by Jonathan Hopkins
‘It is occasioned entirely by the trick our officers of cavalry have acquired of galloping at everything...’
So wrote the Duke of Wellington to his second-in command, General Rowland Hill, after the combat at Maguilla in Spain during June 1812. In doing so, he set the tone for a scathing attitude toward British horsemen who fought in the Peninsular War which was to last for the next two hundred years.
And the cavalry’s many brilliant successes were all but forgotten.
Wellington was an infantryman through and through. Something of a martinet as far as obedience to his orders was concerned, he never trusted cavalry officers not to get carried away in the heat of the moment. Initiative was frowned on. To be fair, having commanded cavalry in India Wellington knew how effective they could be when properly organised and led, and how fragile when not. And in Iberia he rarely had a sufficient number for all his needs, certainly not when compared to his French counterparts.
The cavalry hadn’t started well. Many maintained the 20th Light Dragoons’ unsupported charge against fleeing French infantry at the battle of Vimeiro in 1808 was a disaster, pointing to the loss of their colonel and a 25% casualty rate (killed, wounded and captured).
They forgot that fewer than 240 men faced three times their number of French dragoons, and having been surrounded by enemy horse, conventional wisdom suggests they should all have been killed or captured. So to escape this fate and return to their lines having carried out their original orders - to drive a retreating enemy from the field - you might think the men of the 20th were due congratulations.
Part of the problem was that the army could not function without cavalry. They escorted supply columns. They scouted. They provided mounted sentries and piquets. They delivered messages. They were, in fact, the army’s early warning, intelligence and communication systems combined, as well as doing combat duty. And as such, any reduction of their number through casualties affected the capability of the whole force.
A disaster, then.
The next year, at Talavera, the 23rd Light Dragoons encountered a huge ditch, un-reconnoitred, across their charging approach to French infantry squares. Disordered and reduced in number by falls and refusals at the obstacle, once through the squares they were counter-attacked by enemy cavalry, suffering huge losses. Another disaster.
And the cavalry’s victories during Sir John Moore’s Spanish campaign of the previous winter were quickly forgotten in the race to apportion blame.
Except...the enemy brigades charged by the 23rd (together with the 1st Kings German Legion hussars) stood in square for the rest of the day, fearing more cavalry if they tried to move. This meant they couldn’t support the main French attack, which came close to breaching British lines but fizzled out for want of reinforcements.
So - not really a disaster.
Of course the cavalry’s reputation at home didn’t help them. Public disquiet at their use in peacetime as a rapid-reaction force to quell civil disturbances never endeared them to a largely lower-class infantry. The fact they were mounted, and as such enjoyed an apparent easy life compared to those forced to march, was anathema to the foot-slogging majority. And the recruiters’ mantra that ‘all the ladies love a dragoon’, widely believed, further fuelled inter-service jealousies.
Infantrymen conveniently forgot that while they had only to cook a meal and clean their muskets at the end of a march, every dragoon had that to do plus water and feed his mount and bed it down for the night. And almost as much again before he rode off in the morning.
The combat at Campo Mayor provided yet more proof of the cavalry’s seeming incompetence. British and Portuguese light dragoons routed French cavalry before capturing a column of artillery then lost all they had gained and took casualties because they strayed too far from their support troops.
But...hang on - why weren’t the reserve cavalry and artillery close behind? That’s what ‘support’ is supposed to mean. Surely this was a failure by Beresford, in overall command of the operation, and nothing to do with the cavalry themselves. Wasn’t it?
No - it was another cavalry disaster.
Widespread criticism following this action resulted in a protracted war of words between Beresford and Robert Ballard Long, the cavalry commander, continuing even after Long’s death and well beyond Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
Unfortunately, as another infantryman, Beresford was not truly familiar with the way cavalry operated. Not surprising, since the training even regimental cavalry officers’ received at home was often rudimentary due to government apathy and the difficulty finding large enough tracts of open country in which to practice manoeuvring extended bodies of horsemen. As a consequence, few men had much experience of controlling cavalry brigades. That officers’ favourite, the ‘charge at the gallop’, was commonly practiced by individual squadrons but rarely by whole regiments. And in any case, ground conditions on campaign often meant such charges were better carried out at a trot rather than any faster pace, so horses did not arrive in front of the enemy tired out. You still needed to get back to your own lines afterwards.
