Battle of García Hernández

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Battle of García Hernández
Part of Peninsular War
Date 23 July 1812
Location Garcihernández, Spain
Result Anglo-German victory
Belligerents
France French Empire United Kingdom United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
France Maximilien Foy United Kingdom George Bock
Strength
4,000 1,770
Casualties and losses
1,100-1,600 casualties 116-127 casualties

In the Battle of García Hernández on 23 July 1812, two brigades of Anglo-German cavalry led by Major-General Eberhardt von Bock defeated 4,000 French infantry led by Major-General Maximilien Foy. In what would otherwise have been an unremarkable Peninsular War skirmish, the German heavy dragoons achieved the unusual feat of breaking three French squares, those of the 6th, 69th and 76th Line,[1] routing the entire French force with heavy losses.

Background[edit]

The previous day, the Allied army commanded by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington had won a decisive victory over a French army led by Marshal Auguste Marmont in the Battle of Salamanca. Foy's division was the only French unit not engaged in the battle and it was acting as rearguard on 23 July.

Battle[edit]

Heavy Dragoons of the King's German Legion in 1812.

Bock's 770-strong heavy cavalry brigade, consisting of the 1st and 2nd King's German Legion (KGL) Dragoons, led the pursuit of the French. In support of Bock were the 1,000 troopers of George Anson's British light cavalry brigade (11th and 16th Light Dragoons).[2] As the Anglo-Germans approached, Maj-Gen Curto's French cavalry fled. Foy arranged his eight battalions on a hill in square. He had two battalions each of the 6th Light, and the 39th, 69th and 76th Line Infantry Regiments.[3]

The battle of Garcia Hernandez, Spain, on 23 July 1812. Oil on canvas painted 1863 by Adolf Northen (1828 to 1876) Landesmuseum Hannover. The picture shows the destruction of three French squares by the dragoons brigade of the King's German Legion under the command of Major-General Eberhardt von Bock. In the center of the picture the uncontrolled horse of dragoon Post as it falls against one of the corners of the square of the French 76th Line Battalion crushing eight men and forming a breach which allows the German riders from the 3rd Squadron of the 1st Regiment the destruction of the French unit. Further to the right, it can be seen Captain Gustav von der Decken, head of the squadron, as he falls mortally wounded from his white horse while next to him his deputy, Captain Friedrich von Uslar-Gleichen automatically assumes command and raising his sword he encourages his men to continue the attack. Top left in the background it can be recognized the second square from the same French Battalion, and in the middle, the advancing squadron of Chasseurs from the French light cavalry brigade (Curto) which It will be immediately rejected by the Germans.
Battle plan of Garcia Hernandez reconstructed on the basis of contemporary sources and Google Maps.
Garcia Hernandez, now called Garcihernández. Spanish town of Salamanca, in the autonomous community of Castilla and Leon. Near this town took place the battle of Garcia Hernandez on 23 July 1812. The aerial photograph on the left -taken from south to north- show clearly the Gamo brook on the upper edge of the village, known at the time of the battle as "Arroyo Caballero" or "García Caballero Rivulet". The way starting from the village, toward north, to the Almar River behind the hills of La Serna, is from which Wellington was able to observe the course of the battle. Down in the right corner of the picture, the country road from Alba de Tormes to Peñaranda. The center image was taken from the hill Matabuey on the Highs of Altos de La Serna. The photograph clearly shows the narrowness of the terrain between the town and the hills, which forced the two King's German Legion regiments to charge in echelones (steps) rather than formed in line. The picture on the right shows the old country road with the old Bridge that crossed the Gamo brook (later replaced next to it by a new, wider one) The French forces as the English cavalry Anson’s crossed this bridge coming from south (from the left in the picture) In the background it can be seen part of the Garcia Hernandez village on the left and the highs of Altos de La Serna on the right.

Bock's dragoons charged a square belonging to a battalion of the 6th Light. The French held their fire too long. Their volley killed a number of horsemen, but a mortally wounded horse carrying a dead dragoon crashed into the square like a battering ram.[4] The horse fell, kicking wildly, knocking down at least a half-dozen men and creating a gap in the square. Captain Gleichen rode his horse into the gap, followed by his troopers. The square broke up and most of the men surrendered.[5][6]

A second square farther up the hillside was soon charged. Shaken by the first square's disaster, the men flinched when the dragoons rode into them. Soon the men in the second square were running for their lives, except those who surrendered. Foy quickly pulled back the rest of his troops. Anson's horsemen mopped up the battlefield.

Results[edit]

Foy lost 200 killed and wounded, and 1,400 captured. Bock lost 54 killed and 62 wounded. The very high proportion of killed to wounded was due to the "deadly effect of musketry at the closest possible quarters."[7] Another authority gives 52 Germans killed, 69 wounded and 6 missing and 1,100 total French casualties.[3]

Commentary[edit]

The breaking of a steady square was a rare event. A French infantry battalion in square formed up in a bayonet-studded hedgehog either 3-ranks or 6-ranks deep. (A British square was 4-deep.) If a square stood its ground without flinching and fired with effect, it could withstand the best cavalry. When infantry squares were broken by cavalry in the Napoleonic Wars, it was usually because:

  • the infantry were of poor quality
  • the infantry were tired, disorganized or discouraged
  • it was raining, making it difficult for the infantry to fire effectively
  • the infantry fired a poorly aimed volley
  • the infantry waited too long to fire

At García Hernández, the last event occurred with the first square, leading to the extraordinary accident of a dead horse and rider smashing into the square which was then exploited by the following cavalry. The second square likely panicked at the extraordinary sight of the first square being torn apart.

Marcel was an officer in the 69th Ligne and gives a very different perspective. According to his account (pp170-173) the battalion of the 76th were caught with the men having broken ranks to drink in the stream. The 6th Leger were partially dispersed seeking food in the nearby hamlets with the officers seeking to rally them when they were overtaken by the cavalry. Marcel's battalion was in close column when it was attacked by the cavalry who failed to break the column. The second battalion of the 69th saw off the attacking cavalry by volley fire from its square.

Literature[edit]

Culture[edit]

This skirmish is depicted in Bernard Cornwell's Novel, Sharpe's Sword.

The battle was also shown in Suzanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, while Jonathan Strange is serving under the Duke of Wellington.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Chappell, Mike. The King's German Legion: 1. Oxford: Osprey, 2000. Print.
  2. ^ Glover, p 380
  3. ^ a b Smith, p 381
  4. ^ Keegan, p 154
  5. ^ Beamish, p 81ff
  6. ^ Oman, p 101
  7. ^ Oman, p 102