The cavalry action at Garcia Hernandez was a near-disaster retrieved only by a stroke of good fortune.
Whaaaat? Surely not – that combat was a triumph! Two squadrons of Kings German Legion dragoons broke French infantry squares – something that had never happened before in Iberia, nor was it to happen again. This battle was one of the greatest cavalry actions of the whole Peninsular War – wasn’t it?
Regular readers will know my aversion to criticisms of British cavalry in Iberia, so why do I find myself picking on a regiment, and an action, so universally praised?
Because something’s not right, that’s why. Reading between the lines I began to wonder if Garcia Hernandez was, in fact, another command cock-up that’s been glossed over: a lucky fluke, extolled as deliberate.
When looking for evidence, Beamish’s History of the Kings German Legion (1) is the source of choice for most historians so I’ve stuck with that, bringing in others if their accounts differ.
On the morning of 23rd July, 1812, the day after the Duke of Wellington’s stunning victory at the Battle of Salamanca, the French army was in full retreat. Leading the allied pursuit, Major-General George Anson’s cavalry division, comprising his own brigade of the 11th and 16th Light Dragoons, together with Baron Eberhardt Otto George von Bock’s brigaded 1st and 2nd Kings German Legion (KGL) Dragoons, came up with the enemy rearguard, commanded by General Foy, near the village of Garcia Hernandez.
Both brigades approached the French position along fairly narrow defiles before the countryside levelled out onto a stony plain. As befits a competent commander, Anson sent vedettes (scouts) ahead who came across several stationary squadrons of French light cavalry, around 460 men, just beyond the village of Garcia Hernandez and returned to report this fact. Travelling with Anson’s light cavalry, Wellington gave orders for both brigades to advance to clear the enemy away, with Bock hooking around to the north in an attempt to outflank the French.
At this point, apparently, the French infantry rearguard was invisible: the British had no idea they were there. For example Smith (2) says the French cavalry were halted on a ridge of ground with the infantry behind them, Lipscombe (4) that the infantry were hidden in a fold of ground. While there appears no written evidence to the contrary, I think this is a dangerous assumption to make.
Even if the infantry weren’t spotted by Anson’s scouts, Wellington was no fool – he would have realised stationary cavalry must be protecting something, and also that rearguards generally consist of all arms. It’s well-known he believed his cavalry were inherently unreliable so he’s unlikely to have ordered them advance further ahead of his supporting infantry just to clear away enemy horse because they happened to be in his way. It’s far more likely he suspected enemy infantry were close by and if that proved correct he must delay them as long as possible.
Looked at in this light his orders make perfect sense. If Anson’s cavalry succeeded in driving their French counterparts back onto their infantry, that would serve two purposes. It would bring the British horsemen up short, reducing the risk of an uncontrolled, headlong pursuit and also encourage the enemy to stop their retreat, forcing them into protective squares. This would give Wellington’s infantry and guns, which could deal with those formations effectively but were still some way behind, valuable catch-up time. And while Bock’s outflanking manoeuvre was a classic battle tactic of the period it might also serve to dissuade the French from attempting to gain advantageous high ground on the British left.
As is often the case on a battlefield, what actually happened was slightly different. The French cavalry turned tail at Anson’s approach which meant Bock’s outflanking manoeuvre was wasted and also put his two regiments, in their marching order of a column of squadrons, to the left and in rear of the 11th and 16th Light Dragoons. Originally trotting, Anson’s men now speeded up in pursuit of the fleeing French. The profoundly short-sighted Bock consulted Wellington’s aide – and original bringer of his orders – Lt Colonel John May of the Royal Artillery (2) as to his intended target before hurriedly setting off in pursuit of the cavalry with three squadrons of the 1st KGL Dragoons behind him, in order and echeloned to the left. The 2nd KGL Dragoons followed on.
At this point the French infantry must have been in sight. One battalion of the 76th Ligne had begun to climb rising ground on the left and formed square as the British cavalry came into view. In fact Surgeon Detmer of the 2nd KGL Dragoons (2) says they could be seen before Anson’s brigade passed behind Garcia Hernandez and before the cavalry pursuit began in earnest, which further calls into question the rearguard’s ‘invisibility’ to Wellington.
