The Battle of Sahagun -21st December 1808
Presented by the Portsmouth Napoleonic Society
Setting The Scene
As the climax of the Campaign of 1808 approached, the army of General Sir John Moore, 33,000 men strong, was advancing from Salamanca in the general direction of Burgos, intent upon surprising and all being well defeating in detail the dispersed forces of Marshal Soult, and thereafter creating a threat to the vital French lines of communication running from Bayonne through Burgos to Madrid, which Napoleon had recently occupied at the head of his Corps d'Armee.
Ahead of Moore's main body moved his screening light cavalry under command of the 40 year-old Henry Paget, Lt. General of Cavalry, who was described at about this time by his younger brother as "always at the head, and in the thick of everything that has been going on. He is, in this respect, quite a boy, and a comet instead of a Lt General of Cavalry, but in every other he is the right hand of the army."
His present command comprised two cavalry brigades under John Slade, "that damned stupid fellow" as his superior regarded him with some justice, and Charles Stewart respectively. The first brigade, with which we are concerned, comprised the 10th and 15th Hussars and a detachment of horse artillery; the second was made up of the 3rd and 18th Hussars, some excellent Kings German Legion cavalry, and the 7th Hussars, Henry Paget's own regiment.
As Moore marched for Mayorga, his questing cavalry moved towards Melgar de Abajo. Unknown to" the British command, Soult was in fact already aware of the proximity of an enemy force, but he had no accurate notion of Moore's actual strength (Baird had joined him with 10,000 men on 20 December); nor had he any idea that he was so close at hand. As a sensible general precaution, however, the Duc de Dalmatie had concentrated infantry divisions at Carrion and Saldana, and sent cavalry forces to Sahagun and Mayorga under generaux de
brigade Debelle and Franchsechi.
It would be the former force, comprising the French 8th Dragoons and the 1st Provisional Chasseurs (a formation of Hanoverians absorbed into the French Armee d'Espagne) that was destined to have its rest rudely shattered before dawn on the 21st.
Four days earlier the presence of this French formation in the vicinity was established by British patrols - and an estimated strength of between 700 and 800 troopers calculated. Sir John Fortescue doubts that there were more than 400 in fact, but Oman accepts the higher figure. Be that as it may, late on the 19th, amidst a storm of driving snow, the 10th and 15th Hussars entered Mayorga after a 30-mile march, to receive further. tidings that Debelle's cavalry had moved to Sahagun that same afternoon. That night Paget moved forward to Melegar de Abajo as the main army closed up on Mayorga. The 20th was devoted to a well-earned rest.
That evening, however, Paget issued his orders for a night attack on Sahagun for the early hours of the 21st. Dated from "Morgel de Alazo (sic) 20
December 1808 -9 p.m." these ran as follows:
"The 10th Hussars with 4 guns will march from Monastero so as to arrive at the Bridge of Sahagun precisely at
half-past six tomorrow morning. The whole will march as light as possible, leaving the forage to be brought
forward by the country carts with the baggage, which will march at daybreak under escort of such men
and horses as are not fit for a forced march.
The guns will move without ammunition wagons, the two remaining ones, with everything belonging to the artillery, will come
on the with the baggage. The object of the movement is to surprise Sahagun. The picquet at the Bridge will be
driven in briskly. If serious opposition is made, a squadron or more may be dismounted, who, followed by a
mounted squadron, will enter the town, make for the (French) General's and principal officers'
quarters to make them prisoners.
It is only in case of absolute necessity that the guns must be used. The grand object is to drive the enemy through
the town, on the other side of which Lt Gen Lord Paget will be posted with the 15th Hussars. The moment this
object is in way of being accomplished, two squadrons of the 10th must be detached to the left of EI
Burgo Ranco, where the enemy has a picquet of from 60 to 100 men. These must be briskly attacked and made
prisoner. This done they will return to Sahagun. "
Such was the plan - one cavalry regiment to act as beaters, the other as stops on the further side of the town.
But as happens so often in military operations, events were destined to take rather a different form. As von
Moltke would remark a century later, no plan survives the first five minutes of battle."
Paget's scheme involved a 12-mile approach march starting at 1 a.m. through snow and ice on a bitterly cold night. Much clearly depended on proper coordination of the moves of the two regiments - but a combination of bad weather and Brigadier-General Slade would prove daunting odds against a full and successful implementation.
