Letters from the Peninsula War


This page covers the experiences of Colonel John Townsend and his brothers Maurice Fitzgerald Townsend and Abraham Boyle Townsend during the Peninsula War.

Their published letters, taken from the book An Officer of the Long Parliament (OLP), have been placed in chronological order in an abbreviated account of the war taken from open sources and supported by accounts in the Historical Record of The Fourteenth Regiment of Light Dragoons by Richard Cannon, Esq., Adjutant General's Office, Horse Guards. London: Parker, Furnivall, & Parker. 1847.

Aged 16, John was appointed Cornet in the 14th Light Dragoons on 24 January 1805 and the following year he purchased his Lieutenancy. The regiment was serving in England at the time that he joined and consisted of 10 mounted troops of 90 each. By the time that the 14th deployed to Portugal it would appear that this figure had fallen to 750 horses in total. Light dragoons were mounted, armed, equipped and trained to provide reconnaissance, outposts, vedettes, patrols and flank protection for the army.

Material reproduced from the Historical Record is shown in italics and letters reproduced from OLP are indented.

Arrival in Lisbon

John sailed from Falmouth with the 14th for Portugal, in the transport ‘Benjamin and Mary', on 16th December 1808 and arrived in Lisbon on the 23rd of December 1808. Following the Battle of Corunna on 16th January 1809, only a small British force remained in the Peninsula and they were quartered, along with the reinforcements, in Lisbon. It was from here the 14th advanced in March 1809 to Bucellas, a forward position of the army. In April the regiment headed the advance of the army to Coimbra on the road to Oporto and in early May it was formed into a brigade with the 16th and 20th Light Dragoons under the command of Major General Cotton.

Meanwhile, the French army invaded Portugal and Marshal Soult captured Oporto.

My dearest Mother,

Belem (part of Lisbon) Jan. 1 1809.

Our first division marches on Saturday for the frontier but what we are to do no one knows. Sir D. Baird has joined General Moore but whether they have had any engagements we can't tell, for all our news comes from England. We live here excessively well - our breakfast which is coffee and eggs for about 45 pence and dinner for about 2s. 7d. and wine into the bargain…..The French have not left a single vestige of anything in the country that is valuable. Skibbereen of a wet day is a drawing room in point of cleanliness to Lisbon.

John Townsend to his father

Belem, March 3, 1809.

The news here is very bad indeed, from what we understand our troops suffered uncommonly at the battle of Corunna and that many more were lost than is accounted for in the papers. We had the Brest fleet off the bar the day before yesterday consisting of sixteen sail of the line and some Frigates and yesterday Sir J. Duckworth with 12 sail of the line took . . . from this river and went in pursuit of them and no doubt he will give a good account of them if he overtakes them. The army here march tomorrow for Bucellas and Torres Vedras where they are to take up a position that is remarkably strong in order to be in readiness for the French if they should come here again.

Your ever affectionate and dutiful son

John Townsend.

Battle of the Douro 11th-12th May 1809.

Having recently taken command of the Anglo-Portuguese Army, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley’s first priority was to eject the French from Oporto. Thus he immediately advanced on the town and made a surprise crossing of the Douro River, approaching the town where its defences were weak. Marshal Soult's late attempts to muster a defence were in vain. The French quickly abandoned the city in a disorderly retreat and, finding their retreat to the east blocked, were forced to destroy their guns and burn their baggage train.

Two squadrons of the 14th, under Lieutenant Colonel Neil Talbot, were detached with the Portuguese troops to intercept the French, if they should attempt to retreat via Amarante; the remaining three squadrons under Colonel Hawker advanced to Oporto to form the the advance-piquets. Arriving on the banks of the Douro on the 12th May, undetected by the French, two squadrons of the 14th were detached, with the German brigade and two guns under Major General John Murray, three miles up the river, to Barca de Avintas, where they crossed the river in boats. In the meantime, nearer the city, the remaining force was engaged in a fierce action with the enemy, when the 14th and the Germans were seen advancing down the right bank of the river. The French made a precipitate retreat followed by the leading squadron of the 14th, commanded by Major F. B. Hervey, and gallantly supported by the second squadron under Major the Honourable Charles Butler. They dashed sword in hand upon the enemy's rear-guard and overthrew it, as it was pushing through a narrow road to gain an open space beyond the defile. The French General, Laborde, was unhorsed, and General Foy was wounded. With no other troops in support, the 14th had to fight their way back, and several men and horses were killed or wounded. Major F. B. Hervey lost his right arm; Captain Peter Hawker, Lieutenants Robert Knipe, and Evelyn Dormer, were wounded.

My dearest Father,

Braga, May 25, 1809. (34 miles northeast of Oporto)

I take the first opportunity of writing to you well knowing how anxious you must be concerning the ragged 14th after having read Sir Arthur Wellesley's dispatches concerning our giving the enemy a good drubbing.