Henry Paget proved himself a capable cavalry leader with Moore’s ill-fated expedition, and might have remained in overall command of the cavalry had he not eloped with Wellington’s sister-in-law. The only other suitably qualified candidate, John Gaspard Le Marchant, was belatedly sent to the Peninsula in 1811. Regrettably he was killed the following year leading a charge of heavy dragoons which destroyed three French infantry brigades at the battle of Salamanca.
Surprisingly, no-one criticised that feat as a disaster!
There are plenty of other examples where poor command decisions and officer inexperience led to unfortunate outcomes. At Maguilla, the subject of Wellington’s ire, the cavalry were desperately unlucky to be caught out by well-controlled French counter-attacks. But their commander, John Slade (who may be familiar to some readers for his actions during the retreat to Corunna) tried to blame the reverse on everyone but himself and it was that, as much as anything, which damned him. Of course Slade commanded Hill’s cavalry brigade, so plenty of mud stuck to the horsemen themselves.
Despite appearances to the contrary, horses are quite delicate animals. Those serving in the Peninsula had first to suffer a sea voyage, which might be short or protracted, through calm seas or storms, before being expected to quickly adapt to both a very different climate and food which varied wildly in type, quality and availability. Not surprisingly, disease and starvation killed many animals, as did the army itself: at Corunna, for example, when not enough transports arrived to take all surviving cavalry horses home.
So just as with the soldiery, in the Peninsula War far more horses died from causes other than as battlefield casualties.
To give just one example of attrition rates, the 14th Light Dragoons record that after disembarking with an original complement of 720, they lost 1,564 horses in the Peninsula between 1809 and 1814. Remounts, captured animals and transferees from other regiments made up the balance. (Ian Fletcher, Galloping at Everything, 1999)
Replacement troop horses were provided by the government. Better-trained animals were expensive and supplies dwindled as the war dragged on, with the result that many arrived having never experienced gunfire and panicked or otherwise misbehaved in action. Even officers, who were expected to supply their own horses, suffered in this respect. Colonel Taylor, killed in the 20th’s charge at Vimeiro, was riding a mare that repeatedly tossed its head and refused to settle, according to one observer.
No wonder some cavalrymen found difficulty in controlling their mounts one-handed (reins in the left, sabre in the right) amid the noise and confusion of battle. Of course, that was their fault, too.
Despite impressive performances on the Coa, at Fuentes d’Onoro, Albuera, Los Santos, Usagre, Villagarcia, Salamanca and Vittoria, the cavalry’s reputation for flagrant indiscipline on the field of battle refused to go away. It would be useful to have some insight from a private dragoon as to how all this negative comment affected his comrades on campaign. Sadly, few such diaries exist, probably because apart from the illiteracy rife in that period, the men were kept so busy they rarely had time to write. As expected given their greater numbers, far more
accounts from ‘in the ranks’ are by infantrymen.
Paradoxically, it’s not as if the foot-sloggers had no disasters of their own. Infantry brigades suffered massacres at Barossa and Albuera, and heavy losses at Talavera, Fuentes d’Onoro and Badajoz. They took part in failed sieges. They committed robbery, rape and murder during retreats, to Corunna and from Burgos.
Yet the largest dose of vitriol is always reserved for the cavalry, who were simply trying their best in difficult circumstances.
Do you think that’s fair? No - nor do I.
Jonathan Hopkins works as a saddle fitter and chairs a BHS affiliated riding club in his spare time. His novel Walls of Jericho is the first in a proposed series charting the adventures of two young dragoons with the British army in Portugal and Spain.