Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

Cavalry Sword.
The diary of a cavalry officer in
the Peninsular War and Waterloo Campaign, 1809-1815.
The Late Lieut.-Col. Tomkinson - 16th Light Dragoons

Diary of a Cavalry Officer.
1809. (Part 1)

16th (Queen's Own) Light Dragoon officer.
April 1st, 1809. One squadron of the 16th Light Dragoons arrived at Falmouth and embarked yesterday, and the one to which I belonged this day marched in from Truro and immediately embarked.

My bay horse (Bob), as he was in the slings, twice kicked himself out, and was near being lost. He stood on the deck of the vessel for some time, whilst they were putting a fresh pair of slings on him, and nearly killed the second mate of the vessel by knocking him overboard.

The man fell the whole height of the vessel, there being no water near the quay at which we embarked, from the tide being out. He was left behind sick at Falmouth.

We sailed on the 7th, and arrived, after an excellent passage, on the 18th at Lisbon. Being a junior officer, I was left to take a vessel no one chose to select. Mine was, however, overlooked by those above me, being one of the best in the fleet.

We kept the head of the convoy the whole voyage, and made the passage with half the sail some others were obliged to carry. We made the Tagus on the evening of the 15th, running in the first; on the frigate, the Magicienne (our convoy), making a signal for the fleet to put into the river. Some vessels anchored off the bar, and one with Lieutenant Buchanan on board ran ashore on the bar, and kept firing guns of distress. They got off without injury on the return of the tide. We disembarked the following morning.

♦ Of Hales, Market Drayton.

Some of the vessels landed their horses by means of large boats on the river, and others ran in close to the shore, which was the best plan, as the horses then had water to stand in on coming down, and ran no chance of being injured. There was not, I think, a single accident; and the only horse I heard of as lost was one shot and thrown overboard in the harbour at Falmouth, being suspected of farcy. The regiment consisted of eight troops of eighty horses each; total, 640 horses.

We were put up in the cavalry stables at Belem, belonging to the Royal Palace. The officers were billeted on the inhabitants. There was not a single individual who could speak a word of the language. I quite dreaded going home at night to my quarter, from the numberless questions I was asked by the inhabitants of the house. Their curiosity in looking at my appointments was very great, and they conceived the round buttons on our jackets to be real silver, being plated in a manner they did not conceive was possible. I was not very well satisfied with this idea, having some apprehension I might lose some of them.

We remained a week at Lisbon, and then commenced our march by a squadron each day up the country. I belonged to Captain Swetenham's troop, which formed a squadron with Captain Ashworth's, commanded by the latter. A subaltern officer was sent on to procure billets, and I was ordered on that duty for our squadron.

♦ Of Somerford Booth's, Congleton.

Our first day's march was to Povoã; second. Villa Franca; third, Santarem. From Santarem I proceeded, on the night before the squadron, to Torres Novas to procure billets, missed my way, was out until midnight nearly, wandering about without knowing more of the language than the name of the place I was going to, in a wild country covered with rock and heath, and by roads almost impracticable, with a sergeant and a dragoon equally at a loss with myself On arrival at Torres Novas, I found an order to return to Santarem, and marched back the following day with the squadron which had preceded ours on the march. We remained about a week at Santarem.

Our march up to join the rest of the army was retarded by want of supplies; so deficient was our commissariat at this period of the war that they could not supply one cavalry regiment on its march through a country abounding in supplies - at least, ample for so much as was required for us. Whilst we remained at Santarem, Sir Arthur Wellesley landed from England to assume the command of the army, and Sir John Craddock returned home. On his road up he sent an order for the 1 6th to march, and in consequence we moved up to Coimbra by the following route:- May 2nd, Rio Mayor; May 3rd, Battalia; May 4th, Lerica; May 5th, Pombal; May 6th, Coimbra.

At Coimbra we found Sir Arthur and all the army. Both infantry and cavalry were reviewed on the 7th, the whole amounting to about 17,000 men. The 14th and 16th Light Dragoons, with one squadron of the 20th Light Dragoons, form a brigade under Major-General Cotton. There are two heavy cavalry regiments expected out from England, and General Payne has come out and joined the army as commander of the cavalry. We hear that Soult is at Oporto with his advance on the Vouga. Our entrance into Coimbra was hailed by the inhabitants as a happy event, in the hopes we might protect them from the French, and showers of flowers were poured down from the windows as we entered the town.

♦ Sir Stapleton Cotton, Bart., afterwards Viscount Combermere, Field Marshal.