We (the cavalry) met the enemy on the morning of the l0th about four o'clock and we skirmished with them and charged and a little play until about twelve when they retired. We took about 30 prisoners and 60 horses. On the eleventh the infantry went at it and drove them from a village called Gujon. On the 12th we forced the passage of the Douro under a very heavy fire of cannon and musketry and eventually succeeded in taking Oporto and about 16 pieces of cannon. I would have written to you by Fitzroy Stanhope but really I had not time, for the moment we crossed the river we dashed thro' the town and charged the enemy retiring in confusion towards Valonga and that evening I was on patrol all night in front of Oporto and the next day we marched following the enemy up thro' the mountains as far as a frontier town about two miles from Gahera into which province we drove the enemy with the loss of 300 horses and a great quantity of plunder all their cannon and ammunition and 2000 men killed, wounded and taken prisoners.

I hope the people in England are satisfied, for it was the very same army (tho' not so numerous) that drove Sir J. Moore's army out of Spain commanded by Soult himself that we have beat first and then drove them out of Portugal. Our two squadrons of horse that you see mentioned in the papers of having behaved so well on the 12th, were our right squadron commanded by Hervey and our left by Butler in which I was. We lost about 29 men killed, wounded and taken. Hervey has lost his right arm, very high, Knipe has been shot in the neck but doing very well, and Hawker slightly wounded in the lip and lost his horse, no other officers touched. We halt here for a few days to get our horses shod; we had a dreadful time of it from the 13th of May until the 23rd, nothing but incessant rain and all the time in the mountains. The poor mare is almost done up. Florist in fine order, a charming warhorse, I was on her back from eleven o'clock one night until half past five the next afternoon, and neither he nor I had anything but some water which we got in a brook during that time.

Battle of Talavera 27th–28th July 1809

Following the Battle of the Douro the 14th marched eighty miles in four days over the most difficult country pursuing in a mountainous region the demoralised French troops, whose line of retreat could be traced by the smoke of burning houses, and Sir Arthur Wellesley advanced into Spain with an army 20,000 strong to join the Spanish army under General Cuesta.

They marched up the Tagus valley to Talavera, 75 miles southwest of Madrid, where they encountered a French army of 46,000 under Marshal Victor, with the French king of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte, in nominal command. Having crossed the Alberche river on 27th July they attacked the Anglo-Spanish army and skirmishes continued until a major assault by the French during the following afternoon was repulsed. As dawn broke on the morning of 29th July the allies discovered that the French had withdrawn leaving behind their wounded and two brigades of artillery. Sir Arthur Wellesley was ennobled as Duke of Wellington after the battle.

When the army went into position, Major General Mackenzie was left with a division of infantry and a brigade of cavalry, as an advanced post, in the wood on the right of the Alberche, which covered the left flank. The French attacked this post between two and three o'clock on the 27th of July, when the 14th were ordered forward. They crossed the Alberche river, and were employed in skirmishing until night and had nine horses killed ; Lieutenant Theophilus Thomas Ellis and one private soldier were wounded.

The 14th resumed their post in the position occupied by the allied army, and supported the infantry during the severe contest on the 28th of July. The left of the British line was attacked at day-break, and when the enemy was repulsed at this point, a long pause ensued. An attack on the centre was made soon after two o'clock, and the French were again driven back ; they also failed in another attack on the left. A strong body of the enemy advanced against Major General Sherbrooke's division; this attack was repulsed by a charge of the whole division with bayonets. The brigade of foot guards pursued so far as to be in danger of being annihilated and the 48th regiment of foot with the 14th and 16th light dragoons were brought forward. The foot guards rallied and again advanced and the French fell back.

The 14th had three men and twenty-one horses killed ; Colonel Samuel Hawker, Captains John Chapman, and Peter Hawker, Lieutenants William Wainman and Thomas Smith, six rank and file, and three horses wounded ; thirteen horses missing; Lieutenant Evelyn Dormer taken prisoner. Lieutenant Colonel Neil Talbot, and Major Baker had each a horse killed under him. Colonel Hawker was rewarded with a gold medal, and the regiment was subsequently authorised to bear on its guidons and appointments the word “Talavera”, in commemoration of its distinguished services in this action.

John Townsend to his mother.

Talavera, July 25, 1809.

Since we left Thomar we have not been under any other cover than what the woods afforded us. On Friday last we formed a junction with the Spanish Army under Cuesta, and on Saturday morning both armies advanced towards this place; about two leagues from hence we fell in with about 12,000 of the enemy who retired before us, and took up the position which we now occupy and were there joined by another corps of about 1000 men, the whole commanded by Victor in person. We halted the evening of Saturday about five miles from them and were to have attacked at daybreak but Cuesta refused and said he was not ready. On Monday we advanced an hour before day in high spirits, every individual determined to do his duty to the utmost, when we came to the Tagus which was to have been forded in front of all their cannon and in the centre of their lines by the British troops, they had walked off at about one in the morning, leaving us their encampment full of forage.

Following Talavera Wellington’s army was depleted by one third through battlefield losses, shortage of rations and disease and there was no further reason for the British to remain in Spain, nor indeed was the army in any fit state to do so. In August Wellington became aware of a large French force double the size of his army that threatened to cut off his retreat into Portugal. Thus he chose to withdraw southwestwards towards the Portuguese frontier where the army could be supplied from Elvas and Lisbon.  While encamped on the banks of the Guadiana, a 'malignant fever' proved fatal to many in the army.

John Townsend to his father.

