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British Cavalry

Battle of Garcia Hernandez


Battle of Garcia HernandezArthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was an unyielding taskmaster who demanded absolute obedience from those men under his military command. He trusted or relied on few officers, instead preferring to do much of the staff work himself. Lieutenant-Colonel William Tomkinson, a veteran of the Peninsular and Waterloo campaigns, once complained that ‘Lord Wellington is so little influenced; or indeed allows any person to say a word…'[l] Neither would he tolerate unsolicited appraisals of or deviation from any of his orders. General Robert B. Long, a cavalry officer, noted that it was tantamount to ‘high treason’ [2] to even question Wellington about a decision. In short, he ruled the army with a mailed fist.

Yet, one branch of the army consistently disregarded Wellington’s enforced discipline: the cavalry. During the time of England’s conflict with Napoleon, 1803-1815, the British cavalry exhibited a fatal propensity for abandoning all purpose and formation during a charge and running themselves into unnecessary defeats. Six charges, at Vimeiro, Talavera, Badajoz, Fuentes de Onoro, Maguilla and Waterloo became as many misfortunate episodes. These maddening rushes have been called ‘the curse of of the British cavalry during the war.’ [3]

Surprisingly, however, very little attention has been paid to discovering why such reckless behaviour became the standard and expected fare. An examination of the British military system and the disastrous charges reveals that the actions of the cavalry are the result of four factors which combined in subtle and not so subtle ways to cause the repeated downfall of the British cavalry. The four elements responsible for this are:

1). The purchase system;
2). Training requirements;
3). Command structure and tactical doctrine: and
4). Wellington’s method of command.

The circumstances and consequences of the six ill-fated charges illustrate in detail the full effect of the combination of these factors.

The first instance of the British cavalry throwing away an opportunity and charging on in blind fury occurred on 21st August 1808 at Vimeiro, in Portugal. Led by a Colonel Taylor, the 20th Light Dragoons were sent against the French infantry reserve whom they caught in column and overran. Taylor thereupon lost all control of the 20th and they raced on past the now fallen infantry to a distance of over half a mile. At that point they were charged by Marshal Junot’s cavalry reserve and horribly cut up, taking fifty per cent casualties and losing their commander. The battle was, nevertheless, a British victory and Portugal was liberated: but, of the 720 British casualties suffered during the battle,
over half were from the 20th Dragoons.

Vimeiro was Wellington’s first experience with the impetuous cavalry. His second took place on 28th July 1809 at Talavera, near Toledo, Spain. Here Wellington sent Anson’s light brigade, the 23rd Light Dragoons and a regiment of King’s German Legion Hussars against a French infantry division. Between the two lay a seemingly flat plain; it would appear, afterwards, that no officer had taken the time to aquaint himself with the battlefield, either through the use of maps or reconnaissance. Anson’s brigade charge off at full speed and immediately lost all order. The French division, meanwhile, calmly formed into regimental squares. The British cavalry, racing on, tumbled headlong into a fifteen foot wide water course that was partially concealed by the long grass. At a controlled pace the obstacle could have been negotiated, but at an all-out gallop the brigade had no chance; over fifty per cent of Anson’s brigade crashed into the hazard that was unknown only to the British. Many of the men and horses who fell in suffered broken legs and necks.

The survivors ,and those who were able to ride around the small hazard, continued on past the squares and threw themselves against three lines of French cavalry. The formed French cavalry, which included a squadron of the elite Polish Lancers, cut the small groups of British horsemen down piecemeal. The charge accomplished nothing and Anson was left· with only half a brigade. Wellington’s Deputy Assistant Commissary General, A.L.F. Schaumann, called the charge into the chasm “an indescribable and terrible scene.”[4]