This is where things begin to get more complicated. It seems Bock’s first squadron was fired on by French on the heights, wounding several dragoons and horses, together with Lt. Colonel May. On the extreme left, the third squadron, led by Captain Gustavus Von der Decken, was also fired on. Or they may not have been: they may simply have been close enough to the French square for musket fire to have been a significant risk. Travelling between Bock and Decken, the second squadron, under Captain von Reitzenstein, appears not to have suffered in any way, despite being closer to the infantry than Bock. Odd, that. But to be fair, Decken was more than 90 yards away from the infantry at this point and with the second squadron further to his right they may well have been out of effective musket range.
In the circumstances one might think a sensible precaution would have been for Decken to order his squadron to incline right, in behind the second squadron and away from any gunfire reaching him from the enemy square, while still tracking Anson’s pursuit. Okay – it’s not the easiest manoeuvre for a formation of galloping cavalrymen to perform, but they had room to move over. And these were the Kings German Legion, purportedly the best trained and disciplined of all Wellington’s cavalry.
Instead, and extraordinarily, Decken inclined them to the left, and they accelerated straight towards the 76th Ligne’s square.
There’s no logical explanation for his action. First, it was contrary to orders. Cavalry formed in echelon was a recognised tactic when attacking infantry: the leading squadron was expected to take musket fire on its approach but the following squadrons would then hit the enemy in quick succession before they had time to reload. But even if Decken could not see any French cavalry from his position and harboured doubts as to his intended target, since there’s no suggestion he also suffered from poor eyesight he must have seen his commander Bock and the first squadron charge off in pursuit of Anson.
Second, if his squadron was fired on and he thus registered the square as a legitimate target, he allowed personal feelings to override his duty.
Thirdly, as a professional he must have known conventional wisdom of the day was that cavalry could not break steady infantry formed in square: the ever-sensible William Tomkinson (16th Light Dragoons) says that cavalry breaking a square is ‘A thing never heard of. The infantry either break before the cavalry come up, or they drive them back with their fire.’ (5) If Decken believed that after the defeat of the previous day French morale was brittle enough to make the square run, he made a serious error of judgement.
The French fired a volley when Decken’s men were about 90 yards away and he was wounded but continued. It seems his squadron received another volley 20 yards from the face of the square. Cavalry mounts weren’t racehorses but probably still galloped at around 30mph and would take roughly 5 seconds to cover the intervening distance. So it’s likely only one line of infantrymen, of the three forming the side of the square facing Decken’s squadron (2), fired on each occasion. They would not have had time to reload between volleys.
Now things happened in split seconds. The second volley knocked over Decken whose place was taken by Captain von Uslar Gleichen. It was far too late for him to do anything other than carry on. But the gunfire also wounded a horse belonging to Trooper Post and his mount continued blindly on, smashing into the face of the square and knocking down at least six (two files) of the defenders. It may even have reared up, or fallen, rolling and kicking out (2, 4) which would have enlarged the gap as infantrymen automatically tried to get out of its way. But however wide, the hole it created was irresistible to horses behind: with frenzied urging and raking spurs Gleichen and the rest of the now depleted squadron poured into the square.
Readers familiar with the horse’s psyche will understand how this can happen. An animal panicked by pain or injury falls back on its instinct – to run away. And since a horse is not anatomically designed to make sharp turns this almost invariably means it continues straight on. Also, while a three-deep line of men with bayonet-tipped muskets presents a wall too formidable for most animals to consider jumping, any chink of daylight, however small, offers a potential escape route. Distressed horses have been known to run headlong into solid objects or become wedged head-first in narrow apertures.
Once dragoons are inside a square, to coin a phrase ‘resistance is futile.’ You can’t simply about-turn and fire your musket for fear of hitting comrades on the opposite side. So the square immediately began to disintegrate as infantrymen ran to escape dragoon sabres or simply dropped their weapons and begged for quarter.
Flushed with success, members of the third squadron now joined their fellows in the second, which had turned to follow Decken, pursuing fleeing Frenchmen uphill where another square was trying to form but never did. The 2nd KGL Dragoons arrived to rout a square of the 6th Leger, which, besieged by fugitives from the 76th and understandably panicked by what they had seen, dissolved as the dragoons arrived. But when the KGL went further they were stopped by volleys from a second, well-formed square of the 6th and at this point the action fizzled out.