Elvas, August 2nd, 1809. (Near Badajoz)

You doubtless have seen by the papers of the battle that was fought at Talavera, and how nobly our army behaved during such trying circumstances. I had a severe fit of illness about a month ago so much so that I was delirious for two days but afterwards I got better but was reduced to nothing and even at the present time I am only a skeleton and on the sick list. ... I am perfectly certain my illness was brought on by excessive fatigue and being deprived of wine and being two days without rations. Nothing but dry bread and water. Those privations at a time when we were undergoing the severest duty occasioned a great number to fall sick the very moment it relaxed.

Concerned about the security of Lisbon, in autumn 1809 Wellington ordered the construction of a defensive line from the Atlantic to the river Tagus north of Lisbon - The Lines of Torres Vedras. His principal concern was to withdraw to a position where the army could rest, replenish and consolidate so that they were ready for battle. He used the Light Division, of which the 14th were part, to provide the screen force but they were forced to withdraw to a line from Almeida to the River Côa when the French attacked Ciudad Rodrigo at the beginning of June, which subsequently surrendered on 10 July.

Val de Coelha, one league in front of Almeida, July 4, 1810.

My dear Mother,

By the newspapers I see the beautiful Misses Townsend were at Court and that their dresses were only to be surpassed by their beauty. The enemy have been canonading Cuidad Roderigo these ten days, it still holds out most gallantly. We are only three leagues from it and the other part of our regiment are not so far. We are with the Light division in front of the army so you may think we are pretty watchful. Their cavalry are encamped at the other side of the Aguida and we see them as plain as possible. We expect to have a difference with them in a short time concerning this country.

Barquillo 11th July 1810

During the siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, marauding parties of French soldiers entered the villages of Barquillo and Villa de Puerco on three successive nights. On the morning of 11th July the French force, consisting of two companies of grenadiers supported by around 30 cavalry, were attacked and driven back by cavalry from Brigadier General Craufurd’s brigade.

Brigadier General Craufurd, thinking to cut off the next party, formed two ambushes, one near Villa de Puerco, with six squadrons, and one of three squadrons near Barquillo. He also placed his artillery, five companies of the 95th, (Rifle-brigade) and the third Portuguese Caçadores in reserve. On the morning of 11th July, shortly after day-break, a party of French infantry was observed near Villa de Puerco, and a small body of cavalry at Barquillo. Before the dragoons could properly deploy to intercept them the French infantry, two hundred strong, had time to form square, being hidden in high standing corn. The French dragoons coming out of Barquillo, were charged by the German hussars and a squadron of the 16th, and two officers and twenty-nine men were made prisoners. In the meantime the 14th charged against the square, but the French infantry remained perfectly steady and opened such a fire, that Lieutenant Colonel Talbot and eight men fell dead close to the bayonets and twenty-three men were wounded. The survivors withdrew a short distance to reform their ranks and the French square commenced its retreat with steadiness and in good order. On the death of Lieutenant Colonel Talbot the command of the regiment devolved on Lieutenant Colonel F. B. Hervey and the 14th became celebrated as an efficient corps of light cavalry, remarkable for the excellent manner in which they performed the out-post duty.

River Coa 24th July 1810

Contrary to orders from the Wellington, Brigadier General Craufurd positioned his Light Division east of the Coa River, near the only bridge of an otherwise unfordable river, close by Almeida. On the morning of the battle, they were surprised by Marshal Ney’s 20,000 troops, on their way to besiege Almeida. Craufurd managed to defend the bridge with great difficulty against several attacks, but finally retreated at midnight, narrowly avoiding disaster.

Meanwhile Ciudad Rodrigo had surrendered and the 14th remained in the villages near Fort La Conception until 21st July when they fell back to Almeida, where Brigadier General Craufurd took a stand against the whole French army. During the night of 23rd July, the vedettes and patrols of the 14th were exposed to heavy rain and wind and, as dawn broke, they saw numerous legions of the enemy approaching. A skirmish ensued in which the 14th had one serjeant killed; Lieutenant John Blackford, one private soldier and four horses were wounded. After opposing the superior numbers of the enemy for some time, the British withdrew beyond the river Coa; and Brigadier General Craufurd stated in his despatch,— The retreat of the 14th light dragoons from Val-de-la-Mula to Almeida, was conducted in the most regular and soldier-like manner, though opposed to a superior force of French cavalry.

John Townsend to his mother.

Camp near Alverca, August 19, 1810,

Almeida is now besieged, they began this morning to open their batteries from the town and at present there is very heavy firing there. Governor Cox is in high spirits, he expects to hold out ninety days. I hope we shall relieve it and give the Angel of Victory (Massena) a drubbing.

P.S. A cloak and promotion is all I want, 5 years and a half a subaltern is too long. I hear there is a man in the 20 L. D., that will exchange to Infantry. Heavy Dragoons I won't go into, I had rather ' pad it ' than wear Jack boots.

Battle of Busaco 27th September 1810

Following the surrender of Almeida the French advanced towards Coimbra. As the British and Portuguese withdrew to the Lines of Torres Vedras, Wellington seizing an opportunity for a victory, decided to make a stand at Busaco against Marshal Massena’s invading French army. The 14th were in reserve during the battle and were subsequently employed covering the retreat of the army to the defensive lines of Torres Vedras.

