“‘Ware Ditch!!” The 23rd Light Dragoons at Talavera

28th July, 1809.   Talavera De La Reina, Spain

 The Battle of Talavera is in its second day.

It’s a boiling hot afternoon, and on the dry, grassy plains north of town the French army is struggling.  Attacks on the Allied (British and Spanish) left and right flanks have been bloodily repulsed and their main attack, in the centre, is on the point of collapse. The French high command, arguing amongst themselves over their next move, decide to attack the British left again and order two infantry brigades forward.  But the enemy’s new move does not go unnoticed.

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What happened next has been variously described as an infamous ‘cavalry disaster’ or a tactical triumph, depending on the proponent’s point of view. So – which was it?

Out on the British left, four cavalry regiments waited: the 23rd Light Dragoons and 1st KGL Hussars of Anson’s light cavalry brigade and the ‘heavies’, the 3rd Dragoon Guards and 4th Dragoons under General Fane. Sir Arthur Wellesley (soon to be created Viscount Wellington after his victory here), seeing the French movement, ordered Anson forward to counter the new threat.

To be honest, this seems slightly odd to me. Dragoons – heavy cavalry – are far more suited to charging massed infantry than their light cavalry cousins, so why were the lights ordered forward and the heavies kept in reserve? Apparently Sir Arthur might not even have given a direct order to attack, only advising his brigade commanders to charge if ‘an opportune moment’ presented itself. That’s what Fortescue’s History of the British Army intimates, so who am I to argue?

Anyway, the 23rd and 1st KGL were ordered to advance. Almost three-quarters of a mile away across the plain, once the French saw enemy cavalry moving they formed square, which is pretty sensible. One might think that once they’d done this, since they were unable to move and no longer in a position to threaten the British flank, the cavalry might have been called off.  They could have just sat in readiness, an ever-present threat. But no – the advance continued, each regiment marching forward in two lines, one several hundred yards behind the other. If they followed usual practice, that is.

And there’s another oddity.  At that time it was widely recognised as virtually impossible to break a square of steady infantry with cavalry only, so why was the attack allowed to continue?

Once the British broke into a trot French artillery began firing at them over the heads their own infantry squares. This probably encouraged the 23rd to speed up slightly earlier than usual, because the quicker they got close up to the squares the sooner enemy cannon would stop. So they were probably already galloping by the time the ‘disaster’ unfolded.

About a hundred and fifty yards in front of the French, just at the limit of musket range, was a ditch. Not a small one, either. Accounts vary, but it appears to have been at least 6 feet deep (though some say 8-10) and 12 wide, although I’ve seen 15-18 feet quoted, which seems a bit much. That’s wider than an Olympic-sized water jump. Apparently this was a watercourse of some kind (drainage ditch, irrigation channel, run-off from the mountains behind) which, that summer, was dry. Masked by long grass it was well-nigh invisible to galloping cavalry (which again suggests it wasn’t impossibly wide or they would have seen it earlier).

A ditch of such proportions ought to have been visible to those British officers posted on higher ground, but if it was no-one bothered to pass on the message. Or maybe they thought it just as much a barrier to the French as their own side and that the cavalry had no reason to cross it.

Riding ahead of the 23rd to keep them on the correct line of attack, Col John Elley was surprised by the obstacle but jumped it and turned to wave a warning at horsemen behind. He must have been 60-80 yards in front to give him enough time to slow down and turn, but he was either too late or those following didn’t understand what he was yelling about.

When the 23rd’s first line reached the ditch, at the gallop, in close order formation and two horses deep, some jumped it. Some horses refused, hampering those alongside and behind. Some hopped or slid into the ditch but were unable to clamber back up its steep sides. And some tried to jump but couldn’t make the width, crashing chest or head first into the opposite bank.

There is some dispute as to what happened to the regiment’s second line, but we’ll come to that later.

Further to the left, the 1st KGL hussars also met the ditch. Here it was shallower but wider (or narrower and deeper, depending on the account) and it seems the Germans’ first line crossed with little trouble. But several eye-witnesses say their second line pulled up before jumping and even their first line apparently disengaged before reaching the the nearest square.  The regiment’s low casualty rate at the battle appears to confirm this was the case.