The British Cavalry’s next encounter with misfortune happened on 25th March 1811 during the selection [sic] of Badajoz, in southwest Spain. General Robert B. Long and a force of 2000 cavalry, led by the 13th Light Dragoons, attacked a French siege train that was heavily guarded by French cavalry. Surprised by the ferocity of the attack, the French horsemen were quickly dispersed and the eighteen siege guns lay there for the taking. The British cavalry, however, was again out of control. Intoxicated by their initial success, they galloped on for more than six miles, sabering and scattering the fugitives, and riding all the way to the fortress of Badajoz. The almost captured guns, meanwhile, were retaken by the French infantry. Wellington’s wrath fell heavily on the 13th Dragoons, the lead regiment:

“The conduct of the 13th was that of a rabble, galloping as fast as their horse could carry them over a plain after an enemy to whom they could do no mischief when they were broken. If the 13th are again guilty of this conduct I shall take their horses from them and send their officers and men to do duty in Lisbon. [5]

Wellington was disappointed yet again on 3rd May 1811 when, during the first day of the battle of Fuentes de Onoro, the 16th Hussars raced hell-for-Ieather against a vastly superior number of French cavalry. Led by a Major Myers, who positioned them near a defile and who was very hesitant in sending out orders, the “16th was beaten back and forced to retire through the small cut. In total disarray the hussars limped home, without formation and beyond any further use to Wellington. Casualties were light, however, as the French declined to follow the 16th into the defile. Still, about a dozen men were wounded, captured or killed, including two officers ,and a sergeant.

On 11th June 1812, during a skirmish near Maguilla, Spain the story was again repeated. Britgadier-General Slade’s heavy brigade, the 1st Royals and 3rd Dragoon Guards, were let loose against L’Allemand’s brigade of dragoons. Within a few yards, Slade’s heavies were charging in the now typical British fashion: at top speed and without formation. The enthusiasm of the attack, though, again proved too much for the French who broke and ran. Slade’ s heavies, however, could not stop and galloped on in complete disorder. They were taken in the flank and rear by a Chasseur regiment which L’Allemand had purposely placed in reserve and which neither Slade or any of his officers noticed. [The future] Lieutenant-Colonel William Tomkinson, who was with Slade, recalled the incident:

“He [Slade] pursued with his whole force for nearly two leagues close up to Maguilla… and the enemy having the Chasseur regiment here formed, charged our scattered troop, re-took all we had gained, and turned the day completely against us.” [6]

The cavalry’s lack of discipline had, once more, caused their destruction. The attack had accomplished nothing other than relieving Slade of almost one third of his brigade. Wellington, writing to Sir Rowland Hill, expressed his anger: “I have never been more annoyed than by Slade’s affair.” [7]

Having exhibited their Pyrrhic tendencies since the very beginning of the war, the British cavalry courted disaster and haunted Wellington right up to the very end.

The final disaster took place at Waterloo. The charge was necessitated by the attack of D’Erlon’ s corps upon the British centre at approximately two o’clock. With little between them and Brussels, the French infantry of D’Erlon’s corps threatened to break the centre of Wellington’s “thin red line”. To ease the pressure, Wellington gave orders for the Union and Household Brigades to be released. Knowing they would probably run themselves to death Wellington, nevertheless, was forced to gamble on them as the situation demanded it. The Union Brigade, the 1st Royals, Scots Greys and 6th Inniskillings, bounded down the slopes which had hidden their existence from D’Erlon’s corps. Already disordered and at breakneck speed, the brigade rode down the massed French columns inflicting 4000 casualties and putting 15,000 more to rout. Intoxicated by their success, however, the brigade charged on through the French Grand Battery. Individually and in small groups they pressed forward until Napoleon launched Jacquinot’s Lancers and Farine’s Cuirassiers into the flank of the bone weary British horsemen. The Union and Household Brigades suffered the loss of 35 officers and 800 men of their original 2000, or 40%. [8]

Because they had lost control, again, and suffered such horrendous casualties. Wellington was unable to use the Union Brigade for the remainder of the battle. The style and result of the British cavalry charge at Waterloo differed very little from any of the previously described charges. lt was reckless, out of control, initially successful and, in the end, self consuming. There were, undoubtedly, more than six charges which followed this pattern during the period; but, because they did not result in complete disaster, little or no mention is made of them. For example, during the battle of Morales, 2nd June 1813, the 10th, 15th and 18th Hussars charged into a large body of French cavalry, broke them and then chased madly after the French horsemen for over two mile.