Arrival of John's brothers in Portugal

Breaking with the narrative, and strange as it may seem to us today, John’s brothers Maurice and Abraham decided to visit him in Portugal. Accompanied by by their fellow school and Christ Church college friend, the Marquis of Worcester, they sailed from Plymouth and arrived in Lisbon on 28 September 1810.

From Plymouth Maurice Townsend writes to his mother

Worcester is dying to make me buy a coat and cocked hat and feather, he says they are indispensably requisite for travelling in Portugal. If I can get one made cheap I will yield to his entreaties, if not let them take me for a merchant or what they please…..Major Newton, the General's Major of Brigade, told me it was absolutely necessary for me to buy regimentals, so I have donned a uniform I believe peculiar to myself. I am a light Infantry Captain, that being the cheapest mode of dressing myself. I have a little jacket, a cap stuck most knowingly on one side with a little green feather : a second-hand sash and to finish all, a Turkish sabre, very very cheap and very elegant…… We have a monstrous pleasant party of young men here who will go up the country in a body all well armed: We call ourselves the Junta Club, the members are as follows :— The Marquis of Worcester, Major, Lord George Granville do., M. F. Townsend, Captain, A. Boyle Townsend, Secretary to the Legation, G. P. Irwine, Corporal, H. S. Fox, ensign. The object of the Junta is, if we get into a row to stand by and put the Portuguese to death. We all figured (danced) away at the Minister's ball and flatter ourselves we won the hearts of several of the Portuguese nobility. Some of them are comparatively pretty, that is for a Portuguese, but positively frightful.

Maurice Townsend to his Mother.

Lisbon, Sept. 29, 1810.

. . . Two Mr. Napiers are wounded. Lord Wellington's position is so strong that he says it's impossible to force him. The French marched from Almeida to meet him with twelve days provisions on their backs, the weight was so great they were obliged to throw most of it away. The consequence is they are starving..... In talking of the engagement just now I forgot to mention the French have lost two Generals ... the account came in a letter from Lord Wellington, he says the engagement was pretty general, the whole of the French force being in action and most of ours. If this be true it is most glorious news and may perhaps sicken the French until after the winter. . . . The ladies in Lisbon are delightfully pleasant and rather pretty, but the men are the most uncultivated stupid, dirty, ugly, lazy bears I ever met with, they are scarcely received into company by their own countrywomen.

Abraham Townsend to his Mother.

Lisbon, Oct. 27, 1810.

I hope that John will get his troop now and that Sir D. D. (David Dundas) won't send to the Highlands for one of his barelegged countrymen to fill the vacancy. If John does not get it, his Majesty does not deserve to have an officer in his service. . . . About a fortnight ago a navy officer landed his boats crew on one of the islands in the Tagus to pass the night, but the sailors instead of sleeping having found some mules did not cease riding them the whole night…..I am sure I don't know how I shall ever be thankful enough to you and my Father for your kindness in sending me abroad. I sincerely hope that I shall profit by it ; I will endeavour to do so, and if I am too stupid I shall still have the satisfaction of being the dutiful and affectionate son of such generous parents.

Maurice Townsend to his Mother.

Lisbon, Nov. 3, 1810.

In one of my letters I described our Tour up country, we went up as high as Celorico where we saw Jack (John) in high health and spirits. Worcester delights in him and he in Worcester. I have written to Mr. Webber to thank him for his kindness in procuring us leave to skip this term…..Should there be anything like an engagement happen I shall know it, I have offers from two or three generals to take care of me in such a case, and Jack has promised me the use of a horse. Rely upon my not going to close to the French, if I got nine shillings a day for being shot at well and good, but as it is I may as well keep out of danger.

Torres Vedras

Adopting a scorched earth policy in the withdrawal to the Lines of Torres Vedras Wellington left the French little to plunder. His whole army was in place by 10th October and Masséna himself arrived at Sobral in front of the lines on 15th October. Several times he tried to forge a passage through the lines but failed to do so and retired to Santarem on 15th November.

On the 1st of October, the out-posts were attacked and driven from the hills bounding the plain of Coimbra to the north, when three troops of the 14th, under Major the Honourable Charles Butler, proceeded through the town, and formed the rear-guard on the main road from Coimbra to Pombal. The remainder of the regiment was formed on the plain, with the other cavalry corps, and withdrew before a superior force of the enemy, crossing the Mondego at a ford below the town. The French army continuing to press forward, its advance-guard skirmished with the rear of the allies almost every day, and the 14th had frequent opportunities of exhibiting brilliant instances of the innate valour of British soldiers. At Rio Mandevilla the 14th and 16th light dragoons, 1st German hussars, royal dragoons, and Captain Bull's troop of artillery, repulsed a very superior force of the enemy, on which occasion the 1st French hussars were nearly annihilated. The 14th had six men and six horses killed ; eight men and twelve horses wounded.

John Townsend to his mother.

Nov, 21

I went out with a patrol from a place called Agembuja with a sergeant and four men of the 14th joined five of the 16th Light Dragoons and took fifty of them (the French) armed, they fired a volley at my party and then we charged them and they surrendered.

The French legions continued to press forward as to an assured victory; but the lines of Torres Vedras arrested their progress, and while they remained in front of these extensive works, the 14th took the line of out-posts from the Sobral road. The French army withdrew during the night of the 14th of November; the morning of the 15th was foggy, and it was some hours after day-break when the British General discovered the void space in his front. The 14th were ordered forward along the Cartaxo road, and their patrols took a number of French stragglers prisoners. Marshal Massena took up a position at Santarem; the head quarters of the allied army were established at Cartaxo, and the 14th furnished the out-posts, extending from the causeway and bridge over the river.