The die was cast, however, and shortly after midnight Lt Colonel C. Grant of the 15th began to muster his men. Their number was probably about 400 troopers of the 15th Hussars - we know that of the 700 men and 682 horses that embarked for the Peninsula there remained 527 still present with the regiment on 19 December - as many more of the 10th Hussars, and a dozen of the 7th Hussars, forming the personal escort of Lord Paget, not to forget the brigade, four guns strong, of horse artillery. Perhaps 1,200 men in all mustered to the bugle's command that chill early morning of Christmastide 1808. Their gathering was not a little complicated by the inopportune outbreak of a fire in the village of Melegar, and there was some confusion as the church bell rang the alarm.
It is here that we pass over to the narrative to Captain Gordon's
"A Journal of a Cavalry Officer in the Corunna Campaign 1808-1809"
21st.-Whilst we were drawn up at the alarm post, waiting for the arrival of Lord Paget, a fire broke out in the village, occasioned, probably, by the carelessness of some of our dragoons. The glare of the flames partially illuminated the ground where we stood, and contrasted finely with the dark mass of our column; whilst the melancholy sound of the church bell, which was struck (In all the churches and convents I had opportunities of seeing, the bells, which are without clappers, do not swing, but are fixed. The sexton goes up to the belfry to sound them by striking quick strokes with an iron rod, which produces a sound more like the clattering of fire irons, or pots and pans, than the music of the bells.) to rouse the sleeping inhabitants, broke the silence of the night, and, combined with the object and probable consequences of our expedition, made the whole scene peculiarly awful and interesting.
Captain Thornhill, of the Seventh, who attended Lord Paget, with ten or twelve orderlies of his regiment, rode beside
me during part of the night, and told me the object of our movement was to surprise a body of cavalry and artillery
posted in a convent at Sahagun, a large town on the Cea, five leagues from Melgar de Abaxo. I afterwards learned
that General Slade was directed to attack the convent with the Tenth and Horse Artillery, whilst the Fifteenth
was to make a circuit and form on the opposite side of the town, in order to intercept their retreat.
This plan, however, was rendered abortive by the bad state of the roads and the dilatory proceedings of the Brigadier, who on this occasion is reported to have made a long speech to the troops, which he concluded with the energetic peroration of "Blood and slaughter march!"
Our march was disagreeable, and even dangerous, owing to the slippery state of the roads; there was seldom an
interval of many minutes without two or three horses falling, but fortunately few of their riders were hurt by these
falls. The snow was drifted in many places to a considerable depth, and the frost was extremely keen.
We left Melgar in the midst of a heavy fall of snow, and when that ceased I observed several vivid flashes of lightning. We passed through two small towns or villages; in one of these, about two leagues from Sahagun, is a noble castle, which appeared to great advantage "by the pale moonlight."
Near this place our advanced guard came upon the enemy's picquet, which they immediately charged; the Frenchmen ran away, and in the pursuit both parties fell into a deep ditch filled with snow. Two of the enemy were killed, and six or eight made prisoners; the remainder escaped and gave the alarm to the troops at Sahagun. Just at this period, when despatch was particularly required, our progress was very much impeded by two long narrow bridges, (In the atlas of the roads through Spain which accompanies De la Borde's statistical account of the country, Calzada de Sahagun and Calzada de los Hermanillos are marked at the distance of about a league from Sahagun. It was
probably these causeways which impeded our advance so much on the morning of December 21, by obliging the regiment to break into single file, and which, owing to the darkness, appeared to me like narrow bridges without parapets.) without parapets, and covered with ice, which we were obliged to cross in single file.
On our arrival at Sahagun we made a detour, to avoid passing through the streets, and discovered the enemy formed in a close column of squadrons near the road to Carrion de los Condes; but, owing to the darkness of the morning and a thin mist, we could neither distinguish the number nor the description of the force opposed to us, further than to ascertain it consisted of cavalry.
column had stood, I observed an officer withdrawn from the melee. I followed, and, having overtaken him,
was in the act of making a cut at him which must have cleft the skull, when I thought I distinguished the features of
Lieutenant Hancox; and, as I then remarked that he wore a black fur cap and a cloak which, in the dim light of
the morning, looked like blue, I was confirmed in the idea that he belonged to our regiment. Under this impression,
although his conduct in quitting the field at such a period struck me as very extraordinary, I sloped my sword, and
merely exclaiming: "What, Hancox! is it you? I took you for a Frenchman!" turned my horse and galloped back to
the scene of action.
