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The Napoleon Series > Military Information > Organization, Strategy & Tactics

Notes on Wellington’s Cavalry in the Peninsula: 4th Dragoons

By Ray Foster

Facings: Green
Lace: Gold

4th Dragoons [Landed Lisbon]

22nd-27thApril 1809   [un-recorded numbers]
PUA 750 [estimated]

This Regiment of cavalry along with one other entering the theatre together would require some time to establish their base and become ready to take the field, they are soon brigaded with their more senior 3rd Dragoon Guards under Major General Henry Fane and remain so during the 1809 summer campaigns appearing about Talavera with

25th July 1809 [on the field at Talavera]
PUA 545

Standing in support of Major General George Anson’s light cavalry on 28th July and in the northern valley behind the Medellin Hill they would remain so until General Villate’s Division began its incursion on that flank, the adventures of Anson’s troopers up ahead must have drawn them forward enough to enable a few to have received fire from this enemy, we see that 3 men were killed here and 9 wounded, no hint as to how that might have occurred but we shall see in later times that this regiment was not one to hold back when an enemy was sighted, so

28th July 1809 [after the battle at Talavera]
PAB 533

With no alternative but to retire from this hard won battle field and make a painful retreat down the left banks of the Tagus we shall hear no more of this unit until we see that more by chance than design Brevet Colonel Thomas Granby Calcroft of 3rd Dragoon Guards will have picked up the Brigade as Fane goes off elsewhere during the winter and New Year of 1810. The latter will return however but only to hand over this Brigade to Major General George de Grey in May of that year all of this time well clear of any enemy.  As Marshal Andre Massena builds up his advance into Portugal this ‘heavy brigade’ will sit cantoned safely and even when the armies meet on the ridge at Busaco in late September will be somewhat to the rear in the western valley about Mealhada ready to retire onto the Lines of Torres Vedras when that combat has been played out.

Figures shown as the army settles into that fortified area will suggest that 4th Dragoons will stand at

1stNovember 1810 [in the lines of Torres Vedras]
PUA 407

In the early spring of 1811 as Massena’s Corps begins to fall back north by east to gradually vacate Portugal altogether it seems that something must be done to make use of the Cavalry Arm of the Service beyond the mere taking up of ground. De Grey’s troopers are thus transferred to the southern flank of the army, that usually in the hand of Major General Rowland Hill, he however goes down with an attack of a malarial fever and the command there goes to Marshal William Carr Beresford. It will be very shortly after the mild blockade/siege of Badajoz has been abandoned in the first week of May 1811 that things warm up for De Grey’s men, there has been a flurry of activity about Campo Mayor involving the observable incapacity of the overall cavalry leader Major General Robert Ballard Long that encouraged Beresford to relieve him of his post and substitute in his place Major General William Lumley. By 16th May at the field of the battle of Albuera this shift was more than fortunate, Lumley directed his cavalrymen with clear professionalism taking them up to confront the enemy to secure a right flank that had already seen some murderous action, not the least the near destruction of a whole brigade of 2nd Division’s infantry.

What of 4th Dragoons then?   They would have stood at the outset at

16thMay 1811 [at Albuera]
PUA 387

With little more to discover than that Lumley’s presence had the desired effect of cooling the ardour of the French on this part of the field we do know that three of 4th Dragoons men were killed, 20 more wounded and 5 men captured, of these casualties one officer Captain John Phillips had been made prisoner [to remain so until the end of hostilities] another two, Captain Carlisle Spedding and Lieutenant Edward Wildman at first rounded up had somehow during the after-battle confusion escaped, the latter being so wounded however as to be sent off home, Captain James Holmes and the Adjutant/Lieutenant George Chantry have to be included amongst those wounded so that they had certainly been close enough to be counter-attacked, however when all subsided into relief at the full retreat of the French they would stand down at

16thMay 1811 [after the fight at Albuera]
PAB 359

Although Lumley’s cavalry command task had originally included the care and attention of a brigade of infantry when Wellington arrived a few days later to make something of the ‘victory’ he immediately confirmed that first rate cavalryman in charge of the whole of that Arm of the Service sending him off to find Marshal Nicholas Soult’s rearguard and discover its intentions as that army had vacated the immediate scene. Well attuned to affairs of cavalry off goes Lumley with de Grey’s Brigade in company with units of both Portuguese and Spanish horse, with information coming his way from the now retiring Spanish who had already been shadowing the French he agrees that a fine ambush could be set up just short of Usagre. It is now 25th May and rather handily the rearguard of the French, cavalry in large number under General Latour Maubourg had already turned about and were now passing through this hamlet, more to the point in order to make more progress leaving this place these men had to file across a narrow river bridge, the watercourse below running full and preventing others from using fords to come on more in line to either side of this obvious serious shrinking of his frontage.