In this instance, however, the French cavalry received no support and, thus, the British hussars escaped without the usual unnecessary casualties. And, just two weeks before the siege of Badajoz, the 3rd Dragoons charged off full tilt into the night, chasing after an enemy whose position and strength were unknown. Shaken by unseen fire, the dragoons raced back through the British troops who fired on them thinking they were French. The British were fortunate to escape harm The self-consuming charge had become the trademark and bane of the British cavalry.

Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the downfall of the British cavalry was the method by which officers were promoted. Using the unique system of purchase, the British officer was allowed to buy his commission and subsequent ranks. The only criteria for advancement were seniority and the financial means to meet the rank seller’s price; the cavalry arm, the preferred branch of service for the wealthy, was especially susceptible to having its officers gain their ranks through their pocketbooks. Merit, the most obvious indicator of professional competence, was not a consideration. Thus, the purchase system allowed inexperienced and, often, unqualified men to attain command

Nevertheless, the British Army remained a viable fighting force during the Napoleon conflict because the purchase system, despite its grave faults, did in fact produce a handful of exceptional officers. Men such as Robert Craufurd, Rowland Hill, Thomas Picton and, of course, the Duke of Wellington performed admirably in the field at all levels of command. Historian Correlli Barnett suggests that “while the general standard of the British officer corps was well below that of the French, a minority of officers was so good as to be able to carry the rest at least under a general of Wellington’s calibre.” [9] Britain had an army because the system managed to produce a few good men.

The purchase system produced so few outstanding officers because it failed to include merit among the criteria for promotion. Promotions for extraordinary valour in the field, called brevet-promotions, were granted but caused much confusion because they were not recognised regimentally, only applying to “the army as a whole”.

Brevet-promotions aside, the purchase system allowed unqualified and untrained men to be promoted, while ignoring veteran, but less wealthy officers. With prices ranging from £840 for cornetcy to £6,175 for a lieutenant-colonelcy (line cavalry), the system eliminated men who were suited for command but were unable to afford the price of the next rank.
Added to this was the expense for such things as outfit, uniform, horses and saddles, all of which an officer had to pay for out of his own pocket. In 1804 a subaltern made £129 a year. His expenses for the above items came to approximately £458 a year. In 1815 the colonel of the Greys laid down the requirement that in order to be eligible for a cornetcy in his regiment a young man must have a least £200 per year, besides his salary, at his disposal. [10]

Such expenses made some sort of private wealth a prerequisite to a successful career in the army. As historian Michael Glover points out, the majority of officers were sons of professional men, lawyers, painters, doctors, clerics, etc. [11] and who, therefore, had some outside money available to them. These young men backed by family money rose quickly through the ranks to positions of importance. General Bell observed bitterly that “veteran officers found themselves under the command of boys from the nursery who stayed at home never smelled power.” [12] These “boys” were largely untrained when they became officers, as the following chart on the background of those commissioned during the Napoleonic Wars shows:

From the ranks 6%
From the Royal Military College (est.1812) 4%
From the militia 20%
Volunteers (those who joined a regiment and waited for an opening) 5%
Those who joined with no training or military background whatsoever 65%[13]

Using the promotion lists which appeared in the London Gazette from 1810 to 1813, the following information shows the percentage promotion by purchase:

Ensign to Lieutenant – Infantry 12.3%, Cavalry 42.7%
Lieutenant to Captain – Infantry 22.2%, Cavalry 60.0%
Captain to Major – Infantry 30.7%, Cavalry 31.9%
Major to Lt.Colonel – Infantry 18.0%. Cavalry 7.7%
Average percentage obtaining rank by purchase – Infantry 17.75, Cavalry 45.1% [14]

The above figures are most revealing and, perhaps, best explain why the infantry was more reliable in battle than the cavalry. With a purchase rate over two and one-half times greater than the infantry, the cavalry was led by men with far less professional experience than their infantry counterparts; and when one considers that almost two-thirds of the officers entered the service with absolutely no military training, it is not surprising that the cavalry often went astray.

