Saturday, 28 September 2019

Cavalry Actions in Estremadura - The Peninsular War Tour 2019

Corunna Retreat - Peninsular War Tour 2019
Battles and Actions in the Tagus Valley(Alcantara and Almaraz Bridges) - Peninsular War Tour 2019
Battles and Actions in the Tagus Valley, Battle of Talavera - Peninsular War Tour 2019
Badajoz, The French Siege and Allied First, Second and Third Sieges - Peninsular War Tour 2019

Our time staying close to Elvas on the Portuguese border gave us a couple of days to explore the city of Badajoz, covered in the last post, together with other areas close by that featured in the wider events of the Peninsular War.

This part of Estremadura, close to the Portuguese border, was the scene of much fiercely fought combat, separate but closely linked to that being fought further north, and ebbed back and forth similarly and symmetrically with it.

Map of Estemadura, taken from Oman's History of the Peninsular War illustrating the three cavalry actions of Campo Mayor, Usagre and Villagarcia.

The northern part of Estremadura is characterised by rolling open plains, open to a hot dry breeze and blistering sun in July, with long straight stretches of road seemingly searching desperately for a modicum of shade.

This was the southern frontier on the Portuguese border between Allied forces and the French in the Peninsular War and like the Biera Frontier further north, played host to both armies as the fortunes of war swung back and forth, with several similarities and several key differences.

Firstly both areas were similar in having significant fortress towns and cities controlling access over the border between both countries, stemming from the periods of hostility between them prior to the war.

These centres acted as a break on the force with the initiative but not in control of them, to have to stop their advance as they prepared for their capture, thus allowing the other side a breathing space to rebuild and prepare for the next phase of the war.

However the terrain and proximity to the main communication link into France dictated that the north saw the bulk of Anglo Portuguese and French activity throughout most of the war with both sides focused on making progress up the great highways towards Burgos and Bayonne, or into Portugal towards Lisbon, north of the River Tagus.

The other key difference was that the mountainous border in the north favoured the use of infantry, particularly when the action moved further towards Portugal, but in the south, the more open terrain facilitated cavalry actions, going someway to explain the activities of large numbers of Allied cavalry operating in the area.

This of course would change as the Allies advanced into the open plains of Spain in the north later in 1812 and on.

My travelling companion whilst following the various cavalry actions on our holiday and a must read for serious students
of the Napoleonic War. I reviewed Ian Fletcher's book back in 2014

The other interesting aspect of the actions fought in Estremadura is its contribution to the Napoleonic British cavalry performance debate with one of the most controversial actions, that of Campo Mayor, often trumpeted by the 'Galloping at Everything' lobby that proclaims British cavalry were always prone to go out of control over and above any other nations cavalry operating in the era.

As my presentation of the efforts of British cavalry in the posts written so far have sort to illustrate, I do not subscribe to this theory, which to my mind is as redundant as the British two deep line beating French columns through firepower alone, both trumpeted by the late great Sir Charles Oman, but with the former pronouncement promoted by the Duke of Wellington who despite his great talents as a general is not regarded in the main as a great exponent in the use of cavalry.

Interestingly, the British cavalry often performed their greatest deeds when the great man was nowhere near, perhaps Salamanca standing as a unique exception, which might be suggestive as to his influence on the arm, only overcome in the presence of a great British cavalry commander such as Le Marchant.

Campo Mayor 25th March 1811

The action at Campo Mayor was briefly mentioned in the post covering the French and Allied sieges of Badajoz which looked at the advance of Marshal Beresford and his Anglo-Portuguese army towards the city in March 1811 en-route via the Portuguese fortified town of Campo Mayor.

The reason that Wellington was forced to send this Allied expeditionary force under the command of Beresford was due to the home leave taken by his able and competent independent commander who would have normally overseen events in the southern theatre, General Sir Rowland Hill.

General Beresford, commanding Allied forces at Camp Mayor

Much has been written about the strengths and weaknesses of Marshal Sir William Carr Beresford, much of it during his lifetime by veterans who served with and alongside him, and I am one of those who readily acknowledges his undoubted talents for management, in which he excelled, demonstrated in the rapid reorganisation and retraining of the Portuguese army, for which, it is arguable, the war could not have been won without, and for that alone he deserves recognition and respect.

However even the Duke readily recognised Beresford's weakness in his abilities as a general, demonstrated by his point by point instructions issued to his subordinate in every event of French reactions to his approach and later siege of Badajoz.