Lumley, setting out his troopers behind a rise that looked down on this activity only required to exercise good timing to allow a part of the French Dragoons to come forward then to sound a full line of charge to envelop the whole of these unsuspecting horsemen slowly increasing in number but always with their backs to the river’s banks. All three nationalities of the allied force came down with 4th Dragoons well to the fore, 3rd Dragoon Guards close behind and with George Madden’s Portuguese to the left and Penne Villemur’s Spanish to the right the slaughter was complete. The unusually modest Lumley made no claims as to numbers of the enemy brought down and captured merely to suggest that all had gone rather well and that Latour Maubourg and his Dragoons would no longer be a problem.  Others of course made huge claims that may well have had some truth but on the other side of the ledger certainly Lumley did admit that of his whole combined force only 20 men had been injured.   

No sabre rattler that one, a great shame that his services were soon to end:

25th May 1811 [after the action at Usagre]
PAB 358

This last total is of course an estimate, this regiment’s adjutant appears to have had a penchant for drawing up figures that deviated little from this number; it will be seen repeatedly, true or false.

The summer campaigning season comes and goes, De Grey takes up a more senior role as Lumley disappears, to hold the Division going back on to the defensive stance in the Caya watershed during July and only re-appearing well behind Fuente Guinaldo during that short period of action by others at Aldea de Ponte and El Bodon, his brigade will come forward at this time only sufficiently to count as support and to stand at

15thSeptember 1811 [at Fuente Guinaldo]
PUA 358   

Back they go into quarters for the winter season whilst other cavalry units are coming into the theatre to swell numbers in that arm. There is much re-organisation within the two Cavalry Divisions during the early part of 1812 the result of which will see 4th Dragoons shift into 1st Cavalry Division under Major General Stapleton Cotton to become part of new entrant Major General John le Marchant’s Brigade along with 5th Dragoon Guards and 3rd Dragoons, both of the latter having been in the country in rear staging posts for some months already.

Whilst 1812 was to be a full year of activity for Wellington’s infantry Divisions and artillerymen his heavy cavalry sat out those early actions to secure the frontier fortresses of Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz and only began to stir themselves as the CIC sought to challenge the Army of Portugal under Marshal Auguste Marmont in the rolling plains of the Leon Province.

Brigadier Le Marchant with over 1000 broadswords under his hand would have a pivotal part to play once the protagonists were brought to battle but for this to happen there had to be first a game of cat-and-mouse to be played out about the plains centre of Salamanca.

Retiring before one of Marmont’s sweeping moves Le Marchant’s troopers would be engaged briefly about Castrillo where Wellington with the HQ staff had been caught unawares and the CIC with Beresford had been forced to ‘defend himself’, it fell to comrades of 3rd Dragoons to do the work required here and all would continue to retire only a little worse for the experience.

By the night preceding the great battle on the Arapiles there was a thunderous rain storm that so un-nerved the cavalry that a good deal of time was spent chasing about to retrieve loose horses, it was to be 5th Dragoon Guards that would record the losses thus sustained.   In order to see the probable strength of 4th Dragoons as we come to the battle of 22nd July it may be of no surprise to see that they will be recorded to stand at that somewhat repetitive

15th July 1812 [before the battle on the Arapiles]

PUA 358

As Marmont made his big mistake allowing his infantry divisions to advance at such a pace as to leave indefensible gaps between them as they marched along a row of low hills directly across the enemy line of defence, for this he was brought to action most violent. With his most forward infantry already under an attack and doomed to failure it became the turn of his second divisional group of infantry to look to their laurels as their immediate enemy approached full of venom, to their distant right yet another force was about to do the same to their ‘much too far away’ comrades all in classic echelon style.  As if this was not enough for any soldier to dread, out of this vision of impending catastrophe a whole host of charging horsemen began to break into view this was Le Marchant’s broadswords men intent on dealing out destruction to any who stood fast, not a hope of doing any better that hiving to sell themselves dear.

For 4th Dragoons it came down to a steady slaughter, their preceding infantry had already got their prey on the move backwards so that it remained to hack away, move on and hack again, prisoners in large number would congregate behind them but ever forward the chase went until into clear field ahead. While all of this may sound like an easy day it was not so for seven of their number killed and 22 wounded one of which was Lieutenant Norcliffe Norcliffe who it seems was gone on so far ahead as to be captured while seriously wounded.

