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With Wellington's Light Cavalry

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With Wellington's Light Cavalry
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Author(s): William Tomkinson
Date Published: 09/2006
Page Count: 336
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-088-3
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-099-9

A cavalryman’s story that could have ended before it began. In the first chapter Tomkinson and his 16th Light Dragoons rashly charge into the rearguard of the French Army and he is shot and bayoneted. But in 1810 Tomkinson is once again in Spain fighting the French. This book is a fine example of a personal account filled with personal and unit detail combined with a clear and informative narrative of the campaigns in which the writer was engaged. A substantial read by any standards, the final 55 pages are devoted to Tompkinson’s first hand experience of the 1815 campaign culminating in Napoleon’s downfall at Waterloo.

The enemy collected in the wood a rear-guard of six squadrons and a regiment of infantry, with others scattered as light troops in all directions. With this force they occupied a plain about half
a mile across, surrounded with wool and ending in a defile, thus keeping the head of the lane, along which we could alone get at them. The Spanish infantry got into a field of corn and down the lane, and on firing a few shots the enemy moved off, and we pushed on after them. My squadron was in advance, and on arriving on the plain formed immediately and advanced to the charge. All was confusion, all calling “go on” before then men had time to get in their places. We got half across before I was able to place them in any form, and had we been allowed one minute more in forming, our advance might have been quicker, and made with much more regularity.
The enemy had about six squadrons in line, with one a little in advance, consisting of their Elite companies. This I charged, broke, and drove on their line, which, advancing, I was obliged to retire, having had a good deal of sabring with those I charged and with their support. A squadron of the 12th was in my rear, and in the place of coming up on my flank, followed me, so that they only added to the confusion of retiring by mixing with my men. Captain Wrexon’s squadron of the 16th then came to the charge. We were so mixed that I could not get my men out of his way, was obliged to front and make a rally back, and the enemy, seeing the remainder of the brigade coming up, retired through the defile with their cavalry, leaving a square of grenadiers in its mouth. We came close upon them without perceiving they were there, and on our going about they fired a running volley, which did considerable execution, and then they made off through the defile. (We followed them about a mile, when, night coming on, the persuit ceased, and we bivouacked on the ground we halted on.) I rode up within a yard of the enemy’s infantry; they had their arms on the port, and were as steady as possible, not a man of them attempting to fire till we began to retire. They certainly might have reached myself and many other with their bayonets had they been allowed. I never saw men more steady and exact to the word of command.
I lost in my squadron Lieutenant the Hon. Geo Thelluson,* of the 11th Light Dragoons, who had been attatched to the 16th. It was the first time he had ever been engaged, and he was so anxious to distinguish himself that he rode direct into the enemy’s ranks. When his regiment went to England he wished to remain on service; he was annoyed at the opposition made by his friends to his marrying Miss H-, of Dorchester. He sacrificed himself, never desiring to return to England, leaving a will by which he gave her all his fortune-from £10,000 to £12,000. She has since married.
Corporal Hollinsworth and Foxall of my troop are killed; Waterman and Hollinsworth mortally wounded; Barns and McKewin have lost each an arm; Mendham, McKee, and Crabtree, severely wounded. We always loose the best. The whole, with the exception of the last are the best men in the troop; I may say, the two killed the best in the regiment. I am minus nine men and nine horses. The other troop of the squadron lost one man killed and two wounded. They were not so much exposed to the infantry fire. The army encamped in front of Vittoria, with headquarters in the town.
The 18th Hussars got into a great scrape in plundering. They were detected doing so when, I believe, they ought to have been moving forwards. Lord Wellington was so much enraged that he
would not recommend any of their subalterns for two troops which were vacant by two captains killed, a thing very unusual. One was given to Lieutenant Owen,* 16th Light Dragoons, the other to Lieutenant Luard,* 4th Dragoons. One reason I heard, was that a carriage belonging to the Etat-Major of the French was ordered to be guarded by a sergant and some men of the 18th; it contained papers of the consequence, which Lord Wellington wished to keep. The sergeant left the carriage, and the papers were lost. This, with their plundering, exasperated him. There might be other reasons.
We have taken about 200 pieces of cannon, many heavy pieces collected from their different forts near Vittoria, and nearly 500 ammunition wagons. 151 of the former and 415 of the latter was the number stated by Lord Wellington; but many were afterwards discovered. The Eagles of the 100th Regiment of French infantry were taken, with Marshal Jourdan’s Baton Staff of a Marshal of France. The Eagles were claimed by the 87th Regiment. Carriages, wagons, miles, monkeys, parrots, were all left in rear of the town. Everything useful to an army we have taken, and the whole of this, I conceive, was secured previous to a shot being fired; for from the dispositions prior to the battle, it was impossible the enemy could get clear away; and when Marshall Jourdan was told the English were attacking his right, he said it was but the Spainiards under Longa. The Paymaster-