This guidance by Wellington also went as far as him issuing a warning on the need for maintaining a tight hold on the cavalry, stating;

'I recommend to you to keep your troops very much en masse. I have always considered the cavalry to be the most delicate arm that we possess. We have few officers who have practical knowledge of the mode of using it, or who have ever seen more than two regiments together; and all our troops, cavalry as well as infantry, are a little inclined to get out of order in battle.

To these circumstances add, that the defeat of, or any great loss sustained by, our cavalry, in these open grounds, would be a misfortune amounting almost to defeat of the whole; and you will see the necessity of keeping the cavalry as much as possible en masse, and in reserve, to be thrown in at the moment when an opportunity may offer of striking a decisive blow.'

Needless to say, this kind of advice to an already unsound commander, would likely lead to serious problems when it came to deciding when the 'moment of opportunity' had arisen and how to respond, with, as always, the common soldier left to pick up the bill for the deficiencies in their commanding general officer, and alongside Albuera and indeed the bungled first siege of Badajoz, Campo Mayor stands testimony to those deficiencies.  

Latour Maubourg's movements leading to his encounter with Beresford's army at Campo Mayor, 25th March 1811

As covered in my previous post, General Latour Maubourg was busy carrying out the orders of Marshal Soult to continue the French offensive in Estremadura after the capture of Badajoz, by marching north to neutralise the fortress towns of Albuquerque and Campo Mayor, which indirectly, put the French on a collision course with Marshal Beresford's army marching south to relieve the Spanish garrison of Badajoz.

Lieutenant General Robert 'Bobby' Ballard Long commander of the
Allied cavalry at Campo Mayor

Sir William Napier covered the events in just over a page of his history, that was to be the touch paper that ignited a row between him and others on one side, and Marshal Beresford and his supporters on the other, that would see pamphlets published refuting the accounts offered by each opposing camp.

Napier's account;

'It has "been shown how Beresford was sent to oppose Soult beyond the Tagus, but the latter, disturbed by the battle of Barosa, which put all Andalusia in commotion, had returned to Seville, leaving Mortier to continue the operations. 

Campo Mayor surrendered the 21st of March, and four days after, Latour Maubourg, having to bring away the battering train and a convoy of provisions, issued from the gates with nine hundred cavalry three battalions of infantry some horse-artillery and sixteen heavy guns, all in column of march, just as Beresford emerged from an adjacent forest with twenty-thousand infantry, two thousand cavalry and eighteen field-pieces. 

The walled fortress town of Campo Mayor undergoing some restoration work on its defences at the time of our visit, hence the white awnings covering the exterior of the wall

An astonishing apparition this was to the French, for so adroitly had Wellington, while seemingly absorbed in the pursuit of Massena, organized this army, that its existence was only made known by its presence.

All Beresford's cavalry, supported by a field battery and a detachment of infantry under Colonel Colborne,* were close up ere the enemy knew of their approach, and the horsemen, sweeping by their left round the town and moving along gentle slopes, gradually formed a crescent about the French, who were retreating along the road to Badajos. 

Colborne was then coming up at a run, a division was seen behind him, and the French infantry formed squares, supported by their cavalry, while their battering guns and baggage hurried on.  

The road to Badajoz leads away from the hill top position of Campo Mayor along which the French made good their escape before the Allied pursuit in March 1811

General Long, holding back his heavy cavalry, directed some Portuguese squadrons, and the 13th Light Dragoons under Colonel Head, to charge. Head, galloping forward under a fire from the square, was met half-way by the French hussars with louse reins, and fiercely they came together, and many went down on both hides, yet those who kept the saddle drove clean through each other, re-formed, and again charged in the same fearful manner!

Desperately all struggled for victory, but Head's troopers riding close and on better chargers overthrew horse and man, and the hussars dispersed, yet still fighting in small bodies with the Portuguese, while the British squadron, passing under the fire of the square without flinching, rode forward, hewing down the gunners of the battering train and seeking to head the long line of convoy.

