Wellington’s intelligent and flamboyant cavalry commander
Despite a long career filled with victories, many modern readers think of the Duke of Wellington in terms of his greatest military success, the Battle of Waterloo. This leads them to believe that his leader of cavalry was his brother-in-law, Henry Paget, who rode at the Duke’s side on that eventful day in June 1815. In fact, through the long campaigns of the Peninsular War, Wellington’s cavalry was commanded by Stapleton Cotton, the subject of this book. Troops referred to him as the ‘Lion d’Or’ in consequence of his habit of riding into battle, heedless of his personal safety, attired in the glittering extremes of military fashion adopted by a senior cavalry officer of the period. There can be little doubt that Cotton was a fine leader of cavalry and if not a favourite of Wellington’s, then at least regarded as superior in ability to any officer who might have otherwise held the post. Perhaps, Cotton’s finest hour came at the Battle of Salamanca where his superb management of the mounted arm caused the duke to proclaim, ‘By God, Cotton, I never saw anything so beautiful in my life-the day is yours!’ Our editors have created this Leonaur original by carefully editing the substantial two volume biography of Sir Stapleton Cotton-later Lord Combermere-so that this text focuses entirely on Cotton’s military career during the Napoleonic period, from his experiences in the disastrous Flanders campaign as a young officer to his first contacts with the future Duke of Wellington during the Mysorean War in India. The Peninsula War against Napoleon’s French army is covered here in considerable detail that draws upon many documents written by Cotton and those who served with him. A concise biography of Stapleton Cotton, that outlines his entire career, has been appended, making this book an essential reference work for all those interested in both the man and the Napoleonic Wars.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Sir Stapleton’s plan was to occupy the attention of the enemy in front with Anson’s brigade, while with Le Marchant’s he cut him from Llerena. Slade’s brigade was to act as a reserve. The strength of the French cavalry was 2000, under Pierre Soult, and D’Erlon had 10,000 or 12,000 infantry, with a due proportion of artillery, in Llerena itself. At daybreak Sir Stapleton, with Le Marchant’s brigade and the 16th, arrived at Villa Garcia, and found, to his annoyance, the French cavalry drawn up in order of battle, while opposed to them were only the six hundred sabres of the 12th and 14th Light Dragoons.
The cause of the enemy being thus prepared was that Ponsonby, not having received the cautionary order above alluded to, and neglecting to use his own discretion, drove in the enemy’s picquet, and displaying his whole force, brought on the affair prematurely.
Sir Stapleton immediately dispatched Colonel Elley to guide Le Marchant’s brigade—the 5th Dragoon Guards in advance, supported by the 3rd and 4th Dragoons—behind a mountain ridge which separates the two roads leading from Llerena to Usagré and Bienvenida. In the meantime, the French skirmished with Ponsonby’s brigade, till, seeing the inferiority of the latter in numbers, they advanced against them.
Ponsonby retired slowly into a narrow defile between some stone walls, and the French, encouraged by his retreat, were on the point of charging, when the scene suddenly changed. The 16th, coming over the brow of the hill on the proper right of the rest of the brigade, beheld the French advancing and about a quarter of a mile distant. The latter paid little attention to this reinforcement; for between them and the enemy ran at the bottom of the hill a low stone wall, which appeared to render a direct advance of the 16th impossible. They little knew what obstacles British horses, ridden by British horsemen, can surmount, when a foe is on the other side. Trotting steadily down the hill, the 16th leapt the wall in line, without allowing it to check their onset for a moment, and dashed impetuously against the French.
At the same moment the 5th Dragoon Guards came galloping along the valley on the right. On seeing this, both Ponsonby and the French, by a common impulse, faced about, Cotton charging with the former, and in a moment the British horsemen were on the flank and rear of the enemy, sabring and capturing in every direction. With proper caution. Cotton, after a short time, halted his men for the purpose of reforming their ranks, much disordered by the charge. The French seized this opportunity of rallying behind a large ditch about half way between Villa Garcia and Llerena, and about two miles from each place. They were soon dislodged, however, for Cotton sent off two squadrons of the 16th to turn their left, charging in front at the same time with the 12th and 14th, supported by Le Marchant.
The French fled at once, and what an officer present in the affair terms in his journal “the finest chevy I ever had in my life,” was continued. The flying horsemen were pursued up to, and even into, the very streets of Llerena, an officer of the 16th being killed in the town itself. D’Erlon, who had drawn up his infantry in one large square, supported by guns outside the town, fired a few round shot over the mingled mass of friends and foes bearing down upon him. The hint was taken, and after a little distant skirmishing Cotton fell back on Bienvenida and Usagré, having accomplished one of the most brilliant cavalry enterprises of the war. The French were so much impressed by the hardihood of the attack, that they thought that the whole British army was at Cotton’s back; and as soon as he left they retreated with all expedition towards Seville. Our loss on this occasion was comparatively slight—57 of all ranks killed, wounded, and missing; while that of the enemy was about 50 killed:
1 lieutenant-colonel, 2 captains, 1 lieutenant, 132 rank and file, with a due proportion of horses, captured, and over 200 men wounded.
During the charge. Sir Stapleton’s remarkably handsome charger, which he had ridden during all the preceding campaigns in the Peninsula, fell in charging a gully, bringing his rider heavily to the ground. Sir Stapleton was quit for some rather severe contusions, but his gallant charger dislocated his shoulder, and it was necessary to shoot him. On his return that day. Sir Stapleton must have completed about fifty miles—no bad exploit, considering that a sharp action was included in the performance. This affair has been but little noticed by military historians; yet when we consider that Sir Stapleton was inferior in numbers and had no guns, and bear in mind the promptitude with which he recognised the failure of his original plan—caused through no fault of his own—and at once conceived another, it will, we think, be admitted that the affair of Llerena was one of the most distinguished episodes in a distinguished military career.