Vimiera

While the left wing of the 20th Light Dragoons were adventuring in South America, the right wing was continuing to participate in Sir James Craigs operations in the Mediterranean, where their experiences were equally strange and untoward.

After landing at Castlemere and being mounted on an odd collection of animals collected locally, the three squadrons had marched for the Neapolitan frontier. Scarcely had they reached it, when news came that 30,000 Frenchmen were marching south through Italy and, after a council of war had been held between the British and Russian commanders, a retirement was ordered, as it was evident that the defence of the frontier against so numerous an enemy was impracticable.

The Russian contingent was then thrown into further depression by the news of Austerlitz, which caused the Tsar to order it to abandon Naples and proceed to Corfu.

This left the British no alternative but to evacuate the kingdom also, and in January 1806, the British troops were transferred to Sicily, where they were later joined by the Neapolitan court. The French then advanced to the northern shores of the Straits of Messina and were only deterred from crossing into Sicily by the presence of the British contingent, facing them across the Straits.

General Stuart, who relieved Sir James Craig, noted that the French, though superior to him in numbers, were widely scattered over Calabria, and he therefore decided, in collaboration with Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, to make an attack across the Straits.

Such an attack could only be launched in the nature of a raid, without any prospects of permanent results, but both Stuart and Smith were adventurous types, rather like Sir Home Popham, who were always on the lookout for chances to enhance their reputations with a little honour and glory.

Although they have been much criticised on this account, it is, after all a commander’s business to seek for opportunities for engaging the enemy, and raids with limited objectives are better than no action at all. The expedition sailed from Sicily on the 26th June but as, most unfortunately, Stuart was so short of transports that he was unable to take many horses only sixteen of the 20th went with it, and there was no other cavalry, which proved a grave disadvantage.

General Reynier, the French commander, was taken completely by surprise, but managed to concentrate about six thousand men near San Pietro di Maida where Stuart, with about the same numbers but no cavalry except the 16 men of the 20th managed to beat him on the 4th July.

The remainder of the 20th must have felt very sore at missing this engagement, at which their presence could scarcely have failed to turn the French defeat into a complete disaster. As it was the French lost half their men in a singularly bloody encounter. The other half could not have escaped, had there been even three squadrons of British cavalry in the field. Other work, however, was pending for the 20th Light Dragoons.

By the end of 1806. Napoleon had made himself master of Europe, and of the former allies of Great Britain only Russia remained. Russia was always a difficult ally, and at this moment, just after the collapse of Prussia, the Tsar contrived to become embroiled with Turkey, his hereditary enemy, which had been trying to keep out of the struggle so far.

Napoleon was quick to seize the opportunity for putting various strategic measures in train, with the object of separating Russia from Great Britain, thereby alarming the British Government sufficiently to cause it to support Russia more actively than it might otherwise have contemplated.

Eight sail of the line under Sir John Duckworth were sent up the Dardanelles to bombard Constantinople and sink the Turkish Fleet; but the mission failed owing to having no troops with it (a lesson which might profitably have been recalled by the Government of 1915).

The Government then decided to send a force back to Egypt which, after the British had evacuated the country in 1803, had fallen into Turkish hands. It was feared that as Turkey was now, if not exactly an ally of Napoleon, at least on the same side, he might contemplate returning to Egypt himself, as a step towards India.

The expedition, commanded by Major-General Fraser Mackenzie, sailed from Messina on the 7th March 1807. It numbered about six thousand all ranks with 364 women and 323 children. The only cavalry with it was a squadron of the 20th of 4 officers and 74 rank and file. This force had been embarked and kept packed on the transports under highly unpleasant conditions for nearly a month before sailing, awaiting the arrival of a naval escort, which turned out to be one ship of 64 guns a French prize in poor conditions.

The day after sailing, heavy gales blew the convoy apart and when General Fraser arrived before Alexandria on the 16th March, he had only fourteen sail of transports left out of a total of thirty-three. The Turkish garrison of Alexandria however, amounted to less than 300 men, so that Fraser commenced to land the 2000 soldiers, who included the squadron of the 20th that he still had with him.

The landing proved very difficult owing to the increasing violence of the surf, and eventually the operation had to be suspended, after the 20th had managed to get ashore with about a thousand infantry. The Turks closed the gates of the city and opened fire with cannon and muskets, but after Fraser had surrounded it, and the missing transports had arrived the Governor capitulated without further ado.

