Every now and then, you read a book that really challenges your previous views on a given subject and really marshals a compelling alternative narrative. Ian Fletcher's "Galloping at Everything" is just such a book and moved up my reading list following reading "Wellington's Wars" where reference to Fletcher's book was made.
I am of the generation of 70's Napoleonic gamers that were brought up on British infantry being able to defeat French columns simply by shooting them to destruction with their two deep lines, as described so mathematically by the likes of Oman, Weller and BP Hughes. This fable later being deconstructed in the late 80's early 90's by a rereading of the accounts and realisation that the small matter of an immediate charge with fixed bayonets following a British volley seemed to be the critical morale busting effect on wavering French columns. This is now the accepted explanation of the line vs column combat and that when this simple process was not followed, Albuera a case in point, then the line was forced into a musketry battle of attrition that was to be avoided by a small army such as the British possessed.
The other fable that I was brought up on is that British cavalry was notoriously bad at controlling itself during a successful charge and was more likely than not to pursue its beaten foe off the table never to be seen again. This again was an accepted truism based on the works of Oman, principally, but quoted by other well know historians and authors throughout the following decades, who would reference the Duke of Wellington voicing his frustration when his cavalry let him down by stating that they knew only how to "gallop at everything" and were oblivious to keeping order and having a reserve. These guardians of the accepted truth would then quote Campo Mayor, Vimeiro and Waterloo to reinforce their point, that Wellington had it correct. Needless to say wargame rule writers have duplicated this thinking with rules that penalise the British player by having cavalry that will hurtle off table at the slightest provocation.
As with most fables a little more serious research and delving into the historical record reveals a much more complex explanation of the successes and failures of British cavalry in the Napoleonic era and that the Duke was guilty, not for the first time, of doing his soldiers a disservice and seriously distorting the record of a very highly proficient arm of the British army, that was more than capable of besting the very best French troops. As with all nations cavalry, their ability to have a positive effect on the battlefield was down to good training, morale, leadership and lady luck.
The book analyses the record of British cavalry and their commanders through the Peninsular War and on to Waterloo and seemed to me to illustrate events that would be just as applicable to any of the so called "best cavalry" nations. The events outlined follow a well known film theme, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the balance would seem to err more towards the good and consequently has changed my whole thinking about British cavalry in this period of history.
The Good: Sahagun, Benavente, Mayorga, Usagre, Villa Garcia, Miaguilla Raid, Salamanca, Orthez, Croix d'Orade, Quatre Bras Rear Guard, Waterloo (The unsung work during and after the battle)
The Bad: Vimeiro, Talavera, Maguilla, Vittoria (the disappointing pursuit).
The Ugly: Venta del Pozo, Campo Mayor, Waterloo (Charge of the Union Brigade)
The Good (where all the elements of success come together)
British cavalry throughout this period were able to demonstrate their combat superiority right from the start of their operations in the Peninsular and even when they were guilty of error it was often following a very successful charge to combat, that devastated their opposite numbers leaving them broken and shocked.
The Corunna campaign under Sir John Moore saw the British Hussars more than able at seeing off French cavalry at Sahagun and Benevente where they were able to deal very effectively with heavier opponents and, in the case of the Chasseurs of the Guard, very effective ones. Under the command of probably the finest British cavalry commander, Henry Paget, they were able to dominate their opponents and protect the rearward elements of Sir John's army.
These early actions illustrate the first of three components, good training illustrated by the success of the sword drills and ability to manoeuvre, good morale illustrated in the confidence of the units to overcome the enemy, no matter what perceived advantages they may have, and excellent leadership from their commander.
|Henry Paget, 1st Marquess of Anglesey|
|Major General John Gaspard Le Marchant|
John Le Marchant
Fletcher goes through these actions and others including Mayorga, Usagre, Villa Garcia and the riposte following the poor showing at Maguilla with the subsequent raid and ambush to rescue British wounded.
The description of the combat of Usagre was particularly inspiring where French cavalry were caught in a perfect ambush attempting to cross a village bridge below a ridge behind which, on a reverse slope, waited British heavy cavalry, who caught the French dragoons in a downhill charge pushing them back on the narrow bridge and causing heavy casualties at little cost to themselves.
These actions clearly illustrate that these are not the mindless "view haloo fox chasers" that some authors would have us believe.
The Bad (Where a glaring deficiency is exposed)
Ok, so what about the bad stuff, surely that's not made up. Well no, but Fletcher makes a valid point that the over reaching charge at Vimeiro, was from a very inexperienced British cavalry arm, who may be forgiven for their exuberence following their breaking of the French dragoons and grenadiers that opposed them initially.