We marched on the 8th to Avelans, and on the 9th to the bank of the Vouga, where, for the first time, we turned into a field to bivouac for the night. This was an event much thought of, and every ofificer w as employed in bringing into use the various inventions recommended in England for such occasions, many of which were found useless; and, again, many essentials had been left behind, from a determination to face the campaign with the fewest number of comforts, whereby many requisites were omitted which were now found indispensable. But we were young soldiers, had listened to every suggestion, and can only learn by experience.

Our surprise at hearing the noise made by the frogs was very great, though it is quite a common thing in Portugal. They were to be heard for miles.

The river is not fordable, and our passage over it is by a bridge close to our bivouac. The French piquets are said to be a league from the bridge, and the Portuguese have a cavalry piquet on the other side the river, about a mile in advance.

After a great deal of preparation to pass the night, being the first we had ever an idea of spending in the open air, and just as we had laid ourselves down for that purpose. Captain Cocks of the 16th came round to our tents, saying the cavalry was to advance immediately, for the purpose of surprising the enemy's piquets at daylight. Captain Cocks had come out before the regiment, and had been attached to General Cotton's staff. He was still on the same service. We moved about eleven at night, and immediately on passing the Vouga, the road ascends through a narrow pass, only admitting one horse at a time.

The men, from the constant halts and delay, fell asleep; and what is but too common, lost the man before them, and so the road. On thinking the halt rather long, I got up to the dragoon asleep, and finding we had missed our way, I rode on, attempting to make it out; and on perceiving a Portuguese vidette standing near the road with a peasant boy near him, I made the boy, by threats, show me the road, and was by him conducted to the top of the hill, where I found the regiment formed on a heath waiting for the rear, which had been delayed by the circumstance above mentioned.

We then moved forward, marching through the night. The boy was excessively frightened, and could only be made to proceed by my drawing my sword and threatening to kill him if he did not show the road. Every yard he advanced he fancied he was going close up to the French piquet, and on my perceiving the rest of the regiment and releasing him, he set off back again in the greatest haste.

"Go on, 16th ! for shame, 16th !" This was said by Cocks, being much annoyed any delay should take place, and at this time too young a soldier, and too anxious, to make the usual allowance for blunders on a night march. We afterwards often laughed at this.

May 10th. At daylight in the morning, the advance came up with the French piquet in front of Albergueria Nova. The piquet retired in great haste through the village, and the brigade formed on the plain, having the village on its right; there we halted in line, and saw the French cavalry turning out of their camp in a iir grove in the greatest confusion.

They, in a short time, sent out some skirmishers, and in about half an hour they commenced firing some shots, which were the first we encountered. The halt was said to be in consequence of the enemy having a couple of companies of infantry in the wood, and that it was necessary we should wait the arrival of some of our own infantry before we advanced.

In about an hour a regiment of Portuguese infantry and two guns came up, on seeing which the enemy began to move off in great haste. We then moved to our left, and by going round the wood, advanced with it on our right.

Here we found four squadrons of French light cavalry formed, for the purpose of covering the retreat of their main body, consisting of two regiments. There were two squadrons in advance (of the enemy's), with the other two in support.

The 16th passed a small ravine, and on forming moved to the brow of a small hill, from the top of which, about two hundred yards distant, on an easy declivity, the two squadrons were formed. The squadron I belonged to, and another of the 16th, were the two in advance. These were the two which charged.

The instant we saw the enemy from the top of the hill, the word was given. The men set up an huzzah, and advanced to the charge. The enemy fired a volley at us when about fifty yards from them, and then went about, setting off as hard as they could ride, we pursuing, cutting at them, and making all the prisoners in our power.

Their other two squadrons in support went about, and the whole retired in no small confusion. The affair was more like a skirmish at a field day than an affair with an enemy.

From the enemy being in such haste with their fire, all the shots went over our heads, and no accident appeared to us to happen to anyone. The enemy retired with their four squadrons over a ravine, the banks of which were very steep, and a couple of guns were brought up to fire a few shots, but without any execution, as they ascended the opposite bank by a winding steep road in single file.

Thus ended our day's affair. We had Major Stanhope (the Hon. Lincoln) very slightly wounded by a sabre in the shoulder, and two men also, but slightly, and one man and horse missing. We were in great spirits at our success, and, for the first affair, nothing could be more encouraging.

♦ Second son of Charles, third Earl of Harrington; he died in 1840.