The 23rd were left a bit disorganised, to say the least. But they managed to reform on the far side of the ditch which suggests the obstacle did not cause as much trouble as many historians seem to think.  Then French infantry began firing at them, though they were still too far from the square for muskets to cause much damage. It probably just encouraged the British to get going as quickly as possible, and they galloped on towards the enemy.

 Of course they had no chance of breaking through the square’s hedge of bayonets so carried on past, straight into a couple of regiments of waiting French cavalry. And it was most likely these horsemen that did most damage to the 23rd in terms of casualties (over 100 men were subsequently listed as ‘captured’), rather than the ditch. Colonel Elley  records only a handful of men and horses (including himself) made it back to British lines.

At day’s end the 23rd lost almost half its number – 207 men from 459. Which makes me wonder – did the second line cross the ditch? Maybe not.

So to summarise, light cavalry were ordered forward instead of the heavies, their advance was not countermanded once the French formed square, and despite the battlefield being overlooked no-one thought to mention the watercourse might be a problem.

 Cavalry disaster? Sounds like a ‘command disaster’ to me.

However you look at it, the charge was, in fact, a raging success. Stopped in their tracks, the French infantry were forced to remain in square for the rest of the afternoon, unable to move.  In the distance they could see the waiting British heavy cavalry reserve and must have been fearful of  further attacks.

So, unable to make a breakthrough and still arguing, French commanders eventually decided enough was enough. They withdrew overnight, leaving thousands of dead and wounded on the field. Many, together with British wounded, were victims of an even greater disaster when huge tracts of parched grassland caught fire. They burned to death.

 But that’s another story.

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PS.  Unlike the pair of huge flags (Regimental Colour and King’s Colour) carried into battle by  infantry regiments of the line, to avoid frightening the horses cavalry carried a much smaller, often swallow-tailed, standard called a guidon. The 23rd Light Dragoons’ guidon shown above is on display at the National Army Museum.

The museum believes it was made around 1803 and that it was carried on the field at Talavera. If this is true it remains the only British cavalry standard carried into battle during the entire Peninsular war, since cavalry regiments sent abroad were ordered to leave their colours at their home depots.

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~ by cavalrytales on July 25, 2012.

31 Responses to ““‘Ware Ditch!!” The 23rd Light Dragoons at Talavera”

  1. A VERY GOOD REPORT; MY ANCESTOR CAPTAIN JOHN BETTON, WAS AMONGST THE WAITING 3RD DRAGOON GUARDS, HELD IN RESERVE . ANOTHER CAPTAIN IN THIS REGIMENT, GEORGE TITO BRICE, WAS SEVERELY WOUNDED AT TALAVERA, AND LATER RECEIVED A 100 POUND PENSION FOR THE WOUND. THIS MEANT THAT HE EITHER LOST A LIMB OR AN EYE. I WOULD LOVE TO KNOW WHETHER THE WOUND WAS HIS ARM, LEG OR EYE.

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    • Thanks Geoffrey, glad you enjoyed it. I’d love such a period ancestor, but no luck there – mine seem to have been Cornish agricultural workers and pin-makers/woodworkers from the Midlands.