This episode left its impression on Wellington, but he seems more forgiving of his inexperienced infantry units. The Talavera campaign is a case in point. The Guards charging to far and getting caught by French reserves or the KGL infantry and Donkin's brigade getting caught without pickets. It is the cavalry that earns his rebuke with the infamous charge of the 23rd Light Dragoons into an unobserved ravine and then on against French squares in a bad state of disorder. Is it any wonder that cavalry commanders often felt constrained to act appropriately when under the gaze of the British commander in chief.
It comes to me as no great surprise that as the war went on British cavalry regiments performed their greatest feats when Wellington wasn't present.
|20th Light Dragoons charge at Vimeiro|
|John "Black Jack" Slade|
and The Ugly (Limited success and disappointment - just one of those days!)
Fletcher makes a very good point, that often there is a very fine line, often determined by sheer luck, that differentiates moments of great success, from great failures, such as Le Marchant cresting the ridge at Salamanca to find disordered French infantry badly shot up from British infantry volleys, just needing the coup de grace administering. This compared to the brilliant charge by Colonel Head leading the 13th Light Dragoons at Campo Mayor, destroying the 26th French Dragoons sent to oppose them. and killing their very experienced and much respected Colonel Chamourin in the process. Then pressing their advantage, as ordered to do, in the belief that French infantry and siege guns, stripped of their cavalry escort were now at the mercy of British heavy cavalry, supported by KGL artillery and an approaching British infantry brigade. That advantage was lost when the incompetent Marshal Beresford stopped the supports to the 13th LD thus leaving them stranded and blown with fresh French reserves coming to the aid and succour of previously surrendered French troops.
|Corporal Logan, 13th Light Dragoons, kills Colonel Chamourin of the 26th Dragoons, Campo Mayor 1811, "a game changer action"|
The other sad part of this affair is that after Campo Mayor was a "game changer" in who felt the other was superior between British and French cavalry, It was not lost on French cavalrymen that a very experienced French heavy dragoon regiment had been well and truly bested and that British sword drill had been shown to be devastatingly effective. French cavalry became very wary of taking on their British counterparts and the advantage had moved very much in the favour of the British cavalry arm for the rest of the war.
|The Scots Greys charge at Waterloo|
Fletcher points out that this charge seems to overshadow the excellent work carried out by all the British cavalry brigades covering the retreat from Quatre Bras to Waterloo and the other support given during the rest of the battle. Even the charge itself is often remembered for the fact that the Union Brigade was devastated by getting caught on blown horses without reserves to cover their withdrawal. This oft quoted fact forgetting or ignoring that 2,300 sabres scattered 15,000 of D'Erlon's infantry corps, taking 3,000 prisoners and two Eagles.
The French were unable to launch any serious attacks on Wellington's left flank for the rest of the day allowing him to pull his forces in to cover the centre and right flank of his position. Again we had two very inexperienced regiments involved in this charge, the Scots Greys and Inniskilling Dragoons. This inexperience explains how the Scots Greys moved up from their reserve position and got caught up in the initial charge. Paget was at fault for not ensuring the Greys were held further back to avoid this situation, although he managed to keep the Blues back in the Household brigade and they covered the withdrawal of the other two regiments in their brigade.
This book gives an excellent balanced reassessment of British cavalry actions in this period. The key combats are looked at in great detail referring to eyewitnesses and contemporary reports. I found myself considering how strange that historians don't seem to hold French cavalry and their commanders failures to the same standard as their British counterparts, The charge of the Vistula Lancers at Albuera was not the battle deciding event that Le Marchant's Heavy brigade at Salamanca was and yet the former seems to draw more plaudits for its success. The disastrous over confident advance by Lefebvre Desnouettes under the eyes of his Emperor at Benevente, leading four squadrons, 600 men of Chasseur a Cheval of the Guard only to be soundly beaten by the 10th Hussars and losing about 120 of their number together with the capture of their famous commander. Do we see the Guard Chasseurs marked down as incompetent from then on? No, this action was seen as it was, a creditable performance by Paget and his cavalry and bad luck on the Chasseurs and Lefebvre Desnouettes.
The clear fact that emerges from this book is that for its size the British cavalry arm was one of the best cavalry forces in the Napoleonic wars capable of turning great battles in its favour. When the right conditions were in play, namely good cavalry terrain, efficient command and a modicum of luck the cavalry arm showed in its record that it was more than capable of giving a good account of itself and was not the ill-disciplined mob of horsemen that it is sometimes portrayed and unfairly modelled as in many wargame rule sets.
Sir Charles Oman has left a massive impact on the way we have viewed the British army in the Napoleonic era. Ian Fletcher makes the point that it is to a contemporary of Oman's, Sir John Fortescue, whose History of the British army gives a much more balanced consideration of the points discussed here, but is often overlooked in favour of Oman's great history. It is thanks to books such as Fletcher's that we are are able to reassess that legacy and I now have Fortescue's History on my Ipad. I know I will be reconsidering the way I rate my British cavalry and its commanders from now on.
A highly reccomended read.