Search
  • Marcus Cribb

Wellington's Cavalry

In the warfare that had developed out of many year’s conflict in Europe and its colonies, were 3 broad area of the combat system, most numerous were the infantry, supported by the artillery, guns, both large and small, finally, performing the tasks of reconnaissance, providing a screen of pickets (sentries) and scouting off the battlefield as well as lightning fast strikes and flanking manoeuvres in battle, were the cavalry.

[King's Dragoon Guards - Waterloo]


Wellington himself served 2 years in the cavalry, from 1789 to 1791 with the 12th Light Dragoons. Service in the Army as an officer was through a complicated system of purchasing promotion, that was open to exploitation. The design behind it meant that the offer of promotion on merit alone was relatively rare, as it was hoped to favour those from a aristocratic background. A officer’s commission in the cavalry was particularly fashionable, with bold uniforms, a flamboyant reputation and the chance to seek glory and favour in a famous cavalry charge, meant that a commission in a cavalry regiment cost more than in the a line infantry regiment.

The purpose of this article is to provide a overview of Wellington’s “British” cavalry regiments. As Spanish, Portuguese and “foreign” (Émigré regiments in British service) would have differences in their structure which may be covered at a later date. Each regiment would have varied on the number of men & horses sent on campaign, but a common structure was laid out.

For a British cavalry regiment during the period, it was formed round a single regiment. Unlike the infantry regiments, which would typically be formed of 2 Battalions, but could be many more in some cases, a cavalry regiment was a single unit.

The typical Regimental structure:

Colonel of a regiment (General – Major General overseeing Administrative duties, promotions and supplies, such as uniform purchasing.)

1x Lieutenant Colonel (with 1 additional space on the list, he would be able to promote to General rank and serve away, the other would be the Commanding Officer of the Regiment) 2x Majors

10x Captains across 10x Troops

100 ‘Troopers’ Per Troop. This was reduced to 80 men in December 1805.

(Trooper referred to: Private - Corporal. N.b. Lance Corporal was only a regimental rank & stood as part of regimental standing orders, likely to received no/little extra pay)

2 Lieutenants & 1 Cornet (equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant) per Troop.

5 Serjeants per Troop (N.b. to tradition spelling of Serjeant with a J in the Cavalry)

1 Trumpeter Serjeant Major with 10 Trumpeters (1 per Troop for passing orders)

Regimental staff consisting of: Paymaster, Adjutant, Veterinary surgeon, Surgeon and 2 assistant surgeons.

Plus a Serjeant Major (RSM), Paymaster Serjeant, Saddler Serjeant, Farrier Serjeant & Armourer Serjeant, along with a cadre of farriers.

1x Quarter Master. (N.b. previously there was rank of Quatermaster Serjeant per troop, this developed into a Troop Serjeant Major.)

With a strength of just over 1,000 men and the same again of horses (around 1,064 would have been needed per regiment), this was found to be unrealistic. Officers were permitted time away from regimental duties, such as adjutant to other units, staff officers, leave and even serving as sitting Members of Parliament common. Along with this, there were always, casualties, sickness, missing (including desertion which was unfortunately common in the non-commissioned ranks) and with the strains of a long war, recruitment was a problem. The recruitment problem contributed to the December 1805 decision to formally reduce a regiment to 800 men plus staff, even then there was difficulty recruiting enough men, but more trouble was had in finding enough horses to mount the men. The high demand persisted meaning higher prices were asked for by horse-breeders for the cavalry mounts.

The decision to lower the regimental number to around 860, meant that a typical number serving in a regiment overseas could be around 400-600 men. This was usually supplemented by leaving 2 to 4 Troops at home to train new recruits and horses.


[12th Light Dragoons]

This leaves the modern and traditional sub-units. Principally, the “Squadron”. Unlike in the modern army, a squadron wasn’t a standing unit, but still a common one. Usually formed of 2 Troops, with the senior Captain in command (occasionally a Major in place for tasks deemed important by the Commanding Officer). The squadron allowed for 2 Troops to support one another and proved a useful structure. For example if a regiment was sent to the Peninsular, then a single squadron would often be maintained at the depot, to recruit, train, provide replacement and break in new horses. Often when orders came for campaign a given number of squadrons for a regiments was requested, leaving much to the colonel to decide on who to send. Secondly, under the Troop level, was “The Squad”, these were kept separate and each commanded by a Serjeant, leaving the common administrative work to NCOs meant the officers were relieved of some mundane orders, however it was regulated that the officers were to check their men at “meal times”. So this left a structure of: Regiment – Squadron – Troop – Squad.