Phase 1 of the Combat of Campo Mayor. Mortier's force departs Campo Mayor on the road to Badajoz with 2,400 men including 900 cavalry (2nd & 10th Hussars & 26th Dragoons) a half battery of horse guns and a siege train of 16 guns. Having swung north of the town and with the British Heavy Cavalry in reserve to deal with the French column, once the guns and allied infantry had come up, the 13th Light Dragoons supported by Otway's Portuguese cavalry defeated the French dragoons and drove them off the field.. A representational sketch based upon Lieutenant Patrick Doherty's (13LD) MSS. Published in Long's memoirs. Not to scale. My illustration adapted from Ian Fletcher's book

They thought the heavy dragoons, the infantry and the artillery, marching behind them, would suffice to dispose of the enemies they passed, but Beresford took a different view. He stopped a charge of the heavy dragoons; he suffered only two guns to open when six were at hand; he even silenced those two after a few rounds, and let the French recover their battering train, rally their hussars, and retreat in safety. 

Meanwhile the 13th and some of the Portuguese dragoons reached the bridge of Badajos and there captured more guns, but were repulsed by the fire of the fortress, and being followed by Mortier and met by Latour Maubourg's retreating column lost some men, but passing by the flanks they escaped, to be publicly censured by Beresford!

An inaccurate illustration with the 13th Light Dragoons shown wearing the 1812 uniform, shows Corporal Logan cutting down Colonel Chamorin, commander of the French 26th Dragoons. 

The admiration of the army consoled them. 

One hundred of the allies were killed, or hurt, and seventy taken; the French lost only three hundred and a howitzer, but the colonel of hussars, Chamorin, a distinguished officer, fell in single combat with a trooper of the 13th Dragoons, an Irishman of astonishing might, whose sword went through helmet and head with a single blow.'

Suggesting some Roman input to its original building, the road from Campo Mayor stretches out ahead towards Badajoz, about three miles out from Campo Mayor, as described by Oman

Ian Fletcher goes into great detail analysing the accounts from both camps with those of the British cavalry commanders and their men the most compelling when it comes to refuting the counter arguments put up by Beresford and his supporters.

I can only recommend those interested into getting a fuller understanding of this action to read Fletcher's book but I quote Napier's account because of the compelling detail he includes that Oman omits in his account, as follows;

'Seeing that Long was manoeuvring to outflank him, Latour-Maubourg ordered the 26th Dragoons to charge before the movement was far advanced. The British 13th formed to their front, and started to meet them; the two lines met with a tremendous crash, neither giving way, and were mingled for a few moments in desperate hand to hand fighting, in which Colonel Chamorin, the French brigadier, was slain in a personal combat with a corporal named Logan of the 13th. 

Presently the French broke, and fled in disorder along and beside the Badajoz road. Then followed one of those wild and senseless pursuits which always provoked Wellington's wrath, and induced him to say in bitterness that the ordinary British cavalry regiment was ' good for nothing but galloping. 

General Long says in his account of the affair that he found it impossible to stop or rally the Light Dragoons, and therefore sent after them the two squadrons of the 7th Portuguese, to act as a support. But the Portuguese put on a great pace to come up with the 13th, got excited in pursuing stray knots of French dragoons, broke their order, and finally joined in the headlong chase as recklessly as their comrades.'

Phase 2. The 13th LD and Otway's Portuguese pursue the French cavalry, capturing 16 heavy guns en route, thinking the heavy cavalry are forcing the French column to halt in their wake. However Beresford orders the heavy cavalry to halt.

The simple account of the 13th LD charging through the French dragoons, breaking them in mixed melee and then pursuing them madly along the Badajoz road doesn't make sense and ignores the testimonies of the first hand accounts that say the 13th LD passed through the French, turned, and charged again, during which the combat was conclusive and saw the French, now able to break for Badajoz, take full advantage of doing so, following the losses they had received.

If Oman's account is to be taken at face value, the French would have had to have reined in and tried to get back, stuck as they were between the 13th LD and an escape route to Badajoz and having the Portuguese behind them.

13th Light Dragoons

Lieutenant Dudley Malden of the the 4th Dragoons wrote in his diary that the 13th;

'charged their flank several times' 

Whilst John Burgoyne of the Royal Engineers recorded that the 13th;

'went through them (the French); the enemy closed and faced to the right about, the 13th rode through them again, and again a third time, when the enemy's cavalry went off in confusion.'

One of the 13th's officers wrote;

'The road to Campo Mayor to Badajoz runs across the great plain of Badajoz, and not even a thistle or briar to intercept the prospect. The French manoeuvered most beautifully all the way, and sustained three charges of our cavalry without breaking.