General, with all the military chest, fell into our hands. None of it was saved for the public service; the soldiers took the greater part.
This was their last desperate effort, in which the Old Guard of Napoleon was employed. This is the system they have gone upon every other nation, and have succeeded. They move an overcrawing column or two to one point. It comes up with the greatest regularity, and on arriving at close quarters with their opponents, they carry so steady and determined an appearance that those hitherto opposed to them have generally abandoned their positions without being beaten out of them. The nearer this column gets to the enemy the greater will be its loss from grape and a fire of musketry concentred on it; and if the troops holding the position are inclined to use the bayonet, they have the advantage in being able to move quickly against it, whilst the column must receive the charge from not being able to move at such a quick pace as troops acting in line. At Waterloo they came nearly to the top of the hill, and there halted. They never attempted to deploy into line, and seemed to consider their very appearance, and holding the position they occupied, must cause our retreat. On our infantry charging (52nd and 95th) they set off down the hill, and on our brigade getting to the point from which we overlooked them, they were seen running away on everyside in the greatest haste and confusion. Not knowing when we moved to the front which had succeeded, it was a
sight I shall never forget.
On our moving to this front we were ignorant of our success, and not knowing whether we were going to charge a successful column of the enemy or pursue a beaten one, the extent of our success was the greater surprise and delight to us. Being in a column oh half squadrons, we were ordered to form line, decend into the plain and pursue the enemy. We did not feel inclined to lose any time, and the ground being more favourable for a formation to the left instead of to the right (as it ought in regularity to have been), we inclined to our left, forming on the left of the left half squadron of the 12th, which clubbed the brigade. It was of no consequence, as we probably had nothing to do but move on in line, attacking the first troops we met. We were led into the plain by our general betwixt the road to Charleroi and the Observatory, and had to open out and pass over many killed and wounded. In retiring from the last attack the enemy had made considerable haste to the rear, and not
until we were lineable with the Observatory did we receive any fire or perceive any intention of stopping us. They were in complete deroute and confusion. On the top of a small hill they at length opened a couple of guns and fired a few round shot. We continued to advance in a trot, and on coming closer to these guns, they fired once with grape, which fell about fifty yards short of the brigade, and did not the least damage. The Observatory was situated at the edge of a wood, and as from the line we were moving on we must leave this in our rear, I sent Sergeant-Major Greaves of my troop to see if the enemy had any force in the wood. He returned and caught us, saying they
had none, when I rode on before the brigade to an eminence (which we were ascending) to see what force the enemy had in our front. From this point I saw a body of infantry with a squadron of cuirassiers formed in the valley, close to a by-road which ran at right angles to the point we were moving on. The infantry were about 1,000 in column, with about three companies formed behind a hedge, which ran alongside of the road in question. I rode back and told General Vandeleur that the
enemy had the force I have named, and that the left of the 16th and right of the 11th would (as they were the advancing) come in contact with it; that the 12th had nothing in their front, and if ordered to proceed on to the front and bring forward their right, they would get in their rear and make a considerable number of prisoners. He took no notice, except saying, Where are they? And in a minute the brigade was in the top of the rising ground, in a gallop the instant they saw the enemy, and proceeded to the charge. The enemy’s infantry behind the hedge gave us a volley, and being close at them, and the hedge nothing more than some scattered bushes without a ditch, we made a rush and went into their column with the companies which were stationed in their front, they running away to the square for shelter. We completely succeeded, many of their infantry immediately throwing down their arms and crowding together for safety. Many, too, ran away
up the next rising ground. We were riding in all directions a parties attempting to make their escape, and in many instances had to cut down men who had taken up their arms after having in the first instance laid them down. From the appearance of the enemy lying together for safety, they were some yards in height, calling out, from the injury of one pressing upon another, and from the horses stamping upon them ( on their legs). I had ridden after a man who took up his musket and fired at one of our men, and on his running to his comrades, my horse trod on them. (He had only one eye (Cyclops), and trod he heavier from not seeing them.) Lieutenant Beckwith, 16th, stood still and attempted to catch this man on his sword; he missed him, and nearly ran me through the body. I was following the man at a hard gallop.
Captain Buchanan, of the 16th, was killed in the midst of their infantry. After some little delay in seeing they all surrended; we proceeded in pursuit of the enemy’s other scattered troops. It was nearly dark at the time we made the charge, and when we moved from the spot it was quite so. (It was a light night.)