22nd July 1812 [after the slaughter on the Arapiles]
PAB 329

With the rest of the Brigade having done its duty in similar style it remains to observe that their brigadier somewhat injudiciously had forgotten that his commanding role required that he stay alive, he was dead, shot down while well to the fore in all of this mayhem. His place would seamlessly fall to Brevet Colonel William Ponsonby and on we go again. 

Not being close to the vanguard on the march to occupy Madrid Ponsonby’s men however would soon enjoy the fruits of victory there only to be taken off north on the march to discover how far General Bertrand Clausel’s remnant Army of Portugal could be pushed, as it turned out, only as far as Burgos on the River Arlanzon. Once there and held up as the tiny but dominant Castle was blockaded, besieged and variously assaulted they are used to become part of the screening operations about its northern perimeter, this employment comes to an end within a month of gradually cooling autumn weather. By the last week of October they are to be mentioned as withdrawing ahead of the main retirement going generally south by stages in company with Major General George Bock’s KGL Dragoons, by now the weather has become cold and wet with mud underfoot and little else to disturb their steady retirement. Having a line-of-march most likely at the head of their column they are mentioned as going by way of Villa Muriel and on 25th October have some work to do protecting the passage of 5th Division’s infantry on the River Carrion; whilst Ponsonby’s Brigade has its part to play and incurs a few casualties we are not informed from which regiment.

No more is heard of them until reaching the joining with Hill’s corps about Salamanca and can calculate that on 15th November will pass close by where their previous Brigadier Le Marchant had met his doom, from here the real retreat fully back to Portugal would begin. It is but a few short days before they are able to turn about behind the frontier but during that time continuous cold rain fell and, while we have no really solid information it was said that the cavalry generally was ‘in wretched condition’ and half dismounted, equally any knowledge as to surviving numbers was also wretched. By 27th November Ponsonby’s troopers were seen to be retiring further yet, this time to ‘more comfortable quarters’ as far west as the valley of the Mondego and some on the Douro as far as Oporto itself.

Six whole months of R&R was granted before more warlike action was to be expected of them, it is now 1813 and the 12th of May when Lieutenant General Thomas Graham receives orders to get his cavalry from its scattered cantonments and ready to strike north by east and out of Portugal altogether, a fortnight later there they are by the Douro at its most northerly point where it enters the Portuguese frontier. Rain has filled the rivers hereabouts but with the use of the pontoon bridging off they go aiming at Zamora/Toro on its northern banks with not a hostile hand laid on them, we are now in June and any enemy contact at all is felt only by Colquhoun Grant’s Brigade of Hussars up ahead.

Uneventfully they will travel on perhaps close enough on 13th June to hear the explosive roar of the shattering of Burgos Castle still to make progress now on the Grande Chausee heading for France but well behind an ever increasing column of troops of all arms closing on Vittoria. On the day of the great battle there on 21st June 1813 Ponsonby’s Brigade is to be found on that same road but in rear of three Brigades of Cavalry and two Divisions of Infantry all of which had some difficulty in expanding out onto the fighting field ahead. With casualties on the day counted off at just two troopers from the whole Brigade it is well said by Oman observing that the heavy cavalry might just as well have been on the other side of the Ebro for all the good it accomplished!

Best to simply move on.

With an enemy already routed off at some speed and the only potential target being that force operating under General Bertrand Clausel somewhere up ahead in the Bastan it was only possible to join a concentration of no less than four infantry divisions sent off to find this elusive victim. Far too elusive then Clausel got off, himself at some speed so that Ponsonby’s troopers a whole month later have been withdrawn only to be brought forward yet again when the new command of all French forces in the theatre had come under Marshal Nicholas Soult. This “new-broom” had already turned his new charges about and was back on the offensive, it is 27th July 1813 and Ponsonby has been called up to strengthen Lieutenant General Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division right flank in that defensive stance behind the Egues stream just a few short miles north of Pamplona where the French governor still held out against all opposition.    

The immediate enemy here is that wily commander General Maximilien Foy and several scattered units of very mild danger.

When the violent first battle at and about Sorauren broke out on 27th July there was to be some minor movements in front of Ponsonby’s Brigade that fitted well the description of ‘demonstrations’ while off to their far left men were selling their lives dearly.  Two days later as Wellington went on the attack it was soon the case that this contest was to end badly for the French, Foy, ever sensitive to possibilities and probabilities used his well known capacity for swift movement to disappear entirely from the area, so much so that his own leader lost track of him completely, for Ponsonby’s men this yet again left them unable to add to their military laurels.

