How Effective Is A Cavalry Charge? Battle of Somosierra Witnessed One Of The Greatest

How Effective Is A Cavalry Charge? Battle of Somosierra Witnessed One Of The Greatest

Military History

30 November 1808 marks the legendary Battle of Somosierra in the Peninsular War (also called Spain’s Independence War) when Acting Colonel Jan Kozietulski’s 125 Polish cavalry defeated General Benito de San Juan’s 9,000 Spanish infantry, 200 gunners & 16 guns. The incredible victory opened the way to Madrid. It secured the Polish reputation as among the finest cavalry of their or any day.

In late 1808, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte led 40,000 men to take Madrid.

After the defeats of Burgos, Espinosa de los Monteros & Tudela, the shattered Spanish armies retreated to Madrid. San Juan mustered 12,000 men. These included survivors of the defeats as well as militia & reservists. 9,000 men & 16 guns guarded Guadarrama Pass in the Somosierra Mountains. The 8 meter wide road through the pass snaked back & forth up a steep hill. An advancing army would repeatedly present its flank to whoever occupied the ridge. That same steepness made flank attacks impossible. A ditch was dug at the hill’s foot to prevent the French dragging their guns uphill.

They separated the guns into 4 batteries. Their grouping is uncertain. In one account, Batteries 1-3 comprised 2 guns each. Battery 4 had 10. In the other account, all 4 batteries had 4 guns each. Each gun fired an 8-pound (3.6 kg) shot. They had a range of 800 meters (.5 miles). The batteries became strung out over 2,500m (1.6 mi). Battery 1 lay 300m (984 feet) behind the ditch. A low stone wall protected it. Battery 2 lay 800-1,000m (.5-.6 mi) back. It guarded a bend in the road. It could fire along the approaching road’s entire length. Battery 3 lay 600m (.4 mi) beyond, also on a bend, behind a barricade of earth-filled wicker baskets. Battery 4 lay 800m (.5 mi) beyond, near the summit. 400m (.25 mi) beyond that lay Somosierra village & the pass itself.

At 08:00, 30 November, Division General François Ruffin led 3 infantry regiments (9e Légère; 24e & 96e Ligne; 6 guns) forward.

Their guns quickly became stuck in the ditch. Only 2 made it over. Fighting began at 09:00. The Spanish poured shot & shell into the French ranks. According to the French Army of Spain’s 13th Bulletin, the Spanish discharged 4 artillery rounds & 400 bullets every minute. The French fired back. However, they soon retreated from this fierce barrage. Some tried to climb the sheer slopes & flank the Spanish. They were also driven off. Between 11-12:00, a heavy fog mixed with gunsmoke obscured much of the field. Only the occasional sunbeam pierced it.

Lieutenant Józef Załuski wrote:

“The road, narrowed in this gorge, wound its way up a slope between rocks planted with infantry. At its 4 bends stood 4 cannons, which fired upon it in all its directions.”

Napoleon rode up to inspect Ruffin’s progress. As he approached, a shot whipped by his head. He was shocked & enraged that the “inferior” Spanish troops, who he held in contempt. Held his veterans at bay. He ordered Brigadier General Hippolyte Piré to lead a troop of the elite Garde Impériale Chasseurs à Cheval cavalry forward & flush the gunners out. As Piré drew near, the guns fired on him. Between the ditch, the rough terrain & the constant fire, he achieved nothing. At length, the French fell back. Piré told Napoleon it was impossible to seize the pass. An enraged Napoleon slapped his riding crop against his boot. He snapped, “Impossible? I don’t know the meaning of the word!”

He turned to his Polish escort squadron. The French & Poles had been brothers in revolution since 1791. Both nations had become locked in a dual struggle with both their own nobility & the nobility of aggressor states. The French had great regard for the Poles & the Polish Constitution of 1791. It helped that Poland’s historical enemies – Austria, Prussia & Russia – were foremost among France’s. When these nations brutally partitioned Poland in 1795, thousands of Poles fled to France. This included many nobles, government officials, officers & soldiers. In 1797, Napoleon approved the creation of the Polish Legion (Legiony Polskie). It was an all arms force of infantry, cavalry & artillery and was a true army in exile. It maintained its own Polish traditions, uniforms, officers & language.

In 1805, Napoleon entered Polish lands.

When he reached Warsaw, he was hailed as a national liberator. Thousands flocked to him. In 1807, he concluded the Tilsit Treaty with Russia & Prussia. It established a Polish client state: the Duchy of Warsaw. It was what the Poles had been praying for since 1795. Marshal Prince Józef Poniatowski assumed command of the new armed forces. He had no trouble recruiting men. The Poles were still surrounded by enemies, they were determined to never be conquered again. They were well aware that Poland’s & Napoleon’s fortunes were intertwined. Furthermore, they fought for him on every front. They remained loyal right up to the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon’s escort squadron comprised 125 Polish cavalry of Squadron II of the 1st Polish Light Cavalry of the Imperial Guard (1. Pułk Szwoleżerów Gwardii Cesarskie). He pointed at the pass. He told 28-year-old Acting Colonel Jan Kozietulski (Colonel Ignacy Stokowski was absent):

“Take that position, at the gallop!”