The capture of Alexandria completed Fraser’s mission, and he was not required to do any more than to remain and defend it. He decided however, that the port was not tactically secure without the occupation of Rosetta and Rahmanieh, some forty miles distant, which were garrisoned by Albanians.

A force of 1600 all ranks, without cavalry, was sent to occupy Rosetta on the 31st March and, having marched into the middle of it without any previous reconnaissance, was set upon by hordes of Albanians and driven out again, with a loss of nearly 500 men.

A further attempt, with 2500 men, including the 20th was made on the 3rd April. This time the Turks were naturally on the lookout, so that the venture appeared less promising than before, but Fraser was counting on the support of the Mamelukes-mounted warriors who had ruled Egypt until defeated by the Turks, on whom they were anxious to revenge themselves.

The enemy were first encountered at El Hamid a village about four miles south of Rosetta on a neck of land between the Nile and Lake Edko. Most of them were Albanian cavalry, who rode off after exchanging a few shots with the 20th.

The village was then occupied by 300 infantry, while the main body advanced to Rosetta, a walled town with its gates shut and its walls lined with Albanian musketeers. who opened a steady fire on the British out without much effect. As the British force brought forward its mortars and heavy guns, the Albanians attempted several sorties, but they were easily driven off by the squadron of the 20th which was keeping an eye on the sally-ports.

One of the defenders’ advanced batteries was then captured in a night attack by the 78th Highlanders, but thereafter the siege made no progress, for there was no sign of the Mamelukes, and without their help the town could not be surrounded.

It was thus impossible to stop the arrival of Turkish reinforcements, and on the 19th a large body of Turkish cavalry crossed the Nile and attacked El Hamid, while at the same time a strong sortie was made by the garrison of Rosetta. The Turkish cavalry were charged by the squadron of the 20th which, however, being vast outnumbered, became completely cut off, losing one man and six horses killed, while the squadron leader, Captain Delaney, the surgeon and eleven men were taken prisoner.

The squadron dismounted and formed square, losing fourteen horses to the enemy while doing so. A galloper, Pte. Tremble, was then sent to El Hamid for help. He had actually to hack his way through the enveloping Turks, but he got through safely and brought out a couple of infantry companies which drove off the enemy and rescued the squadron.

The fact that Pte. Tremble’s name should have been preserved for posterity is an indication of the particular gallantry of his exploit. There were no decorations given for gallantry in those days, and few indeed are the names of either officers or men which are still remembered, no matter what feats of valour and self-sacrifice they may have performed on in numerable battlefields of the past, which have now likewise been forgotten.

The sortie from Rosetta was also driven off, but as large enemy enforcements began to arrive, and there was still no sign of the Mamelukes, it was decided to abandon the enterprise. This was not easy, and during a fighting withdrawal heavy casualties were suffered, and over eight hundred officers and men were cut-off at EI Hamid and either killed or captured.  

Thereafter the force remained at Alexandria until returning to icily in September by the orders of the British Government which had come to the conclusion that it had not the resources available to keep a foot in Egypt and defend Sicily at the same time.

Thus ended yet another abortive and mis-managed ex Dedition, in which the only pleasant incident was the action of the Turkish Caliph, Mahommed Ali, in returning all British prisoners in good condition and with many polite expressions of esteem and regard. The same, of course, had been done by the Spanish colonists in South America, but they had not been nearly so polite about it and, although Spain had now become an ally of Great Britain, neither she nor her colonists showed any signs of letting by-gones be by-gones.

Spain had been the ally of France since 1795 but had become increasingly restive under the iron hand of Napoleon who exacted a heavy annual tribute without giving anything in return except preremptory orders and harsh words.  

At the end of 1807, becoming suspicious of her fidelity, he deposed the monarch substituted his brother Joseph and took the country over. He then sent Marshal Junot to take over Portugal also, with a view to denying all ports of Europe to British trade. These proceedings were too much for the Spaniards and Portuguese to stomach. In May I808, a revolt started in Madrid and spread rapidly across Spain, being soon followed by a complementary rising in Portugal.

In June, a Spanish mission arrived in London to solicit aid, and, as it had become imperative for Great Britain to halt Napoleon without any further delay, an expeditionary force commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley was sent to Portugal to evict the French and secure Lisbon as a base for operations into Spain.