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      • JOHN BETTON WAS BAPTISED 29TH SEPTEMBER 1779 AT CHURCH STRETTON, SHROPSHIRE. HE WAS PROBABLY EDUCATED AT SHREWSBURY SCHOOL, AS WAS HIS BROTHER NATHANIEL BETTON IN 1800. THE FAMILY RESIDED AT 69 ABBEY FOREGATE, SHREWSBURY. JOHN BETTON JOINED THE 3RD PRINCE OF WALES DRAGOON GUARDS, ON 6TH JUNE 1798, AS A CORNET BY PURCHASE. HE WAS MADE LIEUTENANT IN 1804 AND CAPTAIN IN 1808. JOHN WAS A RECRUITING OFFICER PRIOR TO BEING SENT TO IRELAND IN NOVEMBER 1804.
        HE RETURNED TO ENGLAND IN FEBRUARY 1806.
        JOHN BETTON DEPARTED PORTSMOUTH APRIL 1809, ON THE TRANSPORT HARMONY, FOR LISBON.
        HE WAS AT THE BATTLE OF TALAVERA 27TH AND 28TH JULY 1809.
        HE DIED AT MERIDA ,SPAIN, 20TH NOVEMBER 1809, OF GUADIANA FEVER, WITH A MAJOR, ANOTHER CAPTAIN AND TWO LIEUTENANTS, ALONG WITH MANY NON COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND PRIVATE SOLDIERS, IN HIS REGIMENT.
        IN HIS WILL DATED 22ND MARCH 1809, ACTED 5TH JULY 1810 AT HASTINGS, SUSSEX, HE LEFT HIS HOUSE IN ABBEY FOREGATE TO HIS SISTER MARY BETTON. TO HIS MOTHER MARY BETTON nee HARRINGTON, AN ANNUITY OF SIXTY POUNDS, TO MARIA BRAY OF POUNDSTOCK, NEAR BUDE, CORNWALL, AN ANNUITY OF FIFTY POUNDS TEN SHILLINGS.
        ALL OTHER LANDS TO HIS BROTHERS RICHARD AND NATHANIEL, INCLUDING A PROPERTY AT LONGDEN, SHROPSHIRE.

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  2. Hi there very interested in this article, as i have discovered my G/G/G/G//Dad was the Trumpet/Major a William King, at the Battle of Talavera, & Waterloo as was his son also William, However trying to find archives on the 23rd is like finding a Petrol station on the moon ????, I have the records of the Medals, has any one found any tangible history of the 23rd & there military movements, such as, i think the 23rd were stationed in Dublin prior to the Battle of Talavera, but can not totally be 100%, can some kind sole assist me ?????? cheers B.Wilton-King
    Await any comments, fingers crossed Cheers

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    • The problem with the 23rd is the original regiment (based in Ireland) was disbanded in 1802. The original 26th Light Dragoons were then re-numbered as the 23rd the following year and this regiment disbanded between 1817 and 1819, which year depending on who you read.

      There is a short diary published by Ken Trotman but the individual involved didn’t join the 23rd until just before Waterloo, so I’ve not read it and I don’t know how much help it would be.

      Given regimental changes I’m afraid I’m not surprised you’ve had difficulty with archives, or any written material, for that matter, but I’ll ask around.

      Best of luck with your search 🙂

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      • Hi thanks for your prompt reply, the Trotman Publication you refer to, is a summary of a Colonel George Blathwayt
        Military servicem which i have ?????, alas no mention of my G/G/G/G/ Dad, there is also a article by a Vetenary/Surgeon I think “SHIP” is his surname, who narrates a brief history of his life in the
        23rd & the battle of talavera, however having researched the 23rd to the best of my ability, i find it strange that the 23rds charge, is not thought of as a courageous action, as is the charge of the light/brigade, as all the accounts i have read refer to the battle of talavera as one of the bloodiest & hard fought battles in the british military history, yet military archavist appear to ignore the horoics of all regts that fought in this conflict, i am totally flabergasted by their dismissal of this battle, it is my opinion that talavera should be on a par, as the light/brigade action, but who am i ????????? maybe iam prejudiced ?????????? B.Wilton-King

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        • The Peninsular War is the great forgotten conflict. Everyone remembers Waterloo, but not the preceding six years. So most of those who lost their lives in Spain and Portugal are barely thought about, except by the Spanish and Portuguese.

          The other problem is the cavalry had such a bad name after Wellington’s throwaway ‘galloping at everything’ comment their efforts have largely been discounted by, mostly infantry-biased, historians. Add to that the scarcity of surviving first-hand accounts (probably because there were proportionally far fewer cavalrymen) and you can begin to see why they’re ignored. It’s something that struck me when I first began to read about the period, and one reason I started to write.

          I think Talavera’s not written about much because Wellington made mistakes, the British almost lost, the Spaniards did very little, and the resulting huge loss of life achieved almost nothing – the allies retreated back into Portugal days later.