The shock I felt from the idea that I had been on the point of destroying a brother officer instead of an enemy deprived me of all inclination to use my sword except in defence of my own life; and the hostility I had cherished against the French only a few minutes before was converted into pity for them. When I met with Hancox after the action, I found that he wore an oilskin cover on his cap, and was not the person I had followed, who, I conclude, was an officer of the grenadiers a cheval or compagnie d' elite, which is attached to each regiment of dragoons in the French service, and doubtless was much astonished at my sudden appearance and abrupt departure.
For my own part, I shall always consider it a most fortunate circumstance that I was thus deceived, since I have escaped the feeling of remorse to which I should have been exposed had I taken that man's life. Many mistakes of the same kind must have occurred in the confusion after the charge. One of our men told me that I had a narrow escape myself, for that during the melee he had his sword raised to cut me down, but luckily recognized his officer in time to withhold the stroke.
At this time I witnessed an occurrence, which afforded a good deal of amusement to those who were near the
place. Hearing the report of a pistol close behind me, I looked round and saw one of the Fifteenth fall. I
concluded the man was killed, but was quickly undeceived by a burst of laughter from his comrades, who exclaimed that the awkward fellow had shot his own horse, and many good jokes passed at his expense. The melee lasted about ten minutes, the enemy
always endeavouring to gain the Carrion road.
The appearance of their heavy dragoons was extremely martial and imposing; they wore brass helmets of the ancient Roman form, and the long black horsehair streaming from their crests as they galloped had a very
fine effect. Having rode together nearly a mile, pell-mell, cutting and slashing each other, it appeared to me indispensable that order should be re-established, as the men were quite wild and the horses almost blown; therefore, seeing no
superior officer near, I pressed through the throng until I overtook and halted those who were farthest advanced in pursuit. As soon as I had accomplished this object, the bugles sounded the "rally." Whilst we were re-forming our squadrons, the enemy also rallied and
continued their flight by different routes.
Our left and left centre squadrons were detached in pursuit of the chasseurs a cheval, who took the road to Carrion; the other two squadrons followed the dragoons, who retired in the direction of Saldana. Lord Paget accompanied the left centre squadron, and allowed the body he pursued to escape by sending an officer, with a white handkerchief as a flag of truce, to propose to them to surrender. The French took advantage of the delay this occasion, and gained so great a start as to render further pursuit hopeless. The left squadron was more successful, and made about seventy prisoners, amongst whom were a Lieutenant-Colonel and three other officers; but we could not prevent the escape of the main body, which, although more than double our number, never attempted to face us. Soon after our left squadron was put in motion in pursuit of the chasseurs a cheval, Baron Tripp came up to us and said that Lord Paget had sent him to
desire the commanding officer to ride forward with a flag of truce and propose to them to surrender.
Major Leitch made no answer, but, as if he had misunderstood the order, immediately gave the word of command to "Gallop !" upon which the squadron rushed on, leaving the Aidede-Camp petrified with astonishment it was entirely owing to Major Leitch's judicious conduct, in declining to act upon the flag of truce system, that his squadron was enabled to secure so many prisoners. Whilst we were engaged in the pursuit of this division, my mare fell with me in leaping a very wide ditch, and floundered in a snow-wreath on the farther side; my foot hung in the stirrup, and, being encumbered with my cloak, it was some time before I could extricate myself. The mare in the meantime ran away, leaving me in no very enviable situation.
Whilst I was following the squadron on foot, after having been dismounted by the fall of
my horse, I was greatly shocked at witnessing an act of wanton cruelty which it was not in my power to prevent.
A man of Griffith's troop rode up to a French dragoon who was lying wounded on the ground, and at his approach raised himself with difficulty to beg for mercy, stripping off his cross-belts at the same time to show
that he surrendered.
I hallooed to the fellow to spare him, but before I could reach the spot the villain had split the Frenchman's skull with a blow of his
sabre, and galloped away. It was fortunate for him that he got out of my reach, for; in the indignation I felt at his conduct, I should certainly have treated him in the same manner. I beard afterwards that the excuse he offered for this dastardly conduct, when twitted by his comrades, was that be did not like "to let the day pass without cutting down a Frenchman, and could not suffer such a favourable opportunity to slip!" It was also reported that several of the French who were wounded and had received quarter, fired at our men as soon as their backs were turned, and of course paid the forfeit of this treachery with their lives.