Sir Arthur Wellesley – the future Duke of Wellington – had acquired some renown in India where, with the help of the 72nd and 74th Highlanders, the 19th Light Dragoons and some Madrassi sepoys, he had defeated vast hordes of Mahrattas, led by French officers.

He had had no experience of high command in continental operations, which were very different from those in India. and for the Government to match him against an experienced Marshal of France like Junot, was a surprising decision but he had contrived to impress the Secretary for War with his views on how affairs in the Peninsula should be conducted.

He had been born in the same year as Napoleon, who had left him far behind in the race to the top – Napoleon now being an Emperor who could shake the world with the lift of an eyebrow while Wellesley was only a Major-General.

Napoleon contemptuously described him as a Sepoy General and although seven years hence the Emperor was made to eat his words, this was not an unfair estimate of Wellesley’s capabilities at that time Wellesley’s expedition, consisting of nearly eleven thousand men, sailed from the Cove of Cork on the I3th July. It included the 20th Light Dragoons, who embarked at a strength of 13 officers, 368 rank and file, and 215 horses.

The regiment had left two troops behind to form a depot squadron at Maidstone. This was customary in both cavalry and infantry regiments when they went overseas and was necessary for the provision of reinforcements.

The depot squadrons and companies did not necessarily stay in the same place, but moved about as occasion demanded, in order to recruit. With four troops in Sicily and two at Maidstone, the regiment would have embarked four troops only which had evidently been brought up to war establishment at the expense of those in Maidstone.

The 20th had spent the time since returning from South America ‘ in training recruits, breaking young horses, and discharging the common duties of home service, but had not carried out anything much in the way of training.

It had been issued with new arms-swords, carbines and pistols-and new uniforms. The latter consisted of the blue, frogged jacket, associated with Horse Artillery and Hussars to the present day, white breeches and black knee-length boots, peaked leather helmets with bearskin crests and red and white plumes.

The four troops, as they rode down to Portsmouth from Guildford to embark for the Cove, must have presented a very fine spectacle, and they were fortunate in a fair-weather voyage, with a moderate wind astern, so that they were able to disembark in Mondego Bay in good heart, and with their magnificent appearance little diminished except for several individuals, who fell into the sea while landing.

The landing was carried out in what, In the jargon of modern times, would be called ‘Horse Landing Craft’ which were rectangular boats with flat bottoms, in which the horses stood in pairs with their heads towards the beach, saddled and bridled and with their riders beside them. The riders were ordered, in the case of a boat overturning, to spring into the saddle, a judicious precaution which proved in two or three instances eminently useful.

Shortly after the force had landed, it was joined by General Spencer, with 5000 men from Gibraltar, bringing Wellesley up to 15000 men, with whom he marched on Lisbon on the 10th August.

He moved by the coastal road, in order to keep in touch with the fleet, and on the way the 20th were joined by about a hundred officers and men of the Lisbon Mounted Police who came in by twos and threes until they were able to form a squadron of their own, which was then attached to the regiment under command.

The 20th were kept a day’s march ahead of the main body reconnoitring towards Leira, supported by the both Rifles and the Rife Brigade, but no enemy were encountered before Alcabaca, which the 20th reached on the 12th August to find some French cavalry just pulling out. These were the rear elements of a force under General Delaborde, whom Junot, on hearing of Wellesley’s arrival, had pushed forward to cover his concentration.

Delaborde was not looking for a fight until he had found a good defensive position, and so fell back to some rocky slopes by the village of Rolica leaving a rearguard at Obidos covered by an outpost line through Brilos. The 20th did not apparently discover the outpost line, and their first sight of the enemy was at Brilos, where the French retired without firing a shot. The two rifle battalions meanwhile attacked the outpost line and drove it back, but suffered heavy casualties from pressing forward too closely.

Arriving at Obidos on 21st August 1808, Wellesley climbed the church tower and examined Delaborde’s position, as a result of which he sent a Portuguese Brigade round the enemy’s left flank and led a frontal attack with the rest of his force, preceded by the goth who, however, had to dismount and take cover when they got within range, for the enemy position was unrideable.

Wellesley who outnumbered Delaborde by four to one, eased him out of his position using only one brigade but Delaborde then carried out an extremely skilful retreat, which Wellesley was unable to turn to any advantage.