Gleichen was killed up on the hillside, so with Decken seriously hurt (he was evacuated to Salamanca but died in September the following year) it seems no-one right at the sharp end remained to tell their tale.
Strangely, Wellington, usually such a stickler for orders that many of his senior commanders were reluctant to make any movement at all without his say-so, seems to have ignored the fact his instructions were not followed that day. He wrote to Earl Bathurst, the Secretary for War, on 24th July, 1812, ‘I have never witnessed a more gallant charge than was made on the enemy’s infantry by the heavy brigade of the King’s German Legion led by Major General Bock, which was completely successful; and the whole body of infantry, consisting of three battalions of the enemy’s first division, were made prisoner.’(6) The French had lost around 200 men killed with a further 1400 captured so it was easy to count the action a success.
However, the 1st KGL Dragoons suffered 74 casualties (25%). That’s roughly the same percentage as the 20th Light Dragoons at Vimiero, yet the latter was considered by many as a ‘disaster’. Such a level of attrition might be acceptable in a pitched battle but surely it’s far too high for a rearguard action?
If the cavalry had simply held the French in position by their presence and waited for Wellington’s infantry and guns to arrive the same result could have been achieved with little loss of life. It’s very difficult, though not impossible, to move when in square – Craufurd’s Light Division managed to retreat several miles in battalion squares at the battle of Fuentes de Onoro in 1811, but that was exceptional. And the Duke’s supports might not have been so far behind as is often supposed – Heinrich Heine of the 2nd KGL Light Infantry reports seeing the third square attacked (3), though he also remembers Post’s horse falling through the first square, so his account may be coloured with hindsight.
There’s no doubt this latter event saved the situation. It is certain that but for the completely unpredictable action of a single, dying horse the 76th Ligne square would have held firm to repulse Decken’s squadron, and we’d now be discussing the ‘disastrous charge of the KGL Dragoons at Garcia Hernandez.’ This one fact makes the eventual result an extremely lucky fluke.
At the very least it goes to prove that in war, the difference between victory and defeat can be paper-thin.
So why was this relatively minor success, obtained at no small cost, trumpeted so loudly?
After weeks of marching and counter-marching before they fought the battle of Salamanca, Wellington’s troops were exhausted but they had little time to rest and recuperate before their march continued. In that situation more good news would have provided a welcome boost to morale.
Wellington was politically astute, too. Though his eldest son was Regent, George III remained Elector of Hanover and would have been delighted to learn, in lucid periods during his illness, of the success of ‘his’ Legion (and their commander!)
And there were wider considerations. Napoleon was at that moment marching with a huge force towards Russia. News of a ‘German’ victory, even in faraway Spain, over the current occupier of the German states might harden an already resentful and mutinous attitude in Northern Europe and perhaps goad Prussia into action. The Emperor would certainly not have relished such unrest in his Grand Armee’s rear.
All because of a cavalry command cock-up that was covered up.
Now you might think it’s easy for me to sit here in an armchair, watching the rugby as I write, and criticise with benefit of hindsight. But that’s not my intention – I’m simply trying to cut my way through the briar patch of hyperbole and myth that’s grown around cavalry operations in Spain and Portugal, masking the truth.
So – was the Battle of Garcia Hernandez a brilliant coup or a completely unpredictable accident of fate?
You’ll have to make up your own mind.
(i) The attached map shows Anson’s brigade passing to the north of Garcia Hernandez whereas Lipscombe asserts they went to the south of the village. Given that they would not have wanted any hidden enemy troops to appear unexpectedly behind them, the latter route is most likely.
(ii) Wellington was, strictly speaking, an Earl at this point in time. I’ve referred to him as ‘Duke’ in the text simply because most readers will be familiar with that title.
(1) N Ludlow Beamish – History of the Kings German Legion (1837)
(2) Digby Smith – Charge! Great Cavalry Charges of the Napoleonic Wars (2003)
(3) Mike Chappell – The Kings German Legion 1803-1812 (2000)
(4) Nick Lipscombe – Scissors, Paper, Rock (Waterloo Journal Vol 34 No 1)
(5) William Tomkinson – Diary of a Cavalry Officer 1809-1815 (1895)
(6) John Gurwood – The Despatches of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington Vol 9 (1838)
My thanks to the delightful MM Bennetts for proofreading this post.