John Townsend to his sister Eliza.

Ponte de Roll, Nov. 10, 1810.

I wrote to my father and told him all the news, this is a miserable place and completely uninhabited but still we contrive to exist and are not quite brutes (from the want of society) tho' if we have another year in this country the same as the last we shall be perfect yahoos and not know how to behave ourselves in genteel company. When at Lisbon with the Boys (young gentlemen I should have said) I went to the Minister’s ball and lost my heart to an olive coloured young damsel whose mother said, that Maud (Maurice), Boyle and I were three madmen but I was the least mad of the three.

John Townsend to his father.

Ponte de Roll, Nov. 11, 1810.

Nothing particular has occurred between the two armies. The enemy from what we learn are daily decreasing by sickness deaths and desertion, the deaths are principally what occur in the foraging parties; the peasants whenever they meet with any of them mark them down and then surround them and murder them and fly to to the mountains, which to a person unacquainted with them are impassable.

I wish you would call on Lord Bridgewater and ask him if I can get the troop or no ; if not get me anything from the Lifeguards down to the Botany Bay corps. Having been recommended by Colonel Hervey and Lord Wellington I think I stand a very good chance.

Maurice Townsend to his mother.

Lisbon, Saturday Dec. 15, 1810.

... I heard of Jack yesterday from Charles Syng, he is very well and has done one of the most gallant things that has as yet been done in Portugal — namely he, with eight of his men, surprised and brought home as prisoners fifty French Troopers; it has been the talk of the town for this last four or five days. . . . We are here the jolliest happy party under the sun, videlicit (viz) Worcester, Fox, Mellish, who is become a dear Friend of mine, Irvine, Boyle (brother Abraham Boyle) and myself. The Portuguese ladies doat on us, I am desperately in love with two or three of them with whom as I am a great proficient in the language I talk nothing else but Portuguese. I expect on my arrival at Cartago to find Jack three inches taller after that wonderful feat he was perpetrator of. Give my most kind and affectionate love to my father and tell him I wish Sir Wm. Manners was hanged drawn and quartered for his attempt at stopping the Leicestershire hunting. . . . You must have found out long ago that a Portuguese has as much notion of a pen as a Highlander of a knee buckle.

In January, 1811, John Townsend to his father,

We have races here every Tuesday, and Clifton and myself are the Buckle and Chisney of the Santarem Course……You must excuse bad writing as my pen is made out of the wing of a turkey we are going to have for dinner. Tell Maurice I beg he would send me a good pipe or else I shall have the ague, for the country here is very damp in the Spring, I have only one of my own manufacturing of a reed.

Campo St. Anna, near Cartago, Feb. 22, 1811.

Since I wrote last I have dined twice at Lord Wellington's who always appears in the highest spirits, in fact he has been particularly civil to our regiment.

By early March 1811, having totally inadequate logistic support, Marshall Massena had lost 19,000 through starvation and disease and was forced to withdraw from Santarem. Wellington discovered the empty camp on 6 March and set off in pursuit determined to harass the French withdrawal and prevent them from obtaining fresh provisions and regrouping in northern Portugal.

On the 8th of March, a squadron of the 14th commanded by Captain Babington, and supported by the other squadrons of the regiment under Colonel Hervey, made a successful charge on four squadrons of the 11th and 26th French dragoons at Venta de Serra, and captured fourteen men and fourteen horses; with the loss of two men and two horses.

Continuing to press upon the rear of the French army, the regiment was present at the skirmish at Pombal on the 10th of March, at Redinha on the 12th, at Casal Nova on the 14th, and at Foz d' Aronce on the 15th. The 14th were also present at the action near Sabugal, on the 3rd April, but did not sustain any loss.

Fuentes d’Onor 3rd to 5th May 1811

Having beaten the French at the Battle of Sabugal, Wellington invested the fortress of Almeida which was occupied by a French garrison of 1,400. Having no siege guns he deployed the 5th and 6th Divisions to blockade the fortress into submission. Masséna meanwhile reformed his battered army and launched a frontal assault on Fuentes d’Onoro on 3rd May supported by an intense artillery bombardment. Fierce fighting continued for three days after which the French were forced to withdraw.

Almeida being blockaded by the allied army, Marshal Massena advanced to its relief; the 14th withdrew gradually as the enemy approached, and on the 3rd of May they were engaged behind Gallegos; when Lieutenant John Townsend retired with the piquets under a heavy cannonade towards Fuentes d'Onor, and a squadron, under Captain Brotherton, had a sharp affair near Pozo Velho.

