Battle of García Hernández : Wellington’s Stand Against Napoleon in The Peninsular War
23 July 1812 marks the Battle of García Hernández in the Peninsular War when Major General Eberhardt von Bock’s 770 King’s German Legion cavalry (KGL 1st & 2nd Dragoons) & Gen. Sir George Anson’s 1,000 British cavalry (11th, 12th & 16th Light Dragoons) took up pursuit. smashed Gen. Maximilien Foy’s 3,637 French infantry (6e Légère; 39e, 69e & 76 Ligne) & 521 cavalry (26e & 28e Chasseurs à Cheval; 3e Hussards). On 22 July, the Earl of Wellington won a crushing victory at Salamanca. Foy acted as rearguard for Marshal Marmont’s retreating army.
The King’s German Legion was composed of Hanoverian exiles. When Napoleon overran Hanover in 1803, King George III invited them to fight for freedom in Britain. They were a literal army in exile. Their cavalry was famous. Unlike British cavalry – whose deficiencies in horsemanship, cohesion & discipline earned them the contempt of other branches of service & of Wellington himself – the Legion cavalry were universally regarded as efficient, disciplined & highly trained professionals. Wellington preferred them for any real work.
Bock caught Foy at García Hernández on 23 July.
Foy’s 8 battalions formed squares on a hill. Anson confronted the 3e & 26e (3 squadrons total) which fell back. The 1st KGL Dragoons charged the 28e (2 sqns). It fled. As the Germans pursued, they were fired on by Foy’s squares. Several horses & horsemen were wounded, including Lieutenant Colonel May. Captain Gustav von der Decken, 1st KGL 3rd Sqn Commander, decided the French squares were too dangerous. He was very near a 76e Ligne bn square. Without orders, he charged it.
The 76e held held its fire too long. Their volley wounded Decken & killed Lt. Voss. Trooper Post’s dying horse & body crashed into the square, dragging down 6 men. Captain Friedrich von Uslar-Gleichen took command. He led his sqn through the gap. They slashed the square up from the inside. Trooper Grobe wounded Colonel Molard (he died 12 days later).
The 76e’s 1st square quickly broke. Many surrendered. 1st KGL 2nd Sqn Captain August von Reitzenstein charged the 2nd 76e square. It discharged a volley, wounding Lts. Carl Heugel & Carl Tappe. The square was already badly shaken from seeing its comrade square broken. It broke on contact. It dissolved into a rabble. Reitzenstein killed, wounded or captured many men. The 2 squares’ remnants formed a 3rd square.
The 6e joined it. 2 6e companies weren’t quick enough. Reitzenstein caught them in the open. They turned & fired on him. He mauled them. A 28e sqn galloped up. 2nd KGL 3rd Sqn Captain Baron Carl von Marschalck & 2nd KGL Sqn 2nd Lieutenant Johannes Fumetty’s troop dispersed them, then charged the 3rd square. The panicking French broke. Hundreds surrendered. Only 50 escaped, joining 2 more squares – comprising 2 bns each of the 39e & 69e.
The exhausted 2nd KGL made no impact on these squares.
A large volley drove them off, killing Uslar & badly wounding Fumetty. Sergeant Schmalfeld saved him from captivity. The 2nd galloped off, sabering stragglers. They caught a trailing bn of the 8e Division. The 2nd couldn’t break them. They retired to join their comrades. Foy escaped with his remaining men.
Bock lost 4 officers, 48 men & 67 horses dead, 2 officers, 56 men & 46 horses wounded, 6 men & 4 horses captive.
Foy lost 200 dead/wounded, 1,400 captive.
The near impossible feat of breaking 3 infantry squares greatly enhanced the KGL’s prestige. To honour their bravery, the War Office raised Legion officers’ ranks to equal those of regular British officers on 12 August. The KGL Dragoons were given the 1st place of honour in entering Madrid.
“We renewed the pursuit at break of day in the morning with the same troops, & Major General Bock’s & Major General Anson’s brigades of cavalry, which joined during the night; &, having crossed the Tormes, we came up with the enemy’s rear of cavalry & infantry near La Serna. They were immediately attacked by the 2 brigades of dragoons, & the cavalry fled, leaving the infantry to their fate.
I have never witnessed a more gallant charge than was made on the enemy’s infantry by the heavy brigade of the King’s German Legion, under Major General Bock, which was completely successful; & the whole body of infantry, consisting of 3 battalions of the enemy’s 1st division, were made prisoners.”