Battle of Salamanca - RDG Museum

RDG Museum

Battle of Salamanca - RDG Museum

The Battle of Salamanca, 22nd July 1812


By the summer of 1812, the tide in the Peninsular War was turning. Wellington's army, growing in strength, experience and determination, had begun the year by renewing the offensive in Spain, capturing the fortified towns of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. Salamanca, in turn, fell to the Allies (Spain, Portugal and Great Britain) on the 17th of June. However, at this juncture the French, in the shape of Marshal Marmont's force of 50,000 men, approached from the Pyrenees. Wellington, watching Marmont's progress, realised that his own force was certain to be outnumbered, and determined to withdraw rather than give battle under unfavourable conditions.

With Marmont's army in pursuit, Wellington thus began to return to Portugal. The French were eager to catch the Allied army on the retreat and trap it in Spain; Marmont felt himself under pressure to produce a French victory, aiming to restore the balance of power in the Peninsula.

The battle's genesis took place when Marmont, seeing a large cloud of dust rising from behind the hill of the Lesser Arapile (a small hill somewhat to the West of his position on a ridge), mistook this as the sign of Wellington's general retirement. Seeing that a division of British troops was arrayed on the ridge, he further took them to be a rearguard, and began making preparations to cut off Wellington's line of movement. The opportunity to isolate and defeat a portion of the Allied army seemingly beckoned. To that end, he ordered his forces into a swift march West, along the ridge line to the South of the small village of Arapiles, making them very visible against the skyline. He further ordered Marshal Maucune to take the village itself, and set himself up, after a skirmish with Allied forces, atop the Greater Arapile, a larger mount to the South of the Lesser Arapile, affording a good view over the battlefield.

Wellington, however, had sent only his heavy baggage train West, toward Ciudad Rodrigo. The bulk of his force - seven divisions plus one brigade of infantry, plus General le Marchant's Heavy Cavalry brigade and a regiment of Portuguese Dragoons under the command of General Benjamin D'Urban - now waited, watching carefully to see what the French were up to. Before long, it seemed that they had made an error.

As the French columns marched along the ridge, they began to extend, stringing out into a long, thin column; an inviting target for a determined attack, which would split the entire French line into individual units, to be defeated in detail. He ordered General Pakenham, with his 3rd Division, to engage Marshal Thomieres, now moving West toward the village of Aldeatejada, along with D'Urban's Portuguese Dragoons. Pakenham routed Thomieres' division; caught between the rapid attack of Pakenham's 3rd Division to their right and D'Urban's dragoons to their front, they suffered heavy casualties and broke, with Thomieres being killed. To add to the confusion now sweeping the French lines, Marshal Marmont had been wounded around the outset of the fighting, and command had devolved on his subordinate, General Bonet. Bonet himself, however, was wounded shortly afterwards, and these two losses may have crippled the French command and control arrangements at a critical moment.

Meanwhile, General Maucune's division, on learning of the movements of the Portuguese cavalry, formed square to receive them - and were promptly engaged by General Leith's 5th Division, who poured yet more fire into the beleaguered French. Maucune's men, unable to match the British fire and taking heavy losses, began to break and fall back. At that moment, Wellington released Le Marchant's heavy cavalry brigade - the 5th Dragoon Guards, and the 3rd and 4th Dragoons - into the fray, where they promptly destroyed the remainder of the the luckless Maucune's division. The cavalry reformed after passing through the routed French, charged headlong into the breathless and disorganised infantry of General Brenier's division, still approaching from the East, and tore straight through their front line. They were only finally stopped by the formed squares of Brenier's second line; in trying to force these open, General Le Marchant, leading the charge, was killed, and the brigade declined to destroy itself in a futile attempt to break the French squares.

The attack had now wrecked Marmont's plan altogether, crumpling two of his divisions and heavily mauling a third. General Bertrand Clausel, now assuming command, attempted to save the situation. Moving General Sarrut's division to hold his left flank, where Thomieres' and Maucune's divisions had been savaged, he launched a counter-attack towards the Allied centre, sweeping aside some of the survivors of the Allies' attempt to gain control of the Greater Arapile and crashing into the 6th Division. A swift and hard counter-stroke by the Allies, including the 5th Portuguese brigade and the 1st and 7th Divisions, threw the French back, breaking them and sending them into retreat.

The Allies now began a general advance toward the South-East in pursuit. Held up for a while by General Ferey and General Foy's courageous rearguard actions, they eventually lost contact with the retreating French, and the two sides drew apart. The battle was over; the French had suffered some 13-14,000 losses (killed, wounded and captured), including two Divisional commanders killed (Thomieres and Ferey) and two senior officers wounded, plus the loss of ten cannon. Against this, the Allies had lost only 5,173 men from all causes.

The 5th Dragoon Guards, having played a central part in one of the most spectacular and decisive cavalry charges of the entire war, were able to capture the Drum-Major's staff from the 66th Regiment du Ligne, or Regiment of the Line. This silver-plated, round-headed staff, known universally as the Salamanca Staff, has been carried on parade, ever since, by the senior Warrant Officer Class II (WO2) of all the 5th Dragoon Guards' successor Regiments, including the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards and the present Regiment, The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Staff, today in the hands of the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (Technical) (or RQMS (Tech)), always follows three paces behind the Commanding Officer - a living, glimmering reminder of the glory won upon the dusty plain of Salamanca.

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