At the battle of Fuentes d'Onor, on the 5th of May, the 14th and 1st Royal Dragoons covered the movement of the right of the army from Nave d'Aver, retiring by alternate squadrons, under a heavy cannonade; one squadron of the regiment charged with signal gallantry some French artillery, but was repulsed, and Captain Robert Knipe commanding the squadron was mortally wounded : he was succeeded in the command of the squadron by Lieutenant (afterwards Lieut.-Colonel) John Townsend: Lieut.Colonel Hervey had his horse killed under him, and received a severe contusion. The French with one shock drove in all the cavalry out-guards, and cutting off Captain Ramsay's battery, came sweeping in upon the reserves of horse and upon the seventh division. But their leading squadrons approaching in a disorderly manner, were partially checked by the British, and, at the same time, a great commotion was observed in their main body. Men and horses there closed with confusion and tumult towards one point, a thick dust arose, and loud cries, and the sparkling of blades and the flashing of pistols, indicated some extraordinary occurrence. Suddenly the multitude became violently agitated, an English shout pealed high and clear, the mass was rent asunder and Norman Ramsay burst forth at the head of his battery, his horses breathing fire, stretched like greyhounds along the plain, the guns bounding behind them as things of no weight and the mounted gunners followed in full career. Captain Brotherton of the 14th, seeing this, rode forth with a squadron and overturned the head of the pursuing troops. The French were repulsed in their attempt to relieve Almeida, and they withdrew from Portugal. The 14th had Captain Robert Knipe and three private soldiers killed; Captain Thomas Potter Milles, Lieutenants John Townsend, John Gwynne, Lovell B. Badcock, Theophilus Thomas Ellis, six serjeants, and twenty-one rank and file wounded; three private soldiers missing. Lieut.-Colonel Hervey was rewarded with a gold medal, and the royal authority was subsequently given for the regiment to bear on its guidons and appointments the words “ FUENTES D'ONOR,” as a special mark of His Majesty's approbation of its conduct on this occasion.

During the battle John was one of Sir Stapleton Cotton's ADCs. He was promoted Captain on 6 June 1811 and assumed command of Captain Knipe's squadron.

June 13, 1811,

On the 5th Sunday, they attacked our right flank with about 4000 cavalry 6 guns and some infantry, we had only about 1000 cavalry in all and stood them for some time, charged them, took three officers and about 200 men prisoners. They charged us in return and two of them rode at me and knocked me and my horse down (who was wounded in the hind leg just before), and took me prisoner for a few minutes but just at that moment Col. Ellez the AAG brought up another squadron, charged the rascals and I and young Fitzclarence were taken again to my no small gratification. I have escaped unhurt but with an uncommon black eye. Our loss was considerable . . . poor Knipe shot thro' the breast with a grapeshot and I believe he cannot survive. I hope England will do something for Lord Wellington, he has beaten their best generals.

Ciudad Rodrigo 19th January 1812

Following the battle at Fuentes d’Onor Wellington proceeded to blockade Ciudad Rodrigo, during which the 14th undertook picketing duties as usual. During the siege John wrote home from El Bodon

El Bodon, Dec. 10, 1811.

The guerrillas are increasing in numbers and boldness throughout the Peninsula, and I think that the French interest greatly diminishes. Mina, one of the guerrillas, took 1100 the other day in Aragon and has actually brought 700 of them thro' the Asturias to Corunna. Charles Synge is near here and very well. I am going to dine with him tomorrow and go fox hunting the next day with Lord Wellington's hounds on my old French horse. I shall make but a sorry hand of it I am afraid.

Battle of Villagarcia 11th April 1812

Following the fall of Ciudad Rodrigo the 14th subsequently proceeded to Spanish Estremadura, and was stationed near Badajoz during the siege. The town fell on 6th April and allowed Wellington to take the strategic offensive. Prior to moving the bulk of his forces north where he would launch his Salamanca campaign, he entrusted a considerable proportion of his available cavalry to a force under General Sir Rowland Hill who was ordered to drive the retreating French army back into Andalusia to the south. The 14th, as part of General Sir Stapleton Cotton’s brigade, were involved in the enterprise.

In a few days after the capture of Badajoz, the 14th were engaged in an enterprise against several regiments of French cavalry. The Regiment moved, on the night of the 10th of April, from Villa Franca upon Usagre, and afterwards along the Road to Llerena; the light brigade skirmished with the French, until the heavy brigade turned their flank; the enemy was then charged, overthrown, pursued, and many prisoners taken. On the following night a party of the 14th, under Lieutenant Edward Pellew, took a piquet of twenty-two French dragoons prisoners. The regiment had upwards of twenty men and several horses wounded; and the conduct of Lieut.-Colonel Hervey was commended in Lieut.-General Sir Stapleton Cotton's despatch.

Battle of Salamanca 22nd July 1812

Wellington crossed the Agueda river in early July and marched on Salamanca. This was his first offensive into the heart of Spain since 1809 and intelligence gave him confidence in victory. When Marshal Marmont without realising that most of Wellington's troops were mostly concealed, sent his leading division to outflank the Allied right, Wellington attacked with his 3rd Division and overwhelmed the isolated French. He then overwhelmed Marmont’s centre and the day was won. However, the victory was tempered by the failure of the Spanish to block the retreating French army and they escaped.