In addition, there were no restrictions to transferring between two branches of the service. Such transferring would make it that much more difficult for an officer to learn his trade, as he would no sooner begin to grasp the rudiments of one branch than he would transfer to the other.

Thus, it was possible because of the method of promotion, and lack of entrance and training requirements, for an officer to arrive at a command position almost totally ignorant of the duties and responsibilities of his chosen profession. That most were incompetent was a fact that did not escape Wellington. Lord Grenville recalled a conversation he had with Wellington on his officers’ lack of knowledge: “In the beginning they none of them
knew anything of the matter, that he [Wellington] was obligated to go from division to division and look to everything himself.” [15]

Exacerbating this situation was the British army’s lack of formal training requirements. The British cavalry was supposed to train and fight according to the Instructions and Regulations for the Formations and Movements of Cavalry written by Sir David Dundas in 1796 and His Majesty’s Regulations for the Formation and Movement of Cavalry, which was published by the War Office in 1808. Both these manuals laid down specific guide-lines in regards to the training and handling of cavalry, covering such items as the use of reserve, speed of charge, march and attack formations, and recall procedures. They were written to unify the actions of cavalry commanders and their regiments while in the field.

Unfortunately for the British army, few officers read these regulations and even fewer followed them. Admittedly, Dundas’ manual was quite complicated and required a serious and competent officer to master it. But the British army, while being extremely strict with the common soldier, was uncommonly easy on its officers. Very simply, their day did not include time for learning manuals. Ralph Heathcote, a new cornet in the Royals, described a typical work day in 1809:

“About nine o’clock the trumpets sound for foot parade, then the different troops being formed before the stable doors march towards the centre of the barrack yard, and being formed in line are examined by the major…, then the sergeant major exercises the regiment, with which we have nothing to do. At ten o’clock I breakfast with some others in the mess room…, at eleven o’clock all the subalterns are to go to riding school, but if you don’t go no notice is taken of it… and at twelve the same subalterns attend foot drill, and then your business is done for the day.” [16]

Thus, it seems that men entered the army untrained, and with little effort remained so. The officer and trooper learned the basic field movements from an experienced non- commissioned officer while on campaign. Even the ability to ride had to be learned in the field as the only two regimental riding schools were reserved for the Life and Horse Guards.

The quality of training an officer received was usually left up to the regimental commanders, themselves relatively untrained and inexperienced. These commanders were more often concerned with a unit’s appearance and the smartness with which handled simple manoeuvres, usually on the common, than they were its battle readiness. This fact also disturbed Wellington, who complained: “They [the cavalry] never think of manoeuvring before the enemy, so little that one could think they cannot manoeuvre, excepting on Wimbledon Common.” [17] Any officer who handled his regiment on the parade ground without disgrace was considered fit for service, despite Wellington’s complaint.

Tomkinson verified that the faults of the cavalry were due, in large measure, to a lack of training:

“In England I never saw nor heard of cavalry taught to charge, disperse and form, which if I taught a regiment one thing, I think it should be that. To attempt giving men or officers any idea in England of duty was considered absurd, and when they came abroad, they had all this to learn. The fact was there was no one to teach them.” [18]

The effect of this lack of training would present itself during battle, and did so with great frequency. Untrained, the cavalry almost always lost control due to excessive speed. At such speed, formation and control of any sort were impossible. All of the major cavalry disasters previously described were caused, in the large part, by such hell-for-leather charges. These charges were certainly not part of Dundas’ rules and regulations; but since the officers didn’t read or exercise their regiments according to them, few of them were aware of this. Instead, the officers allowed the intoxication of the moment and the frenzy of their horses to dictate their actions.