The 13th behaved most nobly. I saw so many instances of individual bravery, as raised my opinion of mankind in general many degrees. The French certainly are fine and brave soldiers, but the superiority of our English horses, and more particularly the superiority of swordsmanship our fellows showed, decided every contest in our favour; it was absolutely like a game of prison bars, which you must have seen at school ... The whole way across the plain was a succession of individual contests, here and there, as the cavalry dispersed ... it was certainly most beautiful.' 

The ground to the left of the road over which the 13th Light Dragoons and Otway's Portuguese, in support, met and defeated the 26th French dragoons

There  is a military truism that states 'order, counter-order, disorder' and General Long found himself the victim of this truism when after agreeing his plan with Beresford, to see off the French cavalry or at least to neutralise it with the 13th LD and the Portuguese cavalry, the British Heavy Cavalry brigade would then support that move by holding up the progress of the French column long enough for Colborne to bring up the Allied infantry and artillery to force the French to surrender.

Beresford's 'counter-order' halting the Heavy Brigade threw the whole plan into disorder and his later claim that he considered that the 13th LD were lost, to justify his action, was contradicted by his infantry commander on the spot, Colonel John Colborne.

My depiction of the British Heavy Cavalry brigade (3rd Dragoon Guards and 4th Dragoons) under the command of Colonel George De Grey at Campo Mayor and Usagre

Colborne recounted;

"From my position, I could plainly see the French evacuate the town, and I saw an admirable operation of the13th Light Dragoons, who passed through the French cavalry and dispersed them, and if they had been supported by the heavy cavalry, a most excellent coup de main would have been achieved, and the whole French force might have been made prisoner.

But just at that moment General Lumley, who commanded the heavy cavalry , to my great mortification, sent me a message by his aide de camp that the infantry must halt, as it was useless in the face of the superior strength of the enemy to continue the engagement.

'The whole of the 13th,' it was added, 'are taken'. I told the aide de camp that I had seen the contrary with my own eyes, and that I should do no such thing. The aide de camp said, 'Shall I take the general this message?' to which I replied, 'Yes, he thinks the 13th are taken, but there they are.'

However through this error, the heavy cavalry were halted, and the whole operation failed."

Phase 3. Unsupported, the 13th LD are driven off by the guns of Badajoz and with blown horses, on their return, are unable to stop the French column from recovering the heavy guns they captured, as the British Heavy Cavalry look on and do nothing to intervene.

One can only imagine how Colonel Head, commanding the 13th LD, felt, who, having triumphed over the French dragoons and pursued them up the road to the point of dispersal, then overcame the French guard marching with the sixteen heavy siege guns, to then order his troopers to take command of the mules towing them and look to try and drag them back up the road to Campo Mayor, only then to find his route blocked by the oncoming balance of French troops and no sight of his intended support from the heavy brigade.

With blown horses and no sign of relief from his support, he was forced to surrender his prize and make his way back into Allied lines only to have the wrath of Wellington and Beresford heaped upon his head and the unjustifiable slander of his regiment being an undisciplined bunch of gallopers.

The ground to the right where the British Heavy Cavalry under orders from Beresford not to advance, sat and observed the debacle unfold. One can only imagine their frustration as the French simply marched away down the road to the left.

As Fletcher goes on to highlight, Wellington's dispatch to Beresford and his verdict about the combat was so damning that it has prejudiced the case against the British cavalry ever since and I am forced to agree.

In it he accused the 13th Light Dragoons of 'undisciplined ardour' and that of 'a rabble, galloping as fast as their horses could carry them over the plain', issuing an order later censoring the 13th 'for their impetuosity' and want of discipline, although he did credit them for their bravery and resolution.

Personally, like Fletcher, I think the last verdict on the combat of Campo Mayor should rest with Sir John Fortescue, the historian of the British Army, when he concluded about the performance of the Thirteenth;

'... who did not exceed two-hundred men, in defeating twice or thrice their numbers single handed, it is difficult to speak to highly. Indeed I know of nothing finer in the history of the British cavalry ... if he (Colonel Head) had been supported and his trophies had been secured, the action would no doubt have become a classic in the annals of cavalry.'

Usagre 25th May 1811

The Combat of Usagre - 'Latour-Maubourg could do no more than dismount the leading regiment
of his second brigade and set them to fire from the 
houses along the water-side...'

The bloodiest battle in the Peninsular War was fought at Albuera on the 16th May and, having given its all to no avail, Soult's Army of Estremadura slipped away south the following day, bound for Seville.