On the 18th some sharp skirmishing occurred, and the troops at Castrejon fell back behind the Guarena; the 14th retired from the plain near Alaejos under a heavy fire, and took post behind the Guarena at Castrillos. The French army advanced to the opposite side of the river, and General Clausel sent a brigade of cavalry across under Brigadier-General Carier, supporting it with a column of infantry, and manifesting an intention to press the British left. Major-General Victor Baron Alten led the 14th and first German hussars against the French cavalry, and some sharp fighting occurred, during which General Carier was made prisoner. While the British and French horsemen were warmly engaged, the twenty-seventh and fortieth regiments, supported by a Portuguese brigade, came rushing down the hill and broke the French infantry with an impetuous bayonet charge; the 14th and German hussars had, in the meantime, driven back the French cavalry, and the two regiments charged the broken infantry, and sabred some, and made others prisoners. The regiment had eighteen men and twenty horses killed; Captain Brotherton, Lieutenants John Gwynne, Francis Fowke, thirty-four rank and file, and eighteen horses wounded.

On the 22nd of July the memorable battle of Salamanca was fought; the 14th skirmished with the enemy's advanced posts at daybreak, and afterwards took their station in the line. By several changes of position, the French Marshal endeavoured to turn the right of the allied army and gain the road to Ciudad Rodrigo ; Lord Wellington detected a false movement in the opposing army, and instantly ordering his divisions forward, commenced the battle. The 14th light dragoons participated with the third division in its attack upon, and complete discomfiture of, the enemy's left; two squadrons under Lieut.-Colonel Hervey reinforced Brigadier General D'Urban's Portuguese brigade, which turned the enemy's flank, and the regiment shared in the glorious struggle by which the French army was overthrown and driven from the field with a severe loss. The regiment had several men and horses killed and wounded ; Captain Brotherton, though still suffering from his wound received on the 18th of July, mounted his charger during the fight, and was again wounded; and the gallant bearing of the regiment was afterwards rewarded with the royal authority to display the word “SALAMANCA” on its guidons and appointments; its commanding officer, Lieut.-Colonel Hervey, was presented with a gold medal as a mark of royal favour and approbation.

On the following day the regiment pursued the rear of the French army, and two squadrons were sharply engaged and took several prisoners near Penerada. On the 26th, a patrol of three dragoons of the 14th, and four of the German hussars, under Corporal William Hanley of the former corps, detached to Blasco Sancho, captured a party of the enemy, consisting of two officers, one serjeant, one corporal, and twenty-seven mounted dragoons, with one private servant and two mules, for which they received the expressions of the approbation of the Commander of the Forces. The French horses were given to the 14th and German hussars, to complete deficiencies; the amount was divided among the patrol, and a further pecuniary donation was afterwards made to the men engaged in this gallant exploit.

Camp near Cuillar, August 2nd, 1812.

No doubt before this reaches you you will have heard of the glorious and decisive victory we gained over Marmont near Salamanca on the 22nd of July, since which time, and before we have had no halt until this day. You will see by the dispatches of Lord Wellington a much better account of the battle than I can give, but if he had had two hours more light we should certainly have annihilated the French army. . . . Wilks is going home and by him I will send Eliza a handsome watch that was taken by a man of my troop (1) from an officer.

(1) There is an anomaly here. The Historical Record states John assumed command of Captain Knipe's squadron after he was killed at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onor.

Following Salamanca, whilst the 14th was engaged in all Wellington’s subsequent encounters with the French, over the next 18 months there is no mention of John in the regimental account, nor have any of his letters survived. The next we hear of him is at the Battle of Orthez on 27th February 1814 during which Wellington attacked the French army led by Marshal Soult. Despite repelling several allied assaults, Soult was forced to retreat in considerable disorder and many French soldiers were taken prisoner.

Battle of Orthez 27th February 1814

Following Salamanca, the 14th was engaged in all Wellington’s encounters with the French over the next 18 months but there is no mention of John in the regimental account, nor have any of his letters survived. The next we hear of him is at the Battle of Orthez during which Wellington attacked the French army led by Marshal Soult. Despite repelling several allied assaults Soult was forced to retreat in considerable disorder and many French soldiers were taken prisoner.

On the 27th of February the battle of Orthez was fought; the 14th shared in the operations of the troops under Sir Rowland Hill, and passing the stream above Orthes, advanced towards the great road to St. Sever, thus operating against the enemy's left.

The French were overpowered and driven from the field; the 14th earned another inscription, the word 'ORTHES,' for their guidons and appointments, and Colonel Hervey was rewarded with another honorary distinction.

The French fell back in disorder, the 14th followed the enemy; crossed the Adour on the 1st of March, and, continuing the pursuit, were engaged, on the following day, at Aire, from whence the French were driven by the troops under Sir Rowland Hill. Serjeant Vernor, and privates Craig and Rose, distinguished themselves on this occasion.

A party, favourable to the house of Bourbon, was known to exist in this part of France, and Marshal Soult sent a body of troops to Pau on the night of the 7th of March, to arrest the nobles who had assembled to welcome the arrival of the Duke D'Angouleme; but Major-General Fane had arrived at Pau with a brigade of infantry and two regiments of cavalry, and defeated the enemy's design. The 14th, with two guns attached, made a strong patrol to Pau on the 7th of March, and on the following day fell in with the French detachment, and Captain Townsend and four private soldiers were taken prisoners.

The Honbl. A. J. Southwell to Maurice Townsend. Pau, March 9, 1814.