Wellington was well aware of the shortcomings of his cavalry. In a letter to Sir Rowland Hill he correctly ascertained the main cause of the cavalry’s misfortune:

“It is occasioned entirely by a trick our officers have acquired of galloping at everything, and then galloping back as fast as they gallop at the enemy.” [19]

In addition to the loss of control and formation, the all-out-charge caused unnecessary casualties. Because the horses were allowed to maintain breakneck speed over large areas they usually reached the enemy position in near fatigue condition. Coupled with their lack of formation this made the cavalry especially prone to counter attacks. Even when they were not pressed by counter attacks, British cavalry regiments were usually useless after a charge, as their lack of training exhibited itself in their inability to reform. Such oft-repeated displays of ineptness hardly endeared the cavalry to Wellington. He considered the infantry reliable troops; his cavalry would always be undisciplined and unpredictable. That the infantry was less prone to self destruction can be attributed, to some degree, to the smaller area over which infantry officers, or more likely the NCO’s had to exert their control. Infantry formations ranged in size from 60 feet per side for a square to approximately 200 yards for a two rank line. Because they were used for many different purposes, the size of the cavalry formations varied greatly, with the smallest being the charge formation. This was delivered knee to knee, two ranks deep and some 300 yards long. By the end of a charge the line may have stretched to 600 yards, relative to the terrain and the distance the charge covered. It was, therefore, possible for a cavalry trooper to stray from his commander, or NCO, by as much as one-third of a mile, or more.

Such distances made it extremely difficult for even competent officers to exert the type of tight control necessary to restrain their overly enthusiastic men. For the majority of officers, inexperienced and untrained as they were, it was just not possible. Wellington acknowledged that the cavalry was at a disadvantage when it came to maintaining formation. He observed that “Their horses afford them means of flight, and when once cavalry lose their order it is impossible to restore it.” [20]

Fortunately, not all officers took the service lightly. A good example of a true professional was John Le Marchant. Le Marchant realized that this lack of training could partially remedied with the creation of a military college. His idea was the foundation of the Royal Military College (Sandhurst) and he became its first lieutenant-governor, 1801- 1810. Le Marchant was later killed at Salamanca. But, contrary to his wishes, attendance was not mandatory: during the Napoleonic period less than four percent of new officers ever saw the Royal Military College. [21]

In spite of the efforts of men like Dundas and Le Marchant, the officers were, by and large, ignorant of their professional duties. In his letters from the Peninsula, Captain William Bragge summed up the feelings of his fellow officers by stating that the training manoeuvres of Dundas and Le Marchant were “unnecessary, awkward and time consuming.” [22] He called it “playing soldiers”. In addition to the poor training and inexperience of its officers, the British cavalry bore the burden of an untenable command structure and imprudent tactical doctrine in regards to the positioning of officers during a charge. Both added to the cavalry’s misery.

The British command structure placed the command of all the cavalry in the hands of one overall commander-in-chief (of cavalry). Answering only to Wellington, this commander-in-chief was responsible for the deployment and conduct of all cavalry brigades, which could consist of as many as thirty four regiments, as happened at Waterloo. Such a large body of cavalry could hardly be handled by one man, even if both were well trained and disciplined. Instead of allowing him a tight rein over his untrained but enthusiastic brigades, the structure granted him only limited control, and only over those within the narrow confines of his vision; and, because by their nature they were long range shock weapons, the brigades were usually outside this limited command radius.

Considering their lack of training and experience it is no wonder, then, that the actions of the British cavalry were disjointed and erratic. That Wellington understood this is evident in a conversation recalled by Captain Gronow: “the cavalry of other European armies have won victories for their generals, but mine have invariably got me into scrapes.” [23]

An equally serious fault lay in the regulation requiring officers to lead the charges in person. Although most officers viewed it as a matter of pride and honour, it was in fact a regulation: “officers are a horse’s length in front of the standard (front line), supernumerary officers and sergeants, quartermasters and trumpeters, are in the rear of the troops .”[24]

With little to worry about other than preparing the original formation and positioning them on line with the objective, the officer, at brigades level and below, was free to lead the charge. Ironically, this was the one law that every cavalry commander followed.