The other French couldn’t believe their ears. They were even more surprised when Kozietulski saluted Napoleon & rode to his men. He ordered them forward. He reportedly said, “Naprzód, psiekrwie! Cesarz patrzy!” (“Forward, sons of dogs! The Emperor is watching!”). The Poles drew their swords. As they rode past, Napoleon shouted, “Poles! Take the cannons!” The Poles shouted, “Vive l’Empereur!” A few inspired French cavalry impulsively joined them.

The Poles moved in a column 4 abreast. The squadron comprised Captain Jan Dziewanowski’s 3. Kompania & Captain Piotr Krasiński’s 7. Kompania. The platoons were led by Lieutenants Stefan Krzyżanowski & Leon Szeptycki & 2nd Lieutenants Andrzej Niegolewski, Gracjan Rowicki, Ignacy Rudowski & Benedykt Zielonka. Most of the Poles had never seen combat before. It was against all practice of war for cavalry to mount an uphill charge against a fortified battery. The horses made incredibly large targets. Once the first few went down, the other horses would be unable to move over them. They would halt, presenting themselves. They too, would then die. This would continue until the charge was broken.

It’s uncertain whether Napoleon actually intended for Kozietulski to seize Battery 1 or all 4 Batteries. Nor is it certain if he meant for the attack to happen immediately or if Kozietulski was to await Ruffin. Kozietulski galloped off without asking for clarification. He left his superior, Division General Charles Morand, behind. Morand was an experienced cavalryman. He begged Napoleon to call off the senseless, hopeless assault. Chief-of-Staff & Imperial Guard Commander Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier agreed. An impatient Napoleon snarled, “Leave it to the Poles!” Indeed, it had to be done. He sent adjutant Major Philippe Ségur forward to confirm the order. The dice had been thrown.

The fog masked Kozietulski’s advance.

At 1 km (.6 mi), Spanish light infantry opened fire. A few Poles fell. At 3-400m, Battery 1 fired a canister salvo. The Polish first rank went down. The columns halted for a moment. It seemed the charge would fail. The rule of war would play out yet again. Then, incredibly, the Poles came on again. As they got closer, the Spanish switched to solid shot. These travelled down the column’s entire length, killing or wounding many. A musketball killed Rudowski. Still the Poles came. They rode around the wall. No one could have foreseen this. The Spaniards were frantically reloading their guns when the Poles fell on them. The Poles spared no one.

Battery 2 & nearby Spanish infantry immediately opened fire. Kozietulski ordered a charge. Riderless horses rode alongside their fellows. Krzyżanowski died. A musketball killed Kozietulski’s horse. It fell, pinning his leg. 26-year-old Dziewanowski took over. He reached Battery 2 in 2 minutes. He took a few losses. The gunners hadn’t been able to move their pieces fast enough to keep the Poles in their sights. They were cut down. Battery 3 opened fire. They had plenty of time to sight their pieces. The Poles took heavy losses. A cannonball decapitated Rowiczki. Krasiński suffered a serious chest wound. Dziewanowski’s leg & arm were badly broken (he died on 5 December). The Poles reached Battery 3. They seized it in fierce fighting.

Only 30-40 Poles, now under 21-year-old Niegolewski, survived to charge Battery 4. 2,000 men guarded it. But the Poles had come this far. They would go on.

Niegolewski took Battery 4 in fierce fighting. At the end, his horse was covered in slashes, his sword was broken by grapeshot & his shako was full of bullet holes. He alone was unwounded. He asked Sergeant Sokołowski, “Where are the men?” Sokołowski replied, “They are all killed.” The road was covered with dead & wounded Poles & horses. The Spanish launched a fierce counterattack. They retook the battery. Sokołowski died. Niegolewski was unhorsed, bayonetted 9 times, shot twice in the head, slashed with a saber & looted.

Far below, Napoleon & the French could scarcely believe their eyes. When Battery 4 fell, Napoleon snapped into action. He had to secure the batteries before the Spanish could re-crew them. He sent a Garde Impériale squadron & Squadron I of the 1st Polish Light Cavalry. 24-year-old Colonel Tomasz Łubieński led them. They quickly passed the first 3 batteries. Ahead of them, the Spanish infantry prepared to retake them. But they were badly unnerved at what the Poles were so clearly capable of. When Łubieński charged them, they fled. Shortly after, the 96e Ligne voltigeurs arrived & cleared the Spanish from the heights. Additional cavalry arrived, including Squadrons III & IV. They pursued the broken Spanish. The battle was over.