I am extremely sorry to inform you that your brother John was made prisoner by the enemy the night of the 7th ultimo in a most unfortunate way, and at all events it will be a consolation to his family to know that no blame can be attached to him. The enemy came on at two o'clock in the morning and unfortunately surprised the advanced piquet of the squadron then on duty in support of the piquets. Townsend immediately mounted his horse and galloped to the front to ascertain what had attacked our advanced guard but which in fact at that time had been drove in by superior numbers. . . . Your brother must have found himself in the midst of the enemy. ... I shall write to him and send him letters of recommendation to some French officers who were very kind to me while I M^as a prisoner in their hands, and from whom I am sure he will receive all possible attention. You may rest assured that Col. Hervey from his regard to your brother and his long and distinguished services will eagerly seize any opportunity of an exchange.

Toulouse 10th April 1814.

The 14th had the honour of serving at the battle of Toulouse on the 10th of April; they were attached to the troops under Lieut.-General Sir Rowland Hill, and took part in the operations by which the French army was driven from its ground. Hostilities were soon afterwards terminated; Napoleon Buonaparte abdicated the throne of France, and the Bourbon dynasty was restored.

A letter from John, dated Toulouse, May 1st, 1814, tells that he was at length released after having been remarkably well treated during his captivity : he also says in every town in France ' the people could not curb their joy at getting rid of the Tyrant.'

Return to England

Thus terminated, with glory to the British arms, a war in which the 14th, the Duchess of York's Own Regiment of Light Dragoons, had acquired a high reputation; it had become justly celebrated for the excellent esprit-de-corps which pervaded the ranks, and especially for the superior style in which the officers and soldiers had, during several years, performed the duties of piquets, patrols, videttes, and other services which devolve upon a corps employed in the out-post duty.

Further news of John is given in a letter from his brother Maurice, written when London was full of rejoicings at the peace.

My dearest Mother, The people in London are all mad, staring and gaping at emperors and princes, and many of us think you are all so for not being here at this joyful time.….. I have heard of Jack from several people, one account was that the last they saw of him was riding a steeplechase against a brother prisoner.

Maurice and some friends went to meet John in Paris. He writes home,

July 1st, 1814

Jack, Troy, Southwell, Walsh and myself are now assembled at the Hotel Versailles in high health, spirits and beauty. On Tuesday evening we leave this delightful scene of dissipation and frivolity for gloomy England. Jack would write but has sprained his thumb in an attempt to thrash me — which failed. — That is false. J.T. — Perfectly true. We dined all of us with Walsh's sister and had a most delightful grub.

We hope soon to see you all, and believe me ever your most affectionate son,

Maurice FitzGerald Townsend.


The regiment suffered 654 casualties during the war, including men invalided and sent home.

Because of their more active role in reconnaissance, outposts, vedettes, patrols and flank protection light cavalry lost about 25% more mounts than other cavalry regiments. The 14th lost the most horses during the campaign: they arrived in Portugal in 1809 with about 750 horses. By the time the regiment returned to England in July 1814, they had only 313 troopers' horses and had lost over 1500 horses in 65 months!

The 14th Light Dragoons captured Joseph Bonaparte's silver chamberpot after the battle of Vitoria and this became the regimental punchbowl; it is still used today.


Shortly after returning to England, two squadrons of the 14th embarked for the West Indies as part of the expeditionary force under the Command of General Sir Edward Pakenham to try to take New Orleans, West Florida, and Louisiana Territory.

John Townsend to his father.

Radipole, Weymouth, Dorset 6th October 1814

Colonel Baker and myself proceed tomorrow morning for Plymouth to embark with the squadron of the Regiment that accompanies the expedition to the southern part of the United States. My troop and Badcock's marched the day before yesterday, and I think without flattering the corps I never saw a squadron of finer men leave any barracks or in higher spirits, it would have done your heart good to hear them cheer. they are anxious to be employed again, for a Barrack life in England after having been actively employed for the last five years is one of the most sedentary and detestable that can be imagined and where there is neither honour nor glory to be gained. I am sure you will be gratified when I tell you that I was selected before 6 other captains to go with the squadron. I remain my dearest Father You ever affectionate son.

J. Townsend, Capt. 14 L. D. or Royal American Heroes

The Battle of New Orleans was fought on 8th January 1815 and was a disastrous defeat for the British.

In the attack on the enemy's lines, on the 8th January, 1815, the two squadrons served dismounted. Major-General the Honourable Sir Edward Pakenham, K.C.B., was killed; Major Generals Gibbs and Keane were dangerously wounded and the command devolved on Major General Lambert, who stated in his public despatch, “The conduct of the two squadrons of the 14th light dragoons, latterly under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Baker, previously of Major Milles, has been the admiration of every one, by the cheerfulness with which they have performed all descriptions of service."

Waiting to return to England, John wrote from Isle Dauphin, just offshore from Mobile, Alabama.

Feb. 20, 1815.

The whole of our little army is encamped on this island, not having a house or habitation of any description, but alligators and parrots on it. In short we have had no communication of any sort with the Americans, we are in want of everything nearly to make us comfortable, and tho' having plenty of dollars we cannot purchase a single thing, and being entirely on biscuit and salt pork we are worse here than I remember at any time to have been in the Peninsula. However we keep up our spirits, and have built a theatre which will open in a few days with 'Love a la mode.'

John finally rejoined his regiment in Hounslow in May 1815 and spent the next 26 years serving in England before embarking at Gravesend in the freight ship "Repulse" in 1841 for service in India.