The victory allowed Wellington, who arrived at Elvas on the 20th May, to concentrate on the siege of Badajoz, whilst Generals Beresford and Lumley were sent off in pursuit of Soult with the Allied cavalry to ensure the French Marshal and his army were kept well away from the city and unable to interfere with the operation.

Soult was no doubt still feeling that he had somehow snatched a defeat from the jaws of victory and was probably in no mind to be shepherded along by a foe whom he had considered beaten but just didn't know it and so resolved to identify and look for an opportunity to push back his pursuers.

General de Division Victor de Fay de Latour Maubourg

Thus on the 25th May General Latour Maubourg was ordered to turn on the pursuers and to check their advance at the first opportunity.

Major General Sir William Lumley, commanded the Allied cavalry at Usagre
after he replaced General Robert Long as Beresford's cavalry commander, following the
criticism of the latter after Campo Mayor.

The French force of around 3,000 cavalry easily drove back the Spanish advance pickets around Villagarcia, pursuing them for five miles until reaching the village of Usagre, where Major General Lumley had drawn up his Allied force of around 2,200 British, Portuguese and Spanish cavalry having been alerted to the French advance.

Sir Charles Oman described the action;

'Usagre lies on the south bank of the stream, which flows in a well marked ravine; on the north bank there are two rolling heights a few hundred yards back from the water, with a definite skyline.

Troops placed behind them were invisible to an enemy coming up from the town, and the French, if they wished to attack, would have to defile on a narrow front, first through the main street of Usagre, and then across the bridge.

The respective positions at the start of the cavalry combat at Usagre, with the bridge in the village circled and Latour Maubourg's three brigades waiting to press across as Briche's brigade looks to turn the Allied flank up river

On hearing of Latour-Maubourg's approach, Lumley sent the 13th Light Dragoons and Otway's Portuguese across the ravine to the left of the town, and Madden's Portuguese in like manner on the right, each using a ford which had been previously discovered and sounded. The heavy dragoons remained facing the town, behind the sky-line, with Lefebure's battery, guarding the high-road. Both the flanking forces reported that the enemy was coming up the road in great strength—Lumley was told that thirteen regiments had been counted, though there were really only ten. Wherefore he ordered Otway and Madden to recross the stream by their fords, which they did without loss, and to watch these passages, while keeping well under cover behind the sky-line.

The bridge in the village of Usagre which acted as a choke point in the action that saw Major General Sir William Lumley's heavy dragoons severely thrash their French opposite numbers in a well executed attack

Latour-Maubourg could not make out the force or the intentions of the Allies; he had seen clearly only the Spanish vedettes which he had driven out of Usagre; but Madden's and Otway's squadrons had not escaped notice altogether, though they retired early, so that he was aware that a hostile force of some strength was lying behind the heights. He therefore resolved not to debouch from Usagre along the high-road with his main body, across the defile at the bridge, till he had got a flanking force across the stream, to threaten and turn Lumley, if he were intending
to defend the line along the water. 

Briche's brigade of light horse was told off for this purpose, with orders to go to the right, down-stream, and to pass the river at the ford which Otway's Portuguese had been seen to use in their retreat. Meanwhile the other three French brigades waited in Usagre, deferring their advance till the chasseurs should have time to get on Lumley's flank.

The two forces did not keep touch. Briche went for a mile along the river, and found the ford; but Otway was guarding it, and he did not like to try the passage of a steep ravine in face of an enemy in position. Wherefore he moved further off, looking for a more practicable and unguarded crossing; but the banks grew steeper and steeper as he rode northward, and he found that he was losing time. 

He was long absent, and apparently committed the inexcusable fault of omitting to send any report explaining his long delay. After waiting for more than an hour Latour-Maubourg became impatient, and fell into an equally grave military error. Taking it for granted that the chasseurs must now be in their destined position, he ordered his division of dragoons to debouche from the town and cross the stream and the defile. 

If you didn't know where this was, and what happened here over two hundred years ago, Usagre is just another sleepy little village in Estremadura. 

Bron's brigade led; the two regiments in front, the 4th and 20th, trotted over the bridge, and deployed on the other side, on an ascending slope, to cover the passage of the remainder of the division. The third regiment of the brigade, the 26th, was just crossing the bridge, when suddenly the whole sky-line in front was covered with a long line of horsemen charging downwards. 