We marched and halted for the night near the village of Oliviera, bivouacking in a fir grove. The infantry occupied the village. Lieutenant-General Edward Paget commanded the advance of the infantry in Oliviera.

Sir Arthur Wellesley in his despatch states the enemy as having four regiments of cavalry, one of infantry and artillery. This could not be so; for had they that force, they certainly would have shown more than they did. We never saw a gun, scarcely any infantry; and if there were four regiments of cavalry, they must be very weak.

Sir Arthur's statement was probably founded on information from the peasants, who made the enemy's numbers probably greater than in reality they were, that he might send a large force to ensure success, and thereby get them away from that neighbourhood.

"The infantry of the army was formed into three divisions for this expedition, of which two, the advanced guard, consisted of the Hanoverian Legion, and Brigadier-General R. Stewart's brigade, with a brigade of six-pounders and a brigade of three-pounders under Lieutenant General Payne, and the brigade of Guards; Brigadier-General Campbell's brigades of infantry, and a brigade of six-pounders under LieutenantGeneral Sherbrooke, moved by the high road from Coimbra to Oporto; and one composed of Major-General Hill's and Brigadier-General Cameron's brigades of infantry, and a brigade of six-pounders under the command of Major-General Hill, by the road from Coimbra to Aviero."
Sir Arthur Wellesley's despatch.
Dated Oporto, May 12th, 1809.


May 11th. Two squadrons of cavalry were ordered to march with the brigade under (Greneral Paget in advance of the army - the one I belonged to, of the 16th, and one of the 20th Light Dragoons, both under the command of Major Blake of the 20th. Major-General Hill, with his brigade, had embarked on the 9th at Aviero, and landed yesterday near Ovar, and was moving from thence to Oporto on the enemy's right flank.

We marched for about a couple of hours from Oliviera. The infantry were in front, the country being enclosed and not adapted for cavalry. On passing Santo Redondo, we came up with the enemy's rear guard, which was immediately attacked and driven from their camp and position through a fir grove on the road to Oporto.

♦ On the road from Oliviera we passed three priests the French had murdered for some cause or another. They were hanging on a tree, close to the roadside, and must have been a full month in that situation from their appearance.

The enemy's force consisted of 4,000 infantry and some squadrons of cavalry, though from the ground we occupied neither were to be seen, being stationed in rear of a fir grove, ready to act if required. The fire was very sharp, though on our side always advancing. We lost some men in this attack (infantry).

After remaining stationary for some time, we were ordered to advance and follow up the rear of the army. We passed over the ground they had occupied as a camp and the rising ascent they had held and been driven from by our infantry.

♦ An infantry soldier killed here was the first dead man I had ever seen.

The two squadrons then descended the hill and entered a fir wood along a deep, narrow, sandy lane, leading to Oporto and close to the village of Grijo. The wood terminated half a mile before the road entered the village, having vineyards and enclosures to the right, with the same on the left. The ground, on the left was very steep and rocky, and afforded a strong position for infantry. The enemy's rear guard was here posted. The main body to our left of the road, with a couple of battalions in the fields and vineyards to our right.

They consisted of about 3,000 infantry. The two squadrons,See the Box with Green text below. on entering the wood, were obliged to proceed in file; and we had not gone half the distance through it, before we were met and turned back by Dashwood of the Adjutant-General's department, saying the enemy were so posted as to render it impossible for cavalry to act.

A cavalry squadron would vary in strength from about 50 to 200 troopers and their officers. Pretty hefty odds against 3,000 infantry waiting for them !

We were returning, when some one in our rear ordered us to go about and proceed in advance. Dashwood again ordered us to retire, repeating what he before said. We, however, advanced to the edge of the wood, where the road became so narrow that the troops got into single file.

The 16th were in front, and Captain Cocks' troop being on the right of the squadron, was the one in advance. The road was very deep, and as we stood in it the enemy kept firing in the direction of where we stood, causing the leaves from an oak tree to fall on us in great numbers.

♦ He (Captain Cocks) was not with his troop, being on General Cotton's staff.

‡ I belonged to Captain Swetenham's troop in the rear, and being anxious to see what was going on, I left my own men and got to the head of the column.

The person who had given the orders from the rear was Captain Mellish, who had come from the rear with orders from the Hon. General Stewart (adjutant-general) for us to advance.

Captain Mellish, without seeing the position of the enemy, called out that it was the positive order of General Stewart for us to advance, and Dashwood stood at the head of the lane saying it was impossible. Here we stood in the lane, and I rode from my own troop in the rear of our squadron to see what was going on, Dashwood still standing at the head of the lane forbidding our advance.

