 17 October 1812, Ballard Long having only themselves and 13th Light Dragoons and quite soon after that getting orders to leave the Madrid area prior to the retirement on to the Arapiles/Salamanca battleground.
Ballard Long Brigade in much the same way as that portion of the British cavalry retiring on the more northern route pass beyond Salamanca to retreat all the way onto the frontier line of the River Agueda losing numbers by way of attrition brought on as a result of the early winter cold and rain, dismal road conditions and an almost absent commissary attention. Horse numbers it seems may well have held up due to an influx of re-mounts not quite equally to their riders so that a count recorded at the close of November will show them at 310 available while for the troopers it is a fragile:
November 1812 [behind
the Portuguese/Spanish frontier]
Going back into friendly cantonments we see that on 5 December they are at Idanha Nova in the Castelo Branco region when by a General Order they are censured for abusing the rules on forage collecting to the extent that the commanding officer of 9th Light Dragoons is put under arrest.
It is during the time in winter quarters that we can examine the loss of the leader of 2nd Cavalry Division Lieutenant General Sir William Erskine to whose outright command Long’s Brigade is a part.
It has long been a matter of conjecture amongst latter day historians of the ‘Peninsular War’ as to just how, where and when this took place,
A little time spent here as the winter of 1812-13 came and went seems to the writer an episode well worth investigation.
A small settlement, Brozas, still slightly within the Spanish border country just 35mls from Idanha Nova is the most forward position of 2nd Cavalry Division and Erskine’s HQ where it is reported by a parallel organisation the ‘napoleonicsociety.com under “WHAT A SITUATION THEN IS MINE’ and supported elsewhere by no less than Burkes Peerage that Sir William had fallen from a third storey window at his head quarters on 12th February 1813 landing on an iron palisade puncturing his thigh, lying there un-discovered too long to die two days later.
The Judge Advocate General FS Larpent in his letters mentions that he saw Sir William, still alive and was told by him that he had not meant to do it, Larpent’s writings may well reveal where he was between 12th and 14th February 1813, however it is well known that the much mentioned and very highly regarded Charles Oman himself is happy to see him die there at Brozas. Further to this Robert Ballard Long in a letter to his brother mentioned in “Peninsula Cavalry General P 252 and dated 22 February 1813 confirms all of this.
Burkes Peerage mentioned that Sir William had been afflicted with a violent fever which while exciting this writer’s fertile imagination can of course with a latitude we are barred from, connect his well known addiction to alcohol to that also well known malady delirium tremens. To close this sad episode I prefer to have Sir William at least on duty at his HQ and to set no credence to those other writers that had him cashiered from the service, a low blow that has no discovered official reference at all.
Before entirely leaving all of this behind we know that as soon as Wellington heard of this loss of a commander for 2nd Cavalry Division that title and its meaning was dropped; there was no longer a need for a southern arm of the Service with the future concentrating on the ejection of all the forces of the 1st Empire of France from Spain. Several regiments of heavy cavalry [specifically designed for offense] were already in the country and three more would arrive by the end of January 1813.
So it was that on 13 March of that year a General Order was issued by which 9th Light Dragoons [with two others and one heavy that had been found completely inadequate] was to pass on their horses to others and return to England dismounted. Its final count was recorded at:
March 1813 [at
Its complement of horses by this time only 237 fit for service in the field were to be handed over to men of 14th Light Dragoons who then were to apportion a share to 13th Light Dragoons.
We see that his regiment departed the country on 13 April 1813 and that Lieutenant Benjamin Handley who is not shown as Captain [it is distinctly possible then that here were two officers of the same name] fell overboard and drowned while this was in progress.
It seems that Lieutenant Lord George Lennox of 9th Light Dragoons who had arrived in the Peninsula by September 1812 soon became ADC to Lord Wellington carrying on in that capacity until the end of the war.
A final touch with 9th Light Dragoons comes by way of that Lieutenant Henry Webster another late comer who became ADC to Brigadier Ballard Long stayed on after their departure to be slightly wounded at Vittoria on 21st June 1813.
Thus ended a none too glorious time to collect honours for 9th Light Dragoons in the Peninsula.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2013
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