By Colin Jones & Vic Powell
One of the most famous conflicts throughout the Peninsular War was the Battle of Salamanca, or Los Arapiles, as the French and Spanish call it. Taken from the village and heights of that name which formed the centre of the action. Essentially, the French Marshal Marmont with his 'Army of Portugal' made a serious blunder by marching his army around the heights of the Greater Arapiles forming his forces into a semi-circle which over extended his line to an almost careless degree, leaving gaps between one body and another. Wellington's allied army were encapsulated, as it were, inside the mouth of the semi-circle and therefore could force a higher concentration of troops at any given point along the enemy's front. Many historians claim this to be one of Wellington's greatest victories, in Wellington's eyes at the time, it was just a question of seizing the initiative at the right moment. The French General Foy said that the victory raised the Duke of Wellington to the level of Marlborough, nevertheless, the losses on both sides were horrendous. The allied casualties amounted to 5,000 whilst the French losses numbered 14,000 (including prisoners), 2 Eagles, 20 guns and 8 Standards.
At the close of the day, the French were fighting a retreat and finding it hard to avoid being driven into the River Tormes. The retreat was being conducted by General Clausel who had been wounded in the leg. The French withdrawal was covered by Foy's 1st Infantry Division, a battery of guns and some light cavalry from Curto's Division. Foy's men had retained their discipline and morale as they had seen little of the previous day's fighting, being kept in a relatively safe position on the extreme right of Marmont's main line.
1st Division: Commander Foy
1st Batt. 6th Leger 500 men
1st Batt. 76th Ligne 650 men
Curto's Light Cavalry Detachment
3rd Hussars (3x Squadrons) 198 men 66 per Squadron
1 x 6 pdr battery (6 Guns)(Guns did not partake in the action)
The allied troops designated to pursue Foy were under the command of Maj. Gen. Eberhardt Otto George Von Bock, who had taken temporary command of the Cavalry Division after Le Marchant was killed and Stapleton-Cotton (the Divisional Commander) was also wounded. These troops consisted of:
Baron Von Bock's Heavy Brigade:
1st K.G.L. Heavy Dragoons (3x Squadrons) 300 men 100 per
C. Anson's Light Brigade:
11th Light Dragoons (1x Squadron) 105 men
The approach from the Tormes in this direction was through a narrow marshy valley, along which ran a small rivulet bounded by steep banks. The road was rough and stony and so confined as to cause a great extension and consequent delay in the march of the cavalry, nearly, an hour elapsed before the head of the column had cleared the defile and reached the stony plain beyond it.
Bock and Anson were soon in full trot towards the village of Garcia Hernandez. After proceeding about a league in this direction, the leading brigade came in sight of the enemy who were found advantageously posted with some squadrons of cavalry in line on the plain in front, several battalions of infantry in square on the heights in advance and to the right of the cavalry, with some guns in the intervals between the infantry.
"The boldest charge of cavalry in the whole war" - General Foy
The best description of what followed comes from Beamish's History of the Kings German Legion:
"The French infantry and artillery being at first, concealed by the inequalities of the ground, the brigades were ordered by Lord Wellington to attack the cavalry, and their pace was accordingly increased to a gallop. The German regiments, confined by the narrowness of the valley, had been unable during their progress through it, to move upon a larger front than sections of threes, and now, being an echelon of squadrons, they attempted to form line upon the first squadron. Who without waiting hurried forward, however, by the excitement of the moment, the leading squadron of the first regiment under Captain Von Hattorf - having also in front General Bock; the field officers of the regiment and Lt. Col. May of the English artillery, who had brought the order from Lord Wellington - dashed on without waiting for the remaining squadrons, and made straight for the enemy's cavalry."
"The left wing of the French horsemen retired from the charge of Anson's brigade and those in front went about on the approach of Hattorf's squadron; but in pursuit the flank of the squadron became exposed to the fire of the infantry on the heights, by which Colonel May and several men and horses were wounded, and the pursuit was discontinued."
"Captain Gustavus Von Der Decken, who commanded the third or left squadron of the regiment, seeing that if he advanced according to the order given, his flank would be exposed to the fire of a dense infantry square, formed the daring resolution of attacking it with his single squadron."
"This square stood on the lower slope of the heights and obedient to the signal of their chief, the German troopers advanced against it with order and determination, while a deafening peel of musketry from the enemy greeted their approach. Arriving within a hundred yards of the point of attack, the gallant squadron officer, struck by a ball in the knee, fell mortally wounded, and Lieutenant Von Voss, with several men and horses, were killed; but instantly, Captain Von Uslar Gleichen, who commanded the left troop, dashing forward, placed himself at the head of the squadron and re-animating his followers by words and example, while another shower of bullets carried destruction among their ranks, the intrepid soldiers forced onward and bringing up their right flank, appeared before the enemy's bayonets on two sides of the square."