          If not for Tennyson’s poem I think the Light Brigade would have been forgotten. He made it into the tragi-heroic action everyone remembers rather than the cock-up it really was. Not by the men, of course, but by their commanders. Same as the 23rd at Talavera, really 🙂

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        • During these bicentennial years, the Friends of the British Cemetery in Elvas, Portugal has seen a surge of interest in the Peninsular War. Our annual May ceremony commemorating the Battle of Albuera and the Sieges of Badajoz is well attended by British, Portuguese and Spanish civilians, local officials and serving military. We can but hope that interest continues after 2015.

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  3. I do have a somewhat distant cousin who received a medal for the Peninsula War in the 23rd Light Dragoons. He was Lieutenant Moreton (or Morton) Slaney. Beyond that I know nothing of his service with the 23rd, other than he must’ve survived the action in order to receive the medal. I also found a record from 1805 where he purchased a commission as an ensign in the 24th and later his promotion to Lieutenant. I’m not sure when or how he transferred to the 23rd. What became of the 23rd after Talavera?

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  4. Hi Tom – it’s interesting he was commissioned into the 24th LD – the regiment was stationed in India for ages. Maybe he transferred because the climate didn’t suit him?

    The 23rd were sent back to the UK while the British were holding the line of the Coa river in 1810 and remained on home service until Waterloo. Apparently they lost all their remaining saddles and ammunition pouches in an (accidental) bivouac fire one night and that was the last straw.

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  5. In aswer to Toms question, i do beleive the 23rd were at WATERLOO at
    “La Haye Sainte” under the command of Wilhelm von Dronberg

    prior to Waterloo i think they were billited at DUBLIN circa 1805-1810, as my G/G/G/Dad James King was born in 1809 in Dublin, son of William King Trumpet Major of the 23rd L/Dragoons, who by the way was acording to some archive newspaper articles i have state that at the age of 6 he witnessed the Battle of Waterloo (as i understand in those days families would accompany the troops ?????) apparently the 23rd played a significant part at Waterloo, alas in 1817 they were disbanded, as Wellington had a preference for the Infantry.

    I found a Thomas Morton at the the Battle of Talavera, awarded the T/medal, but not serving with the 23rd at Waterloo, ?????

    I Have attestation papers for both my G/G/G/G/Dad William King T/Major & his son also William King Trumpeter, who both served at Waterloo & survived, being both awarded W/Medals , after the disbanding of the 23rd both my relatives enlisted with the ROYAL STAFF CORPS another little known Regiment who i believe were a type of Engineers ????, again very little archive exsists of this Reg.t alas ????
    Would any one have any data concerning the R.S.Corps, any comments would be apprieciated. many thanks

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  6. Thanks for the info above, hopefully my man wasn’t responsible for the bivouac fire!! I’ve found a bit more about Lt. Morton Slaney. As mentioned above he started in the 24th, but is listed in the medal rolls W100/2 as part of “23rd Light Dragoons who served in the Peninsula under Field Marshall His Grace The Duke of Wellington K.G. etc, etc.” which I’ve assumed means he was at Talavara. He married in 1811 and the marriage notice says he was in the 8th at that time, however I don’t know when he transferred to the 8th. Then in 1821 he “exchanged” to the 25th Light Dragoons. His wife remarried in 1841, so presumably he died sometime 1821-1841, possibly while posted in Canada but I’m not sure of that.

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    • Me again. Just found a notice in the London Gazette, dated 16 Feb 1811, where Lt. Morton Slaney exchanged from the 23rd LD to the 8th LD. So sometime before the Peninsula War he went from the 24th where he originally signed up, to the 23rd, served in the Peninsula with the 23rd then exchanged to the 8th in Feb 1811 and then exchanged again to the 25th LD in Nov 1821. I’ve been told he died as a Captain but have yet to find documentation of such a promotion nor of his death. Anyone know the history of the 8th from 1811-1821 or of the 25th post-1821?

