This week's blog entry is more on a military than a nautical theme but it reflects my continuing fascination with all aspects of 19th Century history.
During the week, while leafing through a late-Victorian book on battles of the 19th Century, I was struck by an article the Battle of Salamanca on July 22nd 1812 by a respected military commentator, Major Arthur Griffiths. By this time Wellington, having broken out of Portugal by his capture of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz earlier in the year, was thrusting deep into Spain. At Salamanca he was to confront – and thrash – the army of the French Marshal Marmont. This victory was to open the road for further advance towards France itself.
One is invariably impressed by the clarity and elegance of expression of writers and war correspondents of this period - I guess we'd all like to be able to write like this! The following extract from the article proved especially impressive. It deals with the final stages of the battle and with the role played in it by British cavalry.
|British heavy cavalry charging at Salamanca|
“The complete overthrow of the French was now near at and it was accomplished by the masterly tactics of Wellington, who appeared as usual at the critical point at the critical time. Under his orders a great cavalry charge put the finishing touch to Maucune’s discomfiture. This charge, led by Le Marchant’s heavy and Anson’s light cavalry brigades, was one of the most brilliant feats performed by British cavalry. Napier gives the story in Homeric language, telling how “a whirling cloud of dust moved quickly forward, carrying within it the trampling sound of a charging multitude”; how the horsemen rode down the French infantry “with a terrible clamour and disturbance. Bewildered and blinded, they cast away their arms, and crowded through the intervals of the squadrons, stooping and crying out for quarter, while the dragoons, big men on big horses, rode onwards, smiting with their long, glittering swords in uncontrollable power.” Le Marchant was killed but there were others to lead his cavalry on. Packenham, with his infantry, followed close, and, after a bitter struggle, which laid many low, the French were completely defeated. Guns and standards were captured and 2,000 prisoners; “the divisions under Maucune no longer existed as a military body.” These were the memorable forty minutes which sufficed to conquer the French left…”
It should be noted that the most notable casualty of this action, Major-General John Le Marchant (1766 – 1812) was one of the finest British cavalry commanders of his generation. More important for posterity was however his role in establishing the first British military academy, initially at High Wycombe and Great Marlow, later combined in what was to become the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. The latter remains the world’s premier institution of its type and generations of officers past and future owe a debt of gratitude to Le Marchant for his achievement.
(The Battle of Salamanca provides the background for Bernard Cornwell’s novel “Sharpe’s Sword”)