"The two front ranks, kneeling, presented a double row of deadly steel, while in the rear of these, the steady muskets of four standing ranks were levelled at the devoted horsemen. At this critical moment, when the sword was about to be matched against the firelock, and the chivalrous horsemen against the firm foot soldier - when victory hung yet in equal scales - an accidental shot from the kneeling ranks, which killing a horse, caused it and the rider to fall upon the bayonets - gave the triumph to the dragoons!"
"For a path was now opened, and the impatient troopers rushing in amid the blazing fire, while men and horses fell fast before the muskets of the French infantry, their firm formation was destroyed, and the whole battalion were either cut down or taken prisoner."
"Captain Von Reitzenstein, who commanded the second squadron, seeing the success which had attended the daring onset of his comrades on the left, and being also impeded in his forward movement by the difficulties of the ground, decided upon following up the discomfiture of the infantry, and attempting the second square, which stood on the edge of the heights. He was received with a steady and destructive fire, by which Lieutenant Heugel was killed and Lieutenant Tappe severely wounded; but the moral force of the French infantry had been shaken by the fearful overthrow which they had just witnessed, and some timid individuals leaving their ranks, Reitzenstein rushed in with his ready followers; the square broke, and the greater part of the battalion was cut down or captured."
(Editor's Note: The formation referred to above was not actually a square but two companies who were fighting a delaying action to buy time for the rest of the battalion. Thus the error in the following paragraph where Beamish states that they attacked a third square. In reality it was the second square.)
"A third square was instantly formed by those few who had escaped from destruction, and some cavalry came to their support. Against these Captain Baron Marschalck led the third squadron of the second regiment, and, being joined by the left troop of the second squadron under Lieutenant Fumetty, charged and dispersed the enemy's cavalry; then riding boldly at the infantry, broke and completely overthrew them."
"The wreck of the routed battalions now rallied and attempted to make a stand on a rising ground near the high road to Peneranda, where they again formed a connected body. Marschalck and Fumetty led their troopers a second time to the charge, but their little force had become too much reduced, and the horses were too fatigued to admit of any impression being made upon the enemy. The French received the attack with a heavy fire and with a shower of stones, to which they now had recourse; Captain Von Uslar was killed, Lieutenant Fumetty was wounded and several men and horses were struck down. No further attempt was made by the dragoons, and the enemy resumed their retreat."
The losses of the K.G.L. were as follows:
1st K.G.L. Drag. : 31 killed - 38 wounded - 5 missing
2nd K.G.L. Drag.: 22 killed - 30 wounded - 1 missing
French casualties were much heavier. The severity of the French situation is clearly shown in the amount of prisoners taken, generally accepted at around 1400. Colonel Molard of the 6th Leger being among the captured. From the returns between July 15th and August 1st, the losses were as follows: 6th Leger (2 Btns.) - 376, 69th Ligne (2 Btns.) - 89, 76th Ligne (2 Btns.) - 475, 39th Ligne (2 Btns.) - 46. The division was barely engaged at the Battle of Salamanca so most of the above losses must be attributed to the action at Garcia Hernandez.
With the 6th and 76th obviously taking the brunt of the attack, and with the total of the whole, being 986, the figure falls below the known losses for the action at around 200 killed or wounded with some 1,400 captured. This means that some of the prisoners taken must have come from other units within the immediate area i.e. the cavalry and artillery, plus the stragglers returning to the ranks before the August 1st return.
Edward Costello, an enlisted soldier in the 95th Rifles stated: "I set out for Salamanca with the guard appointed to escort the prisoners taken in the recent Cavalry affair by our Germans. I never before saw such severe looking sabre cuts as many of them received; several with both eyes cut out, and numbers had lost both ears. Their wounded who were carried in wagons, were extremely numerous, and it was painful even to an old soldier, to hear their groans and incessant cries for water."
Map: The Battle of Garcia Hernandez
Photograph: Rocky terrain that the KGL charged across. The high ground in the rear is where the second French battalion was destroyed.
Notes On Terrain
The roads were cart tracks
How to Get There
From Alba de Tormes head east to Penaranda for about 8 kilometers. Garcia Hernandez is now called Garcihernandez and will be on the left of the main road. The ridge line parallel to the road on the north side is La Serna. If you get to the Gamo River you went a couple kilometers too far.
Costello, Edward. The Peninsular and Waterloo Campaigns. 1968
Gurwood, John. Selections from the Dispatches and General Orders of Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington; 1841; p.612
Lunt, James. Charge to Glory - A Garland of Cavalry Exploits; 1961.
Napier, William. History of the War in the Peninsular and in the South of France. Vol. IV (1892)
Oman, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War Vol. V; 1914
Wood, Evelyn. Achievements of Cavalry; 1897