“‘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.
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.
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.