Lumley had waited till the propitious moment, and had caught his enemy in a trap, with one-third of his force across the water, and the remainder jammed in the defile of bridge and street. The 4th Dragoons charged Bron straight in front, the 3rd Dragoon Guards took him somewhat in flank, while Madden's Portuguese supported on the right, and Penne Villemur\s Spaniards on the left.

The two deployed French regiments were hurled back on the third, at the bridgefoot, and all three fell into most lamentable confusion.

The village, like others we have visited on this trip, has grown in the two-hundred plus years since, but the cluster of buildings and road layout gives a perfect backdrop for imagining the events that occurred here.

The Allies penetrated into the mass, and broke it to pieces, with great slaughter. The survivors, unable to pass the encumbered bridge, dispersed right and left, far along the banks of the stream, where they were pursued and hunted down in detail.

Latour-Maubourg could do no more than dismount the leading regiment of his second brigade and set them to fire from the houses along the water-side, while four horse artillery guns opened upon the enemy's main body. But the guns were promptly silenced by Lefebure's battery, which Lumley had put in action on the slope above, and Latour-Maubourg had to watch the destruction of Bron's brigade without being able to give effective help.

It is easy to imagine Bouvier's 14th, 17th and 27th French dragoons dismounted and firing with their carbines from the buildings opposite, trying desperately to relieve their comrades being cut down and hunted on the opposite bank

More than 250 dragoons were killed or wounded, and 6 officers, including the colonel of the 4th, with 72 men were led away prisoners. The British loss was insignificant—not twenty troopers—for the enemy had been caught in a position in which they could offer no effective resistance. 

Lumley made no attempt to attack Usagre town, which would indeed have been insane, and drew off at leisure with his prisoners.

The bridge and lane beyond leading up to it at Usagre, described by Charles Madden;
"the 4th cut them down in the lane leading to the bridge, till it was blocked with men and horses."

At Usagre the two armies drew their line of demarcation for nearly a month. Soult stopped at Llerena, since he found that he was not to be pressed; his advanced cavalry continued to hold Usagre and Monasterio, on the two roads from Badajoz and Seville. 

Beresford, by Wellington's orders, did not move further forward: it was not intended that Andalusia should be invaded, or a second battle with Soult risked.'

The lane leading down to the bridge along which Bron's brigade of dragoons advanced to their destruction.

Bron's brigade of dragoons was met head on by the British 4th Dragoons meeting the French 4th Dragoons as they desperately tried to form up to meet the oncoming British charge.

4th Queen's Own Regiment of Dragoons

Lieutenant Charles Madden was with the 4th Dragoons and wrote about the action on the bridge;

"We Charged them with great rapidity, having a good descent in our favour; we broke them with the shock and they retired in the greatest confusion.

Those in front of the 3rd endeavoured to get over the wall, and were nearly to a man cut down or taken prisoners; the 4th cut them down in the lane leading to the bridge, till it was blocked with men and horses.

Numbers made their escape by leaping off their horses and getting over a high wall into an olive grove."

Usagre was described by Oman as;

'a vigorous cavalry action, the most satisfactory of its kind that the British horse in the Peninsula had been engaged in since the combats of Sahagun and Benavente.'

Both the former have been covered in this series of posts, but Usagre stands out from them in the planning and preparation that Lumley put in to meet Latour Maubourg on ground that allowed him to mimic Wellington's ridge-line defence with infantry.

The Allied cavalry had already reconnoitered the ground, taking careful note of the available crossing points over the steeped banked river and with a ridge positioned close behind, allowed Lumley to cover those crossings from a position that allowed his troops to observe the enemy approach without themselves being observed, and able to choose exactly the most opportune moment to meet any enemy advance.

Sadly Sir William Lumley fell sick soon after the action and returned to England in August 1811, robbing the army of a potentially very skillful cavalry commander, but Usagre stands, alongside the many other successful actions already covered in this series of posts, testimony to the fact that British cavalry were not simply a bunch of gallopers and when well led could beat the best.

Villagarcia 12th April 1812

As covered in my previous post, the city of Badajoz fell to the Allied on the 6th of April 1812 after which a threat to Ciudad Rodrigo by Marshal Marmont caused Wellington to head north with the bulk of the Allied army, later leading to the campaign of Salamanca covered in the second post in this series.

With the capture of Badajoz, General Rowland Hill was detached with a force, to follow up Marshal Soult who, on news of the fall of the city had retired to Seville.