It will be very soon after this tussle in the Bastan that the CIC sends this cavalry brigade into ‘rear-quarters’ this to remain the case for the rest of the year and our first news in 1814 is to see that Lieutenant Colonel Charles Manners has picked up the Brigade after Frederick Ponsonby had vacated the scene, he had ‘gone-absent’ according to CT Atkinson, all of this by 25th January 1814.

Note: Noticeably there have been no figures given for Present Under Arms for quite some time, the reason being that none have been forthcoming, however, as brigade strengths have on two occasions been mentioned it can be presumed [always a tricky way of getting at things] that as there were three regiments to consider an average would show 400 PUA most of the time and even much later when the trials of campaigning through the French side of the Pyrenean corrugated hills and mountain streams this count seems only to fall to an average 375 PUA and remembering the penchant of their adjutant to generalise  there we can leave it.

It seems that during the worst of the winter 4th Dragoons and their brigade comrades were cantoned as far back as the Spanish /Pyrenean uplands but Manners will get his call-to-arms as the month of March 1814 opens, up they come still brigaded 5th Dragoon Guards, 3rd Dragoons and 4th Dragoons, by now all the signs of the end of Napoleon’s crumbling Empire having reached a distinct probability. It will not be until mid-March that Manners Brigade gets up to the army and they are shown to be on the Rabastens-Tarbes road behind the River Larros on 20th March putting up an appearance at the combat at Tarbes where an opportunity to snare Marshal Soult’s ever dwindling army into a full-on battle is lost.

Following up the French who are understandably hurrying off towards Toulouse at pace it remains that Manners men must jog along soaked to the skin on roads that were not even good before many thousands of men had trampled them to deep liquid mud.  Marshal Soult has fixed himself and his remnant army firmly inside the walls of Toulouse and its convenient two watercourses, the River Garonne, a major obstacle at this time of year and the Canal du Midi that winds around and through the city. Unfortunately for him there is a long stretch of hillside overlooking the eastern side of this place, the Mont Rave an obviously dominant feature that on no account can be ignored by its defenders. At last Manners Brigade is to see some action, they have already been well employed along with Bock’s old KGL Dragoon Brigade [Bock now dead at the bottom of the sea] led by Frederick von Arentschildt escorting with others the army’s pontoons first up and then down the Garonne to discover a suitable crossing.

This found by 4th April at La Capallette over they go as do a good proportion of troops of all arms  but have to wait another four days before the river falls to an acceptable level and force  then on the 8thApril over comes a more serious number of troops, sufficient to fill the need. Two days later the battle for Toulouse will commence, Manners Brigade has been sent well out to the left and rear of a large Spanish force under General Friere whose infantry were to mount an attack on the northern end of the hill before them when the time is right, 4th Dragoons and their comrades have a prominent round hill the Pujade to their left while before them extending for a couple of miles lies a depression between the Mont Rave and an un-fordable stream the Ers.

Marshal William Carr Beresford will send two Divisions of infantry 4th and 6th down this much waterlogged route to seek out a favourable spot to swing right and assault the Mont Rave at its southern end and thereby dominate the whole of the city below, the French of course will fight to prevent any of this from happening.

The task for cavalry here is firstly for the light units of both sides to open the contest; meanwhile on the edges of the Mont a series of artillery batteries will make life as uncomfortable as possible for the attackers as they proceed forward.

It is sufficient here to note that 4th Dragoons will for some time hold their linking position maintaining a solid front across this northern aspect of the ground. As the attacks of both Beresford’s and Friere’s men develop and the artillery of both sides enter into their work it seems that 4th Dragoons were soon needed to rally the first Spanish recoil and retirement after their valiant efforts had met with failure. Enemy artillery was able to reach out as far as this area but at long range only, we have no accounts of how any of Manning’s troopers came about their various injuries only that the whole brigade accumulatively suffered just 18 on the day. We know that 4th Dragoons had two men killed and six wounded one of the latter was a junior officer Cornet Robert Burrowes beyond that nothing.  So it is that with this action whereby the men of Manners Brigade would have in all probability received their only casualties this day we must say farewell to 4th Dragoons expecting they might enjoy a leisurely and peaceful trot all the way north through France to then cross the channel and return to their home depot.

Note:  Having had a combined Brigade PUA figure of 1111 [provided by Adjutant/General George Murray] at the start of proceedings at Toulouse and an individual total loss of just eight men for 4th Dragoons it cannot be far from the case that they would have stood down at their own adjutant’s regular;

10th April 1814 [after the battle at Toulouse]
PAB 358

They were not to be present at Waterloo.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2012


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