After running three or four hundred yards, I met some men of my troop leading captured French horses, from
which I selected one to replace my lost charger. Several straggling Frenchmen passed close beside me, whilst I was
on foot, without offering me the slightest molestation; they probably took me for one of their own people, or
were too intent on providing for their own safety to think of any other object. The animal I selected was a bad goer
and very ill-broke; it had belonged to a quartermaster or subaltern officer, and was handsomely caparisoned, but the
saddle was far from comfortable, and the stirrups so long that I could scarcely reach them with the point of
my toe. This horse was such a headstrong beast that he was near placing me in an awkward
predicament. In the act of leading the
men I had collected against the squadron of Chasseurs which had escaped from Lord Paget, I leaped over a ditch which lay between the two bodies; and when the attack was countermanded, I suppose my steed recognized his old companions, as the enemy was then passing at the distance of little more than a hundred yards, and I had the greatest difficulty in forcing him to recross the ditch, and for some time expected to be carried into the midst of the French squadron in spite of all my exertions to the contrary.
When I was remounted, I saw that the
squadron was so far advanced I had no chance of overtaking it. I therefore employed myself in collecting the
prisoners we had taken, whom I sent to the rear under an escort. They seemed very much terrified, having, as I
understood, been taught to expect no quarter would be given them; and when I assured them they had no cause
for apprehension of that sort, they
kissed my hands, embraced my knees, and committed all manner of extravagancies.
Many of these men were Germans and remarkably
fine looking fellows. I had now collected about thirty hussars- including those who had
been sent back with the prisoners, and whose horses had been unable to keep up with the rest-when the Tenth appeared on an eminence near the scene of action, and were supposed to belong to the enemy. As soon as I noticed this fresh body of cavalry, I looked anxiously round the plain in hopes of discovering a rallying point; but the regiment was so completely scattered in pursuit that I could not perceive
a single squadron formed on the field, and our situation appeared so desperate that I considered the only thing that remained for us to do was to sell our lives as dearly as possible.
I therefore determined to lead my small division against the body of Chasseurs
which had escaped from Lord Paget; but I had scarcely given the word to advance, when his lordship, who as
well as every other officer had been deceived by the appearance of the Tenth in a quarter where they were not
expected, ordered the "rally" to be sounded, and Colonel Grant, who had just arrived at the spot and
approved of my design, said the signal must be immediately obeyed. I was thus reluctantly obliged to abandon the
meditated attack, which, from our relative positions, would in all probability have been attended with
complete success, as we had an opportunity of charging on the
I was happy to exchange the French horse for my own mare, which was brought to me soon after the regiment had reassembled, having been found in the custody of some men of the Tenth, but I was not so fortunate as to recover the valise with my baggage, which was strapped to the saddle at the time I lost her.
We learned from the prisoners that their force consisted of the 8th Regiment of Dragoons and a provisional regiment of chasseurs a
cheval, commanded by the General of Brigade, Debelle, whose horses and baggage fell into our hands. It appeared by the returns found in his portfolio that the French had about eight hundred men mounted in the field, whilst we only mustered betwixt three and four hundred, as,
independent of various small detachments, above a hundred men and horses were left at Melgar de Abaxo.
Although but few of the enemy were killed on the spot, a great proportion of the prisoners were severely wounded, chiefly by the sabre; their total loss exceeded 300 men, for a number of their wounded who, after escaping from the field bad been left on the road from inability to proceed, where secured and brought to headquarters by our infantry, who afterwards occupied the villages where they had taken shelter.
Colonel Dud'huit and twelve officers of the 8th Dragoons were taken. This
regiment, which was in the front, bore the brunt of the attack, and suffered most severely. Colonel Dugens, three
officers, amid about a hundred of the Chasseurs, were made prisoners. We
understood that the Eighth was a favorite corps; it had served in all the late campaigns, and gained great credit at Marengo, Austerlitz, J ena, Eylau, and Friedland; several of the officers wore the Cross of the Legion of Honour and several of the sergeants and privates bore honorary badges. 'The clothing and appointments, both of men and horses, were strong and serviceable; and the brass helmets, in
point of utility and martial appearance, might be substituted with advantage in our Service for the cocked hat of the heavy dragoon.