Ignorant of their professional responsibilities, the officers viewed this tradition as being the ultimate test of their worth as soldiers. Lord Uxbridge, the cavalry commander-in-chief during the Waterloo campaign, concurred :

“A cavalry general should inspire his men as early as possible with the most perfect confidence in his personal gallantry. Let him but lead, they are sure to follow, and I believe hardly anything will stop them.” [25]

Of course, a commander leading his troops into battle had little, if any control over them onte melee began. While in the midst of combat, the officer would also be unaware as to whether his orders concerning formation and support were being followed. And even if aware, he was in no position to do anything about it. This was most evident during the charge of the Union and Household Brigades at Waterloo where regiments designated for support not only joined the charge, but in the case of the Greys, led it! Uxbridge of course, did not realize that his support regiments were also charging: and, to his credit, he later admitted his mistake:

“This forces from me the remark that I committed a great mistake in having myself led the attack. The carrière once begun, the leader is no better than any other man; whereas, if I had placed myself at the head of the 2nd line, there is no saying what great advantages might not have accrued from it.” [26]

Thus, the cavalry suffered under a command structure which over-burdened one officer, the cavalry commander-in-chief, and left the remainder with little to do. The officers, having little training or experience, took the only course left open to them, and led the charges in person. The resulting lack of command control allowed the cavalry to run

The final factor which contributed to the failure of the British cavalry was the Duke of Wellington’s method of command. Determined to be in personal control at all times, he rarely delegated authority and denied his commanders freedom in the field. Wellington’s cavalry officers suffered most from this suffocating style; because they strayed from his personal supervision during a charge, the officers often faced situations with which they were unfamiliar or unable to handle without prior experience. Unfortunately, Wellington’s style of personal command gave officers few, if any, opportunities to exercise their powers of decision and command. Without training, and without the knowledge usually gained through experience, the cavalry officers did very poorly when they were on their own. Of the three main branches of service, infantry, cavalry and artillery, the one that performed the poorest for Wellington was the one that regularly exceeded the range of his direct control.

Regardless of their assignments, the cavalry rarely performed without .an over expenditure of energy and, quite frequently, men. Wellington was often unable to use them even for reconnaissance. Thus, he learned to do much of the reconnaissance work himself.· Doubting the skill and reliability of his commanders, he assumed more and more of their responsibilities. At Waterloo, during his final campaign, Wellington personally deployed his troops, verbally ordered regiments to advance or retire, and gathered much of his own information as to the french positions.

Wellington became so self-reliant, in fact, that the officer corps stagnated. They became wooden soldiers, unable or unwilling to give· any orders unless so directed by Wellington. By orchestrating every movement of his army, he circumvented the command structure and robbed his officers of the same experience and learning he had so profited by in India. Tomkinson observed that:

“Lord Wellington does not like to entrust officers with detachments to act according to circumstances, and I am not quite clear if he approved of much success, excepting under his own immediate eyes.” [27]

The effect was that while the officers were obedient to a fault they were also incapable of acting on their own. At Waterloo, Generals Vivian and Vandeleur, in charge of the Light Brigade, refused to help extricate the heavy cavalry after their successful but all- consuming charge against D’Erlon’ corps. Despite constant pleas from von Mufflin, Blucher’s liaison officer, and a general order from Uxbridge allowing them to do so, they did not charge. Vandeleur admitted that he and Vivian were to “engage the enemy whenever they could do so with advantage and without waiting for orders.” [28] Never- theless they did not act and the heavies were crushed by the French cavalry counter- attack. Wellington later told von Muffling that had Vivian and Vandeleur attacked they would have been court-martialled as they did not have his express permission to do so. [29]

Wellington must, therefore, be held accountable for the inability of his officers to perform their duties without his direct supervision. In this regard, the cavalry suffered because they were most often outside his command range. Unknowingly, Wellington had created a cyclical arrangement which insured the cavalry’s downfall: untrained, his officers needed command opportunities to have any hope of learning their trade; but, since this was the very thing denied them, Wellington’s officers remained unprepared, untrusted and forever refused the chance to prove otherwise.
Wellington is also ultimately responsible for the fact that, despite their repeated difficulties, the cavalry remained untrained and unreliable. As early as February 1813 Wellington had proposed cavalry reform measures, pertaining to the organisation and discipline of Spanish Cavalry [30], yet he did nothing to ameliorate the situation with his own mounted troops. Wellington complained that:

“misfortunes of this kind [self-destructive charges] have happened more than once in this country and I have frequently been present on occasions when the same conduct in the cavalry was likely to be attended by the same unfortunate results” [31]

Nevertheless, despite his misgivings and experience with them, Wellington did nothing to change any aspect of the system which had produced the unwanted behaviour in the cavalry. Had he done so, particularly in regards to establishing definite training requirements, the cavalry may have plagued him less frequently.

In essence, then, the difficulties of the British cavalry were a combination of a number of separate, but intertwined variables. Each of these elements would have been injurious to the welfare of cavalry. Together, they were an irresistible force forever edging the cavalry towards the precipice of disaster.

The first and perhaps most important of these factors was the purchase system. Despite Wellington’s claims that the army was successful because the system favoured gentlemen (and only gentlemen made good officers), the purchase system insured that the officers of the British army would be amateurs who regarded war as a sport, rather than a profession. Since money rather than talent was the criteria which determined advancement, those with financial means, but not necessarily the ability, rose to higher command positions. These officers attained field commands relatively quickly, without benefit of experience; and often without every exhibiting any martial ability.

Compounding this already serious problem was the army’s attitude toward officer training. The army expected the officers to learn what they could while in the field; an unwise method, militarily speaking, but certainly, in line with the governments attitude of keeping military spending and training to the minimum, professional armies still being distrusted. The effect was a generation of ineptness on the part of the officer corps, a characteristic that inevitably made itself apparent on the battlefield. All the cavalry disasters had two things in common:

1). Disregard of established methods and regulations in making the changes;
2). Total loss of control by officers.

The purchase system and the army’s laxity towards preparing its officers proved a deadly combination. Either one, alone could have been compensated for with an ahundance of training or experience. The purchase system would have produced better quality officers if stringent training practices had been included at each rank. Similarly, the lack of officer preparation could have been overcome if the promotion process had incorporated merit into its evaluation. But, unfortunately for the cavalry, ignorance of professional responsibilities was allowed to go hand-in-hand with inexperience.

The situation was made worse by a command structure which placed all cavalry under the direction of one man, the commander-in-chief of cavalry, who was responsible for all their actions. All matters of competency aside, no single officer could hope to see to all necessary details across an entire battlefield. And, while in theory, he was in total command of each brigade, the logistics of the matter often meant that many of his officers were outside his control and left to fend for themselves.

The military preparation of the officers, being what it was, left them unable to handle themselves in these independent moments. Even when under the cavalry commander-in- chief’s direct supervision, the ineptness of the officers made it difficult to control them.

Many of their resulting “scrapes”, as Wellington called them, were the final consequence of an overall lack of control, both of and by the officers. Of course the tradition and regulation of having the officer physically lead the charges further aggravated any attempts at command control. An officer leading a charge could never be fully cognizant of whether his orders as to formation, reserve or even target were being carried out. Aware of this, most of the officers abandoned their roles as leaders and allowed themselves to be carried forward in the excitement of the moment, their only concerns being how fast they could come to grips with the enemy and how they could increase their chances of survival while doing so.

Knowing this, Wellington kept a tight reign on his cavalry. While his rigid method of command contributed to their downfall, it is understandable that he did not trust them. Their overzealous and self-injurious nature meant that he could use them only when the situation was desperate enough to risk their sacrifice. Because he rarely delegated authority, even to his cavalry commander-in-chief, and because he absolutely forbid his officers to act without a direct order, Wellington denied his officers any opportunity to learn from their experience, limited as it was. Thus, he unwittingly insured that his officers would remain ignorant of their professional obligations

This was the final ingredient in the recipe for misadventure, which the cavalry so often followed. Unqualified and untrained officers were thrown into battlefield situations for which they were unprepared. Carried beyond the command radius of their superiors, and without experience or training to fall back upon, the officers allowed the charges quickly to become mad, headlong rushes; brigade and regimental integrity disintegrated as the brigade dissolved into disorganised groups of individuals intoxicated with speed and the glory of the moment. Nearly always initially successful, the men raced on until exhaustion or the French cavalry overwhelmed them. All these factors combined to make the British cavalry the most impulsive and self-destructive branch of any army during the Napoleonic period.

