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Wellington's Army


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"Field of Glory" The Battle of Crysler's Farm, 1813
by Donald Graves

The following is an excerpt from Donald Grave's new book "Field of Glory".  This is a guaranteed adrenaline rush that will send you rushing to the publisher. 

Chapter 11  "Charge mit de dragoons!"

11 November 1813

Williamsburgh Township, Dundas County, Upper Canada

c. 3.45 P.M.

While Boyd cogitated, Craig's gunners fired at Morrison's infantry, but Barnes's three companies of the 89th were now close enough to take the Americans under fire. Since Boyd gave no orders for his infantry to cross the second ravine and support Craig, his four guns were becoming increasingly vulnerable as Barnes edged closer. It was probably Swift who realized the plight of the artillery and suggested to Boyd they be withdrawn across the ravine for safety. The order was given, Craig ceased fire and his men began the onerous job of traversing the depression a second time, but this made his situation even more precarious for, if the British line to his front renewed its advance he would not be able to place the same volume of fire against it and might be overrun. For this reason, Lieutenant William Smith kept one gun in action to cover the withdrawal. The gunners' predicament attracted the attention of several officers including Ripley of the Twenty-First and John Walbach, who was stationed near Woodford's dragoons on the highway. Walbach decided to do something about it.

Jean-Baptiste de Barth Walbach, to give the man his full name, was one of the more interesting officers in Wilkinson's army. The son of a noble German family, Walbach had graduated from the French artillery school at Strasbourg and then served as a lieutenant of hussars in the French army. In 1792 he joined the royalist forces fighting the new revolutionary regime before taking service with one of the many small German states. Six years later, Walbach travelled to the United States to visit his father, who had emigrated to Pennsylvania, and he arrived just as the American army was being expanded because of a threatened war with France. Walbach, by now thirty-two years old, received a commission as a lieutenant of light dragoons but was discharged when his unit was reduced in 1800. However, an officer with his professional background had much to offer and in 1801 he received a commission in the artillery and by the outbreak of war had reached the rank of captain. Thereafter promotion came more swiftly, as Walbach moved through a series of staff appointments, serving as a deputy quartermaster general and assistant adjutant general before becoming an adjutant general with the rank of colonel in the summer of 1813.

According to men who served with him, Walbach never quite mastered the English language, which he always spoke with a heavy German accent. He did, however, have sufficient grasp of English metaphor to make frequent resort to his favourite oath, "By Jove!" (maybe "By Yove") which he probably exclaimed as he watched Craig's gunners struggling to get their bulky weapons back across the second ravine. Approaching Woodford of the dragoons, Walbach asked him "if a charge of cavalry were practicable" and the Virginian in turn consulted his senior captain, Samuel Harris, who replied that not only was a charge practicable but "not a moment should be lost" if Craig's guns were to be saved. "At this critical moment," Harris commented, the cavalry "alone were left to save the Cannon & the Honor of the Army" because the enemy "had reached almost within grasp of the pieces." On hearing this, Walbach ordered Woodford to "charge mit de dragoons!"

The Second Dragoons had not had a very good war. The unit had been authorized in January 1812, but not until the autumn had enough men been recruited for it to concentrate at Greenbush, New York, where it commenced training. There was no authorized cavalry manual so instruction was provided by one J.A.P. Poutingon, an expatriate of the French army, who found the work arduous and complained to Secretary of War Eustis that he was forced to spend his days in the saddle "hallooing from right and left" and shouting "such one your fist -- such one your toes in -- second rank such thing." "Is it any profession," he whined, "who can destroy the constitution health of a man, as that of hallooing all day, and every day in the year," and respectfully requested a massive pay raise for daily spending eight hours each day "on the field hallooing and galloping and spitting the blood."

The excitable Frenchman was not with the Second Dragoons when it moved north to the Niagara in the spring of 1813. The unit participated in the attack on Fort George in May, landing on the other side of the fort to cut off the British retreat, but the dilatory movements of the main force under Morgan Lewis allowed the enemy to escape. One squadron was at Stoney Creek, where it charged not only the British 49th Foot but also for good measure Pearce's Sixteenth Infantry. A similar problem occurred during the action at Beaver Dams a few weeks later when a troop of the Second came under fire and swiftly galloped out of harm's way, unfortunately in doing so "plunging thro'" friendly infantry and "knocking down and breaking" them. Incidents like these highlighted both a lack of training and the difficulty of employing mounted troops on the northern frontier, where, in Pearce's opinion, the heavily wooded terrain, "rendered successful operations of cavalry nearly impracticable." The regiment experienced continual problems finding enough mounts and forage to feed them, and in June 1813 the greater part was withdrawn from the frontier to Utica, New York, to fatten their horses and train. From there it had moved overland to the St. Lawrence to participate in the offensive against Montreal.

Woodford's squadron had numbered some 200 sabres that morning, but in Harris's words had been "so reduced thro' the day by repeated details" for dispatch riders, staff officers' mounts and guards, ammunition carriers and the loss of some horses to pull the artillery, that he was unable to bring more than 150 men onto the battlefield in their proper role. They had been spectators for much of the action and Jackson had occasionally spared a round for them but, although Harris complained they were "exposed to the enemy's fire," it could have been much worse.