The French officers expressed surprise at our temerity in attacking them, and
at their own defeat. At first they took us for Spaniards, and expected an easy victory. It is but doing them justice to
remark that they received our charge with the most determined firmness, but
after their ranks were once broken they made no effort to retrieve the day, but appeared panic-struck, and only intent on making their escape. Colonel Tascher, nephew to the Empress. Josephine, commanded the Chasseurs, but we could not ascertain whether he was present in the action. The French were better mounted than we had been led to expect from the report of some of our officers who had
been on service with the regiment in the campaigns of 1794 and 1799.
None of their horses were under fourteen hands and a half, and several were
taken into our brigade to replace such as had become unfit for service. They were in pretty good condition, but most
of their backs were galled; this was not surprising, as they had only arrived at
Sahagun a few days before, having made almost daily marches since the beginning of October, when they left Hanover; and the French dragoons take very little care of their horses. There was not a single man of the Fifteenth killed in the field we had about thirty wounded, five or six severely, two of whom died the next day; (The actual losses were, four men died of wounds, two officers and nineteen other ranks wounded; four horses killed, four wounded, and ten missing.) most of the others were so slightly hurt that they returned to their
duty within a week.
I expected the French would have displayed more skill in the use of the sabre than our men, but the fact proved quite the reverse, for notwithstanding their swords were considerably longer, they had no chance with us. Our hussars obtained a good deal of plunder, as the prisoners were well supplied with many trinkets and ingots of silver, the produce of plate stolen from the churches and houses of the Spaniards, and melted to render it more portable.
Many of their valises contained fans and parasols-rather
extraordinary articles of equipment for a winter campaign. General Debelle
lost his baggage and horses; we also got possession of the papers belonging to the staff of the brigade, and the seals of the 8th Regiment, besides a great number of private letters which were scattered about the fields of the captors without any regard to the tender nature
of the contents.
Although the success of the action was rendered incomplete, owing to the very
extraordinary conduct of General Slade and sonic mistakes of Lord Paget, it nevertheless impressed such an idea of
the superiority of our cavalry on the mind of the enemy as induced them to avoid as much as possible coming in
contact with us. Indeed, I can only attribute the want of enterprise displayed by them on many subsequent
occasions, when, owing to their immense superiority in point of numbers and the inefficient state of our horses, they had favorable
opportunities of destroying the regiment, to the lessons they had received at Sahagun, Rueda, Valencia, etc.
If General Slade had sent forward an officer to announce his approach, or if he had joined in the pursuit, in all probability not a single Frenchman would have escaped. The whole affair did not occupy an hour, and the regiment remained drawn up under the walls of the town, without any refreshment, from seven in the morning till five in the afternoon; whilst the Tenth, who had no share in the dangers of the day, were sent into quarters before us.
|The Wargame presented at Colours by the PNS|
Order of Battle
There is much discrepancy over the numbers involved in this action.
Oman has a return for the 19th Dec as;
15th - 527
10th - 514
These are figures do not exclude those in hospital or 'on command' on the day. Fortesque puts Debelle's sabres at only 400-500
Gen Charles William Vane, who 'may' of charged with the 15th, says the English cavalry had 400 men, whilst that of the French numbered 700. Lord Paget himself, in a letter to his father states that he had around 400 men whilst the enemy had 600-700. Fortesque puts the losses of the French at" apart from several men killed, amounted to 12 officers and 145 men taken prisoners, both wounded and unwounded, 125 horses and several mules".
The 15th lost 2 men and 4 horses killed, 2 officers, 18 men and 10 horses wounded. Oman says the chasseurs were commanded by Col Tascher, a cousin of the Empress Josephine. They lost 2 Lt-Col's 11 other officers and 157 men were taken prisoner. 20 were killed and many more wounded. In fact, the Regt were so mauled that Bonaparte dissolved it in January 1809.
For our scenario we use the following order of battle:
15th Hussars 396 men = 12 Figures @33: 1
7th Hussars (Pagets Escort) 33 men == 1 Figure @33: 1
10th Hussars 396 men = 12 Figures @33:1
4x Horse Artillery Guns
lst Provisional Chasseurs 396 men = 12 Figures @33:1
8th Dragoons 330 men = 10 Figures @33:1
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