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      • Tom – according to Ron McGuigan, the 25th were disbanded in 1818 (though I’ve seen both 1819 and 1820 given) which is a problem if he definitely exchanged to them in 1821. I can understand a delay in disbanding an Indian-based regiment but since exchanges had to be approved by Horseguards (I believe) something’s not quite right there. The 8th were in India at least from 1805 to 1815 (McGuigan & Burnham) so an exchange between them would be feasible, other than the date.

        It seems he married after the 23rd returned from the Peninsula. Regiments usually kept a squadron at home so that campaign losses could be replaced with trained men and also to recruit. So even if he transferred to the 8th immediately on his return he may have remained in Britain. A young Peninsular veteran on the recruiting party would have been an attractive draw!

        If he was issued a Peninsular general service medal he must have lived until 1847 – surviving relatives could not apply. Or if he had a Waterloo medal (issued 1816-17) he must have somehow been present.

        This is all pretty intriguing!

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      • On further research I’ve clarified his various units –
        Nov 1805 – 24th Regiment of Foot, purchased commission as Ensign.
        Sep 1807- 24th Regiment of Foot, promoted to Lieut. without purchase.
        Jan 1809 – Lieut. exchanged from 24th Foot to 23rd Light Dragoons.
        Feb 1811- Lieut. exchanged from 23rd LD to 8th LD.
        Dec 1820 – Lieut. exchanged from 8th LD to 25th LD at half-pay. Announcement reads: “Lt. William Murphy from half-pay 25th Light Dragoons, vice Morton Slaney who exchanges. Dated 1st December 1820.” I have not been able to find the reciprocal announcement of Slaney’s exchange to the 25th LD at half-pay. Is it correct to assume that is where he went given that the 25th had been disbanded in 1819?

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  7. WILLIAM KING, ENLISTED IN THE 23RD LIGHT DRAGOONS, ON THE 4TH JUNE 1803. HE IS SHOWN IN OFFICIAL RECORDS AS A TRUMPETER.

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    • Hi Geoffrey, curious as to where you got William Kings details, with all due respect i have his Discharge Papers from 1829 at the age of 54, that clearly state he enlisted with the 23rd L/Ds in 4th Sept 1802 ???????& served a total of 15 years with the 23rd, being Born in WESTBURY Bucks, not sure where your info comes from, but i would be very interested to know, perhaps Attestation Papers ??????? or some other source,
      In total W/K served 28 years in the military having fought in the Battles of TALAVERA & WATERLOO, i would appreciate any comments from all

      While on the subject of TALAVERA would any one know, are there any archives or records concerning prisoners being taken by the FRENCH of the 23rd Light/Dragoons ?????????

      Another curious issue i have come across concerning the Battle of Talavera i have seen 3 or 4 illustrations of the Battle, that conflict as to the type of helmet the 23rd were wearing, some drawing depict them wearing the TARLETON, & others the SHAKO, anyone have any comments??????
      I myself beleive it would have been the SHAKO, ?????/ B.Wilton-King

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    • There are two books that you may find useful:
      Napoleon and his British Captives by Michael Lewis (London, 1962) and Hell Upon water: Prisoners of War in Britain 1793-1815 by Paul Chamberlain (The History Press, 2008). The latter work contains a chapter on Britons held in France.

      See too Paul Chamberlain’s comments about British POWs on http://www.napoleonicwarsforum.com/viewtopic.php?f=41&t=1444

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  8. The helmet was the Tarleton at Talavera , as the Shako wasn’t issued until 1812. for light cavalry.

    TNA WO25/871-1120 SERVICE RETURNS NO1 REF 905. shows two entries for the name William King. 23rd Light Dragoons, one a Private and one a Trumpeter.

    THE REGIMENT WAS RAISED IN 1794 AND WAS DISBANDED IN 1802. THE 26TH LIGHT DRAGOONS WERE RENUMBERED THE 23RD LIGHT DRAGOONS. THE REGIMENT FOUGHT IN EGYPY IN 1801 AND PENINSULAR WAR 1808-1814. THEY ALSO SERVED AT WATERLOO.

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  9. ONE ERROR IN FRANKLIN’S BOOK IS ON PAGE 51, WHERE IT STATES THAT THE 3RD DRAGOON GUARDS, SENT FOUR TROOPS TO SOUTH AMERICA IN 1806. THIS IS INCORRECT, AS ALL THE REGIMENT WERE STATIONED AT EXETER IN 1806.