Between the earlier failed French assaults & the Polish charge, the scene surrounding the batteries was a charnel house. Dead & wounded Spaniards, Poles, French & horses lay entangled. Marshal Bessières found Niegolewski. He said, “Young man, the Emperor has seen the beautiful charge of the Light Cavalry. He will know how to appreciate your bravery.” Niegolewski exclaimed “Monseigneur, I’m dying. Here are the cannons that I have acquired. Tell the emperor about it!” Napoleon arrived. He was stunned and called for a surgeon. He is said to have taken the Légion d’honneur – France’s highest military award – from his own chest & pinned it on Niegolewski’s. Lastly, he proclaimed, “You are my bravest cavalry!”

The Poles lost 4 officers, 2 non-commissioned officers & 16 men dead.

These included Captain Dziewanowski; Lt. Krzyżanowski; 2nd Lts. Rowiczki & Rudowski; Sgt. Sokołowski; Corporal Mroczek; Troopers Białkowski, Ciesielski, Drodziński, Drożdżewski, Jasiński, Kowalski, Nieszworowicz (missing in action), Rokuszewski, Rymdzyko, Strachowski, Sulczycki, Turczyński, Wasilewski, Żabałowicz, Żurawski & Żylicz. 4 officers & 31 men were wounded. Several dozen horses were lost. Against all odds, Niegolewski survived. He made a full recovery & rejoined his regiment in time for the 5th Coalition War. He fought in Austria, in Spain again, Russia & Central Europe. After the war, he had a long & distinguished career, retiring as a Colonel in 1831. He died in 1857, aged 69.

San Juan lost 250 dead/wounded, 3,000 captive & 16 guns. San Juan retreated to Madrid. The old Hussar of Estremadura had fought bravely, sustaining several wounds. On 1 December, French patrols arrived. Resistance was hopeless. On 4 December, Madrid surrendered. San Juan refused to give up. He retreated to Talavera de la Reina. He tried to organize a new resistance. On 7 January, a mutiny broke out. A mob came for him. He tried to reason with them. Then he fought them. He finally tried to escape through a window. He was shot 3 times. His corpse was hanged from a tree & shot several more times. He was 82 years old. His men dispersed in all directions.

What the Polish achieved on 30 November was nothing less than incredible.

On 1 December, Napoleon inspected the regiment. Survivors stood in battle formation with drawn sabers. When the command to attention was given, Napoleon took off his hat & saluted them. He shouted, “Honor to the bravest of the brave!” The entire Imperial Guard cheered. In 1809, the unit was converted to lancers. Their new title was 1er Régiment de Chevau-Légers Lanciers Polonais de la Garde Impériale (1. Pułk Szwoleżerów-Lansjerów Gwardii Cesarskiej). Soon after, the entire regiment was inducted into the “Old Guard,” a momentous honour. They often had the privilege of being brigaded with Napoleon’s Garde Impériale Chasseurs, guaranteeing them the best quarters, food & fodder.

The entire army was in awe of them. Such was their reputation that non-Polish units began consciously imitating them – cutting their uniforms to Polish style & adopting their square headgear. The most well-known imitators were the Dutch 2nd Guard Lancers, also called “The Red Lancers.” Polish dress would later become the default fashion for lancer units across Europe. This tradition would last as long as lancers themselves appeared on the battlefield. As well it might. At Somosierrra, the Poles withstood their baptism of fire. They achieved an impossible goal against unwinnable odds. They wrote their names in blood on the pages of history. As a result, they won a legacy that would never be forgotten.

They truly stand in history as among the finest cavalry units of their or any day.

In the evening of that momentous day, Łubieński wrote to his wife: “We had many trials from which, thanks to Providence, we came out safely, & especially from today’s battle of Somosierra we can boast that we decided the fate of this battle… by striking the enemy. We took 13 cannons & 5 banners from him & scattered them completely, in a ravine almost inaccessible to cavalry.

Kozietulski became famous.
Kozietulski during the battle of Somosierra

Poor but brave Dziewanowski died having lost a leg… Some of our brave countrymen have fallen, having covered themselves with glory. 3 officers became counted among them. Among the wounded are 3 officers, but they are not in danger. Kozietulski had a horse killed under him & his coat shot through. The fame of that day fell entirely to us.”

How Effective Is A Cavalry Charge? Battle of Somosierra Witnessed One Of The Greatest

Written by Garrett Anderson

Written by Garrett Anderson

Military History

How Effective Is A Cavalry Charge? Battle of Somosierra Witnessed One Of The Greatest