Wellington was keen to cause Soult to imagine his next move to be an offensive into Andalusia, and thus Hill was ordered to push back the French which lead to the action between the two sides cavalry units at Villagarcia on the 11th April,

Sir Charles Oman recounted what happened next in his History of the Peninsular War Volume V;

'To complete the survey of the fortunes of the Army of the South in April, it only remains that we should mention the doings of Drouet, now left once more with his two old divisions to form the 'corps of observation' opposite the Anglo-Portuguese.

Soult during his retreat had dropped his lieutenant at Llerena, with orders to give back on Seville without fighting any serious action, if the enemy should pursue him in force, but if he were left alone to hold his ground, push his cavalry forward, and keep a strong detachment as near the Upper Guadiana as possible. For only by placing troops at Campanario, Medellin, and (if possible) Merida, could communication be kept up via Truxillo and Almaraz with the Army of Portugal.

The positions of the opposing sides in the combat at Villagarcia on April 12th 1812 showing the charges made on the front and to the left flank of the French cavalry advancing up the road from Llerena. The position  took my pictures from indicated by the yellow marker.

As it turned out, Drouet was not to be permitted to occupy such a forward position as Soult would have liked. He was closely followed by Stapleton Cotton, with Le Marchant's and Slade's heavy and Ponsonby's light cavalry brigades, who brought his rearguard to action at Villagarcia outside Llerena on April 11th. 

This was a considerable fight. Drouet's horse was in position to cover the retirement of his infantry, with Lallemand's dragoons in first line, and Perreymond's hussars and chasseurs in support. Lallemand evidently thought that he had only Ponsonby's brigade in front of him, as Le Marchant's was coming up by a side-road covered by hills, and Slade's was far out of sight to the rear. 

Accordingly he accepted battle on an equal front, each side having three regiments in line. But, just as the charge was delivered, the 5th Dragoon Guards, Le Marchant's leading regiment, came on the ground from the right, and, rapidly deploying, took the French line in flank and completely rolled it up

Looking back from my position towards the last few buildings on the edge of modern-day Villagarcia

The enemy went to the rear in confusion, and the pursuit was continued till, half-way between Villagarcia and Llerena, the French rallied on their reserve (2nd Hussars) behind a broad ditch. Cotton, who had not let his men get out of hand, re-formed Anson's brigade and delivered a second successful charge, which drove the French in upon Drouet's infantry, which was in order of battle to the left of Llerena town. 

It was impossible to do more, as three cavalry brigades could not attack 12,000 men of all arms in a good position. But a few hours later the whole French corps was seen in retreat eastward: it  retired to Berlanga and Azuaga on the watershed of the Sierra Morena, completely abandoning Estremadura.

The vista of the open rolling landscape baking under a hot sun can't have changed much in two-hundred plus years and still makes ideal cavalry country. The 14th LD would have been in line ahead on the left of picture with the 12th and 16th LD off to the right from where Le Marchant charged across from the grove of olives littering the ridge on that side of the battlefield.

The French (outnumbered, if Slade's brigade be counted, but it was far to the rear and never put in line) lost 53 killed and wounded and 4 officers and 132 rank and file taken prisoners.

Cotton's casualties were 14 killed and 2 officers and 35 men wounded: he insisted that his success would have been much greater if Ponsonby had held back a little longer, till the whole of Le Marchant's squadrons came on the field—Lallemand would then have been cut off from Llerena and his line of retreat, and the greater part of his brigade ought to have been captured, though the light cavalry in the second line might have got off. 

However, the affair was very creditable to all concerned.'

Rarely can I accuse Sir Charles Oman of an understatement, but 189 of the enemy made 'hors de combat' for the loss of just 51 Allied cavalrymen leading to the enemy abandoning its attempt to control the area and keep contact with the Army of Portugal to the north seems to warrant something more than creditable!

As Ian Fletcher points out, this action stands in very good comparison to both Benevente and Sahagun (see the first post in this series looking at the Corunna retreat where I looked at those actions), with the former awarded a clasp to the General Service Medal and the latter a Battle Honour, and yet both these actions were much smaller than Villagarcia.

Lieutenant William Tomkinson of the 16th Light Dragoons left a vivid account of the action;

Lieutenant William Tomkinson (later Captain) 16th Light Dragoons

'April 11th. The regiment moved this morning at 1 a.m. on Bienvenida, three leagues from Zafra, and arrived there just at daylight. Sir Stapleton Cotton came up at the same time, and moved the regiment through the town on the Villa Garcia road about half a league, where we dismounted.