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  10. Ref the 23rd Dragoons, my ancester Ralph Hilditch fought at Talavera and Waterloo, where he was wounded. Very interesting to see your information on the charge at Talavera, he must have been one of the lucky ones.

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    • Hi Graham – glad you liked the article and it’s great you have an ancestor involved! Information on cavalrymen of the period is quite scarce because they were (relatively) few in number, so if you have any more detail feel free to post it.
      Jonathan

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  11. Thank you for your article, very interesting. My 4th great grandfather, William Burman, was at Talavera and Waterloo with the 23rd Light Dragoon.

    William Burman was born in the Parish of Creeting All Saints, Suffolk. A Labourer by occupation, he enlisted into the 23rd Light Dragoons, for unlimited service, on 12 March 1805, aged 19 years, 112 days at Romford (WO 12/1483 Musters of 23rd Light Dragoons) . WO 25/299 Description Book 23rd Light Dragoons: William Burman Height 5 feet 6 inches. Complexion: fresh. Eyes: grey. Hair: light. Form of visage: round. With the unit he served at the battle of Talavera (Howards Troop, George Anson’s Brigade). This was the sole major battle in which the regiment was engaged whilst in Portugal and Spain. Heavily involved in the latter part of the battle, they suffered 49 killed, 50 wounded and 108 missing. Such were the casualties to men and horses that the survivors were returned to England and not actively employed again until 1815. William Burman served in Captain C.W. Dance’s Troop, 23rd Light Dragoons in the Waterloo Campaign, the regiment being part of Major-General Sir William Dornberg’s 3rd Brigade. Burman was discharged from the 23rd Lancers, at Radipole Barracks, on their disbandment on 24 November 1817 (WO 12/1488 Musters of 23rd Light Dragoons) . Volunteering for the 7th Hussars on the 2 November 1817 and joined on 10 December 1817. WO 12/770 Musters of 7th Hussars, Depot at Maidstone. The 23rd regiment of Light Dragoons is ordered into Kent, and is expected to be stationed at Maidstone. Source: The Times (London, England), July 28, 1804, p. 3, Number 6085.[SDY]. Musters 7th Hussars at Cassel. He was discharged at Manchester on 18 December 1818. He became a member of the 1st Royal Veterans Battalion (Daughter’s baptism record in 1820). The cover of the pay list for the 1st R.V battalion states that it was formed of “out pensioners from regiments of cavalry, guards and staff corps collected at Chatham, appropriated to the 1 R.V. Batt”. It was commanded by Colonel Archibald Christie. His Waterloo medal was purchased by the National Army Museum, Acquistion No: 11-72-4, in 1959. His Military General Service Medal (Talavera clasp) sold at Auction on 29 June 2006 for £650 at Dix Noonan Medals, 16 Bolton Street, Mayfair, London. WO 97/1113/141.

    Please let me know if you can see any mistakes in the above. I have the name Major-General Sir William Dornberg. Should it be Dronberg?

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    • Hi Adrian – Thank you, and thanks for the brilliant resume of your great-great-great-great grandfather’s service! Shame you don’t have his medals, but at least the Waterloo is in a safe place.

      It is ‘Dornberg’ – he was a Hanoverian who had served with the Russian army and who commanded a KGL cavalry brigade during the 100 days before taking over the mixed brigade.

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  12. My great great grandfather Charles James Martell also joined the 23rd Light Dragoons – at 18 I think. He served in Talavera [where he was wounded and later at Waterloo. When the 23rd was disbanded he joined the 15th Light Dragoons 5 days later. SDerved 21 years as a dragoon. Taken ill at Clapham. transferred to Chelsea hospital and died two weeks later. Cheers W Henry Martell

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    • Hi Henry – great to hear from you, and to hear about your gg-grandfather’s service! It’d be interesting to know how he came by his wounds at Talavera but I don’t think such details were ever recorded, apart from occasionally for officers. And just about every casualty return I’ve seen lumps all enlisted men together rather than listing them by name.

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