In this position we remained; and Captain Mellish, on coming past the dragoons in getting to the front, was heard to say, without seeing the position of the enemy (I heard him myself), that if no one would head us that he would himself (Dashwood was not in the attack).

Dashwood and myself were the only two officers in front at the head of the lane. On hearing this, we could not avoid advancing; and in single file, along a narrow, bad lane, did we proceed to attack these 3,000 infantry so posted.

Captain Mellish did not head us, nor did he leave the wood with the advance. We galloped about one hundred yards down the road, and then turned into the enclosures to the right, through a gateway in a stone wall, sufficiently wide for one horse. I was nearly off, my horse turned so suddenly.

On getting into the enclosure, we rode at a gallop up to the enemy, who, strange to state, ran away.

They were scattered all over the field, and I was in the act of firing my pistol at the head of a French infantry man when my arm dropped, without any power on my part to raise it.

The next thing I recollect was my horse galloping in an ungovernable manner amongst this body of infantry, with both my hands hanging down, though I do not recollect being shot in the left arm.

In this state one of their bayonets was stuck into him, and he fortunately turned short round; and I had, in addition, the good luck to keep my seat on him. He went full gallop to the rear, and on coming to a fence of an enclosure he selected a low place in it under a vine tree, knocked my head into it, when I fell off him.

This again made me insensible, and my next recollection was being supported by a French infantry soldier across the field to the rear and to the shade of a wall, where he laid me on my back.

In a short time some of the German infantry came up (belonging to our advance under General Paget), and began to plunder me, taking out of my pocket a knife containing many useful things for campaigning.

They were prevented proceeding any further by the arrival of a private of the name of Green, of Captain Cocks' troop, who took me for Captain Swetenham, telling me I was certainly killed, and that it was a sad thing to order men on such a duty. There were only eight men who went into the field to the right with me. Green was the only one who escaped, and one man was shot in nine places. Green was made a sergeant.

I remained about half an hour where the Frenchman had laid me, when a surgeon of the artillery came up, cut off my clothes, and dressed my wounds. I fancied myself to be hit in the body, from the difficulty I had at first in breathing; yet on that subsiding, I did not conceive it could be so.

On taking off my clothes, I was found to be wounded by a musket-shot in the neck. It had entered above the left shoulder and come out in the front. A second through the right arm, above the elbow, and a third musket-shot through the left, below the elbow, with a bayonet-wound close by the latter.

The wounds were dressed in the common and best manner, being bound up in their own blood, and I was taken by my servant Robinson to a small hovel close by, where I was placed for the night.

From the loss of blood and shock I had received, delirium came on at intervals, with a considerable degree of fever. My servant was ordered not to let me move, and from lying on my back in one position I was so uncomfortable and irritable that considerable disputes occurred between, us, my wishing him to move me and he knowing it would be injurious.

I, however, said so much at one time that he was induced to relieve me in some degree from the position I so much complained of.

The remainder of the two squadrons went down the road; and the enemy, conceiving cavalry would never make such an attack unsupported by infantry, retired towards Oporto, and were followed by the squadrons through Grijo towards Oporto, in which retreat they lost nearly five hundred, taken prisoners. When we turned into the field to the right of the road, we were exposed to the whole fire of the enemy stationed on the other side the: road; and had they stood their ground, it would have been impossible for us to get at them, and even if it had been in our power, from the enclosed state of the country and difficulty of our advance, they might have defied us.

Captain Mellish behaved very ill in insisting on our advance, at all events in using the language he did. Dashwood was quite right in his instructions, on seeing the position of the enemy. General Stewart was more to be condemned than any for sending the orders he did; but for this there was perhaps some reason, and not perhaps the most liberal.

Major Blake too, of the 20th, who commanded the two squadrons, ought to have come to the head of the lane; and having for some time been on service, it was his duty as an old officer to have taken upon himself the responsibility, and not have attacked. The infantry were not half an hour's march behind, on seeing which the enemy would have retired, when we might have pursued and availed ourselves of some open ground beyond Grijo.

Had this affair occurred later in the war, no cavalry officer would have made the attack without representing the enemy's position.

† Notes.
Green remained with me all night.
I was returned "severely wounded."

Loss in the affair of the 11th May:
infantry and cavalry,
    19 killed,
    63 wounded,
    14 missing.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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