Welfare of the horses for paramount to the regiment, for every sick or lame mount a soldier could not perform their duties. The Royal Veterinary College had only been founded in 1791, so the requirement to have a Veterinary surgeon in each regiment was forward thinking from the Army’s commanders at Horse Guards, ensuring a better provision for the mounts at home and on campaign. Farriers, under the Farrier Serjeant were part of the Troop, but with additional duties. Typically strong men, made bigger by the work of beating steel. They developed a role to care for the horses, along with riding instructors; there was a wealth of knowledge of equine science and welfare. For example, foreign forage was found to cause illness if fed immediately to the horses, so it was mixed into food brought from Britain, whilst on campaign, weaning them onto local food so to acclimatise them to their new feed. There was well documented knowledge of experience of equine diseases and illnesses that would be well cared for. Sometime at the grumbling of infantry soldiers who thought the horses sometime had better care than they did.

Recruits and training; Although Horse Guards set out guidelines for training the way new recruits were instructed was a matter for each individual regiments. Recruits were trained as part of the Troop, under the instruction of the NCOs. A Special cadre of “rough riders” were kept with the depot to break in newly bought horses, with that came a special pay.

For new officers, horse riding was thought to be an essential skill, but they also paid a small sum to the Sergeant in the role of master at arms, for sword and sabre practice. General John Le Marchant, after having observed the British Cavalry’s inferior skills at arms in the lowland campaigns of the 1790s wrote a new doctrinal book, as well as redesigning the swords. Before this, swords were purchased by the Regimental Colonel, leading to a myriad of designs, across a variety of qualities. What followed was the 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre and the 1796 Pattern Heavy Cavalry Sword (for respective designations of light and heavy cavalry troops). Le Marchant thought that British swordsmanship had reminded him of “someone chopping wood”. His thoughts and practices were turned into a drill manual, becoming The Rules and Regulations of the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry (Released in 1796 also). This led to a rapid improvement of the close combat ability of the British cavalry, using Le Marchant’s manual, each man would learn the key 6 offensive cuts, along with guard positions and downward strokes, all formalised. The 6 cuts centred round a circle, representing an enemy’s face, rather than wildly hacking at the upper torso that had been ineffective before.





1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre


1796 Pattern Heavy Cavalry Sword.

It is also worth noting here the 2 main branches of cavalry; heavy and light. The distinctions meant different uniforms and swords, but meant little in the way of duties and both types were armed with pistol and carbines. In theory the light cavalry rose slightly smaller horses and were purposed for scouting and pickets (sentry). But heavy cavalry frequently often see themselves used in that role. Also it was the heavy cavalry that were meant to execute fierce charges on the battlefield, but light cavalry would see heavy action and carry out brilliant charges, such as the combat at Villa-Garcia. Wellington himself paid little attention to the designation of the cavalry role, compounded by the fact he was often calling for more cavalry (of either type), he used regiments as convenient, without regard to their official classification.

[Cranston Fine Arts]


Light cavalry was made up of a mixture of “Light Dragoons” and “Hussars”. It wasn’t until after Waterloo in 1815 that regiments converted to become lancers. The heavy cavalry were “Dragoons” or more elaborately “Dragoon Guards” along with the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guard regiments (which formed the Household Cavalry).

[National Army Museum] Sources: "Gallantry and Discipline. The 12th Light Dragoons at War with Wellington" by Andrew Bamford

"So Blood a Day. The 16th Light Dragoons in the Waterloo Campaign" by David J. Blackmore

"The Cavalry that Broke Napoleon. The King's Dragoon Guards at Waterloo" by Richard Goldsbrough

" Wellington's Peninsular Army" Men-at-Arms series, by James Lawford.


Writing for Land of History: https://adventuresinhistoryland.com a collection of excellent articles and blogs by Josh Provan, which I can strongly recommend.

Linked via https://marcuscribb.wixsite.com/thedukeofwellington/blog & https://twitter.com/mcribb89


0 views

©2020 by Marcus Cribb - Wellington & the World War on Napoleon. Proudly created with Wix.com