It was of course, followed up by the 20th which was the only British cavalry regiment present, but the retirement was covered by French cavalry in such numbers that no opportunity presented itself for a charge which was about the only warlike manoeuvre properly understood by the 20th at that time. The regiment accordingly formed in single rank and marched at a walk, keeping the French on the move, until ordered to halt, when it bivouacked in a village.

On the following morning Wellesley heard that two brigades of reinforcements had arrived in the fleet which was still lying offshore. Giving orders for them to land at the mouth of the River Maceira, he took up a position at Vimiera to cover the disembarkation.

Information then reached him that Junot’s advanced guard was at Torres Vedras, with the French army concentrating behind it. He immediately gave orders to march, with the idea of turning Junot’s position before he could form up, but at this moment Sir Harry Burrard, a general senior to him, arrived in Maceira Bay in the frigate Brazen.

Not wanting him ashore for Wellesley always disliked being ordered about-he hastened on board to greet him. Burrard, after hearing his report, ordered him not to march from Vimiera until the arrival of Sir John Moore with reinforcements from England.

This was the sort of interference with his plans that Wellesley had been expecting, and I him greatly disgruntled Experience however, inclined Burrard to caution. It was a policy for which Wellesley had no use at that period, but he possessed an inspired genius on the actual battlefield which enabled him to escape from the ‘confounded scrapes’ into which his impetuosity led him from time to time whereas ordinary generals were obliged by their limitations to be more orthodox.

The 20th Light Dragoons were still with the 60th and Rifle Brigade, forming a light brigade, commanded by Brigadier John Fane, which, with another infantry brigade, bivouacked on Vimiera Hill.

Wellesley had not taken up any defensive position as, until stopped by Burrard, he had intended to march against Junot and not wait for him. The precautions against surprise were however, very thorough, and the 20th had to send out mounted patrols in the direction of Torres Vedras throughout the night One of these, led by Sergeant Landsheit, discovered the French army on the march towards Vimiera, and returned immediately to report.

The patrol was of course challenged by the vedettes, and the noise awoke the Brigadier who, Landsheit noted, had pitched his tent in front of the outposts. Landsheit told him his news, and was ordered to gallop immediately to Wellesley’s headquarters, which he reached about midnight, finding Wellesley with a large Staff, all of them seated on a long table in the hall back to back, and swinging their legs to and fro, like men on whose minds not a shadow of anxiety rested.

After listening to his report, Wellesley told Landsheit that he had done well, and sent him below stairs to get a meal. As he left the hall, he heard the orders being given to rouse up the soldiers without beat of drum and get them quietly under arms; to desire all the outposts to be on the alert. He found his own regiment under arms on his return, when it was moved down into the valley, with the village of Vimiera on its right front. This village lies across the road from Torres Vedras.

To the south is Vimiera Hill, which was held by Fane’s and Anstruther,s brigades, and to the north, the rest of the British force was disposed along two long, low ridges. Wellesley kept his troops out of sight along the reverse slopes, so that Junot, when he arrived at about 7am on the 2Ist August, got very little information out of his reconnaissance, and evidently came to the conclusion that the bulk of the British force was on Vimiera Hill.

He led off by sending General Brennier with a regiment of Dragoons and an infantry brigade against the eastern ridge intending to attack Vimiera Hill as soon as Brennier was on his objective.

Wellesley reorganised to meet this threat, and his movements were spotted by Junot, who became alarmed, and sent another brigade to support Brennier. These brigades lost direction, and eventually went into action independently, while Junot, getting impatient, launched a major attack against Vimiera Hill The French advanced in close columns, protected by screens of skirmishers, and with their cavalry hanging about on the flanks, watching for an opportunity to charge.

The British received them lines, which were kept under cover until the last moment behind a screen of picquets. When the enemy had driven back the picquets, the lines advanced in three ranks and halted within close musket shot.

The front ranks then knelt and held their fire, while the rear ranks fired a volley at about one hundred yards range, hastily reloading under cover of the front ranks. When the enemy appeared to be sufficiently softened up by this treatment they went in with the bayonet, but the moment for this required very nice judgement, and the whole manoeuvre was, in fact, not nearly as easy to execute as it sounds.

While advancing, the British lines were very vulnerable to cavalry, but the drill of any seasoned regiment was so excellent that it could form square quickly and without confusion, and in this formation was able to withstand very heavy cavalry charges.

The 20th Light Dragoons, with their Portuguese squadron spent the morning sitting along the side of the Torres Vedras Road holding their reins and listening to the sound of battle on either side, but unable to see anything of what was happening.