Given the ground and the disposition of the British forces, the attack would not be easy for Woodford to make. To have any chance of success, attacking cavalry had to hit its target with both mass and velocity; if the troops broke formation or if their movement was slowed, the effect would correspondingly be reduced. Woodford had to hit the enemy troops nearest to Craig's guns -- Plenderleath's 49th Foot or Barnes's three companies of 89th. Because Barnes was covered by the first gully, the target would have to be the 49th, and although there was open ground all the way, it was cut across by the ubiquitous rail fences. If Woodford was successful, there was a chance that his dragoons could cave in the right flank of the 49th Foot and save Craig's guns, but he had only one chance to make the thing work because cavalry was often "incapable of making a second charge if once repulsed; it cannot rally again."

Woodford led his squadron in column of fours over the second ravine and reformed them on the western side, where they immediately attracted fire from Jackson's gunners and musketry from Pearson and Barnes. This rendered the task of forming a two-rank line for the charge difficult as the horses, whose afternoon had been no better than that of the dragoons, were unsettled by the bangs of shrapnel shells above their heads and the occasional disarray caused by the fall of a man or horse that had been hit. Woodford, therefore, did not delay the process, and as soon as the squadron was in approximate order, took position in the centre of the front rank and gave the command "Draw swords!"

His men used their right hands to pull their 34-inch long Starr sabres with a rasp from the iron scabbards suspended on their left hips, taking care at the same time to slip their hands through the sword-knot attached to the hilt, a somewhat tricky business as they were wearing heavy buff leather gauntlets. The sabre drawn and the knot secured around the dragoon's wrist, he rested it on the cap of his right hand pistol holster, one of two fastened in front of his saddle. As there was a shortage of cavalry sabres, some of Woodford's men had only their .54 Harper's Ferry or .69 calibre North flintlock pistols. Where this was the case, they now drew one of these weapons, which had been loaded on coming into action, and holding it in their right hand, checked the priming. Firing flintlock pistols while riding a horse could be a dodgy business -- if the weapon was discharged too close to the mount's ear and pricked the sensitive inner tissue with flaming grains of black powder, Dobbin was understandably inclined to buck his troublesome passenger off and go in search of quieter pastures to ruminate on the matter.

These preparations, which took less time to complete than to describe, being made and satisfied that his men were as ready as they could be, Woodford gave the command "Walk!" It was repeated up and down the ranks by the officers and the two ranks moved forward, officers and NCOs trying to preserve the alignment of the ranks, shouting at men who surged forward or dropped back. Selecting the right flank of the 49th as his objective, Woodford moved directly at it, and his men took their direction from him. When he had covered about one hundred feet, the Virginian gave the order "Trot!" and the pace accelerated, the horses' hooves throwing up clods of mud and the alignment of the ranks became more ragged despite all efforts. Woodford, calculating the distance covered, waited until about two hundred and fifty feet had passed and then ordered "Gallop!" and the squadron now accelerated again -- the alignment grew even more ragged, the drumming of the hooves became very audible and the white falls or tresses attached to the dragoons' leather helmets streamed out behind. When he judged the time was right, Woodford shouted "Charge!", and if the Second Dragoons had a trumpeter or bugler with them that day, he sounded the call as the men spurred their horses to a dead run and "gave point" with their sabres, raising them off their holsters and extending them straight out above their horses' right ears, blade upwards.

This was how it worked in theory, but this is not quite what happened on 11 November 1813. In order to reach Plenderleath's right flank, the Second Dragoons had to ride across the front of Pearson and Barnes, who took full advantage to pour a hot flank fire into the blue-uniformed ranks. Pearson's four companies, some firing from behind the buildings of one of Crysler's neighbours, were more distant, and their angle was poor but they got off a scattered volley which probably did not do much damage. As the dragoons moved towards the 49th, however, their direction brought them closer to Captain George West Barnes's companies and, this day, Barnes was determined to salvage a rather shaky career. He waited until the Americans were near and then poured in a concentrated volley before wheeling his left flank company, the grenadier of the 89th, back to the left and firing another heavy volley into their rear as they rode by. Finally, Lieutenant Henry Kersteman, RA, commanding the 6-pdr. gun positioned to support Pearson, saw a chance to do good work and got away at least one round of canister from his 6-pdr. which brought horses and riders tumbling to the ground. At this, Jackson noted with satisfaction, some of the American cavalry went "to the right about" and rode "back more rapidly than they advanced, leaving some men and horses on the field behind them." Morrison later praised both Barnes and Kersteman, reporting that the enemy cavalry was received in a "gallant" manner "by the companies of the 89th under Captain Barnes and the well directed fire of the artillery."

This heavy, close and accurate fire shook Woodford's squadron. His two ranks, their alignment already awry as faster horses pulled ahead of their comrades despite the best efforts of their riders, lost all cohesion. As men and their mounts tumbled to the ground, those horses coming behind swerved to avoid them because horses dislike treading on living creatures. Other dragoons (or their horses), unwilling to face this fire, wheeled and rode away. The result was that the squadron deteriorated from a military formation to a fast-moving clump but despite their losses, the Second Dragoons had got past the gauntlet of Pearson, Barnes and Kersteman and were now racing at full speed toward the open right flank of the 49th Foot. (to be continued)


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