It is ironic that the most penetrating appraisal of the British cavalry was offered by a Frenchman, Marshal Exelmans, who was Murat’s chief-of-staff in Spain and his Master- of-the-Horse. He wrote:

“Your horses are the finest in the world, and your men ride better than any continental soldiers; with such materials, the English cavalry ought to have done more than has evert been accomplished by them on the field of battle. The great deficiency is in your officers, who have nothing to recommend them but their dash and sitting well in their saddles; indeed, as far as my experience goes, your English generals have never understood the use of cavalry. The British officer seems to be impressed with the conviction that he can dash and ride over everything, as if the art of war were precisely the same as fox hunting”. [32]

Edward J. Cross
The Ohio State University
Presented at Southampton University
on the occasion of the Waterloo Congress July 1987.

[1] Lt.Col. WiIliam Tomkinson, Diary of a Cavalry Officer (London, 1894)
[p.188 in the Spellmount edition of 1999.]
[2] T.H. McGufie, ed, A Peninsula Cavalry General: The Correspondence
of Lt.-Gen. Robert Ballard Long (London 1951), p.238
[3] Jac Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London, 1962), p.50
[4] A.L.F. Schaumann, On the Road with Wellington (London, 1924), p.187
[5] Duke of Wellington, The Dispatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington
during his various Campaigns (London, 1834-1838), VII, p.412
[6] Tomkinson, op cit., p.173
[Tomkinson was not present – he joined Stapleton Cotton at Carpio on that day.
The account in his diary for 28th June is based on Slade’s report to Cotton. See
p.173 of the Spellmount edition.]
[7] Wellington, op. cit., IX, p.238
[8] J.W. Fortescue, History of the British Army (London, 1920), p.366
[9] Correli Barnett, Britain and Her Army 1509-1970 (London, 1970), p.238
[10] Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816-1850 (Hamden,
1973), I, p .169
[11] Michael Glover, Wellington’s Army (London, 1977), p.36
[12] Gunther E. Rothenburg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon (London,
1978), p.176

[13] Glover, op.cit., p.39
[14] Ibid., p.83.
[15] Godfrey Davies, Wellington and His Army (Oxford, 1954). p.52
[16] Glover, op.clt., p.41
[17] Wellington, op. clt.,IX, p.240
[18] Tomkinson, op. clt., p.135
[19] Wellington, op.clt., IX, p.240
[20] Ibid, VII, p.286
[21] Glover, op cit., p.39
[22] S.A.C Cassels, ed:, Peninsula Portrait 1811-1814 The Letters of Captain William
Bragge (London, 1963), p.38
[23] Richard Brett-Smith,The 11th Hussars (London, 1969), p.39
[24] N.A., An Eludication of Several Parts of His Majesty’s Regulations for the
Formations and Movements of Cavalry (London, 1808), p.35.
[25] Marquess of AngIesey, One Leg: the Life and Letters of the 1st Marquess of
Anglesey, 1768-1854 (New York, 1961), p.121
[26] Ibid, p.141· .
[27] Tomkinson, op cit., p. 286
[28] Major-General H.T. Siborne, Waterloo Letters (London, 1891), p.79
[29] S.C.P. Ward, Wellington’s Headquarters (London, 1957), p.167
[30] Wellington, op cit., X, p.137
[31] Ibid , IX, pp. 242-243
[32] Michael Brander, The 10th Royal Hussars, (London,1969), p.63

[Article reviewed by H C Harding, 14 June 2018]