They were still under the orders of Brigadier Fane, and their commanding officer, Colonel Taylor, was continually riding of to Vimiera Hill to ask to be allowed to do something. It looked to him as if the British on the Hill were getting decidedly the worst of it, and that a charge by the 20th was long overdue.

Fane, however, was treating the whole affair in the unperturbed, and indeed non chalant, manner typical of the British officer of that period-and all other periods, for that matter and refused to allow his battle to be messed about by cavalry.

At length, when Taylor was in despair, a charge by the 43rd Regiment near the entrance to the village routed the French Grenadiers, and the Brigadier called at last, ‘Now we want you, 20th! Forward and charge and show them what you are made of!

The 20th were in the saddle before Taylor had time to give the order. “Threes about and forward! Trot. As the regiment came up the slope, into view of the British infantry, it was given a rousing reception. Having been plagued all day by the French cavalry galloping about, the infantry had been wondering where their own was, rather as the modern British soldier in battle wonders what has happened to his own aircraft.

It was with their cheers ringing in their ears that the 20th formed column of half squadrons and, with a troop of Portuguese policemen on either flank, bore down upon the French infantry, some of whom were broken and disorganised, some retreating in good order, and others still standing fast but beginning to look over their shoulders.

Among them were the French cavalry under Genera Margaron, which were still in formation, trying to cover the retreat. They had gone into battle about two thousand strong, and there was probably about a thousand of them on the Hill at this stage, against whom Taylor directed his attack. The 20th galloped through the French infantry without trouble, increasing speed until, when they reached the cavalry, they were going as fast as the body can bear, in good order.

The French Chasseurs and Dragoons, besides being in some confusion and disorder, had no time to get up any speed in order to meet the attack by the 20th who therefore rode through them ‘cutting and hacking, and up-setting men and horses in the most extraordinary manner possible till they broke and fled in every direction.

Beyond the French cavalry were some columns of infantry retiring, who faced about as the 20th now scattered and out of control, galloped across the field towards them. First to reach them was Colonel Taylor, riding a hot thoroughbred with its bit between its teeth.

He was shot dead by a French corporal, but his fate was not noticed by any of his men at the time, for they were too busy laying about them ’till our white leather breeches, our hands, arms and swords, were all besmeared with blood.

There was so much smoke and dust about, that none of them could see more than a few yards, and so their horses carried them over a low fence, lined with enemy grenadiers, who thrust their bayonets into the bellies of the horses as they jumped, but these brave fellows were cut down to a man as the 20th finding that there was no way out of the field into which they had jumped, at last pulled up.

They were then in some difficulty, for the French infantry surrounded the field, outside of which Corporal Marshall of the 20th could be seen fighting off four French dragoons. A powerful man himself, he was mounted on an equally powerful and spirited stallion, which did not leave all the fighting to his master but lashed out in all directions with both fore and hind feet, ‘ screaming all the time.

Marshall clove one enemy to the teeth, and with a back stroke took another across the face and sent him from his saddle, and at that moment the 50th Regiment arrived at the double quick, and got the French on the move again, greatly to the relief of the 20th who looked like being all killed or taken prisoner.

The French being now in full retreat, and the day won, the 20th marched out of action and dismounted on the Torres Vedras Road.

The Portuguese policemen, who had pulled up before the charge and refused to engage, were waiting for them” formed up like troops on parade, and quite bloodless. ‘Not unnaturally they were given a somewhat chilly greeting by the 20th.

On the roll being called, the commanding-officer, one captain, and fifty three rank and file failed to answer to their names. Twenty of these were afterwards found to have been killed, and twenty-four wounded. The others were missing, and some later rejoined. Thirty horses had been killed and ten wounded.

A party was immediately sent out to look for Colonel Taylor, who was found among the dead and wounded which covered the slopes of the Hill and the plain beyond. He was stripped to the drawers, for the Portuguese peasants, together with women from our own army’ had already got to work, plundering the fallen Taylor, who had been greatly liked and respected by his men, was buried on the field.

The 20th Light Dragoons were among eleven regiments specially mentioned in his despatches by Sir Arthur Wellesley for their particular valour and discipline. In addition to this tribute their efforts acquired for the 14th/20th King’s Hussars the first Battle-Honour borne on the Guidon:

VIMIERA (MORE INFO)

Taken from the book: The Emperor’s Chambermaids

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