The 12th and 14th had moved from Usagre a short time before us, and driven the enemy's vedettes off the rising ground in front of Villa Garcia just before we made our appearance, from Bienvenida. Major-General Le Marchant's brigade moved in our rear, and was not seen by the enemy.

The two advance squadrons, under Cocks, pushed through Villa Garcia, and were driven back by a considerable force. Lieutenant-Colonel Ponsonby, with the 12th and 14th, pushed on to support them, and the enemy brought up about 2,000 cavalry to drive them back, conceiving there was nothing up but these six squadrons. (Each regiment of British cavalry was reduced to six troops, forming three squadrons.)

At this instant the i6th moved forward over the hills to the right of Villa Garcia, and came into the plain leading to Llerena on the right of the 12th. (The 12th and 14th were to our left.) Major-General Le Marchant's brigade moved to our right, passing the hills at the same instant. The enemy had got close to Villa Garcia, and the 5th Dragoon Guards from the road bearing away to the right, came down on their left flank, charged at the same time that we advanced, broke five squadrons, throwing the remainder into no small confusion back towards Llerena.

(When we came on the top of the hill, there were the 12th and 14th on our left, close in front of Villa Garcia. The enemy formed a quarter of a mile from them, and a small stone wall betwixt the 16th (our regiment) and the French. We came down the hill in a trot, took the wall in line, and were in the act of charging when the 5th Dragoon Guards came down on our right, charged, and completely upset the left flank of the enemy, and the 12th, 14th, and 16th advancing at the same moment, the success was complete. The view of the enemy from the top of the hill, the quickness of the advance on the enemy, with the spirit of the men in leaping the wall, and the charge immediately afterwards, was one of the finest things I ever saw.)

We pursued, and made some prisoners ; and in the place of pushing them on, the enemy were allowed to form in rear of ditch half-way between Villa Garcia and Llerena. Here we delayed a little, when Sir Stapleton ordered the right and left squadrons, 16th (which had got together), down the road, turning the enemy's left flank. They did not halt one instant. The 12th and 14th advanced at the same time, and charged with three squadrons (12th). We drove them quite close to Llerena, and Cookson, of Captain Cocks' troop, was killed in the town. To check us, the enemy fired (from the ground they held with 10,000 infantry close to the left of Llerena) a few cannon shots over our heads, not daring to hit us, being so intermixed with their own people. The Heavies (cavalry) supported us, and, on the cannon opening, we were ordered to withdraw on Villa Garcia. The enemy skirmished a little in front of Llerena, though they never advanced a mile from the place, and in a few hours left it altogether, their infantry and cavalry marching on Seville.

William Tomkinson's battle damaged sabre inscribed with his initials. This standard pattern 1796 model Light Cavalry Sabre was designed by General Le Marchant, as were the sword drills that put it to good purpose, and this being his first action, it would have been the first time he saw what a formidable weapon this was and the horrendous wounds it was capable of inflicting, as evidenced in Tomkinson's account. 

We killed about 53 of the enemy in the charge from Villa Garcia of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and in our pursuit to Llerena took one lieutenant-colonel, 17th Dragoons, two captains, one lieutenant, 132 rank and file, with the same proportion of horses.

(Circumstance of a poodle dog coming to find his master, who was killed.)

The prisoners were dreadfully cut, and some will not recover. A French dragoon had his head nearer cut off than I ever saw before; it was by a sabre cut at the back of the neck.

Sources referenced for this post:
The Diary of a Cavalry Officer - William Tomkinson
History of the Peninsular War Vols IV & V - Sir Charles Oman
History of the War in the Peninsula - Sir William Napier
Galloping at Everything - Ian Fletcher

Next up, the Peninsular War series of posts continues with a look at the bloody battle of Albuera and the the Portuguese fortress town of Elvas, home to the British cemetery, before we headed off into Granada and a look at the pivotal battle of Bailen, that brought Britain into the conflict in support of Spain and Portugal and broke the illusion of French invincibility that preceded it.

I'm also out with friends this weekend fighting the first day of Gettysburg in 15mm using the second edition of Fire & Fury, so I will hope to get some pictures put together with a game report of all the fun. 


  1. Great stuff again. I'm reading Galloping at Everything myself, at present, so very timely pictures of the fields.



    1. Thanks James.
      I'